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Chapter Three

 

Positive Thinking

 

 

 

On Sunday morning the Reverend Adam Leeds faced his congregation with renewed spirit.  Although his wife Cora was not present in the pews and, indeed, had not been present for several months, he thought of her now with rekindled hope.  He looked forward to the day when he would see her sitting once more in the church.  Tomorrow morning, when he committed her to the Alcoholism Treatment Center at the county hospital, her road to recovery would officially start, though in his heart it had already began.

His sermon, which was inspired by Norman Vincent Peal’s positive thinking, was a mixture of Peal’s philosophy, new age Christianity, and psychoanalytical thought.  It’s feel-good message appealed to many of the younger members of the congregation, but had mixed reviews among the older set.  The very title of his church, “Our Lord and Savior’s Independent Christian Church,” belied the liberal Christian and new age message Adam was developing for the church.  An ordinary Baptist or Lutheran would not have recognized his topic “The Positive Force of Faith” as even being Christian had he not mentioned God a few times. 

Despite criticism from conservative Christian radio hosts and televangelists, Adam had received moral support from various liberal organizations in town, including the Young Democrats of Los Angeles and the L. A. Chapter of The Business Woman’s League of America.  Looking out at couple of dozen long-time members of the congregation but only a handful of new faces, he wasn’t saddened by the bad press or dwindling numbers.  After all, the faithful were still present!  His favorite people in the church, he often told his wife, were the sinners, not those blue nose holdovers from the old church, who resisted change.  In this latter group there were doctor Eugene Waterford and his wife Millicent, longtime supporters and contributors of the old church.  There were the Royce, Breckenridge, and Lindley families, whose respective patriarchs, James, William, and Philip had also donated large sums of money to the congregation.  Among the younger couples—the sinners, there were Sheila Hightower and her boyfriend Patrick Smalley, who lived together in blissful sin, but found a haven at the Our Lord and Savior’s Independent Christian Church.  Leona Bliss, the organist, for that matter, who admitted to being a Lesbian, joined the church after her divorce from an abusive husband forced her intro a confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church.  One would have thought that Adam’s church was a haven for lost souls, especially with his scandalous wife, had it not been for the balance of the righteous against the sinners in the church. 

          Thus, by traditional Christian standards, would such families as the Waterfords, Royces, and Breckenridges be weighed against these reprobates in the group, Adam thought idly, while waiting for the organ prelude to end.  After the sermon, he would meet with the elders of the church to discuss the future of Our Lord and Savior Independent Christian Church.  The inevitable confrontation he had dreaded for many months was like a shadow on his sermon.  His anticipation for this meeting caused a quiver to appear in his voice.  His eyebrows twitched at times, and his hands trembled as he fumbled with his notes. 

          “God is good, though life is hard,” he began in a tremulous voice, looking out at the small group of worshipers with roving eyes and unsure gaze. “We can’t blame Him for everything that goes wrong in our lives, though we should give him credit for many things that go right.  We must take responsibility for our human frailties and not run to the Bible every time something goes wrong.  Each time hard luck befalls us it’s not punishment for some misdeed.  Much of our misfortune is brought on by the choices we make.  When you bet a large sum of money in Las Vegas and lose, whose fault is it?  When you invest poorly in the stock market, how can you blame anyone but yourself?  The people you meet, the roads you take, the choices you make— these are guided by self-interest or occasionally unselfish motives, but if you fail at these selections, it is the motive that is evaluated by God…”

From this point on, the word God was mentioned only two more times, as Adam’s sermon turned into a variation on the positive thinking theme of Norman Vincent Peale.

“Believe in yourself,” he began quoting passages from Peale’s classic The Power of Positive Thinking, “have faith in your abilities, and change your thoughts in order to change your world.  Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself succeeding.  Hold this picture tenaciously and never permit it to fade.  Your mind will seek to develop the picture.  Don’t build obstacles in your imagination.  You are what you perceive!” 

At this point, as he quoted more passages, a sudden cold breeze moved surreptitiously down the central aisle of the church.  Adam’s voice grew progressively unsteady and his words more halting after he noticed the change of ambience in the room.

          As if summoned by this new age formula, the devil entered the chapel easily and with familiarity with many of the worshipers in the room.  Some members of the church were its children.  The list would surprise Reverend Leeds.  James Royce had cleverly murdered a business rival by slipping an undetectable poison in his coffee to simulate a heart attack.  Here he was now, thirty years later, a wealthy stockbroker with a large family and wide circle of friends.  William Breckenridge, though miserly to his family and friends, had given a sum of money to the church as a form of guilt offering for molesting his daughter for so long.  Now that his daughter had been dead all these years, it was as if it had never happened.  But Satan remembered this dreadful man, who had remarried, started a new family, and commenced molesting another child.  It also remembered Patrick Smalley who had talked his girl friend into getting a late term abortion.  Many years back Patrick had also disposed of a fellow sailor, who disappeared one stormy night at sea.  Like Royce and Breckenridge, he had shed no tears after the crime nor did he show sorrow or remorse beyond the fear of getting caught.

