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Pastors' Conference, 1972

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Chapter 33

Chapter 33

Glynn knew Wednesday morning what the topic of Sunday morning’s sermon would have to be and the conversations of the rest of the week only confirmed that knowledge. People were scared. If these “terrorists,” a word still new to the American lexicon, could infiltrate what had been assumed to be a secure Olympic Village, an assumption that proved fatal for those 11 Israeli team members, what else could they infiltrate? Some thought the US team should have been brought home immediately. Others thought the military should assist Israel in its retaliatory bombings of Palestinian strongholds. 

The pastor knew, however, that underneath all the talk and saber-rattling going on at the diner and other places around town, a basic emotion had taken hold: fear. He recognized it in himself the instant it was announced that all the hostages were dead. He saw it in the shortened patience Marve had with the children. He saw it in the way people huddled together in worried conversations on the street. He heard it in the anxious prayers offered at Wednesday night’s well-attended service. He saw it in the nervous fidgeting of the volunteers at the hospital. He choked on the increased cigarette smoke at the diner. 

Knowing what he was up against, Glynn was careful in the construction of the morning service. Announcements were kept short and limited to only the most important events. He talked with Richard about hymn selection. The opening hymn, with its bouncing tune, addressed the subject head-on, 

What have I to dread, 
What have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace
With my Lord so dear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms! 
(Elisha Hoffman)

Glynn asked if there were a more contemporary hymn that might address the topic, but Richard convinced him that, at least for this congregation, the familiarity of 19th-century hymns, even with their stilted language and occasionally archaic language, was still more comforting.  He pointed to the second verse of what would be the morning’s second hymn:

Sometimes mid scenes of cloudless doom,
Sometimes where Eden’s flowers bloom;
By waters still, o’er troubled sea,
Still ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
(Joseph Henry Gillmore)

 Both agreed that Horatio G. Spafford’s It Is Well With My Soul, fit the third spot well, and after the offering had been taken, Richard sang Mosie Lister’s 1958 hymn that had become popular.

In the dark of the midnight,
Have I oft hid my face;
While the storm howls above me,
And there's no hiding place;
'Mid the crash of the thunder,
Precious Lord, hear my cry;
"Keep me safe 'til the storm passes by.”                    

With such an introduction, there was little doubt the direction Glynn’s sermon was going. The hymns had done their job, though, and the pastor could feel that the morning’s tension had relaxed somewhat as he stepped into the pulpit. The sanctuary wasn’t quite as full as it had been on Easter, there were no folding chairs in the aisles, but it was an attentive audience that sat waiting to see how he would address the subject in a way that would give them a comfort they hadn’t been able to find on their own.

He didn’t bother to smile, as he usually did. He was dressed in his blackest suit, the one usually reserved for funerals. His gaze moved intentionally from one person to the next. He stood behind the pulpit, his hands on either side and solemnly began, “Fear is a natural response to things outside our control. And that fear is not necessarily a bad thing. We look on the horizon and recognize that a severe storm is headed our direction and we take the appropriate steps to ensure our safety. We check the oil in our engines and the air in our tires before making a trip to calm the fear that we might break down. We give our children the newest measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines because inside every parent lies the fear that disease could strike and take our children from us. 

“Not all fear drives us to such logical and common-sense response, though. We read reports of crime in our newspapers and we become more suspicious of people we don’t know. We hear that foreign nations might have the ability to cut off our fuel supply and we begin hoarding gasoline even when we know it’s not safe. And this week, we hear of a new terror, one that comes into the places we’ve always considered safe, and we wonder that, if the Olympic Village isn’t safe, is there any place left that is? We worry that we or someone we love might be next. We fear another outbreak of war.

“In Matthew’s eighth chapter, verse 23, we see an exhausted Jesus, weary from an onslaught of people, crossing a lake with his disciples and no sooner had they cast off from shore when Jesus found a place in the boat to lie down and sleep. He who knew all and was in control of all was sure of their voyage. 

“His disciples, however, as familiar with sailing as they were, did not have the same confidence. A storm comes up and as the wind grows stronger and the waves start lapping over the side of what was most likely a fishing boat, they became afraid. The situation was out of their control and their fear was that the boat would capsize, taking both them and their leader, who they had yet to fully recognize as the son of God, down to the bottom of the lake. They panicked and went running to wake up Jesus screaming at the top of their lung, ‘Lord, save us! We are drowning!’

“I think many of us can identify having had that feeling at some point this past week. We sat there watching events in Munich unfold with the same anxiety as though it were happening right next door, as though the athletes from Israel were our own children. And while we had hope for a minute, when that message came that all had been lost, that there were no survivors, we felt like we were drowning. We felt like our whole world was crashing in like a massive wave. We responded not with confident determination to fight this new terror but with fear that we, too, might become its victim.

“Now is when fear becomes a demon, staring us in the face, leering at us, taunting us with our lack of control. This fear reminds us with an evil glee that we can easily lose what we think we have. This fear tells us that the world is out to get us and we freeze in place. We become bound by that fear that constantly, persistently, whispering in our ears, reminding us of everything that could be taken from us; our jobs, our health, our homes, our children, and even our lives. With each passing moment, this fear strips away our humanity, delighted that it has reduced us to little more than shivering, helpless animals. 

“Like the disciples, we come here, to church, desperate and pleading, ‘Lord, save us! We are drowning! When we are finally feeling that we have lost all control, when we have tried everything we know and all our effort is not enough, when the waves of disaster are knocking us down and moving us backward, that’s when we go running to church, looking for God, hoping that he can save us.

“Then, Jesus responds to us exactly as he did to his disciples. “What are you so frightened about, you little-faiths?” His rebuke almost sounds insulting and from our perspective sometimes it’s easy to judge the disciples harshly. Did they not understand that Jesus was still in control? Did they not have faith that this teacher, who they had just seen heal dozens of people from the most incurable of diseases, could get them across the lake through this storm? 

“But we are no different. We’re all sitting here this morning just as overcome by fear as the disciples were. We have set sail on a voyage without faith, without hope, and paralyzed by a fear we don’t even completely understand. Even worse, we’ve given up. We’ve already thrown in the towel, yielding to terror as though we don’t have any other choice. We’re not even sure that we want to address the matter. Some face fear with apathy, moving powerlessly from one day to the next. Some face fears noisily, making sure everyone around them knows how very afraid they are. Others respond with bold but empty statements that ‘we’ll go over there and show them who’s boss,’ a vacant show of force that’s easy to make while sitting on a tractor in the middle of a field in Oklahoma. Just like the disciples, we’ve allowed fear to swamp the boat.

“To some our fear is justified. For the disciples, had they been on any other boat on that lake, they might have been excused for thinking they were about to drown. But this was no ordinary boat because Christ was on that boat and that made all the difference in the world! 

Glynn paused, made certain he had everyone’s attention, then stepped out to the side of the pulpit before continuing. 

“We sit here this morning afraid of Palestinian terrorists, but Christ is in our boat.

We sit here this morning, our country facing a critical election and we fear that no choice is the right choice, but Christ is in our boat.

We look at our world this morning and we’re afraid we might not have enough gas to get through the winter, but Christ is in our boat.

We consider the strained relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States and we’re afraid that Communism is coming for all of us, but Christ is in our boat.

We look at the condition of our crops and our cattle and we fear prices will be too low for us to cover our debts, but Christ is in our boat.

We examine the state of our society and we fear that ideologies we don’t understand will force us to make decisions we don’t know how to make, but Christ is in our boat.
Our fear has us wondering if all these things happening around us are because our sins are too great, that God must have given up on us, but Christ is in our boat!

Our fear has us looking for a place to crawl up and die because our suffering is so great, but Christ is in our boat!

Our fear is telling us to give up, to just let the waves wash over us, that there’s nothing we can do and drowning is inevitable, but let me tell you again, and I want you to hear it well, Christ is in our boat and when Christ is in our boat there is no room left for fear!

“Christ is in our boat! Don’t be afraid but be of good courage.

Christ is in our boat! Look to Him in whom you believe and speak to him.

Christ is in our boat! And in him, a thousand years is as a day. He’s got this.

Christ is in our boat! And his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. His ways are better than our ways.

Christ is in our boat so there is no evil, there is no power, there is nothing on this planet that can stand against us.

Christ is on our boat! Oh ye of little faith, do you not trust in God to deliver you not only from this moment of fear, but from the next moment of fear, and the moment after that and the moment after that?

Christ is in our boat and just as surely as he was in the boat with the disciples he is in the boat with us here in this sanctuary reminding us that the only sure answer to fear is faith, reminding us that it is he who calms the seas and settles the waves, reminding us that he’s got the whole world in his hands, from the little bitty babies to the nations and the armies and the terrorists of this world.

“Christ is in our boat. Lose all your security and let him keep you safe. Let your lives be broken so that we rest upon the strength of God alone. In our hours of temptation and affliction, know that God is standing by our side, keeping us resolute, walking us hand in hand through the valley of the shadow of death so that we might fear no evil. His rod and his staff watch over us.

“Now be careful. Just because Christ is in our boat is no reason to be cocky and overconfident. Remember how, in another instance perhaps on this same lake, Peter saw Jesus walking on the water and wanted to walk out to him. Jesus told him to go for it and Peter jumped out of that boat and started walking out to Jesus. But then he saw the waves and he felt the wind and what happened? He got scared! He had been so confident when he first stepped out of the boat! He was sure that HE could walk on water just as Jesus was. But when he was faced with the realities of life, when he looked and saw the danger that was all around him, fear grabbed hold of him and he started to sink! Why? Because it was only as long as his eyes were on Jesus, his focus was on the son of God, that his faith was strong enough to keep him afloat. 

“Christ is in our boat. Jesus gives the ability to rise above the storm and walk on water, but we don’t do this by our own power. Our focus, our attention, cannot be on the threat of terror, cannot be on the uncertainty of politics, cannot be on any of the other things going on around us. Our focus and our attention must be on God.

“When the disciples saw this they said among themselves, “Whatever sort of man is this—why, even the wind and the waves do what he tells them!”

Our faith in Christ leads us to an astonishment that should drive us to our knees. In wonder, we kneel before him. In amazement, we yield our will to his. For when Christ is in the boat, fear gets tossed overboard.”

By the time he was finished, Glynn was visibly drenched in sweat, not so much from the exertion of delivering the sermon, though it had been considerable, but because the air conditioning unit had stopped functioning about five minutes after he started. The response at the invitation might have been significant, but Glynn saw how people were struggling. A couple of those with asthma had pulled out their inhalers. Others were using whatever they had close, Sunday School quarterlies, worship bulletins, random pieces of paper from their Bibles, to try and fan some kind of breeze. Nothing was working. Glynn cut the invitation after the first verse and encouraged people to get a drink of water from the fountain in the hallway if they needed.

The four deacons who were present quickly assembled outside, knowing that something would have to be done as soon as possible. While September’s temps were generally off the 100-degree mark, high 90s were still possible and just as dangerous. 

“I’m pretty sure the unit had a ten-year warranty and it’s only been about six years since it was installed,” Alan was saying as Glynn joined the group.
“Probably isn’t anything significant,” Buck commented. “A leak in a hose could have caused the freon to leak out.”

Glynn stood there with his suit coat draped over his shoulder, the outline of his undershirt clearly visible through his wet dress shirt. He was still trying to catch his own breath and was content letting the others talk through the problem and possible remedies.

Horace looked over at the preacher and grinned. “In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best day to wear a black suit, pastor.”

Glynn nodded. “In hindsight, swimwear would likely have been more appropriate but I don’t think anyone wants to see that.”

Roger Sutherland, who had been listening silently with his hands shoved in his pockets finally spoke up. “You know, I might have to dig around in the barn for it, I’m pretty sure I have the gizmo for testing the freon levels. If it’s just a hole or a crack in a line somewhere, we can fix that. It’ll just be mornin’ before we can get any more freon.”

The others nodded. “What’s freon costing now, two or three bucks a can?” Alan asked.

“Somewhere in that neighborhood,” Buck answered. “Little enough I’ll just buy a can if that’s what we need and donate it to the church. No sense taking it out of the budget if we don’t have to.”

They all agreed that having Roger test the unit and add freon as needed was the best route to go. That still left another issue to resolve, though.

“What should we do about the evening service?” Glynn asked. “I’m not inclined to cancel but I don’t think we can ask people to sit in a hot and stuffy sanctuary like that when the windows don’t open.”

The men stood there scratching their heads, more in favor of canceling than not, when Buck offered a different idea. “You know, when I was a boy, back in the days before air conditioning, there were a lot of times we’d have church outside under a makeshift cover of some kind. I don’t know that we need a cover, but why couldn’t we set up chairs here in the yard between the sanctuary and fellowship hall and have church out here? There’d be a bit of a breeze and it’d definitely feel cooler than it would inside.”

Glynn perked up. “You know, that could be a lot of fun. We’d have to sing without the piano, of course, but I don’t think Richard would mind that for one service.”

“Kind of like an old-fashioned camp meetin’,” Horace added.

Glynn tried thinking of any downside to the plan. “We’ll need to get the word out, let people know to dress appropriately for outdoors. Anyone opposed to me not wearing a coat and tie tonight?”

“Just tell my wife and she’ll make sure everyone in town knows, church member or not,” Horace said. “That woman is the best emergency broadcast system this town has.”

“And you’re fine in short sleeves, preacher, as long as you’re not wearing your bathing suit,” Alan teased.

The men left as the unofficial meeting adjourned and everyone went home. Glynn was glad the air conditioning in the parsonage was working and went straight to the shower while Marve fixed lunch. 

“Daddy, did someone pour water on you?” Hayden asked between bites of his chicken leg.

“No, it just got really hot in church this morning,” Glynn answered. 

“Was it as hot as hell?” Hayden asked.

“Hayden Wayne!” Marve immediately exclaimed. “You know better than to talk like that!”

“It’s just what someone said at church,” the child attempted to explain. “They said Daddy gave them a touch of hell so they’d appreciate heaven.”

Glynn couldn’t help laughing, despite an ominous glare across the table from Marve. “I’m sure it felt that way, but you still need to watch your language, young man.” He looked back across the table and winked at Marve.

Marve shook her head and shared a knowing glance with Lita.

“I know, Mom,” she said dryly. “They can’t help being boys, can they?”

Glynn laughed hard enough he almost choked on his mashed potatoes. Regardless of what might be going on in the rest of the world, everything was still normal at home.

Chapter 34

Chapter 34

With Labor Day and the Olympics behind them, people across Oklahoma returned to business as usual. September tended to be a quiet month, anyway, with harvests winding down, stock sales focused on calves, and most people more concerned about football and the new fall lineup of television shows such as The Waltons, The Bob Newheart Show, and one that Glynn found particularly interesting, M*A*S*H. Not that he would publicly admit to even watching the show, given the general consensus that the movie and book on which it was based were both widely considered vulgar. Still, it didn’t come on until after the kids were in bed. It was a quiet vice that would likely go away if the ratings never took off. 

There was a calm sense of relief that came with September. The routine was familiar and welcoming. People knew what to do. There was no guesswork to the schedule, no holidays to interrupt. Even national politics had yet to really grab hold of the general public conversation. Temperatures fell back to a more comfortable, liveable condition, and Glynn could tell as he walked through town that, generally, moods had improved. With the exception of rather minor challenges here and there, people were happy.

As he sat at the desk in the church office, however, Glynn was starting to feel some pressure. The state pastors’ retreat was at the end of the following week and on Tuesday of the same week would be the trip to Bartlesville to check Hayden’s eyes. Both came with their own challenges and there was barely a moment when Glynn wasn’t thinking about one or the other. Marve mentioned too many times that he wasn’t paying attention to what was going on right in front of him, whether it be a dinner conversation or something the kids were doing or even the school’s first-ever home football game. He rambled through Wednesday night’s prayer meeting. He appeared distracted in almost every conversation. 

At the same time, the associational executive committee kept meeting, looking at possible candidates to be the new Director of Missions. The work was disheartening for everyone on the committee as they continued to find serious character flaws with each of the people the state convention had recommended. Glynn was beginning to wonder if there was anyone who was morally upstanding enough to lead them.

The frequent meetings did give Glynn a chance to discuss his sermon for the pastors’ retreat. Everyone on the committee was going and where Glynn’s personal resources on the topic were weak, Clement and Bill were both happy to offer books and magazine articles they had saved on the topic. The other pastors did their best to be encouraging. That one of them would be asked to speak at the event was exciting. Despite the challenges of the summer, they felt as though the state convention was finally giving them some of the attention they had long wanted.

Sitting at his desk, though, surrounded by the borrowed books and smudged copies of articles, Glynn felt completely alone. Death was not a topic he felt qualified to discuss in detail. While he had officiated over a number of funerals, especially since moving to Adelberg, he had managed to avoid any direct interaction with the loss of someone. Both his parents and siblings were alive and in reasonable health as were Marve’s. Even across his extended family and a host of cousins, they had all managed to escape even the shadow of death. To a large extent, death was a work thing, something he oversaw. Grief was to be managed for others. Comfort was a concept he was expected to carry in his pocket and dish out in appropriate volume when called upon.

Glynn wondered what it must feel like to truly face death. Jerry was probably the one reasonably close person that he might have asked, but he hadn’t. The preacher had never faced a direct threat in any way. He had avoided the entanglement of military service in Vietnam. He hadn’t experienced a life-threatening disease. And while there had been some youthful moments of carelessness in during his brief college experience that might have been life-threatening had they gone wrong, none of them had yielded anything more than the emotional thrill ride he had sought from them.

As much as he tried to focus and get something solid written down, though, Glynn found himself distracted. The insurance company had said they would only cover 60% of Hayden’s initial visit to the ophthalmologist and only 40% of any successive appointments. This was going to be difficult to do on his salary. One visit was going to cost more than Glynn made in a week, nearly $100 more. While they had enough in savings to cover the first visit, any additional visits would force them to face the question of either denying their son the care that he needed or going into debt.

Being neighbors with the president of the bank had some advantages. In casual conversations, while standing in their front yards, the promise of an unsecured loan at a reasonable interest rate of only 12% was offered without any additional background checks or collateral. All Glynn would have to do is call the bank and the necessary papers would be available for him to sign the next day. The banker also offered his influence in getting Glynn one of the new BankAmericard credit cards that were becoming popular. He assured the preacher that, should additional funds be necessary to pay for healthcare, they would be there.

At the same time, though, Glynn had strong feelings about unnecessary debt. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome had been exceptionally clear on the subject. 

Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.

Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America

The phrase, “Owe no one anything,” was stuck strongly in Glynn’s mind. How could he, as a pastor, go into debt when such a direct command was sitting right there in scripture? Sure, there were times when debt was unavoidable, such as buying a vehicle or a house. But was a medical expense unavoidable?

On one hand, Hayden’s behavior at school had improved. He had started participating better in class, sitting down when asked to do so, and rarely walked away during storytime. So, maybe there wasn’t really a problem after all. The situation seemed to be solving itself. To take out any kind of loan when there wasn’t a significant problem to address seemed foolish. 

At the same time, if there was a problem, which only the ophthalmologist seemed capable of discerning, then Glynn had an obligation to care for his child. Scripture was just as unwavering on that topic. 1 Timothy 5:8 was especially clear:

If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

There was no way Glynn would consider not taking care of his baby boy. Even if there hadn’t been such a direct command supporting it, his own sense of morality said that he had to do whatever was necessary to take care of his family. The question, however, was whether debt was necessary? Were there other options that they should be considering?

“If it’s going to bother you so much, why don’t you talk to your Dad?” Marve suggested. “I can talk to mine, too. Maybe, between our two families, we can cobble together enough to pay the bills without having to rely on the bank or anyone else. Besides, we’ve got enough to cover this first visit. You’re worrying over problems you don’t even know you have yet.”

“I just want to be ready for whatever the doctor tells us,” Glynn replied. “If we’re sitting there in that office and he says that Hayden needs glasses, then I want to be sure we can afford those glasses. If he says that there’s some other treatment that he needs, I want to know that we don’t have to hesitate in signing him up for that. We shouldn’t be in a position where we have to say anything other than, ‘Go ahead, set it up.’ Anything short of that feels as though we’re failing to trust God.”

Marve reached over and took Glynn’s hand as they sat at the dining room table. The hour had grown late and the kids had been in bed for quite a while. She was tired but knew that her husband would spend yet another sleepless night tossing and turning in bed, keeping her awake as well if she didn’t find a way to help him work through this problem.

“So trust God, if that’s where the crux of this problem is, Glynn. You know the Bible better than I do. How many times does it mention trusting God to take care of our needs? I can think of three just sitting here without opening my BIble. Having a plan in your back pocket isn’t trusting in God, it’s trusting in your plan. Plans, even the best of plans go wrong. What if something prevents the bank from giving us a loan? What if no one in our family can help? Both of those scenarios seem silly, I know, but if there’s one thing we both should know by now it’s that anything can happen. Only God seems to have anything that resembles control and, between you and me, after the Olympics, I’m beginning to question whether he’s got all that tight a grip on things. This is one of those situations where we have to make a decision. Either we trust God or we don’t, and if you’re not going to trust God on this, Glynn Waterbury, you need to resign.”

“Trusting God does not mean we make foolish financial decisions, though,” Glynn countered. “Proverbs 16:3, ‘Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.’ Luke 14:28, ‘Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and consider the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?’ Psalm 90:12, ‘Teach us to number our days, that we may gain in wisdom.’ Trusting and planning may seem oppositional to each other, but there has to be a way for them to work together. We plan for the worst and trust God that the worst doesn’t happen and if it does that he will provide the means, through whatever sources, to take care of our needs. You’re right, this is a critical moment, one where we can and should be examples of leadership. When the people in our church look at our lives and see how we handle this, it has to be an example they can follow, one that leads them toward a path that God approves, not one that leaves them with more questions than answers. We have to get this right.”

Marve’s belief in God was as strong as Glynn’s on any day but she did not like having scripture thrown in her face as though she were a novice. “So, what are you going to do then, with Proverbs 19:6, ‘A man’s mind plans his steps, but the Lord directs his way?’ How do you justify deliberate misuse of Luke 14:28 in light of Proverbs 19:21, ‘Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established?’ And come on, how many times have you thrown Isaiah 8 at a situation? Those words are practically tattooed on the back of your hand! ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ I’ve heard you preach from that text so many times I can almost quote the whole thing. Don’t you think it’s a little bit hypocritical of you to sit here right now and consider anything other than trusting God completely to take care of our son’s health?”

“And what if I’m too afraid to trust God on this one?”

Glynn’s words came out forcefully and he pounded his fists on the kitchen table. He immediately hated himself for letting the question come out of his mouth. Now that it had, though, he had little choice but to follow up. “I’m scared, Marve. It’s easy enough to trust God about things that are happening to other people. It’s easy to trust God when one of our church members is sick and we pray for God to heal them. It’s easy enough to trust God to stop the rains before it floods everyone’s fields and ruins the planting or harvest seasons. I can even trust God when it seems like the politicians in Washington are nothing but a bunch of godless idiots. But when it comes to my little boy? Not so much. What if he has some kind of disease that requires long-term care? What if he’s going blind and there’s nothing we can do to stop it?”

Glynn was sobbing by the time he finished. Marve squeezed his hands even tighter as she leaned against the back of her chair. For everything they had been through, she had never seen Glynn this distraught over anything. His had always been the faith that was solid, unwavering, ready to take on any challenge that God might throw at them. Quitting his job at the plant hadn’t been this big of a decision. Moving the family across the country to Oklahoma had not caused him anywhere near this much of a challenge. Now that it was his own family, his own son, that was on the line, though, everything was different. There were no assurances in the words on a page that was concrete enough to convince him that his little boy was okay, and when she reached the point now where she could be honest with herself, Marve wasn’t all that certain, either.

She wanted to be tough with her husband. Marve wanted desperately to tell him to suck it up, be strong, be the man of the household, the leader of the church, and the man of God that he was supposed to be. She could imagine herself standing up, getting in his face, and throwing a box of tissue at him, demanding that he dry his tears. Instinctively, though, she knew that those impulses were wrong. This was where Glynn and Hayden were so much alike. Overwhelmed and over-stimulated, they both broke down and needed a soft, guiding voice to get them back where they could control their emotion. 

Marve thought hard as the silent seconds passed between them. Glynn’s head hung low, his hair brushing against the table. She knew the right words had to be there, somewhere, if only she could find them. As much as she loved her husband, right now she was angry that he wasn’t being the strong foundation he’d always been before. Seeing him crumble was frightening. Finally, she said, “This is your Abraham moment.”

Glynn raised his head and looked across the kitchen table at his wife. He could see the weariness and worry in her eyes. He loved her. He loved his family. Still, it took him a moment to realize the reference Marve was making. “Be willing to sacrifice your only son,” he said, summarizing the story from Genesis where God had told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. “And trust God to provide a ram.”

Marve nodded and smiled. She recognized the look of clarity that moved over Glynn’s face, the expression he would get when he finally understood something that, moments ago, had seemed a mystery to him. Never had that look been such a relief as it was now.

Slowly, he sat back up, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and squeezed Marve’s hands as tightly as she had been holding his. “Of course, you’re right. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. Even in the face of the ultimate sacrifice, God provides what we need at exactly the time we need it.” He sat back in the chair and felt a sense of relief rush over him. This was his Abraham moment. Now, the path seemed obvious. They would go to Bartlesville with nothing more than what was in their savings and they would trust God even if the news wasn’t good. An example had already been set. All they had to do was follow it.

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Who Are We?

Who do we want to be?

I’m not sure who we are anymore. 

I’m sitting here on a Thursday morning in late April watching the rain, which isn’t all that unusual for late April, and as I’m going through my morning reading, which has become more extensive in the past month, I’m noticing a disturbing trend: We’re no longer pretending to be nice.

Put a strong emphasis on the word pretending in that last sentence. I’m not naive enough to believe that we, as a society, have ever actually been nice. While the subjective term has always been applied on a bit of a sliding scale depending upon the person to who it was actually applied, most people have long known that much of the niceness we see in a public setting is fake. We were taught a certain set of manners, a distinct level of public decorum to which we all, or at least most of us, adhered. How we behaved privately, however, has always been in opposition to that public face, and knowing whose word could or could not be trusted was valuable capital in navigating the social landscape.

As most of us have been forced to stay at home for well over a month now, or otherwise socially distanced from the level of population that we might normally encounter, cracks in our social veneer have become major fault lines and many people are no longer making the slightest effort to be nice either in their tone nor in their behavior. To some degree, the public face that has been worn by so many for so long is falling completely off and we’re seeing people for who they truly are. 

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. One might argue that it was predictable. We have known for quite some time that herd mentality is neither stable nor predictable and we always expect it to be centered toward some vision of self-preservation; such is the nature of the beast. Beginning in 2007, and expanding more across the field after 2013, economic models have stopped assuming that people act inherently logical, putting the growth of their own economic interests ahead of everything else. That we don’t necessarily value profit above all else played a large part in the 2008 recession and is going to be a significant factor in determining when/if the economy gets back on its feet now. 

When our herd response to the chance of a lockdown coming was to hoard toilet paper above all else, we sent a strong message as to where our values lie in that, for the most part, we have none. This is self-preservation in hyperdrive. Old people can’t get what they need? Screw them. People with critical illnesses can’t get the medications they need to live? Screw them, too. We turned the grocery store into a battleground. If the fights in the aisles weren’t enough, now people are creating bots to snatch items out of store inventories and taking up delivery spots so that, once again, those most vulnerable can’t get what they need. The number of online hacks has increased substantially, putting more people’s private data in danger, and the trolls who have always inherited the seedier places of the Internet have grown to the point of being a public nuisance.

What is ultimately most damaging, though, is that our elected leaders, those who we depend upon for guidance and leadership through difficult times, have ripped off their masks as well and we’re seeing that this land of the free and home of the brave is more like The Bad Place, a facade based on evil with the intent of inflicting as much pain and torture as possible. We see this in the actions of the Mayor of Las Vegas, eagerly desiring to re-open the town’s casinos, not caring how, or if, they choose to enforce any precautions against the spread of disease. We see it in the words of the Texas Lieutenant Governor who callously says, “There are more important things than living.” We see it in the decisions Governors who are ignoring data and science and re-opening commercial activity in their states long before adequate testing makes those actions safe. We see it in the Senate pro Tempore saying that he’d rather see states go bankrupt than pass another stimulus package. 

Most critically, we see the evil in the actions of a president who made it his practice to ignore the earliest warnings of the virus possibly as far back as November of 2019, continually downplaying its severity and questioning the recommendations of medical and scientific professionals, and considered only 30,000 deaths a winning situation. His callous disregard for the volume of human life his actions effect, the demeaning manner in which he speaks to reporters attempting to clarify the situation, and the self-centered insistence on turning every press conference into a campaign rally, proves he cares nothing for anyone but himself and those who are giving him money.

That there remains anyone who still supports this president and those who are committing similar acts of evil proves that we have lost our soul, our national identity, and our social morality. There is no valid claim to greatness in a people who stand on statehouse steps holding automatic weapons in defense of their “right” to move about freely with full knowledge, whether admitted or not, that such actions could impact the health and welfare of hundreds (exponentially) of innocent people. There is no valid claim to righteousness in religious leaders who choose to test God’s sovereignty in order to preserve their pocketbook while potentially infecting thousands. There is no valid claim to morality when pastors and debt holders and even some employers demand people to turn over their entire stimulus checks to them.

