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.