The Pastor felt rested, as if awakening from a good night’s sleep. He opened his eyes to find himself floating in a cloud. It was so peaceful. Then he heard his name called. The voice was soft and low...and beckoning. The cloud parted before him to reveal a towering gate of two doors. They were white with streaks of pink, like—yes, pearls! The doors began to open.
“Desi! Desi!” he was called again. But it was a different voice, urgently calling him.
“Wake up! Wake up!” said Bert, knelling beside the sofa and shaking the Pastor.
“Lord! Save me!” the Pastor cried out.
“Desi! Wake up! It’s me, Bert.”
The Pastor opened his eyes with a start. “The earthquake! The cloud!”
“Earthquake? Cloud? What in tarnation you talkin’ about, Desi?”
“Oh, Bert! It’s you!” He grasped his forearm with an iron grip. He was wide-eyed with fright, soaked in perspiration and gasping for breath.
“I’m gonna call an ambulance,” said Bert, rising to his feet.
“No! No!” said the Pastor, holding onto Bert’s arm. “It was a dream—a bad dream, that’s all.”
“You sure?” asked Bert. “You sure yer okay?”
“Yes, yes,” said the Pastor, massaging his face with both hands. “I’m okay, I’m okay. It was just a bad dream, that’s all.” He sat up on the sofa. “I’m okay, Bert, I’m okay....”
Bert sighed deeply with relief. “Ya scared the bejesus outta me!”
The Pastor looked across the study at his desk. The lights had come back on while he was sleeping. Yellow pages of sermon notes were strewn here and there, and the computer’s screen radiated a greenish glow. The candles on the desk had burned down long ago, leaving the inverted teacups coated with wax. Soothing music came from the radio.
The Pastor started to stand, but his legs were wobbly. Bert gave him a hand. “Musta been some nightmare you was havin’,” he said.
“Oh, Bert, I have so much to explain, so much to do.” Then his eyes got watery and he embraced Bert with a big hug.
“What in tarnation’s come over you?” he asked, peeling away the Pastor’s arms.
“Oh, Bert, the most incredible thing happened last night. I started reading A Christmas Carol. I was reading about Scrooge and, well, you know the story. And then I fell asleep, and—and I’m not sure you’ll understand, but you were in the dream. And so was Curtis and Annabelle and Amanda and Grandfather Morehouse. My whole life flashed before my eyes. And I saw myself—as others see me. So much took place; it was such an ordeal. I saw things and heard things that, well, for one thing, I saw that I’ve done you such wrong over the years.”
“Done me wrong?”
“Bert,” said the Pastor, resting his hands on the big man shoulders and looking him squarely in the eyes, “you saved my life. You shot that German soldier before he got to me. And you lost your arm dragging me back to our unit.”
Bert shrugged. “I never thought ya knew all that.”
“Things came back to me last night, things I had forgotten, things I didn’t know I saw and heard back then. Anyway, what I’m saying is that you made an heroic sacrifice, and I—”
“Heck, I ain’t no hero, Desi. I was just in the right place at the right time to help ya. And the wrong place at the wrong time when that Kraut winged me.”
The Pastor shook his head and smiled over Bert’s humility. Then a somber expression came over his face. “Something happened before you rescued me, Bert, something I should have talked to you about years ago—along with many other things...something I should have talked about with Amanda. But I was too ashamed.”
“It had to do with Tony—Tony Fargone.”
“Good ol’ ‘Far Gone’ Fargone! Wild and crazy, wasn’t he? But he had a good heart, that guy. A real shame wasn’t it—checked out the same night me ’n’ you—”
“Yes, Bert, the same night. He died the same night. He and I had been manning a machine gun together.”
Bert’s eye widened. “You was with ’em?”
The Pastor nodded. “Yes, I was with him...for a time. The Germans were about to overrun our position. Well, Tony got shot in the leg. I was frightened. I saw the Germans coming closer and closer. And then I did something I’ve regretted ever since: I turned and ran. I left Tony behind. He kept crying and yelling, ‘Don’t leave me, Desi! Don’t leave me!’ But I kept on running. His cries continued to haunt me over all these years.”
“Woowee,” exclaimed Bert. “You kept all that bottled up inside ya fer all these years?” He sighed, then said, “Ya know, battle can do that to a guy’s mind. Happened to lots of guys. You can’t blame yerself. Besides, it was a long time ago.”
“Not to me, Bert. It’s always been so vivid in my memory, as if it happened only yesterday. The things I saw, the sounds, even the smells. For years I tried to forget, but it all kept coming back. I had dreams about a German with a rifle coming after me, and I kept seeing Tony and hearing his cries....”
“Like I said, Desi, battle can do that. Fear can do funny things to a guy. It can drive ya out of yer mind, until the only thing that matters is to save yer own butt.”
