Excepted with permission from the book "Open Secrets," published by Doubleday, 2001.

One of Billy Semanns's daughters was waiting for the new pastor. She was ready to have a proper wedding. The word was only relayed to me by telephone, as Billy himself, who was perennially between jobs and wives and lived alone in a camper east of Prairieview, had nothing to do with the church ever since someone from Cana had asked him for a financial pledge. That had been fourteen years ago.

"The church is only interested in my money," he had complained, implying that this church, like all the rest of them, was preying on his vast wealth in order, say, to build a marble campanile in the parking lot or to support the voluptuous lifestyle of a missionary in East St. Louis. According to the grapevine, the previous pastor had offended him by saying, "Billy, you don't have any money. What would we want with you?"

The daughter and her intended arrived at the parsonage promptly at five, he having taken off a few minutes early from his job as an asphalt man on the county's roads. Leeta and Shane were seventeen and eighteen years old respectively. Aside from the family's trademark smile, she bore no resemblance to my imaginary picture of her oafish father or to anyone I had already met in the family. She was darkly, even beautifully, beetle-browed, a feature that lent determination to her young face from the first hello. Shane was a serious sort of young man with close-set eyes and a curly page boy that was already thinning on top. Thirty seconds into the interview, she seemed strong, he seemed weak. Together, they were so nervous that they couldn't even slouch. Teenagers simply do not sit as straight as those two were sitting in front of my desk.

"Shane and I want to get married, and Shane wants to take adult instructions, don't you, hon? I'd come with him every time. I promise," she said to Shane, and smiled sweetly at both of us. "We want to do everything right. Same goes for Shane's baptism. We won't wait forever to have that done, will we hon? We could start studying up on the baptism anytime soon."

Then, in a move that seemed rehearsed, she opened her pea coat to reveal what I'd known was in there the moment she entered the room, a little Semanns about six months along. She pulled her coat back the way an amateur stickup man flashes his piece in a 7-Eleven. Leeta was wearing a white polyester shift, awkwardly high on her legs and tight across the midriff. The two of them had come to rehab what little they had of a past and to begin a new future. They wanted to get off on the right foot--two poor, uneducated teenagers, one of them pregnant, the other unbaptized, both of them scared and excited at the same time. It appeared that I could combine premarital counseling with adult membership instruction along with some lessons in baptism for the both of them. These two would be the first beneficiaries of several semesters of training in pastoral care and counseling.

"My practice is to meet at least six times with the couple before marriage, so that we can go over the service and discuss all the issues pertinent to Christian marriage. We'll do a modified version of the Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory. At the rehearsal..." Why I said "My practice" I have no idea, since I had never performed a marriage, had no "practice," and did not understand the futility of trying to prepare anybody for marriage, let alone two teenagers:

You can't imagine this, Shane and Leeta, but let me tell you a little about your future: at twenty-eight, Shane is drinking eight or ten beers a day and already daydreaming about retiring from his job on the second shift at the glassworks. Leeta is so exhausted from caring for a little boy with cystic fibrosis that she is making desperate plans. Your parents are all dead, including Billy, who got drunk and burned up in his camper one night.
You two don't say grace at meals, or kiss each other good morning, good night or good-bye. You do not engage in the ritual tendernesses that make an ordinary day endurable. And did I mention that Leeta thinks she's pregnant again, and is seriously considering a trip to Chicago where something can be done about it? Yes, let wise Pastor Lischer prepare you for married life.

Leeta stood up in front of the desk, this time in an unrehearsed way, and gave me a distinctly unSemmanslike smile, as if to say, "I have news for you." (She really was determined.) "Honey, give the pastor the license."

Shane and I stood up, as two men will do when they are about to close a business deal or fight a duel. In a voice that a boy might use when asking a girl's father for her hand, he said, "Could you do it tonight? This here's the license. We done passed the blood test with fly'n colors, didn't we, babe? We can't wait no longer, Pastor. It's time."

I thought of my own mother and father, she in her best organdy dress, he in his double-breasted olive suit, both of them trembling as they made their vows in the parlor of another Lutheran parsonage. I bet it was like mine, with dark woodwork and lace curtains and the smell of diapers. Still, I felt years of training slipping away from me in a matter of minutes as I agreed to the "wedding." All my pastoral actions were occurring outside the lines and away from the sanctuary--an unauthorized Eucharist in a hospital, a pickup wedding in my house. I invited them to walk over to the church, but they politely but firmly declined on the tacit grounds of their own unworthiness.

"Witnesses," I said, "we must have witnesses," again, with no earthly idea of the truth or the falsity of that statement. I walked down the short hall to the kitchen where my own pregnant wife was fixing supper with Sarah wrapped around one of her legs.

"I need you," I said.

Soon our little tableau was in place. Leeta and Shane stood before me, Tracy at Leeta's side, our Sarah gazing in from the doorway, trying not to smile at the strange goings-on.

The bride, six months pregnant, in her white Venture Mart shift, looked dark-eyed and radiant. The matron of honor, eight and a half months pregnant, in a Carnaby Street mini-maternity dress, nervously brushed her long blond hair away from her face. The women were smiling, and blooming with life, the men were trying not to make a mistake. The groom appeared pale but steady, a little moist beneath the nose. The minister was wearing bell-bottomed corduroys and a wool sweater over which he had draped a white stole. He kept his eyes in his book. To an outsider peering through one of the large windows in the study, the scene might have been borrowed from a French farce or a Monty Python skit.

At the book-appointed time, I laid the stole across Leeta and Shane's clutched hands and onto her belly, read the right words, and the deed was done. Shane and Leeta got themselves married. They left in a rusted El Camino, seated well apart from each other like an old married couple. They looked sad beyond all knowing.
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