Face to face with evil; surrounded by faceless strangers; John makes his stand, a life-defining moment where fear is not an option. John is on the ground; holding the injured ice biker; cars scattered in every direction as the spectators look on. Blasphemies bellow from the stranger. John looks calmly into his eyes and says. “In the name of Jesus Christ, come out of this man.”
The stranger faces the sky and lets out a blood-curdling shriek. “Evil spirits always come out this way,” John said. “Just like Mike said they would.”
The stranger awoke bewildered; “who are you, you look familiar?”
“I’m John, and you are?”
“I’m Jack the stranger answered; I’m not sure how I got here, but thank you. I know you don’t I? You’re the Preacher on the Sunday morning show, The Hour of Grace?”
John helped Jack to his feet; the crowd that gathered in the freezing rain applauded. Emergency lights approach in the distance; “I think this is your ride Jack, are you going to be okay?”
“I believe so John; I haven’t felt this good in years.” Jack scanned the scene; his ice bike was ok. “You lost traction climbing the hill, and we scattered to avoid hitting you,” John said.
“What happened after that,” Jack said?
“A disembodied spirit,” John said. “It possessed you, and I cast it out, it dared me too.”
A demon slayer was born that day.
John returned to his car and continued his commute to work. John was more than a believer; his life was so full of the supernatural he wondered how anyone could ever doubt. John and his best friend Mike had been through more than one exorcism together; however, this was John’s first solo excursion. Two years have passed since John and Mike were last together. Just one more work day before vacation with Mike, this brought a smile to John’s face.
John’s Father, Austin did a fantastic job growing the Glass Cathedral Church. The Church started in a suburb of the twin cities called Saint Louis Park. The Church began with a couple of hundred members. Today that number is closer to eight thousand members. And the national viewing audience that tunes in every Sunday, three-quarters of a million people.
The smile escapes John’s face as he pulls into the Glass Cathedral parking lot. “How many starving people could we have fed with the millions of dollars it cost to build and maintain this Church,” John said? John always thought about things like this but kept these feelings close. John collected his belongings to head inside.
Once inside, John met Janet, the Church office manager. “How are you today Janet,” John said?
“I’m fine and you John?”
“I’m fine, a little shaken from a close accident.”
Janet put on her glasses to have a closer look at John. “It is slick outside, you look fine. You have a meeting with your dad and Matthew at four o’ clock today”.
“I know, do you have any idea what the meeting is about Janet?”
“No, I don’t John, but your father told me it was important.”
“Thank you, Janet. I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
Why was Dad back to work so quickly after returning from the hospital? He spent the last three weeks recovering from a life-threatening case of pneumonia. During his illness, John led the three Sunday morning services for him including the nationally syndicated TV show, the Hour of Grace, which is broadcast live every Sunday morning.
John couldn’t help but wonder what the meeting was about; He often met with his Father. But Matthew is not usually involved.
John opened the door to his office and walked in, closing the door quietly behind him. John set his backpack down and assembled his laptop and accessories from the contents.
On the wall hangs a Master of Divinity degree from Columbia International University presented to John Smith. John wondered if his Dad knew how hard he had to work to achieve that in three years instead of four. John also wondered how his Dad would react knowing he could cast out spirits. Just like the old days of the Bible.
In college, John tried to share the news of Mike’s Mother and the exorcism with his Dad. But he never took John seriously. Now, John keeps the spiritual knowledge to himself, to avoid conflict. That’s why John left the accident earlier today. He just wanted to help the stranger; he didn’t want to have to explain it to anyone. He just wanted to live his life.
John spent the rest of the morning planning for the Christmas Service; until the phone rang. It was Janet; informing John, his appointment had moved to three o’ clock with Austin and Matthew. “Janet, surely you have some information about the meeting?”
“I know it has something to do with your preaching over the last three weeks,” Janet said.
Great, now John was nervous, and Janet knew how to play it. “Thanks, Janet,” John said. He was attempting to end the phone call.
“John, hello, are you still there?”
“Emily is holding on line number three for you.”
Thank you, Janet, please tell Emily that I will call her back in a few minutes.”
John hung up the phone to contemplate his fate at the meeting. Unable to collect his thoughts, John grabbed his coat and left briefly to grab lunch. On the walk, his mind drifted back to helping Jack this morning. The event played over and over again in John’s memory.
