The old man carelessly tossed the last of his belongings into a crumpled brown paper bag, which he tucked under his right arm. He stepped out of the rest stop shelter and walked toward the highway; just one more wanderer in a sea of homeless humanity.
As he shuffled along, the old man took mental inventory of his possessions. They did not amount to much. He had the clothes on his back, a well-thumbed Bible, a small plastic water bottle, two apples, a package of Twinkies, and the brown paper bag. No money. Not even a change of socks.
The briefest of smiles lighted his face; "At least, it doesn't take me long to pack."
After reviewing the list of his worldly goods, the traveler turned his attention to cataloguing his real treasure. Listing the gifts he had received was a favorite pastime, and helped occupy his mind as he trudged from town to town. The old man had never come up with a truly complete listing. There simply was too much to count.
"No one has more to be thankful for than me. No Japanese businessman. No world leader. No zillionaire narcotics kingpin. No one."
The old man smiled. "Well, maybe no one has more to be thankful for, but a lot of folks have just as much. And I'm thankful for that, too."
The exciting thing about his riches is that, the more he gives away, the more the old man seems to accumulate in his spiritual bank account. "I wish more folks would claim this wonderful inheritance. It is so easy for them to get what has been set aside for them. I would gladly show them how to get it, if they only would give me a chance."
A place of temples and shrines
As he walked, the old man considered his recent stopover in Texas. He had heard so much about Texas religiosity, and the Bible Belt. Although he had been greatly disappointed, he did have some truly wonderful recollections of his visit. The great city had seemed so alive! People were constantly on the move, rushing from one place or activity to another. They took their pleasure as seriously as they did their business affairs. There were strict rules and requirements for everything, even religious observance. On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, the magnificent temples of the city fairly groaned under the weight of organized worship.
In the mainline cathedrals, the rules of respectful silence and rigid discipline were strictly enforced. Well-dressed folks wore their most serious expressions to church, and sat silently as they listened to the Word as pronounced by a somber minister. At appropriate times, they would sing a centuries-old hymn, stand for prayer, sit for the collection, or murmur "Amen". Precisely one hour after entering the temple, they would file silently toward the exits; secure in the knowledge they had conformed to the demands of their theology.
When the old man first entered the city, the sheer size and magnificence of the great temples made a tremendous impression on him. "Surely", he thought, "a society which devotes so much worldly treasure to the glory of God would welcome a sojourner in its midst."
The traveler was so happy to have found a truly Christian place, he wanted to make prayers of thanksgiving. One of the great temples stood nearby, and the old man thought to enter and lift his prayers to God. Later, he would seek out a quiet corner where he could curl up and get a little sleep.
The doors were locked!
Off to one side of the entrance, the old man saw what appeared to be an office complex serving the temple. "Perhaps, I should go there and ask to be admitted to the sanctuary."
Several people were working in the office. They all stopped what they were doing when the old man walked through the door. Some of the people just stared at the ragged visitor, without uttering a word. One young woman giggled behind her hand. A rather hard-looking middle-aged woman marched to where the old man stood waiting. "What do you want?", she demanded.
"I just want to go into the sanctuary to pray," he responded. "Then, if I may, I would like to catch a few moments of sleep to rest these tired old bones."
The middle-aged woman looked as though she had just swallowed a live goldfish. "You can't go in there!", she screeched. "Don't you realize churches are holy places? The sanctuary of this great temple is certainly not a flop house where deadbeats and loafers can lie around and drink their cheap wine. You get out of here this minute. We have a lot to do to get the church ready for this evening's prayer service."
The woman continued to shout, but the old man was not listening. At her first harsh words, he had moved toward the door. Once safely out of the office, he stopped to catch his breath. As he gulped restoring air, he noticed that dust raised by his hasty exit had settled on his feet. He shook the dust off his shoes and set out to find a more hospitable temple.
He received similar treatment in other great temples he tried to enter. His first night in the great city, the old man slept under a freeway bridge.
When morning came, he raised himself and, after offering prayers of thanksgiving for a night safely lived, he set out to look the city over. "Surely, I will be well received in the less pretentious neighborhood churches. The people I have observed outside these places seem always to be praising God. Why, many of them even speak in what they call prayer language. Their words and speech patterns remind me of that 17th Century translation of Scriptures they prefer. Surely, these must be true followers of the Christ."
