Once Upon a Cross (May 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Thom Lemmons
May, 1992

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel Once Upon a Cross, ©1992 by Thom Lemmons, published by Questar Publishers, Inc., Sisters, Oregon.)

There’s a call comes ringing o’er the restless wave;
Send the light, send the light!
There are souls to rescue, there are souls to save;
Send the light, Send the light!
Send the light, the blessed gospel light;
Let it shine from shore to shore!
Send the light, the blessed gospel light;
Let it shine forevermore!

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve hated that song. When I was a little kid, wedged into the pew between my mother and one of my brothers, my legs dangling from the edge of the battle-scarred oak, I thought the song was about some woman named Cinda Light. Today, as the congregation trots out the saddle-sore old war horse one more time, I don’t think the song makes much more sense with the right words than it did when it was about Cinda. The tattered tune lopes along the pews in its sterile six-eight gallop of righteousness with nary a glance to the right or the left. The pious horseman, his face clenched in a grimace of duty and faith, brings a message of hope to the souls of the foreign unwashed. To the souls, I said: who cares about the bodies? And why do we send the light instead of taking it?

The last prayer is over now; time to go home. I shove the hymnal into the rack and stand, amid the relived bustle of the released worshippers. I step into the center aisle, keeping my eyes on the slightly threadbare, sculptured cranberry carpet which leads me toward the back door. I’m trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, but not quite able to do so. An older woman, her hair pulled back in a severe, almost disciplinary bun, nabs me before I can manage three shuffling steps toward the exit.

“Don’t believe I’ve seen you here before, have I?” she says.

“Well, I … ah …”

“My name’s Barton – Maude Barton.”

Maude. Why am I not surprised? She sticks her hand out, and I take it gently between my thumb and the first two joints of my fingers. How old will I be before someone starts shaking my hand this way, I wonder? I give her the most noncommittal smile I can muster.

“And who are you?” she asks, tilting her head back to get me in bifocal range.

“Janice Thompson.” There. I’ve said it. Now can I go?

“Good to know you, Janice.” Good to know you. She knows my name now, so she knows me.

I can tell by her expectant pause that she’s giving me an opening, a chance to hold up my end of the conversation. So I let the silence widen, widen, and ….

“Well, Janet – ”

“Janice.”

“Oh, yes, Janice, I’m sorry. Anyway, it’s nice to have you here, and I hope you’ll come see us again next Sunday.”

“Yes, well …. Thanks.” I duck my head and make for a narrow opening in the aisle. A few more shuffling paces and I’m safely out the door and onto the sidwalk.

Why do I do this to myself? I wonder as I start my car and back out of the parking space. What twisted notion of duty or guilt forces me to get up early on a Sunday morning when I’d rather sleep, shower and wash my hair, when I’d rather lie on the couch and eat Cheerios, and drive to a body building filled with strangers to hear words that leave me – as far as I can tell – completely unaffected? Is this any way for an enlightened adult to act? And was it my imagination, or did I see faces around me in the pews this morning which looked just as confused, just as wistful to be somewhere else?

Maybe the human psyche is God’s idea of a joke. Or maybe my ecclesiastical remorse is a vestigial throwback – like wisdom teeth, or the wings on ostriches – to something I used to be. Long on form and short on function. An evolutionary dead-end which creates intermittent discomfort and will eventually atrophy, since it is no longer needed.

Is that all church is for me – a habit which makes me restive if ignored?

What is it I’m looking for, anyway? And why do I keep expecting to find it despite repeated disappointment, and keep going back to lookin the same places? Like a junkie searching for his next hit?

Boy, oh boy – I’m really negative today. maybe I’ll do some work on the manuscript. That should take my mind off my ambivalence toward organized religion – at least for a while.

Going up the stairs to my apartment, I realize that next week is Dad’s birthday. Guess I’d better find a card and get it in the mail. This is his first birthday since my move. My hand pauses on the doorknob. Oh well – at least you can’t get in an argument with a birthday card.

Going inside, I glance at the mail on the kitchen table – still lying where I threw it yesterday. Unopened, except for a rejection letter from a publisher. I will myself not to dwell on this last in a long line of similar exasperations. One of these times, it’s going to work … I sit down in front of my word processor.

