Work In Progress

Entry by: Seth Dinario

23rd February 2018
Ruby looked at her nails, at the trouser legs of the person next to her, anywhere but at the sweat-sheened, earnest face of the preacher. He was nearing the climax of his sermon, gesturing and imploring and haranguing like a pro.
‘…if we are dead to ourselves, therefore, we are alive to Christ! We should not presume to be like God, but thanks to His grace, we are raised up and can share in His ineffable goodness…’
This guy was totally different to Simon, the usual speaker on Sundays. He was a ‘visiting preacher’, some itinerant, non-denominational man of the cloth. He looked like a used car salesman. Where Simon was always approachable, straightforward and sometimes even funny, this bloke was staggeringly, seriously intense. A high-octane holly roller. Simon would never have used words like ‘ineffable.’ Ruby felt like getting up and walking out. There was a Costa over the road. Yes, why the hell shouldn’t she?
Maisie. That’s why. Her friend, who’d been coming to this church for how long now? Years, wasn’t it? At least since her breakdown. When Maisie became a Christian, Ruby had been astonished at her friend’s new outlook on life. She seemed, not just happier but more vital. More intense, like someone who’d found a reason to live after suspecting there wasn’t one. At first, Maisie wasn’t up for talking about it, saying that Ruby should come along if she wanted to experience what the fuss was all about. But Ruby had declined – it wasn’t for her, the church-on-a-Sunday thing.
Then Maisie’s church had run an Alpha course. Ruby thought that was a more approachable environment, and agreed to go along. Within the friendly, low-key atmosphere, she’d made friends with Dan and Sharon, Sven and Hope: all people her own age and willing to talk. To talk about why God would have allowed a situation like Ruby’s dad leaving when she was five, and then, in later weeks when she’d got to know everyone a bit better, why she lurched from relationship to relationship in the search for a man who would stick, a man who wouldn’t bugger off when things got serious.
The talks on Jesus had been interesting; helping to overturn a lifetime’s prejudice that he’d just been some crackpot prophet with a funky line in magic tricks; like an ancient Derren Brown. Ruby had sung ‘Colours of Day’ along with everyone else at Primary School, but no fire had been lit up and no flame allowed to burn. Her mum, an eccentric, nervous and above all bitter woman, had understandably wanted nothing to do with God, and in fact had been, embarrassingly, the first mother to request that Ruby’s promise at Girl Guides be one with all reference to the Almighty removed. But now, hearing about this wise, enigmatic man-who-apparently-was-also-God, Ruby began to melt a little inside.
Simon had delivered most of the weekly talks, and it was the one on ‘How and why should I pray?’ that rocked Ruby’s world. She thought she’d give praying a go – nothing to lose, as it were, and she was still hurting from a particularly nasty break-up with a guy called Tony the week before. She asked Simon if there was a special formula or incantation that God responded to better than others. He laughed, and said there may well have been, but if there was one, then he hadn’t found it. Instead, he suggested, Ruby should speak to God naturally and conversationally, as if he were someone she’d known all her life.
‘All my life? I’d barely _thought_ about God until coming here.’
‘But he’s known you all of your life,’ said Simon, serious now. ‘You should open up – nothing’s hidden from Him. Nothing you say will shock or surprise Him.’
‘But…what should I pray for? I don’t want anything. Well – nothing except peace of mind.’
‘Then you should pray for that,’ said Simon. He looked as if he was about to say something else, then thought better of it.
‘Do…do I have to close my eyes?’ asked Ruby.
‘You don’t have to, though some people find it helps them to block out the other distractions that might be around.’
‘Ah,’ said Ruby, as if she could connect to this. ‘Like getting into the astral plane, sort of thing? Tuning out the fuzz of existence?’
Simon looked a little confused. ‘Not…not really. Just tell God what’s on your mind.’
Ruby shrugged. ‘In for a penny,’ she said, and closed her eyes.
It didn’t take long before she was overtaken by the most amazing feeling of self-negation she’d ever experienced. She didn’t know the term ‘transcendent’, but if she had, she would have used it. Her current stress from work, the residue of the bust-up and consequent end of her and Tony’s relationship, melted like a snowflake landing on a warm rock. She mentally pushed out towards the God she’d heard so much about, and something answered. Something like a much bigger sense of the universe, something underpinning everything, a sort of skein over the fretwork of the stars, of atoms, of quarks, something that understood and maintained and destroyed and spoke into being.
She sat, breathing softly, lips moving gently, connecting with what she began to think of as God. It was a true gear-shift, an epiphany, a reveal of the curtain of the cosmos to show, not cold indifferent space, but a deep, thrumming love that said ‘I WON’T LEAVE YOU OR FORSAKE YOU’.
Ruby reached out, and from then on, wanted nothing more than to be in that place.

