The Word of the Lord Came to Gilbert
By Nathan Willard
In the city of Portland, Oregon there is a square. It is a brick-paved depression in the center of downtown surrounded by tall buildings, which block out much of the fickle autumn sunlight. This square has been named Pioneer Square. There is another Pioneer Square in Seattle. A young man I know was drinking heavily one night in Portland, he asked strangers for a ride to Pioneer Square and ended up in Seattle. The one in Portland has been nicknamed “Portland’s Living Room”. However, it takes a very special event to entice the upstanding citizens of Portland to linger. Instead they briskly skirt by it, shopping at Nordstrom’s, grabbing a latte from the Starbucks placed in its Northwestern corner, or hopping on The Max, the light rail train. If you walk past the square, a fundamentalist screamer may harangue you. This could be a man with a picket sign declaring his belief that the holocaust is a Jewish conspiracy. Or a group verbally attacking a tuba band playing Christmas carols may aim their righteous anger at you. “Christmas is a pagan holiday,” they say. “Jesus hates Christmas.” But, everyone knows Jesus loves, he doesn’t hate. Isn’t that what the Church tells us? These day war protestors congregate there and they bang pots and pans for peace.
There are the gentle religious folk, the happy-glad-handers, who sit with the home bums and street kids, who may attempt a conversation with a gutter punk – those are the wealthy kids from Beaverton who look homeless. They usually sit on a stone wall in front the old courthouse – I think that’s what that building is. These do-gooders pass out socks, food, toiletries, condoms, etc. But, there isn’t as much of all that these days. The city didn’t appreciate the few Portlandites who used the square as their living room and has successful driven them off to spots that only the street people know. Now people from the suburbs can pass by the square without being inconvenienced by Portland’s parasitical population. No, the undesirables are conveniently removed from view, unless you happen to wander north of Burnside, or into Waterfront Park. That’s outside the safe confines of the Saturday market, for now.
The other day, Gilbert, who is a tall long legged man, walked rapidly past Pioneer Square. It was chilly that day. His hands were stuffed deep in his pants pockets. His coat was buttoned up to his throat. A small man, who resembled a subdued, but still unstable, Robin Williams always on the verge of crying, tottered towards Gilbert. The small man’s name is Larry. He is an immigrant from what was Czechoslovakia. Larry, as is common, was wearing a filthy grey sweatshirt with dark red stains spattered on his chest. He put a Mountain Dew bottle that had been filled with a red liquid into his duffel bag.
Larry pointed at Gilbert and smiled. “Are you teasing me?” he says.
But Gilbert walks by. He didn’t, he didn’t look at Larry. He ignored him. Everyone ignores Larry, because he is a drunk and tells you the same stories over and over again all in the same conversation. The next time you talk to him, he’ll tell you the same stories again. You have no idea when the conversation is going to end; that’s the worst part. All of his stories are about someone named Michael. Larry loves Michael, though Larry refers to him as a “son-of-a-gun”. “Still I love him.” He smiles as he says it, then slouches, he looks at you and sighs. “Still I love him.” Sometimes it may sound like Larry thinks Michael is a god, or Michael the Archangel. “Michael is so beautiful, he’s glorious. He saved me.” Perhaps Larry is a Jehovah’s Witness. But no, Michael is an architect.
“One time Michael took me to the zoo. We looked at the monkeys,” Larry says. “Michael said, ‘You know Larry you look like a monkey.’ What? I said. But you know, he was right. They were beautiful.” Larry sighs. “They had brown and black bodies and yellow stripes on their face.”
“You know how I met Michael?” ask Larry. “He was reading a Bible in the Library. Everyone else was reading novels, magazines, text books, but Michael was reading the Bible.” Larry laughs. “I went to Catholic school. I saw Michael reading the Bible and so I asked him about it.”
“One time he took me to a movie. You know what movie it was? Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart.” Larry slaps his hands on his knees.
Then he’ll ask you, “What is love?”, or “What is life?”, or “What is perception?”. And eventually, depending on what you say, he might tell you about Jesus. And he’ll ask you if your water bottle is full of vodka. He doesn’t drink vodka, he says, just Mountain Dew.
