Saturday, March 31, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

We resign into your hands our sleeping bodies, our cold hearths and open doors. Give us to awaken with smiles; give us to labor smiling. As the sun returns in the east, so let our patience be renewed with dawn; as the sun lightens the world, so let our loving-kindness make bright this house of our habitation.

- Robert Louis Stevenson

Friday, March 30, 2018

Worth It All (Part 4 of 7)

* This is Part 4 of a historical fiction novella that I wrote in 2005, now publicly available for the first time. You can find the other parts by clicking the "Worth It All" link under the Full Series list in the sidebar.

It didn’t take long for Anna to notice that Victor had fled the scene. There was a silent angst between them, the longing of old hopes that would not submit to be spoken nor to die. For every moment of the evening, she had known where he stood. As she greeted her guests, she could see in her peripheral vision his dark suit-jacket on the edge of the crowd, as vibrantly present to her mind as if it had been bright gold instead of black. When the young naval lieutenant, Elijah Green, had spun her around the room in a flowing dance, she could feel Victor’s presence at every moment, like a compass to a magnet. And when he slipped out of the crowd to leave, thinking he had gone unseen, she knew his absence at a glance.
Lieutenant Green was standing at her side, studying her face as her eyes traced around the room.
“Would you care to take a stroll in the gardens, Anna? It’s a beautiful night.”
She looked at him and gave a strained smile. “Thank you, Lieutenant, but I’m afraid I can’t just yet. There’s someone I need to talk to.”
“Ah,” he smiled knowingly. “The McNeill lad, no?”
Anna winced. She didn’t know that her inner thoughts had been so obvious. “He’s my friend, Elijah—one of my oldest friends in the world. And we don’t seem to know what to make of each other now. I…I fear that somehow I may have hurt him.”
The lieutenant nodded. “It would be a sorry thing to lose such a fine friend. He’s a good man, even if he doesn’t want to enlist as surgeon on my ship.”
“Turned you down, did he?” Anna laughed. “Well, he can be as stubborn a man as I’ve ever known. But you’re right—he is a good man. Thank you for understanding, Elijah. I’ve no doubt I’ll see you again before the night is out.”
“I will look forward to it with great anticipation, my lady.” He bowed and kissed her gloved fingers, then turned to rejoin the company of his midshipmen, who were engaged in a lively debate with some of the Canterbury men.
Anna left the ballroom and went to the main hallway, where a few of the guests mingled while Oliver stood guard at the door.
“Has Victor come this way?” she asked.
“Yes, my lady,” said the butler. “He left about ten minutes ago.”
Anna began to head back to the ballroom when Oliver’s voice interrupted the act. “He said he was going to go up to St. Martin’s chapel for awhile.”
Anna turned. She knew she was blushing, but couldn’t help but smile at the butler. “Thank you, Oliver,” she said softly. “Would you be so kind as to call the carriage around to the front? I’ll meet it there in just a moment.”
“Of course, Miss,” he said with a bow.
She made her way back to the ballroom, and it only took a few moments to pinpoint Ruben’s bulk, as he danced with Patience Carmichael around the room. Coming up beside them, Anna tapped Patience lightly on the shoulder.
“I don’t mean to intrude, friends,” she smiled graciously, “but I was wondering if I might steal Ruben for one dance before the evening ends.”
Patience stepped back with a smile, and Ruben beamed as he drew Anna up to him. “Well, this is a lovely turn of events,” he chuckled. “Do you remember when your mother kicked me out of the house because I was too dirty?”
“Yes, I remember. You poor boy, we did treat you shamefully at times.”
“If Victor hadn’t been there to carry both of us through it all, I don’t suppose we would be here dancing tonight.”
Anna glanced around the room, and they changed their steps to a new song as it began. “He has left already, Ruben.”
“I know. I saw him go.”
“Do you know why he left?”
Ruben shrugged. “To think. To pray. He never was much for social gatherings anyway.”
“I know that… But was there something more behind it all?”
“Something to do with you, you mean?”
She bit her lower lip, gazing up into her friend’s eyes. “Yes. Anything to do with me?”
“Victor doesn’t confide in me about all the details of his life. But if I had to guess, I would say that you are on his mind a great deal.”
“Is he upset with me, then?”
Ruben shook his head. “No. There would be no reason to be upset with you, really. I think he’s coming to the point of realizing that he’s moving on from this part of his life. He’ll be going to London, and he doesn’t seem to think he’ll have much contact with us out here. It’s a difficult time for him, faced with moving on from the familiar world to a strange one.”
“But he still shares the same camaraderie with you that he always has! Why does it have to be different with me?”
“Do you really have to ask, Anna?”
She nodded, closing her eyes for a moment. “I know. His friendship towards me has always been different.”
“And your friendship towards him?”
She smiled wistfully. “Different, in the same manner, I suppose.”
“Aye,” Ruben nodded sagely. “And he is not so blind to those things as he would have us believe. But he has known for years he would be a doctor, probably working in some of the poorer areas, and when he left for London to go to school, I think he decided to leave all of this behind him, for your sake. And then when your uncle saved the day at Trafalgar, and you became the goddess of every young naval officer in the fleet, well… I think it merely served to harden his resolve to move on.”
 “Is it jealousy that afflicts him, then?”
Ruben chuckled. “Jealous of your tall, handsome lieutenant, you mean? Maybe a little. But that’s not the main part. He knows Lieutenant Green is a good man, and he is content in that. What bothers him, I think, is disappointment—not with you, Anna, but with himself and with the situation. With himself, because he can’t move on as smoothly as he would have liked. And with the situation, because it is complicated and he knows that he’s hurting you, but he can’t see any other way around it. He still cares for you, Anna, and this process of leaving all over again is tearing him up.”
“Thank you for your candor, dear friend…for your wisdom.” She began to step away, but Ruben caught her by the shoulder.
“What are you going to do?”
“I have to talk with him, Ruben. I won’t let it end, not like this.” Her expression was firm, and her dark eyes danced with the same insatiable fire that he had seen many times before. There would be no stopping her.
“Be careful, Anna,” he said gravely. “Reconciliation is good, but I don’t want to see either of you coming out of this wounded. Think well on what you do, because this thing may shape the remainder of your days, or his.”
She set her jaw and nodded. “I know what I’m doing, Ruben. I have been waiting for this night since he went away to London. But do say a prayer for me, please. Perhaps through all of this we may yet see the peace of Christ in our friendships, even in all the confusion.”
“That is a noble hope, my friend. Go on, then. And may God go with you.”
“Thank you,” she whispered as she drew away. Making her way quickly to the entrance of the manor, she threw a shawl over her shoulders and stepped out into the night. The carriage was there, with Oliver sitting on the driver’s bench.
She smiled at him. “Shouldn’t you be minding the door, Oliver?”
Uncharacteristically, he returned the smile. “And miss the crowning moment of my lady’s birthday? I think not.”

