"No.” He was sincere now, but all that would change. Soon he’d have a change of heart. Soon he’d discover the same way Billy had what was most attractive about her: simply that she didn’t represent any threat to his freedom.
The sermon was one Paul had given before, and he sincerely hoped no one remembered it. He stood at the pulpit and looked out over the congregation of believers he’d been a shepherd to for almost twenty years. His gaze drifted from one face to another, and he experienced an achy kind of sadness.
"Let us pray,” he said after a moment, and bowed his head. He said the words by rote, but they had lost their meaning for him. At one time they’d come from his heart, but no more. He didn’t feel as if he had one any longer—at least none to speak of.
When he’d finished praying, he closed the Bible, turned, and sat down. The choir in their shiny blue robes stood, and organ music crescendoed through the building. Soon the melody of male and female voices blended in song. It was a favorite Christmas carol from his childhood.
Paul didn’t sing. He didn’t think it was possible to do so with a heavy heart.
Joe and Annie were gone. Joe had phoned to say they’d arrived at Annie’s family home safely. He joked with his dad that meeting her parents was like falling into a jar of honey. Annie must have been listening because Joe claimed her family was so pleased he’d agreed to marry her, they were throwing a party in his honor.
Paul had laughed. The happiness in his son’s voice lifted his spirits. He didn’t blame Joe for wanting to head out early. There wasn’t anything in Los Angeles to hold him down.
When the singing was over, Paul stood and offered the benediction. The congregation filed out of the wide double doors at the back of the church. As was his habit, Paul stood in the doorway and shook hands.
"Merry Christmas, Pastor,” said Steve Tenny’s wife, gripping his hand in both of hers. "We’re looking forward to having you spend Christmas with us.”
"I don’t believe I’ve gotten back to Steve about that. I will soon,” Paul promised. He’d always liked Myrna. Barbara had enjoyed her friendship for a good many years.
Bernard Bartelli stood back, waiting for the bulk of the crowd to file past. His shoulders were hunched and his eyes weary with fatigue that reached far deeper than the physical.
Paul clasped the older man’s hand firmly in his own. They didn’t speak, didn’t exchange pleasantries. Bernard kept his gaze lowered and shuffled past with his head low; if he’d wanted to say anything, he had changed his mind.
Paul watched as the old man ambled toward the parking lot. It was in his mind to follow after him and ask about Madge’s condition. But he already knew the answer. She was failing more each hour.
It wouldn’t be long now, and then Bernard would be as alone as Paul was. It wouldn’t be long, and Bernard would sit in this same church and feel God had not only turned his back on him, but shoved the door closed in his face.
The white-hot anger that seared through his blood surprised Paul. He’d never been an angry man. Rarely had he clenched his fist or raised his voice. Rarely had he voiced his discontent. And never to God.
He could feel the heat work its way through him, yet it seemed not like the poison he dreaded, but like an energy that invigorated him.
He waited until the church was empty, then marched up the center aisle and stood in the middle of the church. His chest swelled as his lungs filled with oxygen. He held his breath until he chest ached, then slowly, purposely, expelled it little by little.
"You promised healing,” Paul said out loud. The sound of his voice echoed eerily in the vacant room. His eyes rested on the closed Bible propped up in the middle of the altar.
He was a crazy man, standing in church and talking out loud to a God who refused to listen.
"You promised!” he shouted at the top of his voice. His mind rattled off all the Bible verses he’d claimed in Barbara’s behalf. One by one they marched through his mind like soldiers, shoulders squared at attention. But these promises Paul had put such faith in were like miniature toy soldiers, ineffective and worthless. All his prayers, all his pleadings, had been returned to him empty.
Now the pain, the heartache, was repeating itself with Madge. Once more Paul had to sit by and watch someone he cared for suffer. He discovered, with heartfelt regret, that it wasn’t any easier the second go-around.
He looked at Bernard and saw a reflection of himself, broken, beaten, battered. Hanging on by a thread, and that thread was tattered.
After a while, Paul felt foolish standing alone in the middle of the church. Alone he knew well. The church part was what made him so uncomfortable. Funny, he’d spent the better part of his life in church; now he felt as out of place as a Sunday morning golfer.
He turned around and was about to leave when he saw Leta Johnson waiting for him at the back of the church. He certainly hoped she hadn’t been standing there long.
"Did you forget something?” he asked defensively, embarrassed that she’d found him this way. He reached into a pew and placed a hymn book into the proper slot.
"No. I just wanted to see if Joe and Annie made it to Eugene all right.”
"He phoned last night. They’re fine.”
"I’m glad to hear it.”
