He Saw Her Standing There

He saw her standing there

Before she ever slipped though the ferns, before he suspected anything was wrong, a chill swept through his lush paradise, like a looming thunderhead, bloated with sudden menace. Like the clammy calm that drapes the plain before a storm, placidity charged the air.

With sickness rising in his throat, he spun, in careful analysis of the surrounding creation. A lavish, broad-leafed tree, heavy with succulent, red fruit swayed under a peaceful breeze. Beneath it, vibrant, black loam sprouted tender, green shoots, breathing out a summer musk. Behind him, a spire of granite, pregnant with glistening minerals cast down a torrent of crystal water, foaming white on the surface of the glassy blue pool below.

A deer pranced by, then a bear cub tumbled around a rock, chewing on a leaf. Then, another creature crept by, an enormous serpent, its girth the size of a mature oak tree’s trunk. Its color shifted, adjusting to the leaves, grass, flowers and fruit against which it rubbed. It’s eyes were half-lidded and its tongue slithered out and in like an obscene, pink proboscis. The reptile’s exhale puffed hot against the foliage, fluttering the leaves. It moved on, adjusting its pigment from green to red to purple to brown, its thick legs and grasping toes imprinting the dirt with twisted star shapes and ripping young grass away from the earth.

Adam regarded the snake warily, unsettled by its company, though he couldn’t fathom why. He’d named that kind, he’d seen scores of them. But none like that. While there wasn’t a plant, fruit, animal or insect he didn’t know, this one’s spirit emitted an alien scent; a redolence of the icy doom that had so recently infected the world around him.

In an instant, his mind assessed the millions of tiny changes he’d witnessed in the last minute. The sky had taken on a darker hue, the leaves had turned up, revealing their silver underbelly, creation sunk beneath a weight, like a small animal cowering from a predator.

That thought held his attention. Death. That’s what gave birth to cowering and fear. No predator’s existed. Not here. Not in the land created by Father. Leaving his perch on a mossy rock, Adam leapt down next to the deer, petting its flank. It remained unaware of the approaching ruin. All the better. This creature, one of the mute, would do well not to be concerned. To the bear, Adam bent low and looked in its eyes.

“Hi,” the bear said. It was young and couldn’t say much more than that.

Adam smiled and rubbed the bear’s left ear, “Hi, little bear. Things will be okay.”

“Okay,” the bear said before trundling off with a long, green stem between its teeth.

Standing with the waterfall thundering behind him, Adam tread underneath the canopy of trees, closer to the center of the garden. Here the earth rolled down in soft soil and the grass and ferns emitted a fragrance rich and sweet. Bees hummed about their nest and the flutter of bluebirds thrummed the air. Nectar-rich flowers rejoiced in every clearing, basking in the dappled, sun-lit day.

There. Something moved. Not far from the cluster of trees from which two ascended more prominent than the others. Within the grove stood the one he cherished, the one made from him and for him. His flesh! With her he could ramble on for hours, discussing the complex alignment of planets and the composition of the stars and their cold fusion properties. Lying with her, the fathomless expanse of heaven stretched out in resplendent glory, and the warmth of her tender hand traveled up his arm and into his chest. The vibrant splendor of the roses in all their layered fragrance could not excite him more than her infectious smile. His ears never tired of the musical notes rung from the pristine instrument of her voice. Her songs made the angels groan in envy of such eloquent crooning. When they performed harmony, the beasts would gather and sway in cadence with their rhythm.

Yet, with her shadow in view, terror gripped his heart, followed by a hollow void that bent him low and stabbed his heart with bitter loss. Holding out his hand, reaching for his bride, he longed for the one he felt no longer wanted him, the one who no longer craved his touch. The song, if she sang, would warble in dissonant, flat and broken, painful notes. Despite the intense, blue sky above, Adam’s world felt flat, gray and lifeless.

Then, creeping forth from the cover of a weeping willow, he saw her standing there, arms slack at her side, holding a dripping fruit in her right hand. With precision, his eyes absorbed each detail, no clearer than if it were being etched on the tablet of his mind. Animals fled to the hills and a murder of crows cried out as they burst to flight. The once gentle breeze shook the trees and trampled the grass, raw and biting.

