On Sunday morning, Roger Seeker was back in church, trying to forget about his encounters with the bin raiders. But he wasn't having much success. So much that he had found appealing about the church services in the past now bothered him. The melodramatic prayers, the plea for more money in the offering, the prophecies that seemed to be going nowhere and saying nothing, even the music, with its monotonous repetition all irritated him. Why did they need to go over and over such a trivial chorus? And did anyone really know what "mount Zion on the sides of the north" meant anyway?
Could it be possible that all of this was just an act… that the people going through the motions didn't really have faith in God, as Dave and Greg and Diane and Anna had all been saying?
He looked around at the congregation and thought about what was lying beneath the surface of all this apparent piety. There was hardly a couple in the church who had been able to make their first marriage last. Two were now on their third. A feud over property rights had stopped one family from even talking to another. A member who was a chemist was under investigation for having ripped money off the government through falsifying his records. Several of the young people were known to be sleeping together even though they weren't married. And there were bad feelings between the church board and the pastor over Ganley's superannuation fund. Some were secretly campaigning to drop him and get another pastor if he kept asking for more money.
"But, praise the Lord, they're all born again and spirit-filled," Roger thought sarcastically to himself. "What does it mean, if it doesn't make any difference in how they live their lives?" It hadn't been like that for Roger in his early days. Shortly after he had started attending the church, he had undergone a powerful religious experience. God was so real to him then, and he had wanted nothing more than to spend his life serving God.
He had even talked to Ganley about going into the ministry. But Ganley had talked him out of it. Ganley had said that God needed someone to make the money and pay the bills for people like himself. Barbara had been against it too, and that was the real reason why Roger had dropped his dreams of entering the ministry.
Later he had come to see more of what the "ministry" involved, and he had become more convinced that he had made the right choice by staying out of it. He had originally wanted to do and say things that would change people's lives for all of eternity. But church government seemed to rotate around keeping peace between factions and finding ways to disguise faith in order to make it palatable to people who weren't really interested in God or heaven or much of anything else that was spiritual.
But here they were now, singing "He is Lord" together, with their hands in the air and their eyes closed, like they really cared about obeying Jesus!
Then they all listened to Ganley give a sermon against "church tramps", which was an attempt to stop members of the congregation from wandering off to visit some of the larger Pentecostal churches, where the speakers were more entertaining and the music was more professional.
Finally, they were all filing out the door, shaking Ganley and Valerie's hands and telling Ganley how much they enjoyed the sermon... that it was just what the congregation needed. That evening it was Roger who feigned a headache while Barbara went off to the meeting on her own. She was hardly out the door before Roger admitted to himself what he had been sub-consciously planning to do. He was going to contact Dave and Greg. He phoned the number that Juan had given him. Greg answered. Greg seemed thrilled to hear from him, and he immediately invited Roger over for a visit.
Roger accepted, and was at their house in less than half an hour.
He was impressed with the simplicity of the place. If the group was ripping money off people, it certainly wasn't going into real estate.
Roger recognised everyone who was present, except for Cherry and Sean.
"There's another woman… a short one…"
"You mean Diane?"
"Yeah, that's her name. Is she still with you?"
"She is. But she's away visiting someone else at the moment," Juan fibbed.
Cherry excused herself to fix tea and coffee for everyone, and Anna took Sean off to put him in bed. That left Roger with the three men.
"I want to apologise for the way I acted in the city yesterday," he said. "I'm going through a lot at the moment."
No one said a thing, so Roger went on: "I'm just trying to sort out what I believe and what I don't believe."
"We've all been through it too," said Juan. "What are you coming up with?"
"Well, nothing definite yet. I still have a lot of questions. See, I really don't want to follow you if you're teaching something that is wrong. I hope you understand. But I'll try to do a better job of listening to your side this time. Do you mind if I use notes? I've listed some things that I want to clear up."
"Sure. Go right ahead." Dave was in his usual listening pose, which varied little from his teaching pose, except that his chin now rested on the back of the chair.
"Let's see. First, there's the Bible. They said you don't believe it's the Word of God. What's your side?"
"Suppose the Bible itself said, 'This is not the word of God.' Would you believe it?"
"I suppose so," Roger said hesitantly. "Except that it doesn't say that." Then he paused, remembering other embarrassing mistakes he had made in the past. "Does it?" he finished up. "Someone give him a Bible," Dave said. There were several lying around the room. Apparently they weren't afraid to use them, even if they didn't believe they were the Word of God. Dave asked Roger to open to the seventh chapter of I Corinthians.
