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Like Sheep Gone AstrayA Novel
By Leslie J. Sherrod
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 2006 Leslie J. Sherrod
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was a small church, the kind of white wood frame building that always finds a home on hilly back roads, with forgotten grave markers nestled under its shadow and a steeple that towers higher than the trees surrounding it. The pews were made of the same worn wood grain as the floor, and hymnbooks and Bibles lined each row.
This was the church that had been around long enough to serve as the refuge of underpaid domestics and first-generation steelworkers from now ghost-like train yards. It had been the meetinghouse of civil rights activists and countless committees; the training ground where little black boys and brown-skinned young girls grew to be decent "churched" folk; the sacred ground where God met those willing to walk the straight and narrow way.
The founding members walked to the small sanctuary, some leaving their homes before sunrise to get to Sunday school on time. But on this Sunday morning, cars filled the gravel lot. And instead of the tinklings of an old, out-of-tune piano, synthesized chords from keyboards and guitars flooded out of the windows. The parishioners who came to the eleven-o'clock service walked down brandnew red-carpeted aisles and rested in cushioned seats.
Second Baptist Church of Shepherd Hillswas not the only or oldest congregation in the area, but it was respected by many as a Bible teaching, preaching, and believing church.
And it was this respect that Anthony Murdock did not want to lose. From his seat in Pastor Green's small basement study, he could hear the lively service proceeding above him. The opening hymn, "Hold to His Hand," was echoing through the rafters. As the entire church seemed to shake under the weight of many footsteps stomping in time to the music, Anthony felt his heart pounding in his ears. He looked down again at the letter in his hands. His own neat print glared back. He had written it three weeks earlier, and carried it around just as long. This Sunday he would finally give it to him. He would not lose his nerve again. He would give him the letter after morning service. No matter what.
Anthony sat limply in the leather chair, questioning his own resolve. Six months ago, he had been celebrated for his confidence and decision-making skills as the senior marketing director at Shaw Enterprises, the fastestgrowing marketing firm in Shepherd Hills. But that was six months ago.
"You prayin'?" A little boy in a junior usher's uniform stood in the cracked doorway. "I don't mean to interrupt, but I wanted to make sure I had your introduction right." "I'm sure whatever you have is fine." Anthony smiled. He shook his head as the youngster disappeared. Anthony never did fully understand why the formal introduction always preceded his sermons every fourth Sunday morning. He had, after all, been a member of Second Baptist Church of Shepherd Hills his entire life, all twenty-nine years. Most of the people sitting above him had witnessed nearly every major milestone in his life. His walk down the church aisle to confess Christ when he was eight; his subsequent baptism; his high school then college graduation; even his marriage ceremony had been celebrated in the small reception hall in the basement of the rickety church. The evening he gave his trial sermon, the pews had been packed.
Everyone here knows me-at least they think they do. Anthony's thoughts raced again. He loosened his necktie a little as the sweat began pooling around his neck. Taking one last look at the letter, he carefully refolded it and placed it securely between the pages of his Bible. They'll all be surprised, he reflected while mopping his forehead with the handkerchief he kept in his breast pocket.
With a heaving sigh he stood up, grabbing his sermon notes. He stared blankly at the pages of his own scribbled writing, re-tucked his shirt, and headed for the stairs to make his entrance into the service.
"Lord, I guess this is it. It's all come down to this." Minister Anthony Murdock, the youth and young adult leader of Second Baptist Church of Shepherd Hills, ascended the stairs and entered the main sanctuary.
The children's choir swayed in purple robes on the platform facing him, their voices and arms alive with the latest arrangement by the animated director, who clapped louder than all seventeen pairs of hands combined. "Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine," they sang with all the breath within them.
Anthony felt a warm flutter inside as he welcomed in the innocence. Entering the sanctuary of his home church was like walking into a grandmother's kitchen. Here, he was satisfied and comforted. Here, he was loved.
As he made his way to the front of the church, he responded to nod after nod that greeted him. Sister Kellye Porter, the assistant pastor's wife, who had taught his childhood Sunday school class. Calvin Holmes, the old deacon who beat him year after year in the annual horseshoe tournament at the church picnic. Councilman Walter Banks, the revered politician who had taken him under his wing and mentored him from his adolescence.
I would not have known success if I had not known these people. Anthony swallowed hard as he smiled at each nod. He knew that the letter tucked safely inside his Bible was the beginning of the end, and they would all be disappointed. But hadn't it all already ended with that first phone call six months ago? Before he could answer his own question, the sudden roar of applause shook him.
"Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place! We're having church today!" Pastor Green exclaimed as Anthony took his place on the pulpit.
