Sunday, September 20, 2009

Save the Prayer Gazebo

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. Nestled amongst the willows in one corner of the large lawn behind the church sits a decrepit little gazebo, covered in peeling paint and full of spiders and history. A carved wooden plank hanging from rusted iron hooks at the back of the gazebo declares it to be a gift from Darwin Miggins on May 7, 1953 for the purpose of reflection and prayer.

On a recent Monday Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell and head usher Ralph Billings stood in front of this little gazebo studying a broken floorboard. Said board was broken by four year-old Mary Boyer during a game of hide and seek the previous day. Though Mary was to blame for much of the damage around the church over the previous couple of years, O’Donnell did not hold her responsible in this instance. The wood was clearly rotting. Nobody had used the gazebo for reflection or prayer in many years.

“We ought to just tear this junky thing down,” O’Donnell finally said to Ralph, oblivious to the chaos his statement would cause.

He began to get an inkling of the fallout a few days later when seventy year-old Henrietta Miggins stormed into his office. “What’s this I hear about tearing down the prayer gazebo?” Henrietta demanded. “My grandfather built that gazebo as a gift for this church. It says so right on the plaque inside if you’d bother to look.”

“Henrietta,” O’Donnell sighed, “that gazebo is falling apart. It’s dangerous.”

“Well then fix it.” Henrietta thundered. “I will not have you desecrating my grandfather’s memory!”

“That would cost several hundred dollars,” O’Donnell sputtered. “We don’t have the money for that.”

Which is how the “Save the Prayer Gazebo Fundraiser Barbecue” was born.

The plan came about during the next trustees meeting where Henrietta argued for the vital necessity of the gazebo to the spiritual life of their wayward congregation. Eventually Ralph Billings suggested a fundraiser primarily as a means to get Henrietta to shut up.

The idea to make the event a barbecue came from Del Winslow who like many red blooded American men loved to cook meat over fire. Ralph protested that grilled meat was full of carcinogens. A compromise was reached when it was decided that Del could man a grill for cheeseburgers while Ralph would be free to offer a healthy alternative.

Of course nobody believed Ralph would come up with a healthy alternative that would be more popular than a good old-fashioned char broiled cheeseburger. Not even Ralph, though he would never have admitted it.

Then Ralph happened to have a conversation with choir director Shane Reed. Shane was a foodie. Though he loved a good cheeseburger as much as anyone, he told Ralph about a recipe he had for grilled sweet potato tacos with yellow pepper salsa that were both healthy and incredibly tasty. Ralph’s eyes lit up. He thought that those tacos sounded like they just might appeal to more people than Del’s cheeseburgers.

The barbecue had become a competition.

The event was scheduled for a Sunday after church. When the day arrived, Del set up his charcoal grill to one side of the gazebo while Shane and Ralph placed a propane grill on the other side. A table for salads, chips and drinks was arranged between them. Ralph and Del eyed each other warily across that table while Shane went about slicing up vegetables completely oblivious to the tension.

The day was sunny and mild and the turnout for the barbecue was quite good. Though that might have had more to do with Henrietta than the weather. After church, Henrietta stationed herself at a little table between the parking lot and the back lawn. Anyone who appeared to be heading toward their car instead of the fundraiser was hailed by Henrietta with, “you are coming to the barbecue, aren’t you?” Few who did not have an iron clad excuse at the ready overcame Henrietta’s stern glare. They quickly found themselves plopping some money in the coffee tin labeled “donations.”

Both the cheeseburgers and the sweet potato tacos were a big hit. Though Del and Ralph tried to keep count of how many of each were served, they found it difficult given the volume being consumed. Both men loudly extolled the virtues of their particular cuisine to all who came near. The effect was not unlike competing carnival barkers at a sideshow. The result was that most people took both a burger and a taco.

It became clear the difference might be made by a subtle arrangement of items on the side dish table. The pitchers of lemonade and ice tea were placed on the end near Ralph’s grill. Which meant when people went back to refill their cups, it was easy for Ralph to goad them into taking a second helping of sweet potato taco.

Del recognized this and decided to move a couple of the pitchers to his end, “for people’s convenience” he informed Ralph when Ralph demanded to know what Del was up to. The argument might have come to blows if Pastor O’Donnell hadn’t been returning for seconds at that moment. He reminded the two men that this was all for a good cause. Then he placed a taco and a burger on his plate. He didn’t want to play favorites, after all.

Things remained relatively calm for about twenty more minutes. That’s when Tammy Billings brought out a tray of refills for the empty pitchers. She put two pitchers of ice tea on Del’s side of the table and a pitcher each of lemonade and ice tea on Ralph’s side.

“Hey, where’s my lemonade?” Del asked.

“We ran out,” Tammy informed him. “There was only enough for one pitcher.” Then she beat a hasty retreat. She did not want to get involved in the competition.

Del stomped over and grabbed the single pitcher of lemonade.

“Just what do you think you’re doing now,” Ralph demanded.