I’m not ignoring the fact that there are plenty of people who are doing good within their communities. People who are sewing masks, giving free rooms and meals to medical staff, delivering meals and wifi to children home from school, and many others are demonstrating that there remains some hope that we, collectively, have not lost all humanity. 

What bothers me is that there are apparently not enough of those people to overwhelm the evil and drive it into oblivion. If we were a humane society, our shouts and objections would have forced a change in the president’s behavior from the very beginning. If we were all so intent on doing good and caring for those in need, there would be no one facing eviction or worrying about being able to pay for the medication. If we truly cared about the safety and welfare of our friends and neighbors, we wouldn’t need a forced shut down of businesses, we would all simply stay home until the medical and scientific data determined it was safe to do otherwise. That NONE of those conditions exists tells me we are not who we claim to be.

We sit here at a crossroads where we have to make some difficult choices, putting what’s humane and safe and appropriate above our desires, our wants, and our selfish proclivities. There’s nothing “reasonable” about wanting to re-open business that cannot safely enforce social distancing. We are not “protecting jobs” when the first businesses we want open are those that pay the least and employ the most vulnerable. We are not “doing what’s best for America” when our actions overwhelmingly endanger people of color and those who exist below the poverty line.

We are not who we thought we were or who we claimed to be. The masks are off, the charade is over. America, we see you for the evil you are. 

Now, you get to choose. Who are you going to be?

cats on a couch
Social distancing is not something cats understand. Humans don’t have the same excuse

Reading time: 6 min
Pastors' Conference, 1972

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Chapter 31

chapter 31

Starting school proved to be more challenging for Hayden than the Waterbury’s had expected. Lita loved school from the first moment and tended to do very well. Hayden was excited about school but almost immediately had difficulty adapting. He didn’t like the idea of staying in the same room all morning. He would get upset when his teacher, Mrs. Emily Strassburg, asked him to do something he didn’t want to do. During reading time, he would frequently get up from the circle and wander around the room looking for a block or toy with which to play. 

For the first week, Mrs. Strassburg didn’t seem to mind that Hayden was more of a “free spirit.” After all, many children had trouble adapting to the restrictions of school after having few restrictions prior to that experience. But when Marve went to the school to pick Hayden up on Monday, the teacher suggested it might be beneficial for her to sit in on the next day’s class to see if she might be able to help him adapt a bit better.

While that seemed like a good idea at the time, when they got to the classroom on Tuesday, Hayden refused to leave his mother’s side. He clung to her skirt if she were standing. He sat in her lap if she were sitting. The entire morning was an exercise in frustration as nothing Marve or Mrs. Strassburg could say seemed to work. Hayden’s behavior was worse than it had been yet.

At Mrs. Strassburg’s request, Marve and Hayden stayed after class so the two women could chat. Hayden sat quietly on the floor playing with blocks while they talked.

“I’m struggling to understand why he’s not liking class,” Mrs. Strassburg told Marve. “He’s certainly bright enough. He already knows all his letters and numbers and usually gets his colors correct. But he doesn’t want to participate or do what the rest of the class is doing.”

Marve watched her son playing for a moment before replying. “My being here certainly didn’t seem to help. I’ve rarely known him to be that clingy. He’s not typically timid at all. If anything, we have to stop him from trying stunts on the playground. He’s always played well with other kids. I’m not sure what to think.”
“Well, watch this,” Mrs. Strassburg said as she walked over to a shelf and retrieved a book she had read to the class. Holding up the book, she said, “Hayden, come here and look at the book with me.”

Hayden left the pile of blocks and walked over to Mrs. Strassburg who had carefully squatted down so that she was on his eye level. She opened the book and began reading. “This is Spot. Spot is a dog. Spot likes to play.”

The little boy looked at the picture, pointed at the dog then looked at his mother and said, “Spot is a very fuzzy dog.”

Marve looked quizically at Mrs. Strassburg. The dog in the picture was not fuzzy, it had very short hair. “What color is the dog?” she asked.

“He’s yellow, and brown, and whooooosh!” Hayden answered as he twirled around in a circle.”

“What color is whoosh?” his mother asked, perplexed by the answer.

“All of them!” the boy giggled as he took the book from his teacher and set it back in its place on the shelf.
“And he’s done reading,” Mrs. Strassburg said. “He’s done that to me almost every time. He’s not mean about it, but he’ll take the book I’m reading and put it back on the shelf before I’m done. Sometimes he does it after only the second page.”

“Does he do that with other things?” Marve asked, the worry obvious in her voice.

The teacher tried to reassure her. “No, he’s very good with his numbers and he loves to color. I’m starting to wonder, though, if maybe his vision is just a little off. Have you ever had it checked?”

“Nothing more than what the doctor does in his office,” Marve answered. “He had a checkup just before school started and nothing came up.”

“Do y’all use Dr. Dornboss here in town?” the teacher asked.

Marve nodded as she watched Hayden playing with the blocks. “Saw him just a couple of weeks ago.”

“Would you mind if I talked with him?” Mrs. Strassburg asked. “If nothing else, maybe he’ll have some ideas for helping Hayden get the hang of school.”

“Sure, that’s fine with me,” Marve said. “I’m okay with whatever we need to do. I just want him to be happy and well-adjusted.”

Marve and Hayden left the school and decided to drop by the church office to let Glynn know about the day’s failed experiment. “It was embarrassing,” Marve told him. “Hayden would not let go of my skirt, not even when the class was on the playground! I’ve never seen him behave like this!”

Glynn leaned forward in his chair and smiled at Hayden. “Come here, big guy,” he said cheerfully. “Talk with Daddy for a little bit.”

Hayden ran over and climbed up into his father’s lap, pulling at the pastor’s tie for support. 

“How is kindergarten going for you?” Glynn asked. “Did you have a good time today?”

Hayden nodded. “Mommy was at school today! She got to be my special friend!”

Glynn chuckled. “That’s good! Are you liking Mrs. Strassburg, your teacher?”

The little boy nodded again. “She’s fun! She plays fun games with us and then she lets us have milk!”

Glynn hugged him closely and looked at Marve. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve not noticed anything different at home. He’s been sitting on the floor watching the Olympics the past couple of days. He seems to really like the swimming. They’re saying Mark Spitz could win five or six medals.”

Marve watched as her little boy played with his daddy’s tie, crumpling it into a ball and then twisting it into different shapes as he sat in Glynn’s lap. “I don’t know, either,” she said softly. “Mrs. Strassburg is going to talk to Dr. Dornboss. She said something about maybe checking his eyes. I don’t know, though. I’ve not seen any sign of him having trouble seeing anything.”

Glynn set Hayden on the floor. “I guess it doesn’t hurt to check. We can take him to the doctor if we need to. I’m sure the insurance will cover it.”

“I hope so. The last thing we need is a big medical bill,” Marve said quietly. “We’ll just have to see what Dr. Dornboss says.”

Marve walked Hayden home and Glynn returned to working on next Sunday’s sermon. With all associational activities having largely shut down, for the time being, there was little outside Adelburg to distract him except for the Olympics and the 7-hour time difference meant that he’d have to wait for the evening’s summary of everything that had happened. He returned to his Bible and attempted to focus on something that he hoped would be motivational. Emmit’s charge about people leaving church exactly the same as when they entered had hit a point of conviction for Glynn as well as many of the other pastors. 

Glynn knew his chosen passage of scripture, Psalm 84, quite well. The problem was he knew it more from a recording his mother had of the Brahm’s Requiem that used the verses as a centerpiece. It was almost impossible for the pastor to read the verses without hearing the music in his head. He wished, somewhat enviously he would admit, that the church had a choir with the musical talent to tackle such a piece. While there were many songs he didn’t mind listening to the small choir butcher, this wasn’t one he could even suggest. He giggled to himself as he thought of Buck and Allen, both baritones at best, struggling with the opening tenor line, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, Oh Lord of hosts… “ with “dwell” coming on a particularly high note he knew they could never reach.

As a pastor, Glynn’s intention was to motivate his congregation toward more faithful attendance as they entered the fall months, to encourage participation in activities beyond Sunday morning. He longed to instill in them what John Keats, another of his mother’s favorites, had called “Negative Capability,” that desire to do what one had been called to do even when they were unsure of the calling. He would dovetail that into the concept that when the psalmist had written, “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere,” the meaning had not been that one needed to hang out in the church building all the time in order to be holy. Rather, that holiness was found in carrying the transcendent hope and love of Christ that they found at church into the normalness of everyday activities. In doing so, he would insist, they weren’t farming or teaching or raising cattle for their own benefit, but they were doing those things to achieve a higher calling from God.

He knew it was a lot to try and cram into a twenty-minute sermon and Glynn struggled to find a vocabulary that would keep the homily from sounding too much like a classroom lecture, putting his congregation to sleep rather than motivating them to get on their feet. As a result, the crumpled and discarded attempts at phrasing and manipulating the language were beginning to pile up on the desk. Lunch came and went without the preacher bothering to look up from his work. Neither was he aware of the perspiration that was covering his entire body. The outside temperature had again topped the 100-degree mark and he had yet to pause long enough to turn on the small window unit that would marginally, with great effort on its part, keep the room’s temperature tolerable.

Glynn was so preoccupied with his study that he was startled when, shortly after 2:00, there was a knock on the office door. He looked at his watch, surprised by the amount of time that had elapsed, and then quickly realized the extent to which his current physical condition left him ill-prepared to greet the guest he knew was waiting at the door. He pulled a slightly damp handkerchief from the back pocket of his slacks and blotted the sweat from his face as he walked around the desk to the door.

“Dr. Cain, come on in,” Glynn said cheerfully as he opened the door. “I apologize for the uncomfortable temperature this afternoon. I got busy and forgot to turn on the air conditioner.”

The Associate Director of Pastoral Ministries chuckled, shaking Glynn’s hand as he entered. “You know, they say after the devil visits Oklahoma in summer he runs back to hell to cool off.” 

If there had been a catalog describing what a pastor looked like, the picture would have been Calvin Cain. At 38, he was one of the state convention’s youngest staff members but also one of its most educated and well respected. At six feet tall, he stood above most of the pastors he met with. His brown hair was combed back and cut short, seemingly perfectly in place no matter what the weather conditions. He was impeccably dressed, his starched white shirt showing no sign of fatigue or distress from his travels, his chocolate-brown suit hanging perfectly on his trim body. Even his glasses were perfectly positioned at all times. His quick smile and perpetually calm demeanor gave the impression that absolutely nothing one might say could possibly disturb him.

“How did things go in Arvil?” Glynn asked as he squeezed past his guest and back around to the other side of the desk. He wished the office was larger and more accomodating for guests, but he knew he was lucky to have any space at all.

“A little bit rough to start,” Calvin answered as he sat carefully on the folding chair nearest the desk. “The executive committee is supposed to have five people, but two of its members have recently resigned and replacing them is going to be a challenge because the association has lost or is about to lose around twenty percent of its pastors.”

Wow! That many? Is this because of that list Emmit sent?” Glynn asked, shocked by the number.

Calvin nodded. “I’m afraid so. He was very careful and detailed in what he sent us and because of that, as we’ve contacted church leaders and explained to them what was going on, all but one have quickly stepped up and done what was right. From the perspective of keeping our churches pure, it’s a good move, one that probably should be taken in almost all our associations. From a personnel perspective, though, it leaves some gaping holes in a number of important places. In fact, while I’m here, I’m supposed to ask if you would consider filling one of the positions on the executive committee. They need to be able to move quickly in their search for a new director of missions.”

The request caught Glynn off guard. “That … I don’t know, Calvin. I’m not sure that seems appropriate. I’ve been here less than a year. I’m still learning all that associations do down here. Surely there must be other pastors who are better qualified.”

“I can appreciate your hesitation, but the other members of the committee are concerned that someone is chosen who does not drag the association backward theologically or doctrinally and there are plenty of pastors up here whose opinions would sway that direction.” Calvin paused and crossed his legs in the opposite direction. “Clement Garner over at Emmanuel, Washataug is the committee chair and he pushed pretty hard to add you and Carl Roberts at Liberty Creek to the committee. Bill Moody and Herb Stanley are the other two members. Herb hasn’t been at Ochillie much longer than you’ve been here, so he didn’t have a lot to say, but he’s been in the state quite a while. I think you’d make a good addition and, speaking somewhat selfishly on behalf of the state convention, we’d like to see the committee staffed by men we know are going to be supportive.”

Glynn shrugged, not sure exactly how to respond. He knew the position was important, but he also suspected that it might make him a lightning rod for the opinions of other pastors in the association who didn’t view the Bible nor the church in quite the same way that he did. The last thing he wanted was to become the target of one of Jerry Winston’s loud diatribes. “I just don’t know. I’ve seen how riled up some of these guys can get over relatively unimportant things like a picture in a Sunday School quarterly. This is an important decision and I’m not sure I want to get mixed up in the inevitable argument that’s going to happen somewhere down the road.”

“Well, I think there are things we can do to help offset that argument, and possibly keep it from happening at all.” Calvin shifted his weight again, his expression still calm and confident as he spoke. “I expect we’ll have some new pastors in the association by then and we’re working with the pulpit committees in those churches to lead them toward better pastors so hopefully they don’t end up with the same situations they have now. And we’ll have private conversations with anyone we anticipate being problematic. We want to keep the external pressure off the executive committee and give them the ability to find someone who is really going to be best for the churches in this association.”

“You can do that?” Glynn asked, surprised by the level of involvement being inferred.

Calvin smiled. “We try to stay behind the scenes and out of the way as much as possible, but we do have a vested interest in keeping things at this level running smoothly. And that’s the primary reason for my visit this afternoon. Emmitt hadn’t mentioned anything about you in his notes but in other conversations, and in a phone call after he last visited with you, he voiced some concern that you might be feeling discouraged and uncertain about how things are going here. I wanted to chat with you, see where you’re at, and perhaps if there’s anything I can do or someone else at the state level can do to help since you don’t have a director of missions to support you at the moment.”

Glynn leaned back in his chair slightly, not because he wasn’t interested but more to express his comfort level with the topic. Being on the executive committee was a bothersome matter. Everything he had heard about Dr. Cain, however, allowed him to feel more comfortable discussing personal pastoral issues with him. “I’ll admit, Emmit’s sudden resignation hit me right in the middle of an existential crisis of purpose and whether I’m the right person for this church, whether I’m doing the right thing for my family by being here. There have been too many days over the last two months where I’ve felt as though God were throwing my work right back in my face as if to say, “This isn’t good enough.”

“Can you fill me in? What all has happened besides Emmit’s leaving?” Calvin asked, his expression now one of concern mixed with compassion.

Glynn recounted the events of Lita’s questions about death and the wedding and murder of the young couple, the church’s stagnation during the summer and how they all fueled his own doubts. “As I’ve focused more directly on the things right here in Adelberg some of those worries seem to have been placated to a degree, but every day, every sermon, every conversation seems to bring a new set of questions people expect me to answer and I find myself endlessly second-guessing whether I’ve told them the right thing, or the best right thing in some cases. And while it was enough to be doubting my own situation, when Emmit said what he did at the pastors’ conference a couple of weeks ago, revealing the depth of deprivation among men who have been pastoring these churches a lot longer than I have, I had to wonder if we’re all somehow misguided, wasting our time, totally misunderstanding the very purpose and reason for churches to exist in the first place. I’m looking for answers and too often it feels as though I’m only uncovering more questions.”

“I think we all find ourselves with struggles similar to what you’re describing,” Calvin said calmly. “When Solomon writes in Proverbs 3 to trust in the Lord with all our might and don’t depend on our own understanding, I think he may be addressing situations just like this. We think, we expect, that certain things within God’s kingdom should happen a specific way and when they don’t happen that way we question what went wrong. Were we interpreting scripture the wrong way? Did we misunderstand what it is we’re supposed to be doing?

“What I think Solomon is doing is telling us to check our perspectives. If we do something with the expectation that God is going to bless the action because we are the ones doing it, then we’re going to be disappointed. Like with the wedding of the young couple, just because they were murdered the same day does not mean that God had not already blessed your action. Your action is not related to the action of the person who murdered them. Rather, you honored God by joining them together as a couple, an eternal bond that no human act can ever separate. That was your job, your responsibility. Everything else that happened is separate.

“The same applies to almost everything else we do. We act expecting specific results when, if we’re honest with the Bible, God does not always connect actions with results. Living by faith means that we act, in love, in compassion, in caring, not for the results of those actions but simply because God told us to act. Even if there are no visible results at all, when we faithfully administer the actions, the responsibilities that God has given, then he can provide to us the healing and refreshment we need to continue.”

The two men continued talking for the better part of an hour, Calvin carefully meeting Glynn’s questions and challenges with the encouragement to place his hope and faith in something other than the activities of people who were inherently fallible. By the time Dr. Cain left, Glynn was feeling more upbeat and ready to tackle what he thought lied ahead. 

Chapter 32

chapter 32

Any worries Glynn might have had that the Labor Day weekend would detract from Sunday morning church attendance were unnecessary. After a week of excessive heat across the state, most people in and around Adelberg had decided to forgo making any trips and stay home in the air conditioning, primarily watching broadcasts of the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. The games had been a topic of conversation around town for some time as many World War II veterans still remembered the 1936 games in Berlin while others claimed some connection to the many Oklahoma-native wrestlers on the team. Oklahoma State University’s head basketball coach, Henry Iba, was coaching the US men’s basketball team, who was the favorite to once again take the gold in that sport. Conversations before and after the services tended to center around US swimmer Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals and whether the Soviets had intentionally underplayed gymnast Olga Korbut’s abilities prior to the games in order to fuel her popularity as she won three gold medals. 

The pastor’s sermon had seemed to go over better than he had expected as well. There were fewer “good sermon” comments and more along the lines of “I’d never looked at it that way before.” While he knew the sincerity of some comments might be questionable, he was pleased when Claire pulled him to the side to challenge his assertions.

“I’m going to have to think this through,” the teenager admitted, “but it seems to me that there has to be some connection, at least on a spiritual level, to the things we do and the results of those actions. I mean, are you saying that God doesn’t care about the consequences?”

Over the summer, Claire’s questions had grown more thoughtful, often reflecting whatever she was reading at the moment. As a result, Glynn had grown to see them as a welcome challenge rather than the nuisance they were at first. He smiled, not realizing that such a response came across to her as condescending. “It’s not that God doesn’t care about the consequences, but that the consequences are, for us, separate from the actions themselves. God knows everything is not going to go as we planned. He knows that when we show love to someone they may not always respond in a positive manner. What matters, however, is that we were obedient, we showed love even in the face of a negative response. What matters is that, despite that response, we continue to show love again and again. The results are a separate entity. We are not held responsible for someone else’s actions.”

“Okay, but that can’t be true in every scenario,” Claire challenged. “For example, I was a counselor at softball camp a couple of weeks ago. I had eight 12-year-old girls in my cabin and a couple of them were from poor families. Neither of them had any extra money to spend on snacks or anything at the canteen. So, I bought them each a soda and a candy bar. One girl took them and said thank you but the other one just let them sit on the table and threw them away when it was time to go to the next activity. That kind of hurt because, you know, it was my money that she was wasting. So, I didn’t buy her anything the next day because I didn’t want her throwing it away again. I had to alter my actions because of her response.”

“Claire, stop and think about why you bought those girls the candy and soda in the first place. Really search your heart on this one. Were you doing it because God commands us to care for those who are poor and less fortunate or could it have been for some other reason? Maybe you wanted them to like you. Maybe you wanted the ‘best counselor’ award. But you let their response dictate your action the next day, not God’s command. Tell me, did you ask the girls if they wanted the pop and candy before you bought it?”

Claire instantly blushed and looked at the ground sheepishly. “No, I just got them the same thing the other girls were getting.”

“Okay, then, consider why the one girl may have not wanted your gift,” Glynn said. “What if she was diabetic? Drinking the soda or eating the candy could have made her very sick. If there were peanuts in the candy, she could have been allergic to those.”

The teenager’s expression turned to one of horror. “Oh no! You’re right! I think maybe she was diabetic! She had medicine she had to get from the nurse every day and now that I think about it, she never ate dessert. I was so stupid!”

Glynn carefully put his hand on her shoulder. “God’s commands are absolute and true but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to think about how we apply them. The scribes and Pharisees fell into the same trap. They took the words of Psalm 84 literally and thought that their holiness was connected to how much time they spent at the Temple. They then were offended when some Jews felt that they should be out taking care of the poor and sick. The actions and our motivation and reasons for doing them are our responsibility. Your heart was in the right place, but perhaps you should have checked that your action was the best way of demonstrating compassion.”

Claire bit her lower lip, trying to hold back the emotions she was feeling from realizing her error. “Thank you, pastor Waterbury,” she said softly. “I obviously need to think through this a lot more. Would you mind if I ask more questions later?”

“Anytime, Claire,” Glynn assured her.

The heat had done a good job of wearing everyone down and by the time the Waterbury family was finished with lunch, there was no one arguing about taking a nap. Even Hayden went to bed without any fuss. The evening worship service couldn’t have been any more low key as it was “favorite hymn night,” where church members called out hymn numbers and the congregation sang them, meaning Glynn didn’t have to do much more than say a prayer at either end of the service. There was homemade ice cream after church, but the lingering heat and humidity made being outside feel oppressive.

An early morning rain shower did little more than increase the humidity and provide yet another reason to stay inside, protected by the air conditioning. Neither of the kids was enthused about playing outside. Lita sat on the front porch for a while, contemplating everything from which boy she liked best at school to why cereal went soggy before she could finish her bowl. Hayden declared outside too hot and chose to stay inside, playing with his cars. Glynn and Marve appreciated the chance to relax but in the absence of having anything specific to do, they too fell into a sense of boredom and didn’t mind when the day was over.

Tuesday, however, was a different matter. An overnight thunderstorm had caused the power to blink just enough so that the morning alarm didn’t go off. While Glynn woke up only 15 minutes late, it was still enough to make the morning feel hectic and rushed. Marve fixed a quick breakfast. Glynn helped the kids get ready for school. The morning paper went ignored. The radio stayed off. 

“Do you want me to go with you and Hayden to see Dr. Dornboss this afternoon?” Glynn asked as he tied Hayden’s shoes for the third time.

“No, I think we’ll be okay. He’s just going to check his eyes a little more closely,” Marve answered. “You may need to be home when Lita gets out of school, though. You know how crowded that office gets after lunch.”

“Or I could stay by myself,” Lita offered, hopefully.

Glynn chuckled, “Or you could come and spend some time with me at church.” 

Lita rolled her eyes in the way only an 11-year-old can do, her eyes lingering a split second too long at the top of her eye socket, increasing the adult annoyance factor by 100. “The church is spooky when it’s empty, Dad. Besides, I want to watch the Olympics this afternoon.”

“Fine, we’ll watch the Olympics, I guess,” her father said in an overly-sarcastic tone that was meant to be humorous but only succeeded in eliciting another eye roll from the young girl.

Glynn and Marve stood on the front porch watching as the kids walked the short distance to school. “Do you think they know we’re watching?” Marve asked as she leaned against her husband.

Glynn put his arm around her, pulling her closer. “If they do, they’ve forgotten about it by the time they turn the corner at the bottom of the hill. By the time they cross the playground they’ve forgotten we exist at all. They’re in a totally different universe.”

“I’m a little worried about Hayden,” Marve confessed. “He’s not getting off to as good a start as I’d hoped.”

“Maybe this week will be better,” Glynn answered, somewhat dismissive of her concern. He didn’t consider Hayden’s behavior especially unusual for a little boy who had just turned five. Neither did he expect the afternoon’s doctor’s appointment to yield any helpful information.

The couple stood quietly for a moment as they watched the kids meet up with others from the neighborhood and cross behind the high school onto the elementary playground. Lita dutifully walked Hayden over to his teacher then ran off to find her friends. “Busy week ahead?” Marve asked, convinced her kids would be safe for the day.

“No more than usual,” Glynn answered. “Mrs. Pompernock, the older lady who lives there a couple of houses behind the store, wasn’t doing especially well when I stopped by the hospital on Friday. I need to check on her. The associational executive committee is meeting in Washataug tomorrow at Emmanuel. Clement said they finally have resumès for all the men we’re considering. That will take up most of the morning I suppose. Other than that, just normal stuff.”

“I should confirm Claire to babysit on Thursday, then?” Marve asked. There had been too many interruptions to their date night for her to assume their evening together was a given.

Glynn smiled and squeezed his wife a little more tightly against him. “Yeah, there’s that new steak house that just opened in Arvel. I thought we might try that.” He looked at his watch before continuing. “I should get moving if I’m going to be back when Lita gets home,” he said before reaching down and giving Marve a kiss. “I’ll go ahead and visit the hospital first, get that out of the way, make sure there are no surprises.”

“You know Hub would have called you if there had been,” Marve responded as she slipped back into the house. One of the advantages of living in a small town is that there were rarely any surprises.

Glynn grabbed a necktie from the closet and brushed off his suit coat on his way to the garage. “Have a good morning! I’ll call when I’m back from Arvel,” he said as he opened the garage door, then added, “Need anything while I’m over there?”

Marve walked to the door with a dishtowel in her hands. “Nah, just bring my husband back in one piece,” she said, smiling. “I love you!”

“I love you!” he replied as he got into the car. A commercial blared loudly on the radio as the motor started, prompting Glynn to instinctively reach over and turn it off. He wasn’t especially interested in another predictable weather forecast or the music that seemed to have gotten predictable as well. Driving the few miles to the hospital in Arvel gave him time to think through sermon ideas for Sunday and mentally work through some possible outlines.

Arriving at the hospital, the pastor checked in at the front desk and was told that Mrs. Pompernock was still in surgery and probably wouldn’t be available to take visitors until tomorrow. Glynn sighed at having wasted a trip and asked if there was anyone else there from Adelbert he might need to visit. The hospital auxiliary volunteer checked the admissions sheet and confirmed that there was no one else. Glynn thanked her and was about to leave when the older woman added, “It’s so horrible about the Olympics, isn’t it?”

Glynn stopped short. What could possibly be horrible about the Olympics? He turned around. “Excuse me?”

“You know, with those hostages and the men in masks. It’s all just so horrible!” came the reply.

“Yes, it is,” Glynn responded not having a clue what was actually going on. “Definitely a matter needing a lot of prayers.” He smiled and then walked hurriedly back to his car. As soon as the motor started he turned on the radio. 

“… officials have confirmed at least 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team have been taken captive, possibly 16, we’re not sure. All men, captured in the middle of the night. There are rumors that one of the men has been shot but we’ve not yet been able to confirm that. What we know is still a bit sketchy…”

Glynn backed out of the parking space and rushed home as quickly as possible. The more he heard, the more frightened and concerned he became. Black September, a splinter group of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), had somehow managed to get into the Olympic Village where athletes stayed and take captive several members of Israel’s team without any opposition from German security. Void of enough facts to sufficiently fill the air time, commentators were rehashing other PLO actions and speculating as to whether this might be the start of a global terror operation aimed at bringing down the nation of Israel.

Arriving home and walking into the kitchen, Glynn wasn’t surprised to find Marve sitting on the edge of the couch watching the television. She normally enjoyed listening to the game shows as she worked around the house. Instead of the new game shows, though, ABC television sports anchor, Jim McKay, was talking with Middle Eastern news correspondent Peter Jennings as a shaky camera showed pictures of a man in a mask standing on the second-floor balcony of an athletic dormitory. He was holding a military-style rifle. Glynn sat on the couch next to her without saying anything.

Over the next several minutes, it became clear that the armed men, being called terrorists by both government and Olympic officials, had demanded that 250 PLO members be released from jail or else they would kill the Israeli team members. Both German and Olympic officials had been caught completely off guard. Determined to make these games a stark comparison from the 1936 games under the Hitler regime, security was lax. Armed police officers were few. Rumors were that other athletes had unwittingly helped the group get into the Olympic Village. No one knew what to expect.

Nothing had changed by the time Marve left to take Hayden to his doctor’s appointment. Glynn stayed on the couch, watching in disbelief. Shortly after noon, Buck called to make sure the pastor was aware of what was going on. Farmers and ranchers who had gone out to the fields early to escape the heat were just starting to come in and hear the news. 

Hours passed slowly. Lita arrived home from school anxious to watch the games and was disappointed to find that the news had taken over every broadcast channel. “Stupid news,” she fussed. “Why do people have to be so stupid and do stupid things all the time?”

“Because we are all sinners,” Glynn said automatically. He knew Lita’s question had been rhetorical but his brain answered the question before his mouth could stop the words from coming out.

Lita huffed. “Then they all need to stop being sinners and be Christians.”

It took Glynn a couple of seconds before realizing what his daughter had just said. Carefully, he responded. “They’re not going to be Christians, sweetheart. They’re Muslim. They don’t believe the same thing we do.”

“Then what they believe is stupid. Only stupid people believe in hurting other people. This is all so very stupid!” She plopped angrily into the recliner, crossing both her legs and her arms in a show of defiance at the emotionless television.

Glynn tried to correct her. “We don’t call other people’s religions stupid, Lita. They still worship God, they just don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. They follow the teachings of someone named…”

“I don’t care!” Lita interrupted. “They’re interrupting the Olympics! They should all be kicked out and made to go to someplace else. They can go someplace where there aren’t Olympics. They can go to Texas!”

Glynn struggled to not laugh at his daughter’s unintentional humor. Anti-Texas sentiment was strong this time of year because of a longstanding football rivalry between the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas. Apparently Lita had picked up the fervent dislike of all things Texan from her friends at school. “I don’t think they want to go to Texas,” he told her. “They want their friends out of jail.”

