The following story was given to us by a friend. It is not our work; however, it impacted us so, and we wanted to share it with all of our friends:

One night, while I slept safely in a city of lights, exhausted from the efforts I’d spent on securing the biggest bid of my career, I dreamed something so absurd, yet so real….

In my dream, I was carried away, as if flying through space, to a wasteland that was unlike anything I had ever imagined. The atmosphere was dense, foggy, and ominous. I was alarmed by the cold, uninviting surroundings that I flew over. As I looked down from my vantage point, I could see that there were no flowers, no grass, no trees; no animals, nor streams, nor light; nor was there any living thing that I could see. The ground below me was jagged and sharp, covered in grey rocks of all different sizes, jutting from the ground. They threatened to shred anything that might dare to light upon them. Like a foreign planet, the vast landscape spread out as far as I could see. Unseen creatures seemed to sneer at me, angry at my presence. I couldn’t see them, but I felt their hatred and their resentment.

Everything about this land was threatening, even the air. It seemed as if it was gaseous and toxic. As I gulped it in, involuntarily inhaling and exhaling, as my body was programmed to do, it suffocated me. When the air went down into my lungs, it burned, and when I exhaled, the vapors were like yellow smoke and had the most venomous stench. I wondered why I felt so alone in this place. Inexplicable shame coursed through my being, and though I didn’t have any sense of having done anything wrong, dreadful guilt gripped me. As my body continued to float, my soul became paralyzed with fear. I began to panic and lose all sense of control. Terror seized me from every direction, and I desperately scanned the horizon looking for a way out of this hell. What was this god-forsaken place, and how did I get here? I’ve got to get out of here! was all I could think of.

Suddenly, as if some invisible line of contrast was drawn by a great magician, I was dumped out onto a lush, velvety hillside decorated with all variety of wildflowers. Birds darted about me singing jubilant, happy songs. The sky was Sapphire blue, and the sun shone brilliantly upon me, warming me from the outside in. When I breathed in, the most intoxicating aroma greeted me. It seemed like a mixture of sweet perfume and fresh rain. The smell was so pleasant that I closed my eyes and deliberately inhaled deeper and deeper.

Having landed on my rump, I sat for a moment and looked around at what I thought must be paradise. I reached down with my hand and touched the velvety grass – letting the blades tickle my fingers as I ran my hands over their soft points. Even this simple action elicited an enthralling response from all my senses, and I found myself laughing and full of unparalleled delight. I heard water gurgling, but couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. Curiosity hoisted me to my feet. I began walking, first slowly, then with anticipation, toward the sound of the water. I was mesmerized and emboldened by the serenity of this place, and, while I didn’t see anyone, I felt a sense of welcoming and permission to explore from an unseen host.

Still in search of the water I heard running, I walked toward a nearby tree line, thinking that trees would naturally grow near a stream. When I entered the grove, I was greeted suddenly by a beautiful little girl, whom, I guessed, to be about seven or eight years old. She was splashing in the creek that I had been looking for. She was wearing a bright yellow shirt and blue jeans that she had rolled up to her knees. The water was crystal clear, so that I could see every pebble and speck of sand shimmering around her bare ankles as she dug her toes into the sand.

“Hi,” she said, waving a tiny hand in greeting. She seemed totally unsurprised by my arrival. “What’s your name?” She asked as she stooped to dig her fingers into the sand as well.

“Umm, Kent. What’s yours?”  I asked, more out of politeness than anything.

“I’m Rachel. Wanna see where I live?” she asked innocently. Before I could answer, she splashed her way out of the water toward me and grabbed my hand. “Come on, Silly. What else are you gonna do? Don’tcha want to know where you are?”

She had a point; so, I followed, wondering what in the world was going on. What was a second grader doing alone in the woods, and where was she taking me? Half dragging me behind her, we emerged from the woods, and I stopped in my tracks. In front of me loomed an enormous estate. It was more elegant and grand than the castles I had seen on TV or in books. The grounds were alive with people coming and going; gardeners trimmed hedges and watered flowers along a stone walkway leading up to the front door. Grounds keepers were singing and humming as they scrubbed and polished huge statues of cherubs that formed a canopy for a cascading water feature. Artists and painters set up with their easels were sprinkled about the perfectly manicured lawn. An orchestra played in the shade of a huge gazebo, filling the air with a symphony that seemed to be a living, breathing creation. Deer grazed comfortably nearby, lazily flicking their tails and twitching their ears, undaunted by the activities going on around them. My senses were overwhelmed by the enormity and tranquility of the place, and something inside me welled up in gratitude. My emotions were stirred, and I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I stared in awe at the splendor of the grounds, the structures, the people, and the atmosphere of joy…until my silent survey was interrupted by a soft giggle beside me. Looking down at my young escort, I frowned.

“You live here?” I asked dubiously.

“Of course, Silly,” Rachel said through giggles. “Everyone lives here! Wait ‘til you see the inside,” she said, her eyes twinkling. Grabbing my hand again, she led me up the walkway, smiling and humming as she skipped toward the double wooden doors that loomed high overhead. She waved emphatically at one of the artists who smiled and waved back. As we approached the threshold, the doors opened to us, and a tall, lanky black man with greying temples greeted us with a huge smile. Grabbing hold of Rachel by the waist, he swung her around while she squealed with delight. Laughing, he set her down and straightened. Looking at me with one eyebrow raised, he addressed Rachel.

“Who’s your friend, Rachel?”

“This is Kent. He’s lost,” she announced sincerely.

I blushed at her direct analysis. Trying to recover, I extended my hand and introduced myself.

“Oh, well, isn’t that how we all got here.” The man took my hand in a friendly shake and kept smiling a huge smile. “Yes sir-ee… hee, hee… that’s how we all got here. Welcome Kent. I’m Jedidiah. And my house is your house,” he said, still shaking my hand vigorously. “I’m sure Rachel here will give you the grand tour. I’d best go check on Sophia’s supper plans.”

With that, Jedidiah disappeared through a doorway, singing loudly as he departed. I looked at Rachel for clarification. “Jedidiah’s great!” she exclaimed.

“Is he the owner here?” I inquired.

“Oh, no,” she explained casually. “He’s the one who greets everyone though. He’s one of my favorite people in Urijah.”

Now I was really lost. “In Urijah”? I asked, almost afraid of the answer.

“Yes, Urijah is the name of our home. It’s here,” she said matter-of-factly, looking around, “Where we all live.”

“Ohhhh,” I said, in feigned understanding. I looked up at the vast building I was standing in. It seemed like a strange name for an estate.

As Rachel led me over the marble floors, the grandeur of the place astounded me. High ceilings, like those of a cathedral, loomed above my head, seemingly overlaid in gold. An ornately carved wooden banister outlined a winding stairway to the second, then third floors. Royal blue tapestries hung from the ceilings, dancing in a breeze that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Gigantic marble pillars framed a circular courtyard decorated liberally with ferns, and blooming lilies. Rachel led me into the courtyard, and even before I entered, the sweetest fragrance I had ever known drifted upon the air and nearly intoxicated me. I was so enthralled at the beauty that at first I didn’t realize that we were not alone. Movement caught my eye, and I looked around to see a man in his thirties kneeling at the edge of a pool. I watched as he dipped his hands in the pool, as if skimming the surface for debris. Amazingly, there was not so much as a ripple. The water remained perfectly still and reflected the red ceiling of the alcove above it, giving the marble lined pool the appearance of scarlet silk. The man rose and dried his hands on a towel that hung from his waistband. He smiled affectionately at my tour guide and walked toward us.

“Hi, Baby,” the man said, as he embraced Rachel’s face tenderly, then kissed her forehead.

“Hi, Daddy. This is my new friend. I found him in the woods by the creek. His name’s Kent. He’s lost.”

Again, her introduction made me uncomfortable…like a stray puppy that needed rescuing. I laughed nervously as I accepted her father’s firm grip, trying to portray a confidence that I didn’t feel.

“Glad to meet you, Kent. My name is Frederick. I see you’ve met my daughter.” He looked down at the wide-open eyes and sun-kissed nose of the face smiling up at him. He laughed and tousled her hair. “She never meets a stranger, that’s for sure.” Rachel giggled at the attention and tugged on Frederick’s arm.

“Have you introduced him to Seth yet?” Frederick asked.

“Nope, that’s where we’re going next,” Rachel announced with excitement. “You’re just gonna love Seth. He’s soooo wonderful!” she gushed with enthusiasm.

Frederick laughed at the glee on Rachel’s face.

“Enjoy the tour, Kent. I’ll see you at supper.” It was more of a statement than a question, but I didn’t argue. Why should I?

As we left the courtyard, I saw Frederick resume his position beside the pool. He seemed in deep concentration but perfectly content with whatever he was doing with the pool. A nice man, I thought to myself.

Wondering who Seth was, I followed as Rachel bounded up the wide staircase, grunting as she willed her tiny legs to take two steps at a time. Half way up the flight she was breathing hard and stopped to rest. As I caught up to her, I couldn’t help but smile at the innocent excitement she exuded. She was full of life and energy, and I wondered how long it had been since I enjoyed anything as much as she enjoyed everything.

As we reached the second floor landing, Rachel explained that Seth was the owner of the house. “He’s super nice, and super fun, and super rich,” she said, her eyes rolled dramatically as she described Seth’s estate. Then with a mischievous grin she turned and said, “You’ll never be the same after you meet him, Kent. Just don’t ever say I didn’t warn you,” she said in a mock grown-up tone.

