Having failed to learn his lesson last time, the campus pastor asked me to deliver the message at today’s weekly chapel meeting. Here’s what I said.
In Arlington, VA, Dashiell Hammett is probably spinning in his grave this morning. He was not a religious man, but I think there’s something in his most famous work that might prove useful to us today. At least it proves useful to me sometimes, and I hope it may to you as well.
In The Maltese Falcon, the book that brought us Sam Spade, Hammett lets Spade tell a story to a client. This is that story, only lightly abridged.
A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep an engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half an hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.
Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father, and, with his success in real estate, was worth something in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affairs were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. A deal that would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he disappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate possession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoroughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible.
“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”
“… Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles – that was his first name – Pierce. He had a automobile-business that was netting him twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.”
Spade had not been told very definitely what to do when he found Flitcraft. They talked in Spade’s room at the Davenport. Flitcraft had no feeling of guilt. He had left his first family well provided for, and what he had done seemed to him perfectly reasonable. The only thing that bothered him was a doubt that he could make that reasonableness clear to Spade. He had never told anybody his story before, and thus had not had to attempt to make its reasonableness explicit. He tried now.
“I got it all right,” Spade told Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was. Anyway it came out all right. She didn’t want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her – the way she looked at it – she didn’t want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.
“Here’s what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up – just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger – well, affectionately – when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”
Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By that time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.
“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
So why are we thinking about Sam Spade and a man named Flitcraft on a Wednesday morning in Chapel? I think the answer to that question has to do with how we connect with God, or rather, how we allow Him to connect with us.
Because we are blessed enough to live when and where we do, with the opportunities we have, we don’t live in a world where beams fall. Until they do, in the form of accident, disease, lost love, or human negligence or malice. When they do fall, they may mark us dramatically, or like Mr. Flitcraft, perhaps only slightly. But we are reminded of the tenuousness of things, and then we seek the permanent and powerful. It is during that seeking that many of us turn toward God. More crassly, the comedian Dennis Miller has observed that nobody finds God on prom night – it’s only when no one else wants anything to do with us. It’s only when the beams fall.
But the beams only fall rarely for most of us, even though the echoes of their clangor may remain at the backs of our minds. And then what do we do? Well, like Flitcraft, we adjust ourselves to a world in which the beams are not falling. We become distracted by our work, our hobbies, the ever present glamour and clamor of media, and like Flitcraft, we return to versions of our old lives. There may be cosmetic changes – the new wife may not look like the first, but they are “more alike than they are different.”
The writers of the Bible recognized this pattern – not surprisingly, as the story of the Hebrews incorporates this episode on several occasions. Thus we find the writer of Proverbs 26:11 reminding us, “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” And we see Peter express the same simile in his second letter (2 Peter 2:22.)
But that’s not our only option. Peter points that out to us a little later, when he tells us to “be diligent.” (3:14). Likewise, Paul tells the Hebrews that we are to run our race with steadfastness (11:1). Other references to steadfastness and perseverance abound in the Bible, and as your calculus textbook says, may be left as an exercise for the student.
While most of those urgings to be steadfast and faithful refer to facing persecution, I think in our world, the greater danger may be Flitcraft’s. Yes, we turn to God when beams fall. But we need to remember Him and rely on Him, even when the beams stop falling. Will you pray with me, please?
Heavenly Father, thank You for sparing us from falling beams of whatever form, and keep us strong in our faith even when no beams are falling. In the name of Your Son, Amen.