by CCIFenn

BEEP—BEEP—BEEP–the sound of the alarm jolted her out of bed and onto her feet like a cattle prod. She blinked for a moment, trying to get her bearings.

Where am--, she answered the question before it had formed. Home, I’m home.

“What time is it?” she asked aloud, rubbing her eyes. No one answered. Though that wasn’t a surprise. There had been no one to answer in over a year. She pressed the snooze button hard as her body hit the sheets once more. Surely she could sleep for ten more minutes. Ten minutes won’t hurt. Her eyes closed, and she began silently running through all the things she had to do before church. Church… She shuddered at the thought. Do I have to…? But before she could finish the thought, her mother’s voice echoed from her childhood: Yes, you have to. You’re the pastor!

She reached for the pair of silver glasses that rested near the clock radio. If they weren’t on her nose, they were, inevitably, sitting on her worn, leather-bound edition of the King James Bible. They found themselves there each night after she read one of Jesus’ discourses or a Psalm or maybe a cry from one of the prophets. It was a habit she had held to as far back as the mind could reach. As a child, her mother entered her bedroom each night, sat on her bed, and opened the same Bible that now sat on her nightstand. They’d read a chapter of the Bible together and then pray. Sometimes they’d talk. Other times they’d just sit silently, enjoying one another. But it was a ritual that repeated almost every night of her childhood without fail. And once she left home, she continued the practice alone.

After her glasses were in their proper location, she reached for the Book. It was tattered, with pieces of leather peeling off the cover. And though she knew she needed a new one, she couldn’t bear to let it go. There was something sacred about this book. Verses were underlined. Scribbles ran along every margin. And they weren’t only her own, her father’s handwriting was scrawled like graffiti on every page. He had given it to her the night she shared her call with him. He was a man who spent hours at his desk, flipping through pages and writing furiously both in the Book itself and in countless notebooks. She loved to watch him work. She’d seen him pore over the books that lined the old, wooden bookshelves in his office. He spent hours there: preparing sermons, writing little tracts, calling his parishioners–all done with the soundtrack of some symphony or concerto, accompanied by the hisses and pops of scuffed vinyl.

As she made her way down the stairs with the Bible in one hand, she hit the light switch to the kitchen. Tossing the book on the kitchen table, she grabbed a bowl out of the cupboard and poured some cereal. Within a minute she was eating a bowl of Raisin Bran and imitating her late father’s approach to scripture.

She scanned the pages as they flashed by, barely able to glimpse individual words. Her mind raced as she searched for something… something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She knew what it said but couldn’t quite remember where it said it. She shoveled another spoonful of cereal into her mouth as the pages swished between her fingers. At last, her eye reached out and grabbed on to something. God, that’s how I feel right now…

“How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” she recited the line in a whisper. Her eyes slowly shut as the words rattled around in her mind.

“How long…?” she breathed out.

It had been two years since the accident. She’d been in her office that morning, studying. Several weeks before, she’d started a series on the minor prophets, examining how their messages were still relevant for twenty-first century believers. She was reading the third chapter of Habakkuk when her cell-phone started dancing across the dark oaken desk. Let it ring, she thought, this is more important. The call can wait.

Only it couldn’t.

And in that moment, and the many that followed, that verse seared itself into her mind.

“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

The phone stopped ringing just as she came to the last phrase: ‘I will joy in the God of my salvation.’

She thought for a moment, reflecting on all she had to be joyful over: a God who provided for her, a loving husband, a congregation full of Christ’s love. Then, she picked up the phone.

‘1 Missed Call,’ it read. Before she could slide her finger across its face, it began ringing again. It was a number she was unfamiliar with. She touched the ‘Answer’ button without realizing the pandora’s box she was opening. A voice came on the other line and then… it all happened in a blur. She couldn’t remember the details of the next 48 hours – though the broad strokes of that day made a permanent impression on her life.

There had been an accident at the Paper Mill where Nathan worked. He’d been crushed – ‘critical condition’, they’d said. He was already on the way to Lincoln General Hospital, 20 miles north.

He would make it there alive but 41 hours, 17 minutes, and 32 seconds later, she’d sit beside his bed and watch the little green monitor tell her that the man she loved was no more. At least, not in the sense she’d known him in for the past six and a half years.

