Sunday, March 20, 2011

Baked Goods

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  Like most churches, this one has coffee hour every Sunday after service.  The various church groups rotate responsibility for hosting.  Some, like the women’s group, bring elaborate homemade treats.  Others, like the young parents, put out a more humble spread of store bought snacks.  Most of the congregation barely notices as long as the coffee is hot and strong.  But when the men’s group hosted recently, their refreshments had unintended consequences.

Ralph Billings got blamed for the trouble.  Ralph considered himself a health food advocate.  Many in the congregation preferred the term “health nut.”  Whenever a group he was part of was scheduled to host coffee hour, Ralph would loudly lobby everyone to bring nutritional snacks.  Usually he was ignored.  Ralph would bring a heaping platter of fruits and vegetables, most of which would remain uneaten while the cookies, donuts and coffee cake others brought were reduced to plates of crumbs. 

This bothered Ralph.  So when the men’s group came up in the host rotation a few weeks ago, he hatched a plan to change things.

Choir director Shane Reed, also an active member of the men’s group, had his own agenda for coffee hours. Most of the men in the group brought store bought items if they brought anything.  Shane liked to bring something special that would surprise and delight people.

This time he decided to bring something themed toward St. Patrick’s Day, which was a few days earlier.  He found a recipe for chocolate mint cheesecake online.  It even had instructions for creating a green shamrock decoration on the top.  Shane was an excellent cook.  He wasn’t stingy either – he made two cheesecakes so nobody would be left out.

When Shane unveiled his creation to the other men while they were setting up before service, everyone oohed and ahhed jealously.  Ralph seemed to be most interested, questioning Shane at length about the recipe.  Then Ralph went away briefly and returned with an index card on which he’d written, “Chocolate Mint Cheesecake – 650 calories and 25g saturated fat per slice.”  He stuck it next to the cheesecakes.

“What’s this?” Shane asked.

“The nutritional information for your lovely desert,” Ralph said.  “I think it’s helpful that people know what they’re eating, don’t you?”

Shane couldn’t really think of a good objection, though he tried hard.  As other people put out their snacks, Ralph noted the nutritional content of each on an index card.  He got the information either from the packaging of store bought items or by consulting a big book of food statistics.  Of course Ralph’s plate of carrot sticks, celery and grapes fared best.

When the congregation poured into the social hall after the service, Missy Moore was one of the first in line.  “Your cheesecake looks gorgeous,” she told Shane.

“You’ll have to let me know how it tastes,” he said.

“Oh, I can’t,” Missy replied.  “Have to watch my waistline, you know.”  She then piled a plate high with carrot sticks and crackers.

Jill Boyer herded her daughters Mary, age four, and Susie, age two, into the refreshment line.  When Mary saw the cheesecake, her eyes got big and she reached out to swipe a finger through the shamrock decoration.  Jill grabbed her hand and said, “Mary, don’t.  I’ll get you some.”

Four year-old Sierra Smith and her father Arthur were in line behind them.  “May I have some cake?” Sierra asked. 

Arthur looked at the index card.  “I’m sorry, honey.  It’s not good for you.  Have some grapes.”

Jill’s face reddened.  Arthur had this strange ability to continually make her feel like a bad parent.  But she had already cut a piece and couldn’t very well deny her girls at this point without inducing a nuclear level tantrum.  So she cut the slice in half and split it between two plates.  She then piled carrots onto the plates and instructed the girls to eat the vegetables before the cheesecake.  They did not follow her instructions, but by then Arthur and Sierra had moved on so it didn’t really matter.

One person who didn’t care about the nutritional content of the cheesecake was Pastor Henry O’Donnell.  Unfortunately his wife Jennifer was not so blasé.  Henry was positioning the knife to cut a nice big slice when she cleared her throat behind him.  “Remember your diet,” she said.  Henry sighed and moved the knife over an inch.  Jennifer cleared her throat again.  Henry slid the knife over even further.  The wafer of cheesecake was so thin it fell apart as he lifted it onto a plate.