“Why do you get the lemonade on your side?” Del asked.

“I have as much right to it as you do,” Ralph replied, pursuing him.

“The kids are all drinking lemonade and kids prefer cheeseburgers,” Del shouted.

“Kids should be eating healthier food,” Ralph responded, grabbing the pitcher.

The intellectual debate devolved into a tug of war over the plastic container. Half the precious lemonade sloshed over the edges. That made the pitcher slippery, and Ralph lost his grip on it rather suddenly.

Del stumbled back, trying not to spill the remaining contents of the pitcher. He didn’t realize his grill was directly behind him. He banged into it, tipping it over. Hot coals scattered across the lawn.

One particularly nefarious coal rolled under the gazebo and ignited a patch of dried grass there. The old, dry wood of the gazebo was also incredibly flammable and before anyone could react, tongues of flame were licking up one side.

“The gazebo’s on fire!” Ralph shouted.

Pandemonium ensued.

Del ran for a hose coiled up at the side of the church. Unfortunately, it was only long enough to reach about halfway across the lawn. He used his thumb to get as much distance on the spray as possible, but was not able to reach the gazebo.

Seeing this, Ralph had another idea. He dashed over to the controls for the underground sprinkler system. A few quick adjustments and jets of water were shooting out all across the lawn. Sadly, the spray of the nearest sprinkler heads only splattered the bottom of the gazebo and by this time the flames had reached the roof.

The sprinklers also served to clear all the attendees off the lawn. All except Henrietta Miggins who stood forlornly, her floral dress hanging damply from her thin frame and tears running down her cheeks as she watched her grandfather’s gazebo burn.

Pastor O’Donnell saw her agony and was moved. He dashed for the gazebo as fast as a man who had just consumed three burgers and three sweet potato tacos could dash. He scooted around the back and yanked the carved wooden plaque from the rusted hooks before the flames could reach it, slightly burning the back of his hand.

Soon several clear-headed people had retrieved fire extinguishers from inside the church and doused most of the flames. The fire department arrived seconds later to finish the job.

An hour after that O’Donnell, Henrietta, Ralph and Del stood together in front of the blackened gazebo.

“I’m so sorry, Henrietta,” Del said.

“Here,” O’Donnell added, handing the plaque to Henrietta. “We’ll build a new gazebo and put your grandfather’s plaque in it to honor his memory.”

“Thank you, pastor,” Henrietta replied.

“We can use the money we raised today,” Ralph said brightly. “How much did we get?”

“One hundred eighty dollars after expenses,” Henrietta informed them.

“Hm,” Ralph thought. “That won’t be quite enough.”

“We can always have another barbecue,” Del said.

“No more barbecues,” O’Donnell replied through clenched teeth.

Which is how the “Replace the Prayer Gazebo Family Picnic Fundraiser” was born.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Little Friendly Advice

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. Michelle Tellum, the pretty new 28-year-old associate pastor, had just started dating a young man by the name of Ian Wells. Ian and Michelle had their first kiss in Ian’s car in the church parking lot just before service one Sunday morning. It was a wonderful kiss, marred only by the fact that it had been witnessed by seventy year-old Henrietta Miggins.

Michelle had little doubt Henrietta would not approve of the associate pastor making out in the church parking lot, but she held out hope that maybe Henrietta’s disapproval would go unspoken. That only showed how new Michelle was to the little church. Henrietta never let her disapproval of anything go unspoken.

The congregation of the church may have been a tad behind in their tithing; they may have been a bit slow to volunteer for mission projects; they may even have been fairly casual in regards to their attendance. But when it came to gossip they constituted an efficient and effective machine. By the end of the service the details of Michelle’s first kiss were familiar to everyone in the building and even a few who had skipped church that morning.

The one exception was Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell. He had missed the gossip partly because he was a tad busy leading the service, and partly because he was always a bit clueless. After the benediction, Henry and Michelle took up posts on either side of the sanctuary doors to greet the congregants as they exited.

Ian was the first out. Henry grabbed his hand in a hearty shake and said, “Hello there. Are you a first time visitor?”

“Second,” Ian said. “I’m a friend of Michelle’s.”

“Ah, well good to have you,” Henry said.

Ian turned to Michelle. “I’ll wait for you at coffee hour.”

Ian went out to the social hall and got a cup of coffee. He stood in the corner trying to look inconspicuous. Within seconds head usher Ralph Billings sidled up to him. “So,” Ralph said casually, “you’re Pastor Michelle’s new boyfriend, eh?”

“Ian Wells,” Ian said, extending his hand. “And I don’t know if I’d use the term boyfriend. We’ve only been out a couple times.”

“I see, I see,” Ralph said, nodding. “Let me give you a little friendly advice. We all love our pastor Michelle dearly. She’s a sweet young woman. And Normal’s a pretty small town if you get my drift.”

“Um, I’m not sure,” Ian said. “Is your drift some kind of threat?”

