Another Friday at the store had come and gone, and Harper had managed to successfully dodge any contact with Blaise . . . or Ava. The dream haunted her. She did not often dream in color, but this dream had not only been in color but had seemed palpably real—though thinking that an apology would come from Ava for anything lay in the realm of distinct fiction. She kept trying to put it out of her mind, but the images replayed themselves again and again.
She had run out of dogfood, so she warmed up some sweet potato and green beans for Clutch, topped with a few organic baked croutons. He didn’t seem to mind the lack of meat and ate with relish. His body had slowed down, but his appetite was still as healthy as ever. She heated some leftover soup for herself and sat at her breakfast table to eat, but the soup was cold before she realized she had done more staring out the window than eating. She covered the soup bowl and put it back in the fridge, thinking maybe a cup of chamomile tea was all she was in the mood for.
She had just poured her tea when she heard a light knock at the front door. Clutch, the useless watchdog, never made a sound but for dog snores. Peeking out the peephole, she saw Blaise. Her first thought was not to answer the door and quietly retreat to the back bedroom, but her hand went to the deadbolt before that thought had even finished forming.
“Hi there. Hmm, Harper. I’m sorry if I’m intruding, but I guess I just wanted to check up on you to see if everything is okay. Haven’t heard from you in a while.” Harper had only opened the inside door halfway, and Blaise stood outside the metal security door bathed in her bright interrogation porchlight.
“I’m fine. Really. Just busy.” She tried to sound normal, but her words were clipped, and she had a hard time looking him in the eye.
“Have I done anything to hurt you, Harper? Could I come in for a moment to talk?” The question alone brought tears to Harper’s eyes, and she found it difficult to speak past the lump in her throat. “Please, Harper. I would like to make things right if I have offended you.”
Harper unlocked the security door and waved Blaise in. Part of her brain threw up all manner of objections; the other part was her emotional self who hungered for answers. She motioned him to the chairs at the table as she closed the door softly.
“I’m sorry. I have interrupted your tea. I don’t mean to . . .”
“That’s fine.” She felt like she should offer him some, but she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. She sat down and Blaise sat opposite. She fiddled with the mug so her eyes would have somewhere safe to land.
“Are you okay? Have I done something . . .?
Before she could stop herself, Harper looked up and all her pent-up words flew out of her mouth in rapid succession. “I am not your project. I told you that right from the beginning I was not going to be parishioner #1. I was beginning to trust you and to think we had a real friendship; and when Ava told me you were doing the same things with her, I realized that our friendship was probably not real, and I was just being groomed like all the others to be part of some community. I am not interested in that. I must sound like a crazy person to you, but I feel betrayed. Maybe to you it is just no big deal, but I have spent years protecting myself, and to be made vulnerable for the sake of some church planting thing is not what I need nor want. I will not be anyone’s project.” Harper finally took a breath and looked into her lap, biting her lip. She knew that if there had been any shred of real friendship with Blaise, she had just destroyed it. But it was out there. She needed it to be.
Blaise sat very still for what seemed a long time. When he spoke, his voice was warm and soft. “You are not a project, Harper. Never have been. The friendship that has been growing between us, as far as I am concerned, is very real. I would never manipulate anyone for the sake of a church plant—for the sake of the Gospel. And certainly not you. I would rather fail in building a church than fail in building people.” Blaise reached out his hand to Harper across the table. “I am so sorry if anything I have done has led you to think I am not interested in you as a person. Because I certainly am.” Harper tentatively extended her hand, and Blaise wrapped her fingers gently in his. “I am trying to understand how things got off. Would you mind telling me what Ava told you about me? Maybe that will help me understand.”
Harper recounted Ava’s telling her about her weekly meetings with Blaise, the food and coffee they shared, the laughter, how they shared intimate details and were growing in a rich friendship . . . and maybe something even more. Harper felt somewhat embarrassed in the telling—as if she were tattling on a schoolgirl.
Blaise released her hand gently and rose to his feet. He slowly paced back and forth without speaking, then returned to sit at the table. “Harper, I have to tell you that I have only met with Ava twice since arriving here. And that ended because I felt she clearly had a romantic agenda, which I did not want to encourage. I suggested she become part of a small group that does coffee and is studying the book of Colossians with me. There is one couple and a single homeless gentleman I meet with weekly. She said she was unavailable to do that, having made many other commitments at her church. And I thought that was the end of it.” He took a big breath and continued. “My intention in coming to Shiloh has always been not to force anything, but to reach out in love and friendship to the people God puts in my path. To force a community to form would be against what I am comfortable with and what I feel God has called me to. The success of this calling is in God’s hands, not mine. I only wish to be obedient. So . . .”
