Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Storytime Feature: "My Father's Business"

The town of Littleton, New Jersey, was a quaint little town where nearly everybody went to church. The rest could be found at either the bar or the gambling-house, both of which were located on the deliberate outskirts of the town. The church was led by a group of elders handpicked by the nationally-known pastor, who actually founded that church, Pastor Adam Shepherd. Pastor Shepherd once lived among them, but he had been away for a very long time. Nevertheless, everyone knew his voice.
In addition to regular attendances every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, each Littleton church member turned on the radio at 6 o'clock every evening to KWISE radio, and listened to archival recordings of his famous sermons. Never mind whether those sermons were ever applied; what mattered is that everyone listened to them and commented on them amongst themselves.
One day, the citizens of Littleton were shocked to hear Pastor A (as they casually referred to him) mention their town on the radio!
The interviewer had just said, "Pastor Shepherd, I understand you cannot travel much, and may only be heard on the radio, but if you could travel, where would you go?"
Pastor Shepherd, the Great Pastor, replied, "Oh, I'd go back to that little church I planted in Littleton, New Jersey. I've often wondered how they were getting along. I very much want to visit them again someday."
Well! Didn't that just stir the hearts of those church-goers! Pastor Shepherd mentioned Littleton! Surely all of New Jersey, perhaps even all of New England heard it! And he said he would come! Every Littleton Christian walked with their head a bit higher after that announcement.
A few months after the astonishing declaration, a man came to Littleton claiming it was his job to "prepare the church for the pastor's arrival." Of course, the elder board would not stand for that!
"We are Pastor Shepherd's hand-picked servants!" they cried, "He trusts us to be perfectly capable of preparing the church ourselves!" They sent the man off with strict orders never to visit again.
A few weeks later, the Chief Elder was right in the middle of a sermon when a man stood up.
"Elder Carter," he cried, "You have just said that faith and deeds bring salvation!" he looked around at the congregation, "Why, everyone here should know that just Thursday night Pastor Shepherd said that only the blood of Christ could bring salvation!"
Elder Carter, though a bit flustered, recovered his bravado and forged ahead with his sermon, all the way to the rousing, scripted finish. The man was called in for a private conference with the Elder Board after the service, and no one ever saw or heard from him again.
Two days later, a lonely young man wandered into Littleton, cold, homeless, and penniless. He said his name was Joshua, and asked only for room and board. No one knew him, and no one trusted him enough to welcome him into their homes. They gave him food (sometimes), and a few people gave him blankets and an old, unwanted cot, but for the most part, Joshua was on his own. He erected a small shack in an open field from clapboards, and resided there for so long, he became known as the "town hobo", though a more helpful, mannerly, subservient hobo there was never seen. Josh was very good with his hands, proving to be a skilled wood-worker, making chairs, mending fences and doors, crafting tables, and carving ingenious toys and beautiful works of art.
People began to be more familiar with Josh, though no one still would welcome him in. A few--even those who did not attend the Littleton church--paid him a visit, and, as he proved very congenial and patient, they visited him more often. As he carved, Joshua would speak. Everyone who heard him were astounded at the wisdom flowing from the mouth of this young man. Even the unbelievers and the self-proclaimed agnostics were intrigued by the spiritual concepts so aptly put in terms they could understand. His analogies were clear, and his messages were simple. As more and more people began coming to Joshua and hearing him speak, this attracted the attention of the Elder Board. At the people's request, they appointed him Elder of the church, and asked him to speak at the next Wednesday meeting.
That Wednesday, everyone sat in their church dresses and suits, straight and proper as the choir sang hymns. Once that was done, it was the preacher's custom to ascend the pulpit in his collar and cuffs, but the last note died out long before people realized that Joshua was not going to enter at the proper time. In fact, it did not even appear that he was even there!
A noise at the back of the church caused every head to turn. Joshua strode down the aisle in jeans and the old, faded sweater someone had obviously given him. As it was whispered all around the congregation, "Not at all what a pastor ought to look like!"
"I'm sorry," he apologized, "I was busy about my father's business."
Everyone looked to his neighbor and indelicately mouthed, "carpentry."
A spark lit Joshua's eye, and he said, strong and firm, "People of the church, I come to speak to you of this very establishment. What is a church? I have asked many of the town that question, and the only answer I have ever received is 'the tall white building.' These are not even people among this congregation! Do you not recall the words of Pastor Shepherd, 'The church is the body of believers, it is the light that cannot be hidden in any area.' People of the church, have you so hidden yourselves in this bushel of a church that my father built so many years ago, that your own neighbors cannot find you?
