Bernie was sitting at her desk in her office looking at a Bible timeline in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, when she noticed the red light on the desk phone.
Pushing the speaker button, she asked, “What’s up, Dot?”
“There’s a guy in the front office . . a Harry Grigoryan, who wants to talk to you. I don’t have him down in the book for an appointment. He says he has some questions to ask you about faith.”
“Well, we’re in the faith business, so I’ll come out and meet him. Give me a sec.”
Bernie made a note on her sermon pad, stuck it in the Bible timeline book to pick up later, and made her way down the hall to the front office where Dot stood guard.
The visitor was sitting in one of several chairs in front of the counter separating the outer office from the inner staff offices. He rose when she came into the room, and held out his hand.
“Mr. Grigoryan?” Bernie inquired, taking his hand. “Thank you so much for stopping by to see us. How can I help you?”
“Do you have a few minutes to talk to me . . . in private?” he asked, glancing at Dot.
“Sure, let’s go to my office. Dot, can you take my calls while l visit with Mr. Grigoryan?”
Dot nodded, and went back to the task before her on her computer monitor.
“It’s Harout, . . Harry, please,” he said.
Bernie opened the gate to the hallway and led the way to her office. She pointed to the wing chairs next to the window in front of her desk and smiled at him.
“Please make yourself comfortable.” Harout sunk down into a chair, twisting his keys in his fingers. She settled into the other wing chair next to him.
“Harout, that’s an interesting name. Is that a family name?”
“Yes, actually it is. But everyone calls me Harry.
He added, nervously, “My father fled from Iran in 1979 when the Shah was ousted. He met my mother in Los Angeles a few years later at USC, where they were studying.”
I have heard the name, Harout. As I recall, there is an Armenian priest in LA by that name. It means resurrection, does it not?”
Harry nodded, then looked down at his shoes. “I really don’t know why I’m here,” he said. “It’s just that I came into town to visit my father, and I wound up here.”
“Where are you from, Harry?”
“Originally from LA, but I’ve been living in Cleveland for my job.”
“So, you came back to LA to visit your father?”
“Yes, he hasn’t been well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Does he live in St. Michael’s Cove?”
“Yeah, he has an apartment in the new complex on Main Street. He’s had a weak heart for a while, and he just had a serious heart attack. He almost died.”
“But he recovered?” Bernie asked. “Is he okay?”
“He’s still taking it easy . . . it’s just that he told me kind of a weird story, and I wanted to ask a priest about it. My mother was Catholic. She died five years ago. My dad wasn’t much of a church goer, but he was baptized in the Armenian Church in Iran. He went to church once or twice a month with my mom, but I don’t think he’s been since she died.“
He looked up at Bernie—“And I’m an atheist” he blurted out. “I think . . .” he added, tentatively.
“Actually,” he said, I’m not sure any more.”
“Why’s that?” Bernie asked.
“Why am I an atheist, or why aren’t I sure anymore?” Harry asked.
“Why aren’t you sure anymore?”
Bernie felt like she was pulling teeth—but she knew from years of experience that you need to give people time to open up. When they were ready, it would come gushing out like a waterfall, which is exactly what happened.
“Because of what my dad said. We’ve never gotten along too well. I don’t know if he believed in God or not. But he sure does now. . .
He’s a very quiet, honest man—an accountant—very serious. My mom was the fun one—always thinking of somewhere interesting to go or something fun to do. She was a nurse—a very outgoing person. People called her a ‘live wire.’ He laughed at the memory.
Don’t get me wrong—I understand my dad. I went into finance myself—I’m a financial planner.”
“Oh, I see. So, something your dad said caused you to start thinking about faith?”
“Yeah. It is really quite odd—and kind of embarrassing. Honestly, it sounds like that story where Scrooge is about to die, and sees his life pass before him, and decides afterward to be a nice person.”
“A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens,” Bernie said quietly.
“Like that, but more intense. My dad said that it happened in a second or a few seconds—and that every detail of his life—good and bad—passed before him, and it was not a proud moment. He said that he was so ashamed by things he had said and done—he was completely distraught.”
Harry paused. “You have to understand, my dad does not make things up. He is the straightest person I know. If he said this happened, you can take it to the bank. But that’s not all.”
“What else happened?” Bernie asked. This was not the first time she had heard a credible account of a paranormal experience, and she was sure it wouldn’t be the last. It was one of the reasons she had decided to go into the ministry. She knew God to be real, and that he lives amongst us.
“He said that just after he was regretting and feeling sorry for all of the things that he did and said from selfishness or anger, a feeling of warmth and love washed over him. He was so sorry for all of the pain he had caused. He said that the warmth completely enveloped him. He didn’t want it to end. For all of the regrets he had, he had finally found peace and love. The next thing he knew, a paramedic had resuscitated him.”
“So now I don’t know.”
“What do you think happened to your dad?” Bernie asked softly.
“I honestly don’t know. But he thinks that he died, and that he felt that God was with him during that period of time.”
“Did he see God?”
“No, he just said that he was surrounded by a very warm love that enveloped him and made him feel better than he has every felt. He thinks he was given a glimpse of heaven.”
“What do you think?”
“My dad is such an honest guy, and he never exaggerates, so yeah, I think he had some kind of God encounter. It makes me feel like God might be real. Is that possible?”
“It is possible, Harry. And I believe it to be incontrovertibly true.
Your father was very fortunate to have lived to tell you this story. Most of us have never had an encounter of that nature. But there are many such credible stories. Scientific studies have been done on hundreds of these occurrences, which have confirmed the truth of them. So yes, such experiences do confirm that God exists and that heaven is real.
The point is that we all live in the presence of the living God, whether we believe it or not.
Your father had an experience that convinced him of that, and maybe his experience will be the tipping point for others to believe.
But it isn’t the experience itself that is important. We don’t worship experiences, we worship God. If your or someone else’s testimony about how God has touched them, points someone in the direction of God, it’s useful. But what matters most is where you go from there. Faith is not based on an experience that someone has. It is based on the relationship that we each have with the living God.
“I think my dad’s experience was real, and it has started me thinking about God. But what do I do? I don’t want to commit to anything, but” . . . his voice trailed off.
“So, you want to look into it a bit?”
“I guess. I don’t know. I just feel kind of empty. Like there must be something else.”
“Hmmmm. . . . it sounds like you have what Pascal, a 16th century monk said is a God-shaped hole in your heart. What else is going on with you?”
“Well, my girlfriend just broke up with me. And now this with my dad. I don’t know if he will survive or if he does how long. I don’t have any other close family.”
“So, you are feeling very alone right now. That’s understandable. Sometimes we have to experience loss before we are driven to our knees.”
“I want to go back to something that you said earlier. You said that your father repented of his bad deeds—that he was sorry for the pain he had caused. That’s where God meets us. He meets us in our pain. When others have caused us pain—or when we regret causing pain to others, that’s where God meets us. If we are sincerely sorry for our sins, he will forgive us and carry us.
When your father repented of his bad deeds, God forgave him, which lifted a burden from him.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not sure that I buy all of that. It just seems too easy. That’s what I don’t get about church—all those holier than thou people—I’m not one of them. I’m not a hypocrite.”
“So, you’re a sinner?”
“Yeah, and damn proud of it too,” he replied defiantly.
“Join the club. We are all sinners here. In fact, the church is a hospital for sinners. It’s Sinners Central here.”
“What do you mean?”
“We all make mistakes. We try to live as God wants us to live—to love Him and to love others as ourselves. But the truth, Harry, is that we all fall short, and we need to ask God for forgiveness. From what you have told me, that’s what happened to your father.”
“Maybe . . . but how do you love other people? And exactly who are you talking about?”
“That’s a very good question, and one that very smart people, like you, have been asking for centuries.
In fact, a lawyer asked Jesus the same question and he answered with a story about a man who was beaten, robbed and left to die on the main road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Three people passed by him—and only one—an enemy of the victim’s clan—stopped to help him. Jesus said that the one who showed mercy, was the one who was the neighbor to the victim. We call people like that a Good Samaritan because the man who helped the victim was from a place called Samaria, a province near Jerusalem.
