Ban Preacher Greed!

Paul Visits a Modern Church
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Suppose the apostle Paul were to show up at the typical American church to check up on its fidelity to true Biblical doctrine.  What would be his assessment of the mess going on today in Jesus’ Name?

 

* * * * *

 

Paul shook his head to clear it.  The journey across two thousand years had been a bumpy ride, but here he was, sitting on the manicured green lawn of Golden Grace Cathedral.  Unsteadily Paul rose to his feet, clutching a few scrolls he’d brought along. 

 

What were those big bugs buzzing down the wide boulevard?  People were sitting inside those metallic monsters, but appeared unhurt.  They must be horseless chariots!  How strangely dressed were all the people Paul could see! He felt like scolding two teenage girls who slowed down to stare at him. Both wore droopy jeans with skimpy tops which showed off look-alike snake tattoos on their upper arms.

 

“Give him a quarter, Zoe,” said Gina, the tall blond one.  “He looks awful hungry.  Must be a wino from the park.”

 

Zoe smiled condescendingly at Paul.  She handed him two dollars  and said, “Here you go, mister. Don’t blow it on booze.”

 

Paul couldn’t understand her.  He averted his eyes from her halter top and said “Thank you” in Greek, which of course, Gina couldn’t understand.  But Zoe could.

 

“Awesome!” Zoe breathed.  “He’s talking Greek, Gina, just like my mom and dad do at home.  Do you savvy English, mister?”

 

Paul said something back in Greek.  Zoe asked him, in so-so Greek, if he was from Greece, and how he managed to land in Victory Valley, California.

 

Paul told her he’d been sent all the way from Galatia to check on the progress of faraway churches.  And, he wanted to know, what was that huge building he was standing in front of?

 

“Why, can’t you read?” Zoe said.  “It says right here on this big sign: Golden Grace Cathedral.  Man, it’s the richest church in Victory Valley.”

 

Paul frowned.  “A church?  God’s church is God’s people, Zoe.  Are you and Gina believers?  I’d tend to doubt it, judging from  the way you’re dressed.”

 

Zoe laughed and told Gina what he’d said.  “Believers?  In what?”

 

“In Jesus Christ,” Paul replied.  “Have you ever been told about the Savior Who died for your sins?”

 

Zoe stared dumbly at him.  “What are you, mister?  A preacher?  Judging from the way YOU’RE dressed, you CAN’T be a preacher!  If anybody looks like a preacher, it’s that rich guy over there by the front door of the church.” She pointed at the entry to the vestibule.

 

Paul tried to say more to Zoe about Jesus, but she said she’d heard enough religion from TV preachers.  The girls saw their boy friends down the street and ran away to go meet them.

 

Paul approached a dignified character in a sharp suit.  He looked down his nose at the much shorter Paul and asked, “Anything I can do for you, sir?”

 

Paul, who spoke several ancient dialects, couldn’t understand him.  But Greek was the universal language…supposedly.  So he greeted the man in Greek, which caused raised eyebrows.

 

“Hey, are you a Bible scholar?” the strangely clad man asked.  “But why is it necessary to show it off, just because you’re a seminarian who’s fallen on hard times?”

 

Paul did not address him in English, just spoke more Greek.

 

“I gather you can’t speak English,” the man said at last in labored Greek.  “You must belong to one of the many Greek families who immigrated to our community.  But I truly am surprised to see you so poorly dressed, sir.  Most of our Greek residents are upwardly mobile, like Zoe’s family.  Her dad attends this church, but, sadly, she and her mother don’t.  Their family split up last year due to irreconcilable differences.  Have you anywhere to stay, sir?”

 

“Unfortunately, no,” Paul replied.  “I have no certain dwellingplace.  I was just minding my own business walking down the dusty road praying that God would send me to somebody who needed my help when I got caught up in a whirlwind and ended up here in this strange place.”

 

“Sort of like Philip and the eunuch, I suppose,” the man said, with an indulgent  chuckle.  “My name is Pastor Roberts.  I’m senior pastor of this church.  We built it just two years ago, back in 2008.”

 

“What does that number ‘2008’ mean, may I ask?” Paul replied.

 

The man must be loony, the preacher thought, but he ought to be humored.  “Two thousand and eight years since the birth of our Savior…supposedly…. though the precise date is debatable.”

 

“Jesus began to build His church almost two thousand years ago,” Paul said.  “And yet you say YOUR church just began to be built only two years ago?”

 

“It’s a mere matter of semantics,” said the pastor.  “Oh, I forgot to ask your name.”

 

“Paul, or Saul of Tarsus, whichever you prefer,” the ragged visitor said.

