Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Un-Decorating

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Each year, a few days after Christmas, a small group gathers in the sanctuary to take down the Christmas decorations. Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell always has mixed feelings about this day. On the one hand, he loves the Christmas season and this final annual ritual makes him melancholy. On the other hand, church secretary Tammy Billings always brings Christmas leftovers – including plenty of pie and cookies. Tammy is an excellent cook but a light eater. And her husband Ralph is a bit of a health nut, which means O’Donnell traditionally gets to overindulge to his heart’s content.

Every year the church has asked for volunteers to help with the project, but invariably the only people who show up are Tammy, Ralph, and Pastor O’Donnell. Normally this was fine with the pastor. It meant more of Tammy’s goodies for him. Last year the church brought on a new young Associate Pastor named Michelle Tellum who felt obliged to help with the un-decorating as well, but O’Donnell didn’t mind because she didn’t eat much. Unfortunately this year she also brought her boyfriend, Ian, and he could eat quite a bit.

To everyone’s surprise one other volunteer showed up as well: Missy Moore, a heavyset woman in her forties. As she dug into a piece of Tammy’s pumpkin pie, she explained that she thought the clean up project would help her burn off all those Christmas calories.

“With so many hands we’ll be done in no time,” Tammy said.

O’Donnell agreed that was a plus, but he was concerned because there were only two pieces of pumpkin pie left. O’Donnell loved Tammy’s pumpkin pie, but wanted to save a slice for when they had finished with the work. And the way Ian was digging into a hunk of leftover fruitcake, O’Donnell didn’t think he could count on the pie lasting that long. So while Tammy was assigning duties to the others, O’Donnell slipped a slice of pie onto a paper plate and stuck it under a pew on the left side of the church.

Tammy was determined to keep the decorations organized this year. She’d listed each type of decoration and assigned it a box, which she had numbered. As things were packed away, she would check them off on her chart. Hopefully that chart would allow her to quickly find things when it came time to decorate next year.

Most of the others tried to follow Tammy’s instructions diligently, but she was usually unsatisfied with the way they folded this or coiled that. However she was too polite to criticize so she would often just surreptitiously repack the items when nobody was looking. After all, everything had to be just so or it wouldn’t fit neatly in the designated boxes.

Ralph was the most rebellious of the volunteers. When he saw something that needed done, he tended to just do it rather than waiting for directions. So he frequently brought things to Tammy that she wanted at the top of a box before the things that belonged on the bottom were packed.

About twenty minutes into the project, O’Donnell saw Ralph carrying a twenty-foot ladder into the sanctuary. “What are you going to do with that?” O’Donnell asked.

“Take down the Advent wall hangings,” Ralph replied.

“That’s a two man job,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t want you climbing up there yourself.”

“Fine,” Ralph grumbled. “You can climb the ladder while I hold it steady. Then you can pass the hangings down to me. Okay?”

“Okay,” O’Donnell said, not quite sure how he’d volunteered to climb a twenty foot ladder. He wasn’t good with heights.

Meanwhile, Michelle, Ian and Missy were taking down the decorations on the two trees that had been put up in the chancel. What they didn’t know was that Bart, a bat who usually lived in the church’s bell tower, had taken up temporary residence in the left tree and was currently fast asleep on one of the inside branches near the top.

Michelle climbed up on a step stool to reach the string of lights wrapped around the top of the tree. As she started unwinding them, she woke Bart up. Startled at the unexpected disturbance, he flew out right in front of her face.

“A bat!” Michelle screeched. It was her first encounter with Bart. She instinctively vaulted backwards, spun in midair, cleared the railing at the edge of the chancel and landed on the front pew. Ian, who was watching from under the piano where he’d dived when Michelle had yelled, thought his girlfriend might have broken some kind of long jump record. As she leaped from pew to pew, her hands fluttering about her ears, he wondered if she was planning to go for a hurdles record as well.

If she was, she failed. On her third jump her toes caught the back of a pew, tripping her. She flew through the air toward Ralph and the ladder. Ralph caught her, preventing a disaster.

Unfortunately disaster turned out to be only delayed. O’Donnell had turned at the commotion and discovered the panicked bat was flying straight toward him. He ducked instinctively, throwing the ladder off balance. Without Ralph steadying it, it began to lean.

O’Donnell realized the ladder was going to fall. He reached out and grabbed the nearest handhold – a light fixture hanging from the rafter beams by a three foot chain. He clung to it as the ladder fell out from under him.

O’Donnell was almost as surprised to find himself uninjured as he was to find himself hanging from a light fixture twenty feet in the air. Then a creaking sound drew his attention upward. He could see the three screws attaching the chain to the rafter slowly pulling loose from the wood.

Fortunately, Tammy had kept her head in the chaos. She tossed aside her chart and sprinted over to the ladder. Meanwhile, O’Donnell’s eyes were fixed on those screws working their way millimeter by millimeter out of the beam. He wasn’t even aware that Tammy had righted the ladder under him until she called his name.

O’Donnell stepped onto the ladder with indescribable relief. He made his way down, step by step, his hands trembling. He was greeted by Michelle. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said. “I guess I have a little phobia about bats.”

“Don’t worry about it,” O’Donnell said, just happy to be back on solid ground.

“Did anybody see where it went?” Ian called from under the piano.

They all looked around but Bart the bat seemed to have vanished.

O’Donnell decided it was time for his pie. But when he crouched down to get it, he was startled to discover Bart had beaten him to it. The little bat was lapping at the pumpkin filling curiously. Bart ultimately decided it paled in comparison to a good housefly and took off, planning to relocate back to the belfry. The humans were causing too much of a ruckus in the sanctuary.

O’Donnell thought about what kind of germs bat saliva might contain, then thought about how those screws had been the only thing between him and a painful fall. He decided maybe he didn’t need the piece of pie after all and tossed it in the trash.

He rejoined the others who were excitedly analyzing every second of the brief adventure. Suddenly there was a loud crack above them. O’Donnell looked up and realized the light fixture screws had finally escaped from the rafter beam. Worse, Tammy was standing directly under the fixture. He grabbed her and pulled her aside just as the lamp plunged to the floor and shattered.

“Thank you,” Tammy gasped.

“One good rescue deserves another,” O’Donnell said.

The group finished their chores without further incident and Ian and Ralph took the boxes down to the storage room under the social hall. The following day, Tammy dropped by the O’Donnell residence with a fresh pumpkin pie as a reward for his gallant rescue.

A bit after that, Jose the janitor went into the sanctuary to clean up the broken glass from the fallen lamp. He discovered someone had left a piece of paper on one of the pews. It was full of itemized lists and codes. He didn’t really understand what it was referring to, but it looked important so he put it on Pastor O’Donnell’s desk. Over the next few months it became buried under mounds of paper.

When it came time to decorate the church for Christmas the following year the volunteers had to struggle through without Tammy’s chart. But at least there were no bat encounters.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scott's First Christmas

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  Carrie Winslow and her husband Carlos Lopez moved in with Carrie’s parents, church members Del and Karen Winslow, a year and a half ago when the company they worked for went under.  In that time, Carrie gave birth to her first child, Scott. 

In early December, Carrie and Carlos sat Del and Karen down to deliver some big news.  They were planning to go to Carlos’s parents’ house in Cincinnati for Scott’s first Christmas.  The other set of grandparents was eager to get a little time with the lad. 

Karen went pale at this announcement.  It would be the first time Carrie had not spent Christmas with her parents since she was born.  Taking Scott away as well just added salt to the wound.  Carlos…well, Karen liked Carlos but he wasn’t quite in the same league as her daughter and grandson.  Karen put on a brave smile, but the tear that ran down her cheek gave her away.

Carrie saw her mom’s face and quickly assured her they would all partake in every Christmas activity Normal had to offer until time for the young family to depart.  And she was true to her word.  She posted a special holiday calendar on the fridge to keep track of all the once-in-a-lifetime family Christmas events.  

The truth was Carrie’s plan to fill the month with holiday activities was not just for Karen’s benefit.  Carrie wanted Scott’s first Christmas to be perfect.  She had some deep-seated fear that somehow he would miss out on a defining holiday experience that would haunt him for life. However, at ten months old, Scott did not always grasp what all the fuss was about.

So Del and Karen went along when Carrie and Carlos took Scott to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap.  Scott cried the entire time.

And Del and Karen went along when Carrie and Carlos took Scott to a local farm that was offering Christmas hayrides.  Scott spent the ride trying to eat the hay.

Del and Karen also went along when Carrie and Carlos took Scott on a drive to see Christmas decorations.  Scott never looked out the window, absorbed as he was by a talking teddy bear.

Then Carrie and Carlos purchased a seven-foot tall Christmas tree that they decorated with Del and Karen in the living room on a Saturday afternoon.  Scott slept through the whole activity.

Karen dutifully recorded each of these events with her digital camera.  Among the thousand or so pictures she took, she managed to find a dozen where it appeared that Scott was actually in the Christmas spirit.  Those were printed and added to his baby book.

Carrie, Carlos and Scott were scheduled to leave three days before Christmas.  Two days before their departure, Karen set a couple of presents under the tree for Scott.  She sighed and looked at Carrie.  “I guess we won’t get to see him open these.  Take pictures for us.”

“I have an idea,” Carrie said.  “Why don’t we have our Christmas morning right before we leave.  Scott can open his presents from you and Dad then so you won’t miss out.  He can open some of ours, too…we bought him over a dozen things.  There’ll still be plenty of gifts for him to open in Cincinnati.”

So bright and early on December 22nd Del and Karen and Carrie and Carlos and Scott gathered around the Christmas tree to open presents.  For Karen and Carrie it was a bittersweet experience.  Del mostly struggled to stay awake.  The intense schedule of activities had worn him out.  Scott seemed to have a good time opening the gifts, though he was more interested in the wrapping paper than the contents.  And then Carrie and Carlos and Scott left for Cincinnati.

On Christmas Day Del and Karen woke up a bit after nine.  “It’s been a long time since we got to sleep in this late,” Del noted.

“Not since Scott was born,” Karen said with a sigh.

They ate breakfast and opened their gifts to each other.  About that time, Carrie and Carlos called from Cincinnati.  Karen did an admirable job of feigning cheerfulness.

Del may not have been the most sensitive guy in the world but he’d been married to Karen a long time and knew how she was really feeling.  When they hung up he offered to go make her some hot chocolate.  It seemed to help.

About midmorning Karen went into the kitchen to make their traditional Christmas feast of standing rib roast and rhubarb pie.  It was more than the two of them really needed, but both felt the custom especially important this year.  When it was ready she asked Del to set the table.

“Use the good china,” she said.

“Huh,” Del said.  “Another thing we haven’t done since Scott was born.  While we’re at it, maybe we should open a bottle of red wine.”

That elicited the first real smile from Karen all day.

During the meal they found themselves talking about literature and current events.  By the time they finished their pie, Del could tell Karen was actually beginning to appreciate a day with just the two of them, even if it was Christmas.

Then a jazzy song came on the radio.  “Would you like to dance?” Del asked.

“Really?” Karen said.

“There’s nobody to stop us.”  Del stood and extended his hand.  Karen took it and they danced, Del spinning and dipping her through three songs.  She laughed so hard she cried.

“Enough,” she finally gasped.  “I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“You look plenty young to me,” Del said with a lascivious wink.  “Why don’t you rest up while I clear the table.”

Del was loading the dishwasher when Karen called to him from the family room where the computer was.  “Carrie emailed photos of Scott opening his presents this morning.”

Del peeked in and saw Karen’s wet eyes as she clicked through the pictures.

“Someone needs to teach Carlos’s parents how to use a camera,” she muttered.   “These are terrible.”

Oh well, Del thought.  Grown up Christmas was good while it lasted.


