“Him ye held less than the outer barbarian,
Left him to die in his ignorant sin;
Have you no principles, humanitarian?
Have you no precept – ‘Go gather them in?’”
From “Only a Jockey” ~ Banjo Patterson
Finding himself alone in the ute, Michael pocketed the keys and stepped outside. Still occupied with their discussion on the miracle of new birth, he didn’t notice Jemimah had already gone until he joined Angie by the back of the ute.
“Where’s--” he began, only to be thumped in the arm by his sister.
“Great going there, Michael. You couldn’t have handled that with any more sensitivity, could you?” The sarcasm in Angie’s voice reached him at about the same moment he registered that the slim silhouette running through the shadows toward the house was Jemimah.
He turned sharply to Angie. “What do you mean?”
“Jemimah’s hardly going to feel great after you’ve torn apart her efforts with Jarrah, is she? She’s been praying for the girl for months, seeing her nearly every day - no wonder she was so excited to be able to talk about God to her. And you--”
“All I did was talk about what the Bible teaches--”
“Well, you didn’t have to knock her down flat like that. She was trying her best to share the good news about Jesus with a young girl who desperately needs to know Him. Jarrah’s probably never heard the Gospel before tonight.”
“I know. But from what Jemimah was saying, I’m worried Jarrah still mightn’t have heard it.” Michael’s chest felt like a cement mixer with the concrete beginning to set inside it, heavy and thumping against its sides. “That’s why I wanted to make sure Jemimah knows how to show her the way to Christ. It doesn’t matter how good her intentions are if--”
“If she doesn’t get it all right? I guess then she deserves to be made to feel as if what she said was worthless.”
“But I was just explaining the gospel - I wasn’t attacking her personally--”
“No?” Angie snorted derisively. “Well, I don’t think Jemimah realised that! It looked like she was trying not to cry since before we turned off at the crossroads.”
Michael stared at his sister in horror. He’d thought Jemimah was just listening intently - she’d seemed so open to discussing spiritual matters when they’d talked previously that it had never occurred to him that this time was any different.
“Why didn’t you say something, Ange?” he asked, mentally replaying the conversation from this new perspective. Everything he’d said had been true - and vitally important - but if he’d known it was making Jemimah uncomfortable . . . .
“Once you get started, Michael, no-one has a chance of getting a word in!” she said, her arms folded across her chest. “If Jemimah wasn’t sitting between us, believe me, I would have kicked you. I can’t believe you can be so dense.”
Michael ran his tongue over dry lips. All he’d wanted to do tonight was help out the girls with their fellowship plans – and now he’d hurt Jemimah without even realising it.
“Thank you for telling me,” he murmured, staring across the darkness toward the house.
“There’s no need to be sarcastic!”
He looked back at his sister in confusion. “What?”
“Oh, never mind. Let’s get inside.”
Michael set off across the grass beside Angie. “Yes. If Jemimah is - upset - I just hope I can repair the damage.”
“Don’t you think you’d better just leave well enough alone?”
“It’s not ‘well enough’ though, is it?” he replied with a sigh, and paused to open the screen door for his sister. Nan was standing in the dining area as they entered, watching them intently.
“Has Jemimah come in?” Michael asked, feeling worse by the moment.
“Mmm hmm,” Nan confirmed with a slow nod. “She’s gone through to have a shower.” She drew the tea towel she was holding through her hands. “She looked pretty unhappy - did something happen to upset her?”
“Yeah, Michael happened,” Angie said bluntly.
Nan looked at him narrowly. “How?”
Michael shrugged helplessly. “Just talking about the gospel.”
“Hmph! In the typically Turnbull tonne-of-bricks way,” Angie added, and headed into the kitchen.
Nan pursed her lips as she stared at Michael for another few moments, and then asked him to go and let the dogs off their chains before he took his boots off. “I tie them up when we’re expecting Jemimah. She’s not used to dogs,” she explained.
“I discovered that today, too,” Michael replied, and escaped outside. There were so many things that seemed to threaten the poor girl - and somehow he’d become one of them.
He prayed for wisdom as he walked around to the back of the water tank where the dogs waited for him, their chains rattling as they heard his approach. He couldn’t have not pointed out that what Jemimah was sharing was not the Biblical gospel . . . but the last thing he’d wanted to do was hurt her feelings. He’d only wanted to help her bring the Biblical message of salvation to Jarrah instead of something that might confuse her young friend even more.
