The Debt: The Story of a Past Redeemedby Angela Hunt
After fleeing a painful and compromising past, Emma Rose Howard settled eagerly into the role of a pastor's wife. She and her husband, Abel, dedicated themselves to parenting a mega-church and influenced thousands of lives through its related ministries.
But when Emma Rose receives a phone call from a living, breathing remnant of her troubled past, she finds
After fleeing a painful and compromising past, Emma Rose Howard settled eagerly into the role of a pastor's wife. She and her husband, Abel, dedicated themselves to parenting a mega-church and influenced thousands of lives through its related ministries.
But when Emma Rose receives a phone call from a living, breathing remnant of her troubled past, she finds herself wondering if something in her life is woefully out of balance. The presence of this unexpected intruder soon threatens everything Emma Rose has believed about her calling, her marriage, and her relationship with God.
The Debt not only invites readers to embrace the painful heartache and incomparable joy that accompany a soul's redemption, but it challenges us to follow Christ to new and unexpected places.
Read an Excerpt
As the President of the United States slips his arm around my husband's shoulder, I think I might just bubble up and burst with pride. I'm standing and applauding with everyone else, of course, trying to keep my smile lowered to an appropriately humble wattage, while Abel, bless him, bows his head, obviously embarrassed by the deafening applause.
We're among the few who have been seated at the head table of the National Prayer Breakfast, and my head is still reeling from the honor. Dizzy as I am, I try to look around and gather as many impressions as I can. The support team back home in Wiltshire, Kentucky, will want me to recite every detail.
The woman next to me, a senator's wife, bends to reach for her purse and jostles the table, spilling my cranberry juice. She glances at the spreading stain, apparently deciding it's more politic to continue applauding than to help me mop up the mess.
Faced with the same choice, my heart congeals into a small lump of dread. If I ignore the stain, the president might glance over here and decide that Abel Howard's wife is a clumsy country bumpkin. If I stop to clean it up, I'll look like a woman who can't cut herself loose from the kitchen.
Fortunately, life as a minister's wife has taught me a thing or two about diplomacy and compromise. Steadfastly smiling at the president, I stop clapping long enough to pick up my napkin and drop it onto the wet linen. The senator's wife gives me an apologetic look as the applause dies down and we settle back into our seats.
"Abel Howard and his affiliated ministries," the president says, moving back to the lectern, "have provided us with an excellent example of how religious television broadcasts can promote quality in programming and restore morality to our nation. Not only does Abel Howard deliver a worship service to millions of American homes each week, he and his organization have spearheaded drives to lead our country back to its spiritual, ethical, and moral roots. In this special presentation for religious leaders, the Points of Light Foundation is pleased to honor Reverend Howard for his courage and many years of dedicated hard work."
Behind the president, Abel laces his fingers and keeps his head lowered. Beside him, the Catholic bishop who has also been honored looks at Abel with open curiosity . . . or is that skepticism in his eye? From where I sit, I can't tell.
"Abel Howard," the president continues, "and the other worthy people who stand before you today represent all we can achieve through determined effort, concentrated vision, and dependence upon God. Our nation has no official religion, no state-endorsed faith. All are free to worship or not worship, to exercise faith or sustain doubt. Yet faith, and those who practice it, brings out the best in us. Scripture describes people of faith as salt, and salt not only adds spice to a substance, it acts to retard spoilage. The men and women standing before you have decided to be salt in a society that can, at times, seem terribly decayed. I hope and pray that these men and women will be joined by thousands of others who realize that salt kept in a saltshaker is useless."
The crowd responds with another boom of applause. The president grips the sides of the lectern as he waits for the sound to fade, and I catch my husband's eye. Abel smiles, but his folded hands and stiff posture tell me he is eager to leave the platform. Abel has never minded attention, but this is a lot for a Kentucky preacher to handle.
The president clears his throat. "In a letter to a friend, George Washington once wrote, 'I am sure that there was never a people who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency, which was so often manifested during our Revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.'"
The president throws back his shoulders as his gaze sweeps across the crowded ballroom. "May we all remember that God can and will intervene in our affairs to keep America strong. May God bless you all, and may God continue to bless America."
