Strings

I

Phillip Harrison had met the priest only once, briefly. That accidental meeting resulted in some very positive results; well, from Phillip’s perspective it was positive. It began a series of events that produced the box of papers he was carrying. He stepped up on the porch of the little cottage that was the priest’s home and stared at the door. He was a bit worried about this meeting. The contents of the box might not be well received. Also, the priest had a strange nickname. Willy Smith’s son had said that everyone called him ‘Kermit’ which was, Phillip thought, rather odd. Well, frogs generally don’t bite, so he knocked on the door. It opened to reveal the lanky figure of Fr. Mike.

Phillip said, “Hi…uh…Kermit?” As Mike opened the door he said, “I’m Phillip Harrison. The Forest Rangers suggested that I give these to you.” He handed the box to Mike.

…uh…thanks.” Mike took the box. “Oh, come in.” He gestured toward a stool at the bar, “I don’t have a lot of furniture yet. But have a seat.”

Harrison smiled, “Thanks” he said. Phillip stepped over to a stool at the bar. His great-uncle Amos had built the cottage; and now this priest was renting it. He looked around remembering that the cottage always seemed tiny. He smiled and said, “The last time I was in here was before Stafford Arnold moved in.” Then he shook his head and said, “No, actually, it was a month after he moved in. His wife wanted that door in the bathroom so guests would not have to go through a bedroom.” He paused, then got up and walked over to the windows.

Then, still looking out the windows, he said, “I used to come by and we’d go fishing in the brook. The pool down there used to have some nice trout. Bet it still does. When we had caught a few we’d come up here and sit on the porch. Mrs. Arnold would bring tea or lemonade and a couple of cookies. I never went inside because my shoes were muddy. Stafford would spin a few yarns. It was great. Then I went to college and rarely saw him after that.

Mike had put the box on the floor by his desk and then walked into the kitchen. “Would you like some tea or root beer?” he asked. Harrison indicated tea and then Mike asked, “What’s in the box?”

Oh!” Harrison laughed, “You’re not going to believe this. It’s copies of some documents from BeaverDam Church. You know, I never would have guessed that Rodriguez’s mouth would be the cause of my pet dream coming true. I have you to thank for that. And, now that the little church has worship services like it did in the 1800’s, the Forest Rangers asked to see all the documents that we preserved. So I went to the historical society and made copies of almost everything. The Rangers said they would go through the stuff they kept and use it to make some historical displays.”

At this point Harrison looked at the box and began to smile. “Well, I’ve always wondered why all those documents were given to my family and not to the McQuillans. After all, each family owned half of the church. It was built on the property line.” He laughed and continued, “It’s rather funny. When the community got together the Baptists would sit on the McQuillan side and the Episcopalians would sit with my family.”

Mike began to get a bit uneasy. As Harrison talked, he began to get an idea of what was in the box that the Rangers thought would be better to give to him.

Anyway, when the two denominations build their own churches two new ministers were assigned to each congregation. Everything in the old church was packed up and given to my family.

Now, as you may have heard, I’ve been trying to get the Forest Service to make use of the historical documents. Once you agreed to hold worship services the way they wanted, they asked for the documents. I gave them copies of the documents the historical society had. They were happy to get everything, except for those.” He pointed to the box. “That is a box of…” a slightly wicked smile blossomed across his face as he said, “…copies of the original sermons. The Forest Rangers thought you could use them to reproduce the atmosphere of a worship service during the late 1800’s.”

Mike nearly fell off his stool. He was extremely irritated to the point of anger, but he was trying to maintain some self-control; therefore, instead of shouting, he squeaked, “They want what?!!” With great effort he maintained some sort of balance on the stool. He also tried to say something in a calm voice; instead, he sort of croaked, “Bwaar!”

Phillip had been worried about how the box and the Rangers’ request would be received. It was quite obvious that it had upset the priest. However, to see the man flailing around on the stool, squeaking and croaking was more that he could stand. He started laughing. But the look on Mike’s face quickly quelled the laugh. “Well,” he said, “I told them I’d bring the box over here. You know, I think they actually believe that these old sermons will make your task easier.”

