This is it. This is where our book ends. I want to thank you for sticking with us over the first half of this year. We’ll be back with a very different story on the first Sunday in July.
Tom found her less than two minutes before Glynn arrived. Claire was unconscious, huddled with her suitcase at the inset of the front steps to the high school, which provided minimal but critical protection from the snow. Tom unlocked the school door and the two men took Claire inside. Glynn removed his parka while Tom ran to the office and called Hub then called Linda. Getting her to the hospital in Arvel was going to be treacherous but it was the only choice if they were to save her.
Hardly a word passed between the two men beyond what was absolutely necessary. Anger glared in Tom’s eyes as hot as guilt coldly contracted Glynn’s. When Hub arrived the men helped him put the teenager on the cot, covered her with warm blankets, and put her in the ambulance. Hub insisted that Glynn ride up front with him while Tom rode in the back with his daughter. While both men had been focused on Claire, Hub could see that neither of them had been fit to be out in the weather, either. All three would need medical care.
News of Claire nearly freezing to death made its way around town quickly. Word that Sunday services were canceled did not. As phone calls intended to notify members about the church were hijacked by concern and anger over Claire, it wasn’t long before the Sunday services were forgotten completely. As a result, come 10:00 there were five elderly women standing at the front door of the church wondering why they couldn’t get in. Rose could see them from the front window of the funeral home and had them come there to wait until she could arrange rides home for them.
Hub was, for the time being, stuck at the hospital in Arvel due to the sheriff in Ridell County declaring the roads too unsafe for even an ambulance. Rose called Buck who, in turn, called Horace, who, thinking additional backup might be good, called Alan. More than an hour passed before the three deacons made it to the funeral home.
Alan was furious when he arrived. “Why didn’t anyone call these ladies and tell them there were no services today?” he shouted at Buck as he stomped up the ramp to the funeral home.
“The chain was started,” Buck shot back firmly. “Obviously, you knew. Horace knew. Most of the church members knew. Somewhere, someone failed to continue the calling. There’s no way to know who it was, so let’s just get these women home and be done with it.”
“Had the preacher called off the services when I told him to, this wouldn’t have happened. There would have been plenty of time to get the word out,” Alan insisted, pushing his point. “The problem here is that the preacher doesn’t listen.”
“You mean he doesn’t listen to you,” Horace said sternly. “I told him to wait. I thought we’d be able to get some blades out on the street and I thought the county would have salt trucks out. Had those things happened, Claire would have made it home safely and we could have had church this morning. It’s the county’s fault as much as it is anyone’s.”
Alan clenched his fist and got in Horace’s face. “That’s horse pucky and you know it. When was the last time anyone’s seen county salt trucks on Adelberg streets? 15, 20 years at least! He was a fool if he listened to you and you were a bigger fool for suggesting it.”
“Glynn’s not been here long enough to know that the county ignores us,” Buck said, stepping between Horace and Alan. “And as pastor, he has an obligation to consider what’s best for the church as a whole. He’ll be as upset as anyone that the word didn’t get around.”
“By the way, where is he?” Horace asked. “I kinda figured he’d be the first one Rose would have called.”
Buck shoved his hands in his pockets to protect them from the numbness he was beginning to feel. “The hospital kept both him and Tom,” he said. “Neither of them needed to be out in the snow any more than Claire did. It’s a wonder they’re not all three dead.”
“That’s what ignorance and stubbornness will get you,” Alan said. “They’re all three book smart and think they know everything. We see where that got them.”
The three men delivered each of the ladies to their homes, being careful to walk them to the door so that they wouldn’t slip on the ice. Traveling anywhere, even short distances, seemed to take forever. While the snow had stopped falling during the night, the wind had taken over and blown the snow into massive drifts that blocked the road in some places and left the slick ice bare in others. Once the men had finished their deliveries, they each crept home with every intention of staying there no matter who asked for help. Being on the roads at this point was suicide.
Glynn had asked the hospital call Marve when they admitted him. She wasn’t surprised by the phone call. She also knew that they would have to keep him until the roads cleared up. If Hub couldn’t make it back there was no way she was going to risk making the trip. Instead, she sat by the telephone in the kitchen, answering one call after another. Everyone was angry and Marve understood but had no answers for anyone.
