"You're in love with that girl, aren't you?" his mother asked, sitting down on the couch sideways to face him.
Nat removed his hand from the phone and shifted toward her. The small lamp on the table barely lit her features, but he knew she was concerned. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "I've been thinking about her a lot."
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she stayed that way for a whole minute, he imagined she might be praying. Then she looked at him. "I love you, Nathan John. I don't want to see you hurt."
"I won't be."
She seemed exasperated for a moment, but then leaned forward. "Okay, Nathan. Have you thought about this? You're her pastor, right?"
"You know that it's a very serious thing for a man in your position to play with a woman's emotions."
Nat frowned. "I'm not."
"What do you think calling her at one in the morning is? Do you do that with other parishioners? Of course, you're leading her on. You have a responsibility to God for that woman's well-being; I agree with you there. But you better be extra careful how you fulfill that duty. If you don't know that you love her, then don't do things that may let her think you do. I don't want you marrying her just because you hurt her feelings. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Nat stood. "Yeah, Mom. I'll think about it." He went back upstairs to bed. Was she right? Had he stepped over the line? Would Nicole be hurt now because he'd misled her? He prayed about it, and then went back to bed.
Whether it was the extra sleep he'd indulged in the day before because of his injuries, or the thought of hurting Nicole that kept him awake most of the night, he didn't know. He just knew how tired he felt as he made his way downstairs for breakfast. He couldn't linger. He had to finish that sermon and be ready for the next morning.
After breakfast Nat walked to the accessories barn. The large door was already open, and he could see one of his brothers on a tractor in the east field pulling a fertilizer sprayer over the new winter wheat. The scent came over the fields on the breeze, a familiar, acrid smell that he hadn't missed at all. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer lighting inside the barn, but he didn't rush. He wouldn't make the same mistake twice. The harrow wasn't there, and Nat assumed it was being dragged through a distant field by another tractor.
His father looked up from his desk and his paperwork when Nat entered. "Feeling up to working?"
"Yeah. I promised him." Nat set his Bible on Jordan's desk as he went around it. He was about to plop down into the chair when he stopped and studied it. Stiff dark spots almost obliterated the grey fabric of the seat, and several of the spots were on the arm in angled, oblong circles pointing down.
Nat sat down, his weariness more intense. He had no idea he'd lost so much blood. No wonder he felt weak. "I'll buy Jordan a new chair."
"Don't worry about it. He was too fussy about keeping it clean anyway. This is a farm after all."
If Jordan had been keeping it clean, Nat felt an even greater burden to replace it. But it wouldn't do any good to argue about it. He didn't have the energy anyway. He turned on the computer and tried to concentrate on the sermon. He wished he didn't keep thinking about Nicole and if he had misled her in any way.
He gave up on the sermon and signed on the internet. He retrieved his E-mail, which had a note from Paul dated Friday morning before he'd called him. Paul wrote about what was happening at the church, and then he spoke about his surprise at Daniel's arrival. "I don't know what I'd do without David," he wrote. "I should have somehow solved this problem between Daniel and I long before this, as you suggested, but fear (maybe it was just plain pride) stopped me. But David again has helped me see beyond myself by doing the right thing."
Nat realized it may take some time for Paul to get back to his mail with a full house. But he needed to confide in someone who could help him see beyond himself to Nicole and do what was best for her and Rachel.
He wrote a long letter to Paul about the responsibility of his position, his increasing desire to talk to Nicole as more than just pastor to parishioner, and the night time talks he'd already indulged in. "Where is the line between pride, responsibility, and love? Where is the line between pastoral love and the love of a man for the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with? Any insights for me from one who's battled pride on many fronts already?"
After he sent the letter, Nat finished the sermon outline and printed it out. Now he'd just have to read it over a few times. He put the sermon in his Bible and got up.
"When you move home, you can either have your office out here with us, or in the house. Your mother would like that."
Nat stopped and turned to face his father. "I'm not moving back, Dad."