"If you look at verses six and seven, you'll see that Paul says, 'I speak this by permission and not of commandment.' He then goes on to give his advice about something. In other words, he says that he's not speaking as the voice of God, but just as brother Paul, giving his personal opinion. Then in verse ten, he says, 'I command, yet not I, but the Lord...' and he gives some serious rules about marriage. Here he has switched back to speaking with what he believes is the authority of God. Then, in verse 12, he goes back to giving his own opinion: 'But to the rest, I speak, not the Lord.'
"Do you hear that? He's saying that what follows is not the Word of God. He does it twice in the space of just a few verses.
"What you need to ask yourself, Roger, is whether you believe the Bible, or whether you believe some made up doctrine that actually contradicts the Bible. The Bible makes no claim to being infallible. It never claims to be the complete Word of God. And it clearly states that some parts of it are not the Word of God. So the doctrine you are worried about us not supporting is not based on the Bible at all. It's the invention of some over-zealous fundamentalist."
"But if the Bible is not the Word of God, then how do you know what to believe and what not to believe?"
"Ever heard of the Holy Spirit?" Dave asked with a smile. "Why do you suppose Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit?"
"It says he sent the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth," Roger answered. Roger knew his Bible well enough to see what Dave was driving at. "So you're saying that all I have to do is follow the Holy Spirit. Is that right?"
"Pretty much," said Dave. "Jesus said the Holy Spirit would remind us of everything that he had said. If you think someone has the Holy Spirit, but they're arguing against the teachings of Jesus, then maybe it's not the Holy Spirit that they have; maybe they have some other spirit."
"And because you follow the teachings of Jesus, you still use that part of the Bible, don't you." Roger said, as his eyes bounced off all the Bibles in the room.
"Actually, we use just about all of it. But we keep it all in perspective. You see, what the Bible actually says is that Jesus is the Word of God. God still talks through people today as he has in the past, but we believe Jesus was God's only perfect mouthpiece. Just being inspired doesn't make anyone infallible, whether it's Moses, the Apostle Paul or Billy Graham.
"We don't throw away the rest of the Bible, and we don't ignore what others are saying today; but we see the teachings of Jesus as the perfect 'cornerstone' or standard that we use to judge everything else. Jesus said the builders have thrown away the cornerstone, and that's why their building will be destroyed when he returns. He meant that the church leaders have thrown out his teachings and replaced them with teachings that they don't even believe themselves."
When Dave paused, Juan spoke up. "In answer to your question about the Word of God, we believe that Jesus is the Word of God. And his teachings are found in the four gospels. Does that sound so heretical?"
"No, not really." Roger looked down at the piece of paper that was laying on the arm of the couch. "But what about this sincerity thing? I was talking to Diane about it a week or so ago, and she seemed to be saying that a Hindu or a Muslim can be saved even if they haven't accepted Jesus as their Saviour? Are you really teaching that?"
"What saves us?" Dave asked, startling Roger.
"Well… I guess... faith in Jesus," Roger replied.
"Are you sure? Are you sure it says Jesus? Or could it just be faith in God?"
"Well, Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me'."
"Okay. So did Abraham go to hell? Remember, he lived before Jesus and he never even heard of Jesus. He wasn't even a Jew, much less a Christian."
"That's different," Roger replied. "He didn't know about Jesus. And the sacrifices that Abraham made were symbols of Jesus. So his faith in the sacrifices were the same as faith in Jesus." Despite his attempts to argue the traditional church position, Roger was already beginning to sense what Dave was getting at.
"If Abraham didn't need to know the name to be saved, why can't a sincere Hindu or sincere Muslim be saved by Jesus too?" Dave asked. "Isn't that what the whole message of grace is about? It doesn't matter what your religion is. The cross has broken down the walls between the various religions. All that matters now is that you have faith. It's still Jesus that saves these people, even if, like Abraham, they have never heard of him."
Dave shifted in his chair, before going on.
"But how would a sincere Muslim be able to accept Jesus, if our terms are that they must first throw away their faith in God as they understand him? Such a message destroys faith instead of rewarding it."
Juan had been wanting to get a word or two in, so he added, "We just tell sincere Muslims to keep on believing in God; and we tell sincere Hindus to do the same. We tell them that sincere faith is what God wants, and he'll reward it. When they believe that, and when they believe we're not out to destroy their faith, then we can let them know more of the good news; and the good news is that the death of Jesus is what made this new non-religious approach to God possible."