“Adam,” she said, her voice droning, disinterested.

A sob escaped him, and tears welled up, burning his eyes. The heaving agony in his breast had never before coursed through his body.

“Eve!” he bellowed, falling to his knees, the wind tousling his hair and drying the tears on his face.

She sauntered forward, swaying salaciously, her arms swinging listlessly at her side, her breasts dripping with a dark sap. Whatever it was, it covered her skin like a vicious splatter, its rivulets slipping down her hips and around her legs to her feet. She looked as if she were wrapped with the thinnest tendrils of a black squid. Her hair hung matted, wet and knotted. From beneath the strands, her eyes glared out at Adam, filled with bitter envy, and lascivious delight.

“Come here, Adam,” she said, her words laced with contempt. “You’ve gotta try this.”

Adam looked at her hand as she raised a mushy lump that dripped the oozing, black ichor.

“Your God … He didn’t want us to have this. Wanted to keep it for Himself. And so He lied to us.”

“What are you talking about, Eve?! Who told you that?”

“He said we’d die if we ate it. But look at me,” she shuffled out into full sunlight, raising her arms and exposing her naked body to the full light of day, complete with the sanguine gore that mottled her skin. “Not dead, Adam!” Shrill laughter cackled from her once lovely mouth, a full-throated, sardonic mockery.

Adam buried his face in his hands, wishing he could undo what had been done. Wishing he could reverse the death that now ravaged his wife. Wishing she could once more be his flesh, united! Wracked with such swirling, painful thoughts, he howled in agony, raising his hands to heaven. And in that moment, he knew what that serpent had done. Passing him by, taunting him, it had leered as if in victory, having separated him from his wife!

Gazing down at Eve, her very form a blasphemy now, he knew what choice he had. If his eyes could no longer behold his wife, if he couldn’t change her back, he needed to change with her. He wouldn’t be apart from his companion, his soul-mate, his very flesh. He wouldn’t step back and surrender her to God’s wrath alone. If she was to face God, he would join her.

Standing once more, Adam strode down the hill, wincing as he saw the eager lips that had once been so tender. Taking the sodden, fruit from her hand, seeing it suddenly as a tempting, ripe bite of nourishment, he took and he ate, its sultry fructose-rich fluid spurting from beneath its thick, dark skin and dribbling down his chin. In that moment, a ravenous hunger sunk its talons in Adam’s heart and he gorged on the fruit, giving more back to Eve. Together they sprawled in the tall grass, their nimble minds devising all manner of things to do with each other, seeing the other as a thing, a tool, not a person, not an image bearer of God.

The sun beat down on them as they acted out in full view of their Father and they thrilled at the thought of breaking away, of taking the world for themselves, of scoffing at the death that hadn’t come.

Then, in drunken stupor, as the sun cast longer shadows and the wind died down and the atmosphere blossomed with color, Adam looked at Eve. Her body, smeared and sticky, mottled and filthy from wallowing in the dirt, repulsed him.

“What did you do to me?” she groaned. “What did you do?”

Indignation flushed his face and Adam raised his hand to slap her, stopping at the last minute, something holding him back. He remembered what she’d been before. “You! You gave me the fruit,” he hissed. “So don’t look at me like that. This was you! Your fault!”

Cowering beneath the shadow of his fist, her eyes filled with fear. Then tears rolled down her face.

“We need to wash,” Adam said, lowering his hand, hating himself and feeling sick with remorse.

Together they crept up the hill, uncertain and startled by the world around them, cutting their feet on rocks, bleeding from the chaffing wounds. When they reached the pool, the deer’s head sprung up, startled. It fled, leaping over rocks and bounding back into the trees. After cleaning the sap, which took longer than they’d imagined, Adam found large leaves and broke them from the tree. Using blades of grass, braiding them for strength, he wove the leaves together and covered his body, giving Eve a covering for hers, too. While they draped the foliage around them, they stole quick, nervous glances at one another, looking away before one noticed the other.

Then, as twilight bled on the horizon and the first stars poked out in the velvet, blue sky, They both ducked low, brimming with terror and hustled behind the rocks, looking for darkness in which to hide.



