Agreeing to renovate a church in a remote northern Alberta town is an act of panic for a man anxious for a break from God, but ex-pastor Luke Parks needs escape from the girl who crushed his heart. He’s hoping to outrun his crisis of faith, but his doubts quickly find him. To make matters worse, he’s stuck with a snarky church secretary and saddled with an inexperienced assistant.
Through a chance encounter Luke discovers not just a lost kitten, but a deeper, richer side of the congregation. Just as he’s becoming comfortable in his new routine, life takes another swing. His ex-fiancée shows up begging for forgiveness, and in the process, turns his new friends against him.
As Luke struggles to figure out the line between accountability and forgiveness, he can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever find a place to call home.
When I was ten, my adopted parents took me to a tent revival. I sat in the front row, sweating with the parishioners, hypnotized as the pastor—with the help of spotlights and microphones—re-enacted Saul’s transformation on the road to Damascus. After a crowd-pleasing performance, which included the screams of a blinded Saul that were so shrill they made my ears pop, the pastor extorted all of us to remain ever vigilant to the secular ways of the world.
“Don’t be blinded,” he intoned, “for the world wants nothing more than to lead you astray.”
Wiping away his dripping sweat with a thick towel, he leaned in close and warned me—especially me, he said—of the ways the world would seek to turn my faith and corrupt my soul.
I was eager for the test. Mom and Dad still had me on an eight o’clock bedtime and though I didn’t know what it was, I was certain if I could withstand this trial of the flesh, they were sure to reward me with an extra half-hour. At the very least, I prayed there would be room for negotiation when it came to string beans.
As the years passed, I found the world was disappointingly supportive of my Christianity. At fourteen, I waited for the pressure to drink, but it never came. At sixteen, I solemnly practiced my oath of abstinence in front of the mirror, but no girl ever forced my hand. I’d like to think it was my quiet faith that restrained the girls from any hanky-panky, though I suspect it was my lanky form, big feet, and even bigger nose that kept them from not only asking me to have sex, but asking me on a date.
I waited for the trial of fire, the moment when I could prove Jesus hadn’t died in vain for me. But as my teens quietly rolled into my twenties, then thirties, I found it was easy to scream for Jesus, but far harder to whisper his name. Not committing murder was simple. Obeying the traffic laws and not giving into road rage was another thing altogether.
I had forgotten about the test and the prayer until last year, when my wish for a big crisis to prove my faith was answered. Terrie, my fiancée—the only girl I’d ever dated and ever truly loved—came to my apartment and returned my ring. She was going back to her ex-boyfriend, a great hulking brute of a man who had treated her badly and used her heart as a pincushion. Sure, he could be volatile, she told me, but he was never boring.
“And you, Luke,” she’d said. “You’re just too…calm.”
The small apartment living room tilted and whirled as I stared at her, too shell-shocked to speak, too destroyed to move.
“See?” She said into the yawning silence. “Even with this, you’re calm.”
Calm wasn’t the word. My spirit had been ripped from my body, stomped under by her four-inch heels, and then shoved back inside. I couldn’t find the words to question her, not when the only question I had was silently screamed to God: Why?
I had brought my love for her before the Lord and prayed for His guidance, and when it seemed His advice was, “Date her, you fool,” I’d asked her out. Then, I’d prayed about the marriage…how could I have been so wrong? I had spent my life submitting to Him, bringing all the desires and hopes before Him, and now my heart was a red smear on the laminate floor. Had I not heard God, or had He not heard me?
What of her? I’d been good, supportive…hadn’t I? When she’d thought she wanted to open an organic perfume line, I’d not only given her emotional cheerleading, but I’d followed my words with actions. I took Ephesians 5:33 to heart, and though we weren’t yet married, I tried to love her with the same devotion and open-heart that Christ had loved the church.
Terrie and I spent months studying the difference between ammonium lauryl sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate, memorizing scent combinations and allergy alerts. I’d inhaled more spices than Columbus and had diligently pretended to be a customer as she practiced her sales pitches. When she’d grown bored and dropped it, I supported that, too.
Yet there she sat, without a tear, and with the same impersonal tone she’d used as a customer service representative to sell clients perfume, my now-ex-fiancée wished me luck in my life and hoped I’d find someone more “my pace.” Then she was gone in a swirl of silk and the fragrance of wild berries, honey orange, and tuberose.
Three months of grief were made worse as my friends left on missions, or got married, or had children and quietly slipped away into the comfortable, satisfied lives of couplehood, family, and service. That period gave way to three months of goose-stepping around God. I wanted to be mad at Him, but felt the fault was in my not listening; then I felt angrier at my guilt and His continued silence to my prayers for answers. Unable—in this modern age—to rend my clothing, cover my head in ashes, and wail, I opted for a stoic face and clenched jaw. I shoved down my doubts and questions, buried the hurt, and forced the fractured, jagged mess of my emotions into the orderly square of intellect. Days turned into weeks and months of walking the Edmonton streets, my breath stopping when I thought I saw her, my heart breaking when I drove by the bakery she loved.
In the end, it proved too much.
It was either cowardice or a need for change that prompted me to agree when my father told me a church up north needed a carpenter. The decision was rash and ill-thought—and considering the shaky foundations of my faith—seemed akin to walking into the lion’s den. Still, it was an escape from Edmonton and the chance to breathe in a place that hadn’t been imprinted by her presence. I gave my roommate notice, packed my bags and tools into the back of my half-ton, and drove away from bad memories and unanswered questions.
My dad told me the small town I headed to was four hours north of Edmonton, just east of Highway 63. What began as a sunny drive darkened into a hard-driving rain. The rational side of me knew it was a meteorological event, but as I squinted, trying to see through the sheets of water blanketing my windshield, I wondered if it was a sign of a mistake made.
Throughout the drive, I worried I had allowed fear and hurt to choose my life’s path, and with the inclement weather, I had a lot of time to brood. The trip took an extra four hours, much to the dismay of my bladder and my car’s mapping system. After driving forty kilometers slower because visibility had been reduced to half a car length, after my GPS tried to drive me into a lake, then an abandoned field, and after a disconcerting experience trying to use the washroom in the great outdoors while under the watchful gaze of two deer, I pulled off the highway and onto Stoneshire Lane and into Home, Alberta.
The late afternoon sun broke through the grey cover and directed me to the Siberian Oil gas station. It was a week before September, families still holidayed, and there were no spots under the overhang. I parked my truck in a lonely, exposed section of the lot, grabbed some dry clothing from my suitcase, and dashed into the washroom.
A few moments later, drier thanks to the bathroom’s paper towel supply, and dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt—the work uniform for any self-respecting handyman—I stepped out of the store…and right into a sudden downpour that had me wondering if God had rethought his rainbow covenant with Noah. Once more, I was soaked and dripping. Sodden denim chaffed my legs and the aroma of winter-breeze dryer sheets wafted from my red-and-blacked checked shirt. Gritting my teeth, certain God was either tormenting me, or playing a horrible prank, I poured myself into the driver’s seat and headed to the church.