God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called
Most of the mourners had left the grave side. The heat of a southern sun made it uncomfortable to linger outside for long. They would gather for sweet tea and refreshments at the widow’s house, another southern tradition.
With his head down, his eyes fixed on the elaborate swirl in the dark wood coffin with its ornate handles and sprawling arrangement of flowers, he kept from looking around. Still, he could feel the daggers cast from the eyes of those around him, though he’d been unable to see anyone actually looking at him, and the weight of their judgement like an anvil tied to his back.
A hand clearly used to work moved to rest on his arm.
He stared at it without looking up.
“Don’t run off, Petie.” Came the gentle voice.
It nearly pierced the carefully maintained façade he was fighting to keep up. He lifted his eyes to her face now.
She had the delicate build and demeanor of a fine southern lady but her face, with its soft eyes the color of rain, had clearly seen its share of hardship. “I need to talk with you. Please don’t leave town until after… Okay?”
He nodded. “I want to say goodbye… in private.”
“Okay, Petie.” She patted his arm, removed her hand, and started around him, accompanied by her sister.
Watching as they moved slowly to where the car was parked, he resisted the urge to remind her that no one had called him Petie for years. After all, she’d just lost her husband.
Her sister must have said something he couldn’t hear because she replied. “Don’t start, Clydine. He’s here now.”
When he could see that all the mourners had dispersed, he walked slowly toward the casket. Head bowed, he took a deep breath and reached out his hand to lay it on top, but he couldn’t bring himself to touch it. Instead, he dropped to his knees, condemned that he’d been unable to cry. Even now, his eyes remained dry.
“I never got to tell you.” He murmured softly. “I know what a failure… that I disappointed you and let you down. I know I… I… hurt you.” Taking a breath, he continued. “I wish I could have… If only I had or… I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
For a moment, he simply knelt there in silence and then rose to his feet. Could he deal with the scene at the house? How would he bear the weight of stares laced with judgment?
He’d sworn when he left this town ten years ago, he’d never return. Only this death, or the widow’s, could have made him. Letting go half a breath, he straightened his suit and loosened his tie. He’d been dreading the conversation he was facing since he’d heard the news. It was why he’d come just in time to make it to the church.
Sitting in the rental car, hands on the wheel and head down, he tried to decide what to do. If he left without seeing her, it would haunt him. The last thing he needed was more ghosts plaguing him. With a sigh, he started the engine and put the car in gear. It was almost ludicrous to drive the short distance, but he didn’t want to face anyone he might encounter on the street.
As he approached the house and saw the cars crowded in front, he felt the weight again of the judgmental stares and whispering he knew awaited him. Almost enough to make him change his mind and flee, he had another idea. Parking the car at the end of the block, if you could call it that, he pushed through the neighbor’s bushes and strode to the back of the house where he entered through the screen door into the kitchen.
Without knowing exactly what he might find, he knew there would be less people at least. There was.
Turning to scowl, Clydine stood alone, organizing some food in serving dishes. Not even a greeting, she just stared at him.
“Where is she?” He asked quietly.
“In the office… waiting for you.” She huffed.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he could be grateful that he could take the back hall, hardly be seen and not have to approach her in front of anyone. Almost tiptoeing, he quickly covered the short distance, knocked lightly before opening the door and stepping inside. To avoid looking her in the eye, he turned and carefully closed the door behind him.
She had a distant gaze aimed out the sheer window covering. Without moving, she said, “Sit down, Petie.”
Déjà vu hit as he walked around the tightly cushioned, thick wood chair in front of the desk and sat. How many times had he done this, knowing he would get a stern chastisement, or worse?
Still without facing him, she said. “It’s time to grow up, Petie.”
Raising her hand, palm toward him, she cut him off. “Let me finish. And don’t interrupt.”
“You have known since you were five years old that you were called to pastor this church — not because we wanted it but because you heard it from God for yourself. We were patient and prayed for you through your rebellious teen years.” She turned toward him now and leveled her gaze at him. “And we’ve never stopped praying for you. Trusting God to do a work in your life and bring you home.”
Opening his mouth to speak, he stopped at the warning look.