Mike did not see anything funny. “So, because I help you to get your pet dream going, you are showing your thanks by dumping this on me? Why bother with a priest? Why not just hire an actor to read the sermons on Sunday morning? Better yet, they could film the actor and …” He stopped talking. Anger was beginning to fog up his brain.

Phillip looked hard at the young priest. He said, “When the government gives you anything, it always comes with strings attached. Sometimes they attach the strings when it’s too late to change your mind.”

Mike studied Phillip Harrison’s face. Then he said, “Oh. I guess your family would know that better than most.”

We’re learning to live with it.” Phillip smiled wistfully.

Mike heaved a huge sigh and said, “I guess I will, too.” He shook his head, stepped over to the box, picked it up and put it on the bar. He took the top binder out and opened it. He said, “So, this is the first string.” He shook his head again and mumbled, “Wonder what the second string will be?”

You could resign now, before you get too involved.”

Shock echoed in Mike’s voice, “Resign?” He had been scanning the pages of the binder; now he looked at Phillip and said, “I don’t have a say in the matter. They are not my boss. My boss sent me here. He set this up. I have no intention of disobedience to Him.” He looked back at the pages he had been perusing. Then he started laughing and asked, “Phillip, what exactly did the Rangers say to you concerning these sermons?”

Shaking his head, Phillip said, “I don’t actually remember. Something about using them to recreate the atmosphere of the church in the late 1800’s. Something was said about you being a new preacher and you might like some help with your sermons. Basically, I got the idea that they can get away with having sermons preached in the church only because of the historical nature of the event. I think they are worried about the old argument concerning ‘separation of Church and State’”.

Mike handed one of the pages to Phillip. He grinned and asked, “Well, Phillip, what do you think they would do if I preached that sermon?”

As he read the sermon, Phillip began to chuckle. Then that wicked smile spread across his face again. He said, “They did not even look at the sermons. Probably think they’re just about how Jesus saves and the Good Samaritan. This sermon, The Cross of Gold and the Cross of Wood, looks like it’s about the government interfering in the lives of the citizens. You could make them squirm.”

He shook his head. The smile faded a bit. He handed the sermon back to Mike and said, “Probably best to take a couple of sermons like this and show them to the Rangers. That should let them leave you alone and might make them respect your judgment.”

That’s what I was thinking. I sure don’t want to make them distrust me.” Mike shook his head and continued, “Look, I’m sorry I lost it a minute ago. But I had not understood about government strings. It’s a lesson I won’t forget.”

Phillip nodded. He picked up the sermon and studied it again. After a moment he said, “You really should get it in writing exactly what the Rangers want. William Jennings Bryan was quite a character. His speech is still considered a great speech. This sermon does have historical value as a reaction to that speech. But it could get you in trouble if you read it word for word.”

Looks like I’m going to have to practice tap dancing on a tightrope.”

Harrison laughed. “That’s a good one. Never heard that expression before.”

Mike said, “Oh, I had a professor who used it occasionally. He’d say that when one of us got entangled in a difficult sermon.”

Yes. Well, I’ve got to be going.” Harrison stood up and headed toward the door. “Thanks for the tea; oh, yeah, and the laugh.” He chuckled. “That was quite a balancing act.”

Mike had followed him to the door. They said goodbye to each other and Mike closed the door. Then he turned around and walked back to the box on the bar. He had quite a bit of reading to do.

II

The radio announced that it was the Autumnal Equinox. Kermit, startled, spun around to look at the radio. Then he looked at the calendar. The past six weeks were a seamless blur of activity. Well, not so much activity as communication. Phone calls, e-mails, texts, actual written letters, research on the Internet and face to face meetings with Forest Rangers. On top of that he had written sermons, counseled what seemed like dozens of campers, trained acolytes and even held a renewal of marriage vows for one camping couple. All that and he still managed to be on time for work at the bookstore in the plaza.

