When I get to church, the rain’s pounding like a thousand tiny hammers, coating the ground in a sheet of splashing water. As I get out of my car to run for it, I see a soggy note on the youth room door.
“Pastor Hill, MUST SEE YOU TODAY. Out of office now, but will be back for meetings later. My office after your coffeehouse shift. —Pastor Aronsen.”
I stand in the rain, staring at the water-smudged words until I vaguely realize I’m drenched to the skin. Then finally, I unlock the youth room and slump inside.
Our senior pastor is somewhere north of 60 and very old school. He calls me “Pastor Hill” (never Jason); I call him “Pastor Aronsen.” He’s the one who told me not to serve pizza at youth group so “students will come for the Word instead of their stomachs.” He only reads the King James in the pulpit because “modern translations use vapid language.” The rumor around church is that if it was up to him instead of the leadership board, we wouldn’t have a youth pastor.
Well, he’s about to get his wish. I don’t know how he found out I’ve been living a lie, but I can only think of one reason Pastor Aronsen MUST SEE ME TODAY.
There’s no point in writing my sermon now. I unpack my laptop long enough to draft a resignation letter. If he lets me quit, it’ll look better when I apply for … whatever job disgraced youth pastors do.
I lock the youth room for the last time and drive down to the river, then turn off the engine and watch raindrops pelt the water until my breath fogs the windshield.
Every day (or hour), a different guilt weighs the most. Sometimes it’s how I’ve turned into My Old Man 2.0, proving once and for all that God’s grace can’t compete with crummy genes. Sometimes it’s the way I’ve been living a lie in front of the youth. Sometimes it’s how I dragged Cassie into sin. She went right along with me, if you know what I mean, but hello — I have Joy for a sister. I should know better.
Today, it’s the baby that feels the heaviest. Was it a boy? A girl? Would we have lost our child if Cassie wasn’t a huge ball of stress because she was a single girl dating an aspiring pastor?
Couldn’t we have kept our clothes on a little longer? We never used “protection,” I guess because it would’ve meant we were planning to sin. But once it was obvious we were screwing up our lives, why didn’t I go to the drugstore?
If I wasn’t so preoccupied with finals, I would’ve seen the signs that she was pregnant and made her visit the doctor sooner. Why didn’t I connect the dots when she started puking in the mornings?
And you wanna know the worst part — the only thing that finally made me and Cassie stop sleeping together? After the miscarriage, I felt like I’d be dancing on our baby’s grave if I touched her. We’ve hardly kissed since then. This entire mess feels like God’s punishment. OK, we deserve everything we got. But what did our baby do?
As I’m staring into a fogged windshield, a text alert from Cassie startles me: “Jason, we need to talk. TONIGHT.”
This is now officially the worst day of my life. I text my manager at the coffee shop and tell her I’m feeling terrible (which is true enough) and need to use a sick day. Just like with Pastor Aronsen, I can only think of one reason why Cassie needs to talk TONIGHT.
Can you write a resignation letter from a relationship?
I go back to my apartment, set the alarm for an hour, and lie down on the bed. When the alarm goes off, I’m still staring at the ceiling.
At some point I guess I fall asleep, because I wake up in the middle of a dream where my dad is saying what a good son I am. I ask why, and he grins: “Because you turned out just like your old man!”
I check the time as I shake off the nightmare — 6:00 pm. If I’d gone to work, I’d be getting off in half an hour. That’s when Pastor Aronsen is expecting me. I contemplate emailing my resignation letter, but decide to man up and face the firing squad. After that, it’s on to get dumped by the only girl I’ve ever loved in the only serious relationship I’ve ever had.
Maybe I’ll move home and live with Mom for a while. If I stay here, it’ll remind me every day what a failure I am. But come to think of it, Mom will do that, too.
I slowly walk to my car and drive to church.
The first thing I notice when Pastor Aronsen opens the door is Cassie. She’s sitting across his desk, eyes red from crying. Apparently, I’m getting dumped and fired at the same time.
“Pastor Hill, I’m glad you found my note. Will you have a seat?”
Avoiding his eyes, I sit stiffly in the remaining chair. Since I’m avoiding Cassie’s eyes too, there aren’t many places to look.
