“Midst palaces though you should roam,
Or follow pleasure’s tracks,
You’ll find,” he said, “no place like home –
At least like Jacky Jack’s.”
From “Saltbush Bill J.P.” ~ Banjo Patterson
A few minutes after she heard the screen door shut behind Michael, Jemimah let herself of the front door. She'd seen the amusement that lit Michael's eyes when she'd offered to help him with his mechanical work – but she’d changed anyway into the denim pinafore she wore on art days at school. The sturdy navy fabric was equal to anything, and at the very least she could sit on the ground and pass him tools.
Jemimah drew in a tense breath and drew back into the shade of the patio. Who was she kidding?
It had been one thing to have spilled out her misery when Michael’s empathy had caught her off guard after a long day holding it all inside – but to go out to him now and start a conversation cold was another thing entirely. But what choice did she have? She couldn’t go on with the painful confusion that writhed inside her.
Half a dozen galahs screeched past overhead, their pink bellies gorgeous against the vast blue sky. Jemimah stepped out from under the porch to watch as they wheeled around to land in a huge gum beyond the sheds. Grassy fields stretched like an ocean surrounding the house, cows gathering beneath the few large trees like small brown boats tethered around tiny islands.
It was good to be back, she thought, drinking in the aroma of land and grass and beast. It was good. To be home.
The whole of the first term she been worried her resolve to stick out her three year contract wouldn't survive her first visit home - but in the event it had only made her strangely willing to return to her new life.
Like the dove Noah let out of the ark, she'd found no place to rest, and even before she’d said goodbye to her family, had felt herself flying back toward the Plains again. Her heart was still restless and her mind filled with many unresolved questions - but Michael's confidence that he could help her sort through them gave her a reason to keep circling, looking for peace.
She put one foot determinedly onto the driveway, and then the other. It seemed strange to long to speak to him again about the very issues that had caused her so much heartache, especially when her parents and pastor had been adamant - vehemently so - that he was wrong, but after their hours of discussion before her holidays, Jemimah knew she could at least talk it through with him.
Michael might be passionate about what he believed, but he wasn't afraid to explain it or answer questions about it – or most importantly, show her where it was from in the Bible. That was something that hadn't happened in the unpleasant discussions at home. It had been so hard to get past the offence she seemed to have caused to actually understand what points were being made. After years of being encouraged to grow up and become more independent, it felt like having an independent idea wasn't really appreciated.
She wasn’t far from the machinery shed when Michael turned around and caught sight of her, and waved her over.
"After your offer of help I thought I'd better wait. You might have some advice about what I'd better do about this stubborn nut that’s stopping me getting out the fuel pump."
Although she felt her cheeks burning from his teasing, Jemimah pressed her lips together assumed her most serious expression.
"Have you tried the WD40? " she asked.
Michael looked at her with satisfying amazement.
"Wow, I'm impressed, Miss Parker. Would you believe I was just about to try that?" He reached down and picked up the can that had been hidden behind a large tool box, "I’d no idea you had any interest in engines."
Jemimah laughed. "I certainly don't! I assure you that apart from suggesting the WD40 and passing the occasional tool, you're on your own.” As he was still watching her with interest as he shook the can of penetrating-oil, she continued, “I've spent a couple of afternoons with Jamie - he's working on an old engine - and the only thing I've picked up is that the Hart solution to everything is WD40. If the first can doesn't fix the problem, the second one might. And if that doesn't solve the problem, thumping it with the empty can just might."
"Sounds typical of the Harts. No finesse," Michael chuckled, squatting beside the toolbox. "So do you know what a shifter is?"
Jemimah furrowed her brow in concentration and pointed to a flat chrome tool with c-shaped end.
"Close," Michael nodded. "That is a spanner. This," he stood up and handed her a tool twice its size, "is a shifter. Would you mind holding it right here while I try and loosen the fuel pump from underneath?"
Michael carefully positioned the shifter in the engine bay, gave her hand an approving pat as she got into position, then disappeared under the engine.
"Okay - are you ready?" His voice was slightly muffled.
"Yes." Jemimah grasped the handle of the shifter as tightly as she could, and then leaned against it with all her weight as she felt pressure from beneath trying to make it move in the opposite direction.
She heard Michael grunt a couple of times, and the gravel crunched under him as he slightly changed position under the engine. Her face began to grow hot even from her own meagre effort, and just when she was about to give up, the pressure suddenly disappeared as a jubilant cry of "That's got it!" came from below.
"It was no match for us," Michael grinned up at her as he snaked his way out from under the vehicle. "Thanks, Jemimah."
