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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Song of the Past: Thirty-five

Table of Contents

Sunday, 9:00 AM
Deirdre drew comfort from the feeling that she had at last penetrated the layers of obfuscation that had been thrown up to hide the identity of the murderer she pursued. But to construct an airtight case, she still felt she needed to know more about Jacob, so she visited the web site of the church where he preached, and discovered that his weekly service was held at 10 AM on Sundays. With the aim of questioning him further after the service, and also in the hope that seeing him at work might help flesh out her picture of his character, she caught a bus down to the station, checked out an unmarked police car, and arrived at the Hamden address listed on the web site by 9:50. As she stood on the sidewalk and surveyed her surroundings, she wondered if she had come to the wrong place. The neighborhood was certainly not one of Hamden’s tonier locales. Along the broad avenue before her were drive-in convenience stores, shabby strip malls, grimy auto repair shops, fast food outlets, and seedy bars, all interspersed among detached houses in need of new paint jobs. However, over the front door of a building that Deirdre thought a more likely home for a pawnshop than a place of worship, she found a sign announcing that she had, indeed, come to “The First Church of the Divine Revelation.” In smaller letters underneath the name she was told, “The final battle is upon us and the time for choice is scarce; enter and be saved!” She complied with the first part of the injunction; whether or not salvation would follow did not strike her as a matter under her control.

The interior of the church was no more imposing than was its public face. Deirdre halted at the rear of a large, unadorned room, harshly lit by two rows of fluorescent lights on the ceiling. The floor was covered with cheap linoleum tile, curling up at the seams in places. On it sat a dozen or so rows of folding chairs, and, at the far side of the room, a plain lectern partially covered with a cloth bearing the image of a fish. A large but simple cross had been hung on the concrete wall above that pulpit. Most of the seats were already occupied by a motley assortment of souls seeking to be saved. Deirdre estimated that blacks outnumbered whites in the congregation by about two to one. There were a fair number of plump, middle-aged black women present, wearing their floral, Sunday dresses and broad-brimmed, brightly colored hats. A few of the women had succeeded in dragging their men along with them; Deirdre observed these reluctant congregants fidgeting about in their chairs, no doubt anxious to get back home and watch a football game.
Within a couple of minutes after she had entered the building, Jacob strode into this main room from a door at the rear and walked solemnly to the pulpit. He first read the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale from the Old Testament, next an excerpt from the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, and then a reading from the Gospel according to Luke. After that last reading, Jacob curiously stood stock still at the pulpit for a good minute or two, causing many in the congregation to shift restlessly in their seats. Finally, he cleared his throat and began his sermon:
I audaciously have stood here before you for a number of years now, talking to you about the good works we can do in the community, about the social change we can bring about, about how as Christians we can help and support the other members of our congregation, and other such niceties. None of what I said was entirely mistaken: there is nothing wrong with charitable works, or with political action directed towards achieving social justice, or with helping one’s neighbor get through a hard time.
But all along I have been deceiving you. I have been deceiving you not with what I did say but with what I didn’t. I have avoided talking to you about what I most ought to have been talking to you about: achieving salvation and escaping damnation. I have been betraying my calling as a pilot of the living God. For all these years that I have pretended to be your pastor, I have been speaking to you of good deeds, and sweetness and light, but, like a pilot who tells the passengers that all is well as their plane is about to go down to its destruction and that of all aboard, I have been comforting you with sweet lies when I should have been readying you for our fiery end. Unless we surrender everything to Jesus, we are all like that plane spiraling out of control, about to crash into the sea, and what is sending us down to our doom is only one thing: our love of sin, which is our refusal to do God’s will. The plane of sinful behavior we are on is about to crash, its engines are on fire, and the flames are the flames of our crookedness, our willfulness, but we pretend they are just a clever light display meant to entertain us as we proceed on the flight path that our self-loving egos have chosen to pursue in order to protect their desperate desire to be self-created from the knowledge that they are mere creatures, the spawn of a greater being to whom they owe their existence.
We all think we have plenty of time to stop the nosedive once it starts: the waves look to be so far below us, and surely we can pull up and resume flying straight before it’s too late. But God has been in charge of the controls all along: at any moment, He can snatch them from our grasp, and plunge us straight down into the maw of the deep. None of us knows when that moment will come, but stupidly, we go on flying recklessly, following our own flight plan, not heeding the one the Lord set out for us, thinking we can dally as long as we wish and then at the last moment get ourselves back on our true course.
It is a lie, and a lie I have been guilty of helping you to sustain. God is sitting next to us as we pilot the craft, sitting next to us with a loaded gun, a gun filled with the ammunition of His wrath. The hammer on the gun of God's wrath is cocked, a bullet loaded in the chamber, His justice aims that bullet at your head, and nothing but the whim of God, the whim of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, keeps that bullet from splattering your brains against the wall of the cockpit.
If you cry to God to pity you in your degenerate state, as you realize that you can no longer maintain the illusion that you are in control of the plane, you will get the exact opposite result of that you cry out for: He'll only tread you under foot: and though He will know that you can't bear the weight of His unlimited power stamping down upon you, He will still crush you under His feet without mercy; He'll crush out your blood, and make it fly all about, and it shall drench His garments, so that they will be soaked in blood. He will not only hate you, but He will hold you in the utmost contempt; the only place he will regard as right for you is under his feet, to be stamped upon like the scum of the streets.
But don’t for a moment think that I am taunting you with this vision in order to demean you and set myself exempt from this awful moment of judgment, for I am a greater sinner than any of you! Not only have I failed in my duty to warn you of the disaster that awaits you if you do not surrender to Christ, I myself have been more willful and filled with self love than any of you I have feigned to council. I, who should have held myself to higher standards than I could ask of any of you as the price of taking on the role of spiritual guide, have instead sunk deeper into sin than I or you can imagine is possible for any of my sheep: the shepherd has spent his nights howling with the wolves instead of watching over the safety of his flock. Now, now that I see that I foolishly have dallied in wickedness until I have plunged my own flight beyond any point where I might hope to avoid that final disaster, I can only cry to you, you the flock I betrayed to the wolves, even as I descend to my own damnation, “Repent, repent today, for no one knows at what hour the moment of final judgment will come upon him!”

