To Pester The Pastor

They had a long weekend off last week because Jesus Christ rose from the dead. This miracle, perhaps the greatest of miracles in the history of mankind, is celebrated every year. It wasn’t that the bloke beat death that made him special. There were some before him and many more after him that did that, regaining consciousness after being pronounced dead. In the Bible, a source of information that the old man would never dare refute, Lazarus of Bethany was raised from the dead by Jesus. Why the earlier miracle was not celebrated with more fanfare and gusto is a mystery. After all, he was dead for four days before Jesus revived him. Jesus’s death lasted one day less, so there should be merit to suggest that Lazarus’ miracle should be equally celebrated with a public holiday. “But, Jesus died for us,” I reminded the old man who was sipping his coffee next to me. It was the ultimate sacrifice. To die so that all our sins are atoned and our broken faith in God is restored. Powerful stuff.

“As a kid, it horrified me that a father would or could sacrifice his own son for the greater good,” said the old man as he got up from the sofa to make himself another coffee.

“For a while, I looked at my dad with suspicion…” he continued, but his sentence was drowned out by the coffee machine as it churned noisily at the coffee beans.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you meant,” I said.

“It’s alright. It only affected me for a short while. I was worried that Pa would also sacrifice me for some reason. If God could do that to his own son, then so could Pa, right?”

“But, when I found out the sacrifice was only for three days, I felt relieved,” he continued.

The resurrection of God’s son was a huge relief for the kid. The old man was seven at the time when he was taught in catechism class that our Father in heaven had sacrificed his only son in order to save all of us, including those who were yet to be born. Ok, it was only a temporary sacrifice, he thought to himself, and convinced himself no father would ever have his own son killed permanently. The kid was somewhat a simpleton. His trust in his dad was restored and he never slept with an eye open after that.

“But, I never did understand why everyone of us was born a sinner except Jesus,” the old man said, making me a bit uncomfortable with the direction of our conversation.

“I mean, I was actually peeved at the gross injustice even at that young age,” he said.

“Aren’t we supposed to be innocent until proven guilty?” he asked without expecting an answer.

“When I was told I was born a sinner, I felt it was so unfair to be accused of some wrong-doing without being told specifically what I did wrong,” he said, before confiding that he actually marvelled at how the teacher knew he had peeped at the girl next door or kissed his class teacher’s photo.

Somehow, she must have known about these sins of mine to say I was a sinner!

The penny dropped when the old man learned about sex from a friend in Standard 6. He had heard the muffled sounds in the middle of the night and he had seen his father get on top of his mother on one occasion after being woken up by the creaking bed next to theirs. He and his two siblings shared a big teak bed next to their parents’ double-bed. But, someone had put a pillow over his head just as his curiosity was aroused. Ah, that must be why we are all born sinners! Our parents were all possessed about carnal knowledge. The old man told me that was his conclusion once he discovered that was how babies were made. That Jesus’ mother was a virgin when she gave birth to him had to be the reason why he was the only chap who was born free of sin.

To this day, this great miracle remains a core reason why many follow the religion. “Many years ago, a doctor friend of mine pulled me to one side and in a hushed tone asked me if I wanted to know why he converted to Christianity,” the old man said. Intrigued, I replied, “Please do tell.” The doctor, a brilliant man with a brain as accurate as a photocopy machine, said he was fully convinced about the tenets of the religion once he discovered the story about the virgin birth. The mere fact that Joseph’s sperm was able to somehow leave his body through space and accurately penetrate Mary’s egg in her fallopian tube remotely without any physical connection won the doctor over. He had studied enough about the human body to understand that such an event had to be truly miraculous. He was awestruck by such a highly improbable occurrence and the fact that it had never happened again reinforced his faith even more.

The old man said he had pointed out to the good doctor that celibacy during the time of the Essenes was the highest way of life. A couple had to have a long period of betrothal that lasted several years before they could marry. They were only permitted to have sex after the marriage, considered a ‘trial marriage’ that could last for three years. When the woman fell pregnant, the couple would then have a second marriage after which divorce was forbidden. In those days, women who followed the faith were called nuns or ‘vestal virgins’. During the long betrothal period, it was not uncommon for passionate couples to struggle with their sexual urges. If the woman fell pregnant during their betrothal period, it was said that the ‘virgin’ had conceived.

