“I prefer my full name, Mr. Ben.”
“My apologies, Raphael. What’s up?”
Children surrounded a plastic banquet table as they toiled away at a craft pertaining to Jonah and the whale. The Youth Ministry Team created an engineering marvel in which the Sunday school students could color a previously manufactured Jonah, affix him to a craft stick, and then connect that to the back of a large cardboard whale. With the help of a grommet, the children could force the whale to regurgitate Jonah and then swallow him whole again.
Luckily for everyone, Ben wasn’t in charge of developing projects. He simply facilitated class every Sunday morning in room 21 of the church basement.
Encouraged by Ben, Raphael asked, “Do fish utilize a digestive system comparable to that of a human?”
Baylee, Ben’s daughter, said, “See? I told you Raphael was smart, Dad.”
Another child, Kean, countered: “I’m just as smart.” Though he listened intently, Kean refused to divert his eyes from the shade of gray he hoped to achieve by alternating between the heavy application of a black crayon and the soft smattering of a white.
“Guys, it’s not a competition,” Ben said.
“That’s good,” Jay giggled, “because I’d lose big time!”
Baylee, Hattie, Malik, and Sammy joined Jay in laughter. Kean didn’t appear to find it all that funny while Raphael seemed not to notice the joke at all.
“Mr. Ben?” Raphael repeated.
“Right, Raph—Raphael—sorry. Fish. Um, yeah. I think fish digest food the same way we do …”
“I can check on my phone,” Baylee offered.
Kean muttered, “Cell phones are not allowed in Sunday school classes.”
“We can’t get a signal down here anyway,” Sammy added. “It’s like a dungeon.”
“Mr. Ben?” Raphael asked.
“Yes, Raphael,” Ben responded as he strolled along the perimeter of the room.
Raphael said, “Jonah could not survive in the stomach of a whale. He would have been digested by the third day.”
“Oh,” Ben began, “well, you see, the Bible is … um, we shouldn’t take everything the Bible says literally, right?”
“What?” Hattie huffed. “My mom says the Bible is truth.”
Nodding furiously, Ben replied, “Yes! It is. It is truth—that’s right.”
Sammy said, “But … you just said it shouldn’t be taken literally.”
“What does ‘literally’ mean again?” Jay asked.
Malik answered, “You know, like, word for word.”
Kean mumbled, “You were right about being the loser in the room …”
“Kean,” Ben said, “come on, that’s not nice.”
“You were saying, Mr. Ben,” Raphael prompted.
Perspiration seeped from Ben’s forehead. “Oh. Well, that was pretty much it. It’s just that, while—yes—the Bible is truth, most people agree that it also uses quite a bit of embellishment in order to make a point.”
Raphael asked, “So it’s possible Jonah did not actually find himself swallowed by a whale, fish, or any other aquatic life-form?”
Hattie’s eyes bored through Ben as he said, “… It’s possible.”
Malik leaned over to Sammy and whispered, “Mr. Ben is so fired.”
Having overheard the comment, Baylee declared, “My dad does this for free. He can’t be fired.”
“He could be asked to step down,” Kean said.
Ben and his wife joined Mt. Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church twelve years ago when they were engaged. They were young, new to the community, and felt an urge to assimilate. Though they were now longstanding members of the church, they still knew very few people. Ben thought that teaching his daughter’s Sunday school class could be a productive way to increase his connectivity to the congregation.
Forcing himself to laugh, Ben said, “I don’t think anyone is going to ask me to step down.”
“You look apprehensive, Mr. Ben,” Raphael said.
Ben asked, “Are you sure you’re only eight? You’re all eight, right?”
“Yes, Dad, we’re all eight, about to turn nine.”
“I’m already nine,” Malik said.
Hattie added, “Me, too.”
“Mr. Ben, may I ask you a difficult question?”
Sensing Raphael’s trajectory, Ben wanted to preemptively deny the child’s request. Unfortunately, he didn’t wield the ability to redirect or otherwise terminate Raphael’s impending enquiry.
Mistaking Ben’s silence as accordance, Raphael pressed on by asking, “Do you believe in God?”
“Duh!” Jay exclaimed. “He wouldn’t be teaching Sunday school if he didn’t.”
Ben moved his mouth, but nothing came out.
“I only ask,” Raphael continued, “because I find it very confusing. So much of the Bible is impossible. There is no evidence of God’s existence in modern day society. Yet, in Biblical times, God’s influence manifested regularly. I hoped you could provide some insight.”
The children grew quiet. Each one of them, even Keane, awaited Ben’s reply.
Ben thought for a moment, then said, “You’re all so smart. So much smarter than I was at your age. I’ll just be honest with you. I struggle with God all the time. I don’t teach Sunday school due to a calling or anything like that. I just wanted to spend more time with Baylee, help out the church, get to know some kids, and maybe meet your parents.”
The children remained silent.
“So do I believe in God?” Ben resumed. “… Yes, I do, but I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because my parents raised me in the church? Maybe I’ve been conditioned to believe? I don’t know. And I won’t lie to you—I can’t say that I believe everything in the Bible to be true. A lot of it doesn’t make any sense at all. I guess it just comes down to … faith.”
Ben watched the children nod in agreement. Only Hattie seemed dissatisfied with Ben’s analysis.
As they returned to their crafts, Raphael said, “Thank you, Mr. Ben. I appreciate your candor.”
“Um, you’re welcome.”
Raphael worked on his project for a few more moments, then looked up and asked, “Could we discuss Santa Claus?”
At that point, Jay erupted, “Dude! Don’t even go there!”
Copyright © 2019 by Scott William Foley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.