Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Turkeys

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. Earlier this year the church brought on an Associate Pastor, 28-year-old Michelle Tellum, fresh out of seminary. As the holiday season approached, Michelle was asked to lead the Christmas Eve Service. Jennifer O’Donnell, wife of Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell, promoted the idea. With Michelle handling Christmas Eve, the O’Donnells could spend the holidays with Jennifer’s family in Denver for the first time in years.

Michelle had mixed emotions. She was honored by the trust, nervous to be flying solo for such a significant service, and sad because it was the first Christmas she would be spending away from her own parents.

Her new boyfriend, Ian Wells, addressed this last emotion by inviting her to spend Christmas with his family who lived locally in Normal. Michelle liked the idea, though it increased her nervousness. She had not yet met Ian’s parents. Spending Christmas with them would be a pretty high-risk first impression. But Ian assured her his family would love her.

Then, a few days before Christmas Eve, Ian broke the news that he would not be attending Michelle’s Christmas Eve service.

“Why not,” she demanded.

“My family has a little Christmas Party every Christmas Eve. It won’t be over until after your service starts.”

“Can’t you leave early or even skip it?”

“My Mom would be heartbroken,” Ian said.

“Well, I’ll be heartbroken if you don’t come to my service,” Michelle replied.

“Come on, it’s not that big of a deal,” Ian said. “You’re going to be doing your thing up at the front of the church. You won’t even know I’m not there.”

“I’ll know,” Michelle responded.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said. “But it’s family. You understand.”

“Oh, I understand,” Michelle told him. “But if you’re not coming to my service, then I don’t think I’ll come to your family’s house for Christmas. It would be too awkward.”

“Don’t be like that,” Ian replied. “You don’t want to spend Christmas by yourself.”

“I won’t be by myself,” Michelle assured him. Not that she had any idea with whom she would spend Christmas instead, but she wasn’t about to appear needy when Ian was being so inconsiderate.

The solution presented itself a few minutes before the start of the Christmas Eve service. She was sitting with choir director Shane Reed who was divorced and also away from his family. As they waited for the congregation to file in, he asked, “So, what are you doing for Christmas?”

“I have no idea,” Michelle admitted. “Spending it by myself, I guess. How about you?”

“I’m going to help serve dinner at the food pantry,” Shane said. “You could come along if you want. They could use the help.”

Michelle perked up. “That’s a great idea, thanks!”

The next morning Michelle woke up in her empty apartment. She sat beside the sparsely decorated three-foot tree she had bought and opened the presents her family had sent. When it was late enough she called home. The noise of a crowded house enjoying the holiday did not cheer her up.

A bit later Ian called. He tried to apologize for missing her service but she was in no mood to make up. “I have to go,” she told him. “I’m due to help prepare dinner at the food pantry.”

Arriving into the hustle and bustle of the food pantry was something of a relief. It may not have been the way she usually spent Christmas, but it was better than sitting in her lonely apartment. Shane was already there and got her set up chopping ingredients next to him. A big meal like this required lots of chopping.

As they worked their knives, Shane told wacky holiday stories about his crazy drunk uncle that soon had Michelle in tears of laughter. Or maybe the tears were from the onions she was chopping. Still, her mood had improved a lot.

Then she heard Ian’s voice say, “Hi, I’d like to volunteer.”

She turned around and saw him standing in the doorway. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“My family got me last night,” he told her. “Today I want to spend with you.”

Michelle gave him a non-committal nod. She was touched but not quite ready to forgive him. The pantry’s volunteer coordinator, a small but energetic woman named Helen, assigned Ian to mash potatoes on the other side of the kitchen. Michelle made sure to laugh extra loudly at Shane’s stories so Ian could hear how much fun she was having.

And then a minor disaster struck. One of the two ovens demonstrated a devious knack for bad timing by choosing now to break down. Getting a repairman to come out on Christmas was not likely in Normal. They had two enormous twenty-five pound turkeys that had to cook. Only one could fit in the remaining oven and doing them consecutively would add almost five hours to the prep time. They’d be eating at 10 p.m.

“What about the church,” Michelle asked. “We have an industrial oven.”

Helen ran over and gave Michelle a big hug. “You’ve saved the day!” she cried.

Michelle, Shane and Ian hauled one of the monster turkeys over to the church and got it started cooking. “I don’t want to leave it unattended,” Michelle said. “One of us will have to stay with it. Ian?”

Ian opened his mouth to protest, but then paused. Michelle was watching him carefully. He realized this was his punishment. “Sure,” he said.

“Good,” Michelle replied. “Shane and I will go back and help get the rest of the meal ready. We’ll come get you and the turkey in four and a half hours.”

By the time people started arriving two hours later Michelle was feeling pretty guilty leaving Ian by himself in the church kitchen. Most of the side dishes were prepared, but dinner was still an hour behind schedule due to the transportation time taking the turkey to and from the church.

“We’re going to have to do something to entertain people,” Helen said as she watched the growing crowd.

“Let’s sing Christmas carols,” Shane suggested. “I’ll play piano. Michelle, you can lead the singing.”

“I can’t sing,” Michelle said.

“Everyone can sing Christmas carols,” Shane scoffed. He wouldn’t have said that if he had ever heard Michelle try.

Then a little voice wafted up to them. “My Mommy can sing.” They looked over and saw a tiny Asian boy of about six peeking in through the kitchen door.

“Who’s your Mommy?” Helen asked. Then his Mom appeared. She was pretty, in her late twenties, slim with long black hair.

“Tyler, stay out of there,” she said, “I’m sorry. Is he bothering you?”

“Not at all,” Shane replied. “In fact, he’s just volunteered you to lead everyone singing Christmas carols.”

“Thanks a lot,” the woman said, playfully rubbing Tyler’s head. Then she held out her hand, “My name’s Audra.”