Don’t forget to order your copy of The Christmas Tree Lot and Other Holiday Tales from the Little Church Stories.  Get a discount code at

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Boyers Buy A Tree

The following is based on an excerpt from the novellette "The Christmas Tree Lot" available in the book, "The Christmas Tree Lot and Other Holiday Tales from the Little Church Stories" now available at:

(Hear the story read by the author.)

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there's a little church on the corner of Wilson and Elm.  This year the church decided to start a Christmas Tree lot to raise money.  Ralph Billings was in charge of running the lot and Henrietta Miggins was in charge of recruiting volunteers.  So far Henrietta’s recruitment efforts had been quite successful.  When the lot officially opened for business on the Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving, she had Ralph, Pastor O’Donnell, Walter Tibble, Thad Wheeling and Missy Moore scheduled to work – though Walter didn’t show up, sending word that his back was hurting and he thought he better go home and lay down.

Missy arrived wearing jingle bell earrings and a sweater featuring a picture of a reindeer with a jingle bell sewn to its nose.  “I love Christmas!” she announced as she jingled up to the card table that served as the lot’s base of operations.

“Apparently,” O’Donnell mumbled.

“I brought Christmas music,” Missy continued, her bells tinkling merrily as she set a small boom box on the table, “And Christmas cookies.”

She opened a tin full of brightly decorated sugar cookies.  O’Donnell decided Missy’s Christmas mania definitely had its benefits as he helped himself to a tree shaped cookie.

And then he took a bite. It seemed what he had thought was a sugar cookie was actually made of granite with cement frosting.  He managed to chew and swallow that first bite but feared it might have cost him a visit to the dentist the next day.

While Missy went to find an extension cord for her boom box, O’Donnell ditched the cookie in some bushes.  He noticed the other volunteers were finding similar hiding places for their cookies as well.

When Missy returned they all complimented her on her baking skills.  She put on her first CD.  It was an album of fifteen different versions of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  “Isn’t that clever,” Missy asked as a calypso version played.  “Who would have thought that song could be done in so many different ways?”

Certainly not Pastor O’Donnell.

Ralph declared the lot open for business at noon.  Their first customers were the Boyer family:  Kevin, Jill and their daughters Mary, age four, and Susie, age two.  Jill was hosting the Women's Group Christmas Party this year.  It was a big responsibility so she determined to get everything done as early as possible for the holiday season.  Her plan included getting her tree as soon as she could.

Unfortunately the members of the Boyer family all had different criteria when evaluating the trees.  Jill wanted a perfectly formed tree.  Mary and Susie wanted the biggest tree on the lot so Santa could fit lots of presents under it.  Kevin just didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on something they’d throw away in a month.  It turned out to be quite difficult to find a tree that fulfilled all of those requirements.

The trees were arranged in rows organized by height and type.  Mary and Susie immediately ran to the back row where the eight-foot and over trees were kept.  “Those won’t fit in our living room,” Kevin called as he moved to the four and five foot Douglas firs.

“I think Nobles are prettier,” Jill said, heading toward the other side of the lot.

“But they’re more expensive,” Kevin replied.  “Let’s see if we can find a Douglas that you like first.”

Ralph and Thad were in back making fresh cuts to the bottoms of trees waiting to be mounted in stands, while Missy filled the stands of the trees already on display with a hose. That left Pastor O’Donnell to assist the customers.  “Do you have any questions?” he asked Kevin.

“Not yet,” Kevin replied. “I have a feeling this might take a while,”

“Just let me know if there’s anything I can do,” O’Donnell said and returned to the card table.

Jill had Kevin bring likely candidates out into the aisle so she could observe them from every angle.  Whenever she seemed to be fixating on a particularly expensive tree, he would note that it appeared to be leaning one way or another and urge her to keep looking.  The girls pouted whenever the adults considered anything that was less than seven feet.

After about forty-five minutes Jill had found a tree she thought was just about perfect.  It was a more expensive Noble fir, but Kevin was pleased it was only five feet tall.  The girls wailed and cried but Kevin assured them Santa would figure out a way to stuff plenty of presents under it.  Jill had Kevin turn the tree this way and that as she did a final inspection to make sure there were no holes or bent branches.

Mary sat on the ground pouting and debating whether a bicycle would fit under the tree if Santa laid it on its side.  Then she noticed something moving on one of the branches.  She jumped to her feet and yelled, “Spider!”

“Where?” Kevin screamed in a high-pitched voice.  He leapt back, releasing his grip on the tree.  It fell backwards, striking the row of trees behind it. One by one they tipped over like dominos.  One of them bumped Missy, causing her to stumble and lose control of the hose.  The icy stream of water arced into the air and hit O’Donnell in the back of the head.  O’Donnell’s screams were even higher pitched than Kevin’s as the water ran down the back of his shirt.

Missy stepped on the spider, thereby completely destroying any remaining semblance of Kevin’s manliness.  He picked the tree back up and apologized for the mess.

“No problem,” Missy said brightly and proceeded to right the other fallen trees.

“Oh no,” Jill whispered to her husband.  “When you dropped the tree, the branches on that side kind of got crushed.  We better find another one.”

Kevin moaned.

Thirty minutes later Jill had settled on a new tree.  It was seven feet tall, which pleased the girls.  By that time Kevin would have happily paid a hundred dollars for a potted begonia.  Since O’Donnell was still inside drying off, Ralph made the transaction. He offered to put a fresh cut on the tree, but Kevin just wanted to pay and get out of there.

Ralph happily entered the sale in the brand new ledger he’d bought for the lot.  For the next several hours that was the only entry in that lovely ledger.

“Don’t worry,” Missy Moore said, wiping her brow.  The day was turning out to be a little warm for her reindeer sweater. “I’m sure sales will pick up as Christmas gets closer!”

O’Donnell hoped she was right, though he wasn’t sure he would live to find out.  The last version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on Missy’s album, a novelty take done with synthesized bird tweets, was making him a bit suicidal.

