THE FIRST MARTIAN CHURCH OF GOD
“Did you hear the big news,” Smith asked Spender, “about how the NASA Colonization team discovered life on Mars?”
Spender stopped stirring his coffee, the black stick swirling in concentric circles on its own through the cloudy concoction. He set the cup down and licked his lips. His brown eyes glistened under the solar fluorescent lighting. “It was a matter of time before they either found the Martians or declared that Mars was truly devoid of life,” Spender answered, smiling. “What do they look like? The Martians, I mean.”
Smith grunted and shook his head. “That all depends on which channel you listen to. CNN4.0 says they look just like us and that we should begin an immigration program immediately to integrate some of them among our borders.”
“That would be their style,” Spender sighed.
“And Fox News2.7 has flashed pictures clearly taken from old Science Fiction television shows. Since most of today’s youth hasn’t seen those classics like Farscape and Star Trek, they are taken in by the images.”
“In other words, no one knows for sure?”
“That’d be my guess,” Smith said. He took a long pull of his coffee and Spender finished preparing his own drink. They drank in silence, sinking into plush ultravelvet chairs. An occasional hem or a hum cut through the silence like a subtle knife.
“Do you realize what this means?” Spender ventured at last. Smith looked over at him with raised eyebrows but said nothing. “It means that we need to have a meeting with our Missions team.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Smith said. “Do you really think that they are going to want to send us out to Mars as Missionaries?”
“I bet many churches are going to be having that discussion,” Spender said. “I would guess that the Catholics and the Baptists and all the others are going to want to be the first to plant a church on Mars. We should want to do the same.”
“We don’t even know anything for sure,” Smith answered. “For all we know the Martians could be hostile. Could speak a telekinetic language that we’ll never understand. Might have been a hallucination of the team. They probably already have their own religion.”
“But think of the possibilities, Jonah. We’ve spread the Word of God to every tribe and every nation on the earth now. Many of us believed that Christ would return when that happened and we’re still waiting. That must mean there is another nation needing the Gospel. What if the Martians are that nation?”
Smith harrumphed and rose from his chair. He paused in the doorway, not looking back at Spender. “Even if you are right, by the time you get the funds to fly out there and plant a church there will be dozens of others already there.” Then, he walked away.
In 2033, two years after the first Martian sighting took place, construction of the first church on Mars began. The Catholics had pooled together resources in order to fund the construction of a special shuttle designed to carry a dozen of their most devout and fervent missionaries into space. The news stations around the world unanimously heralded it as one of the most important moments in the history of the Catholic Church and the ground-breaking session was livestreamed to everyone’s telecast screen. The event brought a vibrancy and relevance to the Catholic Church that hadn’t been seen since the Middle Ages. Pope Imperius I enjoyed a surge in numbers, both congregational and financial, for months as the progress was regularly updated to the citizens around the globe.
No one expected the disaster to strike. A massive dust storm swept through the area as construction neared its climax, obstructing the view of every visual recording device and deafening the sound recorders. The storm raged for three weeks straight, abating on the day when the final reveal of the church was to take place. When the video came through at last, all that remained of the Catholic Church building was a pile of reddish rubble. Nothing more was heard from the expedition team. And the number of Catholics plummeted below where it had been prior to the expedition.
“Did you hear that they are making a portable machine capable of terraforming a patch of Mars?” Smith asked. He resumed his task of picking soggy bits of apple from his teeth with a fingernail.
“Are they now?” Spender asked with raised eyebrows. “What would be the benefit of such a device?”
Smith inspected a rather long sliver of apple, shrugged, and stuck it back into his mouth. “Apparently it would make that patch of land like the Earth.”
“What part of the Earth?”
“Hell if I know. The best part of it?”
“Well who decides what the best part is? Are we talking the jungles of the Amazon or the deserts of Egypt?” Spender set down the book he was reading.
“What does it matter, Spender? It isn’t like either one of us is going to be affected by it. They are certain this terraforming will prevent the same disaster from striking a second time. Word is that the Lutherans are going to be launching next.”
“No one else is planning on sending out a church planting team?”
“Not yet, and who can blame them?” Smith took a long pull from his coffee cup. Spender shook his head as half of it dribbled down Smith’s chin and clung to his unkempt beard. “After the failure of the Catholic mission no one was in a real hurry to be the second.”
