Authors: Kris Knorr, Barb Froman
- "Pass Through! Pass Through the Gates!"
- Halloween Party
- God’s Sense of Humor
- Seasons of Change
- “Our God is not a God of Chaos” 1Corinthians 14:33
- The Christmas Play
- I’ll Be Home For Christmas
- “Seek and You Will Find” Matthew 7:7
- “The Light Shines in the Darkness” John 1:5
- “Our Mouths Were Filled With Laughter” Psalm 126:2
- A Long Wait for an Apology
- The Serious Consequences of Words
- Socks, Saints, and Sandwiches
- “Forget The Former Things” Isaiah 43:18
- “Vengeance is Mine…Says the Lord” Romans 12:21
- Ash Wednesday
- Holy Week
- A Night of Easter
- Holding Onto The Traditions of Men
- Come Back
- Stairway to Heaven
- Experienced Merchandise Sale
- Secrets of the Soda Shop
- Riding the Storm
- Two Sparrows for a Penny--Matthew 8:29
- “Wisdom Brightens A Face, Changing Its Hard Appearance” Ecclesiastes 8:1
- About the Author
- Discussion Questions for Book Groups
The Stories Of
The Lutheran Ladies Circle:
Plucking One String
Barb Froman Writing As
Lutheran Ladies Circle:
Plucking One String
© 2012 Kris Knorr
Morning West Publishing
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, or events is entirely coincidental.
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers
Reading the Series in Order
Book One: Plucking One String
Book Two: Through the Knothole
Book Three: Thanks for Leaving
You’ll find bonus material in the back because that’s the way Lutheran Ladies do it.
For women everywhere, who are like me, making mistakes and slow in progress—
We’re still ahead of everyone who isn’t trying—
And we’re not alone."Pass Through! Pass Through the Gates!"
PASTOR JIM HENLEY yawned and rubbed both hands over his gray-stubbled crew cut. As he had done every morning, he thanked God for the day and reminded Him that he hated getting out of bed. The sixty-five-year-old clergyman arose, took three steps, and dropped on the floor. He was at the Pearly Gates before his body hit the carpet.
“It was a brain aneurysm,” the medical examiner later explained to Henley’s wife.
Vera Henley quietly snorted and looked away. She knew it was due to his life-diet of pecan pies and peanut butter cookies supplied by a well-meaning flock. The celebration for his 25th year at Shaded Valley Lutheran Church had been a buffet of cardiac sin.
“There’s nothing you could’ve done.” The doctor patted Vera’s shoulder. She arched an eyebrow, suspecting that Lorena Ard’s lard-laden chocolate cake had probably squeezed the final globule of fat into his barricaded arteries. Why would any responsible person serve a cake containing two sticks of butter in the frosting, aptly named Devil’s Food? Divided into 24 squares, Lorena’s cake had probably nudged over two dozen people closer to their graves.
Vera nodded at the medical examiner, skeptical of his diagnosis. After all, he’d only known her husband for a short time—after he was already dead.
Steuben’s Funeral Home responded almost immediately to her call. They took a short detour to wash the hearse and polish the chrome. They downloadedThe Top Twenty Lutheran Hits for Hard Timesand had it soulfully humming through the vehicle’s speakers before they arrived. They’d worked with Mrs. Vera Henley before.
Pastor Jim may have presided over funerals, but it was Vera who coached everyone, including the undertaker, on the details that exiting this world created. Steuben’s understood that Jesus had burst in and carted her husband off to the heavenly feast, but He’d left Vera, not them, with the earthly arrangements. Without a pause, she herded them as efficiently as she’d attacked everyday life.
Her husband had often teased that God had merely created the world; Vera organized it. Years ago, he’d even given her a small, golden trophy of Atlas shouldering the globe. The plaque on it read.
Happy Retirement, Vera
Manager of the Universe
He’d said it was a visual reminder for her to let go. She’d given him a thin smile and thanked him for the “gift.”
Months after the funeral, Vera stared at the empty windowsill. Her coffee pot gurgled, scenting the kitchen with its subliminal wake-up message. Jim had set the trophy in that very window, over the kitchen sink. Vera sighed at the memory. She’d bided a two-week viewing period, then removed the golden monstrosity—to a shelf in the laundry room.
The trophy showed up on the windowsill again.
“Did you haul this back here?” she’d asked, one eyebrow raised. Jim had only smiled.
Next, Vera had hidden it under the bed in the spare room. It reappeared on the sill.
No matter where she stashed it, inevitably, the golden award reappeared.
Jim said he actually enjoyed this game of Hide-the-Atlas. During his searches, he found items stuck in cabinets and top-most shelves that had been missing for years. Faded, orange Oklahoma State University pennants, Cowboy statuettes, and tacky college mementos resurfaced in his office after he found them in Vera’s “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” boxes.
When she’d exhausted all of her hiding places, she dropped Mr. Atlas at Bernie’s Been-Around, Come-Around Thrift Store in their town of Stillwater, Oklahoma.
That proved to be an even bigger mistake. When Pastor Jim couldn’t find the trophy, it became a quest. He recruited parishioners to help in the search. During one scavenger hunt, they discovered his college mug collection hibernating behind the sleds in the garage. He hadn’t seen those old friends since he graduated from seminary more than 40 years ago. Delighted, he brought them back into the kitchen drinking-glass rotation.
When Vera found Budweiser, NASCAR, and OSU mugs intermingled with her matched set of bluePfaltzgraffdishes, she confessed she’d given Mr. Atlas a one-way ride. Jim had smiled, given her a peck on the cheek, and said he guessed she wasn’t ready to give up her “title” yet.
Aburpsputtered from the coffee machine, rousing Vera from her memories. She found herself touching her cheek and staring at the empty windowsill. What was the matter with her? The installation ceremony for the new minister was in a few hours. There was much to do.
She noticed the counter. With a sigh and slow shimmy-shake of her white hair, she snapped off the machine and left the kitchen. Two empty mugs sat next to the coffee pot.
At the church, Vera scrutinized the young man standing in front of the congregation in white robes and a red stole. Had it really been four months since Jim had been in that very spot, leading worship? She’d missed her volunteer duties because of the persistent demands of end-of-life details and annoying repairs on their house, which seemed to be trying to join Jim in heaven, piece by piece.
People had been kind. They didn’t seem to mind that she hadn’t been there. Of course, without her oversight, they did a half-finished job of tasks. Like the flowers on the altar. At best, they were skimpy-stemmed specimens that looked like they’d been left over from Jim’s funeral. She made a mental note to speak to the chairwoman of the Altar Guild.
And the incoming clergyman’s choice of music merited another frown. She understood why they’d called such a young man. The congregation was fading into a sea of gray-haired folks ready to travel in their RVs and eager to turn over the reins. This new, young pastor was their solution. He’d pump them up like an energy drink, using his super powers to bring ideas, enthusiasm, and more members. Of course, he’d be impervious to the kryptonite of skepticism and self-righteous old cranks.
Vera gave a judgmental sniff. The congregation was used to an older, more mature person to minister to their needs. There’d be trouble brewing before long. With sixty-five years of wise living—twenty-five of those years at this church—she knew how this congregation worked, their personalities, and how to get projects done. Her skills were needed now more than before. She straightened her shoulders, set her chin like a ship’s rudder changing its bearings, and charted a different path. It was time to leave her sorrow and make sure things ran on course.
When the service ended, the crowd filtered downstairs to the Ladies Circle grand-style celebration in the Fellowship Hall. The coffee was bolt-your-eyes-open strong, and the hunks of cake were sized to cover a plate. Vera pursed her lips, auditing the room. The soiree was free of Devil’s Food cake, so there shouldn’t be any funerals next week. And more serving tables should have been used.
Walt, who had been on the Property Committee since the creation of dirt, gave a nod as he passed her. One of his big hands pinched a crystal cup by its beaded handle. The other hand clutched his personal coffee mug stamped with “Git Yer Own” across it.
“Walt, from the looks of things, I need to resume planning our functions. So, before I forget,” Vera began, “we need to pick a date to set up the Halloween booths.” He paused in mid-stride as though translating the words. Without turning to face Vera, he gave a single shake of his head. “Nope. Sorry you didn’t come to last night’s meeting. There’s no Halloween party this year. That’s one less thing I have—”
“The Ladies Circle always hosts that party. I can get you help in setting it up.” Vera knew Walt and his catch-me-if-you-can ways.
“Not this year.” His confidence leaked from the words like a pricked balloon. Age hadn’t shrunken his body, and though he towered over Vera, he shifted his feet and stared at the little teacup full of pink punch in his left hand.
Vera studied him as he began making his escape. She was surprised that he’d get a drink for anyone other than himself. He’d even combed the few hairs he had on his head. “Nope,” he was saying as he took a half-step. “Not gonna happen.”
Vera pasted on a flat smile. “I’ll talk to the Pastor about it.” She could see Walt eyeing the gap between them.
He inched into the crowd. “Some folks want to change things around here.” He jerked his head toward the new pastor. “He says he supports change.” And with that repulse, Walt made his getaway.Halloween Party
“THAT’S JUST STUPID.”
“No. It’s the way everyone’s been doing it for some time now.”
The voices from the meeting drifted up the stairwell as Nan, the organist, hurried down the steps. She didn’t really want to come to another meeting, but the Ladies Circle was like an X-rated parable—entertaining. The only trick was learning how to duck the barrage of extra volunteer work.
She pattered into the florescent-lit basement and slid into a seat next to a large woman fussing her jacket over her chair-back. A pan of gooey-frosted brownies was being pushed along the table, from person to person. The women of the Ladies Circle met the first Saturday of every month. Chocolate was always in attendance.
“Then why don’t we do what the public schools do?” Hettie, an elementary schoolteacher, paused her argument to lick frosting from her finger after serving herself a brownie. “Call it a Harvest Festival. The kids still wear costumes, glutting themselves on candy. Politically correct parents will be happy. Dentists will be thrilled. Everybody’s chipper.” With a glance across the table at Kay, she plopped a second brownie onto her napkin.
“I talked with Pastor Poe.” Vera orchestrated the meeting with her upheld pencil. “He felt Halloween parties were primitive.” She stabbed her pencil toward Hettie as the teacher started to interrupt. “You may disagree, but that’s not the point. I’m very familiar with the trials and strains of one’s beginning ministry, so we will be supportive in his efforts at this church. There’s no reason for you to start a rebellion his first week here.” She went back to studying her typed agenda. “Now, in new business—”
“Wait a minute.” Hettie waved the brownie spatula like a kid demanding to be called on. “Why can’t we use my suggestion?”
“There is a pagan root to Halloween. So it’s best not to encourage it to grow to a full blown celebration of all things ghoulish and satanic.” Vera cocked her head and gave her authoritative stare which implied,And that’s that.
“Oh fuds buds.” Hettie eye-balled her right back. Vera’s “stare” didn’t faze her. She faced thirty 4th graders every day.
Round-faced Micki nodded, but no one was sure who she was agreeing with. And that’s just how she intended it. In her thirties, she had a deep concern about everything except her own weight. She was busy serving a brownie to their newest member, Allie. She leaned close to the 28-year-old and spoke like a play-by-play announcer, decoding the deeply ingrained traditions of the Ladies Circle.
“You see, we’ve done this party since Martin Luther was an acolyte.” She added a wink and nudged Allie in the ribs in case the new gal thought Luther was some old codger that attended the early service. Allie returned a cautious smile. “Anyway, the Ladies Circle hosts the Halloween open house and invites all the children in the neighborhood. The games and stations are manned by the high schoolers. Everybody wins candy or junky little plastic toys. It’s a nice outreach into the community.”
“Nobody joined the church.” Vera noddedthankswhen Micki served her a brownie. “The same kids have been coming for so long, they’ve had kids. We’re probably hosting the 3rd generation of dental decay. And no one has ever said, ‘Wow. Those Lutherans sure give a great Halloween party. Let’s join that church.’” Vera shoved the pan down the line, leaving Micki staring after it with her napkin empty. “We’ve become the place to take your kids if it’s raining.”
“What’s the matter with being a safe place to take your kids?” Hettie said. “That’s a nice way for people to think about church.”
“Oh sure.” Vera closed her eyes and shook her head. Hettie thought she looked like she was in a death rattle when her straight, white hair jerked back and forth. Unfortunately, she always came out of it and delivered her sermon. “Parents just love for their children to receive candy from black-robed servants of Satan and hideous monsters.” Vera paused letting silence frame her words as she turned to stare at Kay. “And some of last year’s costumes were inappropriate. I’m not just talking about the teenagers’ disguises.”
“A biker chick is not inappropriate.” Kay, a short woman, barely 5 feet tall, had big hazel eyes that hinted they were brimming with secrets. Because she was forty, divorced, with two teenage sons, she had advanced experience in arguing. “Give it up, Vera. Jesus would’ve associated with biker chicks. He was that kind of savior.”
“Yeah, but He wouldn’t have taken candy from any.” Hettie smirked.
Nan, the church organist, nibbled her brownie. Feeling no riptides in the banter, she took a step into the conversation. “I think it was your skull and crossbones tattoos that scared the children. I’m surprised you didn’t hand out candy cigarettes to complete your image.”
“Hey, do they still make those?” Kay’s eyes widened with interest. She glanced around the table, noting that the pan had made the circle, so she kept the container in front of her, breaking off small chunks and eating them.
“Oh good grief. I don’t think a Halloween party makes you a pagan any more than going to church on Christmas Eve makes you a Christian,” Hettie said.
“No, of course not.” Nan stepped into the chatter a little deeper. “Lutherans know you have to go to church at least twice a year: ChristmasandEaster.”
“Ladies.” Vera scowled them into silence. The group had gotten worse since she’d been gone. She suspected they’d been saving up, waiting for her return. “We’re moving on to new business.”
“Oh, oh, oh,” Hettie squeaked, her fuzzy hair wiggling as she waved her hand. “Let’s have a wiener roast instead. You know, a bonfire, hot apple cider, maybe s’mores.”
There was a bit of silence while everyone considered this new venture. Vera cleared her throat. “Still pagan. In some countries, people have bonfires to drive away evil spirits.”
“Good grief, Vera, what are you, the Halloween police?” Hettie scowled.
“I thought she was the Jell-O police. Correct size of marshmallows. That sort of thing,” Kay said.
Vera gave both of them a withering look.
Micki pointed to her empty napkin then the brownies. Kay pulled the pan closer to her chest, giving her a smiling snarl.
“Isn’t hell a place where ‘the fire never dies’?” Nan said boldly, tickled at her foray into the verbal volley. “Sounds to me like evil enjoys a good fire.”
“Well,duh. No wonder the bonfires don’t work.” Hettie swatted at Micki as the large woman reached for her stockpile of brownies. Peering at her over the rims of her glasses, she admonished, “You know you have to take what you want before it gets to Kay.”
“The chocolate doesn’t make it past Kay.” Micki translated for Allie, and shook her head when the new member offered her own brownie.
“Do you think it would be okay,” Micki said, “if we had the Halloween party and everyone dressed as a character from the Bible? It would be a positive outreach with outstanding role models. I’ve always admired Esther. She was obedient and generous.”
The silence lasted about five seconds while everyone tried this in their imaginations.
“What’s the difference between how one Bible character looked from another?” Nan said. “We’d all be running around in bathrobes with scarves over our heads. It’d look like the Christmas play.”
“There are sheep in the Christmas play,” corrected Hettie.
“I could be a camel,” offered Allie, “or an animal off Noah’s yacht.”
“And Mary, Jesus’ mother, looked different. She always wore blue,” Hettie said.
Nan wound herself up and jumped into the gush of jabber. “I’ve always thought that was crazy. I know all the paintings have her in a blue dress, but no woman, except Little Orphan Annie, had a wardrobe in only one color.”
“It’s symbolic, like a halo.” Vera sighed as though she were explaining art literacy to a wall.
“I’m dressing as a harlot,” Kay announced. “I’ve still got some skull and crossbones tattoo-stickers left.”
“Then you’ll look like everyone else in bathrobes.” Vera rolled her eyes. “Just don’t wear a scarf. A harlot advertised by leaving her head uncovered and showing off her beautifully braided hair.” The room stilled as heads turned toward Vera. “What?” she asked.
“Harlot-dress-code Police,” whispered Kay, popping a brownie chunk into her mouth.
“How about if we…” started Allie. Eyes switched to the new member. “Instead of celebrating Halloween, we could invite the neighborhood for pumpkin pie around Thanksgiving? Maybe some special music? We could…uh…” She withered into silence, feeling eyes on her.
No one said a word. Cars could be heard passing by outside. The muted chords of someone practicing the piano in another room drifted into the silence.
“So moved,” Kay said.
“Second,” Hettie called. “All in favor?”Ayessounded before her words faded out. “Oh sorry, Vera, did you want to call the vote?”
The white-haired woman stared around the room. Indeed, the ladies pushed the edges of their usual skylarking. And did she hear a tone of disrespect in their taunts? That needed to change. “Nan.” Vera pointed her pencil. “We’ll be looking forward to the special music you come up with. Maybe handbells and the choir?”
The organist slouched back into her chair silently flogging herself. It was her own fault. This happened every time she opened her mouth at these meetings. She always left with more work.
“Okay. New Business—” Vera began.
“I'm wondering,” Kay said, “in order to adjust my Biker-Chick Code of Ethics, did we ever figure out whether a Halloween party was right or wrong?”
“Anything that motivates you to dress as a harlot can’t be good,” Hettie said.
“So, if I were inspired to be a saint instead of a sinner, we could have a party?”
Micki leaned toward Kay, rapping on the table to draw her full attention. “I think if we were trying to be saints, we’d give kids: schools, health, safety, and hope instead of luring them to God with candy.”
Kay smiled and pushed the pan of brownies toward her.
Vera’s mouth tightened. She couldn’t even get to the first item on her agenda. This had to end.God’s Sense of Humor
“IS EVERYTHING READY for the Autumnal Feast?” Lorena paced the narthex.
The old property manager watched her tug at her jacket. It was hard to hide thirty extra pounds, even if she tried to squeeze it under a coordinated suit. He was wary of her perfect blonde hairdo and manicured hands. To him they screamed, “I can think of a lot of chores for you to do!” He nodded and began inching away, relying on The Rules to save him.
The 60+year-old volunteer custodian was at least a foot taller than most women, but felt like a sullen teenager when he had to deal with them, which was often. The church widows kept poking into his life. After cancer had claimed his wife, he’d discovered he could take care of himself middlin’ well. His chosen uniform, a flannel shirt and carpenter jeans—usually the same pair for a week—saved laundry chores. He didn’t need much. Mostly, he enjoyed the silence.
