TWELVE

Russell Hicks left Wilson and went to Lucama, a town east of Interstate 95, where crowds of people gathered around him. Reporters from the local newspapers were beginning to document his popularity and apparent successes, so, as is often the case with celebrity, people came to hear him more out of curiosity than any sense of spiritual need. There were also a growing number of detractors in attendance when Russell spoke; those who felt it their spiritual duty to protect an overly accepting community from religious charlatans who contributed to a decrease in Sunday attendance, as well as tithes.

For his part, Russell ignored people’s initial motivations, realizing that the thoughts and intentions of the heart were a murky business best left to the judgement and transforming power of God. He simply encouraged those listening to pursue intimacy with the Creator who was offering them life in all its super abundance.

“Stop settling for mediocre, tolerable lives,” he challenged. “If God has given us everything in this world and the next for our good, why turn it down? Why not receive all He wants to bestow upon us?”

A representative contingent of concerned clergy, who were in attendance at the Lucama gathering, waited patiently for Russell to finish describing the victorious spiritual life actually lived out, in order that they might publicly expose him as a liberal-minded, untrained and unaffiliated quacksalver.  

When the opportunity arose, the Reverend Ed Neckermann asked, “Being a postmodernist as a result of your generation, do you hold truth to be relative? In other words, do you reject absolute truth?”

“How do the scriptures define truth?” asked Russell.

“What?’ Reverend Neckermann said, momentarily disarmed by the return question.

“Do the scriptures make a distinction between kinds of truth?”

“No. There is only one truth,” the Reverend answered, regaining his composure.

“And what is that one truth?”

Off balance once more, he countered with, “I’m ordained. I’ll do the examining here. Why don’t you tell us what truth it is that you believe?” He felt better—more offensive in this tactic.

Russell frowned. “The scriptures say that God is spirit, and His worshippers must worship in spirit and truth. They further teach that it is the Spirit of truth that guides us in all truth. So I suggest that instead of arguing with me about a human definition of truth, you spend your time teaching your people how to know and hear the Spirit, Who will lead them into all truth.”

Dismissing any further questions from the clerical critics, Russell said to the crowd, “We have lost our ability to hear God’s Spirit within us, so we have retreated into silent sanctuaries of rules and traditions. It is difficult to hear the gentle voice of God. It is much easier to listen to loudly advertised religious writers who tell us what to believe and how to think. Look to the scriptures! Listen to God! Learn to hear His voice above all others. You don’t need anything or anyone else.”

A commotion broke out in front of Russell. Several families were attempting to bring mentally handicapped children to him that he might pray for them but his friends were reproving them.

When Russell saw this he grew indignant. Pained, he said, “Allow them to come to me. Do not forbid or prevent anyone from seeking the Kingdom of God. No one is too unworthy or beyond God’s reach. To the unworthy and hopeless belongs this kingdom. Whoever does not welcome and receive the Kingdom of God in this way, shall not enter it at all.”

Russell lifted a small, Down’s Syndrome girl into his arms. He wept at her simple innocence. Hating the defectiveness of a sin-plagued world, he fervently invoked a blessing on the child.

As Russell was climbing into Tom’s van to leave, a Lutheran pastor ran up to him and asked, “Mr. Hicks, you seem like an essentially moral young man, what would you say I needed to do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me essentially moral? Do you think that has something to do with why I am who I am? As if being essentially moral is the way to inherit eternal life?”

The pastor shrugged.

Russell said, “If morality is the answer, then follow the Ten Commandments.”

“I do. I’ve tried my whole life to do what’s right. I gave up law school to attend seminary.”

Russell studied the man with an intense compassion. “You’re missing the main point. You think it’s what you do for God that permits access to the Kingdom of God, instead of what God has done for you. If it’s based on your goodness, then leave your pastorate in North Carolina where there are many churches, and go to a country with there are none.”

At this, the man’s countenance fell. He walked away sorrowful because his church was large and he was a man of influence in the community.

