When my new cellphone rang for the first time, I tried not to act surprised. “J.B. Roane.” My heart raced, but I kept my voice steady, just a tick above bored.

“Umm, is this the Preacher?” That’s what most Texans call pastors. Technically, yes, I thought. I’d spent three years in seminary, largely learning how to preach. Up until the end of last month, preaching was the biggest part of my job as pastor of a slightly-bigger-than-small Baptist church. But when my wife left me on a Monday, the deacons invited me to a specially called meeting on a Tuesday, and by Wednesday I was packing up my office.

“I’d have called a real pastor,” he said, “but I figured they would have thought I was crazy. Besides, I saw your name and number on a bulletin board at the coffee shop.” I had typed those little advertisements up just a couple of days before. I cut them out by hand, and stapled them on telephone poles and at the public library and just about any other vacant space that looked lonesome. “J.B. Roane, Pastor for Hire. Available for odd jobs of a spiritual nature.” At the bottom of each notice, I listed my newest and only phone number.

“How can I be of service?” I asked it as if I’d had a thousand inquiries, as if this were not my first attempt at scratching out a new way to pay the bills for a few months, just until I could figure out what was next. I pegged the voice on the other end of the line to be in its early 20s, laced with grief. The young man managed to unfold a tale about a girl who gave him back the ring he’d given her on bended knee not seven days earlier.

When I asked him why, he said, “She said I wasn’t Christian enough.”

When I asked, “How Christian are you?” he hesitated.

“Not much. Not much at all. But I’d turn darn near Rastafarian if it would get her back.”

We discussed my fee — fifty bucks to take the case, twenty bucks for every hour spent on the job, and another fifty bucks at the end if I (and God?) delivered what the client sought. After all, my new room at the Budget Suites was not going to pay for itself. We agreed to meet for lunch the next day at a barbecue joint catty-corner to a Texaco station. Thad found us a booth in the back of the restaurant. His dark curly hair snuck out from under his “Landry’s Automotive” ball cap. As he slid two twenties and a ten across the table, he said, “I guess I may as well lay out the whole story for you.”

April was his customer, and she later said she knew there was something special about him when he didn’t try to sell her a whole new transmission instead of just replacing a clogged fuel filter. He told her he had to order the part from San Angelo (which wasn’t technically true), and when she came back the next day he had gotten up the nerve to see if he could buy her breakfast on Saturday. In a week, they were going steady. In a month, she’d met his family — even his mother signed off on her. “She’s the first one you’ve brought home that I could see coming to visit me at the nursing home some day.” But April’s grandmother had been another story.

“That old woman marked me for a bonafide heathen within the first five minutes of conversation.” It turns out that April’s grandfather had been a Church of Christ minister, and before he died he passed his wife the mantle of policing what would become of his genealogy. Still, Thad figured it was April’s decision to make, and she did indeed say yes when Thad popped the question, right after the end of “Waitin’ on a Woman.” It was the final song at the Brad Paisley concert he’d saved up to take her to in San Antonio. He said it felt like floating on a hot air balloon the whole ride back home.

But he could tell something wasn’t right the next day. She didn’t want to talk about a date for a wedding. She didn’t want to talk about much of anything. She kept her hands folded under her arms, when he thought she’d be flashing that engagement ring for all the world to see. On Saturday night, she called to ask him to go with her to her grandmother’s church the next day, and he said he would but overslept. He wasn’t overly sad about it either — churches made him nervous. But apparently that no-show confirmed every worst fear the old lady had about him. April was tearful but controlled when she drove to the auto shop to give him back the ring. He’d pleaded for an explanation, and the best he could get was that she could not be “unequally yoked with an unbeliever.”

Thad hadn’t touched his food. It was the kind of place where they plop ribs down on wax paper and throw in a cup of beans on the house. Something would have to be mighty wrong with you not to tear into those ribs. I felt bad that I’d already polished off my lunch while Thad was still talking. “So what were you thinking I might do for you?”

“I was hoping you’d get me just enough Christianity to win her back,” he said.

“It don’t work that way.”

“Well how does it work then?”

I asked how much time he had. “Ten more minutes before my lunch break is up.”

I squared up my chair and put my hands out on the table. “Look, being a Christian is a lot less about anything you might do for Jesus and a lot more about everything Jesus might do for you. He does all the heavy lifting — the forgiveness, the listening in on your prayers, the life after death stuff. You basically nod your head and say thanks. There’s a little more to it, but you don’t ever move too far beyond what I just told you.”

