Jul/Aug 2005  •   Fiction

The Promised Land

by Stephen Healey

"This good Reverend, brothers and sisters, is... is... is fuckin' our sister organist, Miss Percell James!"

As soon as these words rolled out, the Reverend Jeremiah Posh was sure he had gone too far, but he also knew there was no turning back.

"And God himself say it blessed. It okay. More than okay. God himself say, 'Jeremiah, get thee from thy house, and go fuck Miss Percell James 'til she doth quake with orgasms and other signs of my blessing.'"

For reasons he couldn't fathom, Reverend Jeremiah had been edging toward grotesque expressions for months. The first sign was the word fuck. As he preached, the word had kept coming to mind. Fuck fuck fuck fuck. Sometimes shit, piss, fuck you, and other forms of filth. They would rise up in his mind and lie just below the percolating consciousness of forming words. Jeremiah might be preparing to say, "That a holy way to be." Instead, he'd almost blurt out, "Look at this girl's tits; she's a blessin from almightyfuckinGod." Several times he had saved himself from the worst of evils by deftly substituting "motherfu-" with "motherof." As in, I say she a motherfu, er, motherof a son, just like Mary to our Lord Jesus. Strangely, the hairs on his arms and neck tingled when filthy words came to mind, just like they did when the Spirit blessed him.

Jeremiah Posh's people had learned to trust his charisma, come what may. But saying fuck in the house of God? The widened eyes of the women and the tersely set jaws of the men—all the saints, even the children—projected demon-fighting hostility. He had gone too far. He hadn't fought the Devil hard enough. He had prophesied using the basest word the people knew, and, truth be told, used themselves on occasion, which made the word worse. Prophecy or not, the saints were going to rush the pulpit and bring down this blaspheming, false, lewd, demonic prophet. No one could say fuck in the house of God. And though it was known among the male Elders that Miss Percell did quake with holy shaking prophecies when she climaxed, no one would, could say they had fucked her. To Miss Percell that was vulgar; she made love, and she liked to remind the Lord's men, "God himself say the flesh is good, so you should be good to it." If you wanted to be asked back, you didn't say you had fucked her. Reverend Jeremiah had said fuck in the house of God. That was wrong. He had inserted this filthy word into God's being in a demonic act of copulation. That was unspeakable. And he blasphemed the integrity of Sister Percel. That was false prophecy. God himself brought down false prophets, but the people delighted in following God's lead in bring-downs.

Brother White stood to begin the bring-down. He was muttering something that didn't sound holy to the children sitting nearby. Brothers James, Good, Wolters, and Frame nodded to each other, and upon standing began punching their fists into palms moistened by the inviting prospect of a holy bring-down. A halleluiah went up from the whole people. Even the children sensed a melée was imminent. All remembered the beating laid on Reverend Elton Fritz, who made the sad mistake of prophesying that Sister Clemens and Brother Mason were living in sin. That they were living in sin didn't matter. Mason owned the factory that employed most of the Elders, and God was a God of grace. Of love. Prophesying was a public act; gossip was private filth. Gossip made for false prophecy. Fritz had made other mistakes. Once he called Elder and Sister Good's son a mulatto, and though he was one, they didn't like it, since they both were White racists. And God's people could forgive only so many times. Elsewise they'd become Children of Darkness. With painfully bruised ribs and eyes nearly swollen shut, Reverend Fritz left town by night, fearing for his life. Ever after that, Fritz remembered the night journey as his Passover, but the blood on the doorpost was his own.

Jeremiah had heard the Fritz tale over coffee and donuts, from Sister Percell herself, just before she introduced Jeremiah to her embodied theology, and then, with sufficient ministerial attention from him, to her climactic prophesying. Jeremiah found it funny that she often spoke in tongues just as he started cunnilingus. He'd say, not too cleverly, "I got the gift of tongues, or is it you?" She found his humor strange, but she believed making love in all forms was perfectly holy. Jeremiah was coming to agree.

In the face of the advancing Elders, Reverend Jeremiah thought quickly. He looked directly at Brother White and shouted, "Brother, in the name of God, of Yahweh himself, I command thee: sit. Elsewise I fear you will join Ananias and Sapphira in judgment, and God's fierce fiery justice will surely fall upon you. Are you so hardened, you don't hear God's fire-breathing justice commanding you to sit down?" The story of Ananias and Sapphira was a biblical reference the people knew by heart. No one doubted God was willing to kill for the sake of truth or to strike down assumers to further grace. Under the Lord's inspiration, Jeremiah preached the text often.

