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A Porch in Nebraska
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“What better place could there be to contemplate the world than this porch, on a bluff overlooking the flatlands?” August Altmann responded to a question with a question. It was unfair, he knew, but he felt it would guide the discussion in the best direction.
Justus Fowler persisted, however, asking again, “Come on Gus, why are you here?”
“I am here to participate in life.”
Justus was not satisfied, but his questions were cut off. Gus eyed him and threw his question back at him. “Why are you here, Just?”
Justus stumbled over his response and finally said, “I had to find a place to settle down.”
“A place where no one knew you?”
Justus had never been ready to air his past and went back to his thesis. “We are all here for a reason. I mean everyone has some mission in life. I am interested in knowing more about yours. You are a bright man, and you spend your life operating what may be the sleepiest hardware store in Nebraska, and I am curious about why.”
“After twenty-seven years of close friendship, you and I still have not really come to understand each other, it seems. You are not satisfied with my expressed reasons for keeping a hardware store in an obscure hamlet on a bluff above the Platte River. And I have still not heard much about your reasons for being the only lawyer who lives in that hamlet, even though it is technically a city and the seat of Midland County. You know that I inherited this store from my father. But surely a Yale-educated lawyer can find a more comfortable home than the one you live in, and a more sophisticated society, as well.”
Justus Fowler looked toward the setting sun. It was hidden completely by some of the sky’s fluffy clouds, but bright sunbeams streamed from it. The sky was a mass of radiant colors. “I guess I just wanted a change from where I had always been,” he said.
According to the census of 1900, Gorse, Nebraska, had a population of 448. Altmann’s store was the biggest building in town. It was somewhat larger than St. David’s Chapel, which operated under the auspices of the Episcopal Missionary Diocese of the Platte. But then, the store had to be bigger, because nearly all the city’s activity took place there. One corner of it housed the 768 books of the Gorse Public Library. Another had the post office. It was the site of the shipping agency, through which all railroad packages and passengers passed. And it had all sorts of goods for people to buy. It even had a couple of small rooms with beds, in case they were needed for an emergency.
Gorse had been built at the site of a spring from which particularly fine water flowed. It was remarkable because there was no higher land around it, and not even geologists understood quite where its exceptional water came from. It had a plentiful supply for all of the local residents, undiminished by the driest drought, and it always flowed, even on the coldest winter day. But it remained a bit of a mystery.
It also supplied water for any locomotives whose tanks were running low, though not many trains passed through. When the railroad had come to town, residents expected the community to grow, but the tracks only led to a few mines, farther to the west, and its passenger service was very inconvenient. Very few people moved in. Justus Fowler was one of these.
“My recollection,” August said, “is that you studied religion, before you switched to law.”
Justus bristled a little, beneath his skin. Gus was the lay reader who conducted most of the chapel’s regular services. Justus attended them, but for reasons that had nothing to do with his real beliefs. “Eastern Religions,” Justus replied, expecting that the subject would be dropped.
“Yes, I remember now.” Gus considered this a while, and then he said, “Do you know much about Hinduism?”
“Polytheistic religion. Not the sort of thing I expect you would be interested in. People worship many gods, who live in rivers, trees, the sky, or wherever. Some take the form of human beings.”
“Do you think I would be put off by animism?”
August looked again toward the setting sun. The sky was particularly beautiful. “Why should I be?”
“Well, perhaps the First Commandment.”
“Which admonishes the faithful not to worship other gods before God.”
“And it says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.”
“But that does not say that we should only worship God. It just says we should not worship others before Him and we should only serve Him.”
“Should I understand that you would advocate our worshiping beings other than God, provided we don’t place them above Him?” Justus eyed Gus, believing that he had got a bit too far out on a limb.
“Why not?” Gus said, “The Book of Common Prayer does.”
“What are you talking about?” Justus asked. His manner was more assertive than incredulous.
“‘With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.’ It’s in the wedding ceremony. We are to worship our partners with our bodies.” Gus continued to enjoy the glorious sky.
Justus glowered at him. After a moment he spoke. “You sound like you are out to undermine Christianity,” he said.
“Oh, not at all! I believe what I find in the Bible.”
“So you believe in the Trinity?”
“And yet you have no problem with animism.”
