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|Publisher:||The Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.19(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.63(d)|
About the Author
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The Church LadiesA Novel
By Lisa E. Samson
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2001 Lisa E. Samson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMany mornings I awaken thinking how much easier the men have it. Their Monday through Friday rolls by on well-worn ruts in a convoy of monosyllabic tasks. Wake, eat, work, eat, work, eat, sleep. Saturdays pass much the same with an extra "sleep" included in the afternoon. But Sunday mornings in particular cause me to call into question that ridiculous description of women as "the fairer sex," because there's nothing less fair than divvying up early morning tasks that first day of the week.
Scrambling around for children's church material and doling out cold Pop Tarts to anyone coherent enough to grab one, I sweat through my shower freshness even before the obligatory, understated string of pearls decorates my collar bones. A quick spritz of the sweet, flowery perfume the ladies' auxiliary gave me for Christmas last year accompanies the pantyhose runner check. And then, while the darkened sky still hovers over me like a Reformer's cloak, I scurry over to the church in the obligatory, understated pair of bone-colored pumps to mimeograph the bulletin, and, heaven help me, I always discover at least three typos, some embarrassing, some amusing, all sure to be exhumed by the hardly understated, censorious church maven, Miss Poole.
"Reverend Fraser needsthree teams for the Mount Oak All-Church Spring Troubles Tennis Tournament in July." That typo deserved typo hall of fame status in the "Tell It Like It Really Is" category. But when the bulletin called for "sex volunteers to cover the tables at the town health fair" the board had actually met, threatening to take away the "bulletin ministry" from me. I asked Duncan: husband, ruling elder, teaching elder, pastor, groundskeeper, and father of my three children, "So, is that a promise?" and heard nothing further.
Clearly I had put him in a difficult position. Clearly I breached any convention mentioned in The Proper Christian Ladies' Handbook of Church Etiquette and Behavior, chapter 15-"Church Authority." But the final clause at the end of the book, "And if you fail to uphold these statutes, ask God to forgive you, and He will," did leave room for maneuvering without eternal consequences. Of course, the guilt can last a lifetime.
I know a lot about guilt. My name is Poppy Fraser, and I've been living with guilt for a long time now.
Though I apologized to Duncan for jeopardizing his good standing with the elders and begged God's forgiveness for my belligerence and all, I've never stopped feeling sick when I see Elder Barnhouse handing out the bulletins. Surely, Sunday wasn't designed to be this way. I often think about persecuted Christians in flowing robes risking their lives to praise the Lord and learn His ways. Who cared about bulletins and typos when lives were staked upon one's own simple obedience?
I long for that kind of purity again.
Years ago I convinced myself that God could meet with me right in my breakfast nook. It's amazing what we can talk ourselves into. Not that God isn't able to meet a person anywhere, but that Scripture verse about forsaking not the assembly of the brethren is in there for a reason. Sometimes I think I liked my husband better as just a computer geek who worked too hard seven days a week. Who is this caring, preacherly guy he has become? And where does that leave me? I am suspicious, and it grieves me.
Life as I now am forced to live it is more than I bargained for back at the altar.
And Duncan's sermons feel more like sedation than inspiration. Just being honest. Although, if I am being totally honest, I have to wonder if his words bounce off of the invisible shield that materialized around me the day he announced our lives would change forever.
Most men's midlife crises seem to be a wild, awkward clutching at rejuvenation. The pathetic sports car. The pathetic mistress. The sudden, pathetic interest in handball or the like and all the pathetic gear that goes along with it. But not my husband. Oh no. Nothing could ever be that simple or pathetic with Duncan. He had to do the opposite. Batten down the hatches. Tighten the reigns. Slam on the brakes.
And there we were selling practically everything we could and going to seminary in the Midwest. Surely if God called Duncan to be a pastor, I would have experienced some kind of call to be a pastor's wife. Surely a sovereign God would know better than to put someone like me into such a position.
Maybe if I had been saved in the Jesus movement or something very California I'd have a better grasp of the first day of the week now that it's become the focus of the other six as well. But I'm an East Coast girl, and the guilty dread and heroic resolution that haunt me from 8 P.M. Saturday night forward haven't rendered the day any more attractive. Well, at least our church has the sense to hold their worship at nine-thirty. That way I can be home to cook a nice brunch. Some things I refuse to give up. Or maybe I just can't.
