Corey Flanagan slumped into the hard pew, face in his hands, heart on his sleeve before God. For the last three hours he’d been studying his Bible, making notes for his sermon, completely unprepared for the visitor, who at that moment was shambling down the street, dressed to kill.
As sure as the sun would rise tomorrow for another Sunday, he’d step behind that sold oak pulpit to deliver another message to the ragged group that gathered.
The loser’s church.
20 years slipped by unnoticed by the city around him. While The Vineyard downtown attracted Christian pop superstars, Corey’s congregation welcomed various traveling gospel quartets and youth choirs. Other churches flowed with name-brand coffee (for a suggested donation), but Corey brewed a single carafe with bulk ground coffee.
His pews were not padded. The fact that they were not padded seemed irrelevant to people because pews were, in fact, irrelevant! As was the bulky pulpit with the bold cross affixed to the front. These were emblems of a stodgy, straight-laced age of organ-tune hymns, Sunday suits and calf-length dresses.
While the years had seen people come through the doors, few of them stayed long enough to find a favorite spot. Attendance was currently at fifteen people and he relied on the fact that the building was paid for to keep the doors open. In fact, they were always open. Corey only locked them when he was next door at the parsonage, but kept a sign letting a passerby know where to find him. It was this anachronistic open-door policy that let her enter that night, while Corey bent his head in tormented prayer.
Her ankles wobbled on her high heels and the blood on the tip of her shoes made her slip a little on the tile foyer. the click of her steps alerted Corey before the thump of the heavy door let him know she entered.
Sitting up and bending back, Corey said, “I’m in here.”
Her shoes stopped clacking against the floor as she transitioned to the carpet runner between the two sections of pews.
“It’s like you were expecting me, father.” Her voice trembled with a drunk humor laced with sarcasm.
Corey turned toward her, smiling. “You don’t need to call me father. You only have two, and I guarantee I’m neither.”
She slid into the pew behind him. “You sure about that … father?”
“Pretty sure. My wife died without conceiving a child, and I’m not God, so I can’t be either one for you.”
She sat in silence, a mix of her perfume, sweat and other odors crept over to Corey’s pew.
Finally, he said, “My name is Corey, Corey Flanagan. I preach here and try to help those that come looking for guidance. How can I help you … miss?”
“Funny that you didn’t introduce yourself by Reverend, or Pastor.“
Corey folded his hands and dropped his head. “I used to think very much of my title. Not any more.”
“I did. Or I should say, my focus did. I guess it’s really one and the same.”
“You just woke up and realized you weren’t very reverent and not much of a pastor? Is that it?”
Corey lifted his head at the hard tone that formed her words. “That’s right. As Isaiah said, I’m a man of unclean lips. And like the Apostle Peter, I, too have denied my Savior. More than three times, I’m sure. I have no right to claim anything except what Jesus does in my presence. And even that, I don’t claim, I just sort of … celebrate.”
“It’s been a long time since you’ve celebrated, hasn’t it?”
Corey let out a long sigh. “Yes, it has been.”
“Probably because God isn’t working in this world, if he ever was.”
This brought his attention back to the woman. Her party dress was ripped and slathered in blood. Her face bore deep scratches and her ratted hair looked like a lion’s mane.
“God is always working in the world, it is we who close our eyes to His power. Have you ever considered that He still does the same miracles today: turning the water to wine and multiplying the loaves and the fishes?”
“If God’s making wine, I’m coming to church!” She looked Corey up and down his face. Then she said, “You really believe He does.”
“Water falls from the sky and the grape turns it into wine. Fields of wheat multiply from a few grains and the waters teem with fish.”
“That’s called ecology and biology.”
“And it’s done at God’s hand. He programmed the universe to work this way.”
“Then answer me this: If God is so good, why is there so much horror that goes on day after day? Why are there victims dying in the streets or police beating people up? Why are whole countries dying of AIDS and Ebola? Everywhere you go there’s some jerk who wants to hurt someone, some step-parent killing a baby or … high-school girl getting drugged and raped. Some loving God you got there, making grapes, raising wheat and getting fish to fornicate while humanity is killing itself.”