Once Larry made some rather incoherent statements about a quest that Michael went on. Larry looked like he was about to cry, his jaw was set. But, he looks like that most of the time; incredibly joyful, then incredibly sad.
Larry is ostracized, by both the homed and homeless. I was standing with a homeless man once. Larry approached. He looked at me, pointed. “Are you teasing me?” he said. My companion stated, “I can’t stand that guy”, and walked away. The man I had been standing with has been a Christian for about five years. He used to be a wizard. He was a shaman and could heal people. Now he tells people about Jesus and he confronts druids and Satan worshipers. As a Christian he once prayed that a leader of Portland’s Satanic Church, who he knows personally, would be healed. The man was healed. My friend let him know it was through the power of Jesus. The Satan worshiper said, he would take whatever help he could get.
Gilbert went to Czechoslovakia last spring; it’s now actually the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He went to see were his grandfather and grandmother met. His grandfather, Eugene, was in the Russian army and was part of the force, which liberated the Czechoslovakian people during World War II. He met Gilbert’s grandmother, Ana, in a small town in Slovakia called Ruzomberok. He had leave one day and wanted to explore a castle ruins he could see from the town. So, he set out through the fields in the direction of the castle. As he was exploring the ruins, he fell and twisted his ankle. Ana heard his shouts for help. She brought her uncles cart to carry him back to his camp. Eugene fell in love, he deserted after the war ended and found Ana. It took him a while to convince her to marry him, but when he did finally they made their way to West Germany and eventually the States. They lived in Chicago, missed their homes, their families, but never went back. Eugene had been Russian Orthodox, Ana was Roman Catholic, but Gilbert’s father, George, found their religions too suffocating, and didn’t see any point for all the rituals. Gilbert loved the Czech Republic and Slovakia. What impressed him the most were the beautiful churches in every town and the shrines, every mile it seemed, along the roads. Most towns had Stations of the Cross on the nearest hill. These would culminate at the top of the hill with a small chapel.
The grandest of these is in the town of Banska Stiavnica. The sun was setting when Gilbert, his wife and their friends arrived at the top. The chapel had received a make over in the twenties or thirties, but had since fallen into disrepair. It was in the process of being restored, but a majority of the stations were in disrepair. The chapel looked like a crypt, so their exploration was tentative. The chapel is a large open-faced domed room; on each side identical towers stand. Crumbling white plaster covers the building. The trim and the roof are painted blood-red. Two unpainted stone statues standing on pillars flank the entrance. Inside the walls are covered with frescos. Straight above you gazing down upon you is the resurrected Christ. These frescoes are faded and flaking off, in desperate need of repair. But, they may not be very old – there are outdated electrical lines underneath the paintings. The restorers are in the process of pulling these out.
Suzan, Gilbert’s wife, a pale red haired descendent of Irish potato farmers who has a propensity for wearing Christian T-shirts, is stunned by their beauty. The artist speaks to her. He may have been devout, or perverse, but here in this chapel, with gifts both given and cultivated he proclaims the resurrection of Christ. Only a blind man would be unable to read this message. Yet, the works of men are fleeting. Some of the greatest artists’ works, paid for by the richest rulers, are dismantled and sold in an American antique store.
As Gilbert walked away from Larry he ran into one of those young people with clipboards; the kind who try to get you to sign a petition or give money to some cause. Gilbert tried to avoid eye contact with this particular one. She was an attractive young white girl with a picture of Gandhi on her clipboard. “Do you have a minute for peace?” She asked.
How could he say no?
On Wednesday Gilbert went to a sports bar in southeast Portland known as The Scoreboard. It’s a dive. He was putting off doing a paper for his New Testament Critical Issues class. Gilbert likes The Scoreboard because it isn’t the kind of place that relevant Christians go to. It couldn’t be glamorized, nor did it have any ironic charm. Years before, when it was called Darwin’s Theory, it had been the sight of a thriving social scene. As the regulars got older, the bar became dilapidated. It got a new name and a big screen T.V., but not much else. Gilbert ordered a Roots IPA and sat down on a lumpy booth seat. A football game was on the T.V. Gilbert was putting off his paper concerning the story of the rich young ruler, because it disturbed him. He entertained the idea of selling everything, living on the streets. He didn’t think his wife would agree to this and what was he supposed to do when they had kids? But, he did feel like he had to do something big, something really extravagant. Maybe he could start a new monastic order. Really, he was perplexed. He had started Seminary with the intention of becoming a youth pastor when he was done. After a few years of that he might try to get a job as a professor at a small Bible college. What he got was a whole lot of talk about being missional, and incarnational. Of course it seemed very similar to how everyone in undergrad had talked about postmodernism. No one really new what it was, they just knew it was important.
