[TW: Possible strong language]
At one time or another, each of us will pause to ask ourselves the age-old question What is the meaning of life? The natural follow-up to Why am I here? is Where am I going? For many, these moments of cosmic contemplation are short-lived. We pause, we reflect, maybe we vow to be a better person, to start giving to charity or going to church, and then we go right back to living as we were. Some, however, embrace these lucid intervals and use them to inspire real change.
When Simon encountered his mandatory middle-aged existential crisis, he chose the latter.
One would think that as a wildly successful pastor with a large online following, he would have had his spiritual matters all squared away. He routinely gave council to others on the topic, after all. But, much to his chagrin, Simon found he’d strayed somewhat from his intended path in life and decided it was time to get back to his primary purpose – spreading the word of God.
Oh, there was plenty of word-spreading going on, to be clear. Simon’s website, podcast, and enormously popular YouTube channel (with over 5 million subscribers at last count) made sure of that. But was he spreading the Lord’s message or his own popularity? Wrapped up in the pursuit of fortune and fame, he hadn’t given it much thought until now. But when he stopped to peer inward, the pastor was not satisfied with what he saw.
When he had first started in the religious life as a young lay preacher in southern Texas, Simon had been concerned only with saving souls. His modest congregation had never numbered more than 50, and he’d secretly yearned to make a difference on a much larger scale. He was passionate about spreading the good news of the gospel far and wide, but with his influence limited to his immediate surroundings, that dream seemed doomed to failure.
The dawn of the internet had changed everything. Simon was uniquely possessed of the kind of charisma designed to captivate the masses, and that, coupled with his moderately good looks and honeyed voice, had seen him become an online sensation overnight. He fancied himself a modern-day Mother Theresa, except instead of the slums of Calcutta, Simon’s work was done among the intellectually destitute denizens of the online chat rooms and social media platforms.
As his star rapidly rose, he gave up his brick-and-mortar church and went fully virtual, far less concerned with souls and far more worried about likes, comments, shares, and subscribers.
Had he been like the countless other money-grubbing men and women of his ilk, Simon would have remained oblivious into his twilight years. But, whilst he’d gotten caught up in the pursuit of self-enrichment, enough of the man of his youth remained to cry out that it was time for a change.
He concluded that he needed to do something drastic, something that harked back to his youthful dreams of spreading God’s word, something to relocate the magnetic north of his spiritual compass.
As to what exactly that might be, Simon had no idea until one night, while scrolling through the comments on his latest YouTube sermon, he was struck by an idea.
He decided he would become a missionary.
“They ain’t… savages, are they, Bob?” Simon cringed at the politically incorrect term, but in his distress, he had no time for niceties.
“Savages?” His publicist echoed. “Well, yes and no.”
Simon started the man down, knowing how much he was enjoying himself. Eventually, Bob relented. “Look, if you’re going to do this, you need to accept there’s an element of risk, ok?”
“Sure, but how much?”
“Let me put it like this,” the building wave of Bob’s smile crested into a broad, toothy grin. “You’ll be about as safe among these natives as you’d be on a midnight stroll alone in downtown Houston.” His laughter bubbled over at the pastor’s expression. “This is your crazy idea, Simon, not mine. If it was up to me, you’d stay right here, working on that book I keep pushing you to write.”
“Well, darn it, Bob, I’m going, ok? Like it or not. So, either you get serious about this, or I find a new publicist who will!”
“Woah, take it easy,” Bob held his hands up in the universal gesture of surrender. “I was only kidding. I’ve made all the arrangements, just like you asked.”
“And the Ubu tribe is the perfect target for your mission. The village is isolated and they keep to a traditional way of life, but they’ve had some contact with westerners. They’ve even adopted some English words into their language. My contacts at the Red Cross say they’re a pretty tame, agreeable bunch, all 'round.”
“But what about…” Simon couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence.
“The reports of cannibalism and ritualistic sacrifice?” Bob offered helpfully, stifling another grin. “They’re just that, Simon. Reports. Nothing more than old wives' tales. There was a brief mention in a National Geographic article 20 years ago, never corroborated, and that was it. Nothing to be concerned about.” Bob felt it wise not to mention that the National Geographic piece had been unearthed by him and fed to the local media deliberately. He saw two possible benefits of this. Firstly, it might dissuade the pastor from going on his ill-advised mission. And if it didn’t, it certainly added to the headline value of the trip. Celebrity Pastor Risks Life and Limb to Tame Savage Natives. Bob could picture it already. “So,” he continued, “we have the appearance of danger, without any actual danger. Which is just what you asked for, boss.”