“Whose brilliant idea was it to set out those index cards?” Henry grumbled.

“Mine,” Ralph said proudly.  He happened to be standing near the end of the table.  “Isn’t it great?  I’m going to do the same thing with the women’s group bake sale next week.”

As word of this pronouncement spread, it was not well received.  The women’s group bake sale was among the church’s biggest mission fundraisers of the year.  With coffee hour winding down, everyone took note of how Shane’s cheesecakes remained mostly uneaten while Ralph’s vegetables were completely gone.  Obviously Ralph had succeeded in his goal.  Knowledge was power.

An informal huddle of the women’s group convened in a corner of the social hall.  There was some question as to whether Ralph had the authority to stick his nose into the bake sale.  This was countered, however, by the concern that if they tried to stop him it would look like they were hiding something.

“I guess we’d better make healthy items this year,” Missy said.  “People don’t want fattening deserts anymore.  Just look at the refreshment table.”

Seventy-year-old Henrietta Miggins, president of the women’s group, harrumphed. “We’ll see,” she growled.  She had nothing against nutrition but she was not about to let Ralph Billings control her.  She went to get a nice big slice of cheesecake to prove her point.

The next week Henrietta was not present when the women were setting up for the bake sale.  This caused considerable concern.  It was unlike Henrietta to shirk her responsibilities.  Someone was even dispatched to her house to make sure she was all right, but there was no sign of her.

After service, the congregation perused the selection of bran muffins, sugarless oatmeal cookies and low fat brownies the women had made.  Ralph was true to his word, calculating the calories and fat in each item based on the ingredients.  The results indicated that everything was indeed quite healthy, though it’s possible a few of the bakers may have fudged the amounts of butter or sugar used – inadvertently, of course.

Sales, however, were slow.  Jill’s whole wheat pineapple cake just didn’t draw the enthusiasm of the double chocolate peanut butter brownies she’d brought last year.

Missy, who was manning the cash register, muttered, “This is a disaster.”

“Must be the economy,” Ralph observed.

“Looks like Henrietta was right,” Jill sighed.  “People do prefer the unhealthy baked goods.”

Ralph decided he better do something if he wanted the nutritional information to become a regular feature of church events.  He wandered along the table loudly admiring all the items.  He stopped at Missy’s vegan pumpkin cookies.

“Only seventy-five calories each and no fat!” he exclaimed.  “And they look so good.  I’ll take ‘em.”  As soon as he’d paid, he pulled back the plastic wrap and popped a cookie in his mouth.

“Mmmmm…” he said as he chewed.  “Delicious.”  He smiled, but there were suspicious tears forming in the corners of his eyes.  He swallowed.  “So good I’m going to save the rest for later.”

Then Henrietta arrived carrying a large box.

“Where were you?” Missy asked.  “We were worried.”

Henrietta didn’t answer.  Instead, she opened the box and took out six apple tarts, twice the number she usually brought for the bake sale.

“What’s in those,” Ralph asked.  “I need to calculate the nutritional information.”

“This is a secret family recipe,” Henrietta huffed.

“But all the items for sale have their nutritional information listed,” Ralph protested.

“These won’t,” Henrietta said.

There was a murmur of excitement among the gathered crowd.  Missy asked, “How much are we charging for them?”

“That depends,” Henrietta replied.  “This year I think I’ll auction them to the highest bidder.”

That proved a brilliant move.  All the tarts went for many times their usual price.  Pastor O’Donnell paid the most – $105.00 for a single tart.  It was for a good cause, he reasoned.  In the end, the women’s group raised more total money with this year’s bake sale than ever before.

The following Sunday the young adult bible study hosted coffee hour.  There was no nutritional information provided.  Ralph was not part of the bible study and besides, after the bake sale he had been unable to find his nutrition book.

Shane Reed was part of the bible study and he brought homemade fudge.  It was gone in twenty minutes.  Pastor O’Donnell had twelve pieces.  Shane was glad there were no leftovers.  He still had an entire cheesecake in his freezer.

