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Down By the Riverside
Book Nine of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Part II: Black Mesa

Chapter 14
Friday, June 14, 2002

Nanci pulled the Camry into a space in the empty parking lot of Hillside Methodist Church and shut it off. She knew that Reverend Miller kept office hours in the morning. It didn’t look like he was very busy, since his was the only other car in the lot. She wasn’t nervous, but hoped the pastor would have time to talk to her, since she only had a few opportunities.

She liked Reverend Miller, a short, balding man who was usually pretty easy-going, although he had the knack of getting her to thinking, and he could often bring a smile to her face. He wasn’t a terrifically good public speaker, with a rather flat and quiet delivery, but that didn’t mean his messages were any less strong, and she’d learned from months of attending his church that he knew what he was talking about. She knew enough about him to know that he’d spent thirty years in the Air Force, and that being a pastor was a second career he’d only come to after retiring from the military.

The door into the narthex of the modern masonry church was open, and from there she could see that the door to his office was open as well. She walked into the office, and saw that he was busy doing something at a computer. “Reverend Miller?” she said. “Have you got a few minutes for me?”

“Of course, Nanci,” he replied with a smile. “It’s always good to see a young person who is as strong in their faith as you are. Come on in and sit down. How did your river trip go?”

“Pretty well,” she smiled. “A little rough at first, but it settled down for the last part of it.” It had indeed; the rest of the trip had floated along in a cloud of good feelings and fellowship after their stop at Havasu Creek. There had been hugs and professions of friendship as they stood around the landing at Diamond Creek waiting for Jeff to show up with the bus.

At one point Bethany had gotten Nanci off to the side and thanked her profusely for what she’d done for her. After several discussions, some of which Nanci had been involved with, Bethany’s parents had agreed to allow her to attend a private Christian high school within commuting distance of their home, rather than continuing to home-school her. “They’re still supposed to be pretty strict,” Bethany had told her, “but it ought to be a lot better.”

“Good,” Nanci smiled. Maybe Bethany wouldn’t become another Allie after all. “Your parents are taking a real big step in faith to allow that, so don’t disappoint them.”

“I’ll try not to. I know it’s going to be a little different, but I’ll try to not run wild.”

“That’s good thinking. You know what can happen if you do.”

“I know,” the girl sighed. “Nanci, I’ve been thinking about Allie a lot, and I’ve been praying for her, too.”

“Good,” Nanci smiled. “She needs all the prayer she can get, but Bethany, always remember that there are other girls like Allie out there, and they need prayer, too. God be with you, and let me know what happens sometime, would you? You can always write to me in care of Canyon Tours.”

A few minutes later the customers were headed up the hill aboard the Canyon Tours bus, the Fletchers among them, and as they left Nanci gave a special prayer for them. Maybe it would work out; she’d just have to wait and see, although she might never know.

But that was then, the day before; Nanci pulled herself out of her memories and added to what she had said earlier, “There were some interesting things that happened on that trip.”

“I’ve never made the trip, but I suppose I should think about doing it some day. I’ve only seen the Canyon from the top, but it looks spectacular.” He changed topics quickly, asking, “So, Nanci, what can I do for you today?”

“I need a little advice,” she said, getting right down to business. “One day on the trip, Preach, er, Reverend Whittaker . . .”

“Yes, Preach,” Miller smiled. “I know him, after all.”

“Well, Preach and I got talking,” Nanci pressed on. “I’ve been really trying to decide what I want to study in college, but I was surprised when he gave me a very strong suggestion that I ought to think about becoming a minister. We talked a little bit about how Baptists go about becoming one, but since I’m more or less a Methodist, I thought I ought to talk it over with you.”

“What do you think about the idea?”

“To be honest, Reverend Miller, I’d never thought of it before, and while I think Preach may have a really good idea, I haven’t even come close to making a decision on it, and I don’t plan on doing it for a while. I’ve been praying about it a lot, but I can see it’s something that is going to call for a lot more thought and a lot more prayer.”

“That’s a wise idea. Nanci, I’ll tell you that it isn’t something you want to rush into. I was several years working up to it before I decided to push ahead with it, and that involved a lot of prayer, too.”

“I realize that, which is why I’m not planning on making a decision anytime soon. I guess what I’m really looking for is some idea of the mechanics of what I have to do so I can start leaning in that direction if that’s where the Lord decides to lead me. I’m a college student, and with my job I don’t have a lot of time to make up my mind about my course work for next year, so I’m looking for advice on that, too.”

“What do you know about becoming a minister, other than answering God’s calling?”

“Not very much, at least as a Methodist. I know a little bit more about it from the Baptist side, so assume I don’t know much at all.”

“All right, why don’t you just let me ramble for a bit? Stop me if you want me to go into something more deeply,” he smiled, and leaned back a little in his swivel chair. “Things are different for different churches, and you’ve already got an inkling of that. Many little local independent churches have no real requirements for being a minister at all, other than a call from God and the support of the congregation, but since we’re a denomination, as Methodists we have to be more formal about it.”

“Preach said pretty much the same thing about Baptists.”

“It’s that way in many denominations. Now, speaking again in broad, general terms, as Methodists we have two different levels of ministers. One level is what we call ‘local ministers,’ which we often see in smaller churches. I was a local minister for several years before I went to seminary and was ordained. It’s usually the Methodist practice to not call a local minister from the congregation for reasons I don’t need to get into now. Essentially, a local minister is a layman who has been called to the post in one way or another. What usually happens is that a congregation needs a minister, and often they seek one out from a nearby congregation, sometimes with the help of the conference, which is the regional church authority.

“A local minister may not have a lot of training. Often they’ve attended several lay speaker classes, and usually have been lay speakers within the church for a number of years. Lay speakers are part of the congregation, and are usually unpaid. When they become local ministers, they obviously have to have the call from the congregation, and have to attend both church and state licensing classes, which are largely involved with teaching them about the duties of a minister. Since local ministers are usually, well, locals, sometimes they may stay with a congregation for dog’s years, especially if they’re well liked.”

“That’s pretty much how Preach said that Baptists handle it,” Nanci nodded.

“There are obvious similarities, although I have to admit that I don’t know the details,” Reverend Miller went on. “I know it’s a little different for them, since Baptists are a little more splintered than Methodists are. That’s something we don’t need to get into now, other than to say that when a person is named as a minister in an independent Baptist church, he may have been through some of the schooling of a larger denomination. It may be much the same in other denominations, or it can be considerably different.

“Now, beyond the local minister is the fully ordained minister, which both Reverend Whittaker and I are. The formal term for them among Methodists is ‘elders.’ Being an elder involves more authority and more responsibility to the church. One of the big differences is that elders are usually not directly called to serve as ministers by a congregation, but are assigned by the conference, at least for Methodists.”

“So what’s involved in being fully ordained as a Methodist?”

“More education is one of the keys,” Reverend Miller replied. “It involves attending seminary, usually for a year or two although some of it can be done online these days. They have to have the support of the conference, and have to satisfy the conference of their calling. That is a process that can take a while by itself. There are some other hoops to jump through, but that’s a rough outline. The process is detailed much more thoroughly in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. It is not a small book, but studying it thoroughly and being knowledgeable about it is a requirement for ordination. The Book of Discipline is important, Nanci. There are many denominations out there, and a lot of different doctrines, some of which differ radically from ours. Many people consider Methodists to be ‘middle of the road’ Christians, trying to avoid the more radical alternatives of rigid dogmatism or unfettered liberal pluralism, and that is the position of the Book of Discipline. Now, have I thoroughly confused you?”

Nanci shook her head. “So long as you don’t get into specifics, no. I can see that it’s not simple and it’s not easy.”

“No, it is not. In fact, there are several items I haven’t even touched on. However, from where you are, if you want to be a fully ordained United Methodist Elder, you will have years to learn all the nuances.”

“I still have to make the decision of whether I want to be or not, or a minister of any kind, for that matter. Like I said, I’m just trying to find out what’s involved, and start working in that direction, if that’s where I’m led.”

“That’s good, because it’s not a decision that’s easily reached. But perhaps we ought to start from a little further back. Nanci, how committed are you to being a Methodist? I know you’ve been taking membership classes, but haven’t completed them, mostly because of your college and your work.”

