This is the fifth preview chapter of my novel, Not to the Swift. You can find the original post describing the novel here, and the novel is available on my Amazon author page.
The mirrored glass windows of Stapleton Baptist Community Church gleamed in the morning sun. An usher with white gloves directed Chris Mason’s four-door hybrid to a spot near the front door in a section marked “First Time Visitors.” Laura unbuckled Hailey, who jumped from the edge of the car door with a cheer, unconcerned for Sunday best propriety.
Laura took Chris’s extended arm, holding Hailey’s hand in hers. “Where’d you hear about this place, hon?”
Chris shrugged. “Biggest ad in the phone book—for a Southern Baptist church at least. They have a TV show and post sermons online. Pastor sounded pretty cool. Not sure how I feel about the music.”
A smiling elderly greeter in a long floral dress held the door and shook their hands. She gave them a visitor gift package and showed Hailey a huge grin. “Hello there, pretty!”
The aroma of fresh brewed coffee filled the foyer. Two young women served up lattes and mochas behind a counter set up on a patch of tiled floor. Churchgoers carrying iPads occupied the tables and stools provided, laughing and chatting before the service if their eyes weren’t glued to the screen of a smartphone.
Another usher inside led the Masons through the sanctuary’s double wood doors to a comfortable spot in the middle of the rows of padded chairs. Chris took in the church’s massive size, with a balcony level and seating all along the sloping sides of the bright room. A slideshow presentation scrolled on three large screens near the front, informing congregants of upcoming events and opportunities to serve. A countdown ticked two minutes and seven seconds until the start of the service.
Chris received several kind but distant smiles and a couple quick handshakes. A pastor’s wife hugged Laurie and responded in kind to Hailey’s silly face. Apparently this church had several associate pastors, each in charge of some facet of ministry.
The lights faded throughout the sanctuary. Colored flood lights and banks of high-power LEDs flared up front. The drummer started thumping out a driving bass beat, and an electric guitar wailed out a high note. The worship pastor marched out to center stage, clapping his hands, calling out into the mic, “Welcome to Stapleton Baptist! You all ready to praise our King?”
The band launched into a full-instrumental chorus as the congregation found the beat and clapped in time. “What can wash away my sin,” the pastor recited, cuing the first verse. “Nothing—nothing—but the blood of Jesus! Let’s sing it out!”
Words superimposed on smooth background effects flashed across the screens. Chris frowned at the modernized rock version of a sacred hymn. I’d trade all this for Grandma Keating on the organ any day. But at least I know the words.
Then they jumped into an added chorus, and Chris stood silent, hands clasped on the pew in front of him.
Jesus, righteous Lamb of God
I’m purchased through the shedding of Your blood
Now I will make my boast in Christ alone
The sinless Son of God
Oh, how I thank You for the blood.
Chris suppressed a smile. How hard is it to use the same rhyming pair over and over? Stop trying to be new, stick to being true.
At least Laura seemed to be having a good time. She met his gaze and gave him a curious look. He winked and she smiled, returning to the song she picked up easily.
Great. She likes it, so we’re probably stuck.
The band switched to a slower song about the intimate sweetness of God’s love, broken up with a one-line chorus they sang two dozen times or more. Chris checked his watch, frowned at how little time had passed, and stared dutifully into the screen, forcing a smile.
Decked out in an earthy brown suit and a lime green tie, George walked with LaTasha on his arm as the Washington family entered New Hope Tabernacle’s cozy foyer. A thin middle-aged man in long black robes with a maroon mantle laid over white stood at the door to the sanctuary. His horn-rim glasses hung down over a gold cross stitched into the mantle.
“Brother Washington,” he called, his face bright and inviting.
“Bishop Simms,” George replied with an extended hand.
“Welcome to the house of God! Good morning, Sister. Thank you once again for the service you and your children provide. The church was positively gleaming this morning when I unlocked the doors.”
“You’re welcome, Bishop,” LaTasha said, beaming. “Gotta teach these two the value of hard work. We’re glad to help out any time.”
Henry Simms laughed. “How about same time this Saturday?”
LaTasha chuckled. “We’ll be here.”
George suppressed a snort. Like it ain’t already been figured out for months in advance. Every able-bodied member had a month or two on the list in the church office. LaTasha volunteered the kids for two months to keep Elder Henry from throwing out his back scrubbing toilets and sweeping the floor.
Bishop Simms straightened up before Chris. “Good morning, young man. Isn’t it good to be in the house of the Lord?” His deep voice spoke with precision and gravity.
That’s what LaTasha liked best when Bishop took over. No “Lawd” or “Jeezus” or traditional “chu’ch” preaching here. Not for the first time, George longed for the passionate Gospel services he’d grown up in. Messy sometimes, but folk were real.
They found their usual pew, three rows from the front on the left side. LaTasha’s mother already occupied her spot at the outside aisle. With salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a tight bun underneath a sunhat to match her Sunday dress, and a stern glare as hard as oak when needed, Nana’s thin frame showed no signs of frailty. She hadn’t grown weaker over the years, just tougher. “Good mornin’, Nana,” George said.
LaTasha hugged Nana, then the kids followed. Nana snuck René a pink buttermint from a metal case in her purse, and René beamed.
Henry Simms’ wife, First Lady Evonne approached with a notepad. Her long hair had been relaxed then curled into a pristine style that shimmered in the light. She wore a dress splashed with luscious rose reds and maroons to complement her husband’s colors. “LaTasha, my, you’re the picture of beauty. I’m taking down names for our Thanksgiving potluck, and I wondered if you can provide a side dish.”
George tuned out the women’s voices and headed over to lay a hug on JJ—who sat alone—and Thomas, whose wife wrangled their three unruly boys into their pew.
The guys engaged in small talk as the rest of the congregation filed in. Services started at ten, or so the sign said out front. Truth is, fellowship starts at ten, and the service starts whenever. And that’s fine by me.
Then George saw Clarence and Dre slip into the back pew. Dre looked respectable in dark slacks with a bright button-down and matching tie. Probably from his Mama. After the divorce, after Clarence landed in the pen for the second time, Nadine found comfort with a wealthy doctor she met in her job at the hospital.
Clarence wore his best too, such as it was. A loose denim jacket covered a clean monochrome T-shirt hanging loose over the waistline of his slacks. He caught a few disapproving glances from other members. In the small congregation, where everyone knew everyone else, there was nowhere to hide.
I better go give him a greeting, let him know he’s welcome. But the anger from the night before surged back up into George’s chest. His feet stood still.
The choir filed in from the back room, their Sunday best covered in simple black robes. Dottie the choir director took her place near the front and nodded to the Bishop, seated next to the First Lady in the two large chairs behind the pulpit, under the great wooden cross.
Bishop Simms rose and approached the pulpit. “Welcome to New Hope Tabernacle, my brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Tabernacle—the tent of meeting.”
Damon, the organist, struck some riffs between each phrase as Bishop Simms gave the call to worship. “And we are gathered here on today for that purpose. To meet with the Creator who made us and gave us air to breathe this morning. He didn’t have to do that. He could’ve withheld His breath from us. But He gave us the gift of this day, to give Him praise.”
The choir hummed out their harmony and the organ music shifted to a staccato Gospel number. Aimee brought in a light drum beat with a tap-tap-tap on the crash, laying out a clear beat. Some of the worshipers softly clapped and stepped side to side with the music.
Simms continued in prayer. “Almighty Lord Jesus, all of us as families are gathered into Your one great Family, to meet You here, and to praise You in the light of Your glory.”
Dottie repeated that last phrase, and the choir voices boomed out.
In the light of Your glory, in the light of Your face.
