Malcolm walked into the large room and lowered onto a brown, cushioned chair. He was here now. The hardest part should be over.
To this point, Malcolm had avoided eye contact, but had chanced a few unheeded glances at the backs of people’s heads. This alone provided a glimpse into the kinds of people he was among. It was the usual demographic he was growing to expect in this small mid-western town.
Malcolm hadn’t attended church many times before, but in the empty silence of his home he’d convinced himself that this would be a good way to do some networking. His other option was the bar, and that wasn’t quite the kind of networking he sought.
He hated first impressions—mainly because he usually left others in confusion. He was shy, but self-assured; deep, but self-conscious about how others saw him. In short, he didn’t fit well into society’s molds, and he wasn’t confident enough to embrace it. For these reasons, he could simultaneously appear kind, vulnerable, awkward, and aloof. When making new acquaintances he even confused himself sometimes, so he rarely wondered why others seemed awkward when trying to visit with him.
People-watching was one of his favorite pastimes, but in a small community like this it was hard to do without seeming like a creep. There were enough creeps in the world; he didn’t need to add to their numbers. Malcolm had selected his seat on the edge of the room to provide him with a view of those around him. This way he could attempt to decipher the social structure and predict who might be good to reach out to in conversation after the worship hour.
The songs were all new to him, so he mainly just read the poetry of the lyrics, listened to the melodies, and picked out the talented singers sitting around him. Much of what was spoken from the pulpit was confusing, but listening to the preacher was easy enough. Slightly over middle age, he seemed genuine about what he taught—like what he said mattered. Malcolm respected that. Many religious people—especially leaders—seemed pretty disconnected from their message. Predictably, their message remained disconnected from their lives too.
After thinking about it for a while, Malcolm guessed that being a pastor—with all of its social expectations and misconceptions—would be a challenging position. People would expect you to be approachable, yet separate. Many people go to pastors for encouragement, but Malcolm found himself wondering who pastors go to when they need encouragement or advice. Then again, he reasoned, what spiritual leader wants to feel like he needs someone else to be a leader to him?
That question occupied Malcolm for several minutes, until he made eye contact with the preacher for a brief instant and realized that he’d been staring blankly up at him for several minutes. Awkwardly, Malcolm blinked and nodded slightly to acknowledge the man. Recovered and back to the present, he turned his head to observe the rest of the crowd.
A sophisticated lady in a crimson dress sat a row ahead of Malcolm and several feet to his right. She seemed to be connecting with what the pastor was saying, and was taking notes on an iPad. Malcolm found that intriguing and wondered what she was writing. He tried to tune in to the preaching again, by realized quickly that it was futile. If he didn’t get the beginning, he would never understand the end. He would have to concentrate more in the future. If he made it through medical school, he was sure he could figure out a Sunday sermon. He was just really distracted by his own thoughts today. He told himself it was because of the move and being in a new place.
From her appearance, Malcolm guessed the lady to be some sort of businesswoman. She wasn’t wearing any rings on her left hand, but there was a large emerald on her right ring finger. Maybe she had a serious boyfriend. Her attire suggested that she had a generous income, and he wondered why she was living in such a humble community. He tried to guess where she might work in town, and decided she probably commuted to one of the larger cities nearby. He reasoned that she may have grown up here and enjoyed living near family and away from the competitive pretenses of city life. If such was the case, he couldn’t blame her.
Malcolm had just begun employment at a local medical clinic. He specialized in alternative treatment styles which sought to use natural means of medicating illnesses largely through diet, exercise, and natural supplementation. At first, he’d been surprised that such a rural community would be interested in his somewhat unconventional methods. They were beginning to catch on in certain health-conscientious urban settings, but mainstream, symptom-masking medicine was predominate everywhere.
As he’d pondered the reason for his being hired in this rural community, he’d begun a theory. He was learning that modern medicine, with its long lists of side-effects and the need to often increase dosage with longevity, was becoming trusted less and less—especially in conservative rural settings. He would be the first to admit that some ailments are only minimally affected by natural treatment methods. Much of his treatment was designed to be preventative, and only in specific cases was he able to actively combat an aggressive illness. With time and study, though, Malcolm was increasing his aptitude at understanding many of the diseases most affecting western society. When subjects were willing to work with him, he was seeing some incredible, naturally attained results.
Noticing the iPad again, he thought of his smartphone and reached for it to check his emails. Just as he placed his hand on it, though, music began playing from the front of the room and he realized it was time for a closing song. This one he recognized from some funerals he’d attended. It was an upbeat, modernized version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” It was a fun melody change, and he’d always found the words encouraging.
As the song hummed to a close, all were dismissed and the congregation began to disperse and converse with warm gusto. He enjoyed watching how much people seemed to appreciate the fellowship. That’s why he’d come in the first place. As he stood up, a few couples near his seat welcomed him and shook his hand. He thought he’d seen one of the women at the grocery earlier that week, but he wasn’t sure.
After a few more brief introductions, Malcolm decided he was hungry. Not much in the mood for more small-talk, he started for the front doors. About half-way there, a husband and wife that reminded him of his parents stopped to greet him. To his surprise, they invited him to join them for lunch at their lake cottage. They acted so calm and friendly, that he accepted their invitation before he’d really even thought about it.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the attractive crimson-dressed lady walking toward them. She had a boy with her, who was maybe four or five. Malcolm hadn’t been around kids enough to know for sure. She made eye-contact with him, and smiled. She had deep brown eyes that gazed kindly into his. He smiled in return, as she and the boy walked right up to where he was visiting with the older couple.
The older woman introduced her as their daughter—confirming his prediction about her living near family, though he hadn’t expected the child—and he learned that her name was Rita. The boy’s name was Blake. Embarrassed, Malcolm looked back at Rita’s parents and apologized that he couldn’t remember their names. Brenda Sutton refreshed his memory, accepting his apology with a dismissive wave of her hand, and her husband, Garrett, asked Malcolm where he worked.
He gave a basic description, knowing they could discuss it more over lunch if interested. At a small lull, Rita turned to her parents and asked what their plans were for lunch. Malcolm could tell they were close, and she probably ate Sunday lunch with them regularly. He was about to uninvite himself, so they could enjoy time together as a family, but when Rita heard about Malcolm she exclaimed, “Great! May Blake and I join?”
“The more the merrier!” the Suttons declared, and before Malcolm knew it, he had lunch plans with one of the most beautiful women he’d ever met. He had no idea what to expect from this afternoon, but regardless he wanted to make a good impression.
The Suttons were two of the warmest and trusting people Malcolm had met, and their roomy lake house was welcoming and tasteful. Rita and Blake were kind and close. Rita had been a single mother since Blake was born, and the child had never met his father. Rita worked as a senior marketing manager at a large corporation in a nearby city, so Blake stayed with his grandparents on weekdays while she was at work. Malcolm was stunned to see how close knit they all were and how special their grandson was to them. No one would ever have guessed that Blake was a single-parent child.
Malcolm had never expected to meet such a genuine and friendly family on his first weekend in town, but they made it clear how much they wanted people to feel welcome in their church. That’s why they were so quick to welcome him for dinner. Their love for each other and even for him was openly apparent, and Malcolm found himself wondering if he had more to gain from a church like this than a simple networking opportunity. These were the kind of people you share life with and learn from; they were real.
A strange twinge brought out a longing in Malcolm. Whatever it was they had, he wanted.
Why hadn’t he ever felt like this before? This morning he would have described his life as no different from anyone else’s. Now, he was beginning to sense an emptiness in himself that he hadn’t previously allowed to surface. The most confusing part was the fact that he had absolutely no idea what to do about it.
Soaking in the sun on their large patio overlooking the lake, he looked around at the Sutton family and asked solemnly, “What is so different about you all? On the outside you’re just a normal family, but inside there’s something about you that I’ve never seen before.”
They all looked at each other with a knowing smile, and Garrett said, “Let me start at the beginning…”