Glancing at the clock, he stepped out onto the front porch and glanced up the driveway to the mailbox. The little ping-pong ball he had painted bright red was dangling below the mailbox. That meant the mailman had delivered his mail. He turned around to walk down the steps and saw his bicycle hanging on its hook behind the swing. Anger welled up and expressed itself with a series of impolite words. Embarrassed at his outburst, he dropped to his knees and prayed.

After a couple of minutes of telling his Lord just how all this was “God’s fault” and how he felt himself being pulled apart and on an on about ‘poor, pitiful me’ he stood up and sat down in the swing. He took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry.” He thought he heard a little laugh. Then he felt his Lord’s presence. A feeling of peace replaced his anger. Then he distinctly heard ‘just do the job I asked you to do’.

The walk to the mailbox was refreshing. But there was a letter from the Forest Service that worried him. What did they want now? He wanted to shove the mail in his pocket and walk down to the falls. But the electric and propane bills were in the mail also. He put the bills in their basket on his desk and opened the letter from the Forest Service.

As he read the letter he found himself almost dizzy from shock. The Forest Service was offering him the position of chaplain. The salary was quite nice. The details of the job were basically what he was doing now. But there was a clause, “and other duties to meet the needs of the Forest Service”, which sent up all sorts of warnings, as he remembered Phillip Harrison and the box of sermons. It meant there were all sorts of unspecified strings attached. He almost called them back with a “no” answer. But he remembered his conversation with his Lord a few minutes earlier.

This was the job the Lord meant. He was already doing it without a salary. Now he could quit the bookstore job and do what he was supposed to do. The problem was the strings. His bishop would have to approve the appointment as a chaplain anyway, so he decided to write a letter to his bishop and include a copy of the letter from the Forest Service.

A glance at the clock showed he had time to write a letter and get it mailed today. As he started writing he realized there were many more strings than the ones the Forest Service was attaching. The bishop had a couple of strings he could pull; as did his parents. There were even some strings Phillip Harrison had attached.

Life was not simply getting up and being on time to do a job. He got up and started toward the kitchen to get a glass of water. As he did, he saw himself in the mirror. It was a solitary image, as if he were alone. Then he saw the image flicker and some strings grew from him to many other people. They might have strings attached to him that they could pull, true; but there were also strings that he could pull. He blinked, trying to see the image and the strings clearly. In that blink the vision disappeared. He drank two glasses of water and ate a cookie. Then returned to his desk.

His letter was short and to the point. He asked the bishop for advice about the job and the strings. Then he put a stamp on the envelope; filled his water bladder and strapped on his bike helmet. When he sat down on the bike seat he felt a smile all over his body.

III

Phillip Harrison tossed the pages back to the new chaplain. He shook his head and asked, “The Right Reverend Kermit wants to drain the swamp?”

Kermit laughed. “Well, if it needs doing…” He glanced around Staley’s and continued, “Actually, one of the most frequent questions I get concerns denominations. Do you remember the story from John chapter four about the woman at the well? In that story Jesus asks the woman a direct question about her sin. She immediately changes the subject to the disagreements in worship between Jews and Samaritans. Almost every question I get is, like hers, an attempt to change the subject.”

Harrison nodded, sat quietly for a moment and then started laughing. Kermit looked at him and grinned. Harrison asked, “When are you preaching this? I definitely want to sit in the back and watch.”

Kermit’s grin expanded. Then he said quite seriously, “Just don’t bring your priest or the preacher with you. I’d rather they heard about it from their congregations.”

Harrison laughed.

Aiden, Chaz and Matt entered the store, heavily splattered with mud. Patty hollered at them from behind the counter, “Get out! Go wash yourselves in the creek. Then come back!” After they exited she looked at Eric, who was stocking some shelves, and laughed, “I think they do that just to hear me holler.”

Phillip Harrison, whose back was to the door and the counter, asked Kermit, “Aiden?” Kermit nodded. Harrison grinned.

The boys returned to find their favorite beverages on the counter waiting for them. They quickly paid Patty and exited. As they rushed out the door those inside could hear one of the boys holler loudly, but fade quickly, “Race you to the falls!”