His eyes glittered with the same boyish enthusiasm he'd exuded after taking down the tree nearly a fortnight ago - and Jemimah found herself caught up in his buoyant spirits. Michael Turnbull was always exhilarating to be with.
"Now it's out we'll see if we can get it unblocked." Michael pushed back his damp hair with one hand, leaving a streak of grease in its wake. He straightened up with a slight groan and walked across to get a small tin of petrol from the shelf. "I'm determined to get this engine running again before I leave.”
"Sounds like your folks have been working you hard," Jemimah commented as she settled herself back onto a firm bale of hay that made an inviting seat.
"Yes," he nodded, his eyes on the old pan he was filling with petrol. "But, by the sound of it, not so hard a workout as you've had with your family."
Jemimah sighed and plucked a long dried stem from the bale and began to twist it. For a little while she’d been so caught up in the pleasure of Michael’s presence that she’d forgotten why she was there.
"A different kind of hard work. The work you're doing," she looked almost enviously at his grazed knuckles, "makes you feel good afterwards. I just feel . . . awful."
Jemimah heard the wobble in her own voice, and despised herself for it. How was she ever going to be able to explain enough for him to possibly help her?
A few minutes passed, not awkwardly, while Michael scrubbed at the fuel pump. Then, without looking up from his work he asked, "So you mentioned to your parents some of the doctrines about salvation that we were looking into?"
Jemimah nodded. "One night at dinner I just said, 'You know how we always talk about becoming a Christian by asking Jesus into your heart, have you ever wondered where that idea comes from? I can’t find it anywhere in the Bible.' And they reacted as though I'd called their faith and the integrity of our whole church into question."
She knotted the grass stem she’d been playing with around her fingers. “When I explained about the Bible passages I’d been looking at and what they seemed to mean Mum said she’d heard about teachings like that before – that God treated some people differently to others – and that they were nasty teachings. She told me our pastor certainly didn’t believe that, and to speak him so he could straighten me out.”
“What did your dad think?”
“Oh, he doesn’t like any kind of conflict. I think he was unhappy with me for bringing it up. He feels that worrying too much about doctrines only divides and that you’re far better to stick with a simple faith in Jesus – that it doesn’t matter at all how you are saved, so long as you are. They made . . . I felt guilty for even asking questions.”
Michael looked up from his work. "When you've held a certain world view or theological belief for a long time - even if you've never questioned why you held it or why you believed it to be true - it's very confronting to be asked to step back and examine it. You're finding that yourself."
Jemimah nodded, looking quickly away from his searching eyes. "I half wish I'd never heard of it, so I could have gone just as I had been. But it really does seem to be in the Bible . . . ."
She felt his gaze on her a few moments longer before he spoke.
"Even when Jesus was on earth, speaking to his hearers face to face, there were many who thought his teaching was too demanding to deal with. He had thousands gathered around him and listening to his teachings on the mountain - yet when he began to speak of more spiritual topics, like he himself being the bread of life, the majority of his followers turned away, saying ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’
And Jesus didn't say, ‘Oh well - the hard bits are optional,’ but said that he'd known from the beginning that some had not believed and that only those whom the Father enabled could come to him."
Michael removed the pump from the pan and wiped it on a rag. "The thing about God is that he is not an impersonal power - he is a Person, three Persons in one, actually – and he wants us to know him, really know him. To have a real relationship with him. It's pretty incredible, isn't it? That the God who has always existed, and who created everything there is out of nothing, could possibly condescend to reach out to us with that kind of intimate, personal love."
Warmth transfigured Michael’s face as he spoke, as though the concept was a precious possession he'd lifted up to gaze at with her. "I just marvel at the incredible way he's revealed himself to us, through creation, through his Son, through the Holy Spirit working in our hearts through his Word – so that we might know him. Not to have only a hazy or inaccurate understanding based on our own ideas, but to truly know and love him for who he is."
He shrugged, dipping the part back into the petrol and scrubbing it again. "Obviously we're limited in our understanding of God while we are still in our earthly bodies, and we won't fully comprehend these spiritual glories until we are with him for eternity - yet God has revealed in his Word everything that we need for now. He didn't just give us John 3:16 - he gave us the whole sixty-six books of the Bible for a reason: that we might truly know him, and glorify him as we are transformed by that knowledge.”
Jemimah felt a little like the clouds had parted for a moment. "I do truly want to know God as much as I can. I do."
"I know," Michael answered, his voice as warm as a hug.
