Fletcher slammed his pen down on the desk. Why for God’s sake didn’t he just say it? When you lose faith that’s it, by God, that’s it. You lose, no more chances, game’s over. Fletcher Hodges could not write another word of this bullshit sermon. He couldn’t even understand the mystery of life himself, much less try and explain it to others. He lost faith. The faith that sustained him through so many hardships, so many times of personal sorrow just “flew the coop” as his grandfather use to put it. Get it together, man. Write the damn sermon.
Life goes on with its seasons and unexpected changes, its grand, majestic miracles, and specifically its unavoidable disenchantment, and every once in a while one cannot help wondering why? Why do we exist and is our existence just a test to see how much we can endure?
He could take what the world dished out to him. After all, he didn’t have such a bad upbringing. He had a mom and dad who loved him, a corny, fun-loving sister who idolized him, and the best textbook big brother any guy could ask for. Like that day he was blinded in one eye from a misguided fly ball at the ball diamond, he turned to his faith in God and the people who loved him to get him through. He supposed that his young age might have helped, since he was only thirteen and everything is still possible and very little is bad, at least for him. In addition, his experience became a metaphysical miracle where something or someone lifted him out of despair, and it didn’t even come as a surprise to him. Yeah, use that. Fletch continued to write.
Humans bear the most unbearable hardships and constantly confront the confusion of cross-purposed relationships. Indeed, people are the hardiest of God’s creatures.
It was about this time in his early teens that God started working in Fletch’s life. He had big plans for this high-spirited child, and it would not be long before Fletcher Hodges would become one of God’s soldiers. His desire to serve God increased as he possessed an uncanny ability to show others how important faith was in their lives. As Fletch remembered his calling and all of the important milestones of faith he experienced in his life, a stone wall formed in his soul separating him from his faith. His calling brought him to the thick of sin and passive acceptance of human degradation, poverty, and misery. Fletch’s soul simmered with discontent and he continued writing fueled with passion.
But there are those whose feelings are too dear to take all of the injustice in the world and that insurmountable heap of judgments, labeling and misunderstanding. There are those who break under the weight of the cruelty inflicted by others and who then bury the hurt deep within, stunting their mental and physical growth. Some can no longer go on because life simply chose to randomly rearrange their lives.
As an inner-city minister, he was very involved in community affairs. He was on boards for homeless shelters, orphanages, and shelters for domestic violence. The weekly trip to the domestic violence shelter was his most fulfilling ministry. He worked mainly with the children. Every child to him was a new beginning whose very presence affects the current dynamic of the universe. They are the reminiscence of innocence––those days when everything and everyone is so simple.
Today, the day that changed his life forever, a new child was brought into the shelter. Fletcher could not believe what he saw. Annie was two years old. Her face was bloodied and beaten and her head was still bleeding through the bandages wrapped around her little head. Her attacker was merciless as he threw her to the floor and marks on her neck and face revealed bruise patterns from a shoe. Then she was raped. This sweet innocent child didn’t look at him. The shock was too much for her to bear. The poor baby was victim to the theft of her being; her very essence. Annie’s haunting eyes provoked a dismal nausea in Fletch’s gut, but he fought to find meaning.
But, my friends, it takes many personalities to make up the world; personalities which are crafted and molded by our experiences. Our personalities are gifts from God. We are born into the universe as a package of flesh and bones and a bit of that breath acknowledged as the soul. That light is what separates the knowing from the unknowing conscience. This is the part of us that is also a part of God. It is reflected through the eyes of every individual who walks and only a tiny number of the population truly understands its power––a power that can affect the very course of a life and the lives of many others. Combined, these souls, good and evil, have dubious results; some where their owners know full well what they are doing, but some who just plod along on their path, living in faith … bla,bla-bla,bla-bla.
Fletcher was so lost in his own painful thoughts and resolve to finish his sermon that he didn’t hear the footsteps of his best friend.
“Fletcher, are you almost ready to leave?” Sister Kathy rounded the archway of the rectory library where Fletcher was working. She stood there in her blue jeans, sweatshirt, and a baseball hat. The changes the Roman Catholic Church made post Vatican II sure created the birth of some strange clericals. Sister Kathy was one of the most vivacious persons he had ever known and her zeal in combating the evils of the world was hard to match. She was one of his best friends.
