When the sun goes down and the streetlights come on in a small town like Mattaponi, Virginia there's a disorienting calmness in the air. The Amtrak overnight train rumbles through town. A few delivery trucks pass through, but don't stop. Abednego Colliflower fires up his old Yugo on many a night and drives down to the 7-11 on High Street for a lateï¿½night ice cream fix. And in Moira Meekfoot's establishment on the highway headed south out of town a small group of sleepless, disoriented folks gather for talk and coffee and comfort in the midst of the gathering dark.
They gather at Moira's because it's really the only place open all night in Mattaponi. This is not New York City. Mattaponi is not a town which never sleeps, though there are some who find it hard to rest. And these folks gather at Moira's 24ï¿½hour combination auto parts store and florist -- a place called Big Mama's Roses and Hoses.
Moira runs the place with her two sons, Paddy and Colin, and she appreciates the company when she's working on her floral arrangements late into the night. So to add to the atmosphere, and to encourage folks to stop in, she put some chairs around the woodstove in the middle of the room. And there's always a pot of coffee on. The town's two overnight patrol officers often stop in. Teenagers will drop by after an evening at the movies. And Nansemond Shepherd is there just about every night till midnight. Nansemond is such a regular that he's even got his own mug. Moira bought it for him last year for Christmas. It's a big green thing with an inscription that reads, My midï¿½life crisis will continue after this brief coffee break.
At 46 years old, Nansemond isn't really going through a midï¿½life crisis, but he's so reflective and talks so much about his experiences in life that everyone assumes that he is. He is the Senior High Sunday School Teacher at the Mattaponi United Methodist Church and enjoys it, which leads some folks to question whether or not he's trying to recapture his lost youth. But the truth of the matter is that Nansemond teaches the class because he feels like he has something to offer and something to learn. He knows what a rough time adolescence can be. But he also knows the passion and energy of those teenage years and he remembers how keenly he had become aware of God's calling to him as a youth.
Nansemond had been one of Mattaponi's few true radicals as a teenager. In those heady days of the lateï¿½ sixties when the civil rights movement and the antiï¿½war movement and the sexual revolution were all turning the world upsideï¿½-down, Nansemond was leading the charge in his sleepy, little hometown. But Nansemond's passions always made him more strange than effective.
When a group of protesters in Washington gained national attention by trying to levitate the Pentagon, Nansemond got a group of four together to try to levitate the local VFW hall. He wasn't old enough to be drafted, but he wanted so badly to make a statement of conscience that he stood on the steps of the courthouse one day and burned his library card, which puzzled Marcus Tolliver, the court bailiff, who was the only person to witness this brave act.
Nansemond finally became a martyr for the cause when he was arrested and put in jail briefly during his senior year. He saw news reports about the spectacle of naked radicals in the reflecting pool on the Washington Mall and decided to reï¿½create it in the fountain of Colliflower Park on Main Street. For him it was a way to challenge the blind allegiance of Americans to a government that he felt was often immoral and just plain wrong. It was an act of faith for Nansemond to jump in the pool naked. For the town police it was indecent exposure. Few of his friends, even today, will let him forget about his one trip to jail.
But for all of his idealism and all of his great symbolic protests, Nansemond never seemed to be able to communicate what he was really feeling. He knew that God was calling him to something in those wild days, but it wasn't until these last few years, as he realized he was really an adult, that he could begin to sense what it was. And he was happy to be able to share that with his senior high class.
Well, at any rate, Thursday night was pretty slow around Big Mama's. Nansemond was sitting by the stove with his mug of coffee browsing through a catalog Moira had just received in the mail -- Restroom World, a collection of the latest in commercial bathroom fixtures. Paddy and Colin were arguing in the back of the auto parts over where Paddy had put the latest shipment of windshield wipers. And Moira was putting the finishing touches on her flower orders for the coming day. But about 11:30 the door opened and in walked Zechariah Stonecaster.
Zechariah, or Zack, as most people call him, is one of the members of Nansemond's Sunday School class. He's a senior at the high school and a star point guard for the school's basketball team. He's bright and lively and most of the time he seems to have everything going in the right direction. But when he walked into the store that night his young face was showing the signs of strain and fatigue. He walked over to the chair next to Nansemond and sat down with a thud.
