One Monday morning last year
Pastor Dan Updike:
When my office door flew open unexpectedly without anyone knocking first, I nearly fell out of my chair. Had to be chief Elder McKenny. Nobody else ever—
"Pastor Daniel, the Elders are in the conference room—don't keep them waiting."
It was McKenny all right. Complete with two-hundred-fifty-some pounds of demanding charm. I had yet to hear the man say, "Please," or "Is now a good time for you?"
He vanished as quickly as he'd arrived, his footsteps echoing as he flew down the hall, before I could open my mouth, much less respond. As if my company was so dangerous he could barely wait to return to the safety of his fellow Elders.
I stood up and stretched before glancing at my calendar. Sure enough. No meetings this morning. With the Elders or anyone else.
Ugh! Their impromptu meetings inevitably proved more horrendous and intolerable than meetings that have been properly scheduled.
What have I done now? I shrugged. No telling.
Whenever "Bro," the anything-but-affectionate nickname I only dared to call McKenny behind his back, failed to address me in a faux-friendly tone as "Pastor Dan," something exasperatingly disastrous was about to smack me in the face. Hard enough to knock me out.
Emotionally, at least. And, all too often, spiritually as well.
Hadn't the Elders finally gotten over the problems I'd caused with that fund drive the previous month? When I saw those pictures of poor, starving African children in that official-looking brochure, I couldn't keep from exhorting my congregants to send thousands of their hard-earned dollars to help feed those kids. Doing whatever we could to help meet such an obvious and severe need was a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, the brochure proved to be bogus and the orphanage itself non-existent. Its "directors" were growing wealthy preying on goodhearted people like me and my members.
How was I to know the whole thing was a scam? I didn't keep up with things on the Internet the way so many people did. And even if I'd been more media-savvy, I still might not have learned the truth soon enough.
Although my congregants were understanding—and amazingly forgiving—the Elders put my feet to the fire for deciding to get involved so hastily without "checking the facts first." That meant "without asking their advice and approval."
If they had finally quit fretting about that mishap, what would today's meeting be about? Had I messed up again?
I couldn't help myself when it came to impulsiveness. I'd suffered that "affliction" since early childhood, and Mama had never stopped worrying about the variety of troubles it would continue to get me into.
I never talked to her that she didn't badger me to start thinking before I acted. Humph. Couldn't she accept the fact that I wasn't going to change?
Not even after thirty-two years as her son.
I couldn't. I'd tried.
I closed and locked the office door behind me and ambled towards the conference room at my slowest speed. The one I reserved for occasions like this, which—regardless of the Elders' opinion—were rarely worth rushing to.
I chuckled under my breath, picturing myself as a turtle a family of ants was speeding past on their way to the church kitchen for a picnic.
I wasn't going on a picnic, however. Anything but. And I would arrive at my destination soon enough.
Too soon, truth be told.
I'd barely pushed the conference room door open when my eyes opened wide at the sight of the beautiful banner I'd recently bought with some of my discretionary pastoral funds. Within a short time of its arrival, I'd spent several of my precious off-duty hours hanging it in a prominent place in the sanctuary.
I was so proud of my purchase.
Why in the world had the Elders brought it to the conference room and draped it carelessly over seven armchairs like a wet sheet drying on a clothesline?
Before I could ask, Bro McKenny pointed to the banner. "You recognize this, Pastor?"
"Yes, of course!" But why did you take it down and bring it in here? That man certainly wouldn't care that the Elders had needlessly and deliberately undone a challenging labor of love.
The seven men—the church constitution specifically prohibited the appointment of women Elders—eyed one another mysteriously. As if pleased they knew something I didn't know. They nodded in unison for Bro to proceed.
"Pastor, did you…?" He stopped long enough to roll his eyes. "Did you happen to notice a photographer taking pictures during the worship service yesterday?"
Hmm. I would've had to be blind to miss seeing her, although I hadn't paid much attention to what she was doing. After all, I was in the middle of a sermon about the Prodigal Son when she arrived and I was about to give the alter call when she slipped out.
"Now that you mention it—"
"Did you know she works for the Richmond Times-Dispatch?"
I opened my mouth, but not fast enough to respond.
"Did you ask that woman to come?"
Better to try answering the second and third questions. I'd already forgotten the first one.
"She does?" Interesting, but what did that have to do with my beautiful banner? "I…I'm always inviting unchurched people to visit Southside Community Chapel."
Our church of nine hundred no longer merited the use of "Chapel" in its name, but the members were unwilling to change it. They thought "Chapel" sounded cozier and more inviting than "Church."
I rubbed my nose. "No, I didn't ask her to come. I couldn't have. I'd never seen her before."
Bro looked like he wanted to hook me up to a lie detector. I ignored him and continued. "Last week, however, I did talk with the newspaper's religion editor. Just after putting up the banner, actually. I told him I would be revealing it during yesterday's service. Maybe he made note of that and sent her to check it out."
I smiled. How could they possibly object to that? It was the truth.
The Elders looked at one another and then at me again. Not only did they not smile back, they appeared to be waiting for a more complete explanation.
What could I tell them when I'd already told them everything I knew? Maybe I should try a subtle sidestep…
"So, gentlemen…" Lord, please forgive that lie. You know I don't think any one of them is a gentleman and Bro is the least gentleman of them all. "As you now understand, that woman's visit was as much a surprise to me as it was to you."
I grabbed a quick breath. "Isn't it wonderful, though? They'll probably put a small picture in the religion section of next weekend's newspaper. No amount of publicity is too minuscule to benefit our church. Wouldn't you agree?"
I shouldn't have glanced down at my Bible at that moment instead of looking at the Elders' faces. Not until I looked up again did I catch on that they did not agree.
And they apparently felt strongly about it. Truth be told, they looked like members of a firing squad who loved their work so much they couldn't wait for the signal to pull the trigger.
I wasn't concerned about that, however. I just wanted to know why they'd taken my banner down and brought it into the conference room.
It had looked so beautiful and glorious decorating fifteen feet of the previously barest of the sanctuary walls. The vast array of colors had brightened up the sanctuary's drabness even more than I'd hoped.
I growled silently. The way they'd draped the banner over the conference room chairs—the "sheet" had apparently finished blowing dry—now reminded me of a fish that had died trying to flop its way out of the boat back into the water.
Bro McKenny's face tightened. Then it tightened even more. Had it been a guitar string, it would have snapped in two by then. "You haven't seen this morning's newspaper yet, I gather?"
I shrugged. "You know I rarely read the news or watch it on TV. Too much violence. Too depressing." I was dying to ask, So what tasty tidbit did I miss today?
But—for once—I thought before blurting out such an impertinent question and kept my sarcasm to myself. "Did I miss something I should've seen?"
The other six Elders gave Bro an unmistakably encouraging sic-him look. Like pointing out a cornered mouse to a starving alley cat.
"What were you thinking when you bought that banner and mounted it in the sanctuary?"
Come on, Bro. What thought was required? It was a terrific buy. A quality product so reasonably priced it was almost free. If I've goofed again—if doing something that nice for the church was a mistake—just give it to me straight.
I didn't say that, of course, but I shouldn't have thought it, either. That man could read body language like nobody else I'd ever known.
"What do you think the rainbow stands for?" Not only was his face still unpleasantly taut, his tone matched it.
Whew! Easy question. A safe one. "You've read the Bible." Haven't you? "The rainbow is God's promise never to destroy the earth by flood again. Why?"
"That's what it used to stand for. It—"
"Used to?" I couldn't picture how shocked I must have looked. "Are you telling me something else has superseded God's use of the rainbow? Something secular? Who would dare—?"
"You might say that, Pastor. So you didn't realize—?"
"And you still don't..." Elder O'Connor interjected in a stage whisper.
Bro's icy glare—he didn't tolerate interruptions, not even from his fellow Elders—stopped the other man before he could say anything else. "So you didn't realize you were ordering a banner-size version of the LGBT-whatever rainbow flag?"
My mouth flew open, but nothing came out for what seemed like endless seconds. "The...? But it doesn't have any writing on it, and it's absolutely beautiful-with the rainbow meaning what God meant for it to mean, that is. This banner doesn't have to mean, uh, that other thing."
After closing my mouth again, I realized that my final statement had contained an unfortunately implied "Does it?"
"That banner doesn't look very beautiful in living color on the front page of this morning's newspaper."
Good thing Bro didn't throw a copy of the paper across the table. I would've felt compelled to look at it and terrified at the prospect of having to.
Bro stopped to take a lengthy breath. Elder O'Connor took advantage of the temporary silence. "Guess what the headline says? SOUTHSIDE COMMUNITY CHAPEL OPENLY EMBRACES GAYS OF ALL FLAVORS…"
I took a lengthy breath myself—or was it just an unbroken series of desperate gasps? I hoped they wouldn't be my final breaths. "But we do embrace—uh, we welcome—them. Just not that way. You know, we firmly believe in 'Love the sinner, hate the sin.'"
Bro rolled his eyes. "Unfortunately, the article states that the LGBT community will enjoy worshiping here because we no longer consider their lifestyle sinful. They won't have to hide their sexual orientation to find total acceptance here. 'Finally,' the article says, 'Richmond has a church that loves and totally accepts everyone—whoever and whatever, just as they are.'"
Images of several gay and lesbian friends—non-Christians who had recently become more interested in spiritual things—ran through my head. Would that article's misinformation draw them to Southside Chapel only to send them running away even further and faster once they learned the truth?
I moaned. I hadn't meant for it to be so loud. My well-intended banner had proven to be just another poorly thought out project that had gone far too far awry. Like the orphanage fiasco, the flag banner was something I probably should've researched—or possibly even asked the Elders' opinions about—before proceeding.
But I hadn't. I hadn't seen any need to. How could a nice, godly rainbow possibly cause any problems?
Regardless of how much more the Elders might ream me out about the banner, just as they'd done previously over the orphanage fund drive, at least they hadn't said anything yet about—
"Something else, Pastor. What's this about the church organ being for sale? None of us knew about that before seeing the newspaper ad. Do you realize it's a valuable instrument, donated years ago by a much-beloved member no one remembers anything else about now?"
I didn't know that, although I almost sniggered at his wording of the question. "But nobody plays it. Or knows how to. I thought we should replace it with an equally nice digital keyboard. You didn't see my other ad—looking for one?"
Bro was momentarily speechless. I wish I could've taken his picture to mount on my dartboard.
He shook his head. "Who would play it? We've talked to the church accompanist; she loves real pianos, hates keyboards. Pastor, you obviously meant well, but you can't keep acting on impulsive decisions. We Elders are here to give you much-needed guidance, but—"
Elder O'Connor pounded the table once. As if to say, "This is the bottom line. Pay attention." Before he actually said, "And to restrain you when necessary."
I hoped my days as the pastor of Southside Community Chapel weren't numbered. Sooner or later, even the congregants who'd supported me in spite of my previous mistakes would recognize that my decisions could be pretty dangerous.
Actually, dangerous was probably an exaggeration. I hoped so.
Thank goodness the Elders didn't have the authority to fire me. But the congregation could. And if they turned against me, that would be all she wrote.
How would I ever find another pastorate if that happened?
And how could I face Mama again? She's the one who convinced me—even before I became a Christian—that God wanted me in the ministry. Just like my daddy, my grandpa, and his papa before him.