And as she held his hand, growing cold with death, she recalled the words she’d read only two days before: “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

She shook her head, tears rolling down her cheeks and hitting the floor like big raindrops.

“How could you do this? Why him?”

But there was no answer.

She took another bite before reading further but none of the words were registering in her mind. They were squiggles on a page that her eyes were passing over. Instead, she wondered whether anyone would even show up.

Over the past two years she’d often contemplated giving up. Her friends and family advised it and more than once, she tried to convince herself that it was in fact, God’s will. But, she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave until God released her. And in the swirl of emotions, ‘release’ was one of the few things absent.

The day she’d taken the pastorate, one of the older parishioners had walked up to her and said, “This church’ll die with a woman pastor.” His words were smothered in contempt. He shook his head and walked away. And she stood there, a crack crawling up her psyche. But she stood still, feeling utterly exposed, and continuing to shake the hands of countless other church members. Most of them were kind enough but there were a few who glided past, avoiding eye contact. They didn’t show back up the following week.

That had been five years ago and the church was drastically different. Most of the ones who’d had qualms about women pastors never came back. But as time passed, it seemed as if the church was a faucet that had never been fully shut off. She could hear the dripping every time another family walked out the door for the last time.

The church had shriveled from a healthy congregation of one hundred to seventy-five and then fifty. Last year, two-thirds of the church broke off along an old fault-line that had never healed. Since then, she’d watched as a family here and a couple there slid away like so much sand running through her fingers.

“How many were even there last week?” she asked aloud, struggling to remember.

“Only five or six…. really?” She hung her head.

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The thought bubbled to the surface, but she pushed it down again – distracted by her problems.

She’d done everything she knew to increase attendance. She’d tried to start a children’s program and then a youth program. But both fizzled out like bottle rockets with no powder after only a handful of meetings. She’d hoped that implementing small groups would help. It didn’t. Neither did a weekly prayer meeting that had an attendance of one.

The old man’s words echoed often in her mind, “This church’ll die with a woman pastor.” He seemed prophetic now. And yet, she knew that God had called her to this place and for this time. She had remained faithful to that call. She had spoken only what he gave her, even when the temptation to preach ‘cotton candy’ became unbearable. When she saw what the nearest mega-church (or what passes for a mega-church in little Presage, Louisiana) was doing or read some article online, she could feel an invisible hand pushing her. Pushing away? Pushing forward? Pushing back? She wasn’t sure. In those moments of desperation and directionlessness, her closet became a sanctuary – a holy place to meet with her Father. And he’d never led her wrong – even if she wasn’t sure where he was leading.

She laid the spoon in the empty bowl and interlocked her fingers, placing her elbows on the table. As she looked heavenward, she cried out, “God, I don’t know how much longer I can go. I feel like I’ve just…. reached a dead end. I don’t think I can make it another day. I just don’t…” her voice trailed off and as she continued to pray silently, tears streamed down her face. But they weren’t tears of sorrow or hopelessness. They were tears of thankfulness for a God who would listen, even when he was silent.

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The thought rose again, as if God himself was replying to her accusation.

Two hours later she opened the door and got in the white ’96 Honda that she and Nathan had bought their first month of marriage. She cranked it up and slowly pulled out of the drive. As she made her way down route 167, she thought about what God’s call. She remembered Isaiah, a prophet who’d been told that no one would listen to his message. A man that, when faced with that prospect, questioned God, “For how long, Lord?” She thought of Moses, the great lawgiver who helped lead God’s people out of bondage but was thanked with complaints.

And then, Jesus came to her mind. Here was a man who loved with an unrelenting passion that couldn’t be imitated through human strength alone. He blessed despite cursings. Forgave despite intentional hurts. Loved despite hatred. And when faced with obstacle after problem after enemy, he continued on. Not because he enjoyed the way. But because that was who he was. It was his calling.

As she pulled into the church parking lot, she asked, partly to herself and partly to God, “What is my calling?” The thought rolled through her mind like a hamster in one of those little plastic balls – making lots of noise but not making any progress. Am I even called? Have I been deceived this whole time?