In the light of Your holiness, I am changed.
“In the light of Your goodness,” Dottie prompted. In the light of Your goodness.
“In the light of Your holy face,” she shouted. In the light of Your face.
“You know every trouble that holds me.” Every trouble that holds me fades away.
George clapped and made his way back to his pew, sliding in between Chris and LaTasha, then slipping an arm around his wife and swaying with her to the rhythm of the song.
Dottie continued calling out the next lines and the choir and congregation followed the familiar tunes with ease.
Can’t stop praisin’ His name, I—can’t stop praisin’ His name, I—
“In the light of Your glory!” In the light of Your glory…
René tugged at LaTasha, and she leaned away from George to listen to her daughter. George edged his ear closer so he could make out the words.
“Mama, why Miss Dottie always sing everything twice?”
“Don’t talk like a thug,” LaTasha corrected. “Why does Miss Dottie—”
René sighed. “Why does Miss Dottie always sing everything twice? And why do we have to sing the same lines so often?”
“Probably so they can take root in your thick skull, heathen child.” LaTasha squeezed René’s shoulder. “Or maybe more for your brother’s.”
René giggled and belted out the tune with off-key enthusiasm.
George glanced at Chris and noted for the first time that he could almost look Chris in the eye without turning his head down. The young man stood, hands folded on the pew in front of him, mumble-singing the song. How you have grown, son.
Chris noticed and flashed George a smile that warmed the older man’s heart. George placed his right arm across Chris’s narrow back and rested a hand on his son’s shoulder. His other arm held LaTasha close, and he saw René’s hand in her mother’s. This is not bad, not bad at all. You doin’ good, George.
Nagging doubts picked at his sense of peace, remnants of his conversation with Clarence at Poker Night. But he banished them and joined in the song. “In the light of Your grace, every trouble that holds me fades away.”
“Saints, tell me, if I offer you a plate of food or a glass of water, and I poured poison into it, how much poison would you be okay with? Because that’s what we’re doing when we flirt with sin. Think about that a minute.
“Listen to the words of the Teacher as we work our way through the book of Ecclesiastes.” Bishop Simms held up a black leather King James Bible with gold-edged pages as he read. “Chapter 8, verse 11 and 12 tells us, ‘Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God.’
“Poison is deadly serious. You ingest a large dose of it in your food or water, you breathe it in, and you’ll feel the effects real fast. They’ll come carry your body out in a box. No one’s looking to drink a bottle of poison, right?
“And yet, if it’s in small doses, your body adapts. It grows strong, builds up a tolerance. Your body decides this isn’t so bad, I can survive this, I’m all right. Tell me, how do smokers get lung cancer? Is it from one cigarette? Or from years of poison building up? How does an addict develop that craving for drugs? How does the alcoholic come to love the bottle?
“In the same way—think about this, saints—there’s no quickness with spiritual sickness. Sometimes we do what we know is wrong. But it seems for a time that everything is going all right. So we tell ourselves we can keep doing it.”
Clarence’s comments about Chris pricked at George while the bishop preached. It might seem everything’s goin’ right. But if Chris is hangin’ with someone connected to the Kings, could he get hisself sucked in to the trouble they involved in?
“I’m preaching it straight,” Bishop Simms declared. “If you want to win, you’ve got to keep sin from getting in!”
Several members gave an “Amen” in response.
Bishop Simms lifted a finger in warning. “But if you choose to excuse, you’ll lose.”
Nana and others said a cautionary “Well!”
George found himself nodding. I can’t ignore this. I gotta confront Chris about it. He looked at his son, and found Chris sitting forward, chin resting on his fist. Maybe this is just what he needed to hear. George patted Chris’s shoulder and the young man smiled.
Even so, he’s gonna hear it again from me.