“I find that argument very interesting.”
“Because you can’t deny it.”
“I wouldn’t ever deny the fact that humanity has rejected God, chasing after the lie that we can be our own gods, leading us to all sorts of wickedness, pain and death. That’s plain to see.”
“As plain as my the blood on my dress? As plain as the scratches all over my body? As plain as the years I suffered every form of torture you can imagine a man doing to me? That plain? You can sit there and look at me without raising an eyebrow, without any emotion at all and tell me about our sick humanity?”
At once, Corey realized all the strange odors he’d been trying to decipher since she sat down and his jaw dropped. Nervous tremors took him as he suddenly felt that he might be in the presence of a fugitive.
“You will need to forgive me, but I have been blind for the last ten years and could not see the way you look. Do you want to tell me what happened?”
“What part do you want to hear, Corey? The part about me rejecting God and had it all coming? Or the part where I kill you because that’s what you have coming?”
Corey wanted to jump up and run, but his body was old and would never respond as quickly as his mind would like it to. And his eyes would be no help.
“If you could have seen me walking in that door you would have thought the same thing those men at the Vineyard did. You’d have seen my curves and bra size, my hair and white smile and wondered how good I’d be. But because you’re blind, you can act all humble and preach about humanity’s rejection of God.”
Corey’s mouth felt dry, but he wanted to keep her talking, hoping it would stave off her action. “You’re right. The me inside would want that, too, just like anyone else. Which is why I need a loving God who saved me from it all.”
“Those pervs at the Vineyard say the same crap. The man who dominated me for the last fifteen years said it.”
“The difference … the difference is when someone doesn’t just say it, but has faith that changes them.”
“I’ll tell you what changed my dear hubby. A knife in his throat.”
Corey swallowed and said, “Death stopped his sin.”
“That’s right,” she said with bitter arrogance.
“Death is stopping mine, too.”
She lifted her right hand, which held the butcher knife.
“Jesus died on the cross and, by faith, I died there, too. When sin tempts me, it’s looking for a dead man to answer. My life, from that moment of faith, has been me standing at my own grave, throwing another shovelful of dirt on my old self, living more in Jesus’ resurrection. If you want to kill me right now, you may. For your husband, you freed him from the best he’ll ever know and sent him to the worst that can’t even be conceived of. For me, you’ll release me from the worst I’ll know to live in what’s better than I could ever hope.” Corey stood up and spread his hands out. “I’m ready to go, if you feel that will satisfy your pain. Just know that no one violates God’s Law with impunity. You’ll suffer more because you decided to take your pain in your own hands instead of turning to God in faith. But there’s still time. You can still repent. You can let Jesus take your sin…”
Corey realized that she hadn’t come closer and her smell had faded. Sirens filled the night and the doors in the foyer burst open. Heavy footfalls tramped across the tile and the carpet.
“Reverend Flanagan, are you okay?” It was Officer Smith, a local patrol cop who checked in on Corey from time to time.
“Yes, David, I’m fine. But I think there’s a woman who came in here. She said she killed her husband and wanted to kill me.”
“Are you sure there was a woman here?”
“Check the pew over there. She probably left blood stains from the amount of the stuff I could smell.”
“Sir, there’s nothing on this pew. Are you sure about this?”
“Yeah, she was sitting right there! I was talking with her.”
“When did you talk to her?”
“Just about a minute ago.”
“Corey, a woman’s body was found dead in the alley a block down the road.”
“Why did you come storming in here?”
“I was walking down the street to see if there were any witnesses and I heard you yelling at the top of your voice.” Officer Smith paused. “Corey are you sure you’re okay?”
Corey nodded. “I must have dozed off is all. I’ll be fine. Maybe if you could help me lock up.”
“Sure. I wouldn’t want you having any more excitement for the night.”