“Now your dad has passed, and the church needs a pastor. We both know that pastor is supposed to be you.” She put up a hand again as she saw him start to speak. “I don’t care about all the foolishness that may have gone on in your life. It’s time to get right with God and take your rightful place in His plan.”
When he started to speak and she didn’t stop him, he said. “I know I let you and Dad down. I was rebellious, disobedient and ran away from everything you ever taught me. I’m not qualified to pastor this church or any other ministry,”
“God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called. None of what happened was a surprise to Him. Time is short, Petie. Take your place.”
He sat a moment and then rose from his chair.
“Before you run away again, give it some thought.” She sighed again as he rounded the chair and started for the door. “Let me know something, please, before you leave. Decisions and arrangements need to be made.”
Turning back to face her, hand on the doorknob, he said. “I will, Mama. Right now, I need some air.”
She just nodded and stared out the window again as the door closed.
For a few moments, he sat in his car and watched as several people left the house heading the opposite way up the block to their cars. When more came his way and peered curiously at him, he couldn’t stay there any longer. For a brief interval, he pondered the idea of starting the car and fleeing but he knew doing so would only add to the guilt he had dealt with since right before he left.
When the mourners had passed and he’d assured they were no longer in the area, he got out of the car, locked it, and laughed at his own foolishness. No one in this town locked their cars or their doors. They didn’t need to.
It was the kind of town you saw in movies, small businesses lined the streets, dated, and tired in appearance but clean. Meaningless shops that one could wonder how they stayed in business endured, nonetheless. On one end there stood a grocery store that hardly anyone seemed to shop at since the big box store opened a couple towns away. Still, it was convenient if you needed something incidental or didn’t want to make the drive. Some of the older folks patronized it. A two-bay garage, owned by the best and fairest mechanic for miles, sat a little apart, one of only two gas stations. Quiet and peaceful, it maintained its façade.
As he walked the length of the main street of town, he could sense curious eyes, most seeming to size him up. It gave him the jitters and he walked faster, head down. When he looked up, he saw it.
The church he’d grown up in, pastored by his father. Standing tall and stalwart, much like the man who’d built it. Solid white wood, it was well-maintained, its stained-glass windows clean and sparkling; the silver cross as though it had just been polished. Knowing his dad, it probably had. Though he couldn’t say how, it appeared to mock him, to render a decision in which he was found wanting.
He couldn’t say whether the town truly hadn’t changed or if it was his perception that had it stuck in a bygone time, much like he himself had been. Quickly, he turned and practically fled in the opposite direction, not paying attention to where he was going until he saw it and it brought him to a standstill as he stared.
Everything in him told him to flee but he couldn’t seem to move. Staring blankly, he could still make out the path through the brush that led to the footbridge across the river. He had promised himself never to return here and he hadn’t since…
The path led to the place of his humiliation and shame. Try as he might, he couldn’t seem to stop himself from moving forward through the weeds as though compelled. Funny, it had been well-traveled by him and many others years ago when he lived here. When he got to the clearing that led onto the bridge, and the somewhat overgrown path that went down to the water’s edge, he froze, unwilling to move ahead.
What felt like a hand, but invisible and unattached to a physical form, pushed him so that he stumbled onto the bridge, grabbing the handrail to steady himself. It took a moment to catch his breath and slow the pounding in his chest. He stared at the flowing water below, fast enough to discourage swimming but not considered rapids. His eyes wandered to the left of the flow where a clearing at the water’s edge had been a popular hangout for kids who wanted to avoid adult scrutiny.
Overgrown more than he remembered, but still clear enough to gather in, he wondered if perhaps what happened here all those years ago had provoked something more drastic than the prohibition by parents and authorities.
His eyes were drawn by something in the water. For a moment, he stared, shuddering. It looked like a body. Was he imagining things because of his guilt? Seeing something to remind him of the humiliation he felt? Suddenly, it sounded like screams coming from below, a familiar sound. Slapping his hands over his ears, he closed his eyes tightly, his head moving back and forth, involuntarily. In response he murmured, “No, no. I’m so sorry. Please… please… forgive me.”
A hand touched his shoulder.
Startled, his whole body reacted. Were the demons of his past come to torment him even more than they had all this time? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know but couldn’t help looking.