“And then if this one fails, is that it? The Martians will be given up as unreachable?”
“Shit Spender,” Smith said. “You still got a thing for reaching these Martians, huh?”
“Someone needs to burn with a fire to reach the lost. God’s laws are written on the heart of every being on Earth. Why wouldn’t it be the same on Mars?”
“For all we know these Martians are little more than animals. I mean, we haven’t found a single building with all of our scans and satellite images for years.”
Spender was silent, thoughtful. After a while Smith got up and left the room, shaking his head and cursing under his breath. Spender began to pray.
In 2035 the second church-planting shuttle was launched to Mars. It carried two dozen missionaries, the materials for the church and three dozen mercenaries to ensure the safety of the church and those doing God’s work. The Lutherans funded the expedition, seeing their own numbers inflate rapidly. Their leadership took the extra tithe money and fulfilled their mission on Earth: placing a Lutheran Church next to every Catholic Church, making sure their church was larger and more grandiose in appearance. The Catholic Church numbers dwindled further as many found the appeal of a larger, fancier church too much to resist.
The planting team landed on Mars without setback or delay. They carefully unloaded the Porta-Terraform device, one of only two sold in the world, and switched the machine on. People safe in their homes watched in awe as the machine generated a dome of space and, within months, green grass and verdant vegetation started to grow. On the day that the plants began to grow an anonymous source purchased a third Porta-Terraform device and no more were ever made.
For months the team of missionaries labored under the dome. They had studied every hour of the Catholic livestream and understood the design the Catholics had used. Their own approach was similar, only magnified to be bigger and more visually appealing. They knew how to steal a crowd on Earth and this was their time to steal a planet of worshippers on Mars. Winds howled and dust storms battered the dome of terraformed space but the machine held up. They were safe under their dome of protection. Or so they thought.
The church would be completed in four days. It was more magnificent than anyone had dreamed. And then disaster struck. Mars had dust storms but the Earth had wind terrors of its own. A scrap of loose paper had lain on the plush grass for days, idle and sticking out like a marshmallow in a cup of hot chocolate. A gust of wind pierced the air and the sky darkened. The missionaries felt a chill run through their bodies and their clothes grew damp and sticky with sweat. A piercing whistle knifed through the Martian air, constant and unending. The mercenaries fingered the safety off of their Oblit-O-Rays and did what they knew how: pointed the weapons menacingly in every direction with scowls plastered on their faces. But their foe felt no fear at this sight.
The world watched the inky funnel cloud shred through the church, throwing the pieces and parts aside like a toddler playing with blocks. A particularly massive chunk of stone landed on the Porta-Terraform device and crushed it under the weight. The grass and trees and flowers became exposed to the Martian elements and a dust storm swept in, merging with the tornado in rampant destruction. In under three hours the entire structure was destroyed, the missionaries and mercenaries were all dead or missing, and the grass was covered in a heavy layer of auburn dust. The Lutheran Church had its numbers dwindle as low as the Catholic Church and was forced to shut down all of their new locations. The world watched as those churches became museums and fitness centers and even a few strip clubs.
“Isn’t it crazy, Spender?” Smith asked. “Hey, Spender!”
Spender looked up from his Bible. He hadn’t been listening for the past ten minutes but he nodded, agreeing with his old friend. His finger rested between the pages of Acts as he closed his Bible. “Why do you think it is so crazy, Smith?” he ventured to make it seem like he had listened. Perhaps he’d be able to pick up enough of the missed conversation to carry on.
“Another rocket was shot down on its way to Mars. That makes the third one to unsuccessfully make it out there to plant a church. Before you know it this whole Mars Missions thing will fade into the past, eh? Kinda like your own ambition did.”
“Just so,” Spender agreed. Had Smith been watching his face, listening to the tone of his voice, he would have found a different response in those words. But Smith plowed along with the momentum of a train that doesn’t realize the tracks are about to run out ahead of it.
