The National Preaching Championship
The Day I Saw Bigfoot at the Zoo
The Dark Within
The National Preaching Championship
The Day I Saw Bigfoot at the Zoo
The Dark Within
Noah Stoltzfus bit his lip as he read the ad in Christian Leaders magazine: “Auditions for the National Preaching Championship will be held August 15th-23rd at Lakeside Church in Chicago.” He felt a dangerous yearning. He pushed down his ambition with practiced humility while at the same time he sought a justification for entering the contest. Swiveling in his chair, he scanned his shabby office and considered the stature of the Mennonite congregation he served in the cornfields near Davenport, Iowa: eighty-three official members—two-thirds of them retired—and an average Sunday attendance of fifty-two. The congregation paid him a half-time wage which, for a single man in good health, was usually enough. When he needed a few more bucks, he drove a school bus.
But he knew something about himself that those ivory tower homiletics professors, mega-church evangelists, and best-selling pastors wouldn’t have guessed: he was a good preacher. Maybe he had something to say that would benefit other preachers and build up God’s church. Surely Jesus didn’t want him to hide his light under a bushel, he thought. He wasn’t interested in winning the preaching contest, he told himself—merely in sharing with others whatever modest gifts God had given him.
Opening his laptop, he typed in the web address for the National Preaching Championship. Then, stuffing down his doubts and further introspection, he registered for an audition, typed in his credit card number, and hit the “submit” button.
He arrived at Lakeside Church in Chicago an hour before his scheduled audition and snuck into a parking space in the jammed lot. Silver-haired men in tailored suits, middle-aged women wearing colorful scarves, and thirty-year olds oozing energy streamed in and out of the gothic gates of the church. Noah faltered. He wondered what kind of impression his mottled face and dated suit would make next to these slick and cultured crafters of the Word. But as he entered the historic building and made his way down the echoing hallways, he could feel anxiety emanating from all who passed him—which gave him a calming reassurance.
After finding the waiting area and taking a seat at the end of a row of twelve homileticians, he listened to the empty banter and too-loud laughter of nervous souls. About every fifteen minutes all conversation stopped as a door opened and a woman with dangling earrings popped her head out to call the name of the next person. Two hours later—an hour past his scheduled appointment—the woman opened the door and shouted his name.
The audition chapel was the original sanctuary of Lakeside Church: a massive edifice of stone arches, ribbed vaulting, stained glass windows, marble floors, and richly carved pews that could seat nearly a thousand. But the rapid growth of the congregation in the past ten years had made the sanctuary insufficient. Now its primary function was for picturesque weddings. Despite its demotion to a chapel, it was the kind of space Noah had always longed to preach in. But unless Mennonites became high church, he knew such hopes were a fantasy.
Three judges sat in the middle of the fourth pew: a well-muscled, male Caucasian sporting a polo shirt, an attractive Latina in a business suit, and a bald, be-speckled African-American man wearing a clerical collar. Noah didn’t know any of them, but they were undoubtedly famous preaching professors from Fuller or Emory or Princeton or some other capital of preaching that he had never been to.
The polo-shirt man spoke with a British accent. “The Reverend Noah Stoltzfus?”
No one in his congregation had ever called him, “The Reverend.” He didn’t even know “the” was part of the title.
“You have fifteen minutes to preach a sermon, unless we stop you. Please go to the pulpit and begin.”
Noah walked past the polished communion rail, ascended a stone spiral stairway, and mounted the concrete pulpit. He had never mounted a pulpit before. Walked behind, yes—but never mounted. The pulpit in his own sanctuary rested flat on the floor, four steps from his seat in the front pew. But here he stood high above the pews, separated, staring into the dimness of the nearly empty chapel.
As he looked down at the sour, clinical faces of the three judges, he gulped. Taking a deep breath, and hoping his memory would not fail him, he began to preach …
He told a disturbing story from last week’s newspaper, posed a provocative question, briefly explored the prevailing answers offered by society and the church, and found them all wanting. Quoting a line from one of the minor prophets, he then intimated a fresh possibility.
The woman interrupted. “Thank you. Please exit out the side door.”
His right hand, in the midst of a gesture, dropped to his side as his lungs deflated. The faces of the judges remained blank.
He exited the chapel.
On the drive home he endlessly replayed his homily. He had made no mistakes, preaching it exactly as he had intended to. The content was incisive, important, hopeful and creative. If only they had given him the time to finish! But now it was over, and his conscience reminded him that the whole idea had been ill-advised anyway. Surely God was shepherding him back to the paths of unassuming righteousness.
An envelope arrived in the mail two weeks later bearing the golden logo of a cross and a pulpit. Noah let it lie on his desk for two hours, unopened, demonstrating to himself how little it all mattered. Casually, he then tore open the envelope, ready to read the words of polite dismissal. But as he unfolded the letter, his eyes alighted on the words “pleased to inform you.” Fingers trembling, he read the news that he had passed the audition and was among fifty contestants selected to compete for one week during mid-October for the title of National Champion Preacher.
Noah did not ponder too hard the mysterious ways of God; he gave the deity a quick thank you.
Only one obstacle remained: informing his congregation that he was in a preaching contest. Some would be happy for him, and maybe even hope he would win. But they would also be troubled by pride—their pride in him, but especially the prospect of his pride in himself. That was always the problem with preaching. The better one was at it, the greater the possibility of a swelled head. Preaching, like the rest of life, should be modest.
Noah considered an elegant solution: He still had one week of unused vacation time. He could tell the congregation he was going to Chicago for his vacation, which would be perfectly true; just leave out any mention of a preaching contest.
For the next six weeks Noah fortified himself with prayer and Internet sermons. Then on a Sunday afternoon, as the leaves around Davenport began to turn fiery red like Pentecost flames, he packed a suitcase and drove away.
The outside of Lakeside Church was festooned with bright banners, as if announcing a Renaissance Fair. Flags flapped against a blue sky and the morning sun blazed against the limestone façade as thousands poured through the portals. Chicago’s numerous seminaries and divinity schools cancelled their homiletics courses for the week so professors and students could come and hear the best in the land. In addition, denominational leaders, popular theologians and laypeople from every walk of life bustled into the building early Monday morning.
Noah walked from his hotel to the church. He was not scheduled to preach until Tuesday morning, but he wanted to hear as many of his competitors as possible. He followed the excited crowds through a glass pavilion and into a massive sanctuary. This was not the gothic chapel he had auditioned in; this was a five-thousand seat stadium filled with multiple balconies and skylights and metal girders. Jumbo screens hung from every wall to magnify the image of the speaker in the pulpit.
At precisely eight o’clock the crowd hushed as a trim, silver-haired gentleman stepped to the lectern and welcomed everyone to the eighty-third annual National Preaching Championship. He introduced the distinguished panel of seven judges—three of whom Noah recognized from his audition. The master of ceremonies then led in prayer, and after everyone said the “amen,” he announced with a raised voice, “Let the preaching begin!” The crowd let out a cheer that reverberated off the cavernous walls. When the echoes died away, the first contestant was called in from the wings, and thus began a preaching procession with five-minute intervals between each fifteen-minute sermon.
As the day wore away, Noah sat stunned by the brilliance he was hearing. Some of the preaching was along the lines of what he had expected: incisive exegesis followed by insightful application. But these sermons had an artful subtlety and polish that made him feel like a child painting by numbers. More disconcerting were sermons that soared beyond anything he had imagined. One Asian woman spoke with a militancy and immediacy that shattered his comfortable world; an elderly Latino had him alternatively laughing and crying without a hint of manipulation; and a young African-American woman preached with mesmerizing cadences that beckoned Noah toward a transcendent vision. But the preacher who cast the deepest spell on him was a handsome middle-aged Caucasian man with a large, expressive face and a rich bass voice. Sensuous words and evocative images flowed from his lips like a mountain stream, and each pause formed a pool of still waters. He not only proclaimed healing, he embodied it. Love inhabited every line of his face, and peace lived in each gesture. By Monday late afternoon, Noah was ready to pack up and go home.
But he didn’t—more out of a sense of obligation than a desire to preach. That evening in his hotel room he reviewed the fifteen-minute sermon he had prepared for the first round: a meditation on Balaam and his donkey. Back in Iowa it had seemed profound; now it sounded silly. Depressed, he tinkered with some details. By midnight he felt resigned. He went to bed and dreamt of an angry angel.
Tuesday was cloudy and cold in the Windy City. The leaden sky weighed down on Noah as he entered the auditorium amid the throng. Noah’s turn to preach came at ten-forty, preceded by eight accomplished—but not outstanding—preachers. From a maze of moveable walls in the wings, he crossed the stage and approached a clear, plastic pulpit etched with a descending dove.
The crowd became still as Noah stood motionless behind the pulpit. Without any personal preliminaries, he launched into the story: a vivid re-telling of how Balaam set out on a journey upon his donkey to curse Israel, with God’s apparent approval; how Balaam beat his donkey when it strayed from the path and refused to move forward; and how God opened the donkey’s mouth so it could complain to Balaam and reveal an invisible, armed angel blocking the way. The humor provoked some mild chuckles from the audience. Following some observations about the difficulties in being a pastor, Noah came to his point: “Pastors and church leaders, when you’re on a mission from God, don’t beat your congregation when they refuse to go where you think they need to go. Sometimes the ass sees more clearly than the prophet.”
Noah walked back to the wings. His congregation, he thought, would have appreciated this sermon. But would the judges?
Ten minutes later he entered the auditorium from the rear, found a seat, and listened to the rest of the contestants as the process continued until five o’clock in the afternoon. The crowd took a break for supper and then anxiously returned two hours later to hear the names of the twenty-five contestants who would advance to the second round. As the master of ceremonies read out each name, the audience applauded, sometimes cheering for a favorite homiletician. Noah twitched with excitement when he heard his name called out.
“These contestants,” said the emcee, “will each preach tomorrow on the same text, Luke 4:16-30, and will be limited to twenty minutes. They have this evening to prepare. We will resume tomorrow at eight o’clock. Good night and good luck.”
Noah rushed back to his hotel room, opened his Bible, took out a legal pad and pen, and began scribbling down ideas. For the next three hours he wrote furiously, crossing out sentences and rearranging paragraphs, until something like a limping sermon emerged. He read the convoluted manuscript aloud, trying out various inflections and gestures, editing as he went along. Setting his alarm, he readied for bed.
In the morning, the sermon rested comfortably in his head. While asleep, his brain had moved it from short-term to long-term memory, smoothening the edges in the process. Noah felt encouraged that this short preparation time would put him on a more equal footing with the more polished preachers.
After a light breakfast at the hotel, Noah walked to Lakeside Church, crisp air invigorating him, and a warm sun shining upon him. Inside the auditorium, the crowd’s excitement increased, glad to be past the grueling two-day process of the first round. The first contestant called up to preach was Victor Alvarez, the Latino who had impressed Noah on the first day of the competition. A warm smile on his aging and wise face, he launched into his sermon with relaxed humor. Quickly the audience was laughing and at ease. Victor moved unhurriedly from one story or observation to another, slowly building a sturdy edifice while at the same time entertaining his audience. After fifteen minutes, he came to Jesus’ climactic statement: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Victor conveyed the experience that the time of God’s healing and freedom had arrived—here and now—in the presence of Jesus. The audience roared its approval and clapped when he concluded.
Two contestants later, another of Noah’s favorites was called up: Jin Joo Min, a middle-aged woman originally from Korea. In sharp contrast with Victor, she employed no humor and put no one at ease; instead, she immediately reached for the jugular. “We call ourselves Christians?” she asked with obvious disdain. “Then where is the freedom for prisoners proclaimed by Jesus?”
She pounded the audience with the shameful incarceration rates in the United States, the horrendous number of rapes within prison, the shocking lack of preparation for release, and the pointless recidivism that inevitably results. She tore away the curtain hiding the hopelessness and dysfunction of the families of the incarcerated, and the indifference of the politicians. Most damning was her indictment of churches that entertain well-heeled visitors instead of welcoming the poor, that consume cappuccinos instead of pursuing justice, that celebrate with the saints instead of helping the felon who needs a new start. Jin Joos’s voice rose to a crescendo: “Jesus said, quoting Isaiah, ‘The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to release the oppressed.’ This is Jesus’ mission today!” When she finished, no one made a sound.
The master of ceremonies then called Noah to the pulpit. As he walked on to the stage, he felt shell-shocked from the previous message. When he reached the pulpit, he stood silent for half a minute, paralyzed. Then he began to tell a story.
An ancient Syrian general, Naaman, foe of Israel, suffered from the indignity and isolation of leprosy. His slave girl, a captive from Israel, took pity on him and told him of an Israelite prophet who could heal him. So the general went in search of this prophet, and when he found him, the prophet—Elisha—instructed him to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. When Naaman dunked himself in the Jordan, his skin disease vanished. Out of gratitude he asked the prophet if he could become a worshiper of the God of Israel and be pardoned for continuing to perform his required duties at pagan shrines. Elisha affirmed him, telling him to go in peace.
Noah then quoted Jesus when he was addressing his own townspeople in Nazareth: “There were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, only Naaman the Syrian.” Noah let it sink in a moment and then repeated the line, nuanced this time: “There were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, only Naaman the Syrian.”
Noah paused, and asked, “Is that fair? Is it fair that when God helps, God helps the wrong people? No wonder the people of Nazareth got upset at Jesus and tried to push him off a cliff. Like Elisha, he was helping the wrong people.”
After a pause, he asked: “What if God wants us to heal the leader of Al-Qaeda? Will we object … or become an instrument of God’s peace?”
After Jin Joo’s and Noah’s sermons, the audience seemed to lose its desire to cheer, and the rest of the sermons that day were wrapped in an atmosphere of sobriety.