Simon hadn’t phrased the request in so many words, but he wasn’t about to argue. He wanted to do missionary work to secure his place in heaven, but he certainly didn’t want to hasten his trip to the afterlife in the process. He had one last concern. “But does it have to be so gosh darn far away?”
“Come on, Si, you and I both know there’s only one place on earth that missionary work counts for anything these days.”
“Yep, alright then. Looks like I’m headed to Africa.”
Despite its popularity over the last few centuries, there exists no useful guide on how, exactly, to do missionary work. Simon would’ve liked a step-by-step instruction manual, but the best he could come up with was old accounts of past expeditions. He skimmed these briefly and came away with the impression that there was nothing much to it. Arrive in the village, announce yourself to the locals, start preaching away, and hope for the best. Easy.
Of course, missionaries were usually affiliated with one religious body or another and sought to bring the locals humanitarian aid and education along with spiritual enlightenment. But to Simon, never one to be overly concerned with details, this seemed irrelevant. He wasn’t going to stay long. A few weeks at most. To put it in military terms, he wasn’t planning a full-scale invasion. More like a timed, tactical insertion. A spiritual hit-and-run.
As unrealistic as this might sound, Simon had good cause to think his plan would work. He was highly specialized in the kind of rapid-fire conversions that had seen his online flock multiply faster than a colony of rabbits in heat. Besides, he possessed something no missionary before him ever had.
A secret weapon, if you will.
The village itself, nestled in a remote valley in the Ethiopian highlands, was just as Simon had pictured it. A haphazard arrangement of mud huts with straw roofs huddled around a central clearing. The raging river boarded the eastern end of the settlement, with the foreboding jungle encroaching on the other three sides.
The journey had been a roundabout one. There were no direct flights to Ethiopia out of George Bush International in Houston. Simon had to fly to Dubai, then to Cairo. From there he’d taken a charter flight to Addis Ababa and a military helicopter had ferried him on to the Red Cross camp in the eastern highlands. A two-day boat trip down the river had eventually brought him to the Ubu settlement. It was about as remote a place on earth as one could hope to find, and Simon’s anxiety flared up momentarily when the Red Cross volunteer who’d rowed him to the village had declined to stay, immediately hightailing it back up the river as soon as the pastor had been safely deposited on dry land.
But, as his publicist had promised, Simon soon learned his fears were groundless. The Ubu were far from the untamed savages he’d imagined, although they certainly dressed the part, clad as they were in animal-skin loincloths and little else. Appearances aside, they seemed to offer no threat to the newcomer in their midst. They regarded Simon with the kind of open curiosity one only finds among children and cats, with no hint of apprehension or hostility.
This, the pastor concluded, was going to be a piece of cake. He felt more than up to the challenge and was heartened by the fact that he was not alone. He had his trusty tablet and mobile satellite internet connection by his side.
And God, he guiltily added to himself. Can’t forget about Him.
It could be said that Moses was the first person in history to download data from the cloud onto a tablet when he received the ten commandments atop Mount Sinai. Simon loved that joke and often marveled at the parallels between scripture and technology. Ancient miracles, from healing the sick to walking on water, were routinely recreated by modern science, and Jesus’ directive to spread the gospel to all corners of the earth seemed tailor-made for the connected world of the internet.
No one had managed to embrace this idea better than Simon, and he now prepared to bring his technological prowess to bear in his conversion of the Ubu. Take the bible.com app, for example. Physical books are cumbersome. For a modest monthly subscription on the app store, and only weighing in at a few megabytes, Simon could carry the entire New King James Version in his pocket wherever he went. Now that was a miracle to rival loaves and fishes any day!
With this in mind, the pastor aimed to not only introduce the wonders of Christ’s message to the natives but the miracle of modern technology right along with it.
As a contemporary carrier of the teachings of Christ, he saw this as his sacred obligation.
The Ubu’s response to Simon’s initial attempts was less than spectacular. On his first day in the village, he positioned himself in the central clearing, authoritatively cleared his throat, and began to read the gospel from his tablet.
The locals paid him no mind, continuing about their daily chores as if the best news to greet the human race since Adam and Eve got snaked in the Garden of Eden was not being delivered by a moderately good-looking, honey-voiced pastor right in there in the middle of their tiny village. A few of the more curious individuals wandered up to Simon occasionally but soon drifted off again.
Undeterred, the pastor vowed to try again the next day. Patience is a virtue, after all, just like the Good Book says. Did that come from the Bible? Simon wasn’t sure. He’d never been overly concerned with memorizing scripture. What was the point, when you had bible.com just a finger tap away?
The next day, he tried again, and the result was much the same.
After a full week of this, Simon decided to change his approach. He’d had considerable success engaging his online youth audiences with audio-visual content over the years, and he decided that approach might prove effective with the Ubu as well.
