Emptying the ArkSam Owens
“Blessed are we, the true children of God, that we have been delivered the Truth of His Word.” I spoke from a raised pulpit, looking out over the bowed heads of the crowd.
“The Truth of His Word,” the crowd echoed. Among them were business owners, doctors, pro- fessionals. The Word of God pointed me to his most hardworking children, just as God guided me to many of the most influential members of our community.
“And with these words we retire to in the twilight of this world, knowing that for the morning of the next world we are saved.”
“For the morning of the next world we are saved.”
As I departed the pulpit, the spell of silence broke, and people rose from their knees. They made quiet conversation with each other as they shuffled out of the domed concrete room under which we worshiped. They dropped bills from their wallets in the baskets by the door as they left. Outside, it was dark, save for a few headlights now switching on.
Those who came in this group were the shy ones, the ones who would not come here except under the seal of darkness. They would face a more complicated life back home or at work if anyone knew that they were involved with our mission. I thought their fixation on this realm over the next was silly, but allowances were to be made when necessary. After all, they say that in the ancient days we used to read our prayers by candlelight in the catacombs beneath Rome.
Taking up the offering basket, I moved back behind the pulpit, and into the winding passage- way that led deeper into the Ark. To some, the network of tunnels in the concrete might be confusing, but each of my steps was clear in my mind. Each inch of the compound had been handed down to me by God Himself. I left the basket by Simon’s door—money was his responsibility— then returned to my chambers down the hall.
My room was small and sparse. The wall was free of decoration, and the bedsheet was coarse. The desk held only the essential religious texts. Instead of some extravagant design, my room is dom- inated by my prayer space: a mat, a cross, and a small bench on which to rest my elbows.
I took a deep breath before I began my nightly prayer. We were deep in the Earth, here in the Ark, but the air was fresh and clean. The air filtration system we had installed was working perfectly, just as God had intended. That same system, I had been assured, would continue to function another hundred years. The same guarantee I had gotten for the water purification system and the power generators. Only God knew how long our Ark would have to hold us, but God specified that we buy systems that last.
I supposed that was His way. After all, He never told Noah how many days the flood would last, nor how deep the waters were, but He gave Noah the exact dimensions of the Ark. For my part, I knew not whether God would deliver His fury as a rain of fire, some great pestilence, or indeed, an- other flood. But I knew that God had told me to build this Ark, and given me instructions on how to stock and structure it. Each week we completed another part of God’s blueprint, and each night He would speak to me about new additions and eventualities that no mortal like me could have foreseen.
I fell to my knees for my nightly prayer, wondering what noble task the Almighty might grace me with. I began to speculate about which part of the Ark was most vulnerable but I stopped myself. If I were incorrect about the corrections God sought to make, I could end up questioning some part of God’s plan that had already been made perfect.
God’s presence was so subtle as He entered the room that I hardly noticed Him before He spoke.
“Hello, my child.” His voice was not thunderous and booming, as some imagine. It was warm and gentle, like a ray of sun on the skin.
“Heavenly Father.” He placed His hand on my shoulder, but I kept my head bowed. “We are near completion of your latest request. What else would You have us do to serve Your plan?” “The Ark is finished.”
“There is nothing else to be built or bought for it now. Your material wealth is at the end of its usefulness. Tell my children to they have no further need of it.”
Then, as subtly as He arrived, I felt the presence of the Lord depart.
I slept little that night, though I knew not if it was from joy or from dread.
When I entered the kitchen the next morning, Simon was already making us breakfast. The
two of us were for now the Ark’s only permanent residents, and he had taken it upon himself to prepare most of the meals. Today, he made a dish of potatoes and mixed greens, all grown in the subterranean garden we had built within the Ark, which I tended. That was the chief division of labor between me and Simon: I tended to the Ark’s facilities, kept them clean, while Simon bought things from in town and negotiated with the men who built this place.
“Any new revelation?” Simon asked. “The contractors are putting the finishing touches on the airlock, so we should feed them another project soon.”
“No more projects,” I said. “His word. No need to collect any more money, either.”
Simon turned to me, stared at me as if at any moment I would burst out laughing, and reveal this all to be a joke. I held his gaze. Simon faltered and started pacing the room.
Finally, after a few moments: “A test. God is testing you, my friend. To see if you will stick to His plan.”
“I don’t think so. He made himself quite clear.”
“But think about the timing. Three days before I meet with the men of the cloth whom I’ve invited here, God tells you that the heart of our faith is wrong. It certainly seems like a test to me.” The meeting has almost slipped my mind with everything else going on. Simon had been
insistent that we expand our gospel, and teach other holy men our ways. Simon always had such ambition; it was what I had respected about him, his dream was to save every soul possible. I had balked at taking such a step without explicit instruction from on high, but Simon argued that God would want us to save all we could, or else He would not have revealed Himself to me. In the end, I acquiesced.
