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A Minor Miracle


Harry Buschman

The glassy snow-covered lawn reflected the pale light of the moon. "Not a creature stirring," he mumbled, then as he turned from the window and looked  at Edna, he thought -- "not even the minister's wife." The snow had melted that afternoon for a little while, but then the sun went down and it froze again. Now it resembled the icing on one of those artificial cakes in the baker's window.

The Right Reverend Leonard Peterson couldn't sleep, and the post card beauty  of the night outside seemed more melancholy than picturesque. Earlier that  evening, he sat with Fred and Mary Locke, praying with them for the life of their son -- knowing that their prayers were not enough to bring him out of his coma. He was in the hands of doctors and nurses and their praying was for themselves. ("Dear Lord give them the strength.") How many times had he prayed with parents for the lives of their children -- and prayed with children for  the lives of their parents? Had it done any good at all? Sometimes he thought it did and sometimes he wasn't so sure. It was often a game of chance.

He looked outside again and saw the lights of a plane approaching Kennedy airport. "Who could be flying in at 3:23 a.m.? A mission of mercy? A cargo of canceled checks from the west coast more likely."

The cold of the window chilled him and he walked back to his bed. He sat down  and looked at Edna. It had been five years since he talked with her about leaving the ministry. Every day, it seemed he believed less and less -- the time would come, he was sure, that on some terrible Sunday he would stand up there, put his Bible down, and tell the congregation he had lost his faith -- that it was all make believe; snake oil designed to keep us in line. The hereafter was dangled like a carrot before our eyes. A Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card. Without the promise of Paradise or the threat of Damnation we would prey on each other like carnivores.

It was fifteen years ago this month that Kenneth died. He would have been twenty next month, probably going into his senior year. Their praying did no good, no good at all. He and Edna had prayed the night through, just as it had been earlier today with Mr. and Mrs. Locke. It was futile. Kenny, (rest his soul) slipped into a coma and there was nothing anyone could do. "Pastor -- Mrs. Peterson .... I'm sorry -- he's slipped beyond us. Believe me -- there's nothing any of us can do. It's best, I think, to let him go .... "

He looked at the bedroom clock again -- nearly 4 a.m. -- there would be no sleep tonight. He rose shakily to his feet and walked back to the window again .... no change. A cat was negotiating the slippery ice-covered lawn that glistened between their house and the church. Why should this cat have life and Kenny have no life at all? "Does that make sense to You, Lord?"

Edna stirred in her sleep and it startled him. How comfortable she was here in Taunton Springs. The church was her workplace -- her life. She taught Bible school, sang in the choir, chaired the attic sale in spring and fall, and now the cake sale this Saturday. There were times, he was sure, when the church meant more to her than it did to him. Edna sat up and looked at the empty bed next to her and then saw Leonard at the window.

"Lenny, why aren't you in bed? Can't you sleep, dear?" He walked over to his bed and sat on it facing Edna. "Put a robe on, it's chilly in here. What time is it?"

"About 4. I've been up all night, Edna -- Ronny Locke, remember?" He stood up and shrugged himself into his robe, then sat down again.

"I know, it's terrible -- only 5 years old you said."

"Same age as Kenny." Leonard was sorry the moment he said it. Edna's words of compassion for others were always limited to a 'tsk -- tsk' and a sympathetic tilt of her head. "It's God's will," she would say. Then she would go out in the kitchen and put the water on for tea. But her own personal tragedies were  another matter, and bringing up Kenny's death again would only depress her and rekindle that dreadful period in their lives that brought them to Taunton Springs in the first place. She was not like other women; when she was depressed she would be spurred into blind activity -- sometimes useful, sometimes not. It was a mechanism she used to push her troubles to the back of her mind, to smother them under an avalanche of mental and physical exertion.

