The service was over, the people had all left, and the only one who remained in the old church on fifty-second street was the pastor, who sat alone in his office in his thick leather chair, rocking back and forth, muttering to himself.
He could feel it, but he couldn't explain it. He had felt like this for some time now, usually after delivering one of his sermons. Most people in the congregation told him that he was a very eloquent speaker, and his staff told him that his messages were relevant, and that these changing times called for a his kind of message. As far as he could tell, he was doing just fine. Attendance was up, and tithing this year had broken all previous records since the church was founded.
But something was missing. Something wasn't there anymore.
The pastor leafed through his notes from the day's sermon. He had opened with a joke he'd received by e-mail, one of those old farmer's daughter jokes that wasn't really dirty but used a great metaphor to suggest something that was. Then he had launched into the first of his three main points about the importance of tolerance. It was the latest in his series about living in a changing society, how people must learn to accept new ideas and learn to love the world they are living in. It was a positive, uplifting message and the pastor had received a great deal of praise from his congregation for his insights, particularly from the dean of humanities at the university, who sat toward the back and always gave generously when the offering plate came around.
And yet, the pastor felt he had missed something very important, something crucial.
After a few more minutes of rocking, he stood and walked out of his office and down the side hallway, past the rooms set aside for the day care the church ran during the weekdays. This summer was going to be another winner: eighty-four children, mostly from well-to-do families whose parents were also church members. It was a little side business that kept the treasury flush with income and helped pay for a number of things, not the least of which were the new stained-glass windows in the sanctuary.
The pastor stood there now, behind his pulpit, breathing in the musty air of this old place, drinking in the memories. The afternoon sun shone through the windows and cast a beautiful glow over the place, the figures in the glass glowing with some kind of amazing celestial light. The pastor walked down the steps toward the center aisle and admired the figures rendered in the intricate glass: Buddha, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Gabriel, Moses, Jesus, Shiva, and other noteworthy figures of the world's religious faiths. The light that shone through them was a testimony to the wisdom they shone upon the world. The church had been very careful to adopt tenets and principles universal in every faith, and was thus one of the most inclusive churches in the city.
But the pastor still felt that something was missing. It was as if he had stuffed himself with appetizers at a banquet and had forgotten to leave room for the main course.
The pastor sat down in a pew and leaned his head back with a sigh. It was then that he noticed that the huge light fixtures hanging from the vaulted ceiling appeared to be swaying, ever so slightly, back and forth. The man watched them as they moved hypnotically before his eyes. He had never seen them do that before.
Then the ground started to vibrate beneath his feet, softly at first and then more violently. The ground began to shake, and the man leapt to his feet in alarm and started to stumble toward the door. Spidery cracks crept up the walls just as the stained glass windows shattered, spraying the sanctuary with their rainbow-colored shards. The man burst through the main entry, stumbled down the steps and stared in horror as midday was turned to night. The sun went out as if someone had snuffed a giant candle, and the only light that remained came from a blood red mood that hung in the sky like a giant, baleful eye that glared upon the earth. The sidewalk heaved and broke apart underneath the man's feet and he fell to his knees. A rock fell by his feet, and then another, and then dozens started to rain all around him. The man's eyes filled with tears and he began to sob. He cried aloud for the rocks to bury him, to hide him.
For he now remembered what had been missing.