“Oh, hi, Kath. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Mrs. Schmitz let me in. Hey, are you still coming to the anti-abortion rally tonight? We really wanted representation from all of the churches in town, and your presence is powerful with the teens; maybe not with me so much, but you know, the kids kind of like you.” Kathy grinned from ear to ear, snapping her gum and nudging Fletch with her elbow.
“Kathy, after seeing Annie at the shelter, my faith in what we are protesting against is a little shaken. Did they find out more about who did this to her?”
“As a matter of fact, one of the policemen who transported Annie from the hospital to the shelter came in to see how she was doing. He told me they arrested her seventeen-year-old father for the assault.”
“What? The child’s father did this? Why would … how could a child’s own father do such despicable things?”
“Fletcher, when children have children, all they can do is what they know. The father was raised in the same dreadful environment. He probably has a history of abuse himself. I’ve been around this depressed part of the city for five years now. Sometimes it feels like it’s been twenty. After a while, you find yourself getting desensitized to most of these situations, but then out of nowhere, bam. One will twist the guts right out of you.” Kathy put a comforting hand on her friend’s shoulder and sighed, “I can’t tell whether they gradually build up or what, but it just takes one to test a person’s faith. I tell you, Fletch, faith is the only weapon we have to get us through. Faith that somehow, some way, God has a reason for allowing all of these things to happen.”
“Kathy, this horrific act … this insane disregard for innocence … how could a loving, omnipotent God allow such monstrous acts? How could He watch from His comfortable heaven and sanction this violence? This isn’t war where soldiers are fighting for some damnable cause that a greedy government cooked up …”
“Fletch, this is a war and we are fighting it. We are fighting it for God.”
“But we’re talking about children. No more than nine or ten, carrying guns and knives and not thinking twice about using them. We’re talking about the cold, ruthless beatings of innocents for no other reason than they got on someone’s nerves, or they were crying from hunger and the parent had no food to give them, so they just beat them out of their own helpless frustration. Who am I to think there is something I can do to help these people, these souls with no faith, or worse yet, so wracked with disdain and hatred for the world the desire to believe left them years ago?” Fletcher’s hands were shaking. He still had not recuperated from his recent reverie and his vocal chords ached making his voice crack as he spoke. Passion waned as scenes continued flashing through his mind; inconceivable scenes he witnessed over the last year in the inner-city slums. He saw things that made his stomach weak. He shrugged off a shiver and he decided that he just couldn’t let anyone see him like this. “Look, Kathy, I’m going to take a walk. You better go to the protest without me. I’ll catch you later.”
Fletcher skimmed past his astonished friend. Hands and forehead sweating, he made his way out the front door and onto the street with Kathy calling after him. After running a block or so, he found rest against a street lamp. He took a deep breath to cleanse his spirit of everything he just remembered.
He continued to walk and better memories surfaced like the first time he met Kathy. It was crazy. The inner-city churches decided to come together and develop an ecumenical committee in order to strengthen the fight against drug abuse and violence. Kathy came strolling into the meeting with that jazzy walk of hers, dressed in her jeans and sweatshirt. Since the meeting was meant mostly for clergy, he went over to her and kindly suggested she leave because, “ … this meeting was intended for the leaders and lay ministers of certain designated churches and perhaps you would feel more comfortable waiting for the follow-up meeting aimed at parishioners.” He could not forget her broad smile and the snapping gum inside that smile as she proceeded to lay him out flat.
“Never fear, my man. Don’t let the threads fool you. I am Sister Mary Kathleen from St. Charles Parish and I am the chair of this committee. Why don’t you just have a seat there, so we can get this party started?”
It was then he realized God chose people from all walks of life and backgrounds to achieve His purpose. Kathy was as charismatic as she was unusual. They became very close friends and if it weren’t for her vow of celibacy, they might have dated. He cherished the moments they shared heartfelt challenges and was honored she counted him in her circle of confidants. Her lack of conformity only made her arguments stronger and more acceptable to the people who lived in the area. Light filled her when she spoke and her eyes reflected the love of the Holy Spirit, no matter how mischievous her smile. Yeah, he was leaving her in a bind, but this faith crisis of his was getting out of control and he had to find a way to pacify it.
He wondered where his life was going. If God permitted such contemptible things to happen, Fletch didn’t know if he could trust Him any longer. His doubts diluted his desire to represent God’s love to people when he wasn’t convinced he believed it.
