Lucas Walden, senior pastor of Word Aflame Christian Church, led a congregation of charismatic non-denominational believers. Theirs was a theology founded in the mysticism of speaking in tongues, prophecy, and casting out demons of all sort in Jesus’ Name.
If asked, congregants of Word Aflame will tell you what they love most about Sunday service at their church is it closely resembles a concert rather than stodgy religious rite and practice. Indeed the modern worship music, engaging youth programs, and vibrant spiritualism drew in a youthful congregation.
Pastor Walden was quick to attribute this as evidence of the Lord’s work in his church, and often used it as an opportunity to highlight the false, or “strange” if he was feeling generous, teachings of the other churches throughout Hanford. He asserted time and again that if a Christian was not part of Word Aflame, then they were either just barely saved by God’s grace, or outright heretics following a devil’s doctrine.
Week after week congregants fell before the altar as Pastor Walden freed them from demons of jealousy, poverty, anger, pornography, and the like. Elders, lead by the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues and offered words of prophecy. Sermons reassured congregants that so long as the faithful did their best to honor God, his church, and those who watched over them, they would enjoy a life rich in abundance.
It came as no surprise that the youthful congregation, who were generally well off financially, lapped up such notions without hesitation. Their prosperity instilled a confidence which bordered along the lines of arrogance. They lived assured that no matter what their lives looked like behind closed doors, or just outside the church steps, if God honored their “goodly lives” through prosperity, then no change in themselves ever need be considered.
Their charismatic and prosperity theology was not new among certain Protestant circles, what was unique about Word Aflame is that its entire congregation kept a watchful eye on the sky in anticipation of the second coming of Jesus Christ. They lived with a certainty that the Lord would return any day to catch them up into the heavens just prior to the outpouring of his wrath upon mankind.
Every news article, every election, every uprising in the Middle East, every stirring of Israel carried, for them, signs and prophecies of the last days. Added to their own personal abundance, this doctrine only fueled the decadent lifestyles of the church. Eat, drink, and be merry for God will burn away all things in the end anyway.
On the morning of November 20th, a stranger sat in the back pew of the church’s grand sanctuary. He wore a brown thrift store bought suit and tie. In his lap was a worn and beat up wool cap. The leather Bible he held before him was old. The spine was split from years of use. The once shiny gold gilding along the pages had long since dulled and faded.
Few took notice of the elderly man, and fewer still offered him any form of greeting. He sat patiently waiting for the service to commence, content with his lonely pew.
As soon as the service began, members rose up shouting “hallelujah!” Others stretched their hands towards heaven. Choruses of “amen!” and “maranatha!” moved through the crowd like a wave rolling through the ocean.
The music was lively and moved many to dance and sway at their seats. Emotionally charged guitar riffs accompanied messages praising the people for blessing God at his altar, and the great sacrifices they made daily believing in the name of Jesus.
Following the music the pastor offered a sermon; a fiery call to not allow Man to steal away that which God has given. Pastor Walden completed his sermon with a prayer for strength and prosperity to flow in great abundance over his flock before opening the floor to anyone who might have a word from God.
Babbling incomprehensible syllables and vowels in disjointed union rumbled through the congregation. A practiced prelude paving the way for one of the church elders to speak a word of prophecy, but no elder stood. No foretelling of the imminent Second Coming. Instead the stranger, the elderly man in modest adornment, rose to his feet.
Eyes full of suspicion followed each slow and steady step of the man as he made his way to the front of the church. Pastor Walden nodded a warning to his ushers to standby in case the man needed to be removed from the sanctuary.
A hush fell over the congregation as the man wrung the wool cap in his hands, his Bible clutched tightly at his arm. Every eye in the sanctuary fell distrustful upon the elderly stranger.
“What word do you bring?” Pastor Walden asked the man who faced the flock.
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.” The stranger’s voice rung out across the pews.
The congregation sat silent waiting for the pastor to speak. Pastor Walden only sighed.
“Please, listen,” the man continued, “God is not here. He does not hear your prayers. Devils and demons listen and answer. They lay gifts at your feet, so that your eyes will be blind and your ears deafened to the voice of God.”
