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The Likeness of Sinful Flesh


Evil is an uncommonly difficult problem. The mistake of the intellectuals is to despise the efforts of the common people to deal with it. They fancy themselves as standing aloof like a god or a scientist or even a calculating machine coolly examining the data and rattling off solutions. Nevertheless, the problem remains, and it is no mere intellectual one.

In their better moments the common people know that evil is wrong. They sense that the world is out of joint. Even if they can’t explain why this is so, they know that without some sort of answer and, above all, without some kind of hope, this life is not livable.

Yes, evil is an uncommonly difficult problem.

Such philosophical debates were far from the mind of the West Indian woman walking rapidly but aimlessly on a hot Caribbean night, but her problems were real, even though she was not able to articulate them well. She had left her ramshackle house and seven children in anger after another argument with Miriam, her oldest daughter. The girl simply refused to stay home and look after the other children so that her mother could just have one night out on the town.

I don’t understand that girl, complained Hope, for that was the mother’s name. I just wanted to have some fun, but I can’t win an argument with her. She’s so smart. I don’t know where she got that from. Sometimes I think that she’s not mine. Hope began to think back on her various lovers from that time. Maybe it was that cute rich boy from the small resort I worked at. He was my first and he liked to read. I’ll bet it was him, but I can’t be sure. Oh, no matter. She is what she is, and I don’t know how to deal with her.

It never occurred to Hope that when she was young, she might have been intelligent too.  Like her mother before her she had borne several children, but so numerous were her lovers that she could not always be sure who the fathers were. She had never figured out how to live on her own. She was the product of an untrained mind ruled by untrained emotions. Boys and then men. They were what she depended upon, one after another. Although she was still attractive in her mid-thirties, she was worried that she was getting too old to get a man, and she felt that she needed another.

However, something else was troubling her. Something deeper, much deeper even than the fear of aging. There was a problem in her heart, in her soul, or whatever name we wish to assign to the part that, tragically or fortunately, makes us humans different from animals. A worm was gnawing away at her, a little worm so deep in her soul that she was not consciously aware of it. It was guilt, a sense that she had done wrong, wrong to herself and wrong to her children. And with the guilt was a desperate need, a gaping, vast, and empty hole that cried out to be filled. Because of her unreflective nature Hope could not have put her agony into words, but she sensed it. She had never truly experienced love and, truth be told, she did not believe that she could be loved. Guilt, shame, and failure had so marred the image of God that it appeared ugly and unlovable.

A sound awakened Hope from her jumbled thoughts. It was the sound of some lively music with guitars, tambourines, and people singing. In her anger, she had walked farther than she intended. The music was coming from an open place between some scattered palm trees, which was being used for an outdoor church service. In the front was a temporary platform on which musicians, playing guitars, tambourines, and drums, were leading several dozen people singing gospel choruses. Chairs had been set up in two sections with an aisle in the middle, although everybody was standing, swaying with the music as they sang. Hope liked music that made you move and clap your hands. So she slipped into the back of the group. Suddenly, the music stopped and everything became quiet, but there was tension in the air as everybody waited for what was about to happen.

“Ye must be born again!”

The preacher’s quotation of the Gospel of John sounded different than the patient words of Jesus teaching Nicodemus the way of salvation. Instead, they were a shout—a shout that shattered the quiet of the Caribbean night. The words shot forth like flames from the white missionary’s mouth and fell onto the group of listeners who were encircled by torches that gave the night its only light. The fiery words joined with the dancing light of the torches to make the stifling heat of a calm Caribbean night only hotter.  The smoke from the burning pitch on the torches burned his audience’s throats, but the impassioned heat of the preacher’s sermon did not penetrate their hearts.

He continued. “I said, ‘Ye must be born again!’  Men love the darkness because their deeds are evil. If you are to have fellowship with God, you must walk in the light even as he is in the light.  You are dead in your sins. The fires of hell await you. They will consume your sinful flesh. You must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Ye must be born again!'” Words of hope wrapped in a package of judgment. Whether true or false, the good news of the minister’s gospel nearly perished in the white heat of his anger and of his God’s against the sinfulness of man.

