Clear Winter Nights
Saturday, October 7, Knoxville, Tennessee
Can we leave now? I don’t want to be late,” Ashley said, tugging at Chris’s arm and drawing him out of his thoughts. It was late afternoon, and she had stopped by the apartment her fiancé shared with a couple of other college students in the run-down Fort Sanders neighborhood in Knoxville. The two were about to head to a meeting for a new church start-up they were involved in.
Ashley always sought to make a good impression. That’s one reason Chris liked her. Self-aware without being self-absorbed. She was cute too. Small, with shoulder-length strawberry-blond hair.
“I don’t feel like going,” Chris said, meeting her smile with a furrowed brow and hoping she could sense his irritation. The sunlight coming in at a low angle through the window touched his wavy dark hair.
Ashley pressed on. “I told Luke and Cami we’d be there.”
“Is it okay with you if we just walk?”
“I guess,” she said. Her sigh said it wasn’t.
Chris grabbed a jacket, and the two turned toward the door. As they left, Chris was wondering, Should I go ahead and say it to her today? Do I really want to? He sighed and turned the key in the lock.
October in East Tennessee. The trees were surrendering their leaves, and the sidewalk and street edges were hiding under a blanket of harvest colors. One more hour of daylight would give them enough time for a walk and a talk.
Chris was a gentleman. He made sure he walked on the outside, next to the street, and that his wiry frame was shielding Ashley’s eyes from the slanting sunlight. He escorted her, arm in arm, with an air of old-fashioned sophistication. They passed one large old house after another, most of them long since converted to student housing for the University of Tennessee.
Ashley asked him, “Are you having second thoughts about helping start the church?" Chris didn’t answer. Didn’t Ashley realize this conversation could go south? Maybe she did. Maybe that’s what she wanted. If she insisted, he would oblige.
“I… Yeah, I’m having second thoughts about…about a lot of things,” he said.
Chris saw concern on Ashley’s face. But she covered it with an uneasy smile and leaned in closer to his side as they walked.
Just a few months earlier, Chris had his life mapped out. He’d finally given Ashley a ring, and the two were planning to get married next spring. He was supposed to graduate from college in the summer, help a friend start a business, and take on a leadership role in the new church start-up.
But one by one, all his plans had fallen through. An unexpected class requirement postponed his graduation until December. His friend decided to start his business somewhere else. When it came to church, Chris was waffling on more than just being a part of the church-planting team. And the longer he was with Ashley, the more he wondered if his ring was really a fit for her finger.
“I’m here for you, no matter what,” Ashley said. She stroked the inside of his palm. “Are you still having doubts?”
“Doubts?” Chris tried to act surprised.
“You know, doubts about the new church, about what you believe.”
Doubt sounded like a bad word the way Ashley used it. “It’s not really doubting,” he said. “It’s more like…questioning.” That was better. But Chris knew he wasn’t fooling her.
“Okay.” Ashley played along. “Questions, then. Has Dr. Coleman gotten under your skin lately?”
An image of his religion professor’s tall figure and unremitting gaze entered Chris’s mind. “No more than usual,” he said. “Some, I guess. He’s definitely got me thinking.”
“He does that to lots of his students. I had a hard time for a while too. But in the end, I think I came out stronger for it.”
“Yeah, well, we’re different,” he said. He knew she was trying to help, but it wasn’t working.
“Have you told Luke about any of this?”
“He’s got enough on his plate.”
“He wouldn’t mind.”
“He’s trying to start a church. Last thing he needs is for one of us to tell him we’re not bought in one hundred percent.”
“Well,” Ashley said, “if he sees you like this, he’s going to think you’re not bought into his vision, anyway. He might think he’s done something to upset you. That it’s because of him.”
“But he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know the doubts you have.”
“Right. Questions. He’s always saying the church needs to be a place for people to be real. To doubt. To question.”
“I don’t think Luke is ready for his leaders to be this real.”
Both were quiet for a few moments. Then Ashley said, “Have you talked to your grandfather?”
At the mention of his grandfather, Chris felt a wave of joy crash into a shore of guilt. Gilbert Walker was a retired pastor who lived in the charming old town of Lewisville, about ninety miles west of Knoxville. At eighty years of age, Chris’s grandfather seemed to be in good health, sharp in mind and strong in body. He and Chris couldn’t get together without losing themselves in interesting conversation, sometimes even argument. But the house was out of the way, nestled in the hill country, and Chris hadn’t visited as often as he thought he should—only for lack of time, not for lack of love.
“It’s too soon,” he said. “Grandma’s only been gone a month.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Ashley said. “But I bet he’d enjoy the company.”
Chris nodded. Ashley was always thinking of others and seemed to know instinctively when people’s gifts and personalities would complement one another. Just bring the right person to the right place at the right time for the right meeting, and everyone would be stronger.
As they walked past the old brick Christ Chapel, Chris thought again of their church-planting team. “So you think I should talk to Luke?”
Ashley’s response came so quickly it caught Chris off guard. “For sure. That’s what he’s there for. You’re not supposed to walk this road alone. I don’t know what I would’ve done without some older, wiser people around me.” Then she added, “I know what you’re going through.”
Chris felt his temperature rise. Ashley’s attempts at empathy were working against her. He started to think of all the things that made his situation so much more difficult than hers had been. He remembered when she had gone through her “dark night of the soul.” Aptly named, because it seemed as though it lasted only one night. Chris, on the other hand, had been wrestling for months, and the nights were only getting darker. Is there a dark year of the soul?
“You’re not me,” he said.
“I never said that,” Ashley said, slower and quieter. “But no matter who you are, you need others. You can’t hold on to a childlike faith if you don’t grab hold of a grownup every now and then.”
“There’s a difference between a childlike faith and a childish faith,” Chris said.
“Chris Walker—” She bit her lip and turned away from him, doing her trademark eye roll used to keep from crying.
“No, Ashley. Seriously.”
“So I have a childish faith?”
“I didn’t say that.” Chris groaned. “Come on, Ashley, you know I admire the way you’ve thought through things. I think it’s great you’ve gotten stronger through everything. Last thing I want is for you to turn into me.”
He grinned. She returned the smile, noticeably halfhearted.
Chris continued, “It’s just…you know what Luke’s been saying. How this church is going to require commitment, more than any other church we’ve been a part of before.”
“You said that’s a good thing.”
“Yeah. It is. I think. But it’s a little scary too. Luke even wants us to sign a covenant that says what we believe.”
“Does that bother you?”
“No. I think it’s awesome.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Ashley’s tone betrayed her