BEEP—BEEP—BEEP-- , the sound of the alarm jolted her out of bed and onto her feet like a cattle prod. Her eyelids shot up like a couple of shades that had been yanked hard, causing them to spin a little when they hit the top. She blinked for a moment, trying to get her bearings.
Where am--, she found herself answering the question before it was fully formed. Home, I’m home.
“What time is it?” she asked aloud, groggily. No one answered. Although that wasn’t really a surprise. There wasn’t anyone to answer and there hadn’t been in a year. She pressed the snooze button hard as her body hit the sheets once more. Surely she could sleep for ten more minutes. Ten minutes couldn’t hurt. Her eyes closed and she began silently running through the things she needed to do this Sunday morning.
Get dressed, grab some breakfast—She was asleep before she could get any further.
BEEP—BE--, she had almost hit the snooze button again before the alarm sounded. She was up and out of bed less than a second after that. Her hands instinctively rubbed her eyes. She was still tired. In fact, she felt more tired now than the first time she had woken up. I suppose that’s always the way it goes, she thought to herself.
She reached for the pair of silver glasses that rested near the clock radio. If they were not resting on her nose, they were, inevitably, on her worn edition of the King James Bible. They found themselves there each night after she read some discourse from Jesus or a Psalm or maybe the cry of one of the prophets. It was a habit she had held to as far back as the mind could reach. Every night, her mother would come into her bedroom and sit on her bed. They’d read a chapter of the Bible and pray together. Sometimes they’d talk. Other times they’d just sit silently, enjoying the presence of one another. But it was a ritual that they repeated almost every night of her childhood without fail. And once she left home, she continued it.
Once her glasses were in their proper location, she reached for the Book. It had seen better days and although she knew that she needed a new one, she just couldn’t bear to quit using this one. After all, this one had all of her notes in it. Verses were underlined. Notes covered the margins. And not only her own, his handwriting was like graffiti on nearly every page. She had received the sacred book from her father: a man who would spend hours at his desk, flipping pages and writing furiously both in the book itself and in countless notebooks that he kept for just that purpose. She had often watched him work. She had seen how he pored over the books that lined his solid, wooden office. He spent hours in that office: preparing for sermons, writing little tracts that he’d later pass out on the street, calling his parishioners, and almost always listening to some vinyl record.
Classical music had been ubiquitous in her childhood. When she’d wake up, the sound of Vivaldi or Brahms would often waft through the house like the scent of bacon and eggs, sizzling on a hot skillet. As she fell asleep, she’d often hear the echoes of Beethoven, Wagner or Bach bouncing quietly off of the walls. She had inherited the same taste in music; although she didn’t have it sounding quite as regularly as her father had.
As she made her way down the stairs with the Bible in one hand, she hit the light switch to the kitchen. She lightly tossed the book on the kitchen table and grabbed a bowl out of the cupboard. Within a minute she was seated, eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes and flipping pages as she had seen her father do so many times.
Her eyes scanned the pages as they flashed by. Her mind raced as she searched for something… something that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She knew what it said but couldn’t remember where it was. She shoveled another spoonful of cereal into her mouth as the pages swished between her fingers. At last, her eye reached out and grabbed something. It wasn’t exactly what she was looking for but the words were crying out to her from the page.
“How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” she recited the line in a whisper. Her eyes slowly shut as the words rattled around in her head.
“How long…?” hardly a sound exited her mouth.
It had been two years. Two years since the accident. She had been in her church office that morning; studying a passage in one of the minor prophets. Several weeks before, she had decided to preach a series on the minor prophets and how their messages were still relevant today. She found herself reading the third chapter of Habakkuk when her cell-phone started dancing across the desk, vibrating wildly. In that moment, and the ones that followed, a verse had been seared into the flesh of her mind.
“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
The phone started ringing about halfway through the verse but she finished reading before she picked it up. A frail voice could barely be made out in the midst of a sea of static.
“Hello?” she asked. The voice had been so light and airy that it didn’t sound like much more than one of the summer breezes that would often rustle the branches of the
“Honey, it’s Nathan…” The voice was imperceptibly louder.
