Sten lived life as if it were a cigarette he’d bummed off a hobo, but he relished the smoke. He knew it was borrowed time and he had no plans to pay it back. Each day a drag burning toward the butt, he inhaled deeply life’s sufferings as he savored the smoke, the small joys he’d steal here and there and drinks with friends. “All flesh is grass,” he thought. The echo of his grandmother’s funeral rumbling in his head. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God remains forever.”
Some word – sometimes it hammered at his soul. How many flowers had he watched fade before his face? Broken romances, shattered dreams, stolen hopes, and he would inhale another drag before blowing the smoke in death’s face. Today was another day to beg, borrow and steal, another day to cheat death his due. He might gamble a bit on tomorrow. It had paid off in the past, but he wasn’t so sure it would pay out again as it had before. Yesterday, though, yesterday was gone and would never pay out again. The memories would come and then dissipate like smoke, leaving him empty or with lingering guilt. Today had arrived. Today was all he had for all he knew, and he wasn’t sure he knew that either. So, he laughed at his own expense. He knew death would come again.
Death came every day bargaining for his bill. All Sten knew to do was laugh. With what would he pay? He had a rough idea of the balance. Aspects of it brought him joy as he remembered teenage love affairs, post-marital paramours, and the slight revenges he had managed on his ex. He still laughed at that. He’d blow more smoke today, but he could smell death’s breath breathing down his neck, and the stench was stronger. It seemed the bargaining was coming to an end. Forty-two and terminal with nothing to show. He wasn’t even old enough to enjoy the retirement he had earned from the military yet. So, he lit another cigarette, and poured grappa into his café and waited for his old friend, the Parson.
The days when he first knew the Parson were the days he lived hard, worked hard, played hard, and gave up on God altogether. Those were the days of abandon when it all fell apart. He kept the devil at bay with work during the day, but the night became a disillusioned mess of night clubs and drunkenness. He still remembered bombing into Paris at three am while Alanis Morrisette sang angrily on the radio. He hadn’t even bothered to drive by the Eiffel Tower. Life sucked but the living was good. Now it was all smoke. The grass had withered.
Few old friends had actually visited since his diagnosis. Most of them were scattered all over the world wherever the military had left them. They may have sent well wishes over Twitter and Facebook, maybe a phone call, but that was all. He was a bit surprised to hear from his old friend, and a bit anxious. He knew the Parson from his earlier days before he ever became the Parson, but Sten remembered that he was considering the cloth even then. It always puzzled him then too that the Parson would make a point to go to church on Sunday morning when the other guys were sleeping it off. The guys never really knew what to make of all that. It was surprising to hear from him, but it was not surprising he actually wanted to come by and see him, even if it meant a drive. Sten heard the car pull up on the street and got up to greet his old friend.
“You want some espresso? I have an old mocha pot for making it on the stove top like we did back in Italy. Even got some grappa for the occasion.
The Parson topped off his espresso and took a cigarette from the pack on the table.
“These helping you at all? I haven’t smoked much since I shed the uniform. Might be the reason I can’t get in the thing anymore, but I don’t remember you smoking much at all.”
“No. Help yourself. I just bought those when I was picking up the grappa at the liquor store. Guess I felt like smoking today. What’s it going to do? Kill me? Not like I’m racing bicycles or running marathons anymore.”
“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,” the Parson muttered as he lit the cigarette. “I guess it all catches up to a person in the end, anyway, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, I still remember when my grandma died. It all caught up to her early too it seems. Breast cancer. She was only like 60 or something herself when she died. You would have liked her. She was a church goer. She used to bring me and my brother when we were younger too, she even had us baptized. I think her funeral might have been the last time either of us went. I can’t remember much about the sermon. I just remember the pastor ended with the same words he always used, something about grass withering and flowers fading, and the Word of the Lord remaining forever. I suppose that has haunted me ever since. I left then feeling about as empty as I feel now. I always tried to be so healthy after that. You remember. We even did that triathlon relay together. Suppose, I often didn’t much care if I lived or died back then. Wish I had that now. I can’t get anywhere without these crutches, if I’m not in a wheelchair. It’s like I’m just wasting away.”
“The grass does wither,” said the Parson.
“Never really understood that, always seemed so depressing to me. You Christians seem to say that so calmly, as if were comforting.”
The grass withered for them too, but they held on to God’s Word. They knew that was eternal, so they lived in it. They lived in his forgiveness.
“I don’t know if that part alone is the comforting part for us but it brings the rest of what is said to mind too. That part just reminds us that we are mortal, and perhaps we shouldn’t take this world all too seriously. Maybe the eternal Word of God is more important.”
“I don’t find that comforting either. I mean I remember Sunday School and I haven’t lived that life. My life has been good, but also a wreck. I haven’t even tried to live like Jesus. It all seemed so naïve in the wake of grandma’s death. There was no fun there, just the silly wishes of old women. Never had time for that. Not even when she would drop us off for Sunday School. That was torture.”
“Have to say, I never enjoyed Sunday School much either if I’m being honest. Didn’t have much choice as a pastor’s kid. I suppose that was even the more humiliating part. I never memorized the verses. Always nagged at me, what my dad would think if he saw that chart with all the stars for Bible verse memory. I hated it. And then all the crafts designed for girls. It was nonsense. I suppose if that was your only experience with it all I don’t blame you for being skeptical and running.”
“What changed for you?”
“I really don’t know. I’m not sure if anything changed per se. I just didn’t see that as the sum total of Christianity, I guess. Perhaps it was growing up in a pastor’s home and actually seeing his faults, experiencing them. Realizing he lived by forgiveness alone, because he wasn’t living up to what they taught in Sunday School either. Or the old guys in the congregation he’d sometimes farm me out to for chores on the weekends. They would smoke and drink beer with my dad too. Sometimes they would tell me funny stories and off-color jokes about their time in the military or whatever when we were driving out to the woods to cut firewood. I looked up to them. You know? And yet there they were on Sunday. They took the faith seriously. They gave their money to it. They gave their time. They sang those hymns. Somehow that rubbed off on me. The grass withered for them too, but they held on to God’s Word. They knew that was eternal, so they lived in it. They lived in his forgiveness. That’s what they held onto the promise God made to them in baptism. They never went around trying to show off how great they were or berating others for being lousy Christians or whatever. They just lived as honest as they could, like you, you know?”
“Not sure how honest I have lived. I guess I did my best to be a good friend and all that – husband and father. I haven’t always done the best job of that though. It’s kind of crazy now with all of my friends reaching out with emails and phone calls. Some of them I haven’t thought about in twenty years.”
We aren’t saved for how Christ-like we manage to be.
“I suppose we could all be better friends, Sten. God gives them to us when we need them. He answers our distress when we call on him in that way. Then life picks up again, and the here and now always seems so much more pressing, but you were always a good friend. You always made work so much more fun with your jokes and laughs. You went out of your way for us younger Airmen too. I remember that. But I suppose that really isn’t the point. None of us are saved for any of that. We aren’t saved for how Christ-like we manage to be. That’s a dead end as far as I can tell anyway. We are saved by Christ alone. It is his Word that is eternal, it is his Word that promises to hear us prisoners of sin and set us free who are doomed to die when he looks down from his holy height. Just now as our days dissipate like smoke, and the grass withers. It was that promise he made to you when your grandma had you baptized. It’s that promise he is making good on now. He bought your salvation with his blood, paid for your sins with his death on the cross, and sanctified this entire mess of a life you managed with his eternal word. It remains because he remains, enthroned forever as the one who conquered death with his resurrection so you would belong to him. That’s the eternal Word, Sten. That’s the comfort. It isn’t up to us, it’s up to him and he has done it. It is finished.”
Sten topped off the Parson’s empty espresso cup with grappa and then his. It was a familiar ritual.
“I’ll drink to that,” he said.
The Parson lifted his cup. “Saluté!”
Sten polished the grappa, took one last drag and snuffed his cigarette on the saucer.