The Congregation

By: Pete Stine

The congregation, an assortment of the pious, the damned, the uncomfortable and sweaty, sat silently fixed upon Reverend Barber. He cleared his throat to begin his sermon on a day that was turning out to be the hottest July Sunday on record. He was glad that today was not a day he had chosen to denounce the use of alcohol. The good Lord knew that he would want a cold beer later.  His shoulders relaxed, he looked to the rear of the church, to that last pew where he imagined the worst sinners thought they could hide. He started in strong.

“Brothers and sisters,” he began in unison with the shriek of the Avery baby, swaddled in his mother’s arms, on the right side of the chapel halfway between the pulpit and that last bench, who decided to release a hair-raising scream.

Reverend Barber collected himself, removed his glasses into a tattered cleaning cloth, and, smiling down at the lad, paused briefly and began again.

“Brothers and sisters,” he repeated just as the child, young Bobby, reiterated his previous point.

Parishioners chuckled lightly to themselves, wondering if the Reverend would try the same approach a third time – or if Bobby would.  Bobby’s mother grinned sheepishly while she shushed and jiggled the baby boy quietly.

The reverend lowered his head and thought back to his own childhood, to his mother holding him in her arms right here in this very chapel.  He wondered if he had made such a fuss at that young age. What a blessing, to lie there with his every need met, and to feel safe enough to cry out to the world whenever his every want was not. The Reverend couldn’t fault the boy for doing what only comes naturally to all babies.

Once his pacifier was firmly planted back in his mouth, Bobby looked to be at ease, and the minister smiled down upon him with a fondness that came from the heart.

Grasping the sides of the pulpit with both hands, he rocked back on his heels and then forward, as if to propel the words with his momentum toward that back pew where the wretched had waited long enough for the good word.

“Brother and sisters,” he practically bellowed before suddenly stopping and cautiously eyeing the boy who now appeared to be dreaming a wonderful dream.  His mother made eye contact upwards and nodded ever so slightly as if to reassure the man of God that the path, though seemingly narrow, had a wide gate through which he could proceed.

“Brothers and sisters,” he repeated smiling, “Today is a . . .”

“Explosion” is the word most apt to describe the sudden transformation that the child underwent.  His pacifier flittered just beyond the hand of his mother who had stabbed out to catch the ejected totem.  It hit the floor and skidded to a slobbery halt at her feet.  The screams that followed were otherworldly.  Parishioners several rows back held their ears, grown men winced, and the Reverend opened his eyes wide.

Mrs. Avery’s arms were a cradle in a high gale, rocking back and forth like a ship in a storm current.  Her head bowed as she shushed down at the boy, emitting a sound like a bicycle pump operated by a racer with a flat tire as the rest of the field slips by devouring his hard-fought lead.

The congregation looked on in wonder.  The cataclysmic sound and motion came suddenly, then wound down. Deflating in a manner that brought to mind the town’s fire siren after its piercing and inescapable announcement that danger was nigh.

Even after the teether had been retrieved, cleaned and reloaded into the mouth of the baby who wriggled a bit in an attempt to refind his previous comfortable position, Rev. Barber stood in place gobsmacked, coming to only when the concerned Charlie Cooper coughed a signal to him that the floor was his.

Stepping back from the podium, he looked down at his shoes and could almost see his own dazed reflection in them.  The new polish and high gloss shine reflected the hot July sun up into his eyes. This glare was a problem that he had suffered from his entire life, having spent so many hours primping and preening for his trips to church.  And so much time he had spent there in stained glass tinted sunbeams. Too much, perhaps.  Was that what led to his eventual rebellion?  Was young Bobby headed down the same path only years ahead of schedule?

No, he decided, the boy was just cranky, but still a blessing.  “Yes, Jesus loves me” he hummed slowly to convince himself of the matter and to self-soothe, like the rocking and shushing had done for the child. He smiled a crooked smile that looked from the back row like more of a grimace than anything else.

As Reverend Barber forced himself to snap out of it, an idea presented itself. If he could start speaking with a rapid and level tone, Bobby might be lulled by his words.  They were, after all, the words of the Lord.  Well, mostly they were.  There was analysis and commentary in there as well, but surely the infant wouldn’t mind such a detail.