Everything Walt knew about women, he’d learned on the Property Committee. He’d discovered that you had to be careful around these ladies. Rule Number #1: Complain about everything. If you didn’t gripe that all tasks were a royal pain, they’d have you repainting the Sunday school rooms and re-caulking toilets just because there was a wedding, or a sing along, or Betty Lou had a whim for the color ecru.
“Oh, Walt!” A perfect, toothy-smile appeared on Lorena’s fifty-trying-to-be forty-face. “Could you change the marquee?”
He stood round-shouldered and solemn-faced, looking at her. Rule #2: Never give ’em too much information.
“Please?” she urged. “I’d like for it to read:
Take an Autumn Walk with God
Nov 25 7 PM”
He recognized the sticky tone in her honeyed voice and gruffed, “I’ve already got a literary work posted. Nobel prize stuff:
He shuffled toward his tool pantry. Rule #3: Try to get away as quickly as possible.
Lorena followed, crowding him into a retreat inside his closet of ladders, wrenches, and extension cords. “It needs to look more special,” she said. “The other Lutherans are coming to celebrate.”
“Huh?” Walt mumbled, rubbing the back of his bald head. Stillwater’s other Lutheran church was full of Missouri Synod belief which differed from Evangelical Lutheran doctrine. Most members couldn’t name the differences, but they knew they were big sticking points because the two groups rarely worshiped together. “I thought we were only doing this for the neighborhood.”
“Yes, it started out that way but grew. Now I have to decorate for everyone. Could you change the marquee?”
He squinted one eye at her. “Vera’s in charge. You’re not even on the committee.”
“Brynn and I are the Sanctuary Arts Team. We’re willing to help if we don’t have to go to meetings, and we don’t need Vera’s permission for everything. C’mon, Walt, The Episcopals and Methodists are coming too.”
“Oh that’s different.” His big hand held out the box of plastic letters. “You’d better change it.”
“We need to dress up for the Autumnal Feast. Just like you do when company visits your house.”
“Wouldn’t know about that.” He shook the box back and forth, rattling the letters at her. She turned and began rearranging the harvest display.
Hettie caught the end of their conversation as she lugged a bucket of flowers to the Fellowship Hall. “It’s a Thanksgiving service, Lorena. ‘Autumnal’ is a scary word. It sounds like something requiring a stomach sedative and a bed rest.” She winked at Walt as he made his getaway. “And Vera spent a lot of time on that fall arrangement; what’re you doing to it?”
“It needs a dash of color right here, that’s all.”
“Lorena’s up there redoing the Thanksgiving display.” Hettie thudded the flower bucket onto the counter.
“What could she do to it? Rearrange the nuts?” Brynn shrugged. Her long, dark braid swung back and forth as she pulled vases from the box on the floor.
“Look, you know how Vera is hung up with boundaries?” Hettie said then waved the thought away as an understatement. “She’s getting worse. At the last Ladies Circle, she was actually glowering at us. She needs to take a break.”
Brynn shoved the box back into the closet with her foot. “She’s casting around for her position—her identity—since her husband’s gone. Nudging her out might make it worse.”
“All right, Miss Social Worker, you’d better see if you can get Lorena to stop messing with Vera’s display, or we’ll feel the repercussions of more lost identity.”
“You’re a teacher; treat it like you would in your classroom—redirect her.”
Hettie went to the stairway and yelled, “Lorena, we desperately need you down here. Help us set up tables.” The two women grinned at each other when the full-figured blonde appeared in a few minutes.
“You know how I like to put the finishing touches on things,” Lorena said. “Vera’s display needed a splish of color. I added a littlewow.”
Hettie rolled her eyes. “Please, could you let Vera be in charge? We volunteered to do the kitchen work.”
“What would Jesus do since she’s not here?” Lorena sing-songed as she ducked into the kitchen.
“I think He’dzapher,” Hettie mumbled.
“Hettie!” Brynn grinned. “Jesus never zapped anybody.”
“Couldn’t you just see her at the last supper? ‘None of these plates match. We only have one cup for the wine? Who made this bread?’”
Lorena stuck her head out the kitchen door, eyeballing Hettie into silence. “Where are the pies?”
“People will bring them when they come.” Brynn floated a round, orange table cloth onto a table. Hettie followed her, centering a vase stuffed with sunflowers and sweet-smelling eucalyptus on the tabletop. “Come help us.”
“We need to slice and plate the pies before the service.” Lorena patted her lips, studying the kitchen. “I’ll make the coffee so it’s not so strong that the lame get up and dance after a sip. I’m afraid you two are going to have to skip church and stay down here and cut pies.”
“I know what Jesus would do in this situation,” Hettie sing-songed.
“What?” Lorena yelled over the sound of water pouring into the 20-cup coffee urn.
“This is like the Bible story where whiny Martha bellyaches about preparing supper. And Jesus tells her that it’s more important to trot upstairs and be fed from His word, than to stay downstairs and cut pies.” There was no reply from the kitchen.
The first dessert arrived before Vera did. “Doesn’t that seem weird?” Lorena said, tugging her jacket over the strained waistband of her pants. “She’s been queen bee-ing every function as long as I’ve been here. Either she’s ill or the world is spinning backward.” With a grin, she took over, stationing herself at the kitchen door. She greeted pie bearers with compliments and gracious smiles, sliding their pastries across the counter. Apple crisps, cherry almond tarts, blueberry cheesecakes, and even chocolate custard doodled with caramel paraded into the pass-through window so Brynn and Hettie could slice them.
The deep aroma of coffee wafted around the room. Hettie had finished whipping the cream in a chilled bowl when the muted sounds of the hand bells traveled through the walls and floorboards.
“Oh, it’s the prelude,” Lorena exclaimed and disappeared up the stairs. In a minute she came hurrying back down. “I met Vera in the narthex with her pie. It’s still warm,” she said, rushing it to the pass-through.
Her quick release dropped the dish on its side. The contents catapulted onto the counter with a juicyplop.
Lorena froze. The chimes of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” rang out. All three women edged toward the pie as though it were a corpse.
“Vera’s Secret-Pumpkin-Delight.” Lorena grimaced.
“We just won’t serve it.” Hettie shrugged.
“No, no, no. You can’t throw it out.” Lorena grabbed Hettie’s arm. “Can you imagine what would happen if word got around that we ask people to bring desserts then serve some and throw others out? Oh no! We’d never get anyone to trust us with their baked goods again. We’d have to drive that pie five miles away in order to hide it a garbage can where no member would find it. Maybe a porn shop’s trash can.”
The pie had fallen upside down on the counter with the plate landing on top of it. Half of the orange custard was in the broken crust, half out. “We’ll confess,” Hettie said, “that you massacred her pie.”
“This took all afternoon for her to make. That’s why she was late. You should’ve seen her face when she gave it to me. You’d have thought she’d just given birth.”
Brynn rolled her eyes.
“Well, we’ll do what Jesus would’ve done.” Hettie gave Lorena a dry stare as she pulled a pancake turner out of a drawer. “We’ll serve ourselves this mess.” She scooped up pieces and splatted it into the pie dish.
It was fortunate the organ and congregation began the first stanza of “Now Thank We All Our God” at the exact moment the ladies came upstairs into the narthex; otherwise, the congregation and guests would have heard Lorena squealing, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Who did this?”
A faint smile curled across Brynn’s mouth. “It was Roger,” she said. “He called earlier and said he was bringing a pumpkin.”
The elephantine specimen was three feet tall. It had taken several grown men and a wagon to lug it into the church. Rather than have it huddle in the corner, Roger had dumped the contents of the big cornucopia and wiggled the butt end of the pumpkin into it, like a baby’s sock on a basketball.
“What does he think this is? The county fair? I can’t believe all those people saw this and think this is how we decorate for them.” Lorena’s acid stare burned into the display.
“Let Vera know it was fine when you changed her hard work—before Roger changed it.” Hettie winked as she stepped into the sanctuary.
With the ending notes of the service, Vera judged the event as a joyful accident. Somehow it had all come together while she was at home with her unfaithful water pipes, which had begun breaking at every opportunity in order to have a tryst with the plumber.
She hadn’t had time to twist any ears over wrecking her display, but it could wait. For now, the pews had been full. Children were home from college. Many of the “other” Lutherans had attended. Even the Episcopalians and Methodists had a good showing. Perhaps this neighborhood outreach was more successful than a Halloween party. Even Walt seemed full of rare friendliness as she watched him usher a herd of unfamiliar faces down the stairs toward the pie social. She waved. He replied with a chin tuck.
Walt had treated the occasion as “spiffy” by wearing a pressed, blue shirt. When he arrived at the kitchen counter, his eyebrows shot up as he surveyed the plate he was handed. “What the heck is this?”
“Oh, shut up. It’s your piece of pie.” Lorena’s earlier hospitality had evaporated. She plopped whipped cream on top of it, scanning the crowd for Vera.
“It looks like it’s already been eaten and spit back out,” he said.
“Just help us out. We had an accident. We gave you a really big piece.” She gobbed more whipped cream on top.
“I already helped you. I changed the marquee like you asked.” He nodded.
Lorena patted his arm. “See, Walt, look at all the new people your sign brought to our service tonight.”
“You’re right.” He winked. “It pays to advertise.”
Behind him, Roger got the same treatment on an even bigger ball of pie. Lorena put so much whipped cream on his goo-and-crust combo, it appeared he was carrying a plate of foam.
“I don’t know if I can eat that much,” he said, eyeing his serving.
“Oh, I know you like big things.” Lorena scowled. “Anyone who’d bring that King-Kong pumpkin to church must’ve worked up an appetite.”
“I wanted to give my biggest and best to God.” Roger offered an innocent smile. Brynn, manning the dishwasher, gave him a thumbs-up.
For most of the evening, tension bounced around the kitchen as they waited for Vera’s discovery of the pie-wreckage. Lorena cut out early, saying a hurried good-bye after everyone was served, leaving Brynn and Hettie to clean up and lock the doors.
“I told Vera we’d served all of her Pumpkin Delight.” Hettie dug through her purse for her keys. “It was weird; she didn’t say a word. I think she’s sick.”
“The church she knows is fading away. Some confusing new creature is taking its place.” Brynn paused next to her car. “Hymns have morphed to Christian rock. Sermons are available anytime on podcasts, not just Sundays. You can stay at home and go to a meeting via streaming video. It’s frightening. She’s losing the history that molded her faith. The same foreboding happened to my Norwegian parents when they no longer could find a church service in the old tongue.”
Hettie unlocked her cars doors. “Someday Vera’ll go off like an asteroid hitting a nuclear plant. No telling what’ll happen to this place.”
“Until then, we’ve got God’s sense of humor and Walt’s bald-faced honesty.” Brynn pointed to the church marquee.
“LADIES, I TRIED to avert this disaster, but it seems my knowledge of our history isn’t useful or needed.” Vera sniffed as she tapped her pencil against the agenda and scanned the women. The conversations around the table at the Ladies Circle faded or paused. The meeting should have started ten minutes ago, but the chocolate hadn’t arrived yet.
“What disaster?” asked Hettie as she carried a coffee pot from the kitchen. She locked eyes with the older woman as she sat with a heavy plop. She shouldn’t enjoy the way Vera’s mouth turned down when challenged, but the dynamics were one of the interesting things about these meetings. She felt a bit guilty about poking Vera’s sore spots, but in the past when Vera’s husband, the pastor, was alive, there hadn’t been any chance of influencing a discussion. Now, after a bit of nudging, a few fractures were appearing in Vera’s decisions. Unheard of.
“This is what happens when a church calls someone right out of seminary.” Vera didn’t bother to hide the I-told-you-so in her voice. She’d voted against calling Poe Muldoon for their pastorate. He was a sincere minister, but Shaded Valley Lutheran needed a leader whose theology had been seasoned by cranky parishioners and pushy liberals. “These untested pastors get many of their ideas from internet forums and sensitivity groups.” She shook her head.
Nan had seated herself at the corner of the table, far away from Vera. Her latest defensive weapon rested in her lap: a wad of yarn and a pair of needles. Busy hands would keep her mouth shut. No one paid attention to a woman knitting and minding her own business. She could watch the action without becoming collateral damage.
“This year, the pastor and the Worship Committee have decided that Advent has become overshadowed and overlooked.” Vera straightened her already erect spine a bit more, lifted her chin, and paused, letting the silence build. With warning in her voice, she announced, “We can’t decorate or put up a Christmas tree until Advent is over.”
Kay ruined the dramatic moment byshooshingacross the floor, still in her bedroom slippers. She slid a plate of chocolate-oatmeal cookies in front of Micki, sat down, and laid her head on her folded arms on the table. Her face had crease lines from the pillow that had been piled under her nose until a few minutes before this Saturday morning meeting.
“Why’d you even bother coming?” curly-haired Micki asked.
“Cookie K.P,” she mumbled, shooing a hand at the plate of treats being passed around.
Nan bit her lip. Her heart changed to a samba-beat of worry. Her knitting needles clicked a quick tempo as they birthed a mitten. As church organist, she planned for events. She understood what Vera was trying to tell them. With a grip on her needles, she pulled her lips tight against her teeth. She wasn’t going to say a word. Nope. Let someone else get picked for more work.
“As I was saying,” Vera raised her voice, “if we wait the entire four weeks for Advent before allowing Christmas into the sanctuary, we’ll be doing four weeks of decorating in four days.”
Silence descended upon the table, as though someone had taken the Lord’s name in vain.
“Now, wait just a minute.” Hettie scowled. “I teach. I can’t decorate 24 windows in four days.” Her plump cheeks and curly-clown hair ruined her attempt to glare. Nan let out the breath she’d been holding and gave Hettie an encouraging nod.
“Psshaw.” Kay propped an elbow on the table, leaning her cheek against her knuckles. “I do everything a few days before Christmas. As matter of fact, last year I did all my shopping on Christmas Eve. There were great sales.”
“Yeah, we know how you decorate,” Hettie said flatly.
Kay simply raised both eyebrows twice and smiled.
“Advent has always been the Cinderella step-child to Christmas,” Hettie said. “What spiritual experience are we supposed to get out of this besides inconvenience?”
Nan nodded like a bobble-head doll. Surely non-verbal support didn’t count as volunteering for anything, but to be sure, she didn’t look at Vera.
“I had a long discussion with both the pastor and the head of the Worship Committee,” Vera said. “They felt Christmas would be more meaningful if we waited. I can understand where they’re coming from.” Vera’s voice was calm and slow. She even added a sympathetic smile. Now that others were indignant, she didn’t have to be. She could urge support of the silly idea and smile graciously when it failed. She was flexible that way. “Everyone starts Christmas as soon as Wal-Mart has sold enough Halloween masks to make room for tree ornaments. So we are going towait on Christmas. That’s what ‘Advent’ means:waiting.”
Hettie rubbed her forehead, gazing upward. “No…I’m pretty sure it meanscoming. It’s been about a hundred years since I was in Confirmation classes, but my two functioning brain cells remember that.”
“Wasn’t Moses in your Confirmation class?” Kay asked.
“Why, yes.” Hettie gave Kay a measured look. “That’s why the word is so clear to me. We saw Mosescomingdown from Mt. Sinai carrying our Catechism book. We didn’t have all those creeds and policies to memorize like there are now days—just ten commandments. Unfortunately, we had too much idle time. Started dancing. Making golden calves and whatnot.”
“That’s exactly the point.” Vera tapped the table with her pencil. “Advent is about what you do while you’re waiting.”
“I hate waiting.” Hettie scrunched her face up, making her glasses slide down her nose.
Micki’s eyes widened with concern. “Oh Vera…have you told the Sanctuary Arts Team? Lorena’s eyes will spin in her head when she hears this.”
Nan lay her knitting in her lap. She loved the passion of these meetings. It was the stuff You Tube videos were made of. “You need to light a fire under her, Vera,” she said. “That Team still hasn’t removed the Thanksgiving display.”
“Don’t worry about it, Nan. That’s my job. In the meantime,” Vera pointed her pencil, “you need to organize the children’s Christmas play.”
“Roger, this is Vera calling. I wanted to thank you for bringing in one of your prize pumpkins for the fall display.”
Always start off with a compliment. She’d learned the sandwich method of criticism at the first church Jim had been called to serve. The pianist had played every hymn to the tempo ofStreets of Laredo, the western song of 1924. Slow and loopy. Jim had asked the musician to pick up the beat, but the same swoopy melody came through, as though she could only read four notes before pausing to decipher four more.
Vera had also talked to the woman—just to make her husband’s words clearer. She’d carefully wrapped her hidden criticism with compliments. Strangely, the good parts were the only thing the pianist chose to hear. Afterward when anyone complained, the musician claimed, “The pastor’s wife likes my playing.” Since then, Vera had learned to sharpen her words.
“Thanks,” Roger said. “I was pleased to do it. I saved the biggest pumpkin I had for the church. It weighed 100 pounds. The kids carved a bunch of ’em for Halloween. Our littlest guy was able to crawl inside after they hollowed ’em out. He sat outside all night, jumping from the pumpkin and scaring Trick-or-Treaters away from the door. He was pretty slimy by bedtime.”
“Oh my. Well, visitors certainly noticed your big pumpkin here. But in the future, Roger, I’d appreciate it if you’d simply give it to me, rather than tearing apart my display. I spent quite a bit of time creating the arrangement.”
“I’ll grow a bigger one for you next year. It’ll be huge.”
Vera paused, replaying his words. Men liked to miss the point of a conversation. She mentally recast her message, amping up the disapproval, but Roger was talking again.
“And I’m guessing that it’ll make at least 30 pies.”
“Wait. What are you saying? I called to ask you to come get it.”
“No. Keep it. You women are always begging for pies for this or that affair.”
“Roger, I made pumpkin pies from scratch once, and that experience was enough to last a lifetime. They tasted exactly like the canned filling you buy at the grocery store. It was so much work, I vowed I’d gladly pay Mr. Libbey or Mr. Dole to do it for me.”
“It was a gift, Vera. My gift to God. I gave my biggest and my best. I sure haven’t had anybody call and ask me to come get the gift I threw in the collection plate. Keep it. God’ll use it.” He hung up.
Vera stared at the receiver in her hand. Since Jim had died, she was trying to be bendable. Truly she was, but other people weren’t. Life had been a lot easier when she hit them between the eyes with the bare-naked truth.Seasons of Change
LORENA HEAVED THE green totes from the spare bedroom closet and dragged them in a predetermined order into her living room. She opened the top of the first carton to reveal red ceramic dinner plates dotted with white snowflakes. She’d used these every Christmas for the last twenty years. It was comforting to have traditions.Why did people feel they had to change things?