“I imagine you know why we’re here?”
I launch into the speech I rehearsed in my head while I stared at the ceiling. “Pastor Aronsen, I’ve let you and the church down. You trusted me, and I … I sinned. No excuses. I’m more sorry than words can say. I’m offering my resignation if … if I may.”
I hold out my letter. Pastor Aronsen doesn’t take it.
“Pastor Hill, I don’t believe a resignation is appropriate here.”
My heart sinks. Well, I tried.
“Ms. Kretovics came to me yesterday and confessed some things that were weighing on her soul.”
I’m torn between being ticked that Cassie got me fired, and hoping that a clear conscience will help her heal from the mess I’ve made of her life.
I look up from the floor. Did Pastor Aronsen just use my first name?
“I wish you’d come to me sooner.”
I’m confused. It’s just my imagination, of course, but it looks like Pastor Aronsen’s eyes are … moist.
“I know you and Cassie grew up in broken homes,” he says, “but you belong to a spiritual family. This church would have mourned your child with you.”
“But the baby … after what we did … God took her —”
“Do you think God took your child’s life?” the pastor asks incredulously. “Simply because of the way she was conceived?”
I blink back sudden tears because … well, yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.
“Only a cruel God would punish a child for her parents’ sins,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t worship a cruel God, Jason. Do you?”
I can’t talk right now, but Pastor Aronsen seems to understand. I feel like a boulder’s been lifted off my soul.
“Of course, there’s still the reality that you and Cassie sinned,” he continues gently. “Have you repented, Jason?”
I nod vehemently. “I feel terrible —”
“That’s not what I asked. Have you repented?”
Cassie speaks up. “Jase, I told him we haven’t … slept together. Not once. Not since the baby died.”
I try again to blink back tears, but it’s not working. They’re running down my face.
Pastor Aronsen’s eyes, however, are no longer moist. He returns to his usual brisk tones.
“Pastor Hill, I refuse to accept your resignation,” he says. “Contrary to popular belief, I’m well aware this church needs a youth pastor.”
I’m confused. Is this some weird way of telling me he hired a new person already?
“I suggest a leave of absence while you and Ms. Kretovics see a counselor,” he continues. “The church will cover the cost of therapy, and Ms. Kretovics believes you can request extra hours at the coffeehouse to make up for your paycheck. I pray that six months will be sufficient.”
My brain is slowly starting to process his words. “You mean … I can come back?”
“Assuming you continue in repentance,” the pastor says. “And I have every reason to believe you will.”
“But people will say —”
“Pastor Hill, people will always say something,” says Pastor Aronsen sharply. “But at last check, preaching grace was in my job description.”
I look at Cassie. Her eyes are glowing — glowing like they were when she agreed to be my girlfriend, glowing like the first time we said “I love you.” Suddenly, I want to kiss her …
No, not in front of Pastor Aronsen. I’ve seen his human side tonight, but that would be a bit much.
“I’m sure you have much to discuss, and it’s late,” he says. “I’ve given Ms. Kretovics the names of two counselors I recommend. Is there anything else?”
I try to wipe away the tears that are coating my face and stand up to leave.
Pastor Aronsen stands as well, and his eyes bore into mine. “Pastor Hill? Let me offer you one other piece of parting advice.”
“I’m listening, sir,” I say.
“To paraphrase a certain tasteless song … if you love her, then you’d better put a ring on it.”
Cassie and I walk to the parking lot in silence. There are so many things to say — hours of painful truths and hopeful dreams to share. But right now, none of them feel important. So I lean against my car, Cassie leans against my shoulder, and I wrap her in both arms.
I feel her crying silently, but that’s OK, because I’m crying, too, and they’re cleansing tears, like the rain that washes away summer heat. A prayer of gratitude that can’t be reduced to words forms in my mind. I whisper aloud, “Grace.”
The sky is dark with clouds behind me. The air is sodden and it still might rain. But on the horizon, a patch of revealed glory is glowing red-gold in a surprise sunset. And tonight, that’s where I’m fixing my gaze.
I might also spare a gaze or two for Cassie. But I think that’s OK.