All the neighborhood churches he found were in storefronts, and were closed. The lettering on the doors listed services on Sundays and Wednesdays. "I guess they can't afford a full-time preacher," mused the old man. "I wonder who tends the flock when preacher is not available? Do members of the congregation have to schedule their spiritual emergencies?"
The old man was tired. It was growing late, and he had put in a long day. "I'll check out more of these New Testament churches in the morning. Right now, I need something to eat and a place to sleep."
The wanderer had no wish to spend another night under the freeway. He had shared his makeshift bedroom with several really scary people the previous night. He drifted around until he spotted one of the smaller mainline churches. He knocked on the rectory door, and spoke his needs to the man who answered his knock.
"Come on in," said the man, "and I'll fix you something to eat. I don't have a spare room in the house, but there is a bunk in the garage you are welcome to use."
In the morning, the preacher cooked a huge breakfast for the old man. "Sir, if you would like to stay a while, I might be able to find work for you. We could fix up the garage, and you could stay there as long as you care to."
The old man stayed a few days more, doing odd jobs to repay the preacher for his kindness. Sunday morning, as he washed the breakfast things, the old man informed the preacher he would be moving on. Preacher would have none of that, and he asked the old man to stay.
The traveler smiled. "You fed me when I was hungry, and gave me drink when I thirsted. You gave me shelter, when I had no place to stay. I have a long way to go before my journey is ended, and I can not tarry here. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Savior Jesus Christ."
The old man set out for a great church operated by one of the large New Testament sects. There was a spring in his step, and he hummed a psalm as he walked.
Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble. The LORD will preserve him, and keep him alive; and he shall be blessed upon the earth: and thou wilt not deliver him unto the will of his enemies. The LORD will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing: thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness. Psalm 41:1-3
The Lord's day
What a day! It had dawned bright and clear, with just an occasional wisp of frothy white cloud to add contrast to the brilliant azure sky. Never had he seen greener grass or a brighter pallet of flowers. God was indeed in His heaven and all was right in the world. For sure.
It was mid-morning when the old man arrived at the big church, and the parking lot was already filling as worshipers arrived for Sunday services. The traveler's joy increased as he watched the congregation file eagerly into the building.
"Oh, boy!," he thought. "These people must really love God, for they are in such a rush to worship him. This really is a great day!"
No one hindered him as he walked into the sanctuary, although several persons did cast sidelong glances as he moved among them. A few wrinkled their noses and withdrew slightly, to distance themselves from the earthy scent which surrounded the old man. This did not bother the traveler; he long ago had grown accustomed to such behavior. He found a place at the rear of the room and quietly awaited the beginning of services.
A well-dressed young woman turned and spotted the old man standing at the rear of the assembly. She arose from her place and walked to where he stood. She handed him a folded church bulletin, and spoke softly to him.
"Please, Sir, come and sit. There is room next to me. The service will be rather long, and you might become too tired to take part."
Gently, she took his arm and led the old man to a vacant seat. She sat down next to him, oblivious to the looks she was getting. She appeared genuinely concerned for the visitor.
"I don't know if you are familiar with our way of worship, so I'd better explain a few things to you," she said with a smile. "We love the Lord, and worship Him as we are led in the Spirit. Sometimes, it may seem to get a little out of hand, but who can say what God may be perfecting in another's spirit?"
"Don't worry about keeping up with anybody else," she continued. "Just worship Him as you are led by the Holy Spirit. The important thing is not how much you appear to be doing, but what really goes on inside your heart."
The traveler told her he understood, and thanked her for her courtesy. As he spoke, the couple sitting in front of him moved to other seats.
Bowing his head, the old man offered a simple prayer and opened his greasy Bible. He had only been reading a few moments, when the blare of ram's horn trumpets called the congregation to its feet. The choir filed in, singing an old hymn as they walked. No sooner did they reach their places than the loudest band the old man had ever heard began to play what he supposed was a hymn. The choir picked up the beat and, swaying to the music, began to sing something he could not understand.
The assault on his ears was a physical thing that made conscious thought almost impossible. As the band played ever more loudly, and the choir swayed hypnotically, the old man felt himself falling under the spell of the music.
