Sunday, July 25, 2010

O'Donnell's Dream

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. Last Sunday afternoon Pastor Henry O’Donnell flopped into the chair in his office with a sigh. It had been a long, exhausting morning.

Nothing out of the ordinary, mind you. Ralph Billings had snored loudly through the sermon. At coffee hour Henrietta Miggins had upbraided O’Donnell for twenty minutes with her opinion of the inappropriateness of a country-western song that choir director Shane Reed performed during service. Henrietta’s lecture would have been even longer but two of the Sunday school kids knocked over the coffee urn while fighting over a cookie. And then Del Winslow and Kevin Boyer had a minor fender bender in the parking lot.

Normally O’Donnell would have spent Sunday afternoon unwinding by working in his garden. But this weekend his in-laws were visiting. If he went home he would be expected to socialize and he did not find socializing with his in-laws to be relaxing.

So he told his wife Jennifer that he needed to study for a class he was taking on church history. The church encouraged pastors to take such continuing education courses regularly to improve their skills, though as O’Donnell opened up a book on Christianity in the Roman Empire he wondered what possible relevance it could have to the duties of a modern pastor.

O’Donnell devoured a fast food lunch that Jennifer would not have approved of and began working his way through dry text describing church culture in the fourth century. And, as so often happened when he studied after lunch, he soon fell asleep. And asleep, he dreamed…

In the town of Genoa in the Western Roman Empire there’s a little church at the corner of Palm and Olive. One Sabbath morning, Pastor Odonnellcus found himself having to shout to be heard over the snores of Ralphisisus. He wondered why none of the members of the congregation nudged old Ralphisisus awake. A part of Odonnellcus worried they preferred to have the sermon drowned out.

Following service, the worshippers gathered in the courtyard for fellowship. Before Odonnelcus could reach the refreshments table old Henrietta of Miggensagna stopped him.

“Excuse me, Pastor,” Henrietta began, “I wanted to ask you about the unusual hymn Shanistotle sang today. I’ve never heard it before.”

“It is of Syrian origin,” Odonnellcus told her. “Shanistotle recently learned it from an olive trader.”

“Ah,” Henrietta mused. “And you thought Syrian music was appropriate to perform in church?”

“Syrian songs are quite popular among the youth these days,” Odonnellcus pointed out. “Shanistotle thought it might attract more new converts if we introduced some new, popular musical styles.”

“In my day,” Henrietta noted, “we did not cater to the fashions of the youth simply to fill benches. When I was a girl we risked becoming a lion’s breakfast to attend church. And we took our worship seriously. We did not expect to be entertained. We didn’t even have music, let alone strange, foreign, degenerate music. Ever since Constantine legalized Christianity the so-called faithful have become so lazy I can’t imagine the church will survive the decade. Next thing you know people will be wanting to wear casual togas to services…”

Henrietta’s rant was interrupted by a loud crash. Two of the children had knocked over a wine decanter while fighting over a date. Odonnellcus could have kissed those two delightful tykes for giving him an excuse to cut short his conversation with Henrietta – even though it appeared a rug had been sacrificed for his rescue.

Once the mess was cleaned up Odonnellcus helped himself to a plate full of dates. He loved the sweet fruit, though his wife Jenniffia would nag him about eating so many. Thankfully women in this day and age were required to obey their husbands. No wonder Rome was the greatest civilization in history.

Unfortunately his enjoyment of the dates was interrupted by the sounds of an argument outside. Odonnellcus sighed and went to see what was going on.

It seemed Kevinicus had run into Delicus’s chariot while backing his own chariot out of its parking spot. “Look what you did,” Delicus screamed, gesturing at the minor scrape. “They ought to pull your charioteer’s permit.”

“You’re the pagan jerk that parked a four horse chariot in a two horse spot,” Kevinicus shot back, pointing to two painted horse silhouettes on the ground.

“All the full size spots were taken, you liberal nut,” Delicus grunted. “It doesn’t give you the right to just ram into me like a drunken Visigoth!”

“Gentleman,” Odonnellcus shouted. “There is no need for insults. It was an accident and I’m sure Kevinicus has insurance.”

The two men looked at him with confused expressions. “What is insurance,” Kevinicus asked.

Just then, Pastor O’Donnell was awakened by a knock at the office door. Church secretary Tammy Billings stuck her head in.

“Sorry to disturb you,” Tammy said.

“That’s okay,” O’Donnell replied groggily. “I was just studying.”

“Uh huh,” Tammy said, observing the small puddle of drool on his book. “Well, it seems our Internet access has gone down. I can’t get email.”

“At least Odonnelcus never had to deal with the Internet,” O’Donnell muttered.

Tammy frowned. She liked the pastor well enough, but sometimes he just made no sense at all.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Scott's Baptism

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. A few months ago church members Carrie and Carlos Lopez gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Scott. Last Sunday they had Scott baptized during morning worship service.

Karen and Del Winslow are Carrie’s parents and thus Scott’s grandparents. Since Scott’s birth Karen had filled nearly a dozen hours of videotape with footage of him. And soon Del will have to purchase a new hard drive to accommodate all the digital photos she’s taken.

Karen had footage of Scott sleeping, footage of Scott eating, footage of Scott crying…well, that pretty much covered it. All he had really done up to this point was sleep, eat and cry. The prospect of filming an actual milestone event like the baptism had Karen in full director mode. She started filming from the moment they left the house.