Lita wasn’t in the mood for international negotiation and its subtle nuances. “Then give them their friends and send them all to Texas or some really hot place. I don’t care. They just need to stop interrupting the Olympics!”

Glynn let the girl’s tirade go unanswered, knowing that nothing he said at the moment would soothe her anger enough for her to understand the true gravity of the situation. Marve soon returned home with Hayden. “How’d things go?” he asked, not expecting a substantial answer.

“Oh, okay I guess,” Marve answered. “I have the name of an ophthalmologist in Bartlesville he wants us to see. He said he doesn’t really have the tools here to make an accurate diagnosis but he sees enough to be concerned. How are things here?”

“Not much change,” Glynn said, still looking at the television screen. “They said something a while ago about moving them to an airport somewhere. I’m not sure. They showed some helicopters but I don’t really know what’s going on.”

“It’s all anyone was talking about at the doctor’s office,” Mave said and she sat on the sofa next to Glynn. “Even Dr. Dornboss seemed distracted. That may be why he pushed us off to this guy in Bartlesville.”

Glynn nodded. Several more minutes passed quietly without much conversation. Lita was upset that Hayden had gotten candy from the doctor’s office and she hadn’t gotten anything. Hayden brought some toy cars out from his room and played with them in front of the television.

Marve fixed a quick dinner of macaroni noodles mixed with ground beef and tomato sauce. Typically the television was turned off during mealtime but Glynn opted to leave it on in case something significant changed. Constant banter between the kids made it difficult to hear, though, and Glynn rushed through his meal so he could return to the living room. Marve fussed lightly at the kids and soon joined Glynn on the couch.

For a moment, it seemed that everything was going to work out without any severe incidents. A German official announced that all the hostages had been freed and the terrorists killed. Announcer Jim McKay expressed doubts about the validity of that message, citing German news sources saying the situation at the airport was not over. As reports of intermittent gunfire were shared, the tension increased. Marve moved closer to Glynn, taking hold of his arm as she grew more fearful. 

As the evening grew later, Marve put the kids to bed. “Will the Olympics be back tomorrow?” Lita asked as her mother tucked her in.

“I don’t know, baby. I hope so,” Marve answered. Walking back out into the living room and seeing no obvious change on the television, she decided to wash the dinner dishes and put them up before returning to her seat on the couch. The situation in Munich was proving to be emotionally exhausting. Certainly, she thought, they would find a way to resolve the situation as peacefully as possible. 

Marve had barely resumed her seat on the couch when the television camera zoomed in close on the announced and Jim McKay delivered the fateful words, “I’m being told it’s over… They’re all gone.” She collapsed into Glynn’s arms, sobbing. He held her, stroking her hair, fighting with his own tears, neither of them believing what had happened. 

Finally, after several more minutes, Glynn got up and turned off the television. The couple dried their tears and went to bed, knowing that the world had just taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Things would never be the same.

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What If We Don't

I hesitate to publish something that interrupts the flow of our ongoing serialized novel, but this has been a pervasive thought for some time now and I don’t think Facebook or any other social media is the best place for it. Please allow me this one indulgence as I momentarily direct our attention to more urgent matters.

Anxiety has risen around when we’re going to break free of the COVID-19-related shutdowns and “get back to normal.” While the US president is pushing for an unrealistic May 1 date for business to reopen, other experts are projecting much longer time periods. One bioethicist predicts it could be autumn of 2021 before large crowd gatherings such as concerts and sporting events can be resumed. The underlying question on everyone’s mind is, “When are we going to get back to normal?”

But what if we don’t?

What happens if “normal” as we knew it on January 1 of this year never returns? What could that look like? Could we create a better society for everyone if we don’t allow normal to come back? I don’t think anyone would say that our world we perfect before the pandemic struck. There’s absolutely nothing in the world that says we have to go back to the way things were. This is our opportunity to build something new, something better.

What if we don’t return to a society where people are segregated socially, financially, opportunistically, educationally, perceptively by race, religion, gender, sexuality, or any other arbitrary denominator base on traditions of hate, jealousy, and outright stupidity? 

What if we don’t return to an education system that is demonstratively better for those in some neighborhoods, cities, and towns than it is others, leaving many undereducated and lacking the skills they need to survive and/or hopelessly in debt for the majority of their adult lives?

What if we don’t return to a financial system that preys on the poorest of the poor, denying credit to those who need it most, charging fees to those who can least afford them, and rewarding those who hoard the most wealth with opportunities and resources the majority can never achieve?

What if we don’t return to a workforce that undervalues people we now see as critical to everyone’s survival: grocery store workers, food service employees, delivery drivers, postal service workers, first responders, pharmacy technicians and assistants, warehouse workers, and others?

What if we don’t return to a healthcare system that can deny care to anyone because they don’t meet a list of arbitrary and unnecessary qualifications such as insurance, or pre-existing conditions, or ability to pay, or where they live, or their chances of surviving, or their age, or the gender by which they identify?

What if we don’t return to a political system that denies anyone over 18 the right to vote because they don’t live in the right place, don’t have the right ID in their wallet, can’t physically get to the poll, were once in jail, didn’t meet a deadline for registering, or haven’t jumped through all the restrictive hoops?

What if we don’t return to churches, synagogues, and mosques that teach divisiveness, elitism, racial separation, retaliation, warmongering, theocracy, bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, disregard for science and medicine, authoritarianism, and complete disregard for the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum of people?

What if we don’t return to a disregard for climate and other evidence-based sciences, underfunded medical research, the obliteration of our natural resources, complete destruction of entire ecosystems, willful ignorance of climate change, underfunded science education, and pay-for-play publication systems?

What if we don’t return to an entertainment industry that makes its fortunes by exploiting the worst qualities of humanity, finding humor in our ignorance, celebrating irrational stereotypes, greed, corruption, nepotism, class warfare, racial disparity, injustice, and blatant misrepresentation of history and people groups?

What if we don’t return to a music industry that steals songs from songwriters, exploits performers, promotes live-or-die competitions, makes live music inaccessible for the masses, creates profit for labels over musicians, minimizes the role of women, and replaces talent with gimmicks?

What if we don’t return to an art industry that relies too heavily upon a system of corrupt curators and collectors hoarding art and controlling access to galleries and museums, diminishes the role of indigenous arts and gives unwarranted preference to eurocentric elitists, denigrates illustration and graphic design to lesser class status, and blocks access to financial stability for artists?

What if we don’t return to a world where more than 700 million people are food insecure, where 78% of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck—struggling to provide basic necessities, where as much as half of the world’s population does not make a living wage despite endless hours of work, and where workers’ rights are continually diminished?

What if we don’t return to a world where taxes are imposed on those with the least to give while billionaires escape with no taxes at all, where the efficacy of representation depends on the size of one’s political donation, and the voice of corporations dominates over the voice of individuals?

What if we don’t return to a world where any form of sex is illicit, where nudity is prohibited, where personal forms of pleasure are shamed, where professional sex workers have no legal protection, where protection against sexually-transmitted infections is arbitrary and optional, and where individual choice is superseded by antiquated laws based on unjust morality?

What if we simply refuse to return to the dysfunction that previously defined normal? What if we refuse to participate in something that is broken, inept, and unsustainable? What if we say no? What if we consider the possibilities of our own actions, collectively and individually, to change the world and create a new normal?

What if we take this opportunity to disrupt the political systems of the world, to demand more open and honest elections for everyone, to destroy the very concept of party restrictions and the misrepresentation inherent to their existence, to recognize the interdependence and cooperative necessity of every individual on this planet?

This is our opportunity to take control. We don’t have to accept the ineptness of our politicians. We can say no. We can demand resignations where resignations need to happen. We can refuse to support an economy built on corporate greed. We can demand more. 

We can create a new normal—something better, something lasting, something sustainable. All the cards are on the table. What do you choose to do?

The Old Man in the rain

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Pastors' Conference, 1972

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Chapter 29

chapter 29

“When people leave our churches feeling good about themselves without ever having felt convicted, we have failed to do our jobs,” Emmit said as he spoke before the assembled group of preachers. The dull, humid Monday morning was already plagued with a misty grey sky that made everything feel uncomfortable. The Director of Missions had not bothered to explain why he was taking the group to the proverbial woodshed this morning, but he had their attention and he showed no sign of easing off the pressure.

“When people leave our churches without a sense of hope, without a glimpse of forgiveness and mercy, we have failed to do our jobs,” Emmit continued. “When people leave our churches more concerned about what’s for lunch than their personal responsibility to God, we have failed to do our jobs. When the last person walks out the door after any service and the most common comment has been, ‘Good sermon, pastor,’ we have failed to do our jobs. We are not here to satisfy the sanctimonious. God did not set us here to placate the pious. Christ did not suffer and die on the cross so that we might soothe the minds of those scrupulously adhering to dogma. 

“If Jesus were sitting here around this table with us this morning, and as much as we might like to piously claim that the Holy Spirit is with us always, it’s not, but if Jesus, in physical manifestation were sitting in one of these metal folding chairs and given the opportunity to speak, do you think he’d congratulate you on what you’re doing? Do you think he’d pat you on the back and say, ‘Hey, you’re doing the best you can under difficult circumstances?’ Do you think that, when cumulatively, between both counties, we’re reaching less than ten percent of the unchurched population? Dare we think that Christ would be pleased that we’ve not planted a new church in this association in over 17 years? 

“Look at us! Look at what we’ve become! Our young people enjoy singing, ‘It only takes a spark to set a fire going,’ but the instant we see any spark of creativity, anything that would bring new and, perhaps, different people through our doors, we immediately toss water on it while arguing that the fire our young people are trying to set could burn down the whole church. Look at us! Our egos are fragile, our theology is shallow, our motivation is self-serving, and our conduct is unbecoming a servant of God. 

“Want to know what Jesus would have to say to us? Fortunately, Matthew wrote down exactly what he would say to us because it’s exactly the same thing he said when he was here the first time and no one paid much attention to him then, either. Chapter 23, and you’ll excuse me for cherry-picking the parts that apply to us the most. He’s speaking of the scribes and Pharisees when he says:

…you must not imitate their lives! For they preach but do not practise. They pile up back-breaking burdens and lay them on other men’s shoulders—yet they themselves will not raise a finger to move them. Their whole lives are planned with an eye to effect. They increase the size of their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their robes; they love seats of honour at dinner parties and front places in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with respect in public places and to have men call them ‘rabbi!’ Don’t you ever be called ‘rabbi’—you have only one teacher, and all of you are brothers.

“I shouldn’t need to explain to you what’s going on here. Replace ‘rabbi’ with reverend and we are exactly the same. We love the way people defer to us on topics we have absolutely no authority addressing. We enjoy being invited to the best banquets, given seats at the dais and asked to say a prayer blessing what is, without question, the most unworthy of civic events. We love to grandstand, to offer ten-minute prayers over food that takes only five minutes to eat. And Jesus isn’t done. Picking up in verse 13, you might want to actually follow along in your own Bibles. You need to see with your own eyes what Jesus is saying to you.

But alas for you, you scribes and Pharisees, play-actors that you are! You lock the door of the kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces; you will not go in yourselves neither will you allow those at the door to go inside.

15 “Alas for you, you scribes and Pharisees, play-actors! You scour sea and land to make a single convert, and then you make him twice as ripe for destruction as you are yourselves.

“Jump on down to verse 23 and ask yourself how honestly this fits:

Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you utter frauds! For you pay your tithe on mint and aniseed and cummin, and neglect the things which carry far more weight in the Law—justice, mercy and good faith. These are the things you should have observed—without neglecting the others. You call yourselves leaders, and yet you can’t see an inch before your noses, for you filter out the mosquito and swallow the camel.

25-26 “What miserable frauds you are, you scribes and Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, while the inside is full of greed and self-indulgence. Can’t you see, Pharisee? First wash the inside of a cup, and then you can clean the outside.

27-28 “Alas for you, you hypocritical scribes and Pharisees! You are like white-washed tombs, which look fine on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of rottenness. For you appear like good men on the outside—but inside you are a mass of pretense and wickedness.

29-36 “What miserable frauds you are, you scribes and Pharisees! You build tombs for the prophets, and decorate monuments for good men of the past, and then say, ‘If we had lived in the times of our ancestors we should never have joined in the killing of the prophets.’ Yes, ‘your ancestors’—that shows you to be sons indeed of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead then, and finish off what your ancestors tried to do! You serpents, you viper’s brood, how do you think you are going to avoid being condemned to the rubbish-heap? 

The New Testament in Modern English by J.B Phillips copyright © 1960, 1972 J. B. Phillips. Administered by The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. Used by Permission.

The pastors looked at their Bibles as though they were reading the passage for the first time. None of them dared look Emmit in the face. He was uncharacteristically charged and as difficult as it was to hear what he was saying, none of them could deny that his accusations were valid, though most assumed he was talking about someone other than them. Each was thinking of his own excuse, his own reason for why his actions might appear to be less than righteous, something other than sincere.

Emmit continued. “I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve been embarrassed in recent weeks simply by being associated with you guys. I was in the pharmacy on Saturday and the woman behind the counter told me how one of you manages to slip something into your suit pocket without paying for it every time you’re in the store. I won’t be joining you for lunch today because I’ve been told that the tips you leave, as a group, amount to less than five percent of your bill. And yet, you sit there and laugh and make noise, and act as though you own the place. 

“Your reputation in both counties is disgusting. I was visiting one church member in the Washataug hospital because her church is without a pastor. She told me that for all the time she’s been a member of a Southern Baptist church, I was the first minister to pay her a visit, despite the fact she has a chronic condition that requires frequent hospitalization. I was standing at the nurse’s station and was told how inappropriate some of you are, acting as though you know more than the doctors, questioning medical decisions, and apparently a couple of you are fond of slapping young nurses on the bottom! Who do you think you are? College frat boys?

“We have people visit us from Oklahoma City, trying to share with us ideas and concepts that could possibly help our churches grow and you guys treat them as though they are some kind of lower-class servant, questioning or discounting everything they say, to their faces! When Bruce Haggard left here two weeks ago he was completely and utterly discouraged by the way you responded to him and the Sunday School literature. No, he didn’t stay for lunch, he didn’t feel remotely welcome! One of you even shoved a packet of literature at his chest and told him that he’s wasting his time! How dare you! How dare you even call yourselves Christians let alone pastors with that attitude?

“I am ashamed of you. God is ashamed of you. The world is ashamed of you. The only people who like you guys right now are the ones sitting comfortably in your congregations thinking that their souls are safe and they don’t need to do anything more to help anyone else because they’ve given their tithe which means the church will take care of the poor and the homeless and the orphans and the destitute. Who do they think the church is? Our congregations think that God’s work is going to magically happen without them ever having to leave their cushioned pews and we have continually, fervently, reinforced that attitude with our preaching and setting examples that give the incorrect impression that since Jesus saves us from our sins, we can roller skate right on through the rest of our lives without ever having to worry about falling.

“Brothers, I have some bad news: We’ve fallen. We have fallen hard and we’re taking our churches with us. We have fallen so hard that I’m no longer surprised when the police come knocking at my door asking for information about one of you, attempting to verify your whereabouts in connection to some crime that has been committed. We have fallen so hard that only the blind assume your innocence. 

“Take a look around you and notice who’s missing. I specifically asked many of you to be here this morning so that you would not be suspect. As we are meeting here, police are over at Grace Church arresting Charley Edmonds on suspicion of murder. You’ll remember the incident back in February where a deacon in the church was confronted after an evening service by a man claiming that his wife was having an affair. The man’s wife was murdered later that night and police originally arrested her husband for the crime. The chaos of that initial investigation is what brought us here to Calvary church for our meetings.

“What has come to light in the following months is that it wasn’t the deacon the young woman was having an affair with, it was Charley. When he heard what had happened in the parking lot, he got scared. He waited until everyone was gone then headed out toward the couple’s house, hoping to make sure the young woman was going to be quiet. He was almost there when he found her running alongside the road. He stopped, they had an argument, and he allegedly killed her. 

“I’ve little doubt that he will be convicted. The police seem to think that I have some form of control over you guys and keep showing up at my office with evidence. I don’t know that I’ve seen it all but I’ve seen enough to be sickened by the whole matter. They’re arresting him now and it will be in all the papers this evening.”
Emmit paused for a second and looked down at the table. The room was quiet except for the creaking of strained metal as various pastors adjusted their weight in the chairs. They could tell by the pained expression on Emmit’s face that he wasn’t done.

“I was made aware of this action this morning,” Emmit continued, “not more than ten minutes after receiving a call from Oklahoma City informing me that the former pastor of Grace, Washataug, Merle Clinton, bought a gun on Saturday, took it home and shot his wife and himself in front of their children.”

Gasps and murmurs filled the room. Emmit waited as the group expressed their shock in the quiet and subdued tones men used when they felt the need to say something but didn’t want to be heard saying it. After a few seconds, he added, “That both of these pastors were at churches named Grace is not lost on me. Grace is the ultimate gift from God. Grace is the very reason Christ came to earth in human form. Grace is what saves us and right now brothers, grace is what we all need more than anything. Yet, as we’ve seen in both these events this morning, we’ve taken God’s grace and squandered it. What has been manifested through these two pastors is sin of which we all are guilty. We have taken the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses us from sin and used it as a cover for doing all the things we preach against.

I am tempted to call out at least half of you this morning because what you’ve done in your communities is already so public that you’re the only ones who seem to not be aware of how much the people in your churches already know. One of you has embezzled over $5,000 from your church. Your wife is helping to build the case against you so there’s no point in trying to run. One of you has been caught in your office on multiple occasions with young boys. The only reason you’re not in jail already is that the parents involved don’t want to drag their children through the trial process. Another pastor here lied about his credentials. Not only have you not been to college or seminary as you led your church to believe, you were never ordained at all. You are not legally a Southern Baptist minister and all the weddings you’ve performed are now being called into question.”

The quiet was disrupted by the sound of a metal chair being pushed back across the hard tile. Marshall Huffman, pastor of Trinity church in Washataug, got up and left the room without speaking.

“No, before you ask, Marshall was not among any of those I’ve mentioned,” Emmit said, knowing what the pastors were likely assuming. “You each know who you are and what you have done. I, for one, am done covering for you. I’m sick and tired of attempting to defend the indefensible. I took this position in the hopes that I would be able to support the pastors here and in doing so help grow the churches as well. I’ve obviously failed in that job. You are the most corrupt and malicious group of so-called Christians I have ever known. 

“I had planned on waiting until our Annual Meeting in October to do this but I simply cannot, in good conscience, go on any longer. I’ve called Dr. Ingram and submitted my resignation. I can no longer be your Director of Missions or hold any affiliation with this association in any way. I’ve made a thorough and detailed report of exactly who has done what and mailed it to the ministerial services office in Oklahoma City. They’ll be reaching out to law enforcement where necessary and directly to churches where it is appropriate.

“I cannot begin to express my level of dismay in doing this. I look at your many failures and wonder what I could have done to stop it all, how I might have directed you away from so many sins. Perhaps I failed to inspire you sufficiently or it could be that I should have been more of a disciplinarian, pushing you to a more rigid discipleship. I don’t know. What I know is that I cannot continue.”

Emmit’s face showed the pain with which he was speaking. He closed his Bible and tapped it with his fingers, looking for the words with which to finish. Finally, he said, “There is a handful of you who, at least for now, appear to be faithful. I will reach out to you before I leave, let you know what you need to know to protect yourself from the sin that surrounds you. The rest of you… what happens next is between you and God and your churches. God may yet offer you forgiveness but I wouldn’t expect the same from your congregations.”

He picked up his Bible and walked toward the door. Seeing the still-shocked expression on Glynn’s face, he paused long enough to pat him on the shoulder before leaving, a move everyone noticed and questioned its meaning. The pastors waited quietly, some unsure whether to say anything, others quite certain that they needed to leave before more questions were asked, squirmed in their chairs, not wanting to be the first to stand. Disbanding slowly under a cloud of hushed questions and accusations, they each left with no mention of what to do next.

Glynn drove home in silence, the radio off, the windows rolled up and the air-conditioner doing its best to overpower the humidity. He felt as though he had his feet kicked out from under him. Emmit was his friend, or at least Glynn had always seen him as such. He’d been supportive and encouraging at every turn, offering sound advice when it was needed. The suddenness of his departure was a punch that compounded the angst and worries he’d felt over his own position. Now, given the broad brush strokes with which every pastor in the association had been painted, Glynn was no longer sure who he could trust. Was there anyone in whom he could confide?

The pastor arrived home to find Marve watching over the kids from the kitchen window as they played outside. She smiled at him as he came through the door. He walked up behind her, put his arms around her waist, and kissed the back of her neck.

“I take it this was another one of those meetings that left you worse than when you got here?” Marve asked softly as she leaned into her husband.

“Worst one yet. Emmit resigned, among other things,” Glynn said.

“That explains the phone calls,” Marve said as she reached for a piece of paper on the counter. “Both Joe Ingram and Calvin Cain said to give them a call if you need to talk.” She slipped the paper into his shirt pocket and then reached up to give him a kiss. “Of course, you could always talk to me. I don’t come with long-distance charges.”

Glynn held his wife close. “I’m not sure how much of this mess you want to know. Although, maybe it’s best you know before it hits the papers this evening.”

“Oh, God, is it that bad?” Marve asked as she looked out the window.

“Charley Edmonds was arrested for murder this morning,” Glynn said softly as he took a seat at the kitchen table. “The former pastor at Grace, Washataug killed himself and his wife. Some other things but Emmit didn’t name names. Just a lot all at once.”

“How’s all that going to affect you?” his wife asked. “I mean, why did Emmit have to resign?”

“I don’t know that he would have had to before this morning. He was tired of police showing up at his office all the time asking about different pastors in the association.” Glynn leaned on the table with his elbows, his head in his hand. “He was pretty heated in his delivery this morning, made it clear that, collectively, he considers the pastors in the association as bad if not worse than the scribes and Pharisees. He mentioned some things without naming names that are pretty bad. There’s no way he could be an effective leader after that and he made it pretty clear that he doesn’t want to be that leader anymore.”

Marve walked around the table and put her hands on her husband’s shoulders, gently massaging his back. “I’ve not felt you this stressed since the last time the plant had layoffs. What happens next?”

Glynn shook his head. “I don’t know. I guess the state convention steps in, finds someone to fill the position? I’m not sure. For us, for this church, it means we focus on right here, right now. Our community. Try to stay away from whatever trouble is brewing in other churches.”

Marve leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Glynn’s shoulders and leaned into him. “So much for the joys of being full time.”

“After this morning, I’m wondering if there’s any joy in being a pastor at all,” he sighed. “I’m feeling like I bought into a massive lie.”

Chapter 30

Chapter 30

Over the course of the rest of the week, Glynn poured all his energy into the church. He went down the membership roll and made sure he had some form of contact with everyone, even those who he saw on a regular basis. Some were normal enough, saying hi as he walked to the store and back. Others required traveling out to farms and occasionally into the middle of cornfields being actively harvested. Those he couldn’t get to he called and those who no longer lived in the area received a hand-written letter. He wanted to make sure that everyone in the church knew that he was focused on them.

The pastor’s most effective method, unsurprisingly, was to walk into the diner and stay through the entire lunch rush. By Friday, Alta Groves didn’t even bother taking his order. She’d greet him with a cup of coffee and bring out the day’s special as soon as it was ready. Those who were regulars at the diner took notice. 

“Preacher, you keep this up and we’re going to have to get you a John Deere hat of your own,” Allen teased him. “We’re not used to having a preacher pay this much attention to us. It’s kind of like God has suddenly decided he wants to be your best friend and now you’re second-guessing everything you do.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Glynn asked, smiling. He hadn’t pushed Allen or any of the other farmers about their church attendance over the summer but he could tell his presence at the diner was causing some to feel a bit guilty.

The deacon laughed as he pulled up a chair and took a seat. “A little suspicious, maybe? I mean, you’ve not asked a single person if they’re coming to church, but how many of these guys have promised to be there this Sunday?”

Glynn took a sip of the coffee Alta had just refreshed. “There’ve been a few, but that’s their call. I’ve tried to give all y’all some space over the summer. I know you’re busy and there’s a lot to do. God’s not going to get upset because you didn’t drop everything for a couple of hours on Sunday.”

“Yeah, and that’s different from other preachers we’ve had. And personally, I appreciate you not taking a heavy-handed approach, I really do.” Allen paused as Alta set the plate of food in front of him. “But you’ve gone from being in here maybe once every other week when you needed to chat about something, to every day just because. And I can’t help but notice this is coming at the same time as that preacher over in Arvel is being arrested for that girl’s murder, and three other pastors have suddenly resigned, didn’t even wait for Sunday, and that Director of Missions fellow quit as well. Now, tell me if I’m wrong, but ya’ don’t have to be one of those TV detectives to think something might be up.”

The preacher leaned forward on the table and spoke softly. “Yeah, there’s a lot going on in the association right now, and I honestly won’t be surprised if we don’t see a couple more pastors resign on Sunday. As I think I’ve heard you say on occasion, the cow manure can only get so high before you have to start shoveling and it would seem that God’s doing some shoveling.”

“And you’re making sure we know you’re not one of those being shoveled,” Allen said slowly, not sure he was picking up on the pastor’s metaphor. 

“Sort of,” Glynn answered. “But one of the accusations going around over in Arvel, and perhaps Washataug, too, is that all Southern Baptist preachers are either crooks or liars and that none of us can be trusted. If there’s anyone in Adelberg that’s feeling that way, I want to be able to address the matter before it gets out of hand.”

Allen was nodding his head as he ate his food. He wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve before responding. “I’ve heard that talk. I was over at the tractor supply place yesterday and it’s not just Baptist preachers but all preachers that are gettin’ dragged through the mud a bit. But it seems to be more of an Arvel thing. I can promise you that no one around these parts feels that way. Same for, what’s his name over there, Carl something? Folks over in that part of the county just love him. I’ve not been into Washataug that much of late. I know when the stuff went down at Grace church it was kind of a big thing, but I think it’s blown over pretty much now.”

“The pastor involved there killed himself and his wife last weekend,” Glynn said gently. “That might stir things up again.”

Allen dropped his fork on the table. “You’re kidding me! Merle Clinton did that? I never would have taken him for that kind of person.” He picked up his fork and took another bite, not quite waiting until he had swallowed before continuing. “You’re right, that’s going to stir up the dust. You know, preacher, maybe it makes a couple of guys uncomfortable for you to be in here all the time, but maybe that’s a good thing. You’re visible, not hiding out and giving folks a reason to wonder what you’re up to. Keep on keepin’ on, as the kids say. School’s about to start, football season’s just around the corner, and folks’ll be back to worryin’ about normal stuff. This other nonsense will blow over.”

Allen’s words were what Glynn wanted to hear. By Sunday, the preacher was feeling more enthused than he had in over a month and the energy with which he delivered his sermon to the full sanctuary was abundant. His sermon on the never-ending grace of God was welcome and reassuring. He couldn’t help but notice that people lingered longer after the service, visiting and catching up with people they’d not seen much over the summer. This Sunday felt good for a change.

By the time 9:00 on Monday rolled around again, Glynn wondered if maybe the destruction of the association and with it the pastors’ conference was maybe a good thing. He didn’t feel the need to rush off. He wasn’t going to miss the negative attitudes. He could get his week started off well, maybe even get a little ahead of the curve with his sermon preparation. 

Having a more flexible schedule also meant that he had time to go with Marve to enroll Hayden in kindergarten. Glynn hadn’t given any prior thought to how emotional the event would actually be. His little tow-headed boy was growing up quickly, being more independent and developing a personality separate from his parents, for better or worse. When Glynn and Marve left the school, they sat in the car, holding hands, and wiping away tears of both joy and sorrow that both kids were now in school.

It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that there was a soft knock on the church office door. Glynn answered, surprised to see Emmit there wearing blue jeans and a faded checked shirt. 

“I was wondering if you’d have time to chat a bit,” Emmit said, his smile less enthusiastic than normal. “I didn’t have any chance to warn you before everything happened and I could tell it was all a bit of a shock.”

Glynn opened the door fully and motioned for Emmit to come in. “I’ll always have time for you, no matter what else is going on. How’ve you been? You’re right, that was a lot to take in last week, but for you, I can only imagine how much more difficult it had to be.”

Emmit took a seat in one of the folding chairs across from the pastor’s desk. “It wasn’t easy, but it was a long time coming,” he said firmly. “And I probably could have handled it better. I was feeling so very frustrated. You know, there were three different police detectives working five different cases in my office that previous Friday, all looking for answers that I didn’t have about pastors I didn’t control. They don’t understand how Baptists work, that the churches are autonomous. They kept insisting that I had to be able to order them to do things, or that I could affect their employment. When those calls came in Monday morning, that was the end. I couldn’t handle anymore.”

Glynn shook his head, not wanting to believe what Emmit was telling him but knowing that it was all likely true. “I… I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around there being so many pastors doing so much wrong in one association. I mean, this is an anomaly, right? This doesn’t happen elsewhere, does it? Or am I just in the dark?”

“There’s more than anyone cares to admit,” Emmit said. “In addition to those I mentioned last week, I’m aware of two pastors who are cheating on their spouses with their church secretaries. I don’t know if you noticed at camp, but there were some pastors who were never asked to teach a class. You were given a pass because of being so new, but most of the others who weren’t teaching can’t be trusted with children, even in a reasonably public setting. 

“One of our older pastors, and this one really bothers me, but he goes to lunch or dinner at a diner near his house almost every day; doesn’t get much, maybe a bowl of soup or a sandwich and chips if he’s especially hungry, then just gets up and leaves without paying. Every time. They’ve stopped even bothering to bring him a check. I go by once a week and pay the bill for him. Between you and me, and the guys in the Ministerial Services office, he needs to be in a home. His house is a mess. If you say anything about it, his excuse is that his wife’s been working and hasn’t had time to clean. His wife died 14 years ago! He showed up for Sunday morning services a couple of weeks ago wearing his gardening shorts. Back last winter, there were a couple of Sundays he forgot to show up at all. I’ve talked to the deacons and other church members and they all agree that he needs help and needs to step down, but they feel like it would be mean to ask that of him and, of course, no one can make him resign or retire. So, we’re stuck. What’s he going to do? What’s the church going to do?

“And no, Glynn, it’s not just here. If it were, we might could do something, look at the common factors, see what the problem is. But it’s everywhere. When I talk to the other guys in the other associations, it’s as bad if not worse. Pastors who beat their wives and kids, pastors who are alcoholics and try to hide it, pastors who exaggerate or lie about things they’ve done, pastors who cheat, steal, extort money and favors from their own church members… There are times I think we could fill a prison with just preachers. And don’t even get me started on the evangelists that pass through here. Have you ever noticed that not many of them ever return to the area? Okay, you’ve not been here long enough I guess, but they don’t because they can’t. They’d be arrested or in trouble with someone’s husband.”

Glynn didn’t realize that his mouth was open as Emmit spoke. With each addition to Emmit’s list, his stomach turned another knot. He had never suspected such things from his colleagues. Perhaps there might be some slight exaggeration of a story for the sake of illustrating a point, but never anything beyond that. He felt painfully naive. He dropped his head. “Is there anyone I can trust?” he asked softly.

Emmit leaned forward, resting his arm on the desk. “Yes, even as bad as all this sounds, the majority are still good men. Clement, Bill, Carl, Ted over at Short Springs is a wonderful guy, Harold Waters, and plenty of others. But we’re in a profession where the churches and the communities expect them all to be good men. Even one straying is a problem, and when there are several it’s discouraging because a sin against God isn’t necessarily a crime against man. We don’t have a pastoral police force we can call. Other denominations have a process for handling these things outside the individual church, but not us. If the church chooses to look the other way, and they often do, there’s nothing that can be done. You just have to watch, pay attention to how pastors behave when they think no one’s watching. Choose your friends carefully.”

Glynn let out a long, slow sigh. He didn’t like what he was hearing. All the anxieties and doubt he’d had the weeks before came rushing back with more force than ever. What in the world had he gotten himself into? How could God allow such sin among his own messengers? There had to be a solution here somewhere or else everything he was doing was a fraud. “So, what’s next? Where are you going? What happens to the association?”

“I had already been talking with the folks at the Home Mision Board about going to Minnesota as a church planter,” Emmit said. “We’ve accelerated those conversations over the past week. I was going to wait until the Annual Meeting to announce anything and start up there the first of next year, but now it’s looking more like October. My wife’s not especially happy, but she understands that staying around here would only stir more trouble.” In a fake Italian accent, he added, “Knowing too much about pastors is kind of like snitching on the mob, you know?”

Glynn smiled at the reference to The Godfather, a popular movie that had been released earlier in the year about a crime family. He hadn’t seen the movie but he understood the inference. 

“The association’s executive board will have to meet within the next week or so,” Emmit continued. “Someone from Oklahoma City will come up to help guide that. They’ll select a search committee, much like a church would do when looking for a pastor. The guys from Ministerial Services will make some suggestions but the committee isn’t bound to consider any of them. They’ll look for someone they think is qualified, make a recommendation, and then the executive committee either accepts the recommendation or tells them to keep searching.”

“The churches don’t get a voice?” Glynn asked, surprised by how closed the process was.

“Not really,” Emmit said as he shook his head. “If you stop and think about it, that would probably be a bad idea. There’s not much chance you’d get a consensus on anyone. We have enough trouble passing simple things like a budget at the Annual Meeting. No, treating this more as an administrative position rather than a pastoral one is best. It’s not like the Director of Missions has any real authority. We’re just here in a support role. They just need to find someone quickly or else the Annual Meeting will be chaos if it can happen at all.”

Emmit paused and looked at his watch. “I’ve taken up enough of your time, Glynn. I need to get back to Arvel and finish getting my things out of the office this afternoon. The secretaries will still be there of the morning if you need anything, of course.” He stood and extended his hand, clasping Glynn’s hand in both of his as they shook. “Stay the course, brother. I know this is hard and confusing for you. I assure you, God is still in charge. We come out of the fire refined and purified. Call Calvin. I think he’s coming up next week to meet with the executive committee. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind stopping by. He’s a good encourager.”

”You’ll stay in touch, right?” Glynn asked. 

“You know it,” Emmit said, knowing full well he probably wouldn’t.

There was a short, obligatory prayer; the kind that seemed necessary because of who they were, neither of them expecting it to change anything on any level. Glynn stood in the parking lot and watched as Emmit drove away for the last time.

Reading time: 32 min
Pastor's Conference, 1972

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Chapter 27

Chapter 27

The rain at the end of the week was just what was needed to put a few more people in the pews on Sunday morning. Not that 86 was all that thrilling of a number, but it was a welcome change of direction from the 70s and 60s that occupied most of July. Farmers, of course, were still in the fields, but ranchers had a chance to relax a little. Wives and children were at least present. Glynn took this as a positive sign that things were turning around and was able to relax a little after the evening service, taking time to play in the yard with the kids before they had to go to bed. He was beginning to feel as though he might, finally, be settling into this full-time pastorate thing.

The pastor was still feeling that same confidence as he drove to Arvel for the pastors’ conference on Monday. Morning temperatures weren’t quite as hot so he drove with the car windows down and the radio blasting as he drove as fast as he dared down the highway. He even dared to sing along with Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” something he would only do when no one else was within possible earshot. 

The meeting was at a different church this morning. Olivet Baptist Church was on the East side of Arvel, a smaller church whose regular Sunday morning attendance was just a little less than Adelbert’s. Glynn pulled into the small parking lot noting the usual pastors who were present, and curious by a couple of newer vehicles he didn’t recognize. Unlike their meetings at other churches, this one was taking place in the church sanctuary, which felt a little more formal. A lectern stood in front of the left section of pews as pastors stood in the aisles talking. At the front, Emmit seemed to be in serious discussion with a face Glynn only partially recognized. He knew the man was from Oklahoma City but couldn’t remember what he did there and was curious that he would be all the way up in Arvel on a Monday morning. Oklahoma City was a good four-hour drive away.

Emmit called the meeting to order and the pastors took seats in the first four rows of pews, Glynn and Carl choosing the fourth row, visibly separated from the others. After the usual roll call, Emmit introduced Bruce Haggard, the state convention’s director of religious education. Bruce was present to explain some significant changes coming to the Sunday School curriculum starting with the next quarter in October. It was especially important to push the new curriculum because the association had the lowest rate of using the convention materials in the state.

Glynn yawned. He couldn’t help it. From his perspective, Southern Baptist churches used Southern Baptist materials and if someone in a Sunday School class wanted to challenge the content of that material on any given Sunday then that just made for a more lively and in-depth discussion. He knew too well that adult classes were often little more than gossip sessions using scripture as a cover. He also found it disturbing in his own church that men’s and women’s classes were separate except for the “young adults” class from which one was ejected when they turned 40. Trying to change that tradition, though, was something Glynn had elected to not undertake for fear that the resulting turmoil might create more problems than it would solve.

As the meeting ended, Carl couldn’t resist teasing Glynn about his apparent lack of interest. “The morning’s topic a little dry for you?” he chided.

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Glynn confessed. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I appreciate the changes they’re making but was that really worth him making the trip all the way up here from Oklahoma City on a Monday morning? Seems a bit excessive to me. Why the over-sell?”

“Because more than half these churches use curriculum from nondenominational publishers and there are three churches I know of that don’t use any curriculum at all, they just let their teachers wing it,” Carl explained. “You’d be surprised at what’s being taught in some of these Sunday School classes.”

Glynn shook his head. “Is that something we can really control, though? Our women’s classes are little more than gossip sessions. The men sit around and talk weather and farming and second-guessing Coach Fairbanks, who had better have a good season this year or I’m going to have to preach on anger management.”

Carl laughed. Oklahoma University football was almost as much a religion across the state and there wasn’t a Southern Baptist church in the state that didn’t experience Sunday morning attendance fluctuations based on how well the Sooners were playing. “I’m thankful for away games,” he said. “We have a couple of diehard Crimson and Cream fans who are in Norman for every home game and don’t make it back until late Sunday afternoon. It amazes me how seriously they take their football.”

“It was one of the first topics raised to me when I moved here back in February,” Glynn said. “February and they were thinking about this fall’s football season. Something about a set of brothers in the defensive lineup.”

Carl was still laughing and nodding his head. “I know exactly what you’re talking about. Lucious, Lee Roy, and Dewey Selmon. They’re already calling them the Selmon Wall. My last deacon’s meeting was nothing but that and how we’re going to beat Nebraska.”

Glynn had started walking up the aisle toward the door as he said, “Too bad we can’t turn that enthusiasm into more excitement for the church.”

“Maybe we can,” Carl responded. “That guy from Houston a couple of weeks ago, you remember we said he talked about meeting people where they are? So, what if we find a way to make the result of Saturday’s game affect something on Sunday morning? Not anything critical, mind you, but some kind of contest.”

Glynn paused and gave the idea some thought. Certainly, the men in his church were competitive enough that the right tactic might work. “Any specific?” he asked.

Carl shrugged. “I’m not sure. I think it needs to be something fun, something that won’t actually distract too much.”

“And what happens if the season doesn’t turn out as good as everyone seems to think it will?” Glynn asked.

“Then Chuck Fairbanks is going to be looking for a new job,” Carl laughed. “I don’t know, just an idea. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.”

Glynn said careful and hasty goodbyes where he thought necessary and then made his usual rounds at the hospital. There was no one in critical condition this morning, just a couple of minor surgeries for older people who would be back up and ignoring their doctor’s advice by the end of the week. Despite the weekend’s rains, the weather was still hot and Glynn was hoping to spend most of his afternoons in the air-conditioned office. The books Clement had given him provided plenty of new and interesting material to read, much of which challenged his long-held beliefs, forcing the preacher to either justify what he had been telling people from the pulpit or consider changing his views. 

For the most part, Glynn got what he wanted. Marve was busy getting the kids ready for school in a few weeks, an extra chore with Hayden starting kindergarten. Afternoon heat kept most everyone indoors. What pastoral visits needed to be made were done earlier in the day when breezes were still cool. Wednesday’s prayer meeting was still lightly attended but Glynn was beginning to enjoy the conversations he would have with the few who did attend and walking home by himself afterward was calming.

It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that disruption came calling. Glynn had been so deeply engrossed in the book he was reading that the was startled by the ringing telephone. Hearing Emmit’s voice on the other end of the line immediately made him curious. The Director of Missions was rarely in his office on Friday afternoons. 

After briefly exchanging pleasantries, Emmit quickly got down to the purpose of his call. “Glynn, I’d like to ask you to do me a favor. Normally, I would send something like this over to Clement or Bill but they’re both out of town this afternoon. I have a couple sitting just outside my office who are wanting to get married but they’re having difficulty finding someone to perform the ceremony for them. They already have their wedding license and blood test, but the court clerk refused to marry them and they’ve not been able to find a pastor here who would. Do you think you could do a quick ceremony for them? You’d need a couple of witnesses.”

The question caught Glynn off guard. He hadn’t done too many weddings over his career because the churches he pastored tended to not have young people of marrying age. There had been none in the Adelbert church since he moved there. Performing the ceremony wasn’t really that big of a deal but it seemed strange that no one else was willing to marry the couple. “I guess I can,” he replied. “I don’t understand why they’re having so much trouble getting married, though. What’s causing the problem? Are they both divorced or something?”

“Worse,” Emmit said, being careful to keep his voice soft so as to not be overheard. “The groom is a negro from Joplin.”

Glynn immediately understood the challenge. Racism in Oklahoma ran deep. While he had grown accustomed to working with and around black people on the plant floor in Michigan, even there everything was largely segregated. There simply were no black people living in most Oklahoma towns. They weren’t welcome and people, even churches, weren’t hesitant about letting their stance be known, sometimes with threats of violence. “Just make sure I’m clear, you are asking me to marry a mixed-race couple?” Glynn asked. 

“Yeah, if you think you’re up to it,” Emmit responded. “I’d do it but everyone here in the office has already left. I don’t have anyone to act as a witness.”

Glynn thought carefully before responding. This was the sort of thing that could be bigger than it should. He had heard the foul language being used around town to describe black people whose names ended up in the news. While he had never bothered to ask, he was fairly certain that even Buck would be less than welcoming. He let out a long sigh. “I guess I can. I’m not sure I can find any witnesses either, though. I suppose Marve might be willing to come down but doesn’t the license require two signatures?”

“It does, but there’s a way around that. I can sign one of the spaces before they leave here. No one is going to know that I’m not actually in the room and I don’t think anyone is going to snitch on us,” Emmit said. “And you don’t want to do this at the church. Word gets out that you did and you’ll have more trouble than either of us want to handle. I would recommend taking them to the parsonage, marry them in your living room.”

Emmit was asking was a lot. Glynn’s own opinion was that love was love. The Supreme Court had struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriages in 1967 but there were still a large number of preachers and churches, especially in the South, who refused to perform the ceremony. This was the sort of thing that could get a pastor run out of town in a hurry. “Go ahead and send them over,” Glynn finally said. “We’ll get them married one way or another.”

By the time the pastor hung up the phone, the breeze from the small air-conditioner in the window sent chills across his skin. He knew the risk he was taking not only with the church but with Marve as well. He dialed their home number and waited for his wife to answer. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until the eighth ring that she picked up. “Hi honey, I have a huge favor to ask and I’m sorry it’s last-minute,” he started.

The conversation was surprisingly brief. Marve not only agreed to be the necessary witness but said she would send the kids to play next door so that they wouldn’t be in the way, or accidentally snitch on them later to a church member. When she offered refreshment Glynn questioned whether that might be too much, that the couple’s safety depended in part on covertly being able to slip in and out of town without being noticed. Marve insisted that they at least offer them something cool to drink.

Glynn was waiting outside the church when the couple pulled into the parking lot. He told them to follow him to the parsonage and instructed them to pull into the garage so that it wouldn’t be evident that they had company. The couple nodded, understanding the risks everyone was taking.

Once they were seated in the parsonage living room, Glynn and Marve found the young couple to be quite charming and obviously very much in love. The bride was a young woman just 22 years old and fresh out of college. Her long, blonde hair flowed down to the middle of her back, a light contrast to the short, white dress she was wearing. He was a couple of inches taller than Glynn and fit, his hair cut short, close to his head. He was a med student about to enter his first year of residency. His light blue slacks with the flared legs and brightly patterned shirt looked sharp but definitely stood out in the rural environment.

The couple had met in college at the University of Chicago where many of their friends were interracial couples as well. They knew coming back to the bride’s home in Arvel would be controversial but they hadn’t anticipated the outright hostility shown by the bride’s family. The couple had briefly considered getting married in Joplin, but the groom’s family had threatened to disown him if he walked through the door with a white woman. Even after they finally decided to elope, every step of the process had presented a new challenge. 

Under more normal conditions, Glynn would have insisted on at least some brief marital counseling before agreeing to marry someone, but after hearing the couple’s story he was convinced that he was ill-equipped to offer them any substantial advice. They had already encountered more challenges to their relationship than most couples would experience over a lifetime and they knew there were more to come. He prayed with them briefly, asking God’s blessing on their union and safety as they traveled back to Chicago.

Asking the couple to stand facing him in the middle of the living room, Glynn began the brief ceremony. 

“We are gathered here in the sight of God to witness the union of Lamar and Elizabeth in holy matrimony. This is not a matter to be entered into lightly. Marriage is prescribed and ordained by God and is not meant to be taken with a deep and abiding love founded in our faith in the Creator, fully aware of the obligations and responsibilities we have both to God and to each other. 

“Lamar, do you take Elizabeth to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, through good times and bad, sickness and health, whether richer or poorer, to be faithful to her in all things and to love her as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Lamar said firmly.

“Elizabeth, do you take Lamar to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, through good times and bad, sickness and health, whether richer or poorer, to be faithful to him in all things and to love and support him as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Elizabeth answered with a soft smile.

“Then without the presence of any objection and by the authority invested in me by the state of Oklahoma, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Glynn looked at Lamar and added, “You may now kiss the bride.”

The newlyweds wasted no time getting on the road, hoping to make it as far as St. Louis where they had secured a hotel room for the night. Glynn watched carefully as they backed out of the garage and drove down the hill. He felt certain that they had sufficiently pulled off the event without anyone noticing. It was still early enough in the afternoon that none of the neighbors who might have cared were home. Their path out of town avoided being seen or noticed by anyone curious. The pastor sighed in relief, quietly wishing the couple a happy life. Glynn tucked the marriage license in his Bible to mail to the court clerk the next day.

Saturday mornings always started earlier than Glynn would have liked. Lita was up at the crack of dawn, turning on the television to watch cartoons. Inevitably, Hayden wouldn’t be far behind. There was no such thing as sleeping late. Glynn made coffee while Marve made breakfast. While waiting, he stepped out on the front porch and picked up the morning newspaper, neatly rolled and bound with a rubber band. The pastor casually opened the paper and looked at the headlines. The man convicted of shooting Alabama Governor George Wallace had been sentenced. Bobby Fisher won game 10 of the World Chess Championship. It wasn’t until he had sat down in his recliner that he read the headline below the fold, “Arvel Woman Murdered In St. Louis.”

Glynn’s stomach turned and wrenched as he read the too brief article. The paper said that Elizabeth and a “colored man from Chicago” were shot and robbed as they walked back to their motel after dinner. There was no mention of the couple being newlyweds. They hadn’t made it a day. Their marriage license was still in Glynn’s Bible.

Angrily, Glynn stormed into the kitchen, slammed the newspaper on the table and shouted, “God has a lot of explaining to do!” He thundered out of the kitchen and into the garage, beating the hood of the car with his fists. How could a just God allow this? Was this God’s way of objecting to interracial marriage? Glynn refused to believe that. He kicked at the tires as tears streamed down his face. God had made a mistake. There was no infallibility here. A perfect God could not have allowed this to happen.

Glynn’s sudden actions shocked the rest of the family. No one was accustomed to him raising his voice about anything. To do so while invoking the name of God was something even Marve had never seen him do. 

Both kids came running into the kitchen. Marve assured them that everything was going to be okay. Only after placating them with toast and butter did she look at the newspaper and see what had been so upsetting. 

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she returned to fixing breakfast. In her brief time away from the stove, the bacon she was cooking had burned to the point of being inedible. She dumped the bacon into the trash, slammed the pan onto the stove, and sank to the floor sobbing.

Chapter 28

chapter 28

Glynn found it difficult to stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning. For the first time in his ministerial career, he didn’t feel as though he was serving God. This felt just like any other pointless job, work performed for a boss who really didn’t care. He waded through his sermon with the same level of enthusiasm he might have had for cleaning up after one of Hayden’s frequent toilet accidents. His heart wasn’t in it and he didn’t care. Still, as he stood at the back of the church after the service, his congregation had only praise with “Great sermon, pastor,” being said so frequently that by the time the last person left the sanctuary Glynn wanted to scream, “No, it wasn’t!” at the top of his lungs.

He was in a bad mood, feeling at times abandoned by God and at other times questioning whether God was sovereign at all. Taking a nap didn’t help. Playing outside with Hayden, something that could usually snap Glynn out of any bad mood, didn’t help. He plowed through the evening service even more frustrated and detached than he had been that morning. Instead of the calm, steady voice that his congregation was accustomed to hearing, his tone was aggressive and at times accusatory. He considered it some form of religious perversion that the tactic actually moved a couple of people to come forward during the invitation for “rededication.”

Not that Glynn actually believed in this thing Southern Baptists looked at as some form of spiritual re-purposing or confession after a particularly bad sin. Baptists held strongly to the doctrine of the Security of the Believer; in short, once saved, always saved, no matter what. Glynn looked at the doctrine as a spiritual safety net. It removed the need for confession or any actual acknowledgment of one’s sins beyond the point of salvation. Should an alleged Christian commit particularly heinous acts, such as murder, then it was excused as the person having never truly been saved in the first place. 

The doctrine was riddled with holes that could only be explained away with an academic twisting of scripture that explained away passages such as Hebrews 6, which specifically states, 

4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.

Ever-changing definitions of “apostasy” enabled pastors to convince church members that no, they hadn’t lost their salvation, but simply needed to re-dedicate, spiritually double-down and try harder.

Right now, Glynn hated that doctrine. Of the two women who came forward, one was merely convicted that she hadn’t been reading her Bible enough, not something Glynn considered an actual sin given that there was no concrete determination as to what “enough” might be. The other admitted to having difficulty getting her mind off “impure thoughts.” The pastor didn’t dig for details. He didn’t want to know. The young woman was married and he knew the couple was trying to start a family. From his perspective, it was unlikely she was doing anything wrong. He prayed a hollow prayer with both women and sent them back to their seats, doubting that either would actually change anything in their lives. 

After the service, which again drew “good sermon” accolades, Glynn sent Marve on home with the kids so that he could stay behind and do some reading. Marve could tell her husband was struggling with more than the unjustness of the young couple’s murder. She kissed him on the cheek and promised to wait up for him.

With everyone else gone, Glynn turned off the lights in the sanctuary and walked into the small office. He leaned against the desk and pulled his hands through his hair. He still wanted to scream, to yell at God for having messed up, to erase the wedding ceremony from his memory, to pack up the family and run away, abandoning the pastorate for a calm, predictable 40-hour-a-week factory job that might not pay much but at least made sense. 

This made twice within a month that death had gotten too close. At least Jerry’s death, however ill-timed it might have been, made sense. He knew he had cancer. He had time to prepare. Elizabeth and Lamar didn’t get that chance. They didn’t see what was coming. All their discussion of dealing with the anger of their families didn’t prepare them for the hate they encountered on a St. Louis street. Glynn could excuse God for Jerry’s death as an act of mercy. There was no excuse for the cold-blooded murder of the young newlyweds and that tore at every fiber of Glynn’s soul.

Looking over at the box of books still sitting on the folding chair, he angrily picked up the box and dumped its contents into the floor. What good were they? What wisdom could any of them possibly have?

In the instant that the books hit the floor, Glynn knew he couldn’t leave them there even if he wanted to. He couldn’t throw them away. Even badly written books full of nonsense were still a record of someone’s thoughts or creative effort. Destroying books was, in Glynn’s opinion, a worse sin than what either woman had confessed to during the invitation. Looking at the small pile scattered at his feet, one of the heavier-weighted books with the title Letters and Papers from Prison on its spine. The author’s name sounded vaguely familiar, he recognized it as belonging to a theologian, but the pastor wasn’t familiar with the work or the person. He picked up the book wondering if there was anything of value. Starting on the page that naturally fell open, he read:

God is teaching us that we must live as humans who can get along very well without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. Matthew 8:17 (he took up our infirmities, and bore the burden of our sins) makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering.

This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. . .

Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Letters and Papers from Prison. Translated by Reginald H. Fuller. London: SCM, 1953; as Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

“Participating in the suffering of God?” Is that what was happening? Was the whole purpose of death and disease in the world to help Christians identify with the suffering of God? Glynn wasn’t convinced he was ready to buy that argument. He flipped over a few pages and read more.

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

“I’m not sure anyone even knows what simplicity and straightforwardness are anymore,” Glynn thought to himself. He thumbed across a few more pages in the large book, wondering if there was any way he could ever read through the whole thing. He read more:

Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

Glynn flipped to the back of the book, reading the author’s biography on the inside flap of the dustjacket. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor, imprisoned and hung by the Nazis for his association with a group plotting the assassination of Hitler. Martyr. Yet another of God’s own that had been allowed to die violently at the hands of cruel and vicious hate.

Glynn set the large book on the desk then bent down and picked up the others one at a time, placing them carefully on the bookshelf. There was obviously a lot here that he needed to read. He felt ignorant and uninformed. Perhaps he should quit and go to college, even seminary. Clement certainly seemed to know a lot more about everything. He hadn’t hung around Bill all that much but he appeared much more enlightened than Glynn was feeling at the moment. 

The pastor turned off the lights in the office and walked home in the dusky dark alone, his tie loosened, his suit coat slung over his shoulder. Too many questions were swirling in his mind. If evil and stupidity walked hand in hand in the seats of great power, what chance did anyone have? How could God possibly be sovereign in that situation? Could it be that the key to control was no control? Or was it more likely that God needs chaos to force people to turn to him?

Answers weren’t coming. All week long, Glynn continued to wrestle with the questions burning in his mind. By the time Thursday evening rolled around, he was wondering if there was any point in taking Marve out to dinner. Even Claire remarked quietly to Marve how grumpy and angry the pastor seemed that week.

The couple drove over to Arvel for dinner at a restaurant known locally for the quality of its fried catfish. Marve wasn’t a fan of the bottom-feeding fish and opted for fried chicken instead. The lengthy cooking time of both gave the couple plenty of time to talk.

“So, are you going to tell me what’s going on in that muddled head of yours or are you happy being so cantankerous that everyone in town is starting to think they’ve done something to make you angry?” Marve asked once the server had taken their order.
Glynn looked out through the floor-to-ceiling window at the birds gathering around the large pond stocked with the catfish that furnished the restaurant its fresh catch. “What do you mean?” he responded, not yet fully plugged into the conversation.

Marve reached across the table and took Glynn’s hand. “Look at me,” she said firmly, waiting for him to redirect his attention before continuing. “You’re letting whatever is bothering you get in the way of you doing anything. You’ve snapped at the kids all week, which I can sort of understand. Lita’s been a bit of a brat. But you also snapped at dear Mrs. Walker when you saw her at the post office yesterday. She was so worried she had offended you that she actually called me to see what she had done wrong. You were sharp with the guys at the gas station, you totally pushed off Claire’s questions, which, by the way, the child is asking some tough ones that if you don’t answer she’s going to make the wrong assumptions and get herself into trouble. You’ve ended multiple phone calls without even saying goodbye. Glynn, you’re about to completely undo everything you’ve worked hard to build here. What the sam hill is going on?”

Glynn looked at his wife, then looked down at the table, the white linen cloth catching the fading sunlight through the window and turning everything around them a warm amber. “Those kids, Elizabeth and Lamar,” he said. “Part of me wants to ask God what he was thinking, why he didn’t stop the violence or misdirect them away from it. How could that in any way have been God’s will? There is nothing good that can come out of such a horrible tragedy. At the same time, I can’t stop wondering if the reason I’m having such a problem getting over this is because I’m not really the person who needs to be answering those questions. That’s why I keep putting Claire off. I don’t have any answers. I’m no longer sure of much of anything. I don’t know if I need to go back to college and maybe seminary, try to get to a place of deeper understanding, or if I just need to give up and move back to Michigan.”

“You need to get your head back in the game,” Marve answered, giving him the stern look she usually reserved for the children. “Maybe stop chasing the answers and give them a chance to come to you. You’re answering one question by asking another and all that’s doing is making you and everyone around you a little more crazy. You need to focus more on meeting the needs of the people who are right here, people who are still alive and need your help. There’s nothing you can do for Elizabeth and Lamar now. God’s done what he’s done. So you have questions. Fine. You can’t let the absence of a ready answer get in the way of at least being civil.”

Glynn looked across the table at his wife and felt his face flush. “Why would I be civil in the face of such horrible crimes like this?”

“Glynn, you’re acting as though someone killed your own children,” Marve charged. “You know as well as I do, if not better, that two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s not what the Bible teaches.”

“What if what the Bible is attempting to teach us turns out to be false? I have believed all my life that God is sovereign, that God is in control, that nothing escapes the vision nor the will nor the plan of God.” Glynn paused and took a drink of the water sitting in the crystal glass near his left hand. “Nothing in the past month has supported any of those theories. Instead, everything I’ve believed, everything I’ve preached, seems to be a lie and I just can’t stuff that in my pocket and ignore it. Either God is wrong or I’m just too stupid to see where he’s right.”

Marve released her grip on Glynn’s hand and sat back in her chair. This wasn’t the response she had expected. Her husband was normally calm and understanding, the kind of person who would apologize before knowing what he had done wrong. As much as she wanted to be supportive she couldn’t let this stubborn streak go unchallenged. “You’re not stupid, Glynn. And right now I’m concerned. I think you should see the doctor and have your blood pressure checked. Something. Talk to Emmit or someone. If you can’t find a solution to that mess you’ve got going up there, you’re going to have bigger problems than the deaths of two people you hardly knew. Focus on Adelbert, not the rest of the world.”

Glynn ran his hands through his hair, a move Marve recognized as a sign that he didn’t know how to put into words what he was feeling. “I’m sorry, but I need God to tell me what’s going on,” he said. “I’m done with this game. I need simplicity. I need God to be straightforward and stop hiding all the clues.”

Marve gave an exasperated sigh. There was no point in arguing with him any further. She changed the topic and they spent the rest of the evening with mindless banter about things they both knew were substitutes for real conversations. The drive back to Adelbert was quiet and after Glynn drove Claire home he came back to find that Marve had gone to bed without him. He sat on the edge of the recliner, buried his face in his hands, and prayed. Someone in the universe had the answers. He needed to know what they were.

Reading time: 32 min
Pastors' Conference, 1972

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Chapter 25

chapter 25

Jerry’s funeral was held Sunday afternoon in the Bluebird school gymnasium. Everyone in Mishawaka County seemed to be there. All the pastors from the Ridell-Mishawaka Association were named honorary pallbearers. A surprisingly large contingent from the Baptist Building, including Dr. Ingram, were in attendance as well. For Glynn, this was the largest funeral he had ever attended. He stood outside the gym, watching people arrive, talking casually with Dr. Ingram as they waited for the family to take their seats.

Glynn hadn’t asked to be part of the service and was surprised when Gladys called to ask him to deliver the homily. Certainly, there were others who knew him longer and better and were more qualified, he had objected. Gladys was insistent, though, saying that he had been the closest thing Jerry had to a friend in the ministry. Few others knew about his cancer. No one else was there for them after the tornado. Jerry had left Gladys with clear instructions that Glynn was to officiate. No one else.

Others spoke, of course. Dr. Ingram gave a stirring eulogy that elevated Jerry’s years of ministry to the level of sainthood, had Baptists believed in such a thing. Emmit followed, talking about how much Jerry had meant to the Bluebird community over the years. Richard quietly sang the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” accompanied by an old and severely out-of-tune piano that echoed harshly through the gym. 

As he guided the service through the necessary liturgy, Glynn couldn’t help feeling horribly out of place. He didn’t like funerals. He never felt as though he had the right words at the right time. Who was he to be speaking to an audience that contained some of the most illustrious and gifted preachers in the state sitting alongside farmers with little more than a fourth-grade education? His palms were sweaty and the knot in his stomach was churning. On top of everything else, the gym wasn’t air-conditioned. Large industrial fans sat at either end of the gym doing little more than stirring the hot air and making noise. 

Finally, as Glynn stepped to the podium, the fans were turned off and all eyes were on him. He figured he had, at the most, ten minutes before his audience, drenched in perspiration, would begin to lose interest. He had to be poignant and precise.

“As Christians, we have based 2,000 years of faith on the belief and assurance that what Christ secured for us on the cross is an eternal life beyond this one,” Jerry began. “2,000 years of tradition, mining the scriptures, examining the languages of the Bible, sometimes distracted by folklore, and often replacing Biblical accuracy with wishful thinking. Jerry believed in that hope. Jerry preached that hope every Sunday God gave him to preach. Yet, for all that study, despite all those sermons, we sit here in the heat of an Oklahoma summer with more questions than answers. Why Jerry? Why now? And what’s next?

Glynn glanced over at Gladys, sitting on the front row flanked by her two daughters. She smiled and nodded. The pastor continued, “What most of you did not know, and what Jerry would want me to tell you this afternoon, is that he was ready to go. The only part of his death that was a surprise was the timing. Jerry had known for a few months now that he had prostate cancer and despite every reasonable effort to fight it, his condition only became worse. We had talked off and on about when would be the right time to tell the Bluebird congregation that their pastor was dying; it wasn’t something he wanted to do. He loved this community and given all the other destruction and loss of life they’ve endured this spring and summer, he didn’t want to his own needs to distract from the needs of others. Even as he was out helping church members and others sort through the rubble and begin to rebuild their homes and lives, Jerry was looking at the certainty that his life was ending.”

There was an audible gasp from several in the audience and the sound of renewed sobbing echoed off the gym’s polished hardwood floors. Glynn swallowed hard and fought back the urge to vomit. He could feel the sweat rolling down his own back. He wanted to rush outside and be done with the whole service. 

“In one of my last conversations with him, Jerry told me that he wasn’t concerned about dying. His faith that he was continuing on to something better was secure. ‘I don’t dread Heaven,’ he said. ‘The tough part is going to be waiting for all you other slowpokes to join me.’ “

A scattering of laughter made its way across the audience. Glynn forced a smile, grasped the small podium with both hands, and went on.

“Jerry’s words echo the reality of the Bible. What lies beyond for the believer is incredible. In First Corinthians, chapter two, verse 19, we are given the assurance that ‘eyes have not seen and ears have not heard and our minds cannot conceive the wonders’ that Jerry is now experiencing first-hand. We don’t have to worry about Jerry one bit. He didn’t. He wouldn’t want us to worry about him, either.

“Rather, Jerry would have us focus on where we go from here. In the garden, the night before he was crucified, Jesus tried explaining to his disciples that there would be someone else, ‘an advocate to help you and be with you forever … You know him, for he lives in you and will be with you; I will not leave you as orphans.’ As much as we might feel the loss of Jerry Weldon in this moment, and there’s no question that the loss of this pastor and community leader is immense, we are not alone. Where my friend and colleague is gone, there is another. In the absence of your pastor, that one who stuck with you through thick and thin, comes one who is even greater.

“You see, one of the challenges of our faith is that while we want to believe, and we say we believe, we still want to see evidence of God. We want visible proof that the Almighty is with us and can sit and talk with us. And often, a pastor becomes that physical manifestation of what we want God to be. We look to a pastor not merely as God’s representative, but as some sort of Holy being that has a direct channel to God that no one else can access. We fear that if we lose that person, that pastor or deacon or Sunday School teacher, that we somehow lose our access to God.

“What we sometimes fail to realize is that there is no special trick, no hotline, no satellite connection that gives Jerry or me or anyone else a tighter connection to God than what you already have available. What Jerry spent every Sunday preaching is that salvation is personal. God communicates with us one on one. You don’t need a church. You don’t need a preacher. You don’t even need a Bible. God is within you just as much as he was within Jerry.

“Jerry was like the person who stands on the back porch ringing the dinner bell, telling us to come and get what God has to offer. But when we get there, when we sit down to God’s table, it’s not his job to spoon-feed everyone. God gives us the ability to know Him for ourselves, to feed ourselves. The pastor may gently remind us, ‘Hey, you need more vegetables on that spiritual plate,’ or ‘God gives you more than fried chicken,’ but Jerry, more than anything, wanted you to feed yourselves, to know that advocate that God has placed inside you; for God does not come and go as people in our lives come and go. God is eternal. He is here. 

“Yes, I am going to miss Jerry because I’m going to miss talking with my friend. Those who knew him will miss some aspect of him that made that relationship special. Yet, we are not left alone. We have each other. We have our faith. And most importantly, we have the assurance that the same God that gave Jerry the power to stand in the pulpit even as cancer ravaged his body still lives in each of you. You have the same power, the same God, and a personal relationship to guide and comfort you through this moment.

“God doesn’t mind if you’re angry. God doesn’t mind if you’re sad. God doesn’t mind if you need to cry. As he walked with Jerry through every minute of his life, he also walks with you.”

Richard ended the service dutifully singing “How Great Thou Art.” Glynn stood at the head of the casket as everyone filed past to pay their last respects. Given the severe heat, Hub had discouraged opening the casket for anyone other than family. Gladys and her daughters were understandably distraught, each leaning on the other as they said one final goodbye to the father and husband that had shaped so much of their lives.

Glynn rode in the hearse with Hub to the cemetery, thankful that the funeral director had the foresight to start the vehicle early and turn on the air-conditioner. He was anxious to get out of the black suit but knew there were still several more minutes at the graveside and back at the family’s home. By the time Hub dropped the preacher back at home Glynn felt as though he’d run a marathon. His face was flush, the pain in his stomach almost unbearable. He hugged Marve, who asked if he had gone swimming in that suit, and then took a long shower. There was still the evening service to endure, though Glynn didn’t mind admitting that his heart wasn’t in it. Only 23 people bothered to attend. 

Monday didn’t feel a lot better. Glynn was quiet as he got dressed and even though he managed to tease the kids at breakfast Marve could tell that he was lost in thought. Even his goodbye kiss, which normally contained a reasonable amount of passion even when he was in a hurry, seemed lackluster. She had never seen her husband so unfocused and likely would have called someone to express her worry had she known anyone to call. 

Glynn didn’t seem to be the only pastor doing some serious introspection, though. Clement pulled into the church parking lot in Arvel at the same time. In place of the usual firm handshake and playful banter, Clement simply put a hand on the younger pastor’s shoulder and the two walked into the meeting without saying a word. There was no one telling jokes this week or complaining about what the convention might or might not be doing. The mood was somber and serious and by the time they had finished, it was clear that everyone was affected by Jerry’s death. 

Feeling the emotion in the room, Emmit bypassed the normal devotional message and went straight from the church reports to prayer. Even here, the pastors, many of whom were typically anxious to make their voice heard, were hesitant to speak and were quiet when they did so. By the time they finished, no one felt any better than they had when they arrived. Some had tears in their eyes. No one mentioned going to lunch.

As the other pastors began to leave, Emmit pulled Glynn off to the side. He spoke quietly, not only for the sake of privacy but because the topic didn’t necessarily fit the mood. “Listen, I know you’ve heard this a lot, but you really did a good job with Jerry’s service yesterday. You really impressed a number of people.”

Glynn shook his head. “It took everything I had to not throw up. I don’t think I’ve ever endured anything as difficult as that service.”

“I get that but for everyone in the audience, you appeared composed and compassionate. Your sermon was brief but concise and beautifully relayed the message Jerry would have wanted.” Emmit paused and looked around the room before continuing. Seeing only Clement and Carl left, he continued. “You also really impressed everyone from Oklahoma City. Obviously, yesterday wasn’t the time for anyone to go on about it, but I had dinner with Joe and some of the others and you were all anyone could talk about.”

Glynn’s stomach did a flip. Receiving praise for a funeral felt inappropriate and somewhat dirty. He hadn’t been trying to impress anyone. He would have been happier to simply serve as a pallbearer. The compliment felt wrong. He looked at the floor before saying, “I appreciate that but I wasn’t trying to use the service to make an impression. I just did what Jerry wanted me to do.”

Clement and Carl had stepped outside, leaving Emmit to speak more freely. “I know. These things have a way of producing unintended consequences, though, and this time those consequences seem to be positive. There’s a request for you to speak at the annual pastor’s retreat in September. You can choose your topic but they need to know by the end of next week so they can get the programs printed. It’s a fantastic opportunity on a number of levels. What do you think?”

The pastor sighed deeply and looked around the empty room. The pastors’ retreat wasn’t something he had considered attending, at least not this year. He had been more concerned about focusing on his church than what he had expected to be little more than mutual back-slapping. The date was also two weeks before the fall revival. “I don’t know,” Glynn said softly. “That’s a busy time of year, just two weeks before our fall revival…”

Emmit tried to be encouraging without sounding too pushy. “I get that, but brother, if any of us could use a break and some time of fellowship, it’s you. You’ve been running hard from the moment ya’ll moved here. I think it could be an encouraging moment for you. I’d like for you to consider it.”

Glynn’s hands were shoved as far down into his slacks pockets as they would go. He wanted to scream, “NO!” and run from the room but knew that was the wrong response. “I’ll give it some prayer,” he eventually said, clearly not enthused by the offer. “When do you need to know?”

“Call the Pastoral Ministries office when you decide,” Emmit said. “I think Calvin Cain, the associate director, is in charge of the retreat. He was the one most insistent about you speaking.”

“Okay, I’ll give him a call in a couple of days,” Glynn said. He took a couple of steps toward the door and paused. “You really think I should do this, huh?”

Emmit smiled. “I can’t think of anyone better. You sell yourself short, Glynn. It’s okay to have a moment in the spotlight.”

Glynn nodded and held the door open as Emmit followed him out. They walked around the corner of the building and saw Clement and Carl still standing in the parking lot, talking. As they crossed the gravel lot Clement motioned them over.

“I didn’t want to bring this up in the meeting because it didn’t feel appropriate,” Clement started as they approached. “The pastor of First, Houston is doing some big summer explosion thing at First, Tulsa and I thought it might be worthwhile to drive down and see how the big guys do things, maybe pick up a pointer or two that we can apply on a smaller scale. Would you guys be interested in riding along?”

“I already have a commitment for that evening,” Emmit responded. “Although, that does sound like a good idea.” He paused and looked at Glynn. “Might be just the boost you need, though. Think Marve would mind you being gone another evening?”

Under different conditions, Glynn would have jumped at the opportunity. The pastor of First, Houston had a reputation for growing a church that everyone else had written off as dead. There could be a lot to learn. Now didn’t feel like the right time, though. He shook his head. “I appreciate the offer, but I owe Marve some family time this weekend. Take notes for me, though. I’m sure there’s a lot there to learn.”

“It’s always interesting to see how things are done when all the resources are ideal,” Carl said. “Whitling it down to something appropriate for a small church is the challenge.”

“Maybe you guys can give everyone a report at our meeting next week,” Emmit suggested. “I wish we could take a whole bus down there. We all could use some fresh ideas.”

Clement looked at Carl briefly before answering. “Yeah, I think we can do that. He has a new book out that I’ve been reading, too. It will be interesting to see if the actions match the words.”

“Let’s do that, then,” Emmit said. “I think it can help several of us.”

With that, the men got into their cars and each headed off in a different direction. Glynn drove home, his head swirling. Speaking at Jerry’s funeral had been tough enough. Could he really pull off speaking at the pastors’ retreat in front of so many men, men with advanced degrees and several years more experience? What could he possibly have to say that would be worth hearing?

And what of his own church? Folks in Adelbert had settled into a summer slump that they found too comfortable. “This happens every year,” is what Glynn had been told any time he voiced concern. Was this something he just had to accept or was there a way to keep summers from being so depressing? For a moment, he second-guessed whether he should have taken Clement up on his offer. Perhaps there was something valuable in being there and experiencing what was happening in Tulsa. At the same time, though, Glynn knew that his family needed attention. There had been too many date nights missed that he hadn’t made up. Hayden’s birthday was this Thursday, so that would make another week where they weren’t able to go out without the kids. 

“No lunch this week?” Marve asked when Glynn arrived home earlier than usual. 

Glynn shook his head. “No one was really in the mood,” he answered with a sigh. “I don’t know. I’m feeling worn out and I’m really not sure what direction to go next.”

Marve walked over and gave her husband a kiss. “You need to lie down and take a nap. The rest of the world can wait for a minute. And then we can talk about Hayden’s birthday.”

Glynn forced a smile. Hayden was turning five, ready to start kindergarten this fall; yet more evidence of how quickly and out of control life seemed to be moving. Perhaps a nap was what he needed. 

Chapter 26

chapter 26

The dog days of an Oklahoma summer have less to do with any astronomical event and more to do with the days stretching from the last two weeks of July into mid-August when there is almost always a severe lack of rain. For the farmer, the challenge is keeping crops watered long enough to get them through to harvest. Ranchers worry about keeping cattle hydrated, the emergence of rattlesnakes, and heatstroke for both the cows and themselves. This time of year could be dangerous with afternoon temps frequently above one hundred degrees. Neverending wind stirred up clouds of dust that made breathing difficult for anyone with a respiratory condition. Playgrounds sat empty because metal slides and merry-go-rounds were too hot to touch. Fish died in ponds. Small, gurgling creeks went dry.

Glynn couldn’t help but notice the difference. Fewer people came to town during the day. The feed store adjusted their hours to open earlier and close at noon. There weren’t as many people at the diner, either. Alan and Horace were rarely seen anywhere in town. Little league baseball games, the town’s only form of entertainment, were put off until nearly dark. Even the flowers in Eloise Willingham’s garden began to droop and turn brown. 

Hayden’s birthday came and went with sufficient fanfare among the Waterbury family but was kept private enough that no one in the church could be offended by not being invited to the party they didn’t have. The five-year-old was thrilled with the baseball and bat that Glynn’s parents had sent and filled his afternoon playing with the new toy cars Marve’s parents had provided. Cake and ice cream followed a dinner of hot dogs and chips with a bath and bedtime coming soon after. 

Lita took the opportunity of her brother’s birthday to announce that she was too old for a party now that turning ten was almost like being an adult. She told her mother she was too old to play with dolls but would gladly accept gifts of dresses and hair products. Glynn wondered how the colored pencils and sketch pad his parents had already sent would be received but Marve insisted that the noise was all for show.

Claire visited the house more frequently, often spending as much time talking with Marve as she did playing with the kids. Conversations ranged from boys and why Adelbert had none she found remotely interesting to motherhood and the teenager’s perspective that it seemed more like a form of indentured servitude. Marve would counter that there was never any rush to connect with a boy and that motherhood was the most precious gift ever given to her. Claire never seemed quite convinced, though, and would ride her bike back home with all the same opinions she had when she arrived.

Glynn, despite the constant reassurance from Norma Little that summers were always lean and the church would handle the fiscal drought, worried. He worried about what emotional effect might be happening among those who still came to church but found so many pews empty. He worried about the spiritual condition of those who hadn’t seen the inside of a church since early June. He worried about the health of the small town every time Hub called him to help take another person to the hospital. Some days there were as many as three such trips. The heat aggravated everything from heart conditions to kidney issues and intestinal problems. Many evenings he slumped into the recliner barely able to stay awake long enough to put the kids to bed.

As much as anything, though, Glynn worried about his own changes not only emotionally but theologically. He had grown up with a consistent concept of who and what he thought God was and how his relationship to the creator was supposed to work. He had read through all the books Clement had given him, though, and bought several others, and the more he read the more he found himself questioning, wondering if what he had believed all these years, everything he had preached, had been wrong.

Clement dropped by with another box of books. “I was going through things and discovered I had multiple copies of these and thought, perhaps, maybe one or two of them might offer some help.”

The two pastors had chatted for a while, neither of them in any hurry to be doing anything else because there was nothing important waiting to be done. Both had visited hospitals, checked on the ill, reached out to the unchurched, and had sermons ready for Sunday’s services. Their conversation wandered between tales of their own childhood summer adventures to whether too much was being made of Jane Fonda’s visit to Vietnam, the possibility of George Wallace upsetting the election by running as an independent, and why some flavors of homemade ice cream worked better than others.

“Our church is having an ice cream social next Saturday,” Clement said. “You should come over and bring your family. I’m sure the kids would love trying out all the flavors and you could be the guest speaker. There always has to be some kind of devotional moment or it doesn’t count.”

Glynn shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “What is it with people trying to get me to come and speak all of a sudden?” he asked. 

“What do you mean?” the other pastor inquired.

“Emmit said Calvin Cain and some others from the Baptist Building were wanting me to speak at the pastors’ retreat in September. I’m supposed to let them know by tomorrow and I’m not convinced that I’m up to that level of speaking,” Glynn explained. “Especially when there are so many people there with a lot more knowledge and education than I’ll ever have. I’m not eloquent, nor funny, nor prone to dig into the linguistic details of scripture. I think I’d just be like a little puppy dog sitting up and begging for attention. Kind of an, ‘Oh, look at the little small-town preacher; isn’t he cute?’ sort of thing.”

Clement sat up, suddenly more interested and engaged than he had been through the rest of the conversation. “Are you kidding me?” he charged. “This is an incredible opportunity, and no, I can promise they’re not trotting you out as a token small-church pastor. I’ve never known them to do that. If anything, they’re likely to bring in pastors from outside the state to give us insight into what others are doing. I go every year. You absolutely should take the offer!”

Glynn shook his head. “I really don’t know. They’re basing the invitation on a sermon at a funeral, not exactly a dynamic and inspiring moment. Between you and me, it took everything I had to not throw up during that service. Why they think that is sufficient reason to ask me to speak anywhere else baffles me.”

“Emmit said Calvin issued the invitation?” Clement asked.

“I guess, more or less,” Glynn shrugged. “Apparently the subject was floated when he was having dinner with Calvin and Joe and some others after the service. He said Calvin was insistent.”

Clement wiped his hand over his face in disbelief. “You do know Calvin’s background, don’t you?”

Glynn shook his head. “Other than Sunday I’m not sure I’ve met him before.”

“The state convention stole him from Southern Seminary four years ago. He was a professor of homiletics, and I’ve gotta tell you, taught one of the most difficult classes I’ve ever taken. The only reason his title is ‘associate’ director of pastoral ministries is because his educational pedigree is so long that it intimidates a lot of the pastors who haven’t been to college, and even a few who have. Bob Ray Abernathy is just kind of a frontman for the department. Calvin is the brain. You’ve been given a fantastic compliment. I don’t see how you can turn that opportunity down, brother.”

Glynn leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his head resting in his hands. He sighed. “I’ve never done anything like this. Like, how many guys are there?”

“Around 200, give or take,” Clement answered. “Some bring their wives, they have their own thing going at the same time in a different building down there. Evening sessions are usually both groups together, so max, maybe 300 people? Less than were at the funeral.”

This was overwhelming for the pastor who had been so actively worried in recent days as to whether he was even doing his best with his own church. He looked at the floor, feeling the pressure of all his flaws, the demons in his mind accusing him of being a charlatan. How could he be inspirational to a group of pastors when he couldn’t even convince 100 people of his own congregation to show up on a summer Sunday? What could Dr. Cain have possibly seen in his funeral sermon that would warrant such a sought-after request?

Clement broke the silence. “Listen, take the offer then you and the family come over next Saturday, give maybe a five to seven-minute devotional. Talk to Emmit, I’m sure he can help you get in some extra practice, too. I get it, this is kind of a big deal, but Glynn, no one from this part of the state has ever even been asked. A lot of the pastors in this Northeastern corner feel that Oklahoma City brushes us off, forgets we’re here. We get fewer teaching resources, host fewer training sessions, and unless there’s serious trouble, get fewer visits from the state guys. You speaking at the retreat says that there are people of value up here. We all need this.”

“Okay, I’ll call Calvin in the morning,” Glynn said, relenting to the pressure. “That ice cream better be good, though,” he added. “I don’t want to drive over there for some runny lemon nonsense.”

“You’ve never had anything better in your life,” Clement said, laughing.

They chatted a while longer, completely filling their afternoon which was a relief to both pastors. Late summer wasn’t a friend to any church in Oklahoma and they weren’t the only pastors struggling with doubts and worries. Had their colleagues not been afraid of being open at pastors’ conferences, they would have appreciated knowing that almost everyone was wrestling with the same questions. No one was willing to make that admission, though. Fear of being chastised and ridiculed kept all of them tight-lipped about any personal misgivings they might have. 

When Glynn called Calvin Cain the next morning, the voice on the other end of the telephone was bright, cheerful and encouraging, excited that he had accepted the invitation to speak. “The theme this year is ‘Confronting Pastoral Fears,’” he was told. “After you did such a beautiful job with Jerry’s funeral, I was hoping you could perhaps talk with us about our fear of death. I sensed that you had done some wrestling with that topic and I like the way you put those thoughts together.”

Glynn closed his eyes and said a quick, desperate prayer as he agreed.

“Let me know if you have any questions, need any resources or materials to help, anything at all,” Calvin offered. “We lose about a dozen active pastors a year. Almost everyone knows someone who died while serving. It’s a fear none of us particularly like to admit we have. This is tender ground and I think the way you handled it with Jerry’s funeral was perfect.”

Glynn thanked him for the opportunity. Yes, he wanted help with resources, but he didn’t know what was available so he didn’t know what to request. When the phone call was finished, he walked across the office and looked through the box of books that Clement had left. He found a thin volume whose title, Sermons That Get Pastors Fired struck him as almost humorous. Opening the book, he read:

Consider another matter upon which there is a serious and sincere difference of opinion between evangelical Christians: the second coming of our Lord. The second coming was the early Christian phrasing of hope. No one in the ancient world had ever thought, as we do, of development, progress, gradual change as God’s way of working out His will in human life and institutions. They thought of human history as a series of ages succeeding one another with abrupt suddenness. The Graeco-Roman world gave the names of metals to the ages—gold, silver, bronze, iron. The Hebrews had their ages, too—the original Paradise in which man began, the cursed world in which man now lives, the blessed Messianic kingdom someday suddenly to appear on the clouds of heaven. It was the Hebrew way of expressing hope for the victory of God and righteousness. When the Christians came they took over that phrasing of expectancy and the New Testament is aglow with it. The preaching of the apostles thrills with the glad announcement, “Christ is coming!”

In the evangelical churches today there are differing views of this matter. One view is that Christ is literally coming, externally, on the clouds of heaven, to set up His kingdom here. I never heard that teaching in my youth at all. It has always had a new resurrection when desperate circumstances came and man’s only hope seemed to lie in divine intervention. It is not strange, then, that during these chaotic, catastrophic years there has been a fresh rebirth of this old phrasing of expectancy. “Christ is coming!” seems to many Christians the central message of the Gospel. In the strength of it some of them are doing great service for the world. But, unhappily, many so overemphasize it that they outdo anything the ancient Hebrews or the ancient Christians ever did. They sit still and do nothing and expect the world to grow worse and worse until He comes.

Side by side with these to whom the second coming is a literal expectation, another group exists in the evangelical churches. They, too, say, “Christ is coming!” They say it with all their hearts; but they are not thinking of an external arrival on the clouds. They have assimilated as part of the divine revelation the exhilarating insight which these recent generations have given to us, that development is God’s way of working out His will. . . .

And these Christians, when they say that Christ is coming, mean that, slowly it may be, but surely, His will and principles will be worked out by God’s grace in human life and institutions, until “He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied.”

These two groups exist in the Christian churches and the question raised by the Fundamentalists is—Shall one of them drive the other out? Will that get us anywhere? Multitudes of young men and women at this season of the year are graduating from our schools of learning, thousands of them Christians who may make us older ones ashamed by the sincerity of their devotion to God’s will on earth. They are not thinking in ancient terms that leave ideas of progress out. They cannot think in those terms. There could be no greater tragedy than that the Fundamentalists should shut the door of the Christian fellowship against such.

I do not believe for one moment that the Fundamentalists are going to succeed. Nobody’s intolerance can contribute anything to the solution of the situation which we have described. If, then, the Fundamentalists have no solution of the problem, where may we expect to find it? 

Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Christian Work 102 (June 10, 1922): 716–722.

Glynn closed the book and put it back in the box. Liberal? Conservative? Fundamentalist? He had only recently heard and seen the labels batted about in conversations and articles, almost haphazardly applied to different pastors or teachers, none of whom Glynn knew personally. In fact, the whole argument seemed to be held at a level of denominational relevance far above what the local pastor had time to consider. He wondered into which camp he might fit. Perhaps more importantly, he wondered into which camp others might place him. While the labels may not make any difference on the front lines of pastoring a rural church, they most definitely mattered when it came to denominational politics.

What mattered more, though, was that as he preached that Sunday he felt a little more drained than normal. Glynn looked through the sparse congregation and saw people whose minds were elsewhere. He wondered if, instead of scripture, he could have read a nursery rhyme and not had anyone notice the difference. It pained him to hear Marve admit that she was thinking more about getting Hayden ready for school than she was his sermon. What were people thinking when they came to church? If he knew, then perhaps he could preach sermons that were more relevant than Jesus healing an otherwise obscure blind man. 

Glynn tried convincing himself that the obvious answer to all his worrying was that he needed to pray more, to trust God more, to lean into the Bible more. Yet, the more the pastor tried those tactics, hitting his knees several times a day to pray, intentionally not second-guessing his impulses, deeply researching and studying every passage of scripture he read, the more he questioned. What was the true meaning behind what he read? Was he buying into horrible misinterpretations that were nothing like the intention of the author? Could he trust that his instincts were being driven by God?

There were only seven people at Wednesday night’s Bible study. Marve had stayed home with the kids on the premise that, being they were the only children who were likely to be present, they would be nothing more than a distraction. Glynn hated admitting that she was right. He didn’t like services where she wasn’t present. He felt incomplete.  

He walked from the house to church that evening and it was darker than he expected by the time he began the walk back home. Thunder rumbled in the distance as Glynn considered everything that had plagued him the past few weeks. For all the questions he had asked, he did not feel that he had received a single answer, only more confusion. Perhaps, he thought, he had wandered into a spiritual desert. He thought of the years the Apostle Paul spent in a Roman prison. Where was God then? What benefit did God get from Paul’s suffering? What benefit was there in his own confusion and lack of direction?

He stood at the foot of the hill looking up at the lights glowing from inside the parsonage a mere fifty yards away and it began to rain.

Reading time: 32 min
Pastors' Conference, 1972. ch. 23-24

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Chapter 23

Chapter 23

Independence Day landed on a Tuesday and being in a small town without any civic organizations to fund large fireworks displays meant celebrations were limited to what one chose to do in their own front yard. Not knowing how the kids might react, Glynn bought a small number of firecrackers, bottle rockets, sparklers, and Roman candles from a roadside vendor to see how they would go over. He had enjoyed fireworks when he was young, but both his children tended to be more gentle. 

Lita quickly declared the whole bag too dangerous and went back inside the house. Hayden liked watching everything pop and bang but was still too small to handle anything himself. Other children in the neighborhood, however, were not so reluctant and were thrilled that the new preacher would let them join him in setting off the fireworks. A line of six children queued to take turns launching bottle rockets down the street from the top of the hill. For nearly an hour, Glynn was the most popular person in the neighborhood. Even those too reluctant, or perhaps too old to feel like joining in the activity sat or stood on their porches and watched, smiling at the simplicity of it all. 

Relaxing in the comfort of air conditioning allowed the afternoon to pass in comfort as outside temperatures surpassed the one hundred degree mark. Marve spread a blanket on the living room floor to accommodate an indoor picnic of hotdogs and potato salad. Since both kids took long naps they were allowed to stay up past their bedtimes, which delighted Lita but resulted in mild fussiness on Hayden’s part.

As darkness fell, the dads in the neighborhood decided to pool their accumulative fireworks and put on a group show from the top of the hill. There were plenty of sparklers to go around for the kids who wanted to participate and enough ariel explosions to satisfy the children anxiously trying to act older than they were. Humor and laughter filled the air as, for a moment, everyone in the neighborhood was able to relax. There was also palpable relief as neighbors discovered that the new pastor and his family could be social without making everyone feel judged or uncomfortable, something that hadn’t happened with previous pastors. There were no forced acts of patriotism. No one talked about Vietnam. Everyone enjoyed each other’s company and then went home and went to bed.

Wednesday morning felt eerily quiet by comparison with all the noise of the previous night. Glynn drove to the church office noting that several people had taken the week off for vacation. The streets were quieter than usual but in a calm, summer sort of way that felt relaxing, an almost surreal environment that made it easy to block out the rest of the world and enjoy the peacefulness that came with living in a small town. Somewhere in the distance, a radio was playing Looking Glass’ “Brandy,” just loudly enough to be picked up by the wind but not enough to drown out the chattering of birds as they played back and forth along the streets lined with oak and elm trees. 

Every sound seemed slightly amplified. A semi passed through town on the highway, its air brakes hissing at it stopped at the town’s one four-way stop sign. Gravel crunched beneath the car as Glynn pulled into the parking lot. His keys jangled as he unlocked the office door. The door seemed to slam as it closed behind him. The room was instantly too quiet and Glynn opened the two screened windows not so much for the air but so that he wouldn’t feel as though he were completely walled off from the rest of the world.

Setting his keys on the desk, Glynn walked from the office into the sanctuary. At the moment, the room felt cavernous with its high pitched wood-covered ceiling. As he often did, Glynn wondered if what he was doing here was of any benefit to anyone. He knew the answer, of course. While common sense might have said that canceling the midweek prayer service was economically prudent, the pastor knew that it was the only social interaction during the week for the six or seven older women who faithfully attended. There were no senior centers, no social workers coming around to check on them. Their families all lived out of town, too busy with their own lives or too far away to visit with any frequency. 

In many ways, Sundays’ services fulfilled a similar social need for the whole congregation. Farm life could be solitary in many ways. Gathering at church once a week, or for some just once a month was a way of keeping up, seeing how everyone else was doing, making sure they weren’t missing out on anything important. Even on the Sundays where no one walked the aisle during the invitation, which was most Sundays, the simple reassurance that someone cared, that a God was listening to their prayers, that a higher level of reason was in control, was enough to keep everyone going for another week.

Glynn walked up the center aisle quietly praying for those who sat in the same place on the same pew every service; Mrs. Kingfisher, a rotund lady of considerable age who, when asked how she was doing, always replied, “Oh, my lumbago is acting up;” Muriel Alberez, a small, quiet woman well into her 80s who always put exactly fifty cents in the offering plate when it passed; Eloise Willingham, who, having lost her husband two years earlier, had decided to take up gardening and filled her small yard with flowers; Cora Gainesburg, a retired school teacher, whose tall, thin frame seemed to have an eternally stern expression but who would reveal in private conversation how sad she was to have never had anyone with whom to share her life. 

About half-way back, Glynn noticed a scrap of paper lingering in one of the pews. Thinking it was likely trash left by a child, he picked it up with the intent of throwing it away. Looking down at it, though, he discovered someone had written, in a presumptively feminine handwriting, “Where is God when I’m alone?”

Glynn looked at the note and wondered if perhaps it had been left intentionally. He thought back to both the morning and then the evening service, trying to recall who had been sitting in that area but couldn’t be certain. The middle of the sanctuary was the most popular place to sit. Too close to the front implied a level of piety or religious exuberance that few had. Too far back communicated a reluctance and perhaps a shame in approaching God. The middle, however, was a good place to hide, to participate and not be seen, to be present without necessarily being involved. Teens sat here and passed notes. Families sat here to pretend for a moment that all was well among them. Elderly members sat here to be near someone. 

The pastor slipped the note into his shirt pocket and looked around the empty room. Sunlight streaming through the amber-colored windows on the East side of the sanctuary gave warmth to the pews within its reach while leaving the other side in a cool shadow. Dust particles floating in the air reflected off the light as though they were possibly divine sparks of inspiration and not the sneeze-inducing allergens that made many uncomfortable. Glynn wondered if there was anything to the concept that the architecture meant to demonstrate the awesomeness of God actually had the effect of making worshippers feel more solitary and removed from the deity. Was a god who requires such massive amounts of space too large and by extension too disconnected to be concerned with the individual needs of the supplicant believer?

He also questioned whether to directly address the question on the note. Was it a question born out of need or might it have been a note from a Sunday School teacher reminding her of an upcoming topic? Unsure of who might have left the note, there was no certainty that the person who wrote it would be back the next Sunday, perhaps not within the next month. That was the problem with summer sermons: too often the people who needed them most were the ones not present. Vacations and farming needs left huge gaps in the pews where faithful and earnest members might otherwise sit. There hadn’t been a Sunday in the past month where Glynn didn’t feel that his words were swirling through those gaps and out the door without providing any wisdom or spiritual nourishment to anyone. 

With his hands in his trouser pockets, Glynn walked back to the office, sat down and opened his Bible in front of him on the desk. He flipped aimlessly back and forth between well-known passages before finally settling at Psalm 139.

1 O Lord, you have searched me [thoroughly] and have known me.
2 You know my downsitting and my uprising; You understand my thought afar off.
3 You sift and search out my path and my lying down, and You are acquainted with all my ways.
4 For there is not a word in my tongue [still unuttered], but, behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.
5 You have beset me and shut me in—behind and before, and You have laid Your hand upon me.
6 Your [infinite] knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high above me, I cannot reach it.
7 Where could I go from Your Spirit? Or where could I flee from Your presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol (the place of the dead), behold, You are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning or dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 Even there shall Your hand lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me and the night shall be [the only] light about me,
12 Even the darkness hides nothing from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You.
13 For You did form my inward parts; You did knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I will confess and praise You for You are fearful and wonderful and for the awful wonder of my birth! Wonderful are Your works, and that my inner self knows right well.
15 My frame was not hidden from You when I was being formed in secret [and] intricately and curiously wrought [as if embroidered with various colors] in the depths of the earth [a region of darkness and mystery].
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance, and in Your book all the days [of my life] were written before ever they took shape, when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious and weighty also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I could count them, they would be more in number than the sand. When I awoke, [could I count to the end] I would still be with You.
24 And see if there is any wicked or hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC)
Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation

Glynn pulled a yellow legal pad from the bottom drawer of the desk and began to write. “I miss my parents. There’s an old hymn that, sadly, is not in our hymn but I can remember my mother singing it as she would go through the house cleaning. Growing up, I just thought it was another church song that Mom sang, maybe because she liked the tune or something. I can still hear her voice gently sing,

“I've seen the lightning flashing and heard the thunder roll;
I've felt sin's breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul;
I've heard the voice of Jesus telling me still to fight on;
He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
No, never alone, no, never alone,
He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone;
No, never alone, no, never alone,
He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.

“It never occurred to me, in a house with three rowdy kids who were always running through the house, making messes and arguing with each other that my Mom could ever feel alone. How was that even possible? We were constantly begging for attention and if we weren’t she came looking for us because we were bound to be doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing. Yet, even then, with all that chaos, my Mom at times felt lonely and for her, singing that hymn was the reminder that there was a comfort and a companion who was always there.

“Loneliness is one of the most common of all human emotions. In that regard, our lives are not that much different than they were 3,500 years ago when David wrote this psalm. In fact, we look at the number of times that the topic comes up in the Bible and one gets the impression that no one is immune. Elijah, in the wilderness, felt so lonely he asked God to let him die. Isaiah felt the burden of being alone as everyone around him had turned from God. Paul, chained down in a prison cell, detached from everyone, felt alone. John, on Patmos, had no one on the entire island to talk with. Even Jesus, who John described as being rejected by his own people, on the cross cried, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ If they all felt alone then it’s no surprise that we do as well? 

“There is a common saying that I’ve seen on posters and trinkets that says, ‘If you feel far from God, guess who moved.’ Chances are you’ve seen it, too; it seems to be all over the place recently. I have a problem with that saying, though. Who says anyone moved? My mother had children literally under her feet and still felt lonely. We can be holding hands with someone and still feel lonely. If we don’t feel God at any given moment, it doesn’t mean that we’ve moved. We’ve not sinned. Loneliness does not mean that anyone did anything wrong.

“Rather, when I look at all the instances of loneliness in the Bible, I am convinced that God brings us to loneliness for a purpose and that purpose is not always the same from one person to the next or even one instance to the next. Sometimes God brings us to a place of loneliness to get us away from distraction so that we can focus. Sometimes God brings us to loneliness because he wants us to do something different than what everyone else is doing. Sometimes God forces loneliness because we become too full of ourselves and need a reminder of who is actually in charge. And sometimes God gives us loneliness to provide a moment of clarity, to help us see what we’ve taken for granted, or to help us pay attention to something we’ve been missing.”

Glynn paused, looking up from his furious scribbling, not realizing that a couple of hours had passed. He leaned back in his chair and surveyed the room. He didn’t want to give up the momentum he was enjoying but he could feel some pain in his lower back and knew that he at least needed to stand and stretch for a moment. He stood and walked around the corner of the desk, knocking mail off onto the floor as he brushed by. As he bent down to pick up the mail there was a knock at the office door. 

Somewhat surprised at the late morning interruption, Glynn opened the door to find the diminutive Eloise Willingham, her flowered garden smock hanging loosely over an old brown dress, her hose rolled down to her ankles, just above the black hard-soled shoes she wore in her garden. In her hands was a dish covered with aluminum foil. She smiled brightly and said, “Good morning, pastor! I had some time this morning and decided to do some baking. Does your family like strawberry rhubarb pie?”

Glynn opened the door a bit wider and answered, “I’m not sure any of us have ever tasted that combination but I can’t imagine anyone objecting. Please, do come in!”

As the old woman stepped over the threshold and into the relative coolness of the office she gave a shudder. “My, these concrete walls keep it cool in here, don’t they?” she asked rhetorically, more for the sake of explaining her shudder than any need for conversation.

“Yes, for the morning at least,” Glynn said as he shut the door and came back around the desk. “It can get toasty by mid-afternoon. Do you have time to chat?”

“Oh, no, not this morning.” Eloise set the pie on the desk as delicately as she might a fancy floral arrangement. “I’ve left the sprinkler on the begonias in the back and I need to turn that off before the sun hits them. I just wanted to drop this off.”

Glynn smiled his most pastorly smile. “Well thank you, I’m sure we’ll enjoy it.”

Eloise was rubbing her hands as though she were still trying to get garden dirt off her pale skin. “You know, there’s a touch of heaven in every bite,” she said matter-of-factly. “Some people say they find God in rainbows and flowers and such, but you know, when I get down and lonely, missing Frank, my husband, I find God in food I bake for someone else. I don’t eat all that much myself so it’s rather silly for me to make pies and casseroles unless I’m going to share them with someone.” She reached in the pocket of her smock and pulled out a wrinkled tissue, dabbing at the perspiration on her upper lip before continuing. “I don’t know, I don’t think you’ll find it in the Bible anywhere, but when I’m at my lowest is when God shouts the loudest. He was in Mrs. Kinder’s hello when I saw her this morning. He was in the cool soil around my flowers. And I promise, he’s in every bite of that pie.” She smiled again and reached for the doorknob. “Y’all have a good day now, pastor.”

“We most certainly will,” he told her. “And thank you, again.”

As the door shut, Glynn looked at the pie and then back at the yellow legal pad on his desk. He thought of what Eloise had said and he knew how he needed to finish his sermon, but not now. He picked up the phone to let Marve know he was on his way home for lunch and that they were having fresh strawberry rhubarb pie.

Chapter 24


Only two words can describe an Oklahoma summer: hot and dusty. Rain across the state dried up as if God had turned off the faucet and sealed it tight. By the time the next Monday rolled around, there wasn’t enough moisture in the air to create dew on the grass of the morning. Early morning temperatures started in the low 80s and moved upward from there. Farm work started early to get as much work done as possible before the heat reached dangerous levels. Conversations at the diner turned to the threat of ponds drying up and having enough water to keep corn crops alive. 

The drive to Calvary Church in Arvel had a strangely nostalgic feel to it. Not having had pastors’ conferences for a few weeks had, in some ways, been a pleasant respite from all the complaining and, increasingly, arguing that had taken place around the table. At the same time, it also felt a bit like going back to school at the end of a summer break. The biggest difference was that summer was far from over. Even with the car’s air conditioner running full blast Glynn could still feel perspiration forming on his back. By the time he pulled into the church’s parking lot, there was a damp spot on the back of his light blue short-sleeved shirt.

There were only three other cars in the parking lot. One Glynn recognized as Emmit’s and he assumed one was the church’s pastor. Walking into the church’s fellowship hall, Glynn was not surprised to see Emmit talking with Tom Oliver, Calvary’s pastor, and Ernie Calvin, pastor of a smaller church whose name Glynn could never remember. Emmit smiled, as usual, and waved Glynn over.

“We were just discussing whether to stay here or go ahead and adjourn on over to the cafe,” Emmit said with his typical cheerfulness. “I should have postponed another week. Everyone’s still on vacation.”

Glynn shrugged. “Cafe’s fine with me. You don’t think we’ll have any stragglers?”

“I can leave a note on the door,” Tom said. “Even the church secretary is gone this week, though.”

“Sounds like the cafe is the place to be,” Glynn said. “I was in the mood for a piece of pie, anyway.”

The pastors all laughed and walked out to their cars, each making a comment about the heat as they opened their car doors. Glynn was glad the cafe was only a couple of blocks over. At 11:00, the parking lot was still mostly empty and the four were able to park next to each other. They walked into the cafe and were surprised to be greeted by the owner.

“Hi, Ruby!” Emmit said as he led the way in. “Surprised to see you outside the kitchen this morning!”

“You boys scared me,” the older woman answered in a rough and gravely voice. “Four cars pull up at the same time like that and nicely dressed men step out of them, I was afraid for the moment we were being raided by the health department or somethin’.”

The men all laughed at the idea that they could be mistaken for government workers, though Glynn couldn’t help looking around and wondering if there was a legitimate reason for Ruby’s fear.

“I suppose you boys will all be wantin’ coffee,” Ruby said as she moved behind the counter. “And Reverend Tom, I just pulled a fresh apple pie out of the oven about 15 minutes ago if you’re interested.”

Tom glanced at the others quickly and noted their smiles before answering, “Might as well just cut that pie into four pieces and bring it on over, Ruby.”

The preachers sat at a table in the middle of the dining room oblivious to the three other people seated around, finishing their meals. Ruby brought over the porcelain cups of coffee then shuffled back to the kitchen to cut the pie. 

All four men took a careful sip of their coffee as though it were instinctive to test the temperature before risking a larger drink. “Any of you ‘boys’ have much going on this summer?” Emmit asked.

The three pastors shook their heads. “We hit this time of year and I get the feeling that the entire town is tired all the time,” Tom said. “We only had 112 yesterday and so help me I think half of those were asleep when they walked in the door. This is typical for this time of year, though. I’ve come to expect it.”

“You city fellas are lucky,” Ernie responded. “The cows got out of the pasture next to the church and we had to help round ‘em all up before anyone could even come in for Sunday School. If you can imagine, these older women in their summer dresses goin’ around wavin’ their Bibles at those cows as though they were about to swat ‘em with the power of Christ. Then, they spent all of their Sunday School time complainin’ that their cankles hurt.”

The men were still laughing when Ruby brought out the pie and sat the plates in front of the men. “Y’all seem in good spirits this mornin’,” she commented as she handed out the forks. “Most folks be comin’ in here either worried ‘bout how fast their ponds is dryin’ up or complainin’ ‘bout the gov’ment. Y’all hear that Governor Hall is supposed to be up here talkin’ at the Lion’s Club on Thursday?”

Emmit was the only one whose mouth wasn’t already full of pie. “No, any particular reason? It’s not often the Governor makes his way this far North.”

“That’s ‘cause he knows no one up here voted for him,” Ruby said as she wiped her hands on her apron. “The only reason that polecat got elected was because Carl Albert got his people to support him.”

“And because he’s a Democrat,” Ernie added. “This county hasn’t voted for a single Republican since the state was founded.”

“They didn’t vote for Bellmon?” Tom asked.

Ruby and Ernie both laughed. “That old frog? Folks ‘round here woulda sooner voted for one of Hemp Johnson’s hogs,” Ruby said. “Only reason he or Bartlett got elected was ‘cause all those Oklahoma City and Tulsa big wigs was scared of Kennedy. Now we got Hall in there and so help me, he’s as crooked as the Verdigris River. I think he’s up here raisin’ money for somethin’. I’m sure half of it ends up in his back pocket.”

“I don’t think he’s going to raise much up here,” Ernie said, taking another big bite of pie.

Tom shook his head, agreeing, his mouth too full to speak.

Emmit laughed. “Hand the governor a piece of this pie, Ruby, and he might straighten right up. This is may be the best thing this side of heaven.”

Ruby scooped up the empty plates. “You boys were a might hungry, weren’t you?” She looked at Glynn. “You’ve been rather quiet over there, sugar. Won’t these boys let you talk?”

“I’ve only been here five months,” he said, smiling. “Not long enough to jump in on political conversations.”

“Sweetheart, you’re gonna have to get over that ‘round here,” Ruby said. “Only things anyone talks about is how bad the weather is hurting the crops and how politicians are ruining everything.”

“I’ll have to start paying attention, then,” Glynn said.

Ruby laughed. “Honey, ‘round here all you have to do is open your mouth. Someone’s going to disagree no matter what you say. You could tell ‘em the Lord’s comin’ next week and some ol’ boy would hop up and say God told him it was a month from Thursday.”

“I believe I was here for that conversation,” Tom said. “That one got rather testy pretty quick.”

Ernie laughed. “That’s because everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to be first.”

Emmit handed Ruby a ten-dollar bill, more than enough to cover the pie and coffee. “I’ve got this one, guys. This has been the most enjoyable pastors’ conference in quite a while.”

“Yeah, Winston’s not here,” Tom quipped. “So help me, he thrives on startin’ trouble.”

“His wife’s just as bad,” Ernie added. “She got the school board all up in arms because some textbook mentioned something about Islam. They pretty near had a book burnin’ that night.”

Emmit shook his head, waiting until they were all outside before saying anything. “Brothers, let’s be careful about that kind of talk in public, okay? We can have a good time but runnin’ down another brother only hurts us all, even when what you’re saying is true. God will deal with Larry in his own time, I’m sure of it.”

Tom and Ernie looked at the ground like children who had been reprimanded by a teacher. Emmit let it soak in for a second before continuing. “That being said, what do you guys think, are the pastors’ conferences really working for you?”

“Some weeks, certainly. Other weeks, not so much,” Tom answered as the group walked toward their cars. “The problem is, you never know which it’s going to be until you get here.”

Ernie was nodding his head. “When you have someone from Oklahoma City here explainin’ a program or somethin’, that’s really helpful. I could use more of that ‘cause I don’t understand half of what I get in the mail. When half the time is spent arguing, though, I feel like I wasted my time.”

Emmit looked at Glynn. “I know you’re still a bit new to all this. What do you think?”

Glynn shrugged. “I doubt many enjoy the arguing, not even those doing the fussing. But it’s still nice to fellowship with people who have a similar point of view. It’s not like we can easily commiserate with anyone in our churches.”

Ernie giggled. “You go around tellin’ folks you’ve been commiseratin’ and they’re likely to start lookin’ at ya’ a bit strange.”

Glynn blushed and Emmit laughed. “Don’t worry, Glynn, we won’t tell anyone.” 

That was enough for the meeting to end. They each got into their cars and drove off in different directions. 

Glynn’s ride home was peaceful and the week was looking to be another quiet one with just a few hospital visits and plenty of time to walk around town and visit with people, something Glynn enjoyed doing. He would walk from the church to the grocery, buy an ice cream bar and eat it while talking with people coming and going, especially back in the feed area. This was the easiest way for him to connect with farmers and ranchers who weren’t likely to make it in for church. Then he’d walk back up to the gas station, buy a bottle of soda, and sit and chat with the salty mechanic while cars came and went, their occupants waving and calling out through a window.

In a matter of a few short months, Glynn had managed to make his presence known to just about everyone in town and, as far as anyone could tell, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t like him. His naturally personable character made it easy for people to talk with him. He never pushed religious matters unless someone specifically asked. Instead, he’d listen to what they said, offer reasonable advice when he had any and was quick to admit when he didn’t. Quietly, the preacher became an authority figure in town without even trying. People with no relation to the church respected his opinion and would look for him when they had a question. Glynn didn’t realize it at the time, but he quietly had become the pastor to the whole town.

Thursday started off like other summer days. Sunday’s sermons were coming along well. Glynn had lunch with Marve and the kids then made a trip to Washataug to visit a couple of church members in the hospital there. When he returned to Adelbert, the pastor stopped to check on a farming family who hadn’t been able to make it to church before swinging by the gas station and enjoying a cold soda while chatting with those wandering in and out through downtown. Several suggested he needed to pray for rain. A couple asked his opinion of the Boris Spassky/Bobby Fischer chess match. One wanted to equate George McGovern’s Democratic presidential nomination to God’s punishment. Glynn managed to stay neutral, noncommital, and even humorous through all the conversations. When he left for home, he was smiling, looking forward to an evening out with Marve in Arvel.

Life sometimes has a cruel way of dealing with happiness, though, as if there is some crime in becoming too satisfied with the state of a person’s being. More often than not, it seemed for Glynn that the more he tried to embrace Paul’s statement to the Philippians that, “in all things I have learned to be content,” the more he was faced with situations that caused increasing turmoil. He had found ways to deal with the Oklahoma heat, he had endeared himself to a community that didn’t trust outsiders, he had calmed the church’s most frequent troublemakers, his wife and kids were settled into their new home with new friends, and he had even come to peace with the low summer attendance on Sundays. Against that backdrop of relative comfort, it was inevitable that something would upset it all.

Marve was standing outside waiting for him as Glynn pulled into the driveway. “You need to go with Hub, as fast as you can get there,” she told him before he could get out of the car.

“But, it’s Thursday, we have…” her husband objected.

Marve shook her head. “It’s Jerry. He collapsed in the yard. You need to go now. We’ll figure out a replacement date later.”

A knot grew in Glynn’s stomach as he put the car in reverse and sped toward the funeral home. Trying to deal with the flood of emotions, he struggled with the desire to scream at God. Why now? He knew Jerry hadn’t told his church about the cancer yet, they were just starting to gather plans and funding for rebuilding the church. The people of Bluebird needed Jerry’s guidance to continue. At the same time, Glynn was wrestling with his own guilt. He hadn’t actually talked with Jerry since the Sunday before youth camp. There had been enough to do around town to keep the pastor busy and while he had thought about his friend a couple of times, he hadn’t actually stopped long enough to call. 

Glynn pulled in next to the ambulance where Hub was already waiting. “This doesn’t look good, preacher,” the funeral director warned. “Gladys says he’s not breathing. Although, I’m not sure how well the dear woman is capable of picking up subtle breaths.”

The siren from the ambulance seemed to echo through the quiet town louder than usual. The town’s one police officer met them at the highway and led them out to the older pastor’s home. A small group had gathered in the front yard by the time the ambulance arrived. Glynn rushed to Jerry’s side, knelt down, and felt for a pulse, first in the jugular vein and then in the wrist. Jerry’s skin was cool and clammy.

“I tried telling him he should wait until it cooled off a bit before mowing the lawn,” Gladys explained. “I tried telling him, but he was determined that it needed to be done before dinner. He is so stubborn!” She began sobbing as a neighbor walked over and put their arms around her.

Hub whispered to Glynn, “Let’s try CPR. I don’t think it’s going to do any good, but we need to at least try.”

Glynn began pressing on Jerry’s chest while Hub opened the man’s mouth and tried breathing into it. In a moment that felt instantly perverse, Glynn wondered what it was like to have Hub’s cigar smoke-laden breath forced into your windpipe. He kept up with the rhythmic compression. Hub continued the breathing attempts. 

Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Finally, Hub stood up, his clothes drenched with sweat, his face dripping. He pulled back Glynn’s shoulder and shook his head. There was nothing more they could do. Jerry Weldon was gone.

No one could really tell that it was tears, not sweat, that Glynn was wiping from his face as he stood up. Gladys let out a mournful wail as he helped Hub place the sheet over her husband and then transfer him to the gurney. After securing the gurney in the ambulance, Glynn walked back to Gladys, put his arms around her, and did his best to whisper encouraging words as she cried into his shoulder. The words were perfunctory. God’s will. God’s plan. God decided …

Hardly a word passed between Glynn and Hub as they drove Jerry’s body to the county coroner’s office for an official death pronouncement. The air-conditioned office felt especially cold against Glynn’s skin, an affirmation that there was no life in this place. Jerry’s official cause of death would eventually be listed as heat stroke complicated by cancer. As the coroner handed Hub the necessary paperwork and they loaded Jerry’s body back into the ambulance, 

Glynn was struck by the solemn yet routine finality of it all. For both Hub and the coroner, death was an everyday occurrence. A body came in, papers were stamped, the body went out. Their matter-of-factness about the process felt as cold as the air in the room. No emotion. No expression of sympathy. Careful respect for the body was strict, unfeeling, and methodical. What had been the hard-working life of a deeply committed pastor was no longer present. They would carry back to the funeral home nothing more than a cold, empty shell that now barely seemed a meager representation of the soul it once contained.

Marve was again waiting in the driveway when her husband returned. She hugged him as he stepped out of the car, feeling his body convulse as he began to cry. They both understood that death was part of the life cycle. Funerals came and went with little more than a thought. This was personal, though. This one hurt. God’s timing was off. Hadn’t Jerry deserved better? Hadn’t his years of service to God and the church been worth more than this? 

The couple walked into the house where Marve had a sandwich and potato chips waiting. Glynn ate, despite the fact the food seemed to catch in his throat. He wondered if God would treat him any differently. Was all the sacrifice and service worth it to simply die in the heat behind a lawnmower? No answers were coming, but the pastor was sure there would be more questions.

Reading time: 32 min
Pastors' Conference 1972, ch. 21-22

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Chapter 21

With the help of Joanne and Ellen, Marve finally had everything unpacked and in place by Friday, though not without the shedding of more tears as several boxes revealed broken dishes, picture frames, and family heirlooms handed down from her mother and grandmother. This fueled a level of anger and resentment that was felt across town as not only did Marve blame Glynn, but Joanne kept the heat on Horace and Alan and Ellen blamed her husband, bank president Virgil Stone, for not having had the house ready sooner. Not having had any advanced notice, the phone company did not arrive to connect the phone at the parsonage until Thursday, which meant Marve had to go to Ellen’s every time she needed to contact Glynn or anyone else. Conversations around town became even more heated when the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of DDT for any reason. Some farmers had long worried that the pesticide was dangerous while others were certain that bugs would devour their corn without it. By Friday, moods across town were so sour that Glynn opted to take a cold sandwich with him and eat his lunch alone in the church office. 

Sunday’s services seemed to Glynn to be a waste of time and energy. With almost all the men out in fields, the small congregation of 70-something was mostly either women struggling to keep their children contained or more elderly members who either couldn’t hear or kept nodding off during the service. Even Richard was on vacation, which left Eddie Aubrey, a young insurance field agent assigned to the county, to lead music for the services. Eddie had been enthusiastic right up to the point that he stepped behind the pulpit and had to announce the first hymn. His voice was so soft he had to repeat the hymn number three times before anyone picked up a hymnal and the pianist began the introduction. Glynn felt that his sermon on worry fell on deaf ears, an opinion Marve confirmed with the casual comment that he could probably preach the same sermon next week and no one would notice.

Against that harsh backdrop, Glynn was happy to be returning to Camp Universal the following Monday. He was hopeful that spending the week with teenagers would require a little less oversight and might possibly be as if not more relaxing than Junior Camp had been. They weren’t taking quite as many people this time. Only six girls, including Claire, were on the women’s side and only one other thin, bookish boy, Roland Hughes, joined Russel on the men’s side. Still, the group was bubbly and excited as transistor radios blared everything from Sammie Davis’ “The Candyman” to Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Joanne was careful to do a wardrobe check before parents left to make sure none of the girls’ skirts or shorts violated the dress code, which a couple of the girls found discriminatory but went along with nonetheless. Glynn made a point of being equally public in checking the boys’ suitcases to make sure their shirts all had sleeves, which, given the two boys involved, was a humorous satire on the biased nature of dress codes. 

One difference this time was that Hayden had decided he wanted to sleep on the same side of the cabin as his daddy. The child had slept on a canvas cot right next to his mother during Junior Camp, partly to calm his own insecurities and largely out of Mave’s concern that Glynn might sleep too soundly to notice if the boy rolled out of bed during the night. Both Glynn and Marve agreed, though, that the atmosphere wasn’t nearly as threatening as they had initially anticipated and that Hayden was likely safe on his own bunk so long as it was right next to Glynn’s. The exception would come if Glynn was assigned a night safety patrol shift.

When they arrived at the camp, Glynn made a big deal of helping Hayden make up his bunk, getting his pillow and blankets just right, and helping him get settled down for a nap after lunch. Hayden would be turning five years old in a couple of weeks and had amazed Glynn at how much he seemed to have grown and matured over the past couple of months. His hair wasn’t quite as blonde, his feet weren’t nearly as clumsy, and it was almost impossible to “short cut” his bedtime story by skipping words or pages. He enjoyed being with his Daddy, was full of questions, and at times could be belligerent about accepting any assistance with tasks not quite yet within his grasp.