~ ~ ~

Victor was kneeling at the prayer rail in the chapel of St. Martin. He had always loved that ancient little church—dwarfed in size and splendor by the cathedral at the base of the hill, but possessing a simple feeling of the presence of the holy. It was a tiny, unadorned chapel, with nothing but white walls, a set of wooden chairs, and the little altar. But Christians had been worshipping there ever since the Gospel first reached Saxon lands, and Victor felt in some way connected to that chain of witnesses.
And there he knelt, begging for God to make him a witness, too. His mind and heart were in turmoil, and he wasn’t quite certain why. Some if it concerned Anna, but there was also something more. Something from listening to John Carmichael and something from reading William Carey’s Enquiry earlier that day. But whatever it was, he knew he was on the brink of something great—something that stole the very breath from his lungs.
After a few minutes in prayer, just as he was beginning to get a sense of the answer he had come there seeking—an answer that had first haunted his hearing like the soft, low notes of a violin, and which was now thundering down on his consciousness as the clarion call of God—just then, he heard the wooden door of the chapel swing open. Wiping a sleeve over his tearful eyes, he turned and looked behind him. His suit was covered in dust from the floor of the chapel, but it didn’t matter anymore. And in spite of his tears, he couldn’t help but allow a smile to break out across his face when he saw his friend standing there.
“Oliver told me you were here,” she admitted, her hands clasped before her. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“No. No, I’ve done what needed to be done here. Would you like to go outside to talk?”
She nodded, and Victor blew out the candles he had lit, leaving the chapel shrouded in darkness. They walked arm in arm out of the chapel and around its side, through the old parish cemetery. Tall, ancient yew trees grew like silent guardians around the sanctuary, giving it an added air of holy mystery. There was something quiet and beautiful there—as if the place itself had memory of the holy deeds done there.
They walked up the little slope behind the chapel, where they turned and stood, gazing up together at the heavens. The stars were out in all their glory that night, shining like candles lit for a celestial Evensong. And there, beneath their resplendent beauty, the two friends breathed together.
“I’m sorry for rushing away like that, Anna,” he said at last. “There were some matters of the heart that I had to make straight.”
“That’s quite alright. I’m just glad I found you again.” They were silent for a few moments, then she turned to him. “I really loved your song. Thank you for that—it brought back memories of happy days together.”
“Yes, happy days. But to be honest, I hadn’t planned on playing it for you. That was my mother’s doing, and it certainly took me by surprise.”
“That makes sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I spoke with Ruben after you left. He’s under the impression that you’re trying to make a clean cut with your friendships here before you move on to the next stage in life.”
“I suppose there’s some truth in that.”
There was a long, trembling silence between them. And then Anna spoke, her voice a broken whisper.
“So there’s no room for me in the next stage of your life?”
He turned and looked at her for a long moment.
“Anna,” he breathed softly. “I would have wanted it to be so, but… But it can’t be, can it? Our stations in life are so different, more different now than ever. I thought I had to do what is best for you.”
“And what is best for me, Victor?”
“You need to be in a place where you’ll be able to live a long, happy life—with a man who can provide for you, with a man of whom your father will approve.”
“Father can be persuaded. Tell me, what changed between us? I always imagined that you and I…. But then you went away to school, and nothing has been the same since you returned.” Tears began to well up in her eyes again.
Victor drew a deep breath and gazed up at the heavens as if pleading for strength. “Anna, you come from a noble family. I’m the son of a Scottish tailor. You’re a lady, and I’m going to be nothing more than a penniless doctor, giving my life away in the filth of the streets just so that some of those people out there can have a chance for some small piece of the happiness I’ve had in life!”