“Nathan?” she asked hurriedly. Her stomach tensed up as she pushed her ear closer to the speaker. “Nathan, is everything alright? Are you ok?” She could hear him take a deep breath. It was the kind of breath that people take right before they drift off into a pleasurable slumber; or the kind that precedes death’s cold grasp.
“I love you.” His words pushed that last gasp of air out of his lungs.
The roar of engines passing could be faintly heard, emanating from the dead piece of plastic that she still held in her hands. She pressed her ear so closely to the phone that her head throbbed with pain. She kept hoping for some noise: a word or a breath.
After waiting for several minutes, her wish was granted, albeit not in the way that she had hoped. The voices of several faceless individuals could be heard in the distance. One could faintly be heard asking about survivors. Another made a comment regarding the extent of the damage. Then, one of the shadowy voices said the words she had been waiting for.
“I think he’s dead.”
She took another bite of her sugary breakfast before reading further. But none of the words were actually registering in her mind. They were merely squiggles on a page that her eyes were passing over. Like two round airplanes that pass high over a field but have no connection to it. Instead, she found herself wondering who would even show up this morning.
Over the past two years she had often contemplated throwing in the towel. Her friends and family advised it and more than once, she tried to convince herself of it as well. But, she couldn’t. She couldn’t until God had released her and she didn’t feel released. She felt many things but ‘release’ was not one of them.
The day she had taken the pastorate, one of the older parishioners had walked up to her and said, “This church’ll die with a woman pastor.” His words were smothered in contempt. He shook his head slightly and then walked away. Abigail was left with her shock. But she stood there, feeling utterly exposed, shaking the hands of countless other church members. Most of them were kind enough to her but there were a few who glided past, obviously avoiding eye contact. She didn’t see many of those the following Sunday.
That had been thirteen years ago and the church was drastically different. Most of the ones who had qualms about women pastors simply never came back. But as time passed, it seemed as if the church was a faucet that had never been fully shut off. There was a constant dripping and she could hear it in her mind if not with her ears.
The church had shriveled from a healthy congregation of one hundred to seventy-five and then fifty. Last year, two-thirds of the church broke off along an old fault-line that had never completely healed. Since then, she had watched as a family here and a couple there slid away like so much sand running through a child’s fingers.
“How many were there last week?” she asked aloud. She counted on her fingers but was surprised when she could barely remember more than five or six. “Five or six….really?” Her voice was disappointed.
She had done everything she knew how to increase attendance. She had tried to start a children’s program and then a youth program. Both fizzled out like a bottle rocket with no powder after only a handful of meetings. She had hoped that implementing small groups would help. It didn’t. Neither did a weekly prayer meeting that was solely attended by her.
The old man’s words echoed in her mind, “This church’ll die with a woman pastor.” His words seemed prophetic now. And yet, she knew that God had called her to this place and for this time. She had remained faithful to the call. She had spoken only what he gave her, even when the temptation to preach ‘cotton candy’ became unbearable. When she saw what the nearest mega church was doing or read about it online, she could feel an invisible hand pushing her. But in those moments, she would retreat into her closet, get on her knees and pray for guidance. God had never led her down that path.
She laid the spoon in the empty bowl and interlocked her fingers, placing her elbows on the table. As she looked heavenward, she cried out, “God, I don’t know how much longer I can go. I feel like I’ve just…. Like I’ve just reached a dead end. I don’t think I can make it another day. I just don’t…” her voice trailed off and as she continued to pray silently, tears ran down her face like rain on a windshield.
Two hours later she was getting in her white ’96 Honda. She cranked the car and then slowly pulled out of the drive. As she made her way down highway 9, she thought about what God had told her. She remembered Isaiah, a man who was told that no one would listen to his message. A man that, when faced with that prospect, questioned God, “ For how long, Lord?” She though of Moses, the prophet who helped lead God’s people out of bondage but was thanked with complaints. But then, her mind focused on Jesus. Here was a man who loved with an unrelenting passion that couldn’t be emulated by human strength alone. He loved in spite of the hatred that met him at every junction. And he continued on. Not because he enjoyed the way it made him feel. But rather because that was who he was. It was his calling.
