Remix of photo by Giorgio Trovato and art by Robin Mikalsen

A Shot of Salvation

by Andrew Jensen

Our church’s office administrator, Tatiana, is intimidating, which most days protects me from the weirder folk that come looking for clergy. Except for today’s visitor.

I know: “weird” is judgmental. I do believe that I am called to love everyone, no matter how…“different”. But when I get tired, my love wears thin.

I was getting tired more and more often.

Of course, Tatiana couldn’t reasonably be expected to shield me from the crises, upsets, and personal despair that flowed into my life like a litany of pain. Today, I wish she had. “Office hours”—in ministry, called “pastoral care”—is my scheduled time to drop whatever I’m doing to listen to whoever shows up, subjected to the whim of anyone who wants to unload. Few make appointments. “It’ll just take a minute.” Overburdened bookshelves thicken my office walls like a fortress, but are useless against emotional assaults. How could Monty Python predict that comfy chairs would become instruments of torture?

I defy anyone to do this for thirty years and not fray at the edges.

By four pm I found myself reaching for the bottle of Scotch in my desk drawer. My office hours didn’t end until five, but surely no one would notice. Tatiana never had. I poured a generous measure into my coffee cup. It had never contained coffee. I like my Scotch neat.

I sighed at the voices from down the corridor and took a quick sip. I needed to prepare myself, but there was no way I’d guzzle good Scotch.

Tatiana strode into my office, took the coffee cup from my startled hand, and emptied it in one swallow. At my shocked look, she said, “What, Reverend Friis, you think you have a secret? I used to work for the Anglicans, and they have sherry. Scotch is better. Pour yourself another. You’ll need it. After I show this one in, I’m leaving.”

“An hour early?” This was totally out of character.

“Better early than late,” she declared gnomically.

“Will you be in tomorrow?”

“Of course.” Was that pity in her eyes? “The question is, will you?” She walked out without another word.

I took her advice and poured out more Scotch. I’ve seen Tatiana handle angry bikers, pushy police, con-artists, local politicians with blatant agendas, and a variety of people with obvious psychiatric issues. She’d taken all in stride: always respectful, sometimes gentle, sometimes firm, but never flustered. Who was she showing in that might scare her?

Wrong question. Not “who,” but “what.”

The tall, angular man who came in was neatly dressed in skinny jeans and a stylish sweater. But was he a man? His skin was pale, almost to the point of being blue. I shivered in sympathy. His features were broad, but pointy at the same time, like a nineteenth-century German woodcut about the evils of drink. His hands were broad, his fingers bony-thin and long, and his nails were curved and looked sharp. His hair was almost white, thin and stringy. His smile revealed more sharp, pointy teeth than is good for anyone’s health.

I glanced at my now empty cup. I didn’t remember drinking it. Had someone from our rowdy Youth Group slipped hallucinogens into my Scotch for fun? This scary guy looked real. There’s no way that was a mask or make-up. Was this some kind of vivid waking dream?

No. Tatiana had seen him too.

“I’m Thomas. Thank you, Reverend Friis, for agreeing to see me without an appointment.” He held out his paw (no, be nice, hand) for me to shake.

I didn’t say I had no choice, or any of the other uncomfortable truths at the top of my mind. I shook his hand and said, “Welcome, Thomas. How can I help you?”

He settled onto the couch. He sounded cultured. Educated. Part of me was expecting something gruff or gravelly, but Thomas’s voice would be welcome in the tenor section of our choir. “I’m glad to hear that I’m welcome. I saw the rainbow flag on your church sign. Lots of places say ‘all welcome’ on their web page. Then they change their policy when I walk in.”

“I can imagine,” I said. I don’t know why: it just slipped out. It’s an article of faith with me to be welcoming to everyone, no matter how challenging. My church has put aside the superstitions and prejudices of the traditional religion I grew up with, has accepted the insights of science, and has embraced diversity as an reflection of God’s own loving self-expression. Besides, Mom taught me to be polite. Remember, no one can help how they’re made.