“Then why is it so hard?” Jemimah felt hot tears pricking at her eyes. “It is like there is this whole side of God and his sovereignty that is clearly there in the Bible that no-one wants to talk about. Sometimes I don’t even want to. I can’t just pretend it’s not there, though . . . . ”
She frowned hard, as thought she could will away the emotion that wrapped itself around her questions. “And when I talked to my Pastor he made it sound like it doesn’t have to be so hard at all. He agrees that because of our sin no-one can come to God without his help – but that God gives the necessary grace to everyone and not just a chosen few. He said God makes everyone able to come to him – but that he leaves us free to choose life or death for ourselves, because God doesn’t want people who come to him under compulsion.”
"So what stops everyone choosing life?” Michael asked gently. “And why does the Bible talk about the gospel making no sense to the perishing , to people who are spiritually blind or deaf? If God enables everyone, why doesn't everyone come to Christ for salvation? Why would anyone choose death and not life?”
A fortnight’s worth of constant Bible reading and prayer brought the answer straight to Jemimah’s mind, even if her heart struggled to own it.
“Because we love our sin more than God. Yes,” she sighed, “it brings us straight back to the start. We all were slaves to sin - until God freed us. It all comes back to being spiritually dead, doesn't it? That we're all unable to choose good or choose God unless he first changes our heart. But then it is hard to accept that the people whose heart God doesn’t change deserve hell.”
Jemimah pulled another stalk of grass from the bale, trying not to think of the good and kind people she had loved since childhood that had reached the end of their lives without knowing Jesus as their Saviour.
"Because their sin doesn’t seem that bad to us?” Michael put her thoughts into words. “It never does if we look at it from a human perspective. We naturally judge according to our standards and view sin primarily as only that which harms other people. But the more we understand how holy, perfect and just God is, the more we understand how any rebellion against him, and lack of due honour or perfection is deserving of the greatest punishment. What is our sin against man compared to our sin against the God who made the universe and rules over everything?”
Michael gave a rueful chuckle, shaking his head as he went on. “What greater sin is there than our rejection of our Maker – whose power and dominion and love is clearly displayed in every breath we take, and everywhere we look - and we want to take his glory for ourselves, and install ourselves on his throne as the ruler over own lives? Romans 1 says all people are without excuse because God’s eternal power and divine nature has been evident to everyone since creation."
“I suppose that is part of our sinfulness that it doesn’t seem so important compared to how nice and kind people are to each other?”
“Yes, but I think there is more, too. We rarely see the true potential of wickedness within each one of us that is graciously restrained by the loving hand of God. We get a glimpse of it when God occasionally removes that restraining hand and gives people over to their sinful desires – and we shudder at the horrendous crimes that humanity is capable of. People often say, and perhaps a little lightly, 'there but for the grace of God, go I’ but that's the exact truth. The justice of hell makes a lot more sense when we understand how pure and holy God is, and how utterly vile sin is.”
Michael reached across for his bottle of water, but after a few sips stopped and stared at it thoughtfully. “Before your holidays you and I talked about how we are dead in our sins – a theological term for that is total depravity. The ‘total’ doesn’t mean we’re all as wicked as we could possibly be, but that every single part of our being is tainted by sin. Now, we could imagine that this water is the holiness of God – pure and clean.”
He took one more sip of the water, then placed the bottle beside the pan he’d been soaking the fuel pump in. He dipped his fingers into the pan and brought them out dripping with greasy petrol and grime. “And imagine this is sin. Totally evil – like Satan and his demons.”
The strong odour of petrol and machine oil made Jemimah squint even as she appreciated the contrast between the pure and the filthy, but her eyes opened wide when Michael moved his hand over the open water bottle and let the thick black liquid drip from his finger tip into it.
“That’s how we like to think of ourselves – mostly good – with a few drops of sin like every one else.” He lifted the bottle to eye level, swirling it so the grime was dispersed through the whole of the water, making the whole of it dirty. “Some may seem to have only a little sin compared to the utter sin in there,” he indicated the oily pan, “and those who the world call wicked may be more depraved than those we think most highly of, but even the smallest amount of sin has tainted the whole being.”
He lifted the bottle to his mouth as though he was going to take a drink of it, then blinked hard as the odour reached him and put it away from his lips.
“Do you see? Ninety-nine per cent pure water and only a few drops of filth but it is all ruined. There is nothing pure and clean left in it, it is only good for throwing away. Any sin - all sin - makes us totally unfit for the presence of a holy and perfect God. We all deserve hell. And yet,” he emptied the contaminated water onto the ground, “God in his mercy reaches out to filthy vessels and washes them clean – filling them by his Spirit with the pure living water of Jesus Christ. That is our only hope of salvation.”
© R. L. Brown 2008