He jerked his mind back under control and turned to the young woman. Her eyes were closed, and a wonderful smile lighted her countenance. She was swaying with the choir, as she clapped her hands to the rhythm of the music.
The old man looked around the room. Many were singing and clapping their hands in praise of God. Some began to twitch and move, as though pulled by invisible wires. Then, a tall man stepped into the aisle, and began to dance in wild abandon. He was soon joined by a dozen other dancers. A woman screamed something unintelligible, and fainted dead away.
To dispel any concern the visitor might have, the young woman leaned toward him and explained, "Don't worry. She is just slain in the Spirit. When the Holy Spirit finishes what He is doing in her heart, she will come around and be just fine." As she spoke, she gently patted his arm.
When the incredibly loud music finally ended, a man exhorted the congregation concerning their fiscal obligations to the Lord. Then, the church's pastor began a 30-minute harangue which could be summed up in just four words: Us against the world. To the old man, the message seemed a call to battle against more orthodox believers. And he sensed no message of love or Christian duty.
Following another burst of music, and the longest altar call imaginable, the service ended.
As they moved toward the exit, the young woman turned to the visitor. "I am going to meet a few friends at a little restaurant near here. Would you like to join us?"
At that, a spark was kindled in the old man's breast. "Thank you for the offer, but I can't go with you. My clothes are worn and dirty, and I would surely cause you great embarrassment. Besides," he added, "I have no money."
"Hush!", the woman gently chided. "You are my guest, and I don't care a hoot about how you are dressed. Please come," she pleaded. "We'll have a good time, and we can talk about today's teaching. You'll like my friends. I know you will."
The spark burst into a flame that warmed the old man's heart. "Thank you. I will be pleased to share your meal."
What a wonderful brunch! The young woman and her guest joined seven other young people, all of whom seemed genuinely pleased to meet the traveler. It was a buffet restaurant, and everyone ate their fill. When they had done eating, folks began to talk. And what talk! These young people spoke of God's love and Christ's mission with deep conviction and a depth of understanding that thrilled the old man to his very marrow.
When it came time to leave, the old man stood and, lifting blue-veined hands to Heaven, thanked God for his new young friends. Then, he spoke a brief benediction over them.
"God keep you in the palm of His hand during all your days on earth, for surely you are His beloved ones. Your charity goes before you into the presence of the Almighty. When I was hungry and thirsty, you fed me and gave me to drink. Although I was a stranger among you, you invited me in."
"Please don't leave," cried the young woman. "Where will you go? Do you have a place to stay? We can take you to a place where you will be looked after for as long as you care to stay?"
The old man smiled. "Thank you for your kindness, but I must be going. I have a long way to go before my travels are ended."
"At least, let us take you to your next stop," insisted the young woman. "Forgive me for saying it, but you seem too old to be wandering alone about the countryside."
The traveler told her he planned to visit a place on the outskirts of the city. He wanted to visit a little church that was growing there. The whole group decided to go with him, and make an outing of it. On their way to the little church, the caravan passed through some very posh neighborhoods.
The church was closed, of course, for it was now Sunday evening. That did not dampen the spirits of the group, and they gathered under an old live oak tree that dominated the parking lot.
A sweet voice was raised in song, and all joined in singing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. It surprised the old man these young folks had even heard of that fine old hymn. Evening changed to night, as the little band sang and prayed in that live oak cathedral. At last, the traveler spoke.
"It has been a wonderful day in the Lord, but now it must end. You all have homes to go to, and I have things to do as well. I thank you for one of the best days of my life, and I bless you each in God's Holy Name. Now go."
The young woman lingered until all had gone. "What about you?", she asked. "Where will you stay?"
"Don't worry about me. I have a place to stay," he replied. "I will be just fine, don't worry. Now, you really must be going."
As she leaned forward to kiss his stubbled cheek, the young woman slipped something into the old man's shirt pocket. He was aware of what she did, but he made no sign. Then, the young woman turned and, with a sob, ran to her car.
As she drove off, the old man examined the bills she had placed in his pocket. They totaled $34.00.
"Must have been every cent she had with her," mused the traveler. "God will surely remember her kindness to a stranger."
The next day, the young woman drove out to the little church, to look for the old man, but he was nowhere to be found. She came three more times, but never saw him again.