Thomas raised an eyebrow. “I see. I have to say, I’m disappointed. It’s the whole troll thing, isn’t it?”

It was hard to remember Mom’s lessons when my mind was spinning with questions. You mean those videos weren’t doctored? I should have believed those “monsters walking among us” rants?

“Troll thing?” I managed before my throat froze. My God, this guy was for real!

“I know it’s obvious. But I was hoping for better from you.” He made no signs of leaving.

I have a powerful conscience and it kicked in hard. “I’m sorry. I mean, I thought trolls were mythical. My Danish grandmother used to tell troll stories. I never thought you were real.” I knew I was babbling, and I stopped so I could push the panic down harder.

Thomas nodded seriously. “Thank you for your honesty. Not many people come right out and admit to having a racist grandmother. Her influence must be difficult to overcome. Is that why you’re the minister of a Progressive church?”

Wait, what? What gave this troll the right to say that kind of thing? Mormor wasn’t racist! Well, she didn’t like the French or the Irish very much, but that’s because she couldn’t out-stubborn them. Or the Dutch, come to think of it.

I smiled apologetically. “I guess she did have strong opinions. She always said that Danish trolls were nice and civilized, while the Norwegian ones were nasty lumps. Is your family from Norway?” Oops.

“Sweden. But don’t worry. My grandmother said the same thing about Norwegian trolls. My mother was attracted to Norwegians, so grandmother disapproved of Dad. He didn’t stick around long.”

“You’re being very understanding.”

Thomas shrugged. When a troll shrugs, it’s amazing. His shoulders went up past his over-sized ears! “It’s always like that when you’re different,” he said. “You have to adjust first, because the majority won’t. And once you’ve faced your own struggles, you have more sympathy for others.”

That seemed idealistic. Some people who have succeeded through struggle expect others to quit whining. I said, “Politically you’ll fit right in here.”

Thomas looked up. “I’m not looking for a church. I attend St. Swithen’s. It’s closer to home.”

“Oh. How can I help you, then?”

“Someone Instagrammed a photo of you at the Pride Parade last month.”

“And you thought that someone who supports diversity would welcome a troll?” I finished for him. “Isn’t St. Swithen’s accepting you?”

“Please! Will you stop with the troll issue? They’ve welcomed me with open arms.”

“I’m sorry. I was being insensitive.”

“Trusting trolls is hard. I accept that. The ‘fake news’ about us goes back centuries.” Thomas’s grin was rueful. “St. Swithen’s is an elderly congregation. I sometimes wonder if I’m welcome because they all need glasses.”

“I won’t interrupt again.” I meant it. I got a good look at Thomas’ claws when he air-quoted “fake news”. They were sharp.

Thomas asked, “Why were you in that parade?”

That was easy. “The church has a long history of persecuting Gays and Lesbians. Evangelicals are preaching that the whole LGBTQ+ community is going to Hell. I wanted to declare that God welcomes gays. We’ve driven people away, and that has to stop.”

Who needs supernatural foes—demons and monsters—when humans have so many ways to be unkind to each other? Who needs Satan when we are our own worst enemies?

Thomas didn’t look up. “You actually believe that? You honestly believe that God doesn’t send gays to Hell?”

“I do.”

“Do you have any skin in the game?” Thomas asked, suddenly looking directly into my eyes.


“Do you have to believe it? Are you gay yourself, Reverend Friis?” He leaned back, and continued to look at me.

“I’m not. I have a wife, and we have kids.”

“That proves nothing,” he said sadly. “I’m gay. I used to be married, and I have kids. My wife and I never fought. Not once. That’s not healthy! You can’t tell me that’s healthy! I couldn’t admit my sexuality to myself and didn’t feel connected to her deeply enough to fight, if that makes any sense.”

Of course it made sense. But a gay troll? They didn’t prepare us for this at seminary! Could I slip some more Scotch into my coffee cup?

By now, my pastoral side was fully on. “I take it you’re not together anymore. How did that go?”

