The pastor reads from John.
The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they said unto her, woman, why weepest thou? She said unto them, because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, ‘Mary.’ She turned herself, and saith unto him, ‘Rabboni’ which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father, but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
My anger fades somewhat. At least he got that part right. I turn to look at Sandy. She’s weeping. The passage has touched her. I look beyond her to other faces less stricken. One woman is digging through her purse. Another is yawning. A man sneezes. Those, and most, have come to be seen, and to pretend piety. I despise them. I shouldn’t be here. I am one of them if I stay.
My eyes stray to the marble floor, where the midmorning sunlight filters through the stained glass windows and creates gloriously dappled, but false, colors. How like these churchgoers are those bright patterns.
Stained glass windows, marble floors, a balcony that will seat as many hypocrites as the lower level of the sanctuary, walnut pulpit and alter, pews of red-cushioned mahogany, vaulted ceiling, and two Hammond organs. The parking lot will accommodate six hundred vehicles. First Methodist owns fourteen acres on which various lesser buildings serve the members and awe-struck visitors. The dining hall and kitchen are equipped for the largest of weddings. The youth has a football field complete with bleachers; they have a gymnasium and a baseball diamond. An onsite daycare facility caters to working moms, and local physicians volunteer to work at the church’s free clinic.
It’s sickening, really. The church takes in more money every year than the county collects in taxes. I don’t even want to know Pastor Joseph’s salary.
He likes to be addressed as Pastor Joseph, or Doctor Hart. Not Joe, nor Mr. Hart, not Reverend, and definitely not Preacher. I’ve no doubt he loves himself dearly.
His voice is powerful, like a radio announcer’s. “Today we celebrate a beginning. When Christ rose from the grave, having been slain for your sins and sins worldwide, He marked a moment in time equal to no other. Yes, we honor His birth, and his teachings, but it was His death and resurrection that provides salvation.”
Yeah, right. Pastor Joseph knows what to say, and how to say it. The offering today will exceed $20,000. Who wouldn’t pay to save his eternal soul? When I drop two fifties into the plate, it won’t be for the church, it wont’ be for Pastor Joseph, and it won’t be for Jesus.
It’ll be for Sandy. She expects a generous offering today, so she shall have it. If the world has it and Sandy wants it, I’ll get it for her. I’m here for her, not to contribute to the maintenance of the church’s business. It is a business—organized, staffed, and tax exempt.
I’d like to see it fail. Secretly, I hold a death wish for this place of lies and trickery and money. I’d like to see some disaster of huge proportions level the Methodist buildings to a smoking heap of useless rubble. Do such things not befall communities around the world? Why not here?
Not that I want Sandy to be distraught, but the hundreds of wealthy socialites that mingle here need to be taught that their money and their BMW’s and their successful careers and their college-bound children are as fragile as the stick-and-mud huts of the impoverished people of Ethiopia and a myriad of other less proud localities.
What if a catastrophe struck here? What if the earthquakes and typhoons that mercilessly take the dreams and lives of other peoples, fell upon the brick and stone mansions here? What if First Methodist was reduced to chips of marble, splinters of mahogany and broken bits of stained glass?
Where would the yellow dresses gather then?
They wouldn’t gather at all. Even now, the slightest inconvenience (a defective air conditioning unit, a child with attention deficit, a tardy housekeeper, a flat tire), is too much for society’s elite to handle without false pity from neighbors who are totally without morals except on Sunday.
I hate them. I suppose I had to actually be here among them to fully realize I actually hate them. I truly crave a disaster of some sort to befall them all. I’d suffer through it myself, just to watch as they openly descend to their basic selves. God and church would be forgotten immediately. They’d steal and beg and fight like rats to get back some of the dignity that material possessions and social status allowed them before.
The congregation is standing. The closing hymn. So soon. I look at my watch, and realize my mental escape into the wonderland of a catastrophe has granted me a seemingly brief Methodist service. It will be nice to have a quiet afternoon at home with Sandy.
