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By James Dobson
By Kurt Bruner
Read by Bernard Setaro Clark
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Things are finally looking up for Matthew Adams. As the top earner at MedCom Associates he has started to crawl out of the financial hole created during his “dark days.” And now, out of the blue, a mysterious woman invites him to join a confidential research initiative. She says it will ease the mounting economic crisis. But at what cost to Matthew’s fragile sanity, and his tortured soul?
Pastor Alex Ware faces a serious problem. The honeymoon period at Christ Community Church has ended. The finance committee says they can’t afford another year of dwindling income and dismal growth. The board wants action, now! Aging parishioners would gladly allocate a portion of their estate to help. But only if Alex stops condemning the transition industry and starts affirming what the Youth Initiative calls “our heroic volunteers.”
In Fatherless and Childless, Dr. James Dobson and Kurt Bruner depicted a time in which present-day trends come to sinister fruition. This eagerly awaited conclusion vividly imagines what happens when God’s image on earth is exchanged for the horrors of a GODLESS world.
When I first approached Dr. Dobson about partnering to author a series of novels he told me a story that seemed to confirm our chosen theme.
As a young man Jim Dobson became a professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and served on the attending staff at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. Thrown into the influential world of academia, he zealously sought wisdom from a man he admired more than any other, his namesake, James Dobson Sr. He ran everything by his dad and mentor, relishing the opportunity to discuss the ideas he was encountering with a man who possessed both a formidable intellect and a heart for God.
In 1968 Jim Dobson wrapped a Christmas present to give to his father, a best-selling book written by Stanford University professor Paul R. Ehrlich. The Population Bomb warned of mass starvation during coming decades due to overpopulation. The book had begun shaping a widespread belief that we needed to limit population growth to avert a global catastrophe. Dr. Dobson handed the gift to his father anticipating yet another round of discussion about popular ideas. But to his surprise, after glancing at the cover and reading the book jacket, his father handed it back to his son. As Dr. Dobson explained years later, “That was one of only two books my father refused to read. He knew, intuitively, that it was more than just wrong. It was also evil.”
The Population Bomb turned out to be groundless. Rather than mass starvation, the world experienced an agricultural explosion that has made food more plentiful and less expensive than was ever imagined possible. But the facts did not prevent Ehrlich’s claims from continuing to shape modern assumptions and, tragically, choices.
All three books in this trilogy project what will happen three decades in the future when those choices come to sinister fruition. The economic pyramid will flip. Too few young will be forced to bear the financial burden of a rapidly aging population. Imagining what will transpire in such a world does not require a penchant for prophecy or speculation. One need only project current demographic and cultural trends. Decades of falling fertility have already created the future we depict.
In Fatherless we explored one of the causes, men neglecting the honor and responsibilities of paternity. In Childless we asked what happens when sex is severed from the life-giving joys of maternity. In the final installment, Godless, we confront the chilling implications of Dostoyevsky’s claim that without God all things are permissible.
These books pull back the curtain from an assault on human thriving that began when our first parents believed a rebel’s lie. As we’ve said earlier, a happy home is the highest expression of God’s image on earth. And there are forces working to destroy that image, not all of them visible to human eyes. But there is also a resilient beauty and hope found in God’s design for families, something the most ardent forces of hell cannot destroy.
August 3, 2044
Veronica’s eyes flew open as she felt the rising sun warm her face. Panic forced her upright. “Where are we?”
No response. Louder. “Mommy?”
A wordless, groggy moan came from the front passenger seat.
“Mommy!” Veronica insisted. “Are we almost there?”
Sleep’s time warp had displaced the six-year-old. She looked out the window in search of clues while rebuking herself with a huff. She had broken a promise. Actually, three promises. “I will stay awake. I will stay awake…stay awake.” They were the last words she could remember saying before losing her battle with the gravitational pull of a four a.m. departure.
A range of mountains on the horizon told her they had escaped the plains of Nebraska. They must be in Colorado, land of Grandpa’s ticklish whiskers and Grandma’s fresh-baked cookies.
The smile of anticipation was quickly replaced by a frown when Veronica remembered that Grandma was gone. Grandpa lived alone now. And Grandpa didn’t make cookies.