Kermit smiled and said, “You know, those three boys have been marvelous. I could not have managed without them. They’re full of mischief, to be sure, but they aren’t mean. Matt’s the most inquisitive. He’d never been in a church until Chaz and Aiden took him to my first service. He’s kept up with them, though. What’s more, they have been bringing their friends on Wednesday evenings and we’ve had several wonderful Bible studies.”

Phillip’s expression had changed to amazement. “So! That’s where he’s been going on Wednesdays. I knew my son was up to something. He’s been quite secretive. But, then, he’s always playing secrets and mysteries.”

It was Kermit’s turn to be shocked. He whispered, “Your son?”

Phillip grinned again. “Yeah. I’ll bet the other two were Matt Jefferson and Chaz McQuillan?” Kermit nodded. Phillip laughed. “If the principal calls me, he’s also calling their parents. You’re right, though. It’s always mischief, never meanness. Did you hear what they did last April First?” Kermit shook his head. Phillip continued, “You know the bridge on Highway 12 that crosses both PayDirt and Beaver Creeks? Well, they put up signs that the drawbridge was stuck open and set up a detour. It looked like real highway department signs, but they were made of heavy cardboard and painted. Looked real enough. Almost fooled me. But then I realized it said ‘drawbridge’ and it was April Fools Day. I laughed heartily. They even put up a sign at the end of the detour that said, ‘April Fool’. McQuillan told me that he found evidence of their sign making in one of his sheds. That’s how I know it was them. And, apparently, they took the signs down that evening. They were really proud of the photo in the Rockbrough paper.

Kermit said, “Brilliant!” He laughed and continued, “Drawbridge stuck open? I love it! And it made the paper?”

Yeah. Aiden could not help himself. He had to show it to me. He said, ‘Look Dad, what someone did for April Fools’ and showed the newspaper picture to me. But never said anything else.”

The two men sat quietly for a minute and then Kermit said, “Well, I’ve got to get the rest of this Sunday’s worship service done. This,” he tapped the papers, “will be a week from Sunday.” He looked Phillip straight in the eye and asked, “Please don’t tell anyone what I’m planning to preach. First of all, the Holy Spirit may change this. Second, I’d prefer that they hear it from me. I really did not think you’d want to skip your own service for this, that’s why I let you read it. You brought the old sermons to me. You told me about the strings. I wanted you to see how I’ve managed to comply with the Forest Rangers’ request.”

Phillip stood up. “Thanks for sharing it with me. And, well, you’re right. I can’t say that I’ll be able to attend. But I may let one or two of my friends know that it might be worthwhile to attend your service. I promise I won’t give anything away.”

Kermit followed him to the door. As they shook hands, Kermit became aware of a new set of strings. This new set was strung between him and Phillip Harrison.

 

IV

It was just another Sunday, so far as Fr. Mike could determine. The Episcopal service was first. This was a “high church” style of worship that followed, mostly, the Book of Common Prayer. That meant that the sermon was preached before they celebrated Eucharist. The Baptist service, which would be the second service, would end with the sermon.

There had been some discussion about which service would be first. Obviously, the eleven o’clock service would attract the larger congregation. However, in practice, it was the nine o’clock service that was larger. That was due to the fact that most of those attending had plans for hiking, fishing and other activities. Some attended both services out of curiosity. Others, experiencing the distress of life in some way, attended seeking hope.

What he had not expected was the number of confessions. Most of them were not the sort of confessions he had heard before. These were people in distress who, usually, knew nothing of the ritual of confession. Often they told him things they would be embarrassed to tell their own preacher. More often it would happen as part of a general conversation. The confessing person would start out talking about their life, or kids, or work, or whatever. In the middle of that the confessing person would tell Fr. Mike what they really needed to say.

Most enlightening was the comparison of the sermons of the past with the confessions of today. Not even the Internet and cell phones could change people. The pastors of a century ago did their best to meet the needs of their congregations. And those needs, it seemed, had not changed.

