Saturday, October 01, 2005

Stumbling Stone ...

Note -- this is my entry in the Faith in Fiction short story contest.

Curry, Pine-sol and mildew.

Nathan and Becky both flinched as they opened the main door of the married student apartment building.

All around they heard voices, TVs, rock music and sing-song foreign languages accompanying the curry.

“Welcome to Purdue University,” Becky said, forcing a smile.

They dragged belongings down the hall and found their door. Nathan just grunted, stepped past her and dropped a suitcase in the middle of the hot dusty apartment, then went back out.

Becky stared, hurt by his grim silence. This is supposed to be our fresh start. Why is he acting like that?

Nathan hauled in suitcases and boxes, pushing one box with his foot. With muscular tanned arms adn big hands he tossed the suitcases like hay bales on the farm. One box spilled, colored pencils and paintbrushes rolling across the linoleum. A photo fell out of his Bible. He stuffed it back together adn tossed it aside.

“Sorry about your art stuff.” He wiped sweat away from his eyes.

She picked up his Bible, studying the photo of his parents and youngest sister at the mission in the Dominican Republic. She carefully smoothed the creased photo and crumpled pages then put it back in the crate.

“I know you don't want to be here,” she started to say.

“What was your first clue?"

Becky pressed her lips together, turned and wiped away tears, feeling like she was alone with a stranger.

The door slammed. A moment later he lugged in more stuff. “Need a hand with the mattress.” He dropped the bed rails and slats with a clatter. Then he sighed put his hand on her shoulder. “Sorry about snappin' at you.”

Becky nodded. She pointed through door of their cubicle-sized bedroom. “If we put the air conditioner in now, it'll be out of the way and cool the room while we unpack.”

Nathan glanced up and smiled for the first time in hours. “Pretty practical for an art student.”.

He lugged in the air conditioner. They wedged it into the window and tried to plug gaps around it with cardboard. But they couldn't make a tight fit.

“Duct tape. Where's that?” Nathan asked.

Becky searched the boxes then shook her head. “Guess I forgot.”

He took a deep breath. “Let's get the mattress inside. Then go to the bookstore. Probably some there.”

Walking down the tree-lined street to a strip mall at the edge of campus they listened to bells chiming 4 o-clock. Nathan sighed but said nothing.

Becky knew he missed the farm the most at milking time, when he'd catch up with his folks and siblings, talk and work and plan.

She put her hand on his arm. “I know you hated to sell. But this is a fresh start.”

Nathan frowned. “Dad and George should have tried harder to get along, not give up and sell the farm out from under all of us. And I'm only here because --” he stopped and shook his head.

“Because you want to study science. Or become a veterinarian.”

“Because you're here. I couldn't let you come all the way down here alone. What if I'd lose you, too?”

“I'm not going anywhere!”

“If Dad could just up and sell the farm out of the blue -- or as he says, 'cause God told him to -- I can't count on anything anymore.”

“But God --”

“Oh, yeah, forgot about him.” Nathan cleared his throat then muttered, “What good was it to be a 'Christian family' if we all fought like lions?”

Becky sighed. The memories upset her, too. They had married the first Saturday after graduation then moved into a house trailer on Nathan's family farm. Becky felt like she had married into a hurricane.

His dad and oldest brother never finished their argument about how to expand, either buying more land or building bigger barns for more cattle. Caught in the middle, Nathan struggled to keep the peace.

Becky spent hours working at the art store avoid their rafter-shaking “little talks.” She often resented all the time and energy Nathan spent on the farm and trying to work things out with his family. He worked many 16 hour days, six days a week. And who knew how long they'd live in that trailer.

Dad had decided last winter, without consulting any of them, that now was the time to sell the farm. The land would never be worth more. And Nathan's sisters wanted to go to college.

Nathan took it the hardest, growing more silent and angry as Dad ignored his objections.

Becky prayed that God would bless all of them after they gave up the farm. Not only the family but the folks' mission.