The preacher’s rhetoric was climactic and fierce, and it cut into her reverie suddenly, like a band saw through a piece of balsa wood. ‘We ALL fall short of the glory of God, and this is rightfully so. To deign to come near to his unadulterated goodness, to turn our own human sins around into something approaching divine – that is not for us to manage. It is His prerogative, once we have accepted God into our lives, to shape us into holy vessels, ready to contain His spirit. I am but…a work in progress. You,’ and here, he seemed to look directly into Ruby’s eyes, ‘are a work in progress. Give God the steering wheel of your life, and He will do the rest. Amen.’
With that, there was some singing, and then ministry time, where people with various ailments were prayed for, but Ruby just wanted to go. She had a thousand worms crawling around her mind, stopping her from even the most basic conversation with the other church members.
‘Maisie,’ she said to her friend, apologising with a raised hand to the older couple that Maisie was talking to. ‘I’m just gonna head over to the Costa over the road, okay? Will I see you there, or…?’
‘Yeah, no probs, see you over there. I’ve got a few more folk I need to see,’ Maisie said. Her brow crinkled and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. ‘Are you…okay?’
Ruby looked past her, towards the ministry going on, the people being prayed for; the peace they were no doubt feeling, that she wasn’t. ‘Yeah, fine. Fine. As long as I keep saying that, I’m sure it’ll be the truth, eh?’ Maisie looked sympathetic. ‘I’ll see you over there.’

Sat with a large mocha and an Empire biscuit, Ruby checked her phone but it was devoid of notifications for a change. What was everyone doing? Surely someone in her friendship group had some sort of trivia that needed commenting upon, or liking, or sharing? She tried to banish feelings of loneliness, the idea that since she’d become a Christian, she’d lost all sense of pursuing a fun life, a life of spontaneity, and that her friends had rightfully shunned her.
Suddenly, Maisie was in front of her with a cup of tea on a tray and a slice of tiffin. Ruby said with a grin,‘Makes my selection look lame. You can’t beat a tiffin. Don’t know what I was thinking.’
‘Hey, I’ll go halfers with you,’ said Maisie.
‘Don’t worry about it – I should stick with what I chose in the first place,’ said Ruby, with the sudden, uncomfortable feeling that the conversation had turned to encompass much more than biscuits.
Maisie sat down, cupping her tea in both hands, her mocha-brown wavy hair wreathed in steam. ‘So…you seemed a bit out of sorts after the service,’ she said.
Ruby played with the wooden stirring sticks she’d pulled out of the serving area. She always put them on two fingers and pretended they were skis. ‘It’s what the visiting preacher was saying…’ she managed.
‘Which bits?’ asked Maisie.
‘All of it,’ said Ruby, nailing her friend with a piercing look. ‘I signed up for this, right, because God gave me a reason to focus on myself, getting _me_ sorted, before I pissed away my life on another crappy relationship or credit card binge. Yeah?’
‘Sure…’ said Maisie, a bit flustered. ‘I know you were well pleased after the Alpha course finished. Simon was saying you’d changed so much in those first few weeks…’
‘I had, right? I…I _am_ changed. It’s just that stuff the visiting preacher was saying. I can’t buy into that,’ said Ruby, taking a sip of her mocha and shaking her head.
‘He can be a bit full-on. I remember him coming last year – he ran around the church, dispensing the Holy Spirit like some kind of martial arts move…it was terrifying.’
Ruby nodded. ‘But it’s not just him. I was looking around, as he was going on about how we need to humble ourselves continually before God, that we shouldn’t presume to know His plans for us, and we need to hand over control to Jesus…anyway, all I could see was Hope and Sven, Frank and Rachel; people like that, all nodding away, eyes glazed….I mean, it’s like being reprogrammed, right? It was all a bit…bovine.’
‘That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?’ said Maisie after a moment’s silence.
‘I didn’t say _you_ were looking glazed. I think you’re as worried as me.’
‘Worried? What about?’ said Ruby with a puzzled smile.
‘This ‘work in progress’ thing he said,’ said Ruby. ‘The analogy is like you’re a passive piece of inert stone, being chiselled away at by God…with no say in the direction of your character, or your life…’
Maisie made a ‘pffft’ noise. ‘Come on…who’s going to stop Ruby from being Ruby? Even God’ll have a hard time changing your mind from how you think things should be.’
Ruby held her friend’s gaze for a moment. ‘Hey. If God wants to tell me to change my ways, I will. But a load of sweaty middle-aged men exhorting me to do so? To stop me trying to direct my life? No thanks.’ She drained the last of her mocha, stood up, got her umbrella ready for the onslaught of the rain. ‘I’m on a quest, Mase,’ she said, and as she said this she wondered what she was really saying. It seemed to be coming direct from somewhere previously untapped. ‘I’m on a quest, and I’m following a map I drew years ago.’
Maisie stayed seated, looked awkwardly up at Ruby. ‘I know – it’s not been easy for you. With – with your dad, and everything.’
‘Fuck _that_,’ said Ruby, suddenly full of vitriol. ‘I was talking about my own map. Not some…blank, creased scrap of paper left by a walking turd. Or even the bloody _labyrinth_ that my mum scrawled for me. I promised myself I would find my way out of this. Mine. So all this ‘give over control’ and wait for God to shape everything into a perfect…picture…’ she tailed off, choking back a sob, eyes suddenly brimming, and marched out into the awful rain.
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