A little slip of a thing, the girl standing there, her dishwater blonde hair hanging straight on either side of her face, framing it, and making the pale, blue-gray eyes stand out. It seemed vaguely familiar but that didn’t seem possible. She couldn’t have been much more than twenty, much younger than anyone he would have known.
“What are you doing here?” He asked.
“What are you doing here?” She countered.
“I don’t know.” He admitted. “It felt like I had to come.”
She nodded, “I suspect you did.”
“What do you mean?” He frowned. “I promised myself I’d never step foot on this bridge again.”
“It’s time.” She declared.
Without moving, he backed up. “What do you mean?”
“The time for your calling to be fulfilled.”
“What would you know about it? Who are you?”
“My name is Ren.”
“Ren?” It seemed to ring a distant bell.
“I’m Shay’s sister.”
It felt like someone had slapped him. He should say something but what he couldn’t form. Stuttering meekly, he tried anyway. “I… um… I…”
Shaking her head, she smiled. “Don’t bother. I followed you here.”
“How did you…?”
“I was at your parents’ house.”
“Your dad was my pastor. And a good friend.”
Seemed strange for someone so young to refer to him as a friend. It made him curious. “How did that happen?”
“It started with Shay.”
He hung his head. That would make perfect sense.
“Before I get into all that. I need you to tell me what happened.”
Shaking his head, Petie exhaled. “No. I can’t go through all that again.”
Ren’s tone was gentle. “No offense, but isn’t that exactly what you’ve been doing for the last ten years?
“Petie, it’s time. This is your chance for the closure that you haven’t been able to find.”
“How would you know?”
“I told you, your parents are friends.”
“They talked to you about me?”
“Not specifically. But I could see the pain in your mother’s eyes every time someone mentioned your name. It seemed to make sense, with everything that happened and you leaving.”
He turned away from her, leaned on the handrail and stared at the flowing water but remained silent.
Ren’s voice came like a light breeze. “You just have to trust me.”
Glancing back over his shoulder, the soft, genuine compassion he saw seemed to begin unraveling a knot deep inside him; one he hadn’t even known was there. Turning back to the river, he took a deep breath and let it out. “I was a good boy.”
She started to speak.
Petie sensed it and put up a hand to stop her. “I never even thought about whether what my parents said was right.”
Ren sensed she should just let him continue at his own pace without prompting.
“Then, when I was in the seventh grade, Del moved to town.” Taking a deep breath, he shook his head once. “I don’t think Del even believed in God. His family didn’t go to church, and he questioned everything. If he didn’t want to do something, he didn’t, no matter who it was telling him.”
“Shay was like that.”
He looked at her oddly for a moment. That had never occurred to him before. “It started something. Suddenly, other boys started wanting to be like him. He became a kind of ringleader. His bunch were belligerent, rebellious and prankish. Everyone thought he was so cool. For some reason, I thought so too, and I tagged along on the edge of his group. He always called me P.K., thought it was funny. P.K. P.T.
“I wasn’t really one of them. I didn’t do a lot of the things they did, but I always went along so people would think I was cool. He was always goading me, trying to push me but I think maybe a part of him respected the fact that I didn’t just do what he said like the other boys did.
“It went on all through high school. He pushed me into drinking some, trying marijuana, but nothing serious.”
“To be honest,” he looked directly at her now. “I think he always had a thing for Shay.”
“It must have made him mad that she wouldn’t have anything to do with him.” Now she took a breath. “Especially with her reputation.”
He hadn’t wanted to bring that up, unsure, as young as Ren was, how much she might know about it.
“It’s a small town, Petie. Even as young as I was, I wasn’t stupid or oblivious.”
“I’ve thought about it so many times in the years since then. I never really went along with the things Del did, but for some reason I just never said anything and pretty much turned a blind eye to what he was leading the others into.” He sighed. “I think that’s why he started calling me P.K. The first time, he laughed, like it rhymed with Petie, but I’ve come to believe that it was his way of discrediting what he thought I believed and my refusal to do what he could get the others to do even without standing up to him.” He shook his head. “Then came that afternoon…”
With an upward motion of his head, he indicated the small, now mostly overgrown, clearing. “Del had scored some beer and he had brought some marijuana with him. I was nursing a beer to keep him off my back and dumping it a little at a time as I could.” He exhaled. “The others were a little rowdy with it. And then, here comes Shay, across the bridge in a little skirt like she always wore, seemingly oblivious to everything around her.”
Petie continued, staring into the distance as if into the past.
Immediately, Del perked up. He called to her to join us. ‘Come and party with us.” the usual crap.
She just shook her head, so he ran up the incline, put his arm around her shoulder and half dragged her down to where we were. “Get Shay a beer.”
“No,” she said. “I… I don’t do that anymore.”
His arm still held her in place as he put his beer to her mouth but most of it dripped down her chin. “
Well, he said, that looks like an invitation.” He leaned in and licked at it. She struggled but couldn’t get out of his grip.
“Stop it.” She insisted.
“’Come on, Shay. You’re a party girl. So let’s party.”
“No, I don’t do that anymore.”
“Come on, baby. Let’s have some fun.” He strong-armed her until he had her on the ground, encouraged, even as she fought, by the catcalls and jeers of his buddies. “Come on, boys. We’ll all get a turn. Help me.”
Her eyes met mine and she pleaded meekly. “Please, help me.”
I just stood there, in shock, frozen. He’d never done anything as bad as this before. By the time Del was done, she wasn’t struggling, or looking at me. At least I don’t think she was. I couldn’t watch but I didn’t dare run.
“Come on, Ollie.” Del announced triumphantly. “I got her all warmed up for you.”
They each took a turn. I felt nauseous but didn’t know what to do.
“All right, P.K. You’re up.”
I didn’t move.
“What’s the matter? You scared?” He taunted, encouraged by the guffaws of his buddies. “Or are you just queer? I always thought you might be queer.”
“I’m not queer.” I replied, and finding some courage, added. “Just not interested in your leftovers.” I felt guilty, with poor Shay just lying there, not moving but I hoped the smart retort would get him off my back.
Del had already moved on, as he always did when I didn’t go along. He started quickly up the incline. “Come on, guys. This party’s gotten boring.”
I looked back only once as I followed him.
Shay was still just lying there, eyes glazed and staring into the sky.
I think Del figured I’d just keep quiet like I always did. I might have too, if I hadn’t heard the next day that Shay had jumped off the bridge and taken her own life.
Eaten up with shame and guilt, as hard as it was, I went to my dad and told him what had happened. He convinced me to go to the police, which I did. They gave me immunity in exchange for my testimony. But I couldn’t live with what I’d done, or maybe I should say what I didn’t do. A few days later, I took my savings and left town.
“And you’ve been running ever since.” Ren finished.
Petie shrugged. “I guess.”
“So, let me tell you the rest of the story.” She offered.
“The rest of the story?”
“Yeah. About a week before that, Shay had given her life to God. A kind woman from your dad’s church offered Shay a job as the front desk and cleanup person for her hair salon.”
He nodded. Mrs. Reyes, a strong woman of faith; compassionate and generous.
“She started sharing her faith in subtle ways with Shay and invited her to a women’s bible study.” With a neutral tone, she added. “I think Shay was craving the input of a mom, since we grew up without one. Anyway, she liked the bible study, so she started going to church and accepted Jesus.”
“She shared her faith with me. Told me I should accept Jesus now and avoid going down the same path she had taken. She meant it when she said she’d given all that up.” Now she picked a pebble off the rail and threw it into the water. “When she came home that day, I knew something had happened, but she wouldn’t share it with me. All she said was that she was trapped — you know, we came from a poor family so leaving wasn’t really an option, and she didn’t think anyone would believe her if she told what had happened. She figured she’d never get away from Del now that he’d gotten what he wanted. She went out for a walk after the sun set…”
“And never came home.”
Ren nodded. “You know, she also told me she didn’t blame you and that she’d forgiven the others too.”
“Really? She said that?”
“She did. At the time, I didn’t know how she could, but I believed her. So you see, all these years you’ve been running for nothing.”
“Not for nothing.”
“What do you mean?”