As the audience rises to deliver a final thundering ovation, the president turns to shake the hands of a few people on the podium. He reaches for Abel's hand first-a fact I can't help but notice-then moves on to congratulate the nun who oversees a soup kitchen, the Muslim cleric who founded a literacy program, and the rabbi honored for his efforts to combat racism.
A host of noteworthy people stands on the platform, but the President of the United States turned to shake Abel's hand first.
That thought pleases me to no end.
Like children who've just been excused from the grown-up table, our group is relaxed and giddy as we spill out of the limo and cross the tarmac. The February day is cold, but the sun has gilded the asphalt and the gleaming white jet with "Abel Howard Ministries" painted on its side. The ministry pilots, Dan Moon and Jim Spence, are waiting by the pull-down steps, shivering in their navy peacoats. They grin and wave as we approach, then they climb the stairs.
At least a half-dozen steps ahead of me, Abel walks with Josh Bartol, his administrative assistant. While my husband rattles off a list of names and titles, Josh murmurs into the tiny tape player he always carries in the pocket of his suit coat.
Without being told, I understand what my husband is doing. The names belong to dignitaries he saw at the breakfast, and whether he shook their hand or merely glimpsed them from across the room, he'll send those VIPs a personal note within the next forty-eight hours. Abel recognized the value of networking before networking became a buzzword, and he has never hesitated to embrace business ideas for use in the ministry. "We're salesmen, after all," he tells young preachers who flock to his annual ministers' conference, "offering the best possible product to people who desperately need it. So why should we be any less motivated-or any less savvy-than companies peddling fancy tennis shoes and overpriced automobiles?"
Beside me, Crystal Donaldson is huffing to keep up, her boots clomping heavily on the pavement. I smile inwardly at her efforts-after nearly twenty-four years of marriage to Abel, I've mastered the long stride necessary to keep pace with him. But Crystal is new to traveling with the Reverend and probably a bit starry-eyed from riding in limos and the ministry jet. She couldn't attend the breakfast, but on our way out of the Hilton lobby I glimpsed her chatting up other staffers who couldn't get a ticket to the exclusive event.
She quickens her step. "Will we be here long?" She reaches up to grab the purse strap slipping from her shoulder. "On the ground, I mean?"
I look toward the tiny cockpit windows where I can see our pilots. "Dan and Jim are usually pretty good about moving us out. I'm sure they're as anxious to get home as we are."
"I'm not anxious to get home." Excitement sparks her eyes. "This has been absolutely incredible. Honestly. I mean, we were in the same building as Franklin Graham! And you won't believe-well, maybe you would-all the famous people I saw walking through the lobby!"
Somehow I resist the urge to pat her on the head. Crystal is probably twenty-three now, a recent college graduate, but to me she'll always be a "sunbeam" from my children's choir. I remember visiting her mother in the hospital just after Crystal's birth . . . and wishing that little pink bundle of sweetness were mine.
A few years later, after the establishment of our tentative television ministry, she became the first child baptized in a televised Sunday morning service. When she came up out of the water, wet and shivering, eight-year-old Crystal shone her blue eyes into the camera and shouted, "Thank you, Jesus!"
That single exclamation, Abel says, probably boosted donations by two hundred percent. After the sudden spurt in contributions, my husband decided God meant for us to remain in television, so we signed a contract to purchase a full year of weekly programming on our local station.
Now Crystal has come home to take her place among the scores of homegrown kids we've hired to work in the ministry. I don't know much about what goes on in the payroll department, but I suspect the average twenty-something working for us earns only slightly more than minimum wage. But they're learning as they work, gaining invaluable experience and maturity, not to mention the opportunity to list "Abel Howard Ministries" on their employment résumé.
Abel says we're teaching these young people to be servants while they follow the highest calling any believer could receive. When I see the enthusiasm in their eyes, I have to agree with him. Sometimes I'm stunned by their single-minded dedication. God has been good to bring so many committed people to our ever-expanding organization.
Crystal is working for Purity, our ministry's monthly magazine. She graduated from a Bible college with a degree in journalism, and as editor of the magazine, it's my job to approve her articles. She's a gifted writer, but sometimes her writing seems stilted, as though she is hesitant to write anything that might rock anyone's boat.