Pastor Walden laughed long and loud. His congregation joined in. Together they laughed at the message the stranger had brought before them, mocked him, accused him of senility. Pastor Walden extended his hands towards his congregation ushering in a quiet.
“Sir. I believe the only devil speaking here stands before us all.” Pastor Walden gestured towards the man. “Repent, that the Lord may free you from demonic bondage.”
The old man, now facing the acrylic pulpit from where the pastor spoke, swallowed hard. His face reddened. The smiling faces and disdainful glares of the church burned into the back of his head. He looked down at his shoes, then around at the church.
He looked back to the pastor and said, “There were those who charged the work of the Lord to demonic power and influence. He cautioned them. Warned them that they stood on the ledge of an unpardonable sin. For your sake, for the sake of your flock who hold more in common with pigs than sheep, please do not disregard these words.”
A crumpled bulletin flew from the crowd and smacked the old man in the back of the head. A pudgy man stood and shouted, “Leave Satan! In Jesus’ name!”
The congregation exploded in a roar of cheers and applause. Crumpled papers flew from the pews pelting the old man. His eyes welled with tears. His face burned with shame. The pastor nodded to the ushers who escorted the man from the church.
The pastor allowed the disorder to continue for a few minutes before hushing the crowd. He took a moment to compose himself and stifle his own laughter. A confident grin stretched from ear to ear.
“Oh man. Okay. Okay. Settle down.” He chuckled. “Even when the devil comes to lay charges against us he looks ashamed. Amen?”
“Amen!” The congregation said in unison.
“Now, does anyone have a real word from the Lord?”
There was a long pause before the pastor continued.
“Well, then. May you go out and be blessed by God. He is coming soon. This concludes our service. Coffee and donuts will be served in the fellowship hall.”
The crowd disbursed, and after a few hours only Pastor Walden remained on site working in his office. As he typed away at his desk three loud knocks rapt at his door.
He had expected his wife or one of his children to walk through the door, but to his disbelief it was the elderly man from earlier who stepped into his office.
“Please, listen.” The stranger interrupted. “I-I-I don’t mean to make any trouble. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure why I came here today. But it feels like I’m supposed to warn you that if you don’t repent, God will remove his eyes from this church completely. I don’t know what that means, but…”
“Okay. We’re done. I think it’s time for you to leave. You can leave on your own, or I can call the police and they can deal with you.”
“Alright. Police it is.”
Pastor Walden picked up his phone and began to dial the number for the Hanford Police Department. He had served as a volunteer chaplain for many years and knew the number by heart. He looked up just before entering the last digit.
The elderly man was gone. The pastor hadn’t heard the man leave, nor the door close behind him. It didn’t matter. The man was gone, and the pastor could resume his work in peace.
It was late in the evening by time Pastor Walden had finished up his work. Next week’s sermon had been written, the outline for the weekly podcast had been completed, and the offering had been counted up and deposited into the safe. He was set to go home and enjoy a few quiet days to himself.
The air in the hallway just outside his office was cold and bitter. Pastor Walden’s breath form clouds of white mist with every exhale. Gooseflesh rose on his arms. A shiver traveled the length of his spine.
“What in God’s name?”
He walked with a quickened pace into the darkened sanctuary. He stopped to check the thermostat on the wall just behind the acrylic pulpit which was covered in a film of condensation. The thermostat was set to seventy-eight degrees, but the room temperature read thirty-three degrees.
The switch clicked loudly in the empty sanctuary as he toggled the thermostat from auto, to off, and then on. He waited for the heater to power on, but heard nothing. He cycled through the power settings several more times before giving up.
“Busted. That sucks.”
Pulling out his smartphone he checked the weather. Outside, according to the weather application on his phone, it was a comfortable seventy-three degrees.
“Why is it so cold?”
Suddenly the lights over the stage burned to life. Worship music blared through the speakers at deafening volume. The pastor raised a hand to shield his eyes from the brightness of the lights.
