Thursday, April 23, 2009

Little Big Foot: Memories of Michael

Two weeks had passed with no word from Brother Young and no call or letter from Little Big Foot. It had been a busy time, and for that Dee Anna was glad. Being busy left less time for thinking about the future and whether or not her life was about to change drastically. After she had blurted out her surprising comments to Brother Young, she had expected something to happen. Her hopes fluctuated between remaining at Eastside in Madison and heading north to a different life in Little Big Foot. As the days passed, she was feeling increasingly anxious.

Madeline had finished with summer school and the two of them had spent the previous evening on the couch eating popcorn and planning a short trip to Door County before Eastside's small and close-knit school resumed in the fall. At Eastside, plans were underway for a back-to-school outreach that would feature school supplies in new backpacks. Dee Anna had once thought there were no needy people in clean and trendy Madison but she had found out differently.

It was early Sunday morning and Dee Anna sat in her living room rocking chair, sermon notes in her lap along with a Bible. She was gazing, unseeing, at the street outside the front window as she slowly sipped a cup of coffee. "My Utmost for His Highest" lay on the table beside her favorite chair.

She had planned on a few minutes of sermon review and then "spending time with my friend, Oswald Chambers" as she always thought of moments reading his famous devotional book. The title of the August 5 entry had caught her eye at once, "The Bewildering Call of God." She had gone on to read:

". . . and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished.’ . . . But they understood none of these things . . . —Luke 18:31, 34

God called Jesus Christ to what seemed absolute disaster...This bewildering call of God comes into our lives as well. The call of God can never be understood absolutely... Our real test is in truly believing that God knows what He desires...God is sovereignly working out His own purposes... As we grow in the Christian life...we begin to see that...God is divinely shaping us into oneness with that purpose. A Christian is someone who trusts in the knowledge and the wisdom of God, not in his own abilities. If we have a purpose of our own, it destroys the simplicity and the calm, relaxed pace which should be characteristic of the children of God.

She had felt a little stunned by the words on the page, and more than a little stung. "Oh sure," she thought, "good ol' Oswald always has it figured out." How many people could live like he did anyway? He always did write like he was some sort of super saint."

Leaning her head back against the chair, she thought of Eastside's lovely and serene sanctuary with its dark pews, altar table and pulpit. The building was constructed of stone, and the interior was usually cool, even in summer. The tall stained glass windows, six on each side wall, depicted the twelve Apostles. Behind the altar area was a large portrayal of Jesus the Good Shepherd. The sanctuary was not large, so the pipe organ was not large either, but it was of wonderful quality and tone.

Dee Anna could recall her first visit to Eastside Church as if it were just days before instead of years. She felt a mixture of emotions, remembering. Arriving in Madison with little besides a suitcase, she had slept in her friend Elisa's spare room for a few days and then had found an efficiency apartment. When she wasn't looking for employment, she had visited second-hand stores and found serviceable furniture. Elisa had lent her some dishes and cooking utensils. As the two of them arranged the kitchen, they talked and reminisced about their days together back in Lubbock when Dee Anna had been a children's pastor and her friend had been a valued helper. Elisa had laughed as she told Dee Anna she had forgotten just what a Texas accent really sounded like.

Sitting in the tiny living room space, they cooled off with ice-filled glasses of Dr. Pepper and the conversation grew more serious. It had been difficult to talk about leaving seminary and then what had happened in Dallas--the new job, new friends, new interests, new entertainment--and the drinking and exhaustion that had become steady companions. Her friend already knew some of the story, but she had not yet heard of Dee Anna's moment of New Year's Day clarity in the Dallas Catholic church.

The two women had grown silent, and then her friend had said, "I don't go to a Pentecostal church anymore either. I'm a Methodist. Why don't you come to church with me on Sunday? I think you might like it. And I bet you will enjoy our pastor. He is a single guy." She grinned at Dee Anna. "He's kinda hot, actually. And yeah, he can even preach pretty good."

Dee Anna had laughed and said, "A good-looking single guy who can preach? You mean such a creature exists? It's a while since I was in church, so what if the roof falls in when I come inside the door?" Then she added quietly, "Well, time I decided what comes next. Okay, I'll come to church with you. It will help having a friend to sit with me. I have never been to a Methodist church, so if I get confused you can tell me what to do."

The following Sunday she had been true to her word and attended the worship service at Eastside. As it happened, Eastside turned out to be just what she needed. It was informal enough to be comfortable for Dee Anna, and it was formal enough to be different than what she had previously experienced. She knew most of the hymns, and she was happy to be able to share in communion. The sermon was excellent. Several people had greeted her warmly.