Before I could ask what she meant, she stuck her neck out and ran as fast as she could down a long corridor. Reaching the end, she grabbed hold of a heavy brass door handle and, using all her weight, she tugged on it until it opened. She disappeared into the room, and I was left alone in the hallway.

Strange child! I thought. As soon as she was out of sight I realized how uncomfortable I was in this place. I didn’t know anyone, really. I had no idea what Urijah was, or how it came to be a thriving estate in the middle of nowhere, or what I was doing here, or when I should leave… And what was so life-altering about meeting Seth, whoever he was? Standing alone in the hallway I felt strangely homesick, and lonely, and exposed. Everyone I had met seemed genuinely happy and at home in Urijah. “Are they all servants?” I muttered to myself. “If so, they sure don’t act like fearful, ill-treated, duty-bound, work hardened servants one might expect, say, from plantation days or from some feudal state. They seem happy…like they actually enjoy it here.”

As I wondered about my surroundings, I heard laughter coming from the room that Rachel had disappeared into. Unable to rein in my curiosity, I opened the door and looked in. Expecting to see a lavishly decorated ball-room, I was completely taken aback to see a gymnasium full of kids. It looked like an international daycare. Kids of all colors from two to twelve were laughing, playing with puppies, dancing around the room, arm wrestling, and coloring in books. A plump woman with a big laugh and Russian accent was flitting about, supervising the kids. A late-teenaged Filipino girl was holding a baby and cooing as she walked around the room, gently bouncing the infant. An older Latino man in western attire sat in a recliner reading a story to a group of youngsters that gathered around. Several were piled on top of his chair and lap while others stood, looking over his shoulder at the book he held.

On the far end of the room was a man, possibly in his 40s, with dark hair and a strong build, sitting “Indian-style” on the floor, braiding Rachel’s hair. Another little girl stood to one side of the man, brushing his hair and laughing. The man looked up at me and smiled his greeting, but made no effort to get up. Much to my amusement, he looked totally comfortable playing beautician. As Rachel sat patiently, she motioned for me to come over to her. “Com’on, Kent. I want you to meet Seth,” she shouted across the room.

I felt even more self-conscious than before and wanted to hide from all the eyes that turned to look at me. As I crossed the room, Seth finished Rachel’s twin braids, and she stood in front of him and hugged him. As she squeezed his neck he laughed and fell over as if she had choked him out. Both little girls then grabbed for his arms and began trying to pull him up. Unable to budge the big man, they called for reinforcements, and soon there were half a dozen kids climbing all over the man, trying to pull him up. They all laughed and giggled as they finally succeeded in resurrecting their fallen hero. I watched as they all participated in a familiar and genuinely loving interaction with each other, and once again I felt an ache of loneliness and awkwardness. As if sensing my discomfort, Seth stood and looked at me again, maintaining eye contact as he approached. He suddenly looked professional, stately, and perfectly composed. More like what I would have expected of the owner of Urijah. It was as if he instantly morphed from playground dad to regal prince. I began to doubt my sanity in agreeing to come here with Rachel. What if Seth tossed me out?

“Hello, Kent,” Seth said with a sincere and transparent smile. “Welcome to Urijah. Rachel said you were lost, and she brought you here.” He offered his hand, and I accepted it, relieved. “Any friend of Rachel is a friend of mine. Make yourself at home. Will you join us for supper?”

Not knowing how I would politely refuse, I said that I would be glad to.

Rachel reappeared at Seth’s side and took ahold of his hand. Smiling, he raised her arm above her head, and she twirled around like a ballerina, dancing around him in circles. “Thanks for braiding my hair, Seth. I love you,” she said when she had finished her circle dance. She reached up, and he leaned down, and she kissed his cheek. “See you later.”

“See you later. Be good,” he said.

“Ok,” Rachel promised, as she grabbed my hand and escorted me away from the man of the house.

Back in the corridor, Rachel turned to me. “I have something to show you. You’ll like it,” she promised. She led me to another, narrower, flight of stairs that went to the rooftop. Stepping out into the warm sunshine was like heaven. From the eagle’s nest vantage point, I could see for miles, and the scene was breathtaking. I closed my eyes for a minute and just soaked in the peace of this place. It was positively therapeutic; like a cleansing stream rushing through my soul, carrying away every speck of worry, doubt or anxiety. For the first time in my life, I had the sensation that peace, real, lasting peace was possible. I caught my breath, stunned at the hope I felt inside. When I opened my eyes, Rachel was smiling up at me.

“Come on, Kent. I’ll show you the garden,” she offered. We made our way across the expansive rooftop. Sure enough, a rectangular shaped, floating rose garden came into view. I couldn’t understand how it appeared to be suspended from nothing, but it was. There had to be at least fifty kinds and colors of roses, all at different stages of development. The aroma was divine, and I was fully satisfied just to breathe in the exquisiteness of them. As I did, I was unexplainably overcome by emotions. I felt tears stinging my eyes, but I couldn’t understand why. Just being here, in this spot, was unravelling my carefully knitted image that I had worked for decades to fasten around myself. A silent and desperate conflict tore at my soul; part of me wanting to cinch up the control and defenses I felt slipping, part of me wanting to throw my hands up and surrender to whatever I felt tugging at me.

As I struggled to gain my composure, Rachel was at my side. She put her hand on my arm and said, “I understand.” Laughing uncomfortably, I wiped at my face. I was touched by her sweetness, but what could a seven-year-old possibly understand?

Changing the subject, I asked Rachel where her mom was.

“She doesn’t live here,” she said sadly.

“Ooops, nice one, Kent!” I chastised myself.

“But I don’t need a mommy. I have Daddy and Seth,” Rachel said, her eyes dancing. Just remembering them, she was all smiles again. I felt relieved that I hadn’t ruined her day with my nosey question. For all I knew, her mother had died.

After a brief tour through the aisles of roses, Rachel announced, “We should go get ready for supper, Kent. Sophia is the best hostess ever! You’ll love her food. It’s always perfect,” she gushed. I laughed, thinking she sounded like a commercial. The mention of food stirred my hunger though, and I was suddenly very much looking forward to a meal.

We made our way off the rooftop, and Rachel escorted me to an enormous dining hall with long tables in rows. The décor was stunning. Crystal laden chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Large windows let in a great deal of light. Fine china and silverware and crystal goblets adorned each place setting. A harpist sat in one corner of the room and played softly. People were milling around comfortably, conversing as friends. Sophia was a stunningly beautiful French woman in her fifties. She was the perfect image of grace, confidence, and coordination. She swooped in and out of the room with all of the professionalism and dignity of a veteran hostess. Her staff obeyed her every suggestion, tweaking the floral arrangements, and readjusting the place settings. Before long, the tables were heavily laden with exquisite delicacies. The aroma of roasted meat made my taste buds tingle. My senses were truly awakened in this environment, and I was surprised at how alive I felt.

Jedidiah came over and handed me a glass of delicious smelling wine. I accepted gratefully. The older gentleman patted me on the shoulder. “Glad you stayed, my friend. Glad you stayed.” A huge smile decorated his face, and he hummed happily as he went about refilling glasses and picking up anything that seemed out of place.

Suddenly everything got quiet, reverently quiet, and people turned to look as Seth entered the room. I watched how everyone adored him; not in a flattering way, but more like they revered and loved him. He greeted each person as if he or she was the most honored guest in the room. He spoke quietly with some, and laughed out loud with others. He leaned in attentively to listen to his friends as they shared the events of their day. His demeanor was perfectly comfortable and casual, in spite of the formal environment. He addressed each one by name: Adriel, the nanny; Sergio, the western dressed story-teller; Ligaya, the young mother; Naomi, the harpist; Bryan, one of the gardeners; Gemariah, the orchestra conductor; Frederick, Rachel’s father; Candace, a records keeper, and so on. As Seth encountered each person in his household, I watched to see if there were any cracks in this Utopian atmosphere. If there was any rudeness, contempt, or falseness, I could not tell it. In fact, the sincerity and transparency between the people were beyond anything I had ever encountered. To say that they respected each other would have been an understatement. I finally had to admit that I was totally unfamiliar with the kind of human interaction playing out before my eyes. It was as beautiful as it was foreign.

As people began to take their seats, I expected a full staff of waiters and waitresses to appear. Instead, I was shocked to see that Seth himself began serving each person. As he did, a strange quietness fell over the room. Grave respect and wonder showed on the faces of every person seated. I marveled at this intriguing display of the owner honoring the staff. As he came closer to me, I realized I was altogether uncomfortable being served by my host. What a bizarre and backward system they had here in Urijah! When Seth served me, he looked directly at me, and I nearly lost my composure. In some inexplicable way, I was both drawn to him and wanted to run away from him at the same time. I couldn’t hold his gaze, for in the instant he looked at me, I knew he knew my insecurities, and it flooded me with embarrassment. Hardly daring to look up at him again, I was amazed to see perfect understanding in his eyes. No condemnation, mockery or criticism. Just acknowledgment of what we both knew to be the inner workings of a man who, for all my attempts at success, satisfaction and security, was still quite lonely and afraid. Afraid? The realization hit me like a freight train. I’ve never thought I was afraid of anything. But I am. Afraid of not being able to control the things that are important to me. Afraid of looking weak. Afraid of losing the ability to provide adequately for myself. Afraid of being found out. Afraid that everything I’ve believed in might not be true…and then what? Afraid that my wife will stop loving me when she realizes the kind of man I am. Afraid that I’ll fail everyone around me.

