Curtis Dahlgren
A funny thing happened on the road from Damascus (a Classic)
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By Curtis Dahlgren
December 26, 2016

THREE DAYS before Christmas, I walked into a bar. I looked around, but no one was there, though the Packers were playing to a full house. After awhile a bartender appeared, all bubbly and bright, and I ordered a beer. As she popped the top, a stranger came in, dusting off snow, kind of nondescript. He had nary a smile, and for some reason he seemed older than he looked (though I'm not too good at judging the cover of a book).

I SAID "HOWDY" and he said "Shalom, or, that is to say, hello, more or less." I couldn't place the guy's accent, but he certainly didn't look Nordic, so I said:

"You from around here?"

"Not hardly," he said with half a smile.

So I said as I stared, "So where are you from? Not that it matters, but . . ."

He turned, as if looking right through the plate glass mirror behind the bar, thinking I guess. Just as he started to speak, who should appear but the bubbly bartender. "What'll you have, Bud?" said she, and says he:

"Have you any Mid Eastern wines from about 40 A.D.? If so, I'll have it."

"Not in this place," she laughed. "Would you settle for a Mogen David?" And he says:

"Close enough! I know how to abound and how to be abased."

"Hey, that's pretty good," I said. "What do you do? Are you a writer or what?"

"I'm retired," he says. He stuck out his hand and says "My name is Paul. Some people called me Saul."

We shook hands and I said, "My name is Curt, but some people call me the crazy woodcutter. Because." And he says:

"I can relate, I think. That is to say, I used to be a tent maker on the side, and some people thought that's all I was."

"Let me guess," I said. "You were on Reality TV. Or were a TV evangelist. Before they got such a bad reputation?"

"Close, but before TV," says he.

I began to wonder if this guy was sick, so I just said, "You're the Apostle Paul." And he says:

"How did you ascertain that so quick? Quickly, I mean?"

I looked around, but no one was there, not even the bartender (she must have stomping the grapes yet). I managed to catch Paul's eye and said, "Well, let's hear a few lines. Something you've written."

"God gave them over to a reprobate mind, being filled with fornication, wickedness, covetousness, and malice; full of envy, hatred, deceit, and malignity; whisperers, backbiters, proud, disobedient to parents; without understanding or natural affection, liars, and unmerciful debaters; who, knowing the judgment of God – that those who commit such things are not worthy of immortality – not only do the same, but have pleasure in those who do them too!"

"Sounds judgmental,"
I said with a smile and a sip of my beer. "Before I go home, I'll buy you that Mogen David if you can recite the first sentence of your letter to Rome without taking a breath" (I finally got a laugh out of him). "But seriously, what is 'malignity'?"

"'Malignity,' from 'malignus' – 'bad' or 'wicked' other words from this family including 'malice,' 'malaise,' and 'malignant'; but the simplest way to define 'malignity' is 'TROUBLE' – as in 'here comes trouble,' that is to say, a popular culture out of control is like a malignant growth, so to speak."

I took a quick glance at the flat-screen and around the room, and then I said: "Assuming for a minute that you're the Apostle Paul, where have you been?"

"I DON'T KNOW," said the stranger. "It seemed like I was sleeping, having, on occasion, pleasant dreams; then I had this horrible nightmare. I dreamt people are full of envy, hatred, and immorality; that governments are corrupt and corrupting; that the world was full of wars, and that Christians were being tortured and killed again."

"That's actually all true," I said. And he says:

"All of a sudden I woke up and here I was."

And you were standing in front of a saloon?" I asked.

"Exactly," he says. "And my first thought was, I could use a glass of some good old Mediterranean wine. So I came in here, but where AM I?"

"You're in the Upper Peninsula," I said, and he says:

"Where's that?"

"It's in Michigan," I said.

And he says, "Where's that?"

"It's in the United States of America," I said. "We used to call this the New World. It's a couple months west of Europe by sail boat, or a few hours by supersonic airplane." And he says:

"Is that some kind of a flying machine? I saw those in my bad dream. They were battling each other in the sky."

"Yes," I said. "And people are being killed in battle every day. Even in this part of the world Christians are being fined and maligned for quoting you."

"Why?" asked the stranger. And I said:

"They want to silence us. Drive religion into the shadows, underground. Any other questions?" And he says:

"Where's the bartender? Is she still stomping the grapes, or what?" And I said:

"That reminds me," I said. "I have a question for you. In your letter to the Romans, you told them to be 'submissive' to the powers-that-be, the authorities. Elucidate for me, if you will."

"In the first place," he says, "I was writing to the Christians in Rome specifically. We ministers didn't want our lay members there to get crucified."

"That was for you guys, wasn't it?" I said. And he says:

"Exactly. I could still show you scars on my back that I got for disobeying the authorities. Another point is, I had to put something in the letter to get it past the censors in case it got intercepted by the postal authorities. I knew that the Christians would understand what I meant." And I said:

"What about Christians in other parts of the world?" And he says:

"In the middle of the first century, people in Asia Minor and Greece weren't under the thumb of the Empire quite as much. On Mars' Hill, a person could say just about anything that was on your mind. Peter and I said that if you have Freedom of Thought, Religion, and Speech, don't waste it! That would be like having God give you a talent, or dollars, and burying it in the ground instead of using it!"

"In other words," I said, "Unto whom much is given, much shall be required. And Peter said we should 'put to silence the ignorance of foolish men,' right?"

"Exactly!" he said. "Any other questions?"

"Well," I said, "we could talk about theology, about the 'faith-works' controversy and everything, but I already understand that." He nodded and says:

"Faith WORKS!"

"Absolutely," I said. "But I have one other question."

And he says, "What's that?" And I said:

"When did you learn how to speak English?"

"Oh," he says. "That happened one day of Pentecost when I was in the desert being trained by the Lord Himself."

"That figures," I said. "But if He taught English, He was ahead of His time, wasn't He?" And Paul said:

"He was always ahead of His time; He created time, and everything else people seem to enjoy so much at this time of the year. Their overindulgence only verifies His prophecies. He predicted it, and a time of Great Hatred."

Then what should appear but the bubbly lass with the bubbly glass and I told her to put it on my tab, and Paul raised the glass:

"To the Kingdom."

I raised my Back 40 bock and said:

"Uff-da. To the Kingdom!"

But then I added, "By the way, I do a little writing. If I quote you, is that okay?"

With a lurch of his head and a laugh from his belly, the rosy-cheeked stranger said "OKAY!"

And then, without another word, he was gone. Not up the chimney, but straight through the looking glass.

[I woke up on the couch and God said "Have a nice day!']

[adapted from my December 23, 2013 column]

© Curtis Dahlgren

 

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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)

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