 

“What are those rolls of paper you’re carrying?” the Pastor wondered.

 

“A few letters to some churches.”

 

“Mind if I see them?”

 

Paul spread out the scrolls on a table in the front vestibule of the church .  Pastor Roberts grinned.  “Such wondrously reproduced replicas of original Holy Writ!  What treasures!  Paul himself couldn’t have told the difference!”

 

“But I AM Paul!”

 

“Sir…are you feeling well?” Brother Roberts asked.  “I’ll take your word for it that ‘Paul’ is your name and you aren’t from around here, but I do know it must be a trial sleeping outdoors in this blistery heat, but…”

 

“I’ve felt better,” Paul admitted.  “I haven’t had a decent meal in two days.”

 

The preacher’s mouth fell open. It was SO hot outside anybody could become delusional if they had to live, and starve, on the streets.  “Never say we aren’t charitable toward the homeless, said the preacher. “You MUST accompany me to our food pantry in the Sunday School building.  All we require is some personal ID and a signature, and we’ll get you fixed up with a sack of groceries in no time!  If I had my way though, we’d dispense with all the ridiculous red tape.”

 

Paul looked at the preacher like he was crazy.  What was “red tape”?  What was “personal ID”? What did those things have to do with showing kindness and compassion to the hungry?

 

When they entered the rear building Paul exclaimed, “First it was hot, now I’m cold!  How did you ever manage to turn the hot summer into winter?”

 

Pastor Roberts winked.  “ Our Digital Frigital Central Air Processor. Latest in atmospheric  modification technology.  And, boy, it sure did cost us plenty of tithe money!” He led Paul down a corridor till at last they reached a huge vast room full of shelves of canned goods and boxes.  There was a big deep freeze where perishable goods were stored. 

 

“Tithes?” Paul repeated several times, as if in disbelief.  “You mean to say you resurrected the Old Testament tithe without God’s permission? And if you did, you said something about tithe money?”

 

“Sure did, Paul!  How else could we keep this sheep shed from baking in 104-degree heat? And the laborer IS worthy of his wages.  I sure as heck don’t preach for the fun of it.”

 

Paul gave him a stern look.  “I NEVER take money or anything else from anybody in the name of tithing!  I preach for a far better reward!  You mean to say you actually CHARGE people to come and listen to you break the bread of God’s Word to them?”

 

“Not exactly, Paul, but I believe in proportional giving.  Ten per cent of everyone’s wages is a pretty good deal.  My preaching is well worth every penny people pay me. Besides, if I only took up freewill offerings, I’d have to shut my doors and auction off this property just to pay the tax bill.”

 

“Whatever happened to giving out of a liberal heart?” Paul wondered.

 

“LIBERAL?”  The preacher’s eyes widened in shock.  “That’s a dirty word around here, Paul.  Ninety-five per cent of our people are conservative, right-wing Republicans.  That means we believe in suits and ties, SUV’s, deer hunting, flag-waving and keeping red meat on the table.  Furthermore, we teach self-sufficiency and don’t believe in government welfare…though we do look after our own when the chips are down and people lose their jobs.”

 

Paul looked baffled.  “Such futuristic concepts I can barely comprehend, and I am a very highly educated man.  But really and truly, sir, has the church of Jesus Christ sunk to such a low level that tithes are collected today on money, when even our own Law never demanded tithes from the wages of laborers?  You mean to tell me your people would not give liberally…uh….I mean freely, if some need arose, except through fear of breaking your ‘tithe law’?”

 

Brother Roberts rolled up his eyes.  “You’re living in a dream world, Paul!  People wouldn’t give me one solitary dime just out of the goodness of their hearts!”

 

“If some brother or sister is hungry,” Paul said, “and a man or woman has food to share, or money to buy it with, but still refuses to help that needy one out of a heart of love, then that person should examine themselves to see if they really DO belong to Christ.”

 

The preacher grinned.  “I’ll agree with you there.”

 

“But on the other hand,” said Paul, “the Word clearly warns in Proverbs: He that giveth to the rich shall surely come to want.  God’s money must not be squandered on foolish things.”

 

“I do believe that’s in Proverbs 22:16,” Pastor Roberts said, “though admittedly I don’t preach on that verse very often.  I’ll level with you, Paul. If I didn’t get tithe money, running our “Hands Extended” food pantry program would be near impossible.  I need tithe money to run the lights, the fridges, the freezers, the electronic fly-zappers…”

 

“Then I can’t accept your food,” Paul said.  “I will eat nothing made possible through that which is a stumbling-block before the brethren.”

