Sunday, December 30, 2007

Odd Jobs

by Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. In this church, as in most churches, many of the odd jobs required to keep things running smoothly and keep the building from slowly decaying fall to volunteers from the congregation. And like any operation that relies on peoples’ generous natures, thing don’t always get done as promptly and effectively as might be desirable. Whenever Pastor Henry O’Donnell got frustrated at the lack of progress on some simple task, he reminded himself that volunteers are, well, volunteering. You must be grateful for what they give you and not begrudge them what they do not. Of course, as healthy as that attitude was, it meant that Pastor O’Donnell often ended up picking up the slack for these chores himself.

One of the most reliable volunteers at the church is Ralph Billings, husband to paid church secretary Tammy Billings. In addition to serving as head usher, Ralph is the unofficial church handyman. The Thursday after Christmas, Ralph went to the church to clean some leaves out of a rain gutter. He’d noticed the clog after the Christmas Eve service and wanted to take care of it right then. Ralph did not like to procrastinate -- if something needed done, best to just do it. But Tammy reminded him that he was wearing his good clothes, and besides, it was after midnight and she was tired.

So Ralph came back to do the chore Thursday afternoon a couple hours before Tammy finished work in the office. It took him a while to locate the church ladder because someone had left it in the back of the social hall instead of returning it to the storage closet where it belonged. But after that brief delay, Ralph was up on the ladder scooping out leaves and whistling “Jingle Bells.” Ralph found whistling happy tunes helped these little jobs go faster.

Pastor O‘Donnell happened by and spotted him. “Hi Ralph,” the pastor called up. “When you’re done with that, would you do me a favor? Since you’ve already got the ladder out, would you mind replacing the Advent banners behind the altar with the ‘Christ is Born’ banners? When the women’s group took down the Christmas decorations, they forgot to do that.”

“Sure,” Ralph said. “Where are the new banners?”

“With the seasonal items in the cellar under the social hall,” O’Donnell told him.

So when Ralph finished with the rain gutters, he put the ladder in the sanctuary and went to the cellar.

Unfortunately, when he flipped the switch at the top of the cellar stairs, the single fluorescent light failed to come on. Ralph knew the church had replacement fluorescent tubes, but they were stored, perhaps unwisely, in the cellar. The two thin windows in the cellar were caked with so much dirt that it was nearly cave dark down there without the overhead light. So Ralph went to get the flashlight from the kitchen off the social hall.

As he opened the door to the cupboard where the flashlight was kept, it wobbled and creaked. Ralph discovered the screws of the top hinge had worked their way well out of the wood. The hinge was on the verge of pulling loose. Not wanting to leave the door in such precarious shape, Ralph got his screwdriver from the car and tightened the screws, again whistling “Jingle Bells” as he worked.

That task finished, Ralph got the flashlight and headed back to the cellar. Unfortunately, he soon discovered the batteries were dead. He sighed, wondering what sin he had committed against light that it seemed to be conspiring against him. He went to the office and got replacement batteries from Tammy.

With the flashlight now operational, Ralph was able to descend into the dark, cluttered cellar with the ladder and locate the spare fluorescent tubes. He set the ladder up and replaced the tube in the overhead fixture, again whistling “Jingle Bells” but with a slightly less bouncy cadence. Ten minutes later, the cellar again had light.

Finishing another task restored Ralph’s spirits. He turned to where the boxes of seasonal items were kept. And his spirits sank. When the women’s group had un-decorated the church after Christmas, they apparently just piled all the decorations in a jumble on top of the boxes. Ralph could have just tossed the whole lot aside to get to the banner, but he knew that pile of lights, wreathes, fake holly boughs and bows would somehow morph over the next eleven months into a tangled mass that would induce headaches when it came time to decorate next Christmas.

So Ralph sorted the decorations and returned them to the empty boxes from which they came. He even relabeled the boxes to indicate which decorations were in each. It was a time consuming task, but “Jingle Bells” once again helped keep Ralph’s spirits up…though a passerby might have mistakenly identified the tune as a funeral dirge the way Ralph was now whistling.

Finally Ralph finished the job by taping the boxes securely shut and stacking them. And at that moment Tammy appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Ralph,” she said. “Could you give me a ride to the bank on the way home? I have to deposit the offering from Christmas Eve.”

“Sure,” Ralph responded. “Let me just hang this banner for the pastor.”

“It’s almost five,” Tammy said. “I want to get there before they close so the deposit goes in before the end of the year.”

“Okay,” Ralph said, though he was growing a little frustrated. “I guess the banner can wait until tomorrow.” So he returned the ladder to its proper location in the storage closet and took his wife to the bank.

