Free Souls, Chapter 45

Sandy sat alone in the nave of St. Mary’s Kirk in Haddington, East Lothian. They had saved Scotland for last on their two-month tour, and the next day they’d take the train down to London to catch their flight home.

She was glad she and her mother had been able to attend Sunday morning service there. But now the congregation had gone home, the minister had gone back to the manse, and her mother was outside exploring the churchyard. She had the tall, silver-gray church to herself.

In less than three weeks she would be in Boston, starting her first permanent, full time architecture job. It would be a fresh start. She was no longer the girl she had been four years before, thinking she could make an earnest promise and fulfill it without struggle or failure. She was humbler now, less apt to overestimate herself or the world. But her vocation was still there.

“Lord, help me to serve You in the field You’ve led me to. Help me depend on You and not so much on myself.”

She looked up into the vaults, their brown ribs and smooth webbing like an umbrella perpetually open against the Scottish mists. The lady who’d sat behind them in the service told her that John Knox himself had superintended the restoration of this church back in the 1560s. That made him kind of an architect, too, as well as a minister. It pleased her to think so.  He was born here in Haddington; she wondered if he preached here in this kirk. She expected he had.

“The Lamp of Lothian,” they called St. Mary’s Parish Church. And it was wonderfully bright, even on this mizzly gray day. A good place for clarity, for calm and quiet, for thinking about her future: here, so close to her Presbyterian roots.

Her spiritual forebears had made their own mistakes: John Knox might have had some choice things to say about her taking on a traditionally-male profession like architecture. Likely he knew different, now that he was with Jesus. She had her vocation and she intended to carry it forward to the glory of God, just as Knox had pursued his. If she could be a tenth part as faithful as he was, she would count her career as a success.

She got up and wandered around the church, caressing the ancient stonework of the nave pillars and delighting in the Burne-Jones windows in the south transept. The transepts and chancel, she understood, had been restored only four or five years before by an Edinburgh architecture firm. Their design and execution was impressive: One could hardly tell where the old work ended and the new work began.

Could she design and build like that? She thought she could, given the chance. In three weeks she would begin to try.

This time, she promised, she would find a church where she could be built up in Jesus Christ, Sunday after Sunday. And she would not be distracted by the wrong kind of relationships. From now on, until God brought her the man she was supposed to marry, she would date only nice Christian boys. Correction: only nice evangelical Christian boys.

She liked the custom of kneeling in the Roman Catholic churches they’d visited on the Continent; she wanted to kneel now. But she refrained out of respect, and instead stood at the foot of the chancel steps, in front of the Communion table, renewing her pledge.

Her mother found her there, a few minutes later. “Sandy,” she said, “the minister’s wife has asked us to Sunday lunch at the manse. I accepted for both of us. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Oh, not at all! In fact, I think it’s wonderful! Mom, did I remember to tell you how thankful I am to you and Daddy for arranging this trip?”

“Oh,” said Karen Beichten, “only about a thousand times. But I’m always happy to hear it again.”

*      *      *      *      *      *

Boston. A fresh start. But Sandy discovered that God’s idea of a fresh start didn’t quite match up to her own.

She had little trouble finding a suitable apartment in a safe neighborhood, thanks to leads provided by her classmate Aliyah’s family. It wasn’t big, only a studio, but the converted brownstone it was in was handsome, it was close to public transportation, and the commute to her new job was fairly short.

Aliyah’s people were Muslim, so they couldn’t help her find a place to worship. On her own she located a Presbyterian church not too far from where she lived, and at first she thought she was set. But soon she realized it was even worse for her than University Presbyterian in Mt. Athens. Dr. Livengood at least made a gesture towards preaching from a Bible text. The pastor at Old Settlement United more often than not took his themes from Jack Kerouac or the Berrigan brothers.  Sandy had no objection to hearing what people like that had to say on the other six days of the week, but a steady diet of such on Sunday mornings left her starved and empty.

One Monday at the office she was at the coffee pot regaling her colleague Janey with one of the pastor’s bizarre pronouncements from the day before, when one of the other draftsmen walked by.

“Hey, Sandy, sounds like you’re having trouble finding a Bible-teaching church,” he said.

“Yeah, Billy, I’m afraid I am.”

“Why don’t you come over to Community Bible Fellowship next Sunday? It’s over in North Cambridge, but you can get the Red Line over there easy.”

“That’s the hippie church,” put in Janey.

“She just means we have a lot of young people. And we’re very casual. Jeans and sandals are just fine– in the summer, at least.”

“What denomination is it?” Sandy asked.

“Oh, we don’t believe in denominations or creeds. That’s all manmade. We just believe in the Bible. Come on over, you’ll like it.”

She wasn’t sure it was that easy, just believing in the Bible, but things were so bad at Old Settlement she said, “Sure. What time?”

“10:30 the singing starts. You be there then. You wouldn’t believe how the Spirit can move.”

She went. And she kept on going, for the next four years. She might not have, if they hadn’t started a van ministry to pick up people from her side of the Charles River. And if she hadn’t been too distracted and too busy to find something better.

She wished she could have found something better. Yes, Pastor Barney preached from the Scriptures– verse by verse, word by word from the Scriptures. But his theology was like a building that was all details and no foundation.  As for application, it generally ran to what the congregation needed to do to please Jesus or how to have a better life. Like how to have a perfect Christian marriage, for the attached. Or how to pick your perfect spouse, for those who weren’t. Twelve tips for cultivating the fruit of the Spirit.  Jesus died for you so you need to try harder. That sort of thing.

She suspected CBF wasn’t catering to her best religious tendencies. She should be learning to trust Jesus more and herself less. But she had to worship somewhere. The fact that she didn’t enjoy the endless praise choruses actually bound her closer to the place. She didn’t want to come off as some sort of elitist snob who preferred Bach and Mendelssohn and traditional hymns– even though she did. So she kept attending.

Or maybe it was her neighborhood Bible study that kept her there. Community Bible Fellowship drew from all over Boston, and if you couldn’t find a study they sponsored near you, you hadn’t asked the right staff member. Providentially for her, the leader of her group believed in delving deep into the Scriptures using good, authoritative commentaries, and not just the church-published guide based on Pastor Barney’s sermons. She was convinced that was the only thing that kept her soul from turning to mush.

CBF was also a good place to meet other young people her age.  The church sponsored a lot of group activities, which she attended when she had time.  And she never lacked for someone who would ask her out one on one.

In all that time there was no one she dated steadily, no one she would call “boyfriend.” Nevertheless, she had plenty of dates. And thanks to CBF, she kept her renewed pledge to date only nice evangelical Christian boys.

It made her shake her head, thinking back on it.

Nice evangelical Christian boys like the ones who thought a conversation meant talking about the Red Sox and sometimes not even that.

Nice evangelical Christian boys like the ones who thought her architecture career was something she’d drop once she got married.

Nice evangelical Christian boys like the one who nodded off at the beginning of a stunning Boston Symphony performance of the Berlioz Requiem, until the Tuba Mirum woke him up and he bleated out, “Whaaaaaa?” And went back to sleep.

Nice evangelical Christian boys like the one who told her she had a demon of credalism and if she’d just let him lay his hands on her and pray over her in tongues, he could cast it out.

Nice evangelical Christian boys like the one who thought the verse “the husband is head of the wife” meant she should have no input on their dates, even though they weren’t anywhere near being married.

If her job had been more satisfying her dating life wouldn’t have galled her so much. But as prestigious as the Architecture school at Mt. Athens was, New England and the eastern seaboard could boast a half dozen or more programs more prestigious still. Sandy had graduated near the top of her class (her time spent with Werner prevented her from taking highest honors) and had won awards for her design, but in the eyes of her Boston employers the architecture graduates from the regional schools outshone her by far.

Maybe they were better, she would tell herself. Even so, she knew she was very good, and if she worked hard enough and put in enough extra hours, someday the principals of the firm would have to give her more to do than documenting existing conditions and laying out office cubicles and producing drawings for other people’s projects.

The national economy did not cooperate, and getting her license actually worked against her. By February of 1980, as she’d once told Eric, business slumped so badly that a large number of new architects were let go– herself included.

She might have fought to stay in Boston. She was established there, and she liked the city. But there was one last straw. Or perhaps she should say, two.

The first was that the church where she’d been worshipping and serving the past four years did little or nothing to help her when her money began to run low.

The second was that someone from the church did offer to help her– in a way she didn’t expect.

That was the nice evangelical Christian boy who said that her being laid off was a sign from God that she should move in with him. On their second date.

The next day she gave notice to her landlord. By the end of March she was back apartment-hunting in Wapatomekie. She had had enough.

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