The Mask of Deceit
By television rehearsal time, Pastor Morehouse was in a cantankerous mood. The approaching storm and the pain in his leg were bringing out the worst in him. Mounting anxiety over the rehearsal and an unprepared sermon were souring his disposition all the more.
The Pastor’s dark mood hung heavily in the air as singers and musicians gathered at Mile High Community Church. But this was not unusual; a storm of sort had been brewing for years within the church.
For decades the church building had stood as a landmark of serenity and stability in the once upscale neighborhood. The towering rock façade of the sanctuary, topped by a traditional white cross, was a reverent and reassuring sight along the tree-colonnaded boulevard. Yet, on close scrutiny, cracks could be seen here and there in the mortar, and old paint on the eaves was weather-worn and starting to peel.
In the spacious front lawn of the church was a majestic oak tree, standing proud and tall. Yet, here and there were small, dead branches, stark in their nakedness. They were telltale signs that the old tree was failing from disease, rotting from within.
The church’s sanctuary was large and contemporary in design, having been expanded and remodeled four years ago to seat three thousand worshipers. The architectural focal point was a giant wooden cross centered on the four-story, rock wall behind the semicircular stage (or chancel altar, as the Pastor preferred to call it). It afforded excellent viewing from any seat in the sanctuary, including those in the balcony. Symmetrical rows of plush, red velvet, theater-style seats fanned out from the stage and up the slightly inclined floor toward the back.
On the side walls were long and narrow stained glass windows that depicted scenes of well-known Bible stories. When the sun radiated through, it swathed the sanctuary in rainbow hues. But today, clouds hid the sun.
Artificial lighting in the sanctuary consisted of huge chandeliers, suspended some distance from the high ceiling. Nearer the stage were hung obtrusive grids of multi-colored television lights. Though there was no video taping today, the rehearsal would nevertheless take place under the glare and heat of the lights. “It’s all part of proper preparation,” the Pastor told the musicians.
The costly new state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems were the envy of any concert hall. But the lights, along with giant speakers that flanked the stage were an aesthetic blight about which nothing could be done, much to the Pastor’s consternation.
The combined choir and orchestra were rehearsing “Onward Christian Soldiers” for tomorrow’s worship service. The tiered choir loft at the back of the stage was filled to capacity with one hundred singers. In front, the orchestra pit overflowed with sixty musicians, and the timpani was squeezed in, off to the right.
Tomorrow’s special television production would mark the Pastor’s twenty-fifth year on television, which was why he felt the necessity of calling today’s special rehearsal. Everything had to be just right. Perfect! Not only must the orchestra and choir sound impressive, they must look impressive. The Pastor considered the visual and musical impact to be as important as the sermon. It called it “balancing style with substance.” The choir would wear new robes for the occasion—white, with golden collars. The orchestra would be formally attired in basic black—long-sleeved, neck-hugging dresses for the women and rented black tuxedos for the men.
Dress for today’s rehearsal was casual, of course. “Casual,” that is, by the Pastor’s definition. Men were required to wear dress trousers and shirts and women were restricted to dresses. Pants were strictly taboo for women at all times at the church. Polo shirts were permissible for the men, but T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes were below the standards of the Pastor’s rigid dress code, even for a television rehearsal.
Two men on the platform were not so casually attired. They were Pastor Morehouse and his nephew, Curtis Nelson. They wore conservative dark suits and subtle ties. No one ever saw the Pastor when he wasn’t wearing a suit. He even wore a coat and tie when relaxing at home, which was seldom.
At the moment, the sounds of “Onward Christians Soldiers” filled the sanctuary. The Pastor was not at all pleased with the rendition. It sounded ragged and pompous.
He was seated on the largest of several high-backed chairs (which some of the staff called “thrones”), all of them skillfully carved from oak and upholstered with lush, red velvet. He sang along with the choir, sporting his customary stage smile, though in recent years it could not mask the strain of vigorous singing which gave him a red face and swollen veins in his forehead and neck. Despite being in his early seventies, his baritone voice was as deep, rich, and full as ever.
He stopped singing to again listen to the music. The stand-in pianist just isn’t cutting it, he thought. But tomorrow, Geno will give it vitality. Yes, a concert pianist will bring it alive.
The choir and orchestra neared the end of the hymn’s final chorus. The Pastor motioned with a nod for Curtis to follow him. The old man rose from his throne, extending his six-foot, three-inch frame. He had always been as stout as the mighty oak in front of the church. Only his thinning gray hair and bushy eyebrows betrayed his advancing age, for the smooth skin of his face and his physique were more youthful than one might expect for a man well past retirement age. He stepped over to his place at the center of the brightly lighted platform. The slight limp of his left leg was almost imperceptible.
The Pastor relished the moment, even though it was a rehearsal. Standing there, listening to the last stanza of the hymn, he basked in the television lights and prayed silently that the Lord would look upon him and his ministry with favor for work well done.
The choir refrained from singing as the orchestra softly repeated the chorus. This served as background music to maintain the solemn mood through the closing solicitation for donations.
The Pastor’s silvery hair and bushy eyebrows were shiny in the bright lights and his penetrating, steel-blue eyes glistened. He cast a stage smile at the center aisle where a television camera had been placed as a prop for rehearsal.
Speaking over the muted music, he said to an imaginary television audience: “It’s been a blessing for all of us to have you join us in celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary on television. I want to thank you for your continued prayers and financial support of this ministry. With your help, we will continue to reach hundreds of thousands of souls with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Remember: You cannot out-give God!”
The Pastor paused for dramatic effect and listened to the subdued music of the orchestra. He was smiling inwardly with confident anticipation that tomorrow he would capture the hearts of his congregation and television audience.
Curtis stepped up to his uncle’s side and smiled as the Pastor had at the lifeless television camera and its imaginary audience. “Write to us, will you?” asked Curtis, as the orchestra played on. “Let us know your needs and concerns so we can pray for you. And remember: It is only through your generous contributions that those of us at Morehouse Ministries are able to bring you this weekly telecast from Mile High Community Church and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to millions of lost souls, from coast-to-coast. Thank you, and may God bless you for standing with us!”
“Amen and Amen!” chimed the Pastor.
The orchestra approached the end of the chorus and the music director swooped his arms in wide arcs to rouse the singers to join in for a repeat of the chorus.
The Pastor smiled, thinking what a good show it would be and that it would pull heavy mail-in donations.
The music concluded in grand style with a majestic "Ahhhmennn" from the choir that reverberated throughout the sanctuary, then faded into empty silence.
The music director looked over at the Pastor for his approval.
“Wonderful!” proclaimed the Pastor. “Thank you all very much!”
Satisfaction came to the faces of the musicians. As they gathered their scores and packed away instruments, the Pastor stepped down from the stage. He winced from a jab of pain in his leg, then started walking up the center aisle. He stopped and turned. Curtis was still on the platform, having become engaged in conversation with a choir member. “Curtis!” bellowed the Pastor.
Curtis broke off his conversation and scampered toward his uncle.
Despite his limp, the Pastor took long, rapid strides up the aisle toward the exit door. When Curtis caught up, the Pastor said, “Tell Bert not to over do it on the flowers.”
“Why, Uncle? I mean, they’re from his greenhouse—he donates them.”
The Pastor stopped in his tracks and spun around to face his nephew, who almost bumped into him. Curtis braced himself for a tongue-lashing. One simply did not question the Reverend Desmond Morehouse.
“Austerity, Curtis! Austerity!” spat the Pastor. “Won’t you ever get it? When you ask a television audience for money, you can’t look like you don’t need it! You, of all people—our church administrator—should know that!”
The Pastor took a message slip from his coat pocket and handed it to Curtis. In a low voice, so as not to be overheard, he said, “The loan officer from the bank has been calling—wants a payment on the television equipment, no doubt. Call him back on Monday and tell him we’re going through an audit or something. You know how to snow him.”
This greatly troubled Curtis, who was an honest man. He couldn’t lie to the banker, yet he had to stall him—and pray the TV show would yield generous donations.
The Pastor breezed into the front office and over to the desk of his aging secretary, Annabelle Forbes. She was on the phone.
“Oh, rehearsal is over, dear,” she hurriedly said to the party on the line. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Hanging up, she shook her head sorrowfully. “That was Mable Albright. Poor old woman. Her hip is bothering her again. I offered to pick her up for church in the morning.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the Pastor. “I wish you could help her out, but, unfortunately, I’ll need you in the office early tomorrow. I’m sure Mable can find a ride from someone else. It is our twenty-fifth television anniversary, you know.”
“Oh, my!” said Annabelle, with a frown of deflation that added more wrinkles to her face. “I’ll have to call her right back.”
The Pastor walked into his study. The old busybody, he thought. As he closed the door, he heard thunder rumbling in the distance and the faint drumming of rain on the roof.
“Pastor?” came Annabelle’s frail voice over the intercom.
The Pastor pushed the talk button: “Yes, what is it?” he snapped.
“Curtis and Roberta Richardson are here for their appointment.”
It had slipped his mind. He glanced at the grandfather clock by the door. Being crunched for time, he was irritated that Curtis was thoughtlessly imposing on his time to introduce another new lady friend.
Continue to chapter 3 >
© Frank Allnutt. All rights reserved.