Happy birthday, Josh. It's not everyday that my favorite son—my only son—turns sixteen, but I wanted you to have something extra special. |
I know. You were hoping for a car. But you know as much about our family finances as you ought to know, and you understand why we couldn't give you a set of wheels.
I hope you'll eventually find this present more valuable, though, because you'll learn some things about me that may teach you some things about yourself.
To use the vernacular of the day (and hope it doesn't offend anyone), being a Preacher's Kid sucks. I know. Remember: I was one, too.
Yes, that was back in the Dark Ages, and a number of things have changed since then. But not everything.
The basic problems never change. People look at you as if you're from another planet, they think you're odd, they have unrealistic expectations, and sometimes they just plain treat you rotten. Does that cover it adequately?
When you came to me some months back complaining that you felt like a misfit at school and even in church, your pain set off a spark in my soul. I could best share my empathy by showing you what my life was like as a teen.
I didn't want to set it in the dark ages of my actual teen years, though. That would read like a history book. Boring to the Nth degree!
So I've applied a liberal dose of imagination and written the story of my teen years as a novel, a novel I've put in a contemporary setting. Don't expect it to be realistic, though, because I don't see teen life today through your eyes. I look and I listen, though. I may not express my impressions accurately, but I've done my best to use them honestly.
But talking like a teen? No way was I even going to try that. Slang changes so fast any attempt to use it would have become outdated by the time I finished writing this book.
Like your mother and me when we were growing up, you have a far better than average vocabulary. You're used to hearing and using big words when they are more accurate than simpler ones. Although I felt comfortable doing the same thing here, I don't expect to send many people to the dictionary.
I admit it. I've oversimplified a few of the issues. I had to. My publisher limited me to 90,000 words. My rough draft went far past that number, and having to reduce the verbiage while leaving in the essentials almost sickened me.
This story isn't what they call plot-driven, though. It's about the characters. Especially what they learn from their experiences and how it changes them.
This book is a novel, not a sermon. Nonetheless, Matthew 5:5 in The Message translation of the Bible says it all. "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought."
If this novel helps you accept the truth of that Scripture, I couldn't ask for greater success. I love you, Josh, and I want you to be happy with who you are.
So sorry I couldn't give you a car for your birthday. But don't despair. My publisher expects this book to sell quite a few copies. I've earmarked the royalties to buy you a car and to get braces for your sister.
So tell everyone you know to buy a copy. They'll be helping you. And maybe they'll help themselves as well. Preachers' kids aren't the only misfits.
P.S. I hope it won't embarrass you if I autograph your copy. . .
The first time I saw her, she looked up at me across the table with the bluest eyes I'd ever seen and smiled as if we'd known each other all our lives. Then an evil grin broke through. "Hey, you're a preacher's kid, too, aren't you?"
My mouth almost hit the floor. Whatever I'd thought she might say to a guy like me, that wasn't it.
I started to respond, "Then there's a pair of us. Don't tell. They'd banish us, you know." But I couldn't remember whether this girl had been in my English class today—that's why Emily Dickinson's poem "I'm Nobody" was still fresh on my mind—and I was afraid she'd think I was crazy, otherwise.
No matter. She was right. About my being a preacher's kid, that is. A PK. A social reject by default. An outcast by definition—the equivalent of a leper in Jesus' day—even among the other teens at Dad's new church, where a guy might expect things to be different. Maybe even better.
But no. That hadn't happened.
Although we'd moved to Crossroads, Virginia, during mid-summer, nobody had made any effort to befriend me. Not at church. Not around the neighborhood. And not in my morning classes today, either. No one had bothered to ask my name or introduce himself.
And all because I was a PK. And automatically gave off an unmistakable aura of differentness. Had to be that. What other reason made sense?
So why did this girl have to advertise my status as a misfit in the middle of the school cafeteria—and do it so loudly? The other kids would figure out what—not who—I was soon enough.
Too soon. Then they'd understand why they'd already begun instinctively avoiding me.
The unforeseen nature of her greeting almost made me drop my overloaded tray on the floor. Why in the world had I brought my books with me to lunch and put them on the tray with the food?
Oh, of course—because that was a misfit kind of thing to do.
