“Most of us mean to be better men -
Any other time:
Regular upright characters then -
Any other time.
Yet somehow as the years go by
Still we gamble and drink and lie,
When it comes at last we’ll want to die -
Any other time!”
From “Any Other Time” ~ Banjo Paterson
Only moments after giving the benediction, Michael Turnbull rose again quietly and moved toward the kitchen. He paused at the doorway and looked back over the congregation, their heads still bowed in silence.
Toward the back, beside his youngest sister, sat the new teacher Jemimah Parker, her face hidden by a veil of shiny fair hair. She’d not seemed at all at ease during the sermon, and he hoped to have a chance to chat with her during supper . . . but that would have to wait.
The smell of cigarette smoke still lingered in the kitchen as Michael walked toward the back door. He’d heard the screen click shut immediately after he’d announced the last hymn, and hoped if he moved quickly enough, he might still catch Gary Peterson.
He’d been aware of the man’s presence in the kitchen throughout most of the sermon, and while praying for his listeners after the benediction, Michael had felt prompted to go and look for him. He pushed open the screen and slipped outside.
The sun was low on the horizon now, staining the sky and land like tea spilt over a linen cloth. He moved along the side of the house, aware of the movement of people inside - getting to their feet, moving chairs, beginning to chatter. Outside all was still; the sound of a dog moving on its chain and cattle crooning in the paddocks seeming distinct from the life within.
A light breeze sighed across the grass, bringing with it the acrid scent of a freshly lit cigarette. Michael smiled, and strode around to the back of the house where he found Gary Peterson sitting on the bonnet of an original ’63 Holden, leaning back against the windscreen as he smoked.
“Mind if I join you?” Michael asked, taking a seat on an adjacent metal drum and propping his feet on the Holden’s rusty bumper.
“No, you’re right.”
A comfortable silence settled over them, Gary Peterson staring up at the sky and Michael looking up at him with interest. Gary was only about ten years older than him but his weathered face and close cropped hair made him look more like twenty years his senior.
Michael knew his reputation around town as a hard drinker and wondered what had compelled him to stop and listen to the message that evening. Usually there was no sign of either of the Peterson brothers on the nights that the church came to visit. Perhaps there was an interest in the gospel after all?
He’d followed Gary outside in the hope that if God was indeed working in his heart there might be an opportunity to speak with him. Now with him, he was content to bide his time without forcing conversation, but a few moments later Gary looked down at him as he pulled out his cigarette packet.
“You don’t want one, do ya, Michael?” he asked merely as a token gesture, lighting up another cigarette without waiting for an answer.
“No, gave them up years ago.”
Gary shook his head and gave a throaty chuckle. Just as much as Gary Peterson’s hard living reputation was known around the district, so was the Pastor’s son’s squeaky clean one. The two men came from different worlds and although they’d never had much to do with each other there was always a friendly acknowledgement on both sides whenever their paths crossed.
Michael grinned back at him, glad the ice was broken, “And I bet it’s been a long while since you’ve listened to a sermon.”
Gary nodded, drawing slowly on his cigarette. “Yeah, would be . . . what, twenty years since Mum gave up dragging us along to church? But Mum said this arvo how you were filling in for your old man and I guess I was just curious to see what you had to say for yourself.”
“And what do you reckon?”
“It’s all pretty much like I remember,” Gary answered with a shrug. “You know, you’d never find me in church or anything - but I believe in God just as much as the next bloke. I know he’s up there looking down on us. There’s been enough narrow scrapes I wouldn’t have gotten out of if someone up there wasn’t pulling the strings, so I send up my thanks every now and then too.”
Knowing what he did of the other man, his answer took Michael by surprise. As though guessing his thoughts, Gary laughed.
“Yeah, I know, I’m not the kind of guy anyone wants to cross, especially after I’ve had a few. But I’m not really that bad a bloke - unless someone’s got it in for me, I don’t do anyone any harm. Live and let live, and treat everyone else the way you want to be treated. No-one can ask more than that.”
