For those of you who don’t frequent Old Town Warrenton, Reverend Shakes is an elderly gentleman who preaches the Good News in front of Molly’s Irish Pub most Friday and Saturday nights. This is obviously not his real name; I’ve never even heard anyone use his real name. The title ‘Reverend’ refers to his constant preaching while ‘Shakes’ comes from his most distinguishable feature: his hands. He often holds them up in front of his frail body, constantly shaking involuntarily, as he speaks to unlucky bar patrons or pedestrians on Main Street.
I say unlucky because his sermon is not very uplifting. He usually starts by approaching people in his slow, deliberate walk and asking them something along the lines of if they have accepted Jesus as their personal savior. If he is not satisfied by the answer, which I have never seen him satisfied by anyone, then he launches into fire and brimstone in his stuttering, hint of a Southern drawl voice, promising a trip to hell for being guilty of such sins as drinking, smoking, hanging out in a bar or even wearing pants if you happen to be female.
I have had many encounters with the Reverend over the years. Usually I try to avoid him. He is impossible to talk to because he is convinced that everything he believes is right and if you don’t believe the exact same things as him, then you whatever you say will invariably be wrong and he will invariably judge you to be such a sinner.
So, one night I was bouncing at the bar and I really wanted to sit outside. The problem was he was lurking just outside the door in his usual spot, ready to pounce (ok, I admit his pouncing ability is probably pretty limited due to his decrepit state) on anyone coming in the bar or going out to smoke a sinfully sweet cigarette. But it was hot inside the bar and not too busy and the air outside had a slight breeze so I decided to take my chances that he would trap some other sap into conversation.
There was no one else outside so as soon as I set up my chair just outside the door and opened my book he was already there. I looked up to see him standing over me, his feeble body like a wire hanger inside of his clothes, hunched over staring down at me. One hand clutched a Bible in the crook of his arm while the other was in front of him shaking as if he was trying to convey something to me in his geriatric sign language.
I greeted him and looked straight into his dark eyes. His face looked ghost-like in the dim light of the street. He had a black cap on this night and shadows reflected down across the wrinkles and loose bags of flesh hanging from his cheekbones that made up his facial features. Usually I would have smoked a quick cigarette and then retreated back inside pleading some excuse. That night, though, I decided not to run. Why should this old man make me feel uncomfortable? What is there to fear? After considering these questions, standing my ground seemed like the only option. What follows is the dialogue between us that night as best as I remember it.
In parentheses are my notes and not part of the conversation.
RS: I’m so glad you cut your hair. (As he knows me and knows already that I am a sinner, he skips his usual opener and likes to drag up painful memories of the magnificent but sinful mane of hair I used to have)
S: Yes, I know you are.
RS: You know a woman’s long hair is her glory. It’s shameful for a man to wear his hair long.
S: Why is that?
RS: Because God bestowed long hair on women as a gift and so a man who grows his hair long defies God.
S: But anyone who doesn’t cut their hair will grow long hair. And didn’t Jesus have long hair?
RS: Well, all they usually show Him like that, but I’m not sure if that’s true.
S: So, if He did have long hair, would that be a sin?
RS: You shouldn’t talk about Jesus like that! He couldn’t sin. God sent us His only son born without sin to pay for all our sins so we could get into heaven. Only through being born again in the Church can you be saved.
S: What does ‘being born again’ mean?
RS: It’s your rebirth in the eyes of God which frees you from the original sin all people are born with.
S: Like a baptism right? I was baptized.
RS: Well, they’re not really the same thing.
S: Jesus was baptized right? By John the Baptist in the river?
S: So if baptism is a rebirth without original sin why would Jesus do it if he didn’t have to?
RS: He did it to give us an example of how to follow him.
S: So Jesus wasn’t born with sin but did he have the ability to sin?
RS: Jesus couldn’t sin. He’s the Son of God.
S: What about that one story about when boy Jesus got separated from his family and Mary found him three days later in the temple?
S: Well, what’s the fifth commandment? “Honor thy mother and thy father,” right? Didn’t He dishonor them by disappearing and letting them worry?
RS: No, He wasn’t disrespecting his parents. Remember when they find Him he says, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” He was not born like you and me. He was doing the opposite of what you say, he was honoring his father.
S: Ok, but he was still dishonoring Mary right? If I did the same thing to my mother I would be sinning and breaking a commandment, but when Jesus does it its ok?
RS: Jesus was not born of the union between man and woman. The Holy Spirit descended on Mary and she conceived.
S: Yeah, but He still had to be born of Mary. The way you describe it is like Jesus was not really a man like us. I thought the whole idea was that He came down to become one of us so that He could save us.
RS: He did become man, but He had to be a perfect sacrifice to absolve all our sins. He had no sins so He could take up all of ours and make it possible for us to get into Heaven. He redeemed us all from the Original Sin that we all carry.
S: From Adam and Eve eating the apple, right?
RS: They ate from the tree that God forbid them to eat from. They had everything they could have ever wanted in the garden and could have lived forever there but they ate the fruit from that tree.
S: But God knew that they would do it right?
S: Well, if God is omniscient…
S: If God is all-knowing then he would know that Adam and Eve would eat the apple.
RS: He might have known, but He gave us free will to see if we would choose to follow Him.
S: That’s fine but if He knew what would happen, he is still setting them up to fail. So He puts the forbidden fruit in front of them, knowing that they would eat it, and knowing that He would one day have to send His son to redeem us, right? He knew that they had to fail. God is behind it the whole time.