“That night was the most shameful night of my life, Bert. And I remember lying there in the hospital a couple of days after they operated on my leg. They cut back on the morphine and my mind started to clear. I vaguely remember Lieutenant Ormsby telling me that Tony was dead. Later, he asked me what happened. I lied. I told him Tony and I became separated in the fog. So I was a liar on top of being a coward. Maybe no one else knew, but I knew. It’s all I could think about, day after day, lying there in the hospital bed. Oh, how I hated myself.”
Bert nodded understandingly. “If only I’d known what you was goin’ through, maybe I coulda helped.”
“And then I remember the day you came walking into my ward with the stub of your arm all bandaged up.”
“Yeah,” said Bert, “I remember that.”
“I felt such terrible guilt; first Tony, then you....”
Bert shrugged and said, “You can’t blame yerself fer my arm. It just happened, that’s all. Nobody’s to blame.”
“You came over and sat on the edge of my bed. You wanted to talk! I was afraid you were going to bring up Tony and rescuing me and how you lost your arm. But no, nothing like that. You never did bring it up. You were concerned only about me. You wanted to cheer me up. Remember? You talked about going home and fishing and baseball—things like that.”
Bert smiled at the remembrance.
“And then came another difficult day,” the Pastor continued. “Remember when they dressed us in our uniforms? And Lieutenant Ormsby came in and—and decorated us? Oh, Bert....”
“Yep,” said Bert. “I remember. That’s when they took the picture of us with our medals.”
The Pastor dabbed away a tear, then continued talking. “I thought I’d die when Lieutenant Ormsby pinned that Purple Heart on my chest. There I was, being decorated for being wounded in action! They were treating me like a hero! And when I returned to the States, well, I never told Amanda in my letters what had happened because I was so ashamed. So, when she saw me on crutches and with a bandaged leg she assumed I had been shot by a German.”
Bert nodded, understandingly.
“It was a broken tree branch, Bert, not a bullet. But you knew—you pulled it out! So I never told her the truth—never told anyone the truth.
“The years went by and I tried so hard to forget you and Tony. Then you moved to Denver and looked me up. And when you and Rosie joined the church, you wanted to be my friends! But it was all coming back to me—the horrible memories, the fear, the guilt, the shame, the nightmares.... It ate away at my insides. And you were always asking me to go visiting with you to the VA hospital. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it...just couldn’t face all those wounded soldiers. In all those years since the war, I never so much as set foot inside a hospital.”
Bert nodded and gave the Pastor a teary smile of reassurance.
“Amanda meant everything to me, Bert. She was so loving, so understanding. If it hadn’t been for her, the terrible memories of that night would have been too much for me to bear. And then—then the Lord called her home.” His voice broke, and he had to pause before going on. “Amanda was my life. And after she was gone my world fell apart. I missed her terribly, and I—I grew bitter toward the Lord for taking her away from me. I needed her so much.”
“All of us needed her,” said Bert. “She was a special person —a real woman of God.”
“You know, every time I see someone in a military uniform or a disabled person, it brings back the memories,” said the Pastor. He looked at his trophy wall, then walked over to it. He stood in front of the picture of himself with Bert in their Arrny uniforms with medals pinned to their chests. With tears steaming down his face, he pointed to the photo and said, “Do you understand, now, Bert? Do you understand?”
Bert nodded and wiped away his tears with the back of his hand.
The Pastor walked back over to him. “A long time ago I thought being a successful pastor would make up for my past and that I’d eventually feel better about myself. I kept driving and driving until I became successful beyond my wildest dreams. Look at all that,” he said, nodding at the trophy wall. “Well, I suppose I fooled a lot of people into thinking I’m a big shot—a hero! But I couldn’t fool myself—and certainly not the Lord.
“I’ve been a minister of the Word for going on a half century, Bert, so I know all about sin and guilt and forgiveness. I’ve studied it, I’ve preached it, and I’ve written about it. Intellectually, I knew God had forgiven me. And you certainly did nothing to indicate you were carrying a grudge. But I still had to live with the consequences of the cowardly thing I did. You were a hero, Bert, and I was a coward.”
“Heck, Desi, I wasn’t no hero. I didn’t do nothin’ nobody else wouldn’t have done. I guess people like to have heros, but the way I see it there ain’t no heros in wars. There’s only victims—Dead victims and surviving victims.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Bert, but every time I saw you—saw the stub of your arm—I thought of all the suffering I caused you.”
“Heck, my arm healed a long time ago,” said Bert, sniffling back his tears. “And I think you’ve done some healin’, too. Ya know, it takes a lot of courage fer a man to swallow his pride and admit he was a coward.”
“Over the years I’ve hated myself—to the point I just wished I would die. Well, last night I saw that prideful, cowardly old man in a way I’ve never seen him before. I saw my old self...nailed to a cross.