As Jeremiah mulled a plan for his redemption, he widened his eyes and stared at Brother White. This was a holy staring contest Jeremiah could not lose. The stare-down with Brother White was as consequential as the stare-down with Lucy Firebottom that had established him as a man of God, when she had claimed to be a demoniac. The good Reverend, though just freshly anointed as a man of God, knew she was bullshitting. Jeremiah knew Lucy's resolve came from ludes, and in the people's minds Jeremiah's power came straight from God. After losing the stare-down, Firebottom dropped the diabolical nickname and went back to being Lucy George. Reverend Jeremiah gained respect. As he stared at Brother White, the people were mesmerized, because no one had ever stared down Brother White. Brain damage gave White a powerful edge. He would mindlessly stare for hours at clouds passing overhead.

As Jeremiah would later prophesy, "a fly straight from God's holy heaven" flew directly into Brother White's eye, and the stare-down ended with White's double-eyed blink and a gasp of recognition that swept across the people. Vindicated for the moment, Jeremiah knew it wasn't over. No one could get away with saying fuck and joining God's name to the most vulgar term for intercourse, in the house of God no less. 'Less it was somehow shown God himself allowed it. God did work in mysterious ways, but prophecy was to keep mystery from becoming license.

Sister Percell James was the next to feel God's call. This blasphemer needs to be brought low, she thought. He blasphemed me.

She stood, and looking directly at Jeremiah, shouted, "In the powerful name of our holy God—"

Cutting her off with a disinterested wave, Reverend Jeremiah said, "Woman, do not speak. Remain silent. The Lord who gave you to me, for a sin of great indulgence and pleasure to you alone, commands your silence." Almost trance-like, the people clapped. On a hundred occasions, Reverend Jeremiah had the people clap on the phrase commands your silence. The logic was holy, he said. God commands your silence about certain things—most especially about his commands, as proclaimed by Reverend Jeremiah—but clapping is allowed. Commanded, even. Jeremiah was an able shepherd, and the people were sheep. Silent clapping sheep, saved by God's grace.

Sister Percell pointed her finger at Jeremiah. Reverend Jeremiah said, "You Whore of Babylon, 'Repent, and our Lord will draw thee to his bosom.'" He was chagrined about using the term bosom, because Percell's large breasts were notorious. On many occasions, when she was full of the spirit, Reverend Jeremiah let her dance in front of the altar. On some occasions, she danced with such blessing her mighty breasts jumped up and down, a spectacle that, under the auspices of holiness, was pure witness to God's goodness. But referring to the Lord's bosom drew the people's attention to hers, and Jeremiah could tell they were tempted by Satan to imagine him thrusting between them. Especially the Elder Brothers. The grammar of prophecy didn't allow backtracking or embarrassment. God hated the lukewarm. Prophecy was black and white, not said and then unsaid, like the Satanic relativity of the minister to the wealthy Presbyterians at the other end of town.

"The Lord says this day, he has appointed you with a glorious bosom." During Jeremiah's dramatic, prophetic pause, Elder White inadvertently muttered an amen heard across the congregation. The people joined in saying amen, amen. "And your whole life stands before you now. Every time you have been ogled. Every time you have been known for your breasts, and not for the creature of God's love that all the men here know you to be." That was a warning the Elder Brothers understood. In a moment of prophecy, their own indiscretions could come pouring out, and judgment would rush across the town. The people would be ruined. "God has been planning your life. But God commands your silence at this most holy turning point in your life. God commands your silence."

To her own amazement, Percell clapped. She was the only one, the others transfixed by this exchange between God and the Devil, and unsure whether it was Percell or Jeremiah who spoke for the Lord. Sundered by an enhanced underwire bra, when she clapped her breasts rushed together like the bulls of Bashan. "Amen, sister," said Reverend Jeremiah. She sat. And the people said amen.

Reverend Jeremiah was the truest prophet the people ever knew, and he sensed the most important day of his ministry had come. The Lord told him it was so. His flesh tingled, afire with holiness. No curse words tried to rise up.

"Dearest people. My people. I am your Moses, am I not? The Lord has shed his blood for thee, but I, too, bear wounds and scars in my own flesh, because in my love for thee I have followed all the Lord's commands. Without fault. Blameless. He has even commanded me to sin, and I have sinned mightily. Was not Father Abraham called to sacrifice Isaac? Did he not raise the knife? I don't expect you to understand. Obey. Obey. Obey. God commands your silence." Thunderous clapping roared in the stiflingly hot house of God.

Johnny Walker, a hulky young lad, sat in the front sweating nervously. His parents liked the sound of his name, and being teetotalers were innocent of the abuse it would cause him throughout life. The lad's misfortunes often served as object lessons Jeremiah used to illustrate prophecy.

"Do we not know the sting of God's reproach resting on Mr. Johnny Walker, named as he is for the Devil's brew, too oft consumed even by some members of this congregation?" With this phrase, he made passing eye contact with Mrs. Reverend Posh and Mrs. White. They looked down, and he continued. "Give me an amen." The people shouted amen. "More. God wants to hear it, and, remember, he's in heaven. So bring it loud. Loud, I say. Let us bless the Almighty." The people roared. "Again." And again, they roared. Back and forth like this, until the people's voices hinted tiredness.

"Johnny Walker, the Lord doth command: stand thee up." Johnny stood, fearing the prophecy that might fall on him. Once God had commanded Johnny tell the people what terrible sin he had done just the night before meeting with the people of God. "Tell God's people the loathsome sin that besets thee." After offering several implausible sins, which Reverend Jeremiah waved off with growing indignation, he had to confess before everyone that he had masturbated. "How oft do you commit this outrage?" Jeremiah had asked. "I do it oft," he muttered, causing the girls to giggle, and the older holy people to view him as a curse. But Jeremiah said, "God forgives you this day. To all else, he commands your silence." And the people clapped, and Johnny sat, broken but saved.

"Mr. Walker, 'Is all well with thee?'" Johnny looked up to the pulpit with questioning eyes. "I mean, 'Is it well with thee?'" "Yes, Reverend Jeremiah, 'It well.'"

"Then I say amen." To the seated Johnny, Jeremiah absentmindedly added, "Now sit." Jeremiah used this ploy with others, but with Johnny it was especially effective. Once he considered making Johnny drop his pants, to show the congregation the object of his sin, but he had relented. In his own mind, Jeremiah was a gracious man, an image he had to live up to.

"Who can cast the first stone at this young man? God gave him powerful young loins that never rest. They never rest. God himself tells me that. Some of you men, you know your loins never wake up. Your wives have told me that. But let's stay on the holy point God has in mind." Sister Marybelle coughed and broke his rhythm. "Bless you, sister," he said, looking at her with fury. "There might be a healing for you today."

"Back to the point, the Lord has told me to reveal something to you this day." The people sat back and looked at him, astonished more revelations might come forth. What else could there be?

"I want you to know. God wants you to know. While I was away at Seminary, and you supported me with mission money, as God commanded, I didn't actually go to school. Turns out divinity school didn't want this poor uneducated not-for-good. No sir, and those Sadducees weren't men of prophecy. They slammed the door in my face and refused to hear God's voice. God told me a curse would fall on them. In due course. And then he drove me to the wilderness. I pleaded that God would let the cup pass from me. But let his will be done. Not mine. Not mine. His."

"Has God ever driven you to the wilderness?" Jeremiah looked at everyone, slowly, allowing them to feel his omniscience. Their sins and his grace. They were all sinners in his sight, and yet he loved them.

"To the wilderness, I went, just as God commanded. To the bars, brothels, and gaming halls. I asked, 'Why Lord? Why hast thou forsaken me? How long, Oh Lord?'"

"And God commanded my silence. Just as he commands yours this day. We are a people, saved by Almighty God. Can my broken, sinful flesh, hear an amen?"

The people amened. Johnny Walker raised his hand in blessing, hoping to be spared prophecies for a few months. Reverend Jeremiah blessed the Lord. "From the outreached hand of Onan, from his sinful hand, God can call forth his praise. Amen. Amen."

Reverend Jeremiah saw the conclusion in his mind, and paused, breathing softly, for just a moment. He lowered his voice, "Do any of God's people wish to object to my dwelling in the land of sin? My sojourn into the wilderness? Do any wish to doubt my ministry? My prophecy? My apostolicity? Speak now, or hold your peace. Speak if God commands you. Hold your tongue if he commands silence. The sword of God's justice hangs over your head. Choose this day. Choose life. Let it be known. I have become sin, so I might lead you into the Promised Land. God himself commanded it. Our holy spotless guileless loving God commanded it. Shall we dance together, and go to the Promised Land? Saints, beloved saints, please join me. Evil lies in wait at the door. The Lord will lead by a burning fire in the night sky."

Evocations of the elusive Promised Land always touched the people. They clapped, which meant, lead us to the Promised Land. Fist punching had turned into claps of adoration. Noting that, the good Reverend said, "Holy prophet Isaiah said, 'Beat your swords into plowshares.' I say amen. Join me and give our holy Lord an amen."

"When God commands us to eat, whether it's pork or lamb or Jammie's chicken stew, that's what we eat. Our Almighty God has cleansed me, witness that today. The words I spoke today, I spoke under the direct authority of Almighty God. They're filth only if you bring sin into this house. My sojourn into sin. I reveal it today. Now I ask you, I command it in the name of Yahweh, I command it in the unspeakable name of our holy God, our refuge, our strength in time of trouble, let's go forth into the Promised Land. Amen. Amen. Amen. Let's leave sin behind. Amen. Amen. Amen."

Jeremiah drew a white hanky from his vestment and wiped his sweat-covered brow. He raised his arms and blessed the people.

He strode the aisle to the receiving line. A new man. Cleansed from sin. The people watched as he walked the aisle, riding, in words the Lord often laid on his heart, "on the holy coattails of God Almighty." He stopped to kiss Miss Percell on the cheek. And the people clapped and said amen.