Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Miracle of the Pancake

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. A recent rain storm had done extensive damage to the classroom used by the “Guppies,” the pre-school Sunday school class. Needing money for repair, the church resorted to a time honored source of fundraising: a pancake breakfast.

They held the breakfast before church one Sunday and sold tickets for two dollars. Church secretary Tammy Billings organized the event while her husband Ralph served as head pancake chef. Also volunteering in the kitchen were Pastor O’Donnell’s wife Jennifer and daughter Katie, and Missy Moore, a woman of relentlessly sunny disposition.

Missy liked to wear bright colored dresses and matching hats to church and she made no exception the morning of the pancake breakfast. So she was very careful to make sure her apron was properly arranged to protect her outfit. Her job was to mix up pancake batter with Jennifer.

The social hall quickly filled with hungry congregants as organist Walter Tibble played Bach between large doses of coffee. Walter was not a morning person. A basket for additional donations had been set by the door, seeded with a few dollars from Ralph to get things going. Everyone helped themselves to coffee and orange juice as the smell of pancakes wafted in from the kitchen.

When Tammy indicated that the first batch was ready, Pastor O’Donnell gave a blessing. He made it quick because he was looking forward to a nice, big breakfast. And with Jennifer working in the kitchen she wouldn’t be giving him disapproving looks when he took seconds. Or thirds.

When the pastor finished, Katie and Tammy served big platters of pancakes to each table. Ralph didn’t disappoint - each one was warm, fluffy and delicious.

Pastor O’Donnell was seated at a table with Del and Karen Winslow and choir director Shane Reed. The four of them made quick work of the first platter of pancakes. When Tammy brought them a second one, they each tried to be patient as the others helped themselves in turn. When Shane plopped his second helping on his plate, he let out a little gasp.

“Look at that,” he said, pointing at the top pancake with his fork. In the center of the light tan pancake was a slightly raised bubble with a darker brown image on it. “It kind of looks like…well, it kind of looks like a woman’s face.”

They all stared at the pancake not sure what to say. Then Karen voiced what they were all thinking. “It looks like the Virgin Mary,” she said.

“It’s a miracle,” Del whispered. Then, “isn’t it?”

They all looked at Pastor O’Donnell. He shifted uncomfortably in his metal folding chair. He was a man of faith so of course he believed in miracles. But he was more comfortable with the kind of miracles where someone comes along to help you out when you get a flat tire on a deserted road. He tended toward skepticism when it came to showy miracles like religious imagery appearing in food.

He studied the pancake closely. It sure looked like an image of the Virgin Mary. “I don’t know,” he said. It might be.”

Del stood up and tapped his orange juice glass with his fork. “Excuse me folks,” he said in his commanding baritone, “you’ve gotta see this.”

People gathered around. The hubbub of conversation grew from whispered questioning to bubbling excitement. And everyone was looking to their pastor to interpret this miracle.

So O’Donnell did his best. “God has clearly blessed this pancake breakfast,” he said. “We ought to respond by digging deep and giving all we can toward the repair of the Guppies’ classroom.”

It was simple but effective. In no time the donation basket was overflowing with bills. And not just singles, but tens and twenties. It would turn out to be the most successful pancake breakfast fundraiser in the little church’s history.

Katie, a typically cynical teenager, had studied the pancake at length. She didn’t know what it meant theologically, but it was certainly cool. She remembered the people back in the kitchen and went to tell them the news so they could see it themselves.

“You’ll never believe what happened,” she said as she entered. Then she noticed Missy down on all fours feeling under the work tables. “What are you doing,” Katie asked.

“I lost my brooch,” Missy replied.

“What did it look like?”

“It was the Virgin Mary. My grandmother gave it to me when I was confirmed.”

Back in the Social Hall, Shane had set the miracle pancake aside. “You’re going to be rich,” Del told him. “People will pay to see stuff like that.”

“Wait a minute,” Pastor O’Donnell interrupted, “Why is he going to be rich? The pancake belongs to the church.”

“No it doesn’t,” Del said. “Shane paid for pancakes and he took that one. It’s his pancake.”
“It doesn’t matter who took the pancake. When a miracle happens in the church, the church deserves the benefit.”

The argument was about to get heated when Katie walked up and plunged her fingers into the pancake.

“HEY,” O’Donnell, Del and Shane all shouted simultaneously.

Then Katie pulled Missy’s Virgin Mary brooch out of the pancake. She turned to Missy who was standing in the door of the kitchen. “I found it,” Katie told her.

“It’s a miracle!” Missy said.

(In loving memory of Evie Austin)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Barry's Ark

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. On a recent Sunday, Normal was battered by a ferocious wind and rain storm. The weather couldn’t dampen Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s spirits, though. It was a very special day for him. A reporter from the district newsletter was coming to do a profile of the church. They had done one on his old seminary classmate Pastor Robert Sanchez’s church last year with a picture of Robert looking oh-so-smug leaning against his classic 1970 Aston Martin. Henry was going to have his picture taken holding his Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. Sanchez wasn’t the only cool pastor in the district.

When Pastor O’Donnell arrived at the church he discovered head usher Ralph Billings standing over a large, muddy puddle forming at the entrance to the parking lot. Branches and debris had clogged a drainage pipe, Ralph informed him.

“See if you can fix it,” O’Donnell said. “A reporter’s coming today and we want the place to look good. When Henry got inside he told church secretary Tammy Billings, Ralph’s wife, to let him know when the reporter arrived. In the meantime he went into the restroom to fix his windblown hair.

When he came out, Tammy was waiting for him. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” she said. “The reporter’s here. But her car stalled in the puddle in the parking lot.”

The color drained from Henry’s face. He ran out to assess the situation. The “puddle” was now more like a small pond. And in the middle of the pond was a subcompact car mired to the base of its doors. And in the driver’s seat of the car was a very anxious looking middle aged woman.

Henry waded out to the car, ignoring the mud that filled his shoes. He stuck his hand in the open window. “Pastor Henry O’Donnell,” he said.

“Miriam Smith,” the woman replied.

Henry gave Miriam his best “don’t worry” smile and pulled Ralph aside. “We’ve got to get her out of there.”

“I tried pushing the car out,” Ralph told him. “The wheels are buried in mud. Maybe she could climb out the window.”

“I’m not having her wade through this!” Henry shot back.

“Maybe we could carry her.”

Henry thought about it. They only had a few minutes before the service was supposed to start. There was no time to waste. He explained the plan to Miriam and she was game. She shimmied through her car window, one arm around Henry’s shoulder and one around Ralph’s. They made a kind of seat for her with their hands and carried her to relatively dry ground.

“Thank you,” she said, looking a little embarrassed.

“You’re welcome,” Henry replied. “Ralph will keep working on getting your car out. You just enjoy the service and we’ll do the interview and photo afterward.”

Miriam headed into the sanctuary and Henry rushed back to his office. He exchanged his soaked shoes and socks with a pair of old running shoes that was in the clothing donation box. They looked funny with his suit, but he figured he could stay behind the pulpit most of the service.

Meanwhile, the storm had given Sunday school teacher Karen Winslow an idea for a fun project for her preschool class known as the “Guppies.” First, she gathered the kids in a circle and told them the story of Noah’s ark. Then, she told them the class was going to build its own ark out of that children’s craft staple, Popsicle sticks. Normally, any Guppies class project was an adventure due to the imaginative design variations little Mary Boyer always conceived. But this one went surprisingly well, perhaps because Mary glued her sleeve to the table early on and Karen took her time freeing the little girl.

Outside, the puddle had grown from a pond to a small lake and Ralph decided he’d better get that blockage out of the drain pipe. He got a shovel from the tool shed and waded in. He stabbed the shovel into the packed debris over and over, using all his weight.

And then suddenly on the fourteenth hit the blockage crumbled. Water gushed into the pipe and then sprayed out into a runoff ditch a dozen feet away. But the sudden deluge was too much for the ditch. The water overflowed and spilled down the gently sloping lawn toward the church building.

“Uh oh,” Ralph thought.

Inside, services were coming to an end and the Guppies were finishing their project. The Popsicle stick ark was impressive - over three feet long and a foot wide. Karen set it on the floor and had the kids fill it with every animal toy and stuffed animal they could find.

“Mrs. Winslow,” Sierra Smith said, tugging on her pant leg, “all the stuffed animals under the window are wet.

The classroom was in the basement level of the church with a couple of small windows up by the ceiling. Karen was shocked to see muddy water seeping in around the edge of one of those windows and running down the wall. Even more alarming, all that was visible through the glass was more water. The window was completely submerged.

“Okay, kids, line up by the door,” Karen ordered. She had no sooner wrangled the Guppies into line when there was a loud crack and the flooded window gave out. Water poured into the room, spilling out across the carpet. “Go, go,” Karen shouted, “get upstairs!”

“Mrs. Winslow, what about Barry?” Sierra asked as they jogged down the hall. Barry the Bunny was the class’s pet rabbit. Karen had completely forgotten about him. She turned back to rescue the poor animal only to discover water was now flowing out of the class room door.

“Barry’s okay,” Mary called out. “I put him in the ark.”

And just at that moment the ark floated out of the classroom, Barry’s head poking out and his nose twitching in curiosity. The muddy flow pushed it down the hall away from the cheering kids.

Upstairs, the service was over and Tammy Billings was giving Miriam a tour of the church while Pastor O’Donnell greeted the exiting congregation. Tammy and Miriam were coming down the stairs at the far end of the hall when the flood waters rushed up to meet them, carrying Barry the Bunny in his Popsicle stick ark. Both Tammy and Miriam were too stunned to speak. All Miriam could think to do was snap a photo of the strange sight.

A few minutes later Pastor O’Donnell found them. “I’m ready to do the interview - oh my,” he said, noticing the flooded hallway. Visions of fundraisers and work parties flashed through his head. The next few months were going to be a pain.

But Henry kept his composure enough to give Miriam a glowing interview and have his picture taken in the sanctuary holding his prized guitar like a pudgy, self-conscious Jimmy Page.

When the next issue of the district newsletter arrived a few weeks later, Henry opened it excitedly. But to his shock, rather than a picture of him with his guitar, the story was topped by a shot of Barry and his ark, along with the headline, “Normal Church Finds Unique Lesson in Bible Story.”

The phone rang. It was Pastor Sanchez. “Upstaged by a rabbit,” Sanchez said sympathetically. Then he laughed and laughed.