Dave finished off. "It's silly to teach people attending orthodox Christian churches that they don't have to be perfect to be forgiven, but then to teach that everyone else is lost because they don't attend orthodox Christian churches."
This teaching was a bit more than Roger could absorb all at once; but he was seriously thinking about it. He went through three or four more questions before realising that Barbara would be home from church and wondering where he was. He phoned her to let her know he was coming; and then he excused himself with a promise to return.
His heart was racing as he drove home. He had heard and learned so much in just a few short sessions with these people. It was all so simple too. How had everyone else missed it? But how was he going to share it with Barbara without her thinking that he had gone off the rails?
"Hello, Roger," said Pastor Toogood, who stood up from his seat in the loungeroom. There was nothing friendly in the look on his face. "I think we need to talk." It was a demand, and not a request.
One look at Barbara revealed that Ganley was acting under her instructions. She had probably sent for him when she arrived home and found the house empty.
"Barbara is deeply concerned," Ganley began. "And frankly, so am I. You've changed. You're not the same person that you were a few weeks ago. It's that cult!" he said, almost with a snarl. "We told you they were bad news, but no, you had to go and see for yourself. Things are going to have to change, and they need to change right away." Pastor Toogood appeared to be more deeply disturbed by the group than what Barbara was.
Roger wanted to share so much of what he had been learning, but he decided to tread gently. In his concern about what he personally had been going through he had been more or less indifferent to how he had been coming across to other people.
"What do you suggest?" he asked.
"You can start by promising God and Barbara never to have anything to do with them again. They're of the devil, Roger. They'll wreck your marriage and your whole life if you let them. Believe me."
"But our marriage was in trouble before I ever met them," Roger argued. He and Barbara had sought Ganley's counsel more than once, with little success.
"It's in a lot more trouble now," Barbara interjected.
"Why? What did I do?"
"It's not what you've done. It's what you're going to do," she replied. "I know you better than you know yourself, Roger. I knew you were going to go over there tonight. And the next thing you know, you'll be quitting your job and giving away everything that we have, and running around the streets with drug addicts and mental patients. I won't have it, Roger. I won't put up with it."
"Are you saying that you want to re-write our marriage vows? Is that it? You'll love, honour and obey me as long as I have a good job and don't associate with the wrong people?"
"It's not like that." Pastor Toogood tried to soften what Barbara had just said. "She's interested in your spiritual welfare. We all are. Not in how much money you make. Don't you believe that we love you, Roger?"
Roger moved his lips from side to side as he thought about how to answer that one. "I'm not saying you don't love me," he said. "But I'm saying that I should be entitled to have a conscience of my own. Suppose I did decide to quit my job. Would you kick me out of the church for doing that?"
"That's a matter for the church board to decide," Ganley replied. "But you need to listen to the counsel God is giving you right now. And my counsel is to stay away from those… those… bin raiders. Concentrate on saving your marriage before it's too late."
The reference to the group being "bin raiders" went over Roger's head. But he did not bother to ask for clarification. "And what if I say that my conscience says otherwise? What if I say that I feel God wants me to get to know them better?"
"Then I'll support Barbara in anything she does to stop you."
This startled Roger. He had expected Ganley to talk of further counselling sessions, or even discussions with others in the church. But instead, he was threatening to support Barbara in ending their marriage. And all over him talking to some people about God. How unfair!
"Are you saying that you would help to destroy our marriage just to keep me away from these people... these 'bin raiders' as you call them?"
"I wouldn't be the one destroying your marriage, Roger. They would be. They've broken up other marriages, and they'll do it to yours as well if you let them."
"You can't be serious. They haven't said a word against Barbara or against our marriage. It's you and Barbara who are talking about ending the marriage. How can you do this, and then try to put the blame on them? I think you should leave this house, and let me talk it over with Barbara on my own!"
Roger surprised himself at how calmly he was standing up to his pastor in this way.
But then Ganley looked at Barbara. "Do you want me to stay, Barbara?" he asked her softly. What was happening? Was Ganley prepared to defy him in his own home?
"It's okay, Ganley," Barbara said, as she stood up from her chair. They both were acting like Roger was not even there. "I'll be in touch with you," she said as she walked the preacher to the door.
Roger collapsed into a chair, totally drained. It was all so unreal, like it was happening to someone else, or like it was happening in a dream.
He tried to talk to Barbara after Ganley had left, but she refused. "I don't want to argue about it," she said. "I've told you what I want, and now it's up to you."