“We’re good friends. I have the greatest respect for her. Our kids—teenagers—all accept my boyfriend. My daughter, especially, is very supportive. Protective, even.”

I shuddered. In the old stories female trolls were much worse than males. Protective with tooth and claw. Grendel’s mother was terrifying.

Back to the conversation. “It sounds like a pretty good outcome. How’s your relationship with your boyfriend?”

“Great, great. He’s Jamaican. I’ve learned to like curried goat. He’d never even tried pickled herring before he met me. And he’s from an island nation!”

“Your boyfriend’s human?”

Thomas’ face creased into a dark scowl. “Will you quit it with that racist stuff? Yes, we’re a bi-racial couple. He’s black and I’m gray. Gray and gay and here to stay.” It sounded like a well-rehearsed line.

I spread my hands. “I’m just trying to get the whole picture. How is he accepted at your church?”

Thomas looked down. “They don’t know about him. He’s not religious. My church doesn’t know I’m gay.”

Sometimes silence is best, so I said nothing.

After a moment, Thomas looked up. “I’m afraid that God’s rejected me.”

That was it.

“Because you’re gay,” I replied.


But you’re a monster! Some would say that you don’t have a soul. Not me, of course. It’s amazing how fast thoughts can fly through your head. Then I remembered. Back in the days of slavery, some Christians said that black people had no souls. What did that make me?

Thomas continued: “I’ve read all those parts of the Bible people keep quoting. I know God rejects me. I know I’m going to Hell. I was just hoping you can persuade me I’m wrong.”

I wasn’t expecting this. Not from a troll. Salvation for gays was familiar territory but not simple, even with a human. Where to start?

I must have sat, frowning, for longer than I realized, because Thomas spoke up again.

“Feel free to pour yourself another Scotch,” he said.


“You’ve glanced at your mug several times as we’ve talked, and I have quite a good nose. It’s Islay single malt, if I’m not mistaken. Very peaty.”

“You’re right,” I said. How many more ways could he surprise me? “Many people think clergy shouldn’t drink.”

“Whatever helps you wrestle with your monsters.” Thomas’s grin was edgy, not to mention scary.

“Don’t you mean ‘demons?’” I can’t help it: I correct people without thinking. I get worse when I’m anxious. Wait! Maybe his “monsters” was irony and I missed it? Is this sharp troll out-thinking me? I tried to cover my unease by blurting out, “Can I offer you some?” like a half-way decent host.

“I wouldn’t say no.” His frightful grin just got bigger.

Thomas was right about my need for another shot.

I took a moment to open the hollowed-out book, take out the pair of crystal tumblers I almost never use, dust them off, and then pour each of us a double. The ritual allowed me time to think.

“You sound like you’re well educated,” I began.

“With features like mine, it’s good to sound erudite. It messes with people’s heads.” With his huge nose, he took a delicate sniff of the Scotch. The crystal was almost lost in his claws. Nails, I mean. Nails! “I have a degree in English Literature from McGill.” He tasted the single malt. “Delightful, thank you.”

English Lit? Excellent! “So you’re familiar with the way literary criticism works. Have you ever applied that to Scripture?”

Thomas shifted uncomfortably. “I’ve heard of Biblical Criticism. It seems disrespectful. The Bible is Holy Writ. How can you believe some parts and not others? If you reject the anti-gay passages of Scripture, you damage the integrity of the whole Bible!”

Here was the core of the problem. Thomas was some kind of fundamentalist. He wanted the Bible to be literally true, all the time. I brought out the argument I generally use with Literalists. “The Bible is divinely inspired, not dictated. God had to work with ancient minds that had no idea of science, or the psychology of sexual development. In those days, people were prepared to believe in a factual Adam and Eve. Today, we know better.”

Thomas sat quietly, staring into his Scotch, then said, “I’m rather attached to Adam and Eve. Have you ever read Beowulf?”