The following day, instead of reading from the gospel, Simon played an animated video of The Parable of the Prodigal Son for them on his tablet. Within minutes, a small crowd had gathered, and by the time the father called for the fattened calf to be slaughtered, the entire village was in attendance, staring intently at the small screen.
After that, every time Simon entered the clearing carrying his tablet, a hush descended over the village. Everyone gathered around. The pastor played them videos and audio recordings of scripture. They hung on every word. He always concluded by reading from the gospel and then proclaiming, “This is the word of God!” as he held the device aloft. Simon knew the Ubu had their own religious beliefs, along with a loose concept of what a ‘god’ was, and he wanted to impart the idea that more than just fancy gadgetry, the tablet bore the message of the one true God, the God of the Christian faith.
After repeating this process for several days, his labor began to bear fruit.
“This is the word of God!” Simon proclaimed in his mighty voice after concluding the scripture reading for the day.
Usually, silence was the only response, but on this day, a wizened old man at the front of the crowd – the village spokesperson, apparently – stepped forward, and cautiously ventured, “Dis… god?” while pointing at the tablet in Simon’s hands. “Dis god?”
“Yes, yes!” The pastor was thrilled. They were finally getting it! “This is the word of God!”
Thereafter, whenever he concluded proceedings, the villagers roared, “God! God!” in response, eyes never leaving the device held high.
Simon had been sure he’d be a hit with the locals, but such rapid progress surprised even him. It wasn’t long before he started thinking of his triumphant return to Texas. He’d finish the book his publicist had been pushing for, but that would just be the start. Hell, he’d go for a series of books, maybe a reality TV show. Could a successful pastor parlay his talents into a Hollywood acting career? Simon thought it was possible.
Having done his spiritual duty, he was ready for the next exciting chapter in his life.
At night, Simon’s dreams turned to private jets, adoring fans, and Swiss villas, while the Ubu around him dreamt only of the mighty new god in their midst.
A month in the village was enough, Simon concluded. It was high time he make his circuitous way back home.
The night before his departure, he decided on the spur of the moment to upload a blog post of his experiences. He’d had no contact with his online flock for the duration of his stay in Ethiopia – remaining incommunicado would add to the charm, his publicist had claimed – but he was bursting with the news of his success. And besides, he reasoned, a post on location would boost the authenticity factor tenfold.
Alone in his tent, fairly jumping with excitement, the pastor booted up his tablet and opened the web browser. He was greeted by the dreaded connection not found, please check your connection and try again error message.
His satellite internet connection had performed flawlessly up until then, but it had chosen the last, crucial moment to give up the ghost. Simon double-checked the equipment and everything seemed fine, yet that damned error message persisted.
He had to get the post out before leaving in the morning. In desperation, Simon tried rebooting the tablet. When it powered back up, he encountered a notification prompting him to install a software update before continuing. Something he couldn’t do without an internet connection.
When Moses lost his cool in the desert, he whacked the rock with his staff in a fit of fury, and so endured the wrathful vengeance of the Lord. Simon had neither a staff nor a rock handy, but his impulsive, rage-induced reaction was just as ill-advised. He hurled the tablet to the floor, shattering it to pieces while letting loose a string of profanities that no man of God should know, let alone utter aloud.
When his shouts of rage died down, he became aware of a shrill keening just outside his tent. The flap parted and several accusing pairs of eyes glared in. Beyond them, a few of the women were weeping and one had thrown herself to the ground, wailing as if in physical agony.
One of the men entered the tent unbidden and dropped to his knees beside the electronic debris, sifting reverently through the pieces. “God?” he whispered. “God?”
“No, you darn fool, that ain’t –“ Simon’s words were cut short by a cascade of angry voices and a sudden flurry of activity as the rest of the tribesmen burst into the tent.
A swift blow to the head from a wooden club and Simon’s world turned black.
When the pastor came to intermittently, he found himself lying next to a raging bonfire, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The greased wooden pole turning lazily over the fire in preparation would have been instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever attended a Texas summer spit barbecue.
In his state of extreme terror, a piece of scripture from the book of Ezekiel popped unbidden into Simon’s gibbering thoughts. It seemed he’d managed to retain one piece of the Bible in memory after all, although this particular passage was one he could have done without.
Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers. And I will execute judgments on you.
Not exactly the kind of food for thought he needed just then.
Simon prayed. For the first time in many years, he cast his heart wholly to the Lord, begging for salvation and promising to reform his errant ways.
Beyond the rhythmic beating of the Ubu drums, only silence greeted his pleas.
“Thank you, God,” Simon moaned as the villagers gathered eagerly around him for what would be the very last time. “Thanks an awful lot.”