Shane shook her hand, “Nice to meet you.” He turned to Michelle and gave her a wink. “I guess you’re off the hook.”

“Good,” she replied. “I think I’ll go give Ian a break.”

Ian was dozing on a counter top when Michelle arrived. “Do you have your guitar with you?” she asked.

“Actually, it’s in the trunk,” he said. Ian played jazz guitar in a local band.

“Go back to the food pantry,” Michelle instructed. “They need some entertainment.”

“What about you?” Ian asked.

“I’ll be fine,” she said.

Michelle amused herself with a book of Sudoku puzzles she had in her office until Helen picked her and the turkey up an hour later. “Is everyone starving?” Michelle asked.

“They’ve forgotten all about dinner,” Helen laughed.

When they arrived at the pantry Michelle saw why. Ian, Shane and Audra were rocking a jazzy version of “We Three Kings.” Michelle had not realized that particular carol could rock. And Tyler wasn’t lying when he said his Mom could sing.

When they finished the song Helen announced dinner was ready.

As the volunteers headed to serve and the guests queued up with their trays, Michelle snuck a kiss on Ian’s cheek.

“Am I forgiven?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

After all the guests had their food, Helen told the volunteers they should grab dinner as well. Michelle, Ian and Shane loaded up plates and joined Audra and Tyler at one of the long tables.

“That was awesome,” Michelle told them. “You have a great voice, Audra.”

“Thanks,” Audra replied. “I used to sing professionally, but, well, times are tough. Obviously.”

“We can’t pay you anything but we’d love to have a voice like yours in the choir on Sunday,” Shane said.

“Sounds like fun,” Audra replied.

And in fact she did one better. The following week Shane, Ian and Audra reprised their performance from the food pantry as special music for the church service. When they finished the congregation burst into enthusiastic applause.

Pastor O’Donnell leaned over to Michelle. “You must have had quite a Christmas,” he said.

“Oh yeah,” she replied smiling. “It was actually pretty cool.”

Note: I posted this story early this week so it would be up in time for Christmas. I’ll return to my every-other-Sunday schedule with the next story, which will appear January 10, 2010. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some Like Hot Tamales

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. The Winslow family are cornerstone members of the church. Del Winslow sings in the choir, Karen Winslow teaches the Guppies pre-school Sunday school class, and their daughter Carrie recently married her husband Carlos in the church.

Every Christmas since she and Del were first married Karen has made a special meal for the family – standing rib roast and rhubarb pie. But this year that tradition was threatened when Karen was diagnosed with leukemia. She had been in the hospital for a month for chemotherapy and wasn’t scheduled to be released until Christmas Eve.

That month was rough on Del. The holiday season was always a busy time of year, of course, and with his wife in the hospital Del had to add a considerable amount of housework to his usual chores. Then there were the hours he spent each day by Karen’s bedside and more hours on the phone arguing with an uncooperative insurance company…not to mention the emotional toll. As Christmas approached Del was nearly as exhausted as Karen.

The entire Winslow family was gathered in Karen’s hospital room playing a game of Hearts on a Sunday afternoon when the subject of Christmas dinner came up.

“I’m so glad you’ll be home for Christmas, Mom,” Carrie said as she returned from the bathroom. Carrie was seven months pregnant and it seemed like she was always either coming or going from the bathroom.

“Yeah,” Dell added, “It’ll be nice to have the whole family around our dining table again enjoying your famous rib roast.”

The room got quiet. “I don’t think I’m going to be well enough to make dinner this year, dear,” Karen said.

“Oh,” Del replied, his face reddening. “No, of course not. Well, maybe Carrie and I can do it then.”

Karen laughed. Del’s occasional ventures into the kitchen usually proved disastrous and had even summoned the fire department on two occasions. And Carrie had given up trying to cook anything that didn’t come from a can or a take-out container long ago.

“What if I made dinner,” Carlos said. It was not a crazy idea. He had cooked regularly for Carrie and himself before they were forced to move in with Del and Karen after the younger couple were both laid off.

“Do you know how to make a standing rib roast?” Del asked hopefully.

“No,” Carlos replied, “but my family has a traditional Christmas dinner as well. Tamales.”

“Tamales,” Del repeated. It didn’t sound very Christmas-y to him.

“It’s actually the custom in Mexico,” Carlos explained. “At Christmas time the women of the family spend several days sitting around making tamales and talking. My family continued the tradition when I was growing up in Cincinnati and I often helped. It’s easy. We can make them together.”

“That’s a great idea!” Carrie exclaimed. “You’re part of our family now. This will be an opportunity to combine our traditions.”

Del sat quietly. He knew Karen couldn’t cook a big dinner her first day out of the hospital. He certainly didn’t want to stress her out in her fragile condition. But his tradition was standing rib roast and rhubarb pie and with everything going on he really craved something traditional. He didn’t think Tamales were going to cut it.

It was an especially joyous Christmas Eve morning when Del brought Karen home from the hospital. Carlos and Carrie had decorated the living room with a “welcome home” banner and bouquets of flowers. And Carlos had prepared the kitchen and dining room table for a tamale making assembly line.

Karen was delighted. She watched eagerly as Carlos explained the process. First, they would cook the filling. Carlos had purchased a variety of meats and spices. He and Carrie thought it would be fun to experiment so they included many non-traditional ingredients such as hoison sauce for Asian flavored tamales.

Once the fillings were ready they would spread Masa on cornhusks, put the filling into it, and fold the tamale. They would then steam the tamales on Christmas day just before eating.

“This looks fun,” Karen said. “Let’s get started!”

“You guys enjoy,” Del said. “I’m a little tired. I think I’m just going to read a book.”

“But Daddy,” Carrie pleaded, “It’s supposed to be a family activity.”

“If he doesn’t want to participate he doesn’t have to,” Karen said. “Go read your book, Sweetie. You’ve been doing a lot for us lately. You deserve some time to yourself.”

Del settled into his recliner in the living room with the latest spy novel he’d gotten from the library while Carrie and Carlos set about cooking the meat. Karen mostly sat on a stool and observed, just happy to be back in her own kitchen.

After they finished cooking the fillings they moved to the dining room table for the assembly process. They talked and laughed and listened to Christmas carols on the radio as they made their tamales with all the creative seasonings they could think of.

About ten minutes into the process Del passed through. “Just getting something to drink,” he said. He filled a glass of water in the kitchen and then stopped to observe for a few minutes.

“That’s a lot of tamale stuff you’ve got there. It’s going to take you hours to make them all.”

“That’s part of the fun,” Carlos said. “You want to try a couple?”

“No, no. I’m enjoying my book,” Del replied and returned to the living room.

A bit later a roar of laughter erupted from the dining room. Del popped in again.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“Carlos was just telling us a story about when he got a fishing pole for Christmas and hooked his own ear the first time he used it,” Carrie explained.

“Sounds hilarious,” Del said.

“Did you finish your book?” Karen asked.

“No, just taking a bathroom break.”

About ten minutes later he poked his head in a third time. “How’s it going,” he asked.

“I keep tearing the husks,” Carrie grumbled as she tried to carefully fold a tamale filled with shredded beef and marinara sauce.

“Maybe it would help if you used a little less filling,” Del suggested.

“They’re just so fragile,” Carrie said.

“Let me try one.” Del sat down. Carlos demonstrated the process for him. Del picked up a husk, spread the Masa on it, plopped in a little shredded chicken with honey mustard and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and folded it up.

“Nicely done,” Carlos said. Carrie made a face at him.

Del grabbed another husk.

“I thought you wanted to read your book,” Carrie muttered.

“If you want to get all these assembled before Christmas Eve service at church I think I better help,” Del replied.

He made a barbecue pork tamale next, singing along with “Christmas Blues” playing on the radio. Karen watched him with a little smile.

Two hours later the four of them surveyed the mass of tamales they’d made. They were grouped into a dozen bowls by filling. It wasn’t quite enough to feed an army but it might have satisfied a small platoon.

“We’ll never eat all that,” Del said.

“I’m sure they’ll be put to good use,” Carlos replied.

That use became apparent the next day when visitor after visitor stopped by to welcome Karen home. Each was given a couple of hot tamales. Most asked for seconds.

During a quiet moment in the middle of the afternoon Karen sidled up to Del and took his hand. “I know tamales aren’t our tradition,” she said. “But I think we have to get used to the idea that things are changing for our family. Next Christmas there’s going to be a little baby dining with us.”

“I know I wasn’t on the tamale band wagon at first,” Del said, “But I’m beginning to see the advantages of that custom.”

Then the doorbell rang. It was Ralph and Tammy Billings. Tammy brought a gift – a homemade rhubarb pie.

“How did you know?” Del asked, delighted.

“A little birdie,” Tammy replied. Then Carlos handed Tammy a large bag of tamales that he had set aside earlier.

“Your son-in-law is a very thoughtful young man,” Tammy told Del.

“Yes he is,” Del said. He slid his arm around Karen. This was very possibly the best Christmas of his life, Del decided.

Want to make your own unusual tamales? Check out http://www.douglasjeboch.com/Tamales.htm for recipes and ideas.

And watch for a special Christmas Day Little Church story next! Happy Holidays!!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Hospital Visits

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. Karen Winslow, the sixty-two year-old Sunday school teacher for the Guppies pre-school class, recently checked into the hospital for a month long stay.

Karen had been diagnosed with leukemia. The first stage of treatment for her type of leukemia was an intense bout of chemotherapy. The chemo took seven days to administer and then three more weeks to recover from.

On the second day of Karen’s treatment, Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell and new young Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum came to the hospital for a visit. Michelle was nervous. She had not done many hospital visits and they made her uncomfortable. On the drive over Henry gently reassured her. “Just follow my lead,” he said.

They arrived to find Karen’s daughter Carrie sitting by the bed. Carrie was seven months pregnant and really starting to show. She was making an effort to be cheerful for her mom, but Henry could tell she was worried. And no wonder – Karen looked worn and exhausted, a dramatic change from only a few days before.

The four sat and made small talk for a while, though Michelle did very little talking. She sat next to the heart monitor smiling and nodding stiffly.

“Who’s going to teach the Guppies class this Sunday?” Karen eventually asked.

Henry glanced at Michelle. “Well,” he said, “we’re not sure yet. But don’t you worry about that. We’ll find someone.”

“Can I do it?” Carrie asked. “I think it might be good practice for when this one arrives.” She rubbed the bulge at her belly.

Henry thought the Guppies, particularly four year-old Mary Boyer, would be more likely to terrify Carrie about the prospect of motherhood than offer any useful experience. But he kept that thought to himself since he really needed a substitute. “We’d love to have you,” he said.

After a few more minutes, Karen informed them she was getting tired.

“Let’s pray and then we’ll leave you alone,” Henry replied.

They all stood around the bed, joined hands and bowed their heads. “Dear Lord,” Henry began…

And was interrupted by a loud alarm from the heart monitor. Michelle shrieked. Carrie shrieked. Even Henry shrieked, though he’d later deny it.

Karen opened one eye and looked at them. “What?” she asked. “I’m fine.”

A nurse dashed in and quickly solved the problem. Michelle had accidentally pulled a cord out with her foot. “You thought I was dead, didn’t you?” Karen asked Michelle. Michelle didn’t respond, but blushed cherry red as Karen guffawed at the mistake.

After things had quieted down, Henry finished the prayer. “Stay strong,” he told Karen. “And Carrie, we’ll see you Sunday in the Guppies’ room.”

Normally Henry’s concern about Carrie teaching the Guppies would have been well founded. But Carrie discovered the youngsters were as worried as she was by what was happening to their beloved Mrs. Winslow. They didn’t really understand things like bone marrow and radiation and even the word “cancer,” but they did understand that Mrs. Winslow was very sick.

Surveying the quiet, concerned little faces, Carrie had the excellent idea for the class to spend the hour making “Get Well” cards for their teacher.

“Be sure to tell Mrs. Winslow how much you miss her,” Carrie instructed as she handed out art supplies. “And make your cards really, really happy with lots of bright decorations to cheer her up.”

The effect of the project on the children’s attitudes was so positive that Carrie didn’t regret the idea even when Mary Boyer accidentally spilled gold and purple glitter paint on Carrie’s Prada handbag. In fact, it taught her an important lesson for her impending motherhood: young children and high fashion don’t mix.

Supervising the project raised Carrie’s spirits as well. And after some discussion, she convinced Pastor O’Donnell to let the class deliver the cards to Karen in person the following Sunday – with their parents’ permission of course. She had seen how much having visitors cheered her mother up.

A week later the Guppies gathered in a small knot at the door to Karen’s hospital room clutching their construction paper cards in carefully scrubbed hands, paper masks over their mouths. Karen was very susceptible to infection at this point in her treatment.

“Hello, Kids!” Karen beamed with a wide grin. The kids didn’t respond. Mrs. Winslow looked thin and pale, and there were dark rings under her eyes. She had wrapped a bright scarf around her head to cover the patches of lost hair, but even so her appearance frightened the youngsters.

Karen tried again, summoning as much energy as she could to increase the enthusiasm in her voice. “It’s so good to see you!”

Carrie stepped in, “Kids, who would like to give Mrs. Winslow their card first?” There was a long pause. “How ‘bout you, Sierra?”

Little Sierra Smith bravely stepped forward. Karen took the bright red card and fussed over every detail. As she did Sierra visibly relaxed. And as Sierra relaxed, the other kids started to relax as well.

One by one they came up to the hospital bed to show Mrs. Winslow their cards. And Karen fawned over each one.

Finally there was only one little girl left – Mary Boyer. “Do you want to give Mrs. Winslow your card?” Carrie asked her.

Mary chewed her lip under the paper mask, considering. Finally she nodded once quickly and stepped up to the bed. Karen took the card from her and commented on the deft arrangement of star stickers, the elaborate drawings of what appeared to be penguins, and the liberal use of gold and purple glitter. The whole time Mary stood stoically at attention.

Finally, Karen asked, “Is everything all right, Mary?”

Mary considered her response. Then blurted out, “This sucks, Mrs. Winslow.”

“Mary!” Carrie exclaimed, chagrined. But Karen just laughed.

“Yeah,” Karen said. “I agree. It does suck.”

Then Mary suddenly reached her hands up across Karen’s abdomen and buried her face in Karen’s side. It was as close to a hug as Mary could manage given her short stature and the height of the hospital bed. Karen wrapped an arm around Mary’s shoulders and hugged back.

Carrie stepped forward. “Remember what I said about Mrs. Winslow being fragile right now.”

“It’s alright,” Karen said quickly. Mary lifted her head. Her eyes were damp.

“Thank you, Mary,” Karen said softly. “Your visit really cheered me up. And don’t worry. I’ll be back to teach class again in no time. Until then, you be good for Carrie.”

“I promise,” Mary said.

Just then the nurse appeared with a tray holding Karen’s lunch. As she set it on a stand beside the bed, Mary’s eyes tracked a bowl in the upper left corner.

“You get chocolate pudding?” Mary said.

“I get some kind of pudding pretty much every day,” Karen told her.

“Wow,” Mary whispered.

She gave Karen one last squeeze and rejoined her classmates. As Carrie was herding them out the door Karen called to her. “Thank you, Carrie. This was just what I needed.”

Carrie smiled. She had not seen her mother looking this strong in days. She took Mary’s hand and led the kids out.

“I wish I got pudding every day,” Mary said. “Mrs. Winslow sure is lucky.”

“She sure is,” Carrie agreed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

No Tea and Sympathy

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. Last Wednesday the church’s Senior Pastor, Henry O’Donnell, woke up with a nasty cold. He lay in bed for an hour coughing and sniffling and debating whether he could make it through a day of work.

He decided he could not.

He waited until just after nine when church secretary Tammy Billings would be in the office and called in. “I’m sick,” he told her. “I’m going to stay home.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Tammy said sympathetically. “What do you want to do about the apportionment paperwork? It’s due today.”

Henry moaned. He had been putting off the chore for weeks. Paperwork was the least favorite part of his job. And any paperwork relating to finance was the worst – especially this year when church income had fallen significantly. But turning the paperwork in to the district office late would only mean more headaches down the line.

“Okay,” Henry finally said. “I’ll come in and do it. But then I’m going straight back home.”

Henry dragged himself out of bed and pulled on sweats and a baseball cap. “Why does this stuff always happen to me?” he said to no one in particular.

“Good morning,” Tammy said brightly when Henry stomped into the office an hour later.

“Wish it were,” he grunted.

“Karen Winslow called,” Tammy replied, holding out a message slip.

“I’ll call her back tomorrow. As soon as I finish the apportionment paperwork I’m outta here. So please don’t bother me with anything that isn’t absolutely urgent. And why is it so cold in here anyway?”

“The heat’s on the fritz again,” Tammy told him. “The repairman’s coming to fix it tomorrow.”

“That’s just great,” O’Donnell muttered and lumbered into his office.

“You know he’s going to say we need to replace the furnace,” Tammy called after.

“Yeah,” O’Donnell replied. “We’ll do that as soon as someone dies and leaves ten thousand dollars to the church.”

Henry sat in his office coughing and sneezing loudly and with some regularity. Despite his best efforts, Tammy seemed oblivious to his agony.

After about fifteen minutes he trudged back out to the front office. Normally he drank coffee in the morning, but his throat was killing him. He opened the box of tea bags that was by the coffee maker and microwave on a credenza across from Tammy’s desk.

The box was empty.

He turned to Tammy. “We’re out of tea bags.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I used the last one.”

Henry eyed the mug sitting by Tammy’s computer. The tag of her tea bag dangled over the rim taunting him. “Are there more in the kitchen,” he asked.

“I think they’re in the storeroom downstairs,” she replied.

Henry watched Tammy clacking away at her keyboard. She showed no signs of volunteering to retrieve another box of tea in the near future. It looked like poor, sick Henry was going to have to do it himself. He coughed particularly violently as he went out.

“You do sound bad,” Tammy called after, not looking up from her computer.

Henry tromped downstairs where he discovered the changing table from the nursery had been moved into the hall and was blocking the storeroom door. He looked around hoping someone would materialize to hear him complain about the discourtesy, but he was alone. He shoved the unwieldy table back into the nursery.

The nursery looked like a disaster area. All the cupboards had been opened and the contents stacked in various piles around the room. Half full boxes cluttered the small table.

When Henry got back to the main office he asked Tammy if she was aware that someone had vandalized the nursery.

“Very funny, pastor,” Tammy said. “Karen started to clean it out on Sunday but then she got really tired. She said she’s been feeling tired a lot lately. Probably has something to do with Carrie and her husband living with them. “

Karen Winslow was a Sunday school teacher at the church. Her daughter Carrie was expecting her first child. It had been a year since the last infant at the church and the nursery had become a depository of odds and ends in that time. Henry had known the chore needed to be done for a while and was glad Karen took it on, but he hated when people didn’t finish what they started.

“How long is she going to leave it like that?” he grumbled.

“I’m sure she’ll finish it up this Sunday.”

“I hope so,” Henry said. “Do you know why she put the changing table in the hall?

“She says we need a new one,” Tammy replied. “That one is pretty beat up.”

“If she wants a new changing table she can donate one,” Henry snapped. He was certain the one in the nursery was fine. It was most likely just a case of first time grandparents wanting the finest luxuries for their little bundle of joy. The church couldn’t afford to buy a new changing table every time somebody had a baby.

Henry put a tea bag into his mug, filled it with water, and stuck it in the little microwave. He hit the start button.

There was a bang and a small shower of sparks. Tammy yelped.

The microwave sat silent, it’s digital display dark. Henry tentatively hit a few buttons. Nothing happened.

“I guess we’re going to need a new microwave,” Tammy said.

Henry started laughing.

“Why is that funny,” Tammy asked.

“Oh, just God’s little practical jokes,” he said. “You’d think if he was going to drag me out of my sick bed to come into the office to do paperwork he’d at least let me have a cup of tea.”

Tammy considered pointing out that his predicament might have less to do with God’s sense of humor than the pastor’s own procrastination. But instead she just suggested he heat some water on the stove in the kitchen.

“Nah, forget it,” Henry replied. “I’m just going to finish the paperwork and go home.”

The phone rang. Henry waited while Tammy answered it. After listening to the caller for a few seconds she covered the mouthpiece and said, “It’s Karen Winslow again.”

Henry sighed. “My throat hurts too much to argue about the changing table today. Take a message.”

Fifteen minutes later Tammy popped into his office. “Brought you something,” she said. She set a steaming mug of tea on his desk.

Henry beamed. “Thank you so much!”

“No problem,” she said. “I wanted a second cup myself.”

The phone rang in the front office and Tammy went to answer it. Henry picked up the mug of tea feeling almost giddy with anticipation. It was too hot to drink yet so he blew on it to cool it down.

Tammy poked her head back into the room. “Del’s on the phone now.”

Del was Karen’s husband. Henry wanted to talk to him even less than he wanted to talk to Karen. “Can’t they take a hint,” Henry asked.

“He insists it’s urgent,” she replied.

“Okay,” Henry grunted and picked up the phone.

“I’m sick and I’m having a really bad day,” Henry said by way of greeting. “This better be important.”

“Karen was diagnosed with leukemia yesterday,” Del said.

Henry closed his eyes. “I’ll be right there,” he replied.

He grabbed his coat and headed for his car. The cup of tea sat forgotten on his desk.

This story line will continue. For more information on leukemia, visit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Baby Shower

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 few months ago church member Carrie Winslow-Lopez announced she was pregnant with her first child. Fellow member Missy Moore was inordinately thrilled by this news and thought the church should throw Carrie a baby shower. Missy and Carrie were not particularly close friends, but Missy loved planning showers of all types.

Carrie and her husband Carlos gladly accepted. Not only were they flattered at Missy’s thoughtfulness, but both had recently lost their jobs so they kind of needed the gifts.

Missy’s first decision was to make the shower co-ed. After all, she reasoned, why should the guys miss out on all the fun?

Kevin Boyer had no trouble coming up with good reasons. The primary one was that it all sounded like a lot of girly nonsense to him.

Kevin worked out an elaborate excuse involving an important weekend business obligation. Unfortunately his wife Jill knew Kevin’s only real obligation was to a televised golf game that had nothing to do with his job. She informed him he would, in fact, be attending the shower. “Why,” Kevin whined.

“Because it would be rude not to,” Jill snapped. “Besides, you’ll have fun.”

After arguing the point in vein for several days, Kevin finally relented and turned his attentions to convincing his buddy Thad to go as well. Kevin figured he’d enjoy himself more if his friend was also suffering.

Kevin certainly needn’t have worried that he would be the only man there. Carrie’s husband Carlos was naturally obligated to attend, as was her father, Del. And it would have been poor form for Pastor O’Donnell to be absent. Organist Walter Tibble happily checked the “yes” box on his RSVP. He had never been to a baby shower and was curious to see how they worked. Like most organists, Walter was a little weird.

Kevin may not have been exactly eager to attend but he did hold out hope for a fun afternoon. After all, since it was co-ed he assumed Missy wouldn’t make the event too girly. Those hopes began to fade, however, as he and Jill entered the social hall and found it festooned in pink and white ribbon and balloons with cardboard pictures of babies taped up every five feet.

Before long Kevin was huddled with the rest of the men in one corner of the social hall sipping punch while the women laughed and compared parenting stories in a ring of folding chairs Missy had set out.

One of Missy’s favorite things about showers were the games and she had a long list prepared. For the first, she gave everyone a pink plastic clothespin upon entering and informed them that if they said the words “baby” or “pregnant,” the first person who heard them got to take their clothespin and any others they’d collected. Whoever had the most clothespins by the time cake was served got a prize.

Walter collected the first clothespin among the group of guys when Pastor O’Donnell commented that he hadn’t attended his own wife’s baby shower. “You said a forbidden word,” Walter chortled. O’Donnell sighed and handed over his clothespin.

“I didn’t go to my daughters’ baby showers either,” Kevin immediately said.

“Clothespin!” Ralph shouted.

Kevin handed it over thankfully. He was not really a fan of party games.

The rest of the men were good sports and tried to watch what they said, but before long Walter had collected all six of the clothespins initially handed out to the guys. He clipped them proudly down the front of his shirt.

Then Missy announced that it was time to play “Identify the Baby Food.” She had peeled the labels off eight jars of baby food and everyone was to guess what the mush inside was from appearance and smell. While the other guests crowded around the row of tiny jars, Kevin excused himself to go to the restroom.

Once Missy tallied up all the entries, she announced the winner: Walter Tibble. Walter leaped to his feet with a victory whoop, hands thrust into the air. “He got a perfect eight for eight,” Missy noted.

“How do you know so much about baby food?” Jill asked in amazement.

“Clothespins!” Walter shouted in response to Jill’s slip of the tongue. He collected the three clothespins she’d acquired on his way up to get the prize for the baby food game – a jar of applesauce. Missy did have a wacky sense of humor.

The next game was “How Big is Mommy’s Tummy?” Each participant was to cut a string at the length they thought would encircle Carrie’s pregnant belly. Whoever got the closest to her actual circumference won.

Now it was Pastor O’Donnell’s turn to visit the bathroom. He didn’t need to, but nineteen years of marriage made him uncomfortable when it came to guessing the size of women’s bodies.

When the strings were collected and compared to the one Carrie had cut, they discovered Walter had won again. Walter did a little victory dance as he collected his prize – a box of multi-colored ribbons.

“Okay,” Missy said as Walter skipped away. “The next game is the Bottle race. We’ll see who can suck a baby bottle dry the fastest.”

At this point Thad noticed that neither Kevin nor Pastor O’Donnell had returned to the party. He decided to investigate.

Walter was the winner of the baby bottle race, too, though Del gave him a run for his money. After consuming so much liquid in such a short period of time, Del found he had to use the restroom. And it was at this point that people started to notice the absence of so many of the men.

But then everyone became distracted by Missy’s next game – a version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey where contestants tried to pin a paper baby on the pregnant belly of a blown-up photo of Carrie. Walter won again.

“Walter, maybe you should go look for the other men,” Jill suggested grumpily.

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” Walter replied. “What’s the next game?”

“Guess the Chocolate,” Missy said. That game involved candy bars melted in baby diapers. The goal was to guess what kind of candy bar had been used in each.

“I’ll find the other guys,” Carlos said, eyeing the diapers uneasily. Carrie caught his look and got a premonition of the coming arguments over who was going to change their baby.

Ten minutes later the women watched in disgust as Walter claimed yet another prize. Jill looked around. Walter was the only man left in the room. She had a nagging feeling her husband might be behind this strange phenomena and decided enough was enough.

She headed back to the bathrooms and was about to knock on the men’s room door when she heard voices from a Sunday School classroom a few feet away. She peeked inside.

There were all the missing men, perched precariously on small plastic chairs around a kid’s height table playing poker for thumbtacks.

Jill cleared her throat. The men looked up. “Hi honey,” Kevin said. “Look, we made up our own shower game.”

Jill simply glared. Without another word, the guys put away their cards and returned to the party.

As they reentered the social hall, Walter beamed at them, his prizes cupped in his arms. “I won every game!” he gloated. “I’m the shower game king, baby!”

“Hey, you said a forbidden word,” Kevin noted.

Walter’s face fell. He tried to protest that he had used the word in a context that gave it a different meaning and thus it shouldn’t count, but everyone backed Kevin. Finally Walter reluctantly handed over his collection of clothespins.

“Kevin wins the clothespin game,” Missy declared. Walter pouted while she presented Kevin his prize – a gift card to a local Italian restaurant.

“Now it’s time for cake,” Missy declared.

Soon the guys had reunited in their original corner. “I think I kinda like these co-ed baby showers,” Kevin said around a mouthful of cake.

Walter just grumbled to himself.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Devilish Pastor Michelle

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. This Halloween, the church’s 28 year-old associate pastor, Michelle Tellum, had been invited to a costume party by her new boyfriend, Ian Wells.

Michelle was excited about the party, but not so excited about wearing a costume. Michelle and Ian had not been together very long so Michelle wanted to show him that she was a fun person. But picking a costume was tricky for a woman of the clergy. A lot of the store-bought costumes were very sexy and Michelle dreaded the thought of someone from the congregation finding her picture on the Internet dressed in a skimpy nurse or pirate outfit.

After Michelle considered and dismissed dozens of costumes from an online store as either too risqué or too lame, she stumbled across one she thought was just perfect: a devil costume. The red unitard came with a demure skirt and the irony of a pastor dressed as a devil fulfilled the fun requirement.

Katie O’Donnell, on the other hand, was looking for the sexiest outfit she could find. Katie was Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s fifteen year-old daughter. She had recently broken up with her boyfriend, Joe. She was going to a big Halloween party with her friend Tabitha and knew that Joe would be there. Katie really wanted to wear something that would make him jealous. The only obstacle to her plan was her father and that wasn’t much of an obstacle. He was pretty easy to fool.

Katie settled on a skimpy barbarian warrior getup. She knew Joe played a video game that starred a similarly attired female barbarian. Of course Katie couldn’t match the game character’s digital curves but then no flesh and blood woman could.

To get out the door past her father Katie wrapped a sheet around herself toga style so that it covered the leopard print loincloth and halter and told him she was going as an ancient Greek goddess. When he asked which goddess wore a helmet with horns, Katie replied, “Did I say Greek? I meant Norse.” The senior O’Donnell grunted his approval and Katie was off.

Meanwhile, Michelle was putting the finishing touches on her make-up when her doorbell rang. She looked out her peephole but nobody was there. She opened the door anyway.

A zombie leaped out at her with an earsplitting howl!

“Come on in, Ian,” Michelle said. “I’m almost ready.”

The zombie Ian frowned. It was not the reaction he had hoped to get. He shuffled in picking at a plastic wound on his arm.

“Oh, don’t pout,” Michelle said, giving him a kiss on the cheek. “I’ve been to seminary. I don’t scare easily. I really only have one phobia.”

“What’s that?” Ian asked.

“I’m not telling!” She laughed. She gathered her things and realized something was missing. “Oh no, I left my pitchfork at the church.”

“That’s okay,” Ian said. “We can swing by on the way to the party.”

They went down to the car where Ian had left a large and very realistic fake spider on the passenger seat. “Sorry,” Michelle said as she tossed it in the back. “Not spiders.”

By this time the teenagers’ party was in full swing. Katie looked ravishing in her barbarian costume, but you wouldn’t know it from Joe’s reaction. He seemed to have eyes only for Amber who was dressed as Medusa in a short tunic and a wig of fake snakes. Katie began to wish she had gone as a Greek goddess so she would have an excuse to smite the meddling Medusa.

Joe and Amber left the party together after about an hour and a half. Tabitha found Katie sitting in a lawn chair by herself, moping. “Forget Joe,” Tabitha said. “Every other guy here is staring at you. I think you’re going to end at least three relationships tonight.” It did not cheer Katie up.

What Katie didn’t know was that Joe’s disinterest was all an act. In fact he had been driven to such heights of jealousy by Katie’s outfit that he could not stop thinking about her even when Amber suggested they park somewhere and make out. Joe’s immature teenage hormones channeled his jealousy into thoughts of revenge. “I’ve got a better idea,” Joe told Amber. “Let’s go TP the church.”

“I don’t know,” Amber said. “It’s kind of bad karma to mess with a church, isn’t it?”

“Don’t be superstitious,” Joe told her as he pulled into the grocery store parking lot to buy toilet paper.

About this time Ian and Michelle were turning into the staff parking area at the back of the church. “Wait in the car,” Michelle told Ian. “I’ll be right back.”

Ian did not follow instructions. He didn’t buy Michelle’s claim of icy fearlessness and decided to put it to the test. He hid in the bushes by the back door of the church.

Michelle quickly retrieved her plastic pitchfork, but as she came out of her office she heard some strange noises from the front of the church and decided to investigate.

The noises Michelle heard were being made by Joe who was giggling as he tossed rolls of toilet paper over the tree in front of the church. Amber sat on the front step, toying with the wig of rubber snakes in her lap. She had a knot of guilt in the pit of her stomach and was wishing she had stayed at the party.

The door opened behind Amber. She looked back and saw Satan silhouetted in the doorway waving a pitchfork. Amber screamed and instinctively hurled the rubber snake wig at the devil before bolting away.

Michelle reflexively caught the wig. The one thing that she was afraid of, it turns out, was snakes. When she looked down in the dim light and saw that she was holding what appeared to be a knot of dozens of snakes, she also screamed, tossed the wig away, and sprinted back through the church in mindless terror.

She was still sprinting when she came out the back parking lot door. Zombie Ian grabbed her shoulder as she passed and got a punch in the eye for his efforts.

Michelle regained her senses when she saw Ian sprawled out on the sidewalk. “Oh Ian,” she said, “I’m so sorry. I just thought I saw…”

She trailed off. “What?” Ian asked blearily.

“Nothing,” she replied. “You scared me, that’s all.”

“I did?” Ian asked with a grin.

“Yeah,” she said. “You got me. Nice job. Let’s go inside and put some ice on your eye.”

On the other side of the building Amber was demanding that Joe take her home. Joe’s back had been turned so he hadn’t seen what had scared her so badly. Amber wouldn’t tell him, but insisted they leave immediately. Joe reluctantly complied even though he’d only got two strands of toilet paper over the tree.

As they pulled away he noticed a light in the church kitchen. Through the window he saw a zombie making out with the devil while the devil held a bag of frozen peas to the zombie’s eye.

“Did you know the devil was a woman?” Amber asked.

“Doesn’t surprise me at all,” Joe replied.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Youth Group Service

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. The church had a tradition that every year one Sunday service is turned over to the teenagers in the youth group to lead. This year, Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell assigned new Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum to supervise this event. At the tender age of twenty-eight, O’Donnell saw Michelle as practically one of the youth herself.

Michelle took to the task with gusto. Unfortunately the teen youth group was a little on the small side. It consisted primarily of Pastor O’Donnell’s fifteen year-old daughter Katie, Katie’s friend Tabitha, Katie’s boyfriend Joe and one twelve year-old named Becky. Becky was really too young to be mixed in with the high schoolers, but she was the only junior high age kid at the church. Besides, Becky was actually the most mature of the group.

Michelle gathered the four members of the youth group a few weeks before their service to make plans. “Our first job should be to divide up the parts of the service,” she said. “Let’s start with the sermon. Who would like to deliver the sermon?”

Becky’s hand shot into the air. Michelle patiently waited for any more volunteers but all the other hands remained firmly in their owners’ laps.

“You really want to give the sermon,” Michelle asked Becky.

“No,” Becky said. “Well yes. What I mean is, why don’t we do a play for the sermon?”

“That’s a good idea,” Michelle said.

“And I’ll write it and direct it,” Becky added.

Michelle could imagine the older kids reactions to Becky bossing them around. “Or…” Michelle said, “maybe you could write it and I’ll direct it. That way you can take a part. What do you think?”

Becky considered the offer. After a few minutes she broke into a big smile and said, “Okay,” much to Michelle’s relief.

They divided up the rest of the tasks – reading scripture, doing the prayer, making announcements and collecting offering – then agreed to meet back in a week to do a read through of Becky’s play.

The play was to be based on the story of the Good Samaritan. Becky crafted an epic filled with dramatic monologues that ran thirty minutes on first reading. Michelle insisted that it must be cut down to ten minutes, and after much weeping and gnashing of teeth from Becky, they achieved that goal.

Katie was to play the story’s robbery victim, Becky did double duty as the priest and the innkeeper, Tabitha played the temple assistant and Joe was assigned the part of the Samaritan. Though the kids were hardly natural actors, Michelle thought the little play quite charming. Becky disagreed. She proposed rehearsing every night of the week to whip the production up to her standards.

In the interest of keeping Becky from being strangled by the other teens, Michelle declined the proposal and instead scheduled a single additional rehearsal the week prior to the service, but urged everyone to memorize their lines before then.

By the end of that next rehearsal even Becky had to agree the play was turning out pretty cool. Michelle beamed with pride as she watched the teens perform. Pastor O’Donnell was going to be very impressed by this year’s youth service, she thought.

When Michelle walked into the sanctuary the morning of the service, however, her optimism began to falter. They had all agreed to meet an hour early for one final run through. When Michelle entered, she saw Katie and Tabitha huddled at the left end of the front pew. Becky sat cross-legged at the other end with a sulky look on her face. Joe was in the far back pew texting on his cell phone. A vague tension filled the room.

“Good morning everyone!” Michelle said as she strode up the center aisle.

The teens all just looked at her. Becky let out a little whimper.

Michelle made her way up to the chancel. She noticed that Katie’s eyes were rimmed red and Tabitha was holding her hand. Something was wrong.

“Tabitha,” Michelle said, trying to keep her voice even. “Come up here a minute.” Michelle thought Tabitha looked the least upset of the three girls.

“What’s going on?” Michelle hissed once Tabitha joined her.

“Well…” Tabitha whispered conspiratorially, “At school on Thursday Julie told Meghan who told Katie that Joe gave Amber a ride home and Katie hates Amber because Amber once made up a mean poem about Katie’s shoes and read it in front of the whole entire English class and besides Katie once went out with a boy Amber likes so Amber always tried to mess with Katie and Joe. So Katie got mad at Joe because he should know better than to give rides to Amber and they broke up. Katie and Joe, I mean.”

“I see,” Michelle said. She looked over at Katie. The poor girl looked crushed. Joe, on the other hand, didn’t look like anything was bothering him at all. Michelle suspected it was an act meant to avoid appearing vulnerable. Teenage boys shunned vulnerability like it was a flesh-eating virus. There was only one thing to do.

Get the rehearsal started.

It’s not that Michelle was unsympathetic to the raging teenage emotions that were at play, but they had a service to perform in exactly fifty-two minutes. The emotions would have to wait.

Michelle called all the kids to join her up front. Joe swaggered up from the back pew striving a little too hard to look bored. When he was seated with the others, Michelle cleared her throat. “Listen up, everyone. I know some of you are not having a very good day. But there’s a saying in show biz that the show must go on. So for the next two hours, let’s forget about everything except doing a great church service, okay?”

The teens all nodded with a marked lack of enthusiasm. But they did nod. Michelle began the rehearsal.

By the start of service, Michelle thought they just might pull this thing off. Katie and Joe were clearly angry at each other but if anything that anger had spurred them to more dynamic performances during the rehearsal.

The first two thirds of the service went gangbusters. Sure, Tabitha read the scripture so fast the congregation could barely understand it, and sure Joe mumbled the prayer so quietly that even with the microphone the congregation could barely hear it, and sure Becky tripped while helping with the offering and had to crawl under several pews to retrieve the scattered donations, but most of the congregation seemed to find the mishaps charming.

Then it came time for the Good Samaritan play.

It all went along pretty smoothly until Joe (as the Samaritan) dropped Katie (as the victim) off at the inn. Joe decided to improvise his lines a little. He instructed Becky’s innkeeper to give Katie a room away from the other guests because Katie tended to blab on incessantly.

Next came the first time in history that the telling of the Good Samaritan story featured the victim thanking the Samaritan by punching him below the belt.

During coffee hour after the service Michelle stood at the back of the social hall feeling completely miserable. Her mood wasn’t improved when she saw Pastor O’Donnell approaching.

“I’m so sorry,” she said before he could launch into any recriminations.

“For what?” O’Donnell asked.

“The service was a disaster,” Michelle said.

“Nonsense,” O’Donnell laughed. “That’s the best youth service we’ve had since I’ve been here. You should have seen the one two years ago. One of the kids threw up in the middle of it. And then again at the end. You did great.”

“Really?” Michelle asked.

“Really,” O’Donnell reassured her. “And I personally liked the part where Katie slugged Joe. I’m actually glad they split up. I never really cared for that little hooligan. But Katie did. She’s sitting on the steps out back and I know from experience that the last person she wants to talk to is her dad. But she might like to talk to you.”

“Okay,” Michelle said.

Michelle went outside and sat down next to Katie. They didn’t talk though. Michelle just put her arm around Katie’s shoulders and let Katie cry.