By Web Ruble
Web Ruble writes: I am a retired newspaper reporter of some 40 years, and a couple of those years I was religion writer at The Oregonian, Oregon's largest daily. Now I am a novelist and short story writer. My wife Norma and I live in Fairview, OR but split our time between there and Tucson, AZ where we are now until about April 15. We are lay leaders and deacons at Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church in Fairview, OR (near Portland). We also are volunteers on Thursdays about nine months out of the year in a soup kitchen in Gresham, OR.
He was approaching a place of peace. Why, then, was he so apprehensive?
Old tin sides – his battered Ford station wagon – leaned to starboard as it swerved up the asphalt drive to the parking lot.
Rolling to a stop in the comfortable courtyard bordered by the L-shaped church, Barney creaked open the car door, detached the seatbelt, and stepped out. His 67-year-old legs were wobbly.
Usually when he arrived in the lovely quietude of this peaceful plaza, waves of deliverance from the day’s confrontations eased him to a sense of well being. Here he had always had a sense of belonging, although the church was not in the mainstream of that vast, fast world through which he had been racing.
Nevertheless, this time – on a potentially squalling October day – Barney experienced a measure of self doubt and felt somewhat distant from the church where for nearly a decade he had been a sexton and served on the church’s lock-and-key committee.
There was reason for disquiet. Today he had a long-awaited consultation with Jennifer who was relatively new and the second woman pastor to serve the 350 parishioners.
Barney had had run-ins with younger, bossy, women who all but tagged themselves with the out-going message: I’m-in-charge-and-because-you’re-you, you’re-in-trouble. These clangorous types had taken over many of the high-powered workplaces, including the magazine where he had worked.
He once had vowed to drown the next insufferable female, or man for that matter, who tried to wash him with her or his particular wave of political correctness. These power brokers had gone overboard in engineering his slightly early retirement.
Nevertheless – despite this mild age-and-gender hang up – he had no quarrel with the young woman church pastor who already had proved to be a surprising woman of wisdom. After all, the 46-year-old woman had already heard a lifetime’s worth of problems that parishioners had poured out in a two-year rainstorm of sorrow and tribulation.
Nevertheless, he now wondered how the spiritual matter that he was about to unload would strike her. Perhaps Jennifer would have no crisp answer. But maybe the striking brownette with reddish highlights could shine some celestial brilliance on recent events that to Barney appeared murky if not unholy.
The widower whose four children lived in other parts of the country was certain he would feel better if someone just listened as he tried to explore the spiritual confusion obsessing him.
He got out, straightened his legs, stretched and . . . what was that? There it was again. Hmmmm.
He thought he heard balalaikas – those three-stringed Russian banjos – fairly humming among the gust-stirred leaves that were scraping the asphalt.
Naw, it couldn’t be. He shrugged and said to himself, “Self, you’ve been imagining all kinds of things lately.” He chuckled and tried to regain his casual demeanor. He dodged the church’s bolting 35-year-old youth pastor who was dashing from the door, probably to a teen counseling session. Barney grunted a hello and got a hasty wave in return.
This was fine because today was not one for small talk. With the force of ecclesiastical purpose Barney pulled open the heavy oak-faced door, entered the covered hallway, and walked the corridors to the pastor’s office.
Pastor Jennifer’s den was a study in ecumenism. Contemporary papers worried her desk. Apostolic books and counseling compendiums reposed in monastic order. Religious pictures – Italianate modern and Teutonic traditional – decorated the north wall above her desk. Near the visitors’ chair maroon-gold-and-blue-brocaded tapestries draped from a table. If one’s cultural imagination were willing to expand, the scene would exude a sort of Kievan-Georgian-Armenian motif.
It was the next surprise that rendered Barney immobile in rapture: Book-like Russian icons in Cyrillic adornment peered from a shelf. They suggested a distant holiness as if unearthed from long ago-excavated czarist trenches. A “chalice of wine” perched on a desk corner.
Jennifer was ready. She apparently had arranged this “Georgian zone” just for him. You see, they shared the commonality of obscure Ukrainian, intermontain Caucasian and Orthodox extraction.
However, separated by a generation and experience, he and Pastor Jennifer had little in common except for this ancestral connection to the Caucuses and the Steppe. Their families had drifted with time through the American experience to become at first Catholics, then humanists and finally, mainline Protestants.
Finishing an animated telephone conversation, the young woman with eyes of Yalta waved Barney to a chair. She then buzzed Anna Marie, the secretary, and asked to be undisturbed.
“Barney...great of you coming in.” Her coffee saucer eyes shown as if they were reflecting the brown-gold of the Great Gate of Kiev. “Been waiting for this chat . . . to get to know you better. You’ve been . . .well . . .busy. But, hey, you’ve got something specific on your mind. Some wine? It’s really grape juice. You know . . .it’s one vodka short of the Dnieper, and Stolichnaya it isn’t. But it should do.”
