His father’s call for peace made it hard for Jacob to keep the memories of his departure suppressed. Staying on the move through the landscapes of the west was an effective distraction.
Ten years ago, on a cold and windy night on Sanctuary Ridge, he stood in the light of a bonfire. He was alone in his backyard, holding a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels. The blowing smoke periodically burned his eyes. He looked up the hill to his father’s house, shaking his head and clenching his fist. Since their return from California, he and Rebecca lived in the small ranch house at the bend in the driveway. She still went by Kayla then
After circling the fire, muttering and cursing, he opened the trunk of his car. From there, he carried several boxes to the edge of the fire, throwing them to the ground with such force their contents spilled out. Books, at least a hundred of them. He kicked a few soccer style. He tossed one after another into the flames. As they burned, he seemed to give each a quick review: “Shallow bullshit…exaggerated… cheesy… completely idealistic…” He tore out the thick pages of a large volume and dropped them in, watching the flames swallow the words.
Two books remained. Bold Leadership in Age of Fear, and a Bible with a sword engraved diagonally on a leather cover. He tossed in the leadership book. He then tore the leather cover off the Bible and tossed it in. Then the unbound scriptures.
Suddenly he reached back into the fire, grabbing the burning leather. He jerked his hand away and shouted, “Ow! Damnit.” The part of the leather with the sword had not been burned. Then he took a twig from his firewood stack and plucked the pages out. Too late. Only a few pages were unscathed. “I’m sorry!” he shouted toward the sky as the pages smoldered on the ground next to the charred leather.
Kayla’s voice startled him. “Jacob!” she shouted from the patio sliding door.
“Your dad’s on the phone! What are you doing out there?”
He walked to the door and took the wireless receiver. Pacing on the patio, he asked, “What is it, Dad?… Yes, I’ve got a fire going… It’s just my worthless library. Oh, I’m sorry, I should have asked you if you wanted them. No, I don’t want to talk tonight.” He set the receiver by the door and walked toward the fire.
Following him out, Kayla asked, “What are you doing? How did the meeting go?”
“Burning my goddamn books. I won’t be needing them anymore.” She walked back into the house, saying nothing, then returned with a plastic mop bucket of water. Setting the water next to him, she moved a good ten feet away and stood outside the light of the fire.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t know,” he said.
Jacob could not see her eyes. “Come on. You knew they were going to force me to step down. As of Monday, I’m no longer assistant pastor. Not a pastor at all. And I know you complained about our marriage to them.”
“I should have told them about your debt and your drinking.”
“My debt? My drinking? I never get drunk. Well, I am now, but not since ’99.
“But you drink every night.”
Jacob looked away from Kayla and stared at the fire. He went to his knees and vomited, then fell to the ground. “I’m sorry. I’m a mess.”
Shivering, Kayla said, “Let’s go back inside. Put out that fire.” She walked toward the house.
“I burned my hand,” he shouted, still face down. “Do we have anything for that?”
She didn’t answer at first. Not turning around, she slid the patio door open and answered in a weary voice, “I’ll check.”
From where he lay by the fire, he regarded at the charred leather and pages, just inches from his face. He closed his eyes for a minute, he slowly got on his knees and moved the sacred scraps back into a pile. Kayla’s water bucket reflected the light of the fire. After dithering some more, he extinguished the blaze.
He shuffled into the house where Kaya was waiting on the sofa. She rubbed ointment on the wound and swiftly wrapped it with gauze.
“Thanks,” he said. “I love you.”
She stood up and walked away. “You’re on the couch tonight. Here’s a blanket.”
He slept a couple of hours, then woke up angry and afraid, reviewing the humiliations of the meeting the board of Soldiers of Christ. The five board members, also called elders, were seated around a long oak table in a windowless conference room with bright fluorescent lights. The white walls were covered with graphs showing the weekly giving and attendance. Four members were men in dark business suits. The fifth was a fortyish woman with a spiral perm and bangs like Maria Carey. Jill, the pastor of family services. Jacob’s father, David, was also on the board. He was highly respected for his business acumen and diplomacy.
Jacob poured a Styrofoam cup full of coffee and joined the others at the table.
“Quiet Richard” opened his notepad and was ready to record the minutes. Greg Germaine, the senior pastor, opened the meeting by praying, “Grant us your wisdom and bind the devil in the name of Jesus.” Greg then looked at John, the director of operations. “You’ve got the floor.”
John’s big black eyes stared at Jacob as he spoke in a loud and solemn manner. “We have some concerns. When you came on, we asked you to be assertive and innovative, more of a leader than a teacher, to cast a bold vision for the future and increase attendance. But there’s a timidity that comes across. Your sermons don’t inspire.”
“This seems out of nowhere,” Jacob said.
“You know your contract calls for these metrics,” John said
“Sure, but we’ve never discussed them. I’ve been in my role for less than five years.”
“I’ve known Jacob since high school,” Quiet Richard said. “He knows the Bible like no one else, and he cares for people.”
Jill countered, “That’s not enough.” Turning to Jacob, she was blunt. “You never reveal how you’re doing, and you make it hard for us to give you feedback. I’m also concerned about your marriage, Jacob. You’ve been confiding way too much in me. Kayla needs to be your soul mate.”
“She doesn’t understand the demands of this work,” Jacob said.
“She says you don’t give her a chance,” Jill said.
“You’re talking to her about me?”
John looked around at the other elders as if ready to summarize. “As a board, we need to take a vote. We’ve been avoiding this for too long. I move that Jacob should resign. He’s just not built for this role. How many of you agree?”
Jill and Quiet Richard voted for Jacob to stay, but Greg joined with John and voted for him to step down.
John looked at David. “So, we’re tied. What’s your decision?”
David took off his glasses and set them on the table, then looked at Jacob. “Son, I think we all agree you have a great heart, but you’re not really gifted as a leader. You’re more of a creative, reflective type.”
“Are you saying I’m a deep guy who happens to be a pussy?!” Looking at the others, he added, “That’s what my dad has always thought. In fact, he once thought all pastors were pussies.”
John looked disgusted. “That’s no way to talk around Jill.”
David didn’t let Jacob push his buttons. “I think stepping down will be for your long-term good, son. That’s my vote.”
“Anyway, there you have it,” John said, “Three against two.”
With his coffee cup near his mouth, Jacob leaned forward like he was about to say something. His eyes watered. Then he clenched his teeth and suddenly squeezed the cup, the coffee splashing his face. He didn’t bother to wipe it off—as if not to acknowledge it.
“The Lord has spoken!” Greg said, locking on Jacob’s face and pointing his finger. “How dare you spurn his counsel!”
“Sorry.” He looked down at his notepad. His foot was rapidly tapping the tiled floor. “I’m not trying to be argumentative… I’ll think about it.”
“There’s nothing more to think about,” Greg said. “Toughen up, brother.”
Jill grabbed a tissue and extended it to him. He didn’t move or look at her.
Nobody said anything for a few minutes. They just looked at their laptops.
John again took the reins. “The decision has been made, Jacob. We’ll give you a one-month severance. That’s in your contract too. And that’s all we can afford.”
“Can I preach one last sermon this Sunday? Say farewell?”
“I don’t see a problem with that,” John said. “Anyone object?”
No one did.
“I’ll lock up,” Jacob said. “I’m going to stay and pack some things from my office.”