Jared turned up the main sidewalk, and walked through the nearly empty lot to the lake front. The early morning sun twinkled against the crystal blue water reflecting a million brilliant sparkles of light. An easy crisp breeze floated off the water, tickling his nose with the scent of fish and pine. Stepping up to the boardwalk, he leaned over the top wooden railing, raised his arms toward the blue sky, and breathed in the day.
“Good morning,” a stranger said, from his left.
“Whoa! Good morning, fella. I didn’t see ya there beside me.” Startled, Jared lowered his arms and began to fidget with his pull over sweater, before offering a hand to the tall lanky man standing beside him.
“Sorry about that, buddy. I was actually walking right behind you as we came up the boardwalk. This looked like a good spot to do some thinking.” The stranger offered his hand. “Jim. Jim Jenkins.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jim. Call me Jared. Jared Elliott. Happy Easter friend.”
Jared felt an uneasy tension surge through Jim’s handshake at the mention of Easter.
“Uh, yeah, Happy Easter to you too. So why aren’t you in church celebrating your holiday?” Jim’s sarcasm was thick enough to be cut with a dull butter knife.
“Oh, I’ll be there alright. My family will be right beside me. I usually take an early morning jog before church. It helps to clear my mind of the past week’s trials and brings me into the presence of the Lord. There’s nothing like a good sweat to help me focus on the Him. I guess that’s why I didn’t notice you.”
Jim huffed. His eyes diverted toward the water.
“Looked like you and your God were getting pretty chummy for a moment, what with the raised hands and all.”
Until that last comment, Jared had reserved to ignore Jim’s snide and rude banter. But the gloves had just come off. He put on his best smile and prepared to wage debate.
“Okay Jim, I’m gonna take a wild guess and suggest you don’t believe in Christ or the Resurrection. For that matter, I proposed you don’t believe in the existence of God at all.”
Jim squared off and puffed his chest toward Jared. Their eyes locked. Though both men donned happy smiles, their eyes were alive with the heat of mental battle.
“I think the term you people use for folks like me, is Atheist. I don’t understand how a rational man, such as yourself Jared, can put stock in a religion that promotes hate, separatism, and nonsense. As for this Jesus character? Come on. Love your enemies? Give away your possessions to receive paradise? Follow me or burn in hell? This made-up guy sounds like a modern day dictator to me, or at worse, a lunatic. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all brainwashing.”
Jared broke eye contact long enough to recite a silent prayer.
Lord, you’re gonna have to help me out here. This guy’s pushed my button and I don’t know what to say to maintain my cool. Please give me the words, to honor you. Use me as your soldier and servant now.
Jim pat Jared on the shoulder as Jared stared off across the water. The tall man gloated in his minor victory.
“Hey look buddy, I’m sorry if your feelings are hurt. I just don’t understand your thinking. Logically, your beliefs make no sense, is all I’m saying. A man has to be the master of his own destiny. If he gives control of his life over to an unseen entity, well…he’s doomed to failure. Can’t you recognize the reasoning in that Jared?”
Jared gazed into the calm water thinking of Psalm 23. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a spiritual switch was flipped, and he was suddenly running on autopilot. He envisioned himself reclining in a chair as the Lord took control of the ship. He turned to look at Jim, who suddenly seemed so far away yet close enough to smell the coffee on his breath. As Jared began to speak, his ears registered his voice, but the words were not his own.
“No offense taken, Jim. Every man is entitled to his own opinion on eternity. But allow me to set the record straight on a few things.”
“Well fire away, friend. I’m always ready for a challenge. It’s my business to be the best, you see. I run my own business, and do pretty well for myself.”
“I see. Good for you. The thing is, Christianity, is not a business. It’s not a religion either. Christianity is the way of life.”
“I think you meant to say, a way of life; moreover, your way of life.” Jim maintained the devil’s grin as he engaged Jared.
“No, I said exactly what I meant; the way of life. Jim, I was once like you friend. I devoted everything I had into my business. Sometimes I went days without seeing my wife and children even though we were under the same roof. I would carry business along on family vacations. Business brought wealth into my home, but it ultimately brought dissention along with it.”
Jim smirked at Jared but beneath his poker-face façade, his color turned two shades of red. Jared never skipped a beat, and pressed forward. His eyes were alive in way Jim had never actually seen before, in any man. He was used to staring into the eyes of sniveling servants or clients who wanted what he had to offer. But this man was different.
“Not all marriages were made to last, Jared. We survive and we move on.” He didn’t understand why he’d just said that.
“But in the grand scheme of God’s eternal plan for man, marriages are made to last, Jim. As husbands and fathers, we’re charged with raising our families up to know who God is; what a relationship with him actually means; why we need him in our lives for guidance and direction. Oh yeah buddy, I was like you once. So involved with my own selfish gains, that I actually opened the door for Satan to come in and rip my family apart. How’s your family life, by the way, Jim? Wife and kids?”
“I made choices on their behalves, okay? I chose to start the business and run it for success. Marilynn knew what my dreams were before we met. I even explained to her, how rich I was going to make our family.” Jim stepped back and turned toward the water, lost in contemplation. “In the beginning, she supported every decision I made. The first couple of years were a bit rough financially, but we were a team. We powered through. The profits finally began to arrive and we were living the good life: trips, cars, boats, larger home. Then Todd, our son, was born.”
Jared knew this story from his own past; he knew what was coming.
“Everything suddenly changed, didn’t it Jim?”
“Man all of a sudden, I couldn’t do anything right by her! I was spending too much time away. She wanted me to help out with the boy, so I compromised. I would take a day or two out of the week to just hang around the house with her and the kid. The missed time was always made up on the weekend, but while I was at home, she’d nag about the things I couldn’t do.”
“Like help with the laundry, or dinner, or holding the baby from time to time.”
“Oh brother, you’ve said a mouthful! No matter how much I tried to compromise, it was never enough for Marilynn. Eventually, I delved deeper into the business, increasing its profitability.”
“I’ll bet the money didn’t seem to make things any easier on the home front, did it? That’s the way it happened in my own home, Jim. The more money I made for the family, the farther apart we all grew. It just doesn’t work out that way. Contrary to popular belief, money does not buy happiness.”
Jim seemed to ponder the thought, for a moment.
“No. It surely does not. But it pays the bills, and purchases some nice toys, doesn’t it?”
“Perishable items will not go with us, my friend.”
“Maybe not Jared. But, what’s the point in working your tail off for a bitter ex-wife and ungrateful son, if you’re never going to have the chance to enjoy the fruits of your hard labor?”
“Jesus says…” Jared started.
“Okay, so we’re back on that subject are we?”
“We never got off the subject, Jim. You fail to see the error of your ways, man.”
“Okay, you know what Jared? Let’s just cut to the chase of the matter. You want to know why I don’t believe in your God?”
“Do tell, Jim.”
“The money didn’t make things any easier, but it was all I knew how to do. By the time the kid turned five, Marilynn had gotten involved with the local church. She began to change almost immediately. At first, I was excited about her finding something to make her happy again. She even started taking Todd to Sunday services with her.”
“But you never, went along?”
“By this time, the business was in full swing. I had taken to a seven day schedule, and couldn’t afford to miss important client meetings, just to go to church. Besides, I never believed in that stuff anyway. I wasn’t raised in church.”
“But Marilynn took to it, didn’t she? I’ll bet she got so deep into the gospel, even Todd took to it.”
“I’ll say this much for you people: you sure know how to bait and catch.”
“There is no bait and catch, Jim. The truth of God’s word can never be denied. Our God is merciful and compassionate. He invites us to follow him when the time is right in our lives; when he knows we’ll be open to accepting the truth. We simply have to choose to believe.”