His father stood and came around the desk to stand before him. He expected to be told what his father wanted in firm tones. Instead his father just looked at him. Then he took a deep breath. Touching Nat's arm, he lightly led him from the barn. Then they walked around behind it. "Look at all this Nat." He waved his arm in a semicircle from left to right to indicate all that they could see -- green fields, brown fields, and the distant tree line. "It's all yours with Jordan and Aaron. A third of this land will be yours. You'll get a full share of the profits."
Nat glanced at his father instead of the fields. "What do Aaron and Jordan think about that? I wouldn't be doing anything to help the crops."
His father shrugged and lifted a hand in a negligible motion. "They know you're a man of God. You work in your own way."
Nat's stomach turned. Now he knew why Aaron was angry and why Jordan seemed distant. 'Dad's willing to give you a whole lot,' Jordan had said. 'All the benefits of the farm without lifting a finger.' Nat turned and started walking back toward the house.
His father followed. "What is it, Nathan?"
"Remember Joseph? I'd rather not wait around to be sold into slavery."
His father grabbed his arm, stopping him and turning him to face him. "This isn't like that, Nat. They want you home, too. We all want you home. You belong here."
Nat could only stare at him. "Dad, I...."
"Did anyone say differently? Did they? Libby? One of the kids?"
Nat shook his head. "No, Dad." He rubbed his arms against the March chill. "No one said anything." Turning, he started toward the house again. "I've got a life in Michigan now. I don't belong here."
"That's not true!" His father grabbed him again, and his Bible fell to the ground. His sermon notes lifted by the breeze flew toward the house. Nat scrambled to get them. Then he picked up his Bible and walked to the Bronco without looking back.
He drove to Libby's, and then sat in the driveway cleaning his Bible and papers, satisfied neither had been damaged.
Inside the house Libby hugged him before he could remove his coat. "Ouch. Careful."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Mom said you were bleeding all over and...."
"You should have come to see me yesterday."
"Mom said you needed your rest." She reached up to touch the side of his head. "Where is it? She said... oh, I see." Libby moved his hair and stood on her toes. "It's not that big, is it?"
"What did I tell you? A big deal out of nothing."
"You didn't tell me that."
"Then I told Nicole that. I told somebody. I'm fine. Just don't hug me too tight for a few days. Did you get those pictures back of Asia?"
Libby smiled and backed away. "For Nicole and Rachel. Yeah, they're here."
Nat lowered himself onto her couch and waited for her to bring the pictures. Asia jumped up beside him, purring. He took the second set of prints she handed him and looked through them. "She'll like these. Asia loves showing off, doesn't she?" He focused Libby. "Tell me, what do Aaron and Jordan think about me?"
Libby frowned and shrugged. "How should I know? I barely see them."
Nat touched her face. "You're coming tomorrow, right?"
She shrugged again and looked away. "I don't go to church too much anymore."
"Not even to hear your favorite brother?"
Libby was silent.
"Please. I'm going to blast our family from the pulpit."
That did it. She stared at him with her mouth open. Then she began shaking her head and smiling. "You're lying to me."
"Come and find out. And don't tell anyone what I plan."
"Nathan Morris, you are not! I don't believe you."
"Someone's got to do it."
Libby laughed. "You're just teasing me." Then she sobered. "Not me... you won't say anything about me, will you?"
Nat reached for her and pulled her close. "I wouldn't hurt you, Libby," he whispered. When he released her he looked into her eyes. "I'm just going to talk about pride and legalism and Pastor Mike."
Libby pulled away from him. "Don't put down Mike, please Nat. His wife has stopped by a few times on Saturdays with the kids. She's... she's about the only one who does."
"I'm not going to put him down." He grinned. "Didn't I tell you? I'm gonna blast our family, and tell them how rotten they've been to him. You have to come so I know at least one relative isn't going to hang me afterward. Bring your lasso."
Libby laughed. "Okay. I'll come and protect you. But I better not bring the rope if you think they'll be in a hanging mood."
Nat and Libby went to the store so Nat could buy a card to mail Rachel's cat pictures in. Then Nat drove home to face another dinner with Amy. Surprisingly the clothes she wore seemed to fit looser. Nat had a feeling his father had spoken to her. No one mentioned Rachel, and Amy did not bring up the subject that had provoked her Monday. Nat was tempted to, but decided it would be better to keep the peace tonight.