Russell looked around at the people driving off in cars and pick-up trucks. “It’s difficult for people who hold onto their possessions to enter the Kingdom of God.”

This bewildered his friends.

“It’s hard for those who place their confidence and safety in what they own or where they live to enter the Kingdom of God. It’s easier for a Baptist to turn Catholic than for a self-absorbed, moral person to enter the Kingdom of God.”

“Then who can enter the Kingdom?” his shocked friends asked.

Glancing around at them, Russell said, “It is impossible for people to save themselves, but not for God. Everything is possible for God.”
 

Worried, Peter said, “I hope you’re noticing that we have abandoned everything for God. We’re doing exactly what you’re doing. We’re totally committed to living the life.”

“Peter, there is no one who has given up houses or families for the sake of God, who will not receive a hundred times as much in return in this life and in the life to come. But there are many now who consider themselves to be great, religious leaders, that will discover themselves to be nothing. And the insignificant ones, will in fact be first in heaven.”

During the drive back to Wilkins, Russell’s friends were confused. Russell’s words and actions were becoming more obscure. They felt as if a new Russell were emerging; one consumed with death and bent on alienating people of religious influence. Fear gripped them. What was Russell Hicks really planning?

Sensing their fear, Russell asked Tom to pull over at a rest stop. He once again began to explain to them what he thought was going to happen.

“We’re going back to Wilkins where I feel certain that I’m going to be arrested. I believe I’m to be a martyr for the sake of the people of Wilkins. People will probably make fun of me during this process. I think they will kill me like they did Johnny Witherspoon. It’s okay though, because I will be raised to live with God in heaven.”  

The Jackson brothers motioned Russell to follow them out of the van, over to the vending machines. “Russell,” they said, “We want you to do something for us.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Jimmy Jackson said, “We want to be your right hand guys when the real glory comes to you from the newspapers and television.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you willing to go through the public humiliation that is required in order to be considered great in the Kingdom of God? The whole, fallen world will cry out for your destruction. Is that what you want?”

“We’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Johnny said. “No pain, no gain. Huh?”

Russell looked to the northern sky, where a distant galaxy loomed low above the horizon. He sighed heavily. “If you’re willing to do whatever it takes to advance the Kingdom, then you will sacrifice your lives like me. But to be honored for it is not up to me. God honors those whom He has chosen; those who follow Him to the end.”  

Peter stormed up and pushed Johnny Jackson away from Russell. “Who do you to think you are? You two think you’d be better leaders than me or the others?” 

“Hold on,” Russell yelled, stepping between the fractured group. “Stop acting like Kyle Affas. He’s the leader of the Act Teens and he makes sure they know it. He makes rules just so he can punish kids who break them. He loves his greatness.”

Johnny Jackson straightened his rumpled shirt, glaring at Peter.

“You guys are not like him. Whoever wants to be great among you must serve the others. You don’t demand respect through rules and titles, you earn it. Even Jesus didn’t come so that people could serve him, but that he might serve us. Jesus served us by dying for us.” Russell looked at his friends, his eyes ablaze. “You want to be leaders? Then be servants. You want to be servants? Then be ready to die. That’s the example. Now let’s go. Wilkins needs us.”

At a traffic light on the edge of town a man staggered from the Kit Kat Roadhouse. The boys watched him fumble with his car keys while trying to locate his car. He bent forward in the pale glow of a street light, still fingering through keys, when he lost his balance. Unable to move his hands quick enough to break his fall, he struck the pavement face first. From the van the boys could hear the nauseating thud of bone against pavement. The man began to scream for help.

Anticipating Russell’s thoughts, Peter said, “Leave him alone. He’s blind drunk. We can’t help him.”

“Jesus, help me,” the man wailed. “Oh, Jesus.”

“Stop the van, Tom,” Russell said. “You guys jump out and carry the guy over here.”