Tapping the plate against her palm, she gazed at the unadorned, artificial tree in the front room. She wished it would break or fall apart, so she could get one of those new ones that had lights she’d never have to remove.
She scanned the itemized labels on each tote. Popping the top on the “Lights” box, she pulled out three strings of miniature twinklers, each neatly wound around a cardboard frame. One string had a note attached to it: “Flashes quickly-Start with this one.” She began weaving it through the fake branches.
It always made her think about Ralph, her ex. Every year of their marriage, she’d nagged him for several weeks to accompany her to the tree lot. After they’d hauled the perfect tree home, he’d lay under it, cussing, batting the lower branches, and turning the screws in the base as she directed him.
“A little to the left. No! That’s too much. Now back right. No! Back left.” Inevitably he’d give up, flogging the project with unholy words, and Lorena ended up turning the tree so its tilt wasn’t noticeable from the entryway.
After one evergreen bout, she pleaded with him to help put on the lights, a job she hated because she was too short to reach the top branches. It took him approximately three minutes to stuff the strings around the tree. He hadn’t exactly thrown them on, but green cords looped in the air from the branches, and most of the lights were bunched in the middle.
I didn’t say a word, not a word. She had smiled sweetly, thanked him for helping, then redid them the next day before he came home from work. It was only years later, she suspected that he’d done such a shoddy job so she’d never ask him to do it again. And darn if it hadn’t worked.
Lorena moved her step-stool methodically around her man-made tree, placing lights deep between the limbs and then connecting string #2, “Slow Flasher.” She hung a crocheted lace angel at the end of string #3, so she’d know exactly where the end was when it was time to disassemble.
As she placed the boxes of matched ornaments on the coffee table, she admired their color scheme and polished look. Ralph always wanted a “grade-school-tree” with a motley collection of ornaments, big multi-colored light bulbs—the kind people used in the 50s—and lots and lots of tinfoil icicles dangling from every branch.
He never wanted to decorate the tree, but he always had opinions about how it should look. Lorena frowned, thinking of the one year she’d told him that if he wanted icicles on the tree, he’d have to do it himself, and she left the package on the kitchen counter. The next morning she saw the foil strands wadded in one spot like a metallic bird’s nest. Ralph had said that he didn’t have time to separate and hang each little thread over every limb. He’d grabbed them out of the package and thrown them from the doorway.
“It was the most fun I ever had decorating a tree,” he laughed.
But I fixed it. Who could stand looking at such a mess? And I never bought icicles again. He could just do without.
Since the divorce, she had the tree she’d always wanted: petite purple hearts, lace ribbons, fine filigree gold balls, and pearl garland. She plugged in the evergreen-scented air freshener that was packed with the decorations. As she sorted through the rest of the tote, she saw the cardboard shoe box. She plopped heavily into her mauve Mission chair and stared. Every year she had to deal with that box.
Santa, the reindeer, and something that could be elves or cookies stared back at her from the box’s cardboard sides: crayon drawings her son had done years ago. The lid’s corners were broken, and the top slid off when she picked it up.
A green globe with “Cozumel, Mexico” painted in fiery colors lay in the center of the collection.Ho! Ralph did not want to go on that trip.
He’d grumped, “I didn’t leave anything in Mexico, so I don’t have a reason to go back.”
They hadn’t been married long at that point, and back then, she’d had more determination to fight for what she wanted. “Because I’m in the early stages of pregnancy, this might be the last trip I get to take for a while, so we’re going,” she’d demanded. They’d had a good time too. It took Ralph several days and a bucket of margaritas to stop grousing, but by the week’s end, he’d agreed that it was good to get away.
She lifted the tiny model of Cinderella’s castle. She didn’t know who’d been more excited about going to Disneyland: herself or their son. Even Ralph had enjoyed the trip although he’d complained about traffic, smog, and too many people.
There was a tiny pair of lederhosen. Ralph had fun on that trip.Probably because it was his idea.He’d heard about a town in northern Washington called Leavenworth which had fallen on hard times, so the city fathers rebuilt the whole place into a German village. It was one of the few times Ralph had voluntarily pried himself from work. “Because,” he said, “this will be a lot cheaper than going to Germany.” He strolled through the streets eating sausages and drinking beer. He even danced the polka with her. It was only the second time in her life Lorena could remember him dancing.
Memories flashed in front of her as she handled the remaining trinkets in the box.How could someone live with you for twenty years, and then one day come home and announce that he was moving to the high desert of eastern Oregon?
She’d thought he was setting her up for a joke, but he wasn’t.He wasn’t. He had decided to sell their house, buy a trailer, and park it on 40 dusty acres. He was tired of neighbors, tired of traffic, and tired of people. If Lorena wanted to come with him, she could. If not, then she’d have to find someplace else to live.
She’d tried to find the reason for this seemingly sudden decision, tried to talk to him, even pleaded, but he wouldn’t be swayed. When it dawned on her that he’d made this choice about their future without even considering her opinion, she realized her status in their marriage. He hadn’t suddenly changed; she had been blind to it all along. She’d been so busy working, child-rearing, and making their home special that she had accommodated Ralph at his every uncooperative turn.
Being single at fifty, she moved home, to Oklahoma, where she’d been born. She hadn’t made it in time to be with her father, but her mother was still there. She’d bought a house and planted what she wanted in the yard. She’d painted every wall a different color, and changed it whenever she liked. Best of all, she didn’t have to get permission from anyone.
The last she’d heard, Ralph was barbecuing out on his acreage, pleased that he didn’t have to pay for water or electricity and could sit in a lawn chair and shoot coyotes and gophers. She hoped that he was bored out of his mind. Her life was full. Well, Sunday afternoons were lonely. Vera had told her she couldn’t start stringing garland around the church. That’s why she was decorating the tree today, to kill a Sunday afternoon.
She blinked. Multi-colored Christmas lights had switched on at the house across the street. When had night fallen? How long had she been sitting there? The tiny leather lederhosen still lay in her palm. Carefully, she put them in the box and replaced the lid. An unconscious sigh escaped as she worked the carton to the bottom of the storage tub. Maybe next year she’d be ready to get rid of these ornaments.
The house was silent. Every room was dark. She should turn on a light. She should put on some Christmas music.
She sat, staring at the silhouette of the tree and wondering who would see it if she bothered to decorate.“Our God is not a God of Chaos” 1Corinthians 14:33
“COULD YOU USE some help?” Allie, the newest member of the Ladies Circle, shrugged off her coat as Micki wired evergreen branches onto a circular candelabrum.
“Always.” Sweet-faced Micki beamed her ever-accepting smile. “This is a sticky job, though.”
“Better than sticky kids. They were driving me crazy. I had to escape.”
“How old are they?” Micki picked up two branches of greenery.
“Johnny’s five. Bette’s three.”
“Mine’s a teenager, and she’s still driving me nuts. Here, hold the branches and I’ll wire them on the wreath.”
“I thought we weren’t supposed to decorate until after Advent.”
“This isn’t a decoration. It’s a calendar.”
“Looks Christmasey to me.” Allie shook her head. “I feel like the new kid in school. I go to those meetings and sense deep history between all of you. I’d like to know some of the women better, but I don’t want to nose into their lives. I don’t even ask questions at the meeting. Half the time, I don’t know what the Ladies Circle is discussing.”
“I’m sorry.” Micki’s face crumpled into the sympathetic pout she used when someone dropped their ice cream cone. “I’ll try to help you more. The women are a pretty easy bunch to get to know. Volunteer to work on a project with someone. After a bit, you’ll learn everyone’s story, probably more than you want to know.” Micki’s pudgy fingers pulled on the wire. “Would you hand me another branch? Get some of that cedar.” She pointed at blue-green needles. “When you’re born into a Lutheran family, it becomes part of you, like having a quirky aunt who speaks Esperanto. You just pick it up. What don’t you understand?” Micki didn’t say anything when Allie chose a skinny fir twig and held it in place.
“Why can you put this wreath-calendar-thingy behind this fence? I thought we couldn’t decorate.”
“First, girlfriend, you’ll be thrilled to learn that every part of the church has a name.” Micki’s high-pitched little-girl voice sounded strange coming from her rather round body, She appeared even more volleyball-like when she stood next to her fence-post husband. Her dark, flowing curls and eternal smile gave her a Shirley Temple nuance. If you were lost and scanned the crowd looking for someone who’d help you, you’d choose Micki every time—and a lot of people did.
She smiled her patient-look. “This is the chancel; the area surrounding the table. Did you know the altar represents a table?” Allie shook her head. “Well, some early churches—Roman Catholics—” she emphasized the words, giving Allie a measured look to let her know Lutherans didn’t start the practice but accepted the symbolism, “used the lid of martyrs’ tombs as their communion table. That’s why most altars—tables—look like tombs. That ‘other’ Lutheran church in town, St. John’s, is all modern. Their altar looks like the pod they buried Spock in.”
Allie stared at the granite block altar, trying to remember Star Trek movies. Her long discussions with her husband about joining a church hadn’t included this weird stuff. They simply wanted to raise their children with some kind of religious affiliation. They’d “test driven” ten churches in town, dissecting them afterward, during Sunday brunches. They’d decided to attend adult instruction classes at Shaded Valley to learn what the church believed. Strangely, they’d both liked the antiquity and symbols in the Lutheran church. They’d found the same old, solid symbols in cathedrals, but they’d discovered the Roman Catholics had more rules.
The tipping point came at the annual Camp-Out/Eat-Out. “A church that incorporates beer and barbeque into their meetings is the place for me,” Fred had declared. So they became Lutherans.
“Are you confused by my profound religious analysis?” Micki asked.
Allie shook away her thoughts. “What?”
“The altar’s symbolic.”
“I can understand that.”
“And I already told you this is the chancel,” Micki continued. “You can tell it’s special because it’s usually separated in most churches by a railing, or screen. In Jesus’ time, they used a thick, heavy curtain to keep the holy men from the sinners. I often wondered if they had little peep holes in it. You know, so they could sneak a peek and see who was doing penance. It’s hard to resist looking out from behind a curtain. Well, it is for me.”
“So why isn’t there a curtain, here—with holes, of course?”
“You’ve probably heard that the curtain in the temple ripped apart when Jesus died?” Micki said.
“Well, it means that now, we sinner-saints have direct access to God. We don’t need any holier-than-thou person to go behind the curtain and ask forgiveness for us or to kill livestock and offer it for our sins.”
“Oh, yeah…animal sacrifice,” Allie said. “I’d like to learn more about that.”
“Why? Do you have some animals that need killing?”
Allie gave her a disbelieving stare.
“I told you; we don’t do that anymore.” Micki grinned. “I’m not making this stuff up. Do you want me to continue?”
“Is there more violence?”
“I’ll try to keep it PG. Now, that part is the nave.” Micki pointed toward the pews with her elbow because her fingers were grabbing the wreath. “And outside the doors, that’s called the narthex. The terms come from old words meaning ‘ship.’ Most Lutheran churches are designed like an ark, only upside down. Lie in one of those pews and look up. You’ll think you’re in the belly of a big boat carrying you to safety. I don’t know about that modernistic St. John’s though. They must’ve designed it from a Klingon Warship.”
“Do you often lie in pews?” Allie asked.
“I’ve spent a fair amount of time prone in a pew. You should try it. Go on. Try out the front row.” She added a few more sprigs of blue cedar to the wreath for color and scent then clipped the wire.
Allie lay in the pew, her hands crossed over her chest, staring upward. “The ceiling looks like a wash basin to me.”
“Good grief, dear. Are you ill?” Vera asked, leaning over Allie.
“Uh…no.” She quickly stood up. “I didn’t hear anyone come in. Micki said she lay in pews a lot. So I thought—”
“I’m sure she did,” Vera said dryly, “when she was four years old.”
“Yep. That was about the time they made me give it up.” Micki shot Allie a whimsical grin, “I was supposed to sit up and pretend to listen after that.”
“Here are your Advent candles.” Vera released a heavy box into Allie’s hands. “Please put them in the right order,” she called over her shoulder as she left.
“How embarrassing,” Allie mumbled. “She thinks I’m an idiot.”
“I wouldn’t give it too much concern. At one time or another, Vera thinks everyone is short a brain cell or two.”
“Why do people let her run everything?”
Micki sighed, staring at the door. “Gospel truth?” She turned her stare on Allie. “We’re lazy. As the pastor’s wife, she made sure things got done, and we let her. Now people are getting tired of it. New members want to try new things. Now that her husband is gone, there’s an uprising for change. For me, it’s easier to live with Vera’s attitude than take over her duties.”
“She’s seems pretty inflexible. An order to the candles? That’s a bit much,” Allie said.
“Oh, that’s not Vera. There’s an order to everything here. A progression through seasons and worship. Everything you see in this sanctuary has a purpose. All of this is supposed to help you be still. Help you restore the order meant to be in your life.”
“My life is not in order. It’s full of screaming children and dirty laundry.”
“That’s why people come to a sanctuary. Seeking peace. Looking for answers. They come here, or a cemetery.”
“I’ve done that. I’ve gone to a graveyard. It was quiet. Eternal.” Allie lightly stroked the candles.
“Well, I prefer the sanctuary. Less heat and bugs,” Micki said. “Hand me the purple candle with a crown on it.”
“Would the roof fall in if you used the wrong candle?”
“It would’ve been noticed in ancient days. That’s why this isn’t a Christmas decoration; it’s a time keeper. Only the priests could read in the early church, and the peasants didn’t have iphones. Lighting a candle on each of the four Sundays of Advent told the story of Christ’s birth and prepped the peons. If some poor soul was going to receive an extra crust of bread for the holidays, all he had to do was look at the candles and see how long he had to wait.” Micki stuck it into a holder on the wreath and wiggled it, checking its stability.
The Prophet’s Candle is first; it foretells a King is coming. Second Week, the Bethlehem Candle. Third Week, the Shepherd’s Candle. No, it’s the pink one with a little sheep on it.”
“Joy. The shepherds were the first men to visit Jesus. It’s a Sunday to rejoice. There’s a story with every candle. You’ll hear them. Now give me the last purple one, representing the angels’ announcement. When this last Advent candle was lit in those dark, old cathedrals, the peasants knew the wait for the coming King was almost over.”
“Sounds apocalyptic,” said Allie.
“It was, but traditions change. Look at Martin Luther; he translated the Bible into German, rewrote hymns using beer drinking songs and got kicked out of the Roman Catholic Church. Things change.”
“When do we light this?” Allie waggled a long white candle.
Micki took it and fitted the slender taper into the uppermost ring of the candelabra. Shrill screams came from the narthex.
“No! I don’t want to! I DON’T WANT TO!” pulsed into louder and louder yells accompanied with something beating the floor.
Micki and Allie gave each other a startled look and headed toward the door.The Christmas Play
WHEN THE SANCTUARY door opened, high-pitched shouting bounced off the walls.
Nan, the church organist, poked her head through the doorway. “Hey Micki, are you gals done? We need to set up in here.” Behind her, one of Kay’s teenage sons twisted right and left, trying to hold onto a screaming, stomping four-year-old boy.
“Is that kiddo all right?” Micki asked.
“Yeah.” Nan glanced at the tantrum. “His mom volunteered him to be in the Christmas play. Say, do you think you could help us?” she said as children filed in and sat in pews. “We kind of have our hands full here.”
Nan had decided to doThe Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a multi-generational play about a rowdy group of unchurched kids who accidentally deliver the true meaning of Christmas. She looked at the actors in front of her.
“All right, all right, listen up.” The five-and six-year-olds had dropped to the floor and were belly-crawling under pews, something they never got to do when sitting with parents. Several teenagers had been lured to the practice by the promise of pizza. Kevin, sixteen and Marcus, fourteen—Kay’s sons—were plugged into their ipods, waiting for the pizza to be served. Three girls had their heads close together, whispering. The adult actors stood at the back of sanctuary, chatting.
“Kevin. Marcus. Get those kids out from under the pews,” Nan ordered, but the boys sat with their eyes closed, listening to their music. She walked over to the teens. The girls stopped chatting as she pulled an ear-bud out of Kevin’s ear.
“What?” he said with a surprised look. “I’m not doin’ nothin’.”
“Would you and Marcus please get those kids out from under the pews?” She returned to the front of the sanctuary to make announcements. “Now, practices will be…”
Kevin yanked both ear buds from his younger brother’s head.
Marcus whipped a knuckle into his brother’s arm. “What, Jerk Face?”
Nan ignored them. “Look at home for costume materials…”
“We gotta get the rug-rats from under the pews.” Kevin pointed downward. The little ones had wormed all the way to the back of the church, giggling and laughing. The brothers looked at each other then dove for the carpet.
Nan continued, “I expect you to have your lines memorized by—”
“EEEEEEEEEEE!” high pitched squeals came from the last row.
“Gotcha!” More squeals were interrupted with lots of thumping on the underside of the pews.
“All right. That’s enough!” yelled Nan, striding to the back of the church. “You all sound like a herd of pigs. Come out of there.”
Marcus made a snorting sound. The five- and six-year-olds began snorting, too. Kevin’s long legs stuck out in the aisle; Nan nudged them—not too gently—with her foot.
“Stop it. Stop it now. Get out here, all of you.” Slowly they arose, one by one, and filed to their seats. “Because you love playing with the children, you both can sit with them and keep things under control,” Nan said.
With the reading of each scene, Nan had to stop and find the actors or quiet the set. Kevin and Marcus traded punches with the little kids when it wasn’t their scene. Mary, mother of Jesus, played by Micki’s teenage girl, was outside on her cell phone when it was time for her part. When Nan discovered the adults had gone to the Fellowship Hall for coffee, she threw a manuscript at a pew, telling everyone to go home.
What had she been thinking? Vera had told her to organize the pageant which meant she could’ve delegated this job to the Sunday school teachers. It was that empty-nest-syndrome. Right after her youngest had left for college, she’d felt the void and decided to direct this pageant of slackers and rebels. She looked at Ray, her husband, as he restored the sanctuary to a normal order after the rehearsal. He had wisely taken up golf to fill his empty-nest time.
In the following weeks, adults came to help, but rehearsals birthed new dramas. Mother Mary had a meltdown when her sparkling neck warmer was deemed an inappropriate head piece. She had talked her mother into buying it for the program, denying that she wanted it because everyone at the high school had one.
