Alice Goddard attended St. John’s Lutheran her entire life. She was baptized in the eloquent old church twenty-nine years ago by Pastor Stone, who had long since left and later died, rest his soul. She went to Sunday school without falter, took part in Catechism, and was confirmed in the eighth grade—there she publicly vowed her allegiance to Jesus Christ. She later married a man named Richard, whom everyone called ‘Dick,’ when she was twenty-one. They reared two children, Clive and Anthony, during their four years of marriage, and then they divorced. Somehow, Richard got custody of the children. He then moved to Madison, Wisconsin, in pursuit of a high school sweetheart.
Alice gave up believing in God around the time the State granted Dick her children, but, as was her custom, she never missed a Church service.
There was a time when her friends would have come to her rescue and taken her mind off so many problems, but they all left town for various reasons or became so busy with their own children that they didn’t have enough time to use the bathroom, let alone tend to her desperate needs.
The current pastors—Hadden, Byus, and Scholfield—each visited her empty home on several occasions, quoting Scripture and inviting her to Church functions, but Alice always presented some reason or another as to why she couldn’t visit such things. She did, however, sit and listen quietly as they reiterated the Gospel and reminded her of the wonderful Christian she had once been. They vowed to her that God was waiting for her to come back to Him, she just had to open her heart again.
But by that point, it was too late. She had already decided that if God was going to turn His back on her, she would do the same.
However, a lifetime of being in a certain room at a certain time could not be broken, so she continued to attend St. John’s, sitting silently in the back pew—alone.
One Sunday, near the end of January, a young man sat in front of her, breaking the boundary the congregation unconsciously established around Alice Goddard. He was apparently a visitor to the church, for Alice had never seen him before. He wore a dark brown sports coat, the kind you could get for under thirty dollars, a pair of jeans, and a plain white shirt. His hair was a deep oatmeal, unkempt, and somewhat greasy.
Pastor Byus began the morning announcements, and then initiated the opening hymn. Alice was certain she could hear the man singing, but it wasn’t nearly loud enough to appoint as a falsetto or baritone. In fact, he seemed to be one of those singers who sang just above a whisper.
She once had a beautiful voice, but she quit making a sound of any sort while at Church, and, frankly, outside of Church as well.
Then came the dreaded moment when all were supposed say, “Peace be with you,” to whomever sat nearby. Fortunately for Alice, as already established, no one ever sat near enough for it to be an issue. None came to her, nor did she make any attempt to go to them.
“Now take a moment to greet those around you,” Pastor Byus prompted.
Alice lowered her eyes and hoped the man would be shy—shy or rude. Either one was fine with her.
No such luck.
He turned to face her with his brown eyes catching the winter sunlight through the windows. She lifted her eyes and noticed his light beard.
“Peace be with you?” he asked while extending his hand. They were ragged and calloused.
He raised an interested eyebrow when she said nothing in return, but instead, literally turned her entire body so that her back was to him. He clenched his outstretched hand into a confused, passive fist, flattened out his modest sports coat, then turned to the people in front of him.
Alice slowly spun back around when the service resumed. She was shocked when the man remained seated at the end of the service.
Again, he turned around slowly, cautiously, and faced her once more. She lifted her eyes until they met his own, but she said nothing—not an apology, not an excuse, nothing.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She nodded once.
“Do you need to talk?”
She shook her head.
Before Alice could answer, some congregation members stood at the end of the man’s pew, welcoming him to their Church. He smiled politely to Alice, then walked down the length of the pew to converse with them.
Her eyes followed the visitor as he approached those who turned their backs on her. They held a nice conversation with him, laughing and smiling, doing all the things that humans are supposed to do when they take joy in being a Christian and living a Christian life. She’d been one of them once, before everything she loved about her life was ripped away.
The next week, like clockwork, she sat silently in the last pew at the ten-fifteen traditional service. It was Communion Sunday, and this would mark the fifty-fifth consecutive Communion she chose not to receive.
After about four missed Communions, some friends in the Congregation attempted to persuade her to reintroduce Christ into her system again, both spiritually and physically. She instead chose to insult their idealistic, utopian lives and sent them away. Those friends never contacted her again. Alice decided they were total failures as Christians. She didn’t consider herself a disappointment, though. Her disdain for God and Christ was a conscious decision, not some accidental shortcoming due to lack of character.
At any rate, for the second straight Sunday, there was the mysterious man. Wearing the same outfit, he sat down, looked over his shoulder, and nodded at Alice with a sincere but wary smile. She looked away from his kindness, finding it both pretentious and awkward.
There they were, one in front of the other, without any sort of communication at all until the greetings. Once more, he faced her, held out his chapped hands, and said, “Peace be with you.”
This time he uttered it as though an order. His voice was solid, and because of his sureness, she couldn’t help but reach for him. She took his hand and found that it was indeed quite coarse. As they shook hands, she glanced about the Church and saw that the entire Congregation gawked at them.
Her hand shot out of his.
“Alice,” she mumbled.
“Nice to meet you, Alice.”
Josh was then pulled away by the people in front of him who did not realize what a pivotal moment this was in Alice’s life, for she was about to return the sentiment, making more progress than she had in years. Josh had no choice but to turn and greet those before him in order to grant them peace as well. He would not turn anyone away.
When it came time to arise and take Communion, Alice despised herself when she realized she would take it if only Josh invited her to walk with him.
But, Josh did not invite her, because he did not rise himself.
At the end of the service, Josh stood, stared at Alice for just a moment with a pleasant look upon his face, then said, “It’s nice to see you again.”
“You, too,” she muttered. She forgot how to talk civilly with someone. However, she told the truth. It was nice to see him again.
“Why do you sit back here?” he asked.
Although it strained her to maintain the conversation, she pressed on: “I don’t believe in God anymore.”
He said, “Not really sure what you’re doing here, then.”
She didn’t respond, so he continued by saying, “Yeah, it can be hard, can’t it? I mean, He used to talk to people directly all the time, like it was going on every other day, whereas now, well, not many of us have that sort of familiarity with Him. And His son, wow, that’s a hard one to swallow, too, huh?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes becoming alert.
“Well, they want us to believe that two thousand years ago some guy who was supposed to be God in human form died for our sins? Where’s the proof? I mean, the Bible? That’s the proof? That’s not much for today’s Information Age, is it? Seeing is believing, and no one’s seen Jesus in quite some time.”
Beyond belief, Alice found herself growing argumentative, countering with, “Maybe we see Him more often than we think. Maybe He just doesn’t walk up to us and say, ‘Hey, I’m Jesus, what’s up?’”
“Oh, come on, Alice,” Josh laughed, “you don’t really think Jesus walks among us …”
Before she met Richard, the man many called Dick, she fervently believed such a thing possible—that it was even a fact. Finally, she whispered, “I think He could, maybe He doesn’t, but I think He could.”
Josh walked around his edge of the wooden pew, then sat down next to her. “Alice, you either think He does or He doesn’t, you can’t take a ‘maybe’ position on this.”
Meeting his brown eyes with her own green ones, Alice thought a moment, bit down on her lip, then confessed, “When I was younger, even as a little girl, I swore I saw Jesus sitting here, right where you are now.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Josh chuckled.
“It’s not ridiculous,” she disagreed. “He sat back here all the time. Even at my wedding, I told the ushers not to seat anyone in that spot. Guess what? He walked in just as the ceremony started.”
“Really? What did He wear?” Josh asked.
“Kind of what you’re wearing,” Alice replied.
“Of course,” Alice replied. “He always wore nice clothes, I mean, nice enough. Just nice enough to show respect in His Father’s house, but never showy, never too glamorous. You’ve got his style,” she said while narrowing her eyes.
“I dress like this because I’m poor,” Josh answered with a grin, “not because I choose to.”
“What do you do for a living?” she asked.
She felt a wave of euphoria wash over her heart, something she used to believe was the Holy Spirit, and she cried.
“Why are you crying?” Josh asked, reaching out and taking her hand as he did so.
She did not pull away.
“I’ve been telling myself and everyone who would listen to me that I reject God,” she sobbed. “I’m not mad at God. I’m mad a Richard!”
“Don’t most people call him ‘Dick?’”
With laughter and tears, Alice confirmed, “Rightly so.”
“I want you to make me a promise,” Josh demanded while squeezing her hand.
“What?” she asked, paying no heed to the tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I want you to sit with your pastors and talk things out. Real talk, no holding back due to pride or resentment. Tell them the truth, even if you think you shouldn’t. Trust me, pastors have made mistakes in their pasts—that’s just part of being human, right? That’s why He died for us, right?”
“Yeah,” Alice choked.
“Good. It’s okay to be mad at God, Alice. Everyone gets mad at God at some point in their lives. But, you can’t stay mad at Him, not if you truly believe. He’s given far more than He will ever take.”
“He took my sons,” Alice cried.
“No, Dick took your sons, and that’s because the judged owed him a favor. You were supposed to appeal his decision, remember? But you didn’t; you lost heart, stopped praying, turned your back on the Church and God, and descended into this shadow of your former self. You came to rely on Dick more than your Creator, and when Dick left, you revoked your entire foundation. But God is always willing to take you back, no matter how long you’ve been away. He’s been waiting.”
“Yes,” Alice responded.
Josh stood up, flattened out his sports jacket, nodded at the pastors who watched incredulously along with the some of the congregation, and called out, “Hey, do you think you could whip up a Communion for her? It’s been a while.”
The pastors all but fell over themselves as they rushed to the front of the Church, and the ushers sprinted as fast as their legs would allow for the materials they needed.
“Will you take it with me?” Alice asked as she held onto his rough hands.
“Me?” he asked with a grin. “Oh, I don’t so.”
“Of course,” Alice said while closing her eyes.
Josh let go of Alice’s hand, then said, “You keep your promise, because God will keep His. Okay?”
“We’re ready,” Pastors Hadden and Schofield said as they stood with joy in their hearts at the front of St. John’s Lutheran Church.
There would be many apologies in the coming weeks, both from Alice and to her as well. For all were in the wrong, and it took only the reminder of their purpose to bring them together again.
“I’ll keep my promise,” Alice pledged before opening her eyes.
“Say ‘hi’ to the kids for me, and even Richard, too,” Josh said before he started to walk away.
As she approached the alter, Alice reminded, “Most people call him ‘Dick.’”
“Rightly so,” Josh said with the flash of a smile. He then moved along.
Copyright © 2005/2020 by Scott William Foley
This story originally appeared as “Sitting Silently In the Back Pew” from The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume II.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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