The obese missionary was absurdly overdressed in a long-sleeved white shirt and black tie and suit. The suit was unbuttoned, revealing an ample belly which hid the belt of his black trousers. The buttons of his undersized shirt were on the point of popping open as the preacher’s blubbery flesh strained against them, even as he strained to touch the souls of his listeners. His shirt was soaked and clung to his pale skin. The sweat poured down his face like water pouring off a whale’s skin as it surfaced from the ocean depths. His thinning hair had become disheveled and was plastered against the crown of his head.

Frustrated by the lack of response to his appeal, he loosened his tie and paced back and forth like a caged animal. Abruptly, his eyes bulging from a scarlet face, he pivoted toward the crowd, pounced forward and roared, “Who among you will be saved? Who will come forward to receive the grace of God? Who of you blind will now see? Only believe. Only believe in the Lord Jesus and ye shall be saved.”

A couple of members of his congregation shouted, “Amen, Brother Roy.  Preach it. You tell them.” The torch lights flared for a moment and shone against the sweat on the black brows of Roy Jones’ audience. Little beads of flame danced down their faces, trickling down their bare shoulders and arms, and giving light to their darkness. Yet no one moved in the oppressive heat of a windless Caribbean night in which the air was so heavy with humidity that it suffocated more than revived those souls who tried to breathe it in. Most had heard the missionary’s words before or similar words from the disembodied voices of the ever-present radio preachers.  Several already did believe. They were there merely to swell the numbers at the outdoor service.  Many came and endured the heat and smoke because the island was small and backward. There was no cinema, most had no television, and on a Sunday night the bars were closed in this nominally Christian land. So, they endured because the evangelist’s show was the best in town, but no one answered the preacher’s call to salvation.

Jones continued but now in a plaintive, imploring tone. His expression softened. His eyes seemed to well up and he appeared to be on the point of crying. Jones’ voice broke slightly as he pleaded, “Will no one come? Do you want to suffer the flames of eternal hellfire? Why do you cling to this vale of tears? Come to Jesus. Why suffer any longer? Come to Jesus and receive your heavenly home where all will be made right. Only believe. Only believe, and all your sins will be forgiven. You will be a new creature who lives for God and not for your filthy lusts. Come. Come to the Savior now,” he entreated.

In the back, Hope moved from out of the shadows. She wore a traditional billowing skirt patterned with vertical lines of red and yellow separated by thin lines of green. A head tie of the same pattern was wrapped around her head. The border of her white blouse, which contrasted with and highlighted the rich, darker tone of her skin, fell below well-formed shoulders. Her dark brown, round eyes darted nervously about wishing that others were going forward too, but she was alone. Before her, she saw in her mind’s eye a long tunnel. Its black walls were pulsating ever so slightly. Behind her, all was pitch dark. In front, at the end of the tunnel, a man’s silhouette was framed against a brilliant light that flashed onto the black walls. She could not see his face, but by the chopping motion of his hands he appeared to be angry. What was it that stood before her? Life or death? Heaven or hell? God or the Devil? She stood frozen in the agony of decision, the terrifying eternity of choice.

Loudly again, the preacher exclaimed, “You in the back. Why do you wait? There is nothing behind you but the valley of the shadow of death. Come forward to Jesus. Come now.  Live! Be born anew.”

The evangelist’s words catapulted the woman through the dark tunnel to the light at the end. As she shot forward the walls of flesh began to move rhythmically. The evangelist was smiling. “Glory be to God! A new child of his has been born. What’s your name?”

As she came into the brighter light at the end of the tunnel, she struggled to keep her eyes open. The woman’s chest was heaving, and her head felt light. Sweat was pouring down her face. The blood was rushing through her veins like the waves before the hurricane’s winds. Suddenly she cried out, “Where am I? What is all this light? Oh, mercy! Am I dying?  Oh, merciful Father is that you? I feel so good and so bad. What’d you say? I can’t hear you?”

“I asked, child, ‘What is your name?'”

“I can’t remember. My name? What’s my name? Lord, have mercy! Am I lost?’

The evangelist looked up from her face and addressed the crowd. His face was aglow now with joy. “Does anyone know this woman’s name?”

“Her name is Hope,” responded one.

“Hope. Hope, what? What’s her last name?”

“She has no last name, Brother Jones. She is Hope up from Stony Ground.”

“All right!  Thank you.”

Jones looked down again at the new convert. His facial expression was relaxed now, and his voice was gentle. “Child, is Hope your name? Is that who you are?”