Read what happens next at the Christmas Tree Lot in the book available on!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Laity Sunday

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.  One Sunday every year is designated Laity Sunday when the members of the congregation run the worship service.  The clergy do not get the day off, however.  Traditionally they make luncheon for the congregation as a gesture of gratitude.

This year, Del Winslow was in charge of Laity Sunday.  Del had a personal agenda for the day.  He wanted to have a tight, efficient service that ended in exactly one hour.  Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s services typically ran long by ten or fifteen minutes.  Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum was only slightly better.  Such overages annoyed Del greatly. In fact, he would have gotten up and walked out at the hour mark if he wasn’t a member of the choir.  So Del wanted to demonstrate to pastors O’Donnell and Tellum how a properly run worship service should go.

Del convened a meeting of Laity Sunday volunteers two weeks in advance for the purposes of assigning parts of the service.  Thad Wheeling was assigned the welcome and benediction.  Church secretary Tammy Billings agreed to do the invocation and call to worship.

The trouble started when Del asked for volunteers for the pastoral prayer.  Missy Moore, an enthusiastic, heavyset woman had been sitting quietly in back, but now her hand shot into the air.  Del was not a fan of the way Missy tended to babble on endlessly in conversation.  He dreaded what might happen if he gave her free reign at the microphone.

Del turned to his thirty-year-old daughter, Carrie.  “Carrie, why don’t you do the prayer?”

Carrie seemed startled.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “Do I have to make it up myself?”

“Well, yeah,” Del replied.

“I was hoping I could just read the scripture or something,” Carrie said.

“Come on, I know you’ll do great.”

“Okay,” Carrie muttered, not nearly so sure.  In the back, Missy put her hand back in her lap with a frown.  She had really wanted to do the prayer because she felt moved to express her gratitude for her church family and thought a group prayer would be the perfect opportunity.

The choir did the hymns and anthem as normal on Laity Sunday, but Del needed someone for special music.  Pastor Michelle’s boyfriend Ian Wells got that assignment.  Michelle wanted Ian to participate but Ian wasn’t fond of public speaking.  However he did play guitar in a jazz ensemble so special music was right up his alley.

Tammy’s husband Ralph volunteered to read the announcements.  Missy again raised her hand to do the Offertory figuring she could use the Prayer of Dedication to express her gratitude, but Del assigned those jobs to Jill Boyer.  Next Del called for a volunteer to read scripture.  “Missy, how about you?” he asked.

Missy was startled.  She hadn’t raised her hand this time.  “What else is left?” she asked.

“Just the sermon,” Del said, “and I’m doing that.”

“Fine,” Missy grumbled.

Meanwhile, Pastor Michelle was also out to prove something.  It always annoyed her that food at church events tended toward the cheap and unsophisticated.  She fancied herself a bit of a foodie and wanted to demonstrate a more gourmet approach.  Of course she also had to feed a hundred people without much help, so she needed to keep things simple.  She settled on a spicy seared scallop salad.

Pastor O’Donnell was a little skeptical when she told him, but didn’t want to crush her enthusiasm.  He was planning to make bagel pizzas for his contribution.  Michelle smiled indulgently.  They would probably make the kids happy, she figured.

Michelle wanted to get the scallops as fresh as she could so she arranged to buy them on the way to the church the morning of the service.  However when she arrived the seafood store did not have as many fresh scallops as she wanted.  Michelle began to panic.  Fortunately Ian was with her to calm her down.  He suggested they swing by the grocery store to pick up some frozen scallops.  Michelle was disappointed by the compromise but didn’t see any other option.

The only downside was that Ian would miss the walk-through Del had scheduled prior to the service.  It didn’t seem like a big deal to Ian, but at the church Del was annoyed.  To make matters worse, Ralph had caught a bad cold a couple days before and coughed constantly through the rehearsal.

Del was just about to cut special music out of the program entirely when Ian and Michelle arrived.  Michelle went to the kitchen to begin preparing her salad while Ian sauntered into the sanctuary.

Del wanted to give the tardy youngster a piece of his mind, but it was a mere five minutes until the service was scheduled to start and he wanted to begin on time even more. So he simply ordered Ian to get to his seat and then gave Thad his cue to welcome the congregation.

After the opening hymn Tammy delivered the Invocation and Call to Worship without a hitch.  By the end of the second hymn the service was running two minutes ahead of schedule according to Del’s calculations.  That’s when the first hiccup occurred.

Carrie stepped up to the lectern to deliver the pastoral prayer.  She had written it out on a piece of paper, revising it through half a dozen drafts during the week.  She pulled the paper out of her pocket with shaky hands, only to drop it.  It floated down over the railing and into the third pew.  Del tapped his foot impatiently as Tammy scrambled down to retrieve the paper.  Well, it was only a small delay.  They could make up the time.

Carrie managed to get through the prayer without vomiting which she considered quite an achievement.  Next came the special music.  Ian got his guitar and pulled a microphone out to the center of the chancel.  However when he tried to introduce the song he discovered the microphone wasn’t working.  He verified that it was turned on then began tracing the cord to see that everything was plugged in.  Organist Walter Tibble came over to help.  “Just get a different microphone,” Del finally snapped, a little louder than he intended.  “This is why we rehearsed,” he muttered under his breath.

Ian’s song was wonderful but Del didn’t hear it.  He was busy editing his sermon to make up for the lost time.  Then came the announcements.  Ralph stepped up to the microphone and began to speak.  No sound came out.

At first Del thought Ralph was using the broken microphone.  But when Ralph coughed and it was amplified over the speakers it became clear the microphone was not the problem.  Ralph had lost his voice.  Del strode out and took over.  He didn’t have time for any more delays.

Then real disaster struck.  As Del was moving back to his spot, he tripped on the microphone cord.  His glasses fell off and by an unfortunate coincidence Del’s left knee landed right on top of them.  He heard the lenses crunch and began to feel sick to his stomach.  Without his glasses he wouldn’t be able to read his notes for the sermon.

Fortunately Jill managed the offertory without any problems but when Missy went to the lectern to do the scripture reading, she started by saying, “before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to express my gratitude for this church…”

Del felt his blood begin to boil.  He coughed pointedly but Missy ignored him.  She went on for ten minutes determined to deliver the message she would have done had she been given the opportunity to lead a prayer.  By the time she got around to reading the scripture, the service had been going for fifty-eight minutes.

Del gave up.  He had rehearsed his sermon several times and could deliver it without his notes, but he couldn’t edit it on the fly.  So he just did it the way he had originally planned.  Halfway through he was interrupted when the smoke alarm went off in the kitchen.  Michelle had left one batch of scallops in the frying pan a little longer than she should have.

It took ten minutes for someone to ascertain that the church was not on fire.  Del finished up his sermon, the congregation sang the final hymn, and Thad delivered the benediction.  The service had run a total of twenty-nine minutes over, considerably more than was common when the clergy were in charge.

The congregation moved to the Social Hall for the luncheon.  Tammy Billings was first in line.  She examined Michelle’s scallop salad closely.  “What is it,” she asked.

Michelle described the ingredients and manner of preparation proudly.  Tammy forced a smile.  “Sounds very fancy,” she said.  She took a small helping just to be polite, then grabbed one of O’Donnell’s bagel pizzas.  “Where’s the coffee?” she asked.

Michelle and O’Donnell looked at each other.  They’d both completely forgotten to make coffee.  They scrambled to go set it up.

By the time the luncheon was finished the bagel pizzas were completely gone but half the scallop salad remained.  And the coffee had finally finished brewing but by then nobody wanted it anymore.  As Ian helped Michelle pack up the leftovers he observed that she could have gotten away without the frozen scallops after all.  Ian wasn’t always the smartest boyfriend.

The following week the pastors were running the service again and Tammy was back in charge of coffee hour.  And everything went much more smoothly.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Carving

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.  One of Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum’s many jobs at the church is programming.  So Michelle was constantly on the lookout for events and activities to encourage fellowship within the congregation.  Holidays frequently provided such opportunities.  When October rolled around, she suggested to Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell that they hold a jack-o-lantern carving contest the day before Halloween.

“Sounds like an excellent idea,” Pastor O’Donnell said.  “I can be a judge if you want.”  Being a judge meant that he would be the center of attention and that he wouldn’t have to get all messy carving a pumpkin.  O’Donnell liked attention and didn’t like getting messy so it was kind of the perfect arrangement.

Michelle figured they needed at least three judges.  For the second she recruited Ralph Billings who was always happy to help out in any way he was needed.  Then Michelle asked Missy Moore.  “I’d be a great judge,” Missy said.  “I went to art school, you know.”

“I did not know that,” Michelle replied.

“But I think I’d rather carve a pumpkin.  You know, put that art training to use.  If you don’t think that would be unfair to the other competitors.”

“No,” Michelle said, “I think that would be fine.”

Next Michelle tried organist Walter Tibble.  Walter had no interest in carving a pumpkin but didn’t really have any interest in judging either.  However once Michelle mentioned that she would be making cookies for refreshments Walter agreed.  Walter was a fan of Michelle’s cookies and, really, how hard could it be to pick out which jack-o-lantern he liked best?

A dozen people entered the contest.  Michelle and her boyfriend, Ian Wells, had bought twenty pumpkins from a local pumpkin patch – really a parking lot covered in hay to seem rustic.  They set them out on a table in the social hall for participants to select from.

Missy carefully perused the pumpkins, hoisting each one in turn and gazing at it critically.  “In art school they emphasize the importance of selecting the right materials,” she remarked.  “As Michelangelo said, ‘every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.’”

“You do know we’re carving pumpkins, not stone,” Ian said.

“Of course,” Missy shot back.  “And I want to find the pumpkin with just the right jack-o-lantern lurking inside.”

“Great,” Ian replied.  “I think I’ll just carve this one.”  He grabbed the pumpkin closest to where he happened to be standing at that moment.

“No!” Missy cried.  “That was one of my top choices.  That’s why I set it back from the edge of the table.”

“It’s first come first serve,” Ian said.  He didn’t really care which pumpkin he carved, but Missy was starting to annoy him.

“Are you even eligible for the contest?” Missy demanded.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’re dating the organizer.”

“Let’s let Pastor O’Donnell decide,” Ian said.

“I think the judges can manage to remain objective,” O’Donnell replied when they asked him.  “Besides, Katie wants to enter, too.”  He nodded toward his teenage daughter, Katie, and her friend Tabitha who were picking out their pumpkins at that very moment.

“Okay, Ian can have the good pumpkin,” Missy said grumpily.  “I suppose it’s only fair that I’m handicapped considering my art school training.”

“How magnanimous,” Ian muttered.  He grabbed a knife and went to claim a workspace.

Missy picked a replacement pumpkin and found her workspace.  She pulled a bundle out of her big purse and unrolled it.  It contained a selection of carving and scooping instruments.

When Ian saw this he summoned Pastor O’Donnell again.  “Is Missy allowed to use those fancy tools?” Ian asked.  “The rest of us just have knives from the kitchen.”

“It doesn’t say you can’t bring your own tools!” Missy protested and held up the flyer advertising the event.

“It doesn’t say you can’t smash your opponents’ pumpkins, either,” Ian pointed out.

“That’s not the same thing at all,” Missy argued.

 “I’m going to make an executive decision,” O’Donnell said before the argument got out of hand.  “Missy can use her own tools.”

Ian and Missy glared at each other as they returned to their pumpkins. 

Over at the judges’ table Michelle called for everyone’s attention.  “You will have one hour to carve your jack-o-lanterns,” she said.  “Ready…set…go!” 

The contestants immediately bent to their work, cutting the tops off their pumpkins and scooping out the insides.  Michelle collected the pumpkin seeds to roast them with spices in the kitchen.  The judges amused themselves at the refreshment table.

After about ten minutes Katie pushed her pumpkin away with a groan.  “I screwed up.  Can I start over?” she asked.

“Sure,” Michelle said.  “There are still half a dozen pumpkins left.”  Katie found a new pumpkin and resumed work.