The dinner-scene rehearsal should have been easy because only five members of the cast were on-stage. Disappointed with plastic steaks and doll-food props, Nan bought a baked chicken with vegetables at Bob’s Box Mart, so the actors could get used to working with real food. She stuck the plate in a warm oven—it would be dinner for Ray and her after rehearsal tonight. Unfortunately, when Kevin grabbed the hot plate, he yelled a word that made the little kids open their mouths and stare.
Pizza seemed to make the youth forget bad rehearsals, but it did nothing to improve their memories for their parts. The shepherds were helpful, using their staffs to prod anyone who missed their cue. Foreseeing disaster, a couple of adults dropped out of the play using timeworn excuses: “My job has become too demanding,” “My dog needs surgery.”
“You’ve got to help me,” Nan begged Hettie, Kay, and Micki. “The little-girl-angels wave and the little-boy-angels stare when it’s time for them to sing. The teenagers only know half their lines, and they say those at the wrong time. Now, two actors have dropped out. It’s going to be a debacle. I’ll have to change churches after this play or move out of state. Help me.”
“I wish I could. You know how I like to put on a show,” Hettie said, “but I don’t think my brain could remember all those lines.”
“I’m begging you.” Nan grabbed her. “Please? You canreadthe lines. You don’t have to memorize a thing.” Her voice was thin and her eyes shiny with delayed-tears.
“I get nervous in front of adults.” Hettie gave a self-conscious giggle. “I can talk to kids all day, but adults.….”
“Please, just read the lines? You don’t even have to look at anyone.”
Hettie shrugged and rolled her eyes, “Oh, all right. Maybe little note cards could be hidden in the scenery, and I could use them to jog my memory, so I wouldn’t get nervous.”
“Yes. Yes. You could do that. Oh, thank you, Hettie. Thank you!” Nan looked at Kay.
“I don’t want a speaking part.” Kay frowned and shook her head. “Actually, I don’t want any part at all, but I feel sorry for you, and if you’re drummed out of this church because of this disastrous Christmas pageant, which will make people lose faith and become agnostics, then I suppose I must help for the sake of all Christendom.” She drew a big breath, “But I’m actually doing it just for myself since that would mean Mrs. Benjamin would take over your job as organist—and you know she plays so slow, that I have time to do crossword puzzles during the hymns. In frustration, I’d have to find you in whatever honky tonk you’re playing in. So, it’ll simply be a lot easier for all of us if I help.” Then added, “I just don’t want a speaking part.”
“Like we would ever giveyoua speaking part,” Hettie said.
Kay gave the teacher a you-wish-you-were-me-stare. “I provoke insight. My comments force you to explore.” She smiled at Nan, raising her eyebrows twice. “Not that I want a speaking part.”
“I need for you to be the Head Angel.” Nan interrupted before Hettie and Kay escalated their banter. “Your boys are riding herd on the little ones. I need you to ride herd on…all of them. Do you think you could get those kids to sing instead of just mumble a tune?”
“Done,” said Kay.
“Micki,” Nan lay her hand on the large woman’s shoulder, “just continue what you’ve been doing.”
“Wait a minute,” Kay shook her head. “All I’ve seen her do is sit outside the door and gab with everybody who walks through the narthex. I want her job.”
“Let’s get some coffee.” Micki smiled, took Kay’s arm, and began walking toward the door. “I distract folks who come to observe. That way Nan can work out the problems before people watch and start critiquing her.”
“I can distract people,” said Kay. “I’ve worked diversion into an art form.”
“Distract,” Hettie said as she followed, “not drive them away. After you finish with them, they need counseling. Micki channels folks to other activities until the program is a little more presentable.”
“Who would evaluate a kid’s play?” Kay asked. “It’s not supposed to be perfect. Remember that, Nan.” Kay called over her shoulder as Micki walked them out the door. “Strive for imperfection. It can always be achieved.”
They rehearsed for three Sundays. Ray spent the week before the play gluing Hettie’s speaking parts to dishes and various props. To the audience, it would appear that Hettie spent a lot of time admiring her plates or reading the family Bible while she spoke.
Very quickly, everyone of Kay’s little five-and six-year old angels knew the words to “Away in a Manger.” Some grinned and waved, some looked frightened, but they all sang. Loud and off-key.
“How did you get them to do it?” Nan cocked her head and blinked at the kids.
“The boys did it. I don’t know how,” Kay shrugged, “but the kids learned it in a jiffy after spending a little time with Kevin and Marcus.”
A grin spread across Nan’s face just before voices—loud voices—drifted from the narthex. She turned to see who Micki was running interference against.
Vera pushed through the doors. “I need to talk to you about the Christmas pageant. Now.”
BEFORE VERA HAD gone to the church that afternoon, she’d tried to finish Christmas cards. Actually, she’d been making half-hearted attempts for a couple of weeks. What could she tell people? Jim’s dead and everything’s sliding to the thin end of the wedge. Three envelopes lay in the completed pile. She sat at the kitchen table, grabbed a card, and began writing quickly, hoping she wouldn’t get stalled this time.
Dear Aunt Ula,
Things have been hectic. The demands of the season continue as usual this time of year.
Things weren’t usual. They were screwier than the Elvis impersonator she’d once heard give a sermon. She’d expected to make some alterations after Jim had died, but she’d never thought life would parachute out of order. Like the Halloween party. No one had asked her. She had to hear about the cancellation from Walt. Walt, of all people. His main function was to complain about how much work other people made for him. It was a tragedy. After all those years, she deserved more respect.
Everyone seems especially supportive.
And that had changed too. Oh, people asked if she needed anything. They invited her to dinner, some dropped by, others brought food. But there were little signs of disrespect creeping in. No one had included her in planning the Thanksgiving worship service. They hadn’t even told her when the meeting was to be held. She’d had to sleuth it out, show up, and organize it. Even then her hard work was ruined by a leaky pipes and a giant pumpkin.
You’ll have to visit, so you can meet the new pastor, Poe Muldoon, and his wife. They’ve dropped by the house several times to see if I need anything. He’s working very hard, but he graduated from Berkley, so he has some different ideas that are new to this congregation.
Like using girls as acolytes, which had always been a job for boys. He even chanted the liturgy. Jim had tried it, but he really didn’t have a singing voice. Besides, it had seemed too Roman Catholic to him. Pastor Poe didn’t seem interested in the insights she tried to share with him about the congregation. It wasn’t advice. Jim, bless his dear soul, had admonished her never to give advice. She only tried to provide insights and history.
His wife works full time as a physical therapist, so we don’t get to see too much of her.
What was happening with ministers’ wives nowadays? When Shaded Valley Lutheran called Jim, they actually got two people for the salary of one. She worked almost as hard as her husband. Of course, she was behind the scenes and perhaps not many people noticed, but that was as it should be.
We are not decorating the church until Advent is over. It’s a lot of pressure, but the ladies of the church all support each other and we’ll get through it.
It would be nice to sit with some of the other women, but not in the “Women’s Pew.” No one called it that, but everyone knew that’s what it was. A row of ladies: widowed, divorced, or husband doesn’t attend. It would be comforting to whisper a word to a seatmate. Worshiping together was probably better than the vacant feeling Vera had sitting by herself among families, but she wasn’t about to sit in that row. She wasn’t one of them. The ringing phone jarred her thoughts.
“Pastor and Vera Henley’s residen—” she stopped herself.
“Yeah, uh, I didn’t know Pastor Henley still lived there. Let me talk to him.”
“Oh Sean! I was writing to Aunt Ula and answered without thinking. Old habits are hard to unlearn, dear.”
“Because I live a hundred miles away, Mom, I can tell you this now. When you and Dad were out of the house, I answered the phone with ‘Yeah?’”
“Sean, you didn’t.”
“And you should’ve heard how Pete answered. A few times people hung up because they thought they had the wrong number.”
“Pete would never do that.”
“Mom, why do you think my big bro is doing missionary work in Sierra Leone? He feels guilty about denying all those parishioners a chat with their pastor.”
“Then why aren’t you doing mission work too, instead of designing buildings?
“I don’t feel guilty.”
“Well…you should. How are Cindy and the girls?”
“Great. We’re expecting you and crazy Aunt Ula here on Christmas Eve. Do you want us to come get you?”
“Oh, Sean, you know I can’t come on Christmas Eve.”
“Sure you can. Dad is vacationing in heaven. He’s got Christmas off. You can relax and take off too.”
“I…don’t think so…this new pastor…things aren’t quite under control. I don’t see how…”
“The world will turn without you. At least for one night. I’ll come get you.”
“If you’re coming, then you all might as well celebrate Christmas Eve at our house, like we’ve always done.”
“Mom, we want to have Christmas in our own home for a change.”
“I see. Well, I’ll let you know what I can arrange. I’ll have to call you back.” She hung up with the phrase “for a change” echoing through her mind.
For a change? There had been enough change. Now she wouldn’t even get to spend Christmas in her own home?
What was God thinking? What good had come out of Jim leaving his work before he’d finished? Now things were slipping. Let’s have different music “for a change.” Let’s use a more contemporary liturgy “for a change.” Let’s not decorate for Christmas until Advent is over “for a change.
This was the work of Pastor Poe Muldoon. When Jim was alive, she’d never have neededWaltto tell her what was happening. Pastor Muldoon needed to show her more consideration, and he needed to respect how Jim had done things.
Not decorate until Advent was over? Did he have any idea how many people he inconvenienced by such an impulsive decision? Well, she’d shown honor for his position, but as soon as the last service was over today, she’d have the ‘troops’ there to decorate. This free fall into worshipping with the flavor of the day would screech to a stop.“Seek and You Will Find” Matthew 7:7
“I NEED TO talk to you about the Christmas pageant. Now.”
Nan turned toward the voice. Vera pushed through the sanctuary doors, her lips stretched in a grim line, her eyes bearing down on her target.
“Could you wait until practice is over?” Nan rubbed the heels of her hands against her temples. There was no need to publicly point out what she already knew. This production was worse than the time Bob Windgett had a few drinks before doing the dramatic reading of “Journey of an Apostle.” The tankard of Rum Scorpions had calmed Bob’s performance anxiety so well, he went off script, interacting with the audience and accusing several people of being “too Roman to be Lutheran.” Nan pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to ease the throbbing in her head. Vera could at least tell her this was a debacle in the bathroom, where plenty of tissues would be available for the subsequent sobbing.
A burst of laughter shot from the chancel area. The teenagers were rehearsing Mary and Joseph having a tug-of-war over baby Jesus. Kevin, Kay’s son who played Joseph, looked up, whipped the doll behind his back, stood up straight, and smiled. The other youth gravitated to a corner.
“I haven’t been to any of your practices.” Vera watched the teens clump together and whisper, and then she scrutinized Micki. “Micki’s been taking up a great deal of my time. Not that I mind but—”
“My fault. My fault entirely.” Micki nodded, placing a hand on her chest.
Vera moved her gaze to the organist. “You need to end this.”
“You’re probably right.” Nan continued pinching her nose.
“You’ve had four weeks. We only have the next four days. This Advent-waiting exercise has been a hardship, but we’ve done it. We’ve put everything off until today. Advent has ended, and we’re taking over the sanctuary.
“What?” Nan stared at Vera, waiting to be dressed down.
“It has to be done. Everyone is coming. Now.”
Nan caught the movement of Hettie waving her arms in the parking lot. The schoolteacher was directing her husband on how to unload an SUV of red poinsettias into a wheel barrow. A large Fraser fir staggered toward the door; Walt and Roger’s strained faces peeked through the branches. Lorena and Brynn were piling ribbons and greenery into the arms of a conscripted Pastor Poe.
“I…” As Christmas marched through the door, Nan’s slow thoughts hinted that this was not about the play. This was about getting the blazes out of the way so the next tradition could settle into place. The play was still a fiasco, but fortunately, she’d never been accused of being “too Roman.” As a matter of fact, she thought the Creator of the Universe whipped out His most surprising miracles within the fuzz of chaos. “Oh! I see.” She turned to the waiting actors; with her hands in the air and a grin on her face, she exclaimed, “That’s a wrap. No more rehearsals. We’re all done!”
Parents helped their children out of their autos, trying to minimize the damage car doors and siblings could do to angels’ wings.
“Look at the church!” a kid in the parking lot yelled.
Large fir wreaths with golden bows adorned both doors. The windows held garlands of greenery plaited with diaphanous ribbons which glittered when they caught the light. An occasional snowflake drifted from the sky.
Cedar and pine scents met them as they entered. The narthex twinkled with tiny white lights tucked throughout flower arrangements, baskets of pine cones, and garlands of holly.
The live Christmas tree stood next to the sanctuary doors, ornamented withChrismons, symbols representing God: interlocking circles for the Trinity, aChi Rhosymbol—Jesus’ initials in Greek, a gilded fish, aTaucross, and white butterflies—representing new creations in Christ. Underneath the tree sat Roger’s giant pumpkin, lovingly decorated to resemble a mouse.
After Thanksgiving, the pumpkin had lived in the kindergarteners’ Sunday school class. The five-year-olds quickly discovered it was big enough to ride and adorned it with paper eyes and a nose. They made ears and a tail, too, but those were repeatedly knocked off until the teacher glued soft felt pieces in their place. When they asked Roger what the pumpkin/mouse’s name was, he exclaimed, “Jehovah Jirah. Herbrew for ‘God provides.’”
The children called the pumpkin Jehovah until the teacher explained that she didn’t think it was appropriate to use God’s name on a gourd, even if it was humongous. So they dubbed him Jerod because that’s what it sounded like Roger had said.
On decorating day, after the ladies had finished, Roger returned to the church and put the pumpkin under the tree, because “It was a gift.” He left the mousy add-ons and attached a note that said, “I need a home for Christmas. I’ll feed many.”
As Allie’s family entered the church, they found Lorena touching up the decorations and directing traffic. “Angels downstairs, Holy family in the sacristy.” She pointed.
“I don’t wanna wear these.” Johnny yanked at his cardboard wings.
“Maybe you’ll find some you like better downstairs,” Lorena said to him; then to his mom she added, “There’re extras of everything down there. You can make a halo.”
“I’m not wearing a halo.” Johnny puckered his face.
It appeared as though Bernie’s Been-Around, Come-Around Thrift Store had exploded in the Fellowship Hall. Adults dug under piles of costumes. Kids jiggled in various states of animal metamorphoses. Shepherds tripped and fell over each other in their parents’ long robes.
A Wiseman, who was actually a woman, frantically tossed clothes, looking for her box of myrrh. “Did one of you cows run off with it? It’s not funny. I spent all afternoon gluing on sequins.”
While Micki tied towels over Shepherds’ heads, the sheep poked each other with staffs and made snorting sounds.
Kay, in a corner surrounded by little angels, fixed a broken cardboard wing. She wore red-and-white-striped stockings, a white ballerina tutu, real feathered wings, and a flashing halo.
“I don’t think angels have halos like that,” Hettie said, herding a tyke who had been trying on camel humps.
“Look. Look what it does.” Kay pushed a tiny button on her headpiece. It started to pulse and change colors. “It has five patterns. You covet it, don’t you?”
“Well, don’t turn it on around Vera; she’s in a foul mood. She’s been snapping at everyone all week.”
Lorena maneuvered through dancing angels and donkeys, carrying the 20-cup coffee urn.
“Are we having coffee upstairs after the service?” Hettie asked.
“We can’t have it down here.” She stepped over a gold-foil crown. “We’ll have cookies, too.”
“That’s good. Jerod would be upset if you were serving pies made from some of his brethren.” Kay tugged at the strap of her wings.
“That pumpkin. I don’t know why they don’t give it Confirmation classes and let it join the church. It attends every special event we have here.”
A loud crash brought adults from all corners of the room. The angels and shepherds were brandishing canes at the sheep and camels who balanced on their hands and kicked with both legs.
“Marcus. Marcus! Gather those angels over here,” Kay said.
“Come on, rug rats.” He began pushing them toward the corner.
“What happened to this room?” Vera demanded, surveying the chaos from the stairway. She began searching under piles of clothing and costumes asking, “Have you seen my pen? It’s a wooden one.” She didn’t get much help because everyone had her own problems.
“It’ll turn up, Vera, when we put things away.” Hettie was tying a fleece cape over a sheep’s back.
“I need to find it. Jim gave it to me. It’s made from an olive tree. He brought it from his Jerusalem trip.” She moved around the room, lifting the heaps at first then tossing them as she became more frustrated. Nearing the angels she said, “I don’t believe that flashing halo is appropriate. It’s distracting.”
“I didn’t wear the whole Victoria Secret costume, now thatwould bedistracting,” Kay said. “Just the wings.”
“The halo.” Vera pointed. “You will need to turn that off.”
Two angels were shimmying their shoulders back and forth, beating their wings into each other.
“Marcus, take the angels for a hike.”
“Mom, I’m a shepherd, not an angel herder. I’m all dressed. I’m minding my own business. Why am I being punished?”
“Take them on a hike, sweetie. Take some other shepherds with you. Wear off a little of this energy.” She pointed to the wiggling, bouncing, bumping bodies in front of her.
“Okay! Come on, rug rats.”
“Stop calling them rug rats,” Vera commanded.
“Come on, midgets. Follow me,” he said as he took off.
Kay stared at Vera. “Why don’t you go somewhere private, and yell at God for a while, Vera.”
“Your tail’s in a twist about something. Now you’re taking it out on the kids. Go yell at God about it.”
“I haveneveryelled at God.”
“Then your God is too small.”
“Kay, you open your mouth and utter all sorts of obscenities. Could you just be helpful for once?” Vera’s clipped words accompanied the invisible darts shooting from her eyes. The noise in the room had dropped significantly.
“Why don’t you ask God where your pen is?” Kay said quietly.
Vera looked at her. There was no spite or malice in Kay’s voice; it sounded like merely a suggestion.
“I would never presume to bother God about a pen.”
“Then your God is too small,” Kay repeated. Their eyes locked. The room grew quiet. Kay’s face showed no emotion. Vera’s lips pulled into a tight line, her eyes narrowed.
“What did you say to me?”
“Kay, not now.” Micki hurried toward them, carrying sheep ears on a headband. “Vera, I’ll help you look.” Kay snapped her hand toward Micki, five fingers splayed into a barrier sign.
“In just a few minutes we’re going to tell everyone, in our own inept words, about God coming as a tiny little baby to provide a way we can get home again. God, who orchestrated this plan, this universe, and worlds we don’t even know about yet, knows where your pen is. Ask Him. This is the God who loves you enough to notice if you lose a hair out of your head. He voluntarily died for you. You can’t give Him too much to deal with.”
