Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Not So Empty Nest

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.   Every Sunday choir member Del Winslow and his wife Karen who teaches the “Guppies” pre-school Sunday school class are among the first people to arrive.  Del is a stickler about punctuality.  Which is why choir director Shane Reed was surprised when Del bustled in five minutes late to the pre-service choir warm-ups, flushed and sweating.

After the choir had run through their vocal exercises and practiced the day’s hymns, they relaxed in the choir room waiting for service to start.  Shane noticed Del looked a little stressed and asked if everything was all right.

“Carrie and Carlos are staying with us,” Del told him.  “Carrie was never the easiest person to get out of bed and with four people trying to use two bathrooms, well, we’ve been running late all morning.”  

Carrie was Del’s thirty-one year-old daughter and Carlos Lopez was her new husband.  They lived in Cincinnati but Shane had met them when they were married at the little church six weeks earlier. 

“Still, it must be nice to have them for a visit,” Shane said.  “And so soon after the last one.”

“I love when Carrie visits.  Unfortunately this isn’t just a visit,” Del explained.  “Carrie and Carlos worked for the same company.  It went bankrupt while they were on their honeymoon.  They’d spent all their savings on the wedding and honeymoon so they came back to no jobs and no money.  They’re staying with us until they get back on their feet.”

As Del was talking to Shane, Karen was relating the same story to church secretary Tammy Billings in the Sunday school room.

“That must be inconvenient,” Tammy said.

“Not at all!” Karen replied.  “The house is so full of life.  It’s wonderful.”

Back in the choir room Del told Shane, “My workshop and den are filled with boxes of their junk.  I have nowhere to go for a little peace and quiet.  It’s getting kind of tiresome.”

While down in the classroom Karen told Tammy, “since Del won’t let them pay rent they’ve been helping out around the house.  They painted the garage door which I’ve been trying to get Del to do for a year.”

And Del was telling Shane, “Now my garage door is purple!  I’m going to have to repaint it as soon as they’re gone.  And Karen won’t even let me charge them rent because ‘they’re family.’”

 “Carlos even made dinner last night!” Karen enthused.  “He’s a wonderful cook.”

“I still have heartburn,” Del said.

While all this was going on Carrie and Carlos were waiting in the sanctuary.  Carrie had dozed off.  She didn’t like getting up early on the weekends. 

Pastor Michelle Tellum, the new young associate pastor who had married them, came over to say hello.  After hearing the explanation of how they had ended up back in Normal, Michelle said, “It must be tough living with your parents again.”

“My Dad’s not so bad,” Carrie replied with a yawn.  “He leaves us alone most of the time.  But my Mom keeps popping into our room unannounced and always wants to know where we’re going and stuff.  It’s like she doesn’t recognize that I’m an adult now!”

An hour and a half later Del, Karen, Carrie and Carlos reunited in the social hall for coffee hour.  They munched on cookies with Shane and Tammy. 

“So, I understand you’ll be with us for a while,” Shane said to the younger couple.

“Just until they can find new jobs,” Del interjected.  “And they’re both quite talented so I have faith that if they make the effort they’ll be employed again in no time.”

“What kind of work are you looking for,” Tammy asked.

“Actually,” Carlos said, “I was thinking I might take the opportunity to go back to school and get my MBA.”

“What,” Del exclaimed.  This was the first he had heard of that plan.

“They have a program at the college here in Normal,” Carrie said.  “And I’m sure they’ll take me back at the restaurant where I used to work while he’s in school.”

“You’re going to try to support both of you on a waitress salary?” Del asked.

“It’ll be a struggle but it’ll be worth it in the long run,” Carrie said.

“And you can live with us to save money!” Karen exclaimed.

Shane glanced over at Del.  His eyes bulged out and his teeth were clenched tightly together as if to hold back any comments he might later regret.  The enamel barrier seemed to work.

Suddenly Carrie dropped a half eaten cookie back on to the paper plate she was holding.  She looked pale and unsteady.  “Excuse me,” she mumbled and shoved the plate into Carlos’s hands before dashing off toward the restrooms.

“She doesn’t look so good,” Karen said.  “I better go see if she’s okay.”

“No, wait…” Carlos said, but Karen was already bustling off toward the bathroom.  Carlos trailed after her.

“Well,” Shane said.

“Well,” agreed Tammy.

“There is no way they are moving in with us for two years while he goes back to school,” Del said evenly.  “I liked being an empty nester.”