Pastor Henry O’Donnell had been on the phone in his office with the door closed when Tammy left. She didn’t like to disturb him in that situation in case he was on a delicate call with a troubled or ill parishioner. As it happened, this time he was arguing with a customer support representative in India about the return of an ill fitting Christmas sweater he had purchased for his wife online. When he finally got the details of the transaction arranged, he emerged from the office to find Tammy gone.

Being the last one at the church that day, Henry made the rounds to lock up. When he went to lock the sanctuary, though, he was surprised to find the Advent banners still hanging behind the altar. “Ralph was supposed to change those,” he said to the empty room. But there they were, unchanged. So Henry got the ladder out of the storage closet, went to the cellar, clicked on the light, retrieved the replacement banners from the neatly organized boxes of seasonal decor, and hung them himself, grumbling the whole time. It only took a few minutes, but Henry was anxious to get home to watch a favorite TV show, so instead of returning the ladder to the storage closet he stuck it in a nook behind the sanctuary and tossed the Advent banners on top of the stack of boxes in the cellar.

“Was that so hard?” Pastor O’Donnell thought as he hurried to his car. “Why do I always have to do everything around here myself?” Then he reminded himself that Ralph was just a volunteer and Henry shouldn’t begrudge him the things he didn’t do.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Third Candle (or The Second Candle Symbolizes Peace)

By Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church on the corner of Wilson and Elm. The Boyer family, which consists of Kevin Boyer, his wife Jill, and their two daughters Mary (age four) and Susie (age two), attends fairly regularly, if not always on time. Their attendance started - at the persistent suggestion of Jill - when Mary was born. Kevin consented even though it was football season. Kevin is a “cheese head” otherwise known as a Green Bay Packers fan. He has never understood why they hold church at the same time as NFL games. It has never occurred to him to ask the question in the reverse.

This Advent season, Pastor O’Donnell had the fine idea of asking some younger members to perform the Advent candle lighting ceremony during the service. He then had the less wise idea to ask the Boyer family to take that honor on the third Sunday of Advent. Jill readily consented. Kevin was no fan of public speaking, but after discovering the Packers weren’t playing until 5:30 that day, he went along with the plan.

The choosing of attire on the morning in question was a major event in the Boyer household. Jill had purchased a gorgeous green velvet dress for Susie to wear on Christmas Day, and decided that it would be perfect for this service as well. But Susie was less thrilled by the cumbersome dress and unimpressed by Jill’s explanation of what an honor it was to be asked to participate in the Advent ceremony. Yet after only forty minutes and three time outs, Jill got the dress on Susie.

Left to his own devices, Kevin would have worn khakis and a sweater, which for him was dressing up. But Jill insisted this occasion called for a tie. Kevin has never mastered the art of properly tying a tie, so Jill ties them for him. On this morning, she cinched up the knot a little beyond the point where Kevin could easily breathe. Kevin suspected, but was smart enough not to vocalize, that this might have been a response to his failure to hear her calling for help with Susie’s dress.

The Boyer family arrived at the church half an hour before the service to practice the brief ceremony. It involved someone taking a long, brass candle lighter and lighting it from one of the candles on the altar. Then, the designated individual lighted each of the first three candles on the Advent wreath in turn as other members of the family explained the symbolism of each candle. Finally, one member of the family would offer a brief prayer.

As Pastor O’Donnell explained this, Mary began jumping up and down, an arm stretched in the air. “Yes, Mary?” Pastor O’Donnell asked.

“I want to light the candles!”

Pastor O’Donnell blanched at this offer. A variety of incidents involving young Mary Boyer flashed through his head. The broken sewage pipe. The melted stained glass window. Mary’s generous repainting of the baptismal font.

“I’ll light the candles,” Jill said firmly. Many of the same incidents were flashing through her mind as well.

Mary was not pleased with this decision and pouted through the rest of the rehearsal. Jill finally coaxed her to memorize her line - “The second candle symbolizes peace” - with a promise of donuts on the way home. They did a test run and all went smoothly.

When it came time in the service for the lighting ceremony, the Boyer family went to the dais. It fell to Kevin to hold the two little girls’ hands firmly to ease any anxieties and more importantly to keep them where they were supposed to be.

Kevin guided the two girls to the microphone while Jill retrieved the brass candle lighter. “Good morning,”Kevin said, and then realized the microphone was not turned on. He released Susie’s hand to flip the switch. Now, on the walk out, Susie had noticed the two Christmas trees on either side of the altar. She knew what Christmas trees meant - presents. When Kevin let go of her hand, she decided to check to see if there were any there for her.

