Novella

Pastoral counseling takes place in this story. A real counseling session would be much longer than those represented here. A real session would include much more small talk, repetition, and tangential conversation. These sessions have been reduced to essentials to keep them from being boring.

Of course the entire story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental.

 

“You might not remember me,” she said. “My name is Crystal Hill. I was Crystal McMillan in high school.”

“Of course I remember you, Crystal,” Larry said quietly. His hand shook so violently that he nearly dropped the phone. He wanted to say more. He wanted to say, “There hasn’t been a day in five years that I haven’t remembered you. You and I were friends. I was hoping one day to marry you.” Instead, he waited to hear what she had to say.

She sighed. Then the words seemed to tumble out of her mouth. “Pastor Lee, you told me once a long time ago that if I ever needed anything, I should just ask you. You said that you would do anything for me.”

“I remember saying that,” Larry carefully answered. “Those words are still true today.”

“I need your help,” she said, a catch in her voice as if she were about to start crying. “Charlie and I both need your help. Our marriage is in trouble…has been for a while… and he has finally agreed to see a counselor with me. But he won’t pay for a professional marriage counselor. I remembered that you’re a minister. Do you ever do marriage counseling?”

“I do,” Larry said. He had counseled two couples since he got out of school and started serving in a church. One couple had gone ahead and divorced; the other was still together.

“That’s great,” and again there was a catch in her voice, nearly a sob. “How much do you charge?”

“Members of the congregation I counsel for free—it’s part of my job.” He thought for just a second. “For you and Charlie I’ll adopt a sliding scale. Think of what you can afford, check it with Charlie, and if he says it’s too much, I’ll take less.” When she didn’t answer right away, he added, “I don’t want money to be the reason you two don’t get the counseling you need. I’ll see you for free if you want.”

“No. No, we’ll pay you something. I don’t know how much, but Charlie wouldn’t have any respect for you if you did this for free.” Larry heard her take a deep breath, and then she asked, “How soon can we get started?”

“I’m free tonight if you’re both available.”

Another sigh. “I was hoping you’d say that. Yes, we’re both available. What time should we come?”

“I could come to your house if you’d be more comfortable.”

“I think… I think we’d better come to the church. Charlie will probably… behave better… if we come to the church.”

“Fine. I’ll meet you here at seven.”

“Thank you, Larry. Thank you so much.” The line went dead, so Larry clicked “end.”

How long had it been since Larry had seen Crystal or heard her voice? He knew it was about five years—long enough for him to go to Bible college, get a certificate to preach, and start helping his father lead the congregation. Edward Lee had married when he was nearly forty, and Larry was his only child. Ever since Elizabeth Lee had died, Edward’s plans had moved toward retirement. He had already moved into an apartment near the center of the town; the apartment building was largely populated by retired workers and widows. By now Edward and Larry each preached about half the time, but his father had gradually moved other responsibilities onto Larry’s shoulders: weddings and funerals, leading meetings of the church council, and counseling people with their various problems. At first people had thought of Larry as the youth pastor, but now they were used to thinking him of as much a leader as his father was.

But the older women of the congregation were always telling Larry that he couldn’t be a real pastor until he got married and started a family. Some of them had nieces and granddaughters to recommend to him. Others just gave him advice without anyone in particular in mind. While he was in college, Larry had dated a few times, but he didn’t feel comfortable having a social life now that he was back in his hometown, with everyone watching. What was more, he did not know of a woman that he wanted to date, let alone marry. Only Crystal, and she had gotten married while he was away at school. She hadn’t even bothered to send him an invitation—he found out about the wedding three months after it happened.

Over the years their paths had never crossed. Occasionally he saw from a distance a woman who looked like Crystal, but if they got closer, he saw that it wasn’t her. Larry had begun to believe that she and her husband had moved to another city. He had stopped looking for her in the grocery store and other public places. Hearing her voice so suddenly, making an appointment to see her in just a few hours, made his stomach churn with anxiety. Part of his mind wanted to call her back and say, “No, Crystal, I can’t do this after all. I’m still too much in love with you.” But he had promised, back in high school, that he would do anything she asked. He wasn’t about to go back on his word now.

In high school, they had both been part of a large group of friends that often did things together. A couple pairs in the group were seriously dating each other, but mostly they moved as a group. They ate lunch together in the school cafeteria. They saw movies together in the theater. At school dances, they cheerfully exchanged partners. Yet as he got to know Crystal, Larry had felt drawn to her in a special way. Young as he was, he knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her at his side. He wanted to make her happy. He wanted their experiences to be shared.

Crystal had laughed when he tried to tell her how he felt. “I’m too young to be tied to one man,” she carelessly told him. “You’re always so serious. Let’s enjoy being young before we grow up and talk about who we want to marry.” She spoke lightly, and Larry knew at the time she was not making him any promises. But he had still believed that their destinies lay together. That’s why he had said to her more than once, “If you ever need anything or want anything, just ask. I will always be here for you.”

Pastor Larry Lee reached for the textbook on counseling that he had bought in the college bookstore. He skimmed through the chapter on marital counseling, reviewing the steps he would want to take with Crystal and Charlie.

They arrived at the church a few minutes after seven o’clock, and Larry welcomed them at the door and ushered them into the church library. The room had a small couch—a loveseat—that the two of them could share. Larry took a seat in a chair facing them. Crystal, he thought, had not changed at all. She was still slender and graceful, tastefully dressed, her long, straight, dark-brown hair parted in the middle of her head. In high school she had worn glasses; now evidently she had contact lenses in her gentle brown eyes. The smile she gave him was small and sad; Larry had missed her cheerful smile and infectious laugh, but under the circumstances of their reunion, he did not expect much smiling or laughter.

Charlie Hill was only an inch or two taller than Crystal. He had broad shoulders and a large frame. He may once have played football, probably in high school, but since then he had become portly. His blond hair was cut so short that he appeared to have a shaved head. He had blue eyes and a very short, almost invisible, moustache. He had a firm handshake and a way of looking into Larry’s eyes that made Larry almost reflexively wary. When he sat, he crossed one leg over the other, tapping his foot in the air, with his hands folded across his knee.

“I’m glad you were both able to come this evening,” Larry began. “Before we get started, I want you to know that I have two rules for every counseling session. The first rule is confidentiality. I will never tell another person what you say to me in these sessions. I will not share your secrets with anyone. And even though I’m a writer,” Larry tried a small smile, but it gathered no reaction, “I will not put the things you say to me into any of my stories.” Both nodded, Charlie with an impatient vigor, Crystal with gentle understanding. “I will probably take some notes while we are talking,” Larry said, indicating the pad of paper and pen in his hand. “Those are just to help me remember things I want to bring up later. No one will ever see what I write, because these notes are only to assist my memory.”

“The other rule is total honesty. This is not like school, where you try to figure out what I want you to say so you can say it to me. I can’t help you if you aren’t honest with me. However,” he continued, “an honest answer could include ‘I don’t want to answer that question’ or “I don’t want to talk about that.’ Of course I might ask you why if you say that to me, but we don’t have to spend time on anything you don’t want to discuss.” Again, both nodded.

“Before we get into any serious counseling, I need to know a little more about you.” To this point, Larry had carefully made eye contact with Charlie and with Crystal. Now he deliberately looked between them as he said, “Please tell me how you met.”

Both hesitated, and they glanced at each other before Crystal began her answer. “Well, it was the summer I had graduated from high school,” she began, and Larry nodded several times as she described a chance encounter at the county fair, sharing rides in the carnival, eating together, talking to each other as if they already knew each other. Larry didn’t really need to know how they met to counsel them, but he was learning other things through their answer. He wanted to know who was going to take the lead in talking about their marriage. He wanted to see if one interrupted the other with corrections or contradictions. Larry watched Charlie’s face and his body language, looking for signs of annoyance or affection, indications of Charlie’s attitude toward Crystal.

Larry figured that Crystal had answered first because she knew him and Charlie didn’t, and because she had arranged for the counseling and Charlie hadn’t. As she wound up her description of their meeting by describing how Charlie had asked for her phone number and she had decided to tell him the truth (instead of the invented number she generally used for strangers who asked her number), Larry decided to direct the next question at Charlie, to get him talking so Larry could gauge her reactions. “Charlie, what made you want to get Crystal’s phone number?”

“She seemed so vibrant, so alive,” Charlie began. As he spoke, Crystal leaned back into the couch, appearing to draw within herself. Instead of looking at Charlie or at Larry, she stared at the table in front of her. Larry asked some more questions about their early dates, and Charlie calmly described the things they had done that summer. “Charlie, when did you first think you wanted to marry Crystal,” Larry asked. “The day I met her,” Charlie answered.

“Crys,” Larry said next, “when did you first think that you would want to marry Charlie?”

“It happened slowly,” she said in a dreamy voice, still looking at the table. “Like Charlie said, we did a lot of things together and had a lot of fun. When he started talking about marriage, he mentioned it casually—not a direct proposal. We talked about what it would be like to live in the same house, spend all our time together, and start a family. I thought we were just playing with the idea. The night he proposed for real, I thought he was making a joke.” She looked up at Larry. “I laughed, but he told me he was serious. Then I asked for a day to think about it. I stayed up half the night, thinking what it would be like to be his wife, and thinking what it would be like if I never saw him again. The next day I told him ‘yes.’”

“And you truly, sincerely, wanted to marry him?”

“Oh, yes, truly and sincerely.”

“And, Charlie, you truly and sincerely wanted to marry Crystal?”

“Absolutely,” he said firmly.

Again, looking between them instead of at either of them, Larry quietly asked, “What has changed?”

Charlie answered immediately, and Larry felt as if Charlie was angry. “She changed. She doesn’t want to be with me anymore, at least not in public. She doesn’t want to talk with me anymore, or when we do talk she wants to focus on how she feels and how I feel and stuff like that. Sometimes she just sits and cries and doesn’t say anything. It’s gotten to where I’d rather be at work than at home.”

