“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race [is] not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

~*~Ecclesiastes 9:11~*~

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chapter 3, Part 2

The candlelight burned into Liz’s eyes and she blinked, noting that the small pinpoints of light were there even when her eyes were closed.  She hadn’t even noticed that she had been staring so intently at the nearest row of candles.  She was exhausted.  She could barely keep her eyes open, but Jackie kept nudging her in her ribs every time her head nodded.  She didn’t even have the slightest idea how long they’d been here or what time it was.  All she knew was that it had to be well after midnight.

            Jackie and Liz had fought to get out of the house that night.  Their parents had been clearly less than thrilled about their going to the church so late at night.

            “Where are you going?” their mom had asked as the two girls made their way to the front door.

            “It’s Christmas Eve,” Jackie had said, like this was the most obvious answer in the world.

            “Thank you, but we already know that,” their father had said.

            “Well, on Christmas Eve, there’s a midnight candle service at my church.”

            “Is that why you’re wearing those scarves again?” their mother had asked.

            “Yes, and I don’t see why it matters.  Look, it’s our choice if we want to go to a church service.  Just let us go.”

            Reluctantly, their parents had let them leave.  Not that Jackie would have let things happen otherwise.  They would have ended up at the church even if Jackie had to sneak them out the attic window.

            Pastor Jeffrey, Pastor Simon’s assistant, was preaching tonight.  Pastor Simon had disappeared partway through the week to go work at the other colony.  Jeffrey looked to be only a few years younger than Simon, and he wore the same style of white robe and stole.  He had brown hair and kind eyes, but didn’t seem to have quite mastered Pastor Simon’s trademark smile.  Regardless, the church members clearly had a high level of respect for Pastor Jeffrey.  Liz noticed they all looked at him with almost the same reverence with which they looked at Pastor Simon.  Almost the same.  Pastor Simon was obviously the most loved leader of the Children.  And no wonder, seeing as how he was the founder and the Children’s prophet.

            Partway through the sermon, the congregation suddenly stood as a whole.  Liz jerked back to the present and looked around.  She stood up and Jackie handed her an unlit candle.  Looking around, she noticed that all the other visitors bore equally dazed expressions as they were also handed unlit candles by the members standing nearest them.  The members, on the other hand, hardly look dazed at all.  They were obviously used to late nights and paying close attention to what their leaders were saying, and they were obviously familiar with whatever was going on with the candles.

            “Much like God lit the world by sending Jesus to us, we pass along this flame to light our family,” Pastor Jeffrey said. 

            He picked the middle candle up off the advent wreath at the front of the sanctuary and walked to the front pew.  Carefully, he lit the candle of the girl standing in the first pew on his right and then he blew his candle out.  The girl in the first pew turned to the next person and lit their candle.  And then that person turned and lit the next candle.  And on and on.

            Watching the candle flame travel slowly through the room, Pastor Jeffrey continued, “As Pastor Simon teaches us, the Children of the Rose is the one true religious sect.  With that responsibility, as the Children, we are required by God to light the rest of the world again, following the word of His prophet, Pastor Simon.  Passing along this flame reminds us of that requirement, for we cannot light the rest of the world if we do not light our family first.”

            By this time, the light had made it back to the pew in which Liz stood.  Jackie nudged her gently in her side to get her attention and then used her candle to light Liz’s.  At that moment, when Liz turned to light Morgan’s candle, she felt honored.  Honored that the Children invited her to celebrate Christmas week with them, that they liked her enough to welcome her into this service and this ritual.  Honored that her new friends accepted her and her sister and Morgan.  Honored that she had been welcomed into this family even though she wasn’t really a member.

            The feeling of honor pushed all the other confusion and misgivings out of Liz’s head completely.  She couldn’t even remember why she’d been concerned before.  The identical smiles and actions of the Children no longer seemed quite so strange.  Jackie’s strained behavior with their family no longer appeared more than a bit of silly drama.

            Everything was perfectly fine, because these people made Liz feel special.

            The flame traveled back up to Pastor Jeffrey by way of the other side of the sanctuary and as it reached him again, he held out the candle from the center of the wreath and it was lit again.  He held the candle up for all to see.  “The love and loyalty of the Children fueled this flame around this sanctuary just as it fuels the love of God around the world.  With this fuel, we are able to bring the right way to God to the rest of the world.”  At this, he turned and placed the candle back into its holder in the advent wreath, while all the candles throughout the sanctuary stayed lit.