In his own special category, was the illustrious Eugene Waterford, himself, who had, through business dealings, broken and destroyed many men.  Though not the greatest villain in the group, he was the greatest hypocrite in Satan’s mind.  Here they were—Waterford, Royce, and Breckenridge—amongst the more tepid souls, these high standing charlatans who would criticize their shepherd for not managing his flock.  Patrick Smalley, who appeared to have no conscience at all, attended the church only for the benefit of his companion Sheila Hightower, whose painted face belied days of weeping for her aborted child.  These lost souls setting in the pews, whom Satan recognized as its own, comprised a rogues’ gallery in Our Lord and Savior’s Independent Christian Church. 

The remainder of the congregation were unaware of Royce, Waterford, Breckenridge, and Smalley’s sordid past.  Keeping to themselves, most churchgoers minded their own business.  They had heard enough scuttlebutt about Sheila’s abortion and Leona’s lesbian lover.  Ironically, it was the rogues’ gallery and their wives who were the greatest source of rumors.  To avoid these gossipmongers, many respectable churchgoers avoided the cliques gathering after the service.  They were especially weary of hearing about the antics of the pastor’s wife.  Though their patience had been worn thin, most of the young members and many of the older folks, who were holdovers from Hugh Thomas’ ministry, still liked Reverend Leeds.  They wanted to trust him and give him another chance.  It was only lately that their pastor had been experimenting with new age themes.  His enthusiasm remained infectious.  Though his thinking might be misguided, his heart was in the right place.  Perhaps, they murmured amongst themselves, his lapse into new age rhetoric and humanism was but a passing phase, and this experimental psychobabble was but a prelude to a greater theme.

This morning, however, the babble had worsened.  The lapse appeared to be permanent.  It was becoming increasingly difficult to feel the Holy Spirit in this church.  Perhaps, many of them reconsidered, it wasn’t just a fluke or passing phase.  Reverend Leeds really was an apostate as some members claimed.  For most of the congregation, until hearing today’s sermon, the label “New Age Christianity” seemed the best fit.  A few well-read churchgoers, such as Amy Sullivan, had seen traces of scientology and even existentialism in earlier sermons and yet the pastor had always returned to Christian themes.  With the introduction of Norman Vincent Peale, it was difficult to even recognize Christianity in his words.  It was a religion without moral imperative.  A philosophical system based upon positive thinking, not faith, seemed to be replacing God’s word.  This time the pastor had gone too far!

The looks on the faces of the elders, Adam noted as he cleared his throat, ranged from puzzlement to irritation.  A few seemed embarrassed with his topic, while members such as Patrick Smalley were simply bored.  The small number of children in the chapel squirmed and fussed, oblivious to the sermon, while their parents looked on with troubled expressions.  Who was Norman Vincent Peale?  The younger churchgoers murmured amongst themselves.  Was this just another new age guru or liberal theologian cited to make a point?  Surely, the pastor was reaching some point and must find his way back to scripture through this philosophical morass.  There was, in fact, the devil sensed acutely, an intense hope in many of their faces, which was much like the reverend’s naivety since Satan had entered his life.  The Lord, they clung to the belief, still abided in this house.  In spite of all the evidence given to him of its presence in his own house and even now in his church, Adam still thought it was God.  Thanks to his efforts, many of the younger members in the congregation didn’t believe in the devil anymore, only man’s spiritual frailty and psychological compulsion to commit sin.  Against this novel theology—sin without guilt and belief without Satan—the elders of church had aligned themselves, though some of them scarcely believed in God at all. 

          “What is the old adage?” It whispered faintly behind the reverend’s ear. “…. Ah yes, the greatest trick of the devil is to convince men that I don’t exist…. I exist Adam, even though members of your congregation know me not.  Isn’t it ironic that Waterford, Royce, and Breckenridge, with so little faith, see the devil in your words?”

          Almost all of the college students who had been frequenting the church lately were absent this morning.  With such a ‘feel-good mentality,’ what purpose was there for even coming to church?  There was no fear of hell whatsoever in Adam’s sermons—only the importance of confronting life’s issues: being a good spouse, a good parent, or having a working relationship with God.  Now, with the introduction of Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy, positive thinking substituted faith as the mental healer, family values were replaced by emphasis of upon one’s self, and Satan was no longer a factor in their lives.

