Caleb is in his dorm room early in the morning, still feeling the weightless high of having been set free of his besetting sin of homosexuality. He is under his covers, reading his Bible for morning devotions in the yellow spotlight from his bedside lamp. He has decided to read through the whole Bible, not in one year like most people do it, but as fast as he can, letting the Lord use it to speak to him as He sees fit. Caleb is already in Jeremiah 31. Today he reads from verse 27 to the end of the chapter, Jeremiah’s prophecy about the new covenant, one of the heart, not the flesh, the one we know from Hebrews 8 is the very one Jesus initiated.
He goes back and rereads verse 34 several times over, to meditate on it: “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Caleb rejoices in this promise. He prays and thanks God for forgiving his iniquity, for remembering his sin no more.
If only he could do the same.
His roommate John comes in from his morning shower and flips on the overhead light while Caleb is praying. John has nothing but a towel around his waist. The crisp biting smell of his tea tree shampoo swirls in behind him. John’s head was the ones Caleb had taped to two of the photos in the magazine he burned, onto the men taking it; Caleb’s head was taped to the ones giving. The memory gives him an erection.
John stands at the door in his towel for a second doing neck-rolling exercises.
Up till now Caleb’s gotten victory by doing one of two things every time temptation assails him: he quotes Scripture to himself—“for we have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was temped like as we are, yet without sin”—or he sings praises to the Lord, or, often one specific song that he recalls from his dad’s church—“Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory can help you, some other to win…Ask the savior to help you, comfort strengthen and keep you. Look ever to Jesus, he’ll carry you through.”
But today he is tired. He and John had practiced late with their Christian metal band, as yet unnamed. On top of that, he didn’t sleep well last night either. He’s noticed that when he’s tired, that’s when he’s particularly vulnerable to temptation. And Satan doesn’t miss an opportunity.
He flips to Psalms, where he likes to read with his pink highlighter, marking passages he finds moving or significant at the moment. He did this two years ago with a blue highlighter and he likes the two colors together on the page, and is amazed at how he can read a Psalm so many times and get more meaning each time.
John goes to the sink against the wall by his bed. His towel is the little white kind you get at the gym, and it pulls open down the side to expose his white hip and the side of his butt cheek. His hair is wild from a good towel rub.
Caleb reaches onto his desk and gets his highlighter and marks in Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” He thinks of the explanation of this verse that he heard his dad give from the pulpit more than once: If you go north long enough, eventually you’ll be headed south, same with traveling south—eventually you’re going north again. But if you start heading east, you’ll be going that way forever; you’ll never go west. What a blessing, east and west will never meet. My sins are that far gone from me.
John doesn’t say anything. He knows Caleb is in fellowship with the Lord. He is too, he says.
Caleb flips through the pages of his Bible, a black New Scofield Reference Edition that his parents had given him when he left Kansas to come east to school. He flips open to a passage he’d marked in blue: “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word.”
John stands at the sink. He turns to face his dresser, where he keeps his seventeen bottles of cologne neatly lined up. He rolls on his Sure fresh scent deodorant, lifting one arm then the other like he’s got the answer in class. He squirts cologne on his chest and rubs it around and up to his neck, craning his head back and forth. It’s the Calvin Klein scent that he knows Caleb loves, the one that smells like man, leather and tobacco and vetiver.
John turns sideward to Caleb as he pulls his towel away, and Caleb glimpses that his penis is arced out in a partial erection. He stands there naked before Caleb, pretending to read the schedule he’s taped to the side of his dresser. He tenses his butt and makes his penis twitch up and down. He knows what he’s doing. John says he’s as serious about serving the Lord as Caleb is—he shouldn’t be doing this. He begins turning slowly, dragging his right foot around like dancing the soft shoe. He lets the towel drop to the floor—he’s really doing this, his penis is getting harder; Caleb can feel himself getting hard too as he tries not to look—and now John stands facing Caleb totally nude.
Caleb’s Bible thuds to the floor as he jumps and runs to the door and yanks it open and sprints down the hallway, past two guys coming up sweaty from a morning run, and jumps down the steps three at a time and bursts from the dorm into the bright morning sunlight and keeps running in his bare feet and gym shorts on the sidewalk, slows down to take the six flights of cement steps to lower campus, and runs on across the street to Mercer Hall to Dean Dwayne Simmons’ office. He bangs through the door into the front office.
The secretary looks up at him puzzled. He’s in shorts and a t-shirt. He doesn’t have on shoes. She says, “Can I help you?” She has a scabby make-up-covered pimple over her left eyebrow.
Caleb says, “I have to see Dean Simmons. It’s an emergency?”
She nods doubtfully, gets up and steps into the dean’s office, tapping softly with her knuckle as she enters. She closes the door behind her.
This is it. He’s going public with it, coming clean so he can get real help. He laughs and thanks the Lord for delivering him from temptation. He is victorious today.
The office door opens and the secretary comes out. Following her is the short bald man, Dean Simmons. He smiles and reaches to shake Caleb’s hand. He says, “I know you. You’re one of our singers, aren’t you?”
Walking back to his dorm room from the dean’s office, Caleb thinks about the mixed smells of John’s shampoo and cologne. Those were the smells that got the whole thing started, the memory of wrestling on the bed, his head locked under John’s arm, John’s nipple pressing into his cheek, both of them turned on—that’s where he’d first gotten a good smell of the cologne, and he realizes now it must be why he loves it so much; it has to go then. Oh how the devil is deceitful, flies under the radar of your conscious awareness even. A smell. Just a smell.
His dad has a sermon he preaches about Jesus cooking the fish on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after walking on water, the time he asked Peter three times, do you love me Peter? Caleb’s dad had traveled in the Holy Land, and he had smelled charcoal fires that people cooked over, which would likely have been the kind of fire Jesus was using and the very kind of fire in front of which Peter cursed and denied he knew Jesus three times before Christ was crucified. So the smell no doubt took Peter right back to the night he betrayed his Lord. Then Jesus made him swear his love three times, same as his denials.
Caleb is being prepared to do a great work for the Lord. These struggles are not for nothing. He will be able to help others who struggle. But first, he had to get himself away from John.
Dean Simmons suggested he do it pronto. “When you take off a bandage,” he’d said, “it’s best to rip the thing off fast.” This very morning, while John is in class, Caleb starts moving his things to a vacant room Dean Simmons found him on the other side of campus, where mostly freshmen live. John gets upset and goes to Florida for the weekend to visit his parents. Caleb takes that time to complete his move. The band broke up without a discussion. They just stopped.
Now John’s feelings are hurt. He quit the band and refuses to speak to Caleb in Sounds of the Mountains rehearsal, won’t even look at him around campus. Caleb had to flee temptation, even leaving his ripped garment behind. He understands that John is upset, but he can’t help that. John will have to deal with his own sin, which Caleb believes is getting the better of him right now; Caleb has to keep his eyes on the Lord’s work.
Caleb is so frustrated with trying to evangelize George’s Crossing Road over the hill from campus. Those fields have been over-farmed and the soil is shot. He’s witnessed to probably a hundred people and hasn’t won a single soul to the Lord. He’s mostly been snubbed, but also scorned, laughed at, called names. A redneck wearing a flannel shirt with cut off sleeves and smelling like a car motor threatened to beat him up. When Caleb approached and asked if he knew where he’d go if he died, the guy said, “How ‘bout I kick you’re skinny ass.” Caleb said, “You don’t have to get hostile.” Then the guy said, “Get away from me, you fucking faggot,” and spit a long string of nasty snuff juice at his feet, that Caleb had to quick dance back away from. An Oriental girl told him to go to hell.
All these things Caleb prayerfully chalks up to being persecuted for the name of Christ. He clings to the promise of Matthew 10:22, Mark 13:13, Luke 21:17 and elsewhere; this persecution is proof he is doing something right. Still, he needs a new strategy, a new evangelization matrix, something that will bear fruit.