“I mean, it was always likely to fail. Colonizing Mars. Planting Martian Churches. Converting the Martians. We haven’t even really had a proper sighting of them. Just some blurry images that they tell us are the Martians and a bunch of dead stiffs laying in graveyards of rubble to show for it.” Smith started waving the pickle in his hand with gusto, sloshing juice in every direction. “Fucking Russians were behind it all, I’d venture. They still don’t know how to grasp with losing the Cold War and know they wouldn’t win a second one either. So they target us in other ways, make us look like foolish explorers.”
“Mmhmm,” Spender said. He flipped his Bible back open and resumed his reading. Smith would be at his conspiracy theorizing for the next hour or so. The result was a perfect opportunity to get in some more study of the early church. Spender painted the page with purple and yellow and blue highlighter ink, carefully color-coding each vital passage. Someday it would come in handy. Someday soon, perhaps. Someday when he was far away from Smith and his antagonistic remarks that made Spender ashamed of being called his peer. But that day wasn’t here quite yet.
The sixth Martian expedition was going to be the biggest yet. The hype for the launch was immense. After three consecutive failures to reach Mars, people were determined to see the program get back on the right track. No expense was spared in the construction of the shuttle which meant there was far too much red tape to cut and too much publicity to actually focus on the task at hand. Delay after delay arose setting the program back six months, a year, three years. Five years after construction began, in 2044, the program was finally scrapped and the shuttle became a shiny display on exhibition. It became a monument of something, everyone agreed on that, but of what no one knew for sure. Which meant no one knew just what to do with it. So it sat there, shiny and massive and so close to being complete. And no one did a thing with it, apart from making it a popular tourist attraction. After all, that is what the United States does best.
“Would you look at the size of this thing?” Smith asked. His electronic cigar dangled on the cusp of his lips, wobbling between them like a smoking teeter-totter before finally dropping to the marbled floor at his feet. Smith and Spender stared up at the full length of the shuttle for the first time.
“The biggest ever made and no intention of ever making another one. Or using this one.”
“Christ, man,” Smith swore. Spender glared at him for his choice of words and, finally, Smith’s face reddened when he realized what he had said. “Who would want to use such a thing as this? I already told you it was a waste of time to explore Mars. I’ve been saying that for years, actually. Now they can turn that funding toward something useful like colonizing under the ocean.”
“You think that is a worthier investment than reaching lost Martians?” Spender asked in a hushed tone.
“If they can be fooled into thinking Martians are real, maybe they’ll think they found a mermaid underwater. Or even finally stumble across Atlantis.” Silence blanketed the two men as other tourists bustled past them, snapping photographs and taking selfies throughout the exhibit. The two men stood like statues, staring up at the rocket. One man considered the possibilities with awe in his mind; the other shook his head in disbelief that his hard-earned tax dollars were wasted on this hunk of metal.
“You know,” Smith said, “I think this thing is more complete than it should be.” Spender’s head snapped toward his friend and the color drained from his face.
“Wh-what do you mean?” Spender asked. He spoke slowly and carefully as though each word was deliberately selected.
“I could have sworn the news reports had said that seven panels were missing along the bottom half but I only see two.”
“I remember them saying two. It was seven panels inside the ship,” Spender said. Smith thought about it for a moment and nodded.
“Yeah, I think you’re right. And here I was thinking our money was still being blown behind our backs! At least the Church puts tithes to good use. The government could learn a thing or two, you know?”
Spender nodded and the two men moved on to the next exhibit in the newly-constructed museum consisting of dozens of poorly-imagined paintings and sculptures of Martians. And the ship was immediately forgotten by one of them.
The Russians were the last to openly fire a rocket destined to Mars. Vodka flowed freely around the launch site the day of take-off. They had spent years stealing data through their intricate network of spies, compiling numbers hacked from three dozen computers and replicating engineering drawings that found their way to Russia through a system of bribes. All in all, they went about building the rocket in the proper Russian way and the end result looked like a conglomeration of the previous failed expeditions. A crew of thirteen men and women were given the honor of going on this mission, and a chimpanzee was thrown in for good measure. Las Vegas gave 53:1 odds that the chimp would be the only one to survive the mission and 6:1 odds that it would be the first to set foot on Mars. Las Vegas was ecstatic when the number of bets placed began to rival that of a World Series or a Super Bowl and realized they should have introduced gambling to the space program long ago.
Las Vegas was even more excited to learn that an asteroid collided with the rocket halfway on its voyage. The cold rock shredded through the rocket’s exterior like a lawnmower blade through tall grass. No one survived, although some held on to the belief that the chimp somehow survived in the nose of the rocket. All hopes were dashed three days later when the aforementioned nose crashed into a comet. Only one person had placed money on everyone dying in an asteroid collision, earning a mere pittance compared to what Las Vegas gained from the other bettors.
All other space programs were immediately scrapped and the money, as Smith had predicted, was immediately turned toward deep sea discovery. Scientists reasoned that there was no point in exploring the outer reaches of space when there was still so much area on Earth that was unexplored and uncolonized. No one noticed the slow repairs done to the rocket on display in the United States. At least not until it was far too late.
It launched without warning. The president thought he had inadvertently authorized World War III. Five other nations primed their weapons, ready to send a counterstrike the moment it became clear that they were the target. No one expected the rocket to continue out of the Earth’s orbit. The president was later forced to publicly apologize at the U.N. conference and, as a result, he fired the head of the Exploratory Committee for failing to include him in their plans to launch the rocket and the government shut down the museum. Nobody bothered to ask who had flown in the rocket. Not even Smith, who assumed his friend had found some nice woman and ran off to some exotic destination. This made him so jealous that he found himself a nice woman and ran off with her to Venice. That was the last time he thought of Spender.
This was the moment Spender had waited for all his life. This was his chance to preach the Gospel to those who have never heard the Gospel. To save the lost Martians when all others had failed. He spent his time well during the 220-day flight to Mars poring through the entire Bible again and again to understand how the Word had spread in the early days. He knew and understood what had allowed the Church to plant, grow, and even thrive in hostile nations. He was aware of what had been done wrong on the first attempts to bring Christianity to Mars and he was determined to succeed where they had failed even if no one knew he was successful because he left the holovision cameras back on Earth. His mission wasn’t about spreading his glory, but rather spreading His glory to the Martians.
Every day Spender knelt in prayer and wept and praised God. He fasted each week and wore simple clothing of sackcloth and sandals throughout the entire expedition. His beard and hair both grew long and he maintained them as best as he could without tapping into too much of his limited water supply. The lines around his eyes multiplied like amoeba and his face grew thin and worn. His complexion turned ashen and his joints ached non-stop. Somehow he had gotten old in the years while working on his plan to get to Mars. It had been kept at bay while he had schemed and stole away time in prayer, when he had spent his days and nights studying so many aspects of the early Church, the Gospel, the laws of Moses and the Prophets. He dedicated years to learning how to navigate through space, how to construct a rocket, how to fly and land one, and how to thrive in hostile environments. The clock had stopped for him, at least where his body was concerned, to give him time to accomplish his daring venture but now it was back with a vengeance. It aged him twenty years over the 220 days and when he set foot on the Martian dust, he was a far different man than the one who had taken off from Earth. In more than just appearance.
Spender stepped out of the rocket and walked down the polished silver slats of the ramp. Under one arm was tucked a worn, faded Bible and under the other a Porta-Terraform device. One had cost him a large chunk of his savings; one had cost him his life. He could hardly remember what his life had been like before he had been saved. Those memories weren’t particularly missed by Spender. The heel of his sandal pressed into the soft red dirt of the planet’s surface. He was here at last. His life’s work was about to be fulfilled.
He pressed the red button on the Porta-Terraform device. With a whirr and a whoosh a transparent bubble appeared around the machine, pulsing and swelling in size. The red soil beneath Spender’s feet became hardy black soil when the bubble reached down to it. He held his breath in awe as he watched the machine transform the immediate area into the hospitable landscape of earth. And then he turned it off. The enlarged bubble shrunk in size, constricting around the device before disappearing like water sucked down a drain. It worked and that was enough for now. He wasn’t here to change the planet. He was here for something more important: to save souls.
Spender spent three days transporting his supplies and belongings from his rocket to the cave where he would make his home. It was a three-hour trek across the cold and barren surface of Mars but it would be the perfect place for him. It provided protection from the elements and had several chambers honeycombed throughout to provide different rooms. Three times a day he sat outside the mouth of the cave with his Bible. The first venture was for personal study of the Word. His second was spent in prayer and worship, singing hymns with arms raised toward the sky. And the third time each day was spent reading out loud from his Bible. This was the most important time, he thought, and it was given a full hour every day. He started with Genesis 1:1, in the beginning as was proper. By the end of the first week he thought he caught a glimpse, a momentary flicker of movement, out of the corner of his eye as he was reading. He smiled inwardly. They had come. They were listening.