Her hesitation is probably my fault; when she took the job I sat her down for a frank discussion and told her that our readers could be a persnickety group. The previous month's guest column had featured the story of Gomer and Hosea, and the author happened to mention that Hosea's wife had lived as a prostitute. We're still getting mail about that issue-apparently the word prostitute has no business in a Christian family magazine.
I should have caught it before we went to press.
"Emma Rose," Crystal hustles to keep up with me, "mind if I ask you some questions on the plane? Impressions of the breakfast and all? I figure I can work your comments into an updated feature article about you and the Reverend."
"That's fine, Crystal."
We have reached the stairs, where Josh has fallen back to allow Abel to climb first. Wes Turner, a freelance photographer along for the ride, snaps photos of my husband striding up the steps. I can imagine the caption: Despite a hectic schedule, the Reverend takes time to receive presidential honors at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
As Abel disappears into the cabin, Josh puts one foot on the stairs, then removes it. A deep flush creeps up from the top of his collar as he steps aside.
I grab the handrail and pretend not to notice his belated gallantry. "Thank you, Josh."
I climb into the jet and move past the cockpit. Winnie Barnes, the air hostess, gives me a warm greeting. "Mornin', Emma Rose. Did you enjoy the breakfast?"
Winnie, Dan, and Jim are the ministry's flight crew, kept on the payroll to fly wherever the Reverend Howard needs
to go. Originally brought on as part-time employees, lately they've been traveling three or four times a week. The pilots don't seem to mind much, but I suspect Winnie finds it hard to leave her eight-month-old son.
I give her the grateful smile she deserves. "The breakfast was wonderful, thank you for asking. How was your rest last night?"
"Fine." Her radiant expression diminishes a degree. "Except when I called home and Charlie told me the baby has another earache."
"I'll be praying for him, then."
"Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate that very much."
I move forward, noticing that Abel has taken the seat nearest the left window. Because he didn't head to the conference table at the back, I know he's not in the mood for conversation. I slip into the seat across from him, grateful for the solidity of a window at my shoulder. If the flight makes me drowsy, as most flights usually do, I might nap on the way home.
Josh enters next, and it's obvious that his manners fell short of extending gallantry to poor Crystal. Answering the hostess's greeting with an absent grunt, he spies the empty seat next to Abel and drops his briefcase into it, then blocks the aisle while he removes his overcoat and insists that Winnie hang it in the small closet across from her jump seat.
But he doesn't take the seat next to Abel. Understanding my husband nearly as well as I, Josh respects Abel's signal for silence. He takes the seat directly behind his boss, then hauls his briefcase from the space next to Abel.
I look away lest Josh read the irritation on my face. Abel loves the young man, says he has great potential, but I'm not so sure. Yes, he's efficient; yes, he's bright and sophisticated. But he's also brash and a little too blunt for my taste. He grew up in a well-connected political family; the father practically begged Abel to give Josh a position. Abel has not regretted a day of Josh's tenure, but I've had more experience with people, and I know Josh's type. The moment a bigger and better offer comes along, he'll be gone, leaving us to deal with whatever mess he leaves behind.
Josh just seems . . . I don't know. Sometimes I think he's giving the ministry every ounce of his intellect and energy, but nothing of his heart.
Abel thinks my fears are groundless. He says we might owe this National Prayer Breakfast honor to Josh's family. I don't know about that, but I'm content to watch and wait.
As the others troop aboard, I turn my face to the window, hoping Crystal will follow Josh's lead and grant me a few moments of peace. I haven't forgotten my promise to give her an interview, but at the moment I want to relax and collect my thoughts.
I adore my husband, I love working by his side in the ministry. But when we are locked away in a private space with only our most trusted aides, I cherish the freedom to let my face relax, my shoulders droop.
Even the most vigilant Christian soldier needs a cease-fire now and then.
We have been airborne only a few minutes when I hear the high-pitched warble of the jet's telephone. Josh springs to answer it; both Abel and I look at him, waiting.
A faint look of disappointment flits across Josh's face as he hands the phone to me. I smile and accept it, knowing that Josh was probably expecting a call from one of the movers and shakers at the prayer breakfast this morning.
I bring the phone to my ear. "Hello?"
"Emma Rose! Good morning!"