Sure that my host was reading my every thought, I willed myself just to concentrate on the dinner. It looked delicious. I found myself seated next to Naomi, who was a pleasant and gracious dinner companion. I ate until I was more than satisfied and drank deeply of the delicious currant. I began to relax and enjoy the conversations flowing around me. After the food and beverages had been consumed, and all were content, people got up and mingled comfortably. No one was in a hurry to leave. At one point, I saw Frederick carry Rachel’s sleeping frame out of the room. She’d been a good guide. It must have worn her out. What now? How do I get out of this place? I felt slightly disoriented and had no idea what I should do next. As if on cue, Sergio, who was standing nearby, offered to show me to a guestroom where I could sleep. I was relieved and followed him from the dining hall. Almost forgetting my manners, I looked for Seth to thank him for the pleasant evening. He wasn’t in the room. I was both disappointed and relieved. I followed Sergio to a lavishly decorated suite, complete with a spacious bed, sitting area, and oversized bathing tub.

Much too heady to utilize the extras, I thanked Sergio and crawled beneath the feather down blanket. I was comforted by my elegant and pampered surroundings, and sleep came quickly. Sometime in the night, I awoke suddenly. Realizing I was still in Urijah, I wondered what I would do to get home to my wife. It must have been the middle of the night, but I was wide awake with questions. How did I get here? Why was I here? Who were all these people? Where did they come from? Didn’t they have families? The more I thought, the more awake I became. I got out of bed and peeked out the door down the hallway. No one was around. I thought to sneak up to the rooftop where I had felt such peace earlier. Maybe the night air would clear my head. Stepping out of my room, I made my way toward the staircase and tip-toed up the steps to the third floor. As I climbed the final set of steps that would take me to Rachel’s special rose garden, I heard crying, followed by groaning. As I reached the threshold of the door, the crying turned to loud sobs of indescribable grief. Opening the door, and stepping outside, I was astonished to see the rooftop was full of people. “What are they all doing up here?” I thought to myself. Was I dreaming?

As I craned my neck to see what was going on, Frederick suddenly appeared in front of me, blocking my way. “Kent, I need to warn you, my friend. If you don’t leave now, you’ll never be the same.” I searched Frederick’s eyes for some explanation. They were red-rimmed and swollen from crying. Utter grief and heartache showed in his young eyes, such as I have never seen in anyone.

“What’s going on?” I asked, needing to know. There was no way I could go back to sleep. Not after hearing such heartbreaking wails and seeing the immeasurable distress in the eyes of a man who, a few hours before, had impressed me as the most secure and composed young man I’d ever met. Why was there a crowd gathered on the roof-top in the middle of the night?

“You won’t understand, Kent. It’s impossible for you to understand, but it’s our reality.” Frederick paused, giving me another opportunity to excuse myself and pretend I’d never been there. I couldn’t. And although I was horrified at the possibilities of what I might discover, or worse, what might happen to me, I stayed.

“Do you remember the hellish place you flew over before you got here to Urijah?”

I did, and I shuddered at the memory as I nodded in the affirmative. The very thought of it sent chills down my spine. I could almost taste the putrid air that had burned by lungs. Just the reminder of it made me terrified at the thought of having to go back through it to get back home. I cringed and felt sick.

“It’s called Shion,” Frederick explained. “That’s where we all came through to get here, Kent. It was like death itself. And then by some glorious miracle we were supernaturally dumped out onto the greens of Urijah. Having passed through the valley of death, we were all so glad to breathe the air of life. Just like you were, I’m sure.”

I nodded my agreement. I had been utterly relieved, but then I had become so preoccupied with the beauty of Urijah that I had forgotten all about the wastelands that he called Shion, until now.

Frederick continued. “None of us knew what it would cost to live here. We just wanted to live.”

I felt the blood drain from my face as I envisioned scenes from “Hotel California.” Surely this was a joke. A terrible prank they played on newcomers! But another look into Frederick’s anguished face told me this was not a joke. And even as I stood looking at Frederick, more cries and groans rang out, piercing the crisp night air. I shivered, and my stomach tied in knots. What the hell is going on here?

“It’s Seth’s rules, Kent. He requires a sacrifice, of sorts…in order for us to all live here.”

“What?” I recoiled in disgust at the thought of the dignified man I had met earlier torturing these poor people, sadistically exacting from them some horrendous sacrifice. And the groans and cries! What horrible things was he doing to them? How dare he? They were desperate, for God’s sake! This was all wrong! If Seth knew what Shion was like, surely he wouldn’t threaten to send them back! Or worse, if he knew and was exploiting their fears…the thought of that level of calculated cruelty made my neck hairs prickle in horror.  Of course, these unknowing travelers, like myself, would submit to nearly anything just to keep from having to breathe that foul poisoned air and feel the terror of the darkness. But what kind of a monster would torture a person who just wants to live? I strained to see the rose garden from where I stood, but too many people blocked my view. I pushed past Frederick to see for myself what awful deeds the sadist Seth was inflicting on his unfortunate guests. As I pressed through the group of people I had dined with just hours ago, I saw little Rachel sobbing into her nightgown. My heart cried out, and I wept at the idea of her tiny little body taking any kind of abuse. Surely not! A fierce and foreign anger rose up in me so that I wanted to scream out and stop the madness.

Rachel saw me watching her, and choking back her tears, she came over to take my hand. Without saying a word, she led me into the clearing where the rose garden should have been. It was gone. Instead, I saw a man stripped down to his undergarments, slumped over with blood and sweat dripping from his back and legs. Huge whelps rose from his flesh, and bruises covered his body. I could hardly stand to look at the stricken figure of the man in front of me. Rachel looked up at me, her tear-streaked face contorted in anguish.

“It’s…Seth!” She said, wailing out her agony, her hand quivering as she pointed. “He…does…this… so… we…can…live… here.” She barely got out the words through her short, ragged sobs.

Sure that I had misunderstood the girl, I leaned in for a better look. To my utter dismay, I saw a man holding a whip. It was not Seth at all. It was Bryan, the gardener! Bryan let out a grievous cry as he raised the whip and brought it down upon the back of the man receiving the punishment. As the whip dug in, the man straightened his back, wincing from the blow, and I saw his face. It was Seth! He groaned in pain, but didn’t retaliate. Bryan retreated and stood limp, his head bowed as he cried. What happened next was absurd – beyond imagination.

I watched as Seth, trembling from pain, walked over and put his hand on Bryan’s arm. Then in an embrace, Seth rested his head on Bryan’s shoulder. After a brief moment, Seth drew back and put his hands on either side of Bryans face, probing the man’s eyes with his own. There was no anger in Seth’s expression. No accusation. No resentment. Tears rolled down Seth’s face, and he smiled through what must have been excruciating pain. “Thank you, my friend. I love you, Bryan. I would miss you so much if you had decided to leave,” he said with shocking sincerity. Sniffing, he continued through tortured lips, “I’m so glad you decided to stay here with me.” Bryan began to sob violently. The whip fell from his hand as he reached to embrace Seth. As he clung to Seth, Bryan wailed in sorrow for the deed he had just done. Seth gently disengaged from Bryan after a moment, and kissed his forehead before stooping to pick up the whip. Slowly, Seth returned to the place where he had taken the beating, and Bryan walked toward his wife, still sobbing. Others came to comfort Bryan, but they, too, were inconsolable. They all mourned together. Bryan covered his face, unable to look at those who had witnessed the awful thing he had just done.

Frederick came along side me to explain. “I told you that you wouldn’t understand, Kent. We don’t get punished for our sins and trespasses here in Urijah, and we don’t have to pay rent. We came here with nothing to offer or barter with, and Seth knows that. We live in complete peace and comfort in Urijah because Seth absorbs all our expenses, and offenses, onto himself.”

That made no sense to me at all, and my anger rose. Sins? Trespasses? What did that even mean? I hadn’t seen Bryan commit any crime. What was he guilty of? And why should such a severe punishment take place anyway, for anyone? Unwilling to accept what I was hearing and seeing, I argued, “This is insane!” I grasped for words to describe the unfathomable. “This whole…punishment system…is totally insane! Why should it be this way at all? If someone here is guilty of a crime, why doesn’t Seth just send that one away, and let the innocent ones live here without this…this torture?”

“Because we’re all guilty, Kent. Every last one of us.” Frederick’s tone was steady, matter-of-fact, resigned to this notion, but I could not believe that the kind man in front of me, or his daughter, for that matter, was guilty of anything. Rachel was a child, for crying out loud! And I said so.

Frederick smiled painfully. “Even Rachel, my friend. As sweet and lovely as she is, even Rachel has picked up that whip and struck her precious Seth.” The thought of that sent my mind reeling. What kind of “sin” could someone so young and sweet even consider? As if reading my thoughts, Frederick said, “Six months ago, Rachel saw her mother staggering drunk. Rachel was already angry at her mom for not allowing her to go to a friend’s house. Rachel saw an opportunity to vent her anger, and she pushed her mother down a flight of stairs. Rachel’s temper tantrum nearly caused the death of her own mother.” Frederick let the image sink in to my unbelieving senses before continuing, “Seth paid for my daughter’s sin so that she could live here. Rachel was given the choice, and she decided to let him absorb her sins. And I’m so thankful. I couldn’t bear to think of my baby in Shion for one second.” A pained expression crossed Frederick’s face, and he confessed the rest of the story. “My wife, Emmalyn, was here for one night, too. Seth offered to pay for her drunkenness, her lies, her numerous affairs, but she swore at him for exposing her. She blamed me, blamed Rachel, she even blamed Seth for all her actions. She refused to let him pay for her sin, denying she was at fault for anything. If you can imagine, she actually chose to exist in Shion rather than accept Seth’s conditions to live here.”

