This is a continuation of the original short story First Encounter where Ed and Phil are introduced.
Ed Tillman crept into the worship hall like a thief.
He hated being greeted at the door of the church, he hated walking through the crowd of parishioners as they chit-chatted with each other while finishing off their coffee, and he hated the idea of sitting too close to other people in a pew.
So why was he going to Sunday services again?
Oh yeah, to have an encounter with God. It wasn’t going to be easy.
Ed was an introvert by nature and preferred to live alone. He got his wish when Cynthia, his ex, asked for a divorce. He missed his family, especially his two kids, but he didn’t mind being alone, strange as that might sound.
He found an empty place in one of the pews in back.
It wouldn’t be so bad if he could sit next to his friend Mark and his family, but they were on vacation visiting Mark’s in-laws. Ed hadn’t made any other friends at church so he was sitting in a large room with people who were pretty much strangers.
The rest of the church people were filtering in now. The service was supposed to begin in a minute or two. Ed didn’t look forward to the music, which he didn’t relate to. He definitely didn’t look forward to having to stand and pretend to be interested in shaking hands with his “neighbors”.
In fact, about the only thing he liked about going to church was the sermon. He always brought a pen along with his Bible so he could take notes. Maybe that was the closest he was ever going to come to meeting up with God at church.
A body dropped heavily into the pew right beside him.
Ed was stunned to find the clerk from his local liquor store in his church.
“That’s me. How’s it going, Ed?”
Ed just stared slack-jawed at Phil. He hadn’t seen Phil since they met last week while Ed was buying a bottle of vodka.
“You’re going to catch flies if you leave your mouth open much longer.”
“Oh, I’m fine, just fine.” Ed was trying to organize his thoughts after this out of context encounter. “What the hel…heck are you doing here?”
“What’s it look like? I’m going to church.”
“I didn’t know you attended here.” Ed was still trying to make the adjustment of shifting Phil from the liquor store to sitting beside him in a pew.
“I like to visit different churches. They’re all the House of God after all.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Good morning.” Ed and Phil were interrupted by the amplified voice of Scott the Worship Pastor. The guy was endlessly cheerful, whether speaking from the podium or socializing in the hallways. It was a quality Ed didn’t find appealing.
Ed stood with the rest of the congregation to pretend to sing the first hymn. He still couldn’t believe Phil…Phil of all people was standing next to him in church.
Phil’s attire was upgraded slightly from what he’d been wearing at work. He had a pair of dress slacks on and his long-sleeved shirt covered up all this tattoos. His hair had grown some since he’d last seen the clerk and was tied back in a somewhat sloppy pony tail. He probably hadn’t ever trimmed his beard.
Even Ed looked more like he belonged in church than Phil, but if the liquor store cashier was aware of that fact, he showed no sign. He was singing off-key as loud as he could and actually smiling. And all this time, Ed thought Phil was a regular guy.
Two more hymns, the Pastor’s greeting which included, unfortunately, standing and shaking hands with the people around you. Ed tried to put his best effort into it to hide his reluctance, but Phil shook hands with people like he was running for office.
Next was the “special music” session, this time a solo by a woman named Jennifer, and then the prayer and offering. Ed put a check for ten bucks in the plate and passing it to Phil, saw him pull a twenty from his wallet and toss it in. Yet another song to endure and then finally the sermon, a commentary on Psalm 1.
Ed felt really grateful when the closing hymn started. It was the herald of freedom, when he could finally escape. Truth be told, Ed found he was closer to God reading his Bible at home alone and praying than surrounded by this crowd.
Phil followed Ed out of the worship hall after his friend complemented the Pastor on his sermon, but before he could turn right and head out the front doors, Phil grabbed him by the shoulder. “Which Bible study class do you attend?”
“Uh…” That was all Ed could manage. Ed sometimes attended the study on the Pastor’s sermon but only with Mark and his wife Jill (their son Mark Jr. attended the kid’s class). He didn’t say much and just took notes. Sometimes he’d ask Mark about it afterward. He never went to class without Mark and sometimes he bailed even when Mark was at church.
“Well?” Phil was still waiting for an answer.
“Over here.” Ed pointed vaguely down the hall and seeing that Phil really wanted to attend the study, he started walking “the last mile” toward the fourth door on the right.