 

Pastor Roberts laid a hand on Paul’s shoulder.  “Paul, look. You’ve been roasting out in that hot sun for who knows how long!  If you won’t let me fix you up a food box, at least come over to my place for a meal and a shower.  After that I can drive you to the men’s mission where there are plenty of free beds available and access to social services and employment counseling.”

 

“On one condition,” Paul said.  “If you’ll allow me to address your next gathering of the saints…through an interpreter, if one is available.”

 

“Oh, I know just the man,” Pastor Roberts said.  “A Greek colleague of mine who’s sharp as a tack and speaks nine languages like a pro.  All I ask is that you wear a sharp suit and look your best for the meeting. Lately I’ve taken a lot of guff from my parishioners over alleged bad stewardship of church funds.  So I want everyone to see what a good job our ‘Hands Extended’ Ministry is doing to help the less fortunate.”

 

Paul raised his bushy eyebrows.  “Brother Roberts, I might be pitifully dressed and look hungrier than you do, but I doubt I’m the less fortunate one.  If you’re robbing the saints of ten per cent of their wages, you ARE a bad steward of God’s Truth by misrepresenting it and you’re in deep trouble with God.”

 

The pastor looked miffed, but said, “I’ll rise above that cheap shot.  It’s obvious to me you’ve been out in the sun way too long.” 

 

The preacher decided to dispense with the paperwork.  His guest was obviously in no frame of mind to fill out forms.      “Paul, I still want to give you that food box.  You don’t have to take the foods refrigerated with tithe money.  But do please take some of our canned goods, macaroni, and stuff like that.  People donated those items through freewill offerings.”

 

“I do hope I’m not being a burden on your church, Pastor. I’d rather do some free-lance tent-making than impose on anybody.”

 

Pastor Roberts winked.  “Nonsense, Paul!  Actually, you’re doing my people a favor, helping ‘em clean out their cupboards.  Have you checked the dates on these cans and boxes?  Anything I give you, I’d advise you to finish eating within six months.”

 

“I hope to be back in my own time by then, Pastor Roberts.  But if this is where I’m needed the most, then so be it.”

 

“Now, Paul, do you have any specific nutritional needs we should take account of as we pick you out your groceries?  Are you a vegetarian, for example?”

 

Paul frowned.  “What sort of new religion is a ‘vegetarian’?”

 

“Someone who doesn’t eat meat.”

 

“Why should I refuse meat?  Was your meat offered to idols?”

 

“I don’t think so, at least not our tuna, Spam  and hot dogs.  “Spam…oh, darn!  I forgot, you said you’re Saul of Tarsus, so you must be a Jew and can’t eat pork products!”

 

“He who is strong in the faith believes he can eat all things, for he gives God thanks and the food is sanctified through prayer and thanksgiving,” Paul said.

 

“Okay, so you like your Spam,” the Pastor said.  “Do you have cooking facilities to prepare Hamburger Helper?”

 

“Facilities?  What kind?”

 

“Well, like a pot to boil water.  A Coleman stove, maybe.  Surely, even if you do live in Paradise Park you must have a few personal essentials squirreled away in a shopping cart.”

 

Paul shook his head.  “Sir, I have nothing except the robe on my back.  I possess all things, yet I have nothing.”

 

The man isn’t all there, the preacher thought.  He rushed over to the lower shelf where snack foods were kept.  “Here, Paul, a few carbs to keep your energy up.  Here’s some cereal, dried milk, trail mix, army surplus MRE’s, raisins…I’ll even throw in some plastic bowls and spoons.  You just mix a bit of the milk with a lot of water and it’ll help you swallow your cereal.  Now to get you some crackers and cookies…”

 

“Slow down!” Paul cried.  “All I know is Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin! You’re mixing avant-garde Greek with your own strange language!”

 

Why hadn’t the pastor thought of it before?  If this man WAS more than a homeless Greek immigrant, a few questions might prove his origin, and that he really COULD read his own parchments. So Paul was given a pop quiz as every day items were pointed at and asked their name in the four Bible languages. Not only that, Paul recited bits of the Torah in Hebrew, some tractates of the Law in Aramaic, and a few lines of Romans in Greek. No two ways about it, this homeless guy was a genius who’d fallen on hard times!”

