Hometown Prophet – Excerpt From The Book
“Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” – Jesus
Unable to sleep, Peter flicked on the lamp and surveyed the walls of his room. Red and white ribbons, along with the rare blue, dangled from his dresser mirror as faded reminders of his community swim team mediocrity.
His high school and college diplomas hung next to another framed piece of paper verifying his completion of the “Christian Youth Leadership Conference,” a two week summer workshop he’d attended under protest when he was seventeen.
The other side of the room featured a poster of a woman in a form fitting swim suit standing beside a 911 Porsche parked on the beach. That one picture managed to eloquently encapsulate most of his adolescent aspirations, and he’d be lying if he said it no longer possessed any allure. And yet, despite his best efforts, he had ended up about as far as humanly possible from that scene.
At 31 years old, Peter had moved back home to Franklin, Tennessee, a suburb just outside of Nashville. “Home” as in the house he grew up in and his mother still lived. How could such a tragic fate have befallen our hero? He was asking himself that a lot lately, and had come up with a few theories, none of them all together satisfying.
A certain amount of blame needed to be attributed to the evangelical church his mom insisted they attend when he was a kid. While full of good intentions, Trinity Church preached a subtle brand of fundamentalism he’d spent the last decade trying to exorcise. It was the kind of place where miracles could happen any given Sunday, and God had a special purpose for each person, at least as long as they continued to attend Trinity.
By the time he graduated from college, Peter was excited to embark on his first real job in Atlanta. Early on, he got hung on a lower rung of the corporate ladder, and it became clear he was not going to the top any time soon. As Peter’s enthusiasm waned, his boss also began to lose interest in him, eventually setting him free to search for something more worthy of his ambitions.
There was a brief stint in California, which was such a failure Peter preferred to pretend it never happened. In retrospect, LA seemed like the perfect place to make some sort of mark on the world. Or perhaps, subconsciously, he had been chasing that allusive girl on the beach with the Porsche. In the end, he loaded what he could fit into his failing hatchback and limped back across the country.
While his mom accepted him back, her greeting was more tepid than the prodigal son’s father. No rings, no fatted calves, no celebration. Once again, Sunday school had let him down, as had the God who promised so much and delivered so little. As a final act of defiance, he stopped talking to his vindictive Heavenly Father and refused to go to church with his devout mother.
Imprisoned in his childhood room, he fell into a pronounced funk. The downward slope of his career path had fallen off a cliff, and he doubted he could ever pick up the trail again. Since he had not done particularly well with the ladies in better times, a date now was almost laughable. In short, Peter could not imagine a scenario in which his life could improve, further propagating his self-unfulfilling prophecy.
In Eastern religions, he knew the ego had to be extinguished in order to attain enlightenment. Christ essentially said the same thing with Zen gems like “the man who loves his life will lose it…” While Peter thought he had a basic understanding of those concepts, now he knew he didn’t, not really. For a single man in the prime of his life, living at home with his mom was truly a slow, painful death.
As he traced his past failures to his present predicament, there was an almost overwhelming desire to straighten things out once and for all. Not knowing what else to do, he got out of bed, knelt down and began to pray. Unanswered pleas gave way to silent screams, and something that had been building up inside of him burst open and flooded out. It was cathartic and healthy…
And then, out of nowhere, a blinding light slammed into his chest. It felt as if his ribcage was being cracked open to allow the white beam to rush into his overflowing heart, bringing with it ecstasy to the point of physical pain. Simultaneously laughing and crying, he stayed on the ride as long as he could before dropping his heaving body, turning off the faucet of divine light.
Peter’s mind grappled with what had just happened to him. All he could come up with was that God had reached down and touched him. At the same time, he was hit with a sense of embarrassment by all the petulant demands he had made to the Creator of the Universe. In the face of something truly Holy, his brazen sense of self-importance paled to the point of ridiculousness.
With his mind searching for answers, he couldn’t escape the feeling there was something he still needed to do. Despite all his years spent sitting in church pews, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever fully submitted his life to Jesus Christ. Lowering his head to the carpet, he gave himself over to the Son of God.
Turning the lamp off, he climbed back into his twin bed; bathed in a blanket of tranquility, Peter suddenly felt very sleepy. His last cognizant thought, as he began to drift, was that something had fundamentally changed inside of him.
