"Yes,” Gabriel agreed.

The prayer ambassador grinned then. "You know, I can’t help thinking there’s horse in this somewhere.”

"A horse,” Gabriel repeated, thinking he’d rather not know how she intended to manage that.

2

"His name’s Paul Morris,” Goodness said to Mercy, leaning over the Book of Prayer and studying the lengthy list of entries. "Reverend Paul Morris.” She ran her finger down the narrow column. "According to what it says here, his wife died two years ago.”

"How sad.”

"His name’s popped up at least six times in the last two pages.”

"He must be deeply loved for that many people to be praying for him.”

Goodness agreed. "What do you think could be wrong?”

Mercy raised her hands in a defeated gesture. "Your guess is as good as mine.”

"He lives in Los Angeles, too.”

"How’d you find his name?”

Goodness twisted around to look at her friend. "It just seemed to leap off the page at me.”

"Goodness.”

It was the Archangel Gabriel, just when Goodness least expected his return. She straightened quickly and noted that their cohort, Shirley, was no longer with him.

"Hi,” she said, tense at being caught reading out of the Book of Prayer. She raised her right hand as if preparing to make a solemn vow.

"You were asking about Reverend Paul Morris?” Gabriel inquired.

"Yes,” she said eagerly. "His name’s listed several times in your book, and…well, it’s just a matter of curiosity, you understand.”

"Perhaps you’d care to drop in and visit him yourself?”

Goodness was convinced her ears had deceived her. She opened her mouth and flattened her palm over her breast. "Me? Really?” she managed in a squeaky, high-pitched voice. "I thought you said…I mean, I was under the impression…” She snapped her mouth closed before she talked herself out of meeting Paul Morris.

"It doesn’t do any harm to look, now, does it?” Gabriel asked.

Goodness was almost giddy with delight.

"Go on ahead without me,” Mercy said with a defeated sigh and with the dramatic flair of a stage actress. "I don’t mind waiting here all by myself.”

"I’m sure you won’t,” Gabriel said gruffly.

To be fair, Goodness did feel mildly guilty to be leaving her best friend behind. She’d gotten adept with guilt of late. She’d acquired the skill by hanging around with Catholics, who were proven experts.

"Let’s take a look at Paul,” Gabriel suggested, and raised his massive wings. With a wave of his huge arms, the clouds parted, and the scene that had once been inaccessible and unclear unfolded in vivid colors. The setting, appropriately so, was the church building itself.

Goodness scanned the polished wooden pews and saw no one. The area around the altar was empty as well.

"That’s Paul at the organ,” Gabriel explained.

Goodness found him in the choir loft. He must have sat down only recently because no music swelled through the church. No song of joy or triumph. Goodness heard only an empty silence.

"His wife played the organ for the church,” Gabriel explained.

"Ah.” Goodness wasn’t sure she understood, but if Paul Morris found some whit of comfort sitting on a bench with his hands poised over the old ivory keys, she could find no harm in it.

"What you’re hearing is a symphony of emotions,” Gabriel explained. "A ballad of loneliness.”

Goodness strained her ears and still heard nothing. She inserted her index finger into her ear and jerked it back and forth several times.

Gabriel’s hand on her shoulder stopped her. "I didn’t mean for you to take that literally. The music is coming from his grief. From the deepest, darkest corner of his heart.”

"Oh.” Goodness felt foolish now.

"Wait and watch,” Gabriel instructed her. "I’ll be back soon.”

Goodness had a long list of questions, but apparently none of them were important because Gabriel was gone in the blink of an eye. The prayer ambassador was left alone, watching the lonely, hurting human below. Sadly, she was powerless to do anything more than observe.

Paul Morris slipped from the organ bench and headed for the church office. A glance at his watch told him he was already ten minutes late for his meeting with the worship committee. He hadn’t meant for the time to slip away like that and, with renewed purpose, increased his pace.

Leta Johnson, his secretary, leaped from her chair the instant he walked into the office. "You’re late,” she announced, following him across the room.

"I know. I apologize.”

"The committee’s in the conference room,” she said, and handed him a sheaf of papers. "I believe they’ve started without you.”

In times past, Paul might have been offended that the committee would see fit to begin without him. But, frankly, he was relieved and hoped that they’d completed the business at hand. It would save him the burden of having to sit through yet another endless, boring meeting.

Unfortunately it didn’t happen that way. An hour later the meeting adjourned and the two elders and three worship leaders were on their way out of the conference room. Paul stayed behind, gathering up the last of the paperwork. He looked up to find Steve Tenny watching him.

Paul offered the elder a warm smile. The two men had been good friends for a number of years. "How’s it going, Steve?” he asked conversationally.