Convinced that Hayden was asleep, Glynn slipped out of the cabin and grabbed an umbrella from the car before heading up the hill for the required meeting. The clouds that had formed overhead were not unexpected and the forecast for rain across the region was not unwelcome. Wind from the northwest blew swirls of dust around the pastor’s feet and the fragrance of approaching rain was refreshing.

Bill and Clement joined Glynn just before they reached the top of the hill. They couldn’t help but notice a group of the pastors standing under the tabernacle, circled around a pudgy man with curly, auburn-red hair, splotchy red complexion, and expensive-looking clothes who was gesturing as he talked. 

“The Resolution wasn’t meant to undermine the King James Version of the Bible at all,” the man was saying. “The problem is that people aren’t reading the Bible and a large part of that is because it is not readily available in their own language. That’s what the Resolution is addressing. Our relationship with the American Bible Society goes back a long way and we feel that they are more faithful in their translations than those created and endorsed by other entities such as the National Council of Churches. There’s good reason we’re not part of that organization. We want to partner with a Bible publisher that does not give in to the liberal misinterpretation of scripture.”

Clement shook his head. “You know, there’s a chance I may have pressing matters back in Washataug that I need to attend to.”

“Yeah, there may be a crisis or two in Arvel as well,” Bill said. “If he’s going to hold court like that very often I’ll have to find somewhere else to be. And after last week there are probably plenty of places I should be. I never did get caught up.”

“So, that’s our camp pastor for the week?” Glynn asked, embarrassed that he didn’t know the person speaking.

“Unfortunately,” Clement said. “Leslie Patterson, one of the dozen-or-so associates at First, Dallas. All around big-mouth. He’s started some group within the convention to, in his words, ‘root out the evil that has infiltrated our sacred trust.’ It’s nothing more than an effort by conservatives to take control of the convention. He practically begged the committee to let him come this week. Even halved his fee, making it well below our budget, so that no one else would make fiscal sense.”

As they neared the old church building, a tall, broad-shouldered young man dressed in well-pressed grey slacks and a starched short-sleeve powder blue dress shirt, came toward them. His dark, wavy black hair was the kind that had teenage girls wondering if he was married (he was). He seemed friendly but unsettled and out of place. “Hey guys, you catch that malarky over there?” he asked with a deep southern drawl. 

Clement and Bill nodded then Clement said, “Max, have you met Glynn Waterbury? He’s the new pastor at Adelbert. Glynn, Max Franklin, First Levi.”

Max was quick to reach out his hand and smiled, “It is a gen-u-ine pleasure to meet you, Glynn! Although, your choice of company here is a bit questionable.” He laughed and patted Bill on the shoulder. “I went to seminary with this ya-hoo. I know what he’s capable of so I try to not let him too far out of my sight. I suggest you don’t either.”

The four men laughed and chatted lightly a bit before Bill said, “I’m surprised to see you down here. Didn’t you just get back from Philadelphia?”

“Not to mention the fact that you seemed to have said something once about camp being a good way to keep your youth and music director our of your hair for a week,” Clement added with a grin.

“Yeah, the boy did not weather the storm well while I was gone last week. We’ve got a power-hungry deacon who rode him pretty hard,” Max answered. “I thought I’d come down for at least a couple of days, let him get the week started without any interference. I’ll have to be back by Wednesday afternoon, though.” He looked over at the group assembled under the tabernacle. “Looks like Leslie has a fan club already,” the pastor added. “He’s like a little religious leprechaun doin’ his dance while he steals the gold from everyone else’s pockets. He’s going to have these kids so confused by the end of the week that I’ll have to explain to half of them why they don’t need to be baptized again.”

“I’m hoping that’s the worse thing we have to explain,” Clement said. 

A gust of wind blew a sheet of dust across the top of the hill, causing the men to turn and guard their eyes. “That’s probably a signal that we need to get inside,” Bill said, looking up at the grey sky. “I’m not feeling convinced that this is going to be a light rain.”

The four preachers walked into the old church building and waited for Bing to start his routine. Carl Roberts soon joined them and Emmit popped in just before the meeting started, waving at the group but with a sense that was distant and preoccupied. The meeting itself was just as dry and boring as it had been for Junior Camp and the sound of rain falling on the roof didn’t help Glynn in his struggle to keep his eyes open. None of them were selected for Safety Patrol duty, which made it easier to plan a midweek escape. They quietly watched the spectacle around Leslie Patterson wax and wane then darted toward their church’s cabins the moment the “amen” sounded on the final prayer.

Rain was still falling when the evening service started. Gusts of wind blew rain in from the open sides, driving everyone to sit tightly in the center of the tabernacle. Much of what was being said or sung was lost as heavy downpours of rain on the tabernacle’s tin roof drowned out everything else. Finally, just before the sermon, the service was canceled and campers were instructed to go directly to their cabins. 

Just as Bing made the final announcement, though, a torrent of water fell from the sky like a wall of water placed between the tabernacle and the roads back to the cabins. Most stayed huddled together under the edge of the tabernacle, waiting for the rain to let up enough to run for safety. Some, however, were huddled under a large oak tree. Teens from rural churches knew better but about 30 kids, mostly from Levi churches, and a handful of adult counselors, were standing there when it seemed as though the top of the hill exploded. A bright flash of light momentarily blinded everyone. The percussion alone was enough to knock everyone under the tree and several under the tabernacle to their knees. The entire hill shook. Debris flew from the top of the tree onto the roof of the tabernacle just before pellets of hail began to fall from the sky. 

Everyone under the tree was knocked to the ground but no one appeared to be seriously hurt. Chairs were knocked over and pushed aside as 2,000 teens and their counselors and pastors pushed toward the center of the tabernacle. Glynn was happy that Marve had kept the kids at the cabin because of the rain but was now concerned for their safety. Another lightning strike somewhere among the cabins caused everyone to scream again and made it clear that it wasn’t safe to leave. Heavy wind left no place dry under the tabernacle. From the center of the group, someone started praying but everything after “Dear God” was drowned out by the storm.

Ten minutes felt like hours as the storm kept the entire camp huddled together, cowering from the unrelenting force of nature. 

At the first sign of a break, several older teen boys, particularly those who were more athletic, took off running for the cabins. Slowly the rain subsided and more groups would leave the embattled worship structure, many slipping and falling in the mud. 

Glynn found it interesting that Russel and Roland were among the calmest of the campers and the last to leave the tabernacle. “You boys about ready to head back to the cabin?” he asked, feeling a little anxious to confirm that everyone was safe. 

Russel looked at Roland and said, “Wait another minute and you won’t get any wetter.”

Sure enough, within a matter of seconds, the rain completely stopped. “That’s some good forecasting, Russel,” Glynn commented. “How did you know it would stop?”

“The barometric pressure went back to normal,” the teen answered. “We don’t have a basement at our house so I’ve learned to pay close attention, give us time to run to the neighbor’s shelter.”

Glynn nodded and the three walked calmly back to the cabin. Just before they reached the open grass in front of the cabin, Roland spoke up, catching Glynn slightly by surprise. “You know that’s just the beginning,” he said softly. “We should probably make sure everything around the cabin is tied down. We’re in for a rough night.”

Glynn looked at him not sure whether to believe what the young man was saying. “How do you know?” he asked.

Roland shrugged and Russel answered, “That tends to be the way big storms work. We get a line of low-pressure cells. The first one scares everyone and when it’s gone they think everything’s over. Then, a few hours later, the second one hits without warning. That’s when people get hurt.”

Glynn looked at them with concern. He knew what they said made sense and wondered if anyone else at the campground had the same information. “Okay, can ya’ll help me get the windows covered and everything?”

The boys nodded and the three of them began lowering the covers on the windows and securing them as if they were leaving for the season. They hadn’t been there long enough for there to be much trash lying around but they went ahead and removed some of the clutter the first storm had left around the cabin.

Inside, Glynn discovered that the beds near the windows on the girls’ side of the cabin were all soaked. Joanne suggested that perhaps the girls could switch sides with the boys for the night. The boys both shrugged. 

“Would it be okay if we just pulled our mattresses under the dining tables?” Russel asked. “That’s probably the safer move.”

Glynn looked at Joanne and she nodded her approval. “Go for it, boys. I’ll get my things and join you,” the pastor said

Marve quickly made the decision that Hayden could stay where he was. The storm already had him scared and as much as he enjoyed hanging out with Daddy it was Mommy he wanted when he was frightened. That made it easier for Glynn to move his mattress with Russel and Roland. They moved the mattresses from the dorm to the kitchen, the boys rather excited about the whole thing, and were almost settled in when Glynn heard a commotion outside. Looking out the cabin’s front door, he saw Bing and several pastors gathered in the road a few yards from the cabin. Glynn wasted no time joining them.

“The sheriff isn’t giving us any choice, guys,” Bing was telling them. “Everyone’s saying there’s a line of tornadoes headed right at us. We can’t take any chances. We have to evacuate the camp.”

“How are we going to do that before the storm gets here?” someone asked.

“Four churches have full-sized busses and plenty of room. They’ll keep making trips until we have everyone.”

“Where are we going?” asked another voice in the growing group of pastors. 

Bing seemed impatient that no one was moving to get their campers ready to leave. “Again, we have two separate facilities. Half will go to the city’s civil defense shelter and the other half will go to the Corp of Engineers facility under the dam. Please, though, get your campers ready. They all need to be dressed appropriately when a bus pulls up to your cabin. They can take a pillow or a blanket with them but nothing else. We don’t have room for everyone’s luggage.”

“What order are we evacuating in?” Bing was asked. Glynn recognized Larry Winston’s voice.

“The order that buses get to you,” Bing answered, his voice showing obvious signs of exasperation. “Gentlemen, we need to stop standing around here talking and get busy getting our campers ready! The buses have already left with their first load and will be back for others soon!”

Glynn wasted no time getting back to the cabin. He explained the situation to Marve and Joanne and they began helping the girls get their things together. Russel and Roland had seen the group outside and were already dressed and prepared to go. Glynn was glad that Lita was happy to stay close to Claire so that Marve only had to keep up with Hayden, who didn’t appreciate being awakened. Joanne suggested that the girls quickly pack their things and put their suitcases under the dining room tables. This added to the girls’ anxiety but for Roland especially it became a game to figure out how to get all the suitcases into such a limited space.

The group had finished getting ready and was waiting near the door when it began to rain. Thunder rumbled in the distance, causing a couple of the younger girls to whimper. Sounds from other cabins rushing to get everything together echoed across the campground. Glynn felt relief when the bus from First, Levi pulled up and Max stepped out, motioning for the group to join him.

“We need to hurry,” Max told Glynn as the kids quickly boarded the bus. “They’ve spotted two funnels on the other side of the lake. It’s going to be close getting everyone to safety.”

Glynn instructed the teens to sit as close to each other as possible, three people per seat so that they could fit as many people on the bus as it could possibly hold. The bus slowly moved from cabin to cabin until it was full of people stacked on top of each other, standing in the aisles, and even lying in the luggage racks above the seats. 

The Levi bus had been assigned to take people to the Corp of Engineers facility below the dam, which required first crossing the dam. Strong wind rocked the bus as rain beat down so hard that it sounded like small stones against the metal frame. Fear was palpable but no one was making a sound. The trip took little more than five minutes to make but felt considerably longer. Glynn wondered if everyone else was praying as hard as he was. 

The bus crossed the dam and made a somewhat precarious left turn to maneuver through the gate to a small parking area never intended for vehicles as long as the bus. The Levi church’s youth and music minister, a young man only two years out of college, struggled to turn the bus around in such limited space, his passengers anxiously waiting to disembark. Engineers at the dam were waiting to guide the group down into the cavernous space opposite the massive hydro-electric generators. Teens and counselors were instructed to take a seat along the wall while Glynn and the other pastors waited near the entrance.

The youth minister started to take the bus back for another trip to the camp but was stopped. “It’s too dangerous crossing the dam,” he was told. Everyone else at the camp would have to go to the city’s facility. No one at the dam knew that the city’s facility was already full. Late-arriving campers were instructed to take huddled positions with their heads covered between the town’s fire trucks and throughout the small office adjacent to the building. 

Glynn looked around and realized that Max was the only pastor he knew at all. Most everyone under the damn was from Colquitt Association. As the men stood just outside the doorway, they had a clear view of the large lake that provided power for most of Northeastern Oklahoma. With each lightning flash, the dam’s engineers were watching for signs of funnels and tracking their movement.

“We’ve got two confirmed on the ground,” one of the engineers said. “One at 19 degrees and the second just ahead of it at 24 degrees. Neither looks especially large but they’re kicking up a lot of debris.”

Max walked over to the railing where Glynn was standing. “Times like this make you wonder if God’s trying to send us a message, don’t they?” he asked. “Like, maybe we need to re-examine our motives here.”

“Like maybe I should have stayed in Michigan,” Glynn answered. “The storm earlier was enough. This is all a bit unnerving.” 

Lightning hit nearby, shaking the ground and lighting the sky.

“And there’s number three at 12 degrees moving North by Northeast,” the engineer called out.

“Three tornados?” Glynn questioned. “I didn’t know that was even possible!”

Max chuckled. “This is Oklahoma. Anything’s possible. The number of funnels may actually be a good thing. They’re small, not really capable of doing much damage. They might knock down a tree or two, upend a chicken hutch, but they don’t do a lot of damage.”

“Any chance of them combining into something worse?” Glynn asked. 

“I suppose,” Max answered. “Like I said, this is Oklahoma. You never know what’s going to happen. Each storm is an exercise in trusting God and, unfortunately, there are times when that trust seems misplaced.”

Glynn’s stomach turned as he took in Max’s statement. Trusting God? Sure, he understood that concept well. God’s divine will trumped all of man’s plans and creations. That one’s trust in God’s plan would be misplaced felt wrong but Glynn couldn’t find the words to challenge the concept or ask more questions.

Another lightning strike across the lake brought another declaration from the engineer, “There’s number four at 32 degrees. Man, four funnels in a row! And a fifth one hanging! This is amazing!”

Amazing was not the word that Glynn would have chosen. While the sight was certainly incredible to watch, his concern for everyone’s safety muted his fascination. 

The rain picked back up, sending everyone except the engineer down into the shelter of the dam. Glynn found Marve and the kids and tried to assure them that everything was going to be okay. Marve could tell by the expression on his face, though, that Glynn wasn’t convinced. She smiled at him, knowing that there was nothing any of them could do to make the moment more comfortable. They had already tried praying. Attempts at starting a sing-a-long had failed. The continual hum of the generators blocked most of the outside noise but the concerned response of the engineers and other workers as they ran back and forth was enough to keep everyone on edge.

After another hour, the rain finally let up, the wind gradually died down, and radio conversations between the dam’s supervisor and the county sheriff confirmed that there was no serious damage to the campground or the roads and that everyone could return. By that point, many of the younger teens had fallen asleep on top of each other and everyone was feeling groggy and a little grumpy. It would take the busses three trips each to get everyone back to their cabins and several more minutes to get everyone and everything settled. 

With everyone back at the campground, Bing quickly huddled with both Directors of Missions and the camp’s executive committee (made up of pastors who were present anyway). They decided with little discussion that it was in everyone’s best interest to push the morning schedule back by an hour, dropping one of the two class periods so that everyone could get more rest. Word was quickly distributed to the cabins and pastors and counselors made sure everyone still awake was aware of the change. No one complained.

Morning dawned with heavy fog rolling softly across the campground, slowly burning away as the summer sun came out in full force to dry everything that had been soaked the night before. By noon, only a handful of mudholes remained and afternoon athletic activities were able to go on as normal. Pastors gathered in groups of three and four to discuss how the night’s evacuation might have gone more smoothly but given the limited transportation options no one came up with a better plan. 

No one expected they would have a repeat of the night before. Thirty minutes before the evening tabernacle service the clouds began to roll over the campground. Glynn talked with Marve, Joanne, and Irene and agreed that anyone who wished could stay in the cabin rather than endure the anxiety of being caught in another storm. Only a couple of the youngest teen girls took them up on the offer but they helped keep Lita and Hayden calm and distracted when the wind eventually did start to pick up again. 

Several other cabins had a similar idea and no one cared to sit in the chairs closest to the edge of the tabernacle. The moment it began raining, several ran back to their cabins. When small-sized hail began pelting the tin roof once more, the service was effectively over. The instant the hail stopped, the worship space emptied. Few people other than Glynn and Emmit, who were standing together waiting for a break in the rain, noticed the anger with which Leslie Patterson stormed from the platform and back to his VIP cabin. Even if others had noticed, few would have cared. 

“Two days and a person might make the leap that God has blocked his opportunity to spread his propaganda,” Emmitt remarked. “That has to be rough for someone whose ego is as fragile as Leslie’s.”

“Do you think that’s actually what this is?” Glynn asked, feeling naive and uncertain. Associating God with acts of nature, or blaming him for them, seemed wrong. Only in the most drastic of circumstances had the Old Testament God employed weather as a means of achieving his goal. Jesus had calmed storms, not caused them. 

Emmitt shook his head. “No, I know better, but I’m not sure Leslie does. He’s one of those ‘take the Bible literally’ guys. Probably doesn’t help that they almost forgot to evacuate him last night.”

The surprised expression on Glynn’s face caused Emmitt to laugh. “You have got to be kidding,” Glynn said.

“Nope. They had to send a police car back after him when they realized he wasn’t at either evacuation point,” Emmit explained. 

At the first break, both men ran as quickly as they dared across the wet grass back to their cabins. The dirt roads were little more than muddy creeks at the moment. Darkness seemed to fall across the camp quickly and the rains seemed to be letting up when the tornado sirens sounded once again. This time, there was no question or debate as to what to do. Busses started running quickly. 

Once again the camp was evacuated but without the fear level of the night before. Almost everyone had experienced soft warnings like this and while there was plenty of wind and rain no funnels were ever spotted on the ground. After a couple of humid hours below the damn, everyone was returned to their cabins without any excitement and most of the teens expressing a mixture of boredom and fatigue. Still, the next morning’s schedule was delayed again and by this point, the whole experience felt off-kilter, as though all the fun and excitement had been sucked out of the week.

No one paid any attention when a car arrived to take Dr. back to the airport in Tulsa the next morning. He claimed that an urgent matter had come up in Dallas, but Bing later confirmed that the preacher had been the one to place the call, not the other way around. A pastor from a mid-sized church in Oklahoma City was called in to finish the week. No one seemed to care. Few seemed to pay attention. The week finished with the kind of whimper that caused even the teenagers to question why they had bothered coming. Joanne remarked that she couldn’t remember when a week of camp had been so flat and lifeless. 

By Saturday morning, everyone was anxious to go home. Cars were loaded quickly and Glynn noticed that there wasn’t the usual chatter. Even Claire was quiet. 

They returned back to the church without incident. Parents were hugged, equipment was put away, and empty promises of, “see you tomorrow” were made. Normally, Sunday’s evening service would have been given over to campers to share about their experience. Glynn overheard a group of girls expressing their reluctance, a couple saying they probably wouldn’t show up. After asking everyone individually, he decided that they would skip the tradition for this year. The kids were visibly relieved. 

This allowed Sunday to pass quietly. Two days of rain early in the week meant farmers were all taking advantage of the dry weather. Several other members were on vacation. Glynn was moderately concerned about the church’s finances but Iris assured him they had sufficient surplus to make sure everything was paid. Glynn was happy to go home and take a nap. This had not been the week he had anticipated and was not one he cared to repeat.

Chapter 22

Carol Stanley died. Edith Wilson called Glynn from the hospital Tuesday morning to let him know that her daughter’s condition had worsened. He rushed to Tulsa and spent the night praying with and attempting to comfort Edith and her family. He stayed with them when the young mother took her last breath. He held her children in his arms as they cried. He placed the difficult call to Hub and was still there to help him load the body into the hearse a couple of hours later after the family had returned to Adelbert.

For Edith and the rest of Carol’s family, this outcome wasn’t a surprise. For the past two weeks, doctors had expressed little hope of her ever recovering. There was no meaningful brain activity. As a result, funeral arrangements were already decided upon. The service would be Friday afternoon at 2:00 in the funeral home chapel. Glynn had politely offered the church sanctuary but Edith had turned him down. 

“She wasn’t a member there,” the grieving mother said. “There were too many who didn’t want her there. They still have to answer to God for their part in this. The chapel will be fine.” She asked Glynn to officiate and Richard to sing a couple of songs, but she chose men from the extended family for pallbearers and specifically asked that Glynn not mention the service at Wednesday’s prayer meeting.

The service was hardly attended by anyone outside the extended family, though there were enough of them to fill a quarter of the small chapel. A handful of Carol’s former co-workers from Washataug came over as did a smattering of former members of Grace church. Her former husband was nowhere to be seen, though. If he had even stopped by the funeral home to pay last respects he had managed to do so without Hub or Rose noticing and he hadn’t signed the guest book. Enough tears were shed to be appropriately respectful but by now the family had grown weary of crying. While they would have rather she recovered, Carol’s death was, in its own way, a relief. They could pick up the pieces and continue with their lives. By the time the graveside portion of the service was complete, the children were fidgety, ready to change clothes and play. Edith slipped Glynn a twenty-dollar bill and said that she and the kids would probably see him in a couple of weeks. 

Glynn drove home quietly after the service, gave Marve a hug, and settled back in his recliner to read the day’s newspaper. The Supreme Court’s decision outlawing the death sentence was causing an uproar among state politicians. County roads were set to receive a new covering of gravel. Planning was underway for a new, higher capacity grain silo in Washataug. The pastor could feel his eyes begin to close. 

The newspaper had fallen onto his chest and he was seconds away from sound sleep when Glynn felt a soft tug on his shirt sleeve. “Daddy, are you awake?”

Glynn opened his eyes to see Lita standing there, her light brown hair still partially pressed to her face from having just woken from her nap. Her soft blue eyes looking up at him were something he had not been able to resist from the moment she was born. He smiled. “Sure, baby girl. What do you need?”

She climbed up into her father’s lap and laid her head on his chest before asking, “What happens when we die?”

He had wondered when these questions would begin. Lita was a sharp-minded person who caught onto things quickly. Despite a misdiagnosed reading issue, she had finished fourth grade with straight A’s in all her subjects. Not much escaped her gaze but she preferred to find most answers for herself, spending a lot of time in front of the encyclopedias that were purchased before she could read. Glynn knew that how he answered her question would affect her frame of reference on matters both spiritual and biological possibly for the rest of her life. He suddenly felt very nervous and unprepared.

“Well, if we love Jesus…” he started.

“No, that’s not what I’m talking about,” Lita said, cutting him off. “I know the stuff about Jesus and Heaven and all that. But what is it like to die? What happens to our brains?”

Now Glynn was truly stumped. A spiritual answer was something he might have managed to get through relatively well. A biological answer was beyond his grasp of knowledge. Fortunately for him, the pause gave Lita time to fill in her own perspective.

“We learned in school that people are made of carbon. Carbon is matter. Matter is energy. So, people are made of energy,” she said, surprising Glynn with her matter-of-fact attitude. “But energy doesn’t die, it transitions from one form to another. So, if energy doesn’t die and people are made of energy then how can people die? It doesn’t make sense.”

Glynn opened his mouth to answer but no words were coming out. He felt his brain go blank. Science had never been his best subject even when he was in school. Trying to remember any of it now was proving to be painful. He needed to answer without sounding stupid or giving her false information. 

“You know, Dad, you should probably brush your teeth more often,” Lita said as she gazed up into her father’s open mouth. “I can still see part of your salad stuck in your teeth.”

“Yes, you are correct,” he answered, happy for the change of subject. “I definitely should brush my teeth more often. Maybe you could help remind me?”

The child sat up in his lap and gazed out the front window. “If I were you, I think I would just take them out and brush them while I’m in the shower,” she said. “That’s what makes the most sense. Why can you take out your teeth and I can’t?”

“Because Daddy didn’t take good care of his teeth when he was your age,” Glynn said, feeling self-conscious and embarrassed by the dentures he’d had since he was 25. When Lita was younger, she would laugh when he would push his tongue against the roof of his mouth and cause his top teeth to push forward. That didn’t seem terribly appropriate for this moment, though.

Lita sighed. “Yeah, I guess life was really rough back in the olden days, wasn’t it?” she asked. She squirmed around so that her body was directly on top of his, looking up at the ceiling. “I’m glad you survived all those plagues.”

This piqued Glynn’s curiosity. Just how old did his daughter think he was? “What plague are you talking about?”

“You know, the Black Plague and the dust bowl and smallpox. We read about them in Social Studies,” she answered. She was fully awake now and couldn’t help but fidget, her arms stretched out toward the ceiling, her fingers intertwined and curving around to make various shapes.

“That was all before I was born,” Glynn said. “I’m not that old.”

“I know,” Lita shot back as she sat up again. “You’re not as old as Mrs. Wallace. She’s really old and could probably die any day now. You may have to do her funeral next.”

Glynn had to think quickly as to who Mrs. Wallace was and whether she was a church member. She wasn’t, as far as he could remember. “Is Mrs. Wallace sick?” he asked.

“I dunno,” Lita said. “She has these big brown spots on her hands, though, and that can’t be good. I think her skin has been out in the sun too long and she’s probably starting to mold.”

Glynn laughed at the image he got from Lita’s description of the elementary school’s receptionist/secretary. “People don’t mold, silly,” he said, “Though I do know some who are spoiled.” He playfully poked at his daughter’s ribs and she giggled as she squirmed.

“Daddy!” she exclaimed. “I’m not spoiled! Hayden’s the one that’s spoiled. Mommy shouldn’t give him so much food. He’s going to get fat, like you.” She paused for just a beat then added, “Daddy, you’re not going to die, are you?”

The moment suddenly turned sober as the conversation was once again serious. “I will one day,” Glynn said quietly. “We all will one day. That’s not something we control. I hope I live for a very long time but that’s up to God, not me.”

“Maybe God has one of those calendars with all the lines on it like Mr. Hiddleman has on his desk,” Lita expounded as she hopped down from Glynn’s lap. “One side tells him when people are supposed to be born and the other tells him when people are supposed to die. Only, you’re not going to die because I’m going to erase your name from the calendar.”

“I don’t think that’s the way it works,” Glynn said, amused at her perspective. He wondered how long it would be before her philosophy of life was too deep for him to keep up with her.

“I know,” she said as she wandered toward the window. “People can’t really die because we’re energy. We transition. I’m going to transition into a star because they live millions of years and then become black holes. Hayden’s probably going to transition into a dragon, but not today. Dragon’s have to be able to tie their own shoes. Can I see if Karrie can come out and play?”

Glynn smiled, simultaneously thankful and sad that their conversation was apparently over. Lita didn’t give him many moments like this and he cherished each one, even if answering her questions was becoming dramatically more difficult. “Sure, just be careful. It’s pretty hot outside.”

“Yeah, that’s okay,” the child said as she bounced toward the door. “We’ll just play school in the shade and make up the answers we don’t know. I’m pretty sure that’s the way it works.”

Glynn watched out the window as Lita bounded down the porch steps and took off toward the neighbor’s house. Lita would be turning ten next month. His little girl was growing up and he didn’t particularly like that part. Soon enough there would be boys and puberty to deal with. He wasn’t ready.

Marve walked in from the bedroom and saw Glynn standing at the window. “What’s so interesting?” she asked.

“Oh, just watching our little girl grow up and become smarter than me,” he said. 

Marve walked over and put her arm around her husband. “I’ve got bad news for you. She was smarter than us five minutes after she learned to read. We’re both doomed to complete ignorance by the time she’s 13.”

Glynn looked at his wife and kissed her. “At least I have you to keep me company.”

Marve hugged him a little tighter. “Yeah, about that. I’ve been thinking about maybe going back to school, working on my Masters. Hayden starts school this fall. I’ll have the time.”

Glynn returned the hug but continued gazing out the window. “Sure, make me the dumb one in the family. No one likes a smart preacher anyway.”

They laughed together, thankful for the moment yet both dreading the days to come.

Reading time: 35 min
Pastors' Conference 1972, Ch. 19-20

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Chapter 19

For the Sunday after VBS to not feel largely irrelevant would have required something at least moderately interesting to have happened. That was not the case, though, and it largely passed as one of those days that quickly fades from memory outside the snapshots that would eventually find their way into someone’s scrapbook. With the Bluebird Church still not having a place for its own worship, Glynn, with the unanimous approval of the deacons, invited Jerry to preach the morning service. He could tell, as could most everyone in the congregation, that Jerry found the full sanctuary unnerving and he stammered uncertainly through his homily. After the service, he admitted to Glynn that it was the largest group of people he had ever addressed.

The evening service was given over to VBS “commencement” where everyone who had attended even one day was given a certificate, each class struggled through a song, and then everyone had cookies. Glynn quietly oversaw the proceeding with amusement as Hayden’s four-year-old class largely stood at the front of the church with their fingers in their mouths while Lita dominated the singing in her fourth-grade class. With each class, parents (mostly mothers) stepped into the aisle to take snapshots on their Instamatic or Polaroid cameras, making sure all the children were equally blinded by the flashes. 

Slightly more exciting was the first day of Junior Camp. Marve started the morning in a surly mood, complaining about not having sufficient time to get everyone’s clothes cleaned and packed for the week. She likened the trip to taking a vacation that no one wanted to go on in the first place. Lita was excited, though, as she was feeling very grown up by getting to go a year earlier. She bounced around showing Glynn each outfit before she carefully put it in her suitcase. Hayden, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the fact they were going anywhere. 

