Cross Examined, Part 5

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Paul reread the telegram’s few words over and over. Thena gone—how was this possible? In these days of trains, telephones, and electricity, when society had so thoroughly insulated itself from nature, how could it still be this vulnerable to so primordial and ancient a force? He laid the telegram on Samuel’s desk. Samuel said something, but he didn’t catch it.

He shuffled into the sanctuary, dark and hollow. Nobody was there. Or maybe there was—he didn’t care. He sat in a pew, put his face in his hands, and cried silent sobs as he hadn’t done since he was in the orphanage.

Thena had gone to San Francisco to be a bridesmaid in a cousin’s wedding, but that seemed like such a damnably pointless reason now. She had been his partner when things went well and his confidante when things were difficult, but she couldn’t commiserate this time. Thena was gone, and God seemed to have left as well. Paul felt empty and very alone.

Samuel did what he could over the following days—offering biblical rationalizations, a patient ear, or distractions as needed—but he was busy with a church thrust into the national limelight because of the prophecy. Paul by turns wanted to tough it out and have his hand held, and he was occasionally angry at Samuel’s inattention. Still, he knew Samuel could do no more and that he had to get through his pain on his own and with the comfort he took from prayer.

Four days after the telegram, Samuel conducted a memorial service for Thena. Thena’s father, Mr. Farber, ran a popular grocery store and the family was prominent within the church. The service was well attended. It provided a bit of closure for Paul, and he felt buoyed up by the many people who spoke to him, shook his hand, or hugged him. He saw many damp eyes, and it felt as if the entire community was helping shoulder his burden.

Paul stumbled ineptly along, wracked by guilt over his failure to warn Thena of the prophecy. During these periods he wasted time in his room or moped through his job. At other times he was furious at the injustice of fate, pounding his bed or channeling his energy into physical tasks. Whenever possible, he tried to lose himself in work, and there was plenty of that.

He also spent time with Thena’s parents. Paul had received permission to marry Thena from her father, and they treated him like family. Paul could see through his own grief that they were hurting worse, and he offered what comfort he could. As he did, he began to realize that this tragedy gave him experience that not everyone had and would allow him to genuinely empathize with the grief-stricken rather than offer empty platitudes, not just for this disaster but for the rest of his career. He would be a better servant to the people—and to God. With some coaching by Samuel, he began to see the shadow of God’s hand in this, and the expression “God works in mysterious ways” took on a tangible meaning. Perhaps there was a purpose after all.

During the days that followed, Paul saw in Samuel’s life a marked contrast to his own. Samuel blossomed under the new burdens brought by the earthquake. He greeted each reporter warmly and treated those from small weekly newspapers with the same patience and attention as those from the dailies in New York and Chicago. The extra work wasn’t limited to providing interviews. There were letters and telegrams to answer. A flood of new visitors came to the church, and many of those wanted to talk with Samuel. Some were merely curious, but most said that they were eager to participate in a revolutionary new phase of Christian worship. Samuel increased the number of church services from just one per week, to one on Wednesday evening and two on Sunday, but even then they were packed. He clearly loved the joyous services, with every pew filled and the hymns spilling out through the open windows on the warm spring breeze. The greater the workload, the more energized Samuel seemed to be. He would shout from the pulpit, “I promise a spiritual earthquake to follow the physical one!”

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