Reeling at the odd reality of which he was speaking, I felt myself becoming quite off balance. I literally began to go numb and thought that I might pass out. “Would you like to sit down?” Frederick asked. I nodded, unable to speak. He lead me to a half wall where I sat down in relief. Despite my feelings of being upside down, I was aware that Frederick’s explanation of this bizarre situation was sincere, patient, and transparent. I was keenly cognizant that he was not trying to convince me of anything. He was not arguing or stressing a point of view. He was just giving a context and narrative of the events I found myself witnessing. I wanted to know more but I was also afraid of what I would discover if I asked him to keep going. I took the risk. I wanted to know the rest of the story, and he obliged me.

“Everyone’s activities, good and bad, are constantly exposed here in Urijah. That is because this whole place is filled with light. There is nothing hidden because, in all of Urijah, there is not a single place that is in darkness. The only dark places are in the minds and hearts of the people that live here. Sin is born in those dark places of the soul where the light of Seth’s presence hasn’t yet reached. When that sin is exposed, through our daily contact and interaction with Seth, we are forced to a decision. If we want to continue living here—enjoying the environment of light and safety, and peace…participating in the open, loving relationships and interactions with Seth and the other residents here, many of whom are our beloved family members—we have to submit to Seth’s light probing into those dark, sensitive, secret places of our intentions, motives, and ambitions. Seth gives us everything without reserve as long as we deal with him and others in the light. But when any one of us conjures up a plan or an activity that is secret—one that we don’t want Seth to know about—we are guilty. Seth’s offer to assume our guilt is conditional upon each of us letting his light probe and expose every hidden corner—kind of like a search light pinpointing the location of a thief trying to sneak onto the estate to steal, or kill, or destroy some part of Urijah or her residents.”

As if seeing the doubt and unbelief in my mind, Frederick paused. He seemed to know that I was having a hard time accepting what he was telling me. I just couldn’t imagine these kind people sneaking around in the dark doing anything really wrong to each other. “Bryan struck his wife, Victoria, today when she confronted him about flirting with Ligaya,” he said, shocking my objections into silence. “Candace became increasingly jealous of Naomi’s beauty and talent, and so she whispered slanderous accusations all over the house—hoping to diminish Naomi’s value. Jedidiah got ridiculously arrogant with his most recent promotion. He bragged to everyone about his knowledge and importance. Instead of remembering whose estate he was on, his pride made him unbearable to be around.” Frederick paused and studied me carefully before confessing, “I embezzled from Seth last week.” I involuntarily jerked my head back at his admission. Frederick s eyes were sincere and honest as he shook his head in disbelief at his own actions. “Can you imagine?” he continued with a humorless smile. “I’ve been given everything I could want, but I got greedy, thinking I could keep something more for myself! I denied it to Seth’s face when he asked me about it. Seth literally begged me to come clean about what he already knew was the truth. But I was too proud and embarrassed to confess, even after I was caught. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was capable of stealing, so first I justified it to myself, then I denied it altogether. I was on my way out of Urijah, angry and still stubbornly hiding my faults. I utterly refused to accept the light and grace and love that was available. I was this close…” Frederick said, holding his index finger and thumb an inch apart, “to choosing that god-forsaken Shion over Seth’s offer. Thankfully, Rachel saw where I was headed. She begged me to accept Seth’s terms. Thank God my daughter brought me to my senses!”

Frederick wiped at his eyes. “This is our reality, Kent. We have all sinned, and we have all spent a lot of time and energy trying to hide our failures, schemes, sins, and lies. That is what sin is—operating in the darkness; refusing the light that exposes the actions and thoughts that threaten peace and truth. None of the guests here are perfect. Because Seth is thoroughly light, he is perfect. There are literally no dark spots in him, so there is no possibility of sin occurring in him. His perfect light is the only thing that can overcome the dark places in each of us. His light absorbs our darkness until we are light like him. He receives the punishment on our behalf. When one of us sins, we take that sin and literally transfer the blemish onto Seth. His perfect light is able to swallow up the darkness, and the power of the darkness is dissolved. Everything is free and open in the new light that immediately replaces the sin.  Once he takes our punishment, we are free to enjoy his home, his supplies, his comfort, and best of all, his friendship. He never brings up the sin or the punishment once it’s dealt with. He treats us as if it never happened. He laughs with us, cries with us, comforts us, and provides for us – all because he assumes our guilt, then loves us as if we had none.”

Every part of my mind rebelled against what Frederick was telling me. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed absurd. No one should be punished for other people’s faults. Why? I argued with Frederick more, refusing to accept this style of redemption. Shouldn’t everyone pay for their own mistakes? Lowering my voice so no one else would hear my argument, I asked, “Whose idea is this crazy plan of punishing Seth so everyone else here can live scot- free? And why? What’s the point?”

“It was Seth’s plan from the beginning,” Frederick said plainly. He studied me, letting the words sink in. “He loves us so much that he wants us to be near him, and not have to bear the guilt of our own transgressions. He actually wants us here, with him, accepting his friendship, enjoying the benefits of Urijah. Even after we cause him so much pain, he still loves us. He attends to our children. He serves us as if we are honored dignitaries. He spends all his wealth for our benefit. He forgives us all of our dark and conniving actions, even repeat offenders. Only we have to transfer our sins onto him. Every sin has a price and that price must be paid by someone”.

Frederick paused, searching my eyes to see if I really understood. He must have seen that I didn’t, or wouldn’t, or couldn’t accept what he was telling me. He continued patiently, calmly, willing me to understand. “Every act of darkness robs someone of the truth and light. For instance, if I cheat you in a business deal, so that I come out with the advantage at your expense, that sinister deed costs you. You suffer a loss because of my sin. If I further deviate from the light and slander your name or product in order to cover my cheating you out of a fair price, then I have robbed you of future business—all because I wanted to keep as much for myself instead of giving you a fair payment for your product. Because the consequences are real, it is obvious that the sin is real. Once the sin is released into the equation it must be dealt with or it will continue wreaking havoc. If sin were allowed to operate unchecked in each of us, it would become rampant in Urijah and would ruin this beautiful paradise. If you have thieves, murderers, adulterers, child abusers, gossipers, and extortionists roaming free, this place would become as hideous and corrupt as Shion; because sin eventually kills and destroys everything it touches. But by us transferring it openly onto Seth, he collects that sin and darkness from us and destroys it.”

Frederick bit his lip, momentarily weighing the impact of his next revelation. “When I said that Seth is perfect light, that means that every part of him—physically, spiritually, everything—is literally a purifying, cleansing light. When the whip is used to transfer our guilt and darkness onto Seth, he bleeds. The impact of the whip transfers our darkness, and the releasing of his blood carries it away—first from us, then from him. This purging process keeps Urijah a place of light and free from sin. As soon as Seth takes the sin in his body, his light destroys the darkness, and therefore the darkness loses its power to destroy us. Either he has to take the sin from us, or we would have to be evicted from Urijah, in order to keep Urijah the paradise it is. All of our sins bring about suffering. Either Seth suffers for us, or we suffer by having to leave Urijah. Without Seth’s plan, we would all die alone and forsaken in Shion.” He looked at me questioningly, to see if I was absorbing what he was saying. He continued…

“You see all the life here, Kent, and that’s what you like about Urijah, isn’t it?” I nodded, thinking solemnly of the beautiful roses, the green grass, the birds, the animals, the rivers, the smells of perfumed flowers and perfected recipes from the kitchen…I loved the comfort they all brought. I even ached with longing and appreciation at the peace I had experienced here. Frederick explained, “All this life comes from Seth. If he weren’t here, this place would be as lifeless and desolate as Shion. If he allowed us to keep our dark places, all the living things here would eventually die. As it is, with Seth’s plan, we trade our sin—the things that bring death—for the life that comes from him.

We grieve to know that our foolishness and carelessness cause such pain to the one who loves us so much that he would give all of this to us. Our only punishment here is the agony of knowing that we wound him.” Frederick swallowed hard. “I am reminded of it daily, because my job is to tend the pool of his blood.”

Confusion must have shown on my face because Frederick quickly explained, “When Rachel first introduced you to me, I was washing my hands in the pool of the courtyard. It sits right below this spot. As Seth takes our punishment, his blood flows down and drains into the pool below. It is sacred blood. It has the power to cleanse and restore and heal. It brings life. It is precious because it was willingly given so that I could live. It’s an honor to tend the place that stores my redeemer’s blood.”

I remembered thinking that the water in that pool must have looked red from the reflection on the ceiling of the alcove where the pool was tucked in a corner of the courtyard. Shock and realization coursed through me. I now realized the ceiling must have been stained crimson, and what I thought was water in the pool was actually Seth’s blood. I had seen the pool with my own eyes. It had appeared so pure and transparent. I had seen Frederick dry his hands on a white towel. No blood had been transferred to the towel. Looking at the bloody scene before me, I wondered. “Do you have a question, Kent?” Frederick asked. I put to him how and when the blood became pure before it reached the pool. Why did it not stain the towel?