Vera’s lips were pursed. Her jaws clenched. Everyone was silent, watching. Even the sheep had stopped butting each other.
Kay flicked off her halo, smiled, raised her eyebrows twice, then turned and walked away.
Silence hung in the air. Micki said, “Now where is that box of myrrh?” A shepherd hooked his staff around a camel’s leg. They began to wrestle. The sounds of pre-show jitters slowly returned to the room.“The Light Shines in the Darkness” John 1:5
THE PLAY’S FIRST scene—the meal—went smoothly. Hettie placed an elbow on the table, held her drinking glass to her face, and read her lines. When the script ended, she picked up another glass and began reading again. Sometimes she had to adjust her eyeglasses and look down the tip of her nose to make out the words, but she didn’t stop. Not even when Kevin tripped and sent the roasted chicken sliding to the floor. Hettie kept reading her lines, picked up the bird by the drumsticks, and smacked it back on the platter. She seemed to have no idea what the audience was laughing about.
During the second scene, angels and shepherds fidgeted outside the sanctuary, awaiting their cue. Johnny let out a plaintive squeal, “I don’t wanna do this! I’m not singing!” Marcus bent to Johnny’s eye level, made a menacing face and claw-like hands, whispering, “Sing, or sit with St. Scary.”
Johnny went silent and marched in with the group. He continued his rebellion by standing on the top step rather than his assigned position. Because there wasn’t enough room, he clung to the child on the end as they sang “Away in the Manger.” Tiring of being an anchor, the kid elbowed Johnny in the stomach, knocking him to the floor.
Johnny hopped up like a TV cage fighter and gave his opponent a two-handed shove. They jostled each other off the riser once more before Marcus worked his way between them, defusing the angelic battle.
The Virgin Mary was not wearing blue. The director had forbidden it. She did sneak on with bright lip gloss and her glittering neck warmer. When it came time to give birth, she turned her back to the audience, yanking the doll from under her bathrobe. The soft-bodied doll, filled with water to make it more life-like, had been purposefully overfilled. Each time it was handled, water squirted from its joints. It sprayed like a garden hose during the tug-of-war scene.
“Stop it. Stop it this instant!” Hettie seized the doll—which was actually one of her lines. The Blessed Babe shot a stream of water across her face and chest. The teens froze. Hettie wiped her forehead, trying to compose herself, but each time she looked at the teenagers, she giggled. She hid her face behind her Bible to read her next line, but “My script is all wet!” came out instead.
After the audience and the actors settled down from the laughter, the play continued in the spirit of a group improv. Hettie, reading from the script, cued anyone who missed their lines. When she prompted, “Shepherd Marcus, don’t you want to say something?” there was no answer.
A shepherd kneeling on the floor pointed a finger. Marcus sat against a bale of hay, head thrown back, mouth open—sound asleep.
Vera put an end to the production by turning the lights out. She gave a push start to the acolyte, sending her weaving down the aisle toward the altar. The tall, white Christ candle that had presided over the Advent wreath for weeks was lit. Its tiny glow reached into the blackness of the sanctuary. Gentle chords of “Silent Night” began to play.
“The Light has broken into our darkness. Jesus Christ is born!” announced Pastor Poe as he removed the white candle and carried it into the congregation. The first person in each row lit their small candle, and the flame passed from wick to wick, spreading gradually to the candles in the corners of the sanctuary then out the doors to the overflow of worshippers in the narthex.
When notes of the last stanza stopped resonating, the organ broke into a spirited rendition of “Joy to the World.” Candle light bounced around the sanctuary. Impromptu harmony swelled through voices. Kay’s halo flashed in a strobe pattern.
Families and friends exited through the doors, finding Lutheran-brewed coffee and hot spiced cider. Lorena and Brynn had set up a cookie buffet. Johnny and the other little angel continued their elbowing over chocolate chip treats.
“It snowed. It snowed!” someone shouted. A thin layer had blanketed the parking lot. The shepherds and Holy family were already outside, hurling snowballs at each other.
Lorena, behind the cookie table, made sure handfuls of baked goods didn’t disappear into bathrobes.
She signaled with a furtive wave to Kay and Hettie. “Does anybody know the guy in the khaki slacks over there? He’s been here the last couple of Sundays.”
They craned their necks. They could see his partial profile through the crowd. Turtleneck, blue blazer, dark hair with graying temples.
“Go introduce yourself. This is a friendly church,” Kay said.
“No. He’ll think I’m pushy.”
Kay cut through the visiting groups, stuck out her hand, said something, and then pulled the man toward the cookie table.
“Oh crap.” Lorena almost made it into the crowd before Kay grabbed her jacket.
“Lorena, this is Robert Fullerton. He likes coffee and oatmeal cookies. Robert, this is Lorena.” She turned and left.
Anyone who could be recruited away from the cookies and snowball fights was downstairs, stuffing wings and sheep’s clothing back into boxes. “I wanted to crawl under a table, Kay.” Lorena carried the empty urns through the melee to the kitchen.
“Well, you wanted to meet him. What’d you find out?” Kay asked.
“Nothing. I apologized for you, explaining you had the social skills of a badger, and then I offered him a cup of coffee. That’s when I noticed he already had a cup. I felt even stupider, so I blurted out that the single folks, old and young, went to the all-night diner after Christmas Eve services. I invited him, but he declined. I don’t even know if he was single. I’m such an idiot.”
“No worries.” Kay raised her eyebrows twice with a big grin. “I’ll help you.”
“Please don’t. Are you coming tonight?”
“No,” Kay stacked boxes. “Gabe, my ex, gets the boys tomorrow, so I want to spend tonight with them, even though they’ll be more interested in their new video games than talking to me.”
Vera appeared in the doorway, but seeing most of the boxes already packed, turned to leave. Hettie jabbed an elbow into Lorena’s ribs, hissing, “What about her?”
Lorena cast a dark glance at Hettie before calling out, “Hey, Vera, what are you doing tonight? You want to go to the Cherokee with us?”
“Uh…no, my family will be here tomorrow.” She quickly retreated up the stairs. Lorena looked to Kay, but she was already ordering kids to carry items to the closets.
Room by room the lights went off in the church as families left. Only the twinkling lights of the Chrismon tree shone on the faces of Walt, Roger, and the few women waiting in the narthex.
“Where’s Jerod?” asked Lorena as she and Kay switched off the stairway lights.
“This was his first and last Christmas.” Roger bowed his head. “Brynn arranged to donate him to a low-income nutrition program that teaches cooking and canning.Jehovah Jirah, God provides.
“They’re slaughtering Jerod? We should launch a rescue mission,” Kay said.
“I hope he falls out of her van and cracks into a million pieces,” Lorena said.
Roger squinted at her. “My! Such Christmas spirit and good will.”
“It’s a gourd the size of a space ship, and I’m tired of that pumpkin attending every event and marring the decorations. I’m surprised he’s not going to the restaurant with us.”
“Well, actually,” Roger looked sheepish, “he is. He’s in the back of my van. Brynn didn’t have room for him tonight.”
“Oh for-cryin-out-loud!” Lorena threw up her hands. “I’m not sitting next to him.”
“Ready? Pastor’s already left. I’m locking up.” Vera unplugged the tree, leaving everyone to make their way out the doors using the dim light from the parking lot, shining through the windows.
The snow crunched underfoot. People didn’t speak as they listened to the quiet world and watched their breath rise in the air. Planning to come back later for their cars, the diners piled into Walt’s van.
“Vera,” Lorena tried once more, “why don’t you come with us? We’ve got plenty of room.”
“No…thanks. I…I have things to do before my family gets here.”
“Leave her be,” Walt mumbled, staring out the windshield, watching ice crystals swirl under the parking lot light while the engine warmed.
“I was just trying…” Lorena closed her mouth and got in the van.
“It’s kind of sad, looking at the church.” Roger rubbed a circle in the window fog for a better view. “Just an hour ago it was bursting with lights, kids, and people singing. Now, it’s locked and every window is black. This surprise snowfall made folks hurry home. Even the streets are dark and deserted.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think Pastor Poe nailed it with that benediction of his: ‘The Light of Love has come. Go forth in joy.’” Walt pointed to a car leaving the parking lot. As it motored cautiously away, multi-colored lights flickered from inside.
THE WEEK AFTER Christmas, teenagers slouched in the overstuffed couches of the church’s High School Room. Late as usual, Phil, their twenty-eight-year-old, part-time youth director, dashed in. “Let’s get started,” he called through the chatter. Short in stature, but wiry in muscle, he sported a T-shirt, shorts, and a dark tan from the previous summer’s soccer season. He shoved a pair of clunky-footed tennis shoes off the coffee table as he strode to the front of the room. “Okay, Pastor Jim once said that an epiphany meant—”
Eyes were watching the big screen TV even though the sound was muted. Taking two long steps, he smacked the “off” button to a chorus of groans.
“Now, if I could have yourfullattention. Kevin, how about removing your leg from the back of the couch, so you’re in a more upright position? Thanks. Now, because we’re in the season of Epiphany—”
“What’s epiphany?” a blonde youth said as she checked her cell phone.
“I’m glad you asked. Pastor Jim used to define it this way: Epiphany is when you have a moment that makes you do this…” He held up one finger, signaling wait-for-it, drew a breath, and said, “Aaaaaah! I didn’t know that.”
The kids stared at him with a nobody’s-home look.
“When life makes you gasp, ‘Aaaaah! I didn’t know that,’ you’ve just had an epiphany,” he explained. The room filled with kids practicing their gasps and I-didn’t-know-thats.
“Okay, okay. Now in order to give you many opportunities to have your own epiphanies this year, the youth group is going on a mission trip.”
“Aaaaah! I didn’t know that,” said Marcus.
“That’s not an epiphany. That’s an announcement,” said Phil.
“What’s the difference?” Marcus squinted.
“You’ll find out on this mission trip.”
“Where’re we going?” someone asked.
“Your committee voted on San Francisco. We will be working with inner-city youth, serving in soup kitchens and doing some improvement projects.”
“San Francisco? I thought all the mission projects were in Mexico,” a tall blond teenager said.
“See, you’ve had an epiphany already,” said Marcus.
“Nope, that’s not an epiphany.” Phil pointed at the unenlightened youth. “That’s just correcting misinformation.”
“I still don’t get it,” said Marcus.
“You will. We’ll have fundraisers, so each of you can go. The Lutheran Ladies Circle has graciously offered to help us do the first one. Mrs. Henley is here to tell us about it.”
The kids hadn’t seen Vera slip into the back of the room. She strode to the front, clutching a clipboard and pens, and stared at them until she felt it was quiet enough to begin. “The Ladies Circle wants to support you in raising money for this mission trip, so we propose to work with you in a deli sandwich sale for the Super Bowl.”
Blank faces looked at her.
Vera cleared her throat and continued, “All of us will take orders for custom-made sandwiches from now until a week before the big game. We’ll sell them by the foot, up to three feet. Our ovens can’t bake buns bigger than three feet.”
Vera gave him her dead-pan stare. “We’ll meet on Saturday before the game and assemble them so people can pick up their orders when they come to church on game day. All of us will be working together, ladies and youth. I have sign-up sheets for baking, manning the sales table, and helping shop for supplies. All of us will assemble. Any questions?”
“Didn’t Jesus kick over the tables and whip people who were, uh, you know, selling stuff at church? Isn’t this wrong?” Marcus had kept his hand in the air the whole time he’d asked the question.
“Way to pay attention in Sunday school.” Kevin smacked his brother on the back. Marcus replied by elbowing Kevin in the ribs. Rowdiness broke out as the kids began laughing and talking.
“Okay, okay.” Phil sprang out of his chair and stood bouncing slightly on his toes. “We’ll work out the theology. It’s a great start, and we want to thank Mrs. Henley and the ladies,don’t we?” Vera was squinting toward the back of the room.
“Mrs. Henley?” Phil asked.
She craned her neck forward, trying to peer into the darkened corner. There were four wooden chairs in a semi-circle, facing the wall. From the seats, one could have an eye-level stare into the face of the picture hanging there.
She gasped, “Is that my painting? Why is it in the High School Room?”
Vera did not wait until she got home to make the call. She proceeded to the secretary’s office, unlocked it with her personal key, and phoned Walt, the Property Manager. When he didn’t answer, she left a quiet message loaded with meaning, “Walt. I found Saint Peter.”
Walt, set in his ways for sixty+ years, only answered the phone if he felt like it, and often he wasn’t in the mood to be disturbed. He hadn’t had much use for chatter before his wife died, ten years ago. She was the one who used the phone. His kids had brought him an answering machine. He’d finally hooked it up and found it surprisingly handy. He could listen to calls and never even get out of his chair.
He used the remote to turn down the TV when the phone rang.
“Walt. I found Saint Peter.” He could imagine Vera’s face. Her mouth tight like two boards epoxy-ed together and eyes like drill bits biting into him. God bless the person who’d invented the answering machine.
Her St. Peter picture was like a squeaky floorboard. It kept coming back, no matter what you did to it. It must have been over fifteen years ago when she’d painted the thing.
The white hair on the old guy looked like it needed a dryer sheet, sticking out in all directions as though he’d been hit by lightning. Maybe he had been, because his overly large fingers curled inward like claws, and his eyebrows, black as night, fuzzed upward in eternal anger. It was the eyes, though, that gave out the jeebies. Walt had never seen a human with black eyes. They cut right through a person—at the neck.
He remembered talking about it with Ruby, his wife. She’d said that Peter sure was a scurrilous bub if that’s what he looked like. Walt agreed, saying that was a face to guard hell, not heaven’s gates.
He’d dutifully hung it in the narthex, as instructed by the Council. After all, it was a gift of art to the church. Walt supposed that he wasn’t much of an art connoisseur because he never heard anyone comment about how menacing it was. The ladies always sat the Christmas tree in front of it. Visitors stared at it. But no onesaidanything.
When it was time to paint the narthex, the portrait was removed and it never reappeared. Vera seemed pleased when she was told that her masterpiece was making guest appearances in the Sunday school rooms. It was true. If a Sunday school teacher found the painting in her classroom, she’d sneak it into another room because small children cried if they had to stay in a room with a guy who looked as though he’d cut off your hand if it caused you to sin.
When the kids were taught they were both sinner and saint at the same time, their eyes grew big. Imagining the scowling, pirate-faced portrait, they stuttered, “Like Saint Peter?” Walt figured those kids would need therapy to get over their exposure to that painting.
Then one day it had disappeared. Other members of the Property Committee told him it was in storage. He hadn’t spent much time looking for it, but he knew Vera had. He figured it must be in the attic with the organ pipes. It was the one place Vera couldn’t get to.
Now, it was Saint Peter’s second coming.
Walt had expected more phone calls from Vera during the next few days but heard nothing. Only Phil, the youth director, seemed concerned about the artwork.
“Hey, Walt.” Phil stopped outside of the propped-open door of the men’s restroom at church. Walt stood inside, on a ladder, replacing a ceiling light. “Pastor Poe said I should check with you to see if the youth could keep St. Peter a while longer. Mrs. Henley said it was an important piece of art that was to be installed in the narthex.”
“Uhh. It’s been missing for a while; where’d you find it?”
“Oh, when we had the all-night-gamer for New Year’s Eve, we unlocked the closet to the belfry. The kids wanted to ring the church bell at midnight.”
“Yeah, I heard that. It was grand. Hadn’t been done in years,” Walt said.
“Lots of people in the neighborhood called the church, thanking us for ringing in the New Year.” Phil shook his head. “Who knew? I figured we’d get complaints. Anyway, the painting was in the rope-pull closet. The kids really like him. He looks like a punk-rocker. They didn’t think anyone would mind if they stuck him in their room.”
“Just Vera…” Walt climbed down the ladder.
“No, she’s okay with it. She seems pretty pleased the kids refer to him as their mascot. Well, mostly the guys. The girls sometimes hang a scarf over it. I didn’t mention that. It might hurt her feelings.”
“That’s my #2 Rule: Never give ’em too much information. One-word answers if you can.” Walt flipped the switch to test the bulb.
“Complain about everything.”
“Oh! Well, in that case, I’m sorry to bother you. I just wanted to let you know she said we could enjoy it for a while, but not to get too attached because you were scheduled to reinstall it in the narthex. Pastor Poe—he kind of likes it, too—said to check when you’re going to hang it.”
“Aaah, well, Rule #3 applies here. You and the kids just enjoy your new mascot. The Property Committee’s gonna have to discuss when and where to display that portrait.” Walt patted Phil’s shoulder. “And you know how long it takes some decisions to come out of committee.”
“What’s Rule #3?” the young man asked.
Walt picked up the ladder and started toward the maintenance closet, calling over his shoulder, “Try to get away as quick as possible.”“Our Mouths Were Filled With Laughter” Psalm 126:2
“LADIES. LADIES. I’D like to get started. We’ve lots to cover today.” Vera tried to speak over the settling-in noises of the January Circle meeting.
“Thank you, thank you!” Kay said as Micki set a plate of her Skillion Dollar Fudge on the table. “Has someone made coffee?”
Vera, who had been conspicuously ignoring Kay since the Christmas Eve incident, spoke over Kay’s last syllable. “We’ll start with new business because we haven’t made it that far into the agenda in past meetings. We will be working with—”
“Am I supposed to mail off that stuff from our Hygiene Drive?” Hettie asked.
“Hettie,” Vera nailed her with a stare, “I’d like to finish with my new business.”
“I agree, Vera,” Nan said, helping herself to the fudge and ignoring the inner voice that told her to shut up. “I just need to understand…when did we have a Hygiene Drive?”
“Oh, you know. Someone,” Hettie looked at Kay, “suggested a mission project, and I was privileged to do it—like always.”
“It was a joke,” protested Kay, waving for the dish to be hurried around the table.
Nan sat forward in her chair. “You’re kidding. When did we do this?”
“Well, it might have gotten a bit overshadowed by Christmas, but I put a box in the narthex to collect goods. I put a poster on it, but someone…” Hettie looked at Vera, “felt a sign that said ‘Hygiene Collection’ was inappropriate for the Christmas visitors. So I stuck atastefullittle ‘Donate” sticky note on it, but it kept falling off.”
“No. No. You needed a big honkin’ sign. One that smacks ’em in the head. ‘Soap for Missions’.” Kay waggled a large hunk of chocolate-walnut fudge in the air, “Marketing, Hettie, marketing.”
“Well, all right, Miss Funny Pants, you can do the next project.” Hettie smirked.