The reverend cringed as Satan circled his head. 

“According to Norman Vincent Peale,” his voice droned to the congregation, “there’s a tendency in human nature to become what you visualize yourself as being.  If you see yourself as tense, nervous and frustrated and that’s your image of yourself, that’s what you’ll be.  If you see yourself as inferior and hold that image in your thoughts, the image will, by the process of intellectual osmosis, sink into your unconscious mind, until you become what you visualize.  If, however, you see yourself in a positive light (organized, controlled and believing in your talent and ability), that is what you’ll become.”

          Several members of the congregation found their heads bobbing forward sleepily while listening to this theme.  Patrick Smalley, to Sheila Hightower’s disgust, was now sound asleep.  Most of the churchgoers in the audience continued to wonder what this had to do with God, while three of the elders—Waterford, Royce, and Breckenridge—were muttering protests to themselves. 

 

******

A young college student, Amy Sullivan, now caught the devil’s attention.  Like many members in the audience, she had no doubts on whether or not the reverend had crossed the line.  After studying the disapproving frown on her face, Satan could almost read her thoughts, which conveyed the most visible expression of agitation in the room.  She was shocked and dismayed with his sermon.  Between frowns, sighs, and intakes of breath, she stared in disbelief at the pastor, sharing her disgust with other members she could make eye contact in the room. 

For different reasons—boredom, confusion, or irritation—the reverend was losing his audience.  This lackluster and boring new age theme would not do, thought the tempter as it wound invisibly around the vestibule and looked down from the ceiling above Adam’s head.  “What you need Adam is a new religion, not a new philosophy of religion,” It murmured unheard to itself. “You are—how did that mad revelator phrase it?—neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm.  With this ‘feel good,’ controversial message you’re alienating everyone in your church!”

          For a vastly different reason Amy disapproved of his message too.  The petite brunette turned to her friend Jolene Frick, who had completely lost interest in the sermon several moments back, and whispered into Jolene’s shell-like ear: “Norman Vincent Peale wasn’t even a Christian!”

          “Of course he’s a Christian,” responded her friend groggily, “if Reverend Leeds said he was.”

          “He never said that,” Amy whispered back irritably. “You’re not paying attention, Jolene.  Why do you even come to church?”

          “All right, I’m listening.  What did he say?” Jolene obliged with a yawn.

          “It’s not what he said, it’s what Peale said.  It sounds like the stuff that Reverend Leeds is talking about now,” explained Amy, reaching down and pulling a printout out of her purse. “If this just doesn’t beat all, Jolene,” she murmured excitedly, waving the copies in front of her friend’s blue eyes. “I’m taking a course on Twentieth Century religious thought—talk about coincidences—and look what I found on the web!”

          Jolene, a shapely blond and stark physical opposite to Amy in every way, looked at the sheets laid onto her lap with a blank stare and made a face.  “What’re you reading this for, Amy?  Are you studying to be preacher now?”

          “Shush!”  Millicent Waterford’s ashen face loomed over the back of the pew. “Have you no respect?”

          At just that moment, the reverend was exhorting to his audience “…. Be a beacon to others by your example.  Words cannot replace good deeds and positive thoughts…”

Amy ignored Millicent.  Her dark eyes flashed with annoyance as she considered what Jolene had just said.  Her dense friend knew very well that she was a business major at USC.  To block out the noise, Amy cupped her hand over Jolene’s ear. “It’s an elective course, dummy.  My professor’s made the case that Norman Vincent Peale was a false prophet.  I’m going to take this to his class tomorrow morning.  Peale, who influenced countless liberal theologians, claimed that he was a Christian, but the fact is he wasn’t a Christian at all.”  

          “That tickles,” Jolene giggled aloud at the excited bursts in her ear.

          “Shut the hell up!” Mister Waterford whispered shrilly this time

At that point an irritated murmur rippled through the pews.  Eugene Waterford, whose only reason for attending the church was his long-standing friendship with the previous pastor and his wife’s insistence that they support the flagging church, had cared less about hearing Adam in the past.  This new theme preached by the minister, however, had caught his attention.  It didn’t sound like religion; it sounded like philosophy.  He was also annoyed by the young women’s conversation during the service.  That would never have happened during Reverend Thomas’ sermons.  Had he overheard their conversation about the current minister, he would have perked up his ears and eavesdropped instead of being so belligerent.  He had never liked the strange young cleric and his fancy ideas about the church.  This morning it had been decided by the elders in the church, at Waterford’s insistence, to meet with Reverend Leeds after the service to discuss the problems with the church.  Eugene also planned on taking him to task for this outlandish topic.  Where did he think he was anyhow—on a college campus or Pershing Square?  This was a Christian church, not the Church of Scientology.  Most, though not all, of the elders shared his views, and what Reverend Leeds was spouting this morning struck them as the last straw.