Searching for answers, Fletcher walked all over the city through the night until his legs ached. Morning neared and he took time to stop into his church to pray a little. He resumed his walk past decrepit apartment buildings that smelled of urine and vomit, and were representative of the corruption and greed of slum landlords. He walked past schools in disrepair and parks with makeshift playground equipment. He listened to the sounds of a discontented, suffering community; a community with no hope or faith left to heal the daily wounds inflicted upon it. He walked until it was daybreak.
Fletch tracked his way back to the parsonage, and the nearer he came the more certain he felt something wasn’t right. Although it was dawn, lights were still on in the house and cars were parked in the driveway and on the street. The side door to the kitchen thumped as it opened and he discovered three members of the anti-abortion group huddled around the table staring into coffee mugs. His housekeeper, Mrs. Schmitz, was crying into her apron and when she spotted Fletcher, she ran into the other room sobbing.
Jonah King, head of volunteer organizing, gazed up at him with sorrow and their eyes locked. His large black frame arose anguished out of his chair and sauntered over to Fletch, and his great strong hands held onto the minister’s shoulders to stabilize him. “Fletcher, we don’t know how to tell you this. Yesterday, at the rally, several pro-choice people got pushy. Well, you know Sister Kathy. She … well, she …”
“Jonah, what are you trying to say?” The blood in Fletcher’s body ran cold.
“There was a riot last evening. It started out as a scuffle over a woman who had just come out of the clinic. Somehow, one of Sister’s teens from the youth group got caught between two adults, one from each side. Sister Kathy pushed her way through the crowd trying to get to the kid. Well, you know how teenagers are. They have big mouths that let it all come out using no discretion. The teen yelled …” Jonah smothered tears as he tried to continue, “baby killer … and out from the crowd came this gunfire and … “
“Gunfire. For God’s sake, Jonah. What happened? Where is Kathy?”
In smothered sobs, Jonah choked out, “She threw herself in front of the teen and … she’s dead, Fletch … She’s dead.”
Fletcher’s knees hit the floor. Jonah tried to comfort him, but all Fletcher wanted to do was get away; get away from the ugliness; get away from the sorrow and pitiable violence that plagued his life on a daily basis. He shook Jonah off and ran out the door into the morning sunshine. As Fletch ran, he wondered, what good was a beautiful day when the inner spirit of mankind sucked. This is just cosmetics, Lord. Your world is like the beautiful actress who has all kinds of plastic surgery to enhance her looks, but inside she is a bogus bitch. He ran past a young mother walking her child. He almost ran into a kid on a bike. Every scene seemed so senseless to him. He couldn’t help but wonder who was next.
Fletcher ran until he couldn’t draw another breath without wheezing in pain. Debilitated, he staggered and finally collapsed to find himself on the lawn of Kathy’s parish church, St. Charles or “St. Chuck’s” as she called it. Still wheezing and breathless, he was compelled to enter. It was dark and peaceful with a leftover smell of incense. He walked toward the altar, and the painful reality of what happened to his righteous friend came charging back. He stood there and examined the cross with Jesus hanging on it. Iconic and unaccepted in his Presbyterian doctrine, it held a painful representation. There was his Lord, crowned with thorns, side lanced and bleeding from the nails in His feet and hands.
Fletch lost it. “Why did you die? Why did you go through all of that torture and pain? We still have the same thugs on earth as you did centuries ago! She’s dead. One of your brave and beautiful soldiers is gone from this world and you did nothing to stop it. Some devil made them shoot her, is that it? It’s so trite, all too tied up in neat little bows to be real. The reality is that you don’t exist. You are not real. Well, here it is. I don’t buy it and I don’t want to be one of your chosen anymore. Innocent people are being sacrificed, and for what?”
By this time, tears streamed down his face. Grief overwhelmed him as he sobbed. He crumpled to his knees, his eye patch flipped up, and he buried his head in his hands. Fletch’s heart was broken. He lost his faith, he lost his friend, but most important, he lost his passion to love God.
Out of the darkness came stillness and a peculiar tranquility; the kind a baby experiences after crying long and hard before falling into a peaceful slumber on his mother’s lap. A gentle hand rested on Fletch’s shoulder causing him to look up. He fell backward in total astonishment. Kathy stood before him and a strange man stood beside her.
“Fix your eye patch, Buddy.”
Flipping his eye patch down, he stood up. “Kathy! What the … are you still alive?”