Ian hadn’t gone to art school but he was a pretty creative guy.  He planned to carve the jack of hearts from a deck of cards as a pun on the word jack-o-lantern.  Since the jack of hearts was a one-eyed jack, he made an X for one of the eyes as if it had been gouged out.  He sketched out his plan on the pumpkin with a pencil.  He was pretty proud of himself – the thin curling mustache and the hearts on the side sold it.

He glanced over to see how Missy was progressing.  She caught his look and immediately moved to block her pumpkin with her body.

“Aaaarrrrgh,” Katie yelled and kicked her pumpkin away.  It rolled across the floor into the corner.  She stomped over to the remaining pumpkins and grabbed a new one.

Ian was just putting the final touches on his jack-o-lantern when Michelle announced ten minutes left.

“No,” Katie wailed and ran for a new pumpkin.

Ian noodled with his entry for several more minutes.  He was happy with what he had done but since Missy was being so protective of hers he figured he would keep his hidden until the last moment as well.

Finally Michelle announced that the contest was over and instructed the participants to bring their jack-o-lanterns up to the judges’ table.  When Missy saw Ian’s jack-of-hearts, she snorted.  “What’s scary about that?”

“It’s a one-eyed-jack-o-lantern,” Ian said.  The judges chuckled and Missy flushed with momentary annoyance. 

“Let’s see yours,” Ian demanded.

Missy revealed her creation.  She had carved a demonic face on her pumpkin, cleverly using pieces of pumpkin that she had cut out from the eyes as horns.  Ian shuddered a little.  It was surprisingly evil looking.

O’Donnell cleared his throat.  “That’s very…well…”

“Disturbing,” Ralph finished.

“It’s supposed to be scary,” Missy replied.  “This is Halloween, isn’t it?”

“I guess it is,” Michelle said.  She found the demon a bit unsettling as well.  “Is that all of the entries?”

“Wait for me,” Tabitha called out.  She scurried over and set her jack-o-lantern on the table.  Everyone gasped.

“It’s you!” Katie said.

It was indeed.  Tabitha had carved a strikingly lifelike self-portrait on the side of her pumpkin, leaving just enough of the flesh intact within the image that it glowed.  “I got the idea off the internet,” Tabitha said shyly.  “You tape a picture to the pumpkin then poke holes through it with a big needle to create the outline.”

“Is that fair?” Missy mumbled.

“You got to use your special tools,” Ian pointed out.

“I hate jack-o-lanterns” Katie whispered under her breath, looking down at her entry.  She’d ended up carving two triangular eyes and a jagged mouth.

“Okay, let’s let the judges get to work,” Michelle said.

It didn’t take long for the judges to make their decision.  O’Donnell called Tabitha up and presented her with a blue ribbon and a gift certificate to Roger’s CafĂ©.

Then O’Donnell announced the other awards.  “Ian gets the funniest jack-o-lantern award.  Missy gets scariest.  Katie gets most traditional…”

“Wait a minute,” Missy interrupted.  “What kind of awards are those?  Tabitha’s pumpkin is great, I’ll admit.  Kudos to her.  But who gets second place?”

“Nobody,” Michelle replied.  “There was only one ribbon and gift certificate.  Everyone else gets these fun awards.  It’s, you know, fun.”

“But…but…” Missy sputtered.  “We all want to know whose was second best, right?”

“Yeah,” Ian agreed.

“Not really,” Katie grumbled.

Michelle turned to the judges.  Walter was the one that spoke up.  “It was a tie,” he said.  “Everyone came in second.  Everyone except Tabitha, of course.  She was clearly first place.  She’s quite an artist.”

“Well,” Missy muttered under her breath, “great art is never appreciated in its own time.”

Perhaps that was true, but within three days her jack-o-lantern had decayed into a puddle of goo so future generations never got to weigh in on the issue.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Runaway

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.  Eight months ago church members Carlos and Carrie Lopez had their first child, a beautiful boy named Scott.  Recently, Scott learned to crawl.  This elicited a variety of emotions in the young parents.

Both were of course delighted to see their child reach this milestone.  But in Carrie this delight was mixed with dread over all the new dangers her precious baby would now be exposed to.  Carlos and Carrie were living with Carrie’s parents, Del and Karen Winslow.  Minutes after Scott first pulled himself three feet forward to reach a favored toy, Carrie raced to the store to acquire two large bags of baby-proofing devices.

Del was quite amused watching Carrie spend the next few days ensuring that every corner, door, drawer and liquid was covered or locked down.  He followed her around telling stories about the trouble she got into when she first started crawling back in the days before all those fancy safety gadgets.  His intention was to reassure her that everything would inevitably turn out okay, but the tales of Carrie’s young brushes with injury had the opposite effect on his daughter.

Carlos’s delight was not tinged with anxiety so much as exhaustion.  His job while Carrie was baby-proofing was to wrangle Scott manually away from any danger.  Once Scott realized that he was now able to move about the house unassisted he took maximum advantage of the skill.  And Scott turned out to be a natural speedster.  It was all Carlos could do to keep up with him.

That Sunday the Winslow’s trooped off to church.  Del was in the choir and Karen taught Sunday school.  Carlos, Carrie and Scott took their usual place in the back pew, which had extra room to accommodate strollers.

Now that he could crawl Scott’s patience for being strapped into a stroller or car seat was extremely limited.  Once the little family was settled and the service started, he began to get fidgety.  Carlos took Scott out of the stroller and held him on his lap, hoping that would calm the little guy.  It did not.

As the offertory began Carlos allowed Scott to crawl up and down the pew.  Scott was pleased with this solution but Carrie was not.  She elbowed Carlos and hissed, “What are you doing?  He could fall off.”

So Carlos set Scott down on the floor.  It seemed a reasonable idea in the moment, but one he would quickly regret.

From little Scott’s perspective, the carpet stretched out in a broad plain populated by people’s legs and roofed by the pews.  It looked like a fascinating place to explore.  And so that’s what he did.