“Once in the pool, his blood washes white whatever touches it. It becomes a reservoir of remembrance. We can each choose to approach it and cleanse ourselves when we have tempting thoughts. If we can avoid having to do this,” and he pointed to where Seth lay, his flesh cut to ribbons from the whip, “it is much more preferable.”

My eyes followed Frederick’s toward Seth’s body. How many beatings had this man endured? How long had this been going on? Would it ever end? I was jerked out of my thoughts as Seth began to move. He labored to his feet. The crowd around him gave way and began to move with him. Someone brushed up against me, someone who had been close to Seth because whoever it was smeared blood on the luxurious bath robe that I was wearing. I stood dazed for a moment, contemplating on the color of the blood on my sleeve. When I looked up, I saw Seth standing before me, looking steadily into my eyes. The blood soaked whip hung limply in his hand. Before he ever raised it, I knew that he was inviting me to transfer my guilt to him. My heart pounded in my chest. Sweat instantly beaded on my forehead. My face flushed with heat. I felt the stares of everyone around me, all holding their breath, waiting to see if I would accept Seth’s invitation. His eyes searched mine; patiently, lovingly imploring me to accept his silent offer. I awoke from my dream with a start, safe in my hotel room in the city…my heart pounding, sweat beading on my forehead, and my face hotly flushed.




List of Names and their meanings


Urijah – God is my Light

Shion – Ruin

Seth – Substitute, Appointed one

Kent – Born of Fire, Finely Made

Rachel – Tender Lamb

Sergio – A Prudent Man

Jedidiah – Beloved of God

Ligaya – Happiness

Naomi – Lovable One, My Delight

Victoria – Overcomer

Ariel – Belonging to God

Candace – One who Serves

Gemariah – Perfected by God

Sophia – Wisdom

Bryan – High Place, Hilltop

Emmalyn – One who rivals


Stand for Something

While recently listening to a Christian speaker who stated that he was a pacifist due to his adherence to Jesus’ command to love our enemies, he pointed to the story of the Good Samaritan as a demonstration of how we should show love to strangers and to whomever is in need. He spoke against the idea that any Christian should use force in defense of himself or others. My question for people who state this viewpoint, especially since he brought up the Good Samaritan story (and this story is often used to validate the idea of loving one’s neighbor), is, What if the Good Samaritan had come up on the scene a little sooner, while the victim was being assaulted? What would have been the best way to show love then? His pacifist philosophy of showing love to his neighbor would surely have been challenged, because it would have been difficult to show his version of love to both parties (the victim and the assailants). If he does nothing and waits for the assault to be over, and then like a loving neighbor, hauls the nearly dead victim to the hospital, is that really showing love? But, he might say, “I wanted my enemies to know that I loved them, too, so I let them finish their assault on Joe and then took care of Joe.” Hmmm. Did he offer to step in and take the beating for Joe? That would surely have been demonstrating love toward Joe. Very rarely do I think that this is the case. From my standpoint, waiting for them to finish beating on Joe would really and truly be showing “love” to the wrong party. Sometimes you have to make a choice. Sometimes you have to stand for something. And, in so doing, by default, you must therefore stand against something else (the wrongdoers). But, even today, our churches fail to stand on many issues because they don’t want to appear that they are standing against the holders of opposite viewpoints regarding those issues. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t stand for something without standing against the opposite side. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan, if he had happened upon the assault in progress, would have had to make a choice to whom to “show love”. Or, he would have to really show love to neither party. He would either have to enter the foray on one side or the other, whichever he deemed right or wrong, or he would have to withhold help to either party; or, I guess, theoretically, there is a third option that doesn’t make much sense, but he could have helped the assailants for a while, then he could have helped the victim for a while, out of fairness, showing “love” to them both. Hmm. The third option doesn’t say much for the Good Samaritan, does it? Sometimes, people, you just have to stand for what is the obvious right thing to do.

Wise Words

Yesterday evening, my wife and I went to the local funeral home to see a classmate and friend of mine whose dad had passed away. His dad had coached me in baseball when I was young, and I had known him well. We wanted to express our condolences and tell the family that we were thinking about them during this difficult time and that they were in our prayers. I never expected to walk away with some great words of wisdom, but I did.

What were these wise words? My friend merely stated that he had pretty much spent the last three weeks, 24/7, with his dad who knew that his time here was coming to a close. This friend said, “It was good. And I really enjoyed it. It was a great time.” We could see on his face that he meant every word.

We understood what he was talking about. A little over five years ago, my wife’s parents had taken a road trip to visit some family who lived not far from Yellowstone. One day we got a strange, uncharacteristic phone call from her dad. He said, “I sure wish ya’ll were here. I’m seeing some of the scenery, and I wish we could all enjoy it together. Is there any way ya’ll could come up?” We discussed it, and within two days, we were on the road for the 27-hour-drive from Texas. Only a few days after arrival, we all planned an outing to Yellowstone. Unbeknownst to us, my wife’s dad would have a heart attack that day, in the national park, miles from a hospital. When we called 9-11, they stated that no helicopter was available, and the nearest ambulance was two hours away. We stated that we could be at a hospital by then. So, we loaded him into the truck and drove to the nearest hospital. He was awfully grey in color, and he didn’t think he was going to make it. After an extended stay in the hospital, he wasn’t able to fly back to Texas, and he wouldn’t be up for the drive until he recovered some of his strength. That took two months. In those two months, we were pretty much in that same 24/7 situation that my friend had described. To this day, my wife cherishes that time spent and the memories from that time. Thankfully, her father recovered and is still here today. But we didn’t know, and either way, she is glad we stayed and took the time.

In the end, it’s people who matter—people, whether family or not. It’s not material things. It’s not that paper stuff we call currency. It’s not the numbers on a screen that say you have a healthy bank account. It’s just plain old people. Take time out of your life for others. And don’t look at it like it’s a sacrifice. Don’t be wishing you were somewhere else. View it as a meaningful investment. There is no substitute for the time spent with loved ones and even strangers. Such strangers could even possibly become loved ones and dear friends. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Jesus knew what He was talking about when He said, “Love God, and love others (as you love yourself). This is the whole of the commandment.” Truly, everything else will fall in line if these are the top priorities in a family, community, and society at large.

What about the petty grievances and differences that so divide society and families? They all fall to the wayside if it’s the person who matters.

When I say “Uncle”

Many and long are the tales we could spin about an old uncle of mine (a great uncle, actually). His life did have certain elements that excited the imagination and made one cringe, like being from Bowlegs, Oklahoma, for one. Second, he was named for his mother’s former lover, not the current husband who fathered him—like I said….

His first wife was actually the one I was kin to. She was my blood great aunt. She was rough, bordering on mean, a chronic cheat (yes, I mean an adulteress), cursed worse than her husband, and was addicted to gambling and prescription drugs. Her dark, soulless eyes would bore right through you, and her wrinkled lips would curl up while she asked, “Sugar, do you want a piece of pie?” in that heavy smoker’s voice. (I can talk about my aunt that way, but you can’t.) She could make an awesome pecan pie though.

For many years, they worked together in Alaska hauling oil field equipment. He drove the truck, and she drove the pilot vehicle. Both were tough and would have rivaled the cast of any modern day reality show. After a half century of marriage (you can imagine the dish throwing sessions), they called it quits by filing for divorce. Broke, but able to retain the family homestead, old Uncle sank into self pity. My aunt admitted herself to a retirement home and lived out her days in the care of her daughter.

Old Uncle wasn’t beat yet. In the back of his mind, he recalled a sweet young thing who had been his eighth grade sweetheart. Not sure what his motives were, but he called her up. She was recently widowed and rather loaded. She was the antithesis of my old aunt. This sweet woman was a former social worker, Sunday School teacher, and of the inner circle of the lady’s clubs of genteel society. He told her all his woes. In bleeding heart fashion, she glided down from Oklahoma with the intent of rescuing him from his penniless fate, and taking him back to Oklahoma to live out his days in relative ease. Only, she didn’t count on crafty old Uncle. He wooed her, showed her the ranch and prevailed upon her heart to ditch suburban life and become a ranch wife (or rather benefactor who would save the ranch, with the grand title of “wife” besides).

After the divorce from my aunt and subsequent remarriage to his Oklahoma sweetheart, it never occurred to me not to retain him as Uncle. After all, I had known him my whole life, and it never dawned on me that we weren’t really kin. So, we happily partook in his remarriage plans. At the celebration, he demanded that his mules, Mabel and Sam, be saddled. He and his bride were going to ride across the pasture. Mabel was an ornery old mare, and Sam was a gentle gelding. At ages seventy-eight and eighty, the newlyweds mounted their steeds.

Mabel was outraged. She stampeded with the new bride astride her bony back, while Sam just stood in bewilderment and refused to go anywhere. Assuredly, he was wondering why he had been re-enlisted after six years of retirement. The new bride suffered a broken hip and a rather battered face. They spent their honeymoon in the hospital. Her grown children looked at us with accusatory faces, as if we could have stopped Uncle from his determined attempt to relive his glory days and to demonstrate his former rodeo skills.

Undeterred, the plucky new bride (after months of recovery) found a solution to the deflated pride of her groom who still wanted to be able to ride in style once again. Instead of riding mules, they would buy a draft horse and wagon. Together, they would ride over the 500 acre ranch, checking on the cattle, goats, geese, ducks, and llamas. Yes, they did.

