It was raining. It always rained.
He lowered his hood as he walked under the arch into the massive stone structure, unhappy about the ever-present showers. Though it was late afternoon, there was little light left, and the stone building stood imposingly, seeming to him to contain some otherworldly power in the dark. He took a program from one of the attendants and thanked her with a confidence that suggested he belonged, though his speech and mannerisms spoke to the contrary. He sat down on the chair. It was a good seat, thankfully. He took a look around, stifling an arrogant sniff directed towards the wide-eyed tourists surrounding him.
Before he could dwell on the subject longer, the chapel singers strode out solemnly, breaking his thoughts. They filed into their seats and then began to sing. He did not recognize the piece. Despite this, he closed his eyes, letting the music wash over him. The choir sung exquisitely, maximizing the effect of every crescendo and accent. So entranced in the music he was that he did not realize it had stopped. Slightly embarrassed, he looked around and gathered himself. As the service passed on, his thoughts turned inward. He knew that he should pay attention to the short lesson offered by the priest, but he was unaware. Didn’t everybody do this sort of thing? He had heard the Bible many times. One missed lesson would not hurt anything.
It was the anthem that brought him back. The singing brought him out of his trance, as it always did. This time his wandering mind fixated on a few lines of text:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor can the floods drown it.
In a moment, cold terror washed over him. He was afraid. This God, the God stronger than death, the same God of the abbey he was in, knew everything about him. He closed his eyes and, for a moment, could feel the incisive glare of an incomprehensible power. Then, as quickly as the feeling began, it dissipated. He blinked, and focused intently upon the rest of evensong lest the sensation return.
As he left the church following the benediction, the giant brick and limestone clock tower loomed above him over the river. Its famous façade and clock face shone in the darkness. It was still raining; he was still annoyed by it. He pulled his hood over his short blonde hair and shuffled to the nearest tube station across the street.
John was his name. John, which meant ‘The Lord is gracious.’ He didn’t like his name. He supposed that most people were at least indifferent to their names, but he hated his.
The next morning, John would pick up his father at the airport. He had only told John he was coming a week previous. John was surprised and apprehensive. They hadn’t talked in the two years since John crossed the pond to this comparatively tiny island nation, smaller than the state in which he was born and raised. That was more John’s fault than his dad’s.
John arrived at his living quarters, hungry and tired. As he took off his wet coat and scarf, his always wandering mind settled again on home. Home is where the heart is. This little flat was home. Or was it? His father’s arrival was stirring uncomfortable emotions, ones John would much rather ignore.
Two years was a long time.
“This is my decision, dad. You know that.”
“I do, but I don’t want you to make a mistake.”
John sighed, unsatisfied at that response and mentally exhausted at these exchanges, which had been going on for too long.
“Son, we love you. We want you to stay. Don’t you understand that?”
“You know how much your mom will miss you, right? Your sisters? You know what that will do to them.”
“Don’t make this a guilt trip.”
“What? I’m not trying to guilt you into staying.”
A quick exhale of amusement escaped John. “Listen to yourself. You want me to stay because you want me to be close. You don’t really have my best interests in mind.”
Dad had moved to chairs to face each other before the talk had begun. He took advantage of their position then by placing an oppressively gentle hand on John’s knee. “You can’t blame a father for wanting his son to be near, can you?”
“You really don’t think I have your best interests at heart?”
John hesitated. “No.”
Dad raised himself out of the chair and walked to the other side of the room, looking out the window. There was not a single cloud in the sky.
“We can’t help you, you know.”
“We just don’t have the money. You’ll have debt. Which you wouldn’t if you stayed here.”
“I know.” John was getting impatient.
Dad looked straight at John, intently, and with a curious sadness. Until that point, this conversation had been more or less repeated every few days or so.
“John, I don’t know what to say to you. We’ve done everything in our power to raise you the right way, to make you a good Christian and a good man. I don’t understand. Why do you want to abandon everything and leave? This is not your calling, son.”
John remembered that he said something to placate his father; he did not remember what. But he knew that wasn’t the truth. The truth was that John needed to get away. Love was strong—for John, too strong. He did not deserve it, and he could not explain it.
John walked to the tube station. It was not raining anymore, at least not yet, but it was still a dreary and dark Monday morning. Passing John were a bevy of vehicles. Some, most obviously the comically tall double-decker red buses, pierced through the haze of grey. Others, like the common black taxis, blended in. Postcards of the city pictured it full of life, full of happiness, and retaining a sense of quaintness that many other cities have lost. This was a lie. The reality was that the city was usually colorless and gloomy. John had met people who claimed that this was when the city really shone. John thought those people were loons.
It would be easier if it always rained. But it didn’t. At times, the sun would burst through the clouds in a triumphant manner. For a day or two this beautiful city and surrounding, equally gorgeous countryside would gain a hidden radiance. Nothing is ever that easy.