From Carrie and Carlos’s perspective, their baby had just vanished under the pew in front of them.

Carrie immediately dropped to her hands and knees.  But she was too slow – Scott was already three rows away.  Carrie wriggled after him, but while little Scott could easily crawl under the pews Carrie had to follow on her belly.  Even so, she banged her head several times.

Carlos meanwhile scrambled out to the side aisle to pursue his child.  He got there just as head usher Ralph Billings was coming by with the offering plate.  They nearly collided, then did a little dance to maneuver around each other.  Though the delay was only a few seconds, it allowed Scott to extend his lead by several more rows.

Carrie almost caught Scott when he stopped to investigate Missy Moore’s purse, which was sitting on the floor.  He pulled the purse over, spilling out the contents.  Missy looked down in time to see Scott crawl after a silver pen that was rolling toward the front of the sanctuary.  A moment later Carrie lunged out from under the pew, her fingers missing Scott’s heels by an inch.

Carrie felt several sharp pricks in her hands and arms.  She lifted them to discover she’d been skewered by thumbtacks that had spilled from Missy’s purse.  She looked up at Missy and asked, “Who carries thumbtacks in their purse?”  Missy sputtered, still trying to comprehend exactly what was happening down there under the pews.  Carrie didn’t wait for an answer.  She scrambled after Scott, ignoring the pain.

Quite a few other members of the congregation were startled when a baby crawled past their legs, followed soon after by a slithering young woman.  Some inadvertently stepped on Carrie’s fingers, though miraculously none impeded Scott’s progress in any way.

Once the offering was collected, the congregation stood and sang the Doxology as the ushers brought the plates up the center aisle to the altar.  Out in the side aisle Carlos had gotten parallel to Scott and could see him crawling relentlessly forward in the middle of the pews.

Carlos jogged ahead to intercept the baby.  He selected a pew to make his move just as the congregation was sitting back down.  With no time for elaborate explanations he climbed over eighty-six-year-old Donald East.  But he tripped on Donald’s cane and fell face first into Seventy-year-old Henrietta Miggins’s lap.

“While I never!” Henrietta hissed.

Carlos mumbled an incoherent explanation as Scott cruised past between Henrietta’s legs.  Carlos made a belated grab for the child, but missed.  He scrambled back out to the side aisle ignoring Henrietta’s indignant glare.

Normally the ushers left the offertory plates on the altar, but today was a communion Sunday and the altar held the bread cubes and thimble size glasses of grape juice for the ceremony later in the service.  So they took the offering plates with them as they returned to the back of the church.

Next up on the program was special music.  As it happened this Sunday’s special music was a solo performed by Del, accompanied by organist Walter Tibble.  Del came out of the choir area and stood at the front of the chancel.  At his nod, Walter began to play.  Del closed his eyes and sang, unaware that Scott had just crawled out from the front of the pews. 

Little Scott looked up and saw grandpa singing.  Scott liked grandpa.  So he headed that way.

Scott struggled up the two steps to the chancel.  Of course by this point the entire congregation could see the runaway baby.  But nobody quite knew how to respond to the situation.

As Scott clambered up the final step to the chancel he became distracted by the shiny gold trays holding the communion sacraments.  His attention span was pretty short at this stage of his mental development.  Scott crawled to the altar, grasped the crisp white cloth covering it, and pulled himself up to standing.  Standing unassisted was a skill he had not yet mastered.

Scott didn’t weigh much, but he weighed enough that when he tugged on the cloth it started to slide.  And as the cloth slid it brought the communion trays to the edge of the altar.  The congregation gasped in unison at the impending disaster.

Del heard the gasps and opened his eyes.  He knew he was a good vocalist but couldn’t see any reason why he should elicit such a reaction mid-song.  When he discovered everyone’s gaze was fixed on a point behind him, he turned around.

The communion trays tipped precariously above Scott as he wobbled, clinging to the altar cloth.  Without missing a note, Del stepped back and scooped the baby into his arms.  Then he calmly stepped forward again and launched into the next verse as Scott squirmed and gurgled and tugged at the collar of Del’s choir robe.

When the song was over Del handed the infant to Carlos and Carrie who were waiting anxiously at the edge of the chancel.  Carrie hugged Scott tightly, a tear trickling down her face.

Del chuckled to himself as he returned to his seat.  “New parents,” he thought.  “They panic so easily.”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Best Annual Meeting Ever

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. Like most churches, this one has an all-church annual meeting to elect committee members and hear reports from committee chairs. And like most churches it is difficult to get many people from the congregation to attend. Who could blame them? Annual meetings are universally tedious.

But this year Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell had an idea to lure a bigger crowd. They would make it a luncheon. Free food always increased participation in church events, no matter how tedious.

When O’Donnell brought up the idea to Florence Barker, head of the pastor-parish committee, she took to it immediately. At seventy-eight Florence was one of the senior members of the church, but age hadn’t slowed her down in the slightest. She even offered to coordinate the food for the luncheon. O’Donnell had envisioned something simple like pasta or a six-foot submarine sandwich, but Florence thought they needed a theme. “How about a Biblical Times luncheon?” she suggested. The pastor agreed it was an excellent idea.

O’Donnell scheduled the luncheon for noon on a Sunday so that he could boost attendance by applying guilt as people left worship. He also enlisted Sunday school teacher Karen Winslow to supervise a kids’ table for the younger children hoping that would be added incentive for the parents to stick around. The result was the best attended annual meeting to date.

O’Donnell had spent the previous week coming up with his own way to embrace Florence’s theme. So when it came time to welcome everyone, he stepped out of the church office dressed in an authentic period shepherd’s outfit consisting of a robe, sandals, rope belt and staff.

The costume got the amused attention O’Donnell had hoped for. He opened the meeting with a brief lecture about the culture of Jesus’ time. “Brief” by pastors’ standards, that is. But the attendees listened politely for the entire ten minutes. Finally O’Donnell delivered a blessing and then invited everyone to help themselves to the buffet.