It worked for a while, then the newness wore off, and they didn’t use the horse for months at a time. After about six months of being left alone in a pasture, the draft horse was roped and hooked up to the wagon. At first, he responded, but then, he seemed to have had enough of the nonsense. He shook his head and seemed to have a bright idea: if he refused to acknowledge the tug on the reigns, what exactly were they going to do about it? He picked up more and more speed. As the giant horse hurtled toward the open gate, all seemed lost. Uncle and bride were holding on for dear life when they were suddenly arrested by a friendly neighbor who had witnessed the debacle. Not long after that, the draft horse and the wagon went up for sale.

The influx of income from Oklahoma got the ranch rolling once again. Soon, Uncle was back in good form. And, in truth, they were very happy, and everyone could see it (he hadn’t just married her for her money). We welcomed them with open arms. They often visited our home and decided that they would start attending the small community church where we were members. Their time in our community rendered to many members their own tales of Uncle. He is rather notorious in these parts.

One day he called us and said that he needed to move his cattle from one pasture to another, but his hired hands were on family emergency leave, and would we come help him? Of course we would. When we arrived, my dad was also there. We hadn’t known he was coming. We were slightly confused because he was in a cast and on crutches. How was he going to help move cattle? “He can drive the truck,” Uncle said. He gave some rather blanket and generic instructions, then we all headed to the vehicles. I espied the tires on his cattle trailer and said, “These won’t hold up. How long since this thing has been moved?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” I was told. “It’ll hold up. That trailer has been around longer than you have.” That’s what I was worried about. It hadn’t been moved in years, and I suspected that the tires had sun rot.

On the way to the pasture where the cattle were, we blew out two tires on the trailer. Uncle said, “Don’t worry. There are six tires. We still have four. We’re good.”

“Where are these cattle?” I asked when I began to realize that we were leaving Uncle’s property and were headed across into a neighbor’s pasture.

“They are over here. I was helping my neighbor with his grazing. He had too much grass.” I swallowed hard. I just hoped that this neighbor was out of town. “And, these ARE your cattle?” I asked, afraid of the answer. I got the look that said, “I should slap you, but I won’t.”

“Of course, they are my cattle, but they are in the neighbor’s pasture.” The story finally came out. Uncle had been “helping” his neighbor graze down the pasture while the neighbor had been gone for nearly a year, blissfully unaware; and, now that the neighbor was returning (he had courteously informed Uncle of his return), it was time to move the cattle.

What ensued was a momentous occasion permanently imprinted in my brain. Uncle dropped off dad by an open gate and told him not to allow the cattle to go through that gate. I hesitated and said, “I thought dad was driving the truck?”

“Naw. I’ll drive. He is better used here.” Dad hobbles to the gate and stands guard. I began to wonder about the second gate that stood open, about fifty yards from the first gate.

“What about that gate?” I asked.

“The cattle know not to go through that gate. They never go through that gate. It’ll be alright. I’ll park the trailer here. You go on up the hill and drive the cattle down here. They’ll load right up.” I had my doubts. How long since he had worked these cattle? Did they even remember what a human being looked like?

I begin my trek on foot up the hill some half mile away. The cattle see me coming and don’t like it. I make it around and behind the cattle and begin my drive, slowly raising my arms and bellowing at the cattle, but not too wildly, so they don’t spook, but just so they are motivated to get up and move down the hill. I think all is going well and continue my walk. I crest the hill and look down toward the trailer. Uncle is waving his arms wildly and screaming at dad, “The other gate! The other gate! Don’t let them go through that other gate!” Dad responds by grabbing his crutches and hobbling as fast as he can over cacti and rocks to close the gap between him and the other gate. Too late. In their haste, the cattle didn’t remember that they weren’t supposed to go through that gate. Four hours later, they were finally loaded onto the trailer and deposited back on Uncle’s property.

By this time, I was so thirsty, I thought I could drink anything. After seeing his water jug, that he so generously offered me, my thirst was quenched without even taking a drop. The tobacco juice all over the spout quenched my thirst better than a cold Gatorade.

The trip back home was agonizingly slow, like 10 mph, because we only had four tires and two rims by now. But, the good news was that dad was no worse for the wear, although, one of his crutches did fall prey to the stampeding hooves of an angry heifer.

It was about ninety-eight degrees outside by that time and we were exhausted and not in very good humor. The lunch hour had long ago come and gone; nonetheless, Uncle invites us in for a very late lunch. Laying out on the bar are hotdogs, mayonnaise and various other lunch items. I look at them in dismay. They were the same items I had seen laying out on the bar early that morning, and I began to suspect that they had been there yesterday, too. Uncle grabs one (without washing his hands) and asks if I am hungry. “Not very,” I manage. I realized that today I was going to fast.

It wasn’t long after this, that one day while at church, Uncle grabs me by the neck and pulls me down so he can whisper in my ear (very loudly, which everyone heard), “I think someone is trying to poison me.” My eyebrows shot up. I pulled away and looked at him questioningly. “I keep getting sick. I think someone is doing something to my food.” I decided it was time to go to Uncle’s house and clean out his refrigerator. After that, there were no more episodes of someone trying to kill him.

One day, his wife called and said that their dog, Jody, a very large Pyrenees sheepherding dog, had puppies in the garage. I smiled and said, “That’s great.” She said yes, it was wonderful, and could I help her find homes for them all. I said I would be happy to. The next weekend, I drove out their way to see the puppies and to do some odds and ends for them around the place. I saw the puppies and was slightly perplexed. I had presumed that the father would also have been a Pyrenees, or something of similar breed/stature. The puppies were quite small and spotted. I asked, “What kind of dog was Jody bred to?”

“Oh, she wasn’t supposed to do that,” I was told. “It was the neighbor’s bird dog/rat terrier cross.” Oh boy, I thought. How was I going to advertise homes for that? I thought of a good line: “Wanted–good homes for sheepherding bird dogs that chase rats.”

Jody was their outside dog. They had five little inside dogs (poodles and Pomeranians). Jody stayed on the place (unless visiting the neighbor), but the little dogs went everywhere that Uncle went—including church and, of course, our house. These little dogs were my nemeses. I hated them. One day while at church, Uncle left the truck running so the dogs could have air conditioning. During the Invitation, we suddenly heard a yowling and gurgling of intense proportions. Some of us rushed outside to see what murder was taking place. One of the little dogs had mashed the window button and rolled himself up and was choking. Unfortunately, he survived. Uncle was so relieved that his favorite poodle hadn’t killed itself, that he swaggered back into the church and sat down in what he thought was his seat…right on top of my brand new cowboy hat. Squished it flatter than flat. The preacher, bless his longsuffering soul, finally finished that Invitation.

It was pretty typical to have an unannounced visit by Uncle about once a week. The little dogs always accompanied these occasions. They would rush out of the truck and toward the house. If we happened to be enjoying the weather and had the doors open, they would not wait for us to open the screen doors. They would simply create little doggy doors. Once inside, they would initiate new turf, including table legs, the corners of the bar, etc. We would chase after them with a spray bottle of Lysol and a rag. We fixed the screen doors many times. One day, we had simply had enough, and we asked Uncle not to allow his little dogs out of the truck when they came to visit. This suggestion hurt his feelings so badly, that he didn’t come see us for months.

On their fourth anniversary of wedded bliss, he called us. They were coming back from Oklahoma where they had been to celebrate, and they wanted to stop in. We said, “Of course.” We had supper waiting and prepared for a visit. When they arrived, they were pulling a small trailer loaded with containers of food—most of which had lost their lids, somewhere between here and Oklahoma. Most notably was a large pot of beans and some kind of green jello, pudding. They eagerly unloaded their goods and brought their offerings into the house, proclaiming that they had brought supper. Seeing as the temperatures were hovering in the high nineties, and the food had been unrefrigerated and uncovered for who knows how long, we were very sincere in asking of the Lord’s blessing over the food as they ladled large portions onto our plates. We graciously declined the more risky dishes, such as the cole slaw, potato salad, deviled eggs and anything containing chicken.

After supper, Uncle excused himself and went out onto the porch. I had a slight red flag raise in my mind, because Uncle didn’t smoke, but I thought that perhaps he just needed to stretch his legs after his long drive and might be enjoying the evening view. After a few minutes, we heard a heart wrenching, “Awwwkkk!” and then an ominous thud. I had a sinking feeling. Outside, we found Uncle on the ground entangled in a yellow rose bush that had been growing beside the porch. His pants were unzipped, and a body part, bleeding profusely, was protruding from his britches. He had been peeing off the porch onto the yellow rose bush when he lost his balance. He was moaning and thrashing about. We grabbed towels and got the bleeding stopped (he was on blood thinners, so it was no easy task). We got him upright and bandaged up. The death of the rose bush ensued, because he had crushed it. But, this event did inspire me to put up rails on the porch, even though the porch was barely six inches off the ground.

As I mentioned, Uncle was on blood thinners. He had already suffered a few heart attacks. We were cognizant of the fact that at any moment, he could “go”, as we like to say. I had been concerned about his eternal reward for some time. He just seemed to live a bit on the edge, in my opinion. One day, while he was visiting our home, I asked him if he “knew our Lord” and/or was “ready” for when that time would come. He was duly offended and shouted, “Of course, I know the Lord. How do you think it would feel if someone questioned YOUR Christianity!?” I shook my head and said, “Well, I think I’d be honored that they cared enough about me to question it.” He blustered, “Well, I’m not honored, you little #$%^@#.” He dusted off his hat and left in a huff. It was some time before we saw him again after that.