“Should we, as Christians use the positive forces inside us,” Adam droned on, “or waste them in frivolous pursuits?”

          ‘What’s he talking about Millicent?’  Eugene wrote hastily on the notepad he carried in his coat.  Millicent shrugged her shoulders and replied on his pad, ‘How in the hell do I know?’

          Amy wrote on the top of her page with a marker pen: ‘What bullshit!  This is a conversation quoted by the author between Phil Donahue and Norman Vincent Peale.’  When Jolene seemed to have trouble finding the right spot, Amy growled under her breath and wrote in bold letters next to it ‘Please read this!  Does this sound familiar?’

          Jolene followed Amy’s well-manicured finger, as though she was being fed by a prompter, her curiosity finally wetted by her friend’s excitement.

 

Christian News, May 12, 1997

       

“It’s not necessary to be born again,” Peale told Phil Donohue during the talk show’s host afternoon show. “You have your way to God; I have mine.  I found eternal peace in a Shinto shrine.”

When Donahue heard this, he exclaimed “But you’re a Christian minister.  Aren’t you supposed to tell me that Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life?”

In response to Donohue’s shocked response, Peale sermonized “Christ is just one of the ways!  God is everywhere.”

 

Jolene stopped reading the article, and both women froze in their seats as they heard what Reverend Adam uttered next in his sermon:

“Christ’s positive energy is our way to the truth, but God is everywhere, manifested in many religions, who share His truth.”

“Oh my God!” Jolene made the connection.

“It’s drivel,” Amy snorted. 

Ignoring Millicent Waterford’s warning glare, she whispered into Jolene’s ear. “This has nothing to do with our way.  I’ve been going to this church with my mother for years, even after she died.  The old reverend of this church preached the gospel.  This minister has forgotten the gospel.  This isn’t my church anymore, Jolene.  God’s not in this house.” 

This time Eugene Waterford heard everything they had said and sat there in shocked silence.  Jolene nodded dubiously at her friend.  She watched her friend bite her lip, sigh deeply and look back at the chapel doors.  ‘What has gotten into you, Amy?’  She wrote on the page on her lap.  Holding it up to her friend’s face, she waited for an answer that never came.  Amy rose up, as quietly as possible as Reverend Leeds continued his sermon, and made a beckoning motion with her free hand as she lugged her over-sized purse.  As she reached the aisle, she could hear Jolene stirring behind her.  Her heart was beating so loudly she could barely breath.  Both women exited through the vestibule and the chapel together.  To his wife’s annoyance, Eugene whispered what he had overheard into Millicent’s ear, displaying the same discourtesy they had criticized Amy for.

When the two women reached the steps of the church, Amy exclaimed in a liberated voice “My mother’s dead; this church is dead.  But my mother is in heaven, Jolene.  I’m going to find us a real church where they preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not Norman Vincent Peale!”

                  

 

******

           Reverend Adam Leeds noted, with alarm, the departure of Amy Sullivan and Jolene Frick.  Because of her mother’s attachment to the previous minister of the church, he had expected Amy’s eventual departure from the church.  Why she stayed on after her mother’s death had been a mystery to him.   There was hostility between herself and members of the congregation over her old fashion beliefs, and she had been absent for several weeks after her argument with Sheila Hightower over Sheila’s partial birth abortion and refusal to admit it was wrong.  Perhaps she had stayed on out of curiosity or the desire to reform the church by her constant disagreements with members of the church.  She had been, he reflected, as she departed with her friend, a pain in the ass.  He was glad to see her go.  But she had taken the lovely Jolene Frick with her.  The departure of Jolene, who had many times given him fond looks and bolstered his spirits by her presence, was a big shock to him.  His voice faltered, and perspiration gathered on his brow.  The cool, creeping breeze that he steadfastly wanted to believe was heaven sent, immediately dried his sweat but could not mask the pained expression on his face.

          “…. And so dear friends of Our Savior’s Christian Church we are caught up in a great movement of human spirituality in the world.  It is a new age that puts demands upon us our predecessors did not have to consider.  We can either embrace it with positive energy” “… and God’s help,” he added, after a pause, “or we be swept aside by a new generation.  The Lord will guide us, but we are captains of our destiny.  We must take charge!”

          After a short benediction, in which he managed to say a prayer without using the word Lord, God or even Our Savior (the name of the church) one time, he looked up to see the last family containing a husband, wife, and children depart ahead of the others.  The three children, a boy of eleven and two twin girls of nine, ran out of the chapel into the vestibule as would inmates making their escape.  Their parents, as their wardens and keepers, were not far behind.  Sheila Hightower and Patrick Smalley, who no longer talked to each other after the abortion, left by separate aisles as did the remaining young couples in the congregation.  The departure of these last vestiges of youth in the church filled him with foreboding.  Most of the other members, however, which consisted mostly of senior citizens, remained in their seats, dour, deadpan or haggard expressions lingering on their faces as they had waited for the reverend to wrap it up.

          Now, as he stood at the pulpit, all of the senior members of the church wore concerned expressions on their craggy, care-worn faces.  In the past, as the exodus of members continued at an ever-accelerating rate, he was held accountable by a few of the elders of his flock.  It did not matter that the absent members were replenished by a new breed of worshipers, who were far more receptive than the old; the re-growth was not fast enough.  Though he had introduced the new format in stages, it had met increasing resistance from the elders of the church.  When his wife’s behavior began changing so drastically in the last few months, he was openly criticized by the Waterfords, Breckenridges, and Royces.  Now, in spite of the patience most of them had shown him in the past, he could feel their unanimous displeasure.  He felt as if he was on trial.  He expected the worst as Eugene Waterford stood up and wrung his finger angrily at him.

“You sir, are no Norman Vincent Peale!” His voice shrilled.

          “Peale?  You compare him to Peale?” James Royce cried out from the pew in back of Eugene. “He’s no Reverend Thomas; that’s who he’s not.  Our old minister would’ve held this congregation together no matter what happened at home.”

          “He can’t even run his house,” William Breckenridge said derisively, looking smugly at his wife. “He’s letting a drunk run his life!

          “That’s not the issue here,” Waterford shook his head irritably. “It’s this new age crap.  Now he’s espousing Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking.  I just found out from one of our members that Peale wasn’t even a Christian.  I could care less what your wife Cora does in the privacy of your house, Adam, but I don’t like this theme; I don’t like it at all!”  

Adam’s ire rose so swiftly he could barely contain himself, and yet he had the presence of mind to look out at his audience for support.  Only two men had stood up to accuse him—the same two men, along with their wives, who had caused problems in the past.  The Breckenridges remained seated in their pew.  He was gratified to find shock and dismay on the other members’ faces at what Royce and Breckenridge had said.  

“How dare you bring my wife’s name up now,” Adam spoke as calmly as possible. “Judge me by my deeds, not my wife.  Look around you at this cesspool of a world—its self-indulgence and decay. My wife has a drinking problem—period, which is not my fault.  It’s none of your business.  I’m merely a pastor of one small church, while our president lied, cheated, and mislead our country.  Against the impersonal, secular government he helped create, traditional churches—a thousand quarreling sects—are impotent.  The man’s a functional atheist, yet they love him.  There’s no other unifying, moral compass to guide people, except outdated precepts of religion.  If you believe in my ministry and our church, you must, if you don’t accept my message, trust my effort, if not God’s, to get my poor wife help!”

Looking squarely at Eugene Waterford, whose insults about his wife had been done behind his back, he made a defense of his new format: “If you didn’t like what I’m preaching, Eugene, why did you wait until you eavesdropped on Amy Sullivan to tell me.  I saw her sitting behind you and your wife, chatting with her friend.  Is it possible that, after dozing in church all this time, you finally woke up and listened to one of my sermons?” 

“Incidentally,” he said, holding up his Bible, “this was Peale’s inspiration, not Shintoism or Karl Marx.  He was a Christian; I don’t care what Amy Sullivan said.  He just had a bigger heart and a broader mind than people like you.  He wanted to open a dialogue between Christians and other faiths.  In this divisive world and its flawed spiritual and political leadership, what could be wrong with that?  It’s what I want to do here at Our Savior.  If you want to call this ‘new age,’ it doesn’t matter, but we must embrace the changing world.  I’m trying to build this church up, not tear it down like you.  Leave my wife out of it!  For your information, Eugene, I’m well aware of some of the cruel things you and your wife said behind my back.  Jim and Bill just have the courage to say it to my face!”

Adam had wanted to say more but paused when he realized he said just enough.  There had been an intake of breaths and several embarrassed smiles.  Dwight Higgins, the senior elder, seemed to nod approvingly at his defense.  Though Adam could not see this tiny couple behind Eugene Waterford and his wife, Todd and Tina Billingsley stood up and clapped their hands.  With the exception of the Waterfords, Royces, and Breckenridges, the remaining members caught their enthusiasm and began applauding vigorously too. 

Sister Bliss called out from her seat beside the organ. “Bravo, Reverend Leeds.  God will help your wife!”

“Good show laddy—you set them blue noses straight!” the Scotsman Ian MacCallum stood up to be counted alongside of his wife.

“Yes, that was excellent Adam,” Satan whispered icily to itself, “bully for you!  Oh, I wish you could hear me now!  But you don’t need these self-righteous hypocrites.  You have me!”   

Philip Lindley, normally stony faced during Adam’s sermons, to his wife’s embarrassment, had turned around in his pew and began scolding Breckenridge for what he said: “That was a despicable thing to say about the minister’s wife, Bill.  I think you should apologize to the reverend at once!” 

Adam had a full standing ovation as the last sitting member, Dwight Higgins, stood up to applaud.  Most of the grave expressions seen in his audience, he understood, had been compassion, not censure at all.  It appeared as if his wife’s problem had gained him sympathy in the church.  Adam looked upwards at the ceiling now, as if he was thinking God had intervened.  Satan wanted very much to frighten, with a freak gust of wind or drop in temperature, Adam’s detractors in the church.  It could accomplish this feat easily, as it had in Adam’s home, but it might easily backfire during this emotionally charged hour.  After the ambience was changed in Adam’s study, the reverend believed the Holy Ghost was in his life.  Here, in what appeared to be God’s turf, it would seem conclusive to him, and this “miraculous sign,” though welcomed by the reverend, might frighten everyone else in the room.

          “Now, Adam,” Eugene Waterford moved solemnly into the aisle, “the late Doctor Richard Smedley left a great sum of money to support Reverend Hugh Thomas’ independent church.  We, the elders of the congregation, don’t make enough money to offset the drop in tithes and the dwindling offerings, but we have added substantially to the coffers and have a right to be concerned about its affairs.  Your wife is an embarrassment to us too and has caused several families to leave the church.”

          Philip Lindley, after delivering most of his objections from his seat, now stood with the others and took Waterford to task.  “We were going to have a civilized meeting, Eugene, but it appears as though you prefer dissention in our church.  I suggest you heed Jesus Christ, Himself, when he said ‘he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

          “What do you mean by that?” Waterford blustered. “What the hell kind’ve crack is that?”

          “He’s right, no one’s perfect, least of all you,” said Todd Billingsley, whose diminutive size had kept him hidden behind the hefty Eugene until he moved to the aisle.

Now Todd was suddenly a firebrand on Adam’s behalf.  He took this opportunity to berate the much bigger man for being a ‘stick in the mud’ all these years.  After reeling around angrily and charging forth several steps, Eugene looked as if he might just attack Todd, until Philip rushed over to stand in his way.  They had inadvertently struck a chord; Waterford obviously had something to hide in his past.  Fearful for the other men’s safety, Adam stepped down from the pulpit, rushing to Todd and Philip’s aid.

“All right Eugene,” he said, suppressing a smile, “they’re speaking in generalities; we know you have nothing to hide.  You would certainly throw the first stone!”

Almost everyone laughed at the sarcasm in his voice, which was more than Eugene Waterford could bear.  The big man found himself defending something he, himself, scarcely believed.

“This man is a fraud,” he pointed to the reverend. “Ever since he replaced Hugh, his sermons have grown increasingly philosophical.  Now he’s quoting from Norman Vincent Peale.  He never talks about right and wrong.  It’s just that feel good religion—that new age claptrap sweeping the world.”

“What do you care?” Sneered little Todd. “You just want to call the shots!”

“You’re a bully, Eugene, you’ve always been a bully,” Philip Lindley cried.

“What’s the matter with you people?” Waterford looked around at them in horror. “This man has corrupted our church with his philosophy.  Hugh would turn over in is grave!”

“That’s not for you to decide,” Dwight explained serenely, patting him gently on the arm. “That’s for all of us—the board of elders.  In his own way Reverend Leeds is trying to help this church.  You’re not helping it by creating discord.”

“Help it?” Eugene looked at him in disbelief. “How can injecting Norman Vincent Peale and all that new age mumbo-jumbo help our church?  You think I’m creating discord?” “Jim, Bill, help me out here,” he found Royce and Breckenridge’s gaze.

Breckenridge, who talked freely behind church members’ backs, now froze in public and sat back down with his wife.  But James Royce was as flabbergasted as Eugene and stood there muttering protests under his breath.

 “Are you people forgetting the time Cora Leeds puked in the chapel,” Eugene asked in a strained voice. “That was diss-gussting,” he emphasized the word. “And when she went berserk during the service and made that terrible scene.  The woman acted possessed.  This guy has too much baggage.  He’s trying to cover this shit up with that new age, psychological crap, but he doesn’t fool me!”