“I don’t understand,” Harper interjected. “Why would she say that she had been meeting with you when she hadn’t? How could she replicate the details exactly of our meetings? It doesn’t make sense.”
“I think she has been stalking us, to be honest.”
“What? Stalking!” Harper sat bolt upright in her chair. “But how?”
“Stalking might be a bit overdramatic, but well . . . I didn’t think anything of it before because I knew you two were friends—at least some sort of friends. But when I have come to the shop on Friday afternoons, several times I passed her on the street just outside. She always had a reason for why she was there or just passing by, but it is possible she was spying on us from outside.” Blaise drummed his fingers on the table. “I just never thought . . .”
With an odd mix of anger and relief, Harper rose to her feet and put the kettle on. “May I make you some tea?”
Blaise smiled, and his shoulders noticeably relaxed. “Tea would be wonderful.”
“I was having chamomile, but I have other kinds. What do you prefer?”
“Chamomile is just fine. Thank you.”
As they sipped their tea, Blaise continued. “I have not been cultivating a relationship with Ava in the way she has described. And frankly, I’m not sure I would trust to meet with her alone, after all of this. Harper, what my hope here in Shiloh is that God would grow a body organically out of genuine and spiritual relationship. When I talk with someone or meet with someone for coffee, it is not like a multi-level business venture where you try to find inroads, the points of perceived commonality, that you can manipulate to make the sale or recruit another seller. That to me is phony, shallow. There are church planters who employ those same methods to “grow” a church, and maybe it ends up accomplishing a greater purpose . . . maybe . . . but I have no desire to do that kind of ministry. I used some of those approaches selling vitamins long ago, and I have no desire to do that again—particularly in the furthering of Christ’s kingdom. If that is what it takes to grow a church, then my God is really small. Does that make sense to you?”
“Yes, of course. Part of the reason I abandoned organized church—and to be honest, I am sure some folks do it right—but I felt that here in the church Graham and I belonged to, we were just pawns on the board for a greater overall mission; but we, ourselves, did not matter. Even before he died, we were becoming disillusioned with the lifeless programs and the 120% commitment required to keep the thriving church vision alive. We were this close to leaving and doing church on our own or finding a home church. And then when he passed . . .” Harper paused and stared out the window into the darkness. “I don’t want anything that is not real and lifegiving. That’s why when Ava seemed to be showing me that what I was experiencing with you was phony—part of a scheme—I melted down. And . . . I’m sorry I didn’t trust you enough to come to you directly. History, I guess?”
“I know.” Blaise smiled.
“Ava and I have had an odd kind of friendship. There have been times in the past when I genuinely felt she cared and that we had a connection. But other times, more recently, she becomes manipulative and talks behind my back—when it puts her in a better light. And yet, she has usually been the first one to bring a casserole or come do my laundry when I am sick. I came to the realization, though, that if she continued in my life, it would be a friend at arm’s length. I knew I could not trust her anymore, but I guess because she was a touchpoint of a life I used to have with Graham, I was not willing to totally let her go.”
“That is hard. Especially when there is no one to fill her place. I hope you will let me do that in some way.”
“I hope so, too.” Harper took the last drink of her tea. “I must tell you something about Ava. I had a dream about her the other night.”
“A dream? Really?”
“Not sure if it was a dream or a nightmare,” she smiled, “but really weird.”
“What was it about?”
“Though I dream crazy dreams all the time, I have only had dreams like this one a few times in my life. It was in color and vivid. Almost like it was oversaturated in a photo editing software program. Ava was not Ava. She was soft and apologetic and weepy. Nothing like her real self. Oh, and my house was clean.” She smiled. “That was odd.”
“What did she say in the dream?”
“She told me she was disappointed with her life, thought God was done with her, and that she was lonely. You have seen enough of her to know that is not at all what she thinks of herself. She is arrogant and overconfident and demonstrates that humility is in the same class as germs and viruses. But what’s weird is that in that moment—in the dream—I believed her.”
“You said you have had these kinds of dreams before. When was another time?”
“It was a tough time early in our marriage. I was about six months pregnant, and I lost the baby girl. That night I dreamed I saw her running through a field of vibrant flowers, happy and singing. I lost a baby, and this was a young girl, but that image of color and ecstatic joy stayed with me for a long time and gave me comfort. I can still see it in my mind.”
“Have you ever thought perhaps God gave you that dream?”
“I did actually at first, but then I figured it was just my grieving.”
“I’m not an expert in these things, but, Harper, I think God gave you that dream to show you the reality of where your child now lives. With God. In pure delight.
The tears started down Harper’s cheeks. And in that moment, the cleansing of one grief began, and she had her friend back.