From his seat, Anthony agreed. He could see the entire congregation. Hands were clapping, feet were tapping, all in a mesmerizing unison with the clanging cymbals of the drum and the shrill chords of the pianist. Floppy paper fans and bold feather hats dotted the sanctuary, as did the cries of "Amen" and "Thank you, Jesus" blurted out by Sister Ethel, Mother Howard, and Brother Oliver. Anthony knew that it was just a matter of time before the rest of the parishioners, most of whom were already standing and rocking along to the music, would join in the growing crescendo of praise.
The deacons sat solemn-faced in their usual front-row seats. A flurry of white prayer caps covered the heads of the missionaries sitting across the aisle from the deacon board. Anthony watched as a bag of peppermints passed back and forth between the two rows of these ladies, most of whom were considered the Mothers of the church.
He imagined for a second that his Great-Aunt Rosa was still sitting among them. He could still smell the oversized buttery biscuits she pulled out of the oven every Sunday after church. The family used to be so close, he reminisced, almost tasting the crispy fried chicken and salty collard greens Aunt Rosa put on her dining room table every week between services. He swallowed hard, remembering the series of tragedies during his teen years that seemed to claim everyone near and dear to him. By his eighteenth birthday, Aunt Rosa and his church family were all he'd had left.
"Life don't make sense sometimes," Aunt Rosa used to tell him, "but God still has plans for you. Look at Joseph in the Bible. All the sufferin' he went through was just to get him to a high place. Remember Joseph, and when you ain't got nothin' else, hold on to God and your integrity." Integrity. The word stung him even as he sat smiling on the pulpit. He had let her down. He had let them all down.
Rosa Bergenson had moved "back home" to South Carolina after Anthony married, but she was still revered as a leading matriarch of the church. A special seat in the front pew was reserved for her every Church Anniversary Weekend even though the Anniversary Committee members knew her failing health would prevent her attendance. Anthony hadn't called her in months, convinced she would somehow sense his guilt even over the telephone.
"Let the redeemed of the Lord say so! Let the people of God rejoice!" Pastor Green boomed, bringing Anthony back into the service.
The entire church was jolted by a wave of electricity as the organist set the keys of his instrument on heavenly fire. Shrieks of "Hallelujah" courted dances of worship. Some of the mothers and sisters of the church swirled around in the aisles while a few of the brothers stomped in jubilee. The senior ushers and nurses raced around frantically with fans and cups of water to assist those overcome by the Spirit.
Anthony allowed his soul to enjoy the warmth, taking in the sweetness from heaven like a dry garden swallowing long-awaited rainwater. He let his feet tap along to the one-two beat of the drum as a growing surge of living waters seemed ready to burst out of him. He stood to lift his hands higher, forgetting that his Bible and sermon notes were still in his lap. With a loud thump they fell to the floor. As he bent down to retrieve his scattered possessions, his eyes caught hold of the letter peeking out of his Bible.
Maybe it's not too late, he considered as he reorganized his papers. I haven't said anything to anybody, and those who do know would not dare expose themselves.
He glanced over at Pastor Green, who was basking in the presence of glory. His eyes, normally gentle in character, seemed ablaze in fiery joy as he nodded back at Anthony.
It's not too late! Thank you, Lord! There's got to be another way to handle this. Anthony thought of tearing the letter into small pieces right then and there. Relief rushed within him, nudging away a burden that had been growing far too long.
But then he spotted Terri in the congregation. Her ice blue suit stood out in the warm sea of worshippers. No matter what. He remembered his resolve in the study. Anthony refolded the letter, tucked it back into his Bible, and quietly sat down.
Terri Murdock wanted to shove Sister Pearl out into the center of the aisle.
"If this old bat steps on my foot one more time," she mumbled to herself, "this church will see some real laying on of hands."
With a scowl pulling at her full, berry-painted lips, she bent over to wipe the fresh scuffmarks off her new-and expensive-light blue shoes. She checked a rhinestone-and-silver clasp before sitting up and jeering at her jubilant neighbor.
"Thank you, Jesus!" Sister Pearl shouted, oblivious to Terri's rolling eyes. Four-year-old Tyreeka Oliver turned around in her seat, peeking over the edge of the wooden pew to examine Terri and the Spirit-filled, stomping Sister Pearl. Terri flashed the child a large white smile.
"Bless Jesus," she moaned, letting her eyes drift dreamily to the ceiling while waving both her hands. When Terri saw the plaited pigtails of the little girl bobbing in another direction, she rolled her eyes again and snatched her hands back into her lap.