Thad nodded slowly. “So let’s say I do all that. Will you convince April I’m in the club?” I fingered the brim of the Stetson I’d set on the empty seat beside me. “No,” I said. “I won’t.”

Thad exploded. “Then what am I paying you for?” I reached into my pocket to fish out his bills, but Thad stuck both hands out to stop me. “Look,” I said, “the last thing I want to do is to get between you and Jesus. But if you think you can use Jesus to get your girl back, you got the wrong idea. You don’t get to use Jesus. He didn’t come all this way from heaven for you to treat him like that.”

Thad sat staring off at the jukebox for what felt like an unusually long time.”Do you think Jesus would be offended if I wanted him because I want her?” I had to think about that one. “I think Jesus has had worse offers.”

In the five minutes before his lunch hour was over, Thad and I hatched a plan. Twenty-four hours later, we sat squinched up on a loveseat at April’s house. The look on her face seemed like Sad and Hopeful we’re duking it out, but Sad was winning.

Thad spoke first. “April, you know I love you more than anyone or just about anything. Except Jesus, of course.” April wasn’t buying Thad’s newfound religion. “Now hear me out,” he said. “I know I ain’t exactly been a poster boy for church or nothing like that. But I’ve been talking to my pastor here—”

“You have a pastor?” she blurted. “You expect me to believe you have a pastor?”

Before I could justify my presence Thad said, “Baby, you taking off that ring has helped put a lot of things in perspective for me. It led me, quite frankly, to Heaven’s door.” Which was kind of true, in a slightly untruthful sort of way. April was silent at that point, which was not the worst reaction in the world, from my perspective. I let the silence just set there for a while, a good long while. Then I saw my opening.

“April, obviously I don’t know you or your family. As you can tell, I don’t know Thad much better than I know you. And I know a lot less about marriage than I thought I did a month ago,” I said, fingering my ringless ring finger. “But I know you could do a lot worse than a boy who can’t imagine life without you in it. And when that boy discovered that you and Jesus were a package deal, Jesus suddenly started to look a lot more appealing to him.”

April tried hard to keep Thad’s expectations low. “I can’t imagine Granny signing off on this, and I am not about to break Granny’s heart.” April then proceeded to list off how many family members had wounded Granny’s heart, and all the debauched ways they had chosen to do so.

Thad looked over at me. “Could you talk to Granny?”

The next evening, after work, the three of us sat on Granny’s front porch. Granny had made us all sweet tea, but you could tell her heart wasn’t in it. I glanced over at Thad, and saw to my dismay that the look on the old lady’s face had turned him three shades of pale. Finally, Granny broke the ice: “Any of y’all want to tell me what this meeting’s all about?”

I took a deep breath and prayed one of those “here goes” kind of prayers. “Ma’am, we want you to know we admire your love for your granddaughter. And we also understand that you and your late husband have given your lives to serving the Lord. We know you’ve seen more than your fair share of men who’ve turned their backs on God and their families.” Granny gave that assertion a grudging nod. “But I’m also guessing you’ve seen our Lord do some things faithless people thought flat impossible. The good Lord works in mysterious ways, don’t he?” How could Granny not agree with that? “And in the same way that old Isaac gave his blessing to Jacob, even though that ole boy certainly didn’t deserve it, we were just wondering what that blessing could do if you reached those sweet and godly hands of yours out there and prayed for Thad?”

I am not ashamed to admit that I was likely the most surprised person in the room when, after what felt like five minutes of solemn reflection, Granny waived Thad over. He knelt in front of her, and she had to remove his ball cap for him. She stretched out those gnarled hands on top of his head and prayed a furious prayer. She prayed down God’s judgment on any boy who would ever dream of hurting her precious April, and she prayed all the backsliding and worldliness out of him, and she prayed that Jesus would forgive him for all that foolishness she was just sure had been a part of his past. And then she prayed that Thad would love April like her own sweet husband had loved her. And by the time she said Amen, everybody but Granny was practically bawling.

When we had finally stopped hugging one another and had mostly composed ourselves, Granny brought out the peach cobbler and Blue Bell homemade vanilla that she’d held in reserve, and we ate and smiled and giggled and ate some more.

I finally excused myself, and Thad hopped up and said he’d walk me out to my truck. He slipped seventy bucks into my shirt pocket and shook my hand. I congratulated him and wished him best of luck and told him to read the twenty-third Psalm twice a day every day for the next month (it just seemed like the thing to say at the time). Then I shook his hand one more time and pulled him close enough to whisper that if he ever broke April’s heart I’d hunt him down myself and beat the stew out of him.

It never hurts to put the fear of God in somebody, one way or another.