But instead of helping her see that God’s sovereignty in salvation could give her confidence in a miracle that was perfect from beginning to end, he’d only sent her running. He sighed, nearly tripping on a hose that was hidden in the grass. It all seemed so clear to him - the foundation of the gospel being God’s mighty work alone - but the modern tradition of a free-will gospel had imposed a veil over the power of the Word and hid it from so many people.
The dogs’ solid bodies buffeted Michael’s legs as soon as he was within the arc of their tethers. He unclipped the chains from their collars, and paused to give them the attention they demanded. Once the two dogs were satisfied with his homage and they wandered off to explore, he checked their water and returned slowly to the house.
Sharing the truths of God’s Word usually filled him with joy – not this awful sense of conflict. He realised now that even though he’d had the best of motives - to help Jemimah grow in her understanding of the gospel - having her beliefs challenged like that had really hurt her, and maybe made her despise him for it.
And that made him feel worse than he could ever have imagined.
The staccato rhythm of hot water splashing hard against slate tiles drowned all sounds from the outside world, and the hot steam which obscured the rest of the bathroom cocooned Jemimah in a temporary refuge. She wished she could stay in the shower forever. To not have to face Michael or the rest of the family, to not have to face what he thought of her, to not have to think ….
Jemimah didn’t even know if she was crying or not anymore; the hot water washed away any tears that ran down her face before she could even feel them. If only she could just forget the unhappiness he’d stirred up in her, to let it run off her, too - yet the things he’d said clung like the grass burrs in the Turnbull’s paddock and pricked at her tender skin. What if he was right? What if what she’d always thought was the way to salvation wasn’t what God had said in the Bible?
She couldn’t bear to let her thoughts go down that path of questioning what she believed - to even consider it for a moment was like seeing her whole life, her family and church turned into a house of cards and letting Michael knock out the bottom row. Jemimah turned the water on harder, finding relief in the numbing spray.
But what if he was right?
The question would not be banished from her mind, any more than the knowledge that she couldn’t empty the Turnbull’s water tank just because she wanted to avoid leaving the safety of the shower.
Using more willpower than she’d known she possessed, Jemimah turned off the taps. She’d let herself act like an irresponsible child for long enough - if she wanted to claim any shred of maturity she needed to face Michael and his family . . . and face the questions he’d raised in the car.
Swathed in warm steam, Jemimah reached for her towel. In all truth, she knew Michael had only been saying what he believed the Bible taught, but she'd been too upset to listen. Why had she reacted that way? From the first day she'd met Michael she’d appreciated the way he explained the Bible to her, and just like his Dad and Nan's advice, she’d considered it trustworthy up to now.
How horrible she’d been to Michael after everything he’d done for her - to run off without a word and hide herself in the shower. Could it be that she didn’t want to risk finding out that she’d been wrong - that she somehow had to change everything she thought about God and salvation? To have to face whether she really had messed everything up with Jarrah? And anyone else she’d ever talked to about Jesus?
Jemimah rubbed her face hard with the towel, determined not to start crying again. If asking Jesus into your heart was not how you became a Christian - then she honestly had no idea how anyone was meant to be saved. Perhaps, despite her rejection of what he was trying to tell her, Michael might be willing to explain it to her again.
Very soberly, Jemimah put on her pink cotton pyjamas and floral brunch-coat. It seemed a little strange to be dressing in nightwear to go and speak with a young man, but the clothes she’d worn out were too dirty to put back on, and her pyjamas were all she’d brought into the bathroom with her. At least her nightwear was more than modest - covering every part of her from ankle to wrist.
Jemimah wiped a clear patch in the steamy mirror, and looked sadly at her girlish reflection. It hurt to have to go back and face Michael after running off like a sulky child and now to try to deal with the issues in an adult way like she should have in the first place. But what did that matter? She’d been kidding herself to ever think Michael Turnbull could consider her in any other light.
What mattered now was facing up to the truth - whatever that might be.
Michael had stopped just inside the front door to pull off his boots when he heard Jemimah’s voice, barely louder than a kitten’s mew from the hallway door.
“Excuse me, Nan?”
Michael swallowed hard. Jemimah stood huddled in the doorway, barefoot and tiny, damp hair curling in tendrils over her slight shoulders, and looking like a pale bloom crushed by rain.
“Here, sweetheart - let me take those.” Nan rose from her chair with the agility of a teenager and removed the neatly folded bundle of clothes from Jemimah’s arms before she could protest. “I’ll pop those in with our washing. Now you go and sit down and I’ll be with you in a minute.”