"Just hurry on up with this service," she groaned. She studied the church bulletin, noting that only a quarter of the planned program had been covered. Offering had not yet been taken. The announcements still needed to be read. And Pastor Green had not even begun his morning remarks. I hope Anthony gives a short sermon today. She sighed to herself while glancing at the pulpit.
Anthony sat slouched in his seat, his eyes studying the red carpet. He looked distant and preoccupied, shuffling and reshuffling the papers in his hand. This is not the same man I met five years ago. Terri frowned.
She daydreamed about the first time she saw him. She'd just left the office of a client and was headed back to her car when she heard door chimes ringing to her right. There he was, strolling out of the Golden Touch Dry Cleaners and Tailoring in the busy downtown district. From the number and quality of suits he carried, she knew instantly that he was some type of working professional with a lot of money and a lot of class. He walked like he had jazz in his shoes, a syncopated, sure-of-yourself strut that was smooth and easy. She remembered the warm shiver she'd felt when she studied not only his strapping six-two frame, but also his luxurious brown suede overcoat flapping wildly in the wind. She was rendered speechless, and had frozen, before realizing too late that he had disappeared in the congestion.
Terri smiled to herself, thinking how good confidence and cash looked on a caramel-colored brother. Isn't that what she'd almost told him the second time she saw him, at the gym, a week after that first sighting? How she had missed a brother like that working out in her two years of regular exercise she didn't know, but she was not going to let opportunity pass by her again.
By the time they'd finished their conversation outside the locker rooms about how they had both secured their dream jobs through successful college internships and were well on their way up very lucrative career ladders, she knew she had him hooked. The man had money written all over him. Together they would read like Forbes magazine, and he knew it. Terri's smile deepened at the memories. Then she looked back up at Anthony sitting on the pulpit, and both her smile and the memories quickly faded and fizzled away.
"Ouch!" Terri hissed, rubbing her foot. "Sister Pearl needs to hurry up and sit down," she mumbled to herself. She sighed in relief as she saw some of the deacons and trustees getting the collection plates.
"At least the service is moving forward now." She rechecked her watch.
"... And so may I present to some and introduce to others, our very own, Minister Anthony Murdock." The junior usher charged with the introduction crumpled up the index card and hurried back to his seat. A light applause and a string of Amens rippled through the congregation as Anthony took his place behind the lectern. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he stood quietly for a moment, gazing out into the faces of people who thought they knew him. He was careful to avoid Terri's blank stare. After looking up at the balcony and then letting his eyes circle the rest of the church, he began.
"Good morning, church," he started. "I'd like to first give honor to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for giving me this opportunity to stand once more before you this morning."
"Amen, amen." A deacon nodded. "And to Pastor Green, the deacon board and officials, and all the members of this great assembly." Anthony turned to each as he acknowledged them. "And last but not least, I want to give honor to the lady who keeps me going with her words of encouragement and her prayers, my wife, Terri. Won't you stand, baby?"
Anthony thought how phony his own words sounded to him as Terri Murdock quickly stood, her painted lips arched in a full beauty-pageant smile.
"And now to the business at hand." Anthony hesitated. He held on to the lectern with both hands for balance.
"Proverbs chapter four, verses twenty-six and twenty-seven. This message is for the young people, but I believe that there's a word in this for all of us. The scripture says, 'Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil.'"
"Yes, Lord!" one of the Mothers shouted. "Here are two short verses that give a lifelong message," he said. "Webster's Dictionary tells us that the word ponder means to think deeply about, to carefully consider, to weigh. And what must we be considering and weighing? Let's say it together: 'the path of thy feet.' That means that we must be deliberate in our choices. We must carefully think about where our choices will lead us."
"My, my, my." Sister Ethel shook her head. "My dear children, my church friends, where are you headed this morning? What path are you on? Where are your feet taking you? You and I must examine the road of our lives. But we can't just stop at considering where we are. No, that's not the last verse in the chapter."
The church warmed up again as echoes of "That's right" and "Tell it" and "Amen" bounced off of every wall and out of every corner.
"See, once we consider our path and make sure that we are established in righteousness, then we must not turn in any way. We have got to get on the right path and we have got to stay on the right path. It's a constant walk. If you find your foot on the wrong path, standing in a place of evil, God's word tells you to remove it!"
Anthony stopped suddenly, awkwardly. "That's okay, son!" one of the older deacons shouted. "Preach, boy!" Another one laughed while slapping his knee. Anthony took a slow sip of water, thinking only of the letter hidden in his Bible. What will they all say? he wondered.
Excerpted from Like Sheep Gone Astray by Leslie J. Sherrod Copyright © 2006 by Leslie J. Sherrod. Excerpted by permission.
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