|The painting is "People Around a Table" and can be purchased from the artist here: http://www.oilpaintingsonline.com/oil-paintings-gallery/people-around-a-table/9761/1/|
The silent face-off lasted seven and half minutes. Sharon would have sworn it was thirty. She felt so uncomfortable with the deafening quiet that she went back to the kitchen. Arnie needed her help anyway. A Hemingway had just come in, taken a seat and ordered red-eye-gravy. That wasn’t on the menu but it didn’t matter. Arnie knew how to make a fine red-eye-gravy but needed a little help with the side dish of country ham. Fortunately Sharon’s family was from the south . . . Jonesboro, Arkansas to be exact . . . and she was intimately familiar with southern cooking.
The customer’s accent made it clear that he was from the south too. Sharon tried very hard to never allow a single customer get away without finding out more about them. She already knew that this man was a Hemingway by the clothes he wore, new, un-faded jeans with rolled-up cuffs, a dark green raincoat and beige, canvas hat. But the fact—and for some odd reason—he brought into the restaurant with him his little fly-fishing, creel basket, sealed the suspicion. The basket was strapped across his shoulder and he took it off and put it under his table. The Two Hearted River was a good hour away and he couldn’t have driven his SUV while wearing the basket the whole way. Later, through her tangential interrogation she was able to find out that man was a corporate trade mark attorney from Atlanta . . . but that’s all. Her mind was really on the posse, now five of them, on the other side of the room.
She knew that the “creator conversations” had ensued and she couldn’t wait to get back to the long table by the window to see what was happening. From a distance the men seemed to have serious looks . . . all but Father Randy, who always donned a smile.
“Need more coffee?” she asked the pilgrims with a grin.
“No thanks,” responded “the Rev,” the nickname she used with David Smith. He had a deep furrowed brow and sat with his chin resting on his fists.
Father Randy looked up and smiled, “I’ll take a warm up.”
Sharon moved around the table to her right and poured very slowly because she was desperate to hear more and when she had approached them with the coffee pot the flames of lively conversation had suddenly gone out.
The Father spoke first as she handed the cup back to him. “You see Mr. Hans, this is the very reason that we set the moratorium two years ago not to discuss theological issues. Those tend to cause divisions!”
David looked at Sharon, who hadn’t noticed but had swiftly drifted off into a trance holding the pot in her hands, “That’s all we need Mrs. Saunders. Thank you.”
She knew that what David was really saying was “Get lost.” There were subtle reasons that she didn’t like the man and this tone seemed to sustain some of those.
Forty-five minutes earlier, Father Randy had negotiated a resolution to their initial standoff. “Men why don’t we do this. Mr. Hans if you allow David or whoever wants to, ask you one simple question then you can ask us one simple question. Why don’t we see where that goes?”
All the men seemed to agree . . . Mr. Hans most of all. David had some hesitation. But since no one opposed the plan, Father Randy continued.
To help with David’s marginal disapproval the priest turned to him, “Okay David, why don’t you shoot first. Ask Mr. Hans one simple question.”
David cleared his throat. “Sure.” He paused to gather his thoughts, “Okay . . . Mr. Hans . . . where are you from? Simply, let’s start with your country of origins? Are you an American and if not where are you from?”
Mr. Hans smiled big and then took a more serious look. “No, I’m not an American. My country of origins, well . . . the translation into English would be Hanseria.”
The whole group looked perplexed. Pastor Mike cocked his head sideways and mumbled, “Hanseria . . . never heard of it.”
David remarked, “Okay, so if you can’t give straight answers, why should we?”
Tom sighed, “I was afraid this would happen. I am telling you the honest truth and I am giving you a straight answer. You will have to trust me on this for now.”
The priest asked, “Can you tell us a bit more. Where is Hanseria? It must go by a different name.”
Tom answered, “No.”
Everyone sat in silence waiting for the stranger to say more . . . but he didn’t.
Michael asked, “No what?”
“No I can’t tell you where it is right now and no it doesn’t go by a different name. Now, I think it is my turn to ask a question.”
No one seemed to notice that Greg was looking down into his lap this whole time. He was pushing buttons on his I Phone with his thumbs. He looked up, “Nothing close out there. There is of course Lanseria Airport near Johannesburg. Are you from South Africa?”
Tom answered, “No I’m not. Now may we continue? It is after eleven and I’m afraid I’m going to wear out my welcome and I haven’t had the chance to ask one question yet.”
The priest shook his head to the affirmative, “Proceed but the question must be simple. That’s the rule.”
“It is.” Tom then sat up in his chair and leaned over the table and looked at each man, “Are all of you Christians?”
There was a faint breath coming from David, but the rest of the men around the table sat in silence.
Greg spoke first, “That shouldn’t be complicated. Yes, we are all of the Christian faith.”
Father Randy was shaking his head in a faint nod while Michael was like a statue and David was shaking his head in the negative and with a frown. The father then tried to further define the answer, “Yes Tom we are all of the Christian faith but we do represent different parts of the body of Christ. You are familiar with the parable of the elephant and the blind me aren’t you?”
Tom shook his head and said softly, “Yeah.”
“That’s the same here. The good Rev. Landis here sees the body of Christ as a trunk, myself as a leg and these two other gentlemen have different traditions, which are all equally respectable.”
Michael was silent. You could see the wheels churning behind his eyes . . . but he didn’t speak. He was in the proverbial Catch 22. He had certainly preached from the pulpit that Catholics weren’t saved yet he felt a spiritual connection to the father and if he even suggested that he wasn’t a true believer at this moment, his dear friendship with the man would be forever changed.
Yet, David was not so cautious. “I beg to differ. In my tradition, we are more absolute and see the Word of God as our basis for belief. Therefore, what doesn’t match up to the Word of God . . . well . . . then it isn’t true.”