“I’m not the one who changed first,” Crystal blurted, and for the first time since they sat on the couch she looked at her husband. “You’re the one who doesn’t want to have fun anymore. Every time you want us to do something, it’s with your friends from work. Every time you come home, you just want to talk about your job and the things you did—and they’re always the same things, day after day. If I try to change the subject, you just get angry.” With tears in her eyes, she added, “A lot of times, I feel scared even to be in the same room with you.”

“I have never hit you or hurt you,” he snapped at her.

“No, you have never hit me,” she said, “but you frighten me. I feel like you’re a volcano ready to erupt. You never seem happy about anything. You never seem to relax. You’re always tied up in knots, and I feel threatened. I feel like you’re about to explode.”

“I have never hit you or hurt you,” he repeated, “and I never will.”

Crystal looked down at the floor. She coiled a lock of her hair around her finger, wrapping and unwrapping the finger with her hair. This was a habit she already had in high school. Larry allowed the silence to remain for half a minute or so. Then, quietly, he said, “When you were dating, you talked about raising a family. Do you have any children?”

Charlie bit his lip and shook his head. Crystal looked up and said, “No. At first I thought I wanted to have children, and Charlie thought we should wait. Now I don’t want any children. I don’t want them to have to… to need to….” Her voice trailed into silence.

“OK. I think I have a sense of how things are going,” Larry told them. He had prepared in advance for this part of the conversation, with two pads of paper and two pens on a side table. Now he got up and handed each of them paper and a pen. “I want you to take a few minutes and write something for me,” he said. “I want you to think back to the summer you met and the months that you were dating. I want you to write how you felt back then—how you felt about her, how you felt about him,” he added, looking each of them in the eyes. “I want you to describe how things were back then. Don’t write about now, don’t write about problems that have come up since then. Just focus on what you were feeling and noticing then.”

Crystal and Charlie both held their pens and paper for a while. Finally she began writing. Soon he was writing too. Larry watched them as they wrote, each focused on the assignment, each ignoring the other person on the couch. Charlie finished first and began staring out the window. Crystal paused twice, then continued writing more. Even after she had finished, Larry allowed a few more moments of silence. Finally, he suggested, “Charlie, would you mind reading out loud what you have written?”

Charlie began reading. His voice was cold and analytical, but he had written words that Larry also would have used to describe Crystal: lively, cheerful, charming, attractive, fun. As Charlie read, Crystal looked at the floor. A tear dropped from one of her eyes, and she began to sniffle. She toyed with her hair again. When Charlie had finished, Larry gently asked, “Do you still feel this way about her?”

“Well, sure, yes, some of the time,” Charlie admitted. Crystal’s sobs became audible and her shoulders shook. “But Preacher, see, this is how she is. She uses this crying to try to control the situation. I didn’t expect this when we met, but she can be the most manipulative person in the world. She thinks that, if she cries, she can get whatever she wants.”

“Is that what you think, Crys?” Larry asked. Still looking at the floor, still crying, she shook her head in denial.

“OK; I’m going to add a third rule now,” Larry said. “I’ve promised you confidentiality, and I’ve asked for your honesty. Now the third rule is that you’re not allowed to tell me what another person thinks. You can tell me what you think,” he explained, “and you can tell me what other people say and how they act. Neither of you can read minds, though. If you tell me what the other person thinks, I’m going to stop you and ask you what they said and what they did and why you think he or she thinks something or feels something.”

Neither of them responded, so Larry continued, “Charlie, what about Crystal makes you believe that she thinks she can control things by crying?”

With a hint of sarcasm in the tone of his voice, Charlie said, “Well, she cries a lot. All the time, it seems. She cries at the drop of a hat.” With a scornful smile, he added, “Sometimes she even drops the hat. She knows… I’m sorry, she acts as if she knows that, if she keeps crying long enough, she can get what she wants from me.”

“And does that work? Do you always do what she wants when she cries?”

Charlie shrugged. “Not always. Sometimes I just walk away. When it started, I would try to find out what was wrong and why she was crying, but it was just a guessing game. After a while, I gave up playing her game. Now I just leave the room and let her cry.”

A box of tissues was on the center table for times like this. Larry slid it toward Crystal. She took a couple of tissues, dabbed at her eyes, and blew her nose. “Crys, tell me why you started crying just now,” Larry urged her.

“He was saying things he hasn’t said for years,” she moaned. “He used to say things like that to me all the time, but now he never says a nice thing to me or about me.”

“I do,” Charlie interrupted her, “but you never hear me. You remember every insult, and you forget every compliment.”

“That’s not true,” she responded, glaring at Charlie. “You never have anything nice to say. Even when it sounds like you’re about to say something nice, you twist it around into an insult. And you’re always so angry.”

“Now wait just a minute,” Charlie began, but Larry interrupted him. “Crys,” he said, “how do you know he’s angry? Does he tell you he’s angry?”

“No, but he acts angry. He slams doors. He throws things. He shouts.”

“Yes, some of the time,” he admitted, “but not as often as she pretends. Sometimes the wind blows a door shut and she blames me. Or sometimes I’m just clumsy and drop something or close the door too hard, and she says that I’m angry. Sometimes she starts crying when I haven’t done anything, and she won’t stop, and, yes, that gets me angry.”

“Are you angry at her right now?”

“Well, maybe I am, a little, because she’s using her crying trick again on me.”

The small clock on the end table said it was 8:30. “She cries, and you get angry, and when you act angry she cries some more,” Larry observed. Crystal nodded, starting again to cry. Charlie looked at Larry without an expression on his face. Larry said, “We’ve made some progress tonight, but I’m not sure I want to push you any farther. Do you want to continue with this? Do you want to try to make things work again in your marriage?”

Crystal nodded emphatically. Charlie seemed to consider his answer for a while before speaking. “I’m not sure that this can be fixed,” he finally said, “but I’m willing to try. If you can help us get back to where we used to be, it would be worth the time. I made a promise on our wedding day; I have to at least try to keep my word.”

“Hold on to what you wrote,” Larry said. “Crys, next week we’ll start by having you read what you wrote out loud. I’d also like you to add to what you’ve written. Write about the good things that were happening when you were dating and when you first got married. Write what you liked about him, and about her, and the fun you had together. Write the things you used to tell each other, and write what you liked to hear from each other.”

Charlie nodded. As the men stood, Charlie reached out to shake Larry’s hand. Still sitting, Crystal fumbled through her purse. “We decided to pay you thirty dollars a session,” she told Larry, still tearful. “Will that be enough?”

“Yes, of course,” he assured her. After he had shaken Charlie’s hand, he accepted the cash from Crystal. As she stood, Larry wanted to reach out and hug her. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was to see her so unhappy. Instead he stood awkwardly, his hands at his sides, and said, “I’ll see you both here next week.”

After they had left, Larry wrote himself a few notes so he would know next week what he wanted to explore with them. He locked them in a drawer of his desk. Then he turned off the lights, locked up the church, and went home.

Larry purposely kept himself busy for the next seven days. He tried not to think about Crystal and Charlie, and this he did for three reasons. He knew that if he replayed their conversation repeatedly and tried to anticipate where it would go, his anticipations would confuse his memory, and he would speak to them about things he only thought they might had said. Also, his consideration of their situation would only get his mind bogged down with their problems; he needed to take care of other things, and he needed to approach their next visit with a fresh mind. Finally, he found it painful to consider Crystal as unhappy as he had seen her that evening.

A week later they arrived once again a few minutes after seven o’clock. Larry started pacing the hallways of the church building at 6:45. He tried to calm himself—he would not be able to offer them helpful counsel if he let himself become overwrought. He sent a few bursts of prayer heavenward, asking for calm and for wisdom. Whether those prayers helped or not, Larry couldn’t measure, but when he heard their car enter the parking lot and stop, and saw them get out of the car, his heart was not racing as hard as it had been earlier.

He led them to the library, and the three of them took the same seats as before. Larry asked them general questions about how they were doing and got nonspecific replies. Finally, he said, “Have things been any calmer for the two of you this past week?” Crystal shook her head. “No, not really,” Charlie said. “But are they any worse?” Larry asked. Crystal shook her head again. “No, about the same,” Charlie agreed.

“Well, let’s pick up where we left off,” Larry said. “Crystal, I’d like you to read out loud the things you wrote last time and the things you added during the week.” She began reading in a steady voice, almost a monotone. Charlie stared out the window while she read. Partway through, Crystal leaned forward, plucked a tissue from the box, and dabbed at her eyes. She was describing happy times, but what she was reading did not make either of them happy. When she finished, Larry let silence settle for a moment, and then he asked, “Charlie—did anything Crystal just read surprise you?”

“No, it all happened pretty much the way she said,” he answered.

“When is the last time you heard her talk this way about your relationship?”

“It’s been at least two years, I think. Maybe longer. Probably longer.”

“Go ahead and read again the things you wrote last week, and then what you added during the week.” Again, Charlie read in a cold and analytical tone of voice, even though he was describing happy times. Crystal continued to stare at the floor and play with her hair. Charlie had only added two or three sentences to what he wrote the week before. When he finished, Larry said, “Same questions to you, Crys. Did anything Charlie wrote surprise you?”

“I’m only surprised he can remember it all so well. He hasn’t said anything about those times in ages.”

“How long, do you think?”

“Two years, maybe three.”

Larry leaned back and crossed his legs. “One of the things I’ve already noticed, talking with you, is that you don’t communicate the same way you did at the beginning. You don’t say the same things anymore. You don’t hear the same things anymore. Communication is an issue in a lot of marriages, and I can help you work on that. But first, I need to ask some questions. Do the two of you ever argue about money?”

“No, we seem to have enough for what we both want,” Crystal said quietly.

“Do you get along with each other’s families, or do you have problems with your in-laws?”

“No, we seem to get along fine with both sides of the family,” she said.

Larry deliberately skipped the next most common cause of fights between spouses and instead asked, “How happy are you with the place where you’re living? What I mean is, do you both keep it clean enough, or does one of you get upset when the other makes a mess or doesn’t keep the place clean?”

“Charlie works a lot more hours than I do, so I do most of the cleaning. He’s not complained about it, though, so I guess he doesn’t mind the way I clean.”