I wanted people to notice me, sure. I'd practiced my friendliest smile in front of the mirror each day—and twice on Sundays—since the move to Crossroads and I'd lain awake every night, daydreaming that the kids who were supposed to be my peers might someday notice I was there and maybe even learn to accept me in spite of my father's vocation.
But a clamorous tray-drop my first day at Crossroads High wouldn't cut it. A goof like that could brand a guy as a klutz for the rest of his high school career. Maybe for life and beyond. Who decides what they put on gravestones, anyhow?
I could see it now. "Here lies a dreaded PK buried beneath the mountain of books and cafeteria food that killed him. . ."
An event like dropping my tray on the dingy cafeteria floor would probably go into my permanent school records, too. Not to mention accompanying my high school transcripts to the colleges I planned to apply to next year as a senior. And keep going up, up, and away until it reached the Lamb's Book of Life.
Or was that the Book of Days? I could never remember which was which. I've never claimed to be the most theologically knowledgeable PK around.
Not that God would condemn me for a foolish accident. He's not like that. But I'll bet He'll still be chuckling when I meet Him face to face some day. "Ben, you're that guy who dropped his tray back when he was a high school junior. . ."
My peripheral vision was so acute I could have seen anyone but God laughing at me. Anyone who was looking in my direction and laughing at the same time, that was.
No one was.
I couldn't tell whether someone might be secretly snickering into his napkin, though. With my luck, the someone who did that would almost certainly be some gorgeous she I would've preferred to make a better first impression on.
But what about Ms. Intense Blue Eyes? She was the only person at the only otherwise empty table in the whole cafeteria. She couldn't have missed witnessing my near-disaster. Or realizing it might happen yet if I didn't get my tray under better control—and fast.
But at least she hadn't laughed. Or snickered visibly. And her napkin was still lying unfolded and unused on her tray. Not serving as a snicker stifler.
"Here," she said, reaching over to guide my trembling, tottering tray to a safe landing at the place directly across from her. This gal would have a great future as an airline pilot. No bumpy landings in a long career of flying commercial food trays through often-turbulent high school cafeterias.
Oh, man! I've never responded to her question about whether I'm a PK.
In fact, I still hadn't spoken to her at all. What kind of weirdo would she think I was? Or would she take for granted that it was all just part of my being a PK?
I smiled a silent thank you for her help with the tray. Then, making no effort to hide my curiosity, I narrowed my eyes.
"About being a preacher's kid, a PK. . ." I took a deep breath and checked to see if my little Gideon copy of the New Testament & Psalms was that visible above the top of my shirt pocket; it wasn't. "Are you a mind reader or what?"
She rolled her eyes before winking at me. Her right eye, as I recall. I probably wouldn't have paid attention to that, but I wasn't accustomed to having a girl wink at me. Especially another PK.
"I'm definitely an 'or what.' My name's Lydia Lake."
She stuck her hand across the table, barely missing the mystery meat piled high on mashed potatoes that looked as if the cooks had whipped them into submission. If any eyes remained in those potatoes, they'd long since turned black and blue.
Then I shook it. Her hand, that is. Not the mystery meat or the potatoes.
Nice, firm grip for a scrawny-looking teenage girl.
"My dad's the pastor at Crossroads Gospel Church," she continued when I didn't respond. "I saw your picture in the newspaper a few weeks back. You, your parents, your kid sister. Nice-looking family."
You don't get your news from the Internet? And you couldn't at least say I'm better-looking than my picture? Okay, so you're not a flirt and that picture probably looked a lot better than the real me. But you're a bit average-looking yourself, Lydia Lake. Not that I'd ever be rude enough to tell you that. . .
I looked at her again. Wavy but not kinky-curly, well-brushed, shoulder-length red hair-several shades darker than Ron Weasley's. No braces; teeth white and reasonably straight. Face symmetrically shaped; pleasant, but not outstanding. Nose and ears; functional, no worse than anybody else's. Glasses; not my choice of frames. Complexion; uh, minus-two on a one-to-ten scale.
Mine was at least a minus-three, though. Even an experienced doodler would need a whole day to complete connect-the-dots on my face.
I was too much of a gentleman to pay much attention to the rest of her. Except to note that maybe I'd been wrong about scrawny. She was only somewhere between trim and thin.
