Nat lay in bed the next morning dreading the day. It wasn't like him. He tried to determine a list of things he had to get done so that he could pray, but all his actions seemed dependent on others. The only thing he knew for sure he had to do was apologize to his parents. Nat prayed, dressed and went downstairs. His father read the paper and drank coffee. Nat slipped into his seat and let his mother serve him breakfast. "Thanks, Mom."
He waited until she seated herself at the table also, before he looked up from his food. "Mom... Dad... I'm sorry about last night."
His father folded the paper and set in on the table before leaning forward. "Are you?"
"Yes. I shouldn't have said some of the things I said."
"You can call Amy and try to work things out."
Nat shook his head. "No. Maybe that's why I did it. I'm glad she decided I wasn't worth the time."
"You didn't like what you saw? Give her a chance to prove herself."
Nat seized on the only thing he could think of. "That's just it, Dad. What didn't we see?" He knew he was being judgemental and nit-picky with the statement, and he sought to clarify. "I just think maybe...."
"He's right, dear," Nat's mother said. "Maybe a minister needs a wife that's a little less... showy. Perhaps Rhonda."
His father shrugged. "Didn't think it made a difference, but if it bothers you, we'll try Rhonda."
Great. Which one was Rhonda? The blonde or the brunette he'd been introduced to Sunday night.
"But I really think you need to drop that relationship in Michigan."
"Dad, I...." Nat cut himself off. He wouldn't rehash Nicole and Rachel again. He shouldn't have the first time. "Is there anything scheduled today?"
The phone rang, and his mother went to the wall to answer it. "Yes? Oh, sure. Right here." She brought the head piece to the table which had a long cord. "It's Mike Tallen." She handed the phone to Nat.
"Me?" He took the phone at his father's urging. "Hello?"
"Hi, Nat. This is Mike Tallen. I just wondered if you wanted to get together later to talk about Sunday. I heard there was a little confusion, and I just want to make sure everything is in order before I leave."
Nat wanted to protest that he wasn't preaching Sunday, but his father watched him. "Ah. Maybe that would be a good idea. We could talk about this situation. When and where?"
Nat could hear a baby begin crying in the background. "I'll be home all day. The house next to the church. Whenever you have time."
Since it was apparent Mike wanted to rush off the phone, Nat agreed and said good-bye. Then he stood and took the phone back to the wall.
"Well, I'm going to talk to him. Need anything first?"
"So you'll preach Sunday?"
"We're going to talk about it."
"Good. I want to hear a sermon about greed this Sunday."
Nat laughed, unable to do anything else. He didn't want to acknowledge the request in case his father was serious. He suspected it was a dig because he thought Nat's job in Flint was so high paying. Either way, giving him less than a week's notice, if he preached, he'd preach something he was very familiar with. His library was at Cornerstone, and he only had his Bible. Nat headed from the room. "See you later."
"Be home at five again tonight for Rhonda. And no calling that girl in the middle of it," his mother said.
First Gospel's pastor had always lived in the little white sided house beside the church, and Nat never knew a pastor was not required to live beside his church until he left home. He'd learned a lot about the world in the last fourteen years, and he no longer fit here.
Mike met him at the door with a baby in his arms. "Come on in. Luke is getting new teeth, so he's a little fussy today."
"Daddy, who is it?" A boy of three or four years ran into the living room.
"Say hello to Reverend Morris."
"Hi. What's your name?" Nat took the seat Mike pointed to, and he sat across from him with baby Luke.
"I'm John Mark."
"Sorry. I should have told you that the kids go down for their naps about one."
"If it's easier for you, I can come back, but I don't mind. Is your wife at the store?"
"She works at the grade school. She'll be home around four." Mike concentrated on the baby, not looking at Nat when he next spoke. "Your father said you wouldn't need this house, and we could rent it until the end of the school year, maybe a little longer, until we find something."
Nat was appalled. The man didn't even know if he'd have a place to live in two months. How could the church treat him this way? "I'm not taking your job or your house, Mike. None of this was my idea."
Mike looked at him then. "I know you said that the other night, but I haven't been notified of any change." He shrugged. "If you don't take it, they may just decide to find someone else."
"I don't know anything about that. I was under the impression it was my father's idea to get me back home."
"Maybe it started that way. But now the church is split in two, one half outraged, and the other half wanting me booted because I don't have enough education." He concentrated on baby Luke again. "Only two years at a Bible college. No degree. Definitely not a Masters in both Theology and Divinity."
"I've met a few laymen better with the scriptures than graduates. There are a lot of good resources out there now. If the church will work with you, that can solve itself." Nat shook his head. "But obviously they aren't working with you."
"I'd like to learn more, but everything is just too far away. We've even wondered if this is God's way to get me back to school, but we don't know how we'll afford it and what we will do about the kids. Guess I just gotta have faith and go, right?"
Nat wasn't sure how far he should delve into that statement. Sometimes people made slightly inaccurate statements as a way of speaking, but sometimes one word indicated a whole theological misunderstanding. "You don't know yet where God wants you, do you? Do you still feel called to this church?"
Mike leaned forward. "Yeah. That's just it. In the last year and a half I've worked individually with a lot of the people, and I really am burdened for them. Every night my wife and I pray, and we can't imagine leaving them. Especially right now. I'm afraid some of them will leave the church and become bitter. If you come here, Nat, you're gonna have to go and call and really make sure they're going someplace. We have to make the transition as painless as possible for them."
He shook his head in frustration, and then placed Luke on a blanket on the floor to play. "I'm not saying don't come. Only you can. I'm just afraid that some of the people are going to be left with no one to turn to, disillusioned with the church, and.... I'm not making much sense."
"You're making a lot of sense. I don't like what's happened either. My father doesn't listen to me."
Mike grinned. "Not even with that degree he keeps bragging about?"
"Not even. You're right. The people are our main concern. How can I help you while I'm here?"
John Mark crawled into his father's lap. "I'm hungry, Daddy."
"Mind if we go in the kitchen?"
Nat stood. "Of course not. We can't let John Mark starve. Hey, Luke," Nat said, crouching near the baby. "Can I carry you to the kitchen?" He held out his hands. The little boy smiled and let Nat hold him.
They went to the kitchen, and after the boys ate and went for their nap, Nat and Mike discussed the situation in depth and what might be done. He would preach Sunday, because Mike had already promised John Mark that they'd go to see his grandma and grandpa. That one sermon was all he could do to try to heal the situation, other than appeal to his relatives to ask forgiveness of the other half of the congregation, but he couldn't see that going far.
As Nat drove home, he knew one thing was certain. He needed help. Mike's library was woefully inadequate. Nat had promised to send him notes and must-read book lists from seminary, as well as the names and addresses of his favorite mail order booksellers.
Nat stopped in the house and found a group of women hand sewing quilt blocks. He was surprised that he recognized a few of the women from years before. He ran upstairs for his Bible and then came down to find his mother. "There's not a computer around here is there?"
"Not in this house. Brian has one." Aaron's oldest son. Brad, the second son, was only a year younger, and Nat had been embarrassed Sunday night not to know which was which. They had both grown into manhood. He hadn't had time to find out though.
"I'll check it out." Nat left and started down the road. Then he remembered Jordan's computer in the office. He turned toward the barns. A large tractor stood in front between the small barn and the accessories barn. Aaron and one of his sons examined a plow attached to the back of the tractor.
Nat greeted him. "Dad inside?"
"Yeah. I knew you'd break."
He bent over, examining the machinery. "If it doesn't rain again, we've got to be ready to go in the morning." He straightened and walked to the tractor, climbing into the cab.
Nat watched them start and test the tractor for a moment. Something was wrong between him and Aaron, but he couldn't find out now. The barn was lit from the sun through the large open doors. Nat walked around the tandem disk harrow, noting the sharp disks and spikes used to churn up the soil. His father met him at the office door. "So Sunday is set?"
"Yes. But I need a computer if I'm going to be prepared in time."
His father turned. "Let Nat get himself ready with your toy." He clapped his hand on Nat's upper arm, and then went out to Aaron. Nat went into the office.
"Let me save this." Jordan said.
Nat sat in the chair nearest Jordan's desk. "If I'd known I was to preach I would have brought a sermon."
"You talked to Mike?"
"Yeah, Jordan. And you guys are treating him like trash."
Jordan jerked his head around to stare at Nat. "He said that?"
"No. But it's pretty obvious. Didn't I hear you were an elder now?"
Jordan nodded, and then glanced toward the door.
"Forget the fact that we're brothers, but even if I'd been tempted to serve here, seeing the way you treat your shepherd would send me running. Don't you see what you're doing?"
"So you're still staying in Flint?" Jordan asked.
Their father stepped into the room. "Aren't you finished, Jordan? Brad's finally here. We need to get the other tractor out."
"Wait! Which word processor do you use? You do have a modem, don't you? Can you familiarize me with your setup?"
"I'll send Brain in," his father said.
"Yeah. There's a modem. We have E-mail." Then Jordan grinned. "Just like in the city." Jordan's teasing was gentle, good natured, compared to Aaron's sharpness.
"Just like. Thanks."
They left, and a minute later Brain, the son who had been with Aaron when Nat arrived, came back. Now he wouldn't have to embarrass himself to ask his name. Brian showed him everything he needed to start work. "I set up this whole system," he bragged.
"Really? Are you going to college for computer science?"
"Just a minor. I'll get my bachelor's in agriculture. I start in the fall."
Nat asked a few more questions, and then decided to catch up on Brad also. "Will Brad go to the same college next year?"
Brian shrugged. "Grandpa thinks two at once is too much. And Brad just wants to study old bones and rocks and stuff. Paleontology and geology." Brian glanced toward the door. "Grandpa says he'll never go unless he changes his major."
"Old bones and old...." Nat shook his head.
"Yeah. We figured you'd see it Grandpa's way. Gotta go."
"Wait!" But he was gone, and Nat couldn't tell him the truth. But he'd told Aaron. He couldn't hold that against him.
He sighed and then got down to business with a phone call to Paul. He kept the conversation vague realizing he could be overheard at any time. He promised to E-mail all the details. He needed help with his research, and Paul said he'd start that night.
Then Nat prayed and started an extensive letter to Paul explaining about the church, his father, his brothers, the women, and Libby. He was unsure what approach he should take with the sermon. Should he concentrate on Law and Gospel or Grace Alone? Sola Scriptura? Sola Fide, the material cause of the reformation? All these were obscured when legalism set in. He'd wait until he heard Paul's opinion on the situation before he began his actual sermon. It was a one shot deal with this group, and he wanted it to hit hard. He wasn't accountable to anyone but God for this sermon. He knew that was always ultimately the case, but he had never felt it as strongly. Maybe it just seemed so obvious because of the amount of control his father wielded at home, at church, and in the community.
He had just sent the letter and disconnected when the phone rang. He looked at it, and wondered if it was ringing in the house and if his mother planned to answer it. It rang again. Again. He picked it up and listened. Nothing... then "Nat?"
"Rhonda's here. You can finish that later, can't you?"
Nat smiled at the misconception that he could complete a sermon in two hours. "Yes. I'll need a lot more time to finish later. I'll be home in a few minutes." He saved his notes in the subdirectory Brian had made for him, shut down the system, grabbed his Bible, and started out. Then he stopped and called Libby.
It rang four times before she answered. "Hi Lib!"
"You've been busy." It was an accusation.