“Would you agree with that, Charlie?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say she does most of the work. She takes care of the house inside, and I take care of the house outside. I mow the grass and rake the leaves, and last summer I painted the house. I also take care of the cars, so I think I do my share of the work. But, no, I don’t have any complaints about how she keeps up the house. I think she does a good job.”

“Have you thanked her for that recently, or complimented her for her work?”

“Can’t say I’ve thought of it.”

“Crys, have you ever thanked Charlie for mowing or painting or washing the car you drive?”

She shook her head. “No,” was all she said.

“That is a little thing that you can change, and it might even be an important change. I’ve heard of counselors who even have husbands and wives exchange chores for a month, so that they have a sense of what their partner is really doing. I don’t think you need to go that far, but noticing the work that gets done and saying something nice about it could help you both.

“But I want to ask you both some other questions this evening. Charlie, tell me about your parents and their marriage. How did they treat each other? How did they act when they didn’t agree with each other?”

“Well, I can’t say that I ever knew of a time when they didn’t agree with each other. They have a strong marriage—always there for each other. Dad worked and paid the bills and filled out the tax forms; Mom stayed home and raised five kids and took care of the house. Now that we’re all out of the house, I guess she has a lot more time on her hands. But they have a really good marriage, with no problems, so far as I know.”

“Who usually made the decisions about the family?”

“Well, Dad did, I guess. I’m sure Mom had opinions and told him about them, but he usually told us kids what the family was going to do. They always presented us with a united front. We were never able to get ourselves out of trouble by getting them to take different sides over any of us.”

Larry nodded. “Crys, tell me about your parents.”

“Mom and Dad both worked, so they took turns cooking for the family, washing dishes, and stuff like that. As soon as we were old enough, we children all got chores—vacuuming, mopping, dusting, doing the laundry. Dad kind of had a temper. When he got mad, he would shout a lot and stomp around the house, and we’d all stay out of his way. Mom kept her distance from him too. When she got mad, she was just the opposite. She would be very, very quiet, and we all knew something was wrong. We’d stay away from her when she was in her quiet moods—even Dad stayed away from her then.”

“Did they ever have any disagreements?”

“Lots of times. Over the littlest things. They didn’t fight much about money or in-laws, but Dad was always complaining about something. She’d answer him back a time or two, he’d get loud, she’d get quiet, and the rest of us would get out of the way for a while.”

“Did you ever see your mother cry?”

“No. She held her feelings inside very well. I never saw her cry, I never heard her laugh, and I never really heard her say anything about how she was feeling.”

Larry nodded slowly. “I want both of you to think about this: everything you know about marriage, you learned by watching your parents. All your expectations were formed by the things you saw and heard growing up. Whether you like it or not, Charlie, you’re trying to be like your father, and you want Crystal to be like your mother. Crys, you’re trying to be like your mother, and you expect Charlie to be like your father.

“Your father was an angry man, so you expect Charlie to be an angry man, even though that isn’t what you want. Without intending it, you’ve actually been training him to be angry at you. And, Charlie, you’ve tried to have the kind of strong marriage that your parents enjoyed, but you never saw their struggles. You weren’t even around during the time they adjusted to being husband and wife to each other.”

Neither of them shouted, “Eureka,” nor did they get up and dance. Crystal and Charlie sat quietly, as if they wanted Larry to say more. Eventually, he did. “It’s not too late for you to start adjusting. You can make your marriage everything you want it to be. It’s largely a matter of noticing habits and changing habits. And I can help you find a way to do those things.

“Not that either of you is going to be perfect. Only Jesus is perfect. And you can’t have a perfect marriage made up of two imperfect people. But Jesus can be the third partner in your marriage, if you let him be there. He can teach you how to love each other the way you want to love each other. He can teach you how to forgive each other for being less than perfect. With his help, you can get your marriage closer to what you really want it to be.”

Larry was ready to say more, but Charlie spoke instead. “Well, to be honest, I was hoping to avoid this whole Jesus-Church-and-Bible thing. I know you’re a preacher and it’s your job to tell us about Jesus, but I’m not sure he’s what we need right now.”

“It’s not just my job,” Larry countered, “It’s my honest opinion that he can help you. But if you don’t want his help, I will still do my best for both of you.”

“Thank you, Larry,” Crystal said, as tears began to well in her eyes again. “I really do appreciate your help. And please don’t misunderstand Charlie. It’s not as if we don’t believe in God and all that. We do pray. At least I’ve been praying. I do think God is helping us, or wants to help us, or something.”

They had been talking for an hour, and Larry thought it was time for another break. “I’d like you to come back next week,” he said. “And in between now and then I want you to do some more writing. I want you to think about your habits, the way you’ve been acting when you’re with each other. I want you to make a list of the habits you can change—the things you want to stop doing, and the things you want to start doing. And I want you to make the same lists for each other as well—the things you want your partner to stop doing, and the things you wish he or she would start doing. But don’t talk to each other about what you’re writing. I want your lists to sound brand new when you share them with each other in front of me next week.”

Charlie and Larry both stood. “I hope you don’t mind what I said about Jesus,” Charlie said. “I didn’t mean anything personal by it.”

Larry smiled at him. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve heard far worse from other people.”

Crystal stood and handed him thirty dollars. Again, she looked so frail that Larry wanted to wrap his arms around her and comfort her. Resisting the temptation, he looked into her eyes and said, “I’ll see you again next week.”

He tried, but Larry could not keep Crystal out of his mind. He tried to keep himself busy, but the image of her standing as if alone, at the side of her husband Charlie, would not leave him. Earlier memories flowed through his mind, the times he had thought of someday marrying her, and the ways she had told Larry that she wasn’t ready even to think about getting married. He could picture her that summer, meeting Charlie at the county fair, fresh from high school graduation, knowing that her whole life was just around the corner. What did Charlie have that Larry didn’t have? Charlie was new at a time when she was ready for someone new.

It went against Larry’s beliefs and his very nature to consider interfering with their marriage, or even to refuse to help them restore their marriage. Crystal and Charlie had made solemn promises to each other. His job as a counselor and a pastor—his obligation as a Christian—was to urge them to respect their marriage vows.

At the same time, Charlie seemed wrong for Crystal. Not only did he show little respect for the Lord (which was enough to lower Larry’s opinion of any person), he also had not exhibited a great deal of respect for Crystal. Larry had witnessed two or three tantrums of Crystal’s father; he hated to picture her subject to the same kind of verbal abuse from a husband, with no one else in the house to take her side. Even if she had, unthinkingly, goaded Charlie into treating her that way, it was wrong, and she deserved better.

Larry’s heart ached for Crystal. Her relationship with Charlie was nearly dead in the water, and she had turned desperately to Larry for help. He wanted to help her, not only because of his promise made years earlier, but because he genuinely cared about her. He wondered if she had told Charlie that she and Larry were close friends during their high school days. He wondered if she had said that she and Larry had talked about marriage before she met Charlie. He wondered how Charlie’s attitude about their counseling sessions might change should he learn these things about Larry and Crystal.

Larry thought about Crystal and Charlie at night, and he couldn’t fall asleep. He thought about them in the morning, and his thoughts made it hard for him to concentrate on his studies to prepare a sermon and to teach a Bible class. He thought about them in the afternoon as he drove to the hospital to visit two members of the congregation, one recovering from surgery and the other healing a broken hip. Short on sleep and short on concentration, Larry noticed himself falling into more bad habits. Sometimes he spoke too quickly, especially with the older members of the congregation who already had trouble understanding what he said. In traffic he lost patience with the other drivers. When he was alone, he began gnawing on his fingernails.

Larry knew exactly what was happening to him. It had happened once before, when he was overwhelmed with his college studies. Sunday afternoon he pulled out his old notes on anxiety. After he skimmed them, he searched the Internet for new information on anxiety. He tried the practices that had worked for him before—deep regular breathing, accompanied by prayer, selected Psalms and other Bible readings, counting to ten when a small irritation was making him unnaturally irate. By the time for Crystal and Charlie’s next appointment, Larry found himself back in control of his feelings. He was ready to try again to help them as they needed.

To his surprise, they arrived a minute before seven o’clock. Larry noticed that Crystal’s hair had been trimmed and loosely curled, and highlights had been added. He complimented her on the new look. Charlie raised his eyebrows and said, “Did you have your hair done?”

“Yes, on Friday,” she told him.

They took their familiar seats in the library, and Larry asked if he could skim through the writing they had done before they read it aloud. He compared the changes Crystal thought she could make in her habits to the changes Charlie hoped she would make; then he compared the changes Charlie thought he could make to those Crystal hoped he would make. Having prepared himself for the conversation, Larry returned the papers to them.

“Charlie,” he invited, “please read out loud the changes in your habits that you contemplated during the week.

Larry watched Crystal’s face as Charlie read his short list. He wanted to be kind and gentle with Crystal. He wanted to spend more time with her, time that was happy instead of stressful. He wanted to compliment her more on the good things she did. “And I’m sorry I didn’t notice your hair,” he added. “That’s another habit I want to change—I want to pay attention to you, and to let you know that I’m looking at you and thinking about you.”

Crystal nodded. Her eyes were thoughtful; her face was somber. When she did not respond to his apology, Larry said, “Crys, go ahead and read your list of habits you’d like to see Charlie change.”

Her list was also short. “I wish Charlie would stop being angry all the time,” she said. “I wish we could do fun things together that are just the two of us, not with his friends from work. I wish we could do more things together around the house. I could have helped him paint; he could help me sometimes with the dishes. I wish our home could be a happy place again.”

“Your thoughts, Charlie?” Larry prompted.

“I’m not angry all the time,” he said firmly, “and I don’t understand why Crystal says that I am. I’ve been thinking about what you said last week, Preacher, about her seeing her father in me. I know her father, and I’m nothing like him. I don’t dislike him, but I don’t want to change to be like him. And I don’t believe that she wants me to be more like him.”

“No, I don’t,” she said.

“I’m sure she doesn’t,” Larry agreed. “My point last week was that she learned about marriage from watching her parents. Her reactions are going to be flavored by what she saw growing up. And it will take awareness of that fact to help her change her habits the way you both want.” He took a breath and added, “Crys, tell me about the things Charlie does that make you feel as if he is angry.”

“His voice is harsh and unfriendly,” she said. “He shouts at me instead of talking to me. He throws things around and slams doors.”

“I hardly ever shout at you,” he protested, “and I don’t throw things or slam doors. Like I said last week, sometimes I’m just clumsy and you assume that I’m angry.” A little louder, he continued, “I wish you wouldn’t try to make me look bad in front of the preacher.”

“I’m just being honest,” Crystal replied.

“Are you angry right now?” Larry asked Charlie.

“No, I’m not angry,” he said. “A little annoyed by what she said, but I’m not angry, no.”

“Yet your voice keeps getting louder,” Larry gently commented. “You probably don’t realize it. In fact, I’m sure you don’t. But I can understand why Crystal feels as if you are angry when you are not angry. When your feelings are stirred, in a bad way or even in a good way, you talk louder. A lot of people have that habit. Crys,” he said, looking at her, “can you understand that Charlie just talks loud sometimes as a habit—that it doesn’t mean he’s angry just because he’s loud?”

“I understand that, but understanding doesn’t always help. I can’t help the way I feel when he gets loud.”

“How do you feel?”

“I feel threatened… intimidated. I feel as if he’s about to hurt me, even if he doesn’t want to hurt me. I feel like he’s losing control of himself.”

Charlie shook his head impatiently. “Crystal,” he said, “I would never hurt you. I have never lost control when I’m with you.”

“I know,” she said, “but the pastor wanted me to say how I feel. That is how I feel.”

“Before we’re finished, I want to get back to the subject of things you two can do together, and also finish the rest of the homework,” Larry said, “but this seems like a good time to mention something I’ve been thinking since last week. It has to do with feelings. Has either of you ever been diagnosed with depression or anxiety?”

Charlie glanced at Crystal, alarm in his eyes, and then looked at Larry. “I haven’t, no,” he said.

Crystal shook her head. “No, never.”

“Have either of you ever talked with a doctor or a counselor about depression or anxiety?” When they both said no, Larry said, “I don’t have medical training, so I can’t make a diagnosis, but to me it sounds as if anxiety and possibly depression are part of the problem that’s harming your marriage. I have some experience in this area,” he added dryly, “and I know it can be hard to accept the fact that you might need help dealing with these things—possibly even medication. But talking with me is not going to fix everything that’s going wrong for the two of you if anxiety and depression are part of your problems.”

Charlie nodded slowly. “I can see why you say that Crystal’s depressed,” he said. “Of course she doesn’t act all the time the way she’s acted when we come here. Naturally she’s sad and serious here because we’re talking about marriage problems. She can be lighthearted and happy some of the time.”

“But you also said that she cries some of the time,” Larry countered. “You felt that her crying might be her way to try to manipulate you.”

“Yes, I said that. I said it because it feels true.”

“But maybe she can’t control her crying. Maybe she can’t help it because she’s battling strong feelings of anxiety or depression.”

“Do you really think that’s my problem?” Crystal asked, a catch in her voice as if she was at that very moment on the verge of breaking into tears.

“Again, I don’t have the medical training to know for sure,” Larry said. He wanted to reach for Crystal, to hold her hand, to reassure her with touch instead of just with words. “And, even if it is true, I’m not saying that it’s the only problem that has to be solved. There are other things the three of us can work on. But to address the possibility of depression and anxiety might not only improve your marriage but also solve some other things going on in both your lives.

“I want you both to understand,” he said quietly, “that anxiety and depression can be disorders in and of themselves, but they also can be symptoms of other kinds of problems. Sometimes they are reactions to physical imbalances: not enough sleep, or not enough exercise, or malnutrition, or too much coffee or alcohol. Sometimes they’re the result of an imbalance of chemicals that requires medication to correct. Sometimes they’re a reaction to stress or the aftereffect of an earlier trauma of some sort. Sometimes they’re the result of a spiritual problem. It’s hard for any professional in any field to be able to sort through all the possible causes of anxiety or depression and figure out exactly what is going on. It’s worth the effort, though—it’s better than ignoring the problem.”

Larry leaned forward to stress what he was saying. “Being depressed or being anxious doesn’t make you a bad person. It isn’t your fault that you have these symptoms, any more than someone is to blame when they break a bone or catch the flu or have diabetes. Blame has nothing to do with it, and blame doesn’t fix anything. The important thing to do is to identify the existence of depression or anxiety and then to start finding ways to correct the disorder.”

“What’s the next step, then?” Charlie asked. “Are you saying that Crystal should go see a doctor?”

“I think that would be a good idea,” Larry agreed, “and I also believe that you should see a doctor for the same reasons.”

“Me?” questioned Charlie. “I’m not feeling depressed or anxious!”

“How can you be sure?” Larry responded. “Are you aware enough of your feelings, and of the symptoms of anxiety or depression, that you can rule them out without taking time to check?”

“I’m not the one who’s sitting here crying,” Charlie objected, and indeed Crystal was quietly crying. Larry nudged the box of tissues closer to her before he addressed Charlie.

“Anxiety and depression come out in different ways in different people,” he said. “They don’t always involve crying. In fact in men anxiety often comes out in ways that seem more like anger than like fear. Being irritable, losing patience easily over little things, talking faster or louder than normal—all those might be indications of ongoing anxiety, or even depression.”

Charlie looked as if he was going to object, but Larry didn’t give him a chance to speak. “I’m just speculating here, but I can guess how anxiety might have built up inside of you. Let’s say Crystal has been battling depression for a year or two. You married her because you love her—you don’t like to see her unhappy so much of the time. But nothing you do seems to make her feel any better. You’re her husband; you feel responsible for her. It hurts you to see her in pain. Over time that sense of being out of control and stuck in a bad situation builds inside of you. Combined with other things that are less than perfect in your life, an anxiety disorder can easily develop without you realizing it is there.”

Larry shrugged. “I really can’t make a diagnosis. I wish you both would have private sessions with a doctor. Tell the doctor what’s going on in your lives and let him or her make some recommendations. Meanwhile, we can keep on working on your marriage with these sessions.” Larry thought he had said enough on the subject of anxiety and depression. “Charlie, go ahead and read the changes in habit you hoped to see in Crystal.”

Charlie began reading, and his voice became softer as he read. A look of embarrassment, almost shame appeared on his face. “I want her to stop moping around and feeling sorry for herself so much of the time. I want her to start working as hard as I am working to find fun things we can do together. I want her to be the person she was when we got married.” He looked up at Larry. “If seeing a doctor and getting help with depression is what she needs, then I want her to do it. And I’m willing to talk to a doctor too, especially if that makes it easier for her to do it.”

“Crys, how do you feel about that?” She nodded, seemingly unable to speak. Larry wrote himself some notes, more to provide her a little time to recover than to create reminders he might need later. When he sensed that she had pulled herself together, he said, “Crys, go ahead and read what you wrote—what habits would you like to change in yourself?”

“I want to be more confident and less afraid,” she said quietly, almost in a whisper. “I want to find ways of involving him in the things that I’m doing. I want to….” She set the paper down and looked at Larry, “I really, really want to be the person I was when we got married.”

Larry nodded. “We are starting to make progress together,” he told them both. “For the rest of our time tonight, let’s talk about things the two of you can do as a couple, since that was on both your lists.”

The conversation continued haltingly, each making suggestions the other seemed to find unappealing. “What are some of the things you did the first year you were married?” Larry asked. Charlie and Crystal spoke of dinners eaten in restaurants, movies seen in theaters, hikes taken in the forest preserve, and strolls through the neighborhood. “When’s the last time the two of you went walking together, just for the sake of being with each other?” Larry asked. They couldn’t remember.

It was after eight o’clock when Larry suggested that, during the next week, they find a time or two when they could take a walk together. He also reminded them that he wanted them both to see a doctor, to describe their feelings, to allow the doctor to examine each of them, and see what the doctor diagnosed and prescribed. “In addition,” Larry said, “I want you to do some more writing for me. I want each of you to describe what you think an ideal marriage would be like.”

Long after Crystal and Charlie left, Larry sat in the library and thought. It was dark outside. Every room in the church was dark, aside from the library. Larry remembered the Crystal he had known in high school—the carefree, cheerful friend who always made him feel better when he was glum. Larry saw more than sadness in Crystal. He saw that she had matured since high school. In spite of her gloom and her worry over the state of her marriage, Larry saw that Crystal had become a beautiful woman. Even lacking the smile and the laugh that Larry remembered so fondly, Crystal was lovely. He knew that with a cheerful nature, the same woman would be dazzlingly gorgeous. Somehow, though, he felt more drawn to her now. She emitted an aura of vulnerability, and that moved Larry to want to protect her, help her, and make things better for her.

Larry prayed. He prayed that Crystal and Charlie would both get the medical help they appeared to need. He prayed that the gloom that had settled over Crystal would be lifted. He prayed that he would be able to help them both to find joy and contentment in their marriage. He prayed that his affection for Crystal would not become an impediment to his ability to help them both. He prayed that Charlie would become more open to hearing about Jesus. He prayed for answers he could provide Charlie and Crystal so their troubles could be healed.

Over the next several days, whenever Crystal came to his mind, he prayed those same prayers. Whether he remembered her as his friend in high school or as the woman she had become, he tried to focus his attention on being God’s servant to help her and to help her husband. He admitted to himself that it pained him to see her struggling. Part of his mind wanted to blame Charlie—part of his mind wanted to believe that, if Larry were married to Crystal, she would be happy. He worked to overcome this temptation. He knew that, if he allowed his own feelings to control him, he would no longer be useful to Crystal, or to Charlie, or to the Lord.

Larry wondered if the distraction of Crystal and her problems was affecting the rest of his work—his preaching, his teaching, his counseling with the sick and the elderly. No one had commented that his work was suffering, but in most churches the preacher was the last to know what everyone else was saying. Larry tried to focus on his other work, both to do the best job possible and to forget about Crystal until he saw her again. Despite his best efforts, though, her face swam in front of his eyes several times a day.

The day came for Crystal and Charlie’s next appointment. Larry woke from a troubled sleep and asked himself how he was going to get through the day. Somehow he managed. Then, about three in the afternoon, his phone rang.

It was Charlie. “Preacher, we’re going to have to break our appointment for this evening,” he said. “But I’d like to come by tomorrow morning and talk with you on my own. Will that be alright?”

Larry assured him that was fine, and appointment was made for nine o’clock in the morning. Larry had the rest of the unscheduled evening to wonder what had caused the change. Were things so much worse for the two of them that they were giving up on his counseling? Or had things gotten better, so that they didn’t think they needed any more time with him? Had one of them gotten news from a doctor that rearranged their plans and their priorities? Larry wasn’t sure what to think or what to hope. He tried to put the matter out of his thoughts, figuring that he would probably be guessing wrong in any case. Larry went home and tried to read a book, but his mind kept returning to Crystal, wondering what was happening with her that evening.

It was almost nine-thirty when Charlie arrived at the church the next morning. Larry met him at the door and escorted Charlie to the office where Larry did most of his writing and little of his counseling. A change in setting seemed right for this conversation. Charlie took a seat, and Larry sat down in his office chair behind the desk. He leaned forward and said to Charlie, “Now please tell me what it is you came here to say.”

Charlie cleared his throat a couple of times before he began talking. “Well, Preacher,” he said. “I don’t think things are going to work out with me and Crystal. I think we stopped loving each other a year ago or more, and once two people stop loving each other, it’s hard to get them started again.”

“I don’t think…” Larry began, but Charlie interrupted him. “Now, Preacher, you’ve tried really hard with the two of us, and I don’t guess anybody else could have done any better. But I realize now that I’m not the right man to be married to Crystal. She deserves someone better—someone who will love her and understand her and take care of her. She can’t have that man until I get out of the way. Even if I don’t love her, I still care about her, and I want what’s best for her. That’s why I think it’s time to bring this failed marriage to an end, so she can be with the right man as soon as possible.”

“Have you talked about this with Crystal?” Larry asked.

“Not yet,” Charlie said. “I wanted to tell you first. You deserve to be ready to take the next step.”

“I think the step you’re describing is premature,” Larry demurred. “Marriage is not something you can leave just because it doesn’t feel right at the time. You two have made promises to each other. Your lives have been joined together. To end it this way would be just… wrong.”

“Let me try to make myself clear,” Charlie answered. “Crystal is in love with another man, and I think she should be free to reach out to him.”

“Has she told you this?” Larry asked.

“Not directly, no. But you should hear the way she talks about you to her friends—how compassionate you are, how hard you are trying to help the two of us, how much she respects you for being a pastor and staying with the church where you grew up. The other night she even said your name in her sleep.”

Larry stammered as he tried to say, “That doesn’t mean she’s in love with me.”

“Maybe not, but it’s close enough. The two of you have a connection. I’ve never been able to speak with her the way you do. I can tell that she’s comfortable with you. And I don’t need to read her mind to sense that she’s thinking about you long after we’ve left this building.”

“But, Charlie, you’re talking about your marriage here. That’s not…”

“You don’t understand!” Charlie slapped his hand on Larry’s desk. “You even have your own nickname for her. I’ve always called her Crystal, but from the first you were calling her Chris.”

Larry wanted to say, “That’s what we all called her in high school,” but he wasn’t sure that answer would do him any good. “Listen, Charlie,” he said, “I’ve been working with you two to save your marriage. I can’t approve of having you divorce just so your wife can marry me. That would be wrong for so many reasons.”

“Name just one.”

“I’ll name three. First, I love God. I don’t want to do anything that he would call sinful, and breaking up a marriage so I can steal a wife is definitely sinful. Second, I love my job. If I did anything as sinful as what you suggest, I’d be out of this job as soon as the congregation learned about it. Third, I… I care about Crys. Going through a divorce would be painful for her, even more painful than struggling to save your marriage. I don’t want her to have to face that pain. She chose to marry you, and I want to work with both of you so she can find joy in that choice.”

Charlie shook his head. “I don’t understand this talk about sin. I’m trying to talk about true love. Crystal and I thought we had true love, but we were wrong. Now she has a chance for true love, and I’m the only thing that stands in her way. I’m trying to be generous and do something good for her, and you tell me that’s a sin?”

“But…”

“Preacher, don’t think you can hide from me what you really feel. I know you ‘care about’ Crystal. I’ve known it since the first time we came here. And I know she ‘cares about’ you. I want her to be happy. You want her to be happy. I’m sure she wants to be happy. I’ve tried, and I can’t make her happy. I think you can. Why would you say no?”

“Because it’s wrong,” Larry said firmly. He didn’t like the sneering emphasis Charlie placed on the words “care about.” The suggestion that Charlie would divorce Crystal, believing that Larry was ready to marry her, frightened and repulsed Larry. As fond as he was of Crystal, he sincerely did not want her to face the pain of a divorce, as he had said to Charlie. And, just as sincerely, he had no intention of sinning in this way. In fact, he resented Charlie’s suggestion that he might willingly act in such a way.

Charlie scratched his head. “I can’t figure you out, Preacher. I thought Jesus and the church were supposed to be all about love. But that doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to tell Crystal to come see you. I’m not going to tell her why. But maybe the two of you can figure out what to do, so long as I’m not here to be in the way.”

“Yes, ask her to come see me—the sooner the better,” Larry agreed. “By the way, have either of you been to see the doctor?”

“She has. He’s got her taking some kind of pill. I have an appointment for next week. I’m not sure I’m going to go. I don’t feel like I’m sick, and I’m not sure just what I’m going to say to him.”

“You can tell him I recommended the visit. Tell him you’re having a difficult time in your marriage. Tell him how sometimes you feel irritable and lose your temper over little things. The doctor will ask more questions and will figure out what’s going on.”

“If you say so, Preacher. Maybe I’ll take your advice and see the doctor if you take my advice and claim Crystal from me. This way everybody gets something good out of this mess.”

“I promise to think about it…”—Larry knew this was a promise he would keep, whether he wanted to or not—“but I’m not likely to change my mind. Sin is a rather serious subject for me.”

“Sin or not, I just want to do the best for her.” Charlie and Larry stood and shook hands. “I can find my way out.” After he left, Larry quietly said, “You just want to do the best for her. So do I, Charlie, so do I.”

Less than an hour later, the phone rang. It was, of course, Crystal. “Charlie suggested, since we missed our appointment last night, that I come in and talk with you alone,” she said. “I’m glad he thought of that; there’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you. Are you free this afternoon?”

“I am,” Larry said, even though he had planned on making his hospital rounds that afternoon. “Would you like to come in right after lunch?”

Even over the telephone Larry could sense her smile as Crystal replied, “Yes, I’d like that very much.”

The rest of the morning, concentration was difficult for Larry. He tried to make notes for his next sermon, and for the Bible class he would be teaching that night, but thoughts about Crystal kept him occupied. He sat in his chair, looked out the window, and prayed. A few minutes after eleven o’clock he went across the street, bought a burger and fries and a Coke, and took them back to the church. Not wanting a food smell in his office, he ate lunch in the church kitchen. Then he returned to his office, his chair, and his prayers.

The next two hours felt like days. Finally, ten minutes after one o’clock, Larry heard Crystal’s car enter the church parking lot. Hands trembling, he met her at the door and led her to his office. She sat in the same chair where Charlie had sat that morning, and Larry returned to his chair behind the desk. “It’s good to see you again,” he said. “I was concerned about you—both of you—last night.”

She nodded. “Charlie keeps changing his mind, back and forth, about whether we should continue counseling or just give up. I’ve told him firmly that I want us to keep seeing you. The things you’ve said have already helped.” She paused and licked her lips. “I know he came in to see you this morning.”

“Yes, he did,” Larry affirmed. “Now, remember, one of my rules is confidentiality. I’m not going to tell you what he said to me, just as I’m not going to tell him anything you say to me this afternoon.”

“That’s fine; I understand that.” She stared down at the floor for a few seconds, then raised her eyes and looked Larry in the face. “What should a person do,” she asked, “if that person is married to one person but is falling in love with another person?”

“That person should remain faithful to his or her marriage promises,” Larry said gently. “Feelings come and go, but promises are supposed to last forever.”

“Sometimes it’s so hard, though,” Crystal exclaimed.

“Yes, Crys, sometimes it’s very hard to do the right thing. But God expects us to do the right thing. He lets us be tempted, but he always gives us strength to resist temptation.”

“I don’t feel any strength. I feel like God’s forgotten me. In fact, I haven’t felt close to him in years.”

“I know you’ve had a rough time. Depression can be overwhelming, and it can cause other strange thoughts and feelings to go through your head. But God hasn’t abandoned you. He never abandons his children.”

“Should I tell Charlie?”

“Tell him that you love someone else? No, I wouldn’t do that. You need to be working to make your marriage stronger, and that kind of confession will only make it weaker. What you’re fighting is a temptation, not a sin. Even Jesus was tempted, but he resisted. You don’t have to confess to anyone but God that you’re being tempted. You can tell God about the temptation and ask him for strength to say no.”

“Should I tell… tell the other man?”

Larry leaded back in his chair thoughtfully. He kept his hands hidden below the desk so Crystal wouldn’t see how badly they were shaking. He tried to keep his voice steady as he said, “If it was me, I wouldn’t want to know. Being a pastor is hard enough without having the pressure of additional temptations. But tell me a couple of things about this other man. Is he married?”

She shook her head and smiled. “No. He’s not married.”

“But he knows that you’re married.” She nodded.

“Crys, has he done anything himself to tempt you? Is he encouraging your feelings about him?”

“Not on purpose, no. But he can’t really help it. Everything he says, everything he does is just so… so….”

“Good,” Larry interrupted her. “If he were trying to tempt you, knowing that you’re married, I would say he’s a dangerous man. A real loser. You would want to stay far away from someone who tempted you on purpose. Even if he said he loved you, how could you trust him? If he tempted you to be unfaithful, how could you believe that he would stay faithful to you?”