 

“Unless you’re a religious scholar, a scientist, or a lawyer,” the preacher said, “nobody bothers to learn those ancient languages anymore.  Some of our nation’s richest preachers don’t even know a word of Spanish. But you’re a real whiz at those dead languages…er…sorry, what a dimwit I am!  I forget Hebrew is spoken today in  Israel, and, of course, you lived among Greeks, even if you aren’t exactly Greek yourself, Paul. Here I was, thinking you were just an unemployed guru living in the park because you’re dressed in a faded robe.    Wow, you actually talk better than I do in those old languages!  Paul, I’m mighty impressed!  You must come home with me to spend the night.  Tomorrow, I’ll take you to see  the Director of the Regional Synod, Reverend R.V. Gristler, and maybe he can get you a position in our college tutoring our students who are having difficulty with our Cold Turkey Bible Languages course.

 

“Ah…Paul,” the preacher added,  “Sometimes things happen to us that hurt us and cause memory to fade. Maybe you went through a traumatic divorce, or you fought in the military…”

 

“I never divorced anyone,” Paul said.  “But I do fight every single day against the devil.  Every Christian is called to be a good soldier…”

 

“That’s it!” Pastor Roberts interrupted.  “There’s no shame in suffering post traumatic stress disorder. I’ve been through that myself, and believe me, it’s VERY hard to recover equilibrium in your emotions once warfare has taken its toll on your soul. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people before for positions at our church and seminary, and I know a theological expert when I meet one.    Whatever you suffered in the past, Paul, it in no way reflects on your brilliant intellect!. Once we establish your true identity and recover your ID documents, educational credentials and work resume, you’ll be on your way!”

 

“Home, I hope,” Paul said wearily.  He took off one sandal and rubbed his foot.

 

“We’ll get you some new shoes,” Pastor Roberts said.  “Tell you what.  I’ll take you shopping before we head on home and we’ll stop by the pharmacy for some foot pads too.  Looks like sleeping outdoors didn’t help your feet any. And don’t worry about what I spend on you.  That’ll come out of our missionary fund.”

 

Paul looked terrified as Pastor Roberts drove him in his new Lexus SUV.  “I don’t suppose you’ve ever traveled so fast before,” the preacher said.

 

“Why do all the women go around with their heads uncovered?” Paul asked. “And their garments cleave close to their skin, similar to the divided garment you wear.”

 

“This is a Western democracy, not a Muslim country, Paul. We do have a few Muslim ladies in the neighborhood who wear all the paraphernalia that goes with their religion, but their beliefs are different from ours.”

 

A couple exits later Pastor Roberts pulled off the Beltway Road.  “Over there!” he pointed.  “The Millennium Mega-Mall.”

 

Paul’s eyes widened at the sight of the glitzy modern shopping complex, all the shoppers heavy-laden with purchases and all the fancy cars crawling in and out of the parking lot. He felt a sharp tug on his seat belt and screech of tires.

 

“You stupid %$*!!&!”  Pastor Roberts hollered.  His head was stuck out the window and his fist was shaking at a woman driver who’d grabbed HIS parking space first, although he had his turn signal on.  Worse yet, her speeding RV had smashed into the car to the right of the disputed space.

 

The woman climbed out of the vehicle. She was big and powerfully built, like  a bull on steroids, the preacher thought. She wore too-tight shorts and a tank top.  Her massive arms were covered in weird tattoos.  She yanked open his door and seized him in a headlock. 

 

“Let go!”  Brother Roberts yelled.  “I’m a preacher!”

 

"Yeah, right!  And I’m Mother Teresa!  “You dirtbag, I’m gonna tear your ears off for that!”

 

“Yeow!”  the preacher yelled as she yanked at his chin.  “Paul, help!”

 

Suddenly the woman let Pastor Roberts go and clawed at the air, yelling: “I can’t see! Somebody turned on the lights!”

 

“Paul, she almost killed us both.” Pastor Roberts was shaking head to toe. 

 

“Tell the woman you’re sorry, Pastor Roberts.  I don’t know your language, but I know what you said to her, and you ought to know better, being a minister of the Gospel.”

 

Pastor Roberts gnashed his teeth.  “When heck freezes over.”

 

“Either you repent, Pastor Roberts, or the consequences will be dire,”  Paul warned.

 

The preacher coughed and said, barely audibly: “Lady, I’m sorry, that was no way for a Christian preacher to  act.  Would you please forgive me?”

 

“When pigs fly!”  she snarled.  Her fumbling fist felt its way back to his head and gripped his hair.  She drew back her other arm to take a swing at him, only to have it seized by another woman demanding whose RV had smashed into her Toyota. 

 

“None of your “&£$%!!! business!”  the bigger woman yelled.  “It’s your own £%$%!!! fault!  You parked over the line so it was an accident!”

 

“Hey, there!”  the owner of the Toyota shouted.  “Look at me when you talk to me, or are you blind or something?”

 

“Maybe I am, maybe I ain’t!”  the RV driver yelled back.  “I can still tear your tonsils out with one arm tied behind my back!”