But now that Duncan had benedicted the service and most of the congregation had snorted awake from their morning naps, I rode alongside my husband in our van. My youngest child, Angus, began crying in the backseat, resonating much like the main soprano in the threadbare group the Highland Kirk calls a choir for lack of a more suitable term. Their rendition of "Jerusalem" that morning truly inspired awe amid the congregation. I had no idea that such a familiar song could be transmogrified into a dirge. But apparently anything can happen on Sunday. And at Highland Kirk, where contemporary means Honeytree, Vestal Goodman, or Dave Boyer, it didn't surprise me.
It was a pleasing song to have whirling over and over on the brain calliope, however. "Hosanna, in the highest! Hosanna to your king!" In my head I sing like an opera singer. Only not quite so loud. Back in Baltimore, back when we had money and prestige and clippings of our smiling faces in the Maryland section of the Sunpaper, I found myself at the opera frequently. Maybe in heaven I'll get to sing like that. Or maybe I'll just keep painting pictures. It's the only thing I've ever been good at anyway.
"Angus, honey, would you please stop crying?" I glanced over my shoulder at my five-year-old slumped down so far the top of his behind smashed the frayed maroon cording clinging by exhausted threads to the edge of the van's bench seat. "Here, maybe this will help you feel better." I untwisted the coat hanger that wires the glove box shut and fished around for the pack of cookies I always keep on hand for such emergencies. When did I place these things in here? I couldn't even begin to remember.
Oh, brother. Stale treats again. On the highway of motherhood I careen a few miles north of Peg Bundy and at least a hundred miles south of Elyse Keaton. Mrs. Brady zooms somewhere on the other side of planet earth in a large, sparkling new SUV, with Donna Reed singing "I've Been Working on the Railroad" at her side, a car that seats eight and still smells new, a car with a clean windshield ... on the inside, and no crumbs jumping up at every bump in the road.
Shuffling through the contents of the glove box, I realize someone has been messing with my "mobile junk drawer" as my husband christened the space years ago.
Well, Angus didn't do it. Though clinically, verifiably a genius, he possesses the motor skills of a three-year-old. The hanger would have deterred him right away. Angus would have rightly deemed a paltry little box of bleached out cookies cast in some obscure animalian shape not worth such effort. Although, considering the fact that any runway model out there prances around with a higher body fat percentage than he does, I wished he were the culprit. His dark hair and anemic complexion only heightens the innocent vulnerability that drives most mothers to their knees beside their child's sleeping form. I am no exception to this nocturnal activity. And in the end, I can only rest in the fact that we are all in God's hands.
My two eldest children, hard-working young adults who own their own cars, would rather die the death of a thousand screams than stoop to a ride in the putty-patched van. They couldn't have possibly taken the cookies.
The raiding of my glove box seems to presuppose a certain level of intimacy. Thus, I complete the elimination process. "Duncan!"
His small, brown eyes, diminished by the thick lenses of his round, wire-rimmed glasses, glimmer like M&M's fresh out of the package. And he frowns below a mustache with much the same mottled coloring as an old Scottish terrier. It is softer than it appears. "Why are you always picking on me, Poppy? What do you think a grown man like me would have to do with a pack of processed, pasteurized kid food like that?"
"Why wouldn't I think it was you, Duncan?" I shut the glove box door and begin to twist the hanger. "You have that look on your face. The same one you got when we caught you eating up the candy bars Robbie was supposed to take to class for the seventh grade Christmas party."
Duncan cringed. "Oh, well, thanks for bringing that up, Popp. Not to mention that was over seven years ago."
"Hey, once you've earned a reputation, it's hard to live it down." Fact is, Duncan has a sweet tooth the size of Jim Carrey's incisors.
I held onto the door handle as our minivan lurched down the road on worn-out shocks. "Besides, I thought you didn't like the cinnamon kind with the white icing."
"They weren't cinnamon, they were-" His eyes closed briefly. "Crud, Poppy. Why do you always do that? Can't you save those tactics for the kids?"
Meanwhile, Angus had stopped crying, but how long ago, I couldn't say.
"I'm okay now." His rather tart tone accused. "If anybody really cares, that is. The mice ate through the cords, and Aslan came back to life."
I swatted Duncan with a rolled-up bulletin-only one typo today, thank God, and I literally meant that. "I told you he was too young for those books."
"The boy reads at a tenth grade level." Duncan defended his choice of reading material for his son.
"It's not all about I.Q."
I felt a sense of despair just then, as if they were all slipping away from me sooner than they ought to be-even little Angus, who by all rights should barely know his ABCs. He had let me down. It had been his job to keep me from feeling old and used up, from being the only one left on the Starship Enterprise, while those I loved glittered and sparkled and were transported away, leaving nothing behind but the circles on which they once stood.
"Let's just get home," I said.
