Friday, June 29, 2012

The Last Public Utterance Of The Man Who Attempted To Baptize Lester B. Morrison

One Sunday near the end of his days the old preacher stood up before his dwindled congregation, and as had been the case so often in recent years he circled and paced in his mind for the familiar words that were still permanently lodged there from long repetition and which were now accessible to him as something almost like muscle memory.

He had been tracking back through his old words for many years now, repeating himself, and repeating the words of the legion of others who had come before him and had found  themselves standing in similar places on Sunday mornings stretching back for centuries.

The few parishioners who still filed into the tiny sanctuary each Sunday were drawn there by numb custom and ancient habit as surely as the preacher was, and had heard his stories repeated so many times by this point that they knew them by heart.

The preacher lived alone in a deteriorating house that sat at the edge of the overgrown cemetery out back of the church, and he had mostly kept to himself since the death of his wife more than a decade earlier. The marriage had been childless, and the preacher's wife had been killed while crawling across the state highway at the end of the long driveway. She had been headed, the preacher felt certain, toward the river, where she had intended to drown herself.

There had also been a succession of dogs that were rumored to be buried among the graves in the old cemetery. The last dog had been blind and, like the preacher's wife, had wandered onto the highway and been struck by a passing car.

After the old preacher had rambled for a time that Sunday morning near the end of his days he had paused for breath and searched the high ceiling of the church.

"I do not believe in Judgment," he told his congregation. "That is finally something I'm afraid I simply cannot believe in. After a long life I have discovered that I can find no place for such a concept in the image of the Creator that I hold in my mind's eye, which is where, truly, the Creator resides in each of us.

"There is no place for Judgment, no room for it, in the solace He has provided me these many years, and so I am forced to conclude that Judgment is wholly the creation of man, and as such is one of the most pernicious behavioral management tools ever dreamt up by human cunning.

"And Judgment, I think you will agree, goes hand in hand with shame, another concept in which I am now unable to believe. I will go to my grave with no shame, and no fear of judgment, despite the fact that I have committed sins too numerous to mention, sins which, I fully understand, God is under absolutely no obligation to forgive.

"All of our lives we strive to fill our lies with enough light that they become truth, or at least come to resemble truth to ourselves and to each other. In dark moments –and  there have been many dark moments of late-- I realize that I have failed miserably at this project, and, in doing so, have failed you as well, for which I beg your forgiveness.

"I would ask you to consider these things as you return to your homes today: Mercy. Grace. Compassion. Forgiveness. Redemption. Peace. Solitude. Generosity of Spirit. Justice --real justice, a justice of equality and basic human decency rather than a justice of revenge and retribution. Tolerance. Faith. Miracles. Faith in miracles. Wonder. Vulnerability and despair. The human community. Light piercing the darkness. The transformative powers of longing and desire.

"All of these things --these ideas, ideals, and values-- are in the Bible in great plenty, and in all of the other Holy Books of the world that I have ever read. So I would ask you: Why is it that so many purportedly religious people, so many of those we now associate as standard bearers for faith and mouthpieces for God, speak so little of these things, which are so consistently --even relentlessly-- present in the primary religious texts?

"Why do they choose intolerance over tolerance? Violence, retribution, and bloody revenge over peace and mercy and justice? One heavily edited and selective version of the same essential, ageless story over another? The conversion of the other over self-transformation? Reaction over reflection? Hatred over love? Why do they traffic in damnation over salvation, and offer curses rather than blessings?

"Is it because all these old words and values are so basic as to seem somehow soft in our hard world? That they are such pure and  simple concepts that they can no longer be grasped in our age of so much complexity? Or is it, perhaps, that they are so utterly fantastic that they can no longer be recognized --if they are recognized at all-- as anything but the tidy dreams of fiction?

"I ask you these questions today because they have been very much on my mind in recent days, and I would ask that you give them what thought you can spare in your busy lives."

The old preacher actually looked up and scanned the faces of his parishioners, but he could not, even after all the years, make comfortable eye contact with any of them. "I am lonely," he said. "I am lonely and disgusted."

And with that he cleared his throat, stepped out from behind the altar, and shuffled off through the side door at the front of the church.

The words of the preacher left the remaining members of his congregation feeling disturbed and, in many cases, profoundly sad. For most of them, the preacher's performance that Sunday was the last, conclusive proof that the poor man had finally lost his mind. 

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