“That’s a good question,” she shrugged. “I’ll be honest, the reason I go to church here is because this is where Kevin Haynes brought me when I first became a Christian, and Preach first came here because he was staying with Kevin’s family when he was off the river, so it was convenient. To tell you the truth, I’ve never thought very much about the doctrinal issues, other than to say I’m comfortable here. I think one of the things I appreciate about the Methodist Church is that it’s not ‘my way or the highway’ on the one hand, or ‘whatever works for you’ on the other. As you said, middle of the road, not out on the extremes.”

“I like that,” Reverend Miller laughed. “Believe me, you can find plenty of people who will argue over every nuance from one extreme to the other, but there is a core of common belief across the entire spectrum of Christianity however much the details may differ. Now, are you planning on continuing your membership classes here?”

“I am, although my work schedule is going to make it very difficult until fall.”

“As I recall, you’re pretty well through the class. How would you like it if I gave you the rest of the materials you’d need? Study them thoroughly, and perhaps we can find time to sit down and talk about them when you’re available. We’ll bend the rules a little bit because of your situation, but being a member of the church is the first step down the road we have been talking about, whether you ever take another step on it or not. That would also qualify you to take the lay speaker classes, which are held in the winter down in Phoenix. They’re usually weekend affairs, and they might give you a little more guidance in whether you’d want to carry your studies further.”

“Both of them sound like a great idea to me, Reverend Miller.”

“Good, we’ll press on with them. Nanci, I said earlier that it’s good to see a young person with the faith you have want to take an active role in the church, whether it’s as a minister or in some other service. We don’t have as many young people coming into the ministry as I would like, and to be honest, some of them don’t have the life experience that gives real meaning to their ministry. I don’t know much about your life experience, Nanci, but I know from Kevin and Reverend Whittaker that you went through some very hard times, which indicates to me that you have reason for the strength of your faith.”

“It was harder than you know, Reverend,” Nanci replied shyly. “It was harder than I let them know, at least until last Sunday, when things, well, they happened. That was what led Reverend Whittaker to suggest that I might want to consider the ministry in the first place.”

“Tough times?”

“Very tough times,” she nodded. “Try on drinking, drugs, prostitution, and being a sex slave for starters.”

“You went through all that?” he replied, more than a little shocked at the revelation.

“All of that and more, so much more that I can hardly think about all the bad times. That’s why my faith is strong, Reverend Miller. I’ve been there and I’ve done that, and with God’s grace and God’s help I was able to get away from it. As I told some people a few days ago, if you want to see a miracle, here I am.”

“You told Reverend Whittaker and Kevin about that?”

“Along with the rest of the party on our trip,” she smiled, and spent a few sentences talking about what had happened at Havasu Creek the previous Sunday.

After she had finished, Reverend Miller sat back and looked at her for a moment, shaking his head before he said softly, “I can see why Reverend Whittaker suggested that you consider a career in the ministry. I can’t blame him in the slightest, and I agree that it’s something that you should think about and pray about very seriously. If God leads you in that direction, you could be a powerful servant of His.”

“No matter what happens I will continue to be God’s servant,” she told him, “and I will be as powerful as He wants me to be. The ministry, well, I guess that’s to be determined. I realize it’s not an easy decision, which is why I want to take my time making it. But as I said earlier, I want to start preparing myself for it whether it happens or not. That’s the part that I have to be making some decisions about quickly, and the other part of where I really need your advice.”

“And what is that?”

“As you know, I’m a student at Northern Arizona. I’ve felt for some time that I want to work harder on religious studies, to minor in it, perhaps major in it. There’s not much I can do about that here in Flagstaff. I’ve been thinking about online courses, and I suppose they’d help some, but I feel like I also need the classroom one-on-one for at least some of the courses. I’d more or less figured on spending the next winter at NAU, but I suppose I could do something different if I could get where I want to go more efficiently.”

“Yes, I can see how that would be a problem,” he smiled. “Nanci, I know a little about how your job works, if for no more reason than having seen Kevin at it for a while. Are you planning on just doing a spring term in college this winter, or are you planning on doing both terms?”

“Both terms,” she replied. “I talked it over with Al some time ago. I would have done it last fall if I hadn’t felt I needed more time on the river to pull myself together and recover from my life in Chicago.”

“You know,” he mused, “What you might want to consider doing is to give Northern Arizona a pass next winter, and go down to Black Mesa College instead.”

“I’ve heard of it, but that’s all.”

“It’s a Methodist-affiliated private college down in Phoenix. It’s more, well, I hate to use the term, but ‘liberal’ than things used to be and often are around Christian schools. I suppose the term will work if you don’t use it in a political sense. It’s Methodist, and as we talked about earlier, more middle-of-the-road than other Christian schools, not that I think that’s a bad thing by any means. I know that you can get a good Christian education there, especially in religious studies, and largely from a Methodist viewpoint. There are other courses you can take there that could be useful to you in the future, whether you decide to become a minister or not, and some that would be an obvious asset either way. For instance, I know the conference requires courses in psychology if you were to become an Elder. Or, perhaps courses in bookkeeping and accounting. In fact, that’s what I was doing when you came in, reviewing the church treasurer’s accounts. While it’s important, I also have to say that it’s boring, mostly because I don’t know much about accounting. Beyond that, studies in history, especially as it has affected Christianity and the other way around are also possible. You could do all that at Black Mesa.”

“It sounds interesting.”

“I think it’s a good school, although I don’t have a great deal of experience with it. However, I have to say that it’s more expensive than going to NAU. Considerably more expensive, in fact.”

“That could be a problem. I don’t have much money. I have some money in the bank and a pretty good summer job, but thanks to the shortened season with my going to college, I’ll barely make more as a boatman this year than I made as a swamper last year. Al and Mom mostly financed my college last year, but I know they’re not made of money, and I already feel like I’ve asked more of them than I should.”

“Yes, I can see how that could be a problem,” Reverend Miller said, “but it’s not one that can’t be solved, at least part of the way. Since Black Mesa is a Methodist college, there are a few strings I can pull that might ease the situation somewhat. Nanci, are you doing anything the rest of the day?”

“Not particularly. This is one of my two days off, but all I have to do is to get a few things from a big box store before I start down the river again, and maybe catch up on my nap time.”

“Would you have the time to spend the afternoon here?”

“I could, I suppose.”

“Excellent. Forget what I said about taking study materials for your membership class on the river with you. Let’s spend the rest of the day finishing up that class, just you and me. If we can get it done, I see no reason why we can’t cut a couple of corners and welcome you into the church as a member before you leave on Sunday.”

“I can do that, I suppose, but what’s the rush?”

“Nanci, if you are a member of the church there are a few more strings I can pull, and one of them is a scholarship for students attempting pre-seminary studies. It won’t be a huge scholarship and won’t cover all your costs, but it will put a dent in them. What’s more, we haven’t even talked about admittance to Black Mesa, but I do know that it’s a lot simpler if you’re a Methodist Church member. I’ll have to coordinate with the college, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they can come up with other grants or scholarships, too. We’re going to have to work on that and we will have to work on it quickly, but we still have a little time.”

“Reverend Miller, you’ve done a pretty good job of talking me into it. Let’s do it, even if no more than to become a member of the church. I caught some static about not being a church member out on the river the last trip, and I’d like to fix that if I can. As far as going to Black Mesa, I’d like to spend a little time on their web page before I commit to it, but I’m about ninety percent there already.”

“All right,” he grinned. “I really need to finish this budget review, but that won’t take long. Why don’t you go home, spend some time online, and have lunch? Then this afternoon we can see about making a Methodist out of you. Then maybe tomorrow we can work on some of the details involved with making a Black Mesa student out of you.”

“Reverend Miller, that sounds like a plan.”

Two days later, with her mother, Al, and the whole of the White Team including Mormon Mark looking on, and with Kevin as her sponsor, Nanci was made a member of the Hillside United Methodist Church, and was being greeted into the family of believers. In a way, it seemed like coming home to a home she’d never had before. Two hours later, she was on the Canyon Tours crew bus, heading back to Lee’s Ferry and another place that seemed like home, a river leading through “the most awesome scenery on the face of the planet.”

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To be continued . . .

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