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Postscript

I hope you enjoyed the story of Saint Rahab’s.

In case you were wondering about fact vs. fiction (but don’t read if you haven’t finished. SPOILER ALERT):

Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon does have tunnels that run from the boiler under the street, and when the church was built in the 1910’s, the congregation sold heat to the neighbors, and got it to them via the tunnels.  There are no elegant rooms at the end of the tunnels, just a lot of spiderwebs, dripping concrete, and likely a few spiders, or so I’ve been told.  I am too claustrophobic to try them myself.

I think church sextons and secretaries are the unsung heroes of congregations.  Bill Carr (the name comes from le Carre, the great spy novelist) is a work of fiction.  Trystene is an amalgam of many fine, fine admins with whom I’ve worked.  Her name is my own invention, as is the Kiwitini.  If anyone would like to suggest a recipe, go right ahead!

Martha, too, is an amalgam of the best friends I’ve had, and is named after a dear friend who died suddenly and too young.  The real Martha really was the life of every party who lit up every room.

Toledo Vader is the name of an exit off I-5 between Portland and Seattle.  Every time we would drive by it, we’d laugh.  Of course he showed up in the book. He might have been the inspiration.

toledo vader

Rex is my dog Max, who constantly warns us about threatening crows, squirrels, and babies in strollers. He’d probably like a Prune Drop Cookie.  No need to venture into that recipe making, though.

Alice and Garrett are based on real people who were members of the first church I served.  The real Alice (not her name) never, ever wore pants and would be the last person you’d think would be a spy.  The real Garrett (also not his name) did refer to his wife as his first wife.  He would occasionally come into a meeting she was attending and ask if anyone had see the woman he was sleeping with.  She would blush.  They were very dear.

At that same church, we had a health clinic, not for AIDS, but for the working poor who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid.  The clinic kept condoms on hand, but we never had them in the church restrooms.  I did return from vacation one year to find condom water balloons hanging from my ceiling, and yes, they were most unfortunately pre-lubricated.  I did once leave a potpourri pot plugged in, woke up at midnight to realize it, and ventured to the large, dark church by myself to unplug it.  Nothing burned down that night, but I did not run into the Church Lady and sexton.

Gladys and Bill were based on a couple in my third church.  The real Bill (not his name) was never grouchy and would never have presented me with a top ten list.  He was as delightful and good as they come. He did get lung cancer, and it moved quickly, and I did visit him and his wonderful wife in the hospital on Christmas Day.  His death still saddens me.

Am I Claire?  Parts, I suppose, but she is more petite and more serious than I. I love to swear, which may be a bit of an occupational hazard, as I do it more often than Claire.  I have also been blessed to be married to a man with gorgeous blue eyes, who is my partner in every way.

When I started writing this, I thought it would be a story about church, but as I wrote it and finished it, I realized that at its heart is the story of the love a mother has for her daughter; everything else is secondary.  Which is true for my life, so I dedicate this story to  my own Emma (not her real name.) And I hope that if she ever runs away, she has plenty of Gladys and Bills to go to.

Stay tuned for the sequel (but don’t hold your breath.)  Working title “The Oncoming Train”, in which we experience Martha and Toledo’s wedding, the consequence of unmasking the saints, and further adventures of single-parenting a teenager.

Thanks for being with me on this adventure of a serial-blog story!

 

 

 

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Part 2

Chapter Ten

In which Claire leads worship a little worse for the wear

Claire did sleep that night, or rather that morning, for all of fifty-three minutes before her alarm went off at 7:00. The adrenaline from the night before kicked in again and she was up and at the coffee maker without needing to hit the snooze button. Thank God the choir is singing the sermon today, she thought.

Claire left the house at 8:45, Bill Hill be damned. She left a note for Emma, reminding her to walk the dog, and telling her to ride her bike to church as she had a meeting after coffee hour and wasn’t sure when she’d be home. Better call Emma at 9:45, just in case.

By the grace of God Bill Hill did not greet her in the parking lot that morning; in fact, he and Gladys weren’t at church at all, which was surprising. Had they told her they were going out of town? Claire’s brain was still so scrambled she couldn’t remember.

Toledo Vader was there, though, right in front. This time Claire watched the women in the congregation – and a few men – stare at him as he came in. The oiliness she sensed after talking with him destroyed any attraction she had felt, and she managed the greeting with neither blush nor flutter.

“Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us worship well today. I apologize that there are a few mistakes in the bulletin. The opening hymn is not number 101, but number 365. Please stand as you are able, and let us sing.” Claire was grateful Bill Hill wasn’t there.

As soon as Claire sat down and the liturgist began the prayer of confession, she realized she had a little problem. When the choir sang in lieu of a sermon, she always sat in the front pew, and the pew on the other side was filled with the instrumentalists’ things. But there was Toledo Vader, smack dab in the middle of the front pew. She didn’t have to sit right next to him, she thought. Still, she knew there were yentas-in-the-making in the congregation who were dying to marry her off. What a nice visual she and Toledo would give them.

“Friends, this morning we are blessed to hear the choir’s presentation of ‘The Canticle of St. Francis.’ Listen for the word of God in their song today.”

Claire sat at the end of the front pew, smiled efficiently at Toledo Vader, and anticipated the choir’s offering, “The Canticles of St.Francis” based on some of his prayers.

The work started with the “Canticle of the Sun” – majestic, with the choir weaving six different parts. The effect was like a prayer shawl draping over Claire, and for the first time in many hours, she began to relax.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him….

The next movement was slower, in a minor key. It stirred up the new sadness in Claire and she found her eyes welling up again. She dug in her pocket for a tissue, only to have Toledo offer her his handkerchief. Of course he would have a handkerchief, she thought. She smiled at him efficiently again, but shook her head. She was just fine. She turned her attention to the “Prayer before the San Damiano Crucifix.”

Most High, glorious God enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me true faith, certain hope and perfect clarity, sense and knowledge that I may carry out Your Holy and true command.

The third movement was a merrier one, the “Sermon to the Birds”. Claire thought of little Rex, and Emma with Rex, and smiled.

My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator,
always in every place ought ye to praise Him,
for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere,
and hath also given you double and triple rainment….

The fourth movement was the “Peace Prayer.” Claire loved this words and the melody began with rich solemnity of the cello. As the choir came in, Claire bolted up straight. Shit. That’s why she knew those words.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Claire almost left during the last movement, “The Blessing of St. Clare.” Between her exhaustion, the revelation of the peace prayer, and the sweetness the choir showed her as they began the last piece, she almost ran out to her office to have a good sob. But she didn’t. She let the words wash over her once again.

What you hold, may you always hold. What you do, may you always do and never abandon.
But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust,
may you go forward securely, joyfully and swiftly, on the path of prudent happiness,
not believing anything, not agreeing with anything,
that would dissuade you from this resolution
or that would place a stumbling block for you on the way,
so that you may offer your vows to the Most High
in the pursuit of that perfection to which the Spirit of God has called you.

As Claire did not preach that day, and as Peggy had done all of the work, Peggy and not Claire greeted people after the service. Claire made her way to the office, took off her microphone and robe, and went to coffee hour.

People were drinking coffee, and thanking the members of the choir, but no one seemed to have a treat in their hand. Claire looked over at the table – Prune Drop Cookies. Great.

 

Chapter Eleven

In which Claire goes to the tunnels

“Claire, dear, I wonder if I might have a word with you in private.”

Alice made a point of coming to Claire, who was in a small group talking about the need to renovate the bathroom near the sanctuary. She was grateful for the interruption, but she knew what was coming.

“Sure, Alice. Excuse me, folks – and let me know what you decide.”

“How are you doing, dear?” Alice asked, as they headed to the boiler room.

“I’m furious, exhausted, overwrought, and damn curious. How does that strike you?”

“Just about right. Here we are.”

They entered the boiler room and walked toward the back. Alice turned to Claire.

“Are you ready?”

“No.”

“Then let’s go in.”

Alice opened the door. Claire was expecting a low-ceilinged, dimly lit tunnel with spider webs and dripping water. What she saw was a well lit corridor lined with cinderblock. The concrete floor was perfectly dry. “We keep saying we should redo this, maybe put up a little drywall and some marmoleum on the floor, but there always seems to be better use of our time and resources.”

Good God, Claire thought. Alice is talking to me like we’re having afternoon tea.

They went about fifty feet toward what seemed to be some sort of opening. Claire heard the murmur of voices. Evidently Alice and Bill Carr weren’t the only angel spies.

“Well, folks, here she is,” Alice said as she entered the room.

Claire wasn’t sure what shocked her more – the room or the people in it. Bill and Alice, of course. Sandy, the server. Frank, the copier-repair man. (I’ll stop jamming the damn copier, she thought.) A few faces Claire didn’t recognize.

And Toledo Vader. She knew he was a spy.

The room was elegant. There was no other way to describe it. A lush Persian carpet spread over the floor, an aqua-teal background with a tree shooting up the center, its branches carrying animals exotic and plants.  Weavings of biblical scenes lined the walls. A circle of stuffed armchairs lined the room, and one leather couch. In one corner was a laptop, a flatscreen t.v., and a wireless router. A microwave and mini-fridge stood in the other corner. Floor lamps were strategically placed throughout.

Claire turned to Bill. “Home away from home? Come here to watch the game? Or maybe the rug is covering up a pentagram? What the hell is this?”

“Claire,” said a voice, which appeared to be coming from Toledo Vader, but it was a deep resonant voice devoid of any accent. “Claire, I know this is hard for you.”

“Excuse me, To-LAY-do, but you don’t know a thing about me.”

“Claire,” Alice said. “Have a seat. Let me bring you a cookie and a glass of water. We have a little bit of business to conduct, and that might help.”

“If it’s a Prune Drop, I’ll pass, thank you.”

“Oh, dear, don’t you think I know how awful those are? I just bring them when we’re going to meet, a confirmation that we’re on. I wouldn’t even give them to my dog. No, we have toffee shortbread cookies today. I think I remember you like those.”

Claire felt one ounce less vitriol toward Alice.

“Sandy, have you got the Skype ready to go? Let’s see, what time is it in Minneapolis – 3:30? Martha should be ready.”

Sandy ran the laptop and the Skype sign in screen appeared. The phone rang and to Claire’s shock, the image of her best friend appeared on the screen.

“Hi, everyone. Hi, Claire. Oh, I know that look. I promise we will talk later. Okay, here’s what I’ve got. The Doctors Without Borders guy in Afghanistan has been flirting with the waitress at the cantina. His wife back in France is on bedrest, six and a half months pregnant with early labor pains.”

Martha went on – she finished her report on the doctor in Afghanistan, moved on to two refugee children – a brother and sister – who were trying to find their parents. A social worker in Tallahassee. A secretary at an embassy in Berlin. Regular people all around the world who were in some sort of trouble. Claire started to wonder exactly what her best friend did at the State Department.

After half an hour, Martha finished her report and they said goodbye, but not before Martha promised to call Claire soon. The group started to talk about who they knew who could meet up with the doctor and the kids and the social worker and the secretary.

Claire stood up in the middle of their conversation. “I have to go,” she said.

“But Claire, dear, we’re not done.”

“Let’s be clear, Alice – and Bill and Sandy and Frank and Toledo, or whatever your name is, and all of you. I am not part of your ‘we’. I didn’t sleep last night. I was gobsmacked by the canticle this morning. I am still furious and after seeing my best friend on the screen, I’m feeling more than a little betrayed. So you will have to excuse me. I am going home to see my kid and my dog, and then I will turn off the phone and shut down my computer and crawl into my bed and sleep for as long as I want.

“Bill, I don’t know if you’ll have a job tomorrow, and frankly, I don’t know if I will want this job tomorrow.”

Claire made her way out, then turned.

“I hope to God you know what you’re doing.”

Claire walked in, said hello to Rex who bounded down the stairs, and called up. “Emma, honey, I’m home.”

“Okay.”

“What are you doing?”

“Researching recipes.”

“Okay. I’m going to take a nap – I didn’t sleep well last night. Did you get some lunch?”

“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine.”

“Thanks. Wake me up for dinner, okay?”

“Sure, Morag.”

Claire slept without dreaming of strangers, cookies, or dogs, although Rex took advantage of the situation and curled up with her. When she woke up it was dark outside. She looked at the clock – 8:07.

She got up and went to the kitchen where Emma was hovering over the stove.

“Hi, sweetie. I guess I was more tired than I thought.”

“That’s okay. I decided to make soup.”

“What kind?”

“Jar soup. Your favorite.”

It was Claire’s favorite, probably because it was the perfect balance of comfort food – a jar of alfredo sauce and a package of tortellini – and the healthy – low sodium chicken broth, sun dried tomatoes, and a package of fresh spinach. Good for the body and the soul, Claire thought.

She and Emma talked about regular, boring things over dinner – school, Rex, Emma’s new friends, some people at church. Emma mentioned that she missed seeing Gladys at church, and Claire made a mental note to call the next day.

I guess I’ll give it another week, she thought.

She cleaned the kitchen and sent Emma up to homework and bed. Then she didn’t know what to do. Normally under the circumstances, she would call Martha, who always had a great ear when Claire was in a crisis. She couldn’t talk to Alice, or Bill, or Gladys.  I suppose I could talk to God, she thought. After all, I am a pastor.

Dear God, she began to say in her head, help.  That was all the prayer she could offer.

 

Chapter Twelve

In which Claire makes her own list
Reasons to stay at St. Rahab’s                                  Reasons to leave St. Rahab’s
I just bought a house                                                     There is a spy ring in the church
My kid is happy                                                              My best friend lied to me
I like this city                                                                    The Church Lady lied to me
It’s a job                                                                            The sexton lied to me
I don’t want to look for another job                         The copier repairman lied to me
Bill Hill has cancer                                                          I can’t lie to the congregation
Gladys                                                                                   I can’t fix this

Claire had tried to fall asleep, to no avail.  She tried praying without any success or spiritual comfort.  So she decided to make a list, and by the time she finished, it was 2:00am and she thought she could probably sleep again. Her dreams were disjointed and unpleasant, but not scary. She woke up when she heard Emma in the kitchen.

“Mom, are you okay?”

“It’s just a little stressful at church, but I’ll be fine. Are you off?”

