Reverend Daniel Ramone had a simple plan. He would open up the Church as he usually did on Sunday morning. He would set up the camera to stream live. He would preach that Sunday sermon, as best as he knew how. Then, he would go home and kill himself.
It was a long time coming, and in Daniel’s estimation, long overdue. Perhaps the great mystery in his life was why he hadn’t done this earlier. Maybe it was his native stubborness.
Leah always said he was stubborn. But that was before she left too. Just one in a long line of his personal failures.
As he pulled up to the church Daniel tried not to dwell on the long, unending mistake that had become his life. He sat alone in the parking lot, looking at the old stone of the building, and tried to think instead that it was finally going to come to an end. Only one more Sunday. One more sermon. One more humiliation, and it would all be over.
A smile crept up to his face as he unlocked the church, a bitter one full of doomed hopes.
He had thought about leaving the building unlocked, just to see. Would anyone even notice if it was unlocked? Did his insignificance reach so far that even the vagrant and criminal element had decided to forget his church existed?
The empty and cold sanctuary opened her arms to him. She embraced him with memories of happier times, hopeful times. Before the new virus had struck, the pews had been full. The songs had been new and strong. The mission was alive and clear.
Then the virus came. Overnight, the pews had emptied. The songs fled. The mission
This is only temporary, the elders assured him. This will only last a while. They decided to stream the services. Just Daniel and Meredith, his music director, were present. He gave it all the power he could muster for an empty church. He sang with energy. He preached with passion.
He tried to keep the ship afloat in the storm, and waited for the clouds to pass.
After a month they were able to open back up. Some of the most intrepid souls returned first, with the church at only a quarter of the capacity it had experienced before. They still streamed the services for those who were waiting for the rest to blow over.
At first, Daniel tried to ignore the haunting sensation that came over him those first
Sundays. He was so excited to have people back that he paid no attention to that nagging doubt that told him something was wrong. The flock had returned, he told himself. That’s all that matters. Is it really important that none of the enthusiasm we had before had returned as well?
Did it really matter that there was a fear, a reticence, a vague malaise that had come back with the people? Daniel told himself that people just had to get used to being together again, that was all. He would wait it out and continue to preach.
Then, he noticed the crowds didn’t come back. The numbers started to fall. Little by
little, Sunday by Sunday, the people retreated again and burrowed back into their homes. They reappeared on the Facebook feed, live on Sunday mornings. Then, they started to fade from there as well. People abandoned his streaming message for the younger, bigger churches that got rid of personal worship altogether and went online only. They discarded the live services in favor of professionally crafted cinematic experiences, with special effects and studio-perfect music. The
preachers were young and fashionable, tattooed and worldly. They preached a gospel that had no patience for the waste of ritual and the hypocrisy of dogma. Their’s was a self-proclaimed, authentic gospel, the message of Jesus boiled down to its essentials, with no waste or invention.
It was only your heart that mattered, they declared. No need for anything but the heart. What did it matter if you were in your easy-chair or pew, it was the heart that mattered? Nothing mattered but the heart.
Daniel kept on, convinced that this was the right way. People would come back, he told
himself. This is just a rough patch. People want the personal experience. Jesus said when we gathered in his name he would be in the midst. That’s what made worship special. Could you get that over vast distances, lit up on digital screens, separated by time and space?
Apparently, everyone else thought so. The numbers continued to fall, in person and
online. The elders wanted to try to do what the younger churches were doing. When Daniel wouldn’t go along with it even the elders stopped coming. Month by month the attrition wore on, until no one came to the church, and no one watched online.
Determined, Daniel plowed ahead. This was just a hard time, he told himself. For three
weeks in a row he preached to an empty church. Meredith played the piano while no one but Daniel sang along. At the end of that service, Meredith had given up as well.
“It’s no use Reverend,” she said, unable to look at him.
Daniel tried to encourage her, tried to convince her this was just a storm they needed to
weather. But he could tell, because she avoided his gaze. When she walked out, it meant that Daniel was left alone to continue the services.
Still, Daniel kept on. Generous endowments from generations earlier made it possible to
keep on. For how long, Daniel wasn’t sure. At first, he was determined to carry on as long as he could, until that last dollar drained away and he could do it no more.
He still preached. Every Sunday, to an empty church, he belted out his sermons, believing that God heard him. He sang the songs, a capella, joined only by the echoes that bounded through the empty pews. He still streamed the services, though no one watched. He uploaded to YouTube, even as the number of views remained stubbornly on zero.
Weather the storm, he told himself. You must weather the storm. The people will come
It took a lot of work to ignore his doubts. He had to tell himself it was just a phase when
he saw report after report of all types of gatherings being discontinued. He tried not to panic as dine-in services shuttered for to go only. He stayed optimistic when sports teams closed their stadiums. He even convinced himself that the empty streets would fill again one day.
But even Daniel had his limits. Four months of preaching to an empty church, of
streaming to a non-existent audience; four months of no one caring, and he had enough. So it would be, one last sermon, one finale and he would be done. He had the garden hose and duct tape laid out for after worship. He would put the hose in his car window, let it run with “How Great Thou Art” playing on the radio, and be done with the failed experiment that was his life.
For some reason, it was important to Daniel to do everything right for this last Sunday.
The church was cleaned and the paraments ironed. He printed bulletins, only ten copies, though that was insanely optimistic. The sign out front reflected the correct scripture passage and sermon title. Today, it would be Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. Lights on, AC set right at seventy-five. Streaming camera was up and running.
Daniel sighed and looked up. The empty church looked back at him. Looking back down
he began to sing. Since these were the last four hymns he would ever sing he made sure to pick his favorites. “For the Beauty of the Earth” was the first. Pressure built up behind his eyes as if he wanted to weep, but no tears came. The last time he cried was four months ago, the day Meredith left. He had nothing left after that. Empty.
Daniel raised his head to invoke the Call to Worship and the words caught in his mouth.
He blinked his eyes and looked again. For a moment, he stared, then his training kicked in and he continued on, greeting the one person he saw sitting in the back of the church.
As he spoke Daniel had to wonder if he had gone crazy or not. He looked over there,
again and again. Each time he looked up she was still there. One solitary figure, eyes peeking meekly out from dark hair that fell past her shoulders. One person, in a sanctuary that maxed out at five-hundred souls, but suddenly felt full to bursting.
Daniel was so surprised to see someone there, after four months of an empty church, that he hardly had any idea what he was saying. He continued to sing, he read, he prayed, but couldn’t say for sure what he said. Finally, it came time for his sermon, and his hands shook as he looked down at his notes.
My last sermon, he thought. This is it. At least someone is here to witness it. The strange thought ran through his head that she was actually an angel sent by God, to witness his last words in judgement, that his entire salvation depended on the words that he would preach then.
It was then that Daniel did something he had never done before. He ignored his notes,
tucking them into the pulpit Bible. If this would be his last sermon then he would just let it flow out of him. All the feeling, all the sentiment, all that he had bottled up before, he would let it out.
Being a preacher, you had to be so careful, had to tread so delicately with people. You
never knew when you might offend someone or say something that hurt. He was in constant fear of his words. He guarded each one carefully and made sure they were always measured and neutral. His sermons were deliberately worded to minimize misunderstanding. He had to remain on constant guard against errant words that might send someone away from his church and into the arms of another.
Today would be different. It was his last, and he would do what he always wanted to do,
but never did. Today he would let it flow out, with no regard to who might get offended or upset or misunderstand what he meant.
So Daniel preached like he never had before. He didn’t really know what he said,
couldn’t remember it even as the words came out of his mouth. All he knew is that it felt good. It felt powerful. It felt as if he had tapped into a power that had always been there but he had been too afraid to use.
The last hymn ended, “Joyful, Joyful” and Daniel closed with the priestly benediction.
Then, unsure and unsteady he walked to the back of the church and waited by the door. After a moment, the woman stepped into the foyer and up to Daniel.
“Thank you,” she said as she put out her hand. She pulled it away. After thinking for a
moment, she offered it again.
“My pleasure,” Daniel answered, taking her hand in his. It was soft and warm.
He studied her face for a moment as she studied his. She looked to be in her early thirties, pale and slight. Brown eyes that were almost too large for her small face regarded him with a calm confidence.
“I’ve been looking for a church that was still meeting in person,” she confided to him.
“Everyone else seems to have given up.”
Daniel nodded, flooded with guilt. “Yes, they have.”
There was an awkward pause between them, then she spoke up again. “Well, I’m glad
you’re still open. I think there are others out there who, you know, want to meet like this, like you’re supposed to.”
“I wonder where they are,” Daniel said without thinking. The honest word he always
feared slipped out before he could stop it.
The girl didn’t seem offended at all. She thought for a moment then smiled.
“You know, I often wonder if we went about this all wrong,” she said. “Everyone talked
about getting back to normal after everything, picking up where we left off. Maybe that was the wrong way of going about it.”
Daniel shook his head, unsure what to make of her words. “What do suggest, then? We
don’t try at all?”
“Not at all,” she answered. “Maybe starting over would have been better. Maybe that’s
what his was all about. Like you said in your sermon, new life breathing into us. The bones had to die before they could be remade. Maybe that’s us. We need to get remade. We don’t need to try and take up where we left off. We need to start over. Back to the beginning. Go about it like this is all new. Brand new country. Brand new church. Start over. Just a thought.”
The girl shook his hand again and pushed open the doors to leave. She stopped and
turned back to him.
“I hope you’ll be open next week,” she said.
Daniel smiled and nodded. “Every Sunday.”
As he closed up he let the new thoughts wash over him. Start again, she had said. Maybe
there was something to it. He had been so determined to make things just like they were before the outbreak he hadn’t even considered starting again. Perhaps this, indeed, was the will of God.
Starting over. Looking at the church, the congregation, the mission, as if it were a new plant, a new seed, just looking to grow.
Thoughts took off on their own as he started his car and pulled out of the church lot.
Without realizing it, plans began to form in his mind. It wasn’t much now, just a seed, a bare idea. But he couldn’t help thinking what a great sermon it would make for next Sunday.