Over the next three weeks he continued this routine with rigid regularity. He had set his watch to Martian time and it would send a pulse of energy up his arm five minutes before he was set to begin. His beard grew longer, his clothes became simpler, and he spent less time in his terraformed room. And he was seeing movement every day, not just during his times of preaching but also during his times of study and worship. And either the Martians were moving more often or they were growing in number. Yet he could never be certain that he did actually see anything because they passed in fleeting moments within his peripheral, there and then gone like a bubble blown into a tangle of thorns. He could never get a glimpse of them, just the sight of motion. That didn’t stop him from believing that the turn-out during his reading of the laws of Moses was incredible and he imagined them going back to their homes, telling their neighbors and spouses about the great stories of the Bible, the deeds of these ancient men and the law of God demonstrating their sin.
He worked publicly with his ministry, and by night he labored on a project that no eyes could see. Not until it was ready. Not until they were ready, he corrected. When they saw it, his ministry would be at an end.
Six months into his Martian ministry something happened that hadn’t happened before. He stepped out of his cave for his daily worship in front of the Martians. His weathered sandals crunched the red dirt and pebbles under his feet. His brown wool robe flapped in the Martian wind, a piercing chill that sliced through his layers of protection. His beard was streaked with gray and hung to his knees so he had it tucked into the belt around his waist. He limped as he walked, leaning against a gnarled staff made from some Martian tree-like plant that grew underground. It was lime green in color and had a hardness similar to oak. He’d never have gotten away with going out in public like this on Earth, but this was Mars. It was just him and the imagined Martians.
He sat down on a rock and opened his Bible and happened to see Psalm 96 in front of him. “Sing to the Lord a new song,” he thought to himself as his eyes feasted on the Scripture. His heart swelled as he read the words and prayed to God to give him thanks for the path he had been led down. And then Spender started to sing. He didn’t know the words he was singing or why he chose those words but they just felt right. The tune was different, too, almost a mix of some old Christian music from twenty or thirty years prior. The music of his youth. With the heartfelt worship to match those old favorites – Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Matt Redman – Spender sang praise to the Lord on the barren Martian plain.
And his words were joined by another voice.
Spender didn’t understand his words but someone – some Martian – seemed to understand them perfectly. But Spender didn’t pause to think about it, he simply let the Spirit lead his voice and continued singing. The voice joining his was a warbling soprano that meshed well with his rusty baritone. A second and third voice joined in over the course of the hour and they all sang hymns and words of praise on the Martian surface. It was the most surreal experience of Spender’s life and it was all for him. His reward for his continued dedication to follow Christ. He marked it down as the high point of his life, unaware that this mark would be surpassed a few hours later.
He came out once more to preach to the Martians that he suspected were still out there listening. Tonight he was starting the book of Mark to give the Martians their first exposure to the actual Gospel. He stood on the red rock outside his cave, the top of the rock showing signs of wear from his daily practice. The first time he looked up from his Bible he nearly dropped it. Dozens of Martians were seated in the red dust, staring up at him with anxious smiles. He forced his eyes to return to the words he was reading and kept his voice calm in spite of his fluttering hearts. They looked almost human.
The similarities were definitely there. Same skeletal structure, slightly smaller stature, a slight red hue to their skin that may or may not have been a trick of his eyes or merely a covering of the dust from the ground. They had three raised ridges on their face: from the bridge of their nose to their scalp and one running horizontally along each cheekbone. Their hair was magnificent shades of silver or brass or amber that glimmered in the light. Their eyes had flecks of either silver, gold, or bronze in their irises. They wore skins from some native Martian animals that Spender had never seen, but he hadn’t really been searching for wildlife. He had been searching for them. And now they were here, in plain sight, eagerly listening to his words about Christ. Their appearance, although different in small and subtle ways, confirmed what Spender believed all along: they had a common creator.