            The drive home was quiet; none of the girls spoke a word until they got to the McLancy house, and even then there were only a few muttered “good nights” and “Merry Christmases.”  At the front door, Jackie tried to be as silent as possible in turning her key in the lock—it was nearly three in the morning.  The two girls snuck upstairs to their attic rooms, praying against all odds that no one in their family would wake up.

            Sure enough, the next time the girls saw their family was Christmas morning, which had dawned much quicker than either of them had hoped after arriving home so late.  The first thing Liz experienced that morning was a pillow hitting her face.  A quick glance at the clock told her it was only seven and she angrily turned over in bed to reprimand whatever sibling had woken her up.

            “Merry Christmas, sister dearest,” Eva trilled in the sweetest voice she could muster.

            “Do you mind?” snapped Liz, throwing the pillow back at her younger sister, who was leaning against the door frame.

            “No, I don’t, actually,” she answered, examining her finger nails, “But Tommy woke me up half an hour ago and if I have to be awake at this god-awful hour, then so do you.”

            “Go away and let me sleep,” Liz mumbled, pulling the blankets back up to her shoulders and rolling over to face the other wall.

            “Oh, no, that’s not how it works!” Eva grabbed the blankets and yanked them off again.  “Just because you and Jackie decided to stay out until the wee hours of the morning singing hymns and drinking the Kool-Aid and doing whatever else you were doing at that church does not mean that you get to sleep in later than me or the rest of us.  So get your tired, church-going butt out of bed and come downstairs before I sic Tommy on you.”

            “Should I point out that you’re not my mother and therefore have no control over whether I get up or not?”

            “You can, but it’s not going to make a difference.  Like I said before, if I have to be awake at seven in the morning then, by god, so do you.”  She turned and walked out of the room.  Returning to her sugar-sweet voice, Eva continued from the attic stairs, “See you downstairs!”

            Grumbling, Liz rolled out of bed and threw her hair up into a ponytail before heading out of her room, almost colliding with Jackie on the attic stairs.

            “Merry Christmas!” Jackie exclaimed.

            “How are you this happy?  We’re working on less than four hours of sleep right now,” said Liz.

            “How can I not be happy?  God’s given us this beautiful morning.  Today is a day of celebration anyway, but it’s a special day regardless of being Christmas.”

            By the time the girls had reached the living room, the family was crowded around the Christmas tree, already opening gifts.  They joined the family, sitting next to each other on the couch.  Their siblings were well into ripping the wrapping paper off packages.

“Good morning, girls,” their father said.  “Merry Christmas.”

“How was your Christmas service last night?” asked their mother.

“It was lovely, thanks for asking,” Jackie answered with a level of bitterness in her voice.              Liz glanced over at her sister.  The concern about Jackie’s behavior returned ever so slightly, but disappeared again.  Liz was too tired to care right now.

As the opening of the presents came to an end and the siblings wandered off to various areas of the house to spend time with their new belongings, Jackie simply piled her gifts up, put them in a basket, and placed them near the front door with the simple explanation of, “The Children of the Rose emphasizes not being materialistic.  I’m going to donate this stuff.”

            “Jackie, honey, everyone spent money so you would enjoy these gifts, not someone we don’t know,” Mom said, with a grimace.

            “I have no need for these gifts.  I will give them to the church and the church will distribute them to people who need them more than me,” Jackie argued.

            “Stop being stupid!” Eva cried.

            “I’m not being stupid.  You are.  Do you really have need for more clothes?”

            “You can never have too many clothes,” Eva argued, her voice dripping with disdain.  “And do you know how much money I spent buying you that stupid DVD set?  I bought that for you.  If I wanted to spend money on the poor, I would have given the DVDs to them, but I gave them to you!”

            Liz watched as Jackie’s face got redder in anger until, finally, she cried, “‘Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth!’  Colossians, chapter three, verse two!”  She stormed out of the room.

Part way through the afternoon, just as Christmas dinner was beginning to be prepared, the doorbell rang.  Jackie answered the door and, from the living room where she was writing in her journal, Liz could hear her sister mumbling frantically to whoever was there. 

December 25

            It’s been an interesting Christmas.  Jackie and Mom got in a fight about Jackie wanting to donate her gifts.  I think Mom and Eva and everyone else need to chill out.  I think it’s very nice of Jackie to care about others like that.  Everyone in this family is so self-absorbed, it’s nice to have someone step out of that mold.  Maybe I

            Suddenly, Jackie rushed in, grabbed Liz’s hand, and dragged her upstairs.

“Get dressed,” she ordered.

“What are you talking about?” Liz asked as she was pushed into her bedroom and a long black skirt, black sweater, and her visitor’s scarf were thrown at her.

“Just get dressed!”

As soon as Liz was dressed, Jackie, who was dressed all in white, grabbed her hand and hurried her back down the stairs and toward the front door, where they were finally intercepted by their mother.

“And just where do you two think you’re going?” she demanded, arms crossed.

Jackie squeezed Liz’s hand almost painfully and glared at their mother.  “We’re going to go spend some time with our church family.”

“No, not today.  It’s Christmas, girls, you’re expected to spend time with your real family.”

“You standing between us and our church family is simply a temptation,” Jackie answered with a glare.  “Pastor Simon said you would try to keep us from our eternal church family.  We’re spending Christmas purifying our souls.  Please stand aside.”

Liz watched the exchange with wide eyes.  She had never seen her sister act like this before.  All the earlier arguments were nothing, nothing, compared to this fallout.  Jackie’s face was turning red and she kept squeezing Liz’s hand tighter, as though desperate to make sure that she wouldn’t be able to escape.  After another few seconds of silent, heated glaring, Jackie led Liz past their mom and out the front door.  In the driveway waited Sandra’s car.  The two older girls stood outside, waiting for Liz and Jackie, looking far more serious than Liz had ever seen them look.

As the girls approached, Sandra and Delia both stood taller.  Delia squared her shoulders.  Sandra played with some kind of cloth, twisting it between her fingers.  When they were right by the car, Jackie gave Liz a gentle nudge forward toward the other two girls.  Delia and Sandra exchanged a glance before the speech began.

“Pastor Simon teaches us that in order for there to be a strong relationship in a church family, there must be a level of trust.  We must all know we are looking out for each other’s best interests and we are safe with each other, no matter what others may say,” recited Delia.

“Morgan has already proclaimed her trust in us,” Sandra added, gesturing at the car where Liz could only assume her new friend sat.  “Now we ask you, Elizabeth McLancy…do you trust us?”

            Liz nodded, and before she could say or do anything else, Sandra had covered her eyes with a blindfold and guided her into the backseat of the waiting car.  As the car started, Liz said, “Where are we—”

            “No talking,” Delia interrupted in a firm voice.  “This is a time for silent reflection.  Did you lie earlier?  Do you not trust us?”

            “I trust you,” answered Liz in a small voice.  She had never heard her friends talk to her like that.  Silently, she decided that this must really be something serious.

            Before long, the car came to a stop and the car doors opened.  Someone reached in and gently took Liz’s arm, pulling her out the door.  Then came Jackie’s voice, for the first time since they’d left the house.

            “Morgan Denison and Elizabeth McLancy, today is a special day.  I put it to you both again…do you trust us?”

            “Yes,” Morgan and Liz answered in almost perfect unison.

            “Good, let’s go.”

            Someone took Liz’s hand and led her away from the car.  She lost track of how long they walked—although, she knew it couldn’t be more than several minutes—and she only became more disoriented as a gust of heat hit her face when she was led into what was clearly a building.

            Finally they stopped walking, but the person holding Liz’s hand didn’t let go.

            Liz tried to sense where she was, but it wasn’t anywhere that felt familiar enough to recognize.  She could vaguely tell that wherever she was standing was dark, because no light was coming through the cloth covering her eyes.  She also guessed that there were many other people around her, because she could hear footsteps and whispers.  Liz desperately wanted to ask the person holding her hand where she was, but she didn’t want to risk another verbal lashing.  That had been embarrassing before and she was in no hurry to hear her new friends talk like that to her again.

            Suddenly, a thick silence fell over the place where Liz stood.  The whispering came to an abrupt halt and everyone stopped shuffling around.  But Liz still had no idea where she was.  That is, she had no idea until Pastor Simon’s voice hit her ears.

            “The Children of the Rose is a close-knit family.  A family that focuses its priorities on doing God’s work and bringing people to an eternity in Heaven.  This is an eternal family.  The first step to an eternity in Heaven, however, is baptism into the Children,” Pastor Simon said.  “One of the most important factors of making our family successful is a strong level of trust.  You have already declared your trust in those Children who have played a significant role in your weeks as visitors.  Remove your blindfolds.”

            As she took off her blindfold and her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the room, Liz saw that the person holding her hand was, in fact, Sandra.  Near them stood Morgan and Delia.  Jackie stood off to one side, lining the perimeter of the room with a small selection of other Children.  Several other pairs also stood in the middle of the room—each pair consisted of one visitor and one Children of the Rose member.  The only source of light in the room in which they stood were candles lining the walls in candelabras, as well as several candles sitting on a table at the front.  Also on the table were black scarves and stoles embroidered with white, as well as a large basin and several small wreathes of red roses.

            “Now, in front of these witnesses, I ask you to declare your trust in the Children again.  Do you trust the Children, as your most important and eternal family, to take care of you, look out for you, and treat you as a brother or sister?  Please answer ‘I do’.”

            “I do,” the visitors mumbled in unison.  Their voices were quiet and unsure, but they all spoke, not wanting to be the one to refuse.

            “Mark, chapter sixteen, verse sixteen tells us, ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’  Baptism is a rebirth and cleansing of the soul.  Through baptism into the Children of the Rose your salvation is guaranteed.  As your name is called, please come to the front with your Rose Angel.”  Pastor Simon looked at the first person in the line, a girl Liz had never talked to before—Melody.  When she approached the front table, she had tears in her eyes and answered the questions with confidence.  Derek, on the other hand, who was second in line, had more trouble with the process.

            He walked forward with a guy in a yellow stole.  The older Rose member took his black stole off his shoulders.

            “Derek Anderson, do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”

            There was a small pause as he looked nervously at the older Rose member.  “I…do.”

            “Do you place your life and trust in the hands of the Children of the Rose?”

            Again Derek looked at the Rose member, who gave a prompting nod.  “I do.”

            “Do you believe that the Children of the Rose is the one true path to salvation and an eternity in Heaven?”

            “I do?”

            “Will you do all in your power to contribute to the growth of the church and the spreading of our message?”

            This pause was the longest one yet and the Rose member actually gave Derek a little nudge before he sighed and answered slowly, “I will.”

            “Then I baptize you in the name of God and the Children of the Rose.”

            Derek’s head was dunked into the basin by Pastor Simon and the older Rose member.  When he emerged, the older member placed a new stole on his shoulders as Pastor Simon placed one of the wreathes on his head.  When he turned back to rejoin the line, Liz gave him a quick smile, which he didn’t return.

            One by one Liz watched as the other visitors processed to the front and had their heads dunked into the silver basin.  She watched as Morgan’s name was called and she went through the ritual.  Morgan was much more confident than Derek in her answers, even if she was hesitant at first.  After her head was dunked into the basin and the new scarf placed on her head by Delia, she was smiling widely.  If the look of pure joy and acceptance on Morgan’s face wasn’t enough of a reason to Liz to be baptized, then the look of love and pride on her sister’s face definitely was.

            “Elizabeth McLancy.”

            Liz walked forward with Sandra.  As they approached the table, Sandra removed Liz’s black scarf.

            “Elizabeth McLancy,” began Pastor Simon as both he and Sandra settled their hands on the back of her head, “do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”

            “I do,” Liz answered, following the pattern of all the people who had gone before her in the ceremony.

            “Do you place your life and trust in the hands of the Children of the Rose?”

            “I do.”

            “Do you believe that the Children of the Rose is the one true path to salvation and an eternity in Heaven?”

            “I do.”

            “Will you do all in your power to contribute to the growth of the church and the spreading of our message?”

            “I will.”

            “Then I baptize you in the name of God and the Children of the Rose.”

            With that, Liz’s head was forced into the basin of water.  It was held there for several seconds until the pressure of the hands let up and she came up for air.  Sandra helped her towel off the excess water from her face and wrapped a new black-and-white scarf over her head.  Pastor Simon placed one of the rose wreathes on her head on top of the scarf.  Liz then picked up a candle and lit it from one of the glowing candles on the table.  Sandra then took her hand again and led her back to their place in the room.

            After each person had been baptized, Pastor Simon addressed the room as a whole again.  “Please join me in prayer.”  Dutifully, everyone bowed their heads.  “Lord, watch over these newly baptized Children.  They come to you with the innocence of the young.  Guide them through the path of the Children.  Wrap your protective arms around them as they begin their new lives.  Amen.”

            “Amen,” the rest of the room intoned.

            “Congratulations to our newly baptized brothers and sisters!  We have refreshments out in the hall to celebrate.”

            Everyone blew out their candles and Sandra placed Liz’s old scarf in her hand and gave her a tight hug.

            “I’m so glad to call you a sister in the Children!” she said as the rest of their group joined them.  Many hugs were exchanged between the girls before they filed out into the hallway.

            Before they got to the refreshments table, Jackie suddenly stopped and pulled a camera out of her purse.  “Oh, I almost forgot!” she exclaimed.  “We need a picture to commemorate!”  She handed her camera to another one of the Children standing in the hallway.  The girls lined up, wrapped their arms around each other and smiled.  The camera flashed, recording the joyous moment in history.

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