As Nan headed off for the laundry, Michael watched Jemimah drift toward the empty dining chair beside Angie. He knew she hadn’t seen him yet, but as he removed his second boot, she looked up as though startled by the movement.
Her eyes were huge in her pale face as she regarded him, and darker blue than he’d ever seen them. Michael felt even more wretched than he had straight after Angie told him what he’d done. How could he have been so insensitive to have not even known he’d hurt her?
“Michael . . . I’m so sorry,” Jemimah said, before he could gather his wits to speak. “I shouldn’t have run off on you like that. It was very rude . . . and I’m sorry. I didn’t realise until after that you were just trying to explain . . . and I overreacted. I’m sorry.”
Michael ran his hand through his hair in agitation. How like her to jump in and apologise!
“No, Jemimah - it’s me that’s sorry. I didn’t stop to think I might be hurting your feelings. I guess I’m just a bit passionate about that topic. I--”
“That’s one way of describing it,” Angie lifted her eyebrows at him over her coffee cup. “Was it really so important to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ that you had to totally decimate Jemimah?”
“Do you really think that’s all that matters to me, Angie?” he demanded, his pent-up emotions finding a target in his sister’s reproach. “Dotting ‘i’s’ and crossing ‘t’s?’ Do you really think I would have said anything at all to Jemimah if it wasn’t far more important than that?”
“Yeah, well I know how important being right is to you!”
Michael felt like shaking his sister. “Angie! This is not about being right--”
“Please.” Jemimah looked from one of them to the other in alarm, “It’s okay, really.”
“No, it isn’t. I’m not defensive about the doctrine of salvation without good reason. This really matters.” Michael glared at Angie in exasperation. “If only you knew – Look, out of all the young people I speak with through our youth outreach in Sydney, the ones that are nearly impossible to reach with the gospel are the kids who have never felt the weight of their sin, or known the grace of God - but think they’re okay because sometime in the past someone told them they were ‘saved’.”
He thrust his hands into his jeans pockets, and stared up at the ceiling, slowly shaking his head at the images filling his mind, and wishing Angie could see them. “If you knew the times we’ve gone out to the shopping centres on a Thursday night to chat with the young people that hang out there, to ask them if they’ve ever thought about eternity - and I’m talking to one of the guys who’s been leering at every girl walking past, or one of the young women from church is talking to a girl dressed as indecently as all her girlfriends, and they say: “Oh, it’s okay - I’m a Christian. I know I’ll go to heaven when I die.” And we ask them, ‘Why do you think you’re a Christian’?”
Michael blew out his breath in frustration then went on. “Because they go to church, or because they made a decision for Christ, or because they ‘believe’ in Jesus.” And if we try to get them to consider that they might still be living in sin, they merely shrug and say that the Bible says Jesus has forgiven all their sins.”
“But that’s not at all what Jemimah was saying, was it?” Angie challenged him.
“No, I know that. But it’s . . . .” Michael shook his head in frustration. “No matter how good the motive, it’s where sloppy thinking about the Gospel ends up.”
“Well, you can hardly lay all of that on Jemimah! That’s not being fair.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry,” Michael answered, walking around the bar into the kitchen area and wishing he didn’t feel so wound up inside. “I didn’t mean to bring it all up again. It’s just you seemed to think the whole issue is about some dry theological point - not something vitally important.”
He switched on the kettle walked back toward the table, vaguely registering that Nan had returned to her seat on the other side of Jemimah. “I am sorry, Jemimah - like Angie said - it’s not really fair to lay all this on you. I’m still preoccupied with some other things that happened last term and I guess I’m thinking about that as much anything you actually said tonight.” He shook his head sadly as he looked down at her. “I really regret hurting your feelings. The purity of the gospel is incredibly important - and it is worth studying carefully - but I shouldn’t have made you feel like you were under attack. You are doing a wonderful thing the way you are witnessing to the kids here.”
Jemimah’s forehead was furrowed in concentration as she listened to him, but it was Nan who spoke. “Sit down, Mikey! You’re wearing me out with all your pacing back and forward.”
Michael had hardly been aware of walking while he spoke and he stopped, pressing his hands down on the counter with a rueful smile. “Sorry. Does anyone want a cuppa, while I’m still up?”
Nan and Angie already had cups in front of them, and Jemimah shook her head to say ‘no’.
“It’s no problem,” he told her.
“No, really - I ate so much tonight I couldn’t just now, thank you,” she replied, managing a small smile. “Maybe a glass of water, though?” she added, as though making a concession.
