Samuel Mason sat parked in his white DeSoto across the street from Centerville Christian Church. The old place was like him; it had seen better days. Half a dozen shingles were still missing from the steeple, blown off in the windstorm of '84. The paint was chipped, revealing aging gray clapboards. One of the high, arched windows was cracked. The lawn was dying, the roses overgrown, and the birch tree in the courtyard between the church, fellowship hall, and small parsonage had some kind of beetle killing it.
If a decision wasn't made soon, Samuel was afraid he would live long enough to see a For Sale sign posted on the church property and a Realtor's lockbox on the front door. Reaching over, he picked up the worn black leather Bible lying on the passenger seat. I'm trying to keep the faith, Lord. I'm trying to trust.
"Samuel!" Hollis Sawyer limped along the sidewalk of First Street. They met at the front steps. Hollis gripped the rusted iron railing with his left hand, planted his cane, and hitched his hip, lifting his prosthetic leg to the second step. "Otis called. He said he'd be late."
"Didn't say, but I heard Mabel talking at him in the background. He sounded pretty frustrated."
Samuel unlocked the front door of the church and looked in at the once mauve now sun-bleached gray carpet in the narthex. Hollis winced as he limped across the threshold. Samuel left the door ajar for Otis.
Nothing had changed inside the foyer in years. Faded tracts remained stacked in perfect piles. The frayed edge of the carpet was still pulled back from the door to the small ministerial office. The dusty leaves of the silk ficus tree in the corner continued to host a spider. Another web was in the corner of a high window; someone would have to get the ladder out and swipe it down. But who would be willing to climb a ladder when a fall might land their old bones in a convalescent hospital? And calling in a professional to clean was out of the question. There was no money.
Hollis hobbled down the aisle. "It's as cold in here as a Minnesota winter."
The sanctuary smelled as musty as a house closed up all season. "I can turn on the heat."
"Don't bother. By the time the place warms up, our meeting will be over." Hollis stepped into the second pew, and hung his cane on the back of the one in front of him, as he eased himself down. "So who's preaching this Sunday?"
Samuel took the pew across from him and set his Bible beside him. "Sunday is the least of our problems, Hollis." Resting his wrists on the back of the front pew, he clasped his hands and looked up. At least the brass cross and two candlesticks on the altar were polished. They seemed the only things to have received any attention. The carpet needed to be cleaned, the pulpit painted, the pipe organ repaired. Unfortunately, the workers were fewer each year and the financial gifts dwindled despite the generous spirits of the parishioners, all of whom were living on fixed incomes, some only on Social Security.
Lord ... Samuel's mind went blank as he fought tears. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he looked at the empty choir loft. He remembered a time when it had been full of singers, all robed in red and gold. Now there was only his wife, Abby, who sang every few Sundays, accompanied by Susanna Porter on the piano. As much as he loved the old gal, Samuel had to admit Abby's voice just wasn't what it used to be.
One by one, the programs of the church had dried up and blown away like dust. Children grew up and moved away. The middle-aged became elderly, and the elderly died. The pastor's voice echoed with no live bodies to absorb his sage words.
Oh, Lord, don't let me live long enough to see the doors of this church locked on Sunday morning.
For forty years, he and Abby had been part of this church. Their children had gone through Sunday school and been baptized here. Pastor Hank had performed their daughter Alice's wedding ceremony, and then conducted the memorial service when the body of their son, Donny, had been brought home from Vietnam. He couldn't remember the last baptism, but memorial services were coming all too often. For all he knew, the baptismal had dried up.
Samuel felt dried up, too. Old, dry bones. He was tired, depressed, defeated. And now, a new tragedy had befallen them. He didn't know what they were going to do to keep the church functioning. If they couldn't find a way, what would happen to the small body of believers who still came every Sunday to worship together? Most were too old to drive, and others too shy to travel the twenty miles down the road to worship with strangers.
Are we all going to be relegated to watching TV evangelists who spend three-quarters of their time asking for money? God, help us.
The front door of the church banged shut, and the floorboards creaked under approaching footsteps. "Sorry I'm late!" Otis Harrison came down the aisle and sat in a front pew.