Marve was confused when Roger, Clement, and Bill had all called in succession to ask if Glynn had seen the morning newspaper. She might have understood had their paper been delivered, but roads were so bad that even paper delivery had been canceled in Adelberg, though it had managed to arrive everywhere else. Instead, she told them what had happened with Claire and that Glynn was back in the hospital. “I don’t know if the cold caused the MS to flare up or if they’re treating a serious case of stupidity,” Marve told Roger. “It’s probably best that he’s there where he’s only getting limited information. I think everyone in town is upset with him right now.”
Each of the three preachers had a different response. Clement tried to be comforting and asked if Marve needed anything. Roger was more pragmatic. “These things happen and the bad news seems to come in waves. I’m sure we can work through this.” Bill showed a broader concern. “I’m worried for him, Marve, and I’m worried for our association. Nothing feels right this morning.”
Marve found Bill’s response curious but chose to not press for details. It was obvious something was up in the association and at this point, she really didn’t care what it was. She had enough to worry about with Glynn being back in the hospital and the focus of everyone’s anger. She thanked Bill for his concern and went hung up so she could answer the next call from yet another furious church member.
Glynn laid back in the hospital bed and tried to be thankful for the relative peace and quiet. The nurses had assured him that Claire was going to be okay, despite some frostbite and the severe cold essentially burning the inside of her lungs. What they didn’t tell him was that Tom now had full-fledged pneumonia and was on a ventilator. Had he known, Glynn likely would have tried walking down there and making peace with Claire’s father. Whether the omission was accidental or on purpose would forever be a point of speculation. As it was, he was lying there practicing the breathing techniques he had been given when Bill walked into the room with a newspaper tucked under his arm.
“Please tell me I’m not the only reason you’re here,” Glynn said as he sat up and shook the other pastor’s hand. “There’s no way the roads have started melting already.”
Bill shook his head and smiled. “Are you kidding? The old folks in my church are what keeps this hospital in the black. I always have a reason to be here. I talked to your wife earlier, though, and she told me they were keeping you until this mess clears up. I thought you could use some company.”
“Your wife got tired of having you underfoot, huh?” Glynn teased.
“Well, yeah, I’ve been pretty animated this morning, I’m afraid,” Bill said. “This landed on my front porch before I had my first cup of coffee. Roger said he’d called you yesterday when he found out.” He tossed the front section of the newspaper at Glynn whose jaw dropped when he saw the headline.
“LOCAL PASTOR ACCUSED OF DRUNK AND LEWD ACTS”
If Roger had spoken with the newspaper’s reporter, he had not succeeded in getting them to hold back on any of the details of the accident. The article, which completely occupied all the space above the fold, blamed Larry for almost everything short of driving the pickup that had hit him. The sheriff was waiting to arrest him. The district attorney was promising to prosecute the most severe charges he could. And there, in the middle of everything, was a damning quote from Roger that read, “If Rev. Winston has indeed done anything wrong, he will surely know the wrath of God.”
Glynn put the newspaper down and looked at Bill. “Did he really say that?”
Bill nodded, his arms crossed in front of him, his expression stern. “He insists that the paper took him out of context, that he said that in the middle of a larger statement that they omitted. That’s irrelevant now. This is what every person in both counties woke up to this morning. It’s a good thing all the churches were closed or we might have had a riot on our hands. I’ve already run into a couple of Larry’s church members here in the hallway. They’re ready to lynch him.”
Glynn sat up a little more. “Crap, I hadn’t thought … He’s still here in the hospital, isn’t he?”
“He’s in intensive care,” Bill said, “and if God has any desire to show him mercy, he’ll just call him on home. There are police staked out just outside the unit, ready to arrest him the moment he’s conscious. The hospital has asked his wife to stay home to avoid there being any difficult scenes.”
Glynn looked at the newspaper again, shaking his head as he re-read the article. “What about the kid’s parents? This doesn’t say anything about their response.”
