Fiction — From the December 2008 issue

White-Bread Jesus

When that bully Cavanaugh rises in the middle of the opening prayer like a self-righteous Sadducee, shouldered round by all his fawning scribes and elders, to silence Reverend Wesley Edwards (was he shouting? of course he was shouting, God is deaf as a stump), neither he nor Jesus is surprised. In fact, they welcome it. Such persecutions are to be expected when what is hidden is revealed, and indeed stand as validation of it. What else is the Easter story about — for Christ’s sake? Who concurs: As they persecuted me, they’ll persecute you. A prophet in his own country, and all that, my son. But rejoice and be glad, your reward is great. His immediate reward is to have to sit beside the pulpit, biting his tongue, staring out on the sad blank faces of his First Presbyterian congregation, while the banker, having skipped ahead in the proceedings to the tithes and offerings, money being all he knows (and power, Cavanaugh knows power), speaks of the general good health of the church finances, its immediate needs (an assistant minister, for example — urgently!), and Easter as a loving family occasion. No, no, you idiot! It is a time of rejection of family, indeed of all earthly connections! Have you no ears? If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple! Leave everything — everything! — and follow me! You ignorant fool! Listen to your own son Tommy’s scripture reading: “But who do you say that I am?” Do you not know? It’s all Wesley can do to stop another noisy eruption from coming on. The indwelling Christ, too, is aboil with indignation, cursing traders and moneychangers and all their abominable progeny. A den of robbers! They are polluting the temple! Drive them out! He’s in a state, they’re both in a state.

It has been a trying couple of weeks. The Passion of Wesley Edwards. He’s not kidding, he’s endured it all in this Passiontide fortnight, from the deathly silence of God and the collapse of his faith, through all the upheavals at home and a plunge into harrowing desolation, a veritable descent into hell, to — finally — a kind of weird convulsive redemption that has left him rattled and confused and not completely in control of himself. Wesley was always a dutiful son and responsible student, and he has tried, all his life long and even now while suffering so, to be a dutiful and responsible pastor and citizen, which is to say a typical West Condon hypocrite, and though the rain-soaked Sunrise Service atop a strip-mine hump didn’t go well (all right, so he forgot to put on one of his shoes, what was so important about that?), he got himself dried off and properly dressed and dug up one of his old Easter sermons and was prepared to fulfill his parishioners’ expectations of him for one more day.

And the service began calmly enough. In spite of the storm, there was a large wet but festive crowd, a chirrupy twitter of Easter greetings, colorful floral displays banking the brick walls. Priscilla Tindle, accompanied by muffled thunder and the drum of rain on the tiled roof, did something peppily Risen-Sonish on the organ to get things started, there was the usual unsingable hymn (“The Strife is O’er . . .”), followed by the doxology and prayer of confession muttered in unison, a cantata (“Was It a Morning Like This?”), and then the weekly welcome and church tidings. This was normally his task (and what tidings he had!), but Cavanaugh took it over, canceling the rest of Easter. No problem with that. In fact, a great relief. Just a sham, he would never have got through it all, the maddening detail of his ministry — all the weddings and baptisms and funerals and christenings, the bake sales and potluck suppers, sickroom visits, board meetings, Girl Scouts, quilters, the obligatory golf foursomes and service clubs, spiritual counseling, breakfast clubs and Bible study, not to mention just keeping the church clean and the pianos tuned and the lights and toilets working — contributing intimately to his crisis. But then the banker’s wiseacre brat read the Easter scripture lesson and reached the part where John says, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you,” and he couldn’t hold back: “You don’t know the half of it!” he cried, and launched into his Job-inspired diatribe in the name of the opening prayer (“I will not restrain my mouth! I will speak in the anguish of my spirit! I will complain in the bitterness of my soul!”) and got sat down.

While Cavanaugh carries on with his family-values malarkey, thanking his son for the scripture reading and speaking of the church as one big family — there is a suffocating stench worse than the old family farm in the haying season of wet clothing, damp bodies, thick perfume, musty songbooks, and dead flowers that seems to be rising from the speech itself — Wesley glances over at Prissy sitting at her keyboard and sees that she is staring at him, clearly in shocked pain, but as if trying to console him with her sorrowful but adoring gaze. Jesus asks who she is. Priscilla Tindle. Wife of the choir director. Used to be a dancer.

Hah. You, as we say, know her.

An innocent flirtation. Her husband . . .

Is impotent.

. . . Is a nice fellow.

Thus, Wesley carries on with what he thinks of as a redemptive dialogue if it is not a damnatory one, trying not to move his lips or yelp out loud, sitting meekly as a lamb, while the banker speaks sentimentally of his mortally ill wife, Irene, who so longed to be here today, thanking everyone for their Christian expressions of concern and sympathy, and announcing a special fund that she is establishing with her own substantial contribution for the purpose of creating a proper well-equipped fellowship hall in the church basement. She has fond hopes, he says, that in lieu of gifts and flowers for her, her fellow presbyters will add their own generous offerings to the fund in the hope that she might see the consecration of the hall in her own lifetime. Pledge slips can be dropped in the collection plates being passed.

Money, money, money, groans Jesus. Why don’t you drive that viper out? Nothing good dwells in his flesh! Cast him out!

If I tried to do that, they’d lock me up.

They’re going to lock you up anyway. But all right, this is a complete farce, so rise, let us go hence. The place stinks.

And so, stirring a dark muddy murmur through the sluggish sea of gaping faces, he rises, withdrawing his briar pipe and tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket, and steps down into the midst of his congregation. No, not a sea. A stagnant pond, a backwater. Wherein he has been drowning. He nods at each of his parishioners as he strolls up the aisle, eyeing them one by one in search of an understanding spirit (there is none), idly filling his pipe with sweet tobacco, tamping it with his finger. The poor ignorant hypocritical fools. He hates them — he would like to tear their silly bonnets off their heads, strangle them with their own gaudy ties — but he pities them too, lost as they are in the wilderness of their hand-me-down banalities. Nor can he altogether condemn them, for all too recently has he been of their number.

Why seek ye the living among the dead? Tell them that nothing but eternal hell awaits them!

Shut up, he says to Jesus, I’m in enough trouble as it is, and a lady in a pink hat with flowers says, “I didn’t say anything, Reverend Edwards! Are you all right? What trouble?” Not just to Jesus, then.

Do something! It is time to wake them from their sleep! It may be your last chance!

A collection plate reaches the aisle up which he walks. He takes it, stares into it a moment as though trying to decipher its contents, his pipe clamped in his teeth, then he heaves it across the church, coins and bills and pledges flying. “Woe to you, hypocrites!” he bellows, coached from within. “You desolate whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones! Woe!”

That’s my good man! Brilliant! Truly, I say unto you, there will not be left here one stone upon another . . .

“I tell you, there’ll be no fellowship hall, no church either! There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down!” He gestures to indicate this wholesale destruction and strides, pleased with the exit he is making (but brick, he corrects himself, not stone), on out of the church and into the waters of chaos awaiting him outside.

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