That night, he had a dream.
Saturday, July 19th
Red round room – 4 doors – all locked – can’t get out – scared. I’m pounding on one of the doors. Finally – it opens –and it’s Pastor Dan! He’s wearing a dress – for the hospital. *Very Real, Intense!
Propped up in bed, Peter scribbled the cryptic fragment into a red spiral notebook, worn and crinkled from early morning note-taking sessions, otherwise known as his “dream journal.”
He’d once read somewhere that noted psychiatrist Carl Jung had used a dream journal. Maybe if he kept one too, over time, he could detect some sort of subconscious pattern, break a code that would tell him what to do to fix his broken life. Unfortunately, up to this point, all he had was page after page of weird, random vignettes that added up to an abstract mess, much like his actual life.
If nothing else, the exercise of faithfully opening his notebook every morning and straining to catch the last few drops of nocturnal memories had improved his recall. Now he was usually able to excavate at least two or three complete artifacts before the delicate strands broke away and the dreams dissolved into dust.
This latest “red room” dream was different though. There was no way he could forget it. He had woken up immediately after it was over, the ultra-vivid, Technicolor movie still reeling in his head. The claustrophobic feeling of being trapped came back to him, just before Dr. Dan Cox had made a guest appearance, opening the door and presumably setting him free.
Peter hadn’t seen his pastor since he’d been home, and wondered if it was a sign he needed to end the strike and make an appearance at church. After his spiritual experience the night before, it seemed like the right thing to do. Conveniently, it was Sunday morning and, since he wasn’t going back to sleep anyway, he hopped in the shower.
As he raised his head to let warm water douse what was left of his thinning hair, he drifted back to the white light that had flooded his body with such intensity. Something strange and powerful had happened to him, something he had not concocted or imagined. If or how it was connected to the dream, he had no idea.
Not sure when church started, he hurriedly dried off and got dressed in casual business attire. Jogging downstairs, he found his mom already in the kitchen, making her final preparations for departure.
Looking at him in something beside a bathrobe or sweats, she came to one conclusion. “Are you going with me?” Her eyes lighting up with joy, “Oh, I’m so glad!”
Peter shrugged, not wanting to make a big deal out of it.
“What made you decide to go this morning?” she asked, a cloud of suspicion already darkening her sunny disposition.
“I had a weird dream last night,” he said, making a snap decision to skip the episode with the white light.
“What was it about?” she asked politely, as she fixed him a cup of coffee.
“I’m not sure,” Peter admitted. “Dr. Cox was in it.”
“That’s strange,” she said, handing him the steaming cup. “I wonder what made you think of Dan. It isn’t like you’ve seen him since you’ve been back home.”
Taking the coffee to the kitchen table, Peter ignored the little dig about his poor church attendance record and proceeded to mix some milk into his cup.
“It started with me being in this red round room. When I tried to leave, the doors were locked. So, I was knocking, but no one answered. I kind of got panicky and started pounding on the doors. Finally, one opened, and Dr. Cox was standing there in one of those – what do you call them? One of those robes they give you at the hospital?”
“Hospital gowns,” his mom volunteered.
“That’s it,” Peter said, taking his first shot of caffeine. “But it was different than a normal dream. I was aware I was dreaming and, I don’t know, it seemed important,” he said, not feeling like he was doing the experience justice.
Going back for a second sip, Peter suddenly proclaimed, “Lucid! I knew I was dreaming.”
Ms. Quill made a thoughtful “Hmm,” adding, “Maybe you should tell him about it.”
“I wouldn’t know what to say,” Peter said. “Besides, I don’t even know what it means. It probably doesn’t mean anything.” Even as he spoke, the last words caught in his throat.
“I don’t know,” mom said. “Dan is a big believer in prophesy.”
“Good for him,” Peter managed.
“I’m just saying, Dan would believe you,” she said as her gaze rose over her son’s head to the hands on the face on the wall. “We need to hurry if we’re going to make eleven o’ clock.”
Peter nodded, not completely thrilled about accompanying his mother to church. Still, it seemed senseless and a little rude to take two cars to the same place.
A thirty minute commute to Nashville gave Ms. Quill time to bring her son up to speed on the latest church news, which can sometimes be confused with gossip.