“My dad always expected me to take over the church – I even thought I’d heard the call of God for myself to do it. But after what happened, even when those guys went to jail, I knew I wasn’t qualified any longer.”
Turning to her with an incredulous look, he answered. “Don’t you see? Any coward who not only couldn’t maintain his own walk with God, let alone influence some people who were supposed to be his friends, has no business trying to lead an entire congregation.”
“Hmm.” She pretended to think. “What about Gideon? He was hiding in a winepress, scared, and making excuses when the Angel of the Lord found him. God still used him to deliver Israel from their enemies.”
“Not the same thing.” He countered.
“Sounds like exactly the same thing to me.”
He didn’t move or respond.
“Ok. What about David then? He committed adultery with a faithful man’s wife and then sent her home. Trying to cover up what he’d done, he murdered him.” She didn’t look at him. “Ever done anything as awful as that?”
“And Moses? He killed a man in cold blood with his own hands. And yet, he still met face to face with God, performed mighty signs and wonders and led God’s people out of bondage to the promised land. Ever kill anybody?”
“No. Unless you count my failure to Shay.”
“Mmm.” She pressed her lips together. “Ever actually deny Jesus outright — three times?”
He frowned as he shook his head.
“Peter did. Yet Jesus trusted him with building his church.”
Petie pondered. It was getting more difficult to reject what she was saying.
“And let’s not forget the “chief of sinners.”
“Saul of Tarsus. He killed Christians in multiple cities — men, along with women and children – trying to force them to renounce their faith. Yet God used him to plant churches and spread the gospel all over Asia — not to mention writing most of the New Testament.” Ren took a deep breath. “Don’t you get it yet? God doesn’t expect you to do anything based on your ability, confidence, or performance. He just wants you to surrender to Him and allow Him to work His plan through you.”
“Ok. But I’m still not in a position to take a lead pastor role. Especially in this town, in the church my grandfather founded.”
“Maybe not. But you can take the first step.”
“Do you know how many times I’ve done that all these years?”
She shook her head. “I’m not talking about telling God you’re sorry and trying to feel better about something. “
“Isn’t that what repentance is?”
“No. Repentance is to take the Word of God, believe it and make whatever changes necessary to line your thinking and your way of life up with it.”
In his heart, he knew she was right. The rest of the knot in his belly unspooled until there wasn’t even a thread left.
Ren knew her words had hit the mark. With a smile, she said. “Welcome home, Petie. Now go fulfill your destiny.”
He nodded as he started off the bridge. Then he turned with a grin. “By the way, the name’s Peter.”
She giggled a little. “Then become that rock.”
Chuckling to himself, he thought. I will.
By the time he arrived back at his mother’s house, all the mourners had gone. He found her still in his father’s office, bible open and sipping a cup of steaming tea.
She looked up. “I thought maybe you’d gone.”
“Nah, I took a walk-through town, see the old sights, you know?”
“All the old sights?”
He nodded, not making eye contact.
“I met an interesting girl named Ren.”
His mother grinned. “Ahh.”
“Did you send her?”
“No, Petie, I didn’t. What happened?”
Making his way around the desk, he dropped to his knees in front of her. “Mama, I want to repent — before you, before God… I’m only sorry Daddy isn’t here to see it.”
Her smile was gentle. “He sees, son.”
Peter nodded. “I’m sorry for my rebellion, for not listening to you. For all the bad decisions, wrong choices…”
“You know 1 John 1:9.” She stroked his head. “Receive His forgiveness by faith, the cleansing of all unrighteousness and restoration to communion with Him.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Rising, he said. “I did. I’m not ready to assume leadership of the church but I’m ready to prepare for it. I’d like to find a mentor from among Daddy’s advisors, and you of course. Prove myself to the congregation first.”
She nodded. “I can help you with that.”
He started for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I have a bag in the car, just in case. Can I stay in my old room?”
“Of course, son.” Her eyes glistened. “You know, Ren’s a very special girl.”
“She is that, Mama.”
“Make a fine wife for the right godly man.”
Whoa, he thought. No way he was ready for anything like that.
“She’s a Proverbs 31 woman. Kind of girl who’ll help a man find his way.”
He knew his mother was right. After all, she already had.