After the redneck threatened him, he sat in his car in tears and shaking. Then the Lord impressed on his heart two things. One was the memory of how good it felt to stand like the Apostle Paul did on Mars Hill and reason with the atheist Richard Dawkins. How he’d loved studying and being prepared to give an answer in and out of season, and how he’d loved speaking directly at the foe, defending the faith, during question time after the lecture.
The second thing the Lord impressed on his heart was from his devotions just that morning. He’d been reading in Matthew 11 about how they had called Jesus a winebibber and a friend of publicans and sinners because he made his home among the worst of the worst in his society—incarnational presence Dr. Martin had called it in missions class; be incarnate in their culture, eat and drink and recline with them, the losers and the sinners.
It is a revelation to him, his aha moment. This will be the realization of the vision he so naively spoke to Bill Hybels about, when the man just used it as a chance to hawk another book. This is it instead of music. The Sounds of the Mountain are boring him to tears, and frankly, they are tired of him because they’re carnal and he’s sold out to the Lord. Nothing he can do about their lukewarm condition. His hand is on the plow—no turning back, no turning back.
So, where to begin? First, he needs to get away from George’s Crossing, away from Pinewood University. Downtown is where he’ll go. And he knows just the place. There is a bar down there he’s heard of—rumor has it, it’s a gay bar—called Stony Creek Tavern. What better place for Caleb to have an impact, a place where he knows their struggles. Caleb prints out a map of downtown from Map Quest and pinpoints the bar’s location on 5th Street, and he spends two full days fasting and praying over it.
On the Friday before Thanksgiving Break, with prayer and rejoicing, Caleb steps out in faith and launches his ministry to the people of Stony Creek Tavern. He takes a shower and sprays his chest and neck with Axe body spray. He dresses in his black jeans, his black Agape t-shirt, and his zoot suit wingtips. He draws on his eyeliner, scrunches plenty of product into his hair. He looks in the mirror and admires himself. He’ll be able to strike up a conversation with anyone there. They won’t snub him.
Caleb stays off of Route 64. He takes the city roads that wind through the ghetto part of town. He bathes the whole town in prayer as he drives. He feels the Spirit’s power, though driving through downtown Meadow Green can still unsettle him at times; he can’t quite get used to it. He remembers when he was a kid back in Kansas, hearing his dad laughingly tell about a study that had been done at the University of Arizona that had determined Kansas really was flatter than a pancake. But there was space there, and the sky and land were in balance so Caleb could keep his equilibrium. This terrain was no place for a town.
The whole town feels off kilter. He drives up hills so steep he is staring through hanging tree limbs at the sky above, and when he crests the hill it’s like the start of a roller-coaster plunge and he’s immediately staring down on the rooftops of houses down in some ravine. Some houses are perched on steep mountainsides like climbers’ tents, people living like mountain goats.
Downtown is strange in a different way. The red brick buildings from the city’s early days are interspersed with larger blond brick buildings of a later date. All are built on the side of a steep hillside that slopes unrelenting down to Stony Creek. The buildings always seem to Caleb to be leaning slightly into the hillside, as if they are resisting the urge to slide into the water. Most of the buildings down by the creek are from the late 1800s early 1900s, rusty red brick buildings with train tracks running along between them. Dumpster crabs live down there. It has to be in the flood plain. Everything down there is covered in a mixture of coal dust from the trains and powdery dried creek silt. Caleb has never seen the creek water clear; it is always mud brown.
When he first arrived in town and was cruising around to get his bearing, driving across streets was almost frightening, when he looked down the tiered rows of cross streets to brown rectangles of muddy water at the bottom. More than once, he whipped a turn too fast on one of those cross streets and got the weightless sensation that his tires were losing their grip and his car was getting ready to start a tumble that would go down and down and pick up crushing speed street by street until its roof slammed onto the water’s surface.