Celene Hughes, who serves as my administrative assistant and our director of women's ministries, wouldn't have called unless something important had come up. "Everything okay, Celene?"
"Pretty much." Despite her assurance, I hear a note of worry in her voice, and my tension level rises a few points. I sink into my seat. "What's up?"
She exhales a breath that seems to whoosh straight into my ear. "It's probably nothing, just one of our usual fruitcakes. But the young man insisted that I contact you right away. I tried to stall him, but on the off chance he really did need to talk to you, I thought I'd better call."
I shift my gaze to the window, where a quilted blanket of low clouds blocks my view of the landscape below. "What'd he want?"
"He says he wants to meet you privately. I told him you would be speaking at Sinai Church four times in the next month and you'd be happy to meet him after any of those services, but he said a public meeting wouldn't do. That's when my alarm bells started ringing. He said he had important news for your ears alone."
A soft groan escapes my lips. Last year I attracted a stalker, a lonely middle-aged man who watched the TV program every week and somehow convinced himself that I was his soul mate. His early letters went into the massive bins sorted by our mail department; when he began to mark them "personal," they came to my office. I ignored them at first, not wanting to encourage him, but when three or four letters began to arrive every afternoon, I showed them to Abel, who handed them off to Jon Stuckey, chief of security for the ministry.
After Jon wrote the fellow a terse warning, the personal letters stopped coming.
I put all thoughts of the man out of my mind until one July Sunday when a disheveled stranger began to walk up the center aisle. Though Abel saw him he kept preaching, assuming that the man wanted to pray at the altar. But when the fellow called my name and pulled a gun from his overcoat, Abel and half the choir hit the floor like wheat before the reaper.
I have a dim memory of Abel gesturing frantically, motioning for me to get down, but for a full five seconds, I couldn't think. Half-formed thoughts stuttered through my brain as my eyes registered our minister of music inchworming on the carpeted platform and my husband cowering behind the reinforced pulpit (bulletproofed in the year we launched our campaign against homosexuality depicted on television). I sat frozen beside the piano, not knowing whether to crawl beneath the Steinway or slip behind my chair, as the wild-eyed man kept coming, his eyes locked on me.
Fortunately, I didn't have to waver long. Jon and his security team-who'd probably been half-hoping for an opportunity to test themselves-rushed from pews and behind pillars and charged the platform like NFL linebackers intent on victory. While several team members covered Abel and other staff members, Jon tackled my deranged Don Juan. As they hit the floor, I glimpsed the black gleam of steel and heard the crack of the gun and an answering chink from one of the crystal chandeliers.
In the days to come, people often remarked on my composure. But what they took for grace under pressure was nothing more than paralyzing fear.
Within sixty seconds, it was all over. The security men hustled the man away; the choir members brushed dust from their robes and climbed back into their seats. The music director smoothed the long strands of hair atop his bald head and sat back down, though his hands trembled on the armrest.
But without so much as a tremor in his voice, Abel pulled himself erect in the pulpit and told our people that God had just protected us against a flagrant satanic attack. The congregation broke into spontaneous applause, a veritable offering of praise.
Later, after the police had interrogated the man and learned his identity, Abel drew me into his arms and asked why I hadn't crawled into the bulletproof pulpit with him.
"It all happened so fast," I answered, surprised by the question. "I never dreamed anyone would come after me."
He promised we'd be more careful about investigating suspicious letters. "It's sad to think people can't relax when they come to church," he whispered in my ear, "but this is a different world, Em, and we're charging straight into it with our weapons drawn. We might as well be prepared for trouble."
Now discreet metal detectors stand outside the entrance doors of our worship center and office complex. I'd been afraid our church members would despise the new security measures, but their reaction surprised me. "Why, look at that," one woman told me, pausing to admire the technological marvels. "Not every church draws Satan's attention. Just goes to prove you and the Reverend are making a real difference for the kingdom of God."
That supportive attitude is just one of the things I love about our church people. Outsiders, though, often worry me.
Now Celene is calling about another strange man-if he came to church, would he set off the metal detectors?
My hand tightens around the telephone. "This guy who called"-not wanting to alarm Abel, I lower my voice-"do you think you need to alert security?"
"I don't know." I can almost see Celene chewing her lip. "He seemed harmless, really. He kept saying he didn't want to bother you, he just wanted to leave his number and a brief message."
