SAM'S OKAY
Written by Kevin L. Howard   

                Sam woke suddenly with his heart beating fast and a slight outbreak of sweat on his chest.  Quickly, he looked around the room to assure himself that he was separated from the misery of his dream's reality.  The autumn breeze blowing through the open window and the red numbers on his digital clock brought him comfort.  He was okay, he was at home in his bed.  He dropped his head into his hands.

 

               He shook his head as though to ask himself how long this dream would float along the corridors of his mind.  For the third night in a row, he had been troubled by this same sleepy episode.  But soon his adrenaline level lowered, and he faded back into the world of rest.  He slept well and was not bothered again that night by the unpleasantries of nightmares. 

 

***

 

            The next morning Sam was up at 7:00 a.m. and into his normal routine without much thought about his dream the night before.  It was Saturday, and he was busy with serious study.  He attended a small college in Texas and his homework consumed most of his time.           

            After a bowl of cereal for breakfast, he sat at his desk to resume his assignments. Despite the bad milk taste in his mouth, a smile sprang to life on his face.  It was just after 9:00 a.m. and he felt as though he had already accomplished so much.  The ringing of the phone broke his self-congratulation.  On the other line spoke the pleasant voice of Kathy, one of Sam's college friends.

            Kathy was in her early twenties, as was Sam.  She grew up around Chicago and graduated from high school as an honor-role student.  She had moved to Texas only five weeks prior to the beginning of the fall semester, transferring from a university in Illinois.  She and Sam had met in the student center just a few days after her arrival.  They were not dating each other, but did enjoy each other's company.

            Kathy asked Sam if he wanted to join her for church tomorrow.  His first thought was to say no, but he hesitated.  She made the most of his hesitation and begged him in a way that only a woman can, kind of manipulative like a puppy wanting food.  Sam was not the church-going type, but he had a crush on Kathy, so he said yes.  She was pleased, sensing that her mission of persuasion had been completed.  The conversation ended with Kathy's promise to pick him up for church.

            Sam didn't know what to think.  Should he be mad at himself for giving in, or happy because he was going to spend tomorrow morning with Kathy?  After all, she was pretty.  He walked over to his dingy tank, bent down to see his gold fish-the lone inhabitor of the small glass fortress.  "Well, Sparky, I've always been a sucker for women.  So I'll try to enjoy myself despite church."

 

***

 

            When Kathy's phone call woke him the next morning, Sam despised the fact that he would not be able to sleep late. 

            After getting ready, Sam was a little nervous waiting for her.  He was nervous about the whole church thing.  He had been raised a nominal Roman Catholic, even though neither he nor his family had gone to Mass in ten years.            

            Kathy showed up a few minutes late, but that was fine with Sam.  Being on time was never one of his strong points either.  After fifteen minutes they pulled into the church parking lot.  Sam's nervousness returned. The small red-brick building had the words "Wakeside Baptist Church" printed in large letters on the front of the structure, although the last "h" in "Church" was hanging upside down and looked as if it might fall at anytime.  People were on the porch, kids running around and several old men smoking. 

            As they walked to the church, Sam stepped in some gum that was freshly cooked by the morning sun.  This wasn't the way he wanted to start his day, with church or with gum.  Sam was shy, and so walking among all the people on the porch was uncomfortable.  Before they passed through the entry, an older gentleman greeted Kathy and asked who her friend was. 

            "Hi, Pastor Jacobs!  This is Sam, a friend of mine from school."  He smiled and extended his boney hand to Sam.  Sam smiled back and shook his hand. 

            Once they entered the church, Sam noticed that it smelled like an old book. He found himself remembering his childhood at Mass, thoughts that weren't fond.  He was glad that his family had stopped going when he was ten; his only regret was that they hadn't quit sooner.  He figured that this church would be just as boring as his.  A lady greeted Kathy and mentioned that she had missed her in Sunday school this morning.  Sam assumed that this was the lady's way of subtly scolding Kathy for missing Sunday school, but she seemed friendly enough. 

            Activity and chatter filled the sanctuary and this was different from Catholic Mass.  After several more encounters with people who missed Kathy in Sunday school, they sat down.  The organ and piano started playing and people settled in their spots on the torn padded pews.  To Sam's surprise, people began, in herd-like fashion, to make their way up to the choir loft behind the pulpit.  Soon their rather inharmonious singing ensued and songs seemed to be in typical church style, out of date and filled with "Thees" and "Thous." 