“Ladies.” Vera sent a stern look at the women. “The topic is the youth sandwich fund—Nan?” The church organist had turned away from the table, her head in her hands. “Nan? Are you all right?”
The organist faced them, her mouth scrunched tight, but a giggle squeaked out. “Can you imagine people trying to figure out what to put in a box intermittently marked: Donate and Hygiene?”
“Or who it was for?” Kay said.
“Did you,” Allie, the new member, asked, “collect anything in the nameless box?”
“I got some…” Hettie tried to restrain the laugh percolating up her throat, “feminine hygiene products.” Kay and Nan hooted.
“And some toilet paper,” Hettie tittered. “And…some paper towels. I can’t figure that one out.” Her face turned red as she pressed her fingertips to her lips.
“I gave that!” Micki’s mouth puckered in a slight pout. “I thought we were collecting stuff for the ladies’ restrooms.”
Hettie cleared her throat. “Thank you, Micki. That was nice, and the strangest thing happened to the box.” A giggle leaked between her words. “I found it…I actually didn’t find it.” Her face turned redder and a tear escaped. “Walt found it—” she squeaked, “in the men’s restroom.”
Squeals and yowls followed, except for Vera. She slowly tapped her agenda with her pencil, waiting for a moment of maturity to dawn. With a voice that could chip ice, she skewered anyone who would give her eye contact. “I am so sorry our December mission project became a joke. That is an important month with so many in need.”
“Oh, Vera, the weather’s miserable. We all needed a good laugh before getting down to business,” Kay said. The women were blowing their noses, dabbing their eyes with tissues, and trying to look as serious as Vera’s words.
“Well, Kay,” Vera’s voice carried a sandpaper edge, “since our last mission drive did not meet expectations, I believe you will be doing our next project. I think you have some catching up to do. Can you handle that?”
Kay frowned and studied Vera, deciding if she’d tossed out a put-down or a dare. Two-word replies flitted through her head.Bite meseemed kinder and more humorous thanStick it. Neither had ever gleaned the positive results she’d hoped but were immensely satisfying to say. After a moment of culling her thoughts, she gave Vera a measured look. “I accept your challenge.” She fanned a fudge-laden hand across the room. “I can see posters and newsletters: Socks for Saints and Sinners!”
Hettie broke into another giggle.
“I’m serious,” Kay said, wiping her fingers on a napkin. “Different groups in the church will collect new, unused socks. There’ll be a prize for the group that donates the most. We’ll send the whole shebang to Lutheran Missions.”
“I never meant for this to be a contest,” Vera said.
“I’ll bring socks.” Micki wiped her eyes with her fingertips.
“Fine.” Vera’s voice sounded tired. “Don’t go overboard with it, Kay. Now, as I was saying prior to this laughfest…our fundraiser with the youth—”
“Oh, we’ll just do it the same way we do youth dinners.” Hettie rubbed a tissue under her nose. “I’ll sell tickets with the kids because I like those teenage boogers. You buy the groceries, Vera, because you like watching the money, and everyone will assemble the sandwiches.”
“Well, there is the matter of baking the buns.” Vera consulted her list.
“Buy the buns,” Kay said flatly.
“Hettie and Merle love to bake, and it’ll save money.” Vera gave Kay a “that’s-that” stare.
Hettie’s giggles evaporated. Her teacher eyes narrowed as though she’d discovered someone cutting the lunch line. “That’s true, but I don’t remember volunteering myself or my husband to do the cooking.”
“Well, I like shopping, but I don’t remember saying I would buy all the supplies. This was your plan.”
“You’re right, Vera. You didn’t. We’ll switch. You bake. I’ll shop with the kids.”
“Buy the buns,” Kay droned, remembering that the Ladies’ last baking project had yielded little hamburger buns domed so high it required a reticulating jaw to get a mouth around them. “Homemade buns are goofy. Right?” She looked to Micki for support.
Micki put on a look of seriousness. “If Hettie’s doing the shopping, who’s selling tickets?” A timely change in the subject had always been her best peace tactic. Too late, she realized she’d suggested a new duty. Wide-eyed, she shrunk in her chair and studied the table, hoping she hadn’t volunteered.
Nan suddenly became busy with her knitting. The room fell silent. “Kay?” Hettie stared down the line of women. “And don’t use thatadiophorastuff with me. Your kids are part of this group using the fundraising monies.”
“What’sadiophora?” asked Allie.
“It’s…complicated. I’ll tell you later,” Micki said.
“It’s not complicated.” One corner of Kay’s mouth kinked into a frown.
“You can teach Lutheran ‘middle issues’ later,” Vera’s voice tightened so the words snapped out. “Will you help or not?”
Again, Kay looked at her, replies rolling through her head. “Yeah, sure,” she finally said. “I’ll sit in the narthex, hawking socks and sandwiches.”
Allie raised her hand half-way. “I’ll help you.”
“You’re new. I’d hate for you to leave our church so soon,” Vera said. “Working with Kay is like hanging on to run-away horses.”
“I’ll always be running in the right direction.” Kay gave Vera a smile, raising her eyebrows twice and pushing the plate of fudge toward her new partner. “Welcome, Allie-girl.”
Hettie scooted her chair back. “Let’s take a break and make some coffee now that we’ve got Kay’s fingers pried off the chocolate.”
“Ladies.” Vera took a breath. She searched for words she rarely used and found courage was a bigger problem than vocabulary. After the Christmas-ink-pen fiasco, she’d spent hours wondering if her Godwastoo small. She’d concluded that perhaps she constricted His style because she was doing most of His job. She’d decided to include others in the workload. She glanced around the table. “If I’m baking, I’ll need help. Roger and his boys have signed up to assist, but I doubt if they’ve ever made buns either.” More neediness than she’d intended whinged into her request.
The women blinked at her. An awkward silence bounced around the room. “Are you saying you want someone to tell you what to do and how to do it?” Kay said.
Vera straightened; she knew this wasn’t going to be easy. “I’m asking for help, yes.” She pointed a pencil at the quietest person in the room. “Nan?”
Kay patted the organist on the back. “You almost made it out of here without extra work.” Several of the women sealed the appointment by escaping to the kitchen for coffee. Hettie leaned across the table asking Micki, “Did we ever decide what I was supposed to do with that personal hygiene stuff?”
Vera watched the meeting unofficially break up. She’d put herself out there. It hadn’t gone badly. Perhaps Jim had been right when he used to tell her, “Control was the surprising result of letting go.”
Perhaps.A Long Wait for an Apology
TWO TIMES A year, the Sunday school teachers and youth leaders met over platefuls of pizza and German chocolate cake. Their alleged goal was to exchange curriculum ideas, but their true purpose was to avoid another “Wedding War.” Mumbled stories still haunted leaders about the scheduling catastrophe between a hundred teens arriving for the Battle of the Bands and the confused guests of the Sparker/Hammet wedding. The frenzied bride had secured and defended the sound system, but the teens had commandeered the parking lot. There was a stand-off until the pastor negotiated a solution that included many of the wedding guests rocking out to the bands.
In the past, Vera had come to these meetings in order to relay information to her husband. So no one considered her attendance strange even though Pastor Jim was dead, and she wasn’t a member of the Education committee. It would be the last time they’d overlook her presence.
As the chairman reached the end of the over-long agenda, folks closed their notebooks and began gathering their belongings. Vera’s voice pierced their end-of-meeting-relief, “I have one more thing.”
She took a breath, weighing her thoughts. She’d stuck a test toe into the watery theory of letting go, and discovered there were cold attitudes that needed to be controlled or anarchy would rise, the apocalypse would arrive sooner, and old people could expect to be ignored like derelict hound dogs. Some things could not be allowed to slip. She’d considered doing this privately but this was important. Each educator needed to nip invisible disrespect in the bud.
“Yes?” The chairman rearranged his face in what he hoped was a patient look.
Vera turned to Phil, the youth director. His high cheekbones underlined his dark eyes. He gave her a quick smile. “Well,” Vera continued, “you know how you said that if we had any problems with the youth, we should come directly to you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Two weeks ago, I was talking with Roger—he and his sons volunteered to help bake buns for the youth fundraiser. One of his boys, I don’t know which one, they both look alike to me; well, one of his boys walked up and slid right between us while we were talking. So I grabbed him by the back of his collar and pulled him out of our way saying, ‘This isn’t about you.’ Unfortunately, a button popped off the front of his shirt when I moved him out of the way.
“I apologized. I told him I was sorry, and I would repair it for him.” And she did feel badly. It had been a gentle tug, but the button had arced like it was shot from a trebuchet. The boy had watched it bounce and roll on the floor while she noted Roger’s estranged wife obviously couldn’t even sew on a button. No wonder Roger had custody of the kids.
Phil sat perfectly still under the white-haired woman’s scrutiny. He noticed she’d been massaging her fingers, first with one hand then the other, while she spoke. He breathed a silent sigh of relief, believing that she simply wanted to clear her conscience. Speak her regret and let it be known she wasn’t in the habit of manhandling kids. He’d be able to catch the last half of Monday night football. He added a go-ahead-nod, but closed his notebook.
“Well,” she continued, “I moved Roger’s boy out of the way, and when I turned to resume our conversation, he made a face like this.” Vera glared and worked her jaw open and closed like the Sesame Street grouch on a tirade. A couple laughs arose at her mime act, but choked into coughs when she added in a cracked voice, “I’mnotgoing to tolerate such disrespect. I’m…just not.” Her gaze dropped to the floor for a moment then yanked back to Phil. “And you saw the whole thing.” Her finger poked the air space between them. “I’ve waited two weeks, and I still haven’t received an apology.”
Silence boomed through the room; its invisible weight slowing time. A few people blinked in confusion. Some gaped as though she’d admitted to waterboarding visitors at Lutheran convocations. Others looked at her sideways, then at the youth director.
Phil’s face was a frozen stare. He didn’t move, feeling as if she’d shoved a cattle prod in his chest. The woman must’ve snapped, her brain cells sparking as they faded. He opened his mouth a couple of times before he found his voice, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you need. It’s unfortunate, and I’ll speak to the kid, if you can figure out which one it was.”
“I want an apology,” she demanded. “I haven’t heard from the child or Roger, and you’ve done nothing about it.”
“What did you want me to do?”
“You saw the whole thing.”
“I was across the room. I saw it, and then you were talking with his dad. I assumed you and Roger had taken care of it.”
“We finished making our cooking plans, but he didn’t apologize and I’m still waiting.”
“How would I know that?” Phil said.
“You said we could come to you if we had problems.” Vera folded her arms across her chest. Since the day it had happened, she’d thought about the kid’s mocking disrespect. But she’d vowed to give her clutch on control a vacation. She’d wait to see what others—Roger, as a parent, and Phil, whose job it was to guide and control kids—would do about the problem. It had turned out like everything else. If she didn’t do it, it didn’t get done.
Phil scrubbed his fingers through his hair. “Mrs. Henley, why are you doing this at this meeting? Why are you blasting me in front of all these people?”
“Because I haven’t had an apology yet.” That was the reason that came out of her mouth, but there were parts “b” and “c” which she chose not to embarrass him with in public. He slopped into church in shorts and a ball cap most of the time. The bulk of his inadequate teaching was watching movies or listening to music and then discussing it. He was a nice enough fellow, but needed advice and more years of experience to help 15 adolescents grow up the way they should.
“Look, I’ll talk to him. Why didn’t you mention it immediately?” Phil asked. “You expect me to do something about an incident that happened two weeks ago, but you haven’t let anyone know about it until now?”
Vera straightened her shoulders and took a breath. “I want an apology. This attitude of impertinence is not acceptable from our youth.” She glanced around the room. Faces stared at her. The silence stretched as she waited for someone to agree: the youth could use more manners. Courtesy and respect needed to be part of every grade level’s curriculum.
No one moved. Everyone’s words choked in their throats as though silence had asphyxiated the air from the room.
Vera’s eyes narrowed on the committee chairman, who looked at her as though she had snakes in her hair. Her stare finally roused him to stand and speak. “I think we should support our youth director.” He snatched up his notebook adding, “And…our teachers or anybody who works with kids.” He looked everywhere except Vera’s face. “It’s a hard job. They deserve encouragement. Meeting’s adjourned.”
Vera watched him turn and leave. People hurried from the room, giving each other looks and casting worried glances at her. She pretended not to notice. She’d tried. She’d let go, shared her feelings, expressed her expectations, and people looked at her as though she’d lost her mind. That was what happened when a person asked for help. It wasn’t God that was too small; it was people that were too narrow in their thoughts. She’d had this argument with Jim. If only he were here to see this.
Phil began straightening the room. Vera noted at least he hadn’t run away like the chairman. She approached him as he collapsed metal chairs and put them on the storage rack. Someone needed to help him figure out how to do his job.The Serious Consequences of Words
“DID YOU HEAR about Vera?” Hettie scanned the cozy interior of Bean Me Up Kafé and headed for two empty chairs.
Kay tossed a tip in the jar, picked up her coffee, and followed. “What’d she do now? Is this why you wanted to meet?”
“It’s related. I need to talk to you about the youth fundraiser which Vera blew out of the water with her outburst last night. She really stepped over the line.”
“She’s stomped over the line for years. Why’s this different?” Kay tossed a newspaper off a chair and sat.
“Because she chewed up the youth director for something Roger’s kid did weeks ago.”
“She’s chewed on everyone at one time or another.” Kay waved her away. “What’d the kid do?”
“After she tugged him around by the shirt collar, he disrespected her by making a face.” Hettie showed her teeth in a mock-mad-dog sneer then rolled her eyes. “It was supposed to be behind her back, but she noticed it. She’s mad because Phil saw it and hasn’t made the kid apologize. She ripped him in front of the entire Education Team.”
“I thought everyone knew she had eyes in the back of her head. Why don’t they both apologize and move on?” Kay shrugged. “And why’d she do it at the meeting?”
“She’s either ill or losing her mind. Haven’t you noticed how short-tempered she’s been at the Ladies Circle?”
Kay shook her head. “Like I pay attention at meetings? And she’s always ticked at me. So, no, nothing seems different.”
“Well…you have to admit you deserve it most of the time.” Hettie took a long sip of her coffee, then not looking at Kay, set it carefully on a napkin, smoothing each corner with a fingertip as she spoke. “I think we should talk to her.”
“She does wonderful projects if you overlook her need to control everything at a cellular level. Why don’t we continue ignoring her behavior like everyone’s been doing for years?”
“Because Pastor Jim is gone, there’s no damper on her. Folks are tired of putting up with it, and she’s getting worse. I’m worried for her.” Hettie risked a glance at Kay. “She doesn’t really have any friends who are honest with her.”
“How about Lorena? She’s a perfectionist like Vera. Or Pastor? He gets paid to talk tough love.”
“Lorena would find fault. And Pastor…he’s too young and new for Vera to take him seriously.” Hettie leaned forward. “You don’t put up with her behavior. You’re the only one who’s ever talked to her honestly, like the night of the Christmas Eve pageant.”
“Well, that’s just sad.” Kay took a sip of coffee. “We’re so afraid of offending each other we don’t say anything. I think she’s stuffed her grief so far down her guts it boils out through her mouth. Just give her time and space.”
“Now the youth director is talking about quitting. Roger refuses to be around her or make his kid apologize.” Hettie gave Kay the serious-consequences stare all teachers have perfected. “If Phil leaves, that means you, as a parent, will get to help lead all the youth activities and fundraisers, chaperone the mission trip, and help Vera make buns.”
Kay’s shoulders slumped. “How about this…you talk to her, and I’ll help you buy the stupid buns.”Socks, Saints, and Sandwiches
THE FOLLOWING SUNDAY, Kay sat with her teen-age sons, Marcus and Kevin, at a table in the narthex. They stared out the window, waiting for the 10 a.m. service to end. The gray skies promised rain. Leaves tumbled across the pavement to meet under bushes. Behind the sanctuary doors, rows of people walked to the chancel to receive communion, the somber words of theAgnus Deiaccompanying their steps: “Oh Christ, Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”
Marcus began doodling faces with sharp-pointed teeth on the fundraising flyers. “So, if Jesus kicked people out of the temple for selling worship stuff, why is it okay for us to sit here selling sandwiches?”
“I think it was their attitude and the way they were doing it,” Kay said. “The sacrificial system was turning worship into a zoo.”
“What did He expect, Mom? If you have a bunch of goats and birds hanging around, waiting to be snuffed, it’s gonna be like Animal Planet.”
“Sweetie, why do we come to church?”
“I come for the food,” Kevin said.
“Thirteen years of Sunday school and all you remember are the cookies?” Kay sighed. “It’s all about grace, you lunkheads. Unmerited love. You’ve received about a billion gifts from God this week, none of which you deserved.”
“I deserve some i-pod accessories,” Kevin said.
“Well, why don’t you thank Him for ears to hear that music?” She tugged on Kevin’s earlobe. “You haven’t done a thing to deserve it, but you hear anyway.” He pulled away from her grasp.
“What does Kevin’s ungratefulness have to do with whether it’s right or wrong to sell sandwiches?” Marcus asked.
Kay sighed. “Is this a serious question, or do you just want to argue?”
“Money changers in the temple, Mom?”
“Okay. How would you feel if I destroyed all your video games, then to make up for it I offered you a steak?”
“Just a steak? That’s not enough.”
“I’ll take it,” Kevin said. “All of his games suck. I’ll destroy them for a steak.”
“Okay. Let’s say your brother destroys all your games then calls it even with a steak; no, let’s say two steaks.”
“Well…my fist would have to connect with the side of Kevin’s head once; no, let’s say two times.”
Kay nodded. “Then to make up for that wrong,you’dhave to offerhimseveral steaks.”
“Why don’t I just beat the crap out of him and give him a whole cow?” Marcus smacked his fist into his palm a couple of times.
“And that’s what made Jesus flip tables, that do-what-you-want-attitude and buy a bigger, overpriced sin-offering.”
“So the sacrifice system didn’t work.” Marcus continued punching his palm.
“No, it worked. Jesus became the sacrifice.” Kay placed her hand over his fist. “He died for the times you screw up.”
The boys were silent.
“Was it enough?” she asked quietly.
The words of theNunc Dimmitusfiltered through the doors, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace…”
“Come on, Marcus.” Kay pushed a sock puppet with green button-eyes toward him and slid a brown-eyed puppet onto her hand. “Service is ending. Time to do skits. I’ll do Socks-for-Missions. You’ve got Sandwiches-for-the-Super-Bowl.”
“No, Mom. I’m not standing in front of everybody with a sock puppet.”
