by Colleen Sutherland
(Note: "The Pastor" is the last of the depressing Christmas stories this season, to the relief of many of our readers. It will also be the final story in the collection I hope to publish next summer. It pulls all the other stories together. Refer back to "The Rapture," "A Candle in the Window", "Shades of Green," and "The Cat".)
Reverend Peets hid, rubbing his aching knees. Through a crack in the curtains that covered the glass windows in the secretary's office, he peered out at the congregants assembling in the narthex for Christmas morning services, shaking hands and wishing each other a not so enthusiastic “Merry Christmas.” They were tired and so was he.
A Sunday morning Christmas was the worst thing that God could inflict on a Methodist pastor. When Christmas fell on a weekday, all he had to worry about was Christmas Eve, mostly music and very little sermon. No one listened anyhow, so absorbed in their holiday. It was all lights, carols, schmaltzy tradition and no theology on this pagan holiday dreamed up by the Romans and carried on by the barbarians. There wasn't much for him to do. The choir director, Sunday school and the organist took care of the inspiration. On a Sunday Christmas Day, however, he was in charge of his flock, mostly the old faithful who would show up no matter what the occasion, from baptisms to funerals. Yes, they were all out there, leaning on canes and walkers as they took off their cloth coats. Mostly women, their white hair gleamed under the fluorescent lights at the entrance. They seemed to be missing one or two of their chirpy group. But there were also a few others. Family members from faraway places had been dragged in, hungover and grumpy, there only to make sure they were still included in the will.
If it weren't for the money Christmas services brought in, he would have had a theological discussion with the church council, suggesting cutting back to bare bones services. But there were those out-of-towners, big city people who liked to flash bills as they threw them into the collection plate.Christmas was a budget balancer.
There was Fran, already gearing up for the city's primary election in February, haranguing anyone who didn't move past her through the narthex and on into the church. Pastor Peets had tried setting off a non-political area but Fran was above any rules, above any sanity when it came to political matters. He was thankful that Christmas fell nowhere near the November elections. It slowed Fran down a bit when the congregations were smaller.
The pastor had already asked the ushers to steer Democrats and other liberals to another part of the church.
“Where?” the head usher asked.
“Anywhere but next to Fran.”
They all laughed. Easy for them, once Sunday was over, they could avoid her for another week. He had to listen to her in committees, Bible Study, and finance meetings.
Oh God, there was the Dreadnight family. They usually attended The True Gospel Church but it wasn't having services today, because their so called minister with his degree from some strange theological college in North Dakota was a circuit rider who had another church. So Miranda came with her three children, and Argyll came along to instruct people, especially Peets, about the Bible, on which he thought he was the ultimate expert. There would be no escape from him after services. The children seemed exceptionally happy so Miranda must have worked one of her miracles. They wore clothes that looked new but probably came from a thrift store. Argyll didn't believe in spoiling the children. He watched as the ushers conferred. If he knew Jimmy Ellsworth, Argyll would be seated next to Fran. Jimmy had a wicked sense of humor.
There was the choir's best alto, charging in late. She was always late. Time was something she didn't observe. He suspected she had never gotten around to changing her clocks after daylight savings time shift, but wouldn't that make her early? Never. The choir director would like to give Agnes the heave hoe in a polite Christian way, but Agnes could read music and rarity of rarities, could stay in tune. No Agnes, no choir.
There was the worst soprano. Abby was usually off key but she was faithful. She looked harried and where was that precious son of hers? Ah yes, she had some of the Avery Gazette's with her. She was handing them out to some of her son's customers, who shuffled the flyer-heavy papers from hand to hand and finally stacked them on top of the coat racks. Charles must be sick. She wore wet running shoes and jeans, but once in a choir robe, it made no difference, as she often pointed out to him. He figured that was why she sang in the choir at all. Poor Abby had so little and singing in the choir meant she could attend church without having her clothes commented on. She usually arrived early, the last to leave, her body encased in the olive green choir robe for the duration.
Who else? Oh yes. Byron. Dressed in a sparkling jacket, a green tie and underneath that a shirt with homoerotic naked Santas chasing each other. Why be so obvious? Especially at Christmas? But Byron looked like he had been up all night. Perhaps it was his way to finally come out to his elderly mother and father. Yes, that was it. They were there, all right, their lips pursed tightly, their wrinkles even more wrinkly than a week ago. Oh God, they would want to talk to him after the service to ask for an intervention and to convince their darling to seek treatment. He would be lucky if he could get away with a brief prayer.
In his own prayers, he had taken to praying a simple “Thy will be done.” Why did these people think they could tell God what to do. As if God cared, one way or another.
At this point in his life, the Reverend Peets had taken to believing only on odd days, leaving even days open for his own mental debates and Sundays as work days to be slogged through. He thoroughly hated Christmas. His depression began just before Thanksgiving, coinciding with his last hunting trip of the season. It lasted through February and his mood never improved until Easter, the resurrection which was theologically so satisfying, especially when it fell just before the opening of trout season.
His wife was as dutiful as the minister's daughter she was, but she told him two years ago that though Christmas used be her favorite holiday, filled with lights, music, presents and Santa, he pulled her down with him. She took Ralph and Jennie and went to visit her parents for the holidays, coming back mid- January. One of these years, they wouldn't come back at all, he knew that, but he was too old to start a new career. So he went on, hating his profession, despising the people in the congregation, even kicking the cat on bad days.
He rubbed his knees again. Last night, after services, he had opened a bottle of whiskey. Someone gave him the first bottle years before, though Methodists were known to be teetotalers. Most of his flock drank, but as their shepherd, he had to set an example. He carefully put it in the back of the kitchen larder. “You never know when someone who is not in the congregation might have a need for it,” he told Janey. She rolled her eyes and said nothing. Whenever he was at an out of town conference he shopped in liquor stores. He had replaced the bottle several times, always finding the exact same brand until the manufacturer changed the label. He carefully refilled the old bottle from the new bottle and hoped Janey didn't notice the torn neck label. He suspected she did, but always dutiful, she said nothing, but that bottle might have had something to do with her holiday escapes.
Last night, after services, he had a drink...maybe more than one...and he slipped going upstairs and landed on his knees. They hurt like the blazes of hell, probably what he deserved.
He leaned back in the secretary's chair. In a minute or two, he would have to put on his robe. They all knew he was in there. His car was outside and every one knew that.
There was a knock on the door. Reverend Peets waited for a brief second, sighed and got up.
“Yes?” he asked.
“We're running out of grape juice, Pastor.”
Dammit all to hell, thought Pastor Peets, knowing that the thought was as bad as the word and the word as bad as the deed. He had forgotten it was a communion service. In a moment of pastoral enthusiasm, he had agreed with the worship committee that it would be a good idea to serve communion to those who only came to church once a year, as if that would do much for their immortal souls. He knew that what had probably happened that long ago passover was just Jesus having a drink or two with old friends before going off to be killed. How was that any different than young soldiers going off to war?. How many of them left for their wars hungover?
He opened the door to talk to Scott, the head usher.
“You'll have to thin the grape juice out with water,” he said.
Scott's mouth fell open. “Is that OK? Will that work?”
“We're Methodists. It isn't the blood of Christ in our tradition. It's a remembrance,” Pastor Peets said. “You can remember with just a touch of grape. Or tell you what. Put it all in one cup and we'll have everyone dunk in the bread.”
“Isn't that what Catholics do?”
“No. They use wine.”
“OK. But I think we need to keep better track of the grape juice in the future.”
“I'll put you in charge,” Peets said, but Scott backed away. There was nothing like asking someone to volunteer to make them shut up. At least to him. Scott was already heading in the direction of Fran, who loved to stir up complaints against anyone in power. It was her specialty.
Peets was about to turn back when he saw Fred, the lonely old solder come in. He liked Fred, who had never harmed anyone since he came back from Vietnam. No one but himself, Peets amended. There had been those drinking years. Fred always sat on the other side of the church from his neighbors, the Barneys, whose son was off in Afghanistan. Or was it Iraq? And where were they anyhow? He hadn't received their usual prayer request.
Fred caught his eye and shook his head. He slid sideways to the door.
“No prayer request today from Frank and Alice. Johnny didn't make it. He's coming home the hard way.”
As Peets closed the office door, he cursed the Deity. He cursed the war. He cursed the government. Poor Johnny. Poor Frank and Alice who would never again have a happy Christmas. He thought about the whiskey bottle. He would have a drink in remembrance of Johnny tonight.
He put on his robe and draped the green Christmas cowl over it, the one Janey had embroidered with the flame and the cross. Out of habit he went to the little altar in his office and knelt to say a before service prayer, but couldn't find the words.
Never mind he thought and tried to push himself up. He couldn't. He found his legs wouldn't straighten. He could not get up. His knees had finally given out in this last act of faith.