Following supper, the audience returned to the auditorium for the announcement of which contestants had made it to round three. This was a big cut—from twenty-five to ten. The competent and gifted would be weeded out; only the exceptional would advance. The master of ceremonies called out the names. The audience, shaking off the reserve of most of the day, shouted in delight after each name. The tenth name was Noah’s.
The text for round three was then announced: Psalm 104. As Noah hurried out of the stadium, he groaned inwardly. When it came to preaching, psalms were one of his least favorite genres in the Bible. They include few narratives, arguments or issues. Instead, the psalms are songs. A psalm should be sung, he thought, not preached; experienced, not explained. To talk about a psalm is to suffocate it.
As Noah read through Psalm 104 in his hotel room, he saw how the psalm is a celebration of God’s sustenance of nature. Everyone will be preaching some sort of ecology sermon, he figured. How could he find a different approach?
He went to bed past midnight, unsatisfied and frustrated.
The preliminaries at Lakeside Church on Thursday morning included a trumpet fanfare while a procession of homiletics professors in their academic robes and brightly colored stoles marched up the main aisle; one held aloft the gleaming Golden Pulpit Trophy. Reverently, it was placed on an altar in the middle of the stage. Murmurs of awe arose from the assembly of saints.
The first preacher called forward was Lakisha Sands, the young black woman whose cadences had captured Noah. She did exactly what he had hoped he could do: turn Psalm 104 into vibrant, contemporary music. She sang a new song, inspired by the majesty and devotion of the original. Sometimes she clapped, sometimes danced, and frequently came back to a verbal refrain adapted from the psalm: “May the Lord rejoice in creation!” Soon, with her encouragement, the entire assembly was joining her in this boisterous refrain; and slowly the refrain took on deeper meaning as Lakisha gently led the audience to wonder whether God is still, after all humanity has done, rejoicing in creation.
Lakisha was followed by R.J. Silver, the golden-throated Anglo with the expressive face. Noah was enthralled as R.J. rhapsodized on the wonders revealed by modern science: the mysteries of being and time enshrouded in the Big Bang, the elegance of the chemical building blocks of life, the creativity of biological processes, and the astonishing capacities of human consciousness and thought. He then moved beyond nature to that which has no category or analog: God. R.J.’s central theme was that God is not something we can think about or talk about; God is that which we praise. God is our delight, our yearning, our hope. We must not believe in God; we must trust in God.
Noah sat in a trance, as if he had just encountered earthquake, wind and fire, followed by a still small voice.
Then came Noah’s turn. He snapped out of his daze and hurried to the pulpit. In a voice that sounded thin and raspy compared to Reverend Golden-Throat, he said: “Last year a farmer in my congregation was dying from a brain tumor. He was forty-five, like myself. He was upset to have to leave behind his wife and two teenage children. He was distraught that he would not see again the stalks of corn rising from the earth. He was dismayed to find that life was brief and seemingly pointless. He asked me, ‘Why are we alive?’ I had the sense, and ignorance, not to reply.
“Why are we alive? There are things that we do to stay alive. There are things that we do to enjoy being alive. But why are we alive?”
Noah let the question hang a moment. “In Psalm 104 the psalmist celebrates the heavens, then the earth, then the water and the grass and the birds and the wild animals. And then, after many beautiful descriptions of the seasons and the comings and goings of the wild animals, the psalmist says: ‘When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens. People go out to their work and to their labor until evening.’
“The sun does not think about why it exists, nor do the moon or the clouds or the springs of water. Nor do the birds or the donkeys or the lions. Only we wonder why we exist, and in this psalm there is this one brief statement that perhaps gives a hint of why we are alive: to go out to our work and labor till evening.
“We do not work in order to live; we live in order to work.”
Noah then explored humanity’s love-hate relationship with work: the weariness and boredom, as well as the sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. “Despite all the talk of wanting to retire, people don’t really want a life of golf and taking naps. People want to have something to do, something productive that is offered for others, but without the pressure of deadlines and survival.”
Noah concluded: “I wish now I could tell that farmer, ‘We are alive to work, and you have done that well. You have planted seed, harvested crops, and fed others. Soon it will be time for God to take away your breath and return you to the dust. And when God sends forth the Spirit, you will join the renewal of the earth.’”
As he sat down, Noah worried he had not done a good enough job. The second-guessing went on till supper-time.
Looking for a place to eat, Noah wandered down Michigan Avenue. He saw a café ahead and stopped to look at the menu posted in the window. Agonizing over the prices and French words he couldn’t translate, he noticed a familiar face inside. Sitting at a table near the window, almost in profile, was Jin Joo Min. Then he noticed to her right, almost looking at him, was Victor Alvarez. To his right, but partially blocked from Noah’s view, sat a dark-skinned woman whom Noah assumed was Lakisha Sands. And to Lakisha’s right, with his back to Noah, rested the solid form of what could only be R.J. Silver. Just then they all erupted in laughter, and Noah couldn’t help but feel that one of them had made a joke about him. His resentment boiled at not being included in their happy fraternity. He walked away, hiding his face from the window. He ate at Burger King.
When the crowd reassembled after the evening meal break, the atmosphere was electric with speculation. Though no money actually exchanged hands, bets were placed on who would advance to the fourth round. Noah was certainly no favorite. This was not so much due to a lack in his performance as it was a lack in his importance. He was an unknown pastor from an unknown congregation; he was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son. So there was an audible gasp when his name was announced first, followed by the four favorites: Lakisha, Victor, Jin Joo, and R.J.
The emcee continued: “The text for round four will be 1 Corinthians 12. The contestants will be limited to thirty minutes each. The fourth round will begin at one o’clock tomorrow. Good night and good luck.”
Noah’s heart sank. The only thing worse than preaching the psalms was preaching Paul’s epistles. Thank God it wasn’t Romans. The First Letter to the Corinthians wasn’t too bad—the description of a dysfunctional congregation engaged in debate and division made the letter a trove of homiletical promise. But the problem with the twelfth chapter was how Mennonite it was. All that talk of everyone having a spiritual gift, and everyone being equally needed in the body of Christ, and everyone working together for the common good—that was bread and butter for Mennonites; which meant it was tedious to Noah.
That night, back in his hotel room, he gave it his best shot and hoped it would be good enough.
At 1:05 the next afternoon Noah was sure it would not be good enough, because R.J. was magnificent—and he was only five minutes into his sermon. He focused on Paul’s statement that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus is Lord: a phrase packed with faith as well as political sedition. In R.J.’s fervor and sharp challenges, he sounded like Jin Joo, but with more artistry in his words and greater compassion for his listeners. In the space of twenty-seven minutes he had re-converted two-thirds of the audience to a passionate commitment to the Christian faith.