When he came back around and forgave us for our audacity, we began to suspect that he was getting unsafe behind the wheel. His brand new, pristine, double cab F-250 looked like it had been in a demolition derby. We asked him what had happened. He said, “Every time I go to Walmart or the grocery store, somebody hits me. I come out and see more dents.” The fact that at church, nobody parked within thirty yards of him (or even his parking spot, if he wasn’t there yet), was somewhat of an indication of what was going on.

His driving would have to be addressed soon. One day he pulled up to the gate at the ranch. His wife got out to open the gate. The truck rolled forward and hit her, knocking her down. Thankfully, it didn’t run over her. He was so upset about it, that he refused to let her open the gate after that. He insisted on doing it himself. One day, he thought he put the truck in park and got out to open the gate himself. The truck rolled forward and did, actually, run right over him. He was once again rescued by the same neighbor who had stopped the runaway wagon ride. But, to add to his wounded pride at running over himself, Uncle suffered a torn off left ear and tire marks across his chest and shoulder. He survived but was hospitalized in a trauma unit about one hundred miles from where he lived.

Everything was about 100 miles from where he lived on his ranch in rural central Texas. On these occasions of medical emergencies, it was not just a hop and a skip to the nearest hospital. It took planning to accommodate such episodes, so we often offered to take his wife to see him at regular intervals. During this time, we realized that her mental capacities had progressed to the point that she needed supervision, so we did not leave her at the hospital when we took her to visit her husband, but stayed for several days with her in hotel rooms, until she was ready to go home again. It came to the point, however, that we needed to notify her children of her condition. They had careers and children and grandchildren of their own and needed some time to arrange their schedules before they could come and take care of her, so, at one point, our constant care of her extended to a two-week interval. During this time, she would have various mental breakdowns (I think because of the stress of her husband’s condition), and she would become impatient with us for not letting her walk-about at will or for not letting her take her car and go shopping by herself. One day, she called her daughter and said that we had kidnapped her and stolen her car and wouldn’t give it back. We were honored, to say the least, to have been implicated in such an outlaw plot. After that, the daughter arrived and kindly took over her mother’s care until Uncle recovered.

Months after that, Uncle resumed his residence at the ranch. But, those heart attacks did continue. After another heart episode that occurred at church, after we picked him up off the floor (he was a rather large individual), he said, “There is no need to call the ambulance this time. Just take me home.” Prior to this, he had been transported twice from the church to the hospital for heart related issues. We said, “No, we’d better get you to the emergency room.” We transported him by private vehicle. He was well acquainted with the medical personnel by this point and couldn’t resist poking at the nurses and female paramedics.

After a few days, he was declared fit enough to leave the hospital. We, along with several family members, were at the hospital to see him and hopefully drive him home. Against the doctor’s advice, Uncle was intent on driving himself home (the doctor had just finished privately instructing us not to let either Uncle or his wife drive home). Uncle suspected that we were plotting against him driving himself and bellowed that he had driven a truck for fifty years, and he was still good behind the wheel. The doctor just shook his head. Uncle was rolled out in his wheelchair, and several folk gathered around to pat him and speak with him. Someone in the family asked how he was. He answered, “I’m fit as a fiddle! Ha! A little old heart attack isn’t going to do me in! You’ll see. I’m going to live a lot longer than this!” He hiccupped and swallowed, then hiccupped again. Then, his face turned a different shade, and we all realized that we were looking at a dead man. He had died right there, in his chair, telling us how long he was going to live.


The Log and the Splinter

When I see on the news or hear people within my circle lamenting incidents of Islamaphobia, I have to scratch my head. There is a principle that Jesus taught, and it does well to keep society balanced. The principle is, “First remove the log from your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from someone else’s eye.” You can see the humor in the statement. Someone running around with a huge log stuck in their head knit-picking about someone else with a tiny splinter in their face has a problem with denial and reality.

I am aware that many Middle Eastern people are not Muslim. Large populations of Arabic peoples are of varied religions or no religion at all. Some are Christian, of varying sects; some are Hindu, Buddhist, or follow regional and tribal religions; some are secularists, espousing no religion; but most are Muslim of varying degrees. Some Muslims are in name only; others are radical fanatics, and so on. It is the same in Christianity. Some sects are Christian in name only. Some are obviously fanatical, such as the KKK, for example, who espouse some elements of Christianity while in truth practicing a rather warped, garbled, and ungodly doctrine, cloaked, ostensibly, in Christianity.

For the most part, the era of the KKK reigning terror on society is gone. Many good and authentic Christian people helped bring about an end to that era. Simply not participating in the actions of the KKK was not enough. True Christianity demanded that we as a people stand against it and help bring it to an end. The same was true of Hitler’s regime. He claimed to be operating out of some form of Christianity; however, regardless of what he claimed, he obviously did not follow the teachings of Christ. Many true Christian young men died on the battlefields to help bring an end to Hitler’s reign of terror.

Now, the terrorism that we face is the radical elements of Islam. So when episodes of terrorism occur in which certain elements of Islam are on display in all of their murderous, horrendous gory, and certain elements of that culture are lamented as being biased against, I have to swallow pretty hard.

In a culture where deception, lying, and propaganda are used as means of presenting a front to the public in the hopes of gaining converts (the truth of that culture and religion would make people run); in a culture where “honor killings” are permitted and endorsed; in a culture where beheadings, mutilations and terror are condoned, used as weapons of war, and are often considered as ‘bonus packages’ in recruiting warriors; in a culture where  unnamed horrors are inflicted upon captives, enemies, and non-combatants, ummm….let’s see….where terror and mayhem get you into “heaven”, hhmmm…Can someone steeped in this culture have a legitimate gripe? I don’t think so. Their complaining of not being liked and accepted is tantamount to someone who kidnaps and dismembers children and then complains about the neighbor who spanks his/her child.

That’s not so say that we as a country do not have areas that need improvement. We certainly do have a few splinters in our face; but Islamaphobia is not one of them.

This brings me to the word “religion”. What is religion? It is a construct made by human minds that has taken bits and pieces of the Truth (the Great I AM, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and the One True God) and built an ideology that appeases the particular culture where that construct has been built. In other words, the Great God Jehovah, who came in the Person of Jesus Christ, is beyond human ability to understand. However, He has revealed Himself to us in various ways, including through His Holy Spirit, the Bible, and through the lives, writings, and words of those who are faithful to Him (the word of their testimony).

Because He is so big, and beyond human comprehension, humans often create what we think we know of Him and construct a framework that says, “Okay, this is the God we serve. He wants us to do this and this, etc. and to act in certain ways.” This framework is what we call religion, and those who agree with that framework follow the same religion. Unfortunately, throughout history, religious zeal and fanaticism has often forced a particular framework of religion (ideology) onto others, using the sword, shame, imprisonment, ostracization, etc. In effect, in trying to please God by following what they think they know of Him, zealots and fanatics go around terrorizing those who don’t follow Him correctly, in their opinion, and end up doing the opposite of what He is…killing, maiming, terrorizing in His name…to force people to follow a benevolent and merciful God…hmmm. I see a problem with this.

Any religion that through “honor killings”, “blood atonement”, or any such practice that purges their society of people who challenge the tenants of that religion cannot be a religion based upon the One True God. An honor killing is the legal or condoned murder of a woman in Islam because the woman shamed or dishonored the family or a member of the family by violating a precept of the family’s religious practices. Honor killings are usually carried out by the woman’s husband, father, brothers, sons, and other male relatives. Honor killings are typically justified because the woman has refused to enter an arranged marriage, she has been accused of being in a relationship that is not condoned or approved of by the family, she is accused of having sex outside of marriage, she has been a victim of rape, she has been accused of dressing inappropriately, or she has renounced her family’s faith (i.e. become a Christian, etc.). Some victims of honor killings are male, but this is a rare occurrence. In most cases, a male who has violated a precept of the religious community is ostracized or perhaps imprisoned, or his wife and children are taken from him and given to someone else who is a faithful follower of the religion.

In early Mormonism, “blood atonement” was a similar practice. It teaches that the blood of Jesus is not enough to remove someone’s guilt, and so that person who has violated a precept of the religious law must be killed, and his/her blood shed in a manner similar to a lamb being slaughtered. Most of the time, these killings were done in a “sacrificial” manner, such as the person being held down, and his/her throat slit. Often, the victims were women who refused to practice “plural marriage” (polygamy) or were men who refused to participate in various tenants of the religion. In modern days, blood atonement killings are rarely carried out and typically occur only in certain sects of fundamental (radical) Mormonism. I personally know a family who was a victim of such. But, in this case, the family members were shot and killed, not having their throats cut. They were guilty of leaving the religion and were required to “pay for their sin.” They had actually not committed any kind of a crime that would require that they receive the death penalty. In Christianity, the reason someone would receive a sentence of death is just the opposite. The “death penalty” is practiced only when the guilty party has committed an actual crime against someone. Usually the death penalty is reserved only for murder. In Christianity, the perpetrators of honor killings and blood atonement killings would be the ones to receive the death penalty—not the victims of such plots.

Culture(s) in which ungodly religious constructs are nurtured can become more and more horrific and off-based, resulting in outright barbarism. The precepts of God are constant, but the human application of such precepts can become horribly bent. In such cases, true Christianity steps in and says, “Hold on. You are no longer allowed to force people to do such and such, neither are you allowed to punish people for not doing such and such.” An example for us in this country could be the issue of homosexuality. For those who espouse it, they are not allowed to force others to participate in it; neither are they allowed to persecute those who choose to abstain from such practices. We, as a culture, are not forced to do it, neither are we punished for not doing it. In cultures whose religious constructs have gone so far, those who do not participate in a certain behavior are punished.