 

By now a curious crowd was gathering. Paul said to Brother Roberts, “I’ve got work to do and you’re coming out here with me.  Don’t worry about the woman.  She’s blind as a bat and can do you no harm.”

 

The blind woman flailed wildly at the air with her jackhammer fists. The other woman stomped on her instep, collared her and flipped her over like a rag doll.  “Didn’t mention I was a black belt in karate,”  she said.

 

Two mall security guards, accompanied by a cop, rushed up to the defeated woman, who was lying on the pavement rubbing her head.

 

The crowd grumbled.  “What are they saying?”  Paul asked the preacher.

 

“They’re cussing about not getting a good enough show.  The fight didn’t go on as long as they wanted.  Man, those people were out for blood, Paul.”

 

“Just like Romans gathering in the arena watching gladiators fight to the death,” Paul sighed. Human nature is so rotten it hasn’t changed through the centuries.  If anything it’s gotten worse.”

 

A police car showed up with sniffer dogs who quickly detected what the cops were searching for.  They ripped up the seat cushions and found a big stash of dope.

 

“Yes, Hal, this IS Sylvia Stoner,” one officer said.  “Her face matches her mugshot.  Looks like she’s high on crack.”

 

“Pupils dilated, vision impaired,” his colleague said, as he cuffed the woman to lead her to the patrol car. “Man, these crackheads never do learn, do they?  Last time Sylvia tripped out she saw green men on Mars.  Now, nothing.”

 

As the police filled out a report on the smashed Toyota Paul preached to the crowd. Pastor Roberts translated. 

 

A few sniggered when Paul preached the Great Redemption Story.  Others yawned.  Paul grew angry, warning the people that the day would come when everything their eyes could see would be burnt in the fires of God’s judgment, and only eternal things would be of any lasting value.

 

A few catcalls from the edge of the crowd.  “What are they saying now, Pastor Roberts?” Paul demanded.

 

“They’re poking fun at you for being a poor vagrant who’s got nothing to burn up.  You’re just jealous of them. So who are YOU to talk?”

 

“I may possess nothing now, but all things are MINE!”  Paul shouted. Pastor Roberts was almost too embarrassed to translate.

 

The roar from the crowd was deafening.  “Hey, one kid shouted, “I’ve got a new X-Box  AND a Wii!”

 

“Look at my Halogen Hamsters!”  a younger boy yelled. 

 

“That’s nothing!” a preacher hollered. “Look at my Ruby Rolex!  It rocks!  What kind of a preacher ARE you, hobo Joe?  Where’s your collection plate?”

 

Paul’s face reddened in indignation.  Pastor Roberts reached in his hatchback and pulled out two velvet offering bags attached to long poles. 

 

“Right here!”  he called.  “If you like this message, drop off your donation to the Seaview Men’s Mission!  Feed hungry souls AND hungry tummies!”

 

“It ain’t even Christmas yet,” one man mocked, “and you’re already takin’ up a collection for that fleabag flophouse?”

 

“Don’t knock it, Mister!”  Pastor Roberts called back.  “With this recession going on you could lose your job next week, then what would you do for food and shelter?”

 

A few nodded and griped about hard times and how they could only afford to look, not buy, in the mall.  They came forward and contributed what they could.

 

“I appreciate your wanting to feed the hungry,” Paul whispered to Pastor Roberts.  “But these people need salvation. You must try to save as many as possible from perishing.”

 

“You’re wasting your breath, Paul,” the preacher replied.  “Jesus said to fish for men but the fish aren’t biting. Don’t cast your pearls before the swine.”

 

After a few raw insults and other assorted mockery Paul was fed up.  The crowd dispersed, pointing at Paul and joking about his weird appearance.  Then a twelve-year-old boy came up and asked about salvation.  He told Paul he was tired of all the peer pressure other kids put on him to be cool, and at least Paul was a friend of the earth who reduced his carbon footprint by recycling old bathrobes.  The boy had often worried about his soul but was afraid to admit that to the other kids.  As the preacher translated Paul led the boy to repentance and faith in Christ as Savior.  Paul encouraged him to read the Scriptures and find other believers to fellowship with.

 

“It wasn’t entirely fruitless,” Paul said, as the two men walked across the parking lot.  “I get a strong feeling that boy will win many to Christ.  As tumultuous as it was, that episode with the angry woman drew the crowd which led the boy to his salvation.”

 

“Yeah, I guess, Paul, but my neck has a crick in it.  She almost broke it.”

 

“Don’t you think you should pray for the Lord’s forgiveness for that outburst of anger?”

