Stumbling on the Fields of Praise
His Poppa had said grace every night. They'd held hands round the dining room table: him, his Momma, his sister Amber, and his brother David. Pop had used the same words every night, paused in the same places, and they'd all said Amen together in the voices that they used for church.
There was a gap between the Amen and the moment that Pop reached for the potatoes. A gap in which something quiet and still inside him uncoiled, and the table lost its hush and became somewhere to talk about the transmission on the old Chevy, or the Bombers' upcoming game with North Polk.
He was never one of those people at school. The ones who went to camp and had significant verses written all over the inside covers of their Bibles. The girls who worried about stumbling the boys in their Bible study groups by having skirts that were too short. The boys who were first on their knees in the locker room before a game.
His sister Amber sang His Eye is on the Sparrow with her eyes closed, and her face turned up toward heaven. He hadn't wanted that passion, but he had found that the same stillness of grace was there, sometimes, when he was in church. Sitting in the gleaming pews at Fjeldberg Methodist with the rest of his family, listening to the organ. Smelling the mixture of hymn books and beeswax polish.
Church was woven into their lives, somehow, and he hadn't noticed it until the thread was pulled away. The Young at Heart dinners for the older folk that he'd helped out at. The Angel Tree Christmas program that he'd collected toys and gifts for. The pot-luck suppers. "God willing."
In Sunnydale, no one went to church. Which was kind of ironic, because there was so little that was truly bad in Huxley, and yet he could count the people who hadn't gone to church on one hand. That first Sunday at Sunnydale U, the sight of his Bible on his breakfast tray had made a couple of his Initiative buddies pause with the forkfuls of waffles halfway to their mouths.
He'd never even mentioned it to Buffy, even though they'd agreed on no secrets, because it seemed too weird. (Or, if he was brutally honest, disloyal, because Buffy so clearly failed to slide neatly into any of the theology that Pastor Blomqvist had preached from the pulpit.)
His books were no help. He'd studied Fowler's six stages of faith development, and Pargament's theories of religion as an adaptive response to stress. They didn't answer the questions that he couldn't even frame, no matter how long he sat in the library carrel with the other lights going off around him.
He'd thought about asking Giles, who was the smartest man he'd ever met. But he'd asked the wrong question, because Giles started to talk about the overlap between spells and ritual, and the proper use of incense in an exorcism, which wasn't what he'd wanted to know at all.
Even if he hadn't believed, the language of faith had been so overwhelmingly present in Huxley, in Ballard Junior-Senior High School, that he'd felt untethered when it first occurred to him that maybe it was impossible to squish this new world into its confines. That maybe the Gem of Amarra, and The Gentlemen, and preternaturally strong women, didn't so much fit into the world of heaven and saints, as the other way round.
He'd tried to pray, harder than he ever had before. He'd sunk to his knees, face pressed into the cover on his neatly made bed and poured out his frustration and his longing for the gentle breath of heaven. He'd recalled learning about Gideon in Sunday School and he'd laid a fleece of his own. Give me a sign, God. Give me a sign.
And when Buffy and Faith had rolled around on the floor of the sanctuary of his church, he'd taken that to be one. That there was no God. Or if there was, that he took his place in a pantheon of other creatures.
And if, the first time sharp teeth slid through his skin, he thought of Christ wearing a crown of thorns and felt that quiet stillness, he pushed that as deep as he'd shoved his Bible into his closet.