As horrific and off-base as some of these religious systems can get, not all of the precepts of those religions are false. This is a fact that often perplexes people. Why are some tenets of various “other religions” similar to tenets of Christianity? The answer is simple: Because there is only One True God who made heaven and earth, you will find elements of His truth in all religions, and among all peoples in all regions of the earth. Elements of His Truth are even found in humanist and communist teachings (belief systems that espouse varying degrees of atheism). Why is that? Remember that religion is a human construct of what humans think they know about the One True God, but the construct is faulty because of two factors: human ambition and doctrines of demons.

Human factors run the gamut from accidental oversight to gross corruption with obvious and knowing violations of the Truth. Additionally, demonic influence can take the Truths of God and pervert them so shamefully as to accomplish the exact opposite of what God actually intended, thus creating major diversions from the Truth and still cloaking these diversions in religion. One of early Christianity’s main influences, the Apostle Paul, warned followers of Christ about doctrines of demons and the garbled mess they can make of truth (I Timothy 4), blinding people and seducing them to follow the untruths of “religious construct”, rather than the Truth of the Living God, the One and Only Creator God Who came in the Person of Jesus Christ. Only one religion is founded on the Rock—all other religions of the world have bits and pieces of gravel in it (pieces of the rock, but not the whole rock). A solid rock is vastly different than a bed of gravel. One is stable, one is shifty, depending on where the weight is applied.

Sadly, as “Christianity” becomes more of a religion, it also slides further and further from the Truth of its Founder, Jesus Christ. Christianity, wrested from the headship of Christ, and placed into the hands of humans, twisted with doctrines from hell, becomes more and more of a religious construct, with fewer elements of the pure Truth. In the beginning of the Church, believers in Christ were called Followers of the Way, because Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; however, once followers diverge from the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then “Christianity” just becomes another religion (a construct of bits and pieces of the truth).

Because of the corruption of truth, we have seen throughout history, and still see today, warring religious factions, so called “holy wars”, “jihad”, etc. This is because those who follow one construct of truth want to force everyone else to follow that same construct. In order to do so, they must conquer through war, brainwash through ideology, and bring into submission those who do not subscribe to that particular ideology.

But, there is hope. There is such a thing as pure religion. It is found in the Living person of Jesus Christ. It is found in the Great I Am. In this pure religion, there is Truth, there is a Way, and there is a Life where the Holy Spirit reveals, guides, cleanses, and inspires. This is an arena free of “human religious construct”, but few there be that find it. Why is finding this pure religion so difficult, and why do so many people not find it? The answer is again simple—to do so, they must give up the “religious construct” that they so cherish. They must give up man’s religion to follow Christ. Man’s religion promises so much, and it is hard to put down. Man’s religions promise “virgins”, “paradise”, even your own planet where, if you are male, you can become your own god and have as many wives as you desire. Man’s religion promises power, money, and authority, in the here and now. Man’s religion promises knowledge and immortality, etc. Notice how these fantasies often center around sex and power for males. These things are very seductive. But, they are just that…they are not Truth…they are tempting fruit that many swallow, and it is a delusion. But, because these seductions look so real, they are fought over, killed for, etc.

You can see that the promise of “paradise” is close to a Christian promise of a heavenly home. In the various religions that offer paradise outside of Christianity, the person who subjugates others and who works hard enough on this earth will eventually be his own ruler or god in paradise. In the Christian paradise, Jesus is ruler supreme, where, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord.” Additionally, men and women will not be in marital relations in heaven. So, there go the fantasies of sex and power in paradise. You see the difference?

Jesus understood that religious men tend to “strain at gnats and swallow camels”. This means that while they would themselves commit atrocious acts against their own family members, community, and other members of humanity, they would fuss and fume over a minor detail that someone else was not adhering to—this minor detail may or may not even be a real issue in God’s eyes, but it may be an issue in the eyes of a certain religion (human construct).

Another tenet of various religions that is close to Christianity is that “good works” get you into heaven. In Christianity, only a person who has allowed Christ to remove the sin and replace it with Himself gains heaven. After that conversion has occurred, then the person lives out his/her life not serving self, but serving Christ (good works). In religious constructs outside of Christianity, a person does not need a religious conversion in which he lays down his self and allows Christ to enter in and replace the sinful self with Him. In man’s religious constructs, only a self-realization that one should be good is necessary, and therefore, one must work hard to do “good works”. You see the difference? One is because of Christ and is done through Him. The other is because of self and done in your own strength.

Because Jesus is a living person, He is not an abstract construct of theologians or prophets who formulated a theory of a deity. Jesus is God who came in the flesh. Because He showed the falseness of the religious constructs made by man versus the Truth of pure religion, He was murdered by the very religious people whom He revealed as false. After He was killed, He was buried. After three days of being dead and buried, He rose out of His grave. His resurrected body ascended into heaven. Skepticism of such incredible statements in warranted and welcomed. I understand how this seems impossible. However, all of this was recorded by witnesses who saw these actual events. After his ascension (last week was Ascension Week and is celebrated in various countries around the world), He sent his Spirit to guide people here on earth in the absence of his physical body. His comforting Spirit is well known to his followers. The Holy Spirit guides, speaks, directs, and enlightens. Once you encounter the Holy Spirit, you will understand what I mean. It’s one of those things where you have to experience it to understand. Trying to tell someone who hasn’t is a bit impossible. But, the good thing is, it’s not an exclusive club. He is available to anyone who calls on His Name. He and all of the angels in Heaven rejoice when even one person lays down his/her religion and turns to Him in truth.

Selling The Gospel — Thoughts from a Country Road

When I was in my early twenties, I was offered an opportunity in a sales related company. After going through some of the preliminary steps toward employment, I realized it just wasn’t for me. I told my prospective employers, “Thanks for offering the opportunity, but no thanks on the acceptance.” My personality is toward realism […]

via Selling The Gospel — Thoughts from a Country Road

Selling The Gospel

When I was in my early twenties, I was offered an opportunity in a sales related company.  After going through some of the preliminary steps toward employment, I realized it just wasn’t for me. I told my prospective employers, “Thanks for offering the opportunity, but no thanks on the acceptance.”

My personality is toward realism and honesty–not very conducive traits for a sales career. To flourish in most sales careers, a person needs to put on the persona of being a best friend to the prospective client while simultaneously attempting to remove as much money as possible from that client, legally, of course.

The goal or game plan is to find common ground with the prospective client, get them to relax, persuade the client you are there to help them, influence their thoughts with your choice of vocabulary, etc. It is no longer a real relationship with that person. It becomes a performance orchestrated to obtain results.  It works if you have the personality makeup to play the role. That is why my 85-year-old grandmother bought a $1,500+ vacuum cleaner–a vacuum cleaner that was so heavy she could hardly move the thing. She used it only a couple of times before buying another $100 model just like she previously owned but  had traded to the very nice man who sold her the $1,500+ vacuum cleaner. He had even given her more on trade-in than she had given for it. He was such a nice man. No, he was a vacuum cleaner salesman playing up to an old lady who bought a vacuum cleaner she couldn’t even use. Personally, I don’t see where “nice” fits into this equation.

Often, many people in the sales field lose their realism in every-day life. They play to every person and situation the same as they would a potential client. I’m not saying all of them do this, but I am saying that many do this. There are people like this in my life and family, and I am thinking, “Why don’t you just be real? Quit trying to play me or sell me on something.” Their fakeness and insincerity is nauseating and very obvious, unbeknownst to them. They have played this game for so long, they have no idea how they come across, or even how to be genuine.

Where am I going with this, you may wonder. While talking with a friend recently, the topic turned to the fakeness and performance so sadly present in many of the pulpits and ministry today. We were discussing the fact that it was so obvious and nauseating. Then, it hit me. Somewhere along the way, we quit spreading the Gospel and went to selling the Gospel. In spreading the Gospel, we merely share the news. The power is in the Gospel, itself. In selling the Gospel, just like the vacuum cleaner salesman, it’s in our “smoozing” and presentation. We no longer trust in the power of the Gospel, but rather increasingly have to trust in our own ability to get the person to buy or believe the Gospel. This has its own irony, if you think about it. While saying to others that the Gospel is so powerful, the salesman does not trust its power, but must kick in his own methods to sell it.  And just like those salesmen of worldly goods, who lose touch with reality and are always in “sales mode”, many of those selling the Gospel have fallen into the same trap, which is really sad because many of the lost people aren’t seeking performances or presentations, but are seeking truth, sincerity and honesty, all which are present in the Gospel, unadorned with cheap human trinkets or sales gimmicks.

When we sell this modified Gospel, many of the people whom we get to buy into it, wind up just like my grandmother. They bought a product that is not beneficial to them and they cannot use it. They become disappointed in the product, when they should have been disappointed in the salesman. We need to get back to spreading the Gospel and quit trying to sell it.

Timing is everything. As we were finishing this article, the phone rang. It was a local number, but we didn’t recognize it. When my wife said, “Hello,” the voice on the other end said, “Hi! My name is…” the voice was sunshiny, but it was obviously a rehearsed sales pitch and even sounded computer generated. We hung up without a word. Ugh. Nauseating.