 

Pastor Roberts grimaced.  “Maybe later, Paul, when I say my bed time prayers.  God’s got His slot on my daily schedule. Hey, there’s that store I told you about,

The Boardroom Bull.  Let’s go take a look, eh?

 

If the mall, with its furturistic décor and escalators had fascinated Paul, he was even more impressed when he and Pastor Roberts got home.   Paul’s mouth dropped open at the sight of the huge, ranch-style parsonage impeccably landscaped with rose

trellises, flowering shrubbery  and petunia plots.

 

“It is a palace!” Paul cried.  “You must be a very important man in this city!”

 

“Hardly,” the preacher replied, retrieving his purchases from the back seat.  “I don’t always get treated as if I’m of much significance.”

 

Once again Paul noticed the temperature change from the outside desert air to the air-conditioned interior of modern buildings.  “My wife Kim went to an Inner Child Seminar for a few days and dropped our two-year-old daughter off at her Mom’s, since I’ll be too busy to look after her,” Brother Roberts said.  “So it’ll just be us three men tonight.”

 

After being initiated in the mysteries of the Roberts’ guest bathroom, Paul took his first shower.  He needed some casual clothes to relax in for the evening. The pastor picked out a few things.   Paul changed into some garments belonging to Timmy, the preacher’s twelve-year-old son.  Paul was much shorter (and thinner) than the preacher, so the boy’s clothes fit better than anything in Pastor Roberts’ closet.   Except for the very wide trousers, where a tight belt was needed. Timmy didn’t care.  He had gotten too big for his britches and his old duds were destined for the church rummage sale anyway.

 

After navigating through a plate of leftover spaghetti with a fork the pastor showed him how to use, Paul was given some ice cream and a spoon to eat it with.  He was fascinated by its cold, melty sweetness. Paul’s table manners caused Timmy to roll up his eyes in disbelief. After the meal, Brother Roberts lingered with Paul at the table and told him all about the church’s Personal Enrichment program.

 

“We take the word ‘rich’ literally at our church, Paul,” the preacher said.  “We believe heaven begins in the here and now, not just after you die.”

 

“I die daily,” Paul said. “My crown is laid up for me in heaven.”

 

 Paul was shown to the den where Timmy was lounging in an Easy-Boy recliner, already engrossed in graphic  murder and mayhem on  TV. 

 

“Timmy,”  Brother Roberts said, “give the clicker to Paul.  He’s our guest.”

 

“Buzz off,” Timmy mumbled.  “I got here first.”

 

Timmy’s dad got mad.  He bopped Timmy with a couch pillow and ordered him to vacate the room at once or he’d have to mow the lawn tomorrow.

 

Timmy gave his dad a pudgy-faced scowl and flung the clicker on the couch where Paul was sitting. The sulky teenager stormed off up to his room to watch the show on his own TV.

 

“What’d I do to deserve a brat like that,” Pastor Roberts muttered in Greek. 

 

“Any man who cannot rule his own household well, how shall he take care of the church of God?” Paul replied.  

 

Before the pastor could respond to that, Paul picked up the clicker and asked, “What is this?  And who are those tiny people on that glassy surface, fighting and yelling nonsense at each other?”

 

“That’s just an old police drama, ‘Soul of Sin City,’” the preacher shrugged.  “It’s all pretend pictures moving on a plasma screen, and the blood is just ketchup.”

 

“It is MAGIC!” Paul cried. “Violent plays on a transparent screen without real people in them. Pastor Roberts, do you usually corrupt your son’s mind with wizardry?”

 

“That’s nothing,” Pastor Roberts said.  “This old idiot box is ready for the scrapyard.  Next week I get paid and we’ll get us some REAL wizardry, and I hope my Greek doesn’t fail me here: I’ve got my eye on a digital, ultra-thin widescreen high-definition  ‘Smart-TV’  with a 100-inch plasma screen and interactive Internet access and 3-D games.  And I’m also subscribing to ninety extra channels.”

 

Paul’s head wobbled from it all.  “Too many wonders in the space of one day,” he said.  “But why aren’t you content with what you have?  What would be the advantage of getting an even bigger sin screen for your home?”

 

The pastor grinned slyly. “It keeps Timmy off the street, doesn’t it?”  If that kid comes straight home after school and parks himself in front of the TV at least I know where he is and what he’s doing.”

 

“I just don’t understand how that thing could possibly help your son run the race and win the prize,” Paul said. “And what about teaching him to fight the good fight of faith?”