RS: But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Adam and Eve defied God and humans were kicked out of the Garden where we could have lived forever with everything provided for us.
S: So no one would have ever died in the Garden of Eden?
RS: No, we would have walked with God forever there.
S: So how would they fit all those people in?
RS: (smiling, chuckling, he does this a lot when he doesn’t know what to say. Feel free to insert this anywhere else) What do you mean?
S: Well, think about every living person and every person who ever lived all living together in the garden. Most people think the Earth is overcrowded as is. Can you imagine if no one ever died? To me, it seems like you can’t have life without death.
RS: There is only death in the world because of that first sin.
S: Is that for animals too or just humans?
RS: There was no death in the world until God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden.
S: So how would anything new grow if nothing died? In nature everything is recycled and used again.
RS: I don’t understand your question. Everything would have been given to us. God loves us and wants us to be happy.
S: The God I believe in is all-loving and loves all his creations equally. Do you believe that?
RS: Of course God loves us all. That’s why he sent Jesus to us to die on the cross.
S: So how could God ever send us to Hell to be tortured forever if He loves us?
RS: God is loving, but He is also just. He gave his son to us as a sacrifice to give us a way to salvation. If we ignore this and do not follow this way, then we deserve damnation. Only through Jesus can we escape this.
S: But what about all the people who could never hear the stories of Jesus? Billions have been born in the world long before Jesus was born or in places where they would never hear his story. All these people go to Hell?
RS: Only through Jesus can we be saved.
S: So an all-loving, just God punishes people for being born in the wrong time or the wrong place? That doesn’t sound fair or loving.
RS: God sent His only son to Earth to redeem mankind. He gave us a way to be with Him. We ruined our first chance to be with God, so He ishowed how much He loves us by giving us another chance.
S: I’m sorry, but I can’t believe in a God who would send people to Hell for no fault of their own.
RS: You need to change your life and you’ll be going to Hell, too.
S: I’ll take my chances.
RS: You need to give up your sinful ways. Have you been lazy? (This taking place after working all day then coming to the bar to work until 2) Have you been adulterous? (You need to be in a relationship to commit that right?) Have you been fornicating before marriage? (Unfortunately, it’s been awhile since I’ve committed that sin too)
S: No, I haven’t. I think I’m a good person and I try to help other people and I think that’s all God really cares about.
RS: Only through Jesus can you be saved. (Yes, he gets repetitive after awhile)
S: I believe there are all kinds of people and therefore all kinds of ways to know God.
RS: All those other ways are false. You are following demons. There is only one way to know God.
S: And that is your way? Didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not less ye be judged?” (Yeah, you know I had to drop that sooner or later) You judge everyone you talk to out here to be a sinner.
RS: But I’m not judging them. I am just telling them the Word of God. If they are going against what scripture says, then I am not judging them, God is. The Bible is the gift God gave us straight from His own mouth.
S: Yes, but you accuse people of sins they don’t talk about in the Bible like drinking and smoking. Jesus drank wine in the Bible but you tell people out here that they are being sinful by doing it.
RS: Jesus didn’t really drink wine. That’s just a symbol of His blood and how we need to be reborn in Him.
S: But the Bible says He drank wine. Doesn’t that mean it must be the truth then?
RS: But the Bible also says that our body must be a fit temple for the Holy Spirit. If we mistreat it then we are going against God.
S: But drinking and smoking aren’t the only ways people abuse their bodies. What about people that eat bad food or eat too much? Are fat people all sinners too? What about poor people who can’t eat enough. Are they going against God’s will?
RS: Some things hurt our bodies more than others and doing them is a sin.
S: I believe in balance. The things themselves aren’t bad or evil, just the way people use them.
RS: Well, I don’t think that’s true. If you are ever confused, you just need to read the Word. That will answer all your questions.
S: I think the Bible is a great book. (Haha, I love dropping that one) Jesus’ words are enough for me. It doesn’t matter to me if He was really the Son of God or not. Just His message is enough.
RS: But His words mean nothing if you don’t understand the story. God sent us His only son. He was beaten and crucified to absolve us of our sins. If you don’t accept this then you will go to Hell no matter what you do.
S: I disagree. What did He tell us? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The meek shall inherit the Earth. Be pure of heart. Be a peacemaker. If it doesn’t matter what we do as long as we believe in Him, why did He tell us these things. I believe following the words of Jesus is more important than following His Church.
RS: If you follow the words of Jesus without accepting Him as the Son of God, you will still go to Hell.
S: I don’t think so.
RS: It doesn’t matter what you think, you must make a decision to be with God or against God.
S: Well, we will just have to disagree about that. The God I believe in wouldn’t treat His creations like that.
RS: There is only one God and Jesus is His son.
S: Do you think there’s life on other planets in space?
S: Well, there’s billions of billions of stars and they’re finding more and more planets every day. Did God create them just to be pretty for us to look at or did He create life in these places too?
RS: I don’t know about that.
S: There could have been billions of pairs of Adams and Eves. Do you think Jesus had to come back in all these different alien forms to save all those people too? Could there be planets where they didn’t eat the fruit and are still perfect paradises floating out there?
RS: Could be. I don’t know anything about that.
S: Reverend, I know you are trying to help people and are doing what you think is right. That is very good and I respect that, but you will never change my mind and I will never change yours.
RS: It’s still nice to talk to you. I hope you find Jesus soon.
S: Yeah, it was nice to talk to you too. I’m going to get back to my book now. Goodnight.