He grinned. She smiled, sipped, and waited.
Barney had rehearsed his explanation but tongue coordination failed him and the words staggered out unevenly as if he were already into serious wine. He finally assembled his thoughts and calmed his tongue. He told of how he had befriended a cultured, educated couple. This young pair, perhaps in their late 30s, had admired his columns in One Spectator magazine and got him to do some writing for the publications of their “independent church.” What was it? Oh yes, 'twas the Church of the Benign.
He wrote a couple of spiritually adventurous articles and the young Smiths said Benign believers were panting for more. “Believers,” the Smiths said, especially liked the article Barney had written about his Army years in Europe when one day he took a wrong turn off the German Ostmarkstrasse and strayed into Roding.
It was one of those rare places in Germany where the war had not rained destruction. What bothered him – and it still did nearly 40 years later when he thought about it – is that he before had never been to Roding. Yet the town looked familiar. He seemed to know where everything was.
Bob and Betty Smith explained to Barney that he had probably lived in Roding in a previous life. Stating things with great certainty, the Smiths dissected the visceral ins and outs of reincarnation. “But wait there’s more,” Barney told Jennifer.
The Smiths, Barney said, had continued to take a strong interest in him. Barney felt that that interest was inordinate, and that the Smiths had been trying to lead him on spiritual journeys he felt unprepared to take.
Polite, warm, inviting and seemingly glowing with admiration, the Smiths proceeded to probe Barney’s life. They wanted him to leave Trenton Memorial and become one of their “Benign believers.”
After while, Barney told Jennifer, he got wary and began getting too busy to visit. The Smiths, however, kept showing up almost everywhere he went. They appeared loving and were persuasive. Lately they were beginning to cut to his soul.
They never gave an address where they lived. Once, at Barney’s request, the Smiths produced a phone number with a prefix that didn’t look right for the Portland area. Nevertheless, Barney tried to call that number several times. There never was any answer. He heard no recording. Barney was equally perplexed when he later was unable to locate anything in Northwest Oregon or Southwest Washington called Church of the Benign.
Moreover what was getting a little spooky, he said, was that the Smiths would suddenly appear. And when the lengthy visit was over, they’d just sort of vanish. It was not exactly in “a poof of smoke” as some would say. However, when he would look away for a moment and look back, they would be gone. Not once did this happen but several times.
Barney said he finally decided that they must be . . . angels. He finally asked the Smiths. The Smiths never came right out to say so but they indicated that they might be.
Barney paused now. He felt awkward and embarrassed. He broke his monologue to determine whether Jennifer was still with him.
The woman’s eye shine and sparkle that he had admired was gone. And she wasn’t smiling. Rather, her brown Crimean eyes were big as mill wheels, and she just stared. Her mouth was slightly agape. Wordless. Jennifer didn’t move. Finally, she asked in a terse, even voice, “Is there more?”
Barney then related some more ins and outs of the Smith relationship, and Jennifer began squinting.
“This isn’t holy,” she said. “God doesn’t work in that way. I don’t know what to say about you and that Rodingdorf, or whatever the name of that German town was, nor how this young couple just seems to kinda come and go. I don’t know who or what they are but – believe me – they aren’t God’s angels.”
“Sure I‘m sure.”
Barney now as leaning forward in his chair, almost levitating.
“Angels,” Pastor Jennifer said while regally planted in the hardwood of her armchair, “I believe do exist. But they don’t act that way. At least I’ve never heard of one hanging around like that – days, weeks and months. Angels, as talked about in the Bible, are rare but can appear suddenly for a definite purpose. They directly say something and then go. They usually appear to warn the ….uh . . .the beholder of coming danger. They are brief to the purpose. They don’t hang around.”
Silence ricocheted off the wall-clinging Madonna. Jennifer’s wine looked smoky and sinister. The icons seemed to be glaring. Barney felt uncomfortable in the prickly disquiet that was depositing its shadow across the room. But before he could utter anything coherent Jennifer said, “I would get out of that relationship immediately! I mean it! And I think we need to go into prayer.”
A brief prayer and a hug followed. Jennifer, by now a study in severity, asked Barney to call anytime “these unholy beings” continued to show and matters continued to get uncomfortable.
“I’m no exorcist,” she said. “But the Holy Spirit surely will handle this.”
Barney suddenly felt brighter and lighter. An immense load had evaporated.
He stepped out into what was becoming a cold fall gale. Crisp leaves were rattling with gusto, and Barney really heard it this time – yes, definitely.
Balalaikas were strumming with breeze-blown bravado. Even though he knew of no such holy Russian phenomenon, it was liberating. His spirit was free. He was home again.
“It’s a brave world,” he mused and climbed into his well-worn wagon. He turned on the ignition. The engine roared. In his marginal Russian he repeated it, “Eto khrabreishii mir!”