Then Karen burst out of the bathroom and announced loudly to the whole social hall:  “I’m going to be a grandmother!”

The color drained from Del’s face.  Apparently his carefree empty-nester days were about to be a thing of the past.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Great Bingo Controversy

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.   One afternoon Pastor Henry O’Donnell was in his office taking a break from writing his sermon with a game of computer solitaire when church secretary Tammy Billings poked her head in.  “The Little Old Ladies are here to see you,” Tammy said.

O’Donnell sighed.  The “Little Old Ladies” was a nickname for three of the older congregants:  Henrietta Miggins, Betsy Davis and Celia Simmons.  Like many dangerous, predatory creatures, they looked deceptively cute and cuddly and often travelled in a pack.  When one of them dropped by his office during the week it usually meant he would soon be developing a stubborn headache.  When all three dropped by… well, maybe he could go home early today.

The three women marched in and arranged themselves in chairs across from the pastor.  “What can I do for you ladies?” O’Donnell asked, fingering the aspirin bottle he kept in his top desk drawer.

“We’d like the church to start a weekly bingo game on Tuesday nights,” Henrietta said.

That didn’t sound so bad, O’Donnell thought.  But he had enough experience with the Little Old Ladies to know that there could be hidden dangers to their request.  “Don’t you usually play bingo at the senior center on Tuesday nights?”

“Not anymore,” Henrietta sniffed.  “The director there is an incompetent.  We need somewhere else to play.”

“We couldn’t offer cash prizes,” O’Donnell pointed out.

“That’s okay,” Betsy said.  “It’s more of a social activity.  The senior center just gives away little gift baskets.”

“Usually filled with donated items nobody wanted,” Henrietta sniffed.

“It could be a fundraiser,” Celia chimed in.  “We could ask for donations to finally get the new robes the choir should have had last year.”

“Let me look into it,” the pastor said. 

After the Little Old Ladies left, O’Donnell went out to Tammy’s desk.  He knew she volunteered at the senior center so he asked her to make a friendly call to the director – the one Henrietta had called an incompetent.

“They were banned from the game,” Tammy reported when she got off the phone.  “There was an incident over cookies.  Apparently the center decided to buy a different brand to cut costs and Henrietta wasn’t satisfied with the quality.”

“And for that they banned her?”

“Apparently it was the way she expressed her dissatisfaction.”

“I can imagine,” O’Donnell said.  “What do you think?”

“I know the Little Old Ladies are a handful, but bingo might be fun,” Tammy said.  “If you want, I’ll organize it.”

“Thank you,” Henry said with a smile.  It looked like he wouldn’t need his aspirin today after all.

A few days later Tammy interrupted Henry in the midst of another game of computer solitaire.  “Missy Moore wants to talk to you,” she said.

Missy was a rotund, cheerful woman in her mid-forties.  Normally you couldn’t remove the smile from her face with a pickaxe, but today she was scowling as she slammed a flyer announcing the bingo game down on Pastor O’Donnell’s desk. 

“What’s the meaning of this,” she demanded.

“Um, well, bingo is a game with cards with numbers on them…” O’Donnell began.

“I know what bingo is.  It’s gambling!” Missy shouted.  She pulled a stack of papers from her purse and began quoting statistics on the damage gambling addiction does to people and society.

O’Donnell felt the familiar tightening in his skull that meant he’d be needing his bottle of aspirin.  He spent the next forty-two minutes trying to convince Missy that a church bingo fundraiser with token prizes was not really gambling while she tried to convince him he was throwing open the church doors to the Devil himself.   It seemed Missy had an aunt who spent a large portion of her social security checks in bingo halls.  It was kind of a hot button issue for her.

In the end they reached a compromise.  Missy could pass out anti-gambling literature at the door to the bingo game as long as she was polite about it.

On the night of the first game Pastor O’Donnell arrived early and planted himself in an out-of-the-way location with a good view of the front door.  Missy Moore also arrived early armed with a stack of pamphlets she’d secured from an anti-gambling association.  O’Donnell was pleased to observe that she kept her promise to be polite.

Tammy had prepared the social hall nicely using a semi-professional bingo kit she’d ordered from a party supply store that included packets of disposable playing sheets and a large tumbling cage filled with lettered and numbered ping pong balls.  She’d also set up a nice refreshment table and made sure to include the brand of cookies Henrietta liked.