As she entered the sanctuary, she checked the clock: 9:13. She strolled to the front of the church and kneeled down at the old, wooden altar – the cloth covering the top frayed, pieces of wood chipped, cracks running through several of the supports – it reminded her of herself. Still standing, but broken.

She prayed until her ear caught the stray sound of a car rolling into the front parking lot, an engine cutting off and two doors simultaneously opening and shutting. Her head raised as her eyes glanced out the window. She looked at the clock again: 9:32. That’s odd, she thought as she stood and walked towards the door. She hadn’t unlocked it yet so the man and woman were standing right outside the entryway. Their mouths were moving but she couldn’t make out anything they were saying. They looked nervous. The man’s leg had a slight shake and the woman had crossed her arms uncomfortably. When she got to the door, she pushed it open.

“Well good morning, y’all are early!” she said with a hint of feigned surprise in her voice. She knew something wasn’t right.

“Good morning,” his wife said with a smile as fake as her platinum hair.

“Good morning,” the man replied customarily. It was obvious he didn’t want to be there.

“Come on in,” she said, pushing the door open and motioning for them to enter. They didn’t budge.

“Actually, there’s a reason we’re early, Pastor,” the woman started and then gave her husband a slight push.

“Yea, Pastor.” He paused, searching for the right words. He didn’t find them. “We came to let you know that we’ll be trying a new church this morning.” He stared down as if he was speaking to his black boots. He had the look of a child who’d just gotten caught doing something he knew he shouldn’t.

She forced a smiled though she couldn’t hide her disappointment, “Oh… Do you mind me asking where you’re going?”

The couple looked at each other, unsure of what to say.

“First Church, downtown,” the woman finally blurted, “Nothing against you, of course, Pastor. You know that, right?”

The husband’s words followed immediately behind his wife’s, “Yea, we just… we just didn’t think it was right to not even tell you we wouldn’t be here this morning. ‘Cause you know, you might not need to worry about preparing a sermon or whatever…” His words rang hollow.

“We just feel like our children are missing out… we have two kids…” his wife spoke as if their pastor of five years was a stranger. She wasn’t though. And there was a time when they’d been genuinely close. But things change.

“I understand.” She said bluntly, “Thank you for telling me.” Before anything else could be said she whirled around and pulled the door closed behind her. The man and woman stood for a moment, unable to decide what to do next. He started to knock at the door but his wife grabbed his hand before he could make contact and tugged at his arm, dragging him back to the car like a disobedient child.

She sank to the floor. She didn’t bother walking back to the sanctuary. She didn’t have the energy and honestly didn’t care whether anyone could see her through the wide, glass doors that stood at the building’s entrance. Tears streamed down her face as she lamented.

She’d lost everything she’d cherished so much just a few years before.

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The thought came back and this time she let it hover there. She passed over each word – and then began thinking about everything that had gone wrong.

Thoughts flashed through her mind: the man who prophesied her failure, the death of her husband, the lack of faith that her family and friends had placed in her, the rejection she felt after watching the last two drops trickle out of this church that she loved so dearly. The emotional pain had been building over the past year and her foundation finally cracked. Her heart ached in her chest. The pain she felt was real – physical.

After spending nearly an hour on the floor, pleading with God and demanding direction, she rose.  My calling… Her footsteps were deliberate as she walked back into the sanctuary. Is this my calling…? It felt like someone was tugging at her shirt, pulling her down the aisle and toward her usual pew. This is my calling. She found her Bible there. An invisible force compelled her to reach down and pick the book up. She opened it and found the notes she’d made for this morning’s sermon, a handful of scribbles. As her eyes passed across the page, taking in all the words she’d written for a congregation that wasn’t there, she had a sudden surge of strength. This is my calling. Her tears shut off like a faucet and she wiped them away. God had delivered a message to her. She’d had a calling. Now, it was time to fulfill it.

She looked across the empty sanctuary, ghostly silent and still dark. Everyone had abandoned her; everyone except Him. And as she made her way up the steps and to the pulpit, she silently prayed the same prayer that she always sent up before preaching: God, let me speak and live your words faithfully.

She reached the pulpit, faced the crowd of empty pews, and began.

“The prophet Habakkuk once declared, ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior…’”

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