The next morning Nat dressed in his suit and then went downstairs. He read over his sermon as he ate, more nervous than he'd been in years. It was the first time that he knew his audience would probably hate what he said.
At the church, his father introduced him to people. Cousins, aunts, and uncles crowded around with enthusiasm. Then he noticed the others, glancing toward him disapprovingly, watching, but not coming near. In the sanctuary the split was even more obvious. His relatives sat on the left side, smiling and happy. On the right was the rest of the church, and he could feel their disapproval, like a tangible, malignant wave. He'd rarely had opposition. The closest he'd come to this was when he'd hit a nerve or two with a particularly hard sermon. But he hadn't even opened his mouth, and they hated him. Nat sat in the front and tried to pray silently for these people, that he could somehow reunite them -- marry them back into one body.
Nat barely listened as Jordan led the beginning worship and scripture reading. His Aunt Bea, his mother's sister, played the old piano. Finally it was time. His father introduced him, giving him the opening he needed when he bragged about Nat's accomplishments.
Nat stood at the pulpit. The left side still smiled. The right side still frowned. He saw Libby slip into a back pew on the left side. Ryan was half way up. He briefly wondered if they ever saw each other.
Nat bowed his head and prayed. Then he started with pride and worked his way into legalism. "When we add a bunch of rules to God's Word that he didn't put there, we're the same as the Pharisees. Did you know Jesus had his strongest rebukes for those who thought they were the holiest. The Pharisees were the ones who followed all their little rules and were better at it than anyone else. Jesus calls them hypocrites and vipers. Notice that Jesus said no such thing to the tax collector or the prostitute. Instead his rebuke was gentle. He eats with the tax collector and speaks with the woman at the well. Interesting, isn't it?"
Then he hit them with the true gospel. "There's nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make him love us less. When we think we're earning God's favor by what we do or don't do, we nullify the gospel and say Christ died for nothing because I can get there on my own. Your works are filthy rags, he says. You can't do it. Your works will never be good enough for heaven. Your pride is in dirty clothing. That is why Christ came, died and rose. It is by His works that we can come to God -- His robe -- not our filthy rags."
He waited a minute or two to let it sink in.
"I think many of us here are wearing those dirt-filled rags proudly, and looking down on anyone who isn't wearing the same rags." He paced for a moment to give them more time. There wasn't as much room as he had on his own platform, but he didn't let it interrupt his timing. Three rotations instead of two.
He looked out across the pews to the right and then to the left. "This congregation has a problem," he said bluntly. "Caused by pride and legalism. Do you really think a man with more letters after his name will solve it?" he asked, looking to the left. "Of course not! Education won't hurt a pastor, but you can help the man you have get an education by giving him four weeks a year of study leave and a budget for conferences and books. You could even send him to seminary. There are quite a few that offer one week classes, each quarter. But that's not really the problem, is it? That's what you fight about, but that's not the problem."
Nat glanced at his father, but then decided that wasn't a good idea. He was more than upset. Nat closed his eyes, trying to remember where he was. "No, education isn't the problem. And at this point I must ask what the problem is? Is it false doctrine? Is it immoral conduct? Why are you so intent to replace the man? And is this reason strong enough to justify splitting a church in two, harboring bitterness, scattering the sheep, and hurting your brothers and sisters that you've worshipped with for years. If it isn't, I'm going to suggest that maybe one half of the church needs to consider asking forgiveness of the other. And the other half needs to forgive."
Nat paused one more time, staring at his open Bible. He closed it, putting his notes inside. Then he closed his eyes and prayed for the congregation, for Mike Tallen and his family, and for the board of elders. When he finished, he left the church. He didn't wait to greet anyone, hopping in the Bronco and driving back to the farm.
Instead of going into the house, he went to the office to Jordan's computer to see if Paul had time to answer his letter. Surprisingly he had.
"Hey, you really do listen to your own sermons," Paul began. Nat smiled. Paul was just who he needed to talk to now. But he'd have to settle for this letter.
