Unforgivable – Part 5
by Brynn Paulin
All material © Brynn Paulin
I worried about Ben, but I figured he’d moved to another church. Pastors go where God leads them. As a matter of fact, the minister at the church I now attended was about to retire. Retirement wouldn’t mean fishing and bouncing his grandchildren, though. He was going on mission to South America. Though I thought it might be a sin, I prayed Ben hadn’t been called to the mission field and that he was safe.
Tina’s husband, Greg, was on the board at church that was in charge of finding a new senior pastor. Tina called me one Saturday after I’d been back in town for a little over a year to tell me she thought the board had found the guy. He’d be preaching in a few weeks and the church would vote that afternoon. If the man accepted the money offered, we’d have a new pastor. Tina told me the only sticking point was that he was young and unmarried. The board had been looking for someone more established. When I asked the man’s name, she couldn’t remember, but promised to find out. She promptly forgot which is a very Tina thing to do and something that endears her to me. I didn’t ask her again, but a feeling of trepidation began to grow in me. What if it was Ben? What were the chances? We’d talked about Michigan before. He was from here, too.
It couldn’t be him.
Fate was working against me. I was sick the week before the guest minister was scheduled to speak, so I didn’t hear the announcement of who it was or receive the printout covering his background and qualifications. And of course, Tina was out of town that week, so she couldn’t tell me. I supposed I’d find out who it was when I got to service. I actually considered not going, but quickly told myself that was awfully dumb. When Tina and Greg arrived for me—I wasn’t driving yet—I dutifully marched out to the car. Granted, my march was that of someone going to her execution, but I went.
I knew. I just knew deep inside me.
As soon as I was seatbelted in, my fear came to fruition. Greg was talking about the pastoral candidate. Benjamin Martin. Conflicting emotions assailed me. I was worried, but even more so, I was excited. That—the excitement—surprised me. Still, the closer we got to church, the more I realized, I liked the person I’d become, and even if things hadn’t worked out between Ben and me, I wanted him to see that person.
Telling Tina and Greg that I’d see them after service, I sat in the back. I suspected that if Ben saw me, it would distract him. I wanted to see him, eventually, but I didn’t want to mess up his chances for this job. I refused to consider what would happen if he were hired. I’d work that out later—I just knew this congregation would be lucky to have him.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him when he took his seat up on the platform, and I couldn’t shove away the memory of how it had been in his arms either. The past year had aged him a little. His hair was cut differently—I liked it. There were new lines around his eyes. He still looked powerful and handsome in his perfectly tailored charcoal suit. Mouthwatering. Then he started to speak…
The sound of his voice wove tightly around me. I don’t remember what he preached on. I was too wrapped up in other thoughts. I loved him. Period. This was not mistakenly assigned emotion. I loved him. I accepted that, for all it was worth. Though I hadn’t wanted to admit it, it had been that love that started the fire burning away the detritus of guilt consuming me. I’d finally forgiven myself—not for the accident which wasn’t my fault, but for living. It was time to really start living again. I wanted that life to be with Ben, if he’d have me. If he’d forgive me. It was a pretty big if. I knew that.
Toward the end of his sermon, he suddenly broke off halfway through a sentence, his eyes glued on me. He blinked. His face blanked, his lips pressing together. Then so quickly that everyone else probably thought it had just been a meaningful pause, he looked away and resumed as if nothing had transpired. But I knew. He didn’t glance my direction again.
My newly discovered love was hit hard. I’d known it was a long shot, a big if. He didn’t feel the way I did. I was a bad memory from his past. A reminder of a past mistake. Still, I knew I needed to speak to him. Somehow. At least, with him preaching here, Greg could get Ben’s contact information. I had to tell Ben thank you. I had to apologize. After that, I’d try to move on. I’d weathered pain before; I could do it again. This wasn’t death; it was only my heart.
Afterward, I hovered around outside the sanctuary while people greeted and talked to Ben. I wanted to soak in the sound of his voice a little longer. Maybe, I could slip into a break of people and speak to him, tell him I hoped to speak with him for a few moments.
“There you are,” Greg greeted me in his customary jovial manner, slinging an arm around my shoulder. It wasn’t an unusual gesture. He’d been doing it since tree-house days when we were eight.
I glanced over my shoulder at Ben and saw him looking at me with a hint of pain in his eyes. He immediately turned away, never meeting my eyes. He thought I was with Greg.
“Have you met, Pastor Martin?” Greg asked, following my gaze. “The board has spoken with him several times already as we’ve vetted him, and after today, I think he’s the one.” I knew he was my one.
Ignoring my protests, he steered me over to Ben. “Pastor, good sermon,” he told him.
“Thank you,” Ben said. He smiled but still managed to look sad. Maybe, I was the only one to notice. Greg didn’t. He gave me a one-armed squeeze. “I’d like to introduce you to Gaia Bell. She’s one of our Wednesday night teachers.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “Really? How interesting. What are you teaching?”
Heat flooded over me. I wondered if he’d remember what I’d said to him before when I’d been so anti-church. Greg wandered away to catch one of the other board members, leaving me alone with Ben. Well, as alone as we could be with a room full of people clamoring to meet him. I thought to follow Greg, but Ben still waited for my reply. “A character study on Mary Magdalene,” I finally answered.
He did remember, though obviously he didn’t want to. One side of his mouth briefly turned up in wry acknowledgement, then fell back to where it had started. A schooled mask. Friendly but not. Definitely not. “A good choice. Well, Ms. Bell, I’m pleased to meet you.” His hand enveloped mine, giving it a small shake, and my stomach clenched. He released my fingers with a nod then looked over my shoulder to the person standing behind me. I was effectively dismissed. What had I expected?
Normally, I’d go to dinner after church with Greg and Tina, but I begged off with a headache. Because of that, I was home when the knock came on my door. Ben. Gone was the nearly indifferent man from earlier. He didn’t let me speak. “If the congregation votes to call me for the position, will you run off again? Or maybe I should ask, how are you voting? To get me out of Dodge as fast as possible?”
“Please don’t be like this, Ben.” I hated seeing him so bitter. I pulled him inside and into the living room.
“How am I supposed to be?” he demanded. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw you out there today. I left the other church because of how they’d treated you—how I knew they’d treat others like you. I’d prayed to be able to talk to you again, make some sense out of what had happened between us. But when I saw you, all I could feel was the pain you dealt me. I could barely speak past the knowledge you don’t want me in your life. For half a second, I wondered if I shouldn’t just stop speaking and walk out. If you don’t want me here, I won’t stay. I don’t want you to destroy my peace again.”
I hadn’t considered what I’d done to him. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. I couldn’t breathe. In protecting myself and in thinking I was protecting him, I’d hurt him more than I could have imagined.
“Sorry?” he muttered in disbelief.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Can’t you give me some of the forgiveness and understanding you preach?” It came off flippant and not at all as I meant it. I knew moving forward wouldn’t be so easy.
He glared at me and turned to leave. I caught his arm. “Ben, wait.”
“Like you waited for me?” he snapped.
“That’s not fair. I left for you.” Guilt welled inside me. Yes, I’d left to save his reputation, but I’d been selfish, too. Maybe, that was the worst of this. I’d only been hurting myself before.
“You left for me?” he scoffed. “I told you I loved you. I told you I wanted to marry you and you disappeared.”
I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t. There would be no more excuses, and he knew I was sorry. But he would never know how sorry. He turned to leave again, and I realized he thought I wanted him to go. In reality, I was warring with my pride. I had to tell him how I felt, but I was afraid of it being thrown back at me. I caught his arm again.
“Ben,” I choked out, looking at him with all the love I felt. “I’d vote…to keep you here. And,” I took a deep breath, “I’d stay.”
He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what I was saying. “Why? What’s different now?”
“I am. I’ve learned so much. I’m not unforgivable—”
“You never were,” he interrupted. “It wasn’t even your fault.”
“– and I love you.”
His eyes closed as if he breathed a prayer. Suddenly, he caught me up against him and kissed me the way I so loved, the way that stole my thoughts, the way that turned my knees to jelly. Still, one thought managed to worm through as he dropped kisses on my face and told me how much he loved me and how thankful he was to finally be with me. “You have to go!” I somehow got out between kisses.
He pulled away and stared at me in disbelief. “What? But—”
“I don’t want anything—even love—to jeopardize your chance of getting this job.” But I knew if he wasn’t hired, it would be okay. I’d go with him wherever he went.
Ben did get the job, and to the delight and surprise of the congregation, he immediately introduced me as his fiancée. Greg helped to smooth over that surprise by getting out word that we’d known each other while I’d lived in Minnesota. Though we never claimed we’d maintained a long-distance relationship while separated, that’s what everyone assumed. It seemed prudent not to correct them.
We were married a respectable six months later. Our congregation is very much our family. Like doting grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, they’re eagerly awaiting the birth of our first child.
I’m still scared. I’m so afraid all my happiness will be snatched away again. That’s just one of my demons, but Ben’s good at helping me face all those—including finally driving again. As hard as it is to get over my past, I know I’m blessed. I can be happy. There is a plan for me. All I have to do is look at my husband, feel his arms around me and look to our future, and I know it.