Sunday, April 19, 2009

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. The church building has stood there for sixty-two years. Pastor Henry O’Donnell has been preaching at the church for the last seven. Recently, the Bishop for the region asked him to take on an Associate Pastor, someone new to the clergy, and help that individual learn the real world challenges of shepherding a congregation. Henry humbly accepted. He knew that a young, wet-behind-the-ears pastor would have a lot to learn from him.

The Associate Pastor who was assigned to the church was a twenty-eight year-old woman named Michelle Tellum. Her gender posed no problem for Henry. He firmly believed that women made fine clergy. He was a bit taken aback, however, to discover that Pastor Tellum was a pretty blonde with distractingly long eyelashes. Still, he could think of no good reason why an attractive woman couldn’t do God’s work. It might even improve the attendance of some of the men in the congregation.

Michelle was pleased with her first assignment. Pastor O’Donnell seemed like a good guy and she had already ascertained that the church was well run and had experienced only the usual small church controversies of late. Plus, Michelle was single and Normal was a decent size town with a small college. She hoped she’d have an easier time meeting a boyfriend here than she had in seminary. One pastor in a relationship was bad enough; two was a recipe for disaster.

Her first week on the job involved all the usual settling in business -- setting up her office, getting to know the staff, meeting with the congregational/staff relations committee, figuring out how to put toner in the copy machine. Henry planned to introduce her and let her say a few words at services on her first Sunday, but he would let her get settled before attempting a sermon.

So everything was going along just fine…until Saturday morning. That’s when Michelle got a distressing call from Henry. It seems he was to do a wedding in the sanctuary that afternoon but had encountered a touch of food poisoning from a low rent seafood joint for which he had a puzzling fondness. He needed her to fill in.

The bride was the daughter of Del and Karen Winslow, Carrie Winslow, who now lived in Cincinnati but had been convinced to get married “back home.” Her groom was an easy going young man named Carlos Lopez. Pastor O’Donnell gamely showed up to introduce these fine folks to Michelle in his office that morning.

Of course, Carlos and his parents couldn’t have cared less who performed the service. They didn’t know either Michelle or Henry. But Del cared a great deal. He didn’t much like the looks of this blonde girl two years younger than his daughter who was being brought in to pinch hit. He launched into a long speech encouraging O’Donnell to “buck up.”

Halfway through Del’s speech, Henry had to make a hurried exit. The gathering awkwardly studied the various books on the office shelves and tried to ignore the stomach churning sounds that somehow managed to penetrate the brick wall between the office and bathroom. When Henry returned, Del launched into a new speech about what he expected Michelle to do during the ceremony.

Michelle was nervous, but the ceremony was pretty standard fare and she soon settled into it, despite the distraction from one of the groomsmen who was chomping loudly on a piece of gum. However, she couldn’t get her hands to stop trembling and when she went to pick up the bride’s ring she accidentally knocked it to the floor. Bride, groom and Michelle all reached for the ring simultaneously and bumped heads, sending a ripple of laughter through the guests. The ring, apparently not satisfied with this bit of mischief, landed on its side and rolled. To Michelle’s dismay, it rolled straight into the small gap between the lectern and the rail.

“I’ll get it,” Michelle instructed the bridal party, not wishing for any more cranial collisions. Only she couldn’t get it. She could see it, gleaming tauntingly eighteen inches back in the half inch gap. She glanced out toward the guests. Del’s face was a frightening shade of purple. She hoped he didn’t have a heart condition.

And then inspiration struck. She strode over to the gum chomping groomsman, stuck her hand out flat and said, “spit it out.” The young man spit the gum into her hand with a look of confusion. Michelle took the gum, stuck it to the end of the candle lighter hanging beside the lectern, and used it to retrieve the ring. She beamed as the guests applauded her cleverness. But her smile faded when she saw the look on Del’s face. Apparently, he didn’t find fishing for his daughter’s wedding ring with chewing gum applause-worthy. Michelle decided she better move on with the ceremony.

The rest of the wedding went off without a hitch. At the reception, Michelle went to the kitchen to hunt down some ice for the lump growing on her forehead. As she was returning, she heard sobs coming from a back hall and discovered Carrie, still in full bridal regalia, sitting on the floor crying.

“What’s wrong?” Michelle asked.

“I think I’ve made a horrible mistake. I’m not sure I’m ready to be with one man for the rest of my life.”

Michelle sat down next to her and patted her hand. “Getting married is really stressful. It’s understandable you’d have some anxiety. Are you sure this isn’t just cold feet?”

“But what if you dropping the ring was an omen or something? Oh, you don’t understand. You’re married to God.”

“First of all,” Michelle corrected her, “I don’t think me dropping the ring was an omen, I think it was a little initiation prank God was playing on his new pastor. And second of all, I’m not married to God. You’re thinking of a nun. Personally, I hope to be married to an actual human man one of these days.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“I’m not insulted. I’m just saying I know where you’re coming from.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Well, no, not right now.”

“Really? But you’re so pretty.”

“I had a boyfriend, but it didn’t work out. I liked to eat out and he liked to ogle waitresses. My boyfriend before that decided he was gay. I did have a date last week, but I don’t really like guys who use more hair product than I do. It seems like every guy I’ve met in the last year is either a loser, a mama’s boy, obsessed with his job or married.”

Carrie was staring at Michelle wide eyed. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Hey, are any of Carlos’s groomsmen single?”

“Carlos’s friends are all immature idiots. He’s the only one of the bunch worth anything.”

“Too bad,” Michelle sighed. “But this isn’t about me. Why don’t you tell me what’s worrying you about being married to Carlos.”

Carrie looked Michelle up and down thoughtfully. “You know what,” she said, “I think it was just nerves. Carlos is a great guy and I do love him. I’m lucky, really.” Carrie climbed back to her feet and put a hand on Michelle’s shoulder. “Keep your chin up. You’ll find someone, too.”

As Carrie headed in to her reception, Michelle suddenly felt a little like crying herself. And then a cute waiter appeared with the ice she had asked for and she forgot all about it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Easter Outing

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. As a special treat for Easter this year Sunday School teacher Karen Winslow planned to take her class, the “Guppies,” on a field trip to a petting zoo.

She recruited Kevin Boyer, whose four-year-old daughter Mary was in the Guppies class, to drive the church van and assist in chaperoning. Karen assumed – wrongly – that Mary would behave better if her father was along on the trip. Kevin wasn’t anxious to spend the morning with seven preschoolers, but on the other hand it didn’t seem any worse than sitting through another of Pastor O’Donnell’s extra-long Easter sermons.

By the time they were ready to leave, Kevin was already suffering from a headache. Mary and his other daughter, Suzie, had gotten up an hour early to find out what exotic concoctions of sugar, food coloring and high fructose corn syrup the Easter bunny had left in their Easter baskets. For some reason this process was accompanied by wild screeching and running about the house. Kevin yelled repeatedly for the girls to “keep it down,” but apparently whatever the Easter bunny mixed into the candy also impaired his children’s hearing.

As the van made its way from the church to the edge of town, many of the occupants’ thoughts turned to God on this holy day.

“Dear Lord,” Kevin prayed, “please clear the streets of traffic and grant me green lights so we can get to the stupid petting zoo quickly and I can take a nap in the van while the kids play.”

“Heavenly Father,” Karen prayed, “please make Kevin slow down so we don’t get in an accident.”

“Dear God,” Mary prayed, “please don’t let Mrs. Winslow see me eating my chocolate eggs.”

Mary had smuggled a dozen chocolate eggs into her coat pockets that morning in direct defiance of her parents’ instructions to only eat one piece of candy and leave the rest on the kitchen counter until after lunch. She knew it was risky to enjoy her contraband in the packed confines of the van, but temptation was overruling her good sense – as it usually did.

She retrieved a single candy egg and quietly peeled the foil from the chocolate that was now a gooey blob from the warmth of her pocket. She slipped it into her mouth, smiling in satisfaction at her stealth. Disobedience made the candy extra delicious.

“Mrs. Winslow, Mary has chocolate!” Sierra Smith shouted from the seat behind her.

“Do not!” Mary protested. But the soft chocolate had left incriminating splotches on her fingers and lips.

“Empty your pockets, Mary,” Karen instructed.

Mary reluctantly produced the stash of chocolate eggs.

“If she brings candy she’s supposed to share,” Sierra pointed out.

“Normally that’s true…” Karen started to say. She didn’t get to finish the thought. The Guppies descended on Mary like a school of piranhas. In no time the chocolate eggs were gone, two thirds into the children’s stomachs and one third smeared across their hands which were now distributing it to various surfaces of the van.

Karen tried in vain to calm the feeding frenzy. Then a loud BANG silenced the children.

The right rear tire of the van had blown out. The momentary quiet was quickly filled by high pitched screams. A second later the children joined Kevin in his screaming.

Kevin managed to steer the vehicle over to the side of the road. Kevin and Karen both exited the van to examine the flat. Karen called for a tow truck to change the tire. “They’ll be here in forty-five minutes,” she informed Kevin. “It’s a holiday.”

Kevin eyed the van which was shaking from the chaos of the wild, screaming beasts inside. “Guppies” seemed like a less and less appropriate name with each passing minute. “We have a spare,” he said. “I’ll change it myself. You watch the kids.”

Karen also eyed the van. “Why do you get to change it? I know how to change a tire. You watch the kids.”

“I think watching kids sounds more like your job.”

“Why? Because I’m a woman? That’s sexist!”

“Okay, okay,” Kevin said. “Let’s flip for it.” He produced a coin and Karen called heads. It came up tails. Karen sighed and returned to the van while Kevin got the spare tire out of the back.

Kevin whistled while he loosened the lug nuts on the flat. It helped him drown out the screams and bangs from inside the van.

The last lug nut proved extremely difficult to loosen. Kevin had to stomp on the lug wrench with his foot to get it started. It finally budged a fraction of an inch. Then another. He grabbed the wrench with both hands and eased his weight onto it.

The lug nut popped loose. The wrench banged down onto the pavement, smashing Kevin’s fingers under it. Kevin did a little jig, clutching his hands between his thighs and expressing his pain verbally with a colorful and detailed string of profanity he usually reserved for watching sports.

He froze when he realized the noise from the van had stopped. He looked back over his shoulder and saw seven preschoolers and one fuming teacher staring out the window at him.

Kevin grinned sheepishly and told Karen that for safety reasons the kids should probably get out of the van before he jacked it up. He suggested she take them on a nature walk. Karen thought that was a good idea.

Kevin finished changing the tire while Karen pointed out a variety of ants, grasshoppers and weeds to the kids on their nature walk through the vacant lot across the street. Ten minutes later they were on their way again.

They reached the petting zoo and turned the kids loose on the animals. Kevin and Karen flopped down on a bench to watch. “Thank you, Lord, for getting me through that ordeal,” Kevin prayed silently.

Then Sierra got bit by a duck. She shouted out the same string of profanity that Kevin had used earlier, recalling it with remarkable precision.

Kevin looked at the sky. “Very funny,” he said.

(In loving memory of uncle Gene.)