The corner café was eerily quiet as the moments ticked towards closing time. There were just three tables occupied, and so few at each table, that the only sound was the clanking of well-used silverware on well-used plates. Outside it was dark and the traffic stilled. The sign had already been flipped to “Closed.” Each of the occupants of the Mountaintop Café found themselves lost in their own thoughts in the silence.
Behind the bar, the only server left in the café was wiping things down in order to go home. Or go somewhere. She wasn’t sure where she was going. That morning, before she had left for work, things finally boiled over with her mother. Already embarrassed about having to move back home after college, she and her mother fought daily. Politics. Faith. Her career. You name it. Anything and everything became an opportunity to disagree and thus an opportunity to record their disagreement. Loudly. With gusto.
But that morning was the worst that she had ever seen. Her mother had made a snide comment about getting a “real job” and everything blew up. She screamed at her mother for everything that she had ever been angry with her about. She blamed her for not having enough money to send her to a school with a better reputation that would have assured her a job. She blamed her for mismanagement that kept her from getting a bigger apartment or even a house. For running off her father fifteen years earlier. Even for running off her own boyfriend with her stupid comments at Thanksgiving about politics. She blamed her mother for everything wrong that had taken place in her life, and with a torrent of curse words she slammed the door and left. She had no idea if her mother would welcome her back home, or if she had to crash at a friend’s house. Anger. Resentment. Fear. Guilt. It was all there.
As she absent-mindedly wiped the same spot on the bar again and again, across the room, table number eight kept glancing at her as he tapped on his laptop. He was staying at the hotel across the street, in town for a conference in which he was presenting the next morning. He hurriedly typed as he kept one eye on the clock and one eye on the server. As was his pattern when he stayed overnight on these trips, he had already lined up his options for who he was taking back to his room that night. From the moment when his wife kissed him goodbye at the airport, he was on the lookout. The girl in first class that looked up when he made his way back on the plane. The front desk attendant that smiled bigger at him than anyone else she was checking in. And now this waitress, who seemed a little distracted but would likely respond if he turned on the charm. In his mind, a nice suit, that winning smile, and enough time to get them laughing was all it took. First class girl was in room 304. Hotel attendant got off in a couple of hours. And this waitress would be out the door soon after closing time, which was in exactly 14 minutes. All he had to do was pick.
He finished his presentation and noted the parallel. He was presenting on how to guide clients through the complex options of investing in these days. How to prioritize, pick the right investment, and how to jump and grab hold when the time was right. Not that much different than the options in front of him that night. Each girl had her good points, and as he sat back and finished his below average cup of coffee, he smiled as he prioritized which one he would “grab hold” of and take home. To him, these were not people, but conquests. Not humans but playthings for his amusement. And he saw the world as filled with commodities to be taken advantage of. Out there for the picking.
He had glanced a couple times over at the girl at table twelve when he walked in, but the fact that she was sitting across from another man complicated things. But while the two of them sitting at the table were definitely together, and clearly married by the look of the matching rings on their fingers. But the state of that marriage was as dubious as the quality of the meat in the hamburgers they both ordered for dinner. In fact, they had been in the café since dinner. Then, when the café was crowded, they had no problem letting their true feelings show. Their loud anger was covered by the din of the café. Married for just over two years, they had always hidden doubts, resentments, and frustrations for most of that time. Neither of them had been taught how healthy couples talked about their frustrations, and they got married in a hurry when they found out she was pregnant and her parents threatened to cut her off. When she lost the baby early, that grief added to both of their feelings of resentment, and now they found themselves both asking the same question, “why stay together?”
The conversation had been loud and angry when it began, but it slowly died down to nothing. Nothing really left to say. Eventually, he suggested that she take the car home and take care of the dogs, while he spent the night in the hotel across the street, and both of them could think about what might happen next. They had gone as far as to suggest that the marriage might be over, and now it seemed like if they left that café separately, it actually would be. They had been there for close to five hours already and just kept ordering more coffee and desserts. It was as if they had each decided that it was over, but they didn’t want to be the one blamed for the final blow. With ten minutes to go, it was getting close to the decision time. Both hung onto their pride, but neither was sure they wanted to hang onto the marriage.
Two tables toward the door, the final occupant of the café sat alone. He, too, was in a suit and tie, and he was also staying in the hotel for the conference across the street. But he was much older than the laptop guy, and had seen many more similar conferences over his years. He was a veteran of the business and quite successful, but what he had never shared at these conferences is the way that he had made most of his money. “Insider trading,” they called it. Seemed so innocuous. But to those in the know, they understood it was a dangerous game to play. Sure, it made for some great investments and a tremendous reputation of success.
But it also made for a lifetime of anxiety. It was at the root of two failed marriages and a lifetime of guilt and shame. He was always worried about who would find out, who would turn him in, when the SEC would march through his door in his corner office. He had taken care to make sure that he looked legal. As long as everything appeared on the up and up, he still had plausible deniability. He could swear under oath that it was his underlings that had done the wrongs. He might get a few months at a white collar prison for being sloppy, but he would never take the fall. But now, as he neared retirement, he looked back and wondered about his legacy. How he would be known to those who show up to these conferences? Would he be considered trustworthy or a failure in business like he was in his family life? He pulled out his business credit card to pay the bill and wondered what he could do about it now.
As the server walked toward the table to take care of the bill, she heard the sound that all servers dread at 5 minutes until closing: a customer walking in the door. She almost had half a mind to tell them that they were closed when she turned around and looked at who it was. A scraggly-haired, unkempt, foul-odored middle-aged man. Clearly homeless. Likely crazy. If his appearance alone wasn’t enough to make her nervous, he carried with him a huge sign. Made from an old piece of cardboard that he had probably lived in, the man had fashioned a two-sided sign that he wore around him. Scribbled on the sign, on both sides was an ominous warning: “Avoid the Fires of Hell.” Complete with red flames he had drawn in marker. He took off the sign in order to get through the door, but when he sat down at the first table, he set the sign next to him, for all in the café to get a good look. And look, they did. Varying smirks and sideways glances showed that the other patrons were either nervous or disgusted or put off by the man…or all three.
“Oh boy,” thought the server. “Better not kick him out…who knows what he would do.” She tentatively walked over to him and asked what he would like to order.
The man paused a moment, filled his lungs, and his voice boomed around the empty café: “I only want a glass of water. Though I know that that all the water in the world would not quench the fires of Hell.” The patrons could not hide their ridicule at that point. The young man almost spit out his coffee. The older man rolled his eyes and swore under his breath. The couple looked at each other and couldn’t help but smile. The server, used to dealing with all kinds walking through the door from the downtown location, didn’t miss a beat: “one glass of water, coming up.”
The other patrons were now more than ready to leave the room. They all looked toward the server for their checks and receipts, and started wondering how they were going to get around the man and his sign, which was clearly placed right by the door that they needed to escape. By the time that the server brought out the glass of water, they looked ready to fight for the chance to be the next one out the door. And that is when the man with the sign began to speak.
“That is what you think I am. Crazy. Dangerous. Foolish. But what if I were to tell you that I have something that each of you desperately need? You see, when I walked into this room, you were ready to judge me, to dismiss me, to escape me. You thought that my talk of Hell was utter foolishness. But when I came into this room, do you know what I saw? A cloud. A cloud of guilt and shame and resentment and anger and unfaithfulness. I can smell the fires of Hell here and now, and I would be willing to bet that deep down you already know that you are there.”
The occupants of the Mountaintop Café were now locked into the man and his words. The young man still smirked, and looked for another way out of the café. The couple looked at each other, and then looked down at the Formica table. The older man just stared straight ahead. It was the server who had the guts to say something, “what if I don’t believe in Hell?”
At this, the unkempt man smiled. But not a smile of a debater, ready to pounce. Or the smile of one who was ready to judge her by her words. His smile was soft, caring, almost as if he hurt on their behalf.
“You don’t have to believe in Hell to be in it,” the man continued. “The storybooks talk about Hell as a place with sulfur and flames and cloven-hooved demons. But I would suggest that Hell is much less dramatic than that. Hell is a place of eternal isolation. A place where resentment and shame reign. A place where you, my friends, already reside.”
He stood up, now. And began to walk around the room, looking at each occupant of the room in the eye as he did.
“You know a taste of Eternal isolation, because you know the pain of your current isolation. You know the pain of broken relationships, the pain of empty one-night-stands, the pain of endless arguments, the pain of a house built on lies.”
At this point, you could hear a pin drop on the greasy café floor. Somehow, some way, this man knew them, knew their pain, knew the Hell that each of them resided in. Instead of defending themselves or demanding answers, they began to get quiet, or tear up. The young man clinched his teeth in an attempt to stave off the tears. While the man continued.
“You see, my sign and my invitation are not some crackpot guilt-trip. Just the opposite. They are an invitation to live free of the guilt and shame that you already live in. For if Hell is eternal isolation, I want to share with you a taste of Heaven. Of a Kingdom that is the opposite: a land of eternal reconciliation. Reconciliation with all those with whom you fight or disagree. Reconciliation with your self, your true self, and a clarity that brings together instead of dividing. Reconciliation with the one who created you in the first place and knows that you were made for something better.”
The room was now filled with quiet weeping as the man continued to walk around it.
He walked up to the server at the counter. “Go back to your mother and tell her you are sorry. She is, too. Don’t let anger isolate you.”
Then to the young man, “These are women. People. God’s children. Not playthings. Treat them as you would want to be treated. As you would want your sister or wife to be treated. Speaking of your wife, go back and call her. She misses you terribly when you are gone. Don’t let lust isolate you.”
To the couple, he sat down with them in their booth. “I know it is hard. One of the hardest things on earth to do, to stop keeping score and proving your point, to allow yourself to be vulnerable with another person. But you all are better together than you are apart. Don’t let pride isolate you.”
And to the older man, “So many broken promises. So many ruined lives. You have just a few years left. Make them count. Teach those in your circle how to be honest. Ethical. True. Don’t let greed isolate you.”
Around the room, the man took one last look. “I can tell the cloud is lifting. The power of the Kingdom is the power of reconciliation. Use it. It is yours for the taking. And it is a power that cannot be taken from you. See it for the gift that it is.
He walked to his own table, picked up the glass of water, and drank it in one long draw. And without another word, he walked out of the Mountaintop Café, and back into the night.
“Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him….”