Those blue eyes more than made up for her complexion and any other imperfections I might have been tempted to notice, though. I could have stared at them for the rest of lunchtime and forgotten to eat. When I finally took a closer look at my food, I concluded that eye-gazing would have been a far nicer—a far safer—activity than eating. I'd ask Mom to pack me a lunch tomorrow.
No matter what the other teens might think. Of course, more kids might bring lunches from home here than in Florida. No matter. The ones who didn't would never admit to being jealous of a PK who had something tasty and edible to eat.
After giving Lydia a final head-to-shoulders once-over and back up again, I concluded that—if she was average-looking—at least she wasn't an objectionable average. Probably closer to the upper end of average, truth be known.
Thank goodness her makeup was modest. Not a trace of the raccoon look that was so popular nowadays. I couldn't stand seeing girls whose cheap imitation of the equally tasteless-but-pricier-makeup worn by so many pop stars tended to mask otherwise cute faces.
In my list of revulsive habits—revulsive is one step lower than repulsive—those gals fell into the same category as smokers. No matter how unfair that opinion might sound to well-intentioned, smoke-free raccoons.
Lydia gave me a semi-patient, aren't-you-going-to-say-something-back-now look.
My turn again already? Guess that newspaper article hadn't said anything about how shy I could be. Especially when I wasn't sure what to say. I liked to think before speaking, although I always had room in my mouth for a foot.
Preferably my own and not one belonging to someone I'd unwittingly insulted or hurt the feelings of.
"Sorry, Lydia. I was lost in thought." Or at least in those eyes. "I'm Ben Matthews. Sounds like we were both born in the Bible, huh?" I patted my shirt pocket with my left hand. "Or at least named for people in the Bible. I'm Old Testament, of course, and—"
"And I'm New."
Might as well state the obvious and make it official. "So you read about my father being the new Baptist preacher in Crossroads?"
Huh? My right hand felt unusually warm. Warm and slightly moist. I looked down.
Whoops! We were still clutching one another's hand, although the handshake had deteriorated to motionlessness—like in some corny chick flick. (My kid sister, Lindsay, had dragged me to one or two of those during the past several years, and she wasn't quite a teen yet.)
Our hands were hovering dangerously close to my food, however. So that was what was steaming our clasp. Would the heat and humidity mold our hands together permanently?
Not sure that's how I wanted to, uh, turn a girl into a girlfriend. Or whether Lydia would be my first choice of girls. In spite of those gorgeous eyes.
Rather than drop her hand and chance having it land in my meat and potatoes, I shook it again—beginning with an upward sweep to move it out of the danger zone—and then let go.
She giggled. A giggle that was more conspicuous and even harder to ignore than her eyes. A giggle that was high pitched and, well, more than slightly ear-piercing. Yet her speaking voice had been so pleasant and feminine. Almost. . .
Whoops! Preachers' kids weren't even supposed to think the word sexy. I often wondered how Jesus dealt with that problem. Then again, the part of Him that was all human was an MK—a Missionary's Kid—not a PK. So I was trying to compare oranges and watermelons.
I chuckled back at her. A nice deep masculine chuckle to demonstrate how mature laughter was supposed to sound. When coming from a guy, that is.
"I don't always laugh about being a PK." I wiped the smile off my face with my napkin and followed up with an I'm-sure-you-know-what-I-mean look.
Her eyes looked extra serious as she focused on mine. She didn't have to say, "Huh?" for me to realize she had not understood the meaning of my obvious look.
She narrowed her eyebrows until they seemed to touch. Gotta remember to mow the lawn when I get home. Hmm. Now what made me think of that?
You're kidding? You like being a PK?
I barely stopped myself from saying, "You even have to ask?" No need to offend one of the few people who would probably remain on my side for the rest of high school. We'd be misfits together for the next two years.
Instead, I said what I'd just thought. "You like being a PK?"
She shrugged. "I don't mind it." She narrowed her eyes for a few seconds. Then she relaxed them and took a breath. "Not most of the time, anyhow. But you still haven't explained why it bothers you so much."
"You ready for a sermon?" I forced a laugh. "Full-length?"
This girl wasn't like any other PK I'd ever met. As cute as her grin was, though, I couldn't keep from peering once more into those piercing blue eyes.
"A sermon, huh? You following in your father's footsteps?"
Huh? Now she was baiting me just to prove her point? Uh, my point? Oh, whoever's.
I could feel the blush of all blushes coming on, one that would have lit every traffic light in town. Simultaneously. Without waiting for the red to reach its fullest intensity, I toned my volume down to lower-than-normal.
"That's exactly what I'm talking about. Don't you get sick of everybody asking if you're going to be a preacher some day—just like your daddy?" I said those last four words in a mocking, sarcastic tone.
She cocked her head playfully and faked a frown. "Can't say that's ever happened to me." Before I could question her response, she added, "No women pastors in conservative churches like ours. We believe it's unbiblical."
She rolled her eyes as if she might disagree.
"Oh." Now that I thought about it, my denomination didn't have many of them, either. Not many women deacons, either.
A number of churches had deaconesses, though. I'd never figured out the difference between the two except for gender. But that meant the deaconesses had the distinct biblical disadvantage of never having been the husband of one wife.
I'd once dated a super-conservative PK. Her list of "do nots"—no dancing, no movies, no Harry Potter books—was so endless we started our date by reading the Bible together for a while. The original King James Version. The version Jesus used. The pre-publication version.
Then we prayed—in King James English as well. Finally, we went to a worship service. . .at her father's super-conservative church. I was surprised they didn't make the men and the women sit on opposite sides of the sanctuary. I'd once visited a Quaker church that did that.
I said I'd once dated this girl? I meant I dated her only once. She unceremoniously ditched me because I didn't wear a white shirt to church. Or a tie. And because I'd sat close enough to touch elbows with her.
How was I to know elbow-touching was a no-no? I'm still trying to figure out which of the Ten Commandments prohibits that.
At least her decision to ditch me saved me the trouble of figuring out how to ditch her. But at least I would have done it in a nicer, more Christ-like way. As if He'd ever needed to get rid of a stuck up, first-date girlfriend.
Why were girls like her always the hottest looking? Even when dressed the most modestly?
Those memories were still blazingly vivid. Although not all PKs were equally obnoxious, I hoped like crazy that Lydia wouldn't turn out to be like the ultra-one. Maybe she had suspicions that she wasn't the "hottest looking" and those made her more tolerant—and a lot easier to get along with.
Oh, my. Negative thoughts about the ultra-girl were still flashing through my head like the whirring lights of an approaching police car. I hoped Lydia wouldn't think she'd caused the scowl that made my face feel as if someone had wrapped it mummy-tight with rubber bands and then shrink-wrapped it.
"Don't worry, Ben. I'm a nice Christian girl, but I'm not a stickler for the silly rules some denominations have."
Why had she thought to say that if she wasn't a mind reader? Didn't really matter, I supposed. So I sighed with relief, smiled, and patted her hand. "Same here. Except I'll never be a nice girl."
"I suspected as much."
Ugh! The more Lydia giggled, the more I rated that sound somewhere between highly obnoxious and I'm-going-to-scream-if-you-don't-cut-it-out. I'd have to get used to that if I hung around her very much, though. I doubted whether a girl could consciously change the way she laughed—even if she had a legitimate reason to. Wanting to please a dorky fellow-PK like me would probably never cross her mind.
And how would I dare to tell her I felt that way about her giggling, anyhow? Me, Mr. Non-Perfect with worse zits than hers.
"That was short for a full-length sermon," she said. "At least from what I've heard about Baptist sermons."
Hmm. At least she'd been paying attention. What would she think of my Dad's preaching, though? His sermons were more typical. The Methodists practically always beat us to the restaurant after church on Sundays. On those rare Sundays we ate out, that is.
I took a deep breath and let it out again. "I hate having adults point at me and tell their kids, 'Now, isn't Ben a fine example of a young Christian gentleman? That's how you ought to behave.' The kids resent it, too."
I didn't admit that hadn't happened since I'd grown into teenhood. But why not? Didn't the adults still think I was a fine Christian? As much as I'd resented the fact they used to say it, part of me now resented the fact they'd stopped. Go figure.
"Hmm. Not sure I've been conscious of having that problem, Ben, but I'd be resentful in that situation, too."
Resentful like the other kids or resentful like me?