I wanted to open up my kitchen drawers, slide out my old Henckel knives and start chopping away. I wanted to smell baking bread and browning butter, frying potatoes and crisping bacon, and strong, black coffee. I wanted to turn on the little CD player in my kitchen and put on the Mamas and the Papas and think about how summers used to be when songs like that played on the radio.
I wouldn't dream of leaving Duncan. Ever. Ever. Would I? Well, maybe not today. But a girl could dream. Oh, God. How can I even think such thoughts?
To obey is better than sacrifice, the Old Testament says. But sometimes obedience is a sacrifice. All the harder to be cheerful about it.
Angus squinted against the sunlight slipping through the rolled-down van window, the only mode of air conditioning the revolting, rusting vehicle could sustain for the past three summers. He began to read again as we bobbed our way down Church Street toward the IGA for the pound of bacon I forgot to buy the day before. No surprise there. One day I'll start making lists, but not yet. I don't want to admit the gray matter is beginning to droop a bit.
The words of C. S. Lewis remained in Angus's book this time, though, his mouth echoing the church signs.
"Free coffee at the Southern Baptists!"
Five second intervals lapsed between announcements. "Modern worship at Aunt Chris's church.... The United Methodists say their church is 'a place where you can be yourself-whomever you love.' What does that mean, Mama? And shouldn't that be whoever?"
I remembered the gossip my best friend Chris Knight told me regarding the new twilight gay/lesbian ministry at Centennial United Methodist. "I'll tell you when you're older."
"Oh, look, the Wesleyans have 'the old time religion for today's generation.' And the Episcopals want people to 'come as you are.' How can you come as anything else?"
I love it when his little brows go together like that, but I wish Angus would stop reading. Still, I can't help watching in fascination as his pale blue eyes skitter back and forth, rapidly bouncing from sign to sign. I loathe the standards, banners, and posters that honkey-tonk "the sacred side show" as the townspeople of Mt. Oak have rightly dubbed Church Street. The spirit of competition from the hotels, motels, and restaurants out by Lake Coventry has infected the religious community, and I don't like it one bit. It takes the dignity away, as though winning souls is a race to be won, a fight to be fought ... well, okay, St. Paul couldn't have been wrong. But surely he didn't mean this.
"'When you're fightin' for souls, it takes no prisoners!'" I heard Harlan Hopewell, pastor of Port of Grace Assemblies of God Church and famous televangelist, boom this during the rebroadcast of the live, Sunday telecast last Thursday on SFBN-the Spirit-Filled Broadcasting Network. Hard to believe Mount Oak ground out such a glitzy, slick ministry like the Port of Peace Hour. The woman with the big, frizzy, red hairdo that sings and cries seems to be a caricature of sorts. But she loves Jesus. That fact couldn't be plainer. She wears her affection for "my Lord and Savior" as she always calls Him like a badge of honor. Which is more than I can say for myself. Maybe one day I'll give up this fight. Maybe one day I'll truly become a pastor's wife like that lady and not some half-rate actor trying to play the part.
Monstrous Mt. Oak First Presbyterian rolled by next. All brick construction, three-story Corinthian pillars looming with an air of disapproval over the Chippendale handrails angling up beside the brick steps. "Well, lookey there." Angus pointed to the crisp white letters arranged behind the locked glass door of the classically structured sign near the street. "'Sanctuary open 24 hours because you never know when the Spirit's going to move.' It looks like even the PCA Presbyterians think they've got themselves an angle now."
Statements like these frighten me the most. Suddenly my son's tears over Aslan's death on the stone table gave me a great deal of comfort. "Read your book, Angus."
"But didn't you just tell Dad-"
"Yeah, I did. And you can wipe that smirk off of your face right now, Right Reverend Fraser. I'll just run in for the bacon. Can you let me off at the door? The last thing I want is for this hair of mine to frizz up in the humidity."
Duncan pulled the van up in front of the IGA, and I bounded out.
"Hey!" he called.
Much to my chagrin, Duncan motioned me around to his window. If I didn't get that bread rising soon, we wouldn't eat before three. Maybe some prepared fresh dough would suffice just this once, the cinnamon kind with the white icing.
Ha! That sure would get Duncan's goat! I held back a chuckle as I leaned my forearms on his door.
He leaned forward, speaking softly. "I'm sorry. I know it's hard with the kids, and I know I don't always make things easier for you. But I love you. You do know that, don't you?"
I felt the familiar, unwanted flood of memory at his tender words. Oh, Duncan, what have I done to us?
Excerpted from The Church Ladies by Lisa E. Samson Copyright © 2001 by Lisa E. Samson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.