“Yeah, and don’t forget I have practice after school and won’t be home till 5 or so.”

“Thanks for the reminder. I promise I’ll make a good dinner tonight, okay? And I don’t have any meetings so we can just settle in.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

After Emma left, Claire sat down at the kitchen table and stared out the window for a long time. Rex sat on the floor, looking up at her expectantly. It was past time for his morning constitutional. Claire threw on her yoga pants and a sweatshirt, slipped on her flip flops, and headed out with the dog. She was grateful she ran into no one she knew.

When they got home she knew she could no longer delay the inevitable. She made coffee, showered and dressed, and turned her phone back on. One voicemail from Martha. She’d listen to it some other time, or never.

She arrived at church a little later than usual. Trystene looked up from her desk. “Good morning, Pastor Claire.”

Claire smiled. Trystene was so reliable. Trystene was so normal. Trystene didn’t know anything about the spy ring. “Good morning, Trystene. How was your weekend?”

“Oh good, I suppose. Robbie helped me clean out the garage and I took a bunch of stuff to Goodwill. We’ll have to have you and Emma over one of these days. How was your weekend?”

If you only knew, Claire thought. “It was fine, thanks.”

“Um, you probably already know this and I’m real sorry but somehow the bulletins were messed up again on Sunday. I swear I don’t know how it happened.”

“That’s okay, Trystene. I believe you. We will get to the bottom of this. For now, just keep doing the great work you do and I will figure out the mystery of the bulletin bloopers. I’m going to go in – could you hold my calls this morning?”

“Sure thing.”

Claire went into her office, closed the door, sat down at the desk, started up the computer, and stared at the screen. Her mind wouldn’t work – at least not on what she wanted it to work on. She needed to talk to someone and it couldn’t be Emma. She buzzed Trystene on the intercom.

“Trystene, do you have Pastor Jakki Smith-Hastings’ phone number?”

“Sure thing. Got a pencil?”

Claire took a deep breath and dialed the number.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Jakki? This is Claire Grayson over at St. Rahab’s.”

“Claire! It’s good to hear your honeyed tones! I have been meaning to call to see how you’re doing.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that. I’m wondering if I might take you to coffee or lunch this week.”

“That would be great. Have you ever been to the Steel Horse Diner? It’s in a funky part of town, but the wait staff is just terrific and almost as good as the burgers.”

“Actually, I have been there. Is there somewhere else you’d recommend?”

They made a date for lunch on Wednesday. Just knowing she had a colleague to talk to loosened the knot in Claire’s stomach, though the knots in her shoulders were as tight as ever.

She stared at the computer screen again, sighed, and checked to see what the readings for the next Sunday were. Great. The first part of Matthew 5.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted….

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

Claire looked up at the ceiling so as to give said Father In Heaven a piece of her mind. Really? You want me to preach on this, after everything I have been through in the last two days? The freaking Beatitudes? She laid her head on the desk, mumbled a prayer for help, and got out her commentaries on Matthew.

After getting an idea for the direction of the sermon, she started to write the prayers for the bulletin. When she started on the prayer of confession, the knots in her shoulders started to loosen up.

Holy and wise God, we are your imperfect people. Forgive us when we keep secrets from each other. Forgive us when we lie to one another. Forgive us when we think we are more special than others. Make us humble in your sight, and help us to repent of our false ways. This we pray in the name of Jesus, the light of the world who exposed all the dark corners and tunnels. Amen.

Okay, she thought, I can’t use that but it sure felt good to write it. Claire gave it another try.

Gracious God, we need your help, for often we get it wrong rather than right. We hide our light; we hide the good that we do; we do not give you credit for the blessings in our lives. We conceal the truth from those we love, and we do not admit the fullness of who we are. Help us. Help us turn away from what is false toward you, the One who is true. This we pray in the name of the One who forgives us, again and again, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Claire finished up the first draft of the bulletin, and then called Bill and Gladys.

“Gladys? It’s Claire Grayson. Is this a good time?”

“Oh, Claire, it’s good to hear your voice.”

“I missed you in church yesterday and I thought I’d check to see if everything is okay, not that it’s not okay to miss church.”

“Actually, Bill was feeling pretty low yesterday, and he’s never much of one for those choir presentations. He prefers a sermon.”

“Well, it’s been a while since we caught up. Could I come by for a visit some time this week?”

“Are you free this afternoon?”

They agreed Claire would stop by around 2:00.

Claire went home to get some lunch and let Rex out, and as she sat down to her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she congratulated herself for getting through the morning. One step at a time, she thought: one step at a time.

 

Chapter Thirteen

In which Claire calls on the Hills

As Claire pulled up to Bill and Gladys’ house, she remembered how much she loved that space. If I were sick, I would want to recover here, she thought.

“Claire! Thank you so much for coming over. Come on in.”

“Thanks, Gladys. I appreciate the invitation.”

“Not at all. Between us, I think Bill has been wanting to talk with you but he wasn’t sure how to make the first move. This is perfect.”

Claire went in, and found Bill sitting in a beautiful Stickley rocker in the front room.

“Hi, Bill. It’s good to see you.” That wasn’t exactly true; Claire was glad to see Bill but he looked a bit worse for the chemo treatments he was undergoing.

“Claire, you’re my favorite liar. Have a seat. Glad? You joining us?”

“Do you want me to?”

“There are no secrets between us.”

And so they talked. They talked about Meri and Junie. They talked about the house. They talked about Gladys and Emma’s baking adventures. They talked about St. Rahab’s things, funny stories, sad stories, good pastors, bad pastors, crises and celebrations. And after a good hour, they started talking about Bill’s cancer.

“As you know, Claire, the lung cancer I have is one of the bad ones. It moves fast and it’s hard to treat. I’m doing the chemo because I’m not ready to give up, but I know the odds aren’t good. Glad and I are trying to make sense of what it might mean if this is my last six months. We’ve told the girls, of course – no sense in keeping it from them. We will do what we can, but there will be no heroics here. I have had an amazing life, and my faith is stronger than ever.”

To her embarrassment, Claire found herself choking up. Bill was such a decent man, and as she had discovered, his bark was much worse than his bite. The thought of losing that decency, and his kind truthfulness, was a bit much.

“Bill. Oh, Bill, I am so sorry you have this cancer but I have to tell you, the way you’re dealing with this is inspiring.”

“I just don’t believe we make the world a better place when we hide the truth about things, especially about the hard things. When I was first diagnosed, Glad and I talked about not telling the girls right away, and keeping it from our friends at church, but that just didn’t feel right. I can’t undo this cancer, and you can’t undo this cancer. I’m going to feel worse before I feel better, if I ever do feel better. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some good come out of this.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Stop by and visit – but for God’s sake, not every week. My girls know I hate hovering. Keep me in your prayers. Bring Emma by now and then for Glad. Hell, for me too. That’s a great kid you’ve got there.”

By the time Claire left the Hills, she knew she was done for the day. “Trystene? It’s Claire. Say, I’m going to call it a day, so I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, Pastor Claire. How was Bill Hill?”

“He’s doing just fine.”

“If anyone can beat cancer, Bill Hill can. That man is determined.”

“You’re sweet to think of him, Trystene. Have a good night.”

“You too. Bye.”

Claire resisted the temptation to take a nap, knowing that would mess up the good night’s sleep she was hoping to have. She took Rex for a walk instead, and when they got home, she saw she had a voice mail.

“Claire, dear, it’s Alice. I think you and I should probably sit down and have a good chat. I’ll invite Bill Carr, too. Maybe we could do lunch at the Steel Horse Diner – get Sandy to join in the conversation. I’m hoping you’re available Wednesday. Give me a call, dear, and let’s get something on the calendar. We have a lot to talk about.”

Now she owed both Martha and Alice a call. Who was next –Toledo? Would Frank the copier repairman request an audience with her?

True to her word, Claire made dinner that night,  an inelegant scrambled eggs with toast and jelly.  As she did the dishes after dinner, she started thinking about her conversation with Bill and Gladys. She’d never been very good at first impressions, and she was glad that Bill Hill proved to be a very different sort of man than the one she’d first met. He was not the first of her parishioners to face cancer; she’d lost count of how many of her people had lost their hair and gotten the sores. Some lived. Some didn’t. Some faced their illness with courage and some went any way but gently into that good night.

She thought about the integrity of Bill and Gladys’ marriage, and they way they cared for each other and had courage together. I’d like that someday, Claire thought. If I ever marry again, it will be for that. Otherwise I’d rather be alone.

She stood at the sink, her hands deep in soapy water, and thought about the honesty with which Bill dealt with his lung cancer.  And then it hit her.  Of all the virtues that Alice and Bill Carr and their merry band of spies extolled, honesty was not one of them. In fact, their entire operation was founded on one big deceit.

She dried her hands and called Alice.

“Hi, Alice, it’s Claire. I got your message and yes, we should definitely talk. I’m not available for lunch on Wednesday. Could you come by the office on Thursday afternoon? 1:30? I will tell Bill Carr myself. Thanks. I’ll see you then.”

The knots in her shoulders loosened just a tiny bit more.

 

Chapter Fourteen

In which Jakki takes Claire to lunch

Claire and Jakki pulled up in the parking lot at the same time. “I know it doesn’t look like much, right in the middle of a strip mall, but trust me when I say this is the best Italian food for miles.”

“I’m sure it’s great. Thanks for the introduction.”

Cinghiale was, in fact, a fabulous Italian restaurant. It was so named because of the stuffed wild boar –a cinghiale – in the front picture window and because the boar stew was one of their specialties. But the stew was a little heavy for lunch, so Claire ordered the caprese salad with a chicken breast. She made a mental note to bring Emma for dinner some day.

“So, Claire, how is it going? Ready to quit yet?”

Claire smiled. She knew that Jakki had served a few pastorates in the city, and some of them were pretty tough. It was rather remarkable the woman had kept her sunny (if a bit flowery) outlook on things.

“Well, I hit that wall a few weeks ago – you know, where you wonder why you left a perfectly good life to try something new with no guarantee it will work. But there have been bright spots along the way. There are some terrific, kind people at the church, and my kid is doing great. And our secretary, Trystene, is fantastic.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. I just started an interim position at St. Mark’s, and the secretary there, Denise, used to be the secretary at St. Rahab’s. She said she got treated terribly there and finally quit. I think Dale’s slide into dementia was really hard on her, and she couldn’t stand the sexton. She thought he was sabotaging her work somehow. Anyway, I’ve been there all of two weeks and she seems great, so I don’t know what happened over at your place. Sometimes it’s just not a good fit, you know?”

If you only knew, Claire thought. “Well, I’m not saying there aren’t a few administrative hiccups that need to be ironed out, but I try to treat Trystene well, and really so far, she’s very very good. I’m glad that Denise landed in a better place. So tell me about St. Mark’s.”

Their lunch lasted two hours, filled with denominational gossip, a suggestion for a hairdresser, and getting to know each other a little bit. By the end of lunch Claire wasn’t sure that Jakki would ever become her best friend (as she thought she was in the market for a new one) but she knew she would be a solid and trusted colleague. Still, she couldn’t trust her entirely. Not yet, anyway.

When Claire returned to the office, Bill Carr knocked on the door. “Claire, do you have a moment?”

“Yes, Bill. Come in. And close the door, please.”

Bill sat down in the chair on the other side of her desk, the same chair he had sat in the night she walked in on him and Alice.

“I appreciate your not firing me – yet. I understand that you feel betrayed and deceived, and none of us ever wanted that to happen. But I also need you to know that you are the first pastor in a long time to know about us, and we’re not sure what to do with that.”

“Well, I most certainly hope you’re not planning to create a little accident.”

“Claire, that’s not what we do. We are about doing good in the world, not adding to its misery.”

“And what about the fact that you’re adding dishonesty to the world? What about that, Bill? What about the fact that you sabotage the work of other decent staff members here, and never take the blame? What about the fact that what you do costs people their jobs? Tell me, Mr. Moral Spy, how you reconcile that?”

“Claire, I really do want to talk with you about this but now is not the right time. I understand you’re meeting with Alice tomorrow. Could I join you two then?”

Claire thought about it for a minute. Might as well get this over with. “Yes, you can join us tomorrow. And you will have a job for another week – but if I come in on Sunday and the bulletins are wrong, you can just hand me your keys and I will gladly write you your last paycheck. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Thank you, Claire. Have a good rest of your day.”

Claire was still fuming when she got home. All the peace she felt after lunch with Jakki vanished. To make matters worse, Emma was in one of her moods.

“Hi, honey. How was your day?”

“Oh, fan-freaking-tastic. Let’s see where do I start? I had no clean underwear because evidently you forgot that that is one of your chores. Then I missed the bus and had to walk and I forgot my phone so I couldn’t call you to ask for a ride. Then I forgot that my English assignment was due and it’s a letter grade off for every day late. Then Marsala and I had a fight, and it was a crappy day and I just wish we hadn’t moved and I hate my life.”

“You know what? I had a crappy day too. I wish we hadn’t moved. I’m not loving my life a whole lot right now either.”

“Fine. Whatever. I’m going up to my room.”

“Fine.”

That went well, Claire thought. “Come on, Rexie, let’s go for a walk. At least you still love us both.”

Claire and Emma were silent as they ate their grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, but when Emma brought out the toffee shortbread squares she made when she got home from school, Claire knew that all was forgiven.

“Honey, I’m sorry you had such a bad day. And I’m sorry I wasn’t very sympathetic earlier.”

“It’s okay. I wasn’t very nice to you either.”

“One good thing about today – another pastor took me to lunch at this fabulous Italian restaurant. I think we should go there for dinner on Friday. Deal?”

“Deal. Morag.” Emma kissed her mother on the cheek and went upstairs to finish her homework. Rex bounded up the stairs after her.

Claire smiled and had another shortbread.

 

Chapter Fifteen

In which Claire meets with Alice and Bill

“How are you doing, dear?”

“How do you expect me to be doing, Alice? I just left my whole world and dragged my child through a huge change only to find out that the congregation I thought I would love and serve for a long time is not at all what it appeared to be.”

“I understand that, Claire. I really do. Hear us out. Give us a chance.”

“We have about an hour, so you should probably get started.”

Alice began. “My mother was widowed when I was in grade school and life was tough growing up. But Mother was rather extraordinary about some things, and she insisted all six of her children finish high school. I had hoped to go to college and study nursing, but there was no money and there weren’t the kind of scholarships back then that there are now. I had always liked medical things, so I went to work as an orderly at the hospital. And that’s what changed my life.

“At 18 I was the low man on the totem pole, so I got the night shift. My partner those first few months was an older African American gentleman named Sam. Sam had worked for years as an orderly, but given the color of his skin and the prejudice that ran rampant back then, the best he could do was the night shift.

“Sam was amazing. He had a heart of gold and the patience of a saint. In the three months we worked together, I never once heard him raise his voice to a patient or a staff member. There was something about him that let people trust him right away.

“I asked him how he was able to be so kind, because people were anything but kind to him. Some refused to let a black man touch them. Some called him awful names. One morning as he was leaving work he saw that someone had let the air out of his tires. But he never retaliated, he never called anyone a name they deserved; he was always, always kind.

“He told me that his kindness came in part from his faith. He had been raised going to church and believing in God; he knew his Bible back and forth. More than that, though, he once received help during a crisis and that changed him. He had been fifteen and all alone, and in desperation he went to the biggest, most intimidating church he could find. A mighty fortress, he called it.

“It was St. Rahab’s. He met Reverend Bouvier who took him in and patched him up and helped him find the job. Reverend Bouvier, they say, was an extraordinary judge of character and when he felt Sam was ready, he told him about the Saints of Francis – that’s our formal name, by the way, the Saints of Francis.

“Reverend Bouvier asked Sam to step in when someone was in trouble – to offer what he could which most often was kindness. You’d be amazed how far simple kindness can go to tend the wounds of the world. As Sam grew into his role, he realized he didn’t need to go far in his secret work. Desperate, terrifying, destitute, angry people came through those hospital doors every day, and especially every night. And Sam was there.

“Sam saw potential in my eighteen-year-old self. Maybe it was my own hardships that made him think I could be trained to offer light in the darkness. Reverend Bouvier was long gone by the time I went to St. Rahab’s, and later pastors were not told about the Saints. Back in the early 60’s, African Americans were still not welcomed at our church; Sam never attended, but came in through the tunnels. I, being a young white woman, was welcomed with open arms. It was a terrible segregation.

“So I started attending church in the morning and Saints meetings at night. I got promoted to the day shift at the hospital, and eventually was given a scholarship to study nursing. It was at the hospital that I met Garrett; he was my patient and the rules weren’t as strict back then as they are now. He said once he got well and left the hospital, he was going to give me a call. He did, and forty-eight years later, here we are, this old married couple.

“I’ve been with the Saints of Francis for forty-nine years. My role has grown as I have – I worked locally when my children were younger and once they were out of the house, I began travelling around the country and a few times internationally. Garrett doesn’t know – he thinks I am the consummate church maven going to ladies’ meetings, and I haven’t seen fit to tell him the truth.”

Claire sat in silence for a few moments. It was a compelling story and Claire sensed that Alice was telling the truth. Claire felt torn now – she was this woman’s pastor, and in that regard wanted to honor her story. At the same time, she hated the fact that Alice and the others had lied to her and so many.

“Thank you for that, Alice. Bill, I suppose it’s your turn.”

“I’m not a man of many words, Claire, but I figure we all owe you some kind of explanation. Sam was my uncle, and when I was a kid he saw me making some choices and hanging out with some people that weren’t going to do me any good. So he told me about the Saints and I started doing their work. When the sexton job at St. Rahab’s opened up I applied and got it. This place is everything to me – my work and my avocation.

“I think we are doing good, Claire. I know we are helping people. Half the time they have no idea what we’ve done. We intervene in subtle ways, and offer hope and help. All of us – Alice, me, Frank, Sandy, Toledo – all of us know what it’s like to have a second chance because of the Saints. We do this work to give back, to make the world a little more hopeful.”

Claire again sat in silence after Bill finished. She could not argue with the truth that these people were doing good, and making sacrifices to help others. But she also could not argue with the truth that they were all engaged in a deep subterfuge that hurt others.

“I appreciate the time you have both given me, as I hope you appreciate the time I have given you. I need to sit with this. For the time being, Bill, you still have a job. And now I’m sure we all have other things we need to tend to.”

“Thank you, dear.”

“Thank you, Claire.”

After they left Claire closed the door and stared out her window. She was entirely confounded about what to do and what to think. Then Trystene buzzed on the intercom.

“Pastor Claire? I just saw Alice leave. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure, Trystene; come in. Actually, I’ll come out to you.”

Claire studied Trystene’s desk; it was a marvel of organization and cleanliness. Everything was in a pile; there were no dust bunnies procreating under the keyboard. Things that tended to walk off, like the church directory, were clearly labeled “OFFICE COPY: DO NOT REMOVE  🙂”. It was the illusion of order in a world full of chaos. Claire felt better immediately.

“So Robbie and I were talking this weekend and we would really love to have you and Emma over for dinner sometime soon. I don’t know if that’s weird, having the boss over and everything, but I’d like Robbie to get to know Emma and I thought we might enjoy a meal, us two single moms. I totally understand if you need to say no.”

“We would love to; thank you, Trystene. When were you thinking?”

“Is a week from Friday possible?”

“It’s a date. Let me know what we can bring.”

“I hear Emma’s been taking baking lessons from Gladys Hill. Why don’t you bring dessert?”

When Claire went home that night and told Emma about their Friday night dinner date, Emma rolled her eyes. Claire assured her that neither she nor Trystene were trying to set them up; Emma could probably eat Robbie for breakfast.

“Alright. I guess. But we will have a signal if I want to leave if he’s too creepy. Deal?”

“Deal.”

 

Chapter Sixteen

In which Claire and Emma receive a visitor

Saturday afternoon found Claire sitting in her bed, laptop in her lap, finishing the next day’s sermon. Emma was in the kitchen, trying to figure out the recipe for a dessert they’d had at Cinghiale the night before. She thought it might be good to take to Trystene and Robbie’s on Friday.

The doorbell rang.

“Ems ? Can you get it? Rex is snuggled up with me and I can’t move.”

“Nice excuse, Morag.”

Claire heard Emma open the front door, and then squeal.

“Auntie Martha! Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s you! Did you and Mom plan a surprise? Oh my gosh! I am so glad to see you! How long are you staying? Please tell me you’re staying with us! Rex, down! This is our dog, Rex. He loves you already. Rexie, down!”

“Hi, sweetie! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes! Your mom didn’t know anything about this – it’s my big surprise! I hope to stay with you guys a couple of nights, if that’s okay. Where is your mom anyway?”

“Mom! You’ll never guess who’s here!”

As if I can’t hear anything, Claire thought. I guess I should have listened to Martha’s voicemail.

“Martha – this is a surprise.”

“Hi, doll. Yeah, well, I left you a message.”

“Did you? I guess I forgot to listen to it.”

Emma watched her mother and her mother’s best friend engage in a strange and strangled conversation. “Um, I’m in the middle of cooking something and I’m going to go back to the kitchen. I’ll probably be there for a while. And I’ll be running the mixer so I won’t be able to hear anything. Like, if you needed me or something.”

Claire shot Emma a grateful look and watched her go to the kitchen, then turned to Martha.

“Really? You just show up on my doorstep with my daughter standing right there? I haven’t said a word to her. Thank you so much for putting me in this position.”

“Listen, Claire, I will be in town for a few days, and I can stay at a hotel if you would prefer. I miss you. I miss Emma. And you and I are overdue for a long conversation.”

In the course of the next ten seconds, Claire’s mind went into overdrive. There’s a part of me that never wants to see Martha again. There’s a part of me that wants to scream at her and another that wants to hear everything she has to say. I do not want to take her away from Emma, who adores her and needs an adult woman like Martha in her life. I hate her. I love her. I am furious with her.

I have to forgive her. I have to.

“Okay, you can stay here. The pull-out couch in the living room is the best we can offer.”

“Thanks, Claire. I promise I will be as honest as I can be with you.”

“That would be a nice change. I need about fifteen minutes more on my sermon. Why don’t you go into the kitchen and catch up with Emma for a bit.”

Claire returned to her office/bed and worked on the last paragraph of the Beatitudes sermon.

The beatitudes are as revolutionary today as they were when Jesus spoke them two thousand years ago, and in hearing them again, we are invited to become rebels for God. So I challenge all of us to live by the beatitudes. Pick one, and every day, live by those words. Be a peacemaker on the playground, at the office, around the dinner table. Pass the salt,  light the candles, and be the word Jesus utters this day.

Meh, good enough, Claire thought. Now to go practice what I preach.

“What are you two up to?”

“I was telling Auntie Martha about Cinghiale and the dessert we had there.”

“Sounds delicious.”

“Oh, I think you’ll get to try it once Emma figures out the recipe.”

Martha, true to form, brought a great bottle of wine that paired perfectly with the stew Claire had put in the slow cooker that morning. As the three ate dinner, Claire’s fury melted away and her longing to talk to her best friend grew.

“Hey Mom? Marsala invited me over to watch a movie. I know it’s kinda late, but can I go? I promise I’ll be home by midnight.”

“That’s fine. Just text me when you leave her house.”

“Deal. Bye. Bye, Auntie Martha. I’m so psyched you’re here!”

The door clicked close, and Martha turned to Claire. “Do you want to talk now or do the dishes first?”

“Let’s do the dishes. I suspect that once we start talking we won’t stop till Emma gets home.”

“She seems really good. God, she’s a great kid.”

“I know. Most days I just try not to screw things up.”

“But you will, you know.”

“Yes, I know. And then I’ll send her to live with you.”

“So you’ve forgiven me?”

“Not entirely. But I’m working on it, because Jesus told me I have to.”

The wine glasses were drying on the counter and the dishwasher was humming. Rex had settled himself into Claire’s lap, and Martha began.

“Claire, the first thing I want you to know is that it was a happy accident that we met at that yoga class and became friends. I really do work at the State Department, and my job informs my work with the Saints of Francis, but the two are distinct things. I had nothing to do with your getting the job at St. Rahab’s – again, it was a happy coincidence.

“But yes, I knew that you were coming to serve a church that is one of our hubs. And Alice did ask me about you, once she found out we were friends. I’ve known Alice and Bill Carr and Sandy for about ten years. Frank is new to the group.

“And Toledo. Oh, Toledo. Before I moved to Minneapolis, Toledo and I were engaged. Tom – that’s what his close friends call him – Tom and I met in D.C. We started dating, and we fell in love, and we moved in together. We agreed we wanted to get married, but the reality of the demands of our jobs and of the Saints was too much. Neither of us was willing to quit, and I was going to be transferred, and he wasn’t willing to move and I wasn’t willing to stay where I was, so we ended things. But he is a really, really great guy. If I were to be perfectly honest, I would say there’s a part of me that’s still in love with him. But the fates have something else in mind, I guess. You weren’t supposed to find out any of this.”

“But I did.”

“Yes, you did, and now we all have to figure out what to do next. Have you made any decisions?”

“Not yet.”

“I think you should talk to Tom.”

“We’ll see about that. Here’s the thing, Martha: you all say you are doing all this good in the world, but you are hurting people along the way. You’re lying to them. You lied to me, your best friend. How do you reconcile that? ‘Cause it seems to me you’re all hypocrites. How many secretaries at St. Rahab’s were forced to quit because of your little bulletin pranks? Those women needed those jobs.”

“Does it help to know that we were part of them finding new jobs?”

“A tiny bit. But really, it’s the pretense of the whole thing. Inedible Prune Drop cookies? The church tunnels? Toledo’s accent? What the hell is that all about?”

“I know there’s a lot to explain and it’s going to take a while. Part of the pretense, as you call it, is our way of dealing with really hard and tragic and frustrating work. We help people who are at the end of their rope. Sometimes they let go, and we are left feeling useless and incompetent. Sometimes we fail. The silly stuff is just a way to lighten the load. I know it’s not much of an excuse. But there it is.”

Claire understood more than she wanted to admit. In the first church she served she was an associate pastor, and her colleague had a wicked sense of humor. The church also housed an AIDS clinic in Sunday School rooms that hadn’t been used in decades. The pastors were the de facto chaplains to the patients there, and the work was often heartbreaking.

Because there was an AIDS clinic on the premises, there were free condoms in every bathroom. (That had been an interesting discussion in the church council.) One year Claire came back from vacation and hanging from her ceiling were dozens of condom balloons, a festive – and safe – welcome back. It would have been funnier if the condoms hadn’t been pre-lubricated.

Claire understood that some tension needed to be cut with a knife (or popped like a condom balloon.)

Their conversation went on until Claire’s phone chimed and Emma texted that she was on her way home. Claire and Martha made up the folding bed, greeted Emma and said goodnight. Claire told Martha they would talk more after church.

“Wait a second. Is there a meeting tomorrow?”

“Yes, but just of the core group. I promise the bulletins will be fine and there will be no Prune Drop cookies.”

“Okay. Well, goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Claire. I do love you, you know.”

“I know. Good night.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

In which Trystene and Robbie entertain

“So what are we taking for dessert?” Claire asked Emma as they got ready to leave for Trystene’s house.

“Well, I tried the dessert we had at Cinghiale but it didn’t set right. Aunt Martha and I tried to fix it, but in the end I went with the turtle brownies. Everybody likes turtle brownies, and they’re easy to transport. Plus I saved a few for us.”

“You are my brilliant child. I guess it’s time to go.”

Trystene and Robbie lived on the outskirts of town, on the other side of the river and down a considerable freeway. Claire and Emma missed the worse of the Friday night traffic, but they did have some good car talk time. They caught up on school for Emma and church for Claire.

“Mom, is Bill Hill going to die?”

“We’re all going to die, but he might die before we’d like, honey. The kind of cancer he has is pretty aggressive. The odds aren’t in his favor, but as Trystene said to me the other day, if anyone can beat cancer, Bill Hill can.”

“I hope he doesn’t die. I mean, what would Gladys do without him? Not that she needs him; I mean, she’s totally able to do everything. But they love each other so much. They just like being with each other, you know?”

“I know. If you ever get married, marry someone that you love to be with. You couldn’t do much better than having Bill and Gladys as role models.”

“Do you ever think about getting married again?”