"It didn't take you as long as I thought it would. Don't stop calling if you've already started doing it. Then she'll think she did something wrong. When you get home, we'll plan more evenings together, so you'll have plenty of contact with Nicole."
Nat shook his head, leaned back in the chair, and then laughed. He quickly read the rest of Paul's advice, and then hit the reply button.
"Who would have thought that Colonel Zachariah Paul Israel, hero with a hundred metals of honor and bravery (Wasn't that what your dad said?) is a secret matchmaker? You're as bad as my mother... worse because I never suspected a thing. Is that what they taught you in spy school? How to be sneaky? I'm going to have to come up with a sermon about that. Got any ideas?"
In the next paragraph Nat told him about the morning's service. He heard a noise, and quickly sent the message before he turned around to face his father.
"You were supposed to stay and greet people."
Not exactly the accusation he expected. "I was afraid I'd get hanged."
"I should turn you over my knee." His father shook his head and came around the desk to sit in his chair.
"Something I said wasn't right?"
"You shouldn't have said any of it. It was none of your business."
"It wasn't? You want me to pastor a church that is none of my business? Sorry. I don't work like that."
"Nathan! You haven't been here long enough to know what's going on."
"I've heard this somewhere before. Tell me the truth, Dad. Do you really think God is happy with this situation? You're an elder here, and you're tearing apart the flock!"
"Nathan John Morris, you don't know what you're talking about!" His father stood and yelled down at him. "You're the most ignorant, stubborn, disrespectful fool I know. Get out of my sight."
Nat hesitated. "Dad...."
Nat stood and left the barn. He walked slowly back toward the big house, wondering if he should pack and try to get someone to drive him to the airport. He went into the kitchen and looked around. The smell of ham drifted from the oven, but nothing cooked on the stove. His mother came up from the basement with a couple canning jars filled with tomatoes, and two freezer bags of green beans. She set them on the table. "Where's your father?"
"Still in the office. I guess I should leave before he comes in."
His mother had opened the refrigerator, but then turned to face him, shutting it. "Leave? For where? Libby's?"
"Oh, not Michigan, Nat. He's just upset right now, as well he should be." She came to him and put her arms around him. "It's all right. You'll learn what's expected here."
Nat pulled away. "Mom, I didn't do anything wrong. He did!"
She sighed and grabbed one bag of beans from the table and began running water in the sink to thaw them. "You don't imply your family is a bunch of hypocrites from the pulpit, Nat. That wasn't right. If you had a problem you should have spoken to him privately."
"He doesn't listen, Mom. No one does here. You all brag about the letters after my name, but treat me like I'm still in kindergarten. You don't respect my opinion. I could never pastor you people." Nat headed for the door.
He turned. "It was a public offense. People are being hurt. It had to be dealt with in public. I'm sorry." He left then, deciding it would be best to give everyone time to cool down.
He drove the Bronco to Libby's, but two vehicles were in the drive, Libby's car and a truck. If Libby was actually spending time with her husband, he didn't want to interfere. He turned on the radio, picked a road, and drove. Tractors moved in the fields, not stopping for Sunday, especially since the radio announcer promised rain early the next morning to last most of the week.
Nat slowed as he approached another small town half an hour later. The business district was a scant two blocks long. He noticed a pay phone at the corner of a small market's parking lot and drove to it. Using his card he dialed Nicole's number. Three rings. He was about to hang up when she answered. "Hi. How's it going?"
"Oh, Nat. It's good here. Paul's sermon was good. His son, Daniel, was there. I'd never seen him before. He looks a lot like him."
"Yeah. It's been a few years since I've seen him either, but hopefully he'll be around more now." Nat leaned against the truck, since the phone cord was too short for him to sit.
"How'd it go this morning?"
"Not good. I may be back tomorrow if my Dad was serious. Although Mom told me to stay."
"That bad! Oh, Nat. I wish... wish I could help."
"You are. I just needed a friendly voice right now." They spoke for twenty minutes before Rachel discovered them. Nat reassured her that he was fine and suffered no ill effects from his fight with the harrow.
