Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Little Big Foot: the Home Church

It had rained and then grown cold overnight. The sun rose on a frosty landscape, turning the front yard of the home place into a sculpture of sparkling winter jewels. Dee Anna had awakened before daylight, missing Madeline. She wondered what was happening in Little Big Foot, finding it strange to wake up on a Sunday morning and have nothing to prepare for, no expectations, and no sermon notes to review.

After spending some time looking at the silvery scene outside the window, she had settled back into bed and pulled up the blankets. “Good morning, Lord. Thank you for the beautiful scene outside. I guess it’s church for us today.” She sighed. “If I’m honest, and I might as well be since you know it already, I’m not exactly looking forward to it.” She turned over in the bed and fluffed the pillow, picturing the little church in which she had grown up, remembering it as a good place for a child but later seeing it as too rigid, too legalistic, and just too small-town.

A memory of a long-ago visiting preacher swam into focus. It had been a week of summer revival meetings and the preacher had pretty much roasted the congregation at every sermon. Dee Anna, aged thirteen, had disliked him on sight, and she would have chosen to stay home, but her parents would not hear of it. Phil played sick, she recalled. How had he fooled them? He sure didn’t fool me!

After the first service of the week, she had overheard the visiting evangelist berating the pastor’s wife for wearing “earbobs.” That good woman had obediently removed them for the duration of the week. Dee Anna figured that the preacher was proud of himself for straightening out Sister Ellis. Dee Anna shook her head a little, recalled that the earrings had returned the next Sunday after the preacher had departed. Then she recalled the good things Lupita had recently shared with her about the congregation’s kindness to her family, the assistance the pastor had given, and even how her mother had been a blessing. She actually thinks my mom is a wonderful person and that it was a compliment to me to say how like her I am! Ah, if Lupita only knew how many ways I tried not to be like my mother.

“Oh, I give up!” she exclaimed and sat up. “Dear God, I pray for a good day with the family, and for a heart that is focused on you and ready to worship. Be with my little Madeline today, and the people at North Woods Chapel. Be with Daddy this morning and continue to heal him.”

Half an hour later, she was mixing pancake batter in the kitchen, singing a song she had not thought of in years.

This world is not my home,
I’m just a passin’ through,
My treasures are laid up,
Somewhere beyond the blue,
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door…

As Ricky Rooster crowed loudly, she burst out laughing. “Oh man, I have reverted to a Texas church lady in one week! Someone rescue me!”

“Don’t look at me for help!”

She whirled around, a little embarrassed. Phil had spent the night in his apartment, promising to return for breakfast with his mother and sister, which was one way to let them know he would attend church with them too. Now he stood in the doorframe, grinning at her with affection. “I mean, look at me. I’m wearing a western shirt and boots and I admit to having a cowboy hat in my car trunk.” He moved to the refrigerator and pulled out a bowl of eggs. “Those hens do lay some good eggs!”

As his sister flipped pancakes in a vintage 1960 electric skillet, Phil scrambled eggs at the stove. Soon they were both singing with exaggerated country twangs.

O Lord, You know,
I have no friend like you,
If Heaven’s not my home,
Oh Lord, what would I do?
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymoooooore.

Like their father, both of them had nice singing voices and they were happily aware of the sunshine, the fragrance of coffee and pancakes, and of each other’s company. How far we have come in a few days, thought Dee Anna. So much different from how it seemed at the airport. Phil even looks different. Thank you, God, for your goodness in bringing Phil and me together again.

“How can a woman sleep with all this racket!”

As their mother entered the kitchen, Phil and Dee Anna both turned toward her, feeling guilty. Then they saw that she was smiling. They exhaled at the same time, and both smiled back at her, surprised.

“Just like your daddy, singing away at th’ crack o’ dawn! She pulled plates from the drain rack by the sink and placed them on the table. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you two,” she went on,” but Dr. Martin called last night when y’all were at your Uncle Chuck’s house. Your daddy is coming home today. “

On the back seat of Bernice’s Buick, Dee Anna’s cell phone played Ode to Joy. She quickly picked it up, looking at the display. “Oh, it’s Jim Johnson calling. He’s one of the North Woods Chapel deacons,” she said to the two in the front seat.