Once they sold out and the folks signed with the missions board, arguments ended. A bitter-sweet calm took over. She had hoped college would be a romantic adventure but now she feared the future.

She ventured, “Christians can disagree. Don't have to be happy all the time.”

“Dad's idea of being a Christian meant he called all the shots,” Nathan blurted out. “Whether Mom agreed or not, or how it affected us kids. Just -- 'God told me to sell the farm so that's what we're doing.' Is that nuts or what?”

“But it's all over now!”

Nathan nodded. “Sure is. Everything I looked forward to. If bein' a Christian doesn't change how we treat each other, why bother.”

Becky could only stare for a moment. Finally she confessed, “I've been wondering for a long time, where you are with the Lord.”

Nathan said nothing. Instead he studied the wooded hills beyond the strip mall and book store.

Her heart sank as she waited for him to answer. Tall and blond, he seemed as heroic as an ancient bronze. And was just as hollow. She fought panic. If he could abandon God and his family, would he stay with her?

Finally he turned to her. “Don't look at me like that,” he murmured. “I thought you knew ...”

“But God isn't a mirror image of your Dad!”

“He says he's doing what God wants him to do.” Nathan looked away for a long moment. “I dont' want to take your faith away, if God is still your teddy bear. But it's not working for me.”

Starting classes, juggling their schedules, meeting new people and trying to make time for each other exhausted them for the first several weeks.

Becky felt so lonely, praying silently over meals and reading the Bible alone. When they lived on the farm they used to hold hands while he said grace.

Nathan threw himself into his studies, working as hard in class as he had with the cows. Biology, calculus, chemistry, physics -- none of it slowed him down. He struggled only in psychology, sleeping through those lectures.

Like roommates, they studied side-by-side. She went to church a few times but hated sitting by herself. She dreaded what Nathan's losing his faith would do to hers.

Becky arrived early for English one morning just as the assistant professor scrubbed a notice off the black board, muttering under her breath. What was so annoying?

Becky edged forward andcould still fainly read “Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, 7:30 p.m. Friday,. Memorial Union” before the a last eraser swipe took it away. Becky found her seat, saying nothing.

She wondered what could be so wrong with a Christian fellowship?. And what was wrong with a campus group using the black board?

Instead of questioning she decided to go to the meeting. Maybe a Christian fellowship could ease some of her doubt and loneliness.

That night Nathan found her in front of the bedroom mirror, braiding her smooth blonde hair then putting on tiny pearl earrings he'd given her for a wedding present.

“What's up?”

“I'm going to a meeting tonight. Christian group.”
His eyes narrowed. “Is it just for girls?”

“Um, I don't know. Saw notices on bulletin boards today.”

Nathan's jaw tightened. “You're going out without me?”

Becky picked up a small notebook along with her Bible. “You could come, too.”

“I think I better if it's clear across campus.” He slammed shut his biology book.

Walking to the Memorial Union, a limestone Gothic building in the center of campus, took several minutes.

These oldest buildings overlooked Lafayette rambling down to the wide Wabash river. City lights twinkled. The Indian summer sky turned from purple to midnight blue The Wabash ran through their home town, too. Nathan joked about floating their stuff down on a raft next year.

Becky chuckled and looped her arm through his. “Glad you're going with me. I hoped you would.”

“Can't run around by yourself after dark.”

“It's a Christian meeting. You've been warned.”

”Catch up on my nap that way.”

She paused by the reflecting pool in front of the Union building. Up and down the main streets they saw guys and girls surging in and out of frat houses, dance music pounding. She watched him momentarily eye other girls. Her heart ached. Would he stay with her? Was college one huge mistake?

“All this time...” She stopped, heart pounding a little faster, dreading conflict, fearing it might widen the gap between them. But she must know the truth.


“Nathan -- were you ever really a Christian? Or just someone who's been to church so much you're immune to it?”

Stunned by her boldness, for once Nathan paused before he answered. He gazed down into Becky's wide gray eyes, afraid of worrying her even more. If it helps her somehow to think Jesus loves the little children and we have angels all around, I don't want to take that away from her.

He put his hand alongside her face, feeling the warm velvety softness of her skin, like a ripe peach.

She put her hand over his. “Nathan, I didn't mean --”

“Shouldn't we find out where that room is?” he interrupted. Becky nodded.

They climbed a twisting stairway to a tower room. Tall arched windows caught Nathan's attention. He walked over, staring out for a long moment, noticing the clear sky. Perfect weather gone to waste. His throat ached. He missed the farm, home and his scattered family.

I don't want to be here, just want to pack up Becky and go home. But home's not there anymore.

Then he turned, gazing over the heads of dozens of others and saw a couple of preppy guys “helping” Becky with a name tag. He joined her, put out his hand, gave them knuckle-crunching handshakes and introduced himself as her husband and slapped on a name tag.

Then he took a Sharpie marker from the registration table and motioned to Becky. “Let me add something here,” he said, bent down and wrote “(Mrs. Nathan)” on her name tag.

She looked down, frowned a moment, then with a quirky grin took the pen from his hand, reached up and wrote “(Mr. Becky)” on his name tag. “There. Fair's fair.”

“I'm glad you still want to claim your infidel husband.”

Becky gazed up at him with tears in her eyes. “That will never change,” she said quietly as the group gathered.
He gave her a faint smile.

Singing old hymns and new choruses bored Nathan. He glanced at Becky often. She closed he

r eyes and held out her hands as she sang. Others did the same. Some even swayed back and forth.

Have we always been this easy to lead? Play the right songs and get us in the right mood? he thought, scowling, arms folded.

The old wooden chairs creaked dangerously as the students sat down. Nathan draped his arm over Becky's shoulders, feeling her silky hair, longing to hurry back to their apartment.

The evangelist interrupted. An older man from India, he asked in a reedy voice, “How many of you are studying engineering or science?”

Nathan raised his hand just to be polite, going along with the others.

“Then I will ask you to approach the claims of Christ through your logic,” he continued. How could a “good moral teacher” lie, claiming to be God's son and Lord of all? Or how could a lunatic present such great truths? Or was he really Lord of all?

Nathan leaned toward Becky. “That's not even original,” he whispered. “C.S. Lewis talked about that. So does Josh McDowell.”

She studied him for a long moment. “But is it true?” Nathan frowned, glaring at the evangelist. It didn't make sense. How could it be true? How could it be true if his 'Christian family' hurt him so much? Was Becky right? Was he never really a Christian? Just someone who went to church?

As for Jesus -- what was he, really? After talking about Jesus' identity, the brutal and efficient Roman execution, then the empty tomb, the evangelist emphasized the apostles' changed lives.

He reminded them of missionaries flying into the jungles of Ecuador years ago. Tribesmen attacked and killed them. Then the missionaries' families reached out to that tribe and saw many saved.

Startled, Nathan woke up and listened, missing his family in the Caribbean, so far from home.

Sometimes the apostles and now their fellow Christians did exactly what Jesus asked, and sailed into a storm. Or into hostile jungles, like those families. The evangelist added since missionaries dared to go to India years ago, his family was now Christian. He was glad to make the full circle.

Changed lives. Nathan couldn't stop about thinking of changed lives as the evangelist concluded. Changed -- or ruined?

As the meeting closed, Nathan knew how to nod and smile and ease out the door, making no committments. He said little to Becky as they walked back to their apartment. He took her arm reassuringly as they passed loud parties,stepped over spilled beer cups and around groups of shouting people.

He analyzed the evangelist's words. It was thoughtless to call Jesus a “good moral teacher” when he proclaimed himself more.

I know all the stories, Nathan thought. And I've seen how you changed Dad and Mom's life. Turned all our lives inside out..

Another thought blazed through his mind. What if Becky's right? Have I ever dealt with who you really are? Even the disciples screwed up all along. And Peter -- he left his fishing boats -- why? What did Peter really think you would give him? Power? Overthrow the Romans?

Then he wondered, How can I remember all this Bible stuff? Is that more of You? From the corner of his eye he noticed Becky's questioning fearful gaze searching his face. But she said nothing.

Trying to forget all those questions, Nathan hungrily pulled Becky to him as soon as they were inside their apartment.

But even afterward -- when he usually slept so soundly -- his mind made an endless loop, from the selling the farm to who was Jesus, in real life.

Were you ever really a Christian? Who is Jesus? Those questions jolted him like that accident this spring. He had fallen asleep while disking one night. The tractor had hit a rock and broke the front wheel spindles before he ran through the fence and overturned in the ditch.

Nathan got up and found some clothes, afraid his restlessness would wake Becky. He hunted through the dark for her Bible.

Turning on the lamp he skipped around in the Gospels, searching for Peter, the obnoxious fisherman, his favorite in Sunday School stories.

If he concentrated just on Peter and Jesus -- Peter tried to make Jesus into the Messiah in his image -- not just follow Jesus. Nathan put his chin in his hands, troubled.

Like a kid, I made God into Dad's image. Now I'm a man and can see Dad is flawed.

He never noticed before -- Peter misunderstood Jesus, scolded him, tried to manipulate him, questioned him, failed him, betrayed him..

Nathan winced. Like I've done. Maybe worse. Peter got right in Jesus' face. And he was so wrong, so often!

But Jesus still loved Peter.

Peter said once, Lord to whom would we go ... you have the words of life. You have the words of life. But I expected You, Lord, to make life happen my way. That's not right.

That's it then, he decided, sighing, putting his face in his hands, Jesus -- Lord -- have mercy on me, a sinner.

Yawning and disheveled, Becky appeared in the bedroom door. “What's up?”

Nathan smiled at her. “I was thinking about what the evangelist said.”

“About the guys in Ecuador? Did that kind of get you? Even though it was years ago?”

“Yeah. But there's more to it than that.”

Becky sat with him. “What?” She might have been holding her breath.

Nathan said in a slow, bemused voice, “I think you were right. I never did ask Jesus into my heart, to forgive my sins, be my Lord ... until now. Minute ago”


Nathan rubbed his eyes and gave her a sleepy smile. “When you said you'd stay with me no matter what -- even though you'd have good reason to leave -- and the evangelist said we can't blow Jesus off as a 'good moral teacher,'-- I just couldn't ignore it any longer. And I can't blame God for mistakes my dad made.”

Becky nestled against him,feeling warm and soft in one of his big T-shirts. She murmured, “Answer to prayer”

Nathan tightened his arms around her. “Yeah. Changed lives. Wonder how God will change ours, now.”

Becky yawned. “Be sure and write to your folks.”


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9:49 PM  
Blogger Becky said...

So now they're spamming blogs in the comments?? How sad is that!!

Ann, I really like your story. Towards the end, I realized I was a little sad because I'd never get to know if Nathan became a veterinarian or what with his degree. Hahah. In other words, I really loved your characters. You made them seem very real. And interesting.

I like the fact that your story addressed the churched-but-not-saved issue.

Good job.


7:04 PM  
Blogger The Curmudgeon's Rant said...

I loved the opening line: “Curry, Pine-sol and mildew.”

I loved this line too! “Her heart sank as she waited for him to answer. Tall and blond, he seemed as heroic as an ancient bronze. And was just as hollow.”

There were many, many more... Great story!


5:10 PM  
Blogger Gina Burgess said...

Ann, I loved this story. The first I've read that addressed the churched-but-not-saved issue. This is hard issue to come across believable and you did it ;) Good job.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Becky said...

Hey, Ann... I think you might have a story that's bigger here than the short. Think about backing up and telling the whole story, from the farm on. :) I bet you've got a novel in here!


2:26 PM  

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