“Now, I'm beginning to understand what Paul wrote about being crucified with Christ—old things have passed away, and new things have come. Bert! I really am a new creature in Christ!
"And right now I want to square things between us.” He searched Bert’s eyes and said, “I’ve done you such wrong over the years. Will you forgive me? Will you please forgive me?” Bert wiped away his tears, and with emotion quivering in his voice, said, “If only I’d known, Desi—we coulda settled this years ago. But here we are, so let’s do it. I forgive ya. Now, there, you’re released, you’re free.”
The Pastor stepped up to Bert and hugged him. They stood there for sometime, holding onto each other, both of them sobbing, saying nothing, but thinking and thinking. After a time they disembraced. The Pastor went over to his desk and Bert took a seat on the sofa.
Both sat in silence for a time, then the Pastor said, “You know, Bert, over all these years, my burden of guilt kept me from making an important journey. But last night I walked up a rocky knoll—”
The grandfather clock chimed, and the Pastor halted in mid-sentence.
“Eight o’clock,” said Bert. “Guess I oughta leave ya be so you can get ready fer church.”
“Church? Oh, my! Yes! It’s Sunday!”
“Yep—yer twenty-fifth anniversary on TV.”
“Yes, so it is!” He rose from his chair. “Want to take a quick stroll with me, Bert?”
“Sure. Where to?”
The Pastor walked out of the study and Bert scampered to keep up with his brisk pace. Sunlight shown through the hall windows. “The sun is shining!” the Pastor said joyfully.
“That was one heck of a hail storm we had last night, wasn’t it? Oops, that reminds me: I checked around the property: We lost some winders and the roses got chopped to pieces. Oh, yeah, and the wind knocked over the oak tree out front. Coulda been a little twister—some was spotted around town last night. Oh, well, the old tree was dyin’ anyway—disease and all. Rot was settin’ in. But don’t worry, Desi, I’ll plant another tree.”
“We will plant another one,” said the Pastor. “We’ll do it together!”
They walked into the sanctuary and the Pastor’s face lit up at the sight of the sun shining through the stained glass windows. “It’s Sunday, Bert! The storm has passed!”
“Yep,” said Bert, “not a cloud in the sky.”
“Oh, but there is, Bert! We can’t see it with human eyes, but there is a cloud up there—in the heavenly realm. And you and I are in the midst of it, seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father! Oh, how I’ve come to appreciate white, fluffy clouds. They remind me of who I am in Christ and that I am seated with Him in the heavenly realm. And look,” he said, pointing, “look how the sun radiates through the windows with all the colors of the rainbow, reminding us of God’s promise never to leave us or forsake us. Marvelous! Absolutely marvelous!”
Bert looked over at the stained glass windows and saw the sunlight shining through them, casting rays of blue, green, red and yellow.
“Isn’t it just glorious, Bert? A thousand rainbows!”
Bert with a smile. “The world outside has changed a lot in all the years I’ve been comin’ to this church, but every Sunday them winders is always the same—sun shinin’ through ‘em, makin’ all them pretty colors. And ya talk like it’s the first time ya ever seen ’em.”
The Pastor chuckled, then said: “Amazing, isn’t it?—how you can look at something for so long a time before you really see it.”
They walked down the aisle toward the platform. “What time is it, now?” asked the Pastor.
“No more’n a few minutes later than it was in yer study,” answered Bert, checking his watch. “Six minutes after eight.”
“Is there still time?” asked the Pastor.
“Time fer what?”
“To get more flowers in here,” said the Pastor. He stopped walking and turned to face Bert. “I know this is asking a lot, but would you mind going back home for more flowers?”
“But Curtis said ya thought there was already too many.”
“Never mind what Curtis told you. No, no—that didn’t come out the right way. What I meant to say is I’ve changed my mind. We need more flowers, Bert—many more! Decorate the whole sanctuary with them if you want!”
“Whatever ya say, Desi. Lord knows I got plenty of ’em.”
“Oh, and one more thing: I want to buy a big arrangement from you—for Curtis and Robbie. Yesterday they broke the good news to me and asked me to marry them.”
“Hey, now that’s somethin’ to celebrate all right. Now there’s a marriage made in heaven if there ever was one.” Bert glanced at his wristwatch. “Well, I better get movie’ then, got lots to do before church starts.”
“Me, too,” said the Pastor. And he embraced Bert with a firm hug.
Bert left for home and the Pastor returned to his study. He showered and shaved in the study’s bathroom, then put on fresh clothes. In the time that remained before the worship service, he knelt at the sofa and talked with the Lord about many things—and in a way he hadn’t talked with Him in many years.
It was a time of confession, self-forgiveness and complete surrender...a time of thanksgiving and praise. A time of entering into God's rest and grace.
Continue to Chapter 17 >
© Frank Allnutt. All rights reserved.