On Easter Monday, the old man was chuffed to receive a call from his good friend, John Scalzi. “Hey, can Anne and I come over for afternoon tea?” John asked on the phone. The Scalzi’s are a beautiful couple whose mere physical presence could soothe the old man’s soul. Often troubled with the vicissitudes of the challenges his business threw at him, a laughter from Anne’s eyes or a kindness from her heart was enough to calm the old man. Similarly, a hug from John or a word from him was enough to cheer him up. The Mrs met Anne first, through the couples’ boys in kindy. “The two boys attended Highbury Primary together for three years before they split up when we moved to Burnside,” the old man said. It was truly amazing that all of them, the adults and their children, have maintained that special bond together and separately over the past three and a half decades.

The leadlight terrarium made by John Scalzi for The Mrs

Whilst serving the panettone they brought, Anne said she felt exalted and reborn over the weekend after attending their annual Chrism mass at the cathedral where the bishop consecrates oil which was used throughout the year by Catholic Churches in the State for sacraments in baptisms, anointing of the sick and in ordaining priests. This mass was also for the catholic priests to renew their commitment to priesthood.

Talking about the virgin birth, Anne shared a story told by one of her friends.

“Where do we come from, Nonna?” little Sienna asked.

“Oh, we come from our parents’ genes,” little Sienna’s grandma said.

“But, grandpa said we come from apes!” little Sienna said.

“Ah, but he was talking about his side of the family,” the grandma calmly replied.

We are blessed

We are lucky and

All good things come to us

Anne Scalzi’s daily prayer for her grandchildren
John and Anne Scalzi. You won’t find better human beings than them, the old man told me.

There were many other examples of miracles in the Bible to secure the faith of the followers. The feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand were truly momentous events that made an indelible impression in his head ever since catechism class in school. Although he could never reconciled with himself why Jesus needed two extra loaves of bread and a few extra fish to feed a thousand people less the second time, he never asked me for my opinion. I would have gladly told him the second group of people were either a lot hungrier or a lot greedier or maybe they were mostly children in the first group. There was also the controversial view that to the Essenes, ‘loaves’ meant ministers who could give sermons and hand out the communion bread and ‘fish’ were the celibate Gentiles. Instead, I asked him how he would have felt, from a shopkeeper’s perspective since he owned a few retail shops once upon a time.

“Oh, I would not have believed it,” he said. “If my staff had told me the takings on those days were bugger all, I would have accused them of putting their hands in the till,” he continued. I imagined all the shopkeepers in the area would have felt the same way. They would have driven Jesus out of the park for creating tonnes of food from a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish. No shopkeeper would have welcomed a competitor like that to destroy their livelihood. The penny suddenly dropped as to why Jesus was not a popular bloke at all.

Perhaps, the ability of Jesus to ‘walk on water’ should be the greatest miracle of all. But, as a kid, the old man was quick to dispel that story as anything remarkable. All his heroes could do that, he told me. Not only that, his favourite martial arts exponents could even fly up to tree tops and fight mortal combats whilst stepping lightly on leaves and bamboo. “Nah, walking on water wasn’t a big deal,” he quickly brushed me aside as I would to a fly.

Our conversation about miracles finished after the old man mentioned about the story of the blind man of Bethsaida. “I mean, sure it was perhaps a miracle in those days, but the true miracle is the rapid progress in medical technology,” he said. I suppose he was right. Today, it is no longer news when the blind have their sight restored, and the deaf can hear again.

“But, hey, Jesus cured the man’s blindness with his saliva,” I said to the old man. It would be wrong to belittle that wondrous event, so I felt it was right that I pointed it out to him.

At that moment, The Mrs joined in our conversation. “I should tell you about Gungung, my grandfather,” she said.

He was tall and strong, a well-built man. I remember him as an old ferocious man, whose sweat from his body represented some poisonous chi. A chauvinistic pig. A truly evil man. Bald, big face, long eyelashes and curly, pointy ears. His booming voice and ghoulish eyes together with his muscular strength, his fitness, his massive towering torso frightened me when I was a child.

Pohpoh married him a year after arriving in Miri. She said about her second husband, “I owed him lots in my last life.”