The game turned out to be a bigger draw than Pastor O’Donnell had expected.  In addition to the Little Old Ladies and their ilk, it drew many of the younger families, including Kevin and Jill Boyer and their two little girls, four-year-old Mary and two-year-old Susie.

The Boyers signed in and Tammy handed them their playing sheets and ink daubers – plastic containers of ink with little sponges on the end for marking the sheets.   Mary grabbed her dauber eagerly and tested it by stamping a mark on the back of her sister’s dress.  Jill quickly disarmed Mary and handed the dauber back to Tammy.  “The girls can use colored pencils to mark their sheets,” Jill said, ignoring Mary’s protests.

When everyone was settled, Tammy began the game.  She had drawn only four numbers when a cascade of piano music rang out through the building.  Moments later a piercing soprano voice joined in.

“What in the world is that?” O’Donnell said.

“Missy Moore booked the choir room to practice her special music selection for church on Sunday,” Tammy told him.

“And you didn’t anticipate a problem with that?”

“I didn’t realize her selection would be so…boisterous.  Besides, do you want to tell her she can’t practice a song for worship because it’ll interfere with our bingo game?”

“Good point.  Carry on.”

Tammy drew the next ball and announced the number, “B-17.”   And at that very moment Missy hit a particularly piercing high note.

“What?” Celia yelled from the back, “I can’t hear you.”

O’Donnell headed to the choir room where he found Missy and choir director Shane Reed hard at work.  “Do you mind if I close the door?” O’Donnell asked.

“As long as you don’t mind if I open it again once you leave,” Missy replied.

O’Donnell looked at Shane who just shrugged as if to say there was no way he was getting in the middle of this.

Then O’Donnell noticed a portable amplification system gathering dust in the corner.  “Okay,” he said, “I’ll just borrow this then.”  He grabbed it and dashed away before Missy realized what he was doing.

In his absence, the bingo players had converged on the refreshment table.  O’Donnell put the amplification system on the adjacent card table Tammy was using and crawled in between the two tables to plug it in.  Unfortunately, O’Donnell was a larger man without the best coordination, and his shoulder inadvertently banged into the refreshment table.  The blow caused the coffee urn to tip over and send a tide of hot coffee toward the gathered crowd.

Fortunately the congregation proved more coordinated than their pastor and everyone managed to scramble out of the way of the spill.  However, Mary Boyer took advantage of the resulting chaos to acquire one of the ink daubers she had been so unfairly denied.  This exponentially multiplied the chaos as Jill and Kevin chased Mary around the room, pursued by little Susie who loved a good game of chase.

Thirty-seven minutes later Mary was disarmed, everyone was settled back in place and the bingo game resumed.  The good news was the amplifier made it easy for all the players to hear Tammy over Missy’s rehearsal.  Which proved a moot victory a few minutes later when Missy wrapped up the rehearsal and went home.

The bingo game ended a little before 10 p.m.  By 11 p.m. the Little Old Ladies had finished enumerating their complaints about the evening to Pastor O’Donnell.  After they left, O’Donnell surveyed the scene in the social hall.  The floor was littered with coffee stained bingo cards and anti-gambling pamphlets.  The refreshment table would need a thorough scrubbing.  And Mary had artfully decorated two thirds of the north wall with colored ink blotches. 

He turned to Tammy who was tallying up the contents of the donation basket.  “How’d we do?”

“We raised sixty-seven dollars toward the choir robes,” she told him.  “Of course the refreshments and prizes cost forty-five dollars.  Factor in $272 for the bingo kit and we’ll need quite a few more games before we break even.”

O’Donnell rubbed his aching head.  The next day he arranged to finance the refreshments for the senior center’s bingo games – including the cookies Henrietta liked – in return for them lifting the ban on the Little Old Ladies.  It just seemed financially prudent.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pastor Michelle's First Sermon

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. The church recently brought on a new, pretty, twenty-eight year-old associate pastor named Michelle Tellum. The senior pastor, Henry O’Donnell, decided to have her deliver the sermon on her second Sunday at the church. “This is no job for cowards,” he told her. “It’s best to just jump in, even if you’re not perfect.”

Perfection aside, this was Michelle’s very first appointment and she was determined to make a good impression. So she spent every spare moment during that week writing, rewriting, and practicing her sermon.

This was also the church’s first associate pastor, so they needed to create an office for her. The room they chose for that purpose had previously served as what was euphemistically referred to as the “Auxiliary Supply Closet” for the Sunday school classes. The auxiliary supplies stored therein were mostly broken toys and dried out paint.