Bill pulled up a chair and sat down. “They’ve lawyered up and aren’t speaking to anyone. Roger tried to contact them to offer to pay for the funeral but they wouldn’t take his call. I can’t say I blame them. I know you weren’t here, but there was an Assembly of God pastor a few years back who was accused of raping a girl in his church. Their denomination got him out of town before charges could be filed, no idea whatever happened to him. There were a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of anger over that situation and this has brought all that back up with even more intensity. I’ve had a couple of church members ask if we’re all depraved sex freaks. If church members are thinking that, I’m not sure I want to know what those outside the church are saying.”
The two pastors sat there in silence as Glynn read the article again. While the reporter expertly guided his words to avoid making any deliberate and possibly slanderous charges, there was little doubt left in the reader’s mind that Larry Winston was a deplorable person who hid behind the cover of being a pastor while drinking heavily and doing unspeakable things to boys. That a truck had slammed into his car, killing the boy and severely injuring him was treated as an afterthought. The truck driver’s name wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the article. There was no police statement saying he’d been arrested.
Neither of the men had any sense of how much time had passed when Dr. Guinn appeared in the doorway of Glynn’s room. “Brother Waterbury, I thought you’d want to know, Horace Lyles was just admitted a few minutes ago. For the moment it looks as though he’s had a heart attack brought on by being out in the cold. We’re doing the best for him we can but it’s too soon to make any more of a diagnosis.”
Glynn sighed and put his hands over his face. He felt dizzy but didn’t want to lie down. “Thanks for letting me know. Is his daughter here with him?”
The administrator shook his head. “It was a sheriff’s deputy that brought him over. He said the road was too slick for anyone to follow. I guess it took several minutes for him to get out to the farm after they got the call, and then over an hour to get him here to the hospital. In that respect, Mr. Lyles is lucky to be with us at all.”
“Let me know when he’s in recovery and awake. I’ll try to make it down there to see him,” Glynn said as though this were routine and he could hop up any time he wanted and leave the room.
“Hold on there,” Alton said sternly, walking over and putting his hand on Glynn’s shoulder. “I’ve seen your chart. You’re lucky I don’t have you in a hospital gown. If your oxygen levels aren’t better at the next check, I’m hooking you up to a bottle and probably an IV. I’m keeping Dr. Dornboss in the loop, of course, but for the duration of this ice, we’re pretty much limited to the staff immediately available. I’d appreciate it if you’d not give them more to do.” He smiled as he spoke, trying to mask the seriousness of Glynn’s condition by keeping the tone light. He turned and motioned for Bill to follow him into the hallway, closing the door behind them.
“Can you stay here and make sure he doesn’t leave his room?” Alton asked Bill. “We’ve got three of his church members here already and two other people from Adelberg he doesn’t know about. This isn’t the time for him to be playing pastor. The cold hurt him a lot more than he knows. I don’t really have any justification for hooking him up to anything yet, though. I need him to stay put, keep his blood pressure down. If you could help with that it would be much appreciated.”
Bill agreed to stay and used a telephone in the lobby to call his wife before returning to Glynn’s room. “Looks like they’re not letting anyone leave now,” Bill said as he returned to the chair next to the bed. “Hope you don’t mind being stuck with me for company.”
“Well, you’re not the prettiest guest I could hope for, but since my wife is stuck at home I guess you’ll have to do,” Glynn teased. The two pastors chatted casually for a while and eventually, Hub made his way down to the room, pulled up a chair, and joined the conversation. Hub’s stories did a lot to lighten the mood and kept both pastors laughing.
Marve called to check on her husband and everyone else around 3:00. She didn’t tell him that she talked with Claire before talking with him. The girl’s throat was still raw and her voice hoarse but she had managed to tell Marve she was sorry for over-reacting and causing so much trouble. Marve had done her best to console the girl, telling her that at any other time leaving would have been the right thing to do. Neither did Marve tell him that she’d talked with Dr. Guinn and knew that the odds for either Horace or Tom surviving the night were slim. By the time she talked to Glynn, she knew she needed to paint a picture that glossed over the severity of the entire situation.
