Sunday, January 27, 2008


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. Donald and Marjorie East have been attending the church since 1962. Recently they’d both grown hard of hearing. No surprise since they both entered their eighties a few years ago. The trouble was that in the last few years Marjorie’s eyesight had deteriorated to the point she had difficulty seeing what was happening during the service, so she frequently asked Donald, “what’s going on now?” and, “who’s that reading the scripture?” This wouldn’t be a big deal except her questions and his responses were delivered at a volume well above regular conversation and certainly loud enough for everyone in the congregation to hear.

Being church, at first everyone tried to have sympathy and just ignore the Easts. What the congregation discovered, though, was that Marjorie’s eyesight worked fine at close range, and as people walked in to find their seats Donald and Marjorie frequently discussed their weight, dress and appearance. Not realizing everyone could hear them, these discussions were often not flattering.

One victim of the East’s fashion critiques was Pastor O’Donnell’s sixteen year-old daughter Katie. Katie was generally well behaved for a teenager but she did like to dress in the styles of her generation. Marjorie East deemed said styles to be “the costumes of whores.”

One Sunday Katie wore a blouse that was cut low enough to show a bit of her budding cleavage. When she took her place in the pews, Marjorie, who was already seated, remarked to Donald, “That Katie O’Donnell is sure becoming a little tart, isn’t she?” A chill passed through the congregation. Katie blushed a deep crimson.

Pastor O’Donnell had heard the comment and seen his daughter’s reaction. So on the ride home he suggested that maybe Katie ought to dress a little more conservatively for church. He meant well. Katie’s embarrassment immediately turned into anger. The next Sunday she searched through her closet and found a slinky black mini-dress she had bought at the mall with her friends but had been too shy to wear in public yet.

Katie kept the dress hidden from her parents under a long coat that morning. She hung the coat in her father’s office and strutted into church just as service was starting, the hem of the dress barely brushing the middle of her thigh. She made a point to give her hips a little extra swish as she passed the Easts. Marjorie gasped and said to Donald, “Katie O’Donnell is dressed like a prostitute! Has she no shame? Why doesn’t the Pastor put a stop to this?” Instead of turning red, this time Katie grinned proudly.

Pastor O’Donnell both heard the comment and observed the large amount of skin his daughter was displaying. This time he agreed with Marjorie. On the way home he insisted Katie never wear that dress to church again. He would prefer, in fact, that she never wore it anywhere.

The next week Pastor O’Donnell made a point to inspect Katie before leaving the house. She was dressed in a very modest slacks and blouse ensemble. He should have checked her purse. The black mini-dress was rolled up inside. As Katie took her seat in the pew opposite the Easts, she artfully made sure the hem of the mini-dress rode nice and high up her young leg. Marjorie delivered quite a tirade that morning.

Katie’s two week fashion show was brought to an abrupt end that afternoon when Pastor O’Donnell grounded her for the next three days. She made a big show of arguing about how unfair it was, but it was just a show. Tweaking Marjorie East wasn’t worth having to spend several evenings in a row at home with her parents. The following Sunday Katie wore a knee length skirt and Marjorie East went back to commenting on how fat Del Winslow was getting and how Tammy Billings’ new haircut made her look homeless. Life went on.

Then about two months later Pastor O’Donnell received the call that Marjorie East had passed away.

That Sunday, Katie managed to slip into the mini-dress again just before service. When Pastor O’Donnell saw her enter the back of the church, a heat of fury rose in his cheeks such as only a teenage daughter can cause. But then the most surprising thing happened. Katie sat down next to Donald East.

“Hello,” she said, “how are you?”

“My wife died last week,” he replied.

“I know. I heard. I’m really sorry,” Katie said. The service started.

As Tammy Billings went to the lectern, everyone was startled to hear Katie say quite loudly, “Mr. East, I forgot to put in my contacts this morning. What’s going on?”

“Tammy Billings is giving the opening prayer,” Donald replied, smiling.

He wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the congregation was smiling. Especially Pastor O’Donnell.

The service continued with Katie asking Donald questions and the two of them commenting loudly on everyone’s appearance. Finally, after Pastor O’Donnell delivered the benediction, Katie and Donald stood. Donald turned to her and said, “Thank you, Katie.”

“For what?” she asked.

“For sitting with me today. By the way, I like your dress.”

Katie walked with Donald over to the coffee hour. He got a Styrofoam cup of bad coffee; she got a plastic cup of the so-called “fruit punch.” Then they sat beside each other awkwardly, neither really sure why they were still together.

Finally, Katie said, “I really was sorry to hear about your wife.”