For Sale

WADE CHECKED HIS WATCH, the cheap thing, and scowled. With his cube directly across from The Witch, he’d risk a write-up for for a long lunch. Her lead-up to discipline was usually an olive branch of, “So, you want to use PTO or make up the time?” Neither, thank you very much!

If he ran he’d risk doing permanent damage to his knees thanks to his cheap imitation leather shoes. Despite the shine they held, they were no better than walking with plywood tied to his feet. The crowd ahead slowed down, and his temper wore thin. The mob shambled forth in fits and starts, driving Wade nuts. He slid from side to side trying to get around the throng of mindless humanity and down the two blocks to the office. A group of young men with gelled hair and square jaws meandered slowly with a gray-haired, bejeweled executive. Women dressed in high-powered suits texted furiously on cell-phones and gabbed with their friends about meeting at an upscale restaurant for dinner, brunch, or both.

Through his maneuvers Wade glimpsed the cause of the bottleneck.

Ahead stood a street vendor with a red and white striped hat and three yellow teeth. The man had scavenged clothes with no pretense of grace or style, but, ironically, sported some pretty nice looking shoes; designers, for sure.

Stolen! The word burst to Wade’s mind, surprising him. But he agreed with the conclusion.

He elbowed and shoved his way through the crowd, disparaging them as he went for their cattle-like herding around this pathetic peddler. The man hollered like a carnival barker and an alarming number of people stopped and peered into his tattered puppet theater.

Wade wished he could cross the street and go the long way around, but on that side stood a man on a wooden crate, bellowing out the Ten Commandments.

He remained stoic as he walked closer to the merchant. He figured if he kept his eyes straight ahead the huckster would ignore him as a mark.

“You, son,” the man declared in a surprisingly smooth and persuasive voice. “You could buy something magnificent! I got exactly what you need!”

Wade doubted that a man like this was selling anything magnificent, and much less anything he needed. He lowered his head and shook it nervously hoping that would be the end of it. As he passed the booth, however, something caught his eye. He tried to walk on, but the dealor had seen the flick of his eyes and the hesitation in his stride.

“Yes, son,” the salesman exclaimed joyously, spittle flying from his decaying mouth, “that one’s for you!”

Wade stopped and turned toward the charismatic vendor. The man’s smile had become soft, not the grimace it was. The merchant regarded Wade warmly with baby blue eyes. Wade cursed himself for being a stupid mark like all the others on the sidewalk. Shaking his head he turned away and locked eyes with the street preacher.

That repulsed him in quite a different way.

Turning back to the sidewalk seller, Wade noticed the man’s clothes weren’t as tattered as he’d initially thought.

“It’s just for you, son,” the peddler restated. “It’s the happiness you’ve always wanted.”

Wade, stunned by how pleasing the man’s sales pitch sounded, drew closer to the puppet theater and out of people’s way. The man probably just wanted some spare change and Wade could get on to his office.

“Okay, what is it you’re selling?” he asked though he had no idea why he even cared. Yet something inside pulled him to this purveyor, curiosity brimming.

“It’s everything you want the most,” the man replied. “Look into the booth.”

Wade knew better, but curiosity had gripped of him. Sticking his head into the opening, he saw what appeared to be a shadow of a woman. He pulled his head back out, blood rushing to his neck and face.

“Real funny!” Wade said, fearful that others might have seen him peering into the man’s little booth. He backed toward the street intending to cross to the other side. He could hear the street preacher declare, “Thou shalt not covet!”

“It can be yours for the right price,” the street vendor said.

“Sorry, pal.” Wade said, looking around to be sure there weren’t police who might have seen him.

“I think you misunderstand what I sell,” the seller said, dropping his head shamefully, the red and white striped had bobbing innocently. “I don’t offer anything that you’d want to hide in shame. Rather, it would give you confidence and pride.”

Wade wanted to get back to his cube. He’d leave this street man to con others. But something else flickered in the booth. Without prompting he moved back to the opening and peered inside. He saw an outline of himself at a large desk, a secretary bringing him coffee. Silhouettes of awards and flashes of money came to him, filling him with intoxicating thrills.

Wade paused and looked at the vendor who now had a full mouth of clean, white teeth. The silly hat was gone.

“All this is for sale,” the dealer said.