Unfortunately, as Susie was crossing the dais Jill had just turned from lighting the candle lighter from the altar candles. Jill tripped over Susie and the candle lighter swung straight into Kevin’s tie. Kevin looked down in shock as a smoldering black circle slowly grew in the center of the tie.
Jill let out a little yelp as she realized what she had done. She quickly hung the candle lighter on the wreath stand and began patting at Kevin’s tie. She succeeded only in burning her hand slightly.

Over by the piano, Shane Reed acted quickly when he saw the disaster. He grabbed the fire extinguisher which was kept in a little alcove behind him and ran out to Kevin. Shane had never used a fire extinguisher, so he began reading the directions. Kevin meanwhile was trying with desperation but little success to undo the tightly tied tie. Pastor O’Donnell, not a man to panic in a crisis, stormed out onto the stage and ordered Shane to give him the fire extinguisher. He’d take care of this.

As Jill and Kevin and Pastor O’Donnell and Shane Reed battled the blaze of Kevin’s tie, Mary Boyer decided she’d best take the Advent ceremony into her own small hands. She removed the candle lighter from where it hung on the wreath stand.

Although those on the dais were too preoccupied to notice Mary’s actions, they did not escape the attention of the congregation, most of whom were familiar with Mary’s exploits. The collective intake of breath vibrated the flame of the still-lit candle lighter as Mary carefully moved it toward the wreath. Yet everyone seemed too shocked to move.

Mary touched the flame to the first candle. “The second candle symbolizes peace,” she shouted. After all, it was the only line she remembered. She lit the second candle. “The second candle symbolizes peace.” She lit the third candle. “The second candle symbolizes peace.” Mary then went ahead and lit the remaining two candles for good measure, repeating her line each time. She blew out the candle lighter and returned it to its place. The members of the congregation let out the collective breath they’d been holding in a loud sigh. Mary had lit nothing on fire that wasn’t supposed to be lit. Well, the last two candles, sure, but nobody really cared much about that.

Satisfied the ceremony was complete and it was no longer necessary to be dressed up, Susie removed her green velvet dress. Mary took Susie’s hand, and the two girls walked up the aisle to go to Sunday school class.

Meanwhile, Pastor O’Donnell finally got the fire extinguisher ready and aimed at Kevin’s tie. He squeezed the handle and coated Kevin in an inch of foam. The tie no longer smoldered. Kevin, Jill, Shane and Pastor O’Donnell turned in unison toward the congregation who sat wide eyed and frozen like crash test dummies. For almost two minutes nobody moved. Then Kevin walked calmly to the microphone. The little paper with the prayer he was supposed to recite was soaked with foam, so he merely said:

“Dear Lord, we thank you for the warmth of the Christmas season, even when it comes a little too close for comfort. And on a personal note, I hope you’ll understand if I don’t wear a tie to church ever again. Amen.”

This experience will occupy the bulk of a marriage counseling session between Kevin and Jill several years from now.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Shane - Part 2

By Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church on the corner of Wilson and Elm. A couple of weeks ago, Del Winslow, star singer in the little church’s choir, was simmering with annoyance at newly hired choir director Shane Reed. Shane had recruited Florence Barker to sing a solo in the Christmas Concert. In her youth, Florence had been a torch singer in New York, and Del was put off by the sultry way in which Florence performed White Christmas. Naturally, his objections had nothing to do with Shane’s obvious admiration for Florence’s voice. It was, Del insisted, simply that her style was inappropriate for a church concert.

Del could be blunt when the situation called for it, but in this case he didn’t feel a direct appeal to Shane would be the best course of action. So instead he utilized sixty-nine year-old Henrietta Miggins. Henrietta was of the opinion that people these days had lost all sense of decorum. In her day, decent people wore their best clothes to church, wrote letters on pretty stationary instead of computer screens, and kept their private business private. Henrietta didn’t much care for Florence Barker despite the fact that Florence was actually older than Henrietta. In her day, Henrietta would not have considered Florence “decent people.”

So it was easy enough for Del to whip Henrietta into a righteous lather by describing the unseemly nature of Florence’s performances. And Del well knew that whenever Henrietta didn’t like something having to do with church, she was not shy about letting Pastor Henry O’Donnell know her feelings. Reliably, Henrietta cornered the good pastor after services and lectured him for almost thirty minutes about the obscene version of White Christmas she had heard Florence was performing with the approval of this young hooligan O’Donnell had hired as choir director.

After freeing himself from Henrietta’s clutches, the pastor went to his old friend Del to get what he thought would be an objective opinion about what, exactly was going on in the Christmas Concert rehearsals.