* * *
New England is not known for earthquakes. Floods occasionally, and high winds, but not earthquakes. It strikes on Wednesday night. The first rumblings and tinkling of glasses are almost unnoticed. My eyes meet those of the bartender. Before his expression turns from mild concern to panic, Pete’s Bar and Grill collapses. I see a ceiling timber crush Pete’s skull before I’m knocked unconscious by who-knows-what. I awake seconds later while the ground is still alive with tremors. I’m thankful I didn’t hear the death screams of those in the bar.
My next thought is of Sandy. She’s in church. I push against the debris that pins me to the floor, but cannot move it. I taste the blood that has leaked from a wound on my forehead. The weight of the rubble permits only the slightest of movements.
I’ll die here, undiscovered until rescue personnel finds my dehydrated body. I think of the corpse-sniffing dogs the government will bring in.
No! I must get out. I must get to Sandy. I can see nothing within the terror of a nighttime disaster, but with strength born of desperation, I claw at the plaster, splintered lumber and broken glass. I can breath and I can hear the screams of terror outside the bar, or rather the broken memories of what was the bar. I make no progress until I force myself to be still and think.
The earth groans and trembles. Debris scrapes and rattles as it settles, sealing my tomb even tighter.
Panic is my enemy, and surrender my doom. I test each limb, one at a time. My right arm will move only inches. My left has a little leverage. My legs are immobile. So, I must begin with my left hand and arm.
I grasp at splintered wood, and it moves. Reaching upward within that dark wreckage, I touch what must be plasterboard. It responds to my effort. I grip an edge and push. Bending at my waist, I discover a tunnel of sorts, which grants me freedom to reach further. I find what feels like a two-by-four, and I take hold of that. With my left hand anchored there, I pull. The debris falls away, and suddenly my head and upper torso are free.
The darkness is overwhelming, the silence unbearable. The screams I heard earlier are absent. The crashing of brick and glass has ended. I sit upright, stricken by the reality of what I have survived. Within minutes, I’m standing upon the heap of rubble that might have been my grave. My own breathing is all I hear in the foreboding darkness, until I’m suddenly aware of muffled screams filtering through the dust-laden air. I see fires now. They erupt from the debris like demonic creatures grasping for whatever they might consume.
I see nothing recognizable. I have no sense of direction, no landmark from which to take a bearing. The ground shakes violently twice as I stumble across the heaps of broken bricks and stone. No other homes or structures fall, because none are standing.
Ignoring my lacerations and bruises, I finally step upon what might be the upheaval of asphalt that was Second Street, the road Sandy took to First Methodist. If the church still stands, it is more than a mile away. Shamelessly, I run and climb past people crying out to me for help. A woman I recognize as a co-worker, a broken arm hanging limp at her side, digs frantically through bricks and splintered timbers, all the while screaming the name of her daughter.
Sirens blare through the night before I reach the church. Helicopters thunder close overhead, searchlights sweeping the ruined town, and four-wheel drive rescue vehicles claw through the debris in those few places where passage is possible.
If not for First Methodist’s steeple, I would have not found it. It lay on a high mound of rubble, the broken cross a reminder that Sandy’s god—the unseen, nonexistent entity she sang and prayed to before she died.
* * *
I know I didn’t cause the quake by tempting the church’s imaginary god to do his worst. Still, I had actually wished for this, but in the dark and untouched regions of my unstable mind, I knew it wouldn’t happen; I had never even considered that Sandy might suffer the deserved end of the other parishioners.
Months of grief have reduced me to what I am now—a drunken scrap of human debris worth nothing more than the life insurance Sandy left. I’ve always known money and title and respect are commodities of vanity; that a life worthwhile is a life with someone you love more than yourself, and until Sandy died, my priorities and values were intact. I despised the despicable and adored the adorable, but Sandy’s departure trampled my values to death as it stomped its way across stability boundaries never before violated within my small existence.
Our home has long been cleared of rubble by federal money. My new house is smaller. I need little room to drink and to hate. If the hypocrites had not seduced Sandy into false hopes, she might have survived.
But that’s not completely fair. She might have survived anyway. Not everyone attending First Methodist’s last service died there. Harvey Ballinger got out with a broken leg. Margie Gallimore’s injuries were superficial, but her husband died. Margie’s red hair turned gray. All of the survivors like to talk about lost friends and family. They talk about it at the grocery, in the streets, anywhere two or more of them can get together. I’m sick of hearing about it.
* * *
On a dreary afternoon as I drive toward the liquor store, a year and a day after Sandy’s death, I see a poster tacked to a telephone poll. Something about First Methodist. I pull my car to the curb to get a better look through my blood-shot eyes.
First Methodist Church
extends an invitation to a meeting and service in the Lawrenceville High School gymnasium on Sunday June 26th at 10am.
They’re reorganizing? What the hell for? It makes no sense. Most of the townsfolk don’t even have homes yet.
I attend. I have a puzzling need to know what they’re up to. Something about money, no doubt, but what? Did they not have insurance on the church building? Will they ask for donations to rebuild? Who’s idea is this? Pastor Joe is a year dead.
The gym is packed and nearly silent. Margie greets me at the door, her gray hair shining beneath the fluorescent lights. She doesn’t reach to take my hand, and I don’t offer it.
“I think all the chairs are taken, Frank.” She calls me “Frank,” even though I haven’t spoken to her for months. “You can sit with me on the bleachers if you want.”
I follow her like a puppy might. I feel unwelcome here, but my determination to know what these people are up to is strong. They knew Sandy, and oddly, I feel closer to my dead wife here among her friends than I have since she died. I ignore the nods and smiles as I walk the aisle between the rows of metal chairs. My place beside Margie is on the bottom bench of the bleachers. A young man I recognize as Joseph Hart’s eldest son steps to a makeshift podium under the scoreboard. Young Hart works at the Post Office. Perhaps he sees an opportunity here to better his income.
He is speaking. My suspicion of his motives obscures his opening comments. Margie’s knee is pressed against mine. She has room enough on the bench that we are not cramped. I wonder.
Hart’s unamplified and unwavering voice carries across the gym to where I sit. “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be earthquakes in diverse places, and their shall be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows.”
gets my attention. Earthquakes. The beginning of sorrows.
“Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom of God.”
Hart quotes scripture without looking at notes. He comments on the necessity of being one church in Christ, then, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”
The accurate quotes from the Bible fall upon my mind with the weight of an anvil. I am stricken with doubt I’ve never experienced. Hart is a taker, a man that seeks monetary advantage from the ignorant people he preaches to, is he not? Why should his words affect me at all?
I turn to look at the faces of those seated above me. I see strict attention, tears, affirmative nods, and . . . unity. It occurs to me that these folks have gathered here despite the troubles that have befallen them, in triumph over devastation.
Is it possible? Did Sandy own something outside the world?
No. That’s foolishness. Yet . . .
“So the last shall be first, and the first last, for many be called, but few chosen.”
Stop! He’s speaking directly to me! The “chosen” meant nothing to me before now. Was Sandy “chosen”? Am I not chosen? In my refusal to believe, am I not chosen?
But Hart won’t shut up, and Margie has taken my hand. I look at her face for signs of lust, but I see only tears and a woman brought low by guilt.
She doesn’t turn to me. Her eyes are fixed on Hart.
“For I am persuaded that neither depth, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, not things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Suddenly I know. The quake took Sandy, and with Sandy, my life. But by His grace, I still live upon His earth. I still stand among mortals who have gathered in His name, despite the wreckage of their mortal lives. They know what I refused until tonight.
Sandy is in His care. By His care, His grace, I will see her again.
I leave the gymnasium with Margie, and I cling to her hand, knowing her salvation is no less assured than my own.