Barbershop Duet
June 2024
1 Peter 3:15

Squinting against the rain, his thoughts anywhere but where he was going, Roger Berlingson caught the red and white candycane out of the corner of his eye just in time to avoid whacking it with his head. Good thing it was there. If he hadn’t avoided running into it just by a hair, no pun, he would have passed the shop. He opened the door, stepped in, hurried to close it against the weather.

Roger was greeted by Blair’s grin, a glad wave and the echo of bay rum. This late in the day, the half-dozen customer chairs sat empty, their chrome tubing and white vinyl seats gleaming in the fluorescent lights. A small table held a stack of worn magazines – Popular Science, Field and Stream, Car and Driver – that had been there so long they might qualify as collector’s items. Oldies tunes from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s drifted out of an elderly RCA tabletop radio, KOCN.
In his white smock, comb at the ready in his breast pocket, Blair McCaskill stood behind the barber chair, elbows canted across the top. He shook his head, did his crooked smile thing. “Almost took out my barber pole, Roger. Somethin’ on your mind?”

Berlingson furled his umbrella and dropped it into the stand, then struggled his raincoat off. The left sleeve hung up. Growling, he yanked it free and slung the coat on the chrome rack. He stood for a moment with his head down, took a deep breath. The bay rum reminded him of his father. Nice.
“Mmph. Yeah. Tough day. Well, not so much tough as, ah … trying. Disappointing, mostly.” He flumped into the barber chair, watched his reflection disappear into the infinity of the front and back mirrors, wished it was someplace he could actually go.

McCaskill was a member of the church that Berlingson pastored, had been chairman of the elders for two terms, served on more ministry committees than he could remember. Over the years, they had become good friends, close friends, comfortable with sharing deep concerns and doubts. Whenever Roger was burdened with something weighty, Blair was one of the two people he came to; his wife was the other. This day, he was glad to have some time with his friend.
Blair shook out a fresh blue-striped barber’s bib, pinned it. “How’s Pauline?”

“Better. She’s a lot better now, Blair. Just a head cold, nothing serious. But thanks for asking.”
The pastor stretched his neck, left, then right. Blair turned to the cabinet behind him, reached past the glass cylinder of blue disinfectant that held his spare combs and brought out a hand massager, one of those old bulky ones you hardly ever see anymore. He clicked in on and let it work the tension out from Roger’s neck and shoulder.

McCaskill kept an old-fashioned shop because it was the way his father had kept it, and it was how he liked it: familiar, comfy, clean and neat. There were only two barber chairs in the shop. One had been his father’s; the second had been his until his father passed. These days it was used by Jake Suggs, a part-timer who came in on Fridays and Saturdays.

A dozen years ago, Blair quit asking his friend how he wanted his hair cut. For as long as he’d known Berlingson, the man kept the same hair style, the one Blair thought of as little-boy-regular. Trim on the sides, part on the left, comb over the top and front. The first time he’d cut his pastor’s hair, it was all brown. Today, his temples were grey. It gave him kind of a dignified look.

Blair clicked the massager off and set it down, then tucked a hand towel around Berlingson’s collar to keep loose hair from sifting down his shirt. “So tell me, pastor of mine, what’s troubling you? Looks like a hefty load you’re carrying on this wet and stormy day.”
“That obvious, huh? Ah, just had kind of a confrontation. Guy stopped by the office, gave me his two cents worth.”
“Disgruntled church member?”
“No, he said he was walking by the church, saw the sign. I think he mostly came in to get out of the rain.”
“What manner of hobbyhorse was he riding?”
“Christians. Stuck his head in the door, said he just wanted me to know he thought Evangelical or Fundamental Christians were intrusive, hypocritical and judgmental, completely out of step with the rest of the country. I said, Come on in, let’s have a cup, talk about it. I was kind of surprised when he said okay.
“He said his name was Carl, forgot his last name already, teaches high school physics and math. I asked him how he came to his conclusions about Christians, what his authority was.

“He started off by saying, Oh, you know, TV, newspapers, but mostly by observation. I think these kinds of so-called Christians are a lot like simple-minded sheep, following some well-meaning but misguided shepherd, buying into the Bible as absolute authority. They’re supposed to follow Jesus’ teachings and example. Problem is, they don’t act like Jesus. They’ve got this sanctimonious smugness about them, like they’re saying, Ha-ha, I got my salvation and you don’t. They pass judgment on divorce and abortion and homosexuality and whatever else they deem sinful, condemning all the sinners to hell. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all about I’m-right-you’re-wrong. Frankly, I find it offensive.