"And people expect me to be there every time the proverbial—no, make that the clichd—church doors are open."
She winked. Left eye. Hadn't she used the other eye last time? I'd have to ask if she was an ambidextrous winker. And why she'd switched eyes. Had she done it on purpose or did she have some nervous condition she had no control over?
"You don't want to be there?"
Good thing she'd winked or I might have thought she was serious. Seriously critical. I didn't need that now that I'd thought of more points to include in the sermon Lydia was listening to—but not quite relating to.
"I want to be there because I want to be there. Not because it's expected. Especially by other church members."
"Fair enough. What else?"
I could feel my forehead wrinkling. I could go on and on and on if she really wanted more.
"I have a hard enough time making friends—"
"But you're so friendly. . ."
I let one of those well-practiced smiles show. "Even so, when kids discover I'm a PK, it's like they suddenly assume I'm contagious. With a fatal disease at that. Like I'm not a normal teen and don't have the same problems and interests they do."
"Or the same thoughts and desires?"
I nodded. Vigorously. Lydia's tone had echoed my frustrations big-time that time.
"Ben,"—she gave me such a stern look I cringed from trying to imagine what she was going to say—"aren't you thinking of yourself a bit too much like a stereotypical PK? I may be—I am—a misfit, but it's not because of who or what my father is."
I came dangerously close to blurting out, "Lucky you," but God must have grabbed me by the tongue—gross!—and forced me to go in a different direction. "You've lived here your whole life, haven't you?"
The wrinkles in her forehead were cute, but I forgot about them as soon as she responded. "How did you know?"
"You haven't had to fight to re-establish yourself after every move. We've lived in Florida, North Carolina, and Maryland. Several places in each state. I started out at the bottom of the garbage heap each time we moved. I never got much higher. Not since becoming a teen, anyhow."
"Hmm. I can see how that would be a problem." She paused, as if considering how much more to say. "I'm sorry. I interrupted your sermon. Since we seem to have different problems, I need to hear the rest of it."
I raised my eyebrows. Do you really—?
"Yes, I want to hear this. Go ahead." She made eye contact. "Please."
Sure, I'll tell you the rest of the story. All about how I'm a living, breathing stereotype of a PK. . .
I took a couple of deep breaths. Lydia could have gone all day without making that stereotype accusation. How could she fail to understand what I was going through?
Was her life really as perfect as mine was lousy? So perfect that she had to sit by herself in the middle of a crowded lunchroom? Surely she hadn't done that by choice.
I tried not to direct my resentment at her when I continued. "The other kids—this hasn't happened here yet, but only because nobody has paid that much attention to me—always ask why my mom and dad don't buy me the extravagant things their parents don't think twice about buying them. Their have-to-haves keep my wish list full, and it rarely gets smaller. Admitting that Mom and Dad aren't as well off as their parents is embarrassing.
"One of these days, I'm going to stop biting my tongue and tell the kids at church, 'If your parents tithed instead of giving God such microscopic tips, maybe my dad—he's just as smart and just as well educated as your parents are—would earn enough to give me some of what you take for granted.'"
Lydia was silent for a moment before answering. "The apostle Paul was happy whether he had a lot or a little."
I couldn't tell from her tone of voice if she was putting me down or not. Was she suggesting that I ought to be just as happy doing without the things I wanted as I would be if I had them? That I wasn't a good Christian for even wanting them? She was a weird PK if she couldn't relate to what I was saying.
Okay, Lord. I'll be careful.
I toned down my intended response. "You may not have noticed this, Lydia, but I'm not Paul." Even though I'd spoken in my meekest voice, I still allowed a little bit of sarcasm to escape.
She didn't say anything for a moment. But she soon found words again. "So what do you want most—of all the things your parents can't afford?" She sounded like she probably thought I'd name something silly. Like a fancy sports car nobody's parents gave them.
I grinned inwardly. Then outwardly. My answer would surprise her. Especially since money might affect, but couldn't actually buy what I most wanted.
"Popularity." I scrunched my eyes in thought and then added, "Or at least acceptance as an equal among members of the in crowd."
I wasn't worried about the 'out crowd.' They were probably misfits, too. Just a different kind from me.
Lydia, why are you crying? Did I say something wrong?