"Yeah. I've got to do the sermon, so I've been working all day. Are you coming to dinner? I'll come get you."
"No, Nat. Forget it. I'm not coming." The line closed.
Nat walked to the house. He wanted to drive straight to Libby's, but his mother waited for him. He went into the kitchen. "Mom. Will you call Libby and ask her over?"
"Oh, Nat. You're back. This is Rhonda." She turned toward a petite blonde with wavy hair.
Rhonda turned from the pot she stirred on the stove. "Hi, Nat. Good to see you again."
"You, too," he said, still concerned about Libby. "Mom. Please call her. I just tried, and she hung up on me."
"Then she is in no fit mood to be around company. She's better off at home."
"I only came here to see her, not to be married off to the best cook."
"Libby needs me. That was your excuse to bring me here. Now don't tell me you were just using her, because she is over there crying her eyes out." Nat left the house. He jumped into the Bronco and threw his Bible that he had kept hold of throughout the confrontation onto the passenger seat. He was out of the driveway before he could push through the anger. He wished he hadn't lost his temper, but Libby was hurting and no one seemed to care. Apparently this had been going on for a while, and they were all immune to it.
Libby didn't come to the door right away, but he kept knocking. Then she flung it open. "Why are you here? Mom is furious." She stood in her blue robe and flowered flannel nightgown without anything on her feet.
Nat went into the house, and when the door closed he put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her face. "Libby, I care about you. You're the reason I came, and I'm getting forced into all this other stuff."
"I don't need your pity. Just go away. Go!" She pulled away from him.
Nat grabbed her again. "I was right. You're just like my seven year old daughter. Fighting against the people who love you."
"Is she really your daughter, Nat?" Libby yelled into his face. "Is she? No. Not you. Not perfect you. You'd never do anything wrong."
Nat felt a score of emotions, each fleeting, until he could determine what to focus on. Libby, right now. Nat sat on the arm of the couch.
Libby looked a little confused. He knew he'd surprised her by not running and not yelling back. "What are you doing?"
She turned away from him then. "Well, Ryan won't be home for a long time, so you may as well just go to the office to see him."
"I'm not waiting for him," Nat said calmly.
Libby looked at him. "What?"
"I'm waiting for your wolverine to go back in its den, so I can see the beautiful Libby that's hiding behind her."
She shook her head. "You're crazy, Nat. Just crazy. Wolverine?" Then she smiled. "Did they teach you that in seminary?"
"No. A snarling seven year old did." Nat stood and went to her. "I don't know how to help, Libby. I just want to see you as much as I can for the short time I can be here."
"But you're just feeling sorry for me. You're just...."
"I'm just remembering us getting stuck in the loft, and chasing the barn cats, and finding the baby possums that we hid in the chicken coop, and pretending the wheat field was a jungle, and the quail eggs we hatched out, and the day we biked all the way around the farm -- all eight miles. Weren't we sore?"
Libby hugged him for a long time. Then she whispered, "Remember Aquaman and Wonder Woman?"
Nat laughed. "And your magic lasso. You were quite good with that thing. Remember when you caught that jerk, I can't even remember his name...."
"Freddy. He never bothered you again."
"Wonder Woman to the rescue!"
They both laughed. At the time Nat had been thoroughly embarrassed by his sister's apparent rescue, and his little sister at that. Freddy had been a word rat, a name caller, trying to goad Nat into taking the first punch, but Nat had known he shouldn't. So their verbal war went on for weeks until Libby had lassoed Freddy, tied him to a telephone pole, and left him there until someone found him hours later. Apparently she'd told him he'd get a repeat performance if he ever bothered her brother again.
The phone rang, cutting off their laughter. Libby looked at Nat. "It's for you."
"Really? You're psychic?"
Her mouth lifted at the edge. "Not in front of a minister."
Nat grinned and went to grab the phone. "Hello?"
"Nathan, are you coming back over here?" came his mother's exasperated voice.