“Why should there be a problem?” Gus asked. “In the Book of Common Prayer, in the Morning Prayer service, is a canticle, Benedicite Omnia Opera Domini, which was taken from the Bible. It calls on all the works of the Lord to worship Him. ‘O all ye Works of the Lord to, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him forever.’ And among the creations it calls to worship God are the beasts and cattle, the fowls of the air, the whales and things that move in the deep. It calls on the green things on the Earth, the wells, seas, floods, mountains and hills, dews and frosts, lightning and clouds, winter and summer, light and darkness, sun and moon. It would seem silly to call them to worship, if they have no souls or consciousness.”
Justus looked at him in silent amazement.
“It’s right there in the prayer book. And people right here in Gorse say it on Sunday mornings.”
“People say that? On Sunday mornings?”
“Well, it is one of three canticles to choose from for its place in the service. It is rather long, so I usually choose one of the other two. If I use it more than about once every other month, people complain about the length. Then I point out that whenever I choose it, I give a really short sermon. Come to think of it, I am pretty sure you said it yourself a few times.”
Justus considered this for a moment. Then he asked, “Are you sure you are an Episcopalian?”
“Born and raised!”
“Why not Lutheran?” Justus sounded very slightly suspicious.
“When my grandfather came to this country, he settled in a place where the only church was Episcopalian. He looked at the Bible and prayer book, and found that they were just English translations of the same books Lutherans used.”
The sun was setting. The stars began appearing. The clouds in the west continued to hover there, but were starting to change color as the sunshine no longer lit them from behind, and they were being shown only by the pale light of the rising full moon. Sounds of night wildlife started to become noticeable.
“Do you think an owl has a soul?” Justus asked.
“What about insects?”
Justus paused, and then he asked, “What about fairies and pixies? Wait. Don’t tell me. You were going to say, ‘Why not?’”
“You took the very words right out of my mouth. But I will help you go on. You could include trees and grass, the moss and even the rocks it grows on. And yes, the clouds and the lightning. The prayer book mentions them also. Seasons, stars, all sorts of things.”
“I will refrain from telling the congregation.” Justus sounded rather sarcastic.
“Thank you for your consideration. Though if you did, I would open the prayer book to the appropriate page and remind them that they got a very short sermon the day that was read.”
There was a moment of silence, as the moon grew to be the only source of light. Then Justus asked, “And what about the Hindu gods? We started with them. What do you say about them?”
August shrugged. “They’re gods.”
“Were or are?”
“So you believe in Hindu gods?”
“I do. Justus, I want you to consider the Bible again for a moment. Our Lord is called ‘God of gods.’ So there must be other gods who worship Him. Who are they? Psalm 82 says this, ‘I have said, ye are gods, and ye are all children of the Most Highest.’ It is God speaking in the Psalm. And He is speaking to all of us.”
“So are we all gods?”
“We are, but you have to understand that some gods take their divinity seriously and some don’t. For that matter, some are rather good and some are a bit evil, and they are not usually called gods. But yes, we are all gods.”
“You astonish me. We are all gods, and we are supposed to worship our spouses, who are also gods.”
“What do you know about Hindu gods, Gus. What have you learned out here, in the flatlands of Nebraska?”
“From here, you can see the horizon; you can contemplate life in a place where Heaven and Earth meet.” Gus chuckled again, almost laughing out loud.
“Well,” Justus said, “I don’t believe you know anything about it.”
“I do, Just. And a lot more than you could realize.”
“Have you ever read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata? I mean, how much could you know?”
“Have you read them?”
“I have. And more.”
“Perhaps I should tell them to you again,” Gus said. “I think you may have missed their point.”
“I am not going to listen to you read me the Mahabharata. It goes on forever. Besides, there probably is not a single copy in the whole of Midland County.”
“Yes, it does go on forever. And I would apologize, if I had offered to do that to you. I am, after all, the sort of person who apologizes for a long canticle by giving a very short sermon. No, I will tell simply tell you the story in a somewhat condensed form.”
“From memory.” Justus said. “You know the story by heart.”
August laughed. “Do you want to hear it, or not? I mean, here we are on a Friday night, sitting on the porch of a hardware store in a nearly deserted hamlet. Twilight is just about over. No one is around. The fields are planted, and nothing is ready for harvest, so no one will need to come into town tomorrow, and our only street will be just about empty all day. A train might come through, but it might not even stop. You have nothing to do tonight but listen to the stories of the lives of Vishnu and join me for a glass or two of beer. And you have nothing to do tomorrow but sleep late.”
Justus looked out to the west. The bright moon behind him made the clouds near the horizon glow faintly. He considered the offer of a beer or two.
“I’m all ears,” Justus said finally. Then he added, “But first, the beer.”
Together, the two friends went into the store to fetch some refreshment. And then they settled down to a long story.
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