I nodded cautiously. Beowulf killed Grendel the troll with his bare hands, then its vengeful mother, and eventually died fighting a dragon. What did that have to do with anything?

“Trolls aren’t mentioned in the Bible, but the author of Beowulf said we were descendants of Cain.”

“Cain,” I muttered.” The son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother, Abel. “God cursed him. I wouldn’t find that very comforting.”

“Don’t you see?” Thomas leaned forward. His voice was intense. Fervent. “We come from the same original human stock! We may be cursed, but we are also protected! The mark of Cain is ugly, but it’s a shield, too. God promised to inflict terrible vengeance on anyone who harmed Cain.”

I wanted to argue that Cain and Abel weren’t historical, they were mythological: archetypal human relationships, not history.

Looking at Thomas’s troubled face, I couldn’t say that. His old-fashioned Christianity gave him a powerful sense of identity, even though it seemed abusive to me.

Besides, I’d assumed trolls were myths. Archetypes don’t sit on your couch and demand answers.

Ripples appeared on the surface of my Scotch. My hand trembled, and my knuckles were slowly turning white.  Thomas had spotted an ancient, culturally based Biblical bias against gays, decided it was a crisis, blamed it on God, and then demanded that I fix it.

Why do I keep that Scotch handy? Because of people like Thomas. I want to help in practical ways. Listening is just frustrating, especially when a simple attitude adjustment would solve so much. I had a good answer based in years of study and experience. But it wouldn’t fit the world Thomas believed in, where Cain was his genealogical ancestor. How on Earth could I convince him that God loves gays without challenging his human ancestry? Without demoting Cain from an ancestor to an archetype?

I went on. “I’m just wondering: your degree is from McGill, and you know much about books, the Bible included. That’s all from human culture. What does troll literature say? How do trolls feel about gays? Why do you even care about what the Christian God says about sexuality?”

Thomas glowered. “You want some kind of racial apartheid, don’t you? We trolls should keep to ourselves, eh?”

Damn! “No! That’s not what I mean at all!”

“Yes, it is. For your information, troll culture is oral: there is no written tradition. I love books: so much thought from across the ages between the covers. So much to explore. You would ask me to turn by back on that?”

“No!” My protests were useless.

“Maybe you don’t believe that we come from the same stock. Maybe you don’t believe that trolls are human at our core. You don’t consider us real people.”

I did think that. Until a very short time ago.

“You’re obviously a real person,” I said to calm him down. “But aren’t you turning your back on your own culture to fit into ours? That’s assimilation. Why do you want that?”

Thomas slammed down his Scotch onto the coffee table and leapt to his feet. “I don’t want assimilation. I want a place in the larger world. You’re like every colonist: you can’t stand it when a minority gains a voice! You’re only comfortable when we’re living stereotypes, contained in our little ghettos. I expected better from you!”

He towered over me, his gaze more intense than ever. “Beowulf killed Grendel, who bore the mark of Cain, and the dragon was his punishment. God still loves the children of Cain, and will avenge us.”

Thomas tore his gaze away from me, and started pacing. My office didn’t offer much space for his long limbs, so he made a very quick and disturbing route back and forth in front of the sofa.

I chose my next words with care. “So, you’re saying that since trolls are part of humanity, there’s room for salvation.”

“Every monster started off human,” Thomas declared. “God won’t send me to Hell for being born a son of Cain. I can’t help being a troll.”

In a soft voice, I asked, “Can you help being gay?”

Thomas stopped pacing, and stood stock still, facing the wall, his great hands clenched.

“Science has proven that sexual orientation isn’t a choice,” I went on. “And I agree with you: I don’t believe that anyone is condemned from birth. ‘Original Sin’ is a corrupt doctrine based on a twisting of Scripture, therefore—”

Thomas abruptly turned from the wall and leaned toward me, staring with intensity. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from his, which seemed to burn. Thomas unclenched his fists, reached across the coffee table, lifted me out of my chair by the shoulders, and brought my face close to his. He was powerful, despite his skinny limbs. In hindsight, he must have been gentle, but all I could feel were the tips of his claws, pressing against my shirt. My eyes were locked with his, but at the lower edges of my vision I couldn’t miss his razor sharp teeth, inches away.