This Friday he drives to the bottom street, called Low Street and drifts along between rundown warehouses and parking garages, an old foundry. He sees bums sitting on the loading docks, drinking out of bags, smoking. They are expressionless as they watch him drift by. Some of them have their faces covered in tattoos—some of the girls, it looks like.
He counts till he reaches 5th Street and turns up. Wire bull horns above the door. A guy sitting on a stool perched on a step that gives him the one level spot on the steep sidewalk. It’s early and Caleb finds a parking spot on 5th Street, which kind of makes him nervous pointing uphill like this. He can’t see the street out his front windshield; he’s lying back in his seat like an astronaut. He says a prayer for the Lord to bless this ministry and keep his car stationary, sets his emergency brake and gets out.
The guy at the door has tattoos all over his forearms, and he’s muscular, looks like what Caleb would call a badass, like a cage fighter. His prematurely balding head is shaved clean, his left ear is a little cauliflowered, which is a sure sign he’s a fighter. He sure doesn’t look gay. They come in all shapes and sizes, though, Caleb thinks. He has to keep an open mind.
The guy says to Caleb flatly, “ID?”
Caleb pulls out his wallet and hands the guy his driver’s license. His hands are trembling.
A sinful reddish-orange light emanates from the dark window of the bar, and music throbs from inside, an ethereal, un-hummable Oriental melody—if melody is what it can be called—set over a throbbing African beat. His heightened spiritual awareness can sense the oppressive presence of evil. Through the window, he sees a guy sitting at the bar. He doesn’t look gay either, just a guy in a suit coat drinking a beer. But then he sees the bartender with his spiked up hair and bad bleach job, his tattoos—gay for sure. He’s talking away in there, his mouth moving silently, not stopping. The man in the suit nods his head, takes a drink.
Caleb prays Lord put a hedge of protection around me as I enter this new field. He puts his license away and slides his wallet back into his pocket as he enters the swinging saloon doors. Down the steps to his right people are eating. They don’t look gay. There’s an older couple, a man and a woman. There are two other tables with man/woman couples. Maybe cross dressers or transsexuals. Caleb doesn’t know.
“Good evening, sir,” the flaming gay bartender says. He’s a nice looking guy. “My name is Drew,” he says, “and I would love to serve you tonight.”
Caleb says good evening and orders a glass of red.
“I just opened a nice Spanish cab,” the bartender says.
Caleb doesn’t know anything about wine. He’s only had alcohol twice in his life. Once at a high school party, he’d had one and a half wine coolers and once he’d had a hard cider. They were both good. He says, “Perfect.”
The bartender, Drew, pours a fat glass full and sets it in front of Caleb, nodding that he should sit at the bar. The man in the suit nods and says, “What’s up?”
He nods back. Says, “How you doing?” The strange mix of Oriental and African music plays on, and now this woman’s voice is sort of singing; the voice is wound tight and high, and jerks all over the place like a bat around a streetlight. Caleb’s dad once showed a series of videos after 9-11, describing the evils of Islam. The singing on those videos, the men’s voices calling out from the minarets, that’s what this reminds Caleb of. This is Satanic music. He prays again for protection and blessing. He takes a sip of wine—it is crisp on his tongue and is a little peppery—and looks around. Down some stairs in the dining room, it is dark. People are eating dinner in the dark, with nothing but candles on their tables for light. Two big tables in back are full of people.
So this is it. His new mission field.
Drew stops in front of him. “Like the cab?”
Caleb gives him a pronounced nod and says, “Very nice.”
“First time in here?”
Here’s his first chance. Might as well start with this bartender. He says, “Yeah. I go to Pinewood. I’m on a ministry team—Sounds of the Mountains?”
Drew affects a British accent and acts like he’s elbowing someone as he says, “Say no more, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”
Caleb doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything.
Drew says, “Want me to start you a tab, sweetie?”
Sweetie, he just called Caleb. This is it, Caleb thinks. He’s in the thick of it, the mission field. His life of service to the Lord begins here.
Read Vic’s interview about “A Fisher of Men,” an excerpt from his novel in progress, Seekers.