Sweet Thyme Baby – 6

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

6

(Start at the Beginning of Sweet Thyme Baby)

(Click here to read Section 5 first)

 

At the end of his life, Lance Whitby would remember that Sunday as the day he made a fatal misstep. When he was old and had forgotten his mother’s name and his son’s face, the memory would be there, as clear as ever it was. When he could no longer recite the Twenty-third Psalm without faltering, he would still see that morning’s slant of sun through the vertical blinds and the reflection off the dresser mirror onto Sharon’s sandy-colored hair. He would remember the premonition that struck him then – the first and only one he ever had.

 

The Sunday ahead would be important, second only to the day he was born.

*

 

It was early Sunday afternoon, the day after the Ryan’s funeral; and he sat on the edge of the bed and watched his wife dress for work at Greens market. As she stood brushing her hair into a pony tail, he noted the way her raised arm accentuated the riverine curves of her breast and waist and hips, took note of her smile and then, before his mind could register that this was the smile that said in silence that she loved him better than anyone else in the world, he shut his thoughts down hard. Today he would not weaken. Today he meant to have his way.

 

Was this where it began?

 

He thought how a man in love could be irrational and persuaded by lust to abdicate his natural position of power. A woman’s wiles – even those of a virtuous woman like Sharon – could make a man compromise his principles and faith. Case on point: They had been married a little more than a month when she caused him to lie to her for the first time. He was in the second of his two years at Zion Seminary and preaching his first full sermon to a convention of Christian youth groups from all over Southern California. He had composed his talk carefully and practiced his presentation alone, before the mirror, and in the living room while Sharon sat on the couch with a paper and pencil on her lap for critical comments. To prepare for student questions she had asked him everything she could think of. He had been thoroughly prepared and confident when he stepped to the lectern. He had felt like a man stepping up to meet his destiny.

 

It had been his father’s dearest wish that Lance follow him into the ministry of the Cabrillo Community Church, the congregation he himself had established twenty years before his only son’s birth. Once he had wanted to be a General and command armies, but by the time he entered Mt. Nebo Bible College he had a sure calling to the ministry. His father’s life had been a model of what it meant to be a man at peace and happy in his work, and this was what Lance wanted for himself. However, a few months into college his aspirations changed and he saw his father, and by humiliating extension himself, as a “weak sister, a feel good Christian.”

 

Lance’s roommate, Joel Jackson, had introduced him to a hard charging Jesus Christ who was built like a linebacker and carried a staff in one hand and a sword in the other. Joel said the sword was an unfortunate necessity in the Age of Science. He and his friends wore tee shirts with “Fear the Lord” printed over crossed swords. The first time Lance saw this shirt he disapproved of it; but after two months at Mt. Nebo, he bought one for himself and knew he was meant for a larger life than his father ever imagined. At Thanksgiving he told his father about Muscular Christianity; and the old man – this was what Lance called his father in bull sessions with Joel and the crowd – the old man told him there was nothing wrong with bull sessions just so long as his boots were clean when he left the barn.

 

Near the end of his second year at Mt. Nebo, Lance met Sharon who sat in front of him in his Minority Social Concerns class. The luster of her hair, a long smooth shield to the middle of her back, made the palms of his hands tingle. From Sharon and her circle Lance heard talk of the Shepherd’s Mandate. Joel laughed at the Mandate and said that if Christ had to depend on Sharon’s crowd the church would not have survived the first thousand years. Sharon said Muscular Christianity was Joel’s excuse to be a bully.
Lance and Sharon drank coffee in the student center, went for long walks and knelt in church with their hips touching; she took him home to meet her father, a plain man with a jutting lower lip who managed a Lucky market in Porterville. In the car coming home, Sharon laughed at Joel, called him a poseur and quoted Luke: “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Lance did not like to argue so he kept to himself what was in his thoughts. To be proud in righteous service to the Almighty was never a sin.