Elisa had been right. Dee Anna had liked Eastside at once. And her friend was right about something else--while not handsome, exactly, the Reverent Michael Hanson was rather pleasant to look at. As he shook Dee Anna's hand after the service, she had found herself a little flustered. His eyes were kind, and his grin was engaging. Dee Anna had found herself wondering why such a pleasant and obviously intelligent man was unmarried.

It had not been long before Michael had asked her to dinner. Recalling it, Dee Anna smiled, remembering how she had wondered what the church people would think about their pastor keeping company with an attractive newcomer. She had decided that was going to be his problem, not hers. They had shared a pleasant evening in Fitchburg, sampling Indian cuisine at Curry in the Box.
Dee Anna had been reluctant to ask Michael inside her shabby little efficiency apartment. As it turned out, sitting in Michael's car afterwards, they had talked like old friends until they realized that over an hour had passed. He hadn't even hinted that he should come in, walking her to the door and leaving after a squeeze of her hand.

Learning of Elisa's sudden transfer to New England had been hard, but not as hard as it might have been before the invitation to her church. Michael and Dee Anna had both accompanied Elisa to the airport for a red-eye flight and after seeing her pass through security the two of them had shared breakfast in the airport. Dee Anna had decided it was the best Egg McMuffin she had ever eaten.

The next week they had gone to an evening of classical music at the Overture Center for the Arts. A few days later, sitting side by side on a bench in James Madison Park, Michael had talked about his family. An only child, his relationship with his parents had been a close one. Not long after he had accepted a call to serve at Eastside, his first and last church, he had become engaged to a woman he had met in a hospital parking garage when her car stalled. Perhaps, he had told Dee Ann with a grin, she had decided to trust him for a ride home because he had been wearing a clerical collar. His parents, he said quietly, had quickly grown to love his fiancee.

His eyes had grown sad as he told Dee Anna that they had all decided that a few days in Wisconsin Dells would be a nice way to spend a little time together before Christmas. Michael had wondered how he would squeeze in time away in December. Feeling harried, but not wanting to disapoint his parents, he had stayed in Madison to finish up preparations for the Christmas service and then had spent time at the hospital visiting with a very sick parishioner. The three people he loved most had travelled ahead, planning to meet him at the motel later that evening.

They had never arrived.

A drunk driver in an SUV had crossed the center line of the snowy highway and smashed head on into his parent's compact car. The drunk driver had survived, though not without injury. The others had been killed, his parents instantly and his fiancee a short while later in the ambulance.
Michael, knowing nothing of this, had started out late in a light snow. Feeling sleepy, he had stopped at truck stop gas station for a cup of coffee. As he paid the cashier, he saw the breaking news bulletin on a television mounted on the wall behind the counter.

Eastside's pastor had gone through a very bad time, but his faith in God's love and faithfulness had remained. He grieved, he had told Dee Anna, but found strength in his work with the people of his new church. They had been surprisingly understanding and patient. While he eventually grew stronger and his pain lessened, he had believed he would never find love again.

In broad daylight, Michael had leaned towards her and kissed he gently on her forehead and then, for the first time, on the lips. "I think maybe I was mistaken about that," he had said simply. She remembered how her heart had pounded as he kissed her again. She had never encountered a minister who made her dizzy before, she had thought, as she kissed him back.

Rocking her chair gently she thought to herself, "And God knows I will never forget that moment if I live to be 100."

She had longed to throw her arms around him and laugh with joy, but instead she had moved backward, suddenly afraid. She hadn't shared anything about her own life, her small-town Texas family, her church background, her crisis of faith, and her brief but disasterous days as a party girl in Dallas. There was no way she would make a suitable wife for this good man.

"How," she wondered, hands resting on the Bible in her lap, "did I find myself walking down an aisle just eight months later? How did I end up loving a minister, loving his church, and even finding that, issues aside, my calling had not changed after all?" She had never really understood, but she had accepted it all with profound gratitude, including the birth of their beautiful daughter just eleven months after the wedding. Dee Anna had been relieved that Madeline did not posess red hair. To Michael's tolerant amusement, Dee Anna had named her brown-haired infant Madeline after the charming little French orphan of Ludwig Bemelmans' well-known children's books.
After two years as a pastor's wife she had renewed her ministerial credentials and was given permission to serve as Michael's associate pastor. Eastside was not flawless, and neither was Dee Anna's marriage to Michael, but they had been the closest things to perfect she had ever experienced and the four years she had spent as Michael's partner in life and ministry had been the most rewarding time of her life. Dee Anna had matured and her faith had deepened. She had believed that her trust in God was strong enough to survive anything.
Then Michael, at a seemingly healthy age 37, had suffered a heart attack that had killed him instantly. Dee Anna had fallen into a a spiritual black hole from which there seemed no escape. She had feared for her sanity, her faith in God, and her little daughter's future. How ironic, and inexplicable, she had thought bitterly, that Michael had missed dying in a fatal crash only to die an untimely death anyway.

