A cryptic phone call from Laura Webber told Rev. Charlotte Robinson that something strange was afoot. Charlotte, the pastor of the First Church of Almond Springs, took the message off the answering machine one afternoon after her secretary Mavis had left. Laura was perhaps Charlotte's closest friend in town and she did not sound at all like herself in the message. Her usually confident, almost regal, manner had become brittle and seething.
"I heard Old Man Rivers is coming to see you," the message began. "Don't let him do it. It hasn't been long enough." There was a hint of threat in Laura's voice. "What's going on?" Charlotte wondered. She wondered who her friend could mean. "The only Rivers I know," Charlotte thought, "is a young guy named Gary Rivers who's visited the church a couple of times. I need to figure out what is going on?" She was reaching for the phone to call Laura when there was a tentative knock on the outer office door.
"Hello, Mr. Rivers," Charlotte began. "Please call me Gary," the man answered in a slow, sonorous voice. Charlotte guessed he was about her own age. "And that," she thought silently, "does not make him an old man." He seemed shy and ill at ease. His eyes frequently flashed toward the door like someone else was eventually coming. He filled Charlotte in on his history, "I grew up in Almond Springs but then, umm…well," another glance at the door, "I left about fifteen years ago. Now I have come back to town to care for my old man. How's that for irony?" There was shame on his face, mixed with confusion. Charlotte wondered what Old Man Rivers could have done to cause Gary such pain.
"I am not sure I should be coming to church after what the Old Man did," he said after a moment. "But I had a friend once who said that the church should be the first place to forgive. And I been thinking a lot about that." He had the manner of a man resigned to his fate. "'We are in the forgiving business,' that's what a friend of mine likes to say," Charlotte remarked brightly, wondering where Gary was going. "Yeah, I hope so," he said, almost to himself, "because that's what I need...forgiving" Charlotte was confused again. "Why do you need forgiving?" she asked.
There was another knock on the inner office door before he could answer. It was Doc Davis. "Can I schedule you for later?" Charlotte asked discreetly, wanting to get back to Gary. "No. You don't understand, pastor," Doc said with a smile, "I am the one who called Mavis to bring this young man to see you. I am sorry I am late. I had an unexpected patient." Gary called to him from inside. "I thought you told her I was coming, Doc."
Doc stepped through the door and turned to the young man, "Of course, I made the appointment earlier today." "But, Doc," he said plaintively, "she just asked me why the Old Man needs forgiving." "Why don't you just tell her exactly what you told me," Doc said, closing the door and sitting next to Gary.
"I got the nickname Old Man in high school. All the football players gave each other names like we were a motorcycle gang or fighter pilots. Like Walt Webber, he was Wild One. We thought we were so tough. Anyway, my name stuck. It used to be that everyone in town called me Old Man, even at church. Me and the guys we'd hang out together after work, even when we were all married. Some of the guys started drinking a lot, especially Walt. Laura tried to get him to stop after they married, but he was a bull. You couldn't tell him nothing. And he had a temper. He started knocking Laura around when he was drunk. We tried to stop him, me and my wife Sally. But there was not much we could do." Gary was quiet for a moment before continuing. Charlotte felt empathy for Gary's obvious brokenness and was already worried about where the story was headed. Gary looked at his feet as he went on.
"I never touched Sally. Then one night…I got mad and smacked her. Everyone thought her daddy did it -- until she divorced me and moved away. Then not long afterward, Walt and Laura had their thing. And, well, everyone blamed me for Sally and for Laura." He paused waiting for a reaction. He still had not looked at Charlotte since he started describing his earlier life. Charlotte did not yet understand exactly what Gary was feeling but she was getting closer to the reason he had come. She wanted to ask him why everyone blamed him for what happened with Laura, but Doc jumped in before she could speak, "Tell her the rest of the story. Tell her what you told me."
"I can't blame Walt or the alcohol. It's all my fault. I could have been arrested. Hell, I should have been arrested. After a month or so, I decided just to run away from Almond Springs. I moved to Oklahoma and worked oil for a spell. And then I did some other stuff. I was lonely and scared. I was scared to drink and scared to date. I did not have a drink for about five years after I left town. I did not go out on a date until two years ago. I figured that I did it once and I might do it again." Charlotte had never seen someone so totally ashamed of himself. A psalm flashed through her mind, "A broken and contrite heart the Lord will not despise."
"I was especially afraid to go to church," Gary said, looking up for the first time at the pastor. "But then in Oklahoma I started going to a Sunday night church. It was a Christian Missionaries Alliance church, I think they called it. They didn't know what I had done. So I started praying with them. And then every time I moved I tried to go to a church. At one of the churches, I told the minister about all I'd done and he told me that Old Man Rivers was dead and that in the Bible it says I can be a new creation. I stenciled those words on the back of my tool chest. 'New Creation.' I haven't wanted anyone to call me Old Man since then -- just Gary." Charlotte's mind raced as he spoke. She had to restrain herself to keep from interrupting him. "What this poor man needs," Charlotte thought as he continued, "is to know that God has forgiven him."
"Now I've come home to Almond Springs. My father is sick and someone has to look after him to see that he doesn't fall and that he eats right. I been here since summer but did not really come to church until Doc told me it was OK. He told me I should come talk to you because you would understand even though you're a woman and all." He paused for a moment. Charlotte nodded and looked as kind as she could. Her heart ached for him but she waited to speak because he looked like he might have something else he wanted to get out.
"The real reason I came, though, is that I want to join the church. I've never actually belonged to a church, even when my family came here a long time ago. And Doc says it's time for me to be baptized, that it's part of that new creation thing." Then he shrugged and said, "So that's why I'm here."
"Let me say it again, Gary," Charlotte began. "The church is in the forgiving business," she put her hand softly on his knee, "God does not ask you to grovel and neither do we. God promises that once you have made your confession that God will separate your sin from you." They continued talking for some time. She told Gary about King David's sin, about Nathan the Prophet, and about God's ultimate blessing on David's union with Bathsheba.
Gary kept asking the same question again and again in different ways, not fully convinced that God could forgive him when he was not sure he could forgive himself. They talked until Gary finally felt ready to leave.
Doc Davis walked Gary out to his car and then came back to talk with Charlotte. "You did the right thing," he said. "But there are going to be some problems." Charlotte felt that she had done the only thing a pastor could do. "Forgiveness is not mine to dispense," she said to Doc. "I can only point Gary to what God has already done." But she worried about the implications that were going to ripple through her congregation.