Saturday Morning Short Story: The Minister’s School

July 16, 2012
The Minister’s School

There was not much Hellfire and damnation in Brandon Meade’s Sunday sermons. He had become a minister because of the overpowering joy that filled him at times. There was power and strength in trusting Jesus, he knew. Faith was a living thing, the power of God that filled the leaves of the trees and the wildflowers and the mighty rising sun! He thought if he could give that delight to just one other person, he would die happy.
And now he had a congregation full of people that looked up to the pulpit with their eyes full of love and hope. He watched their worry lines relax and their faces grow thoughtful. His Corner Baptist Church overflowed into the annex every Sunday. Little slips of paper appeared on his desk after services thanking him for his contagious joy. The last five years had been the happiest of his life and every year seemed better than the last. And soon, (at last) he would be a father!
On this particular Monday morning, Brandon had ridden his bicycle out to Mount Holyoak to watch the sunrise from its modest summit. Now, his daredevil speed back to town watered his eyes and he laughed aloud for the joy of it. He was a crazy man: crazy in love with the world and everything in it.
He clattered his helmet on the back porch of the rectory and wheeled his bike indoors. Diane smiled over her shoulder, not bothering to turn her 8th month pregnant body from the stove where she was scrambling eggs.
He kissed her loudly on the cheek, and she glanced into his face. Diane’s face was so smooth and open that there was nowhere for deceit to hide. Her thoughts marched in full array on her features with no cover at all. After their initial smile and intimate greeting of eyes meeting and her understanding the summit ride and the breakneck ride home without him telling her, he saw that she knew something that subdued the second glance. There was a small worry marching out of uniform through the parade of her thoughts.  She would wait to tell him until he finished his breakfast.
Brandon wished she would wait until tomorrow. He was not a curious man. Sometimes those ugly intruders-of-peace died an ignominious death on Diane’s face without ever speaking. He ate his pancakes and eggs with hope in his heart.
When he had finished, he started to rise but Diane laid a hand on his.
“Abby Wilson called,” she murmured.
Abby Wilson was the town I-don’t-want-to-gossip-but. . .woman who knew everything about everyone. She concluded her reports to the minister or the teacher or the town doctor with a sighing ‘bless her heart’. It was the Satanic version of “Amen”, uttered only after something wicked had been said. 
Brandon groaned. “I’ll call her later. It’s such a beautiful morning. Why would anyone want to fling garbage all over it?”
Diane’s lips became lemon-sour. “She said it was urgent, Brandon, and I think it might be.” She handed him a slip with a phone number marked “Abby’s cell.”
“’Abysmal’ it should say!” He went to his study and closed the door. He knelt beside his little love seat and prayed until his mind wandered back to the doe rabbit and her kittens in the hutch behind the house.  Eight kits and their eyes were open and so tiny that two could sit in your palm.  And he got a note from a new member of the congregation saying he was the best preacher they’d ever heard. He wondered how many preachers they’d heard?  What good was a victory if you didn’t know the competition?
But Diane knocked softly on the study door. “Say ‘Amen’ and make the call, Brandon.” She was born to be a preacher’s wife. She was tailor-made for him.
He finished his prayer with one last “Thank you” to God for the healthy rabbits and new congregants and in the wave of delight he dialed the phone hoping that Abby wouldn’t hear the phone. But she did.
“This is scary, Bran.” Nobody else in the world shortened his name to “Bran.” He had joked that when he heard it, it made him wish ‘Bran’ was his last name and ‘Raisin’ was his first. But Abby didn’t take the joke and she didn’t change her way. Why should she when she was in charge of the world?
“You know the Miller’s little girl, ‘Faith’?
“Of course I do. We pray for her every day since Gina and Dave got the diagnosis.”
“Well, you probably know that they sent her home with a port for her meds so she’s getting her chemo through the port without having to drag her back and forth or poke the poor little thing more than is necessary.”
The minister sighed. “I know this, Abby. What’s the emergency this morning?”
“You need to go out to their house for the whole picture. But Gina told me last night that she can’t stand to clean the port, and that if they have faith in Jesus, God will take care of their little girl.”
Now Brandon frowned a deep, convincing scowl. “That’s nonsense.”
“I don’t think anyone else but you can convince them, bless their hearts.”
Brandon hung up quickly, before Abysmal could ask a blessing on his heart, too.
It was eleven o’clock before Brandon’s Ford truck crunched the Miller’s gravel driveway.  Old fast-food wrappers and soda cans tangled with waist high weeds in front of the house. The wooden rail had rotted and fallen off. The screen door waved in tatters like banners on the Fourth of July.
Little Faith answered his knock herself. A wet diaper hung to her knees but she was otherwise naked. A yellow crust coated the inside of her abdominal port. The skin around it was red and raised.  Her snarled hair hung in her eyes. The scent of damp garbage forced him a step backward on the precarious porch.
“Hello, little Faith. Is your Mommy or Daddy here?”
She pulled the door wider to reveal the living room behind her and pointed to them.  Brandon stepped through the door. The trash in the yard was just the overflow. Pizza crust and chicken bones mixed with dirty clothes and soiled paper plates. Groceries had been purchased but never put away and two gallons of milk stood side by side on the cluttered table. A box of Cheerios stamped with the foodbank logo spilled onto the floor and crunched under his feet. Had they turned off the air conditioner in 100 degree heat?
Brandon wanted to invite them to talk to him on the porch, but the husband and wife shrieked as they manipulated the controls of the newly released video game they were playing. The minister had to raise his voice to catch their attention and then Gina leapt up and ran to back of the house. She wore nothing but her underwear.
