Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Lord and the Lady

With a new year comes a resolution, of course—and my resolution this year is to be published.
I have written The Lord and the Lady, a 57,000-word young adult novel about paganism, but I find it too limiting to call it a “pagan novel.” Instead, I think it’s about the struggles we all have to be ourselves in a culture that demands conformity.
Jesus was always the answer for 17-year-old Alaina Cole, but when pagan teen Will Clayson moves into her hometown, she starts asking a new set of questions. She is soon faced with many choices—Christianity or paganism, her friends or her church, and the dictates of her culture or her sense of what is right. Her dilemmas form the core of The Lord and the Lady.
To start the year, I’m using Fritzburgh An’at as a forum to post the first chapter of The Lord and the Lady. I welcome any questions, comments, and constructive criticism—and if you are a publisher or literary agent, feel free to contact me!


The First

Alaina Cole held Danielle Speck’s shoulders and lowered her into the water as if to drown her.

Danielle did not mind, as she leaned her head back into the water with a satisfied smile. Alaina pulled Danielle back out of the water two seconds later, and they hugged.

There were six other teens in the water in three groups of two. The two girls to the left of Alaina and Danielle also hugged, as did the two girls on the right. Farther down were two boys, who, of course, were not about to hug each other, so they high-fived and shouted “Woo!” as if their high school football team had just scored the winning touchdown.

The kids who had been lowered into the water each had a look of bliss, the kind that some of their peers might get from some good pot. Not these kids, though.

For they had all just accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

There were about 300 people around them, all applauding, some cheering, a few shouting “Amen!” or “Praise God!” The weather had cooperated on this August evening for the baptism ceremony, which, weather permitting, was always held at the outdoor arena at the Shady Glen First Christian Church.

The people came from all over Shady Glen, Ohio, which had a population of 9,439 in the last census—over a thousand of whom belonged to Shady Glen First Christian. The parents of the kids involved in the ceremony were there. Most of them had dragged their kids to every service at the church before the kids could talk. There were also some other townspeople who had nothing better to do on a Wednesday night. But most of all, there were teenagers, some of them baptized in similar services not so long ago. They were fervent followers of Kevin Boyer, the youth minister.

Kevin had come to Shady Glen five years ago after graduating from an obscure seminary in California. His home state was appropriate, as his blond hair and goatee made him look like an aging surfer boy. He did not care if he was too old for the part. Even though he was now 28 and married with a two-year-old son, he could often be seen tooling around Shady Glen on a skateboard he called Big Bertha, which was decorated with crosses and Bible chapter-and-verse references. That, along with his penchant for peppering his speech with words like “rad” and “phat” and calling boys and girls alike “dude,” made him very popular with the kids. With the urging of someone as cool as Kevin, the kids didn’t mind burning their Ouija boards and rap CDs—or even abstaining from sex.

It wasn’t always that way. In the 1960s, Shady Glen’s churches included one each of the more traditional, mainline Protestant denominations—Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopal—as well as the Catholic church, St. Jerome’s. When Shady Glen First Christian opened in 1970, it was in a white, one-room building on the edge of town—the stereotype of the little country church. Its first minister called the church “non-denominational.” Shady Glen’s old-timers just called the church strange. What was all this talk about repentance and the Holy Spirit and being born again, they wondered? Wasn’t just being a good person good enough anymore? The church remained small for several years, until evangelical Christianity took a big upswing in the late ‘70s.

At that time, young people began to defect from the town’s mainline churches. They became fed up with spending Sunday mornings listening to their grandparents gossiping to the tune of a fusty pipe organ. Soon, they brought their friends to church with them, and they brought other friends. By the late 1980s, Shady Glen First Christian was the largest church in town—big enough to move out of the little white building and onto a three-building campus, including the main meeting hall, a youth center complete with a regulation-size basketball court, and the outdoor arena.

Meanwhile, the mainline churches withered as their members began to die off and not be replaced. Shady Glen Episcopal Church became so small that it merged with another church in the nearby town of Morgan City and moved there. The Methodist congregation was now so tiny that the weekly service was often held in one of the Sunday school rooms to cut the utility bills.

Shady Glen First Christian continued to grow after Kevin came to town, thanks not only to his rapport with the kids, but a slick, aggressive direct mail campaign aimed at teens. It gave the church a snappy nickname—“The First”—and portrayed it as the coolest place in town, which it was to much of Shady Glen’s youth. Shady Glen was a small town, after all, and The First was more exciting than hanging out at the Dairy Queen or sitting at home watching MTV.

Now, standing behind a lectern, Kevin turned toward the baptismal font, which was really a long, wooden trough filled with water three feet deep. He fanned his right hand out toward the font and turned back toward the crowd.

“Hallelujah!” he shouted. “Praise God!” The applause swelled as many in the crowd stood up.

The kids climbed out of the water and walked toward folding chairs in the front row, where stacks of towels awaited them. Alaina used a towel to drain some water out of her jeans, while Danielle used hers to dry off her curly, blonde hair with a frantic motion.

“All we hear in the news is how bad our kids are.”

Kevin’s voice boomed through the loudspeakers as the arena became quiet.