Fr. Mike glanced over the pages of today’s sermon. In his mind it was the “Strings” sermon. It was what he believed the Holy Spirit had told him to preach. Still… Doubt haunted him. Phillip Harrison had laughed and said he’d like to be at the back of the congregation so he could watch everyone while it was preached. But it wasn’t a really great sermon. He just said, in a round-about way, what the two preachers from a century ago had said. Anyway, it was too late now. He picked up the papers and headed to his truck.

The church was filled to a normal occupancy. Harrison had let him know that he was not going to be able to attend. Aiden introduced him to his brother, Robert. The young man looked like many college students: long curly reddish brown hair, sharp reddish brown eyes, matching beard in need of a trim, and the standard uniform of tee shirt, jeans and skate shoes. He wondered if Phillip had sent his oldest son in his place.

The sermon seemed to be acceptable. No one got up and left, anyway. Eucharist was quite smooth, but Fr. Mike noted that Robert did not partake of the elements. Afterward, as he stood by the door greeting everyone, only two or three people looked him in the eye. Several did mumble that it was a good sermon. At least no one expressed anything directly negative.

As the second congregation arrived Fr. Mike thought he saw Willy Smith, but was not sure. He smiled when he saw that Matt’s family was attending for the second time. Chaz seemed a bit subdued, but not anything outside of normal teenage behavior. Robert did stay for the second service, perhaps, Mike thought, because he was Aiden’s transportation.

Matt had asked if he could read the scripture lesson. It was from the Gospel of John, chapter 8 verses 2-11. Fr. Mike smiled as the boy read it very nicely. When Matt finished he went and sat with his family. Fr. Mike stood behind the podium and delivered his sermon for the second time that day.

As the Forest Service displays tell you, this chapel was used by both the Baptists and the Episcopalians for many years. I have been asked by the Forest Rangers to preach sermons reflecting the themes of the sermons preached in this chapel when it was the only chapel in this valley. They want to recreate the atmosphere of the late 1800’s. At first I thought that was a bad idea. Your needs, I thought, are different from those of people over a century ago. However, I did take the time to read the sermons that were preserved by the local historical society. Mr. Phillip Harrison provided me with copies of those sermons.
Well, it seems like people don’t change all that much over the centuries. So I will, on occasion, use those sermons as a basis for my sermons. Today I will try to make use of two of those sermons.
The topic of the day back in 1896 was a speech by Mr. William Jennings Bryan famously known as his “Cross of Gold” speech. Both the Baptist and the Episcopalian Clergy preached about that speech. Mr. Bryan ended his speech with these famous words:
“Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The two ministers who preached on that speech made the connection, as you would expect, that Jesus did have a crown of thorns and He was crucified on a “Cross of Gold”. They developed their sermons along the ideas of the nature of true gold and the work of Jesus on the Cross.
I’ve been pastor here for a couple of months. In that time I’ve seen a wide variety of needs. Certain things stand out. Therefore, I want to look closer at Mr. Bryan’s speech. I do believe it can help each of us. Mr. Bryan’s speech was actually about having two standards of money. One of gold and one of silver. He wanted the USA to recognize both metals as backing for the dollar.
The argument was about an economic principle called bimetallism. This is the term used to explain a monetary system that is based on both gold and silver. Now there was a problem with having both gold and silver as money. Most money in 1896 was in coin, not paper. If the price of gold changed in respect to the price of silver, the cheaper one became the standard. That’s because the more precious, that is, the more costly, was held in reserve, or melted down and sold. However, if you agreed on a price, took out a loan, or engaged in any economic transaction, the basis was the dollar. Not a gold dollar or a silver dollar. Just a dollar.
Imagine, if you will, having both a ten dollar gold coin and ten silver dollars in your pocket. What would you do if the gold coin could be melted and sold for twelve silver dollars? Again, suppose you borrowed fifty dollars from the bank and it was time to make a payment on that loan, which coins would you use? That’s why banks wanted just one standard.
Mr. Bryan, in his speech, seems to be accusing the banks and the stockbrokers of operating on a double standard. Yet, in reality, how would you repay that loan? Where, in truth, was the double standard?
Some of you may begin to see where this is going. You operate by more than one standard. Jesus told us that we cannot serve both God and money. From the time God set His people, Israel, free of Egyptian slavery they constantly looked to other gods for assistance. God kept telling His people that these gods were inanimate statues and incapable of any action. Yet they continued to worship idols. Then, when things got bad, they returned to God and worshiped Him. They operated on a double standard.
When you are at work certain actions are considered adequate or standard, but maybe not quite ethical. You would not want your children to do the same thing with their schoolwork or on the ball field. Do you demand perfection in others while cutting corners yourself? Do you make sure all that you do is honest and above reproach while you give a pass to others who may be slightly unethical when they make money for you?
More important, do you trust the advice of your stockbroker or banker over the advice of God? Do you buy lottery tickets and then pray that they will be winners?
Let’s look at Mr. Bryan’s speech again. He wanted money backed by silver and by gold. It was a popular idea. But it did not work. If gold was the more precious, the silver became the standard. That’s because no one wanted to spend gold when it was more valuable than silver. Then, after a gold rush, silver would become more precious and gold would become the standard.
Israel did the same thing with the idols and God. When the good times rolled, they would go to the pagan temples. When things got tough, they started worshiping God again. And we do that today. When the 9/11 crisis happened and people saw the planes fly into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, they rushed into churches to pray. Many return to worship in their local church after a disaster or when a loved one is very ill.
You may say that you are not a part of that. You go to church except when you are sick. You attend Bible study, you pray daily. But how do you treat your brother and sister Christians? In this building we have two types of worship. One is Baptist in orientation. The other is Episcopalian in orientation. And, outside of the church building we maintain that segregation. And neither group feels like the Charismatics down by the Plaza are really worshiping God properly.
Eventually, the USA decided on the gold standard. That has now changed. But the basic idea is that there is one standard, one measure of the value of money. Yet that money comes in many denominations. There’s hundred dollar bills, fifty dollar bills, twenties, tens, ones, quarters, dimes and nickles. There’s even two dollar bills and pennies. There are a number of denominations but only one standard backing all of them.
The same is true of the Church. The Church, as founded by Jesus and His Apostles, has one standard and many denominations. We should not be so concerned about the denominations and concentrate on the standard.
Once, when Jesus faced an adulterous woman, He said to her, basically, “No one has condemned you. Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