Lakisha was up next. She chose to focus on the last section of the chapter in which Paul lists many of the ministry roles of the church: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, administrators, and those who speak in ecstasy. She called on all present to claim the gifts God had given them. It would have been a rousing sermon except that she seemed to be off-stride. The beautiful cadences of her voice hit jarring notes and stumbled over broken rhythms. One could sense the crowd trying to will her into a better performance. Some called out, “Well?” to encourage her. One lady shouted, “Help her, Jesus!” But Lakisha could not get into the right swing. She was smiling as she left the dais, but Noah could tell she was disappointed in herself.
Then came Noah’s turn. He began with stories of various misfits in the church: not simply odd people, but those who embarrass congregations—the ones members secretly wish would go somewhere else. The accounts were sometimes humorous, always poignant, and everyone in the auditorium could relate to the images, either with a ping of regret about how they had treated someone, or recognizing themselves as the ones who had embarrassed others.
“These are the ones Paul is speaking about when he says, ‘… those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.’”
Noah lifted the least in the church to become the most holy of all—the ones whom the church must specially clothe so that all are given equal honor. It was a humane sermon that reminded listeners that the church is a community that heals by reversing the order of value.
Noah took his seat with a sense of peace. Something had been communicated in that sermon that went beyond anything he had calculated. He could feel it in the auditorium and within himself.
Victor was up next. In the past days, Noah had enjoyed watching the older man’s weathered face and listening to his husky, tobacco-stained voice. But today, the creases in the face were deeper than usual, and the voice sounded like sandpaper. As Victor struggled to spit out a colorful metaphor, beads glistened on his brow, and at one point he grabbed his left forearm and rubbed it. Noah wondered with alarm whether Victor might be in the midst of a mild heart attack. But Victor soldiered on, constructing a thoughtful sermon—though by now the audience’s attention was diverted from his message to his obvious distress. There was an audible sigh of relief when he finally finished and tottered off the stage.
Everyone was ready to get back to a sizzling performance when Jin Joo strode to the pulpit. As expected, she was a fireball of energy, throwing gospel sparks all over the auditorium. But then, in the middle of a prophetic pronouncement, a stream of vomit shot from her mouth. Several in the crowd shrieked. Jin Joo, with astonishing chutzpah, turned the pool of puke into an illustration and proceeded with doubled intensity. Indeed, this otherwise disastrous mishap seemed to propel Jin Joo to greater heights of oratory. Nothing—not even the gates of hell—would prevail against her.
That is, until she experienced another eruption, but not from her mouth. She stopped. Horror replaced passion. She waddled away as quickly as possible.
When the crowd re-gathered after supper, Jin Joo and Victor were noticeable by their absence. Lakisha was there, but looked pale. What had happened to the three of them? Had they been nervous? Sleep deprived? Worn out by the overwhelming stress and hours of preparation of the last five days? The crowd speculated endlessly. R.J., though, sat in the front row, cool and confident, as impervious as Mount Hermon.
The master of ceremonies approached the pulpit and the auditorium immediately became hushed. Gazing at the audience with practiced dignity, the lean man made his announcement: “These past five days we have feasted at the table of God’s Word. Sermons of the most exquisite quality have filled our hearts and fed our souls. Today we have been honored to hear the five best preachers in our nation: Victor Alvarez, Jin Joo Min, Lakisha Sands, R.J. Silver, and Noah Stoltzfus.”
Some muffled chuckles could be heard. Yes, those first three were among the best, but certainly not today. The emcee continued: “But only two can now proceed to the fifth and final round.” After a dramatic pause, he announced: “Our finalists are … the Reverend Doctor R. J. Silver and the Reverend Noah Stoltzfus!”
Noah restrained himself from punching his fist into the air. The crowd jumped to its feet, clapping and whistling. After that afternoon’s performances, the choices by the judges were of no surprise. R.J. was clearly the favorite, but a crowd also loves an underdog, and so there was appreciation among many that the championship had come down to these two.
With difficulty the emcee quieted down the crowd, though he could not accomplish silence again. “The text for the championship sermon will be the Book of Jonah, chapter four. Tomorrow will be a day of preparation and rest. On Sunday morning, the Reverend Noah Stoltzfus will preach in the nine o’clock service, and the Reverend Doctor R.J. Silver will preach in the ten-thirty service. At noon we will announce the national champion of preaching and award the Golden Pulpit Trophy. Good night and good luck!”
Ah, the Book of Jonah! Now that was a rich store for a preacher. Noah was happy.
For the first time, a mob surrounded him to congratulate him. After twenty minutes of shaking hands and thanking people for their well-wishes and blessings, Noah headed for the door. Behind him he heard a voice like a tumbling mountain stream: “Reverend Stoltzfus, congratulations!”
He spun around and saw R.J.’s face—like the face of God—beaming at him. “We should have lunch tomorrow. You’re someone I’d like to know better.”
Noah’s heart thrilled at the recognition. He felt like a teenager in R.J.’s presence, though less than ten years separated the two men. “Sure! Where should we meet?”
“I know a wonderful little bistro on Michigan Avenue. The chef is a personal friend of mine. It’s called Dagan’s. Let’s meet there at noon; I’ll have a table ready for us.”
Noah nodded and then floated toward the exit. It didn’t matter now if he won the championship. He had been approved by Reverend Golden-Throat.
Too excited to think about sermon preparation, Noah strolled the bustling streets of Chicago. He entered the Hancock Center, took an elevator to the lounge on the 96th floor, and sipped a Goose Island as he gazed out the windows at the city lights below. After a while, he was back on the streets, drinking in the energy of Chi-Town.
On the way back to his hotel he heard the sound of electric guitars coming from an old stone church building. Curious, he strolled to the open door and looked in. A small congregation was on its feet, clapping and singing to the words of a song projected on a screen. A praise band with a drummer, guitarists, and four singers was mostly drowning out the voices of the congregation. When the song finished, the band transitioned into another song, and yet another.
Noah was about to walk away when the third song concluded and a man stood up with an open Bible in his hand. He was young, dressed in blue jeans and a casual shirt. He read a passage of scripture and began to preach. Noah strained to hear it, catching only bits and pieces.
The sermon was followed by a time of testimony. Members stood and shared about the hard circumstances of their lives, and how they were grateful for God’s love and forgiveness. Some asked for prayer, and the young man—along with others—placed hands on them and prayed aloud. Then everyone gathered around a large table with a loaf of bread and a large goblet. They thanked God, broke the bread, dipped pieces in the goblet, and ate. After embracing one another, they sang a simple song with hands joined.
The size of the congregation was similar to Noah’s church, but this congregation was younger, mostly Hispanic, sang a different style of music, practiced different rituals, and did a lot more hugging. And yet, Noah couldn’t help but be reminded of his own church.
Noah walked away from the light of the open door and back into the darkness of the street. Lost in thought, he shuffled back to his hotel.
He slept in the next morning and took his time getting showered and dressed. Putting on a light jacket, he sauntered to Millennium Park and inspected The Bean—a highly polished sculpture, curved around and within. Reflected in its surface he saw himself upside down and stretched out, standing in a city turned all around.