"I'm sorry, Edna -- forgive me, it just slipped out. I'm down I guess. They only want me when they want a miracle -- the congregation I mean, and I seem to be fresh out of miracles these days." He looked to her for understanding, but her eyes were far away. "Lie down again, Edna. I'll lie down too, and we'll wait for morning." He stretched out on his bed and pulled the spread over his feet. They hadn't shared the same bed since Kenny died. Even now, when all possibility of conceiving a child had passed, they slept in separate beds. The physical side of love had taken a mortal blow, and although they could not do without each other, Kenny's memory kept them at arm's length. Lying there he wanted to pray for some sign .... a minor miracle, but he decided God must have better things to do. "Why do we only pray when we need something?"

Unlike God, Pastor Leonard Peterson had to lend a sympathetic ear to each member of his flock. Mrs. Maddox's son in rehab, Norma Sheridan's gall bladder, and Doris what's her name's husband who fell off the extension ladder. He knew these people only by their misfortunes, not for who they were. When they triumphed, when the mortgage was paid, when the ugly daughter was married off, he never heard from them -- only when they needed him. He was a clerk in God's complaint department.

Every two months the Council's General Board met to consider appointments and resignations. That was less than a week away. The first thing in the morning he would write that letter, then he would show it to Edna. That would be the  hardest part -- "You can't do it, Leonard -- you're their shepherd -- the  congregation needs you." She had talked him out of it twice before; in  desperation he had torn those letters up and plunged into the problems of his  flock again, more for her sake than his. But not this time -- not this time.

He rose at 6:30, showered and made breakfast for both of them. Edna was normally a late sleeper, but she was in the middle of preparations for the weekend cake sale. She'd be on the phone early this morning rounding up volunteers -- "Their resistance is low in the morning, you can get them to do anything." There were the folding tables and the white linen sheets -- someone would have to iron them. He envied her resourcefulness. The church was a business to her, like any other. She left God's work to Leonard. She was on the phone soon after breakfast with her list of "likelies."

He stood there, not wanting to interrupt. "I'll be in the office Edna, I've got some correspondence to catch up on."

"Yes dear. I'm crossing off Marjorie Locke .... I don't think she'll be up to it this weekend, do you?"

"I don't think so, Edna."

"All the same, it would be good for her -- life goes on you know." She looked up at Leonard sharply. "Busy .... keep busy, that's the way to fight back."

He settled himself in front of the word processor and opened the file for the National Council and found the name of the CEO of the General Assembly, marveling at how un-churchlike the Methodists were. He felt as though he were a franchised dealer at some remote Buick agency tendering his resignation. He envied the Catholics. No family ties. No children -- in for the duration.

His letter went slowly. He felt his reasoning was vague and petulant. Knowing it was going slowly, his mind wandered and he looked out the window to his left. The white stucco church stood there, across the lawn from the small house he and Edna had lived in almost fifteen years. He always enjoyed that view, it had inspired many homilies and it was a constant reminder that he had a job to do, that he lived in a house that wasn't his and worked in a church that belonged, not to him, but to the people of Taunton Springs.

It was a fine still morning, with a warming trend on the way. There would be  melting today. In fact it had already begun, he noticed the old steel gutter at the gable roof -- drat! He meant to have that fixed, but the roofer talked him into waiting until spring. The black slate roof would melt the snow and there would be puddles in the lawn by noon -- then, when night came, the water would freeze, and .... what would Edna say. "Honestly, Leonard, I can't see to everything -- what do we have a sexton for?"

As he watched, rusty water dripped from the broken gutter and stained the white stucco wall between two of the ten foot high leaded glass windows on the east side of the church. "Oh Drat!" He should really call the sexton. But Edna was on the phone, wouldn't be through for hours, most likely. He turned back to his letter to the National Council -- it seemed self-serving and resentful, as though he deserved something better than his present assignment. Between the lines he could sense a barely concealed ambition for a seat in the General Assembly. The gutter words he used as a child, always waiting in the back of his mind, struggled to be heard, but the man he had become fought to keep them in that dark place, unspoken.

He looked out the window again at the church he had come to love. In spite of  its shortcomings, he was its pastor; they were a pretty good match after all.  Neither of them were first rate, but both of them, with modesty and God's grace, had made a go of it. "Look at that broken gutter!" he said to himself. The stain on the wall was spreading -- he would have to interrupt Edna, and get on the phone to the sexton. Something would have to be done.