“That’s enough,” Dwight motioned for him to cease. “You and Jim owe our minister an apology.”  “All three of you do,” he looked around at Bill.

“Come on Breckenridge,” Philip looked back from his pew, “stand up and fess up like a man.”

Breckenridge sat there in mortification.  Jim, who could give no support either, sat back down red-faced with his wife.  Waterford, beckoning the humiliated Millicent, became the third member of the congregation to exit the church.

 

******

Adam had mixed feelings about Eugene and Millicent Waterford’s departure, especially when the quiet and unobtrusive Timothy and Ruth Tyler followed them out the door.

“Tim works for Eugene at his firm,” Philip explained simply.

“But that makes four more members after Amy and Jolene left,” Tina Billingsley, Todd’s tiny wife, noted with alarm.

“Yes, it’s dreadful,” sighed Adam, “maybe I’m the one who should leave.”

“Nonsense, Adam,” said Dwight in a fatherly way. “You’ve gone through hell trying to hold up this congregation, but the truth is there’s been a constant exodus after Reverend Thomas’ death.  I helped build up this church, so I’ve stuck around all these years.  But maybe you should tone down that positive thinking stuff, Adam.  It works will with all the liberals and young folks but it doesn’t resonate with us oldsters.” 

“I-I’m sorry,” Adam was shaken by this news. 

“That’s what this meeting was suppose to be about,” Philip Lindley said as kindly as possible, “not that negative feedback given by Waterford, Breckenridge, and Royce.”

“Yeah, what do you say to that Jim and Bill?” asked Leona Bliss, looking at them from across the room.

The Royces and Breckenridges, as a foursome, had gathered by now in the other aisle but had not yet exited from the church.

“Jim, Natasha, Bill, Ellen,” Adam called out their names, “don’t leave us.  Give our church another chance.”

“It was my intention,” James Royce admitted, looking around at the members, “to have Adam voted out finally so that someone without his psychological baggage and liberal theology could fill Reverend Thomas’ shoes.  He certainly hasn’t.  But that’s not going to happen.  Our Savior is gasping its last breath.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Bill Breckenridge said in a broken voice.

“You sound like your throwing in the towel,” Dwight replied, concern flashing in his dark eyes.  “Come on Jim and Bill, let’s discuss this together.  Natasha, Ellen, you have friends here too.  Let’s all sit down as a family of believers.  Together we can heel this church.”

The disgruntled foursome stood there whispering amongst themselves, apparently undecided as whether or not they should leave.  Dwight Higgins and Reverend Leeds, with the remaining elders following reluctantly behind, walked quickly around the front of the church toward the aisle where the four members stood.  The mutineers had turned toward the entrance and were on the verge of exiting when Dwight and Reverend Leeds implored them to come back. 

“Hold on a minute,” Dwight waved his hands excitedly, “let’s discuss this together.  Don’t just walk out like this.”

“Yes,” the reverend said with less enthusiasm, “please hear us out.”

Adam had misgivings about calling this troublesome crew back.  Concerned that they might, in fact, not leave, Satan had made a decision.  It was time to shake things up.  As if an ill omen had entered the chapel, a cold draft of wind now surged through the room, forcing the unwanted foursome toward the chapel entrance.  Suddenly everyone in the chapel discovered that William Breckenridge wore a wig.  The dark mat took flight with the draft, winding up perched on top of one of the large oak doors.  His wife Ellen screamed as her own hairpiece blew back to expose her own thinning locks.  Bill’s heavyset frame had also been thrown backwards by the gale into his wife, causing her to crash against Natasha Royce, who, in a domino effect, likewise offset her husband James, who felt the full weight of the other three as he slammed first onto his rear.  At the end of the pile-up where Jim sprawled, the remaining three members followed suit, cursing and fuming at each other as they tumbled one by one onto Royce and rolled off indignantly onto the floor.

Adam, the remaining elders, and their wives had the presence of mind to back away out of range of the gale, discovering that it was a localized phenomenon that appeared to be blowing the Royces and Breckenridges out of the church.  Not wishing to over do it, Satan ceased its blowing, the gale stopping as abruptly as it began.  Without a word now, the Royces and Breckenridges stood up shakily, dusted themselves off and quietly exited through the chapel doors.  Bill’s wig, which had remained perched precariously on top of the door, now fell to the floor.

 

******

Adam searched the vaulting ceiling, his eyes falling upon Our Savior’s full-scale wooden cross.  No one attempted to stop the foursome now. 

“What was that?” Cried Leona Bliss.

“It was the hand of the Lord,” exclaimed Reverend Leeds, raising his arms as if in benediction.

“But its cold air,” said Philip Lindley, looking at him in disbelief.