He had never doubted, of course, but many nights had been spent arguing the point with Smith. His old friend had seen too many fanciful science fiction movies in his younger years and had the image of little green men with giant black eyes stuck in his eyes. Any time he suspected Spender of holding fanciful dreams of ministering to Martians he had said, “Take me to your leader,” in a nasally voice and laughed. Spender would be the one laughing now. This was clear, compelling evidence that God created the Heavens and the Earth and Mars. This could reshape many of Earth’s beliefs if he shared this experience with them. But as Spender continued to feed this flock of sheep with the Word of God he lost the desire to ever go home. His place was here with them. If he returned home, they would send out more rockets and colonize Mars. They would tap into the natural resources of the planet and run them dry like they were already doing on Earth. They would corrupt the Martians with casinos and strip clubs and government-funded programs. They would try to make this a second Earth, but those in charge on Earth were doing a piss-poor job of running their own planet. Why should Spender want them to have a shot at ruining another planet?
He worked feverishly over the course of the next week to put the finishing touches on his project. Every time he came outside for one of his three daily habits – studying, worshipping, and preaching – there was a growing crowd of Martians waiting for him. They all joined in during worship now and a few asked questions when he was preaching. He was surprised that he could understand them even though he only spoke Martian during his Spirit-led worship. And he was surprised that they understood him even though they spoke no English. He finished the book of Mark and felt led to jump right into John. His sessions got longer as the crowds grew larger and more interactive.
And then the day came when he was finished. He did his morning study and early afternoon worship as usual. When the time came to preach he invited them into his cave with Jesus’ famous words: “Follow me.” The crowd hesitated but one girl, nearly half Spender’s height, stepped forward. Her silver hair shone bright under the sun and she beamed a shy smile at him. When she stepped into the Sanctuary and saw it, she ran back outside and Spender could hear her speaking in an excited voice. There was a murmur of surprise from the crowd and Spender imagined the worst. He heard footsteps and realized they were leaving. His life’s work was at an end. Spender turned to the center and fell on his knees in prayer. He had let his Lord down, had driven away the Martians.
Hours later Spender still sat prostrate in front of the cross. His tears had dried on the ground beneath him. He had remained there, swirling in a torrent of despair and confusion. He had driven them away. His life’s work ruined because he had moved too soon, had drawn them in before they were ready. He spent that time wondering when the best time would have been. After reading Romans, Hebrews, Revelation? Maybe another run through Isaiah or the other Gospels? Or maybe it was as Smith had always said: The Martians weren’t intelligent beings capable of sin, weren’t capable of understanding any more than a chicken or a dog could. He had been so sure, though, that he had connected with them. But now his tears were dry, he had sat idle long enough. It was time for him to accept things as they were, not as he wished them to be. It was time to move on. But to what? He had dedicated so many years of his life to this. What else was there for him?
Spender rose to his feet and turned. He froze, stunned at the sight. Hundreds of Martians were laying prostrate, as he had lain moments ago. Tears came unbidden to his eyes, streaming down his cheeks. He turned back toward the front of the sanctuary, toward the cross hanging in the center with the image of Christ nailed upon it. And he sang praises to God once more, filled with the Spirit, joined by a chorus of Martian voices. And they sang late into the night.
So began the ministry of the First Martian Church of God. Thousands were baptized in the first year and many churches were planted along the surface of Mars. And the Earth remained as ignorant as Smith about the entire operation – life for them continued as though Mars was an empty hunk of rock hurling around the sun. But for Spender it was the beginning of a new chapter in his life.
Food for Thought
Amidst all the subtle jabs of humor comes one striking image: where we should turn to determine what a church should look like. Spender models this by looking to examples in the Bible rather than measuring by the methods of the modern world. His approach upon arrival at Mars is based around three distinct components: personal study of Scripture, prayer/worship, and the sharing of Scripture with the Martians. There are two critical events during Spender’s ministry: an Acts-inspired moment of worship with the Martians and then the final scene with the great multitude kneeling in reverence of the Cross. Ultimately, this story is an example of what Missions should look like, based on a Biblical foundation, even though there are many other things at work within the text.
About the Author
David has been an avid fan of Speculative fiction for his entire life and has been inspired by the short fiction of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and many others. His own short fiction has been featured in Firewords Quarterly. He lives in central Iowa with his wife and three cats.
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