“Some say Dan’s message just isn’t as strong as it once was, and a lot of people have started going to Grace,” she said, referring to an upstart church much closer to their home. “They say that Rick, the preaching pastor at Grace, has the anointing, and his church has been growing like crazy. A lot of the musicians have started going over there, like Patrick Omega and Jordan Stone.”
The latter name was emphasized for Peter’s benefit, since he had known Jordan when they were in Trinity’s youth group together. Jordan had always seemed more mature than their two year age differential. Tongue-tied around her, Peter had found it easier to just steer clear. In fact, they had only talked a handful of times in the six years of Sundays mornings and Wednesday nights they had spent together.
On youth retreats or mid-week Bible studies, the self-assured Jordan often broke out a guitar and led worship, occasionally working in her own material. While her songs were all sickly sweet rhyming couplets of devotion, Peter thought she somehow managed to make them sound sexy. The root of the sin, he knew, was in his own dirty mind.
A year after Peter left for college, Jordan released a debut album that went platinum, and overnight, she became Christian music’s “Little Miss Sweetheart.” And the hits kept coming, along with Dove Awards, music videos, and arena tours.
Peter would have preferred to avoid all news of Jordan’s sky-rocketing career, but his mom took it upon herself to keep him posted on her every achievement. So, despite attempts otherwise, he was something of an expert of the success of Jordan Stone, Christian Superstar.
The fact that she no longer attended Trinity was actually a welcome bit of Jordan news. If he had been intimidated by her when they were just two high school kids, he wasn’t sure he could handle running into her now that she was as successful as he was not. If he never saw her again, it would be just fine with him.
The faces were friendly, just not familiar, as he followed his mom through the lobby. Taking their seats near the back, Peter looked around and, with a couple of exceptions, saw that Trinity had regenerated itself into a completely different body of believers than he had once known. While the vast majority of crowd was white, Trinity displayed more diversity than most churches in the area.
Big screens to the sides of the stage projected inspiring nature scenes of waterfalls and sunsets, captioned with song lyrics. Following along, Peter mouthed the often repeated choruses intent on making absolutely sure God knew everyone really, really loved Him. The worship service went from song to song like an improvisational jam session, sprinkled throughout with the spontaneous chattering of tongues.
Peter had heard it all before. Still, it had been a while and the halting foreign language seemed more abrasive and abrupt than he remembered. Some of the people who were raising their seemingly incomprehensible voices to God were the same ones raising their hands. Wondering if there was a correlation, he briefly contemplated lifting his own hands just to see what would happen, but couldn’t go through with it.
After the marathon of songs, dancers sprung down the aisle carrying long poles with banners embroidered with words like “Yahweh” and “Hallelujah.” As the flag team gathered at the foot of the stage, they twirled and swirled their words of praise, more or less, in unison.
The routine had clearly been choreographed while allowing room for individual interpretation should the Spirit move a particular participant. A couple of overzealous church members jumped up and joined the dancers in the front, badly embarrassing themselves, in Peter’s opinion.
The music swelled, signaling the congregation to take it up a notch, which seemed irresponsible, and possibly dangerous. On the verge of erupting into anarchy, voices rose, tongues clattered, and arms stretched toward the heavens.
A large woman standing in the front row of the balcony shouted something about ‘our worship being a perfumed aroma to the foul stench of the world outside.’ In a moment of ecstasy, she almost fell over the railing.
Gently, the music began to slow and soften, and the congregation settled down. A person who had been “slain in the spirit” and was prostrate in the aisle next to Peter calmly got to his feet and, with a polite smile, smoothed his pants before finding his seat.
A “Thank you Jesus” or two got in just under the wire as the beaming Dr. Dan Cox bounded out on the stage in a relatively formal coat and tie. In his sixties now, Dan still seemed amazingly spry. With a full head of thick grey hair and matching wild wooly eyebrows, he looked like a kindly, absent minded professor or an old country doctor.
Holding a big paw up to God and simultaneously quieting the crowd, the preacher was totally at home in front of his church.
“Good morning brothers and sisters,” he boomed to a smattering of applause. “God is good, isn’t He?” More applause of agreement followed as Dan lowered his palm.