“Sometimes. It’s not like I feel my life is incomplete – with you and Rex and the church, it really feels kind of full. But especially since we moved and I don’t have any good friends nearby, I miss having a deep friendship, whether it’s with someone like Martha or with someone I could fall in love with.”

“Mom, did you and Aunt Martha have a fight or something? It was weird that day she arrived. I mean, it seemed like you weren’t all that happy to see her.”

The perils of having a perceptive kid, Claire thought.

“We had had a disagreement and that was the first time we had talked or seen each other since the disagreement. We worked most of it out while she was visiting, though. Martha will always be a part of both of our lives. I just need to figure out what it means to be friends when we live thousands of miles apart. And you need to figure out what it means to have an honorary aunt who lives thousands of miles away.”

“Yeah, but there’s email and Skype.”

“Yes, and airplanes. We’ll figure it out. Okay, here’s our exit. Are you ready for Robbie?”

“Sure, Morag.”

There was nothing fancy about Trystene’s house. It was a simple ranch built in a subdivision of other simple ranch houses in the 1970’s. But the lawn was mowed and potted plants dotted the doorway.  Claire had the sense that it wasn’t just a house but Trystene’s home.

“You made it! Come on in. I thought maybe I should’ve asked you over for Saturday when the traffic’s not so bad, but I think maybe Saturday nights aren’t so good for pastors. Anyway, I’m really glad you’re both here. Emma, Robbie is going to feel a little shy at first so go easy on him, okay? What’s that –brownies? Listen, he’s in the living room. Take him a brownie – take one for yourself too. That should break the ice.”

“Thanks, Trystene. Which way do I go?”

Trystene pointed down the hall. “So Claire, I know it’s November and a little chilly but I made my specialty drink for us. The Kiwitini. I have this kiwi vine in the back and in the summer it is out of control. When the last fruits ripen, I peel them and freeze them so that all winter long I can enjoy my favorite cocktail. Are you game?”

“Sure. I will admit I’ve never had one, but I’m in an adventurous mood!”

Claire sat on a stool at the kitchen island; Emma and Robbie were in the room on the other side of the dining room. She heard low voices and then some laughter. Okay, they’re good.

“Can I help with anything?”

“My mom says this is a one-butt kitchen – small, but it gets the job done! No, I’m fine. What do think of the Kiwitini?”

“It’s quite good but I think I need to pace myself!”

“Don’t worry – I only made enough for each of us to have one and a half. Don’t need my boss landing in jail.”

Trystene was perfectly at ease entertaining the boss in her one-butt kitchen. She’s such a genuine person, Claire thought. She knows who she is; she doesn’t pretend to be anything she’s not. I’m glad I get to work with her.

“I thought I’d keep it simple tonight – mac and cheese – the REAL kind, not that crap out of the box. Green salad. Green beans, ‘cause Robbie loves them. The brownies will be the perfect end.”

“It sounds great. You’re very kind to have us over, Trystene.”

“We get so busy at work I thought it might be a nice way to get to know each other. So what do you think of all of this?”

They talked through the grating of the cheese, the boiling of the noodles, the assembling of the casserole, and the browning of the top. By the time dinner was ready, Claire knew all about Trystene – a native of the city who had her AA degree in desktop publishing. Robbie was twelve when Trystene divorced her “cheating son-of-a-bitch” husband, who paid no child support and sent Robbie $20 on his birthday and Christmas. She had lots of family around – parents, brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews.

“Robbie! Emma! Dinner’s ready! What do you think those two have been up to?”

The kids entered the room laughing. “Mom, guess what? Emma’s a Harry Potter geek too! We made up this totally fun game. Rock-paper-scissors Harry Potter. Emma, let’s show them.”

They faced each other and said together, “Rock paper scissors –
Robbie said, “Molly Weasley” as Emma said, “Pansy Parkinson.”

Emma laughed. “Molly Weasley would totally take Pansy Parkinson. You win that round.”

They sat down and served family style. Trystene gave Robbie and look and then waited.  Claire gave Emma a look and waited. Finally Emma said, “Um, is someone supposed to pray?”

“Not me,” Robbie said.

Claire said a quick grace and they dug into the mac and cheese.

“Oh my God, Trystene, this is so much better than that junk from the box. Did you put mustard powder in it?”

“Just a bit, and a little garlic powder too.”

The conversation was lively, and after dinner Robbie and Emma started in on a vicious game of Harry Potter trivia. Claire asked if she could help with the dishes, and Trystene reminded her there was room for only one butt.

“So Claire, if you don’t mind my asking, what happened to your ex-husband? Was he a lying, cheating bastard like mine?”

“Actually, Trystene, he died when Emma was a baby.”

“Oh Jesus. I’m sorry. I mean I’m sorry for saying ‘oh Jesus’ and I’m sorry for putting my big foot in my big mouth. I had no idea. God, that must have been hard.”

“It was not the best time of my life, no. But we’ve managed.”

As they drove home, Claire asked Emma if she had a good time.

“Much better than I thought I would. Robbie’s kind of a doof, but he’s really sweet and he knows Harry Potter stuff better than I do. I think he could be my friend. I mean, not like a boyfriend friend but a friend. His dad sounds kinda like a dick, though.”

“Emma!”

“Come on, Mom – it’s not like you don’t know the word. I’m just saying he doesn’t seem to care about his kid at all. Twenty dollars at Christmas. Jeez.”

“Not everyone is meant to be a father, I guess.”

“That’s such a pastor thing to say. Why can’t you just admit he’s a jerk?”

“Because, honey, I don’t know the man. I don’t know his story. I believe that Robbie and Trystene have been really hurt by him. But maybe there’s a reason he is the way he is.”

“What was my dad like? You don’t really talk about him much.”

“Do you remember him at all?”

“No. I just have that one picture.”

“We were young when we got married. He was charming and smart and a smart ass. He was always a good time, and as the saying goes, women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be him.”

“I hate that he died when I was a baby.”

“Me too.”

 

Chapter Eighteen

In which Claire and Emma visit Martha after Christmas

Trystene and Robbie invited Claire and Emma to join Trystene’s extended family for Thanksgiving dinner. It was unlike any Thanksgiving they had ever had. Usually they made cinnamon rolls for breakfast, stayed in their pajamas all day, did a movie marathon, and had roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, Brussel sprouts, and pecan pie for dinner.

This year was different. Trystene’s parents lived on a ten-acre farm about 45 minutes outside of town. The house wasn’t fancy, but the dining room was big enough for the big table with all its leaves plus two more card tables added at the end. There was no kids’ table. There was, however, the buffet, a makeshift contraption of 2×4’s and plywood that rested on the back of the couch. Once the football game was over, the buffet was created and soon laden with turkey, ham, goose, three gravies, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and oranges, green bean casserole, roasted green beans, roasted Brussel sprouts, creamed corn, oyster stew, green salad, fruit salad, jello salad, biscuits, rolls, ciabatta, butter, margarine, blackberry freezer jelly, and Irish soda bread.

Trystene’s Kiwitinis started the feast and Emma’s pumpkin with Chinese five-spice powder cheesecake ended it. As they left, Claire thanked Trystene’s parents effusively and genuinely, and asked if they would just give her and Emma a little push; they were so full they could just roll home.

“Claire, dear, might I have word?” Alice stuck her head in Claire’s office the Monday after Thanksgiving.

“Sure. Come in. Should I close the door?”

“Perhaps, yes, that would be good. Listen, dear, I wanted to let you know that the Saints take an extended holiday during the holidays. We don’t meet so there will be no Prune Drop cookies showing up at coffee hour.”

“Thank you for letting me know. I should also thank you for not messing with the bulletin.”

“When the core group met when Martha was in town in October, we agreed that we could get the word out in a different way. I know you think the world of Trystene. So you see, we’re not all bad, are we?”

Claire smiled ever so slightly. She still had not decided what to do. No series of lists had given her any insight. There were people meeting at her church for covert purposes. Even if their purposes were well-intended, even if what they were doing brought  joy to the world, there was still the fog of all the lies they told.

“Is that what you wanted to see me about, Alice?”

“Not entirely. I wanted to make sure that someone told you about how Christmas Eve works here. We have our traditions and while we on the search committee said we wanted you to try new things, I did want to warn you that Christmas Eve probably had better not be one of them.”

Claire felt grateful as Alice described St. Rahab’s Christmas Eve candlelight service. What they did was beautiful and reverential. Singing. Light and darkness. Candle lighting. Perfect.

“Alice, that will be just fine. Thank you for the warning.”

“So dear, how is Bill Hill doing? I’ve noticed he and Gladys aren’t in church as often as they used to be.”

“They are okay. The treatment has taken a lot out of Bill. I think Gladys would appreciate a call from you.”

“I’ll call her this afternoon. Listen, dear, I know you’re busy. I’ll be off. Toodles!”

Toodles? Claire thought. Dear Lord, help me.

A few weeks later over dinner, Claire announced that she was giving Emma one of her Christmas presents a little early.

“But Mom, we always wait until Christmas to open our presents.”

“I know, but this year is different. Hang on a second.” Claire went to her desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out an envelope calligraphied with “Emma” on the cover.

Emma gave her mother a look and cautiously opened the enveloped. Her eyes got bigger and bigger and then welled up with tears.

“Oh my gosh, we’re going to visit Aunt Martha after Christmas? We’re going back to Minneapolis?  We’re actually going to have a white Christmas? Oh Mom, thank you so much!”

“We both need a break, honey, and Martha invited us when she was visiting this fall. We agreed to keep it a secret from you, but before you made a lot of plans for Christmas break, I wanted to let you know.”

“You are the best! I’ll do the dishes tonight!”

“You will study for exams tonight. I’ve got the dishes. Now go.”

Christmas Eve was as lovely as Claire expected, except for the young man in the congregation who threw up during the prayer. The ushers were on it, and had him out and cleaned up, and the pew cleaned up and roped off, before many realized what had happened.

At the end of “Silent Night”, when all the lights were turned off and everyone in the congregation was illumined by candlelight, Claire stepped into the pulpit and read her favorite Christmas story, the beginning of John’s gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. …   And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

There’s that word again, Claire thought. Truth.

As the introduction to “Joy to the World” began, and as the lights came up, Claire looked out and saw the faces of those who had become quite dear to her. Emma, of course. Bill and Gladys, and Meri and Junie and their families with them. Alice and Garrett and some assortment of their kids. Toledo was there, thankfully in the middle of the pews. Trystene and Robbie were there, with one of her brothers and his family. Bill Carr leaned against the door at the back, and gave Claire a nod and slight smile.

“A very Merry Christmas to you all.”

“And also with you!” a tipsy voice shouted from the back. Everyone laughed, and went home to wrap presents and stuff stockings.

Claire and Emma had planned to spend Christmas day in their pajamas, but at ten the phone rang. “Claire? It’s Gladys. I am so sorry to bother you on Christmas Day, but Bill went to the ER this morning and they’ve admitted him. I know you’re leaving town tomorrow, and I hate to ask, but could you possibly stop by today and say a prayer with him? This latest bout has him a bit spooked.”

“Of course. Will you be there, and would it be okay if I brought Emma with me? She loves you both, you know.”

“Yes, a quick visit from both of you would be the perfect Christmas present. See you soon. And thank you.”

Claire and Emma had breakfast at eleven and then opened presents. Rex pounced among the wrapping paper, ignoring the new toys Santa had brought him. They dressed, and headed to the hospital.

Gladys was outside the room. “They’re just finishing up a few things. Emma, why don’t you come with me? I could use a cup of coffee.”

When the nurse came out of the room, Claire went in.

“Merry Christmas, Bill,” she said softly.

Bill gave her a weak smile. “Gladys shouldn’t have called. But I’m glad she did. Thank you, Claire, for coming by. Listen, I don’t think the Grim Reaper is on Santa’s heels; I will not have shuffled off this mortal coil before you get back from your vacation. And I’m glad you and Emma get some down time. But I did want to tell you that the doc thinks I’ve got a few months, tops. I don’t know how much energy or interest I’ll have in things as I get worse. But I wanted to have a little conversation with you. Think of it as my Christmas present to you.

“You are the best thing that has happened to St. Rabab’s in a long, long time. We – and I mean all of us at the church – we know that you love us, genuinely. You have shared your heart with us without getting all soft about it. You inspire us to care about things and people. The church has been blessed these last six months. And Gladys and I think of you and Emma as family. I just wanted you to know that.”

Claire began to cry. Bill handed her a box of tissues. They sat in silence for a good five minutes while Claire got herself together.

When Gladys and Emma returned, they all held hands while Claire said a prayer. She and Emma wished the Hills a Merry Christmas, and headed home.

“Shall we pack?” Claire asked her daughter.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

The next day Martha met them at the airport in full Christmas regalia. Red and green striped tights, a black knee-length sweater dress, and a velvet hat adorned with holly and ivy.

“Merry Christmas, my dears! Are we going to have fun or what?”

And they did.

Their last night in Minneapolis, Claire and Martha stayed up late talking. The two women had found the rhythm of their friendship again, though it was now underlined by the strange secret they shared.

“What are you going to do about the Saints, Claire?”

“Honestly I don’t know. I’m still so mad about the lies, Martha. I don’t understand why you don’t bring the truth out. What would be so bad? Doing all this good while lying makes you all hypocrites, not saints.”

“Claire, you are my best friend. For months I have heard you go on and on about how hypocritical we are, how we lie, how we undo all the good with do by keeping our light under the bushel. I have accepted the critique as valid. We have changed some of our ways. But my dear darling Morag Claire Grayson, I have now officially had it.”

Claire wasn’t sure she liked where the conversation was headed.

“How dare you accuse us of being lying hypocrites when you’ve never told Emma the truth about her father?”

Part One

CHAPTER ONE

In which the liturgy is wrong, again

The beauty of the midsummer morning light shone through the windows. The ushers were at their posts, bulletins in hand, smiles affixed. The soloist had finished her practice, and the organist was organizing his music at the bench. The pews had yet to be filled, but an energy filled the air.  It was Sunday morning.

 

 

“Why is the goddamn liturgy wrong again?” Bill Hill muttered.

His wife elbowed him sharply. “Bill, please, we are in church. Everyone can hear you.”

“No one can hear me because no one is here yet because no one cares about being on time anymore and no one cares about dressing appropriately for the Lord anymore and no one cares about the goddamn liturgy being right anymore!”