“Brothers and sister,” he pronounced in his most even tone, trying for a droning sound without any upsetting peaks or troubling valleys.  As fast as the congregation could comprehend what was happening, he was off and running. “Today is a hot one, I need not tell you,” he continued, glancing about nervously and remaining as still as he possibly could,  “but be glad in it for the LORD made . ..”

Armageddon.  Absolute Armageddon. Tiny fists now punching the air and a christening blanket kicked off to reveal a white diaper and pumping legs churning in circles with heels that were aimed to make hard and painful contact with anything in their path.

The Reverend bowed his head in defeat and exhaled the remainder of the breath that he had readied for the spreading of the gospel.  He found himself fighting back tears.  He had always imagined himself to be, if he had to choose a biblical character, like St. Paul with a story of conversion, redemption and faith, yet here he was, clearly a Goliath, suffering the slings of a tiny David who couldn’t even walk yet, never mind march into battle.  Worse yet, this young giant-slayer wouldn’t even look him in the eye, choosing instead to clench his eyelids shut while he screamed loud enough to both resurrect the dead and to roll the rock away from their tomb with one mighty blast.

The good people of the church looked on, some praying for mercy for their visibly shaken Reverend, while others on the back bench cast lots and mocked his misfortune, completely oblivious as a result of their weekly consorting with the unholy, to any ironies that may have resulted.

Reverend Barber asked himself what he had done to deserve this.  He asked the Lord as well, although he had started to suspect that he already knew.  His wild times.  Youth.  The very situation that stared up at him now in the form of young master Avery.  But he had given all that up and come to Jesus.  He was Saint Paul!  Saint Paul!

He wondered if Bobby would take a more direct path to the Lord’s service.  There was no need to leave home.  No need to fall in with the wrong crowd. And the drinking. Good Lord, the drinking.  Reverend Barber was in check now, his excesses were mercifully in the past, but the road back to the church was an arduous one.

“The child is a gift,” he muttered under his breath though no one could have heard him with the full force of the boy’s lungs still on display.   Yes, children were God’s gift to man, he recalled, even though God had not chosen that particular gift for Reverend and Mrs. Barber, despite their best efforts.

The Reverend enjoyed the earthly amusements that he and his wife performed in their quest to help populate God’s green earth.  Certainly more than he had ever enjoyed the debauchery and excesses of his wild times.  But just like his impure acts of what he now thought of as “the bad old days”, their shared, yet sanctioned efforts had proved fruitless.  His God had allowed for this pleasure, even demanded it in his marriage contract, and his church sincerely encouraged him to fulfill that contract, unlike those poor Catholic priests down at St. Agnes’ who could drink themselves into a coma right there in the sacristy, but who could never know the touch of a woman.  Mrs. Barber was just one more reason to come to the Light and follow that straight, if narrow, path to its glorious end.  Even if that end did not include a child of his own.

“So, why send this child now, God?  What are you telling me? Is all not forgiven?  Is this a test, Lord, because if it is, I’m failing.  I don’t understand.  I’m at wits end here,” he prayed.  As he tallied up in his mind all that he had forsaken, and all that the had done in service to the church, he looked heavenward and prepared to recount it all in prayer as a kind of plea for a truce.

When the Reverend tilted his head down to take in a breath between sobs, he noticed the church had become silent. All eyes were upon him. Many of the faces looked worried.  How long had he been praying, he wondered.  What had he said aloud, and what was going to haunt him for the rest of his tenure?  However long that might be.

Doing the only thing he could think to do, forgetting what had led him into his current predicament, Reverend Barber looked down to the only available lifeline – his prepared sermon.

“Brothers and sisters, ” he nearly pleaded with his tone.

Absolute fury greeted him with a high pitched scream that rattled baby Bobby’s whole body, and indeed the whole church.

When the congregation looked up from the newborn to the pulpit, the preacher was gone.  Some folks recall hearing the door to the outside slam shut in the room behind the organ where the host is kept before communion. Others could swear that they heard someone shouting towards the sky from the parking lot. Those who hurried to the window will all attest that the Reverend was moving fast for a man of his age.

Reverend Barber hoped, to himself and towards no one in particular, as he marched down the hill to St. Agnes’, that Father Dave still had the bottle of scotch that the Reverend had given him for Easter.

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