“Do you really think that would keep me away? I don’t need to be pampered, Victor.”
“But that’s not the entire picture, either. There is more—and I hesitate to tell you, because I’m still not certain of it myself.” He paused for a few moments, clenching his jaw. “Maybe you should just forget about me and go marry Lieutenant Green. He’s a fine man—brave and noble.”
“Victor, I don’t want to forget about you! Yes, Elijah’s a fine man, but there’s one thing in which he can never come close to you. He’s not… Well, he’s not Victor McNeill.”
“I see,” he breathed. Then, with a wistful smile, he continued: “There would have been a day when I would have given almost anything to hear such words from you.”
“Are those days gone already?” she was nearly weeping now, and it broke his heart. He wanted to gather her up in his embrace, but he knew he couldn’t. He had to do what was right, what was best for her. He loved her too much to let her come with him now. Not after realizing what lay before him in the road of life. But he still had to be honest.
Drawing a deep breath, he spoke. “No, those days are not gone. Anna, I care for you deeply, and this is why I can’t let you come with me where I’m going.”
“I don’t understand. I can live in London with you. Many Canterbury ladies dream of a life in that city!”
“I know that…but I may not be going to London.”
Her brow furrowed. “But I thought—”
“So did I. Until tonight. Anna, I’m going to be a missionary.”
“A missionary?” the breath caught in her throat. “But why?”
“Because someone must go, and so few have. Did you ever think about them, Anna?—multitudes upon multitudes of men and women, dying every day without ever hearing of the glorious news that we’ve known all our lives. I know the need, so how can I hold back now?”
“But surely there are others….”
“Yes, but they will not follow unless someone steps out and leads.”
“But you’ll be killed! Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Africa, perhaps.”
Africa? Amidst the cannibals—heathen savages? If they don’t kill you within a week, the heat and tropical disease certainly will!”
“Maybe. But dangers are part of the way of the cross. I am in the Lord’s hands—if he sees fit to preserve me, then I will do his work for as many days as he grants. And if I am martyred, perhaps he will use my example to drive others to the ends of the earth.”
“Please, Victor, don’t throw your life away like this!” she grabbed his hands and held them tightly. “I don’t want to lose you!”
“Anna, can’t you understand? I am not my own anymore. Until tonight, when I prayed and heard his voice, I didn’t know for certain. But now I am convinced. He has commissioned me, and I must obey.”
Anna sank to her knees on the grassy turf, weeping into her hands. Victor knelt down and embraced her gently.
“I am sorry, Anna—sorry for us. Were it up to me, I would have chosen to stay here with you. But the choice is not simply mine to make. Unless I undertake the adventures that the Lord prepares for me, I will never be content. But now you see—I can’t put you through that kind of life. I love you too much, dear friend, to allow you to share my hard and bitter road.”
She shook her head, then looked up into his eyes for a long moment. Tears still streamed down her cheeks, and she leaned forward and gently placed a kiss on her friend’s cheek.
“Goodbye, Victor,” she whispered. “May God go with you.”
He broke the embrace, and she rose to her feet, and without turning made her way back through the silent churchyard, disappearing between the gnarled silhouettes of the yew trees.
Victor, still kneeling on the grass, released a deep breath and gazed heavenward. He heard her carriage roll away, and only then did the tears begin to come to his eyes. He let his body fall back onto the soft sod, and there he wept for the life he had thrown away. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

The essays linked below are not entirely serious--they are written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, and they offer insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.


How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Non-Institutional Church Options

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Three: Avoid the Institutional Church
(Section Five: Non-Institutional Options)

         So if you’re avoiding the institutional church, what are your options? Well, you could always go solo. That’s the easiest way of staying in your comfort zone: just avoid all other Christians altogether. It’s easy enough nowadays to be a Christian without church—you just pretend like you are your own “Body of Christ” (in the hope, of course, that among the members of the Body you happen to be a torso rather than an ankle, and thus can keep some measure of a self-sustaining existence apart from the other members). You can join an imaginary church by watching one on TV or on the Internet. It’s the easiest way to pretend you’re part of the church without actually being part of it, and you will rarely, if ever, have to interact with anyone who pushes you out of your comfort zone.
            If you’re truly daring, you can join one of the new movements of other Christians who are also disaffected with the institutional church. There’s usually a motley band of this sort around somewhere, if you know where to look, and they usually don’t mind a few extra tagalongs (so long as you’re willing to submit to their institutional model). If you go this route, though, there are a few things to keep in mind: movements of this type have a tendency to become normal local churches after awhile. (I suspect this is because of the insidious nature of institutionalism over against the derring-do of revolutionary authenticity, but an alternative explanation could be the work of the Holy Spirit.) So as soon as your nontraditional Christian movement starts to look suspiciously like an institution, be ready to jump ship. Thankfully, this will not happen to all such movements, because some will descend into personality cults (which are often very effective sources of long-term misery), and will disintegrate into nothingness as soon as the founding leader gets bored.
            If you are part of a nontraditional Christian movement instead of a local church, there are some effective things you can do to make sure that it never becomes a boring old institution. One of the easiest ways to do this is to never pay your pastor. Paid pastors are institutional stooges. They may, it is true, accomplish far more ministry in the name of the church, often behind the scenes, that their own congregations are even unaware of—unheralded labors in pastoral care, compassion for the poor, deep study of the Scriptures, and persevering, dedicated prayer—but the institutional factor of having salaried clergy just isn’t worth the risk. If you stick to unpaid leaders for your movement, pseudo-monastic order, or house church, you’ll guarantee that your leaders don’t have the time or freedom to deepen their ministries or their personal Christian walks to the point of becoming thoroughly institutionalized.
            Also, it’s a good idea to choose just a single dimension of the full-orbed biblical model of the church, and to focus all your attention on that one angle. Specialization, as we know, leads to excellence. So never mind the fact that institutional churches have always been devoted to three equal branches of ministry: the worship of God (the upward ministry), the work of discipleship (the inward ministry), and the missional outreach to the world (the outward ministry). Just choose one of the three, and devote yourselves to that. It’s helpful if you can do this in contrast to an institutional church in your neighborhood, so that it looks like their missional efforts pale in comparison to your own (but don’t mention, of course, that they are quite probably better at the other two aspects of Christian growth than you are, because that would negate your selling-point).
            If you’re not willing to go solo or to risk joining a nontraditional Christian group that might possibly turn into a dreaded institution, then there’s still another avenue open for you. You can become one of the perpetually disaffected adventurers journeying through our Christian landscape, always visiting different churches until they find the perfect one. This is a good recipe for preserving your misery, because it allows you to maintain your narrowness and your comfort zone while still being a part of local churches. You can even, at times, stay for weeks or months at any given church, but ultimately you’ll find that you’ll have to move on, because someone or something within the church will finally make it clear to you that it is simply not the right place for you. So you’ll go on, out to another one, looking for the perfect church.
This is a great strategy for a miserable Christian life, because, as you might have guessed, there is no perfect church. Or, at least, not one that’s perfect for your current comfort zone. Oh, some churches out there might claim that they are perfect in at least one respect: they are the handiwork of God and the beloved Bride of Christ (a point we may be forced to concede); but in the sense of perfectly conforming to my personal tastes, there are no churches that have ever reached, nor will ever reach, that high standard. Usually, this is because churches are composed of people who are not me, and that irritates me out of my habituated comfort after awhile. Thus, the quest for the perfect church goes on! And as long as I’m not committing to be a long-term part of a local church, then I’m not in danger of being stretched, broadened, and forced into those deeper disciplines that might eradicate my long-sought-for misery.
            Bottom line: stay away from the institutional church if you want any hope for being miserable. It’s certainly possible that you can find misery even while part of a church, but it’s almost guaranteed apart from it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Threshing Floor

Softly now I wait for Him…
He comes with fire and purity.
Chastening, speaking…
Gently, like the whisper of a dove’s wings
As it glides aloft upon the wind.
Furiously, like the war cry
Of a thousand mighty men prepared for war.
His thundering tenderness overwhelms me—
I am consumed by a rampant love
            I can’t begin to understand.
And He leads me to the threshing floor…
Many times I’ve been here—
This, a cross which frequently
            is mine to bear.
Will I ever be the victor?
Or shall this cruel fork
Always find some chaff
within my soul?
The Master takes me,
And casts my weary heart
To the refining, rushing wind.
Oh, the agony of being torn asunder!
Why can I not lie here in peace?
But I know that with pain comes purity,
And somehow I will become the useful grain
And the good seed of the Lord my God.
So I submit, that He may work.
I bow to the Master of Creation,
And He smiles at me
            with a tear in His eye.
And He takes His staff
And begins
            the winnowing of my heart.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Photo of the Week

The eyes of all look to You,
And You give them their food at the proper time.
You open Your hand
And satisfy the desires of every living thing.

- Psalm 145:15-16

Monday, March 26, 2018

Quote of the Week

This is the road of my desire—
Learning to love as God loves me,
Ready to pass through flood or fire
With Christ’s unwearying constancy.

- Frank Houghton

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

O Lord Jesus Christ, King of kings: you have power over life and death, you know even what is uncertain and obscure, our thoughts and feelings are no secret from you. Cleanse me from my hidden faults, for I have done evil and you have seen it. Day by day my life draws nearer to its end and my sins increase in number. O Lord, God of spirits and of all corporeal creatures, you know how frail I am, in soul and in body. Give me strength, Lord, in my weakness and uphold me in my sufferings. Lord, do not disdain my prayer, a sinner’s though it is and worthless; but leave with me until the end that grace of yours that has been my protection until now. Your grace it was that taught me wisdom. I am unworthy and sinful, Lord, but still I bless and praise you, for you have poured your mercies lavishly over me; you have been my Helper and Protector; your great name deserves eternal glory. Glory to you, O Lord, our God.

- Ephrem the Syrian

Friday, March 23, 2018

Worth It All (Part 3 of 7)

* This is Part 3 of a historical fiction novella that I wrote in 2005, now publicly available for the first time. You can find the other parts by clicking the "Worth It All" link under the Full Series list in the sidebar.

The Carmichaels’ house was, as Aidan had predicted, nothing compared to the McNeill residence. It was a low, blockish structure, built of several different shades of brickwork. It had one rickety door and two windows, covered now with wooden shutters which had been drawn tight against the gathering chill of the evening.
“Let’s hope the minister is in good spirits,” Ruben said. “Sometimes these religious men can be a bit uptight.”
“Compared to you, Rube, the entire world is marvelously uptight. Go on, do the honors.”
Ruben rapped sharply on the wooden door. It opened, and there stood Patience, beaming the same bright smile that had provided a warming light in the darkness of the previous night. She had let down her long brown hair, and it hung about her shoulders in a most attractive way. But Aidan had been right again—she was wearing a long blue skirt and a white blouse, which, although they gave her an air of simple grace, would have seemed very much out of place amid the grandeur of Anna Nelson’s ball.
“Gentlemen,” she said with a curtsy. “Welcome to our home.”
The two friends bowed low.
“You look wonderful,” Ruben said with a smile.
Victor nodded his assent. “Very nice indeed.”
She laughed. “It’s been too long since I heard shameless flattery. Thank you both.”
Ruben gave her a broad grin. “You’re quite welcome, Miss Carmichael.”
“Please, call me Patience. I, um… I think I might stand out a bit at the ball with these dreary clothes, but there wasn’t a great deal else I could go with at the last minute.”
“We thought the invitation was rather quick as well,” said Ruben. “So we brought you a gift. Victor’s father is a tailor, and he was more than happy to provide it. So if you would like, you’re welcome to try this.” He thrust the package toward her, wrapped in plain brown paper.
She blushed and accepted it with thanks. Opening up the paper, she let out a little gasp of delight. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed, holding her new gown up in the fading light of the dimming sun. “Thank you so much.”
“Our pleasure, Patience,” Ruben replied with another bow.
“Patience!” a deep voice called out from inside the house. “Are you going to keep those poor lads standing on the doorstep all night long? Bring them on in!”
She smiled and stepped aside, ushering Ruben and Victor inside. If the outside of the house looked as though they were in the depths of poverty, the interior managed to improve on the impression a bit, with a quaint sort of simplistic charm. The furnishings were austere, to be sure, but there was definite evidence of a woman’s refining touch to it all. The house was divided into just three rooms—two to the left, which provided separate chambers for the minister and his daughter, and one on the right, which served as a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and study all combined into one cramped space.
As they rounded the corner from the narrow entryway, Victor and Ruben were greeted by a large, powerful man—not quite as big as Ruben, but impressive nonetheless. He had great, muscled arms that bespoke more years of turning soil with a plow than turning the pages of a Bible. He looked to be about fifty, with a balding head crowned in a wild tonsure of silvery hair. But his eyes, more than anything else about the man, were what seized their attention. Large eyes, and gray, they seemed to dance and sparkle with a joyous intensity, a frenetic energy that caught them both off-guard.
He stood up and offered his hand to both young men, nearly crushing Victor’s hand in the process. His smile was broad, and, despite being gap-toothed, it reflected the same powerful joy that radiated from his daughter’s presence.
“We’re glad to have you with us, lads,” he said, motioning to two straight-backed wooden chairs, which they took. Patience made the introductions and then turned around to tend to the food while the men talked.
The minister eased his considerable mass onto a similar chair, which offered a creak of complaint under the stress.
“Well, boys,” he grinned, “you’re in for a treat. Patience has been cooking for you all afternoon, and she can cook as well as her Mum, if not better!”
They nodded in agreement, for already the succulent aroma of roasted lamb and freshly-baked bread was filling the air. Victor wondered with a flash of guilt at what expense they had gone to provide that kind of meal for them.
“Patience told me a bit about what happened last night,” he said, continuing on in his grand, open style. “It looks like you two came out not too poorly after all, save for your eye, Mister McNeill.”
“I’m just glad we were able to drive them away in time,” he replied.
“Yes,” said Patience, turning away from the kitchen table for a moment. “How is your servant?”
“He’s awake, and that’s a blessing. It looks like he’ll make his recovery, but I doubt he’ll ever be able to use his leg quite as well again.”
“No doubt the time of prayer was efficacious for his healing,” Ruben noted, at which the minister nodded.
Victor smiled slightly. His friend was trying to win the approval of Patience’s father, for rather obvious reasons.
“Yes, and a noble cause, that,” the minister said as he crossed one leg onto his knee. “To save the life of a servant. Noble cause. Christ gave his life to save the least of these, our brethren.”
“Reverend Carmichael,” Victor began, at which the minister held up his hand.
“I haven’t been ordained by the Church of England, lad, and Methodist ordinations don’t proffer much credit for most people hereabouts. Call me John.”
“John,” he continued, “tell us a little bit about the work you’ll be doing here.”
The big man nodded in appreciation of the request. “Have you lads heard much about the Methodists?”
“You take after John Wesley, don’t you?”
“After a fashion. We prefer to say that we take after Jesus Christ and his disciples, but you’re right—John Wesley was the spark that God used to light the fire. Canterbury is not an easy city to do this kind of work in, you know.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Ruben chuckled. “Most of the folks around these parts are woven into the grain of the established Church—always have been, always will be. What with the archbishop here, and the added fact that this was where Christianity began in England. They’re proud of their heritage here.”
“True. But in actuality, I’m not trying to win anyone away from the Church of England. It might work out that way in some cases, but that’s not the goal. In fact, Wesley himself stood firmly against separating from the state church. So I look on my ministry more as one within the existing church—reaching out to those of the parish that, for one reason or another, haven’t sought to be woven into the grain of their local church. I’m not building anything new, but I’m trying to breathe life onto the spark of Christian spirituality in the hearts of the men and women of these parts.”
“And how do you go about that?” asked Ruben.
“Well, by encouraging them to follow the disciplines. Here in England, many are afforded remarkable luxury, and that can lead to laxity in the spiritual life. People don’t have to depend on God for day-to-day life, so God becomes a sort of add-on to life rather than the underlying foundation. Christianity becomes a Sunday experience rather than the meaning of life. I’m here to fight that kind of laxity and to remind people that although the Christian life is a blessing and gift of God through His grace, it is something that must be worked at. We must persevere. Christians today miss so much of the abundant life the Christ offered. So I help people by encouraging them to continue in their personal devotional life—in reading the Bible and in persistent prayer. Only in such things will we really begin to see the face of God and know His will for our lives.”
As John spoke, Victor felt his heart begin to rise. There was something special about this man, something captivating. Something that made him want to embrace that abundant life with everything he had within him. If it was anything like the joy that radiated from John and Patience, he wanted that deeper experience of the faith.
“But you don’t have your own church, do you?” Ruben asked. “How do you plan to go about this—in a practical sense?”
“No, I don’t have a church,” he replied, leaning back in his seat. “But the rector at St. Martin’s chapel has been gracious enough to allow me to help him in his ministry there. He has agreed that since I’m not trying to pull members away from his flock, there is nothing in my message with which he can find fault. So for the time being, I will be encouraging and uplifting the flock there.”
“Ah,” Ruben laughed. “If the rector tells you any interesting stories about the two of us, use a discerning ear. I think he may yet harbor a grudge, though I suppose as an upstanding churchman he has probably forgiven us by now.”
“Why would he hold a grudge against you?”
“Well,” Ruben said, glancing over at Victor, “in our younger days most of the rectors of the city predicted that we would become the most unregenerate, filthy sinners in the city—damned in life before ever seeing the Judgment Seat.”
“But,” Victor added, “our reputation was not entirely undeserved. It’s merely that what we saw as harmless fun, the clerics took as evidence of rank sinfulness in our hearts. You see, we would play pranks on them to—well, to liven up the meetings a bit. We had a band of friends about our age—probably twelve of us—and we would pull of some rather intricate schemes, but none of it came across favorably to them. They particularly disliked our re-enactments of certain biblical scenes in the cathedral yard. We were dubbed ‘the Hellfire Brigade,’ and the name stuck. So I fear we may not be seen in the most favorable light by most of the clergymen in this town.”
“Ah, yes,” John smiled, tapping a finger thoughtfully against his cheek. “Let’s see—you drink, you brawl in the street, you dance. And I might add,” he grinned coyly, “you invite a strange, pretty girl to go with you. On top of all that, you’ve been known to show blatant disrespect for churchmen. Not a recipe for acclamation by men wearing the robe of the church, is it?”
Victor and Ruben exchanged another glance, and John laughed.