It was ghastly. Billy, the class’s teacher, was from Tennessee, was full of enthusiasm and stereotypic southern twang, and singled Ed out so he could introduce his companion.
Phil was pleased to meet everyone, made comments and asked questions like he’d been attending for years. In fact, he asked a couple of questions no one in the room could answer. If Ed could have gotten away with hiding under the table, he would have cowered down there like a pouting three-year-old.
Mercifully, the hour was over, he scooped up the study notes from next week’s class along with his Bible and followed Phil out.
They got outside and Ed took a deep breath, switching gears from church to real life.
“You really hate it in there, don’t you?”
“Gee, how can you tell?” Ed knew it was obvious. He was surprised no one else called him on it.
“Where are you parked.” Ed hoped Phil was parked a long way from his own car so they could part company. He liked the clerk a lot better in the liquor store than in church. He didn’t even know the Phil he saw in church.
“I walked. Didn’t bring a car.”
There was the obligation standing right in front of him. “Do you need a lift?”
“Nah, but I’ve got an idea. It’s getting close to noon and I’m hungry. Why don’t we both go to that little diner down the road and grab a bite. I’m buying.”
It was an offer Ed couldn’t refuse, even though he desperately wanted to.
Half an hour later, Ed found himself sitting across a table from Phil munching on a greasy burger and fries.
“Look, I think you’re going about this the wrong way.” Phil launched right into his commentary about Ed and the church.
“You’re looking at this like some sort of punishment or something. You think you have to fit in with the rest of the crowd in order to be a Christian. Look at me. Do I look like I fit in?”
When Phil had gotten into Ed’s car, he’d immediately rolled up his sleeves displaying his wildly decorated forearms. Then he pulled his hair out of the hair tie and let it fall loosely down the back of his neck.
“Can’t say as you do.” Ed stabbed at his catsup covered fries with his fork.
“That’s because fitting in has nothing to do with encountering God. Sure, participate. Interact with other folks. After all, they are your brothers and sisters in the faith, but you can do that and still be different.”
“Can’t we talk about something else, Phil?”
“Sure. How about encountering God some place besides church.” It wasn’t question.
Phil devoured the remainder of his lunch while waiting for Ed to respond.
“Okay, so I did like you said. I’m reading my Bible. I’ve set aside times to pray in the morning and at night. I’ve even cut back on the booze, drinking only on the weekends.” Ed had a six-pack chilling in his fridge at home he couldn’t wait to get at.
“Here’s the deal.” Phil stuffed the last fork full of fries into his mouth, vigorously chewed and swallowed. “Developing a relationship with God is a lot like your Pastor preparing a sermon. It requires a plan and a goal. It’s okay to start reading the Bible at Genesis with the idea of getting to the end of Revelation in a year, but there’s other things you can do, too.
Ed was wondering how Phil knew his Bible study plan but he probably saw the list of Bible reading strategies on the bulletin board outside the worship hall and figured Ed would choose the most straightforward one.
“Well, how about a thirty-day plan? Your goal is to encounter God at the end of thirty days.”
“Wait! What? You can just do that? I thought the encounter was up to God.”
“Ed, God’s always available to you. You’re the one who has to get ready for Him.”
“So what do I do?”
“Well, a big, big part of it is praying for forgiveness, but it’s not that easy.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
“I mean, you have to repent, but not like most people in church repent.”
“How do you mean?”
Phil had been using his fork as a pointer but put it back down on his plate. “Most people just say they’re sorry and call it repentance, but real repentance is a whole other deal. It’s a total turning away from sin and turning toward God.”
Ed felt his anxiety levels shoot up. So he had to quit all sin. Wasn’t that impossible?
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you can never sin again and if you do, you’re done for.”
“Relax. It’s a process, not a destination. No one gets it totally right, but then again, most people never really try.”
“So, what do I do?”
“It’s actually pretty specific and easy to understand. The doing part isn’t always so easy, though.”
“Can I borrow your pen?”
Ed had brought his Bible into the diner with him figuring he’d have to reference it in talking with Phil. He opened the cover and extracted his pen, then handed it to his lunch companion.
Phil started scrawling on a napkin making some sort of list.
“Jewish people call it making teshuvah, which means to turn around.”