John went to his usual hangout for lunch at the mall. However, lunch had come and gone, and John was still searching for answers. Why does Matthew want to meet with me? What did I do wrong? Not having an answer John reached for his cell phone and dialed Emily, the one person John knew could bring clarity to all of this.
“Hi, it’s John.”
“Hi, honey, how is your day going today,” Emily said?
“Pretty good; Honey, what do you know about the meeting this afternoon with our fathers?”
Emily was quiet for a moment and then started speaking after an uncomfortable silence. “Well, my Father told me it was important. But that’s about all I know.”
“It’s just a little odd,” John said. “I am nervous.”
“Don’t worry honey, I love you very much, and I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”
“I hope your right. Honey, I need to go for now and finish the details for the Christmas service. Can I call you back a little later?”
“That’s fine. I love you very much, John.”
“I love you too honey; I’ll pick you up at eight o’ clock, bye.”
The walk back through the mall to Church went too quickly. Emily and John met soon after John moved back from Columbia South Carolina two years ago. Fresh from the south she found John’s acquired southern accent very charming. John finds everything about Emily beautiful. She is everything a man would ever look for in a wife, and to top it off; she’s a believer.
The rest of the afternoon was spent arranging the Sunday morning Christmas service. Christmas is the second busiest day of the year at the Glass Cathedral, right after Easter. John’s phone rang. “Hello, John, its Dad. Matthew and I are waiting for you in my office.”
“Is it three o’clock already,” John said? “I’ll be right there.”
John hung up the phone and packed his things. Why can you get more done the day before vacation? The day isn’t any longer. But there is something about knowing you will have some time off that helps pull everything together.
John second-guessed the three lessons he delivered for Austin. While walking the long hallway towards the office, his mind flitted. Why is Matthew going to be there? What did I do wrong?
John rapped on the open office door as he entered. John’s excitement peaked as he closed the door behind him. Austin and Matthew were seated in the corner by the fireplace. The corner area overlooks a private lake and wooded area.
Austin’s office is elaborate; built on the backs of hard-working Christians from all over the world. Sure, the Institutional Church does many good things with the money entrusted to it. But with an average of fifty percent of offerings going to salaries for established Churches, and up to ninety percent for new startups, who does the money help?
John crossed the room; listening, trying to remain focused and grasping for clues. What was the meeting about anyway? The fireplace by the couch was warm, the flames hypnotic. The fire helped put John at ease. Austin and Matthew were bickering about unimportant shit as far as John was concerned.
They were discussing something that seemed to threaten the Church. John sat down quietly while they finished their conversation. His eyes roamed around the office while he listened to the discussion. “Austin,” Matthew said. “We need to gain control over this liberal faction within the Church before they split us in half. Everyone is taking sides in the Church. And I do not see any good coming from it.”
Matthew is an interesting fellow. He looks straight into your eyes, but it feels like he’s looking right through you. Matthew’s head was tilted to the right a little bit, and he had his usual uneven smile. Something is just not right with him John thought.
Matthew is tall, not near as tall as John or Austin though. The circles under Matthew’s eyes paint a picture of someone under apparent stress. He always wore a red tie and rings on his middle fingers. Matthew was sweating as usual, and he seemed tormented.
“Not much has changed at the Church since we started growing,” Austin said. “I feel confident that we can find a way to work this out for everyone’s benefit.”
Austin is a happy man. John glanced over to a photo of his parents on the desk. His Dad’s arm locked firmly with Mom’s, and they looked as happy as John can remember. John chuckled when he noticed how long Austin’s tie was in this picture. You could not even see the zipper on his pants because of his long tie. It is undeniable from the look on their faces; they are still very much in love.
John’s mind drifts back to the roadside yesterday when he held Jack in his arms. Jack was ice biking at the time and climbing a steep hill after the traffic light turned green. The spikes on his tires were no match for the layer of ice freezing on the bridge. His rear tire slid to the left, throwing Jack into traffic.
Cars scattered in all directions on the bridge; it was a miracle that no one was hurt. John ran from his car to help. He pulled Jack out of traffic and safely to the sidewalk. John sat on the street with Jack’s head resting in his lap. A crowd was gathering; someone brought a blanket, while another stranger called emergency services.
Jack opened his eyes, peering at John. At that moment Jack transformed from a quiet stranger into an evil madman; cursing John with every breath. Imprisoned by John’s presence, this abomination lay there before him. Jack tried to attack; several people rushed to help, but John asked everyone to stand back. He told Jack to shut up. Jack locked eyes with John, and he knew what he had to do.