A note to my readers:  I have traditionally published a Little Church Story on this blog every two weeks.  From this point forward I am reducing my blog publication schedule to once a month.  This is in order for me to spend more time on other Little Church projects like The Christmas Tree Lot book.  Thank you for your support for The Little Church Stories!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Sweetheart Dance - Part II

(This is part two of two.  To read part I click here or scroll down)

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  This year the church decided to have a Valentine’s Day dance – but not everyone present was excited to be there. Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s daughter Katie had agreed to do childcare, but only because her boyfriend, Alex, had dumped her a couple days earlier, killing her Valentine’s Day plans.  And Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum’s boyfriend, Ian, was performing at the dance with his jazz band.  This meant that Michelle and Ian had had to eat their Valentine’s Day dinner early and skip desert.  Not Michelle’s idea of a romantic holiday.

Michelle sat at a table with the girls who were dating the other members of Ian’s band.  They complained about the lack of alcohol at the church event while Michelle sulked and watched the couples dancing.  She was surprised to discover choir director Shane Reed was an excellent swing dancer.  He and his girlfriend Audra Park spun around the floor making everyone else look bad.  Michelle thought Ian was pretty sexy when he performed, but at the moment she was feeling a little jealous of Audra.

Meanwhile, down in the Sunday school room, Katie listened to sad songs on her MP3 player while the kids built a makeshift city out of blocks.  The Boyer sisters, Mary, age four, and Susie, age two, were there, as was Sierra Smith, another four-year-old from Mary’s Sunday school class.  Audra’s son Tyler was the only boy present if you didn’t count the baby, Scott Lopez, who was asleep in a crib. 

After a while, Mary looked up from the tower she was building and noticed tears running down Katie’s cheeks.  Mary nudged Sierra.  They weren’t used to seeing someone Katie’s age cry.  The two girls went over to investigate.

“Why are you sad?” Mary asked.

“Because boys are all big, lying jerks,” Katie said.

“I don’t like boys either,” Mary agreed.

“Good,” Katie replied.  “All they ever do is make you cry.”  Then she put her head down on the desk, turned up her music, and moaned miserably.

Mary and Sierra were not quite sure how to react.  Tyler came over to see what was going on.

“Go away, Tyler,” Sierra said.  “You’re a boy and all boys are lying jerks.”

“Take that back!” Tyler replied angrily.

“Get out of here,” Mary said.  “You’ll make Katie cry even worse.”

Tyler was not sure how he’d gotten blamed for Katie’s weeping, but he wasn’t about to let two younger girls tell him what to do.  “Make me,” he said.

Mary and Sierra immediately pounced on him.  Two-year-old Susie didn’t know what was going on, but joined in the beating out of an innate sense of feminist sisterhood and a love of hitting things.  Tyler decided maybe letting the girls tell him what to do was better than having to admit they’d beaten him up.  He dashed out of the room with the three females chasing behind.

Katie looked up just in time to see her charges escaping.  “Come back,” she shouted, but to no avail.  She quickly scooped the baby out of the crib and took off in pursuit.  Scott was not pleased to have his slumber disturbed.  He expressed his displeasure in loud wails.

Up in the social hall, Shane and Audra were taking a break from their energetic dancing.  They got some refreshments and sat at the table next to Michelle’s. 

The band switched to a slow, romantic ballad.  Michelle watched all the couples dancing close and whispering to each other and felt her jealously like a knife in her heart.  It was Valentine’s Day.  She should be dancing cheek to cheek with Ian, not sitting at a table with a bunch of whiny groupies. 

She heard Shane ask Audra if she was ready to dance again.  “I need a few more minutes,” Audra laughed.  “You wore me out!”

Michelle leaned over and asked, “If you need a break, do you think I could borrow Shane for a song?”

Audra shrugged and nodded.  Michelle took Shane’s hand and led him out to a spot directly in front of the band.  Shane put his hands on Michelle’s waist.  She put her arms around his neck and pulled him close.  Shane’s eyes widened in surprise as she pressed herself against him.