“Don’t worry about anything here,” she told him. “With everything that’s happened, no one else is going anywhere. The county superintendent has already closed schools for tomorrow. The radio is saying it’s supposed to be a little warmer tomorrow and that maybe that will melt the ice a bit.”
“How bad were the phone calls this morning?” Glynn asked, knowing that few of his church members were likely to have withheld their opinions.
“You’re going to have some explaining to do, for sure,” Marve warned. “Even your own children want to know why Daddy made Claire cry. You’d best start practicing your humility now. Be glad that news about that Larry Winston guy is distracting everyone.”
Glynn gulped hard. He had assumed no one in Adelberg had seen the newspaper. “So, you know about that?”
“Yeah, it’s been on the radio all day. Alan’s making a lot of noise, saying he wishes he’d killed him at the annual meeting and not many people are disagreeing with him. He’s also suggesting that there needs to be a board or committee to oversee pastors, but you know Alan, he likes talking big.” Marve stopped, wondering if she’d said too much. The last thing she wanted to do was get Glynn more upset than he already was. She carefully brought the conversation to a close, told Glynn she loved him, and hung up hoping that things wouldn’t get any worse while knowing instinctively that they would.
As the afternoon ceded into darkness, the hospital stayed busy. From inside Glynn’s room, the sound of multiple alarms and code alerts made it clear that the small staff was being pushed to their limit. There was no shift change. The same staff that had been on duty when Glynn arrived the night before was still working. The reality was that they needed at least three more doctors and a dozen more nurses. Dr. Guinn knew better than to issue that order, though. Every emergency case they had received that day was tied to the weather in some form. Calling in additional help, risking the lives of doctors and nurses he needed, was out of the question.
Eventually, a nursing assistant came through handing out trays of food. “Since no one can leave, everyone gets to eat,” she said, apologizing for the lack of selection. She looked weary, her smile forced, half-hearted at best. Everyone needed a break but there seemed to be no break coming. A nurse came and checked Glynn’s vital signs. She then left for a few minutes only to return and hook him up to oxygen, start an IV, and a heart rate monitor, forcing him to lie back in the bed and limit his talking.
As the hour grew late, Bill figured out that the chair he was in reclined. An orderly brought in a similar chair for Hub along with some blankets. The men felt guilty for relaxing when the staff was getting by on 30-minute naps between emergencies. When Bill asked if there was anything they could do to help, Dr. Guinn had sent back the message that staying out of the halls and keeping Glynn calm was sufficient.
All night long, bells dinged, alarms sounded, code alerts were announced. With each one came the sound of nurses and doctors running back and forth along the hallway. As the night progressed, there was one death, then another, and just before dawn, a third.
When a nurse checked Glynn’s vital signs the next morning, she took him off the oxygen and IV. An orderly brought them coffee, scrambled eggs, and dry toast. Bill jokingly remarked that this was the worst camp he’d ever attended. Eventually, Bill and Hub both left the room, Hub to check on his ambulance, Bill, ostensibly, to stretch his legs and make some phone calls.
No one but Glynn was in the room when the door seemed to open by itself. There sat Claire, unescorted, in a wheelchair, her hands and feet still bandaged from the frostbite. She rolled the chair as close to Glynn’s bed as she could.
He could see that the girl had been crying. He sat up in bed and reached over to take her hand. “I’m so sorry, Claire,” he started.
“My Daddy died last night and they didn’t even tell me,” the girl said in a rough whisper. “I didn’t get to say goodbye. No one got to tell him that he was loved. Mom can’t even get here. And it’s all my fault.”
Glynn got out of bed and knelt beside the wheelchair. “No, Claire, it’s not your fault. If you need someone to blame, blame me. I shouldn’t have talked to you like that. I should have stopped you from leaving.”
Claire shook her head as more tears streamed down her face. She tried to speak but no sound was coming out of her frost-burned throat.
“I’m so very sorry, Claire,” Glynn said, choking on the lump in his own throat.
A nurse walked into the room at that moment, interrupting the conversation. “There you are, young lady. You had half the staff panicked because no one saw you leave your room. Come on, let’s go back now. You can talk with Rev. Waterbury later.”