“Yes. Yes, it is Pastor Jones.” Hope raised her hands to the heavens, began to sway her arms and hips, and exclaimed, “Glory be to God! I’m free! That’s my name. Hope. Hope is saved. My sins are washed away. Praise the Lord!”

Pastor Jones laid his hands on Hope’s shoulders and looked directly in her face. He spoke to her, but his shout of glee was audible to everyone present. “Praise the Lord, Sister Hope! Praise the Lord! Jesus has lifted you out of the miry clay and put you on a rock to stay. You have passed from death unto life. You have been born again.”

Lifting his eyes again to the crowd with renewed expectation because of his success with Hope, the evangelist cried out, “Will any of you join Sister Hope? Who else will receive Christ, the Savior?” An accordion struck up “A New Name Written Down in Glory”. Some of the church people began to sing, and the pastor continued appealing for more to decide to follow Christ, but no more came that night.

Pastor Jones took Hope aside and summoned two ladies from the church to join him. He put his hands on both her shoulders again and looked so intently into Hope’s eyes that she nearly froze like a small mouse before a snake. Jones saw the fear and softened.

“Now, Hope, do you understand what has happened tonight to you?”

“Yes, pastor. I trusted in Jesus. My sins are forgiven and I’m going to heaven.”

“That’s right,” he responded, “but now you must obey the Lord. You need to be baptized, begin attending church, and you must repent of your sinful ways.”

The new believer dropped her eyes to the ground and began to weep. “I know it, pastor.  I know it. I am so ashamed. I have lived a wicked, wicked life.”

“The Savior loves you and forgives you, Sister Hope. Tell me more about yourself. Do you really not have a last name?”

“Well, yes, but no, too. I go by Hope Webster, but you see I don’t know who my father was; so, I just took that name. As the lady said, most know me by Hope of Stony Ground.”

“That is true, Pastor Jones, that is true,” chimed in one of the church ladies.

“Thank you, Sister Celestine. Now, tell me about yourself, Hope.”

“I have seven children. The oldest is Miriam. She’s almost seventeen. Next is Rebecca.  She is fourteen, then Elizabeth, twelve, the twins, Jephthah and Jeremiah ten, John four and little Joseph, who is two.”

“My, my, God has surely blessed you with a large family.  What’s your husband’s name?”

Hope’s chest began to heave, and the tears welled up in her eyes.  “Oh, pastor. I don’t have a husband. I had several men, and I don’t know who the children’s fathers are. Oh, God, oh God, help me. I can’t, I can’t…”  But the rest of the words were choked out by her sobs.

Jones put his arm around Hope’s shoulder and sought to console her.  “Now, now, sister, those are tears of righteousness, blessed by God. You are ashamed of your sins, as you should be, but now there’s a new name written in glory and that’s yours. And the white robed angels are singing praises to God because of your coming home to the heavenly father. You can make a new life with God’s help. No more sinning with men and you must promise to raise those children to be good Christians. Will you do that? Will you promise that, Sister Hope?”

The new convert raised her eyes towards Jones and answered fervently, “I do, pastor.  I do.”

“Praise the Lord! I’m going to turn you over to Sister Celestine and Sister Rebecca to take you home and converse with you in the ways of Zion, but, first, I want to pray for you.”  Jones placed his right hand on Hope’s head and raised his other high and, looking to the heavens, called upon God. “Lord Jesus, you have reached down and touched the heart of this sinful woman and given her a new heart. Lord, you have forgiven her, but she needs your help. Protect her from the devil, who will seek to lead her astray again. Provide for her and her family and bring her children to yourself as well. Thank you, Jesus, for hearing my prayer. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you. Amen.”

As Hope left the circle of torches, a sea breeze picked up and dried the sweat from her face. The fresh ocean smell lifted her already soaring spirits even higher. As she walked in the dark with her two new sisters, her feet seemed never to touch the ground. The world had been made new again. The brilliant stars on the clear moonless night appeared to move, as if dancing to the rhythm of the gospel hymns that were flowing through Hope’s soul as she sang them with her sisters in the Lord. Even while the earth slept, it seemed to have a message that she felt but could not hear. The tiny Caribbean island surrounded by the vast ocean had become like the Garden of Eden encircled by the four ancient rivers of Genesis.