Samuel unclenched his hands and rose to greet him. "How's Mabel feeling?"
"Poorly. Doctor put her back on oxygen. She gets downright crabby dragging that tank around the house. You'd think she could sit a while. But no. I have to keep a sharp eye on her. Caught her yesterday in the kitchen. We had a shouting match. I told her one of these days she's going to turn on that gas burner, light a match, and blow us both to kingdom come. She said she couldn't stand eating any more frozen dinners."
"Why don't you call Meals on Wheels?" Hollis said.
"I did. That's why I'm late."
"They didn't show up?"
"Came right on time, or you'd still be waiting for me. Problem is, I have to be there to open the door because Mabel flatly refuses to do it." The front pew creaked as Otis settled his weight.
Over the years, Samuel and Abby had spent numerous pleasant evenings at the Harrison house. Mabel had always prepared a feast: stuffed game hens, homemade angel food cakes, and roasted or steamed vegetables from Mabel's backyard garden. Otis's wife loved to cook. It wasn't a hobby; it was a calling. Mabel and Otis had welcomed new families to the church with a dinner invitation. Italian, German, French, even Chinese cuisine-she was game to try anything, to the delight of everyone who sat at their table. People used to stampede to whatever casserole or pie Mabel set on the long, vinyl-covered potluck tables. She'd sent cookies to Donny when he was stationed in Hue, Vietnam. Otis used to complain that he never knew what to expect for dinner, but no one ever felt sorry for him.
"She's still watching those cooking shows and writing out recipes. Drives herself crazy with frustration! Drives me crazy right along with her. I suggested she take up needlepoint. Or tole painting. Or crossword puzzles. Something. Anything! I won't repeat what she said."
"What about an electric stove?" Hollis said. "Or a microwave?"
"Mabel will have nothing to do with an electric stove. And as for a microwave, our son gave us one a couple of Christmases ago. Neither one of us can figure out how it works, except to set it for one minute and warm coffee." Otis shook his head. "I miss the good old days when I never knew what she'd have on the table when I came home from work. She can't stand long enough to make salad these days. I've tried to do the cooking, but that's been a complete disaster." Grimacing, he waved his hand impatiently. "But enough of my troubles. We've got other things to talk about, I hear. What's the news on Hank?"
"Not good," Samuel said. "Abby and I were at the hospital last night with Susanna. She wants Hank to retire."
Hollis stretched out his bad leg. "We should wait and see what Hank says."
Samuel knew they didn't want to face facts. "He's had a heart attack, Hollis. He can't say anything with a tube down his throat." Did they really think Henry Porter could go on forever? Poor Hank was way past pretending to be the Energizer Bunny.
Otis frowned. "That bad?"
"He was doing visitation at the hospital yesterday afternoon, and collapsed in the corridor just down the hall from the emergency room. Otherwise, we'd be sitting here planning his memorial service."
"God was looking out for him," Hollis said. "Always has."
"It's time we looked out for his best interests, too."
Otis stiffened. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Samuel's just had a long night." Hollis sounded hopeful.
"That's part of it," Samuel conceded. A long night, indeed, of facing the future. "The truth is this is just one more crisis in a long series of crises we've faced. And I don't want to see this one put us under. We have to make some decisions."
Hollis shifted uneasily. "What time did you and Abby get to the hospital?"
Anytime the discussion turned toward unpleasant things, Hollis leapfrogged to another subject. "Half an hour after Susanna called us. Hank hasn't been feeling well for a long time."
Otis frowned. "He's never said anything."
"His hair has gone completely white in the last two years. Didn't you notice?"
"So's mine," Hollis said.
"And he's lost weight."
"Wish I could," Otis said with a chuckle.
Samuel strove for patience. If he weren't careful, this meeting would turn into another gab session on the miserable state of the world and the country. "About a week ago, Hank told me about a friend from his college days who's dean at a Christian university in the Midwest. He spoke very highly of him and of the school." Samuel looked between his two oldest friends. "I think he was trying to tell me where we should start looking for his successor."
"Now, wait a minute!" Hollis said. "This isn't the time to retire him, Samuel. What kind of blow would that be for a man flat on his back?" He snorted. "How would you like it if someone came into your hospital room, stood over you, and said, 'Sorry you had a heart attack, old friend, but your useful days are over'?"