“Kevin?” she shook “green-eyes” at him.
“Fine. Then I’ll beg for socks by myself.” She worked “green-eyes” onto her other hand, punching a cavity for his mouth. “You announce the sandwich sale for the youth.”
“Why are you being such a pill?”
“I don’t want to go on this mission trip.”
“Then just make the announcement.”
“No. It’s not my trip! I’m spending the summer with Dad. He’s gonna open a store at the lake. He’ll be training a new manager and I’ll be working there.”
Kay’s face didn’t change, but her eyes dimmed. Her shoulders dropped slightly.
“I want to buy a car.”
Kay turned away. Her sock-wrapped hands struggled briefly with the sanctuary door before she hurried inside.
Marcus slapped Kevin in the back of the head. “Moron. You didn’t have to tell her that Dad and his newest girlfriend are spending the summer at the lake cabin.”
“I didn’t.” Kevin paid back the slap with a punch.
“You’re such a loser.”
“I don’t want to go on a mission trip.”
“Then tell her that, Snot-Brain. Not the lake stuff.”
“I did tell her. You don’t wanna go either.”
In a few minutes the sanctuary door opened and Kay slipped out. She threw the socks on their table without looking at the boys and walked to the parking lot.
Marcus slapped his brother on the back of the head once more.
Kay sat in the car composing herself.Sure, it was a store manager. They’d all been store managers. That’s why it had taken her so long to figure it out. That and because she’d trusted him. And why did it still bother her?
Change was stomping through her life again. It had taken long enough to shoulder a divorce and throw off the fear she’d be living under a bridge with two kids, digging for food in dumpsters—then her job had downsized.
Along with the stress of a new position, middle school had set off a collection of crises. Now, just when life’s bumps had smoothed into a mildly teeth-jarring but expected ride, the boys would rather be with their dad and his “newest hire” at the lake. Unbelievable.
From her usual back-row parking spot, she watched people filter out of church. In the first months of divorce, she’d learned her emotions would betray her anywhere: during a service, in the check-out line at Bob’s BoxMart, or alongside the road, when a flat tire made her blubber until passers-by thought she was hurt. Her body seemed to think a good cry was necessary in order to go on.
She’d learned never to weep in the church restroom. Someone would hear her in a stall and ask, “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” Sniffles. Nose-blowing. “I’m all right.”
But the do-gooder wouldn’t go away. There’d be silence. She’d ask again, “You don’t sound okay. Can I help somehow?” Sometimes the would-be-rescuer recruited help.
The new arrival always posed the same question, “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” Mental admonitions:Get it Together! Get It Together.
Whispers carried through the door as rescuers decided what to do. “We’re not leaving you alone and crying.”
She remembered the time a wad of tissues, pinched in a well-manicured hand, appeared under the stall door. She could imagine Lorena’s plump figure—bent over, waving tissues, not saying a word. The seams of Lorena’s matched ensemble must’ve been straining like a hammock holding an elephant. The thought made Kay laugh, filling in her pity hole.
People walked through the parking lot. Kay checked the cars on either side of her. Two vehicles away, Allie sat, dabbing her eyes. Must be Crying Day at church. Should she rap on the window? Wave tissues?
Kay searched the glove box, finding only a used napkin from the Dari-Drive. She hadn’t bawled in a long time—so why now? It wasn’t really her ex’s fault.
Change was kicking the slats out from under her again. Why wouldn’t it stop? Like that was ever going to happen. Maybe that’s why she was so irritable. Maybe that’s why she’d enjoyed pushing Vera’s buttons on Christmas Eve.
She watched the lady-who-always-wears-hats get into her Buick. The hats rarely matched her outfits. How did that woman have the confidence—or ignorance—to show off her bad fashion sense?
Kay looked at her own red shirt and cranberry vest, remembering this morning she’d informed her mirror she looked fine. It was church, not the Country Music Awards. Her conscience stung as it usually did when trying to flog her with wisdom. The tatty traits she disliked in others were holstered in her own soul.
“Crap.” Her eyes widened. She’d become Vera. She, too, only allowed pre-approved change, fighting anything that unhinged her comfort. She tried to squelch her inner-goody-two-shoe’s voice. Still…the accusation that she was like Vera—simply fighting change in a different way—crawled through her mind.
The longer she argued with the revelation, the more clearly discernment sank into reality.
She flipped down the visor to check if she had any visible Vera-features. Thankfully, no, but she could understand how Vera felt. Both of them refused to let go of what they were losing. It was an eye-opener, but it didn’t mean she needed to be Vera’s buddy or encourage the woman to spill her guts like Hettie was suggesting. Kay slapped the tiny mirror upward into place and let out a long breath. Wiping her eyes and combing her fingers through her hair, she opened the door, looking for Allie’s car. The spot was vacant.
At the final “Thanks be to God,” Pastor Poe had opened the doors to see Kevin and Marcus punching each other. They immediately stopped. Before he could say anything, a parishioner grabbed the pastor’s hand and began pumping it. The pastor gave the boys a questioning look, and then turned his focus to the gaggle of people exiting the sanctuary.
A skinny man wandered over to the sandwich table, “When’s the Super Bowl?”
“Uh…sometime in January, I think.”
“Okay, well, how many people will your three-foot sandwich feed?”
“I don’t know. I could probably eat one all by myself,” Kevin said.
“Yeah, we call him Elephant-Gut,” Marcus said.
“Shut up, Crow-Beak.” Kevin tried to flick Marcus’s nose, but his brother dodged.
“What kinds of meat can I have on my sandwich?”
“Do I get a choice of meat and cheeses?”
“There’s a flyer.” Marcus pushed a vampire-doodled paper at the parishioner.
The man studied it. “There’re no prices. How much are they?” Kevin shrugged.
Vera leveled a glare at the boys as she stepped next to the gentleman. “Could you be any more unhelpful?” Kevin gave her the sullen stare perfected by high-schoolers.
“I’ve got this.” Hettie patted Vera’s shoulder. She elbowed Kevin with a “Stop-it” nudge and answered questions, providing on-the-job training. Vera gave the boys a dark frown and left, glancing over her shoulder. The boys were busy giving half-answers to another member. Satisfied no one was making faces at her, she walked on.
Back at the table, five-year-old Johnny had grabbed the sock puppets. His dad had paused, with a whining daughter on his hip, and asked, “Can I take a flyer home? We’ll call in our order.” Johnny stuffed his hands in socks and made them eat his sister’s leg. She squealed and kicked.
“Johnny, put them back.” Fred grabbed. “They don’t belong to you.”
“He can have them. I never want to see ’em again,” Marcus said. Johnny grinned, holding the puppets over his head, their sock mouths chomping at the boys.
Kevin leaned forward with bared teeth and claw-like hands. He hissed, “How’d you like to sit with Saint Scary?”
Johnny became quiet, his hands clamped to his sides as he stepped behind his father.“Forget The Former Things” Isaiah 43:18
“I ESCAPED BEFORE the juice cup disasters,” Allie called out as the February wind followed her through the church doors. Flyers on the bulletin board flapped. Newsletters somersaulted through the air and dropped around the ladder in the middle of the narthex. “Sorry,” she groaned, stooping to pick up papers as the doors wheezed shut.
“Miserable day, huh? Thanks for coming out.” Kay balanced on the ladder, a pair of pink-toed footies in her hand. Fifteen pairs of socks already dangled from the ceiling.
“I’m thrilled to get out of the house. Besides,” Allie hung her coat on the rack, “my husband needs more experience with spills and stickiness.”
“You may be sorry. We’re hanging so many socks Vera will have a new benchmark for overdoing it. Will you give me a break and tape for a while? I’ll string them.”
“O…kay.” They traded places, Allie gingerly climbing the rungs. She blinked several times, took a breath, then stuck a fishing line to the ceiling, a pair of baby booties twisting on the end.
“You all right?”
“Bad morning. Let’s leave it behind.” She held out a hand, waiting for another pair. “You like to mess with Vera, don’t you?”
Kay paused, giving the young woman a studied look. She carried the marks of a weary mom. Dark semi-circles lined her eyes. A frazzled ponytail. Food stains on baggy sweat pants. Kay nodded. “Does that bother you?”
“Well…it seems like someone shouldsaysomething to her.”
“And you think no one has.”
“I…don’t know. I thought people in a church would have these problems worked out.”
Kay laughed as she held a pair of athletic socks up. “Think of the church as a hospital for sinners. That’s what it is according to Martin Luther. In other words, we all need some reconstruction. Nobody’s close to perfect—even me—if you can believe that.”
Allie’s eyes widened in feigned shock. Kay smiled as she threaded a sock with fishing line. “We try to work together. We mess up. We forgive it or forget it. Most people hate conflict and confrontation.”
Kay stared at her. “Do you work with any annoying people or have any quirky relatives?”
“Who doesn’t? My brother’s so cheap; he still has his first communion money.”
“And when you tell him how that irritates you, he changes and lives the way you think he should?”
“Well…no.” Allie shrugged.
“It takes a bucketload of patience and care doesn’t it? You have to pick your battles.” Kay handed her a pair of hunting socks. “I don’t have the energy to argue with Vera. And I sure don’t have the time.”
“I get that,” Allie said. “So that makes me wonder about that ‘adi-furry’ you mentioned at our meeting. Hettie said it got you out of a lot of projects.”
Kay laughed again and handed her a pair of girl’s anklets. “Adiophora. It’s Greek for ‘middle things’. Stuff that’s not essential to salvation.”
“Still clueless.” Allie frowned spacing the socks evenly.
“It’s when KiKi Smith complains there’s not enough wine in her little communion cup, or Maggie thinks we should sing more of those ol’ time-religion hymns, or—and this is my personal favorite—when Edna threatened to leave the church if we started using tambourines. It’s not important. I refuse to get pulled into the discussion.”
“Who’s Edna?” Allie had a puzzled look.
“She doesn’t go here anymore.”
“Because of tambourines?”
“Because some people have a cow if you change anything.Adiophorameans you ask, ‘Is this essential to where my soul spends eternity?’” Kay shrugged and held up striped knee socks.
“Do you mean we can have jazz or heavy metal at church because music isn’t essential to salvation?”
“Let ’er rip. You’d have to haul several people out from heart attacks, but as long as it points to God and draws you to an attitude of worship—rock on.”
“But…that means most of the things in the sanctuary—aren’t required.”
“Bingo.” Kay pointed at her. “Can’t you see Jesus at the Sea of Galilee saying, ‘Hey! One of you disciples get candles and a choir. And bring thegreenhymnal, not the red one. I can’t deliver words to save your souls without those items.’” Kay smiled, watching Allie absorb the weight of this revelation. “In Martin Luther’s time, they didn’t even have pews. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we have them—it’s hard to sleep standing up—but bulletins, robes, even music aren’t crucial. Although,” Kay patted her heart, “I’d keep our gurgling baptismal font. It’s like having a water feature, reminding me of my baptism.”
“Now that’s essential isn’t it”? Aren’t we supposed to be baptized?”
“Hey! One of you other disciples go get me a baptismal font,” Kay mocked. “I’m not using the river Jordan anymore. Too much pollution and the bathing laws are getting so strict. Salvation needs props.”
She handed Allie more socks. “Anyway, that’sadiaphora: choice about non-essential items. I don’t get my tail in a twist over frou-frou.”
“But that’s what I like about the church—the different colors of the church season and the mysterious symbols everywhere.”
“Actually, we stole that from the Roman Catholics when we split. The Episcopals took it too. Grace is our big thing. So simple. So complex.”
“The-I-can-do-anything. I’m-covered-because-of-grace doctrine. Right?”
“Ha.” Kay shot a pair of stretchy socks off her fingers at Allie as though they were a rubber band. “That’s like saying, ‘If I cut off my head, I won’t have any more bad hair days.’ If you do something wrong or hurt yourself or someone else, you’ve broken the harmony and justice of life. You have a mark against your name.”
“Wow, Kay, you probably have a lot of marks against your name.” Allie made giant eyes of horror.
Kay returned the look with a flat stare. “Just takes one. The penalty is death.”
“But Jesus took my place so I’m free from your scare tactics.” Allie shook her head.
“Yeah,” Kay’s voice dropped, “but when someone takes your place for death, it does something to you. When a friend of mine was little, he was sitting in a jeep on top of the river bluff. The rest of his family had gotten out to admire the view. The parking brake gave way. As the jeep slowly edged over the cliff, Bill’s mother jumped in and threw him to safety.
“She made it out?
Kay shook her head. “She sacrificed herself so her son could live.”
The silence spun out. Kay finally interrupted their thoughts. “It makes you wonder why anyone would die for another. Especially a stranger.”
“It’s unfathomable.” Kay rubbed a furry sock between her fingers. “Unmerited love. It changes you. Makes you want to do the best you can. Perhaps it’s some small way of saying ‘thank you for saving me.’”
Sobs shook Allie’s body.
Kay stared. “It worked out okay. Bill grew up to be a wonderful man.” She patted Allie’s leg. “I just meant it’s impossible to truly understand grace then do anything you want—like be an axe murderer.”
Allie clung to the ladder, bawling even harder. In-between shuddering breaths, she gasped, “I’m such a bad mother.”
“Come here.” Kay guided her down. “Let’s sit in the sanctuary.” Allie shook her head.
“It’s asanctuary, a place of refuge. You don’t have to talk. I’ve cried buckets in there. It’s better than the women’s restroom, believe me.” Kay herded her through the door.
Beams of sunlight shafted through the stained glass windows. The light of the eternal candle flickered in its red vase. Squeezing Allie’s hand, Kay leaned back in the padded pew and closed her eyes, letting the hushed serenity creep over her. Occasionally she heard a whimper next to her. Smells of old hymnals, extinguished candles, and former floral arrangements hung in the air. Kay had forgotten what it was like to let the sounds of the church settle around her. The silence was different than being alone in her car or by herself in the middle of the night. This silence was peaceful.
After some time, Allie took back her hand and wiped her face. “Johnny has an old second-hand hamster. One morning it didn’t move, so I rubbed its little chest. I stuck a straw in its mouth and puffed. It came back to life. No tears. No kid drama. About once a week I had to CPR the hamster, then every day.
“I couldn’t keep sneaking around resurrecting him, so I thought the humane thing would be to end it. I put Hairy in a bag and attached it to the muffler.” She glanced at Kay. “The bag caught on fire—in the garage. Five hundred dollars of damage.”
“Oh crap,” Kay said.
“What kind of mother am I? I’m a hamster killer. And I don’t want to be pregnant again.”
Allie nodded, tears trailing down her cheeks. “It’s selfish, but I was looking forward to a change. For a few precious hours, both kids will be in school next year. I was going to have time to myself. Now I’ll be tied to diapers, night feedings, two little ones, and a baby. I’ll be trapped again. Then I feel guilty for feeling this way.”
Kay nodded. “I had a friend who called it: I-Want-To-Read-A-Book-Without-Pictures syndrome. I called it: I’m-Tired-of-Being-Stepped-Spit-and-Pooped-On.”
“You don’t think I’m bad?” Allie asked.
“I once considered leaving my kid in the baby-food aisle. I figured anyone shopping for kid-chow must have a baby and would know how to take care of another one.”
“It seems funny because now I’m worried about my kids leavingme. You’re normal, Allie. You’re stressed, but it’s a normal thing.”
“I still feel like an awful mother.”
“You should talk to my ex-mother-in-law. She’d tell you about my failures. You’d feel better in a jiffy.”
“But you never wished you weren’t pregnant.”
“I use a different, more sinister technique. I wish my kids’ lives away. When they were born, I wished they were older so they’d sleep through the night. Then I wanted them a few months older so they’d be potty trained. If they were just a few years older, they could dress themselves. Then I add more years so they’ll get off the phone, go to college, or get out of the house. Next, I’ll be wishing they’ll come back for a visit.”
“Everybody does that.”
“Yeah, we wish our lives away instead of living in this moment. It’s simpler than changing ourselves. It’s easier to stay in a crummy job, complain about our kids, or avoid people we’re annoyed with than do the internal repair work.”
They sat in silence.
Dust motes drifted in the shafts of sunlight. The large wooden beams of the church creaked as the wind blew outside.
Kay frowned at her own words. She preferred to poke fun at Vera or better yet, avoid her, rather than do the repair work. She didn’t even want to help Hettie with a heart to heart.
“This would probably be a good time to remember grace,” Allie said.
Kay shook away her thoughts, patting Allie’s knee. “Indeed. Let’s slap the rest of those socks in the windows and go have a cup of hot chocolate.”
“What about plastering them on the ceiling, surprising Vera?”
“Maybe I should change instead. I’m sorry I had you on a ladder.”
Allie waved away the apology. “Thanks for listening.”
“Don’t feel like you have to carry your burdens by yourself,” Kay said.
“You mean like sitting in the car and crying alone?” Allie gave her a meaningful look.
Kay blinked. “Now I don’t know whether to follow my own counsel, or stop giving unrequested advice.”
Allie smiled, raising her eyebrows twice. “Neither,” she said.Lent
A FEW DAYS later, an empty Taco Bell cup skittered across Hettie’s path. The schoolteacher held a hand above her glasses, shielding them from the drizzle, and watched the wind bounce the cup across the parking lot. Her coat flapped against her legs as she ducked her head and pushed toward the doors of the church. Once inside, she combed her curly hair with her fingers and made her way to the Fellowship Hall. The rain always fuzzed her locks into a Chia Pet. “Half of the leaves of Kansas have blown into Oklahoma,” she greeted everyone. “And they’re all congregating in my front yard.” Women murmured in agreement, patting their hair or pulling their sweaters to their chests.
“Ladies, let’s get started,” Vera said, waiting for the usual interruptions. Silence and a circle of faces peered at her. She hesitated. “Okay. We haven’t had a treasurer’s report in a while, Hettie?”
“Oh. I’m so sorry, Vera. I didn’t bring it.” She shucked out of her coat as she sat down. “We’ve got money. The youth made over $340 on sandwiches for the Super Bowl and they reimbursed us for all purchases, including buns.” She shot Kay a keep-your-mouth-shut look.
Instead, Nan expressed everyone’s thoughts. “Wasn’t Vera baking the buns?” All heads turned to the chairwoman.
Vera cleared her throat. “Roger and his sons signed up to help, but…were unable to assist in the baking, so we bought the bread.” She didn’t add that Roger had said she’d “already baked his buns” and she could “wait till the Apocalypse” before his kid apologized. No wonder the child acted unmannerly.
“Great,” Kay said. “Now pass the chocolate.”
