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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.Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC)
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.
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.
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.