Eli Poole has intense, often brutally honest conversations with God in a new novel by Rev. John Moelker, pastor of Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Woodstock, Ont.
Those conversations are sporadic at first, but then they pick up speed as the book, Eli vs God, unfolds. This is a story with a CRC emphasis and flavor, a tale of what it is like for a young man to scramble for faith in a church that had become increasingly distant to him.
In the first chapter, we meet Eli, a recent college graduate, as he is packing to move from a small town he calls “Hicksville” to Toronto to take his first real job as an IT specialist.
Right off, we get a good idea of where he is with God.
Taking a break from packing, he spots a framed photo atop his dresser with a Scripture verse in it that reads: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15.
Since it wasn’t there the night before, Eli knows this is the work of his mother, once again trying to evangelize her wayward son. It ticks him off.
“Eli was far from a Jesus freak. And he was far from Jesus’ bride, the church,” we read. “Sure, he was in the habit of going to church, but it certainly wasn’t to encourage others. He mostly went so his parents wouldn’t freak out on him.”
As he tries to put the picture back, Eli drops it, and the glass breaks. His reaction is nonchalant: now he doesn’t have to worry about taking it with him to Toronto.
Written over the past five years on vacations and when he had time between sermons and other responsibilities, Moelker said the novel reflects some of his own struggles as a young man.
“I didn’t doubt God existed,” said Moelker, but he explained he wasn’t especially close to God as he grew up on a fruit farm in Brighton, Ont., attended a CR church with his family, and went to Christian schools.
Sports were his idol; he loved playing baseball and basketball and football and hockey — and it was while playing hockey in a high school church league that, he said, God finally caught his attention.
We’ll learn about that in connection with Eli’s story.
Once Eli gets situated in his downtown condo in Toronto, he arrives early for his first day of work at Baxter Pharmaceuticals. Sitting in the lobby and looking around before the receptionist arrives, anxiety suddenly comes out of nowhere, hits him hard, and, clasping his laptop to his chest, he automatically thinks, “Oh God, help!”
So the real conversation, slowly but surely, begins with God.
Once Eli starts working, except for a spat with his young, attractive boss, things go pretty smoothly for a period of time — and God once again drifts from his mind.
But then Eli arrives at his condo building one day to find ambulance attendants rolling out a gurney with a body bag on it. He later learns it is his next-door neighbor’s husband.
As he watches them wheel it out, Eli meets a pair of detectives who want to talk to him about his next door neighbors — Sarah, whom Eli has met and has sort of befriended in the elevator, and Tony, the tough-guy owner of a restaurant, who is now deceased.
Talking to the police and sensing that Tony may have been in that body bag, Eli doesn’t know what to think. He has heard them arguing night after night through the walls of his bedroom.
Something so violent happening next door and the possibly that it involves murder turns Eli’s thoughts quickly back to God:
“There were so many emotions stirring inside him that he wished he could use a supercomputer to sort them all out,” we read.
“He knew it didn’t work that way. Even the head and the heart working together would not be enough to process these emotions. He needed supernatural help.”
It only takes a few seconds for Eli to recall a familiar Bible verse, repeated often by his father, David: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
As the story evolves, God is placed offstage again, and Eli starts to fall in love with his boss, Paula.
Then one night he meets his neighbor Sarah in the hallway of their condo building. She is terribly distraught and invites him in. Sitting on the couch, through tears, she confesses that she killed her husband when he tried to beat her again. Eli doesn’t know what to do.
And this meeting soon turns into a big problem: Eli opens the door to his condo one night as two men rush in and beat him badly. We learn later why they did it.
Rushed to the hospital, Eli is attended by doctors for his wounds and bruises, and with a bandage over a badly damaged eye, he is admitted.
On Eli’s first night in the hospital, says the author, there comes a crucial crossroads that in many ways echoes the experience he — Moelker — had when he was injured in a high-school hockey game.
“I took the puck and then a stick hit me in the face and knocked me to the ground,” said Moelker. “My retina was detached. . . . I see today that God did that.”
Moelker said that the scene he next describes in the novel bears similarities to what happened to him when he was in the hospital after the hockey injury.
Alone in his room, Eli heard a voice say: “You’re in Hell, son, and you’re never going back!”
Eli admits, we read, that he had been wandering in Hell as he lived without faith, depending on his own resources. But he couldn’t live that way any longer.
“I don’t want to be separated from you for all eternity. I need you, Lord! I need you! Why won’t you help me? Why won’t you answer?” Eli cries out.
Hearing nothing, and feeling forsaken by God, Eli spends more than two hours in desperate prayer, letting his anguish pour out.
And then something amazing happens.
“At 4:07 a.m., Eli received what he could only describe as the ‘peace of God that passes all understanding.’ Wave after wave of something supernatural overpowered him. . . . This peace was something completely different. It wasn’t merely something bad being taken away; it was an overwhelming joy that something had come. . . . He was completely, totally, and utterly at peace with God.”
In many ways, the rest of the novel is about Eli reconciling with his parents and others and starting to profess and practice his faith. There is a little mafia business thrown in as well, and we find out that they had mistakenly beaten him up — and there’s also the love story with Eli’s boss.
Looking back on his own experience in the hospital, Moelker recalls how he “cried out to God for the whole night” and how a powerful peace came over him — adding that it was as if “the stairway to heaven” opened.
After college, Moelker worked in IT and the software development field. Various experiences, he said, led to his sensing the call of God to serve as a minister. Selling their home, he and his family moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., so he could attend Calvin Theological Seminary, where he earned an M.Div degree. He first served as a pastor at Dresden (Ont.) CRC, and he became the pastor at Covenant CRC last year.
His book is self-published, says Moelker, because he didn’t want to go through the process of trying to find a publisher for a first novel from an unknown author.
Above all, in the book, Moelker says, he tries to showcase the grace of God and how it can lead to forgiveness and a new life.
“I wanted to highlight how God relentlessly pursues his children and draws people close to him, to Christ and to his church.”
Darren Roorda, Canadian Ministries director of the CRC, met Moelker a few years ago. He said he read the book and enjoyed it.
“The title Eli vs God suggests a battle of epic, unreachable proportions,” said Roorda. “‘You have to let me live my own life!’ is the battle — but the story is certainly not out of reach.
“Instead what we get is an authentic, personal, gripping, and delightfully familiar story of a life journey that every pastor, Christian, and seeker can delight in.
“The delight comes because it sounds like it could be our story. The prose draws you in because it is familiar, and the power of God warms you because it is ever-present from page to page. It turns out the imagined battle is actually an epic friendship.”
For more information about Eli vs God, visit www.johnmoelker.com or contact Moelker at 519-303-0526.