“In fact, John Wesley himself would have undoubtedly condemned you and called you to repentance! But to be honest, lads, I’ve grown up with a faith that told me not to judge men—that it’s the heart that counts. And as I think on it, the Lord we follow was known to drink, to start a brawl of sorts in the Temple, to speak to strange women in a way completely off-limits for the customs of his time, and he certainly wasn’t overly concerned with impressing the religious men of his day. So all in all, I couldn’t pass judgment on you without passing the same judgment against the Savior of the world. From where I sit, lads, you’re in good company.”
By that time, both young men were beaming at him. Here was a churchman whom they could grow to love—a man not tinged by pride or false decorum, and thoroughly concerned with portraying the love and joy of a life surrendered to Christ. For both Victor and Ruben, who despite their good-natured pranks had grown up in strong religious families, their faith was the foundation of their lives. And to hear it so marvelously put from his lips of this simple, impoverished minister was as moving as listening to a breathtaking piece of music.
The conversation continued on from there, and Victor talked for a while about his time at the London School of Medicine and his plans to return there to work in Dr. Taylor’s practice. Ruben also spoke for a time, talking about his family and their daily routine of work on the farm. After a while the conversation turned to politics—the one subject that every man in Europe was well-versed in. As Napoleon continued his march across the Continent virtually unchecked, tensions were rising in Britain, and there wasn’t a soul in England who didn’t know a thing or two about the situation.
They hadn’t spent more than ten minutes on the subject, however, before Patience announced that the food was ready. Picking up their chairs, they moved over to the simple wooden table, which was decked out with ordinary pewter ware. But the food itself seemed incredible, and Patience was practically glowing with delight as all three men voiced their hearty compliments. Joining hands around the table, John led them in a short, heartfelt prayer, and they quickly fell to consuming as much of the lamb and potatoes as they could. Even Ruben was able to sate his appetite, and by the end all three men were leaning back in their rickety wooden chairs, smiling contentedly.
After the dishes and remaining food had been cleared away, John announced that he would take over washing the dishes for the night, and Patience planted a grateful kiss on his cheek.
“Why don’t you go see how that new dress looks?” he suggested. After she withdrew to her room, he turned to Victor and Ruben. “You know, lads,” he said softly, “that girl has been my light and joy since her mother passed on five years ago. I’m trusting you to take care of her tonight.”
“You have the word of our honor,” said Ruben.
Within a few minutes Patience had reappeared, now wearing the beautiful blue gown, which seemed to draw out the fire and warmth of her eyes. All three men stared at her for a long moment, then her father let out a low chuckle.
“Patience, darling,” he breathed, “you are beautiful. All the boys in town will be wanting to dance with you tonight. Don’t let it pull you down the road of pride. For my part, though, looking at you…well, pride is just about the best word for it, I guess.”
“Stop it, Daddy,” she blushed.
It was nearing time for them to be on their way, and just as they were bidding goodnight to the minister, there came the sound of a horse’s hoofs drawing close to the house. Victor threw open the door, and there in the lane was Phaeton, the family’s stallion, hitched up to the black carriage. Julius, of course, was in no condition to drive, so Aidan sat perched on the front bench, and Clara was sitting in the coach, a picture of grace and elegance in her frilly gown. Ruben offered his hand as Patience stepped into the coach, and the two young men clambered up after her.
It took a good fifteen minutes to drive to the Nelson estate, and the air was warm and sweet that night as the dew settled onto the fields. Victor breathed deeply, hoping and praying that somehow the night would end without significant heartache for him.
The Nelson manor was grand, on a scale that easily dwarfed the McNeill home, and as they disembarked from the carriage a flood of memories overwhelmed Victor’s mind. So many times he had joyfully frequented these halls, and now his return was something of a question mark.
They entered in, first Aidan and Clara McNeill, followed closely by their son, and then Ruben and Patience, arm-in-arm. Oliver greeted them at the door in his usual somber tone and led them down the resplendent hallway into the grand ballroom, a vast open area lit above by two crystal chandeliers. The sweet music of a string quintet filled the air, and already several of the guests were dancing in time to a lively waltz. The eyes of Patience and Ruben, unaccustomed to such opulence, were open wide to take it all in.
At the far end of the room, Anna sat on a chair of mahogany and rich red velvet, behind which stood her parents and Lieutenant Green, who was decked out in all the resplendent trappings of his dress uniform. Anna herself was an image of beauty—she was dressed in a bright green gown, the color of springtime, and her dark, curly hair fell attractively around the curves of her high cheekbones. She watched the people at the ball with pleasure and grace, often rising from her seat to trade a few words of greeting. It was the evening of her nineteenth birthday, and she was the paragon of womanly charm and splendor, and so all the brash young men made bold to tell her. There were, in fact, a number of them there—mostly naval men, seeking to win the heart of the beautiful niece of Admiral Lord Nelson, hero of Trafalgar.