Gilbert thought that he was a pretty normal guy. He didn’t need to change the world. He just wanted a fun job that paid all right. He’d done youth work before and liked the schedule of church work. Gilbert was a good teacher. He knew his Bible well and was good at encouraging people. Both the cool kids and the geeks liked him. With Suzan’s help he had put on some big events and had gotten a lot of kids to come to the Church. Well they mainly would just come to the Wednesday night meetings and Camp. It seemed to Gilbert that the Church’s biggest problem was attracting people in their twenties and thirties. The church needs to be relevant, thought Gilbert. He could do that.
He was told once that a pastor needed to keep his distance from the congregation. They needed to respect him, and needed to be able to put him on a pedestal. He had seen some guys in undergrad get up in front of a men’s chapel and tell about all their sexual deviations. They would break down blubbering. He’d seen this before for drinking, and drugs as well. Everyone was so sorry, but they looked like asses. And, they probably went right back to doing what they did before. The ones he knew had. It didn’t really seem like anyone really changed. Take care of the church kids; don’t lose them to the world. Or, at least, indoctrinate them enough so that they come back when they have their own kids. Get the cool kids to come to your church, and the pretty girls. That’ll bring in enough of the other kids. Keep them entertained so they won’t go looking for fun elsewhere. What else could you do?
His friend Paul walked in the door. He was the guy that introduced the bar to Gilbert. Paul wasn’t a Christian, though he had grown up as one. Paul left the Church, because he didn’t think God was there, or at least not just there in some special way. Marlow was with him. Gilbert didn’t know him, but had seen him before at the Artistery, which is a play on the word “monastery”. It used to be connected with a big church in town called Imago Dei Community. The Artistery was for Christian artists to learn how to be better artists and people – presumably better Christians. Now Gilbert thinks it’s hardly Christian at all, and there doesn’t seem to be much art happening there either. They do host a lot of concerts. Gilbert thinks Marlow is one of the problems. This guy has a lot of tattoos, on one hand Zion is written on his knuckles, but then he’s got 666 on the thumb of his other hand. The guy has a pseudo Mohawk now, but used to have some dreads. It seems like half of the people at the Artistery get mohawks when they move in. This guy looks like the worst of them. A bunch of people raised Christian, but now trying to be rebellious – drinking, smoking, screwing around. What kind of witness did these people have, Gilbert wonders.
Gilbert didn’t want to talk to Marlow, so after a cursory greeting he got up, settled his tab and left. As he walked to his car his cell phone rang. It was Darlene, the secretary from the church he attends – called The Inferno— used to be called Calvary Baptist. Gilbert had been in charge of putting up the crèche that afternoon.
“The baby Jesus is missing,” she said. “Did it get set up?”
“I put it up myself. Is the whole manger missing, or just Jesus?
“No, the manger’s there. But where’s Jesus?”
Gilbert didn’t have a clue.
A Prophet is a person who communicates a God-inspired message. They proclaim that revelation through words, or symbolic actions. Jesus was a revelation from God. Not only did he carry a message from God, Jesus was the Word. He did not simply point the way towards God; he is the Way. The Church is the body of Jesus. Therefore the Church is the present incarnation of Jesus on earth. Whatever we say or do is a representation of God. We represent Jesus. We act on behalf of Jesus. Whatever we do, or say, as individuals, or as a group is a chance to be prophetic. We are given the awesome privilege of speaking and acting on behalf of God. We are given the frightening responsibility of representing God. We are set apart, made sacred, so that we may be mediators between God and man. The Church is a prophet.