A new sense of freedom overcame her.  Turning to Celestine and Rebecca, Hope said, “I can’t explain it.  It’s like a great burden has been lifted from me and I feel lighter.”

Celestine responded, “Oh, sister, that’s just the feeling you have because you’ve been forgiven. The burden of your sins has been taken away and cast into the deepest part of the sea, as far as the east is from the west. They are remembered no more, just like they never happened. You are free. Free, free, from the fear of Hell.”

“Yes, that is true, but it’s more.”

“More? What can be more than the forgiveness of your sins?”

Celestine and Rebecca stopped, while Hope looked down on the ground and sought for words to explain an experience that was new to her. After a short while, she looked up with the light of recognition in her face. “Of course, forgiveness is wonderful. I don’t deny it, but it’s more than being cleansed from my filthy sins. God knows I needed that, but it’s more. I feel loved. God loves me. I never felt loved before. I always thought that my only chance was to get a man to love me and take care of me. Now, I don’t need a man. I’ve got Jesus. He loves me. He’ll care for me. I’m free. I don’t need anybody else.”

While the three were conversing about the blessings of the Christian life, a little in the distance Hope saw a tall guinep tree, one of the descendants of the great Coomacka-Tree, which Tamosi Kabo-Tano, “The Ancient One of the Sky”, had given to the Carib people to provide them with all kinds of fruits and vegetables. According to native mythology, the Caribs were originally from the moon. They came to Earth to make it like their bright homeland but were unable to return home and began to starve.  Kabo-Tano beheld their plight and created the Coomacka-Tree that had different fruit on each branch and under its shade grew maize and yams and cassava.

Hope was not a Carib, but a descendant of African slaves. The Caribs, as well as the other tribes native to the region, such as the Arawak, had nearly all perished from the wars, diseases, and cruelty of the first wave of European colonizers. Nevertheless, Hope shared the nearly extinct indigenous peoples’ reverence for trees and gratitude for food.  Years of exposure to so-called Western culture had not entirely erased the feeling inherited from her African roots that the world was a place inhabited by spirits and that one might at any time encounter these spirits, bad or good, or merely capricious.

It was because of these subliminal forces that the sight of the guinep tree in front of her initially stopped her in her tracks, as a wave of doubt and the sensation of a threat swept over her. Rather than being reminded of the tasty pale orange or white fruit, she saw, leaning with one dark arm wrapped around the tree, a long, thin, hungry-looking form. It was human, a teenage girl. Then, suddenly, despite the dark of the night, Hope recognized her eldest daughter’s shape and ran to meet her.

“Miriam! Miriam, child! I have good news for you.” Miriam uncoiled her arm from the tree trunk and turned to face her mother with a look of distrust and disdain. Hope eagerly embraced the girl, who stiffened her body. “Glory to God, child! I got saved. I’m a new woman. Praise Jesus! I’ve seen the light. All my sins are washed away. My past is forgotten.”

“Jesus,” she hissed. Contorted by the embittered use of the name of Hope’s new-found savior, Miriam’s face incarnated the angry disdain that she felt for her weak and neglectful mother. Despising the woman who bore her, the girl forcefully pushed Hope away, turned her back to her, and began to walk away.

Before she could take a second step, Hope pounced and angrily stepped forward, grabbed her daughter’s shoulder and swung her around again to face her. Enraged, she spewed forth with a rising voice, “You don’t ever talk that way to me, child, and you never, ever speak about my Jesus that way again. I’ll give you the back side of my hand if you do. Now you listen up, and you listen up good. I got saved tonight. I’m a new woman. I’m done with my past ways.”

Miriam’s eyes flashed and her lips curled back as she spoke. “Done with your past ways?  Do you think you can leave your past behind? It’s right here, mother.” She spat out the word “mother,” full of tender affection in so many other mouths, as if she had bitten into a mango and found it full of worms. “Have you forgotten me and your other children, mother? I haven’t.  Almost seventeen years old I am, and I have to watch over them, while you run all over the island without a care in the world?”

“Course, child. I haven’t forgotten you. I love you and all my children. And I’m going to love you all the more now. I’m a new person, I tell you. I’m born again. My heavenly Father has forgotten all I ever did before.”

The venom of resentment welled up inside Miriam, and she spat it out at her mother.  “And who is my father? Who is the father of Rebecca and Elizabeth, the twins and all the rest?  What’s our name? You’re right. I’m sure your heavenly Father has forgotten all you have ever done and forgotten us too. He is just like all the men you ever knew. A good night’s fun and then he forgets the rest.”