Inside the station, he touched his faded blue card to the turnstile and followed the royal blue signs to get on the correct line, embarking on the train when it arrived. The tube was crowded. He rolled his eyes and sighed. He did not want to be near so many other wet and snobby other human beings. Sometimes he hated it here. He supposed it was better than home.
He scanned the train to see if anyone else was in a similar conundrum. Most seemed to be alarmingly like sheep, many in boring business attire, all reading the same newspaper, all going to cubicles or other similarly boring occupations. With a smirk, he imagined them in a field of grass on all fours, eating grass and following an obscured figure, a shepherd of sorts.
John wondered if he was a sheep, and who was his shepherd. Money? No, or he wouldn’t have gone to university three and a half thousand miles away from home. Family? No, same reason. Fame? Sex? Drugs? No, no and no. God?
The train stopped, once, twice, three times. Each time, sheep would enter and leave, but the composition remained the same. John wondered again. God?
God was supposed to be a shepherd and a father. His love was strong, invincible, uncontainable. He guided his sheep with a love that could move mountains. And yet…this God, if truly omnipotent, had the power to destroy the world. If Christianity was true, God did destroy the world, flooding it, purging it of evil and malice. He had the power to kill, to murder, to harden the hearts of those who opposed him and for those who followed him. God could utterly eliminate life. If love was the alternative…was it really love? And could someone even accept that love?
“Dad, can I ask you something?”
Four years ago, at a baseball game. The stadium was full, and it was a rivalry game for the teams involved. The bases were loaded, only one out, the home team down one run. A walk would have scored a run. A single, two, and the lead. John always loved baseball. It was patient, a game of tradition. The core of it was an intimate battle between the pitcher and hitter; every pitch was their struggle and their struggle alone. John liked that.
The pitch comes. Swing, foul ball. Strike one.
“Why did you and mom decide to have kids in the first place?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just that kids are dirty, noisy, they cost you money, you have to clean up after their messes. Why did you decide to have kids?”
They watched as the pitcher prepared. John and his father went to many baseball games. Sometimes they talked about important things, sometimes they didn’t. Baseball was one of the few things they both enjoyed, so they took advantage. The pitcher wound up like a mousetrap, getting ready to strike and release the energy.
Fastball. Called strike two on the corner of the plate.
Dad looked pensive for a few seconds. “Well, mom wanted kids, so there’s that. I suppose there are a number of reasons anybody has kids. We wanted to continue the family legacy. We wanted the joy of bringing someone into the world, of raising them, of loving them.”
“Did you ever consider what would happen if the kids didn’t like you? Or if they rejected you?”
Windup, next pitch. A nasty curveball, the batter swung and missed. Strike three, you’re out.
Dad looked at John quizzically, but continued. “No, I suppose not. Why?”
John shrugged. “I’m just curious. What if you had a kid that rejected you? Would you hate them?”
“If my own son or daughter rejected me…no, I wouldn’t hate them. They would still be my kid. I would continue to love them, though. They wouldn’t have a choice in the matter. I think…I would love them until they came back.”
John was thankful his father did not inquire as to why he would ask such a question. He decided, though, to ask another. “Do you think God is the same way?”
The final batter in the inning stepped up to the plate and, on the first pitch, hit a weak popup to second. Inning over.
“Do I think God is the same way? Well, who knows why God ‘had’ us. But God is love. He is also wrathful. His love is irresistible because he is so powerful, I think; I mean, he does know everything about us. I don’t think there is an alternative.”
John sat quietly. That was what he was afraid of.
John got off the train at Heathrow. He could not explain his feelings. He was somewhat excited, but also frightened, and more than a little curious. John wondered what his dad would say, if he would be angry, or if he would smother John in a love that he did not want.
He remembered his sleep-deprived arrival here two years ago, when he almost had a mental breakdown from the lack of sleep and stress. The airport was huge. Shops of various kinds peddled a variety of goods and services for the zoo of people surrounding them. People trundled, trotted, and strode to and fro. There was a greater variety of people here than the tube, for sure, but once again there was no difference in composition. These people were all going somewhere.
John’s meandering thinking brought him to a question. Was he going somewhere? Or was he just running? He had been running from his father, from God. He didn’t know his destination and was only biding time. John was tired of running, but was not pleased with the other options. He looked at his watch, and then at the arrivals board. John’s father was half an hour from arriving. That half hour was filled with pacing and wandering. It seemed to John that the people were purposefully crowding him, glaring at him, making him feel out of place.
Eventually, the plane arrived, and the passengers disembarked. After a few dozen people, John spied his dad. He was disheveled and haggard from the overnight flight, but otherwise healthy. John knew that the coming days would be awkward, that his father would try to win him over again. He had been bracing himself for that possibility.
John sighed, gathered courage, and approached his father with reluctance. His father was sure that love would win John over again. John wasn’t so sure.