Head usher and all-around handy man Ralph Billing helped Jose the custodian relocate the auxiliary supplies to the trash and bring in an old desk. “Welcome to your new office,” he told Michelle proudly as he opened the door with a flourish.

Michelle managed to fake a suitably grateful expression as she examined the room. It resembled a prison cell more than a pastoral work place. The two men helped her unpack the few boxes of personal items she’d brought with her. They quickly discovered a problem. There were no power outlets.

Fortunately there was a built-in overhead light since the single, small, dirty window up near the ceiling only let in a hint of natural sunlight. Unfortunately Michelle’s computer was not a laptop. So Ralph strung an extension cord from a nearby classroom into the office so she could plug it in. “It’s only a temporary solution,” he assured her. “I’ll install an outlet for you likety split.”

That sounded dangerous to Michelle, but Ralph assured her he knew what he was doing and Pastor O’Donnell backed him. So Michelle set about trying to concentrate on writing her sermon while Ralph noisily sliced into the dry wall.

After an hour of banging and ripping and grunting Ralph had made a neat square hole in the wall and Michelle had finished two sentences of her sermon. Ralph informed her that he needed to go shut off the breaker before he installed the outlet box.

“Fine,” Michelle mumbled as she wrestled with an unusually rebellious metaphor. Ralph sauntered out and three minutes later both the light and Michelle’s computer went dark.

“What did you do!” Michelle cried when Ralph returned.

“Gee, I didn’t realize the extension cord was plugged into the same circuit,” Ralph said.

“I had just figured out the perfect opening to my sermon,” Michelle moaned.

“Sorry. I’ll go plug it into a different outlet.”

A few minutes later Michelle’s computer was up and running again and Ralph was back at work using a flashlight for illumination. With a little effort Michelle was able to recreate the opening of her sermon fairly accurately. After that she got in a groove, and soon she had several paragraphs typed out.

“I need to run to the hardware store for a part,” Ralph informed her. Michelle nodded absently.

A second later Michelle heard a thud and a grunt from the hall and her computer screen went dark again.

“No!” she wailed. She’d been on such a roll she’d neglected to save her work.

She stomped out prepared to give Ralph a piece of her mind. She stopped short when she discovered him sprawled out face down on the floor. He had tripped over the extension cord.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“I think I threw my back out,” he said.

Michelle helped him gingerly to his feet and out to his car. She wanted to take him to the hospital but Ralph assured her he’d be fine with a little rest and some ibuprofen. A few hours later Pastor O’Donnell poked his head into Michelle’s office.

“It’s dark in here. Why do you have the light off?” he asked.

“Ralph turned off the breaker while he was working on the outlet,” she told him. “I didn’t know if it was safe to turn it back on before he was finished.”

“Oh,” O’Donnell replied. “Well, I just heard from him. He’s probably going to be laid up all week.”

“Can we bring in an electrician to finish this,” Michelle asked.

“I think Ralph might be kind of insulted,” O’Donnell said. “He likes to do things himself. And he’s quite handy. Can you manage for a week without an outlet?”

Michelle sighed. She didn’t want to cause problems so soon into her first appointment. “Okay,” she told him.

“Good,” O’Donnell smiled. On his way out of the office he tripped on the extension cord, but managed to catch himself before he fell. Michelle, however, lost another half hour of work.

After Michelle had located some duct tape and strung the extension cord across the ceiling to prevent any more unexpected power outages, she returned to writing, slowed down only slightly by her obsessive need to now save her document after every sentence.

When Sunday rolled around, Ralph had recovered enough to attend church. He saw Pastor O’Donnell in the parking lot.

“I never got to ask you what you thought of our new associate pastor,” O’Donnell said,

“She seems nice, but maybe a little uptight and kind of jumpy,” Ralph told him.

“Hm. I hope she gets through her sermon okay. Maybe I pushed her into it a little soon. She’s still pretty wet behind the ears.”

As it turned out Michelle delivered her sermon beautifully and even got seven laughs from the congregation. O’Donnell counted.

Afterward she asked him how she’d done.

“Not too bad for your first time,” O’Donnell told her. “You’ll get better with practice. I’ll give you a few pointers later on if you like.”

Then he went to his office to start working on his sermon for the following Sunday. He needed to be sure he’d get at least eight laughs no matter how much overtime it took.