After a few weeks of despair, she had arranged for Mrs. Herndon to watch Madeline, telling her she needed time to be alone. She had planned to buy enough liquor to drink herself into a stupor, hoping she might not wake up. It was early fall and chilly, so she would dress warmly and take her car to some location where she would not be too visible until daylight. In a grey haze of depression, she had written a letter to Madeline, and one to Mrs. Herndon. Leaving the letters on the table, she had been about to leave the house.

Mrs. Herndon had saved her from disaster by bringing Madeline home early. They had planned to attend a children's play but Madeline had become sick to her stomach and they had left before the first act was over. As Dee Anna opened the door she had found the two of them coming up the front walk. She had backed up into the small entry and practically run to the kitchen where she snatched the letters from the kitchen table and stuffed them into her sweater pocket.

Something happened that night when Dee Anna had tucked her feverish little daughter into bed. Madeline had looked into her mother's eyes and said, "Mommy, I miss my daddy. He always took good care of me when I had a tummy ache, didn't he?" As Dee Anna agreed, hugging Madeline tightly, the little girl had whispered into her ear, "Mommy, I love you. You won' t die too, will you?" The words somehow woke Dee Anna's heart and she heard her child's voice with a sweet clarity. It was as though God had whispered into her ear. Perhaps, Dee Anna had later thought, God did just that. "We will be all right, sweetheart," she had said, and she had known it was, somehow, true.

Dee Anna never knew if Mrs. Herndon had suspected anything, but her motherly friend had ended up spending the night, telling Dee Anna in her no-nonsense manner that she would care for Madeline so her exhausted mother could rest. The next day Dee Anna had told her little girl that they would take advantage of one of the day's unexpected warmth by having a last "fry out." Dee Anna had cooked hot dogs on their small barbecue grill and when Madeline wasn't looking had slipped the letters on top of the glowing charcoal, tears stinging her eyes as she watched them go up in smoke.
Michael's nest egg had been small and was quickly gone. Dee Anna had sold their nice Saturn and kept her Ford Falcon. Fortunately, Eastside Church owned a manse so she and Madeline had not had to move.
That had been two years ago, but Dee Anna still missed her beloved pastor husband every day.
At the congregation's urging, she had remained at Eastside as their pastor. Some people had left, but most had stayed and the church had added new families. It had been an agonizing time, as well as an economically strained one, but she had managed and had never lost hope again. Instead, she had found the grace of God, something she had spoken about but never quite understood, to be so real as to be almost tangible.
One day after a rare but typically annoying phone conversation with her mother, Dee Anna realized that her anger and rebellion had always been more about her parents than about the Pentecostal tradition she had left behind. So when her friend, dear Brother Young, had spoken to her about North Woods Chapel, she had considered whether it might be time to make peace with her past and return to an expression of her faith that her heart had never entirely left behind.
It wasn't for lack of trying, Dee Anna had though wryly, listening to her old professor's warm drawl explaining why he though she should consider at least visiting Little Big Foot.

Now she sighed deeply, hearing Madeline's footsteps on the stairs. So much joy and despair and pain and sorrow and love and grace. Why did life have to be so difficult? She realized her coffee had grown cold and she placed the half-empty cup on the table next to the little volumn of devotions.

Dee Anna prayed aloud, "God. I simply do not know what else to do. I will assume I am staying at Eastside and I will fill my place here with joy. I do love it here. I've kept telling you that, haven't I?" She smiled and went on, "And I ask for your grace and peace to rule in my heart. I'm not very saintly, but please help me to be like my buddy, Oswald and trust your purposes in this world--and for me."

She rose from her chair, gathering her Bible and her unread sermon notes. It was time to get ready for church.

7 comments:

chartreuseova said...

I'm loving this. I can picture so many of the scenes...I've even eaten takeout from Curry in the Box in Fitchburg! Yummy. Indian food and the story.

SingingOwl said...

Mmmm! Let's go there when I come visit you guys! :-D

SingingOwl said...

P.S. I sure hope there isn't a real Eastside Methodist Church in Madison...don't think so. LOL

Gilly said...

I love it too! though I have great difficulty picturing it - I even had to look up Madison on an Atlas! Never mind, I have a picture of everything that works for me.

But what is an efficiency apartment??

SingingOwl said...

An efficiency apt. is a one room space, except for the bathroom. Tiny kitchen at one end, and then living room which usually includes a pull-down bed to turn it into a sleeping space at night. Or maybe there is a couch that folds out into a bed.

Rev Kim said...

I'm really enjoying this story!

Are you getting out our way this summer for the Rendezvous?

SingingOwl said...

Kim, what are the dates?