Posted in Christian Living, Christianity

GOD is NOT a Capitalist

Give God your best

It’s that time of year again at our church, the time when the church leaders are trying to finalize the current budget and get the congregation’s commitments for the tithe.

The tithe, that ten percent of my net worth that should be given to God, usually makes me think in terms of dollar signs. But the church, and most especially God, is not primarily concerned with me opening my wallet. Yes, in our modern world, there are the practical concerns for a church like having electricity and paying support staff, but the idea of the tithe has never been, or ever was, just about money–in so many ways.

Abraham gave a tenth of all he had to pay homage to the Lord. God told the Israelites, “You shall bring the choice first fruits of your soil into the house of the LORD your God” (Ex. 23:19). The Levitical law declared: “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord” (Lev. 27:30). The Proverbs remind us to “honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops” (3:9).

As important as it is to offer to God the first fruits of our labors, which in our economy equates to dollars and cents, the tithe should be a time to also remind ourselves how important it is to God that we honor Him with, not a specific percentage of our worldly goods, but with the best of us, the best of all that we are. 

How often do I give God not the best of me, not the part of me that rolls out of my warm bed mostly ready to face, and maybe even conquer, the world each morning, but rather the what’s left of me, the worn, half-asleep me that has faced the world and found myself wanting? How often do I come to Him only after I have exhausted all my personal resources, as if I have control over anything at all?

Why should it surprise me that God wants the very best of me when He gave me the very best of Himself? Not only did Christ come to earth as man in order to die for my sins, He left behind the Holy Spirit to function inside of me as a believer in the One and Only. Shouldn’t God expect me to begin and end not only my day, but my each breath, with thoughts of praise, with thankfulness for His power in my life, a power I am supposed to be acknowledging instead of trying to take on the world all by myself?

Giving God the first parts of me, the best parts of me, means praying often, especially when I least feel like it, humbling myself to admit that my problems are truly God’s problems, that I cannot worry myself out of any situation but that God can see me through all the things bound to happen to me in a fallen world.

When I was very young and admittedly not too bright, I took my favorite teddy bear, the one smooshed from being held by me through many a long night, and laid him on a makeshift slab bench in our back yard. My uncle, a young man, was dying from cancer not even a year after my grandfather had died. In the shade of our fruitless mulberry tree, I prayed that God would take my teddy bear and make my uncle better.

Since I didn’t have access to matches, I guess I expected my teddy bear to be struck by lightening or simply disappear. In my childish mind, giving up one of my favorite things seemed like a decent trade. But nothing happened, and a few months later, my uncle died anyway.

I didn’t understand then that Jesus had already made the ultimate sacrifice for the only thing that truly mattered, my eternal soul, my uncle’s eternal soul. As A. E. Houseman proclaims, “life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose.” It’s taken me almost four decades to truly understand how important it is that I offer myself to God, not objects, but my whole self no longer tied to the objects on this earth, in order to be close to Him, in order to walk a more Christ-like walk.

Sometimes, I think it’s easier to give God money than concentrate on the things He really wants, like our lives free from sin, our humbleness, our gratitude.  But giving to God means being our best selves in light of our need for our Holy Father. I thank Him for His patience with us. I love Him because He forgives me when I often stumble. And I give Him money from my wallet because my firstfruits include all of me, even the dollars in my bank account.

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Posted in Christian Living, Christianity

Here, Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Know the Word of God and Heed It

Why are we surprised when armchair theology leads us to believe that all decent people somehow wind up in a good place when they die? We’ve raised several generations now of children who have been taught that to participate, even if that participation means wearing the jersey and watching the birds fly overhead in the outfield all season, means being awarded. In an effort to make all children feel good about themselves, we’ve managed to decimate all standards, leaving open to a loosey-goosey interpretation the ideal of perfection.

When did it become wrong to declare that something is slipshod, especially when it comes to human behavior? Do we really think that God would suddenly change His mind about thousands of years of teaching on morality and virtue, He who valued His standards of virtue so much that He was willing to die on a cross, laid bare and humiliated, in order to provide a means for imperfect humans to be in relationship with perfection?

Getting trophies all the time just because you breathe air must make it difficult to realize there are places and times when you actually have to work on being your best self in order to thrive. When the authority figures in your life have always lauded you, no matter how little effort you put into something, it must be even more difficult to visualize a Creator God who might actually see boundaries and strict guidelines as for your greater good, rather than just being angry and mean.

In a world that is grossly unfair, how hard it must be to enter adult life after being buffered against the pitfalls of reality with false accolades to realize that you actually don’t always get what you want, to learn the hard lessons of knowing the difference between needing and wanting. Because you have rarely been called to account for your actions, or lack thereof, you most likely fail to see that the problem resides in your own attitudes. You either turn from God because He seems like a cruel taskmaster that doesn’t line up with your reality of authority figures who are always willing to say good job even when you know something was not your best effort, or you re-create God into an image of yourself, a guy who, if he does exist, surely understands your struggles and cuts you the slack you crave.