As he stood at the window, he felt a tingling in his arms and legs. He'd felt it before. Standing in a wheat field during a summer thunderstorm when he was a boy. Every lightning bolt had sent that same tingling through him. Not powerful enough to hurt or frighten him, but enough to make him aware of a power greater than his own. The feeling would come back to him at times. It steadied him during the low times of his young life, and it was the fundamental drive behind his decision to join the ministry. It had always appeared during moments of crisis and decision. It had deserted him for the past fifteen years, since Kenny died -- but here it was again.

Then he saw it -- on the wall, like a portrait in sepia tones. The face of Jesus Christ! As though it had been painted there!

"Edna, Edna -- come here -- look at this!"

"In a minute, Leonard, I'm on the phone."

He couldn't tear his eyes from the image on the wall. "Now, Edna, now! Before it's too late!"

He could hear her put the phone down and start for the office -- "Hurry Edna. Hurry!" He hadn't taken his eyes from the image of Christ. Then suddenly he was aware of Edna at his side. "Look Edna, the stain on the stucco wall."

Edna took a sharp intake of breath, "Oh, what a mess! Leonard, I knew this would happen. We've got to get that gutter fixed immediately, you can't wait until spring!"

"Don't you see it, Edna? What does it look like to you?"

She looked at him impatiently and shook her head. "I swear, Leonard, sometimes .... !"

At that moment the front doorbell rang .... "Now what? I'll get it. Honestly, with all the things I've got to do! While I'm at the door, Leonard, why don't you get the roofer on the phone? Tsk, tsk -- and with the cake sale on Saturday."

He tore his eyes from the image and looked after her. Amazing, he thought! She didn't see the face. It was so obvious, she couldn't possibly have missed it, how could she? He looked back again, and maybe he had been mistaken after all. It was still a face, but it seemed grosser somehow. It looked more like a homeless person, a beggar perhaps. It was the face of someone you wouldn't want to open your door to.

"Leonard, it's Fred Locke. Would you come here a moment?"

Leonard stood up and groaned, -- "Oh no, not now." What words could he use to lessen Fred's pain? What good would they do? Nothing he could possibly say would diminish the loss of his five year old boy.

Fred looked drawn and exhausted. His eyes were puffy and he carried his hat in his hand. Leonard was about to mumble something consoling when Fred's face broke into a smile. He crossed the room and took Leonard's hand.

"Oh, Pastor -- how can me and Mary ever thank you? Half an hour after you left, Ronnie come out of it. He recognized us, imagine! He recognized us! Mary's still there with him, and I decided I'd go in t'work this morning." He turned and took Edna's hand. "It's wonderful, ain't it ma'am? Course it ain't gonna be no bed of roses -- looks like he may be brain damaged f'some time from bein' in a coma and all. But if our prayin' saved his life, mebbe prayin' can fix that too." He turned back to Leonard again. There was an almost fanatical light in his tired eyes. "I just hadda stop by and tell'ya, Pastor -- He is watchin' after us, ain't he?"

"Yes, of course He is, Fred. Edna and I are very happy for you and Mary, aren't we, Edna?" She nodded in agreement, but Leonard could tell her smile was tinged with the memory of their loss -- and maybe even a touch of envy.

The three of them walked slowly to the door and, for Leonard and Edna, Fred's euphoria was not easy to share. Leonard wondered how Fred and Mary would cope with a brain damaged child as the years went by. Then, there was that image of Christ on the wall. It was probably only a figment of his imagination and signified nothing. He'd have to get that gutter fixed by Saturday or Edna would never forgive him. The letter to the National Council would just have to wait .... maybe next year .... and .... and .... dear God Almighty, was it too much for You to be there for Edna and me fifteen years ago like You were for the Locke's? He was completely unaware that the tingling sensation in his arms and legs had gone.

Edna seemed strangely quiet. There was so much to do -- she must get back to the phone as soon as Leonard finished with the sexton. Her priorities were with the cake sale, and now she was sure she could get Mary Locke to iron the white linen sheets -- now that her son was .... was .... and why, oh why dear God weren't You with us that night fifteen years ago?

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