Florence and her volunteer assistants had prepared pita bread and hummus, tabouli salad, stuffed grape leaves, olives, dates, rice, and lamb kebabs. Though in Jesus’ time meals were typically accompanied by wine, it was agreed that grape juice would make a better substitute. There was also ambrosia salad. It wasn’t true to the theme, but somehow no church meal was ever complete without ambrosia salad.

Over at the designated kids’ table, Karen did her best to keep the ravenous little beasts at bay while the adults filled their plates first. Once everyone over the age of twelve had a shot at the buffet, the youngsters were turned loose. Typical for children their age, they avoided the more unfamiliar foods, focusing on the pita bread and ambrosia salad. But Karen made sure they each took a little of everything and didn’t overdose on ambrosia.

Unlike the designated kids’ table, there was no designated senior citizens’ table. But one emerged anyway. Seventy-year-old Henrietta Miggins, seventy-three-year-old Celia Simmons and seventy-five-year-old Betsy Davis, collectively known around the church as the “Little Old Ladies,” chose a table near the microphone and were joined by eighty-six-year-old Donald East.

Florence, though from the same generation, was not part of the Little Old Ladies. She considered them fuddy-duddies and they found her a bit too free spirited for their tastes. But Florence joined their table anyway once her chores in the kitchen were finished.

“Look at those kids,” Florence said, gesturing to the buffet as she sat down. “They’re having so much fun.”

“I suppose they are,” Henrietta replied. “And here I was thinking the annual meeting was supposed to be a serious affair.”

Two of the people O’Donnell had shanghaied after church were Kevin and Jill Boyer. Free food and guilt would not have enticed Kevin to stay when there was football on TV at home, but Jill was won over by the children’s’ table. She appreciated any break she could get from her daughters Mary and Susie.

Kevin and Jill sat with Carrie and Carlos Winslow and their baby boy, Scott. Carrie was Karen Winslow’s daughter. Carrie’s father, Del was sitting at the next table over, his back to them. Across from Del was Ralph Billings. Del was complaining to Ralph about how his wife never got to enjoy these events because she was always saddled watching “that unruly gang of kids.” Del had a deep voice that easily carried to Kevin and Jill, whose kids were among those Del was referring to, but they pretended not to hear. After all, he wasn’t wrong.

Aware that once the eating was done people would find excuses to leave, Pastor O’Donnell opened the business part of the meeting as soon as Karen had the kids seated again. First on the agenda, each committee chair came up in turn to report on their committee’s activities. The reports were universally upbeat, self-congratulatory, and overly long.

While Henrietta was giving the Trustees report, over at the kids’ table four-year-old Mary Boyer picked up a date and quietly asked, “what’s this” to nobody in particular.

Six-year-old Tyler Park answered, “it’s a boiled caterpillar cocoon.”

“Is not,” Mary shot back.

“Sure is,” Tyler said. “They collect them in the desert around Bethlehem. It’s what the three wise men ate when they were going to see Jesus.”

“Eeeewwww,” Mary said.

“That’s not true,” Becky interjected. At twelve she was really too old for the kids’ table but she found sitting there just barely preferable to sitting with her parents. In her mind she was helping Karen supervise the children. “It’s a date,” Becky continued. “It’s a kind of fruit.”

Tyler responded by throwing his date at Becky.

Becky turned to Karen and said, rather loudly, “Tyler threw a date at me!”

Up at the front of the room Henrietta stopped mid-sentence to glare at the interruption.

“Tyler, don’t throw food,” Karen commanded. She gave Henrietta an apologetic look. Henrietta sniffed and continued her report.

As soon as Karen’s attention was otherwise occupied, Tyler bounced an olive off of Becky’s nose. “Tattle Tale,” he hissed.

Becky picked up the olive and hurled it back at him. It went down his shirt. Mary thought all this looked like great fun. She grabbed a handful of tabouli and threw it at Tyler. Tyler winged a stuffed grape leaf at Mary in response. He missed, and the biblical delicacy landed in the middle of the old people’s table.

“Enough!” Karen shouted. “You kids quit goofing around and eat your lunch. We have important church business to do here today. The next one who throws anything is going to be sorry. Am I clear?”

The children slumped silently in their chairs.

And then an olive hit Karen in the ear.

Everyone was too startled to react at first. The olive came from the direction of the old people’s table. Karen looked over and saw Florence Barker grinning from ear to ear.

The kids’ table erupted in flying food.

Del Winslow shook his head at the sight and said, “This wouldn’t happen if parents today knew how to discipline their kids.”

Behind him, Carrie noticed that Jill Boyer’s face reddened. “I’ll go get Mary,” Jill mumbled to her husband.

Carrie thought back to all the trouble she had caused as a kid and decided her father’s judgmental tone was uncalled for. So she hurled a piece of pita bread at the back of his head. Del spun around, sputtering indignantly. Carrie tossed another piece of bread. Del ducked. The bread hit Ralph Billings.

In short order half of the adults had joined the kids in the food fight.

Up at the front of the room Henrietta looked like she was about to explode. Pastor O’Donnell stepped forward and raised his staff. “Stop this!” he commanded, looking a little like Moses reprimanding the fractious Israelites. He was rewarded by a glob of hummus that smacked him square in the chest. This was followed by a shower of olives, dates, rice, tabouli and ambrosia salad. O’Donnell was forced to retreat to the church office. The Israelites were models of obedience compared to the congregation of the little church.

About ten minutes later the more sober adults had finally managed to bring the food fight to a halt. It was decided that perhaps the children should play outside during the remainder of the meeting.

With a more dignified atmosphere restored, voting commenced to elect new committee members where needed and reelect those who wished to continue in their roles. The voting went quickly since there was only one candidate for each position. It was hard enough finding one person to take on each job without recruiting opposing candidates as well.

After O’Donnell declared the meeting over and delivered a final prayer, Florence leaned back and said, “best annual meeting ever if I do say so myself.”

Henrietta stood up and patted her on the shoulder. “I’m glad you enjoyed it. Have fun with the clean-up.”