"Are we going back over there, Libby?"
"You go without me."
"No, Wonder Woman. You've got to watch my back."
"Nat! What are you two doing over there?"
Nat smiled at Libby. "Nothing, Mom. Just waiting for Libby to get ready."
"Let me talk to her," his mother said.
Nat handed the phone to Libby and watched as she listened. By Libby's silence, he knew she must be getting a lecture. Nat frowned. He hoped their mother wasn't too unsympathetic. He was about to take the phone from her, when Libby said, "Okay. I need ten minutes." She handed the phone to Nat and walked from the room.
He raised the phone to his ear. "Yes, Mom?"
"I think she went into the bedroom."
"Nat, listen. If she changes her mind and refuses to come, you can't do anything about it. I do care about her, but she doesn't listen to anyone. You can't let her destroy your life, too."
Nat kept his voice low. "She isn't. And she was listening. We'll talk later, okay, Mom? I'm sorry I yelled at you."
"Oh, Nat. I know you just care too much. It's the same thing getting you into trouble up north, I'm sure. I tried to tell your father. But I must get back down to the kitchen. Rhonda's waiting." She hung up.
Nat replaced the phone and went to the closed bedroom door, tapping on it. "Libby?"
"Just a minute."
Asia jumped onto the back of the chair beside him. Nat stroked her back as he waited. A few minutes later Libby opened the door, fully dressed in blouse and slacks, with her hair pulled up and back into a pony tail. She handed Nat a necklace. "Can you fasten this?" She turned for him.
Nat helped, and then watched her put earrings on. He remembered when she'd had her ears pierced in high school, and the ruckus it had caused.
"What do you think?"
"Very pretty. I like it much better than your wolverine outfit."
Libby smiled. "Really?"
"Yeah. But just like Nicole, your hair looks better down around your shoulders."
"Oh, yes. The mother of your child," Libby teased. "Is she prettier than Amy?" They left the house and got into the truck.
"Amy didn't seem real. Nicole's real." Nat shrugged. "Just how I perceived her."
"That's what I like about you, Nat. You're the only guy I know who doesn't just see a body but a whole person."
"That's not true. I'm just the only guy who tells you things like that. Now tell me what to watch out for with Rhonda."
"It's been years, Nat. She lives with her parents still, and she and her sister have a catering and bakery business. She's the only one in her family not married either. Just like you."
Libby grinned. "Should I crack out the old Magic Lasso?"
"Only if she attacks."
"Who knows? She might be Miss Right."
"Really? This from the woman who told me to never marry."
Libby looked out the side window. "You'd probably be happy. Would you move back for the right girl?" Libby faced him, searching for the answer.
"The right girl would understand that I need to serve where God leads me to serve." He pulled into the drive and parked. "Ready?"
Libby left the truck, and Nat followed. The dining room table was already set, and within five minutes they were seated. Nat's father asked him to bless the meal, and then they proceeded. The conversation with Rhonda went better. She seemed more "real", and he could find nothing wrong with her. As his mother and Rhonda brought dessert, Nat realized that what he was doing was just the opposite of how he usually evaluated new people he met. He usually looked for bright spots in a person, not the worse traits. He discovered he couldn't see any extraordinary bright spots in Rhonda either though. Except that she ccould cook, he reminded himself. "Good pie," he said.
"Thanks. Your mom said apple was your favorite."
"I have a lot of favorites," he said with a grin. "All desserts."
"Would chocolate cheesecake be good for Thursday?"
A piece of apple snagged his windpipe, and he choked. Libby pounded his back.
When he was able he grinned at her and whispered. "Careful, Wonder Woman. About knocked me into the rest of it."
"Yeah, well, you wanted a rescuer," she whispered beneath her breath.
"Chocolate Cheesecake sounds good," Nat said, wishing he could get out of all these dinners.
The rest of the evening when well though, and Rhonda left at nine.