A Salt of Character
By Jack Aiken and Torry “Moose” Martin
It was Monday morning. Pastor Mack was sitting at his desk rehashing the Sunday services. Attendance was low — again. He groaned as he leaned back hard in his ancient chair, forgetting that it always tipped violently to one side when he did that.
As he struggled to right himself, his secretary/bookkeeper/Jill-of-all-trades buzzed his intercom. “Someone wants to speak to you, but he wouldn’t give me his name or tell me what he wanted,” she said as she chomped furiously on her wad of gum. “Some people just have no concept of phone etiquette.” Bertha then popped her gum with a loud smack as an added emphasis of her displeasure.
Pastor Mack rolled his eyes as he reached for the phone.
“Hello, this is Pastor Mack. May I help you?”
“What kind of preacher are you?” the voice growled.
Dynamic, insightful, anointed, and totally awesome, Pastor Mack thought in a sudden burst of egotism. But he answered, “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Look,” the gruff voice said, “I just got outta prison, and I’m looking fer a preacher like the chaplain that done our services. Name was Chaplain Beyers. Know him?”
“Yes, I do. He’s one of the chaplains our denomination sponsors,” Pastor Mack responded.
“Well, ain’t that something!” Jake Smedley exclaimed. “Preacher, I just done 15 years for murder, though God as my witness, I swear it was self-defense. Anyway, now I’m living here in Sourdough, but ain’t got no car, so’s I was wonderin’ if’n ya might come over to my place? I got saved in prison, and all, but I still got me a mess of questions ’bout God, and church, and stuff.”
“Why, sure, Jake, I’ll be glad to visit with you. Just tell me where and when.”
“The when don’t matter diddly. I’m here pretty much all the time. My address is 101 Totem Street. I’ll be looking for ya.”
She didn’t say it, but her expression screamed Are you nuts? when Pastor Mack told Sister Bertha what he had agreed to do.
“Probably some bum looking for a handout. Honestly, you’d think those people would just get up off their lazy backsides and do something for themselves.” Bertha then gestured toward a stapler just barely out of reach. “Now, be a hon, and hand me that stapler. Someone moved it clear across the room where I cain’t reach it.”
Pastor Mack scooted the stapler about three inches across the desk toward her. “You know, Sister Bertha, I was thinking it’d be great if Jake would begin attending our church. Maybe you could be his sponsor,” Pastor Mack teased.
“Humptft,” she said, “maybe grizzly bears will become vegetarians, but I don’t think so.”
Bertha’s negative reaction to Jake caused Pastor Mack a bit of consternation. Where is Jesus in that attitude? he asked himself.
The following day Pastor Mack finished his essential tasks a bit early and decided to make his first visit to Jake. When he arrived at the address Jake had given him, he discovered it was the Mush-Inn Motel, Bar, and Grill,” one of the most disreputable places in town. After making enquiries at the bar, Mack climbed a dark stairway to the second floor and entered a shabby hallway.
Mack tentatively tapped on the door of room 1, as Jake had directed him. The door opened and a rough-cut man of about 60 years with startlingly clear blue eyes stuck out his hand and said, “Hello, preacher, I’m Jake. Come on in, and take a load off.”
After they were seated, Jake began, “Preacher, the only church I’ve went to since I left home is the prison chapel. So I’m just a tad nervous about going to a real church and all. I guess that’s really why I invited ya over. On accounta I wanted to check ya out first to make sure ya was legit — someone kinda like my Chaplain Beyers was — not all stiff and stuffy like the preachers in my parents’ church.”
Pastor Mack thought, This is probably the first time an inmate has done a background check on a church. But what he said was, “Go ahead, tell me what you remember about your parents’ church, and we’ll see if my church is any different.”
“Well, I don’t remember much ’ceptin the men couldn’t wear neckties. ‘Ties,’ they said, ‘is a sign of pride.’ In fact, there was one guy who cut all the buttons off his suit coat and used big silver safety pins instead because he was convinced buttons were also a sign of pride. It’s like they was proud to be humble, if’n ya git my gist.”
“You know the Bible kind of speaks to that,” Pastor Mack answered.” Jesus called it ‘straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.’ Can you imagine what a camel would taste like?”
“After 15 years of prison food, probably pretty good, I reckon, especially if you had a soda to wash it down with. Hey, that reminds me of another one of them ‘rules.’ You weren’t allowed to drink soda out of a bottle at that church neither.”
“No kidding?” Pastor Mack interjected.
“Yeah, because they said that from a ways off, a person might recognize ya, see the bottle, and think you was drinking beer — you’s gotta avoid all appearance of evil, ya know.” Jake paused, then continued, “Your church don’t have no rules like that, do it?” he asked apprehensively.
“No,” Pastor Mack laughed, “we don’t have any rules like that. We have enough trouble just doing what the Bible says.”
Jake grinned, “Ain’t that the truth!”
“Jake, I really would like to encourage you to come to Sourdough Assembly this Sunday. We have a great bunch of folks who will welcome you and accept you just as you are.”
“Ya think so? Even when they find out I jest got outta the joint?”
“As long as you were released and didn’t break out, they should be just fine with it.” Pastor Mack chuckled at his own joke. “Seriously, though, no one at my church will think a thing about it. Our motto is, ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged.’ ”
In the meantime, Sister Myrtle, Sourdough Assembly’s Women’s Ministries director, just happened to drive by the Mush-Inn Motel where she spotted Pastor Mack’s tan minivan parked out front. She turned around and drove by again — slowly this time — for confirmation. When she saw the “Don’t Laugh, It’s Paid For” bumper sticker, she knew it was, in fact, Pastor Mack’s van.
She turned around again, almost hitting an oncoming car as she madly dug to extract her cell phone from her purse.
Most churches have a prayer chain, and Sourdough Assembly was no exception. However, it was the gossip chain that Sister Myrtle was activating — and a more efficient means of disseminating information has yet to be devised.
“Lilly, you won’t believe what I just saw! Pastor Mack’s car is right this very minute parked directly in front of the Mush-Inn Motel!”
“What in the world could he be doing there?” Lilly gasped.
“Well, I’m sure he’ll come up with a good story,” Sister Myrtle replied, adding a significant sniff after the word good. “I just wanted to ask you to pray with me about what I saw. What should I do? You know me. I’d never start any trouble, especially for our pastor. But what do we really know about him, him being from the lower 48 and all?”
A few minutes later Myrtle rang off with Lilly as she drove into the parking lot of the Trading Post, Sourdough’s grocery store and unofficial community center. She grabbed a cart with a wobbly wheel and headed down the produce aisle. Providentially, as she shopped, she ran into several Sourdough Assembly ladies with whom she was able to share her prayer concern. The gossip chain was soon in full operation.
By the next Sunday, practically the whole church had heard about Pastor Mack’s visit to the Mush-Inn Motel. And on some branches of the gossip tree, people had embellished the facts considerably. Fortunately, Sister Bertha, who is a skilled eavesdropper, caught wind of the gossip and informed Pastor Mack of the potentially catastrophic situation. After much prayer, he felt God gave him a plan to deal with the gossip, and assure that Jake would be well received.
When Pastor Mack spoke the next Sunday morning, he began by telling a story. “Before the advent of salt shakers, when ladies set their tables, they often placed a little dish of salt at each place. These salt dishes have always fascinated Annie. Over the years she has accumulated quite a collection of them. She delights in using them, especially when entertaining guests.
“One Sunday, a few years ago, while we were living in Tennessee, we entertained an evangelist and his wife. His wife was really nice, but he had an exaggerated view of his knowledge of all things. When his wife picked up the salt dish with the obvious intent to inquire about it, she received a not-so-subtle kick under the table. She promptly sat the dish down without saying a word. Then, to display his superior knowledge, he promptly picked up his salt dish and dumped it into his unsweetened iced tea.
“I’m not sure how we did it, but nobody said a word. Perhaps we were just too stunned to speak. Once the crucial moment had passed, we all waited with bated breath for Mr. Know-It-All to realize his mistake. When he took his first sip, we all exploded in laughter. When we caught our breath, Annie gave him a fresh glass of tea and explained the purpose of the little dishes filled with a granulated substance.
“To his credit, the evangelist took it well and enjoyed a good laugh at himself.”
Pastor Mack continued, “I’ve told you this story to make a couple of points. First, things are not always as they seem, and second, making prideful assumptions often leads to distasteful situations.
“Something distasteful has developed this week. Someone — not from Sourdough Assembly, I’m sure — saw my car at the Mush-Inn Motel. And rather than giving me an opportunity to explain my mission there, they dumped the salt into the tea and created a very distasteful situation. If they had given me opportunity, I would have been happy to tell them why I was there. Be that as it may, I am thrilled to tell you my mission to the Mush-Inn was successful. It was there I met Jake Smedley. I would like you to meet my new friend.” Pastor Mack motioned toward the stranger on the back pew.
“This is an example how dangerous assumptions can be. You see, making assumptions is just another form of judging, which Jesus condemned.”
As the service ended, some members wore sheepish grins, and others gave Jake Smedley a warm and friendly welcome to Sourdough Assembly — including smiles and a firm handshake from Bertha, who also gave him a piece of her inexhaustible supply of gum. However, she did this more out of self-preservation than politeness. Bertha thought, I suppose ex-inmates are acceptable in church. But halitosis? Never!