Michelle snuck a peek at Ian.  He was staring at them with a troubled frown on his face.  Michelle leaned her head on Shane’s shoulder to hide her satisfied smile.  She had finally gotten his attention.

Shane had noticed Ian’s troubled look as well.  And he’d noticed an equally troubled look on Audra’s face.  But he didn’t quite know what to do.  So he made sure to keep his hands nice and high on Michelle’s back and tried not to look like he was enjoying himself.

When the song ended, Ian grabbed the microphone and said, “Let’s pick up the pace a bit.”  He instructed the band to play an upbeat Dixieland number.

“Well, thanks for the dance,” Shane said to Michelle.

“Aw, come on, one more,” Michelle replied.  As the band launched into their jaunty tune, she began bumping and grinding around him.  Shane tried to dance in a casual, disinterested way, but he had to admit Michelle had some pretty hot moves.

Now more than just Ian and Audra were watching them.  Most of the congregation were not used to seeing one of their pastors behaving in such a manner.  Pastor O’Donnell knew Michelle was courting trouble and was about to intervene when the gaggle of kids burst through the door like a tornado.

Tyler ducked under the refreshment table and out the other side.  Mary, Sierra and Susie followed in hot pursuit.  But somehow Mary caught the edge of the tablecloth on her barrette.  This upset the punch bowl, and punch sloshed across the floor.  Michelle had just completed a little spin.  She stepped back and slipped in the liquid, falling hard on her rear.

The sight was so unexpected everyone burst out laughing in spite of themselves. Everyone, that is, except Ian.  He leapt down from the stage and ran to Michelle.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Michelle looked down at her white dress now stained red with punch and cried “No!”  She scrambled to her feet and ran out of the room.

“Go after her,” Shane said, giving Ian a nudge.  Ian took the advice.

Baby Scott’s wail announced Katie’s arrival.  She looked at the aftermath of the disaster and her heart sank.  But everyone turned out to be quite sympathetic, especially the parents of the kids in question, who generally expected them to cause trouble.  They assisted Katie in rounding up the children while Shane found a mop to clean up the spill.

Out in the hall Ian was trying to understand Michelle through her sobs.  He finally made out that she was disappointed they hadn’t spent more time together that evening.  There was also something in there about chocolate cake.  Ian thought he understood.

“Do you know why I didn’t want to order desert at the restaurant?” he asked.

“Because (sob) you needed to (sniff) set up your gear.”

“No,” Ian said, “that was just an excuse.  I spent all day making a chocolate raspberry cheesecake.  I was going to take you back to my place after the dance and surprise you with it.”

Michelle stopped crying.  “You cooked for me?”

“Yeah.  It’s probably not as good as that cake at the restaurant, but since I spent…” Ian had to table his thought as Michelle planted a big kiss on his mouth.

When Katie marched her charges back down to the Sunday school room, she got a surprise of her own.  Alex was waiting for her.  “Can we talk?” he asked.

Katie put the baby in the crib and told the other kids, “Do not leave this room under any circumstances.  Do you understand?”

Mary, Sierra, Tyler and Susie returned to their toys while Alex and Katie spoke in urgent whispers in the hall.  After a while, Mary noticed the whispers had stopped.  She remembered that Katie had ordered her not to leave the room, but surely poking her head out the door wouldn’t count.

What she saw in the hall shocked her.  Katie was kissing Alex!  “I thought you said boys were lying jerks,” Mary blurted.

Katie laughed.  “Maybe, but they’re also pretty nice to kiss.”

Mary returned to the classroom pondering this new piece of information.  She looked at Tyler who was racing some cars down the streets of the block city they’d built.  He didn’t look like he would be all that great to kiss.  But Katie was older.  Maybe she knew what she was talking about.

Thirty seconds later Tyler came barreling out of the room again, pursued by the three little girls.  He darted past Katie and Alex, up the stairs, and nearly knocked over Michelle and Ian who were making out in the hall.

“Girls are crazy!” Tyler yelled.

“Sure are,” Ian agreed.