At a quarter to noon he made his way down Michigan Avenue to Dagan’s Bistro, the very place where he had seen R.J. and the three other greats eating and laughing together two nights before. As soon as he entered the café, he heard R.J.’s booming voice: “Over here!”
R.J. was seated at a small table by the window, beaming a warm smile, and beside him stood a mustached man wearing a white chef’s coat. R.J. stood and extended a meaty hand as Noah got to the table. As they sat, R.J. said, “Permit me to order for you! The crab legs are wonderful. Oh, and you must begin with the soup du jour. I’ve also ordered a bottle of a fine chardonnay. You drink, don’t you? Good.”
The attention went straight to Noah’s head; he was tipsy before the wine was opened. For a while they made small talk, R.J. asking one question after another about Noah’s background, and R.J. responding with a frequent, “Fascinating!” as his eyes twinkled.
As they finished up their soup and waited for the entrée to arrive, Noah worked up the courage to ask a question that had been burning inside of him since the night before: “R.J., has it ever seemed to you that a preaching competition is an oxymoron?”
R.J.’s smile morphed into puzzlement.
“You see, last night I stopped by a little church that was having an evening service. As I watched the congregation worship, I was reminded of what preaching is about. It’s about God and the church. Then I realized that what I’ve been doing for the past four days is not preaching. I’ve been engaged in a competition trying to impress judges. It’s about ourselves—not the church.”
The smile returned to R.J.’s face. “Fascinating!” Then, after a moment, he added, “You’re absolutely right, of course. True preaching of God’s Word is not and never can be a competition.”
“So then,” began Noah hesitantly, “why are you in a preaching competition?”
R.J. responded earnestly, “I am not here to win a contest. I am here to preach, and to be inspired and guided by the preaching of others. Preaching, and listening to preaching, is the spiritual discipline that most feeds my soul. I am here because it is such a joy and experience of God’s presence. The trophy means nothing. But iron sharpening iron means everything to me.”
This was exactly what Noah had hoped to hear—a guiding light for his guilty conscience, and an assurance that not everyone had been corrupted as he had been.
R.J. leaned forward. “And you? Why are you in this preaching competition?”
Noah looked out the window before answering, and could not quite look back to meet R.J.’s eyes. “Attention,” he whispered. “I just wanted to be noticed.”
After exhaling, Noah continued. “Last night I thought about contacting the organizers and telling them I had to withdraw. But I hated to offend them—or ruin their contest. I decided I had made a commitment to this thing and I would just have to live with it till it’s over. But one thing is clear now: tomorrow’s sermon is not a competition. I’m not trying to win or impress judges. I’m just going to give an ordinary sermon that hopefully says something helpful.”
“Fascinating!” whispered R.J., his warm eyes glistening. “I am honored to be sitting with you and am so glad we had this opportunity to talk as colleagues.” R.J. glanced over his shoulder. “I wonder what is taking our food so long to get here? Let me just run to the kitchen and take a look.”
He jumped out of his chair and hurried to the kitchen. Noah shook his head at R.J.’s easy familiarity with the chef. A minute later he was back at the table. “A small delay in our order. But the food is worth the wait—trust me!”
The food was indeed worth the wait. Noah had never had giant crab legs, and they were delicious. The rest of their conversation sparkled, and so it was with regret that Noah heard R.J. announce that he had to get to another appointment.
Noah returned to his hotel and began work on his sermon, comfortable in what he needed to do.
The next morning he arrived early at Lakeside Church, just as the overcast sky began to dissolve into deep blueness. The crowd was enormous—much larger than during the previous days of the competition. That was because it was Sunday, and so the crowd was composed not only of all those who had watched the preaching championship throughout the week, but also the regular congregation of several thousand souls. The atmosphere of festivity that had prevailed during the previous week was now combined with holy gravitas as people assembled for this ultimate moment of truth: Who would be declared to be the one and only national champion of preaching?
The nine o’clock morning service was a dazzling display of worship: Trumpets blasted God’s invisible entrance into the sacred auditorium; a gospel choir revved up the assembly for worship; a magnificent prayer, accompanied by thrilling PowerPoint images and synthesized music, petitioned God with irresistible intercession; a dance troupe, leaping with streamers and pom-poms, mimed the way of salvation. Then came the moment to hear the sermon. The crowd grew faint with anticipation of ecstasy.
Noah ambled to the pulpit and began his homily. He retold parts of the story of the prophet Jonah. He highlighted some subtle features in the text. He urged the assembly to see in this story, not a God who bullies the reluctant prophet into compliance, but who gently attempts to persuade him with grace. “God is not scouring the ocean to chase us down and gobble us up,” he said. “God is rescuing us from our own self-destruction, giving us second chances, and teaching us to pity those whom we despise.”
Noah paused and looked down. “God has been teaching me this week as well. I thought Chicago was Nineveh. I thought this preaching championship was the place where God was calling me to preach, and that I was reluctant to come. But now I see that this is not Nineveh; this is Tarshish, my escape-route. My little church in Iowa—that’s Nineveh. That’s what I’ve been running from.”
Looking then at the audience, Noah continued softly: “It is there that I will find repentance and perhaps forgiveness. It is there—with my congregation—that I will learn pity and find peace.”
Smiling, he concluded, “Thank you for your hospitality this past week, and thank you for your kind support for my preaching.”
As he walked off the stage, the crowd sat in silence, baffled. After an embarrassed pause, the worship band struck up a tune, and people stood and sang, but now it was all mere habit, and no one liked it very much. The service ended and the crowd murmured its disappointment. The one consolation was that a true pro would be preaching in the next service.
Standing in the wings, a few officials dutifully shook Noah’s hand; the master of ceremonies mumbled something about the sermon being “interesting.” Noah tried not to be bothered. It wasn’t a bad sermon, he told himself.
Before the next service began, he found his designated seat in the front row. As the trumpets once again blared, and the gospel choir sang, he was at peace knowing he would not be burdened with a trophy. He relaxed and looked forward to hearing an inspiring sermon from R.J.
The Reverend Doctor R.J. Silver did not disappoint. He opened the story of Jonah as if it had never been heard before, as if it had been inked and canonized in that very moment. With a magic use of sound and gesture he drew every listener into a sacred trance where the human and divine met on unsandaled ground. This was not preaching; this was speaking primordial being out of the face of the deep. This was a voice flashing forth flames of fire, shaking the wilderness, causing the oaks to whirl while all cry, “Glory!”
When it was over, the vast audience of thousands lay swooning. A concluding hymn was out of the question. Any human response would be fingernails on a chalkboard. Instead, the crowd instinctively drifted out of the auditorium and into the light.
About a half hour later, at noon, the crowd reassembled to hear what all knew would be said. The Golden Pulpit Trophy gleamed from a pedestal near center stage. Noah and R.J. stood in the wings and were about to come out on stage when a red-faced judge, puffing and sweating, intercepted them and asked them to remain where they were. Noah was puzzled but obedient. R.J. said nothing.