“You turn on the TV and all you see are kids getting pregnant, using drugs, killing people, stealing—and I know you ask yourselves, ‘Where will it end?’”

He paused as they pondered the question.

“Well, I’ll tell you where it ends—right here and right now!” he shouted as he poked an index finger into the air.

The crowd broke out in a roar of applause that shook the arena’s wooden floor.

“For we’re stopping it tonight! We’re stopping it one by one, with every fine young person such as Ashley, and Danielle, and Nicole, and Scott, that we bring to Jesus!”

The congregation responded with a cheer as if it were one entity, approving the baptism with a power worthy of any deity.

“Amen!” Kevin continued. “These young people here in the front row are the hope of our great nation. They will remain true to the Lord Jesus Christ. They will not end up getting high, stealing, listening to that horrible rap music, conceiving babies out of wedlock and then murdering them with abortions, like so many young people in America are doing today! No! They are our hope. They are America’s hope!”

There were a few stray claps, but most of the people remained silent, as Kevin looked down at his notes. He usually looked down right before he dropped a bombshell.

“And, I hate to say it—“

The crowd was fixed on his face, waiting for him to reveal the next threat to their way of life. What would it be this time? Rap music, homosexuality, and secular humanism had already been exposed. Kevin had been playing those cards with great skill since the day he came to town. Now he had the distant look in his eyes that he got when he was about to reveal the latest peril, as if he saw it in the distance waiting to pounce on the congregation.

“—but we must be eternally vigilant, for the forces of evil just will not rest! I have learned from a reliable source that the empty storefront at the corner of Fourth and Main—right here in Shady Glen—will soon be home to a purveyor of witchcraft supplies!”

There were a few gasps, but they were drowned out by a hubbub of confusion. Witchcraft? Come on! They don’t have witches anymore! Sure, there’s that show on TV, “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” but that’s just some kid’s show—nobody takes it seriously. Ridiculous! Tell us more!

“That’s right—witchcraft! The devil is renting a storefront right here in Shady Glen! Now, I know what you’re saying. Witchcraft—that’s something out of “The Wizard of Oz,” isn’t it? They don’t have witches anymore. We had the Salem witch trials long ago, and we burned them all, didn’t we? Well, I hate to tell you that witchcraft is still here, and it’s very, very real.”

The crowd grew silent again.

“You might have heard about it in the news. These are people who have rejected the Lord Jesus Christ! They make up their own gods, create their own rituals, and perform them—sometimes naked!”

There were a few gasps, as some of the older people were shocked that a minister would use the word “naked” in a sermon.

“The people who practice this perversity that they call a religion might call it Wicca or paganism or Druidry or whatever other name they might make up. They might tell you that they aren’t Satanists because their religion was around before Jesus. They might tell you that they worship the earth and love nature. Nonsense! For these people do not have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ! And you’re either for him or against him! If you do not believe in Jesus, you worship the devil, and you are destined to spend eternity in hell!”

The crowd erupted with cheering. Something about that word—“hell”—always made these people go crazy, especially when Kevin said it.

“So what do we do?”

A thin voice could be heard from halfway up in the seats once the cheering began to subside. It was Dara Bingham, a woman who was a mystery in town before she started having children. She now had six of them, ranging in age from 14 to two. When she started having kids, she also started becoming worried about the content of TV shows and music videos and the effect they might have on her kids. With the help of the ministers at Shady Glen First Christian, this worry blossomed into full-scale disgust with popular culture, which she was soon able to turn into a weekly editorial column in the Shady Glen Recorder. It was full of blather about how everything from Ivy League academics to “The Simpsons” were out to destroy the children of Shady Glen. And the town ate it up. If you judged from all the compliments she received when she walked down the street, it was the most popular column on the Recorder editorial page. But before this column hit the paper, nobody in town seemed to know her. Her former teachers at Shady Glen High School had to be shown old yearbooks to remember her, and those who did remember her recalled her as a shy girl who showed no real aptitude for anything—least of all Basic English. But now she was Shady Glen’s resident expert on popular culture.

“I’m glad you asked that, Dara,” Kevin continued. Of course, he had asked her to ask that question about an hour before the baptism. He even told her when to ask it—right after he said “hell.” “I know that some of you are thinking of taking the law into your own hands—of trashing the place, burning it down, or worse—but I beg you, please, do not do that! These people are well within the law, they can open their business, and they have the same protections in the secular law as we do…for now…”

There were a few smiles and nods around the congregation. Kevin, as well as the senior minister, the Rev. Tim Marshall, were not interested in running for office themselves, but they, like most of the members of the church, yearned for the day when righteous people would overturn Roe v. Wade and put prayer back in public schools—and they weren’t above openly campaigning for anyone who had those same goals.

“…but there is a bigger reason why we must not use violence against these heathens—because the Lord Jesus Christ forbids it! He said so himself in Matthew 5:44! He said, ‘Love your enemies! Bless those who curse you! Do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be the children of your father who is in heaven!’”