“She was a wonderful woman, just wonderful,” Donald said. “She had such a sense of style.”

“Tell me about her,” Katie said.

And Donald did -- in a voice that was much too loud for coffee hour. But nobody minded.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Prayers of the People

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 . On the last Sunday of each month, they do Prayers of the People in service. This a time when Pastor Henry O’Donnell asks the members of the congregation to raise their hands and offer their individual prayers of concern or thanksgiving. Most of the time it goes relatively smoothly. Last week was an exception.

Perhaps Pastor O’Donnell should have sensed something was brewing when he looked out over the congregation before the start of service. Husband and wife Kevin and Jill Boyer were sitting on opposite sides of the church. Jill was sitting with an unfamiliar young woman and Kevin was sitting with his friend Billy Kent. It was unusual but certainly not unprecedented for a married couple to sit with different friends, so Pastor O’Donnell noticed but didn’t really think much of it. And the identity of the young woman was revealed when it came time to introduce visitors. She was Joanna, Jill’s sister, visiting from out west.

Then came time for prayers of the people. The pastor was surprised to see Joanna’s hand raised. Visitors usually didn’t participate in that sort of thing. But he guessed maybe she wanted to thank her sister for her hospitality. He called on her first.

“My sister has a really hectic life,” Joanna began. “She has a full time job and two children that keep her very busy.”

Pastor O’Donnell knew Jill’s children. He could easily imagine how busy they kept her.

Joanna continued, “I’d like to pray that the people around her recognize how hard she works
and lend a helping hand every once in a while so she can take a break when she needs it.”

Kevin’s hand shot into the air. Pastor O’Donnell felt his stomach tighten as he nodded toward Kevin.

“I’d like to pray for the patience to tolerate meddling family members,” Kevin said.
Joanna shot to her feet. Pastor O’Donnell looked desperately for someone else to call on, but Joanna didn’t wait. “I’d like to pray for the patience to accept people who don’t realize how selfish they are. And I’d like to pray that I don’t miss my flight home tomorrow.”

Kevin hadn’t even sat down. “I’d like to pray that there isn’t another accident near the airport tomorrow so I don’t have to endure constant criticism because I was late one freakin’ time for reasons completely beyond my control.”

Joanna was about to respond but Jill stood and cut her off. “I’d like to pray that my loved ones recognize when they are embarrassing me and stop it,” Jill said.

Pastor O’Donnell took the opportunity to jump in before things could get any worse, saying “Okay, great, does anyone else have a prayer of thanks or prayers of concern for others?” Donald East raised his hand. Pastor O’Donnell pointed at him, glad he wasn’t related in any way to the Boyers.

“I’d like to pray for the poor people who can’t find parking spaces because SUV drivers take two spots in the parking lot,” Donald said.

Up in the choir, Del Winslow, a proud SUV owner, raised his hand. “I’d like to pray that people who drive compact cars park in the compact spaces instead of taking the big spaces and forcing the owners of big cars, who might have a perfectly good reason for owning them, to squeeze into tiny spaces because those are the only ones left.”

Pastor O‘Donnell desperately tried to steer things in another direction. “Any prayers of thanksgiving? Someone must be thankful for something.”

Ralph Billings, head usher, stepped forward. “I’m thankful there’s a grocery store a block up the street where I can get healthy food since only sugary snacks are served at coffee hour despite my many requests.”

Kevin Boyer shouted out, “I’m thankful for the sugary snacks.”

Two dozen hands shot up. Pastor O’Donnell sighed. He really wanted to just move on to the anthem, but it would be inappropriate to not give everyone the opportunity to express their prayers. He decided his best bet was to just start at the front and work his way back. Shane, sitting at the piano, had his hand up. “You have a prayer, Shane?”

Shane stood and cleared his throat. “I’d like to pray for my brother who just got diagnosed with prostate cancer and his wife and two little boys.”

Pastor O’Donnell was stunned. He gave Shane a sympathetic nod and made a mental note to call him later in the week. As Shane sat back down, the pastor turned back to the congregation. “Who else has a prayer?” Amazingly, not a hand went up.

Normally at the end of prayers of the people Pastor O’Donnell would say a prayer that touched on each of the concerns voiced. But this time he simply said, “Lord, we pray for sick relatives, give thanks for visiting family, and most of all we ask that you help us learn to get along with one another. Amen.” And the people said, “Amen.”

After the service, Pastor O’Donnell retreated to his office. He needed to consider whether once a month might be a little too often for prayers of the people.

(c) 2008 Douglas J. Eboch