The music over the speakers sped up in tempo, then slowed, and then played in reverse. The lights brightened and dimmed in rapid succession. As sudden as it had all started, everything cut off.
Pastor Walden blinked his eyes trying to adjust to the darkness. He stood silent in the cold. The steam rolling off his lips grew larger and came more quickly. His heart pounded in his ears as he looked for anyone in the sanctuary.
“Who’s there?” He demanded. “Sir, if that’s you, I will have you arrested for trespassing.”
Whispers and murmurs echoed through the empty sanctuary.
“Show yourself!” Pastor Walden said as he moved to stand behind the pulpit.
Outside he could see the shadows of large birds flying back and forth just beyond the stained glass windows. Crows could be heard cawing in an awful chorus. Talons and beaks scraped along the glass. The shadows grew larger and more numerous blocking out all light from entering through the decorative windows.
Black smoke appeared in the aisle dividing the two rows of pews. It whipped around violently like a tornado. At the center of the violent cloud a form began to take shape. The whispers in the sanctuary grew louder as the form manifested itself.
The pastor through his hands over his ears. The noisome whispers filling him with dread. He wanted to run, but his legs held firmly in place behind the acrylic pulpit. The cross hanging over the stage fell to the ground crashing against the drums beneath it.
“No!” Pastor Walden shouted. “Leave! Leave! In Jesus’ Name!”
No sooner had he uttered those words did the whispering silence. The shadows outside the sanctuary disbursed. The maddening scraping along the glass halted. The smoke dissipated.
At the center of the aisle, halfway between the stage and the sanctuary doors, stood a small child. A thin hospital gown covered his frail frame. His arms were unusually lanky, and his eyes were two solid, empty, black orbs staring at the cowering pastor.
Around one of the child’s wrists was a hospital bracelet. Pastor Walden recognized the child immediately. Stephen Soreno had passed away three years earlier from cancer. The pastor and conducted the boy’s funeral.
Stephen looked as emaciated as the day he died. His features were wrong, however. The arms too long. The eyes, the abysmally black eyes, were not that of the little boy. Stephen’s parents had left the church a year earlier when Pastor Walden had suggested that it was some sin in their life which prevented God from healing their son.
“Y-you…you’re not Stephen. Stephen’s dead! I command you, demon, in the name of Jesus, who are you?”
The boy cocked his head to one side glaring at the cowering man behind the pulpit.
“Stephen. Jessica. Joseph. Mary. Rachel. Luke. Josiah.” The boy rattled off a litany of the names of children who had died over the years.Still births, illness, and disease had claimed these lives. The parents of the departed had left Word Aflame after members of the congregation, elders, and even the pastor accused them of sin and weak faith.
Once proud of having separated goats from his flock, the pastor now stood in terror at the haunting litany.
“Be gone, demon! In Jesus’ name!”
The boy stared at the pastor defiantly. A cruel smile spreading across his features.
“I said, leave!” Pastor Walden’s fear shifted to anger. He gripped the damp pulpit and shook it as he shouted at the child.
His hands felt sticky as he pulled them away from the pulpit. In the soft light seeping in through the stained glass windows he saw blood smeared on his palms where he had grabbed the pulpit. The condensation over the acrylic lectern had taken a pink hue.
The pastor wiped his hands on his shirt and down his pants. He stepped back from the pulpit shouting,
“In Jesus’ name, I bind you demon! I-I-I am the pastor of Word Aflame Christian Church! A son of God! Charged over this flock! You have no…”
One of the cymbals from the crumpled drum set rose in the air and soared across the stage. The pastor managed to just move out of the way as the brass instrument grazed along his forehead and stuck in the wall.
A cut formed across his brow and bled profusely. The pastor whimpered as he wiped blood from his eyes.
“G-g-god. Help me! I am your voice! I have cast demons out in your name! Help me! Please.”
The boy straightened himself savoring the fear and terror of the pastor.
“Who are you?” Pastor Walden asked.
“God.” The boy’s voice shifted. It grew guttural and low. “Granter of prosperity.”
“Liar! Liar! In Jesus’ name I command you to tell me who you are!”
“In Jesus’ name! In Jesus’ name! In Jesus’ name” The boy mocked. “He I know! We all know! You. You only pretend to know. He is not here. He’s DEAD! God is DEAD!”
Inhuman laughter exploded from the boy. The pews slid against the walls as if thrown by an invisible force. The pulpit levitated into the air before being thrown to the back of the sanctuary.
Pastor Walden crumpled to the floor with his hands covering his head. He shrieked in terror. Pungent urine ran down the length of his trousers. He begged the boy to stop. Pleaded to God for mercy. Wept as a child stirring from a night terror.
Overhead the lights blinked on and off. Cracks split down the length of the stained glass windows. An impenetrable darkness spread out from where the boy stood, creeping along the floors and climbing up the walls towards the ceilings.
The darkness flowed like water up the steps of the stage stopping short of the pastor cowering in a puddle of his own urine. The laughing ceased. The boy walked towards the stage with calculated steps.
“I have given you years of abundance.” The boy said. “I have taken little in return. Down payments.”
“T-the children?” Pastor Walden sobbed.
“Stephen. Jessica. Joseph. Mary. Rachel. Luke. Josiah. Small tithes, but I’m owed so much more.” The boy now stood over the pastor who looked at him with wide unwavering eyes.
“I asked nothing from you.”
“You mocked your God when you were a child. Renounced him at your father’s grave. Left his church to indulge your debased appetites. I was there. I guided you. Helped you find the lusts of your heart. Money. Drugs. Women. Man’s heart is shallow.
“When you had your fill, you wanted something more. Power. Glory. And I,” The boy’s form flickered replaced with the form of a heavy set balding man with an eerily warm smile. His voice shifted into the familiar timbre of Pastor Walden’s first pastor. “Gave you that.”
“Jim? No!” The pastor crawled away from the man standing before him. “No. Jim, you’re dead. You died…”
“Of lung cancer, yes Lucas, I know. But here I am.”
“You’re not Jim! Go away!”
“I taught you everything. Gave you the gift of tongues and prophecy. Taught you how, and what, to preach. Set you on a righteous path. Far from the religion you hated. And you’ve done so well.”
“No! N-no! No!”
“And you brought so many into my fold. Delivered so many souls. You should be proud. You have given me a ripe field. Well done, good and faithful servant.”
“But another is ready. One who will take your place. Who will gather for me an even greater abundance. Your time is up. I have given you all you wanted. Now I am here to collect.”
“Please! God! No!”
“Have some dignity little man. You will have a good death.”
Two deep cuts ripped open down the pastor’s wrists. Dark red blood flowed from the open wounds. A kitchen knife appeared and fell at Pastor Walden’s feet. The old pudgy man reached into the back pocket of his slacks. His cheery eyed smile never fading.
The man pulled out a letter and read it aloud, his voice mimicking Pastor Walden’s.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord. If you are reading this, it is because I am no longer with you. I have strayed from God’s grace, and cannot bear to face myself, much less any of you.
“I have been ensnared by a demon of addiction. Tonight, it all came to a head. Overcome by drugs and alcohol, I murdered my family while they slept, and set fire to our family home. When I came to my senses, I could not bear the guilt of my soul.
“This is the price of sin. If you give the devil a foothold in your life, only death and misery will follow. It is too late for me. You still have time. Seek God. Let his abundant gifts of prosperity speak to the evidence that you follow Jesus.
“Drive out from among you the naysayers and the divisive. Walk where I have failed to walk.”
The man sneered at the dying pastor. His voice giving way to the guttural gravel inhuman tones.
The man stepped back. His form flickered, and he was again the boy.
“Shhh…” The boy crouched down and ran a hand over the pastor’s face. “You know, I don’t think I could have raised up such a disgustingly calloused and selfish lot of blasphemers. Truly, Lucas ol’ boy, you’ve done well. I was worried that old man was going to snatch you from my hands. Pride is a damning thing.”
The boy leaned in and kissed the pastor on the lips. Pastor Walden’s breath became steadily more shallow. His vision blurred as he slipped into eternity.
Smiling, the boy melded into the darkness.