A new original short story featuring the Rev J.B. Roane:

The three of us sat at one of those concrete picnic tables at a rest stop a good fifteen miles from town. My two potential clients, both pastors, were not necessarily sure they wanted to be seen talking to the likes of me.

“‘J.B. Roane, Pastor for Hire?’ What does that even mean? Do you do what we do, without having to mess with all the people?”

Peering through his readers, Red was trying to exegete my business card. A longtime pastor of Calvary Baptist, Red’s nickname had persisted long after all color had faded from the remaining hairs on his head.

“It says here you do ‘odd jobs of a spiritual nature’?

This time it was Luther, who had languished at First Methodist for over fifteen years, convinced his bishop had forgotten all about him.

“Well,” Luther continued, “we think we have an odd job for you if you are up to it.”

I’d like to think of myself as choosy, weighing an inbox full of requests for my expertise. But the truth is I have yet to turn down one query, any possibility of financing next week’s rent at the Budget Suites.

“Brothers, tell me what you had in mind.”

Their specific request would have to wait long enough for the pair to share a collective piece of their mind about Dex. Dex Rayne. “Pastor Dex” to the minions who were vacating their pews at local established churches and flocking to sit on rented folding chairs at Explosion Pointe.

“Between the two of us, Luther and I’ve got close to forty years of pastoring the good Christians of this community. And while the two of us have seen an occasional mixed marriage through the years” (by which he meant a Baptist marrying a Methodist), “neither one of us has ever poached a member from the other.”

While Red spat, Luther picked up the theme.

“Then eight months ago or thereabouts, young Dexter blows into town, complete with his heavily-starched and creased Wranglers and pearl-buttoned shirts. God knows who is bankrolling him, but this kid is putting up billboards about ‘blowing up church as usual’ and directing people to www dot explosion dot crap or some such. They say that the music that passes for worship there rattles the windows of the Jiffy Mart across the street.”

I had driven by it — a converted warehouse in the middle of pockmarked Bermuda grass, with a state-of-the-art neon sign by the road announcing a new Saturday night service: “Sleep In Guilt-Free on Sundays!”

Luther continued. “My nephew and his wife snuck into one of those Saturday night services at my request. Said there was not a cross in the whole building. Not one. Apparently, ‘seekers don’t like anything that looks remotely religious—’”

“Fellas,” I broke in. “You’ve been in this game a lot longer than me, so I don’t mean to patronize you. But just about every generation of pastors faces this, don’t we? The ‘new lights’ move into town and turn the rest of us into ‘old lights,’ whether we want it or not.”

“I vehemently disagree!” Red’s cheeks were beyond flushed. “That young punk blazes into our town, driving his stepdad’s Camaro. He acts as if he’s the first ever Christian to step foot onto Papua New Guinea. But he ain’t. Our churches have been preaching the gospel and baptizing folks in this town since Reconstruction!”

Luther adopted a bit more of the “good cop” tone as he worked to restrain his disgust. “Believe me, J.B., Red and I are well aware that times change. We tried calling to meet Dex for breakfast and welcome him to the community, but he never returned our calls. He’s not been to one of our quarterly ministerial alliance lunches. But the worst of it is, he’s been stealing our members — mostly young families, men whose grandfathers are buried in our churches’ cemeteries.”

At that, both men fell quiet, an unplanned moment of silence for the town’s neglected church fathers. I reluctantly broke the silence.

“I’m still not sure what I can do for you.”

“That’s what we’re supposedly paying you for. Figure out a way we can shove some ecumenical sensitivity into that kid’s thick skull.” Apparently, Red was not one for subtlety.

I still feel a little guilty for the way I convinced Pastor Dex to meet me for breakfast the following Tuesday morning. In attendance at the Saturday night service, I grabbed a “How can we pray for you?” card and filled it out and dropped it in the offering bucket. I had jotted down my cellphone number with a brief note that read, “Looking for ways to steward my spiritual gift of giving.” The part I left out, of course, was the gift of “giving advice.”

Dex realized he’d been set up before his second bite of waffle, but to his credit he just smiled. As he poured more syrup, he asked, “So what’s the real agenda today?”

After briefing Dex on my story and my conversation with Red and Luther, I finally got around to giving the advice I’d been saving up for him.

“Look Dex, can we talk pastor to pastor here? I don’t know you, and the last thing I want to do is to tell you how to conduct your business. But I think you’d agree that you and Luther and Red are all supposed to be playing for the same team. Would it kill you to go to one ministerial alliance luncheon and press the flesh? And maybe if an established family from one of their churches shows up, you could go a little easy on the sales pitch?”

Dex put both hands up, palms facing out. “Let me just stop you right there and tell you there’s only one thing you said that I agree with — you don’t know me.”

I conceded the point. “You’re right, I don’t. But I wouldn’t mind hearing a little bit of your journey if you’re willing to part with it.”

And with that, Dex launched into an old story but with a twist. The sadly familiar part was of the upstanding Baptist deacon running off with his secretary, leaving a ten-year-old Dex and his mother to fend for themselves. What’s more, Dex’s poor mom ended up being an outcast in her own church. They no longer let her sing solos like she once had (she had performed “O Holy Night” for the previous five Christmas Eve candlelight services). The years of Dex’s second decade of life were hard ones. As soon he was able to muster the strength, he defied his sweet mother and stopped going to church.

His story turned in Jr. College, when he fell in love with an ardently Christian girl. She wooed him back to Jesus and back to church. Somewhere in the middle of that courtship, Dex had also found his new calling — although I wasn’t quite certain whether Dex’s primary call was to pastor a flock or prophesy against all those old-school churches that had done his sweet mama wrong.

“So J.B.,” Dex said, “I hope you don’t mind if I refuse to shed a tear for a couple of old preachers fretting over how to hold on to their bored members. At our church, we believe Paul’s words in Romans that the gospel is, in the Greek, ’dunamis,’ dynamite! And I’m not about to stop lighting fuses.”

There was so much I wanted to say. I wanted to affirm his courage, to warn him about the arrogance of youth and the cancer of rage. Frankly, what I really wanted to do was to reach across the waffles and syrup and hug that poor, fatherless boy. But instead, I reached for the check and apologized again and wished him well. And on the way out of that diner, I hatched a plan.

All I told Red and Luther was to meet me in the parking lot of Explosion Pointe at eight o’clock on Saturday morning. When they arrived, I told them I’d explain while we worked and motioned them toward the back of my pickup. An old neighbor had generously shared several cuttings of daylilies. I had staked out a plot of dirt near the church’s front door where I thought a flower garden would add a welcoming touch. Not that I’d asked permission, mind you. But who turns down flowers?

As we made several trips unloading the flowers and gardening implements, Red made his unhappiness very clear. “I came here to give that kid a piece of my mind, not do his landscaping!”

But Luther had already started to understand my logic, especially after I showed him the card I had purchased and inscribed on their behalf: “Welcome to our city, Explosion Pointe! We are better together. Love, First Methodist and Calvary Baptist.”

“Look Red,” Luther spoke up. “We’re never going to scold this kid into playing nice. We’re going to have to lay down our pride first.”

Then, out of nowhere, Red’s eyes got a twinkle. “What if we laid the flower bed out in the shape of a cross?”

Luther and I conceded, and the three of us worked diligently all morning, knees in the dirt, uprooting weeds and populating that cruciform plot of ground with fresh flowers.

“What do we do now?” Luther asked as the three of us slowly rose to our feet, stooped from being hunched over for so long.

“Watch and pray,” I said in an unintended whisper, “and see what starts to bloom.”