But, because God is very real and so very much more than any of us can imagine, we are wise to heed His definitions of what is right and good, to follow His road map to an afterlife spent in His presence instead of wallowing in the misery of hell. In Luke 16, Christ tells the story of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus which illustrates the importance of heeding God’s Word rather than making up your own, feel-good theology.

The poor man, Lazarus, hovels just outside the gate of the rich man, living a life of half-starved misery, so miserable, in fact, that his only medical attention comes from the dogs who lick at his oozing sores. The rich man, enjoying his great wealth, his friends, his lavish lifestyle, does nothing to comfort the poor man just outside his gates. When they die, Lazarus is brought into the bosom of his ancestor Abraham to enjoy all the peace and luxury he was denied during his earthly life. The rich man, on the other hand, wallows in misery in hell, looking up to heaven to see Lazarus, whom he recognizes, living the life the rich man now longs for.

When the rich man complains, he’s reminded of the luxuries he experienced in his earthly life, but more importantly, he is reminded of the words of Moses and the prophets that the rich man never heeded. When the rich man begs to have a ghost return to the living to warn his brothers against their fate if they do not change their ways, God assures the rich man that the words of Moses and the prophets should be enough for his brothers, just as it should have sufficed for the rich man.

 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them,” Jesus tells us, “and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me” (John 6:44-45). God speaks to us through His Word, which, contrary to popular belief, does not teach that all good people go to heaven. “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you,” James admonishes (1:21).  That Word teaches that we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, but that the blood of Christ can redeem us.

Christianity is not a license to do bad things. It is the freedom to know that when we stumble, God is ready, willing and able to forgive us instead of condemning us. But Christian freedom does not include living as if sin doesn’t matter. Get rid of moral filth and evil, the Word says. Be humble.

These lessons are so in contrast to our trophy-loving world. I pray that Christians young and old embrace the Word of God, applying its lessons of love and peace, fellowship and humility, so that none of us, like the rich man, enjoy the pleasures of this life without looking toward the treasures we should be storing in the heavens.

God is good, and in His goodness and greatness He alone understands why we must have boundaries to our behaviors, why being a pretty decent fellow isn’t enough to escape the eternal damnation of a non-existent relationship with our loving Creator. Only by accepting Christ as your Savior, by taking on His much lighter yoke of a life lived no longer as a slave to the sinful nature, will any of us hope to see Abraham on the other side of those pearly gates.

I want to be Lazarus, even if it means great suffering in this life. I want to know that when I finally face God, I have the hope of hearing those words which are the greatest trophy of all, WELL DONE.

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in Christianity, Faith

Resolve to be . . . Industrious

Resolve to serve God this year

A powerful executive, in charge of billions in assets, notices a disturbing trend as he audits his managers’ recent business performances. He pauses over a particularly disturbing case that brings him pause. This manager, so full of promise when he began right out of college with his MBA and magma cum laude degree, has been spending more time using the corporate country club membership and expense account than in creating new business to help the corporation grow. Further inspection reveals that the manager is also guilty of not even following through on making sure his customers are up-to-date in the accounts receivable department. Books that should be well in the black are in the red.

Steeling himself for an unpleasant confrontation, the top executive calls his business manager into the office one Monday morning to ask him the tough questions. Because the business manager has obviously been sleeping on the job, the executive informs him that his days with the company are most definitely numbered. Desperate to save himself from a bleak employment outlook, the business manager does some fast thinking. If he can grease the right palms, make the right customers happy, just maybe he’ll find a new job even without a recommendation from his current employer. Calling in some of his most deeply-in-debt clients, the business manager cuts some strategic deals. He has his clients write checks for fractions of what they actually owe, forgiving the remainder of their debts on the spot.

By the end of the week, the executive chuckles over the report that lands on his desk. Seems his business manager has more savvy than he’d previously given the man credit for. Rather than firing the business manager, the executive calls him into the office and reminds him that ingenuity and a make-it-happen attitude lie at the heart of good business. The wayward business manager becomes the role model for industry.

What does such a story have to do with Christianity? Why would a parable about cheating your way out of a tight spot fall from the lips of a perfect, truth-telling Savior?

When I have read the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16, I have to admit to scratching my head. But as with many of Jesus’ lessons, things are not always as they appear on the surface. What Jesus is really saying when he tells the story of a fast-thinking steward who gets praised for doing what is essentially wrong has nothing to do with the treasures that concern the steward in the first place, those uncertain, earthly riches that none of us will take with us on our ultimate journey to heaven.

Instead, Jesus is wanting us to think, in part, about the effort, creativity and outside-the-box thinking people do who are primarily concerned with storing up treasures on this earth and to consider how much more we could do if we applied the same kind of effort to the gathering of treasure which really matters—the kind that gets stored up for us in heaven.

Imagine how much of a difference your experience of Christ and your ability to share His kingdom you would make if you put similar industry into building treasures in heaven as do those who, like the steward of the parable, strive to build up stores of human wealth. If we concentrate on earthly riches, Jesus tells us, we cannot serve Him. How often, however, do we fail to concentrate on the true goal of our journey toward heaven as we are trying to survive the day-to-day scrabble in this earthly existence?

This parable does not call for us to lie, cheat and steal. These are actions driven by a desire that is fueled by the evil things, by the desire for possessions that only mean something if your main goal in life is to be better than or rule over others. Being industrious for heavenly treasure requires an entirely different mindset. It means we work within the mores of the law of love. It means we choose right instead of wrong. But just because our industry requires us to stay inside the lines, it does not preclude applying our whole selves toward the success of our journey. We can think outside the box and still follow the commandments. We can sweat our way toward a positive outcome and still be in relationship with a loving God.

Some might rightfully argue that if we are not sweating in our efforts to forward the goals of heavenly treasure, then we are not in a relationship with Jesus in the first place. We either choose to serve God in this life or we choose to serve the man-made things that at times are no better than the idols of the Old Testament.  “You cannot serve God and mammon,” Jesus says in this parable.

As we define resolutions for a new year, let us do so with a kind of gusto as if our very livelihood depends upon the outcome, for the outcome of our souls certainly is tied to the choices we make in a world dominated by earthly things. What if we, like the dishonest steward, have been unfaithful with the spiritual treasures Jesus so freely gives to those who believe? How can we improve our pursuits of heavenly treasures in 2018? How can we gather souls for Christ to make up for the deficit of our previous apathy?

In 2018, no matter what your resolutions may be, consider the lessons from the dishonest steward. Your choices make clear whether you are standing on the side of the angels and eternal treasures or if you are clinging to the earthly things that ground you in the desires of a mankind that denies the deity of our powerful God. Resolve to make choices for God this year. Serve Him boldly, creatively, and courageously. We do not earn our salvation, but we most certainly prove to God the degree of our thankfulness depending upon the ways we pursue His vision for Christianity as it should be lived in a fallen world.

 

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in Christianity, Faith

Jesus IS LORD

Jesus IS LORD

What makes Christmas so special? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the presents and Santa Claus. It’s not even peace and good will.

Christmas is the celebration of a miraculous birth, not only because Mary, a virgin, gave birth to a baby, but also because that baby was God made man.

Except for Christians, most of the world sees Jesus as either a fable or a great, spiritual teacher, equal (or lesser) in rank to other great, spiritual teachers such as Mohammed, Buddha and Gandhi. But these viewpoints of Jesus could not be further from the truth, or any less detrimental.

God is perfect. From before time began, He was the same as He is today, the same He will be tomorrow and beyond.

Mankind, on the other hand, is a rotten mess of mistakes, bad deeds, and inconsistencies. Not one of us has ever lived without committing sin. Most of us don’t even make it through one day without doing something that is an offense to a perfect God.

At the time Jesus was born as a baby in a manger, the only way for those who had sinned to mend the broken relationship between themselves and their Holy God Creator was to offer the sacrifice of blood. Because that blood was a temporary remedy to an always problem, the sacrifices offered only restitution, not absolution.

When Jesus came to earth, He lived out His life without sin, a feat no human can accomplish. Because Jesus was God taking the form of man, He alone was able to live a blameless life. Christ’s blameless life, offered on the cross, served as the one sacrifice that could pay for all sins and offer to believers the assurance of not being condemned.

So, realizing that Jesus was at once man and God is vital to understanding His role on this earth. We don’t celebrate Christmas because we want an excuse to give and get presents wrapped with pretty bows. We celebrate Christmas because our God loved us enough to come to earth as the lowliest of beings, suffering through this life just as we must suffer, but living His life perfectly as we never can hope to live, and all in order to offer us the gift of salvation.

God’s grace, offered through our belief in Christ’s living, dying in sacrifice, and rising in redemption for all, is the greatest gift the world has ever known. No other spiritual teacher can match it. Period.

When you say Merry Christmas! this holiday season, know the real reason why we should all be merry and why Christ is in Christmas in the first place.

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 30

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Bess asked Agnes as the car pulled up in front of the pastor’s house, with its ocean-blue shutters framing the windows and rose bushes lining the walkway.

“They spread her brother’s ashes at Palo Duro yesterday, just her and Michael, poor girl. Even though none of this was her fault, she’s having a hard time even looking people in the eye, have you noticed? If we aren’t holding what happened against her, why should anybody else?”

The rumors around the small town had been flying since the night of the attack, especially since Judd had exerted his considerable influence to keep most of the details out of the papers. The latest story had Bess sneaking out to meet Samuel for secret liaisons while Judd was in the hospital. Only a thick skin honed over years of being an outsider kept Bess from hanging her own head in public.

Bess sighed. “Well, let’s do this then.”

They rang the bell twice before Michelle cracked open the door, her eyes red-rimmed, her hair disheveled. She made a wink of a sound when she recognized them and stepped back to let them in the house. Agnes walked inside and right up to Michelle, wrapping the younger woman in a warm hug that brought fresh tears.

“Oh, Bess,” Michelle said over Agnes’ shoulder. “I don’t know what to say.”

Bess thought about how kind Michelle had been when the pastor’s wife could have ignored Bess altogether. She’d given Bess newfound confidence in her sewing skills and included Bess in social activities when others would have cut her out. “There’s nothing for you to say. I’m sorry everything ended the way it did.”

Michelle’s eyes got a far-away look. “He won’t get a chance to redeem himself,” she said. “I think that’s what hurts the worst of all.”

Agnes moved back, placing her hands on Michelle’s shoulders so that she could look the younger woman in the eye. “I’m sorry we didn’t hear any last words from your brother, but we don’t know what happened in those last moments, Michelle, between Samuel and God. You can’t torture yourself for something that was never yours to control in the first place.”

Something passed across Michelle’s wan face. She gave herself a little shake and forced a smile. “We can’t just stand around here in the entry all day. Would you all like some coffee?”

She motioned them into her living room, where the sofa and many chairs offered proof of the household’s commitment to hospitality. As she sat down on the sofa with Daniel settled against her shoulder, Bess thought about all the church members and strangers who had been welcomed into this house. She could almost feel the energy of acceptance in the air around her.

Perhaps the routine of putting together a tray of drinks and treats settled Michelle’s frayed nerves. When she returned from the kitchen a few minutes later, she had more color in her cheeks, and her soft eyes had just a hint of their old sparkle. She handed Bess a steaming cup of herbal tea and sat back in the straight-backed chair by the couch with her cup of coffee.

Drinking the hot liquid, feeling it pool in her belly and chase away the last of her butterflies, Bess worked up the courage to ask something that had been bothering her ever since the night of the incident. She glanced at Agnes and Michelle, who were discussing the upcoming Valentine’s Day banquet, and took a deep breath.

“If I had died that night,” she blurted, startling the other two women, who sat down their coffee cups with a clink, “I wouldn’t have been redeemed either.” She swallowed, letting those words, finally spoken out loud, sink in. “I have a better life now than I’ve had in the whole of my life. I have a husband who loves me, a great mother-in-law, and a beautiful, precious baby. But none of that means anything if I am not in a relationship with Christ, my Savior, does it?”

Michelle moved to sit beside Bess on the couch, laying a soft, warm hand on Bess’ thigh and squeezing so that Bess winced. “No, it doesn’t,” she answered. “And you’re going to discover that being in relationship with Him makes everything that much better, especially when times get hard again.”

Bess grimaced. “Times definitely have a tendency to do that.” She studied the back of Michelle’s hand, still clutching her thigh, watched the network of bluish veins that shown through the other woman’s pale skin, like a map of the twists and turns of her own life, leading her here. Suddenly, her worries about giving up control to God, about not being good enough, seemed moot. She looked up to gaze into first Michelle’s and then Agnes’ eyes. “What do I do?”

Agnes kneeled in front of Bess and gathered all three women’s hands together. “You pray, darling,” she said. “Right here and now, you tell Christ that you know you are a sinner in need of forgiveness. You ask Him to forgive you because you accept Him and His gift of grace as your Savior. And when you pray those things, Bess, you believe them with all your heart, mind, and soul.”

“I do believe,” Bess said. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. The words came haltingly at first, but picked up fervor as she continued. Bess knew her sins were many, but that Jesus’ love was much bigger than those sins. When she finally lifted her head, she felt hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Her heart swelled, beating a happy rhythm in her chest.

Agnes took Bess’ face in her hands and kissed her forehead. “I’m so happy for you,” she breathed.

Michelle was smiling through her own happy tears. “It’s a life-long journey, Bess, growing closer to our awesome God, but the hardest step is always the one you just took. I’m so honored you let me be a part of your journey.”

Bess smiled. “You were already a part of the journey, Michelle. You and Agnes, and even Lillian. I can’t thank any of you enough.”

As they got in the car some time later, Bess turned to Agnes and asked her, “There’s something I haven’t done yet that I’d still like to do. Can we go by the cemetery? I’d like to introduce Daniel to his father.”

The cemetery was just off a lonely stretch of highway outside of town, surrounded by fruitless mulberry trees. There were tombstones that went back to the time of the civil war. The grass spread across the ground in odd patches, as if it were chasing water.

Daniel’s grave lay next to his father’s in the southeast corner of the cemetery. Their matching headstones were simple granite with their names and birth and death dates. At the bottom of each was the single-word epitaph, beloved.

Bess sat down on the ground with her baby in her lap, ignoring the dirt that could be easily washed out of her dress later. Agnes laid the fresh flowers they’d bought on the way to the cemetery at the base of each headstone, running her hands over the cool, flat granite. She sighed so deeply, the action seemed to start at the tip of her toes and spill out of her like a waterfall. Without a word, she turned and stepped away, out of earshot, to give Bess privacy.

Holding Daniel’s chubby hand as he lay in the hammock created by her crossed legs underneath her dress, Bess took a moment to really study the features that were all Daniel, the green eyes and perfect nose, the tilt to his smile that held the promise of the heart-breaker her son would become one day. A single tear slid down her cheek, splashing on Daniel’s blanket and leaving a paisley pattern in the soft cotton. She swiped at her cheek and looked up at the gravestone with her first husband’s name on it.

“Daniel Taylor,” she told the grey slab, “I’d like you to meet your little boy. Your brother and I are going to make sure he grows up knowing everything about you, especially what a hero you are. Not only did you give your life for your country, Daniel, I wouldn’t have this life if you hadn’t seen something in me that day on the Galveston shore.

“I owe you so much. I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to know you better, to love you like you deserved. I can’t be sorry about falling in love with your brother, though. He’s a good man, Daniel, the best of men. But, you already knew that.

“Rest in peace, beloved. We’ll be back to see you here, but you will always be with us wherever we go.”

They were settling words, a kind of epiphany. Bess repeated them often through the years, as she and Judd came with a rapidly growing Daniel to pay respects, as more children, two boys and three girls, were bundled into the station wagon to ride to the graves, as they laid Agnes, 95 and mobile until the last, into the ground next to her husband.

All the while, Bess worked to grow in faith. She discovered with each passing year with Judd, with each child added to her family, that love had no limits. The more that seemed required of her, the more she had available to her to give. For the orphan-child who once lived without love, discovering the power of God’s love, the greatest love of all, was truly the key to her finally finding a home. ##

Dear Readers,

Thanks for joining me on this journey. I appreciate your patience with the stumbles of a first draft. In a few months, when the new has worn off these words, I’ll pick up this draft again and begin the next hard job of editing. “Use the best word,” Mark Twain said, “not its second cousin.” I’ll be searching for the best words as I edit.

If you are interested in reading some of my more polished writing, you can check out my books at ramonalevacy.com.

I will be publishing my latest book, Fire in the Bones, in the next couple of weeks. If you visit my website, you can sign up for my email list. I’ll send out an email blast when the book is available. When you sign up for the email, you’ll get instant access to the first chapter of the novel.

Have a wonderful holiday season as we celebrate the glorious truth that our God loved us enough to be born into this life of misery and joy only to die as a sacrifice for all, so that all might be saved.

In Christ,
Ramona

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 28

The call came four days later, a shrill bleating in the otherwise silent house. Everyone had followed the baby’s example and lain down for a nap after lunch. The last few days had been spent with the impending certainty of a reckoning, and yet each day passed without event, leaving everyone jumpy, restless.

Agnes knocked on the bedroom door, pushing it open a fraction and calling out in a hoarse whisper to avoid waking Daniel, “Sorry, Son. It’s for you.”

Judd groaned as he pulled himself out of the bed. He was back a few minutes later, tense and determined, his jaw working but no sound coming out.

Bess sat up against the headboard, wide awake now. “What is it?” she demanded, worried as much by the wild look in Judd’s eyes as his harried motion.

He stopped in mid-button. “There’s a problem at the university. They’re calling in departments from across the county.”

Bess held her breath. In May the year before, students had been killed protesting at Kent State in Ohio. Since then, other violent protests against the war had been occurring across the country. She looked at the bandage still covering her husband’s ribs.  She knew he had to go, so she just refrained from asking a stupid question. Instead, she got out of the bed and dragged the dress back over her slip.

Judd strapped his gun across his hip this time and sat on the bed to pull on his boots. He grunted with the effort it took. Bess walked to his side of the bed and kneeled between his knees, laying her head against his thigh. “You’ll be careful. That goes without saying,” she told him.

He grabbed her chin and lifted her eyes to his black stare. “I don’t want to go. I shouldn’t go, but they haven’t given me a choice.” He stood up suddenly, pulling her with him and grabbing her hand to walk her toward the kitchen.

Agnes was there, just filling a thermos with steaming, black coffee. She handed it to Judd and kissed his cheek without saying a word, but it seemed to Bess that a lifetime of conversing passed between mother and son. Judd took both women into his steady gaze.

“I can’t leave anybody here,” he said, “so you’re going to have to be extra vigilant. I want that rifle at arm’s length at all times. Don’t be answering the door or letting anybody in the house. Somebody tries to get in, you shoot first and ask questions later.”

Bess glanced at the rifle propped against the counter and shook her head. “I don’t know the first thing about guns,” she blurted.

Agnes touched her arm. “I do.”

Judd was moving toward the kitchen door. “I wish I had more time. I don’t like this, not one bit.”

The more he was talking, the more nervous Bess became. If he was worrying about her, his mind wouldn’t be on whatever was right in front of him. “We’ll be okay,” she reassured him. “Don’t you worry about us. You just worry about getting home safely.”

“Amen,” Agnes seconded.

Judd gave them each another long look before nodding sharply. Then, he was gone like a puff of smoke. Agnes locked the screen and closed the solid, wooden door as well. She turned to Bess and reached out her hands. “Let’s pray, Bess,” she said. “It may not seem like much at the moment, but it’s actually everything.”

Bess discovered that the words of thankfulness and praise made her feel better, even if her hands still tingled with nerves. She went into the living room, where she had her sewing things in one corner, and began working on altering more maternity wear, as well as making things for the baby. The work brought a numbing regularity to an otherwise discordant day. She could hear Agnes moving in other parts of the house. Once, Daniel fussed, then quieted. The wind outside whipped handfuls of sand against the window panes.

They were in the kitchen several hours later, pretending to eat the meal of salmon croquettes, green beans, and biscuits Agnes had put together for them, when the knock sounded at the kitchen door. For one insane moment, Bess thought Judd was back and rose as if to open the door. Agnes snaked out a quick hand and caught Bess by the wrist, shaking her head silently. The tension in the air around them crackled.

“It’s me, Samuel,” the voice said from the other side of the door. “Are you ladies all right in there?”

Bess felt her shoulders relax and took a step toward the door. Agnes’ grip tightened. Bess looked at her. “It’s only Samuel,” she said.

Agnes released her death grip. “Of course,” she agreed, but she went to the counter and picked up the rifle just the same.

Samuel knocked again and called out. Bess glanced at her mother-in-law, who nodded, lifting the rifle loosely to her hip, ready to raise it into position if necessary.

Bess opened the door and looked at Daniel, keeping the locked screen door between them. “Samuel, what brings you here today?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light.

He was dressed in a three-piece suit and looked freshly groomed, as if he were expecting to meet a very important person indeed.  He smiled, exposing his dimples, and cocked his head at the screen door Bess still had between them. “I’m headed back home to Dallas, and I promised Michelle I’d look in on you all as I was leaving.”

Bess crossed her arms over her chest. “She couldn’t come herself?”

“She’s feeling poorly. Wouldn’t want to expose that baby of yours to any illness now, would you?” He pushed back the pin-striped coat and placed his neatly-manicured hands on his hips. “I don’t have to come in or anything.”

Bess felt a pang of guilt for her rudeness and unlatched the lock on the screen door, pushing it open with one hand. “Come on in. We have some salmon if you’d like.”

Samuel stepped into the kitchen but stopped when he saw Agnes standing in the corner with a rifle in her arm. “Were you expecting a different kind of company?” he asked.

“Can’t be too cautious these days,” Agnes said. She openly studied Samuel, who didn’t even blink, and she laid the rifle back in its place. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Please,” Samuel smiled.

He sat down at the kitchen table, sipping on the coffee Agnes laid before him, his eyes flitting around the kitchen, eerily quiet for once. Bess sat down across from him and went back to pretending she was eating, pushing the steadily cooling food around her plate.

“I hope Michelle isn’t feeling too poorly,” Bess finally said, just to fill the quiet void.

He shrugged. “It’s just the sniffles. She’ll be right as rain soon enough.” Pushing back from the table, he crossed his legs and studied Bess over the coffee cup he tilted to his lips. “I can’t believe how beautiful you look, even without makeup.”

If Bess was going to stay friends with Michelle, she had to nip this habit in the bud. “Samuel, I’m married, and compliments like that, well, they just don’t seem appropriate. Don’t you think?”

Agnes, who had begun to clean up from making supper, coughed suddenly. Samuel looked between the two women, but he didn’t answer Bess’ question. He took another sip of his coffee, sitting the cup down on the table with a distinct thud. He laid his fingers beside the abandoned cup and tapped them on the solid wood, his eyes never leaving Bess’ face.

“Beautiful women have a tendency to think too much of themselves, you know. But I thought you were different.” His voice had the same, content little rhythm as always to it, but something about the look in his eyes made Bess’ back stiffen suddenly.

She got up and walked over to Agnes, touching the older woman on the elbow as if to ground herself. This was Samuel, for goodness’ sake, weird but harmless Samuel. “Beauty is more than skin deep, Samuel,” she said. “Believe me, I have skid marks underneath.”

“Samuel, are you feeling all right?” Agnes asked before he could respond to Bess.

Samuel stood up and moved across the kitchen so quickly that Agnes stuttered backward, her hand flailing for the rifle propped against her corner cabinet. But, Samuel was faster. He knocked Agnes to the side with a blow to her head from his balled fist and easily grabbed the rifle as it started to clatter to the floor.

Agnes, laying prone, groaned pitifully as Bess whirled around, reaching for the large kitchen knife her mother-in-law used to open cans of vegetables and lard. She felt Samuel’s fingers in her hair seconds before he yanked her back, sending her to her knees. His arm snaked under her chin and pulled, cutting off her air.

As she gasped for breath, she felt Samuel’s hot breath against her skin and yet her body was cold. “Yes, I can smell the smut on you,” he rasped. “You’re much too proud, Bess, for a whore.”

“Was you,” she just managed through thin lips as the room became dark around her. She gasped and pulled against his arm, but the struggles were futile.

“Yes, how convenient that you had such tunnel vision. But then, women like you are always hurting men. You deserve everything you get.”

She felt the tears well in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall where he would feel them against his hand and laugh all the more. How ironic that when she had the most to live for, she was going to die. She would ask to see her baby one more time, except she was hoping Samuel had forgotten about the little boy sleeping peacefully, thank God, in the other room.

Instead, she used the last of her energy to swivel her head, hoping to make contact with Samuel’s skin so that she could sink her teeth in the meat of his hand. Her struggles came up short.

“Now,” Samuel said, lifting her off her knees and stepping with her toward the hallway, “you’ve been a naughty, naughty girl, Bess, and you’re going to make it up to me.”

If she were going to die anyway, she certainly wasn’t going to help him do it. Bess went limp, falling to her knees again, feeling the choke hold tighten with a flash of gut-wrenching fear.

Samuel cried out in anger, a mad sound that echoed off the kitchen walls. Suddenly, a flash of black and brown fur flew across the kitchen. Samuel cried out again, this time in agony, and the hold on Bess fell away. She scrambled away and up, using the cabinet to pull herself to her feet and grabbing the knife. She whirled with it in her hand, prepared to defend herself.

That’s when the room, which had been spinning, came into full focus. Jethro, his hard body stiff and bristling, had his jaw locked around Samuel’s neck. Blood spewed in all directions, covering Jethro’s slick fur so that the bloodhound looked as if he had been wallowing in mud. Samuel’s body convulsed on the floor, his knees bucking, and then he was still. Jethro began a low growl in his throat, then sat back on his haunches and howled until goosebumps broke out on Bess’ slick skin.

She ran to Agnes lying on the floor, shaking her lightly. Agnes groaned and opened her eyes, her thin lids flickering several times before she managed to focus. She looked over Bess’ shoulder, a grim set to her lips. “It’s over,” she said, pulling herself up against the cabinets and sagging there.

Bess grabbed her bony hand and held it, surprised to discover her own hand shook uncontrollably. “I’ll call an ambulance,” she said after a minute.

“No,” Agnes said. “I don’t want Judd hearing about this on the radio. He’d kill himself trying to get home.”

Bess glanced behind her, where Samuel’s body lay oozing blood. “What do we do, then?”

Agnes grasped Bess by the shoulders with two amazingly strong hands and shook her slightly. “We wait.”

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 27

The house wasn’t big enough, not for the eight dogs, including Jethro, crammed into the kitchen and the two patrolmen sleeping in shifts. It had been three days since the mixed labs were poisoned, and Agnes wasn’t about to lose another animal.

The officer sent to talk to James Ruben found a closed tattoo shop and no leads about his current location. Even with a description distributed throughout the state, no one seemed to know where the man was.

Judd grew restless with the waiting and his inability to do much more than bathe, eat and sleep. He barked orders to his men over the phone, chewed out the part-timers working for him on the homestead as they stood at the foot of the bed, and gave Bess a bracing glare every time he saw her shoulders tense in worry.

Sunday arrived with a sense of peace descending on the embattled household. Agnes had managed to loan all her dogs save Jethro to various neighbors, and Judd declared himself fit enough to sit up for church services later that morning. The house was eerily quiet as Bess dressed Daniel in a onesie that used to belong to his namesake and put herself in a maternity garment she had managed to alter for her rapidly slimming figure. Judd, decked out in his Sunday suit, looked almost handsome despite the severe lines of his granite features. He was dear to Bess, anyway.

He moved to grab his Stetson off the bedpost, and Bess saw the flash of the gun at his side. She gave herself credit for not swooning at the thought of Judd walking into the sanctuary with his police issue revolver in its shoulder strap.

“Is that really necessary?” she asked. Despite her worry and no word on Ruben’s whereabouts, other reports about the man depicted him as a model prisoner who, after recovering from his injuries, experienced a reversal of personality traits. One guard at the prison where Ruben did his time claimed that the new James wouldn’t hurt a fly.

“Somebody sent you those threats, Bess, and somebody killed Mama’s mutts. If not James Ruben, then who?” He took out his revolver as if to prove his point and checked the chamber, the click of the mechanism making a loud noise in the otherwise quiet room.

She walked up to him and pulled the sides of his suit coat together, buttoning them as she spoke. “Well, we don’t have to advertise your breaking the law.”

Judd rubbed her upper arms loosely, then gave her a light shake. “Don’t sound so mortified, cupcake. It’s my decision alone and no fault of your own.”

She leaned her forehead against his torso and wrapped her arms around him, leaning into the strength of him. She moved back and forth with the force of his breath. “I’m so tired,” she admitted in a small voice that did not sound like her own.

“I know, baby,” he breathed into her hair. “But it’s all going to be over very soon. I promise.”

When they arrived at the church, Lillian was the first person to see them as they entered the building. She looked like her usual self, and Bess felt her back stiffen as she wondered if the other woman’s apology had truly been genuine. As Bess watched, Lillian stepped up to her, laying a tentative hand on Daniel’s head. “I’m glad to see you all here this morning,” she said, keeping her eyes on the baby’s fuzzy scalp. “How are you doing?”

“We’ve been better,” Judd answered, his voice hard.

Lillian blushed. “I guess that was a stupid question.” She took her hand off Daniel and stepped back, seeming to draw into herself.  “I’m glad you all were able to come to church today. You look great, Bess. No one would guess you just had a baby.”

Bess blinked twice before she could respond. Perhaps the other woman’s apology really was genuine. “Thank you, Lillian. You look great, too, as usual.”

Judd placed his hand in the small of Bess’ back. “We better find Mama and get seated,” he told both women.

Lillian took a deep breath and looked Judd in the eyes for the first time. “I’ve already told Bess how sorry I am for my behavior, Judd. I promise if you ever get shot again, I won’t be throwing myself on top of you.”

Bess thought her mouth would unhinge and just managed to keep her lips shut. She looked at the grim set of Lillian’s lips and knew what the confession and apology were costing her. And yet, the otherwise proud woman was humbling herself. Not only was she apologizing for her behavior, she was also being kind to a woman who had essentially stolen the life Lillian wanted to have.

Judd must have been thinking along the same lines because he reached out his other hand and patted Lillian’s shoulder. “I appreciate that, Lillian. It would be a very good thing if we could all be friends.”

Lillian nodded, a sheen of tears glazing her vibrant eyes. “Done,” she managed, then nodded and turned to go to her own seat in the church.

Michael Jones gave a subdued sermon on loving God through good times and bad, on how a grateful attitude at all times draws one closer to the Creator. Bess sat between Judd and Agnes, cradling Daniel to her chest and absorbing the message as she was drinking in the warmth from the two people beside her.

As the congregation filed out of the church, Michelle and her brother Samuel stopped by the pew where the Taylors were sitting. “We’re so glad to see you, Sheriff,” Michelle said. “And how are you, Bess?”

Judd straightened in his seat, and Bess noticed that he was studying Samuel as Michelle waited for Bess to answer. “We’re holding our own, Michelle,” she said. “I hope to be even better soon.”

“Have they heard something about that terrible man who’s been threatening you, then? I’m so glad.”

Bess started, but Agnes explained from behind her. “It’s a small town, Bess, and we’ve been making some pretty big changes around the homestead.”

It made sense, but it didn’t make Bess any more comfortable. Judd stood up suddenly, lifting Bess to her feet with one, large hand under her elbow. He tucked Bess under his arm and stepped into the aisle so that Michelle and Samuel had to take a quick step back.

“Judd still has some resting to do,” Agnes told them.

Samuel stepped in front of Judd, ignoring the black glare and hard set of his shoulders. “Surely, you wouldn’t mind letting the little lady get out of the house for a bit? We’d love to take Bess out for a nice meal. A new mother deserves a break now and then after all.”

Before Bess could answer for herself that she was not interested in any excursions without her husband, that man gave Samuel a look of such restrained fury that the younger man blanched. “We’re going home, Bess,” Judd said, turning away from Samuel, who made a strangled noise deep in his throat.

“We’ll talk to you later, Bess,” Samuel persisted, and Michelle seconded the idea.

Because Michelle had been nothing but kind to her, Bess gave a little wave with her free hand before walking out of the church beside her husband. There was a certain heaviness in the air as they got into the car to ride home. Judd glanced at Bess as he drove. “Why is Samuel so keen on feeding you?” he fairly growled.

Despite the proof from her experiences with Lillian that humility could be a powerful tool in getting along with others, the question made Bess unreasonably angry. “Some men like to look at a pretty face,” she purred.

The car lurched as Judd reacted to the words as much as the tone. Agnes made a noise from the back seat and interrupted. “I have to admit, I didn’t like the nature of that conversation myself.”

Bess had to agree, but she didn’t feel like admitting it. She shrugged. “Samuel has always been like that. I think he speaks before he thinks.” Judd made a noise deep in his throat, and Bess glared at him. “At least he says more than two words at a time,” she told him.

Judd looked as if he would say something, then clenched his jaw shut instead. Bess looked out the window at the sun blazing across the winter landscape, and yet all the light seemed to drain out of the day. She sighed. “I know one thing,” she told the car at large. “He certainly isn’t worth this much discussion. I wouldn’t even be around the man except that he’s related to Michelle.” She turned and looked at Judd, whose eyes were focused on the road. “Should I quit having anything to do with the pastor’s wife?”

Judd shrugged. “Talk with whomever you want.”

Well, she didn’t like that any more than she appreciated his jealousy. The strain of being under guard all the time must be getting to them both. “Well, I only really want to be talking to you, so you’re just out of luck,” she said, reaching across to lay a hand on his thigh.

He glanced at it for a moment before laying one hand over hers and squeezing. “I’m lucky enough,” he said, taking the olive branch, lifting her palm to his lips and then weaving their fingers together.

After a few minutes of silence, Agnes chuckled from the back seat, where she was cradling Daniel and cooing at him, “Well, we’re glad that’s settled, then, aren’t we, Daniel?”

Bess looked over at Judd, who winked at her and went back to studying the road. She relaxed back into the passenger seat and relished these few minutes without the fear of the past days hanging in the air around her. If only she knew there would be a time when she was not living in fear. After all, even if they managed to stop the threats against her, Judd was still a sheriff, subject to being shot any time he went to work.

Some of the Bible readings she and Agnes had studied talked about God giving a kind of peace that would stand against all conflict and sorrow, the things that were part and parcel of a life lived in a fallen world. Was it possible for somebody like Bess to achieve that kind of peace?

Was she capable of giving up the part of herself that Christ required of her? More importantly, despite Agnes’ insistence to the contrary, could a perfect God really forgive the things a so-imperfect Bess had done? The questions continued to haunt her as they arrived home, to discover the single-word description of her past emblazoned across the chimney in large, red letters.