“—God will not damn you for being born gay.” Finishing that sentence was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done.

After staring into my eyes, he put me down. Then he picked up his Scotch and tossed it back.

“Beastly thing to do to good Scotch,” he remarked with a forced calm. “I apologize for laying hands on you. I was overcome.”

“I understand.”

Thomas looked into my eyes again, an appraising look. “You know, I think you might understand. In your own way.”

“It’s hard when a deep, personal belief is challenged,” I said. “It’s amazing how even hated beliefs become precious over time.” I hoped he thought I was talking about his beliefs rather than my own, because even trying to help, I kept coming back to my own issues!

Thomas reached across the coffee table and shook my hand. “Thank you, Reverend. I truly appreciate our talk. My apologies, again, for my outburst. I hate to fall into a stereotype.”

“May I ask you one more question?”

“Only if it’s a change of topic. I don’t need to hear more theology right now.”

“Well… Are we finished already? Have I persuaded you?”

Thomas tilted his head. “I’ve read articles by Progressive ministers online who take the same approach. I haven’t heard anything new from you.”

I didn’t want to give up, suddenly didn’t want to have failed. “At least think about it. And call me if you have any questions, or want to talk some more.”

Thomas gave me a wry smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll be giving it a lot of thought. And in the meantime, I do have a question for you: What kind of person of faith would I be if I re-imagine God to suit myself?”

“A theologian.” I replied without missing a beat. “Our understanding of God has changed many times over the last two thousand years, but Scripture remains the same. It all depends on how we read it.”

Thomas just shook his head, as if saddened by the error of my ways.

Do it! Re-imagine God! It’s the human thing to do. Then again, so is being stubborn about God. Clearly, we have that in common. But he didn’t need to hear my issues out loud again.

“I think I want to leave, now, Reverend Friis.”

Thomas’ hands moved convulsively between massive fists and claw-tipped instruments of mayhem. He was too furious to hear my justification, and at this point I couldn’t trust the words that came out of my mouth.

I still felt like he protested too much: he didn’t have to choose “a place in the wider world” with such a judgmental vision of God. There was no way I could say that now. Maybe if we met again sometime, but to judge by the look on his face, that wasn’t likely.

Besides, I was terrified. I couldn’t say a word.

In silence, I walked Thomas to the church door, and locked it behind him. It felt like a betrayal, but I locked it anyway. My mind was a jumble of thoughts: had I helped Thomas or made things worse? Were the bolts on the door sturdy? The darker parts of my imagination presented me with lurid images of troll sex, gay and straight.

I sat down at my desk. My whole body shook as I reached for the rest of my Scotch. I didn’t really want it. “Burnout” be damned! No more hiding from my feelings! I wanted to remember this clearly, without the cloud of alcohol. Every bit of it: the terror, the shock, the sense of unreality, the unanswered questions.

I started to giggle. Silly tabloid headlines were running through my head:



I was sobbing. All my suppressed fear was bubbling over. I took a deep breath, and reached for the tissues I keep on hand for parishioners.

Parishioners. The people I care for. Now I must include trolls in that category.

I would have challenging words with Tatiana. What kind of “weird“ would she let in next into my safe, suburban church building? And could she get past her troll issues? I felt my cheeks flush. Tatiana might be the first face visitors see, but I have to set the example of our welcome, our acceptance. In my fear I had failed Thomas.

What was that bit of Scripture? “Perfect love casts out fear.” I’d had a failure of love.

I know I can do better. Maybe I can begin by thinking up inclusive words. I like words. Words make sense of things. In the beginning was the Word, right?

And if Tatiana can overcome her fear and stick around next time, I won’t have to do it alone. In time, my whole congregation will get onboard. When that happens, none of us will be alone. Not even Thomas.

The End