Claire bowed her head and sobbed hard, giving into all the grief inside her as the nurse pushed her out of the pastor’s room. Glynn wanted to chase after them, wanted to continue apologizing. If anything, the whole matter was his fault.
“Get your backside back up in that bed,” Dr. Guinn said sternly as he suddenly appeared in the doorway. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you earlier. It’s been a rough night. Rev. Winston passed around 11:00 and that was a mess to deal with. Then, Mr. Lyles died around 2:00. It took so long for him to get to us, there really wasn’t anything we could do to repair the damage. Mr. Huddleston passed just before 6:00 and before you and Claire both go off on some guilt trip, he almost certainly had pneumonia at least a day, maybe two before. His lungs were weak from smoking. Even if he hadn’t been out in the cold I doubt we could have saved him.”
The report was a lie, one of those doctors would tell to ease the pain from an unexpected death. The administrator understood the signs of depression and knew that the truth, that yes, Tom had pneumonia from being out in the ice and snow on Friday but would have recovered, could send either Claire or Glynn spiraling into a tomb of self-doubt from which they might not recover. The death certificate would have listed the same cause of death either way.
“I know you’re anxious to get up and be the great pastor who comforts everyone,” Alton said as he helped Glynn back into bed, “but not today. And if you’re not careful, you won’t be able to help anyone at all. A lot of people live a long time with MS, but you’ve got to respect it and not push or it will kill you.”
Glynn dropped his head back on the pillow, consumed by a grief and darkness he had never known. Questions filled his mind. Where was God? Why was this happening now, right before Christmas? How was he supposed to handle not just one but two funerals of men who were critically important to the community? What was he supposed to say to Claire and Linda? What was he supposed to say to anyone?
There were no answers coming. He prayed, and prayed, and pleaded with God, but all he got for his efforts was the steady beep of the heart monitor.
Our story continues below this break
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Winter funerals are mercifully short. Even packed gymnasiums are still drafty. No one stands around to exchange memories of the deceased. Graveside services are as brief as possible. In almost every instance there is a dominating but unspoken sense of “let’s just hurry up and get this over.” Bereaved families mourn more internally, less expressive, and with greater inward contemplation.
Glynn managed to preach both funerals without any physical incident, though everyone was certainly watching to see whether the pastor would hold up under the strain. Horace’s service was on Thursday afternoon in the church, every bit as packed as Joanne’s had been a few months earlier. His daughters, sitting on the front row, cried just enough to be respectful but they had already decided between them to put the farm up for sale after the holidays and let Adelberg become a memory in their still-young lives.
Tom’s service was held in the school gymnasium on Friday. School was canceled for the day and educators from across the region were in attendance. There were some, sitting at the top of the bleachers as far removed from actual mourners as possible, who anxiously watched to see if the preacher would crack, rubbing their hands together not so much to keep warm but in gleeful anticipation that he, too, might become a victim of the grim reaper’s scythe.
Claire was still in a wheelchair and would be for a couple of weeks as multiple treatments were needed to repair her lungs and throat. Linda hung tightly to Marve as both women still held that it was their own husband’s thoughtlessness, not the other’s, that had brought them to these circumstances. Together, they sat in the cold metal folding chairs placed on the gymnasium floor, realizing that it was the fault-filled nature of humanity that complicated their perspective of the day. Words rushed past their ears without being heard or having any meaning. They left the gym, sad for the necessity of the event, thankful that it was over, hopeful that they would now be allowed to mourn in peace.
Glynn preached short sermons the next two Sundays to a half-empty sanctuary. Not everyone stayed away for the same reason. Some feared a cold rain might turn to ice and bring a repeat of the same deadly conditions. There was also a handful of elderly church members for whom venturing out on cold weather was simply not an option. Among the others, however, lied a blanket of resentment, anger, and mistrust that would never go away. Watching the difficulty with which Linda pushed Claire’s wheelchair into the sanctuary and the manner in which the device partially blocked the center aisle was, in many minds, symbolic of the effects of carelessness. That the pastor’s condition was frail seemed to many to be a just consequence for his part in all that had happened, however small it might have truly been.