“Yes He is, and we know this not because we figured it out with our intellects. We know it because we feel it in our hearts.” His finger tapped at the tie on his chest. “As you have probably already noticed in your bulletins, I’m calling the lesson for today, ‘Tuning our Hearts to God.’”
As soon as the name of the sermon was announced, something inside Peter clicked. It was subtle, like a tumbler spinning across the right number on the dial of a safe. He leaned forward, positioning himself to ‘tune’ into the message, straining to hear the ‘click’ again, which he did, repeatedly. By the end of the sermon, Peter was positive he had the combination to a vault that held a secret only he knew.
The service ended as it always did, with an invitation to come forward to receive Christ into your life or, if that base was covered, confess or pray whatever was on your mind or heart. A tide of parishioners flowed down the aisles, while Dan, along with several elders, stood in front of the stage, ready to wade into the sea of needy souls.
“I’m going down,” Peter whispered to his mom.
“Really?” Ms. Quill asked, seriously surprised. “I thought you’d be itching to get out of here.”
“Can you give me a few more minutes?” he said, getting up and stepping over his neighbor who’d once again been slain in the Spirit.
“Of course,” his mother said, always anxious to further secure her son’s salvation.
Peter fell in the line to see Dan, which was twice as long as the wait for any of the elders. In the front of his line, a stout woman with a cheap plaid dress seemed to be telling Dan her life story. As she droned on, the other lines moved along, and when one elder became available, he gestured Peter over. Feeling foolish, Peter tried to communicate in hand signals that he needed to see Dan and Dan alone.
A few people in front of him peeled off to see other elders or gave up entirely. Finally, after receiving prayer, the oblivious woman shuffled off. Perhaps feeling Peter’s evil eye boring into her, she turned to give him an angelic smile, revealing a horribly scarred face, the result of some kind of burn. A shiver of shame shot through Peter, and he instantly wished he could take back his hate-filled thoughts.
“Peter!” Dan beamed, motioning him forward. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Peter said, still looking back toward the woman.
“It’s wonderful to see you,” the pastor gushed so sincerely Peter couldn’t help but believe him. “You’re in California, right?”
“I was,” Peter said. “I’m back here now.”
“Wonderful!” Dan exclaimed, making Peter feel truly welcome for the first time since he’d returned. “We have to get together and catch up.”
“I’d like that,” Peter said. Before Dan could ask any embarrassing questions about his fiascos in California, he quickly added, “I wanted to say hello – and I also wanted to tell you something.”
For a moment, he hesitated, feeling a bit silly. If the interpretation had not come to him during the service, he probably would not have forged on, but it had and he did.
“I had a dream last night,” he said, leaning in a little closer. “And you were in it.”
Dan’s eyebrows raised into fuzzy McDonald’s arches.
“Yeah, it’s probably nothing, but I feel like I should tell you.”
Dan nodded for him to proceed.
“Well, I dreamed I was in a locked red room – and I couldn’t get out. I was knocking on the door, and finally, it opened and you were there, only you were in a hospital gown.”
The eyebrows were knitting a headband of consternation.
“I know this sounds weird, but when you were talking about tuning our hearts with God’s… That was a good sermon by the way… I got the feeling that my dream had something to do with your heart, your literal heart. Like, maybe you should get it checked out.”
“That’s very interesting,” Dan said thoughtfully. As his furrowed brow relaxed, he placed a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “Let’s pray on that.”
Peter lowered his head.
“Father, we thank you for bringing our brother safely back home to us. I ask that you will watch over Peter and bless him. And Lord, we ask for your guidance with this dream that you have given him. Please give us both discernment and wisdom with its interpretation. It is in Jesus Christ’s name we pray these things. Amen.”
As Dan looked up, Peter nodded, indicating the prayer had covered it for him too. The preacher smiled and wrapping his arm further around Peter’s shoulder, giving him an enthusiastic side hug. “Glad to have you back!”
“Thanks,” Peter said again, glad to be done with the strange mission.
As soon as Dan released him, he walked briskly up the aisle of the almost empty church.
His mom, who had been waiting and watching from her pew, got up as he hurried passed on his way to the lobby. “How did it go?” she asked, trying to catch up.
“I suppose about as well as delivering a prophetic message can go,” Peter replied in mid-stride.