“Oh, so does no one care about swearing in church anymore?”

Gladys Hill had the last word, at least for the moment.

William Meriwether Hill did not suffer fools gladly, especially the holy fools who tinkered with his beloved Sunday service. He was of the generation who knew there was a way that things were to be done. It helped keep things in order, so that there were time and resources to tend to all that needed tending to. And on Sunday morning, when he had made the effort to put on his suit and tie, and comb his hair, and make sure he had both a check and some cash for the offering plate, he did not suffer mistakes or any kind of sloppiness, especially when it came to the liturgy which, in Bill’s mind, was like a rope that kept people well tethered to God.

“Look at this, Gladys – we’re singing an Advent hymn in the middle of summer. An Advent hymn, for Chrissakes.”

Another elbow followed.

“I certainly hope that when the new pastor arrives this sort of thing stops happening. I have my doubts, but I’m willing to give her a chance. She’ll never be like Pastor Dale. Now there was a great man, a great pastor. She’ll have a hard time filling his shoes.”

“Yes, I especially loved it when he would lose his place in the sermon and just start all over again.”

“You know as well as I that the dementia had started setting in.”

“True. And while he was a great pastor the man did not walk on water. As for filling his shoes, you know Pastor Claire is a petite thing. And I bet she has plenty of her own shoes.”

“Hmph. Oh for Pete’s sake, who’s the minister today? I’ll be glad when that new pastor gets here. These substitute preachers are a little too woo-woo for my taste.”

“Bill….”

Fortunately for Bill and Gladys, the prelude had begun and the pews were filling and their conversation came to a merciful end.

 

 

The Reverend Doctor Jacqueline – “Jakki” – Smith-Hastings stood as the prelude ended. “Good morning, dearest brothers and sisters in Christ. Fathoms-deep peace be with you this gorgeous morning as we open our yearning hearts and souls to the goodness of our God.”

Bill rolled his eyes.  Gladys’ elbow was poised at the ready.

“Dearest little lambs of the fold, as we begin our worship I must point out a few errors in the bulletin this morning, and on behalf of the entire church staff, I offer my apologies. We are not singing “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” as our opening hymn. Maybe the secretary was having a little fun with you as you anticipate the much-awaited and joyfully-received arrival of your new – and long expected – pastor. This will be my last Sunday with you and I have enjoyed these last four weeks getting to know you, praying with you, singing and dancing with you, exploring the rainbows of grace that God has showered over this sweet little congregation. Now, let us sing the opening hymn which is number four-thirty-three, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise.”

Bill smiled the smile of the smug as Gladys reached for the hymnal.
Gladys and both her elbows were busy managing a cup of coffee and a purse when Bill saw the array at coffee hour. “Oh dear God, Alice brought her Prune Drop Cookies again. Where’s the damn coffee? I hope the new pastor will sort Alice and her cookies out. I should probably make an appointment to see her as soon as she arrives.”

Alice Weston’s Prune Drop Cookies were a sight to behold, best kept as a sight and never a taste. They were a non-descript brown, about the size of a half-dollar, and lumpy. They looked like they might have been made out of playdough whose colors had all run together and which had then been shaped by a two-year old. They tasted of cardboard and bad memories.

“Morning, Bill, morning, Gladys! How are you two on this fine day?”

“Good morning, Alice. I’m upright and breathing, so I guess I’m just fine. Say, Alice, might I have a word with you about these cookies?”

“Oh, Bill, I’m afraid I have somewhere else I have to be, and you know I don’t share the recipe with anyone. Bye-bye, dears. See you next week. Have a Prune Drop.”

Alice pecked Gladys on the cheek and flitted off. Gladys looked glumly at the platter of cookies. “I wish someone could keep Alice off the sign-up sheet for coffee hour. Honestly, does she not know that no one ever eats those cookies? At least she makes the coffee right.”

Bill smiled at his wife. There were many reasons why they had stayed married for fifty-seven years, and their mutual dislike of Alice Weston’s Prune Drop Cookies was one of them.

“Gladys, promise me one thing. When I die, and you have my service here at St. Rahab’s, that the bulletin will be perfect, and there will be no Prune Drop Cookies at the reception.”

Gladys smiled back, hooked her arm through Bill’s and said, “Let’s go get lunch and dissect Pastor Jakki’s sermon.”
A few blocks away, the Reverend M. Claire Grayson was relishing her last free Sunday. She was surrounded by boxes and newsprint, and the garbage was overflowing with take-out cartons.  Her daughter was still asleep even though it was noon, but Claire felt a deep contentment.

Then again, maybe it was just the calm before the storm.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

In which the new pastor has her first Sunday

“Mom. I can’t find my brush.”

“Where did you leave it?”

“If I knew where I left it, then I could find it, couldn’t I. Ugh. Why do I have to go church?  I hate the first Sunday. All those people looking at me, trying to decide if I’ll be their kid’s favorite new babysitter or if I’m a Satan-worshipping drug addict who’s secretly pregnant.”

“Emma, I really don’t need this this morning.”

“Oh alright, Morag.”

Emma knew full well that her mother hated her first name and went instead by the lovelier and less Scottish Claire. Emma also knew that her mother never told anyone what the M stood for, and in every church she had ever served, the only one who knew her first name was the person who processed the payroll. Emma secretly hoped that her mother feared she would tell everyone what the M stood for. It was one of her few bargaining chips, but she thought it a pretty good one.

Having her first name disclosed was the last thing on Claire’s mind. She had accepted the call to be pastor of St. Rahab’s six weeks earlier, and the time between had been spent saying good-bye, making apologies, selling a house, buying a house, packing, moving, putting down the eighteen-year-old cat who developed kidney failure two days before the moving van showed up, and crying in her driveway as her best friend drove away after the moving van had left.
Claire and Emma enjoyed their road trip, mostly. Emma kept asking mother if they could rent handguns and do target practice like Thelma and Louise, but Claire told her since they were nowhere near the Grand Canyon, that would not be their story. When Emma got bored or tired or hungry, she would ask her mother why they hadn’t brought the cat with them.

“Honey, the cat died.”

“I know.”

“We couldn’t bring him.”

“Why not? It’s not like he’s going to run out and get hit by a car.”

“Let’s think about this for about five seconds. Dead animal. Hot car. Fifteen hundred miles.”

“Yeah. So?”

“Decay. Rot. Purification. Smell. Honda Civic.”

“Jeez, okay, you made your point. You don’t have to get all Night of the Living Dead about it.”

Claire sighed and thought, not for the last time, that single-parenting a fifteen year old was not for the faint of heart. They survived the road trip, Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, and all of Montana.
Emma thought their new house would be okay. Her room was upstairs, in a renovated attic, and she had the whole top floor to herself. The ceilings sloped with the roofline and the floors sloped toward the center of the room. She had windows on three sides, and a decent closet, and a tiny balcony off the west side window. There was a laundry chute which she thought was cool, and a ceiling fan and wall sconces out of the 1940’s. For the life of her, Claire couldn’t figure out why someone would renovate an attic and put wall sconces in a space that was clearly meant to be a bedroom, but it wasn’t her room and if her kid was happy, she was happy.

Claire liked the house fine. What she most liked was that she had found it, could afford it, and that it was close but not too close to the church. She figured she owed Emma something for uprooting her before tenth grade, so she gave her the cool upstairs room and took the smaller bedroom with only one window for herself. The queen bed, the dresser, and the vanity fit.

It wasn’t as though she needed more space. It wasn’t as though she needed a king size bed. It wasn’t as though there was anyone who’d be sharing it with her any time soon. Because nothing scares off a man like “single mom pastor looking for love.”
Claire gave herself the once-over before heading out. At 5’2″ with dark brown hair in a pixie cut, she looked younger than she was, but she thought that more often than not worked to her advantage. She had chosen her favorite dress for her first Sunday, a linen shift in a purply shade of blue that complimented her dark brown eyes. She stuck to safe earrings, the gold posts. With an assessment of “good enough” she gathered her bag and sermon and set out.

The service began at 10:30, and Claire arrived at church at 9:00. As she made her way from the parking lot to the door, an older man came across to her, a set smile on his face.

“Pastor Claire?”

“Yes, hello!  Please remind me of your name.”

“William Meriwhether Hill, but most people call me Bill.”

“Bill, it is good to see you again.”

“So tell me, Pastor Claire, is it your intention to arrive at church at 9:00 on Sunday mornings, or were you running late today?”

“Well, Bill, I hadn’t really given it much thought.”

“Because Pastor Dale would arrive at 7:30 on Sunday mornings, to make sure there was toilet paper in the bathrooms and to start the coffee and to greet people as they came in.”

“That’s odd, because I thought the church had a sexton on staff.”

“Bill Carr? Sure. He’s around on Sunday morning too. But Pastor Dale always double-checked his work.”

“Thank you, Bill, for letting me know your thoughts on this. I’m going to go get ready for church, if that’s okay with you.”

“Certainly. Good luck this morning. We’re all expecting a lot from you.”

“We don’t believe in luck, you know. We believe in God’s providence.”

Bill could practically feel Gladys’s elbow in his ribs.
Claire took in a deep breath. That did not go well. It was certainly not how she wanted to start. Bill Hill, Bill Hill. She couldn’t remember meeting him as part of the interview process. She’d be on the lookout for him. Ten to one, he calls tomorrow to make an appointment to come talk to me, she thought.

She let herself in the office. Standing by the copier was Bill Carr, the church sexton.

“Good morning. You’re Bill, right?”

“Yes ma’am, Reverend Grayson. Welcome officially to St. Rahab’s.”

“Please call me Claire. And thank you. That’s the warmest welcome I’ve had so far today.”

Bill chuckled. “Saw Bill Hill meet you in the parking lot. Don’t mind him. A lot of bark, but very little bite. He knows a bit about the church here. Not everything, but a lot of stuff that will help out the new pastor.”

“So who does know everything?”

“Beats me.”

Bill Carr was a rangy guy, and Claire couldn’t place his age. He could be forty, he could be sixty. There was a Denzel Washington twinkle in his eyes, and Claire couldn’t tell if it was a friendly twinkle or a mischievous one. But he was clean-shaven, dressed in clothes ready to unclog a toilet or mop up, so already he was light years ahead of her last church sexton.  All the same, she hoped she was done with Bills for the day.
Bill Hill noted that the bulletin was perfect, although he did purse his lips when Alice Weston stood up to speak as the prelude ended.

“Good morning, St. Rahabites! Today is a great day in the life of our church as we welcome our sixteenth pastor, the Reverend M. Claire Grayson, and her daughter Emma. Having chaired the search committee, I can say with all honesty and great gusto that Pastor Claire is just what our church needs. She’s young, energetic, but not fresh off the turnip truck, having served two other congregations in Minneapolis and Des Moines. Let’s give her a big St. Rahab’s welcome!”

Claire smiled at Alice. She had felt an immediate connection with the woman, whom she assumed to be the church matriarch. Claire hadn’t sensed any power-hunger in Alice, only a genuine desire to serve God and church. She was grateful for the introduction, although at forty-five she wasn’t sure she could still be described as young.

“Friends, thank you for that warm welcome. Emma and I are so glad to be here at last, and we look forward to getting to know you and to serving Christ with you as the years unfold. Now let us worship God, and sing the opening hymn.”

The rest of the service went just fine. As the kids came forward for the children’s time, one saw Emma sitting on the front pew all by herself and promptly sat himself on her lap.  Emma gave Claire that look, but then put her arm around him and whispered in his ear.  The boy smiled and snuggled in.

Claire stumbled over one of the names in the prayer, but no one walked out on the sermon, the soloist was in fine form, and people remembered to wear their name tags, making the handshake line after worship a little easier.

By the time Claire made it to coffee hour, the cookies were gone. Emma made a beeline to her mom. “I saved you some cookies. Shortbread toffee. Your favorite.”

Maybe things would work out here after all.

 

CHAPTER THREE

In which Bill Hill has a meeting with the new pastor

In fact, Bill Hill did not call Claire the next day or the day after that. Bill waited an entire week before making an appointment, going on the assumption that Claire needed a little St. Rahab experience under her belt before presenting her with his ideas of how she should do her work.

He called the Monday after her second Sunday, and they agreed to meet on Tuesday afternoon at 1:00, as the time interfered neither with Claire’s Tuesday morning staff meeting nor Bill’s 4:00 round of golf.

At 1:00 o’clock on the dot, Trystene, the secretary, stuck her head in Claire’s office. “Reverend Grayson, Bill Hill is here to see you. Should I tell him you’re busy?”

“No, thank you, Trystene. We made this appointment. And please call me Claire.”

“Alright, Pastor Claire. I’ll send him right in.”

Trystene Wood had been the secretary at St. Rahab’s for three years. Like Claire, she was a single mom. Her son Robbie had finished high school although he was still around, trying to find himself but being generally helpful to his mother, or so he thought.

On her first day in the office, Claire asked Trystene about her unusual name. “Oh, I get that all the time,” she answered. “My mother loved the story of Tristan and Isolde, and my father had his heart set on naming his first daughter Kathleen, so they compromised and called me Trystene. No one is every really sure how to pronounce it, but no one ever forgets me either.”

So far Trystene appeared to be quite competent at her work. She showed up five minutes before the office opened and stayed at least five minutes after it closed. She knew what to do when church members called – some needed to talk, some needed to complain, some just needed something copied, and she managed all of that. She and the sexton Bill Carr seemed a little wary of each other, and Claire wasn’t sure just what that was about, but it didn’t appear to be interfering with either’s work.

Claire didn’t know the details of Trystene’s divorce and that was fine. Claire decided that Trystene’s relationship with Robbie was none of her business, although she hoped the young man wasn’t draining his mother’s few resources. He’d stopped twice the last week, but seemed polite enough. And he was up before noon, which was more than Claire could say about her own kid. It would be good when school started.

There was a cute little flirtation between Trystene and Frank, the copier repair man. Claire would make it a point to jam the machine as often as possible.

 

 

 

Claire stood up as Bill came in. She motioned to one of the chairs by the window. “Have a seat, Bill.”

“Thank you, Claire. How are you today?”

“Just fine. I made it through my first two Sundays without any disasters, so I’m considering that a win.”

“Have you had disasters in your first two Sundays before?”