Nansemond looked him over for a minute and then said, "You're up awfully late aren't you, Zack? Don't you have a big game tomorrow night?"
"The biggest," Zack said. "We win this one we're going to the regionals. But I can't sleep. I'm not even sure I'll be playing tomorrow."
"What do you mean?" Nansemond asked. "You're their star, Zack. They won't pull you the night of the big game."
"They will if I make them mad enough."
"What do you mean? What have you got planned ?"
"Mr. Shepherd, you gotta tell me what's the right thing to do. I just don't know anymore. Did you see on the news about that basketball player who refused to stand up for the national anthem before the game because it was against his religious beliefs?"
"Yes, I did," Nansemond said. "Did it strike a nerve?"
"You bet it did!" Zack said. "Everybody's saying he was wrong to do that, but I almost think...I almost think it was the right thing to do. You know we talk every week in church about how God wants our total allegiance and how many times our leaders lead us down the wrong path. And you, Mr. Shepherd! I hear all these stories how you took on the government when you were young."
Nansemond turned red and looked back down at the catalog. Zack continued, "So... I'm thinking about not standing up tomorrow night when they play the national anthem. Which means that I'll probably get kicked off the team and laughed out of school."
Nansemond looked up again and stared at Zack. It had been so long ago for him now that he had forgotten how enormous those old decisions had seemed. He thought of three or four different ways to tell Zack to forget his plan -- to stand up and to sing and to not feel torn. But instead he asked a question, "Zack, what do you want from me?"
"I want you to tell me what's the right thing to do, Mr. Shepherd. I need somebody who's neutral and unbiased and who knows what God wants from us. What does the Bible say about national anthems?"
"Well," said Nansemond, "I hate to disappoint you, Zack, but I'm not neutral and the Bible doesn't cover standing up for the national anthem. What Jesus did say was, 'Return to Caesar the things that are Caesar's."
"Yeah," said Zack. "I never understood that. What did Jesus mean?"
"I think what Jesus meant was that there are no easy answers. We're always going to have to struggle with how much allegiance we owe to governments and what that requires of us. Jesus seemed to say that everybody who benefits from the state owes it something. And we all participate in government. It is us."
"But the other thing that Jesus said then was even more important -- "Give back to God the things that are God's. That's the real question. Jesus knew that we could only really struggle with issues like politics and ethics when we had struggled with God. It might feel good to take a stand or keep your seat and make your statement. But the first thing and the thing that really matters is how much of yourself you give back to God."
"But what about you, Mr. Shepherd? What about your protests and going to jail for your beliefs and all of that?"
Nansemond blushed again. "Zack, it felt good at the time, but just when I thought I had it all figured out, Jesus shifted the focus again and it just wasn't as easy as I thought it was. And what's going to make more of a difference in the world -- my taking a run through the fountain in the park or my trying to really serve God."
"Sometimes it's tempting to think that we can make a decision that's going to prove we're in God's camp and not in the camp of some idol. It is important to make a stand when there's injustice and evil being done in the nam"e of the flag or any other symbol of power.
"But we're never really separate from the things we oppose. When I was young, doing all those things you've heard about, (and by the way, I want to know who told you,) back then I heard Jesus saying, 'Give Caesar the things that are Caesar's', and I thought that gave me a license to take on the emperor. It's only now that I realize that what may be more important is giving to God what belongs to God, and I didn't hear that part before."
"This is starting to sound like a Sunday School lesson, Mr. Shepherd."
Nansemond smiled. "Maybe it ought to be. Zack, I realize it's a tough decision you've got to make, but let me tell you that what you're doing is not the only way . God's going to use you to make a difference in the world. Maybe this is the way, but it's not the only way. It's not easy, Zack, but it is simple -- Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. You're God's, Zack, no matter what you decide."
Zack sat for a minute and looked over at Moira who was making one of her miraculous flower arrangements. He looked back at Nansemond and then shook his head up and down as if he was making a decision right there. "Thanks, Mr. Shepherd. I guess I didn't need somebody impartial after all. I just needed some- body who cared. Thanks for listening."
"Any time, Zack."
And with that Zack went back into the night - that disorienting calm of a night that settles on all of our towns when the sun goes down. In the dark it's hard to find your way -- but it's certainly not impossible. Thanks be to God who doesn't provide all the answers, but who has given us the Way in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.