“There was a squad of soldiers in Afghanistan,” the senior pastor began, his keen eyes engaging all sides of the room in turn. The cameras feeding images to the two side screens zoomed in on his face and followed him as he paced the stage. “Their convoy carried vital supplies needed at a Forward Operating Base—or FOB—surrounded by the enemy on all sides. Their mission? To punch through the enemy resistance and get those resources into the hands of their comrades in arms, whose own provisions ran low.”
Pastor Nate kept his hair short, brushed forward, with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, flecks of silver sprinkled throughout the auburn. Though he wore a suit coat, his unbuttoned polo gave off a casual air.
“Already, the team has taken small arms fire and even an attack with a rocket-propelled grenade. The soldiers are nervous. They haven’t even reached the enemy’s position yet, and somehow they have to advance through it. The convoy hunkers down, sets up a defensive position, and tries to regroup before the final, dangerous push.”
His hands rested on the plexiglass pulpit holding a smart tablet. “Consider that moment,” he said. “They can’t retreat. Their allies need these supplies. But they’re outnumbered and under fire. They can’t stay put for much longer. They’re a stationary target, a sitting duck.
“Do you ever feel that way? When you face your place of work or school, does it feel like you’re walking into a war zone?”
Chris pursed his lips. You don’t even know, pastor.
The incident with Kazsinski drawing his weapon filled Chris’s mind with doubts. He was wrong that time. But is he wrong all the time? Is this something I need to report?
Yet how would it look for a rookie to report his partner on the first day on duty? Who would believe me if I said anything? Who’s going to take my word for it? And how is Kaz going to respond?
Another fear rose in his heart. Is that what working in the projects does to a person? Is that what’s going to happen to me?
Nate went on. “Perhaps the overwhelming odds are the bills, the expenses, the mounting debt that you can’t ever seem to conquer. Or maybe your ‘enemy’ comes in the form of a blessing—the constant needs of small children, always demanding your attention to keep them out of trouble or clean up the mess when they find it despite all your efforts.
“Maybe your emotional convoy has been ambushed, hit with an RPG—the death of a loved one, a pink slip from your job, or bad news from the doctor. Life can be an insurgent sometimes, striking where we feel secure, creating fears where once we were at ease.”
A couple voices called out an “Amen” in agreement.
“But let’s go back to our convoy in Afghanistan,” Nate said, resuming his pace. “One of the soldiers is ready to give up. He looks to the squad leader, asks ‘What are we gonna do, Sarge? This looks hopeless.’
“Hopeless. I think all of us can relate to what that word means. If I asked you all to raise your hand if you’ve ever felt hopeless at some point or another, I’m pretty sure every hand in the room would go up.
“But we’ve learned to project a perfect image, an ‘everything is awesome’ story we tell the world. We act like the pretty life we show on social media tells the whole truth about what’s really going on.”
Chris leaned forward in the seat. That’s what I’m doing with Kaz, isn’t it? If I don’t report reckless drawing of a weapon on a civilian, I’m acting like everything’s okay when it’s not.
“And the sergeant tells his soldiers, ‘This is not hopeless. Be courageous. We are going forward, pushing through to our friends.’ Because what the junior troops don’t know is that the sergeant has the radio. He hears calls and chatter over the net, and he knows that his convoy is not alone out there.
“In minutes, as their vehicles race toward danger, they hear the roar of air support flying overhead. Enemy positions take direct hits. Insurgents scatter and flee. The line breaks. The convoy reaches their destination.”
“That command, ‘Be courageous,’ or some form of it, shows up twenty-six times in Scripture. Mark Twain is credited with saying ‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it.’ Courage is defined as…”
Chris tuned out and thought about Monday morning. I have to file the report so that the body cam footage gets reviewed. If I do nothing, and Kaz does something like that again, the responsibility would be mine too. It might suck, but I’ve got to do the right thing.
Nate continued his sermon, exhorting the believers to do what they deemed right in the face of resistance or fear. But Chris needed no further persuasion. He sat back and smiled, confident and ready for the next day.