It was at this point Claire realized that she and Bill Hill had differing opinions about what was funny and lighthearted. Claire wasn’t sure if Bill thought anything was funny or lighthearted. She also realized that her usual tricks of charm and light self-deprecation weren’t going to work on Bill. Best be plainspoken and serious.

“So what can I help you with today, Bill?”

“Claire, I have been a member of this congregation for fifty-seven years. I love this church. It’s where Gladys and I met, back when we both sang in the choir. We got married here. Our daughters were baptized here, and went to Sunday School, and got confirmed here. One of them was married here. Gladys and I have served on just about every committee and have done just about every thing except be the treasurer. St. Rahab’s receives the largest portion of our charitable giving. We both plan to have our memorial services here.”

“It sounds like this place means a great deal to you.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. And here’s the thing: Glad and I have been here sixty years, and we have lived through seven pastors. We loved Pastor Dale. We liked Pastor Meg. We cried the day Pastor Peter said he was leaving. We barely made it through Pastor George. Pastor John Mark baptized our daughters. Pastor Henry was a friend. Dr. McIntyre married us.”

“You have quite a memory, Bill.”

“Of course I remember all those pastors – and the temporary and interim ones we had in between. I remember all those pastors and I can tell you which ones helped the church and which ones almost killed the church. And if there was a pastor I thought might kill the church, well, I did something about it.”

“I see.”

“Now Claire, I want you to succeed. I want you to be one of the pastors who helps this church, because I think a lot people are excited you’re here. And I want to help you help the church.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m not done yet. There are certain things that help this church succeed, and I’ve made a list, because no one else has the balls – excuse me – no one else has the guts to say things up front anymore. But I believe in being direct.”

“I can see that.”

“So as I said, I’ve made a list, and I’m not going to go over it now with you. I’ve typed it up, and it’s in this envelope, and you can read it at your leisure. But if I were you I wouldn’t wait too long. And when you’re done reading it, we can meet again and go over it. How does Thursday sound?”

 

 

 

Bill left and Claire sighed. She didn’t know whether to throw Bill out, kiss his ring, or write him off. So she decided to call on a few of the older homebound members. They were always good for a cup of tea and sweet conversation. Bill’s list could wait.

CHAPTER FOUR

In which Claire reads The List

Emma wasn’t awake yet, but it was only eight o’clock and school hadn’t started yet. It was Claire’s time of tranquility, so why she decided to read Bill Hill’s List before the day had started wasn’t clear to her, although she suspected it might be easier to take while still in her pajamas with a cup of coffee at the ready.

The envelope, sealed shut, was addressed to The Reverend Ms. M. Claire Grayson, Pastor, St. Rahab’s Church. Fair enough. The guy was old school. Probably had Gladys type it for him. She grabbed a knife to slit the envelope open, hoping she wouldn’t want to do the same to her wrists after she read the letter.

Inside was a single sheet of paper – no cover memo, no hand-written note. It read

Procedures for a Successful Pastorate at St. Rahab’s Church
Compiled by William Meriwether Hill
July 2010

1. The pastor will do the final proofread on all Sunday bulletins to ensure there are no mistakes. The pastor will double check that all hymn numbers are correct.
2. The pastor will follow a standard outline for the order of worship every Sunday. A few times a year the pastor may deviate from this order when there is a special occasion in worship, e.g., the youth lead in worship or the choir sings a cantata in lieu of a sermon.
3. The pastor will not wear Birkenstocks when leading worship (unless a temporary medical condition necessitates this alternative footwear.)
4. The pastor will guide the Fellowship Committee as they oversee the sign up for cookies and other treats at coffee hour.
5. The pastor will supervise the church staff giving input to and receiving input from the Personnel Committee. The pastor will not assume that these people know how to do their jobs and don’t need guidance.
6. The pastor will arrive no later than 1.5 hours before the Sunday worship service begins.
7. The pastor will do a walk-through of the building every other month with the sexton, noting areas of concern with regards to cleanliness, safety, security, and aesthetics.
8. The pastor will make at least ten pastoral calls each month.
9. The pastor will not write opinion pieces in the local paper which might cast St. Rahab’s and/or its members in a bad light.
10. The pastor will use all of her vacation and continuing education time each year, within the twelve-month time period.

Claire poured herself another cup of coffee and grabbed a brownie from the batch Emma made the day before, only to realize there wasn’t enough coffee or chocolate in the world to take on Bill Hill.

Eventually, fully fueled, showered and dressed, she made her way to the office.

 

 

 

“Trystene, I wonder if we might sit down to go over a couple of things.”

“Yes Reverend, I mean Pastor Claire. Did I do something wrong?

“No. I’m just trying to get the lay of the land and I thought ‘who knows more than the church secretary?’”

“Oh, Bill Carr knows way more than me, but I’ll sit down and talk with you.”

“Great. Come on in. So, with our publications – the newsletter and the Sunday bulletin – how do those work?”

“Well, people submit their items, their articles and stuff, or the anthem or announcements for Sunday, and you give me your stuff – prayers and things, and the scripture and the sermon title and the hymns – and I put them all together.”

“And who proofreads?”

“Pastor Dale always trusted me to do the proofreading.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I would like to do the proofreading.”

“Did Bill Hill say something to you? Every so often I get a call from him on a Monday morning and he’s all angry and everything because the bulletin was messed up. I swear, Rev- Pastor Claire, I don’t know what happens between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. The bulletins that get put out those weeks when Bill Hill calls are not the bulletins I did.”

“So maybe it will help us both if I proofread them.”

“Maybe. You could ask Bill Carr about it too.”

“The sexton?”

“Yeah. He’s sometimes the only one here on a Saturday. Maybe he can explain it.”

“Thank you. I’ll do that. Now another thing: I’ve only been here for two Sundays but it seems to me we have a high number of visitors with us. Is that normal or are people just checking out the new pastor?”

“Well, I’m not much of a church goer but it seems to me we usually get a big number of visitor types.”

“How do we keep track of them?”

“Well, we ask them to sign the pad things, but half of them don’t, and unless one of our folks asks them, they usually just come up to coffee hour and grab a cookie. Sometimes we see them again, sometimes we don’t.”

“I wonder how they hear about us.”

“Beats me. I wish they’d come back more often, though.”

“I do too. Thanks, Trystene. That should do it for now.”

Bill Carr was next on the list. Claire called his cell phone, since no one ever really knew where in the building Bill might be.

“Bill, it’s Claire. I wonder if you might have a few minutes to go over some things.”

“Sure. Is now a good time?”

“As good a time as any. Why don’t I meet you in the sanctuary.”

“Sounds good. See you there.”
The sanctuary of St. Rahab’s church was one of the prettiest Claire had ever seen. It was built in the early 1920’s, a few years after the congregation was founded.

The nave was in a semi-circle, with dark cherry pews that curved. The chancel was a simple platform with a pulpit on one side, a baptismal font on the other, and the communion table in the middle. Three clergy chairs lined the back wall of the chancel, throne-like things with ornately carved arms and legs. The cushions in the center chair were softer than the others; for decades the church had only one pastor who sat in the same chair week after week.

Behind the chancel, on a higher platform, sat the organ and choir loft, with a special side entrance that went to a hallway that led to a staircase that went down to another hallway that led to the choir practice room. The narthex in the back of the church was big enough to hold visitors but not big enough to have coffee hour. Claire put the renovation of that space on her to-do list in twenty years.

The most striking thing about the sanctuary was the stained glass, ten windows altogether. A large rose window was in the front wall behind the choir loft. On each side of the sanctuary were windows with characters from the Bible – the usual four (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well, and then, oddly enough, St. Francis, adorned with flora and fauna.

Even more odd was the window in the back of the church, along the wall of the narthex. It was of Rahab, the woman described in the book of Joshua who helped the Israelite spies plan their invasion of the promised land, the person for whom the church was named.
In the center of the window was Rahab herself, with a beautifully painted face and clothes of the medieval era. Behind her was a window with a red cord hanging inside and out. A stack of wheat lay near her feet. Rather than looking pensively out to the side, Rahab looked directly out, and that Claire had the sense that her eyes were following her.

Claire found the window strange, if not a little disturbing. The eyes unsettled her, and the medieval clothing for a woman who lived a few thousand years before Christ just annoyed her. But the bigger mystery was Rahab herself. She had never been canonized by the Catholic church. She was a prostitute and a Gentile. It never appeared that she converted to the religion of the Israelites. At best, she helped the Israelites conquer the Canaanites; at worst she was saving her own neck.

When Claire interviewed with the church there were so many more pressing things to learn that she never asked about the history of the church’s name. Alice Weston would probably know. Bill Hill would too, but Claire was trying to avoid him as much as possible.

 

 

 

 

“Bill, I’m hoping you can take me on an insider’s tour of the building – you know, all the nooks and crannies, the boiler room, the closet where the Christmas decorations are kept, the water shut-off – that sort of thing.”

“Yes ma’am, but the boiler room?”

“Yes, the boiler room. People sometimes think that clergywomen shouldn’t be bothered with manly mechanical things like boilers and water shut-offs but if there is a crisis on a Sunday morning, I should at least know where to send people.”

“Yes, ma’am. Well, as you know, the sanctuary is the oldest part of the building, and the room just off the front to the left used to be the pastor’s office, and the bathroom in the back was the only bathroom. Downstairs was one great big room where they’d have coffee after church and wedding receptions and Sunday School and all of it.

“They remodeled all of that back in the ‘60’s and added some more bathrooms; it was about the same time they added the education building where the classrooms and fellowship hall and offices are now.”

“What is the downstairs used for mostly now?”

“Oh, over the years different groups have rented the space for their offices; non-profits and little groups. None of the renters stay too long. There aren’t any windows done there, and it gets pretty cold in the winter, and we used to get a lot of water down there when the rains came.”

“And now?”

“The water situation is much better now. ‘Bout ten years ago Bill Hill headed up a program to take care of a lot of the deferred maintenance.”

“The boiler room?”

“I’ll take you there.”

 

 

 

 

The boiler room made up for the beauty of the sanctuary. It was dark, lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs, and had that oily metallic smell. As Claire walked in, she saw the behemoth boiler to her right, a hulk of machinery with dials and valves that she knew she would never touch in a million years, or when Jesus returned, whichever came first.

“So this is the boiler.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“When was it put in?”

“Let’s see. I’ve been here since 1985, and it was about twenty-five years old back then, so I’d say 1960.”

“That makes it fifty years old.”

“More or less, yes.”

“And do you happen to know what the average lifespan of a boiler like this is?”

Bill smiled. “About forty years.”

Great, thought Claire. I’ll add that to my to-do list.

“What’s behind that door in the back?”

“That? That leads to the tunnels.”

“The tunnels?”

“Yeah, the tunnels. When the church was first built it was the only building in town that had heat, and we sold heat to houses around us. The tunnels go under the street.”

“Have you ever been down there?”

“When I first started, but it’s mostly cobwebs now. You interested in having a look?”

“Oh, I’m not really dressed for it. Another time.”

The truth was that Claire was more than a little claustrophobic. She promised herself she would never go into those tunnels, not even if the hounds of hell were chasing her. Satan’s best friend she could take. A small dark webby enclosure would do her in.

Bill’s phone rang. “Claire, I need to take this. Can we finish the tour later?”

“Sure.”

Later in the afternoon Claire remembered that she had wanted to ask Bill about the bulletins. Next time.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

In which the Hills invite Claire and Emma over for dinner

“Do I have to go?”

“Yes, you have to go.”

“Why?”

“Because the Hills invited both of us. Because I’m trying to find a way to have a more positive relationship with Bill. Because I want to show them you’re not a Satan-worshipping drug addict who’s pregnant.”

“Fine.”

“Thanks, honey. Love you.” The last thing Claire felt in that moment was love for her one and only daughter, but she’d gotten through much of life and ministry with the “fake it till you make it” policy.

“Here are the brownies I made. Carmel. Pecans.”

“Oh sweetie, thank you. I know you don’t want to do this, and I promise I will only drag you to the really important ones. Deal?

“Deal. Morag.”

 

 

 

Like Claire’s, Bill and Gladys’s home was close to church but not too close, and, Claire noted, in a neighborhood more upscale than her own. As they pulled up, Claire immediately fell in love with the house. It was a broad, generous Craftsman bungalow, painted an apple green with mauve and cream trim. Gladys’ idea, Claire thought. A porch wrapped around the front and two sides, with a hanging swing on one side and some wicker chairs and tables on the other.

I would like a house like this some day, Claire thought. Better change professions.

They knocked on the door and Bill greeted them.

“Claire, Emma, welcome! We’re so glad you could join us. Is that the dessert? Emma, why don’t you take that back to Gladys. She’s in the kitchen. Straight down the hallway, on the left at the end. Claire, it’s such a nice evening I thought we’d have a drink outside. Glad’ll be out in just a minute.”

Well this is not the man who presented me with The List, Claire mused. Maybe he’s a happier guy on his own turf.

“Thanks, Bill. I have to tell you I love your house. How long have you lived here?”

“Glad and I were married in 1953, and we were just getting settled. Meri came along in 1960 but we lived in the other house. We were here when Junie was born in ’64, so that makes forty-six years. It’s been a work in progress ever since.”

“I love the Craftsman style. And this green is one of my favorite colors.”

“A few years ago we had the whole thing scraped and repainted. When I first retired I was bored out of my mind, so I did some research about the colors used in this neighborhood on this style house when they were built in the 20’s, and I chose the green and mauve.”

“I had assumed Gladys picked the colors.”

“Don’t get me wrong, they were approved by Gladys, as is most everything I do. But I picked them. I’m glad you like them. Now what can I get you to drink?”

Claire wasn’t sure if this was a test. Should she be a rebel and ask for a shot of tequila? Should she play it safe and ask for water or lemonade? Should she say nothing, she was fine?

“What have you got?

“I just got a case of a crisp little Sauvignon Blanc that I’ve been waiting to share. How does that sound?”

“Perfect.”

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile in the kitchen, Emma and Gladys were bonding over dessert. The one thing Emma would do without complaining was bake, and she had dreams of being a pastry chef one day. She had yet to master a decent pate brisee, but her chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and lemon tarts were the hit of every church potluck she and her mother had ever attended. Claire hadn’t told Gladys this, and whether Gladys was intuitive or herself loved baking, she and Emma found themselves in deep conversation about the relative merits of light brown sugar versus dark brown sugar right away.