“Hello?...Oh, yes…It is good to hear your voice, Jim. Thank you for thinking of us…Please tell the people at the church how much all of us appreciate their prayers for my father and the family. He is doing amazingly well...Yes, I think so. He’s coming home today and I’ll be able to fly out in a day or so, I expect…Sounds like Madeline is having fun at Dana Sullivan’s place, and Tom and Brenda told me their kids want to adopt Charlie!…Yes, I heard you all had quite a snow since I’ve been down here…Of course…Greet Lorene for me….I sure will!…Yes, bye now.”

“Sis, do you know how annoying it is to drive down the street listening to one half of a cell phone conversation?” Phil griped good-naturedly.

“Just hurry up,” snapped Bernice, “ We’re gonna be late for church. Some things never change with you two!”

In the back seat, Dee Anna turned off her cell phone and placed it in her purse, wondering why her mother’s words, while a little sharp, held no sting for her. Something has happened, that’s for sure. It’s not like she’s become all sweetness and light, but…” A sudden jerk of the car and Phil’s voice, swearing, abruptly interrupted her thoughts. “Sorry, Mom, “said Phil. “That just slipped out. I was afraid that idiot was gonna run the stop sign.”

Yes, not all is sweetness just yet, but that's all right. Dee Anna laughed softly and leaned forward to pat her brother’s shoulder. “And on Sunday too!” she teased. Phil replied, “Well, I am sorry. I’m trying to do better, and mostly I am.”

Even Bernice had a tiny smile playing on her lips as they pulled into the parking lot of the church. ___________

Entering the little foyer, they were immediately greeted by a plump and pretty Hispanic woman about Bernice’s age. Her eyes sparkled, and she held out her hands in welcome. With secret amusement, Dee Anna noted that she was wearing bright red earrings. Some things do change.

“Oh Bernice, I am so glad to see you this morning, and with both of your children!” The woman smiled broadly. “Good morning, Phil. Nice to meet you at last! And this is Dee Anna! I have heard so much about you! Your mama and daddy sure are proud of you.” Before Dee Anna could absorb that remark, the woman patted her cheeks, exclaiming, “You are just as striking as your beautiful mother.” She went on, “You two don’t remember me. That is okay. I am Deloris Garcia. Lupita is my daughter.”

Phil smiled a little nervously, and Dee Anna finally spoke, “Ah! I should have known. It is lovely to see you, Mrs. Garcia. I was happy to get reacquainted with Lupita over at the hospital. You must be proud of her.”

Bernice gave Deloris a hug, and Phil and Dee Anna glanced at each other in surprise. Their mother did not hug people. Well, not that either of them could remember. Mrs. Garcia gave both of them a church bulletin and a Welcome Visitor card. Dee Anna noticed that the picture on the front of the card was of two men in suits and ties, shaking hands. I’ll bet there’s still plenty of women in this place. Wonder when they will get into the Twentieth Century? As Lupita came around the corner, Dee Anna was immediately sorry for her critical thoughts.

“Oh, good morning, all of you!” Lupita’s face lit up in a smile even broader than her mother’s had been, and she immediately gave Bernice a hug, which appeared to be warmly returned. Two hugs for Mom in less than a minute? What is going on? thought Dee Anna, now completely astonished. Lupita nodded at Phil, who still had not uttered a word. She reached out for Dee Anna’s hands as she said happily, “I am so glad I am not working today. I wanted to be there when your daddy was discharged, but I wanted to be here with all of you in church even more!”

Before long, three more people had greeted Dee Anna and Phil, and Lupita had introduced them to two of her brothers. As they entered the sanctuary, Dee Anna saw that a plaster nativity set sat on a back table and a small artificial tree stood in a corner. How long since I was here?

She had no time to think about it as several people they knew greeted them warmly and asked about their father. Phil was looking acutely uncomfortable, and Dee Anna slid into a wooden pew and beckoned to him. Uncle Chuck, their mother’s brother, waved to them from the sound booth. They waved back, and just as they were about to sit down, a tall middle-aged man approached with the unmistakable air of a man in charge.

“Good morning, how nice to have you here with us today.” Glancing at Phil he questioned, “It’s Phil, right?”

“Yes sir” They shook hands.

“I am Pastor Daniel Wallace. And you are Bernice and Bud’s daughter? Dee Anna? It is Pastor Dee Anna, correct?”

Dee Anna nodded. “I haven’t been here for some time. I remember Pastor Don Ellis was still here when I was home last.”

The organist, an elderly woman Dee Anna remembered teaching in the Children’s Church long ago, began to play, and Pastor Wallace said to Dee Anna, “I’ll have you greet the folks,” as he moved away and headed to the platform.