In between Sundays, there were many conversations, some hushed, others shouted. In the monthly deacon’s meeting, Alan was not hesitant to charge Glynn with gross negligence and pushed for a vote of no confidence at the next business meeting.
“You’re full of cold dishwater if you think I’m going to let that happen,” Buck charged. “We need to unify this church right now, not split it further apart!”
“Then let the church unify around justice for Tom and Horace and Claire,” Alan pushed back. “Don’t you realize what we’ve lost here? Seat cushions aren’t going to soften the blow to this church’s ability to trust and follow this pastor. He has exhibited a severe lack of judgment and I’m not convinced, nor are many other church members, that he is capable of leading us forward!”
Buck stood and leaned over into Alan’s face as close as he dared, putting a hand on Alan’s shoulder in case he should think of taking a swing. “If anyone other than you is thinking such derogatory and sinful thoughts it’s because you put them in their head, Alan Mayes. We keep finding ourselves on opposite sides of this barbed-wire fence because you are an aggressively power-hungry big mouth who gets off on telling other people what you want them to think. It’s not going to work this time, Alan. I’m standing up to you right now and I will continue to do so. You’re wrong, what you’re doing is sinful, and if there’s anyone who has exhibited a severe lack of judgment here it’s you!”
Alan attempted to stand but with Buck’s hand on one shoulder and Roger Sutherland holding the other, he quickly realized he was overpowered and angrily pushed them both away from him. He was about to fling a bucket of insults at both men when Marcus spoke up from across the room.
“I’ve been in this church longer than either of you,” the elder deacon said quietly, “and I can tell you right now that the greatest damage that has ever been done to this church has been because of this group right here, the deacons, the men who are supposed to be the spiritual foundation of this church, getting into fights and not once thinking of what’s best for the church or considering what God might have intended. I don’t know what you three think we’re supposed to be doing right now, but I can promise you that yelling at each other isn’t going to accomplish a dad-burned thing.”
Buck sat back down in his chair and Roger moved his chair slightly away from Alan’s. Glynn, who had been sitting quietly in his office chair letting the deacons control the meeting, was wishing that he could be completely invisible or, preferably, not present at all.
Marcus continued. “Look, nothing we say or do is going to change a cotton-pickin’ thing that happened. Yes, mistakes were made by multiple people but the consequences of those mistakes were sufficiently severe that any further action does nothing more than make a bad situation worse. It seems to me that if we can’t stand behind our pastor right now as a united body then we really have no church at all. We’re just playing.”
After several more minutes of tense conversation, the group finally decided to issue a statement of support for Glynn that would be read at the conclusion of the next Sunday’s service. Buck was tasked with typing it up and the other three would sign it before the service. When Glynn finally sat forward in his chair to say something, the men were startled, having all but forgotten that the preacher was still in the room.
The reaction from the church to the deacon’s statement was pallid, though, and did little to sway general opinions in the town. No longer able to take casual walks around to chat with everyone, Glynn felt distanced from his congregation which made his assessment of their response more negative than it needed to be. As the community saw less of the pastor, they less frequently considered him as someone to seek out and their opinions tended to remain negative.
Cautioned even more about attending potentially emotional events such as associational meetings, Clement would instead drive over and visit with Glynn, letting him know what was happening and trying to pull the pastor’s opinions out of him. Response to Larry’s Winston’s death had been muted. Roger had let everyone know that this was not the time to be speaking ill of their late colleague even if the circumstances did appear damning. Larry had died without any opportunity to defend himself. The whole situation would be allowed to pass quietly away and never spoken of again.
Clement found it interesting that on the same weekend, a pastor down in the Southwestern part of the state, a James Swathmore, had been driving on rain-slickened roads late that night and apparently skidded off the road, down an embankment, and ended upside down in a creek. No one seemed to know whether it was the accident or the cold or the water that had killed the pastor of First Baptist, Latimore. This was just one of those tragic things that had happened. Most of the pastors in the state didn’t find out until after the funeral.