“Sure.” Michael grabbed two glasses and a jug of water and brought them with him to the table.
Nan pulled out the chair beside her and patted its seat. “You mentioned being preoccupied, Mikey - is it to do with the funeral you told me about last month? Maybe if you explained to the girls?”
“What funeral?” Angie asked. “Someone at your church?”
Michael shook his head, but poured out a glass and handed it to Jemimah before answering. Now that he’d sat down he felt entirely spent.
“No, it was one of my students at school. Do you remember that big accident on the motorway - it was on the news - between two cars full of teenagers on a late Friday night after a party? One of the young people who was killed was a sixteen year old girl who’d been in my class for the last four years.”
Jemimah drew her breath in sharply. “I read about that in the paper. It must have been a terrible shock - I’m so sorry.”
Michael acknowledged her words with his eyes, reliving in his mind the shockwaves that had travelled through the school in the weeks following her death. “Nan mentioned her funeral - what really threw me was to hear that this girl - her name was Alicia - was apparently a Christian, and her grieving family and friends were clinging fiercely to the belief that she was now safely in heaven.”
He stopped to take a long sip from his drink. “In her eulogy they talked about her giving her heart to Jesus at a youth camp a few years ago, and how good it was that she’d put her trust in Jesus before her untimely death. But it was news to me that she had any interest in spiritual things. I knew this girl - I spent hours with her and her friends every week of term - and she was just as worldly as anyone else. There was nothing in her life, or her attitudes that was centred on Christ - not the smallest sign of spiritual life or interest. She had something of a reputation as a party-goer, too, like the one she was at the night she died. What bothers me most is that as far as I can tell, she went to her death totally unprepared, with the false assurance that because of going forward and praying with a youth leader at the end of a camp meeting she had been saved.”
“But if she trusted in Jesus?” Jemimah asked timidly.
“If she truly trusted in Jesus, there should have been at least some evidence of transformation in her life,” Michael replied. “Even the thief on the cross - who only came to know Jesus at the very close of his life - was visibly changed in his attitudes and approach to Christ. He could no longer join in with the insults of the other criminal who mocked Jesus, instead he treated the dying Lord with respect, even confessed that he deserved his own punishment.”
He looked down at his glass, surprised to see it was empty again. “Yet hundreds of distraught girls from my school were sitting in the chapel, soaking in that this is what a Christian is - someone who has ‘made a decision’ for Christ. They knew Alicia, that she was no different to them, and now someone was telling them that she was an example of a person who had been born again and that she was now safe in the arms of Jesus.”
Michael refilled his glass, and added a little more to Jemimah’s. “I heard a very powerful sermon illustration a little while ago. The preacher pointed out that we’d be more than dubious if he turned up late to preach and ran up to the pulpit saying he was sorry he was late but he’d got a flat tyre and when he been changing it by the side of the freeway, he’d stepped back without thinking and had been run down by a semi-trailer travelling at 100 kilometres per hour. We’d think he was either a liar or a madman - if someone claims to have been hit by a big truck we expect to see the effect of a massive impact. How much more should we see the impact on a person’s life that has been transformed by the Almighty God? The Bible says if we are saved we are a new creature. If we’re not a new creature - we’re probably not saved at all.”
Michael drained his glass again and looked up to see Jemimah sitting stock still, watching him with her huge, blue eyes. His stomach clenched. In his attempt to explain where he was coming from - so she’d realise he’d never meant her to feel attacked personally - had he just trampled her down even more?
“I’m sorry, I’m still going on. I should let you guys go off to bed.” He collected up his glass and the near empty jug and took them into the kitchen with him.
“Please, Michael, if you don’t mind,” Jemimah’s plaintive voice pulled him up. “I really want to understand what you meant earlier. Are you . . . are you saying that if you think you became a Christian because you asked Jesus into your heart, that . . . that you’re not really a Christian?”
He turned around sharply, something in her voice triggering an acute sense of awareness. She was staring down at her glass, her slender fingers clenched tightly around it. As he looked he saw her fingers were nearly white with the tightness of her grip, and the surface of the water was rippling. He understood in that moment what Angie had meant about him attacking Jemimah personally. It was far deeper than being offended that he was questioning her doctrine - she was asking about her own understanding of the Gospel, the validity of her own salvation, and her own eternal security in Christ. If he’d undermined that, no wonder she’d been distressed.