Harry had been staring at a speck on the carpet while Bernie was talking. He was listening, so she continued.
“The person that the Good Samaritan helped was a person in need. There are people all around us who are in need. Some are in need of medical assistance. Some need food. Others need clothing or shelter, financial, or other assistance.
We express our love for others when we take hold of the hand held out in need—when we help others—whether we know them personally or not. Here at church, we love others in the community by collecting clothing, food, and goods for people in need. But we also love others across the globe when we contribute to worthwhile charities that act as our hands and feet in other countries to feed, clothe, and shelter people around the world.
Harry looked up at Bernie.
“Harry, you expressed your love for your father when you came all the way from Cleveland to take care of him. Expressing our concern for and caring for others is what love is all about—whether it’s caring for our loved ones, or contributing to causes that help people across the country or the globe.”
Bernie saw the beginning of a smile on Harry’s lips, then it vanished.
“You’ve clarified some things for me, but it’s a bit much for me to take in . . . “
“I get it. If you wish, we can continue this some other time. Or we have a seeker class that meets at the church on Tuesday evenings. Nothing formal. One of our elders, Ginny Thompson, runs it and it’s basically just a time to get together, ask questions, drink a cup of tea or coffee, and get to know one another. How long will you be in St. Michael’s Cove?”
“For a few weeks. I want to make sure that dad is okay before I go back. I can work from my dad’s apartment for a while. I don’t think I’m ready for a class. I mean, I don’t know anything about the Bible. I’m a beginner. I don’t know how to pray or anything.”
Bernie laughed. “It’s not a Bible class per se. And when it comes to faith, we are all beginners. That’s what a famous theologian, Thomas Merton, said. He said that when it comes to the spiritual life, we are all just starting out. Our only hope is in Christ Jesus.”
She reached over to her desk for a folder, and pulled a few things out. She handed Harry the seeker class flyer and a small pamphlet, Opening Your Heart to God.
“The group meets on Tuesdays from 7 to 8 pm in one of the meeting rooms in the parish hall. I hear that Mrs. Thompson usually brings one of her homemade baked goodies, fresh out of the oven.”
Bernie stood when she saw Harry moving out of his chair. “Her strudel is so good, we auction it off at the youth fundraiser! It goes for between $50 and $100! Bring your dad, he might enjoy it too.”
“I’ll think about it . . . thanks for taking the time to talk to me.”
“Would you mind if I said a prayer with you?”
Harry looked a bit uncomfortable, but shrugged his shoulders and bowed his head.
“Father, we thank and praise you for who you are, the Almighty God of the Universe. Thank you for leading Harry to Hope Chapel today. We know that we are sinners and that we cannot save ourselves. Forgive us, Lord. Place your healing hand on Harry’s father as he struggles to regain his health. Comfort and help Harry as he struggles with questions of faith. Have mercy on us and lead us to show mercy to those far and near who need our help. Amen.”
Liz picked up the boys at the King and drove home amid their animated conversation about the Lakers.
She knew something was amiss the minute she opened the kitchen door. The house was eerily silent. Keller always heard the garage door open, and was usually barking and jumping up and down joyfully when they opened the door into the kitchen.
She called his name as they trooped into the kitchen. Nothing.
Worried, they looked in the kitchen and didn’t find him. They finally found him hiding under the dining room table—toilet paper strewn all around the family room and dining area, leading from the adjacent powder room.
Keller had somehow managed to wind the toilet paper around himself in the powder room, and the paper unrolled as he ran around the family room. He had tp’d the entire room! He took refuge under the dining room table—in his white prison. He avoided their gaze and had a very guilty look on his face. After they stopped laughing, Liz took a few photos of the kids on the floor next to him, before cleaning up the mess and assuring Keller that all was well.
Liz started getting dinner ready. There would just be the six of them tonight, so they would be eating in the kitchen. Abbey Martin had been released to her home, and the twins were back at home with her.