Otis's face was red and tight. "Hank's been the driving force of this church for the past forty years. He's been the steadying hand at the helm. We can't do without him."
Samuel had known it wouldn't be easy. There was a time to be gentle, and a time to be direct. "I'm telling you, Hank isn't coming back. And if we want this church to survive, we'd better do something about finding someone else to stand at the helm. We're about to drift onto the rocks."
Hollis waved his hand. "Hank was in the hospital five years ago having bypass surgery. He came back. We'll just invite some guest speakers until Hank's back on his feet. Like we did the last time. The Gideons, Salvation Army, someone from that soup kitchen on the other side of town. Ask them to come and talk about their ministries. They'll fill the pulpit for a few Sundays." He gave a nervous laugh. "If push comes to shove, we can always have Otis show his Holy Land slides again."
Samuel's heel came off the floor, moving up and down silently as it always did when he was tense. What would it take to get through to his old friends? Did the Lord Himself have to blast the ram's horn in order to get them to move on? "Susanna said their oldest granddaughter is expecting a baby this spring. She said it would be nice to see Hank with a great-grandchild on his knee. They'd like to be part of their children's lives again, to sit together in the same church, in the same pew. Which one of you wants to tell Hank he hasn't earned the right to do those things? Which one of you wants to tell him we expect him to stand in that pulpit until he drops dead?" His voice broke.
Hollis frowned and then looked away, but not before Samuel saw the moisture in his eyes.
Samuel leaned his arm on the pew. "Hank needs to know we understand. He needs our thanks for all his years of faithful service to this congregation. He needs our blessing. And he needs the pension fund we set up years ago so he and Susanna have something more to live on than a monthly check from the government and the charity of their children!" He could barely see their faces through the blur of tears.
Otis stood and paced the aisle, one hand shoved in his pocket, while he scratched his brow with the other. "The market's been down, Samuel. That fund is worth about half what it was a year ago."
"Half is better than nothing."
"Maybe if I'd pulled out of tech stock earlier ... as it is, he's going to receive about two hundred and fifty a month for forty years of service."
Samuel shut his eyes. "At least we've been able to keep up their long-term health-care policy."
"Good thing he applied in his midthirties, or we wouldn't have enough for premiums." Otis sank heavily onto the end of a pew. He looked straight at Samuel, who nodded, knowing he and Abby would have to come up with the money, as they had whenever there wasn't enough in the offering plate to meet expenses.
Hollis sighed. "Five years ago, we had six elders. First we lost Frank Bunker to prostate cancer, and then Jim Popoff goes to sleep in his recliner and doesn't wake up. Last year, Ed Frost has a stroke. His children arrive, rent a U-Haul, stick a For Sale sign in their front lawn, and move them to some residential-care facility down south. And now Hank ..." Hollis's voice hitched. He shifted his hip again.
"So," Otis drawled. "What do we do without a pastor?"
"Give up!" Hollis said.
"Or start over."
Both men stared at Samuel. Otis snorted. "You're a dreamer, Samuel. You've always been a dreamer. This church has been dying for the past ten years. When Hank heads north, it'll be dead."
"Do you really want to close the doors, lock them, and walk away?"
"It's not what we want! It's what has to be!"
"I don't agree," Samuel said, determined. "Why don't we pray about it?"
Otis looked dismal. "What good is praying going to do at this point?"
Hollis stood up. "My leg's seizing up on me. Got to move." He took his cane from the back of the pew and limped to the front of the church. "I don't know what's happening in our country these days." He pounded his cane on the floor. "I brought up all four of my children to be Christians, and not one of them attends church anymore. Only time they ever go is on Christmas and Easter."
"Probably commuting to work all week," Otis said. "It takes two people working to pay for a house these days, and then they have to replace the car every few years because they're driving so much. My son puts 140 miles on his car every day, five days a week, and his wife about half that. And then it costs them $1,800 a month for child care. Plus insurance, and ..."
Yada, yada, yada. Samuel had heard it all before. The world stinks.
new generation has no respect for the older.