At 9:30, they loaded the car and drove the short distance to the church parking lot where Joanne and Horace were already waiting in his pickup. The plan was for Horace to drive down with all the food that would be needed for the week, with a supplemental trip planned for Wednesday to replenish perishables. Joanne promised she would only supervise and not try to do everything herself.

By 10:00, volunteer’s cars were loaded for the trip to Camp Universal. Twelve girls and eight boys were making the trip. Joanne, Marve, Irene Hendricks, and a very excited Claire Hiddleman would take care of the girls and all the kitchen duties. Glynn and the church’s one unemployed teen boy, Russel Daniels, were expected to corral the boys. Joanne’s years of organization paid off as she made sure there was emergency contact information for each child along with a list of who was allergic to what. Separate permission slips were required to allow the children to swim in the pool. Everything was in order.

They arrived at the camp shortly after noon and Joanne quickly whipped out a lunch of previously prepared coldcut sandwiches and potato chips after which the kids claimed their bunks and made their beds before running off to explore the campground. Marve and Irene unpacked and organized the kitchen materials according to a map Joanne had already prepared while Claire swept the dormitories and mopped the kitchen floor. Glynn made sure the boys’ side was similarly prepared before walking up to the old church building for a requisite meeting. Russel was helpful in completing whatever he was asked to do and then promptly retreated to his bunk to read.

Glynn was curious to meet the pastors from the other associations. He found it interesting that all of them were expected to be here the entire week unless a church emergency called them back to their home towns. The exceptions were the two large churches, First Washataug and First Levi. They were allowed to send surrogates from their ministerial staff. Washataug sent their youth director, who was full of energy and eager to volunteer for anything, but Clement was still present most of the week. Levi similarly sent their other full-time staff member who was responsible for both youth and music ministries. Being primarily a musician, he was less eager and largely unenthused about the assignment. Churches who were pastorless typically sent a reluctant deacon.

As he approached the old church building, Glynn saw Emmit who had been waiting for him. The Director of Missions walked over, shook Glynn’s hand and advised, “Stay toward the back and don’t volunteer for anything. You’ll end up on midnight safety patrol if you’re not careful. Also, don’t challenge the pastor from Takanoma who always complains about girls being allowed to wear jeans. He brings it up at every camp and we have a general agreement to politely ignore him and go on.”

Glynn chuckled at the advice and walked into the old clapboard building. He quickly found Bill and Clement who invited Glynn to sit with them. He didn’t realize that in doing so he was effectively identifying himself with the more theologically “moderate” group of pastors who the larger number of “conservative” pastors quietly held in contempt. At this particular moment, the designation made no real difference and Glynn noticed no difference in how he was treated in conversations but Larry Winston specifically noticed and decided that Adelbert’s pastor had sided with the enemy.

Bing Willard, the camp’s full-time administrator, and groundskeeper was the de facto leader of the camp. Bing was a former pastor himself who had “retired” after the relentless pace had caused him a second heart attack. For most of the year, the quiet tranquility of the empty campground suited him and his wife well. There were few demands and being surrounded by tall pines made for a peaceful existence. By the time camps came around in June, though, he was ready to temporarily take on a more pastoral role. Here, he was the boss and no one had the right to cross or question him. He stepped to the podium and the group of pastors immediately became quiet.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Bing started. “We’re glad to see most of you back for another camp season. Welcome to those of you who are new. I won’t keep you long as I’ve noticed we seem to have a slightly larger group this year but we do have a few rules we need to go over before I introduce our staff for the week….”

Glynn’s mind immediately began to wander. He had already seen the new set of rules. Joanne had taken particular offense to the requirement that cabins be empty during the evening worship service. Glynn had agreed to ignore the rule, given Joanne’s health condition. He was also willing to make an exception for Marve if Hayden became unruly, which was always possible. The rest of the rules seemed rather obvious, boys and girls keeping separate during swimming, lights out at 9:00, no fireworks or noisemakers, no metal cleats on the softball field. 

The room wasn’t air-conditioned and as the outside temperature made its way into the low 90s, the fatigue of the past two weeks began to catch up with him and Glynn couldn’t avoid yawning as he struggled to keep his eyes open. Bill noticed and carefully poked Glynn to keep him awake. Poking Glynn, however, caused him to bump into Clement, who was having similar difficulty. Bill found the chain reaction funny and was trying to hold back his laughter but it still managed to come out as an odd sneeze/cough sound the punctuated an awkward moment of silence in the middle of Bing’s introduction of the Camp Pastor. Everyone stared. Bill forced a cough to cover his faux pax as Glynn patted his back in an attempt to legitimize the sound. Clement struggled to keep a straight face and was relieved when everyone turned back around and Bing continued his introductions. 

That was enough to keep the three pastors awake for the rest of the meeting. Bill and Glynn managed to avoid night patrol duty but Clement was assigned the 2-4 AM duty on Thursday morning. “You two are more than welcome to join me,” he said as they left the meeting. 

Bill laughed. “You’ve been in our squeaky old cabin. No one moves at night without everyone in the cabin knowing about it. There’s no way I could sneak out.”

Clement chuckled. “That’s true, you all have a natural alarm going on there. What about you, Glynn? Want to come? It’s a pain waking up in the middle of the night, but it’s rather peaceful once you’re up and mobile.”

“I still can’t believe this is a thing,” Glynn said. “Is there seriously no other security here at night than a couple of pastors running around with flashlights and a ridiculously large button that says ‘Safety Patrol?’”

Bill and Clement both laughed. “Okay, Yankee boy,” Bill teased. “Are you afraid the fifth and sixth graders are going to sneak out and do drugs? Most these kids wouldn’t even know what drugs look like if they found them.”

“Nah, I’m more concerned about them doing something silly and it turning into more than they can handle,” Glynn said. “Boys, especially. Don’t tell me no one’s tried scaling that fence around the pool to go for a middle of the night swim? Or sneaking a cigarette from one of the cooks? One guy with a flashlight is easy to avoid. One dropped match around all these dry pine needles and we have a problem.”

“Oh, didn’t anyone tell you? We have an old fire truck on the grounds for just such an emergency,” Clement explained. “Someone has to crank it to get it started and Lord knows the last time those hoses were tested, but Bing assures us the old heap still runs!”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that!” Bill said. “He usually brings it out in the middle of Junior Camp just to show off the antique. God save us if we ever actually have to use that thing!”

The three men were laughing at the thought of pastors trying to literally fight a fire in the middle of the night when Emmit caught up with them. “I see who my trouble makers are going to be this year,” the Director of Missions said, smiling. “What are you three up to?”

“Glynn here is plotting to burn the place down in the middle of the night,” Bill said with a big grin. “You know, give the kids a literal example of hell.”

“Just let them get a taste of Mrs. Trunkhart’s cooking over in Big Bend’s cabin,” Emmit laughed. “I just walked past their earlier and the smell alone was enough to turn my stomach.”

“You mean they actually have kids this year?” Clement asked. “I’ve not seen them at Junior Camp for at least three or four years.”

“Yeah, they managed to find three who wanted to come,” Emmit answered. “The Trunkhart’s brought them down. I hope the poor kids survive.”

“I’ve not heard of Big Bend,” Glynn said. “I assume that’s in Colquitt Association?”

Emmit shook his head. “No, they’re in ours, up in the northeast corner of Riddel county. Big Bend is kind of like Bluebird only smaller. They never were too large a town, built around a watering stop on one of the old cattle trails. They’ve been slowly shrinking the past 20 or so years. They lost their high school about four years ago, started sending their kids into the Diamond schools. Now there’s talk about closing the elementary school as well. I think there were maybe 40 students in the entire school last year.”

“And Trunkhart is the pastor?” Glynn innocently asked.

Bill and Clement both choked back a laugh.

“No, they’re the reason the church doesn’t have a pastor,” Emmit said, smiling. “They’ve run everything in and around Big Bend for 40 years and are a large reason no one wants to live out there. They ran off the last bi-vocational pastor almost two years ago because he used big words they didn’t understand. Edgar has been running the services himself ever since. Most Sundays,  though, it’s just him and Thelma. Two of the most unpleasant people to ever call themselves Christians.”

“Edgar came to the Associational Annual Meeting a couple of years ago and made quite a fuss,” Clement added. “Emmit had mentioned in the associational newsletter that Robert’s Rules of Order would be strictly enforced during business sessions. You’ve met Larry, you can imagine why that’s necessary. Edgar shows up and right off the bat makes a fuss that the Bible’s Rules of Order are the only rules we should use. He honestly did not understand the concept of parliamentary procedure. That was 15 of the most uncomfortable minutes I’ve ever experienced.”

Glynn shook his head. “Those poor kids.”

“And that’s why we need a safety patrol,” Bill chuckled. “By Thursday, those kids are going to be looking for a way to escape Thelma’s cooking. Someone has to help them. Carry snacks.”

The group was still laughing when they reached Adelbert’s cabin and Glynn peeled off to make sure everything was running smoothly. It was, of course, and it did for the entire week. Marve and Irene made a great team in the kitchen, taking a lot of pressure off Joanne. Claire and Russel did a good job of supervising the kids. There were, of course, the occasional cuts and scrapes that needed bandaging, and one light case of homesickness that Joanne quickly handled by helping the boy catch fish in a creek that ran along the north border of the campground. Nearby cabins expressed some minor jealousy when Adelbert had fresh fish for their evening meal.

Glynn was surprised at how relaxing the week turned out to be. Not having a telephone ringing all day proved to be great for relieving stress. Even Marve got over her initial resentment by Wednesday and was enjoying sitting and chatting with Irene and Joanne between meals. Hayden especially enjoyed walking with his Daddy throughout the campground and Lita fit in well with the older kids. The camp was almost as good as a short vacation.

By the time Thursday morning came around, Glynn had no problem waking up early and was waiting on Clement when he came around for Safety Patrol. 

“I wasn’t sure you’d make it this morning,” Clement teased. “How are you holding up?”

“It’s proving to be rather relaxing, actually,” Glynn admitted. “The cool wind at night, not a lot of pressure during the day, I can’t say I have any complaints.”

Clement nodded. “It’s a nice escape. The challenge comes next week when you discover all the things no one wanted to bother you with this week. Never fails. I’ll have two or three in critical condition in the hospital, there’ll be a maintenance issue of some kind at the church, and there will be a couple of people having a personal crisis that needs attention. Every time.”

“You’re not going to the convention?” Glynn asked.

“What, Philadelphia? I don’t think so,” Clement answered. “There are some years it feels important enough to make that trek but this isn’t one of them. All they’re going to do is bellyache for five days. I get enough of that at home. Besides, like I said, after spending a week here there are going to be plenty of things in Washataug to keep me busy. You planning on going?”

“I’ve never been, but no, not this year. Like you said, there’s too much going on here, what with the tornado at Bluebird, a member’s daughter in a coma in Tulsa, and we’re back here in two weeks,” Glynn mused. “I’d really like to go one year, though, just to see what it’s like, to be able to say that I’ve been.”

They walked for a while in silence, taking careful steps to not trip over ruts in the dirt roads. As they rounded the corner, they saw a light on in one of the cabins. “That will be Carl Roberts,” Clement said. “You’ve met him, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, at Pastors’ Conference a couple of times. He seems like a nice guy,” Glynn said.

“He is. Hard worker in a difficult church,” Clement said. “I promise you, he’s in there with a half-dozen books spread out on a table, digging down to the nitty-gritty of what each and every word says and infers. He was an English major before he was drafted into the Navy. He takes languages more seriously than anyone I’ve ever met. I admire him. Too bad his church really doesn’t appreciate what they’ve got. They pay him so little his family has been on public assistance just to keep food on the table.”

“That’s disappointing,” Glynn said.

“That’s Oklahoma Southern Baptists,” Clement responded. “Everyone wants their pastor to be full-time but they want to make sure he ‘stays humble’ and doesn’t live better than anyone in the church. So, they give him a broken-down house and just enough salary to pay the utility bills and expect him to work miracles. It’s an all too common problem. The state convention has stepped in a few times, but we probably lose 50 pastors a year who just cannot afford to keep working for nothing.”

They walked a while longer in silence. A cool breeze rustled through the tabernacle, causing just enough noise that the pair decided it was worth investigating. Finding the space empty, they sat in a couple of chairs and watched the night pass silently. In the distance, they hear the unmistakable sound of someone snoring, causing them both to laugh.

“I don’t know who that is, but I feel sorry for everyone in their cabin,” Clement said quietly. “There’s no way everyone’s asleep down there.”

“Talk about loud enough to wake the dead,” Glynn commented. “Someone has to have a serious health problem to make that much noise.”

Clement stood and stretched. “You’re probably right. Preachers are one of the most unhealthy groups of people anywhere. We eat too much fried chicken, get too little exercise, and even if we have insurance none of us slow down enough to see a doctor until we’re so sick we can’t stand.”

Glynn immediately thought of Jerry, one of the few associational pastors who wasn’t at the camp this week. Instead, he was trying to piece his church back together while going through radiation treatments in Tulsa.

The duo waited a few more minutes before walking toward the cabin where their replacement would be waiting. “Lee Benjamin, pastor at Calvary, Levi, always takes the 4:00 shift,” Clement explained without being asked. “He says he likes those last few peaceful moments before dawn. He’ll swear that the morning dew is evidence of God walking among us. Not exactly biblical but his heart’s in the right place.”

They handed off the flashlights and safety patrol button and then each made their way back to their cabins, slipping into their bunks with no one having noticed either was gone. Glynn briefly considered staying awake, moving to the kitchen and working on his sermon as Carl had been doing, but he convinced himself that doing so would probably wake Joanne and if she was up then Marve and Irene wouldn’t be far behind and they’d all be tired the rest of the day. He closed his eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 20

chapter 20

If Junior Camp was like a week of vacation, the week after proved to be its antithesis. Marve and Glynn were both still surprisingly exhausted despite having ultimately enjoyed the week. Marve had started on laundry the moment they got home and Buck had met Glynn at the church with a list of people who were sick and in the hospital. Glynn wasn’t terribly surprised that Sunday’s attendance was low and felt no guilt from having re-cycled a sermon he’d used in Michigan. This was summer in Oklahoma. People were busy with crops and cattle. The pastor reassured the congregation that God would meet them in the fields or the barn or wherever they might be and they had taken him at his word. 

Monday started off overcast and Glynn noticed that he was getting jumpy and anxious any time clouds started to cover the sky. The forecast only called for moderate rain in the afternoon but too often that moderate rain turned into significant storms. He made hospital visits early and quietly sat at his office desk studying and handling the two weeks’ worth of administrative duties as a gentle rain fell across the small town. He was happy to be home for dinner with just his family, the kids fussing with each other over toys, Marve filling him in on the more amusing pieces of town gossip. 

They had just finished dinner and were clearing away the dishes when there was a knock at the front door. Glynn answered it and was surprised to find Alan and Horace standing there. Outside on the street was a line of four pickup trucks with two men in the cab of each. Before Glynn had a chance to respond, Alan announced, “Hey preacher! Banker says your house is ready! We’re here to get ya’ll moved!”

“Tonight?” Glynn asked. “In the rain?”

“Yeah, we figured ya’ll have been living in this little thing long enough,” Alan said, “And since it’s raining I didn’t have any trouble rounding up plenty of help. We’ve all got big tarps to cover the beds of the truck so nothing should get too wet.”

Another car pulled up and Joanne got out, pushing her way past Horace and into the house. As she did she gave him a stern look. “We’ll talk more about this at home,” she warned. Joanne turned and gave Marve a hug. “Honey, I’m sorry about this. I just found out a few minutes ago. Irene and a couple of others are on their way to help you get things packed. These boys get a burr under their saddle and they don’t stop to think, they just do.”

Glynn stood at the door still dumbstruck by what was happening. “Okay,” he said carefully. “I guess we can start with what’s still in boxes? That’s going to be the easiest.”

Alan turned and whistled at the men in the pickups, motioning for them to join him. “Just lead the way, pastor. I think we’ve got enough folks to get this done in an hour or so.”

The next several minutes were an exercise in organized chaos. Three other women arrived to help Marve pack up the house, each one pausing on their way in to make sure Alan knew that the lack of notice was completely unacceptable. Lita was excited about moving to the new house and getting her own room. Hayden had been excited, too, until one of the women started packing up his toys. Fortunately, Claire showed up at the back door just in time to distract both the children and help keep them out of all the foot traffic going back and forth through the small house.

The new parsonage wasn’t that far away, perhaps a quarter of a mile at most. Nothing could have been much further as the whole town was less than a mile wide in any direction. The house sat on a bit of a knoll overlooking the school’s football field. Behind the house was nothing but pasture. Six other houses sat along the looping road that went up one side of the hill and down the other. Most people referred to this as the “new” part of town as most of the houses here were less than ten years old. The parsonage was barely two years old and the bank president’s new home, almost a mirror copy of the parsonage, sat right next door.

Compared to the four-room structure they’d been in, the new parsonage seemed massive. A large living room with a floor-to-ceiling picture window dominated the front with a sizeable kitchen and dining room behind. The three bedrooms were down a hallway off the living room, two small rooms that measured roughly 10×12 feet and a slightly larger master that included a half bath off to one side. Glynn and Marve had initially been excited, having never had that much space. 

Conditions surrounding the move had tamped down their excitement considerably, though. Marve fought back a scream as she watched one of the young men drop a box containing the china her mother had given her. Hayden and Lita were fussing over who got which room, an argument Glynn settled with authority and a significant amount of frustration. Not helping matters any, the rain picked up half-way through the move, making sure that the last loads, mostly all their clothes and things they had been using in the small house, were at least damp if not completely soaked. 

Joanne refused to let Horace leave until she was sure that Marve’s washer and dryer were hooked up and functioning. “You moved her in the rain,” she fussed. “She’s going to have to wash all those clothes all over again. Honestly, I don’t know what you men were thinking. This could have waited until tomorrow.”

Appliances were the last thing to be set in place. As Marve transferred food from a cardboard box to the refrigerator, Irene knelt down to help and said, “Try not to worry, dear. We’ll come back over in the morning and help you sort this all out, and we’ll bring you some food.”

Marve smiled, thankful for both the help and encouragement but still trying to hold back the rage she was feeling. She waited until everyone was gone and the kids were tucked in and sound asleep before letting loose at Glynn. “You’re going to tell me that you didn’t have any idea this was going to happen? You expect me to believe that they just showed up with absolutely no advance warning of any kind?”

‘Glynn leaned against the counter dividing the kitchen from the dining room. “No one has even mentioned it in two months,” he said in an effort to defend himself. “I was going to find a way to ask about it at the next deacons’ meeting but I didn’t want to push because Alan would have put pressure on the bank president and since he’s our neighbor now I didn’t want that relationship to start off wrong. I had no idea any of this was going to happen tonight and yes, it was invasive. I’m glad we’re in but this is definitely not the way I wanted it to happen.”

“This was more than invasive, Glynn,” Marve countered. “This was humiliating. I had absolutely nothing ready. There are still wet clothes in the washer. I know without looking that some of mom’s china was broken by one of those clumsy idiots. They didn’t care about whether things were fragile. They didn’t pay attention to which boxes were supposed to go in which rooms, even with me telling them! They were throwing boxes across the yard. They brought clothes from our closet and dumped them in a pile in our bedroom then kicked them out of the way with their muddy boots when they set up the bed. They didn’t ask how I wanted the bedroom arranged, either, so I’ll have to re-do all that tomorrow. This was a nightmare, Glynn. You do this to me ever again and so help me I’ll walk out and never come back. I don’t care about your career or the church or how it looks to anyone. I will not be humiliated like this ever again! Do you understand?”

Glynn paused and looked at his wife, knowing that he had to choose his words carefully and that he couldn’t let his own emotions get the better of him. “I didn’t plan this,” he said softly. “I didn’t ask anyone to show up out of the blue. Yes, it was wrong. Yes, it was humiliating. Yes, we have some damages. I have a box of books I need to rescue from a puddle. I’m pretty sure I heard glass break in one of the kitchen boxes. I know! But please don’t blame me. This happened to all of us, our family, not just you.”

Marve wasn’t in the mood to listen nor was she willing to let Glynn off the hook that easily. “How is this not your fault, Glynn?” she charged. “You were the one who wanted to pastor a bigger church, a full-time pastorate. You’re the one who drug our entire family out here to the middle of nowhere. And first, they put us in the tiniest house I’ve ever seen, and now they just show up and move us and act like we’re supposed to thank them for it! I was perfectly fine living in Michigan. Yeah, your hours sucked, but at least we were stable. No one from the plant was ever going to show up in the middle of dinner and tell me we had to move. This is not what I signed up for, Glynn. This was not part of anything I ever agreed to. You got us into this mess and if things don’t improve, Glynn Waterbury, I will pack up the kids and leave. I promise. I want stable and predictable back.”

“Okay,” Glynn sighed, knowing there was no point in arguing with her right now. “I’ll go down to the diner tomorrow and talk to Alan and Horace, although I’m pretty sure Joanne is giving Horace an earful already.” He paused and looked around the kitchen and dining room, boxes were stacked everywhere in complete disarray. Marve was right, no consideration had been given to where anything went. Getting things organized would take weeks. “What do we need to do tonight so that we can at least have breakfast in the morning?”

Marve looked around the kitchen with tears in her eyes. “I don’t know, Glynn,” she cried. “I don’t know where the bowls or the cereal are. I don’t know where the sheets for the bed are. Things were just tossed in boxes and moved without being labeled.” Tears were pouring down her cheeks as she collapsed into the nearest kitchen chair.

Glynn turned around and saw the cereal boxes protruding from the top of one of the packing boxes. He quickly opened a couple of other boxes until he found the bowls, plates, and utensils. He took them out of the boxes and set them in one of the cupboards. “There, we can do breakfast. I think I saw a box marked linens in the hallway. Does it matter which sheets we put on the bed tonight?”

Marve shook her head, her sobs too heavy to allow her to speak. She didn’t care anymore. She wanted it all to over.

Glynn found the box of linens in the hallway, thankful that the sheets inside were for their bed and not the kids. He made their bed and put Marve’s favorite quilty on top before returning to the kitchen to get her. “I found the sheets, I made the bed,” he said as he returned to the dining room and took Marve’s hand in his. “Let’s try to get some sleep and we can tackle everything else in the morning.” 

Marve wiped tears from her eyes and looked up at the sympathetic eyes of her husband. This is why she had fallen in love with him in the first place. He had the ability to take the sting out of any situation. He absorbed her pain and made it his. “Go rescue those books first,” she said quietly. 

Glynn nodded and kissed her on the forehead before leaving the room. The two-car garage was nice and roomy but having the large door open while it was raining meant there were puddles of water scattered across the floor. He found the box of books and set it in a dry spot, then removed the books from the box to check the amount of damage. One of his older books was likely ruined, but he wouldn’t throw it out just yet. He set them on top of the boxes to dry and returned to the house. Marve was already in bed. He walked through the house turning off the lights, making sure the doors were locked before slipping into bed beside her. She rolled away from him. He sighed and closed his eyes.

There was no chance Glynn was going to sleep. By 4:00 he was up, sorting through boxes in the kitchen, putting up the things that made sense, setting aside the boxes that he knew Marve would want to organize. By the time Marve woke up around 6:00, he had the table clear and most of the kitchen counter space available. She still was in a less-than-cheerful mood, but gave Glynn a kiss and thanked him for all the help. 

Naturally, the kids popped out of bed sooner than their parents would have liked, bouncing around the house, anxious to get started unpacking, each with fantastically impossible ideas for how they wanted their rooms set up. Marve calmed them long enough to feed them breakfast then gave them specific assignments for their rooms, easy things she knew they could handle. Keeping them busy and out of her way would be the biggest struggle of the day.

Glynn had put some boxes in the car to take to his office and was about to leave when there was a knock at the door. He glanced out the window and didn’t see a vehicle, surprised and slightly annoyed that anyone was already paying them a visit. He opened the door to find a woman about Marve’s age, with two children, a young boy and a taller girl, just younger than his own.

“Hi, I’m Ellen Stone, your new neighbor. We live next door. I saw they moved ya’ll in the rain last night and thought your wife might use some help,” the woman said. She looked at the kids and added, “This is Kerrie and James. Kerrie’s 10 and James is 3. They can help keep your kids distracted.”

Glynn smiled. “Absolutely! Come on in!” He opened the door wider and quickly called to Marve. Ellen repeated her introduction as Lita and Hayden came bounding from their rooms. They quickly grabbed Kerrie and James by the hand and took them back to their rooms.

Marve took Ellen to the kitchen, asking questions the entire way. “Show me how you had things set up in here,” she asked. “I’m not used to this many options and I’m not sure what makes the most sense…”

Glynn smiled, happy to see that Marve was going to have company. He had hardly shut the front door, though, when two cars pulled up out front. Joanne got out of one and Gladys Walker emerged from the other. They came toward the house, each carrying a large box of groceries. Glynn opened the door wide to let them in.

“Joanne called me last night and told me about them moving ya’ll in the rain,” Gladys said as she squeezed through the door. “I knew that husband of mine was out doing something, but I didn’t realize he was being stupid. Please consider this as something of a peace offering.”

“We’ll stay and help Marve,” Joanne said, matter-of-factly. “I know you need to get to the church.” She paused for just a second then continued. “And if you feel the need to box some men about the ears a bit, I’m pretty sure they’ll all be at the diner around 11.”

Glynn took the hint, gave Marve and the kids a kiss, and left for the church office. The church phone didn’t ring all morning. Normally, that would have been Glynn’s signal that everything was quiet and he could take an extended lunch at home with Marve and the kids but he knew better. As he pulled into the parking lot at the diner, he quickly noticed that all the trucks that had moved him the night before were present. Sure enough, he found them all sitting around a set of tables that had been pushed together.

“Might as well join us,” Horace said as the diner’s door closed behind the preacher, a small bell announcing his presence. “All our wives are at your house, so I’m guessing it’s about as safe for you to go home as it for any of us.”

Glynn pulled up a chair and commented, “Yeah, as much as I appreciate what ya’ll did last night, Marve was none too happy about the lack of warning. Had it not been covered in boxes, I’d have probably had to sleep on the couch last night.”

“You may be the only one of us that didn’t,” Alan said, staring down into the cup of coffee he was holding between his hands. “I can’t remember the last time my wife was that angry.”

“We’ll each be apologizing when we see her,” Buck added. “A couple of us might be sleeping all the way out in the barn if we don’t.”

The waitress took Glynn’s order and Alan quickly told her, “Put that on my tab, please.” He looked down the table toward the preacher and continued, “If there’s anything else I can do to make it up to her, just say the word. I guess I’m so used to rushing and getting things done the moment they pop up, I didn’t stop to think how inconvenient it might be for your family.”

Glynn smiled. He wasn’t any happier with the men’s actions than was Marve but he knew he couldn’t express it as aggressively as she had and he probably didn’t need to say much. Three of the men had yet to look up from their coffee. The group’s contrition was apparent. “There’s a lesson to be learned here, I suppose. Remember our scripture from a couple of weeks ago, Matthew 19, when people were bringing their children to Jesus?” 

He paused to make sure he had everyone’s attention then continued. “At the front of that story, there’s a line we often brush over, where the disciples tried to stop the parents who were bringing the kids. We rarely stop to consider the disciples’ perspective. They had just made a long trip, by foot. Jesus had spent an untold number of days healing people because he had grown famous for that. Then, he’d had a tussle with the Pharisees about divorce and told them they didn’t know anything about love. The disciples likely looked at Jesus and saw a person who they assumed was as exhausted as the rest of them if not more so. Under those circumstances, with that perspective, it’s not surprising that they would see this group of parents coming at them with all their screaming kids wiggling around and making noise and want to save Jesus the trouble. Their intentions seemed gracious and helpful at the time, but they lacked the perspective of Christ.”

Glynn looked down the table, not sure that all the men were understanding the comparison. He explained, “Sometimes, like last night, we have good intentions and are only trying to help but we don’t stop to consider the perspective of the person we think we’re helping. We’re not meaning to do any harm, but harm is still done. 

“Jesus’ rebuke to his disciples comes off sounding a bit soft in translation, but I assure you it wasn’t. He was upset. He likely raised his voice. There was a sense of ‘Don’t you ever do this again,’ implied in his tone. I think that’s where we find ourselves this morning. Our wives provided sufficient rebuke. It’s an error in judgment we don’t need to repeat. Should anything substantial need to be done ever again, we need to coordinate that we everyone, not gather up the first posse we can find and charge forward.”

The men at the table nodded their agreement with admissions that they should have known better. As the waitress began to bring out the men’s food, Glynn added, “All that being said, thank you for providing such a nice parsonage. I’m sure that around 1:00 this afternoon Marve will begin to appreciate having central air conditioning. Perhaps I can convince her to invite everyone over for an open house or something once she gets things settled in. I’ll have to check with her first, though.” 

The pastor smiled and the men at the table laughed. The tension around the table began to ease and the conversation turned back to the standard topics of weather and pond levels and sick cows. By the time Glynn braved returning home that evening, everyone seemed to have calmed down a bit. Marve gave Glynn a big kiss as he came in and the kids were anxious to tell him about their new friends next door. The temperature in the house was at least 20 degrees cooler than the scorching heat outside and one of the neighbors from the other side of the hill had brought over a large casserole for dinner so Marve wouldn’t have to cook. The family didn’t know it yet, but the women had conspired among themselves to provide food for the Waterburys the entire week. While there was no question that a wound had been made, this one was on its way to being healed, even if the scar would never completely go away.

Reading time: 35 min
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