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Down By the Riverside book cover

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

Chapter 28
Sunday, September 14, 2003

Jeff Pleva got up from one of the chairs in the front of the Flagstaff John Wesley Fellowship, and took a couple of steps to the pulpit as the congregation grew silent. “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you,” he said reverently.

“And also with you,” the congregation replied in a slightly ragged unison. It was the traditional opening to worship in the Fellowship, and most of the people there didn’t need to read it in the bulletin.

“Good morning,” Jeff said, a little more casually. “I have several announcements this morning.” He went on to talk about the coffee hour following the service, gave a brief update on two different members of the congregation who had been hospitalized, and asked for prayers for them.

“Finally,” he concluded, “our speaker today will be Nanci Chladek, who is a pre-seminary student at Black Mesa College. She is the sister-in-law of Reverend Noah Whittaker, who spoke to us here a few weeks ago. She’s also a boatman for Canyon Tours. I’ve known Nanci for a couple of years now, and I know her to be a very interesting and devout young lady, so please give a warm John Wesley Fellowship welcome to her.”

There was no applause, and Nanci hadn’t expected it. She’d known from when she’d been there six weeks before to hear Preach speak that the real welcome came after the service.

As Jeff stepped back from the pulpit, she got up and walked to it. She was dressed conservatively in a knee-length black skirt and white blouse, and looked out over the congregation. It seemed a little larger than it had had been six weeks before, even with most of the members of the White Team helping to fill it out. It was good to see those friendly faces; while this was something new to her, she wasn’t nervous.

“Thank you, Mr. Pleva,” she replied warmly, “and thank you to the members of the Fellowship who invited me to speak to you today.” She paused for a moment, and began the responsive reading in a more formal tone. “Jesus comes, proclaiming the good news.”

“The Kingdom of God has come near,” the congregation responded, and this time they were reading from the bulletin. “Repent and believe in the good news.”

“We hear the good news. We hear God’s call,” she led.

“The Kingdom of God has come near and we have work to do.”

Nanci glanced at the bulletin and went on, “The opening hymn will be number 20, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

She stood at the pulpit as the elderly organist began to play, and the congregation joined in the singing. It wasn’t the enthusiastic, energetic music she’d become familiar with in some of the churches in Phoenix she had attended, but objectively she thought it was a little more lively than she was used to at Hillside Methodist. Maybe there was some merit to Preach’s assertions about Methodists and singing after all, she thought.

Following the hymn, she gave a brief public prayer, asking the Lord’s blessings on the congregation and the message she was about to give, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. A second hymn followed, then the offering which concluded with the Doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . .”

A third hymn followed, Hold the Fort For I Am Coming, which seemed a little ironic, since she knew it was one of Preach’s favorites; she could see him there, singing along with the rest of the congregation. But her mind was less on the hymn than it was on what she planned to say starting in only a couple more minutes. She’d thought about it and prayed about it ever since the idea of her speaking to the Fellowship had come up five weeks before. Her initial reaction had been to give the testimony sermon again, the one she’d given several times to different parties down at the mouth of Havasu Creek, but somehow this hadn’t seemed like it was the proper time or place for it. She hoped they would be receptive to the message she planned on giving.

“The scripture reading this morning is from the eighth chapter of John, verses 31 and 32,” she said. “‘So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’.’”

She looked up from the Bible that was open in front of her, took a deep breath, and began, “Here in Flagstaff there is a special place, Lowell Observatory. It’s not very far from here. I think most of us have seen it and many of us have been in it to see what was one of the world’s largest telescopes a hundred years ago. In those days Percival Lowell used that telescope to study Mars, which was then a mostly unknown red dot in the sky. Through that instrument, Lowell thought he could make out canals on Mars, but he couldn’t get any more detail than that.

“Over thirty years ago, men sent Mariner space probes to look at the planet more closely. It proved that Lowell’s vision had failed him, for there were no canals. But they found something even more surprising, a tremendous canyon they named Valles Marineris. Mariner Valley is so huge that our Grand Canyon of which we’re so proud would get lost in it.” She paused for a moment and gave the congregation a nice grin. “I still prefer our Canyon, mostly because it has a river flowing through it.”

“I find that the connection we have here in Flagstaff between that telescope and the Grand Canyon a little ironic. I suspect that Lowell would have been happy to know that his observation of canals on Mars was mostly wrong, and he would have been elated to know the truth. The canals he saw were mostly in his mind; today astronomers think he mostly connected vague dots into something that wasn’t there, but he may have actually seen Valles Marineris. We don’t know, and probably will never know.

“People’s minds may connect the vague dots they see into things that are not there, but as Christians, we know the truth, and the truth has set us free from the sins we have all committed.

“Jesus said, ‘If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples.’ True discipleship is more than intellectual assent; those who are really followers of Christ will hold to His Word. That means they will not only accept His teachings as truth, but they will also obey His teachings.

“We know from the differences between what Lowell and the Mariner spacecraft saw that truth in the world can be a relative and changing thing. But my message to you is that God’s truth is the same now as it was two thousand years ago, when Our Savior walked upon this planet, telling the truth to all who would listen and believe Him.

“The truth Jesus’ disciples received brought with it freedom. Jesus said, ‘And the truth will set you free.’ What does that mean? At that point in history, the Jews were under the rule of the Roman government. Even though Rome gave them an exceptional amount of autonomy, they were keenly aware of the Roman presence around them in the form of soldiers, governors, and kings appointed by the Roman emperor. When Jesus said the truth would set them free, however, He was not talking about political freedom, for He said, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ He was telling his listeners as He tells us today, that being a slave to sin is the ultimate bondage.

“The freedom that Jesus offers is a spiritual freedom from the bondage of sin – that is, release from the lifestyle of habitual lawlessness. If those Jews listening to Him back in those days were to become disciples of Jesus, they would know the truth of their condition and the truth about Christ, and Jesus would set them free. Believers would be freed from their bondage and brought into the family of God.

“There are many truths, some simple, some not so simple. Like Lowell peering through his telescope, sometimes the truth eludes us and our minds create things that are not there. Sometimes we take something that is beautifully simple and make it into something that is much more complicated than it needs to be. As Christians, we are often guilty of just that. But the simple truth remains, in Jesus’ words in the fifth chapter of John, ‘very truly I tell you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.’

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the truth of Jesus. Believing in the truth will set us free from the bondage of sin and give us eternal life. Thank you for listening to me today.”

They went on into the final hymn and the benediction. In the last verses of the hymn Jeff walked Nanci down the aisle between the pews to a spot by the doors to the tiny narthex, where the congregation would pass on their way out of the building, or to the coffee hour in the basement of the building.

It took longer than Nanci had anticipated greeting the members of the congregation as they filed out; there were warm congratulations and thanks for her message, and for her just being there. It seemed to Nanci that most of the people were being more than just simply polite, so maybe she hadn’t done a bad job of the message.

Last in line were Jon and Tanisha, followed by Al and her mother, then the members of the White Team, with Preach bringing up the rear, and it was his opinion that she was really most concerned about. “So how did I do?” she asked quietly.

“Not badly, Nanci,” he smiled. “Perhaps it was a little disjointed with a few too many elements, and bringing in Lowell and Mars wouldn’t have worked very well anywhere but here in Flag. But that gave it a local connection that made a special impact. Once you got the preparatory remarks out of the way, you got down to a pretty pure message. It was a little on the short side, but sometimes that’s appreciated, too. All in all, not bad for your first attempt at a formal service.”

“Thanks, Preach,” she said in no little degree of relief. “I’ve worried and prayed about it for weeks.”

“Give it time,” he counseled. “It will come. I’ve heard you give mini-sermons off the cuff that were very good, and that doesn’t even get into what I’ve seen you do on the river, especially at Havasu Creek. Maybe the formality here had you a little intimidated. The Lord has to lead you, Nanci. You just have to learn to accept His guidance.”

Nanci and Preach went downstairs to the low-ceilinged fellowship hall in the basement of the church. The ladies of the church had made coffee and home-baked goods, and several people stood around talking. Nanci tried to speak to as many people as she could, but never got to sit down. It would have been welcome, as she was wearing very unfamiliar low heels, and her feet hurt her a little.

More importantly, the response to her sermon was even warmer than she’d had upstairs, and she felt good about it. Perhaps the capstone came as things were dying down, when Jeff came over to her. “I’ve been talking with a few people,” he replied. “Most of them think that’s one of the best sermons we’ve had from a lay speaker in some time. Nanci, I’ve been asked to say that we’d love to have you come and speak to us again.”

“I might have to do that,” she replied. “It was a little scary at first, but once I began to speak I think I settled down.”

“First time for everything,” he smiled. “Weren’t you a little nervous the first time you ran a rapids on the sticks with no one to back you up?”

“I was terrified, but I knew I had to do it, so I did it.”

“And you did it, so you know you can do it again. Nanci, I know you aren’t going to be around much, but I’ll put you on the list of people we can call on from time to time.”

Although the White Team had to load out for a trip that afternoon, in light of the special occasion Al and Karin took everyone to dinner at a nearby restaurant, and nobody seemed to mind so long as they didn’t take all day. These were her family and her best friends, and it seemed nice to be able to share the occasion with them.

As they sat around talking while they waited for their food to arrive in the busy restaurant, Kevin spoke up. “I thought you did pretty good, Nanci, but I sort of wonder what Reverend Miller thought of you speaking there.”

“He was fine with it,” Nanci replied. “I talked with him about it after I hiked up from Phantom that time. In fact, he said he knows that the John Wesley Fellowship is in trouble, and he wants to extend all the helping hands he can to them in good Christian brotherhood.”

“Well, yeah,” Kevin replied. “Now that I think about it, I guess that’s just the kind of thing I would expect him to say. Maybe he thinks that if they fold up, some of the Fellowship members will make it over to Hillside.”

“That could be, but it wasn’t the message I got from him. I think he genuinely wants them to be able to keep their heads above water. That’s a small church they have there and most of the people have been members there for an awful long time. He thinks that’s valuable, and I do too.”

“Yes, but it’s a competing church,” Crystal pointed out.

“True, but he sees it that they’re all brothers in Christ,” Nanci replied. “In terms of doctrine, he says they aren’t very far apart, and then it’s mostly minor things. Like I said, tradition and what people are used to play a big part of why they want to stay separate.”

“You know,” Jon said, “it makes me wonder why there are so many churches.”

“Tradition, again,” Preach said. “Churches split over a lot of things, and sometimes it’s personalities. But after the split has taken place, it usually endures for ages and often forever. Believe me, as a Baptist I’ve seen a lot more of it than Methodists have had to live with. I don’t know what caused the split between the Methodists and the Wesleyans, for example, and I don’t know why the Fellowship is separate from either, but given a choice I’d bet that it was over personalities, or some other issue.”

“Reverend Miller and I talked a little about that,” Nanci replied. “According to him, the split between the Methodists and the Wesleyans came back before the Civil War, when the Wesleyans were more radically abolitionist than the Methodists. There’s not that much difference in doctrine, but they’ve stayed separate simply out of habit, and having developed their own hierarchies that want to perpetuate themselves.”

“My point exactly,” Preach grinned. “So are you going to move over to the Fellowship?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Nanci replied soberly. “I was just a guest there today and if they invite me to speak there again, I’ll still be a guest, although I’ll probably accept if I’m asked. But there’s enough difference in the service times that I can still make the early service at Hillside and make it over to the Fellowship in time to speak there, like I did today.”

“Oh, so you’re going to turn into a circuit rider on us, are you?” Kevin grinned.

“Well, maybe a little,” Nanci said sheepishly. “It’s a long drive up from Phoenix and I have to make it worth my time.”

“All right, Kevin,” Jon said. “You slipped that one past me.”

“You’d almost have to be a Methodist to get it,” the boatman replied. “In the old days sometimes a preacher would have several small churches, and he’d ride his horse from one to the next, a week here, a week at the next place, and so on. Methodists have a strong tradition of it. Even today there a few pastors who serve several tiny churches like the Fellowship that way.”

“Baptists too, although it’s not very common,” Preach added. “But the circuit-rider tag seems to stick to the Methodists for some reason.”

Tanisha had been sitting back and not participating in the discussion very much, but now she spoke up. “You know, ever since the service I’ve been sitting back and comparing it to what would have happened in my father’s church.”

“How’s that?” Nanci asked.

“It was totally different,” Tanisha said. “I mean, I grew up in my father’s church, and, well, I hate to say it but it was almost entertainment. He would get up on the pulpit and rant and rave and spout off hellfire and brimstone. He was very dynamic, sometimes shouting and screaming, sometimes low and meaningful. It was just interesting to watch him even if I wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying. When you get down to it, that was what his congregation expected out of him. But Nanci, you just stood up there and gave a thoughtful, quiet, and serious presentation. There wasn’t any entertainment value, but you could tell you meant just what you said. Like I said, it was totally different, but refreshing in a way.”

“It was appropriate for the congregation,” Preach interceded. “That’s what they expected. You’re right, it was a very different dynamic. Tanisha, never having met your father, I’d expect his message wouldn’t have gone over with the Fellowship well at all.”

“Oh, no question about that,” Tanisha grinned. “Different strokes, and all of that. But Nanci, I thought it fit where you were and what you were trying to say very well. If they call you to speak again, I think I’d like to be there to hear it, although it isn’t likely I’ll be able to make it for the next couple of months.”

“Thanks, Tanisha,” Nanci replied, knowing that Tanisha was talking about her baby, due in less than a month. “Coming from you, that means a lot to me.”

*   *   *

It was still Sunday when the White Team had to head for Lee’s Ferry, and this time it was for their next to last trip of the season. As soon as dinner was over with, Nanci went over to the Canyon Tours office with them, and out in the bunkroom she changed from her skirt and blouse into work clothes and helped to pitch in with the loading. Although the team had worked ahead a little the afternoon before there was still a lot that had to be done, and it was later than normal when they finally loaded up the bus and got on the move.

Nanci would have liked to go out to Lee’s with them to help them rig for the trip since she was missing the taste of the river already. But she knew she couldn’t do it; it was two hours’ drive out there, and she knew she’d barely get there before she’d have to be heading south on a four-hour drive back to Phoenix, so it just wasn’t worth the trouble. Jon and Tanisha had already started back home since Tanisha didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary out of reach of the hospital; they’d driven up early in the morning.

So it was with real sadness that Nanci stood in the parking lot behind Canyon Tours and watched the bus pull out, along with the pickup hauling the trailer loaded with rafts. At least she’d been able to touch base with her river friends a little, although now she felt like she was a little apart from them.

She’d managed to spend a few minutes alone with Angie the day before. Her friend had never told her a great deal of what had happened with the customer girl on the last full trip Nanci had made. Nanci inferred, rather than knew, that whatever had happened, it hadn’t quite come out the way that Angie had been expecting; she didn’t know yet whether that was good or bad. In the few minutes they’d had to talk Angie had told her that she might visit the girl sometime over the winter, but she hadn’t made her mind up yet. The girl lived in Los Angeles, and that was a long trip that might not be worth the effort.

As far as Nanci knew, Angie didn’t have any real plans for the winter. She had been staying with Crystal and Preach on her weekends off in the Girls’ House, but by the time they came off the river after their last trip Scooter and Jim, and then Dave and Mary would be off the river and living there, too. That made it crowded enough that there had been discussion of Crystal and Preach crashing with Al and her mother for a while, at least until the others took off for Costa Rica like they’d been planning. That wouldn’t be until after the season-ending crew party at Al’s in the middle of November. Nanci would have liked to offer to take Angie in, but since she was living with Jon and Tanisha it wasn’t her place to do it.

So, rather than riding the crew bus northward like a part of her would really have liked to have been doing, Nanci got in her faithful little Camry and pointed it southward. There was plenty for her to be doing down in Phoenix. While she liked the boatman part of her life, there were other things that she had to be doing, and her studying at Black Mesa was pointing her toward them, whether she decided to become a minister or not.

The experience this morning had been interesting, and she knew that if she were asked she would be willing to do it again sometime. While she was still a member at Hillside Methodist, she respected the desire of the Fellowship to keep what they had alive, and was willing to help out where she could. Whether that told her anything about the question she’d been mulling for over a year about whether she should become a minister, well, the jury was still out on that and probably would be for a while. Standing up in front of a congregation and speaking for a single Sunday or even for several Sundays, was one thing, but there was so much more involved in the life of a preacher and being responsible for a congregation than that.

She knew that a great deal of her reluctance came from the example of Preach. After all, he’d been faced with the same decision. He had come close to taking one path before he’d turned away and taken one radically different. While she felt drawn to the ministry, perhaps much as he had, there was still his example that she had to contend with. He’d come right out and said that they were different people, with different backgrounds, and that their service to the Lord was probably going to be different, as well.

So she knew she was no closer to an answer than she had been a few hours before, not that it was a great surprise. It was going to take a lot more time on her knees before she had an answer she was comfortable with.

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To be continued . . .

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