Phil finished writing and held up the napkin to show Ed what he wrote. “It’s like this. First you’ve got to actually regret your sin. It does no good to ask for forgiveness for something you’re still really okay with. You have to really be ashamed of doing wrong.”
Ed nodded his head as he read down the list.
“Next, you have to really know that what you did was totally wrong and against the will of God. Then you’ve got to realize that without forgiveness, Divine punishment will track you down, find you, and land squarely on top of you, however, teshuvah, that is repentance, is the cure for what ails you.
“Then, count your blessings, that is, make a list of all the good God has done for you and compare that with how you’ve disobeyed God. Finally, you get to the part where you make and then carry out your plan to avoid the particular sin again.”
Phil finished up by handing Ed the list, which he took and stared at. “Sounds complicated. I thought it was supposed to be simple.”
“Simple to understand, not always simple to do.”
“You said a mouthful.”
They were interrupted by the waitress coming with the bill. Ed started to reach for his wallet but Phil held up his hand. “I said I was buying. No worries. I can afford it.” He looked at the bill, pulled out his own wallet and laid down enough cash to pay it with the addition of a generous tip.
“Look, it’s not like you have to do a miracle. Just pick some sin in your life and think on it some. Then start going down the list with that particular sin in mind. Work on turning away from that one sin and then start working on another once you’ve got control over that first behavior.”
“You know what I’m thinking.” Ed found it eerie that Phil seemed to predict so much about him.
“Yeah, that you don’t want to do it, but you’ll never get closer to God than you are right now until you do.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to do it, I’m just afraid I’ll fail.”
“You’ll never fail as long as you keep at it. The only time you fail is when you give up.”
“You sound like an inspirational meme.”
“Well a few of them actually make sense.”
Ed couldn’t argue with that. The hard part was making it happen, but he knew Phil understood that it was hard.
“I tell you what. For the next thirty days, just concentrate on one sin. Don’t worry about the others until you’ve got that one beaten and done.”
“Who cares. Pick one and stop looking for excuses.”
“Doesn’t God care?”
“God knows you’re human. He made you, didn’t He? He doesn’t want you to wallow in your sins forever, but He understands you can’t stop sinning like you’d turn off a light.”
The waitress came and took Phil’s payment away. The diner was packed with the lunch crowd and it seemed pretty obvious she needed their table.
“Oh.” Phil handed Ed back his pen and then stood. “You might want to add a few things to your prayers.
Ed put the pen and the list in his Bible case, zipped it up, and hurriedly followed Phil. They got outside and back to Ed’s car.
Each time you pray, make sure you specifically pray for forgiveness for the next month. Also, try reading Psalm 27 and 51 each time you pray.”
“This all seems pretty specific. Why all the structure?”
“Like I said, most people are pretty lax when they repent. They don’t give it enough thought and they don’t really execute a plan to stop sinful behavior. People need structure. This plan has been around for a long time and I’ve seen it really work with folks.”
“Did it work for you?” Ed found that Phil had a talent for avoiding discussing his own spiritual journey.
“Just do it for thirty days starting when you get home, and then we’ll see.”
“Terrific. See you in thirty.”
“Do you need a lift anywhere”?
“No, I’m good. It’s a nice day for a walk. See you.”
Ed waved as Phil turned and walked away. As he fished his keys out of his pocket, Ed didn’t realize that Phil turned a corner no one else could see and then was gone.
Ed got into his car, tossed his Bible on the passenger seat and pulled out of the parking lot. He thought about his conversation with Phil and the plan he’d laid out. Ed wondered by he mentioned the Hebrew word for repentance and where this seven-point plan came from.
What Ed didn’t know was that yesterday was the first of Elul on the Jewish religious calendar, the month right before the most holy days for the Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah or the New Year, and Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. It was the season when Jews expected to have their closest encounter with God.
By the time Ed completed his thirty-day plan, he’d be ready for his next meeting with God. After all, it’s been twice now that God’s talked with Ed and today, they even went to church together.
I introduced Ed and Phil for the first time just a few days ago and didn’t figure I’d write a sequel. But of all the things I wanted to write about today, this was the only story that came to mind.
Also, this coming Saturday evening really is the first of Elul on the Jewish religious calendar and the seven-point plan to repentance is specifically taken from the steps mapped out for a Jew to make teshuvah, to turn away from sin and turn back to God.