“Of course not,” Ralph laughed. “I’m just saying that Michelle is young and sweet and nobody here would like to see her get hurt. So just keep that in mind.”

Ian got Ralph’s drift.

Meanwhile, back at the sanctuary doors, Missy Moore, a heavy-set, 44 year-old woman hustled up to Michelle, ignored her outstretched hand, and gave her a hug. Missy was a hugger.

“That boyfriend of yours is a hunk!” Missy exclaimed.

“Well he’s not exactly my boyfriend yet…” Michelle started to explain in a low voice, eyeing the line behind Missy nervously.

“Nonsense! I can tell you two belong together like peanut butter and bacon!” Missy practically yelled.

Michelle was not sure whether that was a good thing, never having combined peanut butter and bacon.

“But,” Missy continued conspiratorially, “let me give you a little friendly advice. You need to put out some honey if you want to catch a fly.”

“Okay,” Michelle said.

“I’m talking about make-up!” Missy clarified. “I can give you some tips that will bring out your best features.”

Michelle glanced up at Missy’s heavy blue eye shadow and excessively tweezed brows. “Thanks,” Michelle said with fairly convincing sincerity. “We’ll have to get together sometime during the week.”

Missy clapped her hands excitedly and moved on.

Back in the social hall, Ian found himself in conversation with Shane Reed, the choir director. Shane was 32, divorced, and had a secret crush on Michelle. He regarded Ian with a big smile and cold eyes.

“So, you and Michelle,” Shane said.

“Yep,” Ian replied.

“Getting serious?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say that.”

“I see,” Shane said. “Look, let me give you a little friendly advice. Michelle’s great and all, but dating a pastor is a pain. It’s always church, church, church, day and night. Boring!”

“Aren’t you the choir director?” Ian asked.

“Yeah. Anyway,” Shane continued, “you should know there are some real hotties over at the college and they can be pretty wild if you know what I mean. I’d think a guy like you would prefer a woman who’s a little more exciting.”

“So far Michelle’s been pretty exciting,” Ian replied.

“She has, huh.”


“Well…just think about what I said. You know, about the college girls.” Shane gave Ian a nudge and a wink then went to get a donut.

To Michelle’s relief, the sanctuary had finally cleared out. But before she could go find Ian, Henry put a hand on her arm.

“So,” Henry said, “You’re dating that young man, are you?”

“Uh-huh,” Michelle sighed. Henry was her boss and she really didn’t want to have a conversation about her love life with him.

“Let me give you a little friendly advice,” the senior pastor said. “When you go out on dates, go to another town. Less chance of running into a parishioner that way. But just be aware, no matter where you go, you will run into a parishioner. They’re everywhere. It’s like they stalk you or something. Like sharks. Or polar bears. So, I guess my advice is, no matter where you go, just be careful how you behave.”

“Great, will do,” Michelle said.

“Oh,” Henry added, “and make sure you keep your social life separate from your pastoral duties. Don’t let church business interfere in the relationship.”

Back in the social hall Ian had been cornered by a nicely dressed woman of about fifty with a short, professional haircut. “I’m Jennifer O’Donnell,” the woman said. “Pastor O’Donnell’s wife. I understand you’re seeing Michelle.”

“Yep,” Ian sighed.

Jennifer laughed and gave him a knowing look as though they were both in on a private joke. Ian, however, could not figure out what that joke was. It made him uncomfortable.

“Let me give you a little friendly advice,” Jennifer said. “First of all, don’t let them sign you up for a bunch of stuff. When you’re dating a pastor everyone assumes you’ll volunteer for everything that needs doing around the church. You have the right to say no. Second, repeat names as often as you can so you remember them because everyone at the church is going to know yours. Third, no matter what Michelle says, realize church business will inevitably interfere with the relationship.”

Meanwhile, Michelle had finally made her way to the social hall and spotted Ian and Jennifer. She felt a knot in her stomach as she considered what that particular discussion might be about. She made a beeline for them – only to be intercepted by Katie O’Donnell, Henry and Jennifer’s fifteen year-old daughter.

“Your new boyfriend’s cute,” Katie gushed.

“Thanks,” Michelle replied, “but we’ve only been on a couple dates so I wouldn’t call him my boyfriend yet.”

“Oh,” Katie said. “Okay. Hey, can I ask you a question? Do you believe premarital sex is a sin?”

Michelle looked quickly around to see who might be listening. “Katie, I am not going to talk about my sex life with you!” she hissed.

Michelle started to move past the teen, but Katie said, “It’s just my boyfriend, Joe, he’s a junior and he wants us to get a hotel room for the junior prom.”

Michelle froze. She turned back to Katie. There were tiny tears rising in the girl’s eyes as she bit her lip nervously. Michelle glanced over at Ian. He met her gaze with a pleading look. Michelle shrugged an apology and took Katie’s arm.

“Okay,” she said to Katie. “Let’s go talk.”

Ian would just have to listen to Jennifer’s advice a while longer.