“Eat,” Simon said. “Sit and think about it for a while, and I think you’ll see that it would be a bad idea to act rashly with so little information.”
After the evening’s prayer, with collection basket in hand, I approached a man I knew to be a doctor. The man opened his wallet as he saw me approaching.
“Paul, you volunteer at a children’s cancer ward, don’t you?”
“I do,” he said, bowing his head. “I’m glad the Lord sees it fit to honor my work to better the world in this life as well as the next.’
“Mmm,” I said, unsure now what the Lord deemed worthy of honor. I drew a sheaf of bills from the basket; perhaps half, enough that I hoped Simon wouldn’t notice. “Give this to the hospital, as a gift.”
Paul’s eyes lit up with a moment of surprise, but he knew better than to contradict the Word of God. He nodded, smiled, and departed.
When I brought the basket back to Simon, he was buried in his books. Our financial records were sprawled out across his desk. He laid the day’s offerings across his desk, separating the bills into stacks.
“Light today,” he said.
“I wouldn’t know,” I replied.
Simon looked up from his book to meet my eyes. “I understand this test is difficult for you, my friend. The Lord would not have given it to you if it was easy to bear. But remember that we started this mission with a single message: anyone can find their salvation and the forgiveness of their sins if only they contribute to this great Godly plan. We cannot reverse all of that in a day.”
He handed me back the empty basket, so that I could put it back in its place. “Let’s compro- mise. If you don’t want us to spend the money, we don’t have to. We can collect it and keep it here, and when, and I mean when, God comes to you and tells you that you’ve passed His test, then He’ll be pleased that you never took a break from preparing for His great project. Deal?”
I gave a weak half-nod, and left the room.
That night, I asked God what guidance I should give to his flock. “If not by their contribution to the Ark, how else should I measure their commitment to the faith? How else may they have their sins forgiven?”
“If they love me and their neighbors, they will be saved. That is the core of my word. Many men have tried to attach to it what there is no need for. Men need only act with love for all to live my law.”
Those were the words He left me with, as I tried again to find sleep.
The man came to me stoic, but I could tell he was suppressing serious emotion. His wife was barely holding it in either. As was our custom, we separated the two, and let each give their own side of the story apart from one another. I spoke to the man first, while his wife waited in a different
room. “It was a moment of weakness,” the man said, nearly slobbering as he talked. He was old, and he wore a deep black suit, and a tie. He must have just come from work, I thought. Either that or this was simply what he had been wearing when he was caught. “I should have been able to resist her temptations, with my wife at home, but…” The man began to break down.
I laid my hands on his shoulders to comfort him, and he sobbed, a heaving sob that came up from his chest and shook his jowls as if they were about to fly off of him. “I’m not a bad person. I give plenty to the Ark, you know that. I don’t want to lose her.” He composed himself, meeting my eyes. “I don’t want to lose my wife over one stupid mistake. You can help me, can’t you? Convince her to stay with me, please.”
“God’s will is God’s will,” I said. “But I’m sure the Lord understands the particulars of your plight, as well as how committed you are to all of our salvation.”
He seemed to accept that, and leaned back into his chair. I moved to the other room. I have little stomach for this sort of conflict resolution, even if it is a necessary part of the job. Nonetheless, I made my way to the room where the woman sat waiting.
The woman was crying when I came in, so I waited for her to stop. When she did, I asked her, “How long have you been with your husband?’
“Forty-four years,” she said. “I know he’s not a bad man, he gives plenty to the Ark, I just never expected…”
She erupted into a fit of tears again, which I waited to subside. When she had a hold of her- self, she asked me plainly: “What should I do?”
I thought back to what God had told me last night. “Does your husband love you?” I asked.
“I don’t…” She started, choking on tears.
“It’s okay to not be sure. Just think deeply about that question, and God will reveal to you the proper course of action. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said, gaining composure.
I led her out of the room and back to Simon, who showed both of them the way out of the Ark.
“God, I feel like a trial is upon me, and I am unsure of which way to turn,” I said that night.
“My faithful need only to ask for my wisdom, and they shall receive it,” said God, his hand on my shoulder. “Turn right.”
I did so, not opening my eyes.
“Now reach under your desk,” God instructed.
My hands felt the space God directed them to, and wrapped around a rectangular piece of
plastic. I pulled it out from under my desk, and opened my eyes to find a tape recorder. I hit play.