“It’s that time of year when everyone’s swapping churches,” Clement told him. “No one’s really paying attention to anything else going on in the convention. Dr. Hobbs resigned at First, Oklahoma City, but Gene Garrison seems already positioned to take that spot. Jackie Draper’s leaving First Southern, Down City for someplace down in Texas, one of the Dallas suburbs that’s growing really fast. I’m thinking about putting my name in for that one. I think I’ve had about all the closed-mindedness I can handle. What about you? You going to stick it out here?”
Glynn shook his head. “I’ve not even thought about it, really. Until the MS settles down and I know what life is going to be like I don’t think I can consider doing anything different. I’m damaged goods.”
Calvin called a couple of times to check on Glynn’s progress. The calls seemed more formal and obligatory than they had been, though. There were no offers for any kind of additional assistance beyond the assurance that the hospital bill was handled by the convention. Even Calvin’s seasonal “Merry Christmas” sounded hollow.
Frances and Marve managed to cobble together a children’s Christmas pageant for the Christmas Eve service. The decision had been made to forego Sunday school that morning and start the service at 10:30, allowing it to be a bit longer yet not slip over much past the noon hour. Richard had the meager choir prepare a couple of seasonal songs that would be presented in a most ear-cringing manner. The sanctuary was decorated with plastic poinsettias and strands of holly that were dusty from having set in a box in a storeroom since the previous Christmas. Brown paper bags were filled with nuts, fruit, and hard ribbon candy to hand out after the service.
Glynn stood in front of the bathroom mirror that morning, attempting to shave while Marve and the children scurried around him. Lita was looking desperately for her white shoes, proclaiming that an angel could only wear white, referring to her role in the Christmas pageant. Hayden was roaming around the house practicing bleating like a sheep. Marve regularly reached around her husband to retrieve something from the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. The accidental bumps and shoves were enough that Glynn was thankful he wasn’t trying to shave with a straight razor.
“I’m told Christmas is the biggest Sunday of the year,” Marve said as she dried her hands on a towel. “Think it will hold up?”
“There are children in a pageant, right? We may not set any records, but we’ll do okay,” Glynn said. “The kids are the draw this morning, not me. By the time we get to the sermon, half the congregation will be ready to leave. I’ll keep it short, don’t worry.”
Even with the service not starting until 10:30, the Waterbury’s needed to be there by 9:00. There were still decorations to set up, stage props tp get ready, and costumes to fit as children slowly trickled into the fellowship hall. Everyone seemed jovial with Merry Christmases on their lips.
Claire was out of her wheelchair now, walking carefully in special shoes that helped balance her weight. Two fingers on her left hand were still bandaged but that didn’t stop her from jumping in to help put little ones in costumes. Her voice was still hoarse and raspy, something the doctors assured her would go away over time. She had decided she didn’t mind so much, though, as it made teachers less likely to call on her in class.
The pageant went as small-town pageants do. Some of the “sheep” were mooing. Some of the “cows” were neighing. Of the “host” of angels, only two were singing, Lita being the loudest, proud that she knew all the words to all the songs. “Baby Jesus,” who was nearly two years old, hopped down from “Mary’s” lap when he spied his mother sitting in the congregation. Many pictures were taken. Most of the spoken lines were butchered. No one really cared. Their kids were in the pageant. That was enough.
The pulpit had been moved to provide room for the pageant, so Glynn was a bit nervous about not having anything to hold onto or lean against as he began his sermon. Luke’s account of the birth of Christ had been read twice already, so he skipped any additional scripture reading and jumped straight into his homily.
“Merry Christmas,” he started.
“Merry Christmas,” the congregation replied.
Glynn looked out over the packed congregation, seeing many faces for the first time, almost everyone smiling as though everything was completely normal. “Isn’t it wonderful how practically everyone loves a newborn baby? We love that smell of powder and baby oil. We love the innocence they project. We love the potential they bring for doing something great. Babies are a symbol of the newness of life, a chance for humanity to try again, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll get it right this time.
“But as we all know, babies don’t stay small and cute forever. They grow up, they develop minds and opinions and wills of their own and as Mary looked down into the wrinkly, reddish-brown skin of the miracle to which she’d given birth, she cherished those simple moments of his childhood. There, in that stable, Mary became Christ’s first disciple. Looking down into that precious face, she believed as only a mother can believe. She knew her child would change the world.