Wade continued to watch and saw a form of a large home and a shadow of a sports car, with him in the driver’s seat. He saw an outline of a large boat on a lake, a beach party with friends, everyone happy, smiling. The more he watched the faster the images came. They pleased him so much that he didn’t stop to think how they might be created or contained within this simple booth. He wasn’t concerned about the time he spent watching these images or about his supervisor at work. She’d be working for him soon. As time passed, however, he felt a chill. He looked back at the retailer who now wore designer clothes.

“For sale at a price,” the man said. “But you deserve it.”

The image of the woman appeared again. She stood next to his silhouette. The pool, the car, the money, the entourage of friends all flashed before his eyes again. He felt his palms sweat, excitement building. Cheering roared in his ears.

“For you,” The salesman said. “They’re cheering you!” He put his hand on Wade’s shoulder. “People will look up to you. You’ll never have to take orders again.”

Wade pulled his dizzied head from the booth and regarded the shopkeeper. The man had shed his street huckster look in favor of the glitz of a rich celebrity, cool and detached, worthy of envy.

“Don’t you want it, Wade?” the man asked. “It’s your future, your choice. And no one can stop you. It’s your right.”

Wade heard something inside warning him that it was too good to be true. But having looked at the shadows for so long, he couldn’t leave without them. He couldn’t bear the thought of no longer having the woman, the car, the fame … He had to have those things or he’d feel empty, meaningless.

“They’re all yours, Wade.”

“How much?” he said. The words seemed distant and unimportant.

“You can just give me whatever you have and I’ll let you have it all.”

Wade fumbled with his wallet, and pulled out all his cash, which wasn’t much. He then ripped his watch off his wrist and dropped that at the merchant’s feet. He gave until he stood with nothing, naked, cold.

He heard the preacher behind him saying something about gaining the whole world and losing one’s soul.

Like a sudden change in pressure, Wade sensed the gaze of those around him, judging him. Though they couldn’t know what he was buying from this vendor, guilt stabbed his heart, releasing bitterness. Hatred followed, then fear. He hurried into the booth to the things he had been promised, the things he’d given everything to have. Inside, complete darkness greeted him, no fame, no fortune, no shadows for there was no light. Terror sunk its talons into his heart and he tried to turn back to the door, but it was no longer there. Then he heard a voice.

“Shadows for sale,” the scalper exclaimed, “You can own them all …for a price.”

The Loser’s Church

She strolled into the smallest, poorest church in town ...

She strolled into the smallest, poorest church in town …

Corey Flanagan slumped into the hard pew, face in his hands, heart on his sleeve before God. For the last three hours he’d been studying his Bible, making notes for his sermon, completely unprepared for the visitor, who at that moment was shambling down the street, dressed to kill.

As sure as the sun would rise tomorrow for another Sunday, he’d step behind that sold oak pulpit to deliver another message to the ragged group that gathered.

The loser’s church.

20 years slipped by unnoticed by the city around him. While The Vineyard downtown attracted Christian pop superstars, Corey’s congregation welcomed various traveling gospel quartets and youth choirs. Other churches flowed with name-brand coffee (for a suggested donation), but Corey brewed a single carafe with bulk ground coffee.

His pews were not padded. The fact that they were not padded seemed irrelevant to people because pews were, in fact, irrelevant! As was the bulky pulpit with the bold cross affixed to the front. These were emblems of a stodgy, straight-laced age of organ-tune hymns, Sunday suits and calf-length dresses.

While the years had seen people come through the doors, few of them stayed long enough to find a favorite spot. Attendance was currently at fifteen people and he relied on the fact that the building was paid for to keep the doors open. In fact, they were always open. Corey only locked them when he was next door at the parsonage, but kept a sign letting a passerby know where to find him. It was this anachronistic open-door policy that let her enter that night, while Corey bent his head in tormented prayer.

Her ankles wobbled on her high heels and the blood on the tip of her shoes made her slip a little on the tile foyer. the click of her steps alerted Corey before the thump of the heavy door let him know she entered.

 Sitting up and bending back, Corey said, “I’m in here.”

Her shoes stopped clacking against the floor as she transitioned to the carpet runner between the two sections of pews.

“It’s like you were expecting me, father.” Her voice trembled with a drunk humor laced with sarcasm.

