His bright brown eyes stared at the smoke rising from the bonfire in the middle of the spacious, newly-mowed backyard shadowed by an old tall mighty oak tree which lush emerald-green leaves indulged in the warmth of the early morning sun. The silence in the place was broken only by the soft shy rustle of the leaves blown by an equally shy breeze, the chirping of a bird or two, and the crackle of the flames as it consumed the things that he had once held dear—and once had held him dear.
He sat on the doorstep leading to the backyard, his long blond hair combed to reveal his pale apricot face with the staring brown eyes, prominent cheekbones, pointed nose and thin red lips that, at that moment, did not frown but showed no intent to smile. His lean frame, accented by the somewhat faded black T-shirt and dark denim skinny jeans that he wore, was serenely composed—almost motionless, except for his relaxed breathing and moving his fingers and stretching his long limbs once in a while.
I don't understand why it had to be this... agonizing, he thought. To let go of something you shouldn't let stay. Of something that's actually killing you.
Three months ago—and still fresh in his mind—he strapped his gray Ibanez electric guitar and went onstage with the rest of the worship team. The lead singer took his place at the center of the stage and opened the worship service with some verses from the book of Psalms, a short exhortation, and a prayer. Soon the band and the whole congregation were making exultant melodies and joyful shouts of praise to God, most of them clapping their hands, and the others jumping and dancing.
A hush followed after the first two fast worship songs. He gently strummed his guitar to begin the next song—a slow one—and one female back-up singer sang,
We bow our hearts,
we bend our knees;
O Spirit, come, make us humble.
We turn our eyes
from evil things;
O Lord, we cast down our idols.
So, give us clean hands,
give us pure hearts.
Let us not lift our souls to another.
When the band repeated the first two verses, he grimaced a little. Something in his mind was trying to distract him, which he chose to ignore, but only got worse as the song went on—he almost hit a wrong chord or two in the chorus. He kept on playing, most of the time looking down at his guitar, the band and the congregation unaware—hopefully, he thought—of the trouble brewing up inside him.
And God, let us be a generation that seeks,
seeks Your face, O God of Jacob.
The singing and intermittent shouts of praises went on uninterrupted, everyone in the church filled by the Spirit. But inside him, something else was screaming. And after the corporate worship, he immediately locked himself up in a prayer cell backstage, isolating himself from the rest of the band.
What's happening to me? he asked himself as he sat in the cell small enough to accommodate a man, his palms on his sweaty forehead, his eyes on the crimson carpet on which he sat. He had experienced being distracted during corporate worship many times, and he was always able to ignore them. But not this one. All throughout the hymn, something inside him—or was it from somewhere else?—was mocking him: So, you turn your eyes from evil things? Look, and I'll show you the things you said you would turn your eyes from...
The full moon and some stars stared down at the little village; most of its denizens were already tucked in their beds and taking their forty winks that time of the night. In one cozy bungalow in that village, the digital clock displayed 11:53.
He paid no attention to the clock just beside the sofa on which he sat. His eyes were glued to the TV, which alone illuminated the whole receiving area. Nothing but the TV's mellifluous sounds broke the silence in the house.
The evening was serene, and he silent, but inside him was a rampage of sensations. Even when he had finished watching whatever show it was and finally went to bed, the scenes, crystal clear, replayed wildly in his imagination—scenes he knew he shouldn't have cared to see but he did, scenes that sent shivers down his spine and ignited sparks in his flesh...
Then, he found himself seeking, wanting, needing more of them. They seemed to him, in every moment his eyes and mind feast on them, the escape from the harsh realities of life, the delightful thrill that his human senses had learned to crave for.
For many times and in many ways did guilt gnaw on his conscience, but his need for those images extinguished that guilt and hid under its host's good repute while urging him to feed the desire until he reached the point where he wondered how it would be like if what he saw--and played in his mind at times when he was alone--were real...
But at the moment he sat alone in the prayer cell, guilt was already consuming every part of his conscience. The song was right: He had evil things where he should turn his eyes from. He had idols to cast down. He had unclean hands and an impure heart.
He wanted to shrink until he could hide under the carpet on which he sat. Hypocrite, he shouted to himself in his thoughts. To sing of laying oneself down for God and not laying down your own! He didn’t know whether to cry or scream and hit the walls of the cell with his head or his fists. He was shown his sin clearly, and he wasn’t sure if he could endure more shame if somebody else gets to discover it.