“John, time to join the conversation,” Matthew said.
“How are you doing Son,” Austin said?
Clearing his throat, John joined the conversation. “I’m doing well thank you. I’ve finished the arrangements for Christmas Sunday. I’m planning on eight thousand members and visitors that day.”
“Our new welcome booth is in place for visitors. As you know our biggest days are Easter and Christmas. We’re going to have coffee and doughnuts for visitors this year John added.”
Matthew turned to Austin; “this is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about sir. These kinds of things split a Church and cause people to take sides in a matter.”
“These things happen as a Church grows,” Austin said. “But I fail to see how coffee and doughnuts could be a division issue?”
“Austin, anything new or different makes the conservative base nervous; you know that. It makes some want to seek shelter from change either at a new Church or by starting their own.”
“Excuse me for interrupting,” John said. We can get rid of the coffee and doughnuts if it’s such a big deal. I hoped to make people feel at home, and welcome here.”
John wondered if any conversation like this could be productive at all. John imagined Jesus sitting in the room with us; and how He would likely have something compelling to tell us all, about a great many things.
“Enough of the small talk,” Matthew said. “We invited you here to share some great news with you, John.” John’s eyes rose with interest. He was relieved to not be in trouble.
“John, I have to tell you that the sermons you delivered during Austin’s absence were fantastic. We have some numbers we would like to share with you. Let’s all walk for a moment over to the solarium.”
John stood and offered his hand to his dad. John helped Austin to his feet. On the way to the solarium, Matthew’s cell phone rang. “Please excuse me for a moment; it appears I have urgent Church business to attend to.” As Matthew walked off, John took this opportunity to find out what was going on in his father’s head.
“Dad, you look fantastic, you must have lost twenty pounds in the hospital over the last three weeks, but your hair is a little grayer.”
“Johnny, walk with me a minute. Matthew can meet us at the solarium when he’s finished.” John and Austin strolled together. Austin placed his arm around John’s back; “I’m very proud of you, Son.”
“So what is this about,” John said?
“You’ll find out soon enough Son; Thing’s aren’t always as they appear though, always remember that John.”
“Matthew has an idea on how to grow this Church into one of the largest non-denominational Churches in the United States.”
“Why the solarium,” John said?
“Knowing Matthew, it’s probably more for effect than anything. Don’t ever forget this Johnny; Matthew has an agenda. When you hear what’s going on in a moment things will never be the same between you two. Always watch your back John, and never turn it on, Matthew. The day you do, you’ll find a dagger in your back. Not a real blade mind you, but it hurts just the same.”
The solarium is usually reserved for the Elders when they meet. John had never attended a meeting here. Austin placed his arm around John as they neared the entrance. “Just be yourself, John,” Austin said. Austin knocked out of respect and swung open the massive doors to the solarium. The solarium was breathtaking.
John had caught a peek before when the room was open for cleaning. “I’ve never been in here before,” John said. Austin smiled, “it’s beautiful isn’t it, I’ve been here a few times, but not under good circumstances.” John gazed in wonder, the fourteen-foot glass and aluminum walls were stunning. Religious artwork from all over the world ordained the walls.
“Welcome John,” Matthew said while entering the solarium with Tim. Tim is one of many elders at the Church and an ordained minister. Tim is known for working with the poor, and teaching in prisons and hospitals. Tim runs the free Bible program as well. John stepped forward to shake Tim’s hand. “Nice to see you again my friend,” John said.
“Nice to see you as well Johnny, it’s been a long time.” Matthew interrupted by clearing his throat in an obvious way. “I have to take care of some business right now John, but I hope to see you again very soon. If you will excuse me gentleman”, Tim said.
Austin was staring silently at one of the paintings of Jesus on the Cross. It’s very unusual; John thought to himself, that Dad is so quiet.
Matthew set the mood for the meeting after Tim closed the doors. “John, your father and I have been talking about growing the Church since his return from the hospital.” Matthew pulled out a leather binder and opened it up. “Let’s all have a seat here at the table,” Matthew said.
“John, you may be wondering why we are all here. I want to get straight to the point because I know you have a date with Emily tonight. While Austin was in the hospital, a miracle happened here at the Church. Do you know what that was?”
“No,” John said.