"My father sent me to see what sort of business you lead, and I see nothing but the business of greed, self-importance, and false piety! You invite me in, but it is only to see if I meet your standards and perceptions, not for what I have to say!"
Everyone gasped at this blatant accusation, shocked by his words.
Joshua raised a finger, "He who has ears to hear what I have to say, let him hear me!" With that, he closed his sermon.
Joshua did not preach anymore (for obvious reasons), but he did attend the services, sitting with his fellow elders. His sermons in the field continued.

One day, the Elders received a call from a "very concerned member of the congregation."
"I do not know what sort of example you are trying to set," she said, "but Ms. Hattinson said that Mrs. Gruber informed her that Dorothy Sawyer saw that man Joshua coming out of the bar with a drunk man on his shoulder! Really, quite scandalous, isn't it?"
In her haste, Dorothy had missed the scene shortly after she sped into town with the gossip: Joshua led the man to his own shack and patiently nursed him back to sobriety, talking to him of the dangers of alcohol, and promising to help free the man from his addiction. (I wonder what the "concerned congregation member" would have thought had she known that the sober, serious, clean-shaven man sitting two rows behind her in church that Sunday was the same drunk man she had heard about!)
Sadly, these "extra scenes" were rarely witnessed by the gossip-hungry, self-righteous church members. Over the next few weeks, the elders received numerous calls related to the first, from people who actually saw Josh in the bar, or going into the casino (where he was actually drawing many away from the slot-machines and card tables to hear what he had to say about being wise with one's finances), and a few of these callers actually threatened to leave the church if Joshua was not "dealt with." Never mind the rumors spinning about him, that he might in fact be the son of Adam Shepherd. Those who listened to him began to notice similarities in his mannerisms and his analogies to that Great Preacher, but the congregation merely scoffed, "What respectable man of the church would even consider risking being seen in those evil places?"
The Elder Board finally made up their mind to "deal with" him.
The next week, they called him before them in a public "trial" of sorts, with all the congregation watching, and the Elder Board interrogating.
"Joshua, we have received many reports that you have been seen going into the bar and the gambling-house. Have you, in fact, been doing so?"
Joshua's voice was even and patient, "I have," he said.
"Do you realize that to be near such pits of evil and vileness is not proper for a man of your position?"
"I am merely going about my father's business."
"Hmph! 'father's business', indeed! What does carpentry have to do with beer and gambling, I'd like to know! Do you really believe that your father would support defaming such a church as this?"
"My father built this church; out of respect for him I would do nothing that he did not intend for his church to do."
A mild stirring of the "court."
"Hm, ah, yes, that brings us to the final matter: it has been rumored that you are the son of the Great Pastor, Adam Shepherd. Is he this 'father' you are referring to?"
"He is."
Instantly, everyone in the room was on their feet. The Chief Elder stepped down from the podium and struck Joshua full across the mouth, "How dare you insinuate that the Great Pastor would support your heinous actions! How dare you debase him to the level of a common carpenter! How little you must know about him, that you would speak of him so lightly!"
Without further adjudication, the Elder Board voted unanimously, in the presence of the whole congregation, to cast Joshua out of the church, and out of Littleton.
Those who had genuinely heard him and followed the sage advice he gave in relation to loving their neighbors, repenting of their sins and asking God's forgiveness, and seeking to live according to the Bible were very sad to see him go. They gathered around him as he stood at the edge of Littleton.
"Do not fear for me," he told them, "I am returning to my father. I will come back again, and when I do, I will be here to stay."
Three days later, the old radio recordings of Pastor Shepherd were interrupted by a special, live broadcast. The voice on the radio was considerably rougher and slower than the old recordings, but everyone knew it was unmistakably Pastor A.
The interviewer said, "Pastor Shepherd, many years ago you mentioned visiting a little church in New Jersey you had started in your early days as a pastor. Are you still considering it?"
"Well, perhaps," Pastor Shepherd replied slowly. "Perhaps I cannot, on account of my age. Several months ago I sent a man in, and never heard back from him. I was even in contact with one of the men attending the church, but I he hasn't returned my communications as of late.
“I sent my son Joshua to live as I did, among them, loving them, caring for them, and leading them, as I once did when I first came to Littleton. He sent word that he was on his way back about three days ago. If his report is favorable, I may return to Littleton."