There were shouts of “Amen!” and cheers throughout the arena. Just how someone they’d never met had used and persecuted them was a question none of them had asked. Kevin hadn’t asked that question, either. All he knew was that Rod Landon, a Shady Glen First Christian member on City Council, told him who planned to rent the building and what for. Kevin also knew that his wife had wanted to open a restaurant in the same building, but found the rent a bit too high.

“I want you to go home and pray for these people—pray that they find the perfect love of our Lord Jesus Christ. And when they come to town, we must be kind to them and show them God’s love, so that they will see the error of their ways. For nothing is greater than the power of our Lord!”

There were a few prayers, a few more hymns accompanied by Joyfull Noize, a five-piece electric band on a stage behind Kevin, and then the service ended with people hugging those around them. Danielle’s parents and younger brother and sister all mobbed her in a group hug. Alaina’s parents walked up to her and clasped her for a split second. They laughed and exchanged niceties, and then Alaina, as she usually did after the Wednesday night service, told her parents she was going to Dominic’s for pizza with her friends from church.

The kids stuffed into various cars and rode the few blocks down to Dominic’s.

“Did you hear about the car that the 12 Apostles drove?”

Jeremy Echols asked that as Alaina gathered with her friends around the table at Dominic’s in front of a large cheese and a large pepperoni and mushroom. Jeremy was president of Young Life at Shady Glen High School and had an air of maturity beyond his years. His father was one of the town’s most successful attorneys, and was a bit disappointed that his son wanted to be a minister, but tried not to let it show. He figured his son could be a success at anything he wanted to do, and the boy hadn’t done anything so far to prove him wrong.

His dinner mates were silent, as they’d never heard the joke before—or at least they weren’t letting on.

“They were all in one Accord!”

The kids groaned. Andrew Yeoman, Jeremy’s best friend, tossed a wadded-up napkin at him.

“Thirty whacks with a pepperoni for that one, dude!”

“‘Dude?’ What is this? Kevin Boyer, Jr., here?”

“Hey, I left my skateboard at home, man!”

Alaina was sitting at the end of the table, to Jeremy’s right. She was on her second piece of pizza and was having trouble finishing it as Jeremy ran through his litany of jokes. Where is baseball mentioned in the Bible? Oh, boy, here we go again—Genesis 1:1, “In the big inning…”

The stomachs began to get full and the kids were starting to get tired. Finally, there was silence, and Alaina asked the question she’d had on her mind ever since Kevin’s sermon.

“So have any of you heard anything about this witchcraft store?”

“I didn’t know anything about it until tonight,” Lisa Post said. Lisa was a cheerleader and had the personality to go with it. She was five foot two, greyhound thin, with long black hair and enough energy to light up the stadium. “It gives me the creeps! Ugh!”

“Why?” Alaina asked. “What do you really know about witches, besides what you’ve seen in the movies?”

“I’ll get you, my pretty! You and your little dog, too!” Jeremy broke in, hitting the Wicked Witch of the West’s voice dead-on, to much laughter—but not from Alaina.

“Well, I read an article in Rolling Stone last year that said that witches are not Satanists. They worship nature and the earth—“

“Tree huggers!” Jeremy mocked as he picked up the napkin that Andrew had thrown and tossed it at Alaina. “And what are you doing reading Rolling Stone, girl? Don’t you know that all those rock magazines have a humanist social agenda?”

Jeremy said the last three words with great foreboding, even though he wasn’t really sure what a humanist social agenda was. He’d never heard the phrase before Kevin used it a sermon six months ago.

“My dad said he saw on the 700 Club where witches sacrifice babies!” Lisa said, her voice starting to shake with fear.

“How do you know?” Alaina asked. “Do you remember that girl who was in our class when we were freshmen? Redhead, wore all that Goth stuff—I think her name was Megan?”

“Oooh, that girl was weird!” Lisa said.

“Yeah, she was weird, but she was also really nice. I witnessed to her a couple of times, and she started telling me about this Wicca she was into. But she was still nice to me when I talked about Jesus. She listened. She even asked some questions. I liked that. Then she moved away. I kinda miss her.”

“Face it, Alaina, you like everybody,” Jeremy said, admiring, but wary for her sake.

“Yeah, you even like that Fitzgerald kid!” Andrew said.

“Justin’s one of my best friends! He saved my life when we were 10—“

“Yeah, we know, he pulled you out of the creek when you couldn’t swim,” Andrew retorted. “He’s still a weirdo. I can’t believe they made him drum major.”

Jeremy laughed. “Yeah, he sure knows how to twirl that baton. I hear it’s all in those wrists of his.” He waved a limp wrist at Alaina to emphasize his point.

“Come on, guys,” Alaina protested. “Be nice.”

The conversation turned to the classes the kids would take when they went back to school, the Bible chapters they were supposed to read for Sunday school next week, and a linebacker on the Shady Glen High football team who was suspended for smoking pot and how stupid he was to blow his senior season like that.

Alaina let the subject of witchcraft rest, but she thought about it throughout the conversation. She thought about who the people behind the shop might be, what they believed, whether she might be able to save them, and just how much their beliefs really threatened hers.

After a while, she tired of all these thoughts, then thought she’d have another piece of pizza.
Copyright 2008 R.A. Fritz

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