Gary’s ready acknowledgement of God’s existence was as encouraging as it was unexpected, but the rest of his comments made Michael wonder whether there was any true depth or interest behind it.
“Do you talk to your Mum about God, Gary?” he asked, feeling his way carefully.
“Nah. She thinks you’ve got to be reading the Bible and going to church all the time. Each to their own, but no-one’s got the right to tell everyone else what they should be doing. We’ve all got to get to God our own way.”
Michael nodded, but sat and watched the smoke drift up and disappear against the darkening sky for a few minutes without speaking.
There was something flattering about the fact that Gary Peterson had opened up to even talk about religion with him - but Gary had laid out the ground rules pretty clearly. It was a belief Michael had heard before in many different guises: every approach to God was equally valid - and one of the most “unchristian” attitudes was lack of acceptance of that.
It was tempting to merely be grateful for this unexpectedly open conversation and not to say anything that would challenge Gary’s ideas and risk the comfortable atmosphere, but Michael knew he’d be doing him no favours by leaving him in his darkness. There was no way of knowing whether there’d ever be another opportunity to speak with Gary like this.
“I don’t know how much you picked up about what the Bible said about Saul tonight,” he said finally, after a few moments of silent prayer. “He was a man who certainly believed that God existed, and even served him in his own way. But it wasn’t enough - God rejected him because he didn’t do things the way God had told him to. God demanded obedience, not Saul’s own version of religion.”
He wasn’t expecting an answer, but gave Gary enough time to mull over where he was coming from before continuing. “It’s just the same with us - we haven’t got the luxury of coming up with our own standards of what might be good enough for God. Some people think it’s all about how we treat others, or the things we do or don’t do that will make us okay in God’s sight - but it’s only what he thinks that matters. God told Saul exactly what he had to do, and he tells us what he wants of us just as clearly in the Bible.”
“Yeah, and I know what you people think that is. You’ve got to be one of these hymn-singing church-goers to be good enough for God.” Gary’s voice carried a derisive tone.
“No, the Bible says none of our own efforts - not even church going and hymn singing - will ever make us good enough for God. The only way to find peace with God is through faith in Jesus to provide forgiveness for our sins. But I wouldn’t be too quick to write off the church-going either,” he paused until he caught Gary’s eye.
“Since the Bible says faith comes through hearing the Word - if you’re serious about finding peace with God then going to church and hearing the Word being preached and explained is a pretty wise move. And the hymn singing?”
Michael grinned up at him unapologetically.
“Once someone discovers that despite all their sin God really will forgive them freely - they’re just so thankful that worshipping him seems like the least they can do. You might be surprised; when God saves us he changes us, and trying to live our lives the way the Bible says becomes a blessing and not a burden.”
Gary flicked his cigarette butt to the ground, “No, mate - all that stuff’s just not for me, whether you reckon it puts me offside with God or not. He’ll just have to take me as I am, because that’s never going to be my cup of tea.”
At the sound of a car coming down the drive the chained dog burst into a renewed frenzy of barking and Gary slid off the bonnet and onto his feet. Michael got to his feet too, knowing that the conversation would have been over even if Gary’s brother hadn’t just arrived home.
“Be see’n you around,” Gary said over his shoulder before disappearing around the side of the house.
Michael didn’t head back inside immediately but remained where he was a few minutes longer, praying over their conversation. Gary certainly hadn’t been eager to know more - but he hoped his words may have shaken his confidence that he could be right with God without forgiveness through Christ.
At least he’d had opportunity to sow the seed. Perhaps there would be other opportunities for him or someone else to water it - but it would only be God that could make it grow.
Although he could hear voices and laughter in the living room, there was no-one in the kitchen when Michael went back inside. He poured himself a cup of tea, his thoughts already returning to the new teacher, Jemimah Parker.
More time had passed while he was outside with Gary than he’d realised and he hoped she hadn’t left already. For some reason - probably because he felt a duty of care for her in his father’s absence - he knew he’d be very disappointed if he’d missed talking to her that evening.
© R. L. Brown 2006