Another Lord's day
It rained the following Sunday, and there was something of a chill in the morning air. The old man huddled under the scant protection of the great live oak tree, as he waited for the sky to clear. People began to arrive, and several glanced at the old man, as they rushed into the church building.
A big man walked up to the tree. "Why don't you come inside and warm yourself?", he asked.
"God bless you for your kindness," the old man answered. "I am waiting for someone, and I fear I will miss her if I go inside."
More and more people arrived, and some of them also invited the old man to come in out of the wet. Each time, the traveler blessed them for their interest, but demurred. "I am waiting for someone, God bless you."
A young couple approached the old man. Smiling, the woman spoke first. "You will get sick out here. Come inside and warm yourself. There is hot coffee, and there should be some rolls to munch on."
Her husband offered his hand to help the old man rise. Together, they entered the church building. Few people noticed their arrival, and those who did seemed unconcerned.
"You can sit here," said the young woman. "I'll bring you a nice cup of hot coffee, and a roll or two."
The old man smiled. Then he shivered, as the effect of his exposure began to manifest itself. The young man took off his jacket and placed it over the visitor's shoulders. "It's just a chill. You'll be okay once you get some coffee inside you."
A few folks drifted over. They introduced themselves and extended their hands in fellowship. No one appeared to notice the old man never gave his name. The coffee arrived, together with two sweet rolls. As he sipped the hot brew, his new friends began to talk to the old man about the church, and how it was growing. The young couple, and a gray-haired man, didn't talk much about church growth. They were more concerned for the state of the visitor's soul.
The woman was very open about it. "Have you been born again?", she asked. "Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?"
When the old man smiled and affirmed his relationship with the Savior, the three ministering spirits began to talk with him of the majesty of God, and His great love for His creation. They suggested the old man's present condition was certainly part of God's great plan, and encouraged him to accept his lot as a sign of God's eternal love.
The service began with a contemporary Christian song. Pastor spoke a few words, then turned the service over to the church's music minister. As the Praise Team led, the congregation joined in singing several pieces of new music, and a couple of old standard hymns. The old man was impressed that several people seemed really to be in prayer as they sang.
Pastor then made a few announcements; about plans the youth group had made to travel out of town to attend a contemporary Christian concert, and a scheduled fund-raising dinner. The sermon addressed why the child of God must not seek pride of place, but instead yield to God in all things. It was a good subject, and the exposition was competently done. The traveler was convinced some of the congregation had benefited from the teaching.
At the end of the service, Pastor demonstrated his agreement with his teaching by not seeking to sit in place of the Holy Spirit. He made no altar call, nor in any other way implied his involvement was essential to bring a sinner to conviction. The old man was pleased to see a minister of the Lord who so clearly understood the process of salvation and how God pours out His grace upon whom He chooses.
"Surely, this man walks closely with the Lord," mused the traveler. "He has grown in knowledge of the Word, and seeks to do what is good in God's sight, without undue regard for what may be pleasing in the eyes of his congregation."
In his zeal for the Lord, Pastor had forgotten to take up the offering. When the deacons did get around to passing the collection plates, the old man dropped in $34.00 in rumpled bills.
Pastor walked to where the old man sat. He introduced himself and asked whether the visitor had enjoyed the service.
"I did like the service," he replied. "I prefer the old standard hymns over contemporary Christian music, but that is simply a matter of personal taste. Also," continued the old man, "I prefer a bit less humor from the pulpit. Again, that is a personal choice, and has nothing to do with the quality of the teaching."
Pastor was silent for a moment, as he examined the tattered figure before him. As big in his heart as in his frame, he was moved to compassion. "If you need a place to live, you are welcome to stay here. We have a spare room. If you are looking for work, you could take care of the church property for us. It wouldn't pay a lot, but the work would be easy."
"Thank you, Pastor. I can not stay, for I have a long way to go before my journey is ended."
Fire without heat
The old man's reply surprised the pastor, who asked; "Is there something about our church you find unacceptable?"
"We disagree on matters of style," the old man answered, "not on substantive issues."
"I don't understand."
"I will try to explain," promised the traveler. "Love for the Lord is a white-hot flame burning within my heart. Wherever I may find myself, the heat of that flame sustains me. I do not sense that same passion in this congregation."