Corey turned toward her, smiling. “You don’t need to call me father. You only have two, and I guarantee I’m neither.”

She slid into the pew behind him. “You sure about that … father?”

“Pretty sure. My wife died without conceiving a child, and I’m not God, so I can’t be either one for you.”

She sat in silence, a mix of her perfume, sweat and other odors crept over to Corey’s pew.

Finally, he said, “My name is Corey, Corey Flanagan. I preach here and try to help those that come looking for guidance. How can I help you … miss?”

“Funny that you didn’t introduce yourself by Reverend, or Pastor.

Corey folded his hands and dropped his head. “I used to think very much of my title. Not any more.”

“What changed?”

“I did. Or I should say, my focus did. I guess it’s really one and the same.”

“You just woke up and realized you weren’t very reverent and not much of a pastor? Is that it?”

Corey lifted his head at the hard tone that formed her words. “That’s right. As Isaiah said, I’m a man of unclean lips. And like the Apostle Peter, I, too have denied my Savior. More than three times, I’m sure. I have no right to claim anything except what Jesus does in my presence. And even that, I don’t claim, I just sort of … celebrate.”

“It’s been a long time since you’ve celebrated, hasn’t it?”

Corey let out a long sigh. “Yes, it has been.”

“Probably because God isn’t working in this world, if he ever was.”

This brought his attention back to the woman. Her party dress was ripped and slathered in blood. Her face bore deep scratches and her ratted hair looked like a lion’s mane.

“God is always working in the world, it is we who close our eyes to His power. Have you ever considered that He still does the same miracles today: turning the water to wine and multiplying the loaves and the fishes?”

“If God’s making wine, I’m coming to church!” She looked Corey up and down his face. Then she said, “You really believe He does.”

“Water falls from the sky and the grape turns it into wine. Fields of wheat multiply from a few grains and the waters teem with fish.”

“That’s called ecology and biology.”

“And it’s done at God’s hand. He programmed the universe to work this way.”

“Then answer me this: If God is so good, why is there so much horror that goes on day after day? Why are there victims dying in the streets or police beating people up? Why are whole countries dying of AIDS and Ebola? Everywhere you go there’s some jerk who wants to hurt someone, some step-parent killing a baby or … high-school girl getting drugged and raped. Some loving God you got there, making grapes, raising wheat and getting fish to fornicate while humanity is killing itself.”

“I find that argument very interesting.”

“Because you can’t deny it.”

“I wouldn’t ever deny the fact that humanity has rejected God, chasing after the lie that we can be our own gods, leading us to all sorts of wickedness, pain and death. That’s plain to see.”

“As plain as my the blood on my dress? As plain as the scratches all over my body? As plain as the years I suffered every form of torture you can imagine a man doing to me? That plain? You can sit there and look at me without raising an eyebrow, without any emotion at all and tell me about our sick humanity?”

At once, Corey realized all the strange odors he’d been trying to decipher since she sat down and his jaw dropped. Nervous tremors took him as he suddenly felt that he might be in the presence of a fugitive.

“You will need to forgive me, but I have been blind for the last ten years and could not see the way you look. Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“What part do you want to hear, Corey? The part about me rejecting God and had it all coming? Or the part where I kill you because that’s what you have coming?”

Corey wanted to jump up and run, but his body was old and would never respond as quickly as his mind would like it to. And his eyes would be no help.

“If you could have seen me walking in that door you would have thought the same thing those men at the Vineyard did. You’d have seen my curves and bra size, my hair and white smile and wondered how good I’d be. But because you’re blind, you can act all humble and preach about humanity’s rejection of God.”

Corey’s mouth felt dry, but he wanted to keep her talking, hoping it would stave off her action. “You’re right. The me inside would want that, too, just like anyone else. Which is why I need a loving God who saved me from it all.”

“Those pervs at the Vineyard say the same crap. The man who dominated me for the last fifteen years said it.”

“The difference … the difference is when someone doesn’t just say it, but has faith that changes them.”

“I’ll tell you what changed my dear hubby. A knife in his throat.”

Corey swallowed and said, “Death stopped his sin.”

“That’s right,” she said with bitter arrogance.

“Death is stopping mine, too.”