 

“Oh, our Timothy does run,” Pastor Roberts said.  “He runs up a hefty food bill.  He looks like a slow salamander but you just wait till his ‘Lowlife Larry” program comes on.  Our little Timmy races in here to grab the remote and beats the rest of us to the TV every time. And if you want to see a fight, just wait till my wrestling show comes on and I have to wrestle the remote out of Timmy’s hand.”

 

Paul looked like he’d rather leave and sleep in the park.  “Hey, wait,” the preacher said.  “Some Christians don’t believe in watching anything but Christian stuff.  Let’s turn Prey TV on.  I think Brother Ben Buck just might be on at this time.  Now, Paul, get ready for some REAL spiritual food!  Don’t worry, I’ll translate.”

 

There Ben was, spiffed up in his “Salvation Suit” with its thousands of sparkling lights which were programmed by remote control to change color patterns to match the mood of Ben’s message. Ben looked youthful for his forty-odd years.  His professionally styled feathered coiffure covered his ears.   Ben’s mouth spread in a pearly white smile. “I once was a sinner but now I’m a winner!” he shouted. “Can ya shout ‘amen’, folks!”

 

“I do understand the word ‘amen’, Paul said in his usual Greek.  But his bad pronunciation leaves something to be desired.”

 

“Plant a seed to meet your need!” Ben cried, flashing a large bill. 

 

“That looks similar to the two pieces of papyrus those girls gave me,” Paul said.  “Is that what you use for money?”

 

“It certainly is,” Pastor Roberts said.  “Now Ben is telling his worldwide audience to keep on sowing when it gets rough going.  Pay your tithe and your prayers will fly.  Vow right now with a joyful shout and God will cast old satan out.  What’s Ben saying now?  When you’re back is slammed against the wall, go to the hole in the wall. Withdraw more wampum and give it all.”

 

Paul frowned.  “Do you and your wife believe these strange doctrines?”

 

“Sure do.  Where do you think all my blessings come from?  Now Brother Buck is pitching his miracle olive oil from Jerusalem. It comes in four different flavors, depending on what kind of miracle you need from God.  Myrrh, cinnamon, mulberry, and cherry.”  The preacher cackled and slapped Paul on his bony shoulder.  “Clever guy, isn’t he?  You and me, we  aren’t as dumb as those other yokels watching this carnie act.  I bet Ben buys a truckload of cheap cooking oil and mixes in a few fake flavors.  ‘Ben the miracle man’ makes a big killing with that gimmick!”

 

“I’ve heard enough!” Paul cried, waving his hands.  “Make the magic go away! After I preach tomorrow morning, I want to go home!”

 

“Back to the park?” Brother Roberts frowned.  “You can’t be serious.”

 

“Anything is better than remaining around this Latter Day confusion! You call some lost woman a filthy name! You refuse to pray for forgiveness afterwards! Your wife goes away for a few days to ‘touch base with her inner child’.  Your son has no manners.  He disrespects you because you’re too slothful to train him up in the ways of the Lord like any faithful father would.  Today the church is the building, not the people.  Preachers sell lies in the Name of the Lord to rob the poor. And then there’s your unbelief.  On the way home you told me that woman who attacked you  went blind because she was a ‘crackhead’, whatever that is.  You couldn’t accept the fact God delivered you from having your head torn off by that crazy woman.”

 

Brother Roberts blinked.  “Paul, I’ve been a serious student of the Bible for most of my life.   I graduated with honors at Stonewall Seminary.  I researched exhaustive post-grad dissertations  at Westchester Divinity College.  I have it on good authority that while miracles may have taken place back in Bible days, because God had no other option than to supernaturally intervene on behalf of primitive people, that when all is said and done, miracles are no longer necessary because of advances in science and technology.”

 

Paul frowned.  “I warned young Timothy to be on his guard against the deceptions of false science which opposes God’s Holy Word.”  He pointed at Pastor Roberts.  “It’s YOU, Pastor Roberts, who needs a miracle, one down in your soul, to cause you to see where you’re going wrong.  You’re headed for the ditch, Pastor Roberts.  You’ve changed the very MEANING of Christ’s Gospel to a false creed of greed.  You live like a king while others pay ten per cent of their wages to make it possible. You want more and more toys like a spoiled child.”

 

The pastor was stung.  “That’s a fine howdy-do!  After the hospitality I’ve shown you, and that shopping trip.  Oh, well, I ought to be used to ingratitude.”

 

Paul stared at him with his steely cavernous eyes.  “So your kindness to me robs me of the right to speak to you in truth like a brother?  Unlike most people of your generation, Pastor Roberts, I can’t be bought.  I’ve ALREADY been bought with a price by Christ Jesus and I MUST speak only the truth.  If you want me to leave, I will.”

