Sidney and God

By Doug Muder

Part 1, in which we meet both the narrator and Sidney, but not God.

In Seminary they taught us to make eye contact with the congregation. “Write your sermon down, so that it’s all clear in your mind,” Professor Voorhees taught us, “but for God’s sake don’t stand up there staring down at your text. They want to see the whites of your eyes, not the top of your head.” Back then I scoffed at the notion that form was so important. Surely it was my brilliant ideas that everyone would come to hear. But Voorhees was adamant. “If you make eye contact, speak loud, and put some energy into your voice, you can recite the telephone directory up there and people will think you’re a good preacher.”

Older, wiser, and in my third church by now, I take his advice. I have a text, but I rarely look at it. I look out at the congregation. I make eye contact. And I see a lot.

I see the young married couples who sit close together, and how they drift apart over the years. I see the 50ish divorced women, who sneak into the back just as the prelude ends. They haven’t been to church since the kids were little, and they’re not sure what they’re doing here now, either. But their friends don’t know any single men, and they’re not ready to put an ad in the personals or go to the bars, so here they are. I see the teen-agers, who think I’m boring, and can’t wait until they are old enough to sleep in on Sundays without Mom and Dad putting up a fuss. I see the young parents, who are too tired to follow what I’m saying, and just sit there hoping that they can make it through the service without the baby crying.

And then one Sunday I saw Sidney. He came by himself, sat near the front, and listened so hard that I wondered at first if the Association had sent someone to review me. He was middle-aged, and a bit overweight. His dark, tightly-curled hair had not yet made up its mind whether to turn gray, or just go away completely. He had those small, round, thick spectacles that I think Werner von Braun used to wear. No one would sit within three feet of him in the pew, because he fidgeted constantly. He’d cross his legs one way, then the other, then lean forward and rest his chin on his fists, his elbows on his knees.

I knew his name was Sidney because he told me. I was shaking hands at the door after the second service Sidney attended. He came up nervous and breathless, like a boy about to ask for his first date. His words came out all in a rush. “Pastor Tenhaus, my name is Sidney.” And then there was a pause. “I-I think what you’re talking about here is very important.”

I was having my usual post-performance amnesia—I had no idea what I’d talked about. “Thank you, Sidney,” I said, shaking his sweaty hand. “And welcome to our church.” Then he was gone, and a 75-year-old woman was complaining about the new hymnals.

This went on for most of the winter. Sidney would come in, sit near the front, and hang on my every word. Sometimes he would scribble some notes on a yellow legal pad. At times it looked as if he were calculating something. And then, at the door, he would look as if he had something very important to say to me, only to chicken out at the last minute and blurt some trivial compliment.

Finally, a few weeks before Easter, he blurted out his compliment and said, “I have to talk to you. Right away.”

After church is the absolute worst time to talk to a minister. Our heads are still buzzing. Three different committee chairs desperately need to talk about the parking situation, the fund to replace the boiler, the lack of volunteers in the nursery, or some other perceived emergency. The young couple getting married in a week wants to be re-assured for the tenth time that the service will go smoothly. Countless congregants have noticed that I misquoted a piece of poetry in my opening words.

“Call the office tomorrow morning and we’ll set up a time,” I said.

Sidney shook his head. “It won’t wait,” he said. “I know I should have told you sooner, but I just couldn’t. And now it won’t wait.”

“What won’t wait?”

He looked at the line of people behind him. A father was bouncing his daughter up and down, trying to keep her happy until they could get out to the car. Sidney was completely tongue-tied.

“Will it wait five minutes?” I asked. “Can I get a cup of coffee and meet you in my office?”

Sidney looked at his watch. “Sure,” he said nervously. “Five minutes.”

Ministers are rarely punctual. Half the job is planning, and the other half is improvising, because something always comes up. Between me and my office was a sea of people trying to bring something to my attention. I was very nearly rude to several of them, but it still took me seven minutes to part that sea. Sidney apparently had spent the extra time sitting on the couch in my office, fidgeting and getting more wound up.

“As soon as I figured it out, I started looking for someone to talk to Him,” he said before I could make it to my chair. “I mean, I can do the calculations. So I know where and when He’s coming. But I don’t know anything about religion. I wouldn’t know what to say to Him. It’s this once-in-many-lifetimes opportunity, and I know I’d just blow it. So I started looking for somebody to talk to Him. Somebody who’d know what to say. And I picked you. To talk to Him, I mean.”

I sat down in my desk chair. “Wait,” I said. “Slow down. Who is coming? Who did you pick me to talk to?”


I took a napkin out of my desk drawer and started mopping up the place on the rug where I had spilled my coffee.

“Maybe you should start at the beginning,” I said.

Part Two, in which Sidney presents a calculation involving creation, relativity, and the velocity of God

It took a few minutes for each of us to regroup ourselves. I got another cup of coffee, and on the way back showed the woman who was organizing the auction how to run the copy machine. Sidney calmed himself a little and tried to organize his thoughts.

In the course of my ministry, I had run into a lot of people with unusual ideas. In my first church, a soprano in the choir had believed that her husband wanted to kill her. (She had turned out to be right, and though no one actually died, I learned something about prejudging a situation.) In the second, the head usher had believed that his stepson was possessed by the Devil, a claim that (though it had some surface credibility) was never adequately verified. And every church seems to have conspiracy theorists of one sort or another. You get used to it. “The usual unusual,” one of my friends calls it. So Sidney wanted me to talk to God for him–I could deal with it.

“OK,” I said, as I sat back down behind my desk. “You’ve got my full attention. Tell me what this is all about. Start at the beginning.”

Sidney smiled nervously. “The beginning,” he said. “It’s funny, but this really does start at the beginning. Pastor, you believe in Genesis, don’t you?”

I hate to answer questions like that. “Well, it is part of the Bible, so yes, I guess I do.”

“And what about the carbon-dated rocks, the fossils on Mt. Everest, the light rays that must have traveled millions of years to get here—do you believe in them, too?”

I didn’t like the way this was going. “I don’t really know what to think about all that,” I said. “I mean, I’ve seen the fossils, and the dinosaur skeletons. And I know some astronomers, and they’ve explained their point of view to me. It all sounds very convincing. I don’t really understand everything, but I guess I like to think that maybe evolution was just God’s mechanism for building us.”

Sidney nodded enthusiastically. “That’s what I liked when I first heard you speak,” he said. “That’s why I decided to choose you instead of the others I listened to. Because you don’t like to go around saying this is false and that is false. You’d like to find some way to believe that it’s all true. Genesis is true, science is true—all at once, both at the same time. You’re open-minded like that.”

More than a few of my parishioners had noticed the same trait in me, though they preferred to call it wishy-washiness. “I suppose so.”

“But there’s still the six-day thing,” he said. “It’s hard to get around. Was Creation six days, like Genesis says, or ten billion years like science says?”

“That’s the problem,” I said.

Suddenly Sidney smiled without any nervousness, and his eyes gleamed a little. “That’s not a problem,” he said, “it’s a clue.” He waited to see if I would guess where he was going, and he could have waited either six days or ten billion years, because I had no idea. “Pastor, have you ever heard of the Lorentz contraction?”

Actually I had. Not many people in the church knew this, but I had been a math major in college. I taught algebra at a junior high for a couple of years before deciding that I had to do something different with my life. I remembered a formula that had something to do with square roots and the speed of light. “Isn’t it something from Einstein’s Special Relativity Theory?”

He nodded. “When you travel at speeds close to the speed of light, lengths contract, and time expands. The faster you go, the larger the effect. Do you see what that means?” I didn’t. We stared at each other. “Genesis is written from God’s frame of reference. Six days go by. In our frame of reference, here on Earth, ten billion years go by. Now do you see?”

“God’s moving faster than we are?”

“Yes!” Sidney got very excited now. He stood up, put his legal pad on my desk, and wrote down the formula with the square roots. “And not just faster. We can figure out precisely how fast He has been going by plugging into the Lorentz contraction formula!”

Formulas flew by quickly as Sidney solved the equation for v, God’s velocity. He got an answer, which I knew I would never remember. “That’s really interesting,” I said, checking my watch. “I’ve always wondered how evolution and Genesis could both be true, but I’d never thought of that solution. I’m glad you showed that to me.” I started to get out of my chair.

“No, no, you don’t understand yet. That’s just the beginning.”

I had been afraid of that. I sat back down. “There’s more?”

There was. Sidney pulled out a white piece of paper with a color graphic which must have been prepared on a computer. It was a time line, running horizontally across the long part of the paper. The far left edge was denoted “big bang”, and the rest of the line had occasional notations like “formation of the solar system”, “cooling of the earth”, and “first plant life”. On the far right end was “first Homo sapiens”. The page was cut into six blocks, shaded with six different colors. At the top of the page, the shaded portions were labeled “First Day”, “Second Day”, and so on, up to “Sixth Day”.

“Do you see?”

“That’s a very attractive illustration. Did make this yourself?”

“Look at the lengths of the days,” Sidney said impatiently.

The first day took up about two thirds of the time line. The second took up maybe half of what was left. “The days keep getting shorter,” I observed.

“Yes! Each of God’s days takes significantly less Earth time than the previous one. Which means…” Sidney had that leading tone in his voice, the same one I had used with my algebra students lo these many years ago. There is justice, it seems. I had to finish his sentence.

“God is slowing down.”

“Yes! That v we calculated before was just God’s average velocity. But assuming that God was traveling at the speed of light at the instant of the Bang, and that He has been decelerating smoothly since then, and that each of His days has the length that we can see that it has, then …” Our eyes met. I was not going to finish the sentence this time. “Then we can predict just how fast God is traveling at any given moment. We can figure out how fast He is traveling now. We know when his next day will end.”

“And when is that?” I asked.


“This Tuesday?”

Sidney nodded. “I’ve calculated that this Tuesday at 6:28 p.m., God will end his eighth day since the Creation. Like all the other days, I think he’ll show up here on Earth to check things out.”

“And I suppose you know where He’ll be, too.” I meant this as a joke, but Sidney seemed not to notice.

“About thirty miles from here. Over in Canton in the park by the old ferry landing.”

I leaned back in my chair, looked at the door, and tried to calculate how long it would take me to race out of the room. “How did you figure that out?” I asked.

“Do you know any quantum chromo-dynamics?”

I shook my head. And then Sidney shook his.

Part 3, in which we observe that not all theophanies are equally profound

I’ve done a lot of stupid things in the course of my life. I was a punt-returner in high school, and I still limp a little on rainy days. I drank way too much in college, and was lucky I didn’t wind up in jail or worse. Since I’ve been in the ministry, I’ve encouraged couples to stay together who should have divorced, and not said a word while couples divorced who should have stayed together. And then there was the board meeting where I said, “Patty has a pension plan where she works, so I guess I don’t need one here.” When the kids get started, they can go for hours recounting stupid things that they’ve seen Dad do. They start with a few of the “short cuts” I’ve taken on vacations, and it goes downhill from there.

Well, they didn’t see me pick Sidney up on Tuesday and drive across the river to Canton. They didn’t hear about it, either. Nobody did. It’s part of my code of ethics not to tell people things I don’t believe myself, and I didn’t believe this at all. There I was in a car with a guy I knew nothing about, going off to see God. I felt I could assert with some confidence that this was not happening.

Sidney was in an amazingly good mood. He brought a folder of calculations and a few measuring devices. He told me how glad he was that I was coming, and how he had done well to confide in me. He said how comforting it was to know that he had brought a minister, someone who would know how to talk to God when He showed up. I just listened and drove and thought ministerial thoughts, like “This really stupid. I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

We arrived at the park with about half an hour to spare. Sidney set up his devices, took some readings and did some last-minute fine-tuning of his calculations. I had brought three folding chairs from the church, and I set them up—one for each of us, and one in the spot that Sidney designated. “How long is He going to be here?” I asked.

“Two minutes and twenty-three seconds.”

With a minute to go, we sat down in our folding chairs, facing the empty one. I stared at the spot Sidney had indicated and felt unbelievably stupid. What would Jim Steinkamp, the Board President, think if he could see me here? Maybe this whole thing was a Candid Camera episode. Maybe the entire Ministerial Relations Committee would step out at the appropriate moment and have a good laugh. Sidney looked at his watch. “Three, two, one …”

The air began to shimmer a little. No, no, I was kidding myself—it was shimmering a lot. Lights and colors of all sorts were coming in and out of focus, starting to take shape and then (just when you could almost say what the shape was) coming apart again. “He’s here,” Sidney said, barely whispering.

And He was. Or at least something was. I saw a fairly dapper-looking man in a well-tailored gray suit. He sat on my folding chair with one leg crossed over the other and looked at us with considerable interest. “Very, very good,” he said. “I thought someone would be here.”

“God?” Sidney asked.

“I suppose. If you have to call me something. Yes, ‘God’ will do just fine.”

He looked, well, I have a hard time saying what he looked like. He was there, quite clearly, and yet He wasn’t. It was like those Magic Eye posters that you stare at for twenty minutes or so before you see something. And when you finally see it, you think “How much of this am I imagining?”

That’s exactly what I was thinking. There he was: male, white, English-speaking, a few years older than me, but still in good shape. And I thought, well, how else was I going to see Him? My brain needed to call up a God image in order to deal with the situation at all, and this is what it had in stock.

My mouth was all dried out. “Why, uh, why are you here? I mean, here now and all?”

Thus spake the great Pastor Tenhaus, humanity’s spokesman.

“Just thought I’d stop by to check things out, see how you’re doing. Can’t stay long—there’s a lot to do, you know—but I like to pop in around the end of each day and look at my work close up.”


“I think it’s good. Fine. Marvelous. You’re doing great here. Even better than I expected.”

Sidney sat and took it all in. He was leaning his chin on his fists and didn’t seem to be planning to say anything. “We’re doing fine?” I asked.

“Yes. Of course. Didn’t you think so?”

“Well, um, I mean … we’ve got wars and famines. Our population’s out of control. We’re polluting everything. We can’t feed everybody and we can’t stop killing each other.”

“Oh, you’ll figure something out.” He tapped his finger against my forehead. “You’re an intelligent species, you know. I have faith in you.”

“You have faith in us?”

“Well, of course. I did a good job on you, you know. You’re well made. Well enough, anyway.”

For the first time in days, I felt the disquieting itch of intelligence in my brain. “Well enough for what?” I asked.

The lights began to shimmer around Him again. “Sorry I can’t stay longer. It’s been wonderful getting to see you, having this conversation. You’re so much more interesting than the ferns. Can’t wait to see what happens when I pop in tomorrow. Well, I suppose you two will be dead by then, but I’m sure someone will figure it out and be here to talk to me. It’s been lovely. This is a marvelous world, you know. I think I’ll retire here, once I slow down enough. Do try to enjoy it.”

The lights got brighter and the image broke apart. I blinked my eyes a few times, and looked over at Sidney, who was blinking his. “We’ve seen God,” he said.

“Yes,” I agreed, “for all the good it did us.”


I never told my congregation about my conversation with God. It was a week before I told my wife, and then only because she knew that something was up and pulled it out of me. I don’t know whether she believed me or not, but at least she never made an issue of it. Neither did I.

After I dropped Sidney off at his apartment, I never saw him again. Patty tried to look him up after I finally told her the story, but he was gone to somewhere-or-other, and nobody knew quite when he would be back. If she thought this weakened the credibility of my story, she never said so.

That was quite a few years ago now. For a while I tried to put it out of my mind, focus on the day-to-day, and ignore the fact that I had spent two minutes and twenty-three seconds with God without getting the slightest bit of useful information from Him. But lately, as I too begin to slow down and think about my eventual retirement, I find myself coming back to this episode more and more often.

Sometimes, as I stand in the pulpit making eye contact and trying to put energy into my voice, I imagine that I see Sidney sitting near the front, resting his chin on his fists. Sometimes I even imagine I see the dapper old man. He stands in the back by the ushers, and listens to my words of wisdom, apparently oblivious to the divorced women in the back row giving him the once-over.

And maybe (now that I’m old enough to start lowering my expectations of myself) the information I got out of him wasn’t so useless after all. Maybe we are made well enough, and maybe we don’t need to know what for. And it is a marvelous world. With the amount of time I have left (however long that might be) I’m going to try to enjoy it.