But he still wore Grandma’s favorite aftershave. He still hugged Veronica tightly against his tummy whenever she came to visit. And his enclosed porch sheltered the rich aroma of expensive cigars whenever they played go fish while sipping soda.
Her grin returned. So did her impatience for details.
“Daddy?” she said toward the driver’s side of the car. “Are we in Colorado yet?”
Another groggy moan.
Following his usual pattern, Veronica’s father had pulled the car into the AutoDrive lane before dozing off. He always insisted they hit the road before sunrise because he wanted to take advantage of the two-and-a-half-hour stretch between North Platte and Denver. His daughter’s question invaded the hypnotic hum of tires massaging the highway. He glanced at a dashboard screen.
“We’ll be there soon, sweetheart,” he mumbled. Then he repositioned his head against a propped pillow.
She huffed again, crossing her arms at the offense. Daddy still treated her like a five-year-old! Did he honestly think she would be satisfied with such a vague answer?
“How soon?” she demanded.
Her father sat up while rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He looked through the rearview mirror, then gave a single chuckle toward her annoyed expression.
“Sorry, sweetheart.” He looked more purposefully toward the dashboard. “We’ll arrive in precisely thirty-seven minutes.”
Another panic. Could she color a picture that fast? The best part of their monthly visit was when Grandpa escorted Veronica into what he called “the gallery,” an empty bedroom where works by “my favorite granddaughter” were taped to the wall. They both knew she was his only granddaughter. She had no siblings or cousins. But she loved hearing him say it anyway.
Unwilling to disappoint her grandfather, Veronica reached to tug on Mommy’s blouse. It worked. Danielle Bentley sat up and faced her daughter. A confused gaze gradually morphed into attentive concern. “Good morning, sunshine.”
Veronica waited while her mom relished a stretching yawn.
“I need my coloring book,” she said urgently.
Twenty minutes later Veronica added a finishing touch to a picture she couldn’t help admiring. Mrs. Angelina actually looked like a kitty cat thanks to careful attention to the shape of her ears. On the previous visit Grandpa had mistakenly assumed Veronica had colored him a bunny, embarrassing Veronica and humiliating his cat. Mrs. Angelina must have resented that picture whenever she walked through the gallery toward her litter box. No self-respecting kitty wants to be portrayed as a rabbit.
“Did you remember the form?” Veronica heard her father ask.
“On the tablet,” answered Mommy.
“I mean the printed copy.”
“In the suitcase,” she reassured him.
“Dad hates digital records. He thinks anything you can’t touch with your hands or sign with real ink will be manipulated by Big Brother.”
“He doesn’t have a brother,” she said.
“I know that,” her father said while frowning at the missed punch line. “I meant Big Brother from 1984. You know, George Orwell.”
Veronica’s mother thought for a moment, then said, “My mom would have been in grade school in 1984.”
“Never mind,” said her husband. “My point is that we need both the digital and the hard copy. I don’t want anything to prevent finalizing the change.” His voice hushed. “I can think of much better ways to spend every fourth weekend than making this drive.”
Overhearing the comment, Veronica tried to imagine how else they would get to Grandpa’s house. “Are we gonna fly next time?” she asked excitedly.
Her father looked confused by the question. Mommy answered instead. “No, baby girl, we’re not going to fly. Daddy is just tired from the trip.”
Veronica wondered why sleeping made her daddy so tired, but she turned her attention to more immediate concerns.
“What do you think?” she said while handing her mother the picture.
“My goodness!” she said. “Grandpa will love this one.”
“So will Mrs. Angelina,” Veronica added proudly.
The girl’s mother reached into a travel bag by her feet and pulled out a small tablet. She handed it to her daughter. “We have about ten or fifteen minutes to go,” she said. “Why don’t you play a game while Daddy and I talk?”
The mother turned toward her husband. “What if he’s changed his mind again?”
“He hasn’t,” the man insisted.
“That’s what you said last time.”
“He can’t. There’s too much riding on this. He knows that.”
“He knew it last time, but he still said no.”
Veronica’s father appeared to be biting the inside of his cheek while breathing deeply through his nose. “Don’t remind me.”
“Maybe we should wait a while. You know, give him some space to clear his head. He’s probably still grieving.”