 

Brother Roberts felt like slugging him, but then he  got a sly grin on his face.  “Tell you what, Paul.  Maybe you’re right, I can be too pig-headed for my own good.  America is a free country with freedom of speech.  You’ve got the right to your own opinions and I’ve got the right to mine.  Please spend the night with us.  You said you wanted to preach to my congregation.  But there’s another church in a far worse shape than mine.  What say I make arrangements for you to speak at their service tomorrow morning?  All it’d take is a few phone calls…”

 

The preacher held a grudge against a competing pastor across town.  J.D. Vanderbilt pastored the other fancy church in Victory Valley, Miracle Manna Worship Center. Using his most conciliatory tone of voice, Pastor Roberts convinced the gullible Pastor Vanderbilt to let bygones be bygones.  He spoke of a certain ‘Dr. Paul Benjamin’ in glowing terms, explaining that he was a Greek immigrant who was a decorated war hero, and the finest of Bible scholars with the equivalent of a post-doctorate in theology.  Would Dr. Vanderbilt please allow Dr. Benjamin to address his congregation the following morning and share spiritual nuggets with them, if an interpreter came along?”

 

“Okay, Raymond Roberts,” said the other preacher, “but if anything goes wrong, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

 

Next morning, Paul and his Greek interpreter were chauffeured to Miracle Manna Worship Center. Brother Roberts was happy to see him leave.  Knowing he was about to get even with his archrival for winning the Golden Steeple Award at the Pulpit Pilot Preach-athon, he bent double, laughing. 

 

Once Brother Vanderbilt saw the diminutive, but dignified,  Bible scholar in his brand new $5000 suit and shiny shoes, he tripped all over himself to make him feel welcome.  Surely it would be good publicity for Miracle Manna Worship Center to feature a renowned guest speaker from the “developing world”.

 

Pastor Vanderbilt mounted the steep steps up to  his colonnaded pulpit, straightened his collar and announced:  “This morning we are honored to present a renowned doctor of divinity who is on a worldwide missions tour.  Dr. Paul Benjamin comes to us from Tora Bora.”

 

“That’s TARSUS, Reverend,” the interpreter whispered.  “Oh…forget it!”

 

“Be that as it may, Dr. Paul Benjamin is his name, and he’s made his mark in theological dissertation all over the Middle East.  Now his fame is being noised abroad in our neck of the woods and he’s fast becoming the best in the West, too.  Dr. Benjamin, what do you think of the United States, this blessed  bastion of liberty which is a powerful fortress of freedom shining the light of liberty throughout the earth?

 

Hesitantly the interpreter posed that question to Paul.

 

Paul raised his bushy eyebrows. “WHAT freedom?” he inquired.

 

“Why, the freedom to spread the gospel, Paul,” the preacher replied, once he recovered from his shock.  “Because you’re in America you can say anything you like without being hassled by the authorities.  We’ve heard how repressive other countries are.”

 

“Are you really and truly free?” Paul asked the congregation. “What kind of liberty is it when people are slaves of THINGS instead of to Christ?” Paul looked all around at the vast cathedral, with its arched ceiling, sparkling stained glass windows, velvety pews, imposing pulpit, teakwood offering table, and choir loft crafted from mahogany woodwork. He pointed at mysterious gadgetry he never could never have imagined in his own lifetime.  “How much of your life’s work did you have to devote to acquiring all these things, and how many more material things will it take to make  your shepherds content?” he began.

 

“So many of you are falling away from the true gospel originally delivered to the saints,” Paul continued.    “The grace of God is being treated as a license to sin. What kind of pastor preaches Christian liberty while demanding ten per cent of a man’s wages to lavish more luxuries on himself?  How can Christians be slaves to imaginary violence on a magic screen and still claim to be free from the world and its affections and lusts?  Why do little men appear on those screens and demand big money from God’s people to buy magic miracle potions in a little bottle?”

 

The congregation was stunned.  “That isn’t the worst of what I’ve seen in your Last Days earth,” Paul said.  “My interpreter, with no sign of shame on his face, translated for me as one man among you proudly introduced me to his FIFTH “live-in partner”, as you call it.  Some of your women and girls wear clothes so revealing that a brothel keeper would blush. I exhort you all to REPENT!  Don’t you know the Lord Jesus is about to appear and punish your Sodom society?  Why would you perish along with it?”  

 

So much for freedom of speech.  Just as it had always happened after one of Paul’s sermons, a riot broke out.  The interpreter barely escaped out the back door.  Paul vanished. The congregation threatened to fire Pastor Vanderbilt for offending their enlightened ears with such outdated truths.