  Dave paused his game and stood up. He wore whitie tighties’ aged to a sickly grey. Only. But his belly hung so far over his underwear that it added some degree of modesty. His body odor sprayed spores toward the minister as he moved and Brandon moved back defensively.
“We’re a little slow gettin’ goin’ t’day,” Dave drawled. “We weren’t expectin’ ya.” There was no friendliness in his manner.
Brandon had never had a panic attack before and though he knew his body language must communicate, he couldn’t help but wrap himself in his own arms. His rising gorge threatened to embarrass him. He hated to be embarrassed more than anything else.
He calmed his voice to seriousness. “One of the other members is concerned that Gina said she’s not cleaning little Faith’s medicine port. It looks to me like that’s true.”
“Oh, we clean it sometimes.”
“When was the last time?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe yesterdy or the day before. Probly sometime last week.”
Gina had dressed herself and joined them near the door. “That would be Abby, reporting on everybody else’s business.”
“It doesn’t much matter who it was if the concern and the danger are real, does it?”
“Well Faith’s fine!  Minister, you ought to be the last one to worry. Three months ago when you spoke so beautifully on having faith to move mountains, faith to be healed, I knew you were speaking just to me. I’ve been so worried about little Faith, and then I heard you and I knew that Jesus would heal her and there was no need to worry at all.” Gina’s eyes shone with genuine tears and she lifted her face toward the heavens.
Brandon, a man of many words, was struck dumb. His eyes moved slowly around the room, seeking a ray of the love of God. If the Sunday sermon had inspired them, where was God’s love now?
 Little Faith sat on sofa where her parents had been, fiddling with the game controls. Dave noticed and barked for her to put it down. She startled guiltily. Her diaper came off as she slid to the floor.
“You’re the best preacher we’ve ever had. We look forward to church every Sunday,” Gina continued. Her fingernails were long with dirt under them like a sloth’s.
Brandon’s disconnected gaze continued to rove the room. Why were they only there on potluck Sunday if they loved all his sermons? He wanted to ask them, but the answer would be a drop in an ocean of contradictions, (were they lies?) and he feared drowning. Could you drown in words? Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words?
His swirling thoughts settled into a halting sentence. “You…have…not…understood.”
“Oh we understand,” Dave stepped closer and Brandon stepped back to the threshold.
“No!” A surge of energy, harvested from the first bright rays of the morning sun sprung from him. “The way you live is not faith!” The memory of the cold morning air rushing over his exercised cheeks with the new sun behind him, his shadow so long in front of him, he might have been a mate to Lady Liberty, squared his shoulders. “Faith is movement. Action! Faith is an action word. Worship is not a thought, it’s a deed!” His ideas gathered momentum. He was a minister. This was ministering!
“We might have missed the sermon yesterday,” Dave stepped forward again and Brandon found himself on the porch. “But we didn’t order a sermon today.”
“Don’t worry Minister. It may not seem to you that our faith is strong enough for our baby to be healed, but we know that it is.”
“She’s four years old and still in diapers!”
 Why had he said that? That was probably the very least of the issues. Maybe the least thing was the only thing small enough for words.
“Get out of my house,” Dave said. He leaned his elbow on the doorframe, giving full vent to his putrid armpit. Brandon leapt backward off the porch.
“Don’t worry!” Gina’s unruffled voice floated after him.  “Well use our faith in Jesus and it will all turn out fine.”
He squared himself to them when he was out of reach. “Get little Faith to the hospital this morning! There’s inflammation around the incision on her tummy!”
Gina did not see the gesture Dave signaled the minister with as he swung the door closed.
A moment later, the minister heard the renewed beeps and roars of the new release video game.
Brandon rolled the windows all the way down, despite the heat of the day. The swift scent of fresh-cut hay pulled off the clinging bits of the fetid Miller’s and the honest odor of cow manure scoured out his nose hairs.
 He should have brought the child with him. Could he have done it? Was it legal? But he knew that he had not the strength to bring the filthy, sick child to his home. Even if he could physically have rescued her, he couldn’t emotionally.
With God, nothing shall be impossible.
He was weak. She must go to the hospital where there were gallons of antiseptic to neutralize infection. Infected Faith.
 He parked his truck in the detached garage and entered his own front door. Diana lifted the vacuum out of the closet with one hand while her other rubbed her great, firm belly. The sun through the window showed not a mote of dust. The chime on the dryer’s permanent press cycle rang once. It would ring twice in five minutes if nobody opened the dryer door. Perhaps it would ring three times after another five minutes, but he wasn’t sure. Diane never let it go that long.
He stared at her smooth, guileless face. She raised her eyebrows, questioning.
“I have learned…something…terrible.”
“Is everything all right?”
Brandon shook his head. “I’m a coward. I’m a vain coward.”  
“What is it?”
He did not mean to be funny. But the double meaning of the phrase seemed important. Maybe not to the Millers, but it was important to him. “Faith, without works,” he shook his head, sorrowing. “is dead.”
“Whose works? Whose faith?”
Brandon could preach better than any other minister. The congregants raised their loving eyes to him and the worry melted into thoughtfulness. He received tender notes from the members in his church. Little girls all over the parish were being christened “Faith,” “Hope,”and “Charity, from a sermon he gave when he first came to Johnstown.
 “I told the easy part of the truth and that turned it into a lie.” He raised his frightened eyes to his wife’s. The minister turned into his study and shut the door with a bang. His hand trembled as he dialed the sheriff.
“Faith will die if nobody acts,” he told the man on the other end. He gave his name. And he gave the Miller’s address.  

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