“Mrs. Hill, this is a really nice kitchen. You have so much counter space! And the window looking out on your back yard is great. Our kitchen window looks out on our neighbor’s bedroom and their garbage cans.”

“Please call me Gladys, Emma. You’re on the west coast now. Thank you. When Bill retired a few years ago he was driving me bonkers, so I suggested he plan a renovation of the kitchen. He researched the original plans and tried to keep some of the historical elements while making it useful for the modern world. This drawer is a bread tin, and these things that look like drawers are actually bins for the flour and sugar. Over here is a laundry chute that goes down to the basement. No one ever thinks about having the laundry chute stop in the kitchen, but with all the dish towels I go through, we thought that would be a nice little detail.”

“I have a laundry chute in my room. I love it.”

“Tell me about your room.”

Claire and Bill were well into the first glass of the Sauvignon Blanc when Bill yelled back toward the kitchen.

“Glad? What are you two doing in there? Come out and join us. Get yourself a drink and bring something for Emma too. While you’re at it, grab those Ruffles.”

He turned to Claire. “I know I should serve something a little more elegant than Ruffles with this wine, but they are my favorite and Gladys only lets me have them on special occasions.”

Claire smiled. “So this is a special occasion?”

Bill turned to her with a warmth in his eyes she hadn’t seen prior to this evening. “Claire, I know I came on pretty strong in our meeting. I accept that. But I don’t want to apologize because it’s all fueled by my love for this church. It’s a special place. I’m not always good at expressing things that I feel deeply, and it was a lot easier for me to type that list than to talk about it face to face with a stranger.

“Having heard your last few sermons, and watching you at coffee hour and whatnot, I’ve come to realize that you are exactly the pastor that St. Rahab’s has needed for a good long while. Pastor Dale was a wonderful, godly man, and he helped people in ways we’ll never know. But he stayed too long, in part because we all saw his dementia and didn’t have the heart to cut him off from something he loved.

“Before the girls join us, I want to tell you something as my pastor. I’ve had a little cough lately, but it hasn’t gone away and my doc did some x-rays. There’s a shadow he’s not really sure about. Glad is my rock, as usual, and I go between being scared as hell and confident that we’ll deal with whatever comes our way. I’d just as soon you not tell anyone about this just yet. Alice Weston would probably show up with a platter of her Prune Drop Cookies, and that might kill me then and there. Oh, there you two are! Emma, pull up a chair and tell me about your drive out west.”

 

 

A good time was had by all, much to Claire and Emma’s surprise. Bill and Gladys had an easy rapport between them, and they were gracious hosts, and the meal was delicious. The dining room was surrounded by a collection of china plates and family photographs and made the space feel cozy. On the way home Emma decided it would be okay if Bill and Gladys made her an honorary grandchild. Claire decided maybe she could survive Bill after all. But she would keep the coffee and chocolate on hand all the same.

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

In which Claire has lunch with Alice Weston

“Dear, what’s your schedule like next week? You’ve been here almost two months, and as the chair of your search committee, it is my obligation and my desire to find out how you are.”

“Alice, that is kind of you. Shall we say Wednesday?”

“Yes. I’ll pick you up. See you Sunday, and then on Wednesday!”

 

 

 

Alice Weston was the quintessential church lady. Like the Hills, Alice had been around a long time and had served everywhere in the church. As she had just finished chairing the search committee that found Claire, she was between duties at the moment, but Claire had no doubt there would be something on the horizon. Maybe the congregation’s hundredth anniversary. Add that to the to-do list.

Alice was tiny, just squeaking past five feet in heels. She still sported a perm and went to the beauty parlor every Friday for a wash and set. Her hair was a beautiful white with a few streaks of gray left, and the kids loved to sit behind her in church and watch her scrunch the back of her hair into a little flip. She never wore pants, not even to clean the house or work in the garden. She was married to Garrett, a gem of a guy, a retired lawyer who forever referred to Alice as his first wife. (She was also his only wife.) They had five children who showed up at church on Christmas Eve, Easter, and Mother’s Day.

Alice drove a beige Buick Regal with a little booster cushion to help her see over the dashboard. To say she drove it was not quite accurate; she steered it like Captain Ahab, on the lookout for errant dogs, balls, and children. She tended to tailgate, which made Claire a little nervous, but she figured there was enough hood between them and the next car that were there a rear-ender, they would make it out alive.

 

 

 

 

Of all the places Claire imagined Alice would take her to lunch, the Steel Horse Diner didn’t even make the list.The restaurant was in the industrial part of town which would probably see some gentrification in a few years, but in 2010, it seemed a little dicey. Alice managed to parallel park her boat and the two walked in.

“Alice! Where have you been? Off on another one of your cruises?”

“Hello, Sandy dear. How are you? Missed me, did you?”

“It’s been, what two months? Yes, I missed you. Who’s your friend?”

“Sandy, I’d like to introduce you to our new pastor, Claire Grayson. Claire, this is Sandy, the best waitress this side of the Rockies.”

“Now Alice, you know we like to be called servers.”

“Whatever, dear. Where shall we sit?”

 

 

 

 

Claire had to admit that she was served one good greasy hamburger, and the fries were the best she’d had since she’d moved – small, crispy, salty; they probably used oil full of trans fat. Alice ordered a burger and fries too, though both said no to the milkshake and yes to iced tea.

“Now dear, tell me truthfully. How is it going?”

To her embarrassment, Claire got a lump in her throat. Her eyes started to water, and she looked away, out the window. She saw a dog peeing on a fire hydrant. Thank you, God. I needed that.

She took a deep breath. “Sorry about that, Alice. I think I’m at the point where the wonderment has worn off and I’m realizing everything I left behind. I mean, things are going fine, but I’m just starting to grieve.”

Alice reached across the table and laid her hand on top of Claire’s. She looked straight into Claire’s eyes and dropped the sweetness, which was replaced by a kindness that was balm to the soul.

“Claire, I do not doubt for one moment that taking this call was a huge risk for you and Emma, and a sacrifice too. You had a life back in Minneapolis. You had friends. You had a church that loved you and trusted your leadership. You had a hairdresser and a dry cleaner and a grocery store you knew your way around in.

“I pray for you and Emma every night because I really believe you were meant to be here. The sadness is just a part of it, and unfortunately you have to go through it because there is no way around it. But there are people pulling for you – you have no idea. I’m just sorry for the sad part. Is there an old friend, someone not from here, that you can talk to?”

Claire teared up again at the thought of her best friend Martha, whom she hadn’t talked to in weeks. She nodded.

“You ladies need some more iced tea? ‘Cause things are looking pretty serious over here. Did you see that dog peeing on the fire hydrant? Next stop is our door, hoping for scraps.”

At that moment Claire knew that she was in the hands of two decent and kind women. “Yes, more tea would be great. Thanks.”

Sandy went back to the counter, sashaying her hips and sassing her customers on the way. Sure enough, the dog did make its way to the door, looking plaintively through the glass, the triumph of hope over reality.

“Alice, your words mean more to me than I can say. Really. I know there’s not much you can do about our sadness. Like you said, it’s just something Emma and I have to deal with ourselves. But you can help me with one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, it’s a who’s that. Bill Hill. I don’t know what to make of him. One minute he is the picture of kindness and the next he’s a fire breathing dragon certain I will drive St. Rahab’s into the ground if I don’t proofread the bulletin every week.”

“Bill. William Meriwether Hill. The thing you have to remember about Bill is that he always has the best for St. Rahab’s at heart. I’ve known him and Glad a long time. They are good people. I was there when Glad went through two miscarriages before Meri was born and another before Junie was born. I was there for them when Junie told them she was gay. I was there when Bill got depressed when he retired. I will be there when the cancer diagnosis comes.”

“You know about that?”

“Gladys has to have someone to turn to. Give him time. His bark is much worse than his bite. And I don’t know what this cancer will do to him. Don’t let him scare you off, but don’t write off what he says either.”

“Thanks.”

“Glad told me that Emma is quite the baker! I’d love to have her over sometime.”

“Oh. To make Prune Drop Cookies? I hear they’re your specialty.”

“I don’t share that recipe with anyone, dear. But I’d love to share my lemon meringue pie recipe. The secret is letting the sugar and water and cornstarch sit covered in the double boiler for ten minutes before adding the lemon juice .”

The burger and fries left Claire a little drowsy that afternoon. She looked over at her couch, asked Trystene to hold her calls, set her timer for twenty-five minutes, and laid down. She fell asleep almost immediately.

She woke up suddenly to the sound of her alarm. What a strange dream she had been having. A tall, dark, and handsome man was at the Steel Horse Diner with Alice, and Sandy was bringing them a covered silver platter. The man was dressed like Sherlock Holmes, and Alice was dressed like a pirate, and Sandy was wearing a dress just like the dress Claire wore for funerals, but with striped knee socks. The three were speaking in a language Claire couldn’t understand. Sandy suddenly took the lid off the platter, and there were Prune Drop Cookies, steam rising off them. The peeing dog came in, sat next to Alice, and promptly ate a cookie.

Claire decided next time she had lunch with Alice, she’d stick with the soup.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

In which Claire catches up with her best friend

Claire’s best friend, Martha Goode, was the life of every party and the cheerleader of all. She couldn’t be called pretty but there was a vivacity to her that made head turns and people smile. She and Claire met when Claire moved to Minneapolis. They were both first-timers at a yoga class that acquaintances of each had raved about. When they walked in, the instructor was a stringy guy with Weird Al Yankovic hair tied in a ponytail wearing something that looked like a cross between a Speedo and a diaper. Claire and Martha rolled out their mats next to each other, simultaneously stifled a laugh the first time Weird Al Diaper Man farted, and promised to go out for coffee instead of yoga the next week. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Martha worked for the State Department. When Claire asked her what she did, Martha was vague.

“Would you have to kill me if you told me?”

“Something like that.”

“Okay.”

Martha had never married, and had made peace with that. She would be gone for stretches at a time every few months, but Claire knew better than to ask where she had been or what she had been doing. Once when she was over at Martha’s, she saw her passport lying on the kitchen table. She thought about sneaking a peek, but decided her desire for friendship outweighed her curiosity, and let it be.

One of the things Claire most appreciated about Martha was that she was not a member of the congregation. Pastors need people in their lives who don’t hear their sermons, don’t get prayed over, and aren’t really interested in the sometimes Byzantine machinations of working in a church.

“I do believe in God. I’m spiritual and a little religious. I pray. I read holy scriptures. I go to church on Christmas and Easter, and temple on Yom Kippur. I meditate. But church – no thanks, sweetie. I’ll leave that in your capable hands.”

When the moving van left with everything they owned but the Civic, Claire, Emma and Martha stood in the doorway, trying to delay the inevitable. Finally Martha said, “I guess it’s time. I love you both. Travel safely. Don’t take any wooden nickels. Don’t forget who you’re representing. Make sure you have a clean handkerchief. Don’t pick up any hitchhikers. And for God’s sake, call me every night.”

Martha hugged them, got in her car, drove off, and Claire promptly dissolved in sinkhole of tears.

 

 

 

Two days after Claire and Alice had lunch, Claire texted Martha.

Is this a good time?

I’m in the loo. Give me five minutes.

“Oh my God, Martha, it is so good to hear your voice. Do you want to Skype?”

“No, because that way you can’t see me multitasking although of course you are my number one priority, next to my parents’ visit tomorrow that is necessitating that I actually recycle my collection of newspapers and run a dust rag over the horizontal surfaces. So how are you? How is Emma? Has St. Claire slain the dragon Bill Hill?”

“I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s see. Emma is doing fine in school and has made two friends who do not appear to be heroin addicts with Hepatitis C. One has blue hair and the other lives in a house with six cats, but I can manage that. She seems to have settled in fine; the circle she hung out with in Minneapolis dropped her last spring and she floundered a little. I think the move is a good new start, but it’s had its ups and downs.”

“Has she threatened to tell people what the M stands for?”

“Of course. But she hasn’t. Not that I know of, anyway.”

“I love your kid but I really want to know about you.”

“So… it’s going fine. The church has money and volunteers and they seem to be accepting me. I’ve found a grocery store and dry cleaner but my hair is way overdue for a cut and color.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Everything’s unpacked and I got rid of a couch that didn’t fit. I’ve taken care of all the change of address stuff, registered my car, got a new driver’s license. I’m fine.”

“Mm-hmm. That is very interesting,” Martha said flatly.

Claire knew exactly what her friend was getting at.

“Okay, every night after Emma goes upstairs I bawl my eyes out. I miss Minneapolis. I miss you. I miss my house. I miss my old congregation. I miss the market and the hairdresser and my morning walk. I am so sad so often. I worry that I made a mistake in moving. I worry that I’m going to fail. I have days when I am so bored with ministry and days when I don’t think I can take one more freaking committee meeting and days when I never want to retire. I fantasize about a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 job. I’m just keeping my head above water, not letting people and especially not letting Emma see how miserable I am.”

“That’s better.”

“What should I do?”

“How the hell would I know? All I know is this: you have moved before, with Emma; you are a loving and talented pastor. The church would not have offered you the job if they didn’t think you could do it. Finding a hairdresser and friends and a walking trail is easy. Figuring out who you are in the midst of everything around you being new is the hard part. But you have to do it. And accepting and loving Sad Claire is a part of it.”

“Why don’t you move here? Leave the State Department. I’d hire you in a second.”

“As if. Now how is the man scene there?”

 

 

That night, for the first time in a long time, Claire did not cry herself to sleep. She sat in the chair by the window, and looked out on the street for a long time. She thought about Emma’s dad, just for a minute. She thought about Emma, who brought a new depth of love to her heart, and vowed to be a little easier on her, remembering what she was like when she was fifteen. She thought about the weird dream she’d had after lunch with Alice. All of a sudden it hit her: they needed a dog.

 

 

On Saturday Emma woke up at an early 11:00.

“Morning, sweetheart. Can I make you some breakfast?”

“How about I make some scones instead?”

“Twist my arm.”

As they sat at the table eating scones, Claire opened the paper to the want ads.

“What are looking for?”

“I’ve decided we need a dog.”

“Really? Oh my gosh, that would be so great. I would totally take care of him, take him for walks and give him baths and trim his toenails and everything. Oh, Mom, thank you! Can we get one today?”

“Let’s look at the ads.”

That evening Rex Maximus came to live with Claire and Emma. He was the runt of a litter produced by a Yorkshire Terrier and a Poodle. He was, Claire and Emma decided, the cutest thing either of him had ever seen. Big brown eyes, brown with a few white and gray markings, ears meant for a larger dog, and sharp puppy toenails. He peed in the house just twice, and Claire left Emma alone with Rex while she ran to the store for puppy pee pads.

It was movie night, and after they ate their pizza and began “The Princess Bride” for the thousandth time, little Rex stood on Emma’s lap, turned three times, and curled up till the movie ended.

“Can he sleep in my room? Please, please, please?”

“Sure honey. Now go upstairs. I have to get some sleep before tomorrow.”

“Love you, Mom.”

“I love you too.”

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

In which a visitor comes to church and Claire is flustered

Claire noticed him right away. It wasn’t as though he didn’t stand out, sitting in the front pew. No one ever sat in the front pew, unless they were a visitor who loved Jesus very very much and wanted to be as close as possible to the preacher so as to hang on every word, or unless it was a communion Sunday and the servers (reluctantly) sat up front so as to be ready at a moment’s notice to pass out the bread and juice.

Plus, Claire noted, he was good looking. Very good looking. Like the entire cast of Oceans Eleven was sitting on the front row. Like the young Ricardo Montalban and the young Omar Sharif had a love child. Tall, dark, and handsome, not unlike the man in her post-hamburger nap dream. He was well dressed – gray flannel slacks, white button-down shirt, navy/light blue/gray houndstooth jacket, shoes that looked like they did not come from Kohl’s. No tie. The first two buttons were undone, and there was no t-shirt underneath, and Claire thought she could detect a hint of chest hair. Not that she was looking. The guy was definitely not American. How on earth had he found his way to St. Rahab’s?

Claire noticed that everyone was looking at her expectantly, and she realized the prelude had ended. “Good morning! This is the day that the Lord has made.”

“Let us rejoice and be glad in it,” the congregation responded. Except for Ricardo Sharif TallDarkandHandsome. Hmmm. Maybe English was not his first language.

“If this is your first time to worship with us, a special St. Rahab’s welcome to you. And whether this is your first or five-hundredth time with us, we ask that you find the friendship pad in the pew rack in front of you, sign your name, and pass it along. We want to know who is here!”

Shit. The front pew did not have a pew rack.  Mr. Handsome smiled at her.

(Please don’t let me blush. Please don’t let me blush.)

Fortunately, Margaret White always sat in the second pew and knew exactly what to do with visitors who made the bold choice of the first pew. Claire saw her tap Handsome on the shoulder and share her friendship pad. Thank God for Margaret.

“Now let us stand and sing the opening hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

To her horror, all Claire could think of was the old game she played in high school where they would add the words “between the sheets” after the name of the hymn title.

(Get it together, Claire. You are here to worship God, not flirt with a visitor.)

Claire did manage to get it together when she saw Gladys elbow Bill Hill in the ribs. She avoided looking at the first pew as she preached, and prayed that Mr. Handsome would exit at the door near the front, not shake her hand at the back door.

No such luck. The only person after Mr. Handsome was Alice. Claire tried not to imagine the love story unfolding in Alice’s imagination.

“Good morning. Thank you for worshipping with us today.”

“The pleasure was all mine. The mellifluicity of your words stirred me.”

(Oh dear God, the man sounds like Inigo Montoya with a bad cold.) The balloon of unrequited love deflated, quickly.

“Claire, dear, this is Toledo Vader. He is in town for business.”

“It is pronounded To-LAY-do, like the city in my beautiful Spain.”

“I do beg your pardon, dear.”

“It is good to meet you, Toledo. Perhaps Alice would take you up to coffee hour? Maybe she brought some of her famous Prune Drop Cookies.”

That would take care of him. No one who ever ate one of Alice’s cookies ever showed up again. (Thank God for Alice.)

As Claire took off her microphone and robe in her office, she sang to herself, “You say To-LEE-do, I say To-LAY-do.” She took her sweet time getting to coffee hour, and was happy to see that Mr. Vader was no longer there. Neither was Alice. Nor were there Prune Drop Cookies.

Still, he was a nice little eye candy, if only for a while.

 

 

 

 

“Mom, who was that guy?”

“What guy?”

“The guy that every woman in the sanctuary stared at. The guy on the front row. The guy who made you blush.”

“I was warm, probably a hot flash. He was a visitor who is from Spain and his name is To-LAY-do Vader.”

“For real?”

“For real.”

“Was he nice?”

“He was polite, I guess. I didn’t really talk to him. Alice scooped him up to coffee hour and I didn’t see him after that.”

“Well, he was kind of hot.”

“Pretty is is not necessarily as pretty does, love.”

“Yeah, but you have to admit he was hot.”

“I try not to think of parishioners as hot, Emma.”

“Maybe you should start.”

“Enough. What did you make me for lunch?”

Curiosity got the best of Claire, and she finally googled Toledo Vader. Nothing. Bet it’s an alias, Claire thought. Bet he’s a spy or something, or an encyclopedia salesman, and the accent is phony, and his name is really Bert Steinberg and he’s from Paramus. She felt a little less guilty about googling him. She hoped he would not return. Mostly.

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

In which Claire leaves a candle burning at church

Shit, Claire thought. Shit shit shit shit shit. It was just after midnight on Saturday night and she was on the verge of falling asleep when suddenly she remembered she hadn’t blown out the candle in the prayer chapel.

-It will be fine. Bill Carr would have taken care of it.

-But Bill wasn’t scheduled to work. She would burn down the church.

-It will be fine.

-I can hear the sirens already.

Claire knew there was no use in trying to go back to sleep. She got up, threw on her yoga pants and a jacket, slipped into her clogs, and went upstairs. “Emma?” she said softly.

Emma’s light was still on, and Rex was curled up against her as she read. “Yeah, Mom?”

“Honey, I have to run back to church and blow out a candle. Will you be okay here?”

“Yes, Morag, I’ll be fine.”

Claire made her way downstairs. “Hey Mom – do you want to take Rex with you? His bark is pretty ferocious!”

“Thanks, honey, but I’ll be fine.”

 

 

 

 

Claire hated going into church at night by herself. She started thinking about zombies coming through the tunnels beyond the boiler room. Get a grip. This is God’s house. Zombies wouldn’t step near this place. But she was happy to see there were no flames shooting out the roof.

She let herself in and headed toward the prayer room. Still no flames or even smoke. She did notice the office lights were on, and took a detour. She must have forgotten to turn those off, too.

As she unlocked the door, she heard a familiar voice call out, “Is that you, Bill? I just recycled the bulletins. Do you have the new ones?”

Claire came around the corner and their stood Alice Weston.

“Claire?”

“Alice?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Why are you wearing pants?”

The two stood there, dumbfounded.  Claire’s heart started to race and her head started to swim.

“Alice? Where are you? I’ve got the bulletins.” Bill Carr came into the office. “Oh no,” he said.

“Oh no, indeed,” Claire said. “Would one of you like to tell me what is going on?”

“Claire, it’s not what it looks like.”

“What it looks like is that the sexton and the church lady are in cahoots to mess up Sunday morning. Tell me I’m wrong.”

“Partly,” Alice said. “Let’s go sit down somewhere and talk. How about the prayer room.”

“I think this situation calls for more than prayer, Alice. Except, Bill, could you blow out the candle I left burning there?”

He smiled. “Already did.”

 

 

 

 

The three went to Claire’s office. She sat behind the desk, wanting to appear as authoritative as possible while wearing yoga pants and no bra.

“Where should we begin?” Alice asked.

“I do not even know. How about with the bulletins.”

“Every so often we redo the bulletins.”

“And why do you redo the bulletins?”

“Because we need to send a message.”

“A message.”

“A message, a code.”

“Alice, I think we need to start a little earlier. You’re awfully quiet over there, Bill, and yes, your job is in jeopardy. I have a mind to call an emergency meeting of the personnel committee right after worship tomorrow.”

“Hear Alice out, Claire, and then decide. Okay?”

And so Alice began.

 

 

 

 

“In 1905 the Word Exposition came to town.”

“Excuse me, Alice, but we need to go all the way back to 1905 to understand why you two are sabotaging the bulletins?”

“Dear, this is a long story that will only get longer if you keep interrupting.”

“Fine. But let me tell Emma I’ll be later than I thought.” She shot Emma a quick text saying that there was a little leak she needed to take care of and she was fine and to turn off the light by 1.

“The city population was only about 120,000 in the early 1900’s, but in the course of the four-month fair, over a million visitors came, some from all over the world. At that time, our founding pastor, Dr. Horatio Francis Bouvier, was the assistant minister over at First Church. During the expo, a visitor to church asked to meet with him the next week.

“The tale the visitor told was incredible, and at the heart of the story I am telling you. The world was between upheavals – our own Civil War was two generations past, Japan and Russia were just beginning tensions, we were practicing the last dregs of Manifest Destiny. Advances in science were exciting and threatening. But during the last century, a group of people saw the terrible toll that war and famine and poverty had taken, not only in our own nation but throughout the world. They decided to do something about it.

“These people weren’t soldiers or politicians; they weren’t robber barons or royals. They were ordinary folk – farmers, teachers, bank tellers, store owners, nurses, parents, pastors. They started a network; you might call it a network of angels. Each of them vowed to seek out places where hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, or sadness seemed to be taking over.”

Those words rang a bell with Claire, but her mind was so muddled she couldn’t think of why.

“The visitor asked Dr. Bouvier if he would like to be a part of this network. Being a man of God committed to the welfare of his people, he said yes. The first few years he was an apprentice of sorts, staying in the city, going to neighborhoods where the outcasts lived. In 1909 he was called to start a new church, and was given free rein in its creation.

“Among the founding fathers of the church were two other members of the network, and together they got their way in naming the place St. Rahab’s, after the prostitute in the book of Joshua who helps the Israelite spies. The church would become a hub for the angel spies. When Dr. Bouvier worked with architect on the building, he insisted they build tunnels. Dr. Bouvier said it was to supply heat to the neighbors, but the tunnels were never actually used for that. Really, the tunnels were there so that the angel spies could get in and out of church without being noticed. Many of them came from other countries, and simply the color of their skin, their dress, and their accents would make them stand out.”

“So you are trying to tell me that St. Rahab’s is a spy church? Am I to believe this?”

Bill Carr spoke up. “’Spy church’ lacks nuance, Claire.”

“Forgive me, Bill, but having just found out that my sexton is James Bond and the church matriarch is Emma Peel has prevented me from finding the right vocabulary to describe a church that is a clandestine meeting place for angels of mercy.”

“Fair enough. Keep going, Alice.”

“Yes, by all means, keep going, Alice. But just a thought.  It’s now 12:45 and if I’m not back here in eight hours Bill Hill will have my head. Maybe I could just tell him that I discovered that the church is a cover-up for an angel spy network. That would help explain the bulletins.” She turned to Bill Carr. “That’s why you and Trystene are so wary of each other. She thinks you sabotage her bulletins. And you do. And you’re worried she’ll find out why.”

“Something like that, yes.”

“Claire dear, I know this is a lot to take in and I do appreciate that it’s late. Could we call a truce? We have a meeting after church tomorrow. You can join us.”

Claire didn’t know what to say. She wanted to hear the story, but she really wanted to be home in her pajamas with her kid and her dog. She knew she probably wouldn’t sleep but she was also sure she couldn’t take one more thing tonight.

“Okay. But Bill, don’t think for one moment that I might not fire you on Monday.”

“I understand.”

“So when and where is this meeting?”

“Well, the first hymn on the new bulletin is 101, so we will meet at 1:01 pm. And we have special room where we meet.”

“And in what hidden hallway would I find that room – oh no, wait. I know. The tunnels.”

“Yes dear. Just go into the boiler and open the door to the tunnels. You’ll see.”

“I suppose I can leave you two to lock up and turn off the lights?”

“We always do.”

“Goodbye then.”

“Good night, Claire. I promise it will all make more sense tomorrow.”

Claire doubted that.
As soon as Rex heard her open the door he came bounding downstairs. “Oh, Rex, I really do wish that happiness were a warm puppy. Good boy. Now go back upstairs to Emma.”

“Mom?”

Claire went upstairs. “It’s time for lights out, honey. It’s Sunday tomorrow.”

“I know. I just wanted to wait till you got home. Are you okay? You look a little weird.”

“I’m fine. Just a little tired, that’s all. Sweet dreams, love.”

“Sweet dreams. Morag.”
That night Claire’s dreams were not sweet; they were non-existent. She got in her pajamas and under the covers and turned out the light, but her racing mind would not let sleep. At one point she turned the light on and made a list. That usually made her feel better. But this was a problem she had never before imagined or encountered. A spy church? Alice in pants? The sexton at the center of it all? And it existed at the church for almost a hundred years and only a few knew about it?

And those words – hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, sadness. They weren’t random words but she wasn’t going to figure out how she knew them.

But the big question was the most troubling: could she stay at St. Rahab’s and keep the secret? That felt wrong, somehow. But she and Emma had nowhere else to go.

 

A slight amendment

Well, dear readers, mighty and few though you are, you deserve not to have the flow of daily chapters interrupted, so I will be publishing a chapter a day until we finish. There are 32 chapters in all, so we will end in mid-March, before Holy Week, which is probably better for us all.

I hope you’re enjoying Claire and Emma, Bill and Gladys, Bill, Trystene, and the indomitable Alice.

And if you’re new – click on the pages above for the published chapters!

welcome

 

I wrote this story for fun, and hope you enjoy it.

Most days I will publish a new chapter.  Go to the tabs above (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) and the drop down menu will list a chapter.

I’ll publish the first chapter on the first Sunday in Lent, and (almost) every day in Lent I’ll publish another.  If you’d like, reading this could be your Lenten discipline, but I don’t think it will make you any more holy.

The last chapter will be published on Easter day, a day of endings and beginnings.

Happy reading!  And welcome to St. Rahab’s, a church where more is happening than meets the eye.

– Beth Merrill Neel

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