Oliver marched directly up to Anna with the five newly arrived guests close behind. Bowing low, he presented them each by name. She smiled graciously at Aidan and Clara, thanking them for the gift of the dress which she was wearing. Victor had managed to drop to the rear of the group, so Ruben and Patience were presented next, and she rose and embraced Ruben with a grin. The Irishman lifted her off her feet and twirled her around, drawing out a merry laugh.
“Happy birthday, old friend,” he beamed as he set her down. “For a lady with one foot in the grave, you don’t look too bad.”
“Thanks, Ruben!” she smiled. “You’re looking pretty good yourself. And this must be Miss Carmichael.”
“Please call me Patience,” she said, curtsying.
“Of course. Welcome, and thank you for coming.”
They moved on, and Victor stood alone before her. They gazed at each other for a long moment, and then Victor bowed low, took her hand, and pressed her slender fingers to his lips. Straightening, he gave her an easy smile.
“Happy Birthday, Anna.”
Immediately, she rushed forward and caught him in an embrace, as much to hide from him the tears welling up in her eyes as to hold him in her arms. Victor caught the glances of surprise on the faces of Lord and Lady Nelson, but he had no choice but to raise his arms and complete the embrace. And holding her there, in the midst of the crowd, it felt for just an instant like the hard years of separation were gone, and they were together again, friends through childhood and now friends once more.
Victor glanced up again and now saw the hard glare he was receiving from both the Lieutenant and Lord Nelson, so he cleared his throat and released her. She looked at him, her dark eyes still a bit watery, and she smiled.
“I’m glad you came, Victor.”
“It is good to see you again, Anna,” he replied, barely above a whisper.
He made to move away, but she caught his elbow. “You must save at least one dance for me tonight. For old times’ sake, at the very least.”
“The pleasure will be mine,” he said with a respectful incline of his head.
The evening seemed to go by fairly swiftly at first—both Ruben and Victor danced with Patience several times, who, despite being a Methodist, proved to be fairly skilled at it. Anna danced as well—mostly with Elijah Green, the stunningly handsome young naval officer who, it was commonly known, had won the approval of Lord Nelson. It was a light, merry time for the most part, with the musicians keeping the mood cheerful as couples danced about on the ballroom floor. Later in the evening, Lieutenant Green and several of his midshipmen cornered Victor and Ruben, trying to convince them that the state of the world demanded of their consciences that they enlist in the war effort. It was a pleasant talk for the most part, but neither of the two young men made any promises to join His Majesty’s navy.
Anna did get her dance with Victor—two, in fact. On the second dance, the musicians asked Anna for her choice, and once the piece was selected, all of the other guests dropped back from the dance floor in order to watch. So there, with all of their Canterbury friends looking on, Victor and Anna danced together, making their way gracefully around the floor. And in his heart, Victor believed it would be the last time in his life when he would dance with that lovely young lady who had been his faithful friend for as long as he could remember.
The dance ended, they parted with a smile, and Victor began to look for an opportunity to withdraw from the party. But at that moment, he heard his mother’s voice rising over the murmur of the crowd in the silence between songs.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Clara McNeill called out, “I am pleased to be able to announce to you that my son, Victor McNeill, has a special birthday gift which he has prepared for Miss Anna Nelson. This is a song that he composed, and he will play it for you now.”
Victor was frozen in shock. His mother asked for a violin from the musicians and carried it over to him. Placing the instrument in his hands, she looked deep into his eyes.
“You wrote it for her, Victor. Play it with everything that’s in your heart.”
He walked over to where Anna was standing, bowed to her, and set the violin to his chin. Carefully drawing the horsehair bow across the taut strings, he began to play, filling the room with the melody. It came more easily than he thought it would—as he gazed into Anna’s eyes, the song seemed to come to life on its own. And as the melody filled the room and built to its crescendo, there came that familiar array of notes. And when he played them, he saw Anna’s eyes grow bright with tears. It was their song—the one they had sung together from childhood days. As the melody traced gently over those notes, her lips formed the silent words. The resolution of the piece was quick, but beautiful, and as he lowered the violin he was greeted with a thunderous round of applause.
Blushing slightly, he turned and bowed to the crowd, then turned back and faced Anna. She was crying openly, but smiling through her tears, and she rushed up and threw her arms around his neck.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
By that time, Victor didn’t know what to make of it all, and he retreated quickly from the attention of the crowd, which returned to Anna. He slipped out of the ballroom and made his way toward the door, where Oliver stood, tall and proper.
“Headed home, Master McNeill?” he wondered aloud.
“Not home,” he breathed. “I’m going to St. Martin’s. I need some time to think. You can tell my family that I’ll come home on my own.”
Oliver nodded. “There are few better spots for thinking than the chapel of St. Martin. Thank you for coming, Master McNeill, and may God bless you.”
Victor smiled slightly. “And you also, Oliver. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, sir,” he said, opening wide the door.
Victor stepped out, took one look at the star-lit heavens, and disappeared into the night.