Five of the boys, led by Peter, approached the moaning, drunken figure. Yellowish streams of vomit covered the man’s florescent orange, hunting jacket.

“Oh, he stinks,” said Peter, pinching his nose. He knelt down and slipped a hand under one puke-drenched arm. “Come on, pal. Believe it or not, Jesus is answering your prayer for help.”

They pulled off the man’s jacket before hefting him into the van next to Russell. The man, struggling to focus on the image in front of him, believed he was in some god-like dream. “Are you Jesus?” he asked Russell.

“Something like that,” Russell said. “I know you can’t see straight right now, especially with that broken nose, so just lay back. We’ll take care of you.”

“Thank you, Jesus,” the drunk said, sinking into unconsciousness.

Four hours later, in a curtained section of the Wilkin's Memorial emergency room, Russell helped Harold Owens sip some water. Harold’s insides burned from the recently completed stomach pumping and his freshly set nose throbbed in competitive agony. He hated sobriety.

“What do you want me to do for you, Harold?” Russell asked, returning the paper cup to the bedside table.

With great effort, Harold turned his head to regard his teenaged rescuer. “I’d like to see life like a kid again.” He began to cry.

Russell took hold of Harold’s hand. “See it now through the faith that can heal you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Close your eyes.” When Harold complied, Russell said, “Lord, let Russell see himself as a boy.” He waited a minute, then asked, “Where are you?”

“Reading a poem in front of my third grade class.” He wiped a tear from his cheek, wincing in pain as he brushed his bandaged nose. “Why am I thinking about this?”

“Maybe God wants you to. How was your poem?”

“Teacher said it was the best she ever heard. Said I ought’a be a writer. It was the best moment of my life. But it didn’t last.”

“What happened?”

“After class, some bigger boys beat me up. Said something was wrong with me because I write poems.” Harold’s body convulsed in a sob that wracked his body with pain. “They broke my glasses.”

Russell rubbed Harold’s forearm, waiting.

“I spent the rest of my life proving I was a real man. I fought, drank, picked up women, whatever.”

“And your life now?”

“What do you think,” Harold screamed. “It’s crap.”

A night watch nurse poked her head through the curtain, asking if there was a problem.

“We’re okay,” Russell said, calmly. “He’s in a lot of pain.”

The nurse said she’d send the doctor in when he wasn’t busy, but drunks usually got what they deserved.

Harold, eyes still closed said more softly, “I’m divorced. I’ve been in prison. Can’t seem to get rid of the hurt. I ache all the time. Drugs don’t help. Neither does the whisky.”

“God wants to get rid of the hurt, Harold, but you’ve got to let Him.”

Opening his eyes, Harold said, “I know the Jesus talk, son. I’ve been in church a thousand times. It don’t work either.”

“You’re right, Harold. The talk doesn’t work because it comes from people. But let God give the talk and it’s different—transforming.” Gripping the patient’s hand more tightly, he said. “Will you listen to God right now?”

“Okay,” Harold whined. “Okay.”

“Ssshh, Harold. Listen. Lord, what do you want Harold to know?”

The emergency room hummed with the sounds of machines propping up flagging lives. Somewhere in a distant, curtained cell, Russell heard the kind of crying that suggested perhaps a woman had lost a child or husband. People wait to meet eternity in as if it’s a final duel, when they have been living or dying in it all along.

“Oh my God,” said Harold, nearly whispering. “Is that Him? Is it You?” He clutched the sheet up tight against his chest, eyes clamped tight. “I can’t believe it.”

“What do you hear, Harold?”

“He says…God says, I’m His poet. He is telling me to be a poet.” Harold wept sweetly, softly.

“That’s Him,” said Russell. “That’s God.”

“How do I do it? I’ve never been to college or anything.”

“Get in the habit of asking God those questions, Harold. If you listen, He’ll always answer. He always has. ” Russell touched Harold lightly on the forehead and said, “You’re not blind anymore.”  Then he left.