"You really do love me a lot, don't you?" Rachel said softly. "You hurt yourself just cause you didn't want to be late for me."
"I do love you, Rachel. Believe me, only a real emergency could keep me from the promises I make you."
"You're the best Daddy in the whole world! Even better than my real dad."
After he hung up the phone, he got back into the truck, and drove some more. He thought about Rachel and finally understood why Paul had deemed it necessary to explain his delay in graphic detail. Rachel was starting to trust again. Maybe Nicole was also. He drove a few more hours before heading home. Dinner would be early because of Sunday evening service, and he was hungry from missing lunch. He hoped his father let him eat before kicking him out.
It was then that he had the blowout. He stopped the truck on the barren stretch of road and struggled with the jack and the spare. He felt his healing wounds in his hand and abdomen stretch as he worked. Another set of clothing was now ruined with dirt, grease, and a bit of blood.
His mother, father, Libby, and Ryan sat around the dining room table for dinner when he entered. He hung his coat and hesitated.
"Sit down and eat," his father said.
As he took the chair in front of the empty place setting, Nat held his arm over the lower end of his shirt to cover the blood spot from his seeping wound. He filled his plate, said a silent blessing, and then began eating. No one spoke. He caught Libby's eyes briefly, and she gave him a quick smile before refocusing on her plate.
"I'll read your sermon next week before you preach," his father said.
Nat assumed he must be addressing Ryan. "You're going out for elder?"
Ryan shook his head. "Not me."
"I'm talking to you, Nat. Don't play games," his father said sternly.
Nat waited a moment to try to determine the best approach. He couldn't. He could just be direct. "I'm not playing games. I'm not preaching here again."
"Yes, you are. That job is rightfully yours, and you're not going to back out of it."
"No, it is not," Nat said as evenly as he could. His voice lowered. "Even if I weren't committed up north, I'd never serve here. You treat your shepherds with contempt."
"I don't know what Mike Tallen told you, but I think you'd have the loyalty to listen to your family first. Of course he's going to tell you anything to keep you from coming." His father set down his fork with more force than it needed, and it bounced onto his plate with a clatter. "What is wrong with you?"
Nat stood. "Guess I'll go pack." He headed for the stairs.
"Nat! Lloyd, he's bleeding!" he heard his mother say as he climbed the stairs.
In his room he grabbed his suitcase and opened it on the bed. His stomach hurt. His hand hurt. He heard footsteps, but refused to turn around. He closed his eyes against the weariness and pain.
"What happened?" his father asked in soft voice.
Was he really speaking to him this way in the middle of the fight they were having? Nat opened his eyes and saw concern on his father's face. "Flat tire." He held up his hand. "Guess I broke open the cuts from Thursday."
"Why don't you get ready for bed, and I'll get some clean bandages." He removed the suitcase from the bed, and then left the room.
Nat realized he was too tired to go anywhere and too tired to fight about it. He did as his father suggested, and his father put clean antiseptic and bandages on his wounds. He covered Nat up as if he were still a child, and then sat on the edge of the bed. "Nathan, you're my boy. I'll give you anything you want. Please don't fight me. We can work something out."
"I don't want anything, Dad, except that you respect me enough to accept my decision." He reached out and turned off the lamp. Light still filtered in the window from the setting sun.
"Listen, Nat. I know you're a bit confused now. I didn't give you enough warning about this job... thought I mentioned it every time we spoke, but...." His father looked at his face. "How and when did I lose your respect, Nathan? Why did you never come home? Why won't you now?"
Nat didn't know how to respond. It sounded like pain in his father's voice, and he wanted to reassure him, but he didn't know how much he could without committing to a life he didn't want. "I respect you."
His father stood. "Do you? You haven't acted like it. Get some rest. You can stay home from church tonight." He left the room.
'He's right,' Nat thought. 'I don't respect the way he's used his position here. But he is my father. Respect is owed... Lord, help me remember Your words. Honor... but in the pulpit I speak for You. That's the distinction he doesn't understand... that I must remember. Help me, Lord, so that I don't show disrespect because of it. And Lord, help him in his responsibility to Your church.'