Just as it had been in the earlier service, the congregation was quiet. The final hymn was a bit subdued. He made his exit to stand at the door as usual. They remained seated for a moment or two, then slowly, a few stood up and left. Again, few looked him in the eye.

As Chaz approached the door, Fr. Mike noticed that several people were with him. Chaz introduced his sister, his aunt and uncle and his parents. And that explained why Chaz was subdued. Charles McQuillan did look him in the eye. He said, “Powerful sermon. No wonder our minister did not want you in here.” His smile was reassuring. “I’m very pleased that Chaz likes attending here. I think the Sunday School teachers at our church are too.”

Fr. Mike grinned. He replied, “Oh, yes. I have really begun to depend on Chaz and his friends for many things. Thanks for letting him help me.”

Matt did not look at him. So he said, “Good job, Matt. You read the scripture wonderfully.” Matt beamed. Ranger Jefferson said a polite hello then stopped and turned back to look at Fr. Mike. He said, “I wonder if the original sermons were that powerful.” Then he smiled and turned to walk toward his car.

After everyone else had left Fr. Mike noticed that Aiden and Robert were finally making their way toward the door. Robert stopped and looked directly at Fr. Mike. He said, “I’ve never been much for church. Dad and Aiden told me a bit about you. Doug told me a bit, also. So I asked Aiden if I could join him today. I think, if I could worship with you, I might be able to believe in God. At least your sermon today let me know there is hope. Thank you.” He quickly turned and walked away. Aiden just smiled.

Fr. Mike watched as the last of the congregation got in their vehicles. Then he stepped back inside the chapel and closed the door. He started to walk up to the alter to pray when he saw a little pile of something on the floor. It was sort of woolly looking, a light beige in color. When he got closer he laughed. It was a pile of frayed string. 

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