            After several songs, three prayers, an uncoordinated children's medley, and a long offertory instrumental, pastor Jacobs stood behind the pulpit.  He was about six feet tall, slender, and had dark brown uncombed hair infested with a thousand strands of gray.  He wore a blue suit and his tie didn't match.  He spoke with a strained voice, something Sam had not noticed on the porch. 

            The pastor took his sermon from Romans and said "uuh" about every ten words. The constant "uuhs" annoyed Sam, but they served as entertainment, something he could count while the pastor preached.  About fifteen minutes into the sermon, Sam grew sleepy.  Despite the pastor's loud voice, Sam began to doze.  However, Sam's serenity was soon disturbed by the slamming of the pastor's hand onto the pulpit. 

            The pastor was yelling and breathing in an odd way, as though he had been running.  By now Sam's full attention focused on this grammatically-incorrect preacher.  The pastor raved about the evilness of mankind and supported his point by telling a story from last night's news.  

            "Man without God is destined for hell!,"  he continued in the oddest voice, squeaky and breaking up.  "Man delights in doing evil and has been corrupt ever since Adam.  Yet God loved man so much that Christ died and rose again to forgive the sins of his chosen."  The preacher wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. 

            Sam was surprised that this man, probably uneducated, believed that humanity was evil, believed in a literal hell and a historical Adam.  Why did the pastor find such joy in saying that the unsaved would go to hell?  "If hell really existed," Sam thought, "shouldn't the pastor be saddened that people would go there?" 

            Sam didn't know such fundamentalists still existed.  He found them amusing and wondered if Kathy believed this stuff, too.  They had never talked much about religion.  Sam looked around, almost in pity, at the gullible congregation.  Then he turned his attention back to the screaming preacher who was now stressing the importance of telling the lost about Jesus. 

           "This man is a manipulator," Sam thought.  He endured the rest of the preacher's attempt at mind control.  Sam believed in God but despised the fact that most religious people he had known were hypocrites, including his parents. 

 

***

 

             As soon as they got in the car, Kathy asked Sam if he was hungry.  His hunger suddenly became obvious to him.  After they decided where to eat, a silence smothered their conversation.  Sam knew what she was thinking.  He didn't want her to ask him what he thought about church; he couldn't say anything positive.  But eventually the inevitable happened and she asked.  He squirmed and then evasively replied, "The people seemed nice."  It was quiet.  Then they arrived at MacDonald's. 

            Sam had managed to tactfully avoid insulting Kathy's church.  From here on, he could steer the discussion to other topics.  While they ate and talked about school, Sam had forgotten about the importance of keeping Kathy focused on topics other than church.  Kathy seized the quietness and surprised Sam with another question. 

            "What did you think of the sermon?"

            "I'm sure he means well Kathy, but I just can't believe most of what he said."

            "Do you believe in God, Sam?" Kathy asked.

            "Yes, but I don't think humanity's as bad as the pastor said, and I don't believe in hell.  How could a good God create bad people and then punish them forever?"  Sam turned his eyes away from Kathy and played in the puddle of ketchup with a fry. 

            Kathy noticed the scowl on his face.  With the sensitivity of an experienced mother with an angry child, she spoke softly to him. 

            "Sam, I'm not going to push you on this issue, and I won't preach to you.  I believe what the pastor said, and I think it's of utmost importance.  That's why I invited you to church.  I don't have all the answers to why God would do what He does, but I believe that the Bible is perfect.  In the Bible, God tells us what we need to know in order to have a relationship with Him."  She sipped her soda.  Then she continued, "Even if some things like an eternal hell make me a little uncomfortable, I accept them as truth because the Bible teaches me so."

            The next few seconds seemed to last forever.  By this time, both Kathy and Sam were fiddling with food.  Finally, Sam broke the silence with a question, "What about all the errors in the Bible?" 

            "What errors?" Kathy asked.

            "What do you mean 'what errors'?"  He saw the look of intimidation on her face.  "Kathy, I'm sorry for offending you.  I didn't mean to, really."

            "That's okay," Kathy said as she stood, picked up her tray, and asked him if he was ready to leave.  Sam followed, apologizing. 

            "Kathy, I never wanted to talk about this stuff because I knew it would be unpleasant for both of us.  I'm sorry!"

            "Don't be sorry.  These are important issues, and we needed to talk about them.  After all, we're going to be dead a lot longer than we're alive," she said with a slight grin.  They chuckled.

            "I have trouble taking every thing in the Bible literally when there are some obvious mistakes."

            "Be specific about the mistakes," Kathy spoke with calmness and confidence.

            "Well...well, you know...," Sam said grasping for an example.