“Well pardon my French, but that’s a bunch a bull. Marilynn began pressuring me to come to church with her, all the time. She even put the boy up to bothering me about it.”
Jared chuckled at Jim’s obvious embellishment.
“I’m sure they really pressured you into an ultimatum, Jim.”
“You know what, Jared? The minute my wife suggested the way we spent my money was wasteful and selfish, the ultimatum was mine to issue.”
“The hell I didn’t, buddy! I built the business from the ground up, and no one tells me how to spend my money. Tithing? Missions? Homeless donations? I suggested a divorce right then.”
“Seriously, Jim? Over your money? Brother, don’t you realize the money is nothing more than a gift from the Lord, to begin with? But back up a moment. You just said you built the business from the ground up. I was under the impression your wife was your partner in all of this.”
For the first time since they met, Jim’s exterior cracked. Though his lips parted to speak, nothing came out. He appeared stumped. Jared saw the chink in Jim’s armor and thrust for a verbal attack.
“I’ll bet she didn’t leave right away did she, Jim? No she didn’t, because she was vested in becoming the type of Godly woman the Lord called her to be. And since you were busy with work and the things of the world, she was charged with raising your son up to love and respect the Lord. She would have stayed with you until death, except for one small detail you’ve conveniently failed to mention: you strayed from the marriage. When that happened, I’ll bet you even tried to justify it by blaming her for your actions.”
Jim Jenkins flushed such a bright color red, Jared had a fleeting thought that the man might have a heart attack right in front of him. But the Lord wouldn’t allow Jared to back off now.
“Jim, you’re a selfish wretch of a man, desperately in need of the Lord’s forgiveness. I know how that sounds. And I know you probably wanna take a swing at me right now. But hear me, brother. I can call you out, because I’m the same man as you. Devoid of the Lord, I’m a selfish evil man, capable of all sorts of atrocities and offenses against strangers and my own loved ones. Jim, I almost lost my family because of my greed. I was unfaithful to my wife. I was absent from my children’s lives. I missed soccer games, recitals, birthday parties in my own home! But I sure did manage to make time for golf-course meetings, after hours rendezvous, and weekend projects.”
Jim stood before Jared, stone-faced. On the surface, he focused on the judgment passed down by the twerp before him, and made plans to counter assault Jared…quite possibly with his fists. But deep down, something was stirring behind his heart. It was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling, he didn’t quite know how to process.
Jared continued to lash out the tough love, like a man possessed by the Holy Spirit. In the 5 years since his baptism, he’d never encountered a true Atheist before, and never openly engaged another for the honor of God’s Kingdom. He’d never felt more alive than this very moment. His senses were on fire as the Lord used him to shower the truth on the deluded soul standing before him. As he spoke, random scriptures began to flood his mind. Suddenly, a pair popped into view, and he recited.
“Jim, in my New Living Translation Bible, Hebrews 13:4 tells me to honor marriage, and remain faithful to my wife. It says God will judge people who are immoral and those who commit adultery. What’s amazing and unique to both of our lives is that verse 13:5 also speaks directly to both of us: Don’t love money, but be satisfied with what you have. For God said, ‘I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.’ Now I don’t know if you’re ready to accept this fact, but here it is. Your love of money drove a wedge through your family. The only difference between us, is that my wife forgave me and, through the grace of God, allowed me to rebuild our relationship through God’s Devine intervention.”
“Jared, you’ve got some nerve talking to me as if you know who I am. Just who the hell do you think you are? I don’t know how you know so much about my marriage, but I’m man enough to admit my mistakes. Sure I strayed! What man doesn’t get a little bored from time to time. Sure I may have screwed up my relationship with my wife and son. What marriage doesn’t have rough patches.” Jim was suddenly irate. “I did everything right! I worked for them; to provide a better life for them! Your God hijacked my family and turned them against me!”
“Now watch this. I want you to realize something here. You just told me that my God hijacked your family, and turned them against you.” Jared said.