She lifted her right hand, which held the butcher knife.

“Jesus died on the cross and, by faith, I died there, too. When sin tempts me, it’s looking for a dead man to answer. My life, from that moment of faith, has been me standing at my own grave, throwing another shovelful of dirt on my old self, living more in Jesus’ resurrection. If you want to kill me right now, you may. For your husband, you freed him from the best he’ll ever know and sent him to the worst that can’t even be conceived of. For me, you’ll release me from the worst I’ll know to live in what’s better than I could ever hope.” Corey stood up and spread his hands out. “I’m ready to go, if you feel that will satisfy your pain. Just know that no one violates God’s Law with impunity. You’ll suffer more because you decided to take your pain in your own hands instead of turning to God in faith. But there’s still time. You can still repent. You can let Jesus take your sin…”

Corey realized that she hadn’t come closer and her smell had faded. Sirens filled the night and the doors in the foyer burst open. Heavy footfalls tramped across the tile and the carpet.

“Reverend Flanagan, are you okay?” It was Officer Smith, a local patrol cop who checked in on Corey from time to time.

“Yes, David, I’m fine. But I think there’s a woman who came in here. She said she killed her husband and wanted to kill me.”

“Are you sure there was a woman here?”

“Check the pew over there. She probably left blood stains from the amount of the stuff I could smell.”

“Sir, there’s nothing on this pew. Are you sure about this?”

“Yeah, she was sitting right there! I was talking with her.”

“When did you talk to her?”
“Just about a minute ago.”

“Corey, a woman’s body was found dead in the alley a block down the road.”

“Why did you come storming in here?”

“I was walking down the street to see if there were any witnesses and I heard you yelling at the top of your voice.” Officer Smith paused. “Corey are you sure you’re okay?”

Corey nodded. “I must have dozed off is all. I’ll be fine. Maybe if you could help me lock up.”

“Sure. I wouldn’t want you having any more excitement for the night.”

Alone In the Church

Man in church copy

What kind of seating do they have? What style of music do they play? Are there programs for the kids during the service? Do they serve Starbucks coffee, or just some generic stuff? Are they doom and gloom, or are they positive and uplifting?

When I was growing up, the church probably had the same types of issues floating around. There were “contemporary” songs that were pushed, country styles, quartets, trios, etc. Some churches had padded pews while others still had the hard oak. And don’t get started on carpet color!

But it seems that today the sense of loss is more pervasive. Society has always needed to worship. It’s hard-wired into our souls.

He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning. –Ecc. 3:11

Instead of turning to the one source in which God teaches us His very heart, humanity seems frustrated, turning like children from complex math, tossing the book out in favor of what feels right.

We look at our lives and realize that we don’t live up to God’s purity standards. We lust, we covet, we use things for selfish gain. We trample on other people in a rush to get what will make us happy. In the end, it doesn’t make us happy, only miserable. So, we blame God. And the cycle keeps twirling.

The moral crisis in America is the same that faces the world. It is nothing new. And it’s not complex or difficult to parse out. We don’t need to split hairs over whether it stems from the SCOTUS decision on redefining marriage or if it is rooted on corporate greed or abuse of power.

It comes down to one root cause: Rejection of God.

So many people like the idea of a “loving God,” but blanch at the idea of a “wrathful God.” Of course, no one is free of showing wrath. And that doesn’t prevent them from loving. In fact, wrath often comes from a sense of threat against something we … love.

The problem is that we like to do what we want, which God tells us is harmful to us. We might know this as sin. God hates sin just like we hate cancer, for instance. So, God loves us, but hates sin (even though we might like sin for its seemingly instant gratification).

Add to that the fact that God is described as just, we have a whole picture. God loves the world, yet hates sin and is totally just. So, sin (which He hates) will need to be dealt with in justice.

When people reject God’s wrath over sin, they ultimately reject His love, too. It would be the same as embracing cancer. The victim will die, so how much do you love the person if you’re celebrating their cancer? Not much.

The cure for our world is to accept God’s rules. And the only way to accept them is to accept His payment for our guilt, letting His Spirit then give us new life.

Until this happens, I suspect there will be many out there feeling like they are all alone, just like Elijah did. Just sitting there, alone in the church. But we’re not alone.