"Great. Is Joe coming home for Christmas?”

The ache in Paul’s heart lightened at the mention of his son. "He’ll be here next week sometime.”

"It’ll be good to see him.”

Paul was counting the days. Joe’s arrival from college and the three weeks he was scheduled to spend at home was the one bright spot in Paul’s Christmas season.

"I imagine you’ll be getting together with Bethany.”

"She’s sure to have us over two or three times,” Paul agreed. His daughter was the apple of his eye. Now that she was married and living in Riverside, he didn’t see her as often as he would have liked. Both Bethany and Eric worked, so they led busy lives and he didn’t want to be a burden to them.

"I don’t suppose I could talk you into taking a few days off and going hiking with me.”

The thought tempted Paul, but with so many Christmas responsibilities, he hadn’t the time. "Sorry, I can’t now.”

Steve mulled over his answer. "You’re going to be fine,” he stated matter-of-factly.

"Sure I am,” Paul agreed automatically.

"It’s been difficult the last couple of years without Barbara, but you’ve risen above all that now. You’re doing great.”

Paul wondered. "Yeah,” he said, forcing a smile. "I’m doing great.”

The two men walked out of the meeting room together. Steve patted Paul across the back before he headed out to the parking lot.

Paul watched the elder leave and wondered how it was that a man he’d counted his best friend for fifteen or more years didn’t know him at all. Steve hadn’t a clue to what Paul was feeling, didn’t understand Paul’s deep sense of loss.

His wife of twenty-four years had died, and it felt as if someone had chopped off his right arm. They had been partners not only in life, but in the ministry. Together they had slaved to build this church from the foundation to the very top of the steeple. Together they had held every position in the church. Over the years Barbara had been the Sunday school director, the nursery coordinator, in charge of missions, the choir director, and just about everything else, including janitor.

With a heavy heart weighing down his steps, Paul reluctantly returned to his office. Leta handed him a pink message slip when he walked in the door. "It’s Madge Bartelli again,” she said. "Bernard phoned and said she’s in terrible pain.”

"Madge,” Paul repeated slowly. The parishioner was suffering from the same rare form of cancer that had claimed Barbara.

Why God would allow him to watch yet another woman suffer this way was beyond his comprehension. For the second time God had asked him to stand by helplessly, able to offer nothing more than a few trite words of comfort.

"I’m afraid Madge’s taken a turn for the worse,” Leta said sadly.

Paul nodded and entered his office, closing the door.

"You are going to phone her, aren’t you?” Leta asked from the other side.

"Yes, of course,” Paul assured her, and sat down at his desk.

"Bernard could use a few words of encouragement as well.”

And just where was he supposed to find that? Paul asked himself. Encouragement? He felt devoid of the ability to help his friends. His deep well of hope and assurance had dried up when he’d lost Barbara. He had nothing to offer and damn little of himself left to give.

It seemed his secretary stood just outside his door until she heard him reach for the telephone. Paul flipped through his Rolodex until he found the Bartellis’ listing and punched out the numbers.

Bernard answered on the second ring. "Pastor Paul, how good of you to phone.”

"How’s Madge?”

"Not good. Not good at all. She can’t sleep. Even the pain medication the doctor prescribed doesn’t help. I don’t know what to do for her anymore.”

"Have you tried reading to her?”

"Oh, yes. She tries to hide how bad it is, but I can see the pain in her eyes.”

Barbara had tried to disguise her agony from Paul as well. He didn’t think he would ever know the full range of suffering his saintly wife had endured. Bernard probably would never know, either.

"I realize it’s a lot to ask of you,” Bernard said, lowering his voice as if he wanted to be sure Madge couldn’t hear him. "But if you could stop off at the house sometime later today and pray with Madge, I know it would help.”

Paul closed his eyes. "Of course,” he agreed. But he doubted that his prayers would matter.

He’d poured his heart out on Barbara’s behalf. He’d laid himself down before God and pleaded with everything in him that his wife be healed. Paul had trusted and believed from the time he was a child. In all the years in the ministry, not once had he questioned God. Not even when he and Barbara had lost their unborn child. Not when his own parents had died within six months of each other.

Paul wasn’t a man with a small faith. The Bible talked about mustard seed faith. His was larger than that. He recalled the day they’d first learned of Barbara’s cancer. His faith hadn’t been small then. He’d looked on this as a test, a challenge. He’d been so confident that God would miraculously heal his beloved wife.

Paul had given up looking for miracles. These days own would need a microscope to find his faith. It had been laid to rest in six feet of cold, wet clay along with his wife’s casket.

"God bless you, Reverend,” Bernard said softly, the once strong voice shaking with emotion, reminding Paul that cancer rarely claimed one victim.

***

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