“The Lord has given us a sign,” the reverend sighed and closed his eyes.

It was the same argument that he had used on himself when he first felt the breeze.  But Todd Billingsley and Ian MacCallum were not convinced.

“Aye laddy,” Ian scratched his red beard, “hell may be hot, but when evil comes, she blows cold.”

“I don’t know,” Tina Billingsley shook her head in wonder, “I just don’t know.”

“I think it was the air conditioner,” Todd, the only calm one in the group, scanned the room. “I’ve been in this business for many years.  The controller might be malfunctioning or the compressor could be in overkill.  Any number of things could go wrong.”

“Reverend Leeds is an optimist,” Dwight sounded condescending, “but I think Ian’s right: nothing good could be that cold.  Unless we have a malfunctioning air conditioner, we’ve got a poltergeist in our church!”

Dwight laughed unconvincingly at his little joke.  The expressions on his face belied his skepticism.  All of them were shaken by the event.  It seemed clear to Adam that they were in denial.  Shivering and pulling their coats tightly around themselves, the group now huddled together a few more moments until the drop in temperature created by Satan began to pass.   

“Well, we’ve lost eight people,” said Tina Billingsley with a sigh.

“Who needs them?” Leona Bliss said dubiously. “We’re not the only ones left.  A lot of folks just went home.  There’s at least a hundred young people attending services now.

“But a lot of people didn’t even show up today,” Brenda MacCallum reminded her friend.

“What young people is she talking about Phil?” Carolyn Lindley muttered to her husband. “That hussy Sheila and jerk-off Pat?  Most of our new ones are still visitors.  No one wants to join anymore.  Does anyone even know those new young people’s names.”

“Steve and Connie Morello, Ray Sanderson. . .” Todd began reading from his notebook. “I got a whole bunch of names.”

“Fly-by-nights,” blurted Tina. “Adam is attracting freaks.”

“That’s who you been aiming at, hasn’t it?” Dwight asked Adam cagily. “You used to give regular, gospel-inspired, sermons, Adam.  You never were one for that old time religion, but you at least talked about God.”

“If you folks can stand here and worry about attendance after what we just experienced, what can I say?” Adam heaved a broken sigh. “…. I confess: I’m a wacko and positive thinker if that’s what you want.  But don’t ask me to deny my own eyes and senses.  You may not believe me, but this same thing happened in my home.”  “…. The Lord moves in mysterious ways,” he began quoting scripture, “his wonders to perform.”

“I believe it was a miracle,” Leona announced supportively.

“I do to,” piped Tina, although she had a frown on her infantile face.

“You believe?” Adam searched the two women’s faces. “Or you think you should believe?”

There was a collective sigh in the group at this play of words.  Philip and Carolyn Lindley, Ian and Brenda MacCallum, Todd Billingsley, and Dwight Higgins were even less certain how to interpret this event.  Was not goodness a warm, fuzzy feeling?  Would God send them a sign disguised as an arctic breeze?  Again Dwight Higgins had gently taken Adam to task with the tacit approval of the elders, but this time, after such an event, Adam didn’t care.  He was convinced of this miracle; it supported his optimism for the future.  He still had his job, and he had learned a valuable lesson about human nature today.  What’s that old saying his father used to quote?  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  And yet what about Leona Bliss and Tina Billingsley?  What about all those young folks from the university visiting the church?  In their own stubborn way, these good people of Our Savior’s Church stood by him, and he had made an impact on the younger members of the church.  But he had to return to the basics and be more subtle with innovation.  For the most part, these oldsters were resistant to change.

“Well,” he smiled bravely at the group, “let’s have that meeting of the minds.  Are you folks up to that now?”

“No, Adam,” Dwight shook his head gently, “I think we should postpone our talk.  We have a lot to think about after this morning.  Let’s call it soul-searching.  Each of must pray for our young minister and his wife, and also pray for Our Savior Independent Christian Church.”

A familiar chill blew across Adam’s brow, as he shook the men’s hands and received hugs from Leona Bliss and the elders’ wives.  Bolstering his spirit was the realization: in spite of their misgivings, they were giving him a second chance.  Satan, who followed him home, was not so certain this was good, and yet it had seen great potential in his oratory skills.  He was, in deed, the perfect vessel.  He was young, and, unlike those old fuddy-duddies, he could change.  Elder Waterford had been correct, however: this nonsense about positive thinking had to go. 

Satan whispered into the reverend’s unhearing ear, as he drove home from church, “If only you could hear me, I would tell you that the best thing in the whole world for you would be to make a clean break with this crowd…. If only I could overcome that last shred of faith in order to penetrate your conscious mind!”

 

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