The sounds and sights of the crucifixion entered Linus’ consciousness as echoes, visions which scarcely penetrated the cloak of confusion which enshrouded him. He saw, and yet did not see the dejected, half-dead prisoners looking on as the guards nailed together the beams of their death-racks. Through a numbing curtain of pain and perplexity, he saw the hammer rise high above the cruel spike held in place on the Nazarene’s wrist, saw its downward stroke. He saw the spine of the prophet arch, heard the weak, ragged scream of pain which tore from his tortured throat as a ringing hammer blow – then another and another – drove the iron pin fiercely home.

At last, the crosses were raised upright and dropped with dull thuds into the holes prepared for them. Most of the spectators began to drift away, leaving behind only those whose loyalty or spite held them fast.

The sound of keening came from a knot of bedraggled peasants gathered near the foot of the Galilean’s cross. In their midst was an old woman, wailing in northern-accented Aramaic, “My son! My son! Why, oh why, my son?”

The sound of snickering came from a group of Saduccees and chief priests. “Look at him!” one of them was saying as he pointed at the Nazarene, writhing in pain upon the cross their silver had paid Linus to build, “the Messiah! What a deliverer he is! If he truly saved others, let him use his power on himself, now!”

It was too much. Overcome at once by shame, confusion, anger and fear, Linus wheeled and ran pell-mell down the side of Golgotha, blindly fleeing the looming wall of emotion which threatened to fall upon him, to crush his sanity in its rubble.

Only when he entered the mouth of the street where his shop was located did his senses begin to rein in the runaway horses within his mind. Panting heavily with the exertion of his near-mad sprint from the hill outside the city walls, he entered his shop and sat down heavily on the nearest bench.

The silver denarii – his payment for building the Nazarene’s cross – still lay on the table where he had tossed them earlier in the day. Now he scooped them in a fest and flung them through the doorway, scattering them in the dust of the street.

He suddenly felt that Jerusalem was strangling him, crushing him beneath the weight of her centuries of unfulfilled expectations.

Somehow, the tragic death of the Nazarene had shown him that there were no answers here; only questions and disappointments. Even in Jerusalem, a life of unadorned purit and truth did not suffice: the cross crowning Golgotha’s summit gave mut, stark testimony to the helplessness of the simply good. The unnatural gloom settling over Jerusalem matched the twilight in Linus’ heart as he turned north up the oddly quiet street. Walking past the pool of Bethesda, he left by the northeast gate, along the Damascus road. He trod steadily northward, and did not look back.

I slump in my chair and look at what I’ve just written. As I read, I feel tears stinging the corners of my eyes. Is this maudlin, or what? A skeptical child of the Me Generation, wooed to repentant sighs by her own recounting of the crucifixion. Camera closes to full-frame shot of the wet-streaked face of Our Heroine, then a fade-in of an open Bible. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings hums poignantly in the background. Fade to black and roll the credits.

Make all the fun you like – I still have to go find a box of tissues.

The fact is, I realize as I wipe my eyes and blow my nose, that try as I might, I don’t have it within me to jest about the death of Jesus. It’s the one thing I truly want to – wish I could – believe in. Even when I was in high school, going through my most rebellious times (on the sly, of course) – trying out all the swear-words, drinking and smoking and acting cooler than I felt around the drugs and sex that seemed to be everywhere – I could never, unlike most of my friends, use Jesus’ name as a curse or a joke. Maybe this sounds corny, but, even then, it seemed … disloyal. After all, if the Bible is true, he became one of us, even though he didn’t have to. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

No, I very much want to believe in Jesus. The problem lies with the people I meet who expect me to believe they believe in him. I could see myself trusting somebody like Jesus, but there’s no way I can ever trust the church. Not after being on the business end of some of its tender mercies.

It’s tough when you’re a kid who asks all the wrong questions. You see, those who are snug and warm inside the house dislike any insinuation that there might be a leak in the roof. Especially from a snot-nosed girl with an attitude. Especially when she’s the preacher’s daughter.

So, Linus, where do we go from here? Like ol’ Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again. And they probably don’t want you back there, anyway. They moved, or you did, and left no forwarding address.

Oh, well … I guess we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.Wineskins Magazine

Thom LemmonsThom Lemmons writes novels and manages ACU Press/Hillcrest Publishing. His works include the bestseller Jabez: a Novel, published by WaterBrook Press; Mother of Faith, Woman of Means and Daughter of Jerusalem, published by Multnomah Books. Other works include He Who Wept, Sunday Clothes and King’s Ransom. He has three children.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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