Greg seemed taken back . . . and had a tone of anger in his voice, “So David, tell us what you really mean. Are you saying that I’m not a Christian because I have a different take on the Bible? What about the good father here, is he a heathen in your book? Hey, what about you buddy Michael? He doesn’t subscribe to your denomination so maybe he’s a heathen too. Maybe everyone in the world is a heathen but you!”
David squinted, “Greg, such a tone is uncalled for.”
Michael thought that he had better play the peacemaker so he searched for way. The thought quickly ran though his head that things were so good in this group and now it is all being ruined by this stranger, a stranger they may never see again after this day. Was it really worth it? “No one knows what is in the other person’s heart. We can assume that we all know Jesus and are true Christians, but only God knows our hearts. So, as far as I know, and to answer your question, yes we are all Christians.”
While this seemed to create some peace on Michael’s right, meaning with Father Randy and Rev. Landis, David, on his left, was feeling a bit betrayed. For the first time in several minutes Michael noticed that the stranger as sitting back in his chair and was taking notes on a yellow legal pad at a furious pace.
About the same time David was thinking of the stranger too. His feeling about him was one of strong conviction. Here was a man who was probably not a Christian, whom God had brought to him to ask him about Christ. On top of that, who knows what he is jotting down and what happened around that table on that morning may have consequences for a whole host of people. But David had no clue as to how many would eventually be influence by this discussion. He had to speak clearly and with conviction.
“Mr. Landis, your question is simple and the answer should be simple. In my church and tradition, we only believe what the Bible says and the Bible says that anyone who trusts Christ is a Christian. Therefore if these men trust Christ, then they are Christians. If they don’t trust Christ, they are not.”
Mr. Landis sat up. He knew that he was only allowed one question that morning and the question had not fully run its full course yet. He, in his great cleverness, was remaining quiet so that he could reap the greatest fruit from that tiny seed. But if conversation ever came to a cul-de-sac he was poised to try and milk it a bit just to get it rolling again.
After about a minute of stares, the time for the verbal nudge had come. Tom cleared his throat and looked very serious. Then he reached under his chair and pulled out of his briefcase a big, black, floppy book. When he laid it on the table, it was clear it was a Bible. There must have been forty or fifty bookmarks made of strips of various papers. Paper straw covers seemed to make up the most. Tom flipped the book open, looked closely at the page and then read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Tom looked up from the book and at the men, “Now I’ve heard from my sources that these words are describing what it means to be a Christian. Is that correct?”
Michael immediately answered, “Sure.”
“So, if I understand right, all of you believeth in him so therefore we are confident that all of you will have the everlasting life?”
David contemplated his response and he started speaking before even he was sure he was saying the right thing. “It isn’t so simple. The Bible says elsewhere many more things about what it means to be a Christian. So you have to take the Bible in whole context.”
Tom looked very confused. He reached back into his briefcase and pulled out a plastic 1 foot ruler and a shiny, aluminum X-acto knife. He placed the ruler under the page and quickly, and methodically cut out the section he had just read. He rolled up the sliver of cut paper and dropped it on the floor.
David seemed upset. “What are you doing?!”
“It is vital that we know the truth and that writing seems to be confusing. We thought it made the essence simple, but you said that it was more complicated than that. So, I want to remove all the misleading parts.”
Greg responded, “Mr. Hans, I’m not sure of the point you are trying to make, but all of us men believe in that verse you just read. We just see it differently. My tradition has a very broad understanding of the Gospel. So we would read that verse as saying, anyone who believes in God, however that god may look to them, is saved and will have eternal life. So the vast majority of humanity are Christians in our sight and certainly everyone around this table, including David . . . then he chuckled.”
David spoke emphatically, “But you see, this is how we are different. In my Church we believe in the whole Bible and the Bible tells us in Matthew seven that the gate is narrow and few will find it, leading to eternal life. So we don’t believe in this universalism as Mr. Landis and his church promotes.”
Greg simply said, “Rev.”
David looked perplexed, “Rev what?”
Greg, “You called me mister, I’m a man of the cloth like you.” David didn’t respond.
Father Randy spoke up, placing his hands in the air like he was giving a blessing, “Gentlemen, gentlemen. Okay it is almost noon and I think we should wrap this up. We have each asked a simple question and I think we have taken this as far as time and peace will allow us.”
About this time Sharon walked up with the round coffee pot, coming from the direction of the man in the green raincoat. After she filled their cups he father said, “You see Mr. Hans, this is the very reason that we set the moratorium two years ago not to discuss theological issues. Those tend to cause divisions!”
Sharon walked away. Michael, the mostly silent one spoke up, “So, Mr. Hans, I hope that this has been helpful, although we didn’t get very far. Are you going to be in town much longer?”
The stranger was folding up his Bible and putting it back in the briefcase under his chair. “I hope to be here for quite a while. I have many more questions to ask and I hope you will continue to welcome me.”
The men were all surprised. They were thinking this was a one-time meeting. Father Randy stood up and stretched. “So you want to come back?”
“Men?” He said with an inflection in his voice and raised eyebrows that made it clear it was a question.
David spoke, “Well, we have spent the entire morning laying our cards on the table and we know nothing about you Mr. Hans. I’m not sure what your point is in all of this. I’m not sure if we want to continue this discussion.”
Tom smiled and he too stood up. “I certainly understand your reservation. However, in all fairness, if you allow me to come back next week, I will fully disclose my purpose in all the detail you that your heart desires.”
David shrugged his shoulders, “Well, I would like to hear your story, so if that’s the reason you’re coming back then, as far as I’m concerned, you are welcome.”