It was me talking to God, whispering questions to him. The recording only caught half the conversation, of course, as the voice of God could not be contained in such a mundane device. I was unsure what do with it.
“My warriors need no weapon but the truth,” said God. “And that yellow button there erases the recording.”
I pressed the yellow button. I felt God depart, but I felt no dread now. I knew what I had to do.
I said goodbye to Simon’s “men of the cloth” as they left the Ark, most of them clad in business
suits. Simon said the meeting went well, as he described the way our gospel lit a fire in other preach- ers’ hearts over our dinner. Simon went to bed, and I pretended to do the same, but instead slipped off to the kitchen, where Simon had received our guests. It was one of the few places in the Ark that only Simon kept clean, the only place that was truly his, and which I seldom entered.
I retrieved the recorder from where I had hidden it in the room, and hit play. I tried to imagine the way things unfolded in this room as I listened to Simon’s voice crackle forth from the small box.
“I’m sorry to be receiving you honorable men in such a tight space, but as you can see we are a bit cramped down here. Now I know you’ve all received my invitations, so that means you’ve heard the description of our business model, but I know it’s not quite the same until you really see it in ac- tion. This, my friends, is the future of religion. I’ve chosen to live the years of my life like this for one reason, and one reason only.”
“The most expensive thing that you can sell in this country is an idea. We sell the idea to peo- ple that if they give us money, their problem go away: spiritual, material, social. We give them a sup- posed goal, right? This complex, it’s a monument for them to devote themselves to. It’s a brick and mortar reminder of the salvation they’re paying for. And yet however much they pay, we keep adding bits and pieces and extensions and safeguards. You never reach the goal. And meanwhile, we take our modest fee.
“I want you gentlemen to imagine a nation of Arks, just like this one. I want you to imagine a nationwide congregation, giving freely to a dozen unfinishable project, safe in secure in their belief that all they have to do is to spend. And not one of them keeps track of the donations they make, there’s only the records of what we say we receive. We take only cash, we report all we want. That’s why I made you bring your payments today in cash. That’s all I operate in.”
I looked beneath the kitchen tables, and I saw the briefcases that had been left there. Tearing one open, I found it packed with cash.
One of the financiers spoke. “So what’s to stop us from using this trick ourselves, and cutting you out?”
“For one,” Simon said, “the blueprints to this place are invaluable for this sort of operation.
You’ll never find something like this just experimenting on your own. But the real prize, what you’re mostly paying for, is him.”
“His charisma is outmatched only by his own conviction. He believes every word he says. You got the recording I sent you; he legitimately believes that he talks to God. We can record him, put him on screen in every Ark we build. His pure sincerity is magnetic.”
I stopped the recording.
Heads bowed below me. This was the morning service, the shameless one. The service favored
by only the most devoted, who were happy to start out their day with worship and let that inspire ev- erything that followed. If anyone would understand what I was about to do, it was them.
I walked the offering basket from the back of the room to a spot right in front of the pulpit. “Empty your pockets,” I said.
And they did. On a normal day, you might get one large bill from each worshipper, but they all knew that today was not normal, and that the Lord now asked of them all the money they had on their person. Altogether, the donations barely fit in the basket.
Then, from behind the pulpit, I brought out the briefcases of cash, and poured them on top, covering the basket so that not even the high handle was visible. To that I added the cash reserves, all of it, retrieved from Simon’s room. At the end, it was a mountain of money, rising almost as high as the pulpit.
Climbing to the pulpit’s peak, I pulled out my other appropriation from Simon’s room: his light- er. I sparked the flame, then dropped it. The money slowly caught. No one moved, only stared at the
flame. Simon came running when he smelled smoke. He tried to dive on the mound of money, as if he could now extinguish it, or join it, but I restrained him, grabbing and holding his arms behind his back.
“Those were loans, you asshole!” He said. “You don’t understand how screwed we are right now!” He began beating against my chest now, and choking up. He withered to his knees as his fists won little reaction from me, shrinking like a wet reed in the sun.
I turned to the crowd. “God has delivered to me His word, and He has told me that He has little use for money now. The Ark is complete, but all your souls are not yet saved. On that account, the money you all have spent has done little more to save you than the money burning in front of me. If you wish your sins forgiven, you must only love God and love all those around you.”
As I gave my sermon, a man rose to his feet, and marched up to the pulpit. It was James, one of my poorest followers, a plumber. I descended the pulpit to meet him eye to eye.
He spit on my shoe, then made for the door without saying a word. Others were not so rude, only making faces of disgust as they lifted themselves up and departed. They filed out through the door, leaving the Ark empty, save for me, Simon, and the burning mound of money.