Jacob violently raised his arms over his head as he spoke those last words, and then swooned, falling into a heap behind the pulpit. Several of the worshippers in the front row rushed up to see what had befallen him. One of them shouted out, “Reverend Jacob is OK!” Together they lifted him to his feet. He stared blankly at the congregants for a moment, as if he did not know who they were or where he was. Then those who had helped him up gently turned him around and escorted him through the door behind the pulpit, out of sight.
Was this all an act? Deirdre wondered. It had seemed genuine enough. The congregation was unsettled; people shifted about restlessly for a couple of minutes before concluding that there would be no further worship today, and then they began nervously filing out, while forming mini-congregations on their way, anxiously discussing the extraordinary service they had just witnessed. Deirdre waited until almost everyone had left the building before proceeding through the door by which Jacob had been carried from the pulpit.
She found Jacob slumped in a folding chair, listlessly sipping at a glass of ice water. The congregants who had helped him backstage hovered over him with looks of concern. When they noticed Deirdre’s arrival, they looked up at her with suspicion. Their attention drew Jacob’s, but when he looked up and spotted Deirdre, the expression on his face was not one of concern, but one of terror. He began to tremble in his chair, and his caretakers looked askance at her.
“Reverend Tyler, can I have a word in private?”
Jacob nodded at those around him, and waved his hand to indicate that they could go. They reluctantly shuffled out of the room, looking back over their shoulders as they did so.
Once the two antagonists were alone, Deirdre pulled up another folding chair, and sat close enough to Jacob that their knees nearly touched. She leaned her head even closer to his, and, in a near whisper, said “So, Jacob, if Harrison is convicted of a felony, you inherit the Harrison fortune, right?”
Jacob said nothing, but only began to tremble more, and fixed his gaze on some floorboards at his feet.
“Of course you knew about that clause in your father’s will, right?”
Jacob again did not look up.
“OK, so you knew. That gives you a pretty damned good motive for killing Evelyn and framing Harrison, doesn’t it? You get rid of the woman who has been torturing you for twenty years, get revenge on the brother you hate, and inherit a grand house and a good bit of money—especially since, with Evelyn dead, you get her fortune by-the-by. What do you say to that analysis, Jacob? You’ve been a wicked sinner, haven’t you, and your plane is plummeting into the deeps: so how about confessing, and getting a shot at pulling out of that tailspin?”
Jacob appeared to be on the verge of speaking. He gulped several times, and then opened his mouth… and vomited onto the floor at Deirdre’s feet, splattering chunks of what she assumed was his breakfast all over her shoes and trousers.
“Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you disgusting piece of… Ah, crap, I’ve got to go get out of these clothes. But we’ll meet again very soon, and I’ll have some handcuffs ready for you when we do.”
Deirdre got up and shook what puke she could off of her shoes and trousers, then spun around and stomped out of the room, leaving Jacob staring down at a puddle of his own vomit. She got back into her borrowed automobile and drove home to clean up and change.

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