Leta wasn’t one to make small talk. Generally she got right to the crux of the matter, but she seemed to be hedging now. It wasn’t the first time, and he wondered what was troubling her. He stopped and waited, giving her ample time to say what she wanted.
"It’s about Madge Bartelli.”
"I saw Bernard,” Paul told her.
"Two of her children have arrived, and a couple of the women from the church are delivering meals.”
"That’s a good idea.” One he should have thought of himself. This was exactly the type of thing Barbara had been so good at organizing.
"I hope you don’t mind.”
For reasons beyond Paul’s meager comprehension, Leta seemed nervous about having done this. She’d seen a need and filled it. He was grateful.
He might have thought of it himself, if he hadn’t been in the middle of a mental breakdown. Imagine standing alone in church and shouting at God! Anyone, even Leta, might suggest he visit a mental health clinic. Not a bad idea in light of his actions.
"Paul.” Leta’s voice drifted through the fog of his murky thoughts. "Are you feeling all right?”
"I’m great,” he said enthusiastically. "Really.”
She looked as if she doubted him, as well she should. "I’ll see you Monday morning,” she said, and walked a couple of steps in reverse.
"Monday,” he repeated.
Paul waited until she’d turned and left the building before he strolled out of the sanctuary and into his office. He sat on his chair and stared at the row upon row of hardback books that lined his office wall. Theology, commentaries, concordances, all able and ready to help him understand God.
It came to him, sadly, that he had no interest in divine matters. No interest in anything related to a god who allowed good women to suffer. A god who allowed husbands to stand by and watch them die, helpless to do anything but pray. Paul knew exactly where prayer had gotten him. It had carried him all the way to the cemetery.
Someone once told him that he had a choice when he buried his wife. He could either accept her death and grow and mature in his faith or turn bitter and angry toward God.
Better or bitter.
He’d tried to be better. Tried to find the good in every situation. Unfortunately he wasn’t as spiritually strong as he’d assumed.
Paul rolled a clean sheet of stationery into the typewriter on his desk. The younger generation were more comfortable with computers, but he preferred an old-fashioned typewriter.
He stared at the blank page, then drew in a deep breath and wrote out his letter of resignation.
"No,” Goodness cried, hovering over the bookcases above Paul Morris’s head. "You can’t quit. Not now.”
Angels rarely wept, but Goodness had the overwhelming urge to break into heart-wrenching sobs. She’d failed him. She should never have accepted this assignment, never have agreed to help. Everything she’d done thus far had been ineffectual.
The celestial call came directly from Gabriel. She was being called back. Goodness didn’t blame him; she’d blown this assignment. From the moment she’d pleaded with Gabriel to let her help Paul Morris, she’d been sucked deeper into the quicksand of his problems.
Immediately following his summons, Goodness was ushered into the prayer room in the glory of heaven. She kept her head lowered, her chin tucked in. Her wings drooped so far down, the tips scraped the surface of the floor.
"I understand matters aren’t going very well with Paul Morris,” Gabriel said.
It seemed to Goodness that his voice boomed louder than thunder. "He wrote out his letter of resignation,” she told him in a small voice. "He’s leaving the church, walking away from all those people who care about him. He assumes he hasn’t got anything to say that will help, but he’s wrong.”
"I see.” Gabriel clasped his hands behind his back and walked around Goodness. "What efforts have you made to help him?”
"I already know that you put the binder filled with his study notes back on the bookshelf. It’s something I would generally frown upon, but in this case, I believe it was the best thing to do.”
"You do?” Encouraged, Goodness raised her head an inch.
"I also know about your so-called miracle.”
Her head went back down.
"It didn’t work, did it?”
"No,” she admitted miserably. "I shone with the love of God so brightly, anyone else would have been blinded. Reverend Morris didn’t notice.”
"What have you done since?”
Goodness bit into her lower lip, afraid she’d disappointed Gabriel, destroyed his faith in her. "Nothing.”
"I’ve walked with him,” she explained, thinking how weak and useless that sounded. She waited for a chastisement, but when none came, she elaborated. "When he sat in the car alone and miserable, I sat with him. When he stood outside and waved good-bye to Joe and Annie. I waved with him.”
"And just now?”
"Just now,” she whispered, "I stood beside him in the middle of the church and held him upright.” Naturally Paul didn’t know that. If he wasn’t aware of her presence when she was full of the glory of the Lord, then he wouldn’t sense it when she stood silently at his side.
"You held him upright?”
"Yes.” Goodness was afraid she’d broken some rule she knew nothing about.
"That’s all he needs, Goodness. No tricks. No miracles. No shenanigans. You’re doing everything exactly right.”
"But he’s resigning from the church.”
Gabriel cocked one thick eyebrow. "Is he? Why don’t you go back and find that out for yourself?”
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