As she pulled into the church parking lot, she asked herself, “What is my calling?” The thought rolled through her mind like a hamster in one of those little plastic balls.
As she entered the sanctuary, she checked the clock: 9:13. She strolled to the front of the church and knelt down at the old, wooden altar. She prayed until her ear caught the stray sound of a car rolling into the front parking lot, an engine cutting off and two doors simultaneously opening and shutting. Her head raised as she looked out of the window. She glanced at the clock again: 9:32. That’s odd, she thought as she stood up and walked toward the door. She hadn’t unlocked the door yet so the man and woman were standing outside of the entryway. Their mouths were moving but she couldn’t make out anything they were saying. They looked nervous. The man’s leg had a slight shake and the woman had crossed her arms in a manner that appeared uncomfortable. Abigail got to the door and pushed it open.
“Well good morning, y’all are early!” she said with a hint of feigned surprise in her voice. She knew that something was not right.
“Good morning,” the man replied customarily. It was obvious that he did not want to be there.
“Good morning,” his wife echoed with a smile that was as fake as her platinum blonde hair color.
“Come on in,” Abigail said, pushing the door open and motioning for them to enter. They didn’t budge.
“Actually, there’s a reason that we’re early, Abby,” the woman started and then gave her husband a slight push.
“Yea, Pastor Abby, we came to let you know that we’re going to try a new church this morning.” He stared directly at his feet as if he was speaking to them. He had the look of an ashamed little boy who had just gotten caught doing something that he knew would result in a punishment.
Abby just smiled slightly, “Oh. Do you mind me asking where you’re going?”
The couple looked at each other, unsure of what to say.
“We’re going to try First Baptist,” the woman finally blurted out.
Her husband’s words followed immediately behind his wife’s, “Yea, and the Coopers are actually going too. I don’t know whether they’ll be by to let you know or not. We just…we just didn’t think it was right to not even tell you that we wouldn’t be here this morning. ‘Cause you know, you might not need to worry about preparing a sermon or whatever…”
“We just feel like our children are missing out… we have two kids…” his wife started as if Abigail was a stranger. She wasn’t. They had known each other for nearly a decade and there was a time when they had been close.
“I understand.” Abigail said bluntly, “Thank you for telling me.” Before anything else could be said she whirled around and pulled the door closed behind her. The man and woman stood for a moment, unable to decide what they should do next. The man started to knock at the door but his wife grabbed his hand before he could make contact and she tugged at his arm, dragging him back to the car like some disobedient child.
Abigail sank to the floor. She didn’t bother walking back to the sanctuary. She didn’t have the energy and she honestly didn’t care whether anyone could see her through the wide, glass doors that looked out the front of the building. Tears streamed down her face as she lamented her situation.
Thoughts flashed through her mind: the man who prophesied her failure, the death of her husband, the lack of faith that her family and friends had placed in her, and the rejection she felt from watching the last four drops trickle out of this church that she loved dearly. The emotional pain that had been slowly building over the past two or three years had finally caused a cracking of her foundation and she hurt physically because of it.
After spending nearly an hour on the floor, pleading with God and demanding direction, she stood and deliberately walked back into the sanctuary. It felt like someone was tugging at her shirt, pulling her down the aisle and toward her usual pew. She looked down and found her Bible. An invisible force compelled her to reach down and pick the book up. She opened it up and found the notes that she had made for this morning’s sermon. As her eyes walked across the page, she had a sudden surge of strength. Her tears shut off like a faucet and she quickly wiped them away. God had delivered a message to her and she knew what she had to do.
She looked around the empty sanctuary, ghostly silent and still dark. Everyone had abandoned her; everyone except Him. As she made her way up the steps and to the pulpit she silently prayed the same prayer that she always sent up before preaching: God, let me speak and live your words faithfully.
She reached the pulpit and looked out on to the crowd of empty seats. Then, she began.
“The prophet Habakkuk once declared, ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior…’”