“From that very moment of his birth, however, that child, that little baby, was a challenge to authority. Herod knew it and slaughtered thousands of baby boys in an attempt to silence the message Jesus brought to the world. Even when Mary and Joseph brought their family back from Egypt, they settled in Nazareth because bringing a message that saves the world is not always popular.
“Jesus, however, didn’t come to be popular. The birth of Jesus Christ represents, more than anything, a new chance for the people of this earth to start over. They had messed up the system of religious laws so badly, they had created such an amazing tangle of nonsense, that God had to either destroy them or forgive them and through the birth of Jesus, he offered us forgiveness.
“We like the sound of that, don’t we? Forgiveness? We are all happy to embrace God’s willingness to wipe our slate clean, let us stand before him pure and blameless. But Jesus didn’t package that forgiveness in a box with pretty ribbons and a cool tag that said, ‘To Glynn, From your favorite Savior.’ The salvation that Jesus offers came packaged in a baby who grew to become a young man who caused a lot of trouble.
“Jesus was only twelve, still in many ways a child, when he sat in the temple and challenged the religious leaders. Right then, they knew this boy was going to be trouble. As he grew older and began to draw an entourage of rough men and women of questionable reputations, the forgiveness, and healing, and unconditional love Jesus offered became a threat to the religious community.
“Who knew that love and forgiveness could be so controversial?” Glynn paused and looked at Claire as he continued. “Still, today, we’re struggling to figure out the fullness of Christ’s message because it doesn’t always fit comfortably with the structures that we’ve built in our worship of him. We’re just now figuring out that Jesus was all about equal rights. He was practicing and preaching equal rights long before there was a proposed amendment, long before there were feminist magazine articles, and long before there was a civil rights movement.
“We’ve gone so far in trying to make the story of Jesus fit our own narrative that we’ve eliminated the fact that the twelve disciples we so frequently refer to was a mixed bag of ethnicities whose attachment to Judaism was sometimes more a matter of business than belief. And we’ve all but omitted the role of women in Jesus’ ministry because that doesn’t play well with our concept of patriarchal dominance.
“In his birth declaration of peace on earth, Jesus brought trouble and conflict to the status quo. The life of that little baby whose birth we celebrate was not comfortable, was not conformative, and often challenged authority. Imagine the brazen audacity of someone who stood up and said, ‘You have to listen to me because my Daddy gave me all authority in heaven and earth and He told me to do this and my Daddy is bigger and better than your Daddy.’ Can you perhaps see why that didn’t go over so well?
“We come to church this morning enjoying the festivities of the holiday spirit. We enjoy watching the children and we like this simple, rural picture of Christ that we’ve created. We see a baby born in a barn and it feels like he’s one of us.
“But if we fully embrace the baby in the manger, we have to equally embrace the adult he became and that means we have to embrace the possibility that the way we’ve always thought about God and about the Bible might not be correct. The Rabbis, Sadducees, and Pharisees that Jesus challenged represented thousands of years of study, and there he sat telling them that they were getting it all wrong. If we’re going to embrace the baby in the manger, we have to accept the likelihood that Jesus would tell us the same thing. We’re getting it all wrong.
“Fortunately, for us, there is forgiveness and this baby brings us salvation and a chance to look at the new year with the hope that maybe we’ll do better this time. Maybe we won’t be so quick to judge. Maybe we’ll listen when a teenager challenges our spiritual world view. Maybe we’ll see that sometimes, peace is a revolution.”
Glynn looked out across the congregation and could see that only a handful were still paying attention. Among those, Claire was smiling her biggest smile, Buck was nodding his head in agreement, and Alan Mayes sat on the back row, his arms folded in front of him, an unseasonal scowl on his face.
The pastor knew that he had not created a smooth path forward for himself. He was painfully well aware of the physical stress and trouble that would come with standing behind what he had just preached.
As they drove out to Buck and Frances’ house for dinner, the kids in the back seat comparing and trading the contents of their goody bags, Marve reached over and took Glynn’s hand. “That was quite a package you delivered this morning,” she said softly.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, smiling.