I close my eyes, imagining what the message might be. Abel gets lots of letters from well-meaning viewers who wake in the grips of a bad dream convinced God has chosen them to tell the Reverend that the world will end in forty-six days, or sixty-two, or on January 15 in the year 2005 . . .
"What's the message?"
I hear the sound of shuffling paper. "He said his name is Christopher Lewis-"
The name doesn't ring a bell.
"-and he's calling about someone whose birthday is January 6, 1976."
A sudden spasm grips my heart.
Ignorant of her words' effect, Celene continues: "This is the odd part-he told me to tell you that someone wrote an address on his birth certificate: 4839 Hillside Drive. He said it was important I tell you that."
A dark cloud sweeps out of the past and blocks my vision; the empty hand resting in my lap trembles as the life I once locked away bursts through the dam of memory and floods my heart. I have not spoken of January 6, 1976, in decades; even my husband has no idea why that date is significant.
But I know. And the young man who called has to know why I have silently marked that anniversary for the past twenty-eight years.
My voice, oddly enough, is calm when I can speak again. "That's the only message?"
"That's all. He thought the address might mean something to you."
Might. Oceans of mercy flood that word; in it I hear the possibility of saying he's mistaken, the address and date mean nothing to me, somehow he has tracked down the wrong Emma Rose Harbison Howard who once lived at 4839 Hillside Drive in Hudson Falls, New York.
But he has found me. Despite the sealing of the court records, despite legal promises and emotional assurances, he has gone through the challenging work of searching me out.
For an agonizing moment I can't decide if the thought terrifies or thrills me.
"Does it?" Celene's voice snaps at my nerve endings.
"Does the address mean something?"
The corner of my mouth twitches. Though I experienced a dark and troubled adolescence, I have fond memories of the rectangular ranch house on Hillside Drive. Mercy House, the place was called in those days, and though its function did not appear on a single sign, no one in Hudson Falls mentioned Mercy House without adding a subtitle: The Home for Wayward Girls.
"I'm not sure why he would mention that address," I answer, taking care to wrap the truth in ambiguity. "But save the message, okay? I'll look at it when I come in."
Celene's voice rings with relief and I'm touched by her concern. I know when I return to my office the pink message slip will be sitting on a stack of others, arranged on my desk with a pile of carefully screened mail.
"Is that all you have for me?" I ask, looking across the plane at Abel. He gives me a tired smile, silently acknowledging the waning of the morning's adrenaline rush.
"That's it," Celene answers. "See you later today, then."
I click off the phone and drop it into the empty seat. Across the aisle, Abel leans against the curved wall to face me.
"Everything okay at the office?"
"Fine. Celene just wanted to run something by me."
"Nothing urgent, I hope. Our schedule's pretty tight for the next few weeks."
I take pains to keep my voice light. "Nothing urgent."
The message on my desk could be earth-shattering, life-changing, and completely destructive. But it can wait. After all, the stranger who called has been waiting twenty-eight years.
From the corner of my eye I see Crystal approaching, steno pad in hand. She has questions-probably a long list of them.
Despite my promise to her, I can't be interviewed now. My head is swirling with too many questions of my own.
I turn to the window and prop my brow on the molded plastic. Crystal-astute girl that she is-correctly guesses that I'd like to be left alone, for after a moment I hear soft footsteps heading toward the back of the plane where Josh has joined Wes to drink coffee and crow about the VIPs they spotted at the prayer breakfast.
I close my eyes against a sudden spurt of tears.
How completely the world can change in the space of a moment! This morning my head had been filled with sights and sounds from the powerful world of government. I'd been a little star-struck by the senator's wife sitting at my right, a little dizzied by the fact that the President of the United States wished to honor my husband.
But those memories pale in significance as other visions fill my mind. I see a reddened, squalling baby boy, pulled from my swollen belly and held aloft just long enough for a nurse to wrap in a blanket before she whisks him away.
They took him from me-at my request-but in the winding length of twenty-eight years, nothing has been able to remove him from my heart.
Meet the Author
Christy Award winner Angela Hunt writes stories for everyone who enjoys the unexpected. She is the best-selling author of Uncharted, The Debt, The Note, The Pearl, and many more.
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