The church bells tolled as I reached the broad oak doors to Bethel Lutheran Church. Sunlight gleamed off the brilliant white clapboard siding and danced through the massive stained glass window which ran from ground to belfry. The nineteenth century church had been founded by Swedish immigrants and had weathered well into the twenty-first century tended by the settler’s descendents.
I stepped into the foyer and climbed the stairs to the narthex, along with a few stragglers who I recognized from last night. Organ music hummed in the background as I dug through the packed coat rack for a hanger for my jacket. I made my way to the open door leading into the sanctuary and took the bulletin handed to me by the usher, Mr. Jackobson.
“Nice to see you in church today,” he said.
“Same here, looks like a full house,” I said.
“The Harvest Cantata service always draws them in. Of course, the free noon lunch helps a bit,” he chuckled. “Kristen saved you a seat in their usual pew.”
“Thanks.” I stepped in and paused to admire the sunlight streaming in through the stained glass. The colorful rendering featured a larger-than-life Christ holding a lamb among a flock of sheep standing beside a brilliant blue stream. I’d bet a dollar those sheep didn’t have scrapies and weren’t force-fed their brethren to save the shepherds a few pennies.
I made my way down the side aisle and slipped into a pew. My niece, eight-year-old Katie plopped into my lap while my nephew, six-year-old Tyler, snuggled up to me. I put an arm around Tyler and gave him a tight squeeze while Katie slipped her arms around my neck and hugged me.
“Hi, Aunt Jessie,” whispered Katie. Her big blues stared into my eyes and I gave her button nose a quick flick. Her strawberry blonde hair was done up in tight pigtails which tickled my neck. “I’m glad you stopped by yesterday afternoon and played with me.”
“Me, too,” I said.
“