“Nope. My body is as dead as those science projects you have stowed away in your frig.” Kathy’s spirit floated closer. “Fletch, whether you can believe it or not, God is omniscient and He does have a reason for all of these things. The big war has begun and my death had a purpose. God is with us and with you and has commissioned us to save souls––souls that would otherwise be lost because of bad judgment, not evil hearts. There will be many soldiers working on His side, but these souls we are charged with are considered kind of, well, recycled. The realm of evil knows of God’s plan and is out to gather up and destroy as many of these unlucky souls as possible. Satan has already been handing out his dirty work.” The man standing next to Kathy drifted towards Fletch. “This is Michael. In his life on earth his name was Michael Harrison. It is important you remember that, because you are to contact a very powerful woman. This woman knew Michael at the time when God chose her to be one of the intermediaries between our spiritual warriors and the, well, fleshy ones. Only by knowing his name will she believe you are sent by God.”
“Wait, wait, what … my god … what are you talking about? I could be hallucinating for all I know. You could be a delusion or, wow … that’s Dickensian.”
“Fletcher,” Michael moved forward. Fletcher jumped back as he gazed at the apparition in disbelief. “I was a minister. I understand what you are feeling. A person tends to look at only the visible picture and fails to encompass God’s entire universe. Life is more than the life we have on earth. Our total existence is not only now, but before we were born and after our body dies. When our body dies, all we shed is a vessel. God has allowed evil to exist to separate the good and courageous hearts from the corrupted ones. He only wants goodness in the kingdom He has planned for us. God is leading us to the end of all physical bodies, the end of the world––Armageddon. He is granting a few of His most trusted, beloved children the honor of defending those souls that couldn’t quite make it; couldn’t quite withstand the weight of the world on their own. I have been sent to you because you, like me, are a minister of God’s Word. God is granting you the honor of joining His holy troops.”
Fletcher stood frozen in doubt. “How am I to rely on this? Holy troops? Are you kidding? What the hell are you talking about? I just need a good therapist.”
“Oh, you big baby. You will go through much more than this before it’s all over.” Kathy just grinned in her impish way.
“Kathy, how do you explain the horrors God allows to go on every day? You’ve seen them as much, if not more, than I have. What about poor little Annie and her ignorant teenage father? How does God explain that?”
Kathy emitted peace. “There is a lot of suffering in the world, but listen, God has a reason for everything that happens, and you can’t discount man’s free will. Free will is a gift from God, and each of us decides whether to follow the right path or to follow a selfish, unloving one. Everyone has a spiritual path of learning, and situations occur in every life in order to purify the soul. Annie’s father has now been given the chance to follow the right path for himself and his daughter. He is getting the counseling he needs and it will be up to him to change. He will be judged on what he does from now on. Meanwhile, there are those evil entities out there that want to disrupt these kinds of changes and they will work very hard against the light to keep souls in darkness.”
Awareness enlightened Fletcher’s soul. The answer was right there in front of him. Of course it’s free will. Even though his Presbyterian upbringing may look at it from a different perspective, free will is free will. Dark spirits. Maybe that’s what is wrong. He was an ordained minister, for crying out loud. It was such a simple answer. The realization clinched his resolve.
“What do I do now?”
“That-a-boy. I knew you just had a memory lapse. You will need to contact a Mrs. Emily Walker. She lives in a small little town called Branchford, Alabama. All you have to do is mention Michael’s name. She will fill you in on the rest.”
As Michael and Kathy began to fade away, Fletcher couldn’t move. He didn’t want them to leave; yet, he really did. “Kathy, wait. There’s so much more I need to know.” He shook his head, made a kind of garbling noise, and when he opened his eyes, Michael and Kathy were gone.
“Can I help you with something?” Fletcher, still paralyzed from the recent vision, choked back a snort. There in front of him was Sister Kathy’s “Father Okeydoke.” Kathy told him that when this priest gave absolution after her confessions, he would pat her on the head and say, “Okeydokey, now. Go in peace.”
After everything Fletch just experienced, seeing this darling man tickled him into laughing hysterics. He managed to mutter, “No, thank you” and rushed past the befuddled priest.
Once outside, Fletcher walked back to the parsonage feeling blessed and thoughtful. He no longer was confused, but filled with peace. He had to seek out this Emily Walker. His spirit confirmed there was truth in his recent encounter, and he shuddered at the thought of tackling devils. Yet, there was no place for fear. There was only enough room for faith and courage. Yeah … let’s not forget courage.