“Well,” Del told him, “I hadn’t planned on saying anything. I want to give Shane the benefit of the doubt. He’s a good kid after all, and perhaps he knows what appeals to the young folks. But if you want my opinion what Florence is doing with the song is kind of racy for church. I feel a little uncomfortable following it with my traditional show ending performance of Silent Night that everyone always says moves them with its holiness.”

Pastor O’Donnell decided he better attend the next rehearsal himself.

So that evening he watched as the choir went through it’s repertoire for the show. He was pleased to discover it was a much livelier program than they usually did and was growing convinced that Shane was indeed a good addition to the staff for more than just the impact his looks had on the women of the church. Then came Florence’s song. Florence was older than Pastor O’Donnell’s mother, but somehow the way she seemed to sigh the lyrics as much as sing them made a warm redness rise in his cheeks. Perhaps this one time Henrietta Miggins actually had a point.

After rehearsal, Pastor O’Donnell pulled Shane aside. “Shane, you’re doing a wonderful job with the show.”

“Thanks! It’s a fun program isn’t it? And isn’t Florence just the most spellbinding singer ever?”

“She’s got a way around a carol,” the pastor agreed. “It’s just…her style is a little…suggestive for a church concert, don’t you think?”

“It’s White Christmas. It’s an Irving Berlin song,” Shane said incredulously.

“Well, sure. There’s nothing wrong with the song. But do you think maybe you could get her to, you know, tone it down a little?”

“Florence was one of the greatest jazz club singers in New York!” Shane protested. “I’m not going to tell someone like that how she should sing.”

“That’s kind of your job,” the pastor responded.

“People will love Florence. Trust me.”

While Shane was defending his show to the pastor, Del had worked his way over to Florence. He indicated the obviously heated conversation Shane and Henry O’Donnell were having. “Good for Shane,” he said.

“What’s good for Shane?” Florence asked.

“Pastor O’Donnell is asking Shane to make you tone down your song. Looks like he’s standing up for you. I’m glad. He should have our back. I’m just concerned since he’s new and all. It would be unfortunate for him to get off on the wrong foot with the pastor.” Then Del went to get a cup of coffee leaving Florence to watch her handsome choir director fume as he put away his music. She didn’t want the poor kid to get in trouble on her behalf. But she also knew Del and suspected somehow he might be behind this.

The next rehearsal Florence informed Shane and the choir that she wanted to try a different song. Shane was concerned that she had learned about the controversy over her previous
choice, but didn’t feel right bringing it up in front of everyone. “Let’s hear it,” he said.

Florence whispered something to Walter Tibble, then stood, hands clasped demurely in front of her, eyes closed. Walter played one verse of What Child is This on the piano, then fell silent. Florence began to sing a cappella.

Her voice filled the room with haunting, perfect tones that spoke of maternal love and quiet joy. Everyone in the choir was frozen as Florence raised goose bumps from their arms with her voice. When she finished nobody spoke. Nobody breathed. Del glanced at the other choir members and noticed tears flowing from more than one pair of eyes.

“Well?” Florence finally asked, “can I do that instead.”

“Sure,” Shane choked out around the lump in his throat. “Yeah, sure. That was great. Um, Del, do you want to do your solo now?”

As he looked around at his fellow singers trying desperately to regain their composure after Florence’s song, Del very much did not want to do his solo. “My throat’s a little sore tonight. I think I better rest it,” he said.

Later, after rehearsal was over, he caught up to Florence in the parking lot. “Listen,” he told her, “I liked the new song you did tonight, but don’t you think it’s a little too similar to what I’m doing with Silent Night? I really loved your version of White Christmas and it does give the show more variety.”

“But Pastor O’Donnell doesn’t like that song,” Florence said. “I wouldn’t want Shane to get off on the wrong foot when he’s just starting out.”

“I’ll take care of Pastor O’Donnell,” Del assured her. “Let’s give Shane the show he really wants.”

So in the end, Florence performed White Christmas in the concert. Henrietta Miggins was scandalized, but a dozen jazz aficionados who came because of a flyer about Florence’s performance Shane distributed at a local cabaret loved the number. Really, so did most of the members of the church who attended, including Pastor O’Donnell’s wife Jennifer who held his hand during the song.

And Del got to close the show with his traditional performance of Silent Night. He received many compliments afterwards, including, to his delight, several from the jazz fans. Pastor O’Donnell noted those came immediately after the fans spoke to Florence and he suspected they might not be entirely genuine. But he kept his suspicions to himself.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch