Sunday, July 10, 2011


In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  On Mondays Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell goes over the following Sunday’s service with church secretary Tammy Billings so she can make the bulletin.  The basic liturgy is the same every week; so usually it’s just a matter of filling in the sermon title, hymn numbers and any special events.  But during one recent Monday meeting, Tammy raised a concern about the number of special items that had converged for that particular service.

“We ought to cut something or we’re going to run long,” she said.

“What would we cut?” Henry asked.  “People complain if we cut the hymns, the choir complains if we cut the anthem, and we always do communion on the first Sunday of the month.”

“Maybe we could move the Sherfield baptism to next week.”

“This is the only weekend both sets of grandparents are in town.”

“Hm.  Well, what’s this finance committee moment with Donald East?”

“He wants to say a few words about the fundraising campaign to fix the organ.”

“Donald rarely stops after only a few words,” Tammy pointed out.

“True,” Henry said, “but the fundraising is not going as well as we hoped.  I don’t think we can afford to put it off.”

“Could we cut the special music?”

“Celia Simmons’ solo?  Do you want to ask her?”  Celia had a tendency to see personal insults in the most innocuous comments.  She would undoubtedly find a slight in a request not to sing.

“Well if we keep everything, you’re going to have to do a really short sermon,” Tammy snapped.

“So it’ll be a long service,” Henry replied.  “People will just have to deal.”

“Is that what you’re going to tell Del Winslow?”

Henry chewed his lip.  Del was of the firm belief that church service should last exactly one hour.  If it ran over by even two minutes, Del would subject Henry to a long rant at coffee hour.

“Yes,” Henry said petulantly.  “Del will just have to deal, too.  Now if there’s nothing else, I’m going for a walk.”

Henry stomped outside and stood at the edge of the parking lot, rubbing his jaw.  Why did people insist on trying to force worship into a little box?  It wasn’t right.  In fact, he decided, that would be his sermon topic.  It was a much better topic than the one he’d been planning on the linguistics of one of the psalms.  He would make such a compelling case against clock watching at church that Del wouldn’t dare to complain no matter how long they ran.

Henry noticed that Jose, the church janitor and maintenance man, had joined him and was rubbing his jaw in the same manner as Henry.  “The soil is no good anymore,” Jose said, “And the teenager you hired to mow does not do any maintenance.  The grass needs reseeding.”

Startled, Henry realized that Jose thought he was looking at the lawn in front of the church.  So Henry looked.  Jose was right – it was in awful condition.  There were large patches of dirt, and much of the remaining grass was a sickly grey color. 

“I suppose we’ll have to hire landscapers,” Henry sighed.

“Or I could do it,” Jose replied.

“Would you?” Henry asked.

“Sure.  If you’ll pay me for the extra time and the supplies. But it would be best to wait until fall when the heat is less.”

“I can’t have the lawn look like this all summer.  Do it as soon as you can.”

“I will do it this week,” Jose replied.

And he did.  Henry stayed in his office late every night that week, toiling over his sermon.  It had become something of a holy mission in his head.  Whenever he paused to chew over exactly the right word to use, he would see Jose through the window working on the lawn.

Late Friday afternoon, Tammy fielded one last call from a young couple who was looking for a place for their wedding.  Tammy arranged for them to drop by before the service on Sunday.  Then she packed up and said goodbye to the pastor.  He grunted, barely looking up from his opus of a sermon.  As she left, she waved to Jose who was aerating the lawn.  It looked like hard work and the day was quite warm.  Sweat streamed down Jose’s face.

Sunday morning Tammy returned to the church to meet the young engaged couple.  The moment she stepped out of her car, she was reminded of a week she’d spent at her Uncle’s farm as a little girl.  Scientists say smells are the best triggers of memory, and the scent that Tammy encountered was exactly like the one in her Uncle’s pigsty.

It seemed Jose had fertilized the new grass before he left Friday.

A few minutes later the couple arrived.  Tammy could see them reel back when the odor hit them, but they were too polite to comment.

After introducing herself, Tammy said, “We’re doing some work on the lawn.  It’ll be finished long before your wedding.  It’s a lovely place to take pictures with the brick church in the background.  But perhaps you’d rather head directly inside.”

“Yes please,” the young bride said.

As they walked up the path, they encountered Henry.  “Good morning, Pastor,” Tammy said.  “How are you?”

“Allergies are acting up,” Henry grumbled in a nasal voice.  He turned to the couple and flashed a warm smile.  “And who have we here?”

“These lovely people are looking for a church for their wedding,” Tammy explained, trying to edge around the pastor without stepping in the fragrant soil.

“Fantastic!” Henry said.  “Let me tell you a little about what we do here…”  He then held the couple hostage for the next ten minutes.  Henry was not one to use only a few words, either, and apparently his allergies prevented him from smelling the fertilizer.  At one point Tammy thought the fumes might be causing her to hallucinate.  It appeared as though the young bride’s face had a strange bluish tint.  Then she realized it was because the woman was holding her breath.

Tammy was afraid the couple might be about to make a break for their car when Henry finally said, “Well, I’ve got to go get ready to preach.  I hope you’ll stick around.”  They did not.

Soon the rest of the congregation began to arrive.  Nobody dallied outside.  Unfortunately, the church provided little sanctuary from the stench.  The stealthy fumes had spent the last thirty-eight hours locating every tiny crack and gap to infiltrate the building.

Tammy shifted uncomfortably in her regular pew, attempting to breathe through her mouth and distract herself by surreptitiously pinching her thigh.  It didn’t work.

Pastor O’Donnell was still unaware of the olfactory assault being perpetrated on his flock.  What he was aware of was the speed with which everyone moved through the service.  Even Donald East kept his speech under thirty seconds.

Yet the service has already passed the hour mark when Henry stood to begin his sermon.  He glanced at Del, who was a member of the choir.  Del’s head was bowed and he was rubbing his forehead with his right hand so Henry couldn’t see his expression.

Henry launched into his sermon.  He spoke passionately, his voice booming, his hands punctuating the air with dramatic gestures.  Halfway through he glanced over at Del and almost lost his place.  The man was crying!  Tears trickled from the corners of his eyes.  Henry knew his sermon was good but he’d never seen Del so moved.  Then Henry noticed that Del was not the only one with tears in his eyes.  It seemed half the congregation was similarly touched.  It spurred Henry to even greater heights of elocution.

Tammy was one of the congregants whose eyes were watering, though it was not due to the sermon.  As the day had warmed up, the manure outside had grown even more fragrant.  It had taken on an almost physical quality, as though someone was spraying a mist of vinegar in her face.

Henry was disappointed at how few people stayed for coffee hour after the service.  They had run almost forty minutes over, but he had hoped the impact of his words would encourage folks to linger.  He saw Del with his wife, Karen Winslow, the Sunday school teacher for the pre-kindergarten class known as the Guppies.  She’d brought the class up to the social hall to wait for their parents.  Henry decided to see what Del had to say.

“Del was just telling me about your sermon,” Karen said as soon as Henry walked up.

“Yes, it seemed to have quite an effect,” the pastor replied.  “I noticed Del was particularly moved.  I guess the right subject matter is worth a few extra minutes out of the week, eh?”

Just then Jill Boyer arrived to pick up her daughter Mary.  “What took you so long?” Mary asked.  “It stinks in here.  Pee-Yoo!”

“Yes,” Del told the child, “it seems there’s an excess of fertilizer at the church today.”

No comments: