Ted pulled his jacket close to his neck as he stepped out of his truck. Light snowflakes mingled with the last yellow leaves floating down to the ground. The church parking lot was almost empty at this time of the day. Late afternoon sun threw shadows across the pavement as the mountains slowly swallowed it up for another day as Ted headed towards the back door of the church.
A blast of warm air hit Ted as he pulled the door open, and the smell of strong coffee followed the air. In the sanctuary, Spence worked at changing a light bulb while Pastor Rob held the ladder.
“Hey Spence, Pastor Rob. See you started without me. What do I do first?” Ted threw his coat on the first pew and rolled up his sleeves.
Rob waved a hand. “Hi Ted, First up I could really use some coffee. Would you mind?”
“Not at all. Just black, right? What about you, Spence?”
“Sure thing. You know me though, lots of sugar in mine.” A hearty laugh rumbled out of Spence.
“Just like you; as if the caffeine isn’t enough you have to add tons of sugar. You know, Pastor Rob, as long as I have known Spence he hasn’t needed any stimulants to amp up his personality.”
Rob chuckled as Ted left the room muttering, “One black coffee and one sugar with some coffee coming up.”
By the time he got back, the guys had begun to set up for the project of the evening, re-staining the rail that ran around the altar.
“Thanks for helping with this project guys.” Pastor Rob sipped his coffee. “This old rail has seen many a parishioner kneeling in prayer or communion or confession over the years. It’s no wonder the stain has worn so thin.”
Spence swirled his coffee in his cup and looked at Ted, “Yep, Ted knelt there himself just last Sunday but refused to tell me why he went up when you asked for prayer.”
“Now, Spence, you know that’s a private matter between Ted and God. He doesn’t need to tell you what it was all about.”
Quiet settled over the room and while Spence and Rob finished their coffee, Ted grabbed a brush and dipped it into the stain.
“Hey dude.” Spence grabbed a brush. “Did you see the news yesterday about the bombing in Fallujah? Was that close to where you were?”
“Yeah. We patrolled that area often. I got an email from a buddy over there. One of the guys in his squadron was one that was killed.”
Rob joined them. “Ted, I’m so sorry. That must have been hard to hear.”
“They say you get used to it after a while.”
“I don’t know, Ted, I can’t imagine getting used to something like that.”
Ted squirmed under Rob’s intense stare.
“Well, you kind of have to. If you don’t, you’ll go crazy.”
“I’m sure it’s hard; life is so precious it has to hurt when you see it destroyed.”
“Nah, I bet you just tune it out. Kind of like when your little sister is whining.” Spence chuckled.
Ted frowned. “You know it’s easy to say life is precious and you have to keep feeling, but unless you have been there and seen it you just can’t understand. Tuning it out is impossible.”
“Like I said, whining sister. Totally understand.”
“No, you don’t. I watched as a young girl about your sister’s age was blown to bits by an IED. Two guys in my platoon were gunned down by a guy they stopped to help. It’s not at all like a whining sister. You should be grateful your sister is alive to whine.”
Pastor Rob stepped between the boys. “He’s right you know, Spence. It’s hard for us to know what Ted has seen. But, Ted, it’s not Spence’s fault.”
“I just get so tired of people thinking they understand. I was there and I don’t understand. Supposedly God was there, but how could he be when my buddies are coming back in coffins and little girls are left in pieces in the street.”
Pastor Rob didn’t speak for a long moment, but then softly said, “Suffering and pain are part of the human existence, Ted. It grieves God. Ted, he loves you, carried you through this, and brought you home safe.”
“Coming home safe was definitely important to me, but since I’ve been home I’ve had such a hard time understanding life. What was God thinking when He created man knowing they would be bent on destroying each other?”
“Let it go dude. You’ll never understand and you’re tearing yourself up with this. Hey, you know that Nickleback is in concert next month. We should totally go. That’ll get you back in the right frame of mind.” Spence played air guitar with his paintbrush.
“Man, you’re so immature. I can’t let this go and I’m not going to some stupid concert.” Throwing down the brush, Ted stomped away.
“What’s got his goat?”
“Spence, Ted has seen things that you can’t imagine. He needs time to process. Give him some space.”
“I definitely need space.” Ted mumbled under his breath as he left the church.
In the parking lot, Ted climbed into his truck, started the engine, and floored the gas pedal as he tore out of the parking lot. He drove aimlessly for a while until he found himself on the bridge over the river. He pulled to the side of the road and got out of the truck. Leaning on the rail, he looked down into the rapidly moving water below. “I can’t take this anymore. Everything is so meaningless. I don’t believe God will make this better and I’m done.”
He swung one leg over the rail and then the other, heart racing he balanced on the narrow lip, hands gripping the rail as he stared past his shoes into the water.
Minutes ticked by.
Squealing tires broke into his thoughts.
“Hey, man, can I help you?” The man came up behind Ted.
“Don’t touch me. Get back in your car and mind your own business.”
“Sorry, can’t do that. You look like you need some help and I’m not gonna walk away and let you do whatever it is you’re planning to do.”
“I’m not planning anything. My mind is made up and nothing you can say will stop me.”
The Samaritan leaned on the railing. “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’ve been through some stuff myself and I’ve thought about jumping from this very bridge. But, man, there’s always something good to look forward to. A sunset over the mountains, my niece’s face as she took her first steps. A concert with friends.”
“Great platitudes, but you haven’t seen what I’ve seen so your little words don’t mean anything.”
The man was quiet for a few long minutes. He finally said, “I spent 9 months in Nam in the 70s. Walked miles in the jungle trying to protect the people there and often, those same people would’ve rather kill me than look at me. Just before it was time to come home, I watched one of my good friends get shot down by a sniper. He had just become a father for the first time. Instead of sitting next to him on the plane, I sat in an airplane seat while he was in a coffin. They covered the coffin with a flag. Everyone made a big deal about him being a hero and he was; everyone over there was. But, no one understands what it’s like unless they’ve been there. I really want to help you. How about we get a beer and talk?”
Ted turned to climb over the railing. Adrenaline pumped into his veins as his foot slipped. The sound of the rushing water rose up to meet him. Reaching over the railing the man grabbed his shirt and pulled until both of them landed in a heap on the sidewalk.”
“I really could use that beer now.”