 

If she had been more flexible, he would never have been forced to lie to her.

 

The sermon Lance had preached to the convention of Christian young people had been about the Shepherd’s Mandate. Joel urged him to talk about Muscular Christianity but Lance had wanted to make Sharon happy and to see the gleam of pride in her eyes when she looked at him. And so, standing behind the podium, he told one hundred and twenty-seven pubescent boys and girls that with the power of love they could overcome anything. He told them love was the most powerful force in the world, that it could not be stopped and that it was their duty to love one another. The boys scootched down in their seats; the girls hid their mouths behind their hands and giggled.  Afterwards only one youth asked a question, and Lance knew from the way he put it that his friends had dared him. “Do you mean, Pastor, guys should like – you know – love guys?”

 

That night when Sharon asked him how his preaching went he told her it had been a triumph.

 

His lie put a sparkle in her voice. “I’m so proud of you, Lance. I knew you’d be wonderful.”

 

That speech was a mortification that scarred him permanently and he swore that he would never again be made to look foolish.
After graduation from seminary Lance became assistant pastor at the CCC where his father was winding down his service. He and Sharon were married and the church helped them with a down payment on the Spanish-style stucco house on Wood Road facing the Ryan’s garden. When Sharon’s grandmother died, she left a modest legacy, which Sharon used to buy a little market in the shopping village. Lance thought he was happy though when he met up with Joel Jackson at meetings and conventions he was still magnetized by his early mentor’s powerful personality, his ideas and the energy of his following. He came home dissatisfied and told Sharon what Joel did and what he said and thought. Sharon wasn’t impressed. “He ought to read his Bible instead of talking so much.”

 

Joel’s first church in Victorville had a congregation with five hundred and eighty-one stewardship units, ninety percent of them over a thousand dollars a year. On Sunday nights he was a frequent guest on Christian talk shows and the more often he said, “The fight for souls is the one fight where the ends justify the means,” the more popular he became. He started publishing – first pamphlets and then books – mostly novels about the horrors of the Last Days. Lance read these books on the sly because Sharon said they were as bad as pornography and meant to frighten people. If he was in his car between two and five on Saturdays, he listened to Joel’s radio talk show.  He was consumed by envy which he convinced himself was admiration.

 

When his father died and the ministry of the CCC became his alone, there had been an immediate exodus of families from the congregation. To hold the remnant, Lance tried to preach more emphatically Good News sermons like this father’s; but church revenue continued to decline, which made him angry though he concealed it. He dreamed he was a boy on tiptoe behind the pulpit. He tried to preach but his voice would not carry and the text was squiggle lines. Once he imagined there were teenaged boys and girls in the front row of pews, snickering behind their hands.

 

After watching Joel televangelize late one night, Lance preached a different kind of sermon – promise and threat in a package of bombast and charm. Church membership leveled off and held steady. Sharon did not like his new style. She told him to be himself. “Just preach what your heart tells you. That’s all you have to do.”

 

As if it was the easiest thing in the world to hear the voice of the heart. As if the heart’s voice and God’s voice were the same thing.

 

Joel asked if he would come on staff at his new church in El Cajon. Lance asked himself: if he preached from his heart would Joel want him? Would worshippers come from across the county to hear his words? Would the CCC tell him to retire the old Volvo and buy him a new Chrysler like Joel’s? Lance turned Joel down but was not sure he had done the right thing. He read the paper and watched the television and he saw with aching clarity that he hadn’t amounted to much in life.

 

Sharon came and went as she pleased and sometimes didn’t even cook dinner because she was working late at the market. She was a good mother, but he thought she would be better if she didn’t think about the market all the time. He recalled those tittering teenagers and he saw his own son’s face in their crowd.  In the deepest level of his mind, a level of which he was as barely conscious as the wave is aware of the fish feeding in the dark fathoms beneath it, Lance could not forget those boys and girls.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

 

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