            "No, not really.  Help me," Kathy said.

            "Okay, here's an example of a mistake in the Bible," he said this as he picked up a piece of paper from the floor of Kathy's car, needing something to play with.  "How could the world be created in six days, when science has proven it took billions of years?"

            "I don't know," Kathy said.  "I suppose science could be wrong."

            "Now there's a great answer!"

            "Maybe I'll have to study the issue a little more," Kathy said with a tone that sought pity.  "Well, we're almost back at your apartment, and I need to be somewhere at 1:45 p.m., so I've got to go, but please think more on these things.  Do you have a Bible?," she inquired.

            "Yes, I have a Bible," Sam said without promising to read it.

            She stopped at the same spot where she had picked him up this morning.  Dust stirred as she drove away.

 

***

 

            Sam turned on music and chatted with his gold fish.  "Really Sparky, how can people think that a good God would send people to hell?"  He pulled his dusty Bible off the shelf and laughed.  He tossed it on a chair.  "I don't need the Bible to tell me I'm evil.  I'm not so bad."

            Sam tried to study, but soon found himself sleepy.  He kicked off his shoes and stretched out on his couch.  He remembered how much he loved relaxation.  His eyes grew heavy, and soon he slipped into the valley of sleep.

            After he woke, he watched the news.  More arsonists had struck in Dallas.  This time, three kids died in a fire.  Also, gang activity was on the rise in Houston, and crime was at an all-time high in the nation.  Then there was a story of a three-year-old child who had been molested and murdered.  Sam felt sorry for her family.  He wondered how someone could be so cruel. 

            At 11:00 p.m., Sam started reading a book on the Holocaust.  He spent two hours engrossed in this book which recounted the horrors of Hitler's bloody crusade across Europe.  He murdered at least 12,000,000 people.  "How bizarre!  What kind of man would go to such extremes and try to wipe out an entire race of people?  A crazy man," that's what Sam thought, "certainly a crazy man."

            Sam shut off the light and snuggled under the covers.  Today had been different.  He had gone to church for the first time in years.  He'd argued with the girl he likes.  He was glad the day was over. 

            Remembering the news reports on crime, he got up to make sure his door was locked.  On returning to bed, he stubbed his toes on the coffee table.  It felt like he had cut off one of them.  Despite the small warm blood deposit between his toes, the throbbing soon stopped. 

            He crawled back in bed and thought of what the preacher said about people being evil.  But Sam rejected the idea again.  He took comfort in the thought that he was not like those on the news.  He had not murdered, stolen money, burnt down an apartment, or molested.  "I'm a good guy.  I pay my bills, obey the speed limit, most of the time.  God would be pleased with my track record," he told himself.  Sam was no Hitler or even a racist.  Sometimes he even talked to the black students at school. 

            Sam drifted to sleep but woke around 4:00 a.m.  He was troubled again by his nightmare.  This was the fourth night it occurred.  What was he to make of it?  In his dream, he was home in Arkansas and swimming in his parent's pond.  The setting was mostly dark.  His swim quickly turned into a struggle to stay afloat-Sam was drowning.  The panic in his dream seemed real.  He would fight furiously to swim but to no avail.  All he could think of in this dream was that he was going to die.  Then, at the last minute, Sam's dad would pull him up to the surface.  At this point in the dream, Sam would push his dad under the water, and his father would never resurface.  That's when Sam always woke.

            Why did he have these thoughts?  His dad had been a good father and Sam loved him.  To make things worse, Sam's dad had died three years ago.  Sam didn't know why he would drown his dad in his dream.  Why wouldn't it stop?

            Sam grew more disturbed this time than he had been the other three nights when he woke from his nightmare.  This last dream was worse.  After drowning his dad, Sam's dream had immediately turned to a hotter setting in which he was engulfed by flames.  For his first time, Sam had dreamt about hell. 

He turned on the light to bring himself more relief.  He put on his glasses and sat up in bed for a while, searching the room with his eyes.  Perhaps there were ghosts hiding in corners.

            He got water from the refrigerator and turned on the TV again.  It was a re-run of a cop show in NYC.  The show was interesting but Sam needed sleep.  He got back into bed and felt better now.  He repositioned himself for sleep.

            Sam's mind recalled what the preacher said, then thought of the crime on TV, and the Holocaust.  He breathed a sigh of relief that he was not that vile.  He was okay. 

            Sam went back to sleep. 

            An hour later, he lay squirming in his bed.  Although sleeping, he tossed and moaned with restlessness.  Sam was dreaming again.