When they arrived at church Del went to his accustomed place with the choir. The rest of the family normally sat toward the back of the sanctuary, but as they were to be part of the day’s service they moved up to the second pew so they wouldn’t have to walk so far when it came time for the baptism. The first pew remained empty. Nobody ever sat in the first pew.

No sooner had the service started than baby Scott woke up and began to cry. For reasons nobody could fathom he seemed to cry every time they brought him into the sanctuary. Carlos was, frankly, no fan of church but even he couldn’t understand why it bothered his infant son so much.

Carrie picked up Scott and paced up and down the side aisle trying with limited success to calm him. Karen followed along dutifully, camcorder pressed to her eye.

Fortunately, the baptism was early in the service and only the invocation, call to worship and first hymn were impacted by Scott’s wailing. As soon as the ceremony was over Carrie could take him to the nursery for the remainder of the service.

Eight and half long minutes later Pastor O’Donnell came down out of the chancel and invited the family to come forward for the baptism.

Missy Moore, who was seated in the pew behind the Winslows, said, “Karen, why don’t you let me take the camera for you?”

Karen looked at Missy skeptically. It was clear from her expression that she wasn’t sure she could trust someone else with such an essential task.

“Yeah, Mom,” Carrie chimed in. “You should be in this video.”

Karen reluctantly handed the camera to Missy. “Don’t worry,” Missy said, “I know what to do.” She positioned herself at the near end of the pew to get a good angle on the proceedings.

The family gathered around the baptismal font. Pastor O’Donnell led the parents in their vows of caring for sweet little Scott’s spiritual upbringing. Even with his lapel microphone, he had to shout to be heard over sweet little Scott.

Then Tammy Billings led the congregation in their part of the ceremony. She did not have a lapel microphone, but there was a mic on a stand available to her. Unfortunately, when she turned it on, Scott’s wailing caused a screeching feedback, which in turn caused Scott (and a few members of the congregation) to wail even louder. Tammy quickly turned off the microphone.

Luckily the text of the ceremony was in the hymnal and the congregation managed to read in relative unison despite being unable to hear their leader.

When they finished, Pastor O’Donnell removed Scott’s knit cap and handed it to Carrie. He dipped his fingers in the water in the baptismal font and placed his wet hand on Scott’s little head. The sensation of the water startled Scott so much he stopped crying.

O’Donnell breathed a sigh of relief, then said, “Scott Michael Lopez, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

Little Scott looked into O’Donnell’s eyes and gave him the most heartwarming smile. Startled, O’Donnell smiled back.

And then it hit him.

It seemed while O’Donnell was baptizing him, Scott was working on a little project in his diaper. A project that gave off astoundingly noxious fumes. O’Donnell reeled back. His eyes began to water. Through the tears he marveled that such an adorable little creature could produce a smell so foul.

Many in the congregation were touched to see their pastor crying. It was sweet, they thought, that he was still so moved by the ceremony of baptism after all these years in ministry.

O’Donnell watched each member of the family recoil slightly as the invisible cloud of putrescence spread out from Scott’s diaper. They all tried not to react. After all, though the aroma may have seemed like something emanating from the depths of hell, it was a normal biological activity for an infant. But the smiles that had previously been such natural expressions of the family’s joy had turned into frozen grimaces.

Carrie and Carlos knew immediately what the problem was. They had just started little Scott on solid foods and he was having a profound reaction to avocados – though he seemed to love them.

The expanding stench reached Missy. She gasped and began scooting down her pew trying to escape the funk. Karen noticed this and hissed at her, gesturing for her to return to her previous spot.

“I’m using the zoom,” Missy said quietly.

“Get back here,” Karen growled.

Missy took a deep breath, held it, and resumed her position.

Little Scott nestled in Pastor O’Donnell’s arms, cooing adorably at him. But the pungent bouquet only seemed to be getting worse.

“Now let me introduce this little guy to the congregation,” O’Donnell said and started up the central aisle, turning from side to side so everyone could see the baby. O’Donnell had hoped that he might escape the area of contamination but it soon became apparent that the scent travelled with its source.

As he passed, the congregants leaned forward to get a better view of the cherubic infant. And quickly jerked away when the stench hit their noses.

O’Donnell made it back to the front of the church and returned the baby to Carrie. He declared Scott baptized and dismissed the family. Though Scott was no longer crying, Carrie didn’t even pause at the pew, heading straight for the nursery. She wanted to get that diaper into a containment unit before it could do any more damage.

The rest of the family returned to the second pew, except for Del who resumed his position in the choir. Celia Simmons leaned back and grumbled, “Pastor O’Donnell forgot to bring your grandson up here so the choir could see him.”

Del patted her shoulder and said, “Trust me, he was doing you a favor.”

Celia would have asked Del to explain himself but it was time for the next hymn.

Four years from now the Winslows will finally sit down to watch the recording of the baptism for the first time. They will have forgotten all about the aromatic part of the day – until about halfway through the ceremony when Missy’s whispered voice comes on the tape. Missy apparently didn’t recall that the camera’s microphone was closer to her than anyone else and would therefore pick up the prayer she muttered under her breath.

“Dear Lord,” Missy had prayed, “please grant me strength to endure these evil fumes. I’m sorry I didn’t buy any candy bars from that kid at the grocery store. I promise if you get me through this I will put twenty dollars in the offering plate.”

After that the Winslows will no longer be able to hear what Missy says because it will be drowned out by their laughter. Four year-old Scott will look at his parents and grandparents in confusion. It must be one of those jokes only old people get, he will figure.

In memory of Nez Smith.