“The youth have a good start on their fundraising.” Vera kept her eyes on her hands. “So how much is in our account, Hettie?”
“Let’s see. We bought wine and cheese trays for our Christmas party, but we’ve got plenty of dollars left.”
“Let’s have a Valentine’s Party or trip,” Nan said.
“The money is not to fritter away.” Vera aimed a stare at the organist. “It should be spent on mission projects and needed church items rather than party supplies.”
“Yeah. What’s the matter with you?” Kay squinted at Nan.
The organist became busy with her knitting, mumbling, “How’s wine and cheese an approved expenditure?
Kay picked up a chocolate chip cookie. “You should’ve drunk more. It’s definitely a needed church item.”
“Hettie, I was not aware that came out of our account,” Vera said.
“Well,” Hettie rubbed her forehead, “it started out as a cookie-exchange. Of course, we were supposed to bring something to eat, too. Then a few folks wanted an ornament swap. So everyone needed to bring three dozen cookies, the recipe, an ornament, and an appetizer.
“Then the phone calls started. Ladies complained they were too busy to gather all that stuff. To make it easy, I told everyone to just come; there’d be food.”
“I brought cookies to exchange,” Micki said, “but I was the only one, so we ate them.”
“Ooooh, I remember the Triple-Chocolate-Fudgies. Can you give me the recipe?” Kay patted her fingers together.
Vera jerked her hand to a halt signal. “You’ve already had your chance for recipe exchange. Hettie, in the future you need to run all expenditures by me. Now who has the minutes of the last meeting?” The room was silent. Kay leaned across the table to scoot a piece of paper toward Micki. Vera watched, saying, “Are you passing around a copy of the minutes?”
Kay opened her mouth, but Hettie shoved an elbow in her ribs. Kay narrowed her eyes at the curly-haired teacher then faced the chairwoman. “Sorry, Vera. That was my e-mail address for the recipe.”
Vera stared at the two for a moment then asked, “Who is secretary?” Silence blanketed the room. “I do the correspondence, reports and anything important. Are you telling me I gave one assignment, and that person couldn’t be compelled to take minutes?”
“Do you remember who you punished with the task?” Kay said and received another nudge from Hettie.
The organist’s eyebrows rose to her hairline. “Wasn’t me. I’m knitting, minding my own business. Not saying a word.”
Vera gazed around the table, her eyes resting on, “Micki. You seem to be fidgeting.” Kay gave a snort and ducked under the table. “Kay,” Vera tapped her pencil on the table, “do you have something you’d like to say?”
“Yes. I have a lot to say,” Kay sat up, clutching her purse and a metal box of mints, “but Hettie would elbow me again. Besides, I need to get home early to help my darlings test their theory of nuclear fission, so could we move along?”
Vera closed her eyes, shaking her head, and let out a breath. After a moment she turned her focus to the agenda in front of her. Micki mouthed thank you. Kay mouthed, recipe. Both nodded.
“We’ll move on to Lent, a time for repentance and reflection,” Vera began. She waited for the inevitable interruptions.
Silent, waiting faces surrounded the table. Kay made keep-going hand gestures. Vera hesitated, suspecting a prank. Seeing no booby-traps, she asked, “Would anyone like to help the Sanctuary Arts committee decorate for Lent?”
Lorena’s hand shot up.
“Allie, you’re new. Would you like to learn about Lent by helping?” Vera asked.
“She’s not interested,” Lorena said.
“Allie?” Vera pressed.
“I don’t know much about Lent, and Lorena wants to do it.”
“I’d like someone from the Ladies Circle to oversee the Sanctuary Arts.”
“I’m part of the Circle too,” Lorena said. “I just don’t come.”
“We don’t let Lorena decorate for Lent,” Micki explained to Allie.
“Because of that “adi-furry” thing?”
“No because…” Micki gazed upward, casting about for the right words. “Because Lorena loves Lent a bit too much.”
“In other words, it looks like a morgue when she decorates,” Hettie said.
Lorena nodded. “The darker the mood, the brighter and more uplifting Easter will be.”
“Lent is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘spring,’ not ‘death’.” With her eyes, Vera tried to encourage others to volunteer. “Kay? You and Allie did a nice job on the sock campaign.”
“Did you just give me a compliment?” Kay cocked her head sideways, looking at Vera. “Youaredesperate.” She turned and gave Hettie a worried glance.
Vera sighed. “Lorena, do you truly understand that Lent is a time for renewal and growth? A time to spend working on our discipleship and recommitment?”
Kay took another cookie from the plate. “Then what’s with the ashes, sackcloth, and fasting during the season?”
“Worship aids.” Vera gave the table a couple of pencil-taps.
“I set the tone.” Lorena floated a hand in an artsy manner. “Just a splish of black here and there to remind us of the season.”
“Yes, you walk into one of her Lent-themed rooms,” Hettie frowned, “and you feel death is sitting next to you in the pew.”
“Lorena can decorate, and the Ladies Circle can host a pancake supper forFaschnacht,” Kay said. “We haven’t done that in years.”
“That’s the German version of Fat Tuesday—without the parade, bourbon, and nudity,” Micki whispered to Allie. “It’s pretty much about eating.”
“Ja! Ja!” Kay rubbed her belly, getting a giggle from Nan who was trying to be quiet.
“Actually,” corrected Vera, “onFaschnachtthe Germans served a type of potato doughnut,” she cast a glance at Kay, “and paraded around in fools’ masks. The doughnuts used up the grease and eggs in the household before the Lenten Fast began.”
“Well, I like doughnuts, but I don’t want a whole supper of them.” Hettie patted her friend’s shoulder. “For once Kay had a good idea.”
Lorena tapped her manicured nails on the table. “I agree. The Bible says, ‘for every time there is a season.’ All in favor of beginning our starving season with pancakes raise your hand.”
“Lorena.” Hettie used her teacher’s voice. “How about letting Vera run the meeting?”
Vera closed her eyes, gave a huff, and shook her head. She waved her hand in dismissal. “I guess you’ve decided, then.”
“Surely our ancestors had beer at this thing. It’d be much better attended,” Kay said as Nan quietly left the room before job assignments began.“Vengeance is Mine…Says the Lord” Romans 12:21
THREE WEEKS LATER, Allie stood at the church kitchen stove, creating flapjacks in the shape of overweight bears with chocolate chip eyes. Lopsided piles of golden pancakes sat in warming trays. Allie’s husband placed a vat of maple syrup next to pots of homemade blueberry and chunky strawberry syrups. He gave each container a stir and adjusted the flame under the chafing dishes. Bowls of bananas, pineapple, raspberries, walnuts, and honey-butter littered the table. It wasn’t magazine-pretty, but there was plenty of it. Accordion music and the scent of fried bacon drifted through the Fellowship Hall.
“Is Elke going to play his wheeze-box during this whole meal?” one of the ladies asked Vera as they filed downstairs.
“I don’t know. I didn’t okay it.” Vera’s words dropped like ice on the tiled floor. She had made careful sign-up sheets for theFaschnachtFeast. Food wouldn’t be duplicated. Her work shifts would cover all tasks. The notices she’d put in the bulletins had given plenty of advance notice. She hadn’t used the graphics Kay designed for the event: a pile of happy pancakes covered with a syrup cross. It was too kitschy. Vera had thanked her, and then used her own PR. Simple, plain words got the job done. Everything had been planned.
“Elke.” Vera tapped the white-haired man on the shoulder. “I didn’t know you were playing, today. You didn’t sign up.”
“I asked Pastor Poe,” he said as he did a double-step, dancing with the three-year-old at his feet. “He told me to have a good time.”
Vera scanned the room for the minister. Her face went blank when she saw the banner over a coffee stand with Kay’s Christian pancakes smiling and announcing: Lattes for Mission Trips. Beneath the bright banner, Hettie’s husband was straw-bossing the youth on how to use the borrowed espresso machine.
She hadn’t approved the fundraiser either. Good grief! Would no one tell her anything anymore? Vera returned to scanning the room for the Pastor. The grooves of her frown deepened as her sight skipped over the woman ordering a drink. Most likely, she’d had a hand in this insurrection.
“I’ll have a decaf, single, ristretto, grande, five-pump chocolate, non-fat, no whip, extra-hot mocha,” Kay said.
Hettie’s husband, a broad-shouldered man, kept his wire-rimmed glasses riding on the tip of his nose. He peered over their rims, giving her a spiritless look. “You can have a latte: caramel, vanilla, or raspberry.”
“Such a surly employee. Don’t expect a tip.”
“I’m going to make yours last.”
“Elke.” Kay waved. “Come over here and play right next to Merle; he justlovespolka music.”
The stairwell next to them began to vibrate. Children came thundering down the steps only to be tugged back outside by parents. Most of the kids’ feet were covered with muck and grass clippings.
Micki watched Johnny grab a plate, pieces of mud flaking onto it from his small, grubby hands. “How did you get so filthy, honey?”
He gave the adult a skeptical frown. “I was playing outside.” Without a word, his father took the plate and pulled him toward the restroom.
“No. No. I wanna eat.” he yelled.
Their exodus passed Lorena who was coming down the stairs. “I know just how you feel, kid,” she said and walked directly toward the table of ladies sipping their lattes.
“Lorena! You…look…uh…” Nan paused.
“Like I stuck my head in a toilet and flushed it a couple of times?”
“Well, I was going to say frazzled.”
“It’s those damn Canada geese hanging around on our lawn. Everyone thinks they’re so charming.”
“Lorena. Such language out of that designer mouth of yours.” Kay held a hand to her cheek. “And it’s just one lonely goose, the rest are ducks.”
“I don’t care. All of those fowl are instruments of Satan. They’re possessed! I was walking across our lawn with a bowl of fruit, and that big ol’ he-goose runs right at me, beating his wings and hissing like a snake.”
“He hissed?” Hettie asked.
“You can tell a bird’s gender?” Kay’s eyebrows rose.
“He hissed, spit, and his head spun on his neck.” Lorena twirled her finger. “He probably was vomiting algae too. I don’t know. I screamed, ran, then I tripped, or slipped, or something. Right down into a flowerbed of mud and duck crap. I’ll probably have typhoid and—”
“I wish I could’ve seen that,” Nan said. Receiving Lorena’s stare, she added, “But it’s terrible.”
“I think it’s just diarrhea and pink eye you’ll get; typhoid comes from rats.” Kay patted her shoulder.
Lorena held her glare. “It gets worse. I tried to look nice today because I wanted to meet the new guy, Robert Fullerton—again. But I’d spilled my Heavenly Peachy Salad, and as soon as I was down, those ducks were on me like I was a June bug. They noodled my legs and my new floral blouse; the goose was taking whacks at my head. The only reason I look this good is because half of the demon spawn was attacking Vera.”
“Poor Vera. That’s just what she needs.” Hettie looked around the room. “To discover even the birds have it in for her.”
“Hey! She did better than yours truly here. After she booted a few, they backed off. And then Walt ran to help her. Of course, I was being pecked alive at the time. Finally, he got around to rescuing me, trying to whack those da—those demonic birds off my back. Hit me in the head once. He was behind me, and when he yanked me to my feet, I used more than a few inelegant words on him. He’s the one who made feeding stands for that crew of moochers. I was serious-mad.
“That’s when I heard Walt laughing…and Vera, too. I turned and saw it was Robert Fullerton who’d tried to save me.”
“That’s awful.” Kay hid her grin under her hand.
“What’d you do then?” Micki asked, nudging Kay.
“I went home and took a quick shower. I wasn’t going to come back, but I’ve got the second shift on kitchen duty. Besides…I’m getting even with Walt for putting out duck food and enjoying those terrorist birds.”
“I think,” Micki bit her lower lip, “according to the Bible, you’re supposed to talk to Walt first, rather than attack.”
“I won’t hurt him.”
“She only attacks new members, like Robert Fullerton,” Kay said. “But you can’t blame Walt. Everyone in town comes here to feed the birds. They like seeing them nest in our bushes and waddle around the parking lot with their babies. It’s not Walt’s fault there’s a watershed pond next door.”
Lorena smiled, adding over her shoulder as she left, “Let me just say, the youth will have a successful fundraiser today.”
After a short prayer, plates were filled. Pastor Poe walked around, squirting whipped cream on top of pancakes and cups of hot chocolate. He requested a break in the music so there could be a round of applause for Vera and the volunteers, and he added how much he appreciated all that she did. Elke used the opportunity to fill a plate with griddlecakes, but shortly, the edges of the room were filled with children hopping to his accordion notes again.
The little ones dancing next to the coffee corner were offered bribes of extra whipped cream if they’d bring the teens food. The espresso business was so brisk the youth didn’t have a chance to eat. Micki’s daughter, recruiting latte orders table-by-table, was surprised that Walt had never had any “fancy-pants coffees.”
Lorena waved teen away. “I’ll take care of Walt.” She turned to the Property Manger. “I’ll get you a regular cup of ‘joe’. Do you put anything in it?”
In a few moments, she returned, placing his coffee in front of him. He took a sip, set it down, and stared at it. Dipping his fork into his cup, he lifted out wet feathers.
Lorena winked at him. “Since you like those birds so much, I thought you’d enjoy a drink with them.”
“I suppose I deserve this,” Walt nodded, “but Vera has a plan to save you. She’s—”
“I don’t need Vera to take over. I’ve already handled it myself. Have you ever tried to get duck doo out of a new blouse, Walt? It’s nasty-difficult.” She aimed a lethal stare at him and retreated to the kitchen.
Lorena slipped a bib apron over her head. “Hey, Allie. Fred. I’m here to relieve you. Sorry I’m late.”
“You okay after your attack?” Fred began untying his apron.
“Shitake mushrooms! Does everyone know?”
“Vera told us. Have a cup of tea.” Allie pointed to a mug. “I’d have done the same thing. They would’ve found my legs sticking out of the bushes.”
Fred slipped an arm around his wife, patting her stomach. “Good thing you’re stuck in the kitchen with me and missing the excitement.”
Lorena stared at them, watching Allie bow her head and put her hand on top of Fred’s. A smile started at the corner of Lorena’s mouth and spread to her eyes. “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
The ladies washing dishes turned off the running water. Those pouring and serving juice turned around. Hettie, who’d been digging in the closet, peered out the door at Allie. “What’d you say?”
Allie cast a glance at Fred, murmuring, “I’m due in October.”
Voices burst out in congratulations. Lorena stuck her head through the kitchen door. “Elke. Stop squeezing that thing for a moment,” she yelled into the Fellowship Hall. “Hey everybody, enjoy those pancakes because the chef won’t be cooking for us for a while. She’s pregnant.”
There was a long moment while the church members stared at the empty doorway, waiting for someone to appear. A blushing Allie and embarrassed Fred stepped out to applause and cheers. “Happy Birthday” wheezed from the squeeze box because Elke couldn’t think of anything else to play.
“I hope they wanted that announced.” Kay wiped plates as she took them out of the dishwasher.
“It’s a baby.” Hettie glanced up from pouring syrup into plastic containers. “Why wouldn’t you tell everybody?”
“You’re just mad because I beat you to it.” Lorena flipped her dish towel at Kay. “That announcement is somethingyouwould’ve done.”
Kay paused, staring at the wall. If she hadn’t known Allie regretted this pregnancy, she would’ve done the same thing. Perhaps with more style, shouting it like a newsboy. How often had she acted without considering what other people wanted? How many times had she done it to her friends so everyone could laugh?
“Are you all right?” Hettie asked.
Kay searched the schoolteacher’s face. “Have I…ever…done things to hurt you?” She ducked her head. She’d often run over Hettie. The teacher was an easy target for a joke.
“Why, Kay,” Hettie grabbed her arm, “it’s all right.” A tiny gasp came from Kay’s throat before she could catch it. Hettie pulled her into a hug.
“What’s the matter?” whispered Micki, shutting off the faucet where she rinsed plates.
“Well, at least you’re not hiding in the bathroom with your emotions.” Lorena circled the counter, rested her hand on Kay’s shoulder, and patted her back. Nan joined them.
“Don’t leave me out.” Micki didn’t bother to dry her hands, encircling as many people as she could.
“Okay. I’m feeling weird here.” Kay tried to shrug free. “I realized that I joke about whatever pops into my mind. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, Kay,” Hettie said, “that’s just you.”
“But I’m sorry for the pain. I don’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“You don’t hurt people on purpose.”
“Oh, back off! She needs absolution. She needs to hear it.” Nan grabbed Kay’s shoulders. “We forgive you, Kay. We love you and forgive you.” Then she pulled her into a hug. Micki was tearing up.
“Why areyoucrying?” Lorena asked Micki.
“I don’t know. It all feels so healing. Why’s Hettie crying?”
Vera appeared at the doorway, her head cocked, her eyebrows knitted as she assessed the teary-eyed group.
“Come on, Vera.” Micki waved. “We’re forgiving each other.”
Hesitating, she set her coffee cup on the counter, crossed the kitchen, and placed a hand on Micki’s arm.
Kay attempted to shrug free again. “Lutherans don’t do this. We’re not touchy-feely.”
“Then don’t tell anybody,” Hettie said. “Don’t be anyone but yourself, Kay. We love you just as you are.”
“That makes me want to be a better me.” A tear escaped from Kay’s eye. With a crooked smile, she wriggled her arm free, using a sleeve to wipe her cheek.
“It’s a group-hug-thing. Join us,” Micki announced to the youth director, who’d trailed into the kitchen. He took one look at the women, and left.
Vera made her exit too, but she paused at the doorway, looking back. Someone in the group had giggled. She watched the women break apart with laughter, wiping their faces with aprons and towels.
She took a deep breath, arranged her face to neutral, stepped into the dining room, and began picking up dirty plates. People didn’t realize how important it was to hug the single people in church—particularly the widows.
“Come on, Walt.” Kay and Lorena stood in the Fellowship Hall beside the two men sitting at the table. Kay jerked her head toward the espresso bar. “Let’s get a coffee.”
“Oh, I don’t drink that stuff. I promised Juan Valdez I’d buy only his pure Columbian beans.”
“Then help me carry them.” She pulled on his arm.
“Heavens, woman! Anyone with a grip like that doesn’t need help hefting a few cups of coffee.”
“Walt, come with me.” She smiled. “Please?” As they left, Lorena slid into his chair, next to Robert Fullerton.
The coffee line was short, and when they returned with drinks, Kay noted Lorena’s apology must have been short also because now they were chatting about his job. The group’s conversation continued in starts and stops. The only dialogue Walt contributed was holding up his latte every now and then and saying, “This isn’t half bad.”