“It’s been almost five months, for Pete’s sake!” he said impatiently. “He needs to move on with his life.”
“I’m not sure talking about his death is the best way to do that.”
“Nobody’s talking about death. He’s healthy as a horse. He’ll probably live another ten years. Twenty maybe.”
“How do you discuss a will without talking about death?” The mother glanced back at her daughter, then hushed her voice further still. It didn’t help. Veronica could still hear every word. “And if he’s so healthy, why not wait a few more months?”
Resentment squeezed through the man’s clenching teeth. “Because the investors need a long-term guarantee now. One signature and they’ll fund the expansion. Without it I’m sunk.” He lowered his intensity to a whisper. “Besides, his current will isn’t fair to us.” A quick glance at the rearview mirror. “Or to Veronica.”
The woman looked out the window. “We’re coming up on the exit.”
The man quickly tapped an icon to disengage AutoDrive, then pulled into the far right lane.
“He’s your father,” she said with a glib wave of her hand. “Do what you want. But I still think you’re rushing things.”
A dismissive humph ended the conversation.
* * *
As the car pulled into the long driveway, Veronica pressed her face against the window to find the spot where Grandpa normally stood whenever watering a stubborn patch of dry grass. No trace. He must be out back enjoying a morning coffee or cigar.
She took one last admiring look at Mrs. Angelina’s ears before reaching for a handle that would only turn on Daddy’s cue. Seconds later she bounced toward the house with the portrait in hand. She climbed the front steps and pressed a doorbell that she knew would release any of a dozen tunes Grandpa called “oldies but goodies.” She didn’t recognize today’s selection.
“Pearl Jam!” her father shouted while approaching from behind. “Classic.”
Veronica listened at the door, waited, then pressed again.
“Black Eyed Peas!” the man guessed while joining her on the porch. “No. Chili Peppers!”
“Did he know we were coming?” the mother asked her husband.
“I sent it to his schedule yesterday.” He glanced at the time. “We’re a bit early. He’s probably out back.”
Veronica leaped from the porch and raced around the side of the house to catch her unsuspecting grandfather by surprise. Midway, however, she came face-to-face with Mrs. Angelina. She fully expected the cat to act aloof in retaliation for her previous artistic flop. But Mrs. Angelina instead ran her body along Veronica’s leg as if greeting a long-lost, deeply missed friend.
The girl picked up the kitty with one hand while carefully protecting her new and improved portrait with the other. She carried them both toward her parents who, by this time, had dialed a security code that unlocked the front door. She followed them into the house. Her mommy’s face told her that something wasn’t right.
“Dad?” Veronica’s father called out. No response.
Mrs. Angelina’s body seemed to tense, as if she was reacting to the same smell invading Veronica’s nostrils.
“Something stinks,” she said while holding her nose. It was a stark contrast from the cologne and cigar smoke that usually greeted her senses.
“The power must have gone out,” suggested her mom. “Spoiled freezer meat?”
“Stay with Mommy, Veronica,” her daddy said while inching toward the kitchen. Ever confident, even brash, he now appeared hesitant. Possibly even scared.
Just then Mrs. Angelina writhed violently to free herself from Veronica’s embrace before scurrying up a winding staircase toward the bedrooms. In her effort to prevent Mrs. Angelina’s escape Veronica tore the picture. Angry, she ran after the cat to scold her for ruining Grandpa’s gift.
“Wait, Veronica!” her mother called out. But Veronica was too upset to listen. Mrs. Angelina needed a time-out!
The naughty feline ran through slightly ajar French doors into the master bedroom. Veronica followed, then crawled toward the bed and leaned her cheek against the floor, expecting to see Mrs. Angelina in the spot where she hid whenever trying to avoid a playful child. Or, in this case, escape a well-deserved rebuke.
Then she heard two competing sounds: her mom ordering Veronica to come downstairs, and the faint meow of Mrs. Angelina in the adjoining bathroom.
Veronica moved toward the second, where she encountered a sight that would haunt her dreams for years to come.
* * *
Danielle sat on the lawn cradling her daughter while her husband spoke to the officer who was tapping details into a small tablet. The policeman had already questioned Danielle about the only clue either of them had found: an empty vial labeled PotassiPass. A serum, he had explained, commonly used by the transition industry.
“Wait. Transition?” Veronica’s dad said. “At home?”
“The latest thing,” said the officer. “But somebody messed up on this one. They’re supposed to alert us in advance that it’s happening. And they should have scheduled the post to occur within twenty-four hours.”
“Post-transition processing. There are strict guidelines.”
A moment passed. “So you think my father volunteered?”
The officer shrugged. “What else? Dressed for a funeral. Sitting in the bathtub. A vial of PotassiPass lying beside the body.”
The officer swiped his tablet screen up and then down as if looking for a missing detail.
“But I must say, I’ve never seen anyone go it alone before. Is there anyone you can think of who might have assisted? A sibling perhaps? Or a close friend?”
“Sir?” prodded the policeman.
“Yes. I’m sorry. You were saying?”
“Can you think of anyone who might have assisted your father?”
“Assisted? No. No one. He lived alone. My mother passed away a few months ago and…”
“I see,” the officer interrupted as if hoping to sniff out an important clue. “May I ask how she died?”
“Cancer. A long battle.”
“Oh.” A brief pause. “I’m sorry for your loss. Both losses.”
“Thank you,” the man said mindlessly. “But I still don’t understand.”
“Understand what, sir?”
“If my father was planning to transition, why wasn’t I told? I thought transitions required family co-approval.”
“Used to,” the officer explained. “That part of the law changed a few months back. I’m sure you remember the hubbub. It was all over the news for about ten days in March. Or was it April? I can’t remember. Created a lot of noise at the time.”
“I don’t watch much news.”
“Good for you. Depressing stuff.”
“So my father could have scheduled himself for a transition without informing anyone?”
“Technically, no. The law requires that someone agree to assist and to ensure health-code compliance. But there’s not much we can do to enforce that stipulation. Heck, we can’t even hit the violators with a fine.”
The officer chuckled, then quickly shifted to the more important issue at hand. He pointed to the girl, who was still clinging tightly to her mother’s torso. “How is she?”
“Pretty shaken up,” said the father.
They took a few steps toward mother and child. The officer put his hand gently on the little girl’s head. His eyes met the mother’s. “I suppose it’s fortunate you showed up when you did. Take it from me, it would have been much worse after a few more days of decomposition.”
Veronica’s mom offered a slight nod of acknowledgment. It was true. Grandfather had looked mostly himself, albeit stiff, cold, and lifeless.
“It was Grandma’s favorite,” Veronica said between weepy sniffles.
“What’s that, sweetheart?” asked her mom.
“Grandma said Grandpa looked very handsome in his black suit. It was her favorite.”
“Is that so?” asked the officer. “I bet he wanted to look his best for her.”
Veronica cheered slightly at the suggestion. She looked toward her parents. “You mean Grandpa went to see Grandma?”
Her parents appeared momentarily flustered. Neither answered.
“I’m sure of it,” said the officer. “They’re probably talking about you this very moment.”
The hint of a smile appeared on Veronica’s face. She looked at the policeman. “Really?”
“Really. And what’s more…”
The officer halted when he noticed Veronica’s father motioning him away from the scene. They stepped away, leaving Veronica and her mother alone on the grass.
The girl lowered her gaze, then settled back into her mommy’s comforting embrace. “Mommy,” she said softly. “Why did Grandpa go?”
“I don’t know, baby girl,” her mother whispered while wiping moisture from the girl’s tear-stained cheek. “I don’t know.”
A stretch of silence passed between them.
“Do you think Grandpa is with Grandma?”
Danielle thought for a moment before responding. “I’d like to think so, Veronica. But I can’t be sure.”
Another moment of quiet grief.
“I m-m-miss them,” Veronica quivered.
“I know you do, baby girl. I know you do.”
Alex Ware held the doorknob to take one last deep breath before rejoining the meeting. His “quick break” had run long enough, even though he hadn’t yet fully regained his composure. Not that anyone would have noticed, since he’d managed to excuse himself from the room before actually saying anything retaliatory. Good thing. Board members like their pastors calm and placid. His job was to model the Jesus who hugged innocent children, not the Jesus who chased money changers out of the temple.
He tried whispering a petition for the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job. But prayer felt out of reach. So he turned the handle, hoping God already understood the mess in which he found himself, and the land mines awaiting him on the other side of the door.
He entered a room divided into three distinct factions.
Phil Crawford and Kenny James were huddled near a touch screen, eyeing a diagram that hadn’t been there before Alex’s escape. It contained two overlapping circles with arrows pointing in several directions. Scribbled text read “Economic engine?” Both men loved undecipherable charts and corporate lingo that invariably highlighted their pastor’s lack of business acumen. Alex knew he had no interest in or capacity for running the church like a corporation. So did they.
Stephen Wilding stood by the window with Lydia Donovitz and Mary Sanchez. He appeared politely disinterested as the women sipped diet sodas and chatted about matters much more pressing than whatever appeared on the meeting’s agenda: how well Mary’s daughter was doing in her sophomore year of college, when Lydia’s husband would return from Europe, or, Alex could only hope, how many volunteers they had recruited to fill vacancies in the preschool and third-grade classes.
The third faction, consisting of Roberto Wilson and Brandon Baxter, was seated at the table minding its own business. In their early thirties, both were slightly younger than the pastor. Each was fairly new to the church board. They represented an effort to bring “fresh eyes” and “new blood” to the leadership team.
Brandon had some connection to the founding pastor. His grandson? Or perhaps his nephew? But Alex had no idea whether the newcomer might help tip the balance of power slightly in the pastor’s direction.
As it was, the most influential voice on the board was that of the chairman, Phil Crawford, who finally noticed Alex’s return to the room. “Good,” he said while tapping a SAVE icon on the board and returning to the table. “Ready to resume?”
“Ready. Sorry for the delay.” The pastor’s voice exuded a tone of grateful deference while his eyes moved quickly from person to person—a show of warmth that also helped him gauge positions. If they met his gaze or nodded it meant they understood his dilemma. Those who looked away probably sided with Phil. Downward glances implied wavering.
None of the seven looked him in the eyes. But only two looked away.
“I believe we were just about to vote on the question of whether…”
“Before we do that,” Alex interrupted while pointing toward the digital board, “I wonder if you might explain the diagram.”
He knew Phil wouldn’t be able to resist the invitation—a clever distraction Alex would soon regret.
“Glad you asked,” Phil said eagerly, returning to the drawing. “Kenny and I were just talking about the central question that frames everything on this evening’s agenda.”
Alex glanced down at his tablet. They had discussed four of six items.
Worship Attendance: A slight decline this month, but still better than it had been before Alex’s arrival. During the prior three years, attendance at the worship services had plummeted from nearly two thousand to below eight hundred on campus, plus a few hundred online participants. Alex’s youthful vigor and engaging teaching style had seemed to stabilize the situation by attracting a younger crowd. A fairly successful year, Alex thought. Not good enough, the board had concluded.
Giving: Unlike attendance, income had continued to fall. The Christ Community personnel committee had hired Alex, a progressive young man in his early forties, hoping he might bring new vision and passion to the congregation. And he had, some. But the growth had been largely offset by a continued departure of the elderly. Not his fault, the board agreed. But still a challenge, since young attendees tended to give less than the dwindling older crowd.
The Mortgage: The prior pastor had led the church through a capital campaign that had raised enough money for an impressive down payment on its new worship facility. The rest of the project had been funded through a low-interest loan it intended to renegotiate later. “Later” landed on Alex’s watch. Unfortunately, thanks to the post-census meltdown of ’42, banks were now charging exorbitant interest rates. The higher mortgage payment coupled with lower giving translated into increasingly tense meetings with the church finance committee that, it just so happened, was also chaired by Phil Crawford.
Outreach: Six months after Alex arrived the board realized a younger face with an engaging teaching style was not enough to restore the church’s glory days. So they formed something they called the Dream Team: a committee that would solicit suggestions about how the church might more effectively reach the surrounding community. Every board meeting featured a new list of ideas gleaned from a variety of sources, including what Phil called “benchmarking” trips to larger, more successful area churches. Only a few of the suggestions ever got implemented, and none of those received the promised budget or volunteer support. But that didn’t stop the flood of dreams from consuming an inordinate share of the pastor’s schedule.
The fifth item carried the label Bentley Donation. It had triggered thirty minutes of disagreement just before Alex left the room.
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