Greet the folks? Oh…what to say? What do they know about me? Too much, no doubt! Phil was grinning mischievously, and he whispered, “I’m glad you are the preacher in the family and not me! I’m just a plain ol’ prodigal son!” Dee Anna gave him a small push as their mother entered the pew with a disapproving look.

“Y’all shush up now. I taught you how to behave in church!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” whispered Phil and Dee Anna.

The service proceeded with a prayer, a worship chorus, two hymns, and one Christmas carol. As the offering plates were being passed, Pastor Wallace announced, “We are so happy to hear that our dear Brother Bud is doing well and will be coming home from the hospital today.” There was a general murmur of approval, a couple of “Praise the Lord” exclamations, and several heads turned in the direction of Bernice and her children. “It is a joy to have the family with us today. Both the children, Phil and Dee Anna, are here. Of course, they are new to me, but I realize many of you have known them for years. Dee Anna is pastoring a church. We are all proud of you, Pastor Dee Anna. Would you like to greet the folks?”

Greet the folks…here it is… Dee Anna was feeling like she had travelled back in time. The small piano and the electric organ were the same, and each stood exactly where it had the last time she was here. There were new faces, true, but the missions map was still featured on the back wall, the same songs were sung, the same offering plates passed. Dee Anna felt about ten years old and for a moment she wanted to sink under the pew. Help, Lord! she implored as she stood to her feet. She took a deep breath and smiled, looking around.

“Good morning, friends! It is good to be here to worship with you this morning.” Her eyes travelled over the familiar scene. Many people had entered after she had been seated, and now she saw that she knew several of them. There was her dear Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Newbill, white haired and stooped with osteoporosis, but with the same smile of love for Dee Anna. She saw a few people that she remembered from days in the youth group, now with spouses beside them. There was Lupita and some of her family. And there were others, some whose names she recalled and others she wasn’t sure about. She noticed a young African American man sitting near the back with two small children. She smiled, acknowleding again that some things had changed. Suddenly she realized that the words she had just spoken were true. It was good to be here. Sudden tears stung her eyes, and she swallowed a lump in her throat.

“It has been a long time since I have seen some of you.” Nodded heads. “And a lot has happened to me in the years since I was a little girl in this place.” More nodding and a few smiles. “Thank you for being here for me when I was a little girl, for teaching me to love the Bible and to love God.” She smiled at Mrs. Newbill as she continued, “and for putting up with me, and Phil too, when we were teenagers. And for sending me care packages when I went off to Bible College. Some of you may remember that I served as a youth pastor in Lubbock and maybe you also heard that I headed to seminary but left and went through a bad time. For those of you who prayed for me, I thank you very much,” and with a sideways glance at Phil, she added, “My brother and I both thank you. We know some of you never stopped believing in us. God’s endless grace is new every morning and God’s mercy never ceases.” She paused, feeling a rush of emotions—among which was gratitude.

“I wasn’t always faithful to the Lord, but He did not give up on me. He rescued me from my own foolishness, and he gave me a wonderful husband and daughter. A couple of you met them last time I was home. Michael is with the Lord now, but Madeline is the joy of my life. And I rejoice that I am now serving a small Pentecostal church up in the northern part of Wisconsin. Yankee country! We thank you for praying for Dad.” She paused and then gestured to the congregation. “I see so many people who are dear to me. It was here that I first knew Jesus loved me.” She smiled at Mrs. Newbill again, and turned to smile at the elderly organist. “I thank you for the spiritual foundation I received right here in this little church.”

It was all true. Every word. Dee Anna sat down, feeling a little breathless and realizing with fresh astonishment that her mother was surreptitiously wiping tears from her eyes. Hugs and now tears? Dee Anna thought, feeling happily perplexed.

Phil gave her a quick pat on the hand. Pastor Wallace was standing at the pulpit asking for volunteers to make cookies for the Christmas bake sale. Then he went on, “I want to talk about our heavenly home. Before we continue with the message for this morning, turn to page twelve in your hymnals…” And soon they were standing together, listening to the wheezy old electric organ and singing,

This world is not my home,
I’m just a passin’ through,
My treasures are laid up,
Somewhere beyond the blue…

Phil sang with an exaggerated drawl and grinned at his sister, “Yep, some thing just never change.”

1 comment:

Gayle A. Brostowski said...

Love this story!