“That’s what I just said!”
“So…you believe my God turned your family against you?”
“That’s what I just said, Jared!”
“So…you believe in the existence of…God.”
Jim’s face paled. His lips pressed into a tight line. He turned toward the guard rail and clasped his fingers together, never relinquishing his stare at Jared.
“According to you, he has to exist because he turned your family completely against your principalities. By the way, that was a true statement. That’s exactly what he did, Jim. Brother, he captured their hearts because they were willing vessels. The truth is, you’re no more an Atheist than I ever was, Jim. You’re just a man struggling to understand where you lost control. You need a target to focus on, and so you chose God.”
Jim stood silent, holding Jared’s gaze.
“Who are you, Jared Elliott? Why are you here? Are you some friend of Marilynn’s? What gives you the right to analyze my life?”
“Jim, the question is…who are you, without your family, brother? Why are you here, on Easter Sunday, alone at the water front? I told you why I’m here. This is my usual Sunday exercise before church. But, little did I know that God had a plan to use me today. You should seriously ask yourself why you came here this morning. When you exhaust all logical explanations, try considering faithful explanations. I know how hard it will be to do that; believe me, I do. But it will be the start toward finding the answer you’re desperately searching for.”
Jared gently placed a strong hand on Jim’s shoulder and gave a light shrug.
“I don’t believe in God, Jared. I don’t believe in Jesus. Marilynn and I…we just…she changed.”
“Yep. She did, buddy. So did your son. How old is he now, by the way?”
Jim remained silent for a moment. Jared saw his throat working, his bottom lip quiver slightly, and knew. The conviction was at work here.
“He’s seventeen now. He’ll be eighteen next month. We see each other about once a month, but every Sunday, he’s in church with his mother.”
“What about Marilynn? Did she ever remarry?”
“Heh, she’s married to that blasted church! From what I understand, she’s there twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening, faithfully.”
“Faithfully, huh mister Atheist?”
Jim raised an eyebrow at Jared.
“Look Jim. I think I’ve offended your sensibilities for long enough, friend. I’m gonna head out. But, before I do,” Jared pointed opposite the river, toward Oak Street. “Are you familiar with the area?”
“Sure, I live about seven blocks west of here.”
“Ah, okay. Well, I play acoustic guitar for Faith and Grace Assembly Church at the corner…” Jared said just as Jim chimed in.
“Of Oak and Seventh Street; Small world, friend. Marilynn and Todd attended that church for a few years. Are you sure you don’t know my ex-wife? She once said it was a bit too Bapti-Costal for her conservative tastes, whatever that means.”
“Ha! Bapti-Costal; that’s rich! She’s got a sense of humor. I like her already. Well why don’t you come on by this morning and find out, what it means? You’ve got a friend there, and I’d be happy to introduce you to my family, Jim.”
“Yeah, I appreciate the invitation, but I’m just not into the church belief, Jared. It was nice meeting you.”
Jared shook Jim’s hand.
“Yeah, nice to meet you too, Jim Jenkins. Maybe will meet again. Take care.”
Jared jogged toward the parking lot, when Jim called out. Jared turned to meet Jim walking up the boardwalk. As Jared extended his hand, Jim surprised him with a subtle, friendly embrace.
“Thanks Jared. I consider it complete coincidence meeting you here today, but I guess I needed to…to get a few things…out, if you know what I mean.”
“I understand completely, Jim. God works in mysterious ways, brother.”
“Yeah…well…okay. Take it easy.”
Jared was feeling the presence of the Lord fill the sanctuary, as the worship team belted out a spirited version of “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord”. As he strummed and plucked through the chords, Jared revealed in the congregation celebrating before him. From the far rear of the church, the front doors opened. Jared watched in awe as Jim Jenkins slowly made his made down the center isle and found a seat toward the back of the church. Jared locked eyes with his new friend, and the men exchanged a knowing nod. Jim had found his way into the Lord’s house.