The master of ceremonies visibly shook as he steadied himself at the pulpit and held up a note card. As his voice quivered, the words grew increasingly unexpected and alarming:
“Yesterday afternoon the Cook County Health Department informed us that Reverends Sands, Alvarez and Min each suffered food poisoning. The source of the food poisoning has been traced back to a restaurant called Dagan’s Bistro, where all three ate dinner with Reverend Silver on Thursday. We have just learned that the chef was arrested by the Chicago Police Department this morning, and that he alleges that he poisoned the meals at the instigation of Reverend Silver.”
A shock wave swept through the auditorium. The emcee continued: “In light of these allegations, the judges have determined that Reverend Silver should be disqualified from this competition. Therefore, the Reverend Noah Stoltzfus has won this year’s national preaching championship.”
The announcement was devoid of joy or victory. No one cared that Noah had won; all focused their thoughts on R.J and looked around trying to find him.
Noah trembled, recalling how R.J. had rushed to the kitchen during his own meal with him. Was that right after he had told R.J. he wasn’t going to compete? Noah didn’t dare turn his head to look at R.J.
The master of ceremonies called Noah from the wings to receive the trophy. Noah staggered across an impossibly long and embarrassing stage. The heavy trophy was placed in his hands during a smattering of applause. Noah muttered a thank you. As he retreated toward the side curtain, he saw R.J.’s face boiling; he also saw policemen approaching him from behind.
Once he was out of sight of the audience, Noah blurted, “Why?”
R.J. ignored the question but sneered in reply: “You just couldn’t resist making yourself the focus of your sermon this morning, could you? I can’t stand your self-righteous humility, your smug mediocrity. You’re a blind hypocrite.”
The words ripped Noah’s soul. He wanted to lash out. Instead he repeated his question: “Why?”
R.J. shook his head with disdainful pity. “You’re a fool. Ever since Jeremiah took on Hananiah, preaching has been a competition. It’s life and death.”
The police called out R.J.’s name and read him his rights. While Noah watched, he was marched away in handcuffs.
The next morning Noah opened the door to his office in his little church. Under his left arm he carried the bulky trophy. At first he was going to leave it at the parsonage, stored somewhere in the garage, but something told him that wasn’t honest. So he brought it into his office and looked around for a place to set it. In one dark corner stood a small round table with his coffeemaker and a few mugs. He cleared off some stained napkins and stuck the trophy behind the coffeemaker. He then sat at his desk and set to work answering a week’s worth of emails.
That afternoon, Cleo Brubaker stopped by the office to chat. His crops were in, so he was using his spare time to fix the church’s dying heat pump. While they talked about family matters, the phone rang. Noah excused himself and picked up the receiver. As he spoke with the caller, Cleo happened to see the trophy in the corner. Curious, he shuffled over and took a look at it. A puzzled expression furrowed his brow as he read the plaque at the base. Noah finished his conversation on the phone and hung up.
“What’s that for?” asked Cleo, thumb pointing at the trophy.
Noah sighed. “That’s to remind me what preaching is about.”
[A version of this story appeared in CMW Journal (online, 1/15/10).]
The special invitation came in the mail. Inside an oversized envelope, on a cream-colored heavy stock card, embossed lettering announced:
Be among the first in the world
to see this legendary creature
on display in a beautifully prepared exhibit.
The date and time of the grand opening followed—along with the jacked-up price. Without hesitation I marked my calendar and sent in my online reservation.
Bigfoot had been captured by two amateur hunters the previous summer deep in the Oregon woods. Gordon Buller and Timothy Krennick became overnight celebrities as they retold the story of their quest for Bigfoot to every media outlet from National Geographic to Jay Leno. After three years of rigging up digital cameras with motion detectors on several animal trails in Oregon’s Fremont National Forest, they managed to take a couple of blurry images of what might have been a bear on its hind legs—or something far more amazing. Convinced they had located the fabled animal, they set traps to capture Bigfoot alive. Astonishingly, they were successful within two weeks: Bigfoot had stepped into a camouflaged cage filled with bananas. (When Buller and Krennick were asked why they had used a tropical fruit not found in Oregon as their bait, they frowned and Buller mumbled, “We just thought it made sense.”) The hardest part of their expedition was getting Bigfoot back to civilization. After shooting their prey with a tranquilizer, Buller and Krennick found it impossible to transport Bigfoot through the thick underbrush. Using a cell phone, they had to convince a search and rescue helicopter to come and retrieve an “injured hiker.”
Once Bigfoot was presented to the media, and there could be no question of a hoax, the scientific community jumped from its pedestal. Every zoologist, anthropologist, and paleontologist in the world scratched and poked for a piece of Bigfoot. When DNA tests at Oregon State University determined that Bigfoot was a closer relative to humans than chimpanzees were, headlines all over the world screamed that “the missing link” had been found. Then, through a political compromise and a sizeable grant from the Lilly Foundation, Bigfoot found a new home in—of all places—the Indianapolis Zoo.
The day of the grand opening was one of those blue-sky Midwestern days when the ninety degree heat is coated with a layer of humidity so thick a fish could breathe in it. I drove to the zoo, parked my car at the edge of a shimmering ocean of automobiles, and walked toward the entrance twenty minutes ahead of the time stamped on my pre-paid ticket. The zoo had issued tickets with designated entrance times so as to stagger the crowds, but the idea clearly had not worked because a thick line snaked all the way from the Bigfoot exhibit, deep within the zoo, out the main gate, past the flagpoles, and into the most distant picnic areas. Resigned to a long wait, I took my place at the end of the line.
Initially, the line moved along faster than I expected. In ten minutes I was nearly to the flagpoles—which is when I saw the protesters at the front gates. Carrying signs with messages such as, “Free Bigfoot” and “Bigfoot Is Our Brother,” I recognized some of the protesters. In fact, I had joined them in the past in protesting the Iraq War. I suddenly felt ashamed to be standing in line to gawk at Bigfoot and I hoped none of my fellow protesters would see me. Where’s a hole in the sidewalk when you need one?
I turned my back on the protesters and tried to merge deeper within the line, but I made the mistake of glancing over my shoulder. When Megan Sorely saw me, her mouth dropped open and then closed in a frown of disgust. She strode over to face me, protest sign in hand, and launched right in: “I can’t believe you’re approving of this inhumane display! Bigfoot is an intelligent being—our closest relative. He doesn’t belong behind bars in a zoo!”
“Yeah,” I began weakly, trying to think of something ethical, “but I think it’s important that I see for myself what Bigfoot is like.”
“And that justifies making him into a carnival sideshow?” she shouted.
My words fell out of my mouth reluctantly, a clump at a time: “But a zoo … is not a carnival…. It’s a … an educational institution … for the preservation of species … facing possible extinction.”
“Oh, get real! Look around you—this is a carnival! This is no more justified than when they put a pygmy in a cage in the Bronx Zoo a hundred years ago.”
“Pygmies are human beings,” I pointed out. “Bigfoot is …”
“Our brother,” she finished.
The nasty side of me decided to play a hunch. “Megan, did you get one of those special invitations in the mail?”
She hesitated a moment. “Yeah.”
“Did you try to buy a ticket?”
She didn’t answer. She walked away and stood once again with the other protesters. I had guessed correctly: she decided to protest the Bigfoot exhibit only after the tickets sold out.
Minutes later I passed my ticket through a little window and I shuffled through the main gate with the pressing mob.
As the sun beat down on my unprotected head, the water fountain in the plaza beckoned me, but there was no way I was going to lose my place in line. Everyone was making the same decision. The polar bear exhibit was only yards away, but no one dared to venture over to the handrail to watch the bears bask on their plastic tundra or plunge into their glass pool. The seals and otters in the next exhibit were similarly ignored by the throbbing rope of humanity that wound its way into a hazy forested area.
As we jostled forward in a slow syncopation—sweat dribbling out of every pour, soaking our shirts—the stench of mingling body odors gradually grew stronger. The man in front of me was particularly odiferous, forcing me to turn my head each time my lungs required a fresh breath. I found myself despising humanity as my personal space was repeatedly invaded. I hated those blobs called toes, kneecaps and noses. Loose flesh and wrinkles irritated me. Even the act of breathing seemed vulgar.
Occasionally a child whined or an adult complained or a senior citizen made grunting noises, adding to what was already an unpleasant experience. I wished that all talking and disagreeable sounds were grounds for immediate expulsion from the infernal line. Please—let us all simply endure in silence.
My conscience bothered me. Should I be paying to see Bigfoot in a cage? Were not several experts claiming that Bigfoot was a kind of Neanderthal cousin, perhaps a different kind of human being? Should such a being be placed in a zoo? But that was exactly why I was there. Ever since Time printed Bigfoot’s visage on its cover (“Person of the Year”), I was mesmerized by the need to see that face for myself. Beyond my desire to embrace mystery, to put wonder back into my mundane muggle world—deeper than my yearning for a unicorn in the garden and a mythical reality—I wanted to look into those eyes and see if I could see myself looking back. I hoped for some insight into my own humanity, an ancient wisdom from the dawn of human evolution that revealed to me the secret of how to be.
As hours passed, I inched by the red pandas, the warthogs, the baboons, and the tigers. Ahead and to the side I could see the old enclosure for the snow leopard, now replaced by the meticulously prepared habitat for Bigfoot. A kind of electricity passed through the line as visitors caught their first glimpse of Bigfoot behind the bars. The line stopped moving altogether, no one willing to give up a place at the railing. A forest of arms lifted up cameras attempting to get a clear shot of the creature. Zoo officials prodded everyone to keep moving, but the crowd ignored their barking. Based on the price they had to pay, everyone felt the right to gaze as long as they wished. So there I was, thirty feet from the enclosure, but stalled in line and fenced out by immovable bodies. I nearly screamed.
As if sensing my mounting madness, people at the rail let go of their privileged positions and melted back into the mob, replaced by a sluggish circulation. I surged forward a few steps, and then some more, and then a few more. Up against the bars of the enclosure I glimpsed a tuft of reddish fur. I stared at it, straining out any significance I could from the strands of coarse hair. I considered taking a picture of the patch of red, decided I was being absurd, then took the photo anyway just in case.
I stumbled closer and gradually the entire back of Bigfoot came into view. He was sitting on the ground, his massive back against the bars, his head stubbornly turned away from all of us. Even without being able to see his legs, he was taller and more massive than I had imagined he would be. The back of his head, covered in thick, matted fur, merged into his wide shoulders with no discernable neck. A ridge ran along the top of his head, but I couldn’t tell if it was hair standing on end or the contour of his skull. His left hand lay curled on the ground beside him, displaying dark and dangerous fingernails.
With one last push I made my way to the railing. I couldn’t believe how close I was to Bigfoot—I could almost reach out and touch his dirty back. I took several pictures with my digital camera, zooming in and out, and holding it up at various angles. What I wanted most of all was to see that face, but aside from some tufts on his left cheek, I could see nothing.
And then, as if on cue, he shifted his weight, angled his left shoulder into the bars, and turned his head to look at us. He didn’t look human at all. He looked like a bear. I looked into his eyes and saw nothing—nothing but an animal. I took the obligatory picture of his face and then backed away into the hungry crowd.
Bigfoot pulled in large crowds at the Indianapolis Zoo for about a year, and then the attendance dropped off. Perhaps this was because by then other zoos had acquired their own Bigfoot creatures, or, more likely, the public came to the unspoken realization that Bigfoot was, after all, just another animal. And not a very interesting animal at that. He didn’t swim, climb, fly, jump, run or make faces. He mostly just sat in his enclosure, uninterested in the tourists. Despite a DNA heritage that put him close to human beings in the animal kingdom, he showed us no wisdom about ourselves that we hadn’t already learned from the water buffalo.
Interestingly, around this same time I noticed that there were no longer any articles in the National Inquirer concerning sightings of the Loch Ness Monster and abductions by space aliens, as if all our silly fantasies had finally deflated.
Two years after coming to the Indianapolis Zoo, Bigfoot became ill. He stopped eating, quickly lost weight, and died. An autopsy failed to reveal the source of the illness or cause of death. The carcass was then frozen and sent to the Smithsonian for storage.
To commemorate the first Bigfoot in captivity, the Indianapolis Zoo soon unveiled a life-size bronze statue of the creature. Now when you enter the zoo, next to the fountain you will see a noble-looking beast sitting on a rock, deep in contemplation, its chin resting on the curled knuckles of its right hand, elbow supported on the left knee, with the left arm draped over the same knee. The massive feet of the creature gleam unnaturally, rubbed bright by every passing child who believes that doing so will bring good luck.
I saw the statue for the first time last week. Standing in front of its brooding visage, I looked into its metal eyes and saw myself.
dedicated to Savannah Silver
“What do you say we sneak into Monroe Park tonight for a midnight hike?”
I was surprised and disappointed. Scott and I had become closest friends in a handful of weeks through our mutual love of chess, philosophy, and hiking. I thought for sure this would grab his interest. For the first time I felt a space between us. I pretended it wasn’t such a great idea after all, and we went on to other subjects.
After hanging up the phone, I weighed whether to go to the park by myself. It would be more fun with Scott, but it would still be a thrill.
At eleven-thirty I drove up a winding road on the outskirts of the city. Houses gradually gave way to fields and then to woods. An old wooden sign, unlit, announced the entrance to the park. No gates or chains obstructed the driveway; just a notice that read: “Park Closed After Dark.” I nosed my Honda under some low branches in a secluded corner of the parking lot so it wouldn’t be seen by a passing patrol car.
As I got out of my car and approached the trailhead, crickets sawed through the darkness. I looked up at the stars and was surprised at how much darker the trees were than the indigo sky. The forest ahead consumed light like a black hole.
Monroe Park wasn’t a grassy area for softball and picnics; it was a forest preserve. Crisscrossed with miles of trails, it featured hills and ridges, a stream, a pond, three bridges, and thick woods everywhere. Over the course of the spring and early summer I had trekked the pathways until I knew every turn and fork by heart. Hiking it in the darkness would be a new experience, but not a problem.
I felt elated as I plunged into the darkness. It immediately brought back memories of night hikes when I was a counselor at Camp Wilderness, leading half a dozen kids from the ever-glowing city into the blind beauty of a forest. Sight is replaced with the feel of the rough ground, the sound of the snapping twigs, and the smell of the vegetation. The woods come alive with creeping creatures who watch us while we stumble. In the forest at night we’re all children.
I ascended a hill, and as I crossed its ridge the trees thinned out sufficiently for me to see some house lights in the distance. But soon I fell back into the pitch of a valley and crossed a small wooden bridge, my steps echoing over invisible water. In my mind I could see a maze of meandering lines; each curve and crossing was exactly where I had anticipated it would be. The hike became a game, testing the perfection of my memory.
And then a feeling of uneasiness settled on me. I knew what it was. I could have predicted it: the inevitable fear of the bogey man. No, not the bogey man; any man. What if, in my wandering, I came across a stranger walking toward me? What should I do? Say, “Hello”? Hide? If he hears me, what will he do?
I suddenly realized I had never thought through this scenario. I had been on many night hikes before, but always with others—friends or kids from summer camp. A group makes noise, swooshing and crunching through the woods; and usually there is talking going on as well. Noise pushes away surprises, and there is security in numbers. If we had ever come across someone else hiking at night (we never did), there would’ve been nothing to fear. But now, alone, the situation was completely different. An encounter could happen at any moment without warning. Someone else may have decided to do exactly what I was doing—and maybe with a different purpose. What kind of stranger might be standing on the trail? Or what kind of stranger would he think I was?
As I turned down a narrow path and the walls of trees leaned in on me, as the rustle of a possum stirred the leaves and a bird’s wings flapped quickly overhead, my rational brain retreated and an older, deeper brain advanced—a reptile responding only to survival. No thinking now; only reacting. Flight or fight; either one, equal chance. I was afraid—not of what lurked in the night, but of what was lurking in me.
I turned to my right, taking the quickest path back to the parking lot. Panic, caged, paced back and forth within me. How stupid could I be, I asked myself, not to consider the possible consequences of meeting a stranger in the woods—a stranger I could not see or know or predict; a stranger who may hide or run or attack; a stranger I must defend myself against.
If I heard someone coming, I determined I would back into the trees. If the person continued toward me, I would be still. If the person stopped in front of me, perceiving my presence, smelling me, hearing my breathing—I would pounce, I would attack until the threat was immobilized. Then I would run—run the trails by heart, run to my car, race home, go to bed, go to sleep, and pretend it never happened.
I murdered someone.
I had blocked it from my memory; I had hidden it from myself. But now, years later, I remember.
I murdered someone. I don’t know who. A stranger. At least, I probably murdered him. I sat on his chest and strangled him till he thrashed and gurgled no more. Then I left him. He was probably dead. Then I had forgotten it all and gone on with my life as a productive citizen, getting married, raising kids.
But now I know what I am—a murderer. I can’t hide it from myself any longer. The memory has come back. There is no escaping it.
What should I do? Turn myself in? That would be the most ethical thing to do. Take responsibility. Bring the truth to light. Confess. Accept the consequences. Go to prison. Give the victim’s family some closure.
But why do that if I’m no longer a murderer—if there’s as little chance of me doing that again as there is of me becoming the first man on Mars? Why break up my family, destroy my marriage, bring anguish to my children, waste my talents, throw away all the good I do, suffer public humiliation, and go through decades of deprivation in prison? For what purpose? To punish me for a wrong that already horrifies me and I will never do again?
But can I keep this secret within me? Will it not destroy me? Is there not a scale inherent in the universe that demands justice from my flesh?
I am in terror—terror of what I have done, and terror of what I will decide. Every possible turn is terrifying.
Then I perceive I am dreaming—while still dreaming. So, did I murder someone? That murder was no dream. It was as real as anything I have ever done. My dream is unlocking a truth repressed by my consciousness, a memory stirring in me that will no longer sleep.
I see light through my eyelids. I open one eye. The clock on the bed stand reads 6:22. I close my eye again.
If it’s true, when did it happen? And who did I kill? I rummage through the last twenty-five years of my adult life, but I’m coming up empty. When could I have done this? Where? To whom? It doesn’t add up. It’s gotta be a dream.
A dream I’ve had many times before. The dream varies in its particulars. Sometimes I have killed a man, sometimes a woman. Sometimes I have run them over with a car, and sometimes I have stabbed them or shot them or strangled them. Sometimes it is accidental, and sometimes it’s on purpose. Sometimes I know the person I’ve killed—it’s a real person in my real life, a client of mine I can’t stand. Unfortunately, I know she’s still alive. So that means it has to be a dream. Relief!
Such wonderful relief. I don’t have to decide whether to turn myself in or not—whether to go through external or internal hell. I can skip hell altogether. How wonderful real life is! Just a bad dream.
Why do I have this recurring dream? Am I killing a part of myself, and is the dream trying to make me aware so I will stop? Or am I symbolically sorting through an ethical dilemma? Or am I keeping a part of myself hidden from others, and the dream is an encouragement to risk becoming more vulnerable and self-revealing? I asked a therapist once what the dream meant. He made a novel suggestion, but now I can’t remember what he told me. Whatever it means, it’s a dream.
I get out of bed.
But I could have done it. There in Monroe Park. I was vulnerable to being ruled by that reptilian reflex, triggered by fear, magnified by invisible threats in the dark.
I haven’t seen Scott in years. So many years. We live in different states—ever since I moved. This afternoon I can’t get him out of my head. I call his office number by heart. Someone else answers and tells me I have the wrong number. I’m sure that’s his number, isn’t it? When I get home I rummage through some dresser drawers looking for my old address book. His office number isn’t in there, but his home number is. I call it. Peggy, his wife, answers.
“Hi, Peggy, this is Jeff. How are you doing? Hey, is Scott around?”
All I hear is stillness. Then in a flat I-don’t-know-what-you’re-trying-to-pull voice, she says, “Scott is dead.”
Another long pause. “Nineteen years ago.”
This is a dream, right? I’m back in the dream, right? My next words are automatic, part of the dream: “How did he die?”
She pauses again, long time. I can hear the anger in her silence. She thinks I’m a jerk. She thinks I’m sick. But I already know the answer. How could I have forgotten? We were best friends. I was at his funeral. I cried and cried at the graveside. I remember.
“He was murdered. In a park.”