A few seconds later, he went out of the cell, distress having had drained all the blood from his face. The back-up singer who opened for the slow worship song noticed him and asked, Are you all right?
I need to go home, he softly answered, avoiding her inquiring gaze. Another migraine attack… Please tell Pastor Josh I’m sending my apologies.
The singer nodded. Get well soon.
As soon as he reached his room, he started screaming and throwing things, his body shaking and his soul reeling from mixed guilt and anger. After his fit of rage, he sat on the floor at the foot of his bed, sad and exhausted, his hands on his head as if he were having a severe headache and he were to pull his hair till his scalp bled out all the pain. He dropped them and looked up, wondering how he could repair the damage he created himself.
He was surprised to meet his visitor—a bachelor who seemed to be a couple of years younger than him with short black hair and dark brown eyes—although his countenance hardly showed it. Jared, he softly responded with a dry laugh and motioned for Jared to come in.
I apologize for coming without prior notice, Jared said as he took his seat in the receiving area. Well, we were concerned about you. We haven’t seen you in church for about… three months? Yeah, and you weren’t responding to our calls and text messages. The team’s been planning to visit you, but since most of us have been very busy these days, I thought it’d be good if I come in their behalf.
Seth nodded and uttered a sober, Thanks, looking away from Jared who sat just across the room.
Well, I don’t want to beat around the bush, so… has anything happened, Seth?
Almost a minute had passed before Seth got himself to speak, this time in an almost inaudible whisper.
W-what? was Jared’s astonished reply. Why?
Seth felt unable to turn and face his friend, who stood up and walked to where he sat. He had unintentionally given Jared a hint to his secret, and now he was frightened at the thought of Jared—as well as other people who claimed they knew him—finally discovering the skeletons in his closet.
What’s the problem, Seth? asked Jared, now seated beside Seth, who still stared blankly to his right and mumbled something Jared could not make out. Pardon? he asked again.
Seth stomped both feet loudly in a sudden burst of anger, turned to Jared and shouted, I’ve been a monster, Jared! with a vehemence that made Jared shudder a bit although he sat unfazed, looking him straight in the eye. Then Seth spoke weakly—later on, with tears he tried in vain to withhold, realizing that only the truth he had likewise tried in vain to suppress can set him free, excruciating though it was.
I’ve been keeping secrets…
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
Seth knew what would happen next: the core leaders of the worship team would know about it; then, the executive pastor of their church. He would be suspended—for how long, he did not know. Many among the team and among the congregation would ask about him and even make varied speculations about his ‘disappearance’ if they do not get any clear answer. But as he closed his Bible, he accepted these consequences with a submissive sigh. This was better, he thought, than keeping on living a lie in front of everyone, as if he weren’t aware of an Audience who could see right through his soul, angered at the sight of lust cradled within the confines of his heart.
As dawn approached, Seth prayed, like a son who ran away from home and came back acknowledging his unworthiness before his Father. Then he went to get his acoustic guitar, sat back on his bed, and played and sang a hymn based on the fifty-first Psalm.
His bright brown eyes still stared at the smoke rising from the bonfire that had been devouring what he and Jared had sacked last night. It was indeed like gouging a guilty eye out and throwing it away—his struggle to let go of those things he shouldn’t have let stay, to kill off what had actually been killing him, even when in a part of him, the craving was still there. But now, he just watched them gradually turn into ashes—soon, the desires and memories they had imprinted in his mind and heart shall suffer the same fate…
When the bonfire had died out, and the morning breeze had gently blown on the ash mound under the shade of the mighty oak tree, Seth’s lips curved into a freed, forgiven, victorious smile.
October 11, 2011 - January 31, 2012
The idea of the story originated from, and was inspired by, the following:
- Rory Noland’s book, The Worshiping Artist (Zondervan, 2007)
- “Secrets and Regrets” by Pillar
Songs used, whether copied explicitly or mentioned in passing, are the following:
- “Give Us Clean Hands” by Mercy Me (Section II)
- “Create in Me a Clean Heart” by Donnie McClurkin (“a hymn based on the fifty-first Psalm” in Section V)
Main characters are based on the following:
- Seth, the lead character (a modified Justin Shekoski—worship team musician instead of a secular one, and no tattoos. And yes, I mentioned his “gray Ibanez electric guitar” in Section II!):
- Jared, Seth’s friend (I described Josh Farro here with black hair. Just so you know.):
Bible quotation in Section V is from Matthew 5: 29 in New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs, New King James Version © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.