“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.