“I know. But he hasn’t done anything like that. Not ever.”

“Again, that’s good. Don’t let him know how you feel—that would be a burden on him, and it would make it harder for you to battle this temptation.”

“But how can I get over these feelings? It hurts so much, loving him, and him not knowing.”

Now Larry was on firm ground. “There are some tricks to battling temptation and winning. I can share three of them with you. You can try them all, or you can pick one and run with it.

“One way to battle temptation is to remind yourself that sin is wrong. Read what the Bible says about marriage. Study the Bible passages that talk about marriage, about keeping the marriage bed pure. Whenever you feel tempted, say what Joseph said in Egypt: ‘How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’”

She nodded. “I’ll remember those words,” she said.

“Another way to battle temptation is to distract yourself. Occupy your mind with other things so you can’t even think about the temptation. Do math problems in your head. Or try to list different things—the fifty states and their capitols, for example, or all the Presidents, in order. See if you can name all of Jacob’s sons, or all of the twelve apostles.”

Again she nodded. “And what’s the third way?” she asked.

“The third way is very risky, and I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone. Even in your case, I don’t suggest it until you’ve tried the other two ways for a few days.” Larry took a deep breath and continued. “Embrace the temptation, but do it secretly. Don’t let anyone know what you are thinking. But imagine your life with this other man. Imagine the things you would do together if you were free to date him. Imagine marrying him and living with him. But don’t just imagine the good things. Don’t let him become an ideal dream with many virtues and no faults. Imagine waking up next to him in the morning and seeing his hair a mess and smelling his bad breath. Focus on his bad habits—everyone has bad habits—and imagine what it would be like to have to tolerate them every day. Consider how the two of you would handle problems together—like if both of you had the flu at the same time.” Larry paused. He saw a small sparkle in Crystal’s eyes, a sparkle that had been missing during the last month’s sessions. “Crys, keep on building the story in your head. Keep on imagining life with this man—real life, not just a perfect dream. And when the story has developed for a while, start writing it down. Make it a short story, or make it a novel, but give it all the attention that a story deserves from a faithful author.”

She smiled. “And will this story help me resist temptation?”

“You’ll be surprised. The more you tell this story to yourself, the more this man will become a character in a book and not the man you know. And you’ll turn yourself into a character too. After a while, this man and this woman will be fiction for you, and you’ll be able to let her say all the things you want to say, but it won’t be you saying them anymore. All the passion and all the pain you feel right now will go into the story. When you write it, you’ll be releasing the passion and the pain. Meanwhile, in real life, you can remain faithful to Charlie and can keep on rebuilding your marriage.”

“Do you really think it will happen that way?”

“Crys, I’m sure of it.” He stood up and offered to shake her hand. “And when you get the story written, I’d like to read it. I have a feeling it could become a best-seller.”

She stood and shook his hand. “Larry, thank you for talking with me, and for your suggestions. This means a lot to me.” As their hands separated, she added, “When we’re finished with this counseling, I hope we can start being friends again. I mean, Charlie and I can both be friends with you. We can have you over for dinner once in a while, or maybe go places together. And—who knows?—maybe I can even get him to join your church.”

Larry laughed. “Now, that would be an accomplishment. But we can hope. Will I see the two of you again next week?”

She smiled at him. The sparkle was still in her eyes as she said, “I hope so. I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.” She casually flipped her hair behind her shoulder as she spoke. Larry remembered that she used to make that gesture in high school, usually when she was in a good mood. He hadn’t thought about the fact that she hadn’t made that gesture yet in all the conversations he had held with her and Charlie.

Larry walked her to the door of the church. His heart was pounding, and yet his chest felt empty. That conversation with Crystal was one of the hardest things Larry had ever done. He knew he had done the right thing, but he still didn’t feel good about it. He hadn’t the slightest doubt that he was the “other man” who was a temptation to Crystal. After all, Charlie had said as much that morning. Larry wanted very much to be Crystal’s friend. He also wanted very much for her to remain faithful to her husband. He was not sure that both could happen. He knew that he was tempted to pursue Crystal every bit as much as she was tempted to pursue him.

Stopping with her hand on the door, Crystal turned back to Larry. “Oh, by the way,” she said, “whether or not Charlie comes with me, I will be here for church this Sunday.” She smiled at Larry, pushed the door open, and went outside.

That week Larry struggled to write a good sermon. On Friday, he threw out everything he had written and started fresh. Crystal had never heard him preach before. If this was to be the first sermon of his she heard, he wanted it to be one of his best. By suppertime Friday he had written something he considered at least better than respectable. He set aside time Saturday morning to learn what he had written so he could deliver it capably in front of the congregation.

Sunday morning came, and Larry headed over to the church. He had not slept well the night before, thinking about the unique challenge of this service. As he greeted the regular members before the service, he could feel his heart racing. He reminded himself to breathe, and some deep steady breaths helped to settle his feelings somewhat.

When Crystal walked through the doors of the church, Larry felt a twinge run through his body. It was as if someone behind him had suddenly grabbed him by the arms. Crystal was wearing a dress with a colorful flower pattern. Her eyes had some of the same sparkle he remembered from high school. Larry nodded in her direction, and she returned the nod. A minute or two later, Larry’s father welcomed the members and visitors, and the service began.

Twenty minutes later Larry stood up in front of the people. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words seemed to jam in his throat. Larry coughed, said “Excuse me,” and started again. This time the words flowed normally. He made eye contact with all the people in their seats as he spoke, but he could not resist looking again and again at Crystal. She sat straight, her eyes set on him, and twice she smiled an encouraging smile at him.

Almost before he realized it, Larry was wrapping up the sermon. Time did not seem to have passed at all. As his father led the prayers, Larry reviewed what he had preached, wondering if he had skipped sections of the sermon. All of it seemed to have been said.

When the final hymn was sung and Larry and his father had walked the length of the church, people began shaking their hands on the way out the door to their cars. Several members told Larry that his message had been especially meaningful for them that day. If anyone other than Larry had thought he had fallen short, that person didn’t mention it to Larry. Meanwhile, other members had noticed Crystal and were welcoming her to the church and inviting her to return. As a result, she was one of the last to leave.

“That was wonderful,” she told him as they shook hands. “I’m glad I came this morning. I will definitely return.”

“It’s good to have you here,” Larry assured her.

Crystal attended services the next two Sundays. Larry found himself able to pick her voice out of the others during the singing. He tried not to pay more attention to her than to the other worshipers, but the warm smile she gave him every time their eyes met made his stomach flutter. Their handshakes after the service also left Larry uneasy. He hoped that Crystal was growing spiritually by coming to church; her presence at church definitely challenged Larry’s sense of holiness in his life.

The next Sunday Charlie came with Crystal to church. Larry was glad that it was his father’s week to preach; he was not sure he could concentrate on a message with Crystal and Charlie side by side in the middle of the congregation. Distracted as he was, he somehow fumbled his way through the prayers and made it to the end of the service.

As the congregation was leaving, Larry heard Charlie say to his father, “Thanks for the sermon, Preacher.” Then Charlie and Crystal headed his way. As they shook hands, Charlie said to Larry, “Sorry we didn’t get to hear you preach this morning. Maybe next time.”

“Well, of course, next time,” Larry stammered. “You’re welcome here any time.”

“Say, do you have any plans for lunch?” Charlie asked. “If not, the wife and I would like to have you out to our place.”

Larry hesitated, but only for a second. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m honored to accept your invitation.”

He drove himself, following their car out of town, wondering how the visit would go. He had felt that he was in control of his feelings while he was counseling Crystal and Charlie at the church. Since the sessions had ended, though, and since he had been seeing Crystal in church on Sunday mornings, he had worried less about keeping his feelings in check. He was not prepared to see them in their own home, but he had no good reason to refuse their invitation. Besides, this visit might give him the opportunity to see how the two of them were working through the challenges in their relationship.

He parked behind them in their driveway, and Charlie ushered him through the front door into their living room. “Can I get you anything to drink?” Charlie asked.

“A glass of ice water would be very welcome,” Larry said.

“Don’t suppose you’d rather have a beer?” Charlie asked.

“No, thank you,” Larry said, smiling and shaking his head.

“You don’t mind if I have one?”

“No—of course not,” Larry assured him.

Crystal got Larry a glass of water while Charlie grabbed a can of beer. They left Larry alone in the living room for a few minutes while Crystal put together a salad and Charlie prepared three pork chops to cook on the gas grill outside. Larry looked around at the room. It was tastefully furnished, with matching chairs and couch, two glass-topped tables, lamps, and in the corner a television set. A large painting was centered on one wall, showing a forest of autumn colors. On another wall was a framed portrait of Charlie and Crystal, probably taken around the time of their wedding. Two magazines rested on one of the tables, but no books were in the room. Larry smiled at that—almost every room in his place had at least one bookshelf filled to overflowing with books.

Crystal finished the salad and set the table. Charlie was still going in and out, tending to the chops on the grill, carrying his beer with him and taking an occasional swig. One of the times he was outside, Crystal smiled shyly at Larry and said, “I’ve taken your advice. I’ve started writing a story.”

“I’d like to see it, if you don’t mind,” he answered.

“It’s on the computer. I can send you a copy if you want.”

Larry handed Crystal a card which had his email address, as well as telephone number and the name and address of the church. She slipped it into a pocket and said, “I’ll send it this afternoon.”

When the pork chops were ready, the three of them took their place at the table in the Hills’ kitchen. Charlie was already starting to cut his chop when Crystal said, “Larry, would you like to lead us in prayer?” Charlie set down his knife and fork and Larry gathered his thoughts to pray.

“Lord,” he began, “I thank you for this day. This morning you fed our minds and hearts with your Word, and this noon you feed our bodies with this meal. Bless the hands which prepared this meal and the house in which we eat. Bring your love and your peace to this place, and grant that all of us may know the joy of your presence. Amen.”

“Amen,” Crystal echoed.

“Well, at least it was short,” Charlie said, picking up his knife and fork.

They ate quietly for a minute. Larry noticed a slight blush in Crystal’s cheeks. “Charlie,” he said, “I’ve never asked. What is it you do for a living?”

“I’ve got a desk job,” Charlie answered. “You might call it public relations; you might call it advertising. Either way, I help small businesses tell people that they exist.”

“I see,” Larry replied. “What companies have you helped lately?” It was a struggle, but Larry managed to keep the small talk rolling through the rest of the meal.

Finally, over a slice of pie and a mug of coffee, Larry got around to the question he really wanted to ask. “Would you say that the sessions we had this year have helped your marriage?”

“Well, of course they helped!” Charlie exclaimed. With a chuckle, he added, “We wouldn’t have invited you over if they hadn’t.”

“I’m glad to know that,” Larry said. “Crys, what about you? Do you think things have gotten better?”

She nodded before speaking. Finally she said, “You’ve given us some good advice. I think what you said is making things better.”

“I’m glad I was able to help. It’s part of my job, of course, but I also appreciate the thought that what I’m doing is making life better for other people.”

“Well, you’ve got one success story here—you can add us to your list,” Charlie said.

With additional pleasantries, Larry wound up the visit to Crystal and Charlie’s house. As he drove to his place, he prayed that God would continue to bless their lives together and draw them closer to each other. He also expressed his thankfulness that God had used him to help the two of them.

After the evening service, Larry went home and checked his email. As promised, Crystal had sent him a message with an attachment. The message said, “Thank you, Larry, for all the help you’ve given us. Thank you for coming to lunch today. I hope Charlie didn’t upset you too much with his attitude. I know you understand.”

Larry wanted to send her a quick message thanking her for the meal and letting her know that he was praying for them both. He decided that he would read her story first, in case it gave him something more to mention to her. He opened the attachment and began reading:

 

Once there was a woman named Laura who married a man named Wally Reed. Now they were both very young when they got married, and they hadn’t gotten to know each other very well. Wally was young, and new to Laura, and he seemed to understand money. These things were important to her, so when he asked her to marry him, she answered yes.

After a few years, Laura knew that she had made a mistake when she said yes to Wally. He understood money, but he didn’t understand her, and he didn’t even try to understand her. He went to work, and he spent time with his friends, and he ate, and he slept, and he breathed. Wally had a short temper, and he shouted a lot at Laura. He never said kind or loving things to her. Laura saw a doctor, was diagnosed as depressed, and began taking medication.

Laura had a friend named Frank. She had not seen Frank since her wedding, but one day she decided to call Frank and tell her about her problem. Frank listened to Laura and talked to her. He even talked to Laura and Wally together. Wally promised to try harder to be a good husband, but he only tried a little while before things went back the way they were before. Frank worked patiently with the two of them, and he showed more kindness and concern for Laura than Wally ever had shown.

Laura and Wally took a vacation to Florida. While he was swimming in the ocean, Wally was stung by a jellyfish. Wally did not know that he was terribly allergic to jellyfish stings. Paramedics rushed Wally to a hospital, but they were unable to save his life. At the hospital they put Wally’s body in a casket, and it was sent home with Laura for burial.

Two days after the funeral, Laura visited Frank where he worked. She suggested that they take a walk. They went down to the city park and sat on a bench there. The sun was shining, and the weather was beautiful. Frank told Laura how sorry he was about Laura. Then Laura admitted something to Frank. She admitted that, even while Wally lay dying in the hospital, Laura had been thinking about Frank. She had been thinking that, if Wally died, she would be able to date Frank, maybe even marry him someday. On the plane trip back from Florida, Laura had sat dry-eyed and thought about Frank. She did not weep, not even during the funeral. Now, for the first time since Wally died, Laura cried as she admitted these things to Frank.

Frank did not act surprised by what Laura said. He let her cry on his shoulder. Then he warned her that it would look bad if they started dating right after Wally’s funeral. He suggested that they wait three or four months. If she still wanted to date him then, Frank would agree.

The three months dragged by slowly. Laura collected Wally’s life insurance, and she began looking for a job. She cleaned the house and gave Wally’s clothes and other things to charity. She made connections with two other women who had been good friends to her in high school. With the help of medication, she began to feel more like a full person than she had felt for the past two or three years.

Always, though, her mind returned to Frank. She still felt guilty that her first thought when Wally died was that now she could be with Frank. Guilt did not keep her from wanting to fulfill that prediction.

Exactly three months after their talk in the park, Frank phoned Laura and asked if she would like to have dinner with him that night. He met her at her house and drove her to a nice restaurant. After that, they began doing things together about once a week. One Saturday they went to the zoo. Another Saturday they went to the art museum. One Thursday night they heard a concert at the park. Meanwhile, they began keeping in touch every day. They exchanged email messages. They talked on the phone. They visited each others’ Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr pages. Neither of them admitted publicly that they were more than two friends doing things together, but Laura sensed that Frank was as much drawn to her as she was to him.

Laura tried to find bad habits to criticize in Frank. She could find none. He was quiet, but she liked that about him. He did not lose his temper or shout at her. He listened to her when she spoke. When he ate, he did not talk with food in his mouth or make disgusting noises. He never wore outlandish clothing that embarrassed her. She never saw him pick his nose or heard him belch. She did not know, of course, whether or not Frank snored, but even that she thought she could tolerate since he was becoming so special to her.

Three months after their first dinner outing, Frank mentioned marriage for the first time. He did not propose to Laura. He only told her that he thought it would be a bad idea for her to get married before Wally had been dead for at least a year. Laura had to agree with Frank about that. She waited for him to take the next step, but for another month things did not change between them.

Finally, just before Christmas, Laura heard what she wanted to hear from Frank. They were decorating his house together. He had a pot of chili on the stove and corn bread in the oven. He told her that he hoped that next Christmas they would be decorating a home that belonged to both of them. Then, almost casually, he added that for that to happen they would need to be married.

He asked her if she would like that. She said yes. They agreed to tell their families right after Christmas and then to set a date after the first of the year. The date they eventually set was in the middle of June. Laura and Frank began making plans for the wedding, and they looked for ways to move her things into his house so that, after the wedding, they could sell her house.

When they were married, Laura learned that Frank did snore, but quietly, and not all night long. She was pleased to see that he did not stop being nice to her now that they were married. He still told her that he loved her. He still told her that she was beautiful. He still listened to her when she talked with him.

Laura tried hard to find something not to like about Frank. She couldn’t do it. Frank seemed to her like a perfect man in every way. Laura and Wally had not had any children, but Laura looked forward to having Frank’s children and raising them together. She knew that with a father like Frank, they would be nearly perfect children.

 

Larry took a deep breath and shook his head. He wondered how he was going to solve this problem. After several minutes of deep thought and desperate prayer, he began typing an answer to Crystal’s email. “Crys, thank you very much for dinner this noon. I enjoyed the time spent with you and Charlie. Don’t worry about Charlie’s attitude bothering me. I’ve tolerated far worse things.

“About the story: I don’t think you’re finished writing yet. Remember, I told you that the characters had to have flaws. Only Jesus Christ is perfect. Keep the story going, but give Frank some flaws that get on Laura’s nerves. Give her a reason to forgive him for something. Keep on writing and developing these characters. It will be good therapy for you.”

Larry was about to send the message, but he stopped and thought again. Finally, before sending, he added, “We should probably talk about this soon.” Then, before he could change his mind, he sent her the message.

Monday morning Larry was looking through the church mail at his office. He told members of the congregation that Monday was his day off, in large part because that gave him a quiet day in which he could get work done. When the phone rang he almost didn’t answer, figuring the caller was more than likely a telemarketer. He happened to glance at the caller ID, though, and saw that the call was coming from Crystal Hill. Snatching the phone, he breathed out a hasty, “Hello?”

“Hello, Larry, this is Crys,” he heard. “You wrote last night that we should talk about my story soon. Would you like me to come to the church later today?”

“Do you have time to talk right now, on the phone?” Larry returned. It occurred to him that this conversation might be safer for them both through the telephone rather than face to face.

“Sure I do,” she answered cheerfully. “What did you want to say to me about my story?”

“It was creative, the way you killed off Wally to bring Laura and Frank together,” he began. “But, as I wrote to you last night, you can’t let Frank be perfect. The point of the exercise is to work through your feelings so you can get back to strengthening your marriage.”

“I understand that, Larry—I really do,” Crystal said. “But when I write, I have to be honest about my feelings. I can’t put it in the story if it isn’t the way I really feel.”

Larry sighed. “Then maybe writing a story isn’t the right therapy for you,” he suggested. “Maybe I should have you trying to remember state capitols.”

“I know why you say that,” she told him, “but I wanted to put into writing the way I feel.”

“Fine—you’ve done that,” he said. “But no jellyfish is going to solve your problems with Charlie. You came to me because you wanted help rescuing your marriage. The three of us have made some progress. Nobody said this was going to be easy. You need to put effort into it. You owe it to yourself… and to Charlie… and to the Lord.”

Crystal did not answer, so Larry continued, “When you were married, didn’t the minister say this verse from the Bible: ‘What God has joined together, let man not put asunder’?”

“He said something like that,” Crystal agreed quietly.

“Marriage matters to God,” Larry said. “He built it into his good creation because he wants it to exist. Marriage is a picture for us—a picture of God’s love for each of us. The Church is the Bride of Christ. When a wife leaves her husband for another man, it’s as if God’s people are leaving him for another god. That is one reason God frowns upon ending marriages.”

Although he could not see her, Larry sensed that tears were streaking down Crystal’s face as she said, “But what about happiness? Isn’t she allowed to look for happiness?”

“Crystal,” Larry said gently, “she is to find happiness in her husband and not in any other man. Now I know,” he continued, “that Charlie is not perfect. He makes mistakes—he sins. That’s true of all men, other than Jesus Christ. Unless Charlie is cheating on you with another woman or being violent or cruel toward you, you must forgive. You must remain faithful to him. And you need to help him. You need to let him know how he can be a better husband to you so you are able to find your happiness in him.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“I have a suggestion for you. Take this man, Frank, whom you invented for your story. Start describing him. Any real man will have flaws, but write the reasons that Laura thinks Frank is perfect. Then, instead of looking for a man like Frank, think of ways that you can help Charlie to be more like Frank.”

“It sounds so easy when you say it like that.”

“Acting as a Christian is often harder than it sounds. But we have the power of God to help us do what pleases him. And the consequences of doing what he tells us not to do are often harder than the effort to be what he wants us to be.”

Again, Crystal said nothing, so Larry continued, “My goal in all our sessions has been to serve God by preserving your marriage. I am going to continue to do everything I can toward that goal. If somehow I’m getting in the way of your marriage instead of helping, I’d rather you start meeting with someone else….”

“No. No, Larry, any problem Charlie and I have is between the two of us. You’ve done nothing but help. But I’m so confused… What I really want is… no, I can’t say it. Larry, I will try to do what you say, but I’m doing it because… no, I can’t say that either. Larry, I have to go now.” With that, Crystal hung up her phone.

Larry stared at the phone for a long time. He prayed, “Lord, this is the hardest test you’ve ever given me. I know that I love Crystal, and I want her to be happy. But I know that she cannot be happy if she goes against your Word. Please help me to continue to exhort her to do what is right. Please help her and Charlie to draw together as husband and wife. Please draw them both closer to you. But—most of all, Lord—keep me faithful to your Word so that I do not sin against them and against you as I am so strongly tempted to do.”

Now that he had visited the Hills’ home, Larry found himself orienting his location to their house as he traveled around the county. No matter who he visited, he knew which direction the Hill house was and about how many miles away. Larry resisted the temptation to make a detour and drive past their place, but he could picture himself doing so. He imagined what he would do if he saw Crystal working out in the yard when he happened to drive past. What would he say to her, and how would she answer? Larry created imaginary conversations with Crystal that ranged from mundane to scandalous.

By Friday Larry knew that he had wrestled with temptation long enough. Out of pride and out of embarrassment he had not wanted to ask for his father’s help. But Larry knew of no other man who had the wisdom and the compassion to counsel Larry. In the morning he phoned his father. “Dad,” he offered, “would you like to come over and have dinner with me tonight?” Before Edward could respond, Larry added, “Let me warn you: there’s something I need to discuss with you while you are here.”

With a chuckle, Edward accepted his son’s invitation. Years of experience had trained Edward not to speculate when someone said, “I need to talk with you.” He was able to look forward to the meal and the family time without focusing any attention on where their conversation might lead.

Larry prepared a pot of chili, using one of his father’s favorite recipes. When Edward arrived, Larry settled him in a living chair, brought him a glass of cold water, got himself a glass of water, and took the other chair. Larry would have preferred to pace while he spoke, but he knew that his father found that habit annoying. “I don’t know where to start,” Larry said, “but there’s a woman—a married woman—who’s been too much on my mind lately.”

Edward nodded. “Crystal McMillan,” he said.

“Am I that obvious?” Larry asked.

“Not to anyone else,” Edward said. “Remember: I’ve known you all your life. I still recall the day, years ago, when you came home from school and told me that someday you were going to marry Crystal McMillan. From the first day she started coming to church, I’ve been keeping an eye on you.”

“I never told you, but before that morning I was meeting with her and her husband every week for marriage counseling.”

Edward raised an eyebrow. “How long had that been going on?”

“About a month. We had four sessions.”

Edward was tempted to ask if Larry thought the sessions had gone well or poorly, but—even with his son—professional ethics prevented such a discussion. If the counseling was troubling Larry, Edward supposed Larry would say so, but he was fairly certain that Larry was worrying about something other than counseling.

“Dad—I can’t stop thinking about her. I know it’s wrong, because she’s married to Charlie Hill, but I love her just as much as when we were back in high school. I’ve tried everything I know, but I just can’t get her out of my mind.”

Again, Edward nodded. “You’ve tried distracting yourself?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe. Presidents, Vice-Presidents, state capitols, Bible verses, all my grade school teachers, the cast and characters from TV shows ten years ago—I’ve tried it all, and nothing works.”

“You know why that is, don’t you?” When Larry shook his head, Edward said, “Because you know why you’re trying to distract yourself. While you’re trying not to think about her, the effort is making you think about her all the more.”

“I remind myself that it’s wrong to think of another man’s wife that way, but those reminders don’t help either.”

“I don’t suppose they would. Guilt is just a treadmill in a situation like this. You don’t need any more guilt—you’re already too good at guilt.” Edward took a sip of his water and said, “Son, you need the power of forgiveness in the place of all that guilt.”

“But how can God forgive me when I’m still purposely breaking his rules?”

“The price has already been paid. You’re already forgiven. You preach that message to others. It’s time for you to start believing it—really believing it in your heart instead of just in your head.”

“I do believe it, Dad. You know I believe. But there’s still the problem of continued deliberate sin….”

Edward interrupted Larry sharply. “Is it a sin to love Crystal?”

“Of course it is. She’s married to Charlie Hill!”

Edward sighed. “It’s a shame you’re an only child. This might be hard for you to understand. But you’re allowed to love Crystal. You cannot love her as a wife, because Charlie is her husband. But you can love her as a sister.”

“Is there a difference?”

Edward nodded. “A very big difference. Husbands and wives have ways to love each other that aren’t open to brothers and sisters. But the love of a brother and a sister can still be very powerful. Think of the way you feel about Crystal. I’m guessing that you want her to be happy. I’m guessing that you would do anything to make her happy, as long as it isn’t sinful. I’m guessing that you enjoy being with her.” Larry nodded. Edward continued, “It’s OK to feel that way about your sister. Not all love is romantic love, and sometimes the other kinds of love are even stronger than romance. If you stop fighting the fact that you love her, you can begin to love her as a brother.”

“You told me something like that before—that I should treat every woman in the congregation as a mother or a sister or a daughter.”

“That’s right. We’re all family, with God as our Father. When we think like family and act like family, that pleases the Lord. So when you treat the older ladies in the congregation the way you would treat your mother, you’re doing well. When you treat the girls in the congregation the way you would treat your own daughter, you’re doing well. And when you treat Crystal and the other ladies your age the way you would treat your sister, you’re doing well. You’re allowed to love them, Larry. You’re allowed. And somehow, when the time is right, the Lord will point you to the one special woman who will not be your mother or your sister or your daughter, but who will be your wife.”

“I’ve always thought that woman would be Crystal McMillan.”

“I know she’s been very special to you for a long time. But one day you’ll find a woman who’s even more special. You won’t forget Crystal. She’ll always be your sister and have a place in your heart. But this other special woman will fill a place in your life that Crystal will never fill.”

Edward took a deep breath. “And now we need to tackle that chili that I’ve been smelling since I walked in the door. You should know better than to keep a hungry man waiting.”

Larry smiled. As he got out two bowls and two spoons, he suddenly remembered that Frank in Crystal’s story had also cooked chili. He hadn’t chosen to make chili because of her story. He had chosen it because his father liked chili, and he had forgotten about its place in her story. But Larry wondered if, buried in his mind, a connection had been made. He tried to remember if he had made chili back in high school, if Crystal connected chili with him somehow. It didn’t really matter, of course, but it was one more matter that was going to stick in Larry’s mind.

Crystal came alone to church that Sunday. Larry felt the same surge of excitement and attraction that he had felt other times when he saw her. “Of course I love her,” he reminded himself. “She’s my sister.” Larry wondered how many times he would have to say those words to himself before he accepted them as true. He wondered if he would ever be able to say those words out loud to Crystal.

The service was held without incident. Twice during the singing Larry’s eyes landed on Crystal, and both times she flashed her dazzling smile in his direction. As he experienced the familiar warm glow in his chest, he reminded himself each time, “Of course I love her—she’s my sister.” As she had done other Sundays, Crystal visited with several members after the service so she would be one of the last to shake Larry’s hand at the doorway. This time, though, she had unexpected company. Gretchen Schmidt, eighty years old and a member of the congregation as long as anyone could remember, managed to linger as long as Crystal lingered. Mrs. Schmidt had been one of the several members of the congregation to suggest to Larry that he seek a wife. Now Mrs. Schmidt used the handshake of Larry and Crystal to continue her encouragement. “The two of you look lovely together,” she told them, with a twinkle in her eyes and a beaming smile of her own on her face.

Larry swallowed quickly and smiled at Mrs. Schmidt. “Let me introduce the two of you,” he offered. “Mrs. Schmidt, this is Mrs. Crystal Hill. We’ve been friends since high school. Crys, this is Mrs. Schmidt. She’s been part of the church since forever, it seems.”

Mrs. Schmidt did not flinch at the mention of “Mrs. Crystal Hill.” Possibly she did not even hear Larry’s words. Instead, she grasped both of their hands and murmured, “I can tell that the two of you are very fond of each other.”

Crystal blushed, but Larry knew that his father had prepared him for this moment. “Crystal is married, Mrs. Schmidt,” he repeated, “but you are right—I am very fond of her. I regard her as a sister, one of my favorite sisters, in fact.”

Crystal was quick to grasp Larry’s hint. “Why, thank you, Pastor Lee,” she added. “I would have to say that you’re one of my favorite brothers too.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Larry answered.

Mrs. Schmidt squeezed their hands and released them. Without a hint of embarrassment, she said, “Well, I hope to see both of you here next week.” With that, she went out the door and toward her car.

Larry’s father was still visiting with a man and woman some distance from Larry and Crystal. “Well, Brother Lee,” Crystal said teasingly, “I suppose I’d better be heading home too.”

“Sister Hill,” Larry said soberly. “I do hope I will see you here next week.”

“Oh, Brother Lee, nothing could keep me away,” she said breezily.

Larry took a deep breath and watched her walk out the door. He felt strangely empty, bittersweet, and yet somehow relieved. He could not read whether Crystal was relieved or insulted by his words, but he sensed that if she was upset, she would get over it.

The last two members walked past him, and Larry noticed that his father was by his side. “You handled that perfectly,” he assured him, putting a hand on Larry’s shoulder. “I know it wasn’t easy, but it’ll get easier.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Larry said. “I hope you’re right about it getting easier.”

Advertisements