‘No, no, no, Jemimah - that’s not what I mean at all,” he tried to reassure her quickly. “There are countless godly Christian people who at this moment are serving God with all their heart, who believe they were saved because they asked Jesus into their life to be their Lord and Saviour. They were saved by the grace of God, through the gift of faith he gave them - not by anything they did or chose or prayed or decided - even if they don’t fully understand it that way.”
He had the urge to go round the table to her and put his arm around her slight shoulders, but Angie and Nan flanked either side of her - Angie watching him with critical eyes, and Nan watching Jemimah with a protective expression.
“Thinking that asking Jesus into your heart is what made you born-again doesn’t make someone not a Christian,” Michael said, but then found he had to continue on. “But the act alone of asking Jesus into your heart doesn’t save anyone. And there are many, many people who are going to find themselves dismayed on judgement day because they base their salvation on their decision, their prayer, their choice or even the ritual or words of a priest and Christ will say to them “Depart from me, I never knew you.”
Jemimah looked up at him so sharply that Michael swallowed hard. All he’d wanted to do was somehow soften the edges of the issue, to make it less prickly - but he couldn’t. Half the truth was no truth at all.
“For goodness sake - you can’t leave it alone, can you, Michael?” Angie pushed back her chair in annoyance. “Does it always have to be so heavy when you’re home?”
Michael stood up, holding out his hands in surrender, but was unable to take his gaze from Jemimah. She stared at him beseechingly.
“Please - I still don’t understand. You said in the car that we can’t choose God. How can anyone be saved then? If it’s not a decision . . . or us choosing Jesus …” she trailed off, but her eyes didn’t leave his face.
“What I was trying to explain was that we’re not saved because we choose God. He commands us all to turn to him, but we only obey - or choose him if you like - because he has first done the saving work in us--”
“Jemimah - if you get Michael started again, it’s on your own head!” Angie said, taking her cup through to the sink. "It’s been a long day, can’t we relax and watch a bit of TV or something before bed?"
Jemimah clasped and unclasped her hands from around her glass. “Just a couple of minutes more?” she pleaded, as Angie shrugged her shoulders and headed for the couch. "Please - I still can’t quite make it make sense. I know you explained it the car, but I didn’t … I didn’t listen very well."
"Are you sure you don't want to leave it for tonight?” Michael suggested gently. “It’s not a life and death issue if you don't have all the details worked out. I thought it was important to mention if you hadn’t thought about these things before, but there's no time limit on working through them. It doesn't all have to be solved now.”
Jemimah looked away, blinking in embarrassment. “Of course, you'll be wanting to go to bed too. It hardly seems like it was only today you were taking the tree down, and you got home so late last night. I'm sorry. I’ll let you go.”
She began to get up, but Nan put her hand on her arm. “You’re a bit worked up about it, aren’t you, honey? You still want to get things straightened out?” When Jemimah nodded, Nan continued, “I’m sure Michael doesn’t mind at all if you want to ask him some more questions. Do you, Mikey?”
“Of course not,” Michael replied quickly, his heart lifting that she actually wanted to talk to him more about it. Even if she didn’t - or couldn’t - see what he was saying, she hadn’t dismissed him as he’d feared.
"Honestly, Jemimah, there’s nothing I love more than talking about God and his Word - I just wasn’t sure if it might be a bit much for you after everything else tonight? But I’m fine if you are.”
Jemimah nodded vigorously, the relief that lit her face patent. “Yes, thank you. I just don’t think I would be able to settle,” she pressed one hand against her chest, “to settle off to sleep unless I can unknot some of these tangles first.”
Nan nodded, then glanced over her shoulder toward the noise coming from the television in the corner. "Why don't you go through to the dining room where it's a bit quieter? I'll bring you both some supper when I take your Dad’s through in a little while."
"Good idea, Nan. Thank you." Michael dropped a kiss on the top of his grandmother’s head as he started toward the hallway. He looked back to see Jemimah already on her feet. The tension showed in her face and her body seemed taut like a marionette on wire strings and he ached in sympathy for her.
“Have a seat, Jemimah, I won’t be a moment.” He sent her an encouraging smile as he reached inside the archway to flick on the light switch above the formal dining table. “I’ll just get my Bible.”
Thank you for giving me another chance to speak with her, Lord, he prayed as went into his bedroom. Please give both of us wisdom as we open up your Word, and please guide me in knowing how to best to speak with Jemimah - and to understand her. Please bless our time together for your glory.”
“Amen.” He breathed the word aloud as he lifted his Bible from beside the bed. He always hoped to be a channel of both God’s truth and his grace whenever he shared them with another person, but tonight it mattered more than ever.
© R. L. Brown 2008