"Some here understand, but many do not. This church loves God, but in an almost dispassionate manner. Fire without heat. No death-like legalism here, and I would not have you worship in the near pagan rituals of the more ecstatic churches. If I may draw a parallel, this church appears to love the Lord as an old man loves his wife of 50 years. The love is deep-felt and real as ever, but custom and accommodation have displaced the passion they shared as newly-weds."
The old man continued. "I wish this church were again on its honeymoon with the Lord. Of course, there would be mistakes, as the bride presents herself to the Groom; but errors honestly made in the heat of passion are easily forgiven. Passion is greatly to be preferred, I believe, over lukewarm embraces offered more out of habit than desire.
"Please do not be offended, Pastor. I believe you to be a godly man and a faithful shepherd. I am certainly not here to judge either you or this congregation; to attempt to do so would be improper. What I offer are my personal observations, which you may keep or reject as you choose."
The old man paused, and looked deeply into Pastor's eyes. "If I may, I would like to offer just a few more thoughts for your consideration. You are friendly, and appear to be well-liked in this congregation. I believe a pastor should be accessible to his flock, but not necessarily a friend. In addition to teaching Scripture, a pastor must guide, protect and discipline those entrusted to his spiritual care.
"It is sometimes difficult to be firm with one's friends. Wise leaders must understand that camaraderie with those they lead may have a deleterious effect on their ability to lead. It is possible for the bonds of friendship to loosen the ties that bind us to Christ. Look to the Bible," the old man pleaded. "Are you strong enough to be a friend to your flock, and yet be able to distance yourself from them when necessary? Could you raise your voice to your closest follower when he falters? Could you deliver a recalcitrant church member to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so his soul might be saved, as did Paul?
"I believe there are times when humor from the pulpit is appropriate, but not when addressing issues which affect our eternal relationship with the Lord," the traveler said. "Certainly, the impact of a powerful teaching on sin and salvation could be so weakened by an unfortunately timed joke or comic gesture as to render the sermon worthless. I do not appeal to legalism or prudery when I argue that neither our Lord nor His plan of salvation are appropriate subjects for humor. If humor is needed, let it occur when addressing church business, or when meeting with the congregation after services. Of course, that is only a personal opinion."
The old man pressed the issue: "How sad it would be, were a soul to be lost because a preacher made a joke at a critical moment."
Pastor thought for a minute, and then showed grace by his reply. "Thank you, Sir, for your thoughts. God bless you."
The young woman could no longer remain silent. "Where will you go? How will you get there? Can we help you?" She was genuinely concerned.
"The Lord will guide and care for me, thank you. I need nothing He can not provide. Just let me fill my water bottle and gather my things, and I'll be gone."
The woman ran to her car, and returned with two apples and a package of Twinkies. She thrust the food at the traveler. "Please take these, they're all the food we have with us. And here is money to buy more food."
The old man accepted the food, but would not take the money. He finished packing his meager possessions and, after blessing the little group, left the church.
For Ten's Sake
He walked for a while, then left the highway and climbed to the top of a small knoll. He dropped to his knees and thanked God for his recent experiences. Then, he rose to his feet and lifted his hands toward Heaven.
"Almighty God, hear the pleas of your servant. I have been to this great city. I found it to be a cesspool of iniquity, where all manner of abominations are practiced. Adultery, fornication and homosexuality are rampant among the population. The people steal from each other and poison themselves with chemicals. There is no respect for the sanctity of life, and babies are offered up for death every day. The place abounds with idols, and many are apostate; yet the Church stands idly by and watches, sometimes even partakes of the abomination. Surely, Sodom and Gomorrah were no less evil, yet you agreed to spare those places for the sake of ten righteous men, if they could be found in those cities.
"Jehovah, I have seen righteous men and women in this place. I have watched and listened as they manifested their faith in actions, not simply empty words and promises. For their sakes, I ask that you withhold your wrath and not pour out the cup of your anger on this city. Do not bare your mighty arm against this city.
"Because I have approached the Throne of Grace, I dare ask for yet more. Instead of wrath, pour out your grace on this city, and bring forth a mighty revival of faith. Send Elijah to lead the Church out of the wasteland of its own apathy.
"I ask these things, according to your Will, in the blessed Name of Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God."
With that, the old man descended from the hilltop, and disappeared into the gathering evening mist.
The account of the Lord's agreement with Abraham may be found in Genesis 18:22-33
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