“So, I have to repay him in this life”

Pohpoh’s body was a magnet for his violence. She hid her injuries but I wasn’t a blind kid. I looked at him with eyes wide and ran as fast as I could if he ever came near me. I allowed a safe distance of ten feet. Never be near him. Never let him grab my hand or arm. Mama warned me never to be caught by Gungung.

“Run for your life!”

I did not know why, yet I did not ask. I knew my mama. There would be no explanation, a command never needed to be explained. As a child, I could only imagine that he would rearrange my vertebrae if he caught me. Today’s anger management courses would not have helped him. The pastor visited him a few times until the day when he was kicked out of the house.

“Why?!” I asked, my voice showed my distaste for violence of any sort.

Gungung was baptised as a catholic after Pohpoh had persuaded him to. The carrot to entice him to do so was the promise that the pastor would restore his sight. The pastor from St. Joseph’s church took this as a God-sent opportunity. For years, he could not convert stubborn Gungung. He blamed the devil. Hallelujah, he exclaimed. With Gungung’s failing eyesight, he suddenly saw his chance to save the man’s soul.

Father Pieter spoke Hakka fluently. His first few visits were truly embraced by Gungung. Gungung poured his worries about his loss of sight into Father Pieter’s ears. Father Pieter solemnly explained to Gungung, preacher to sinner, it was the devil that took his vision away. But I knew better. Mama had told me it was his job as a welder in Shell – a lot to do with the cheap Made-in-Japan helmet wore – that damaged his eyes.

 “Only this man, Jesus, is capable of bringing back your sight.”

“ Is there such a man?”

“ Well. Let us start with a baptism.”

The deal was agreed to and Gungung was baptised, acquiring an English name, John. To show that this was a real deal, Father Pieter presented a picture. Hanging next to Mother Mary was the new picture of Jesus. Its bland newness did not match well with Mary’s, by then aged by sunlight.

This man, Jesus, his long and wavy hair, a halo illuminating behind his head, both elbows bent at shoulder height, palms almost mirroring each other pointing upwards, looked solemnly afar.  Blood dripped from the centre of his palms. As a kid, I misunderstood him to be Mother Mary’s husband, since the picture of Jesus was given to Gungung and Mother Mary’s to Pohpoh years earlier.

Gungung started his weekly lesson on The Bible. Pohpoh called it, “Thang tao li, listen to the truth.” How Jesus died for us on the cross, and we were all born sinners and he washed our sins with his blood….”
He had to recite hymns in Hakka. “Sin moo mali ah, mun pi sin tung cza…Hail Mary, full of grace….”

He persevered. He waited for the miracle to happen. The pastor was very patient, but Gungung was slow to progress.

Months later, Gungung started to doubt this man called Jesus.

 “I’m not asking for a lot. Not to walk on water, nor divide the Red Sea, but to give me back my eyesight. God damn it!”

One fateful day, the pastor came with his rosary and Bible, deep in thought. How to crack this nut? He should change his tactic. Be firm. Yes, be very firm. He said a prayer, amen, cleared his throat. “John, you haven’t shown any improvement. What about the hymns?” he asked in a kind and gentle tone.

“What about them?” Gungung replied with a blind look.

“That is not how you talk to our Lord. Our loving Father always lends us a good listening ear.” The pastor’s voice raised in pitch sharply.

“I talk to him, of course. I ask him to give me back my sight. But…” he was cut short by the Pastor.

”John, when we come to this world, we bring with ourselves sin. Only The Lord can wash away your sin with his blood if you believe him, and pray religiously to him.” Preacher to sinner.

‘Yes… but I don’t think that man, err. What’s his name?’

“Jesus My Lord.” Fore finger pointed to forehead, shoulder to shoulder, amen.

 “Yah, Jesus, yah, does he actually listen to my prayers? I……’  Again, he was cut short.


“Ahem.” Gungung nodded.

 “John, but you have to show repentance?  Have you?  Jesus died for you on the cross. Tortured.” He stressed the word.

”For me?”

“Yes, for you.  So what you can at least do is recite the hymns for our loving Father.”

Gungung, quick to feel belittled, pestered the pastor and peppered him with a verbal assault that turned physical.

Jesus lost, Gungung won.

Mama told me the poor pastor almost cracked his head when he tumbled down the stairs before he fled. God bless him.

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