“Carl, I said, may I make this point: if you used that kind of judgmental language in reference to an ethnic minority, you’d be excoriated as a bigot. Moreover, you cite Christians as being judgmental and offensive, but have you considered that you, in passing such a blanket judgment, are doing precisely what you accuse them of?’”
On any number of occasions, Blair had admired his pastor’s ability to say hard things to people by blending tact and just the right words to soften the impact. He grinned. “Got his attention, did you?”

“Ah, yeah, I suppose. He didn’t say anything. Turned an interesting shade of pink. Anyway, I asked him if he believed popular opinion trumped the Bible?
“He said, “Absolutely. This is a Democracy we live in. The Bible is centuries old, has been translated out of the original languages for hundreds of years, and now it’s full of contradictions and errors.
“Have you ever read it?

“The Bible? Well, some. Parts. No, not all of it. Never saw a reason to.
“I wanted to come back with, Carl, how is it you can have a strong opinion about something you’ve never read, but I didn’t. A little too snarky. Instead, I said, ‘Well, Carl, you’re right about the Bible being centuries old and yes, it has been translated a lot. Five hundred and eighteen languages, to be exact, more than one hundred of them in English.

“Nevertheless, when it comes to some Christians being over-zealous in their application of their faith, you should know I, a misguided and simple-minded shepherd as you say, agrees with you. By the way, Jesus himself didn’t respond well to that attitude either. Called them whitewashed tombs, a generation of vipers. Hypocrites. Said they did not know the Scriptures.”

The barber’s explosive ‘Hah!’ crinkled the smile lines around his eyes. “Bet he didn’t see that one coming.”
“Well, he was definitely surprised. He said, ‘You do? Why is that?’

“I said, there are any number of folks who take Bible verses out of context and wallop anyone who disagrees with them by presuming to take God’s authority upon themselves. Doing that not only denigrates Scripture but dishonors God. In all, that’s just self-righteousness. People who do this seem to forget Jesus’ teaching about how the Gentile rulers and officials lord it over others, but anyone who follows him should not to do so. Instead, they are to focus on servanthood.
“I told him that in my view, I agreed with the Apostle Paul who wrote in his second letter to the Corinthian church, how the letter of the law kills where the spirit of the law blesses believers with the ministry of grace. And grace is what Jesus preached, again and again. The servanthood Jesus spoke of is a foreign concept to those who ascribe to legalism. I also think they conveniently set aside Jesus’ commands not to judge and to love our enemies and pray for them, to love one another as Jesus has loved us. There’s always some Christians who seem to think Jesus’ teachings and commands don’t apply to them, mostly when it comes to other people they take issue with.

“I said, but Carl, I need to add this caveat: over my years as a pastor, I’ve come to know maybe two thousand Christians worldwide, give or take. In my experience, I find legalistic Christians you take issue with to be very much in the minority. In contrast, most of the men and women I know who profess faith in Christ sincerely try to live lives worthy of his name, offering respect and kindness to all, expressing their love of God by attending to the needs of others.
“Even here in our church, we provide food and clothing to people in need, and not just those who belong to this church. We have a substance abuse recovery program, hospital and shut-in visitations, a ministry to provide help for single parents, another to provide meals for people in grief or recovering from surgery. And there’s more, much more. Ministries like this are replicated without fanfare all over the world.
“Do these Christians have problems, do they experience suffering? Of course. Do they struggle with temptation and sin? Surely they do, myself included. Regardless, most of them sincerely try to live their lives with Jesus as their model. And, I must say, most of them experience more success than failure. But because we’re all human, egos intrude, emotions erupt, things are said and done that tarnish our witness.”
“How’d he respond to that?” Blair leaned Roger’s head a little to the right, worked his comb and scissors.
“He agreed, said that was indeed his contention, but he was glad to hear that some churches, particularly ours, were actively engaged in serving others.
“Then I changed the subject. I wanted to get a deeper look at his skepticism. I asked him what he thought about God. He says he thought God, if he even existed, was off in some far corner of the cosmos not giving a rip about the planet Earth, and the whole idea of creation was ridiculous, totally unscientific, and completely without proof.

“I countered by saying, ‘I believe that the existence of God is evidenced by the intricacies of creation itself. The complexity of the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange that sustains life on earth, or the complexity of the global weather systems that deliver water and nutrients to the earth speak loudly to God’s hand, not to mention G-A-T-C, the three and a half billion letters of life in the human genome.’
“He said that was nothing more than cosmological serendipity, so I said Oh, c’mon, Carl, that’s a cheap shot for a man of science.
“Well, he gave me this goofy grin and said, ‘You’ve got to understand, Pastor. I’ve been immersed in science, been a skeptic of religion too long to attribute those life-giving phenomenon to acts of God. As far as I’m concerned, Stephen Hawking got it right when he said religion was for people who are afraid of the dark.
“So I said, Well, Carl, I’d have to respond by saying atheism is for people who are afraid of the light.
“He said, ‘Well, sure, that’s your opinion. Me, I stand on what Richard Dawkins said, that the observable universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.’

“So I said, Oh, Carl, c’mon, that’s self-defeating rhetoric. The cosmos, our planet, not to mention the human genome alone, are filled with information. We know it takes intelligence to generate information. None of our known laws of math, physics or chemistry explain the generation of information any more than evolution explains the origin of life. Which, by the way, also requires intelligence. So where did this intelligence come from? That’s the one question that you materialists have consistently failed to answer. To be accurate, too much science has been designed to support materialistic positions. But information isn’t material.
“Well, I freshened up our coffee, then asked him what he thought about Creationism versus Evolution.
“He said, Creationism is elaborate superstition and myth, creating wrong answers based on incomplete information. As far as I’m concerned, the arguments from Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, others, just make too much sense.

“I said, Saying that wrong answers are based on incomplete information is a two-edged sword, Carl. I can use the same rationale against your position. I had to smile when I said that, Blair. Of course, I said, you’re aware of other notable scientists who espouse the concept of Creation. Men like Robin Collins with advanced degrees in both physics and mathematics, who said the fact that the universe has just the right conditions to sustain life is a coincidence too amazing to have been the result of happenstance. Dr. John Leslie, Oxford-educated author of Universes, said the fine-tuning of the universe is genuine evidence that God is real. Professor of astronomy at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Dr. Owen Gingerich, said that common sense and satisfying interpretation of our world suggest the designing hand of a superintelligence. Those are just a few I can think of right now. So. Would you classify these men as propagators of superstition and myth?
“He said, ‘Well, I’ve heard of Gingerich but not the others. Not that I doubt your word. But my belief, if that’s what you want to call it, resides firmly in there-is-no-God camp. So categorically, I disagree with all of them, regardless of their comments.”

Blair stopped clipping. “Roger, gotta tell you, that’s a my-mind’s-made-up-don’t- confuse-me-with-facts statement if there ever was one.”
Berlingson laughed, nodded. “Anyway, I wasn’t done. I asked him what he thought about Jesus. He said, ‘Well, now, I’ll admit that Jesus, if he ever existed – and I have considerable doubt about that – was a good man, kind of a prophet and all, but the Messiah, come to save the world? Really! Just more superstition created by some lost souls, grasping for answers, desperate to authenticate their faith. I find it incongruous that with the amount of information we have available that anyone of sound mind and good conscience would believe such nonsense like the virgin birth, water into wine, walking on water? Folk tales and myths.
“So he stopped for a minute, then asked me this crucial question. ‘But, Pastor, what baffles me is why believe in Jesus anyway? You say these people you know, these Christians, want to live good lives, help people in need. Well, so what? Many of the people I know do this, too, and do it without Jesus.
“So I tell him, That’s the very crux of the problem, Carl. Goes back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God gave two commands: take care of the place and don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, you’re not equipped to do my job so don’t try it.
“Where most everyone gets hung up is right here, on the whole question of who determines what is good and what is evil. Right up front, God establishes himself as the sole authority, he’s the author and arbiter of good and evil. This theme repeats again and again throughout the Bible.
“Regardless, Adam and Eve liked the idea. Wouldn’t it be cool to relativize good and bad for ourselves, so that’s the choice they made. That choice made them, and everyone who makes that same choice, like God.

“This is such a compelling thought, to be master of one’s own life, to be done with an intrusive God who looks over your shoulder and says, ‘Uh, oh, you shouldn’t be doing that’ or ‘It’d be better if you did it this way.’
“And that, the independent, individual pursuit of the good, Carl, is precisely the human dilemma. This is the question everyone has to answer: who is going to be the authority for how I live my life, God or me?

“So that’s what we’re stuck with. Adam and Eve’s choice borne out of their envy and deceit became our legacy, one we are powerless to overcome. And it is that decision alone which predicates the existence of sin. You with me so far?
“He says he thinks so. I could tell this was new territory for him so I asked him how he understood sin.
“He said, Ah, it’s doing bad things, you know, like murder, stealing, hurting other people. Abuse. Like that.

“I said, Well, that’s true, but limited. Sin in the broader sense is simply separation from God – which was achieved when God’s willful tenants made the decision that got them evicted from his kingdom. This separation is intrinsic to every human being, past, present and future. So tell me. Is there anything you can do to restore that separation from God? Is there anything anyone can do to make that happen?
“Well, Carl thought for a minute then he came back with this. Assuming that to be a true premise, then I don’t think so. If it was possible, then surely it would have been accomplished by now. But that’s all based on the premise that God exists … which he doesn’t. So I find this whole argument pointless.
“Carl, even though you want to remove God from the equation by saying it hasn’t been accomplished is incorrect. It has. Jesus, being the exact replication of God, accomplished just that in his death and resurrection.

“So he says, You’re saying God and Jesus are one and the same? Got to tell you, Blair, that kind of perked him up.
“I said, Absolutely. And that’s why we have faith in Jesus. No human could ever fix the broken relationship with God. But because God loves us, his precious and beloved creation, so deeply, so relentlessly, he came to us in a form we could relate to – as a man who allowed himself to be executed though he did nothing wrong, yet rose and walked among the living three days after his death and burial. Jesus demonstrated that he alone has mastery over death. That’s why he was able to say, No one comes to the Father except by me.

“Well, Carl’s next question gave me some hope. He said, So faith in Jesus is the key to living with God in his kingdom forever?
“Exactly! Living a Christlike life, you know, doing good, helping others, living righteously, is a product of our love for him, an expression of his love for all – but not the reason we worship Christ. But understand this: the greatest blessing of what Jesus has done is that it’s absolutely free. Unlike other religions, you don’t have to work to win God’s favor. You don’t have to spend hours in prayer or read the Bible or do good works in order to gain God’s love and acceptance. Although those are all good things to do.

”The flip side is this: everyone who continues in their quest to be like God, all those who stubbornly assert their separateness from him by exercising their own will and intellect, are, in essence, attempting to eliminate him. Jesus even predicted this, said if the world hates Christians, it’s because they hated him first, hated God, the Father.

“Blair, it got to the point that I had to stop talking for a while, to give it a rest. Carl just sat there, sort of deer in the headlights. But thinking about it.
“I picked it up again. ‘Carl, I’m not willing that you should die without the hope that Jesus alone can provide, hope in the promise of eternal life with him. Consider what we’ve talked about here. Expand your horizons to include the idea that the Kingdom of God is a greater reality than what you experience here on earth. By remaining fixed on the idea that what we have here on earth is all there is, by negating God himself, you lock yourself onto the wrong side of the equation. That’s a terrible price to pay for an eternity without God. My goodness, man, there’s so much more to come!

“Blair, he just sat there, taking it all in. I told him, Carl, consider what John, the Apostle, said: For everyone who receives Jesus, who believes in his name, he gives the right to become a child of God. It would be my honor to welcome you into the family, Carl, to pray with you. What do you think?

“So all the while I’m sitting there, talking to him, praying that the Holy Spirit would lead him to the truth, he comes back with this: No, it’s not for me, Pastor. Not for me. I like where I am in my life, with my non-faith. Together, my wife and I make a comfortable living, like my job. We have a good marriage and three great kids. Nice house, nice cars, money in the bank. Life is good. And I got there all on my own, no help from God or Jesus or Christians.

“All that you’ve said, Pastor, are nice ideas and I appreciate your concern. But no, it’s just too much pie in the sky. Too easy, too good to be true. And like the adage says, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Sorry, but I can’t buy it.

“Then he gets up to go, leaves me with this: Anyway, it was a pleasure to meet you. I think you’re a good man, and I’ll expect I’ll adjust my opinion of Christians based on what you’ve said. But me and Jesus? Nope, don’t think so. Thanks for the time, and for the coffee. We shook hands and that was that.
“So here I am, sitting in your barber shop on this dreary day, wondering how I could have handled it differently, had a more hopeful outcome.”

“Roger, that story’s right out of the parable of the sower and the seeds.”
“Yep. Yes, it is. Got to trust the Lord, though. I sowed the seeds. The rest is up to him.”

Blair put his scissors down, picked up the electric clippers and trimmed the back of Roger’s neck. “So that’s why the downcast heart today?”
“That’s it. That’s it. And the rain didn’t help. But you do, my friend, as always. Thanks for listening. And for the neck massage. Helped a lot.”
Blair brushed the hair off Roger’s shoulders with a soft long-bristled brush, took the bib off and shook it out. “Bay rum?”

“Why not, let’s go for it. Dad always used that.”
The spicy fragrance brightened the shop. “Before you go, Roger, let me pray for
you.” With his hand on his pastor’s shoulder, he asked the Lord for a measure of peace, to set discouragement aside.

Roger Berlingson paid for his haircut, included a good-sized tip. Before he went back out into the wet weather, he wrapped his friend in a hug. They held it for long moments.
In the doorway, Pastor Berlingson opened his umbrella, looked at the cloudy skies and thought, mmm, hope this storm will be over tomorrow.

Copyright © 2022 Peter K. Schipper