Miriam reeled from the slap across her face and fell down at the foot of the tree. “Shame on you, child. You’re blaspheming God and spiting your mother. I love you, but I’m not going to let you take my joy from me. I’m heaven bound. I’m going home. You better had follow.”

With that, Hope and her two friends left Miriam in the dark by the old tree. Miriam made no noise or movement until her mother was gone. Then her chest began to heave, and she wept. After what seemed an eternity, she picked herself up and dusted off her dress. She was poor but was proud of her good looks and neat appearance. And she was good-looking. She had a head of thick, dark hair, which she could set in any number of attractive styles. Her body was long and lean, with muscular, athletic legs. Her skin was sleek and very black, but it was her face that set her apart from the merely cute girls at school. The lines of her face angled out straight, but not sharply, from her strong chin to her high cheekbones. The slightly almond-shaped eyes, each of which framed a black pearl set against a pure white background, could draw in and consume the young men who dared to look too long at those glittering gems.

The young men were looking, and Miriam knew it. It was her one pleasure. In all of her life she seemed to be trapped by circumstances that she was unable to change. She had no real father. She was what West Indians called an “outside” child. As far as she and the rest of the islanders were concerned, she had just been sired. Nothing else. Her mother had no job and had never been able to hold one for long. As the eldest of seven, she took responsibility for her six brothers and sisters, whom her flighty mother seemed unable or unwilling to care for.  But when a boy looked at her, she had power over him and could make him do her bidding. Her dark eyes could hypnotize them and make them helpless. Yet even this pleasure of dominating others did not completely satisfy her. Unconsciously she hungered for strength in a man too. Can a snake love the victims it wants to consume? Who can love a mere puppet?

She began to walk aimlessly, but in the general direction of her favorite beach. She passed the place of her mother’s salvation. No one was there now. The flames were out on the torches, but they still were smoking heavily. The stench of the burnt pitch stung Miriam’s nostrils and sickened her stomach. A sardonic smile disfigured her perfect face. So this is where Mom saw the light? It didn’t last long, and it smells like Hell now. There’s nothing eternal here. It’s all gone now except for the bad taste it leaves in your mouth. Mom’s repentance will be the same.

Miriam walked on. The path was dark. There was neither moon nor streetlights on this lonely stretch of a backward and quiet little Caribbean island. As Miriam approached the beach, she felt the hard, alkaline soil—a hard barren soil which yielded precious little fruit even to the most diligent hands. She felt it soften into sand under her bare feet and felt her spirits lift slightly. She loved to dig her toes into the sand. Unlike the soil, it would yield to her efforts. She could play with it like a little child enjoying the feel of it between her toes, or she could shape it into any form that pleased her—just like God did with sand and people, his clay puppets. She kicked the sand in a fit of anger and hissed between her teeth, “He won’t mold me into one of his little images. I’ll not be one of his playthings!”

The sea breeze felt clean and refreshing after the stifling inland heat. There really wasn’t much of an inland—only four or five miles at the most. As she walked along the beach, Miriam watched the sea waves lifting themselves high into the sky until they seemed to form a great curved hand which could almost reach the stars just before they fell, beating their palms against the shore.

For an intelligent, ambitious and beautiful young woman the tiny island felt like a prison that limited her to a small and pointless existence. She longed for large vistas with distant horizons and limitless opportunities. She wanted freedom or, at least, thought that she did. “Oh, the sea, the sea, the beautiful sea,” Miriam thought to herself. “You teem with life and power.  You’re not bound by anything. You make boundaries. The land can’t move. It’s tied down, but you roam all over the world. You leap to the sky and crash against the land. You are free.”

Without realizing it, Miriam had automatically turned towards the interior of the island and walked and walked and walked, unconscious of her surroundings and pondering in her heart the thoughts that came to her. Finally, the first light of morning began to overcome the last vestiges of night’s dark dominion. Miriam was aroused from her reverie. Although the morning was at its coolest, the chill she felt didn’t come from that. Before her stood a ramshackle and unfinished concrete block house with a garden that had more trash, stones and weeds than vegetables and flowers. Miriam shivered, wrapped her arms around her shoulders and sighed.  She had taken the long way home.

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