“That miracle is you John; I hold in my hands the TV ratings for last month. And to tell you the truth I am not at all surprised.”
Matthew set the rating sheet in front of us and continued. “Our ratings, the viewers that tune in every Sunday, have been fairly steady over the past five years with your father leading the morning worship and television show. As you can see from the chart, the rating stays very close to a million viewers every Sunday up until your father got sick”. Matthew pointed to a line on the chart.
“John, this is the first of your father’s prepared lessons that you delivered. As you can see your first week was average. But look here. The next week it grows by almost two hundred and fifty thousand viewers, and the week after that we have a total of one and a half million viewers”.
John was relieved to not be in trouble. And it’s nice being appreciated for your work. “Matthew that is great news,” John said, “I’m glad I could help while Dad was out. But you know I didn’t write those lessons, Dad did”. Austin looked over at John with a tired smile. Austin didn’t seem to be himself. He kept staring off into the distance allowing Matthew to continue the meeting. “Your Dad didn’t write those sermons, John, I did.”
“John, let me be very blunt with you. It is my job to see that this Church continues to grow. And frankly, to continue our expansion plans, we need the extra revenue”. Matthew encroached on John’s personal space. He closed in and looked John straight in the eyes.
“John, I have talked with the Elders. Most all agree that it is in the best interest of this Church for you to take over as Senior Pastor. Your father still has a five-year contract that we will honor. If you take the Senior Pastor role, we will allow him to retire early. He can use the remaining time mentoring you as you grow in your new position.”
John could not believe what he was hearing. His dad was personally responsible for growing most of this ministry. “Dad, what do you have to say about all of this,” John said?
“John, I haven’t been feeling well since I got back from the hospital. If you are ready for this, I think it’s your time now. You have trained for this your whole life. And you are as ready as you will ever be. Just look at those ratings. The odds of bringing the gospel to more people are off of the charts. I talked with the producer of our show. The only way to see ratings increase like this is by word of mouth. People are talking about you, John. And these people are telling their friends and total strangers about you and our ministry”.
“John, excuse me for interrupting,” Matthew said. “We’re not asking you to do this for free. The senior Pastor position pays two hundred thousand dollars a year plus benefits”.
“Excuse me,” John said as he stood up. “I will be right back.”
John walked quickly out of the room and down the hall to the restroom. Once inside John ran the cold water and splashed it on his face. John could not believe the deal offered to him. The deal sounded fantastic, but what about Dad? And won’t Emily will be surprised? Is this the right thing to do?
“You don’t have to take the position, John,” Tim said.
“What are you doing hear my friend,” John said?
“John, I was moved to talk with you today.”
“What about, Tim?”
”Matthew asked you to take over the senior Pastor role didn’t he?”
“What was your exposure to Greek in college John?”
“A bare minimum, I rushed through the degree in three years instead of four and had to cut corners.
“Have you ever heard of the Greek word Ekklesia, John?”
“Yes, that means Church.”
Tim put his hand on John’s shoulder and continued. “The Greek word Ekklesia is translated into the English word Church. But that is not what it means. Research that when you get a chance, and whatever you do, follow your heart when you get back in there with your dad and Matthew. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. My advice would be to think about it first”.
“Thank you, Tim.”
“I will talk to you soon my friend,” John said as he walked back to the meeting.
Halfway to the solarium John’s phone rings, it’s Emily.
“Hi John, How is your meeting going?”
“We’re not quite through yet. Can I call you back when I leave?”
“Yes,” Emily said.
“I will talk to you soon.” John hung up the phone and walked through the doors. Matthew and Austin were waiting for him.
“Are you okay John,” Austin said?
“Yes I am fine; this just caught me off guard.”
“John I need a decision,” Matthew said. Just do what is in your heart; Tim’s words kept going through John’s head. It did not feel like the right thing to do.
“Yes,” John said. “I will take the position.”
Matthew smiled; “go get ready for your date with Emily, John.”
“Congratulations Son,” Austin said. He smiled and shook John’s hand. “Your Mother will be so proud of you.”
As John was turning to leave Matthew said one last thing that made him feel even less comfortable than he did already.
“Be prepared to give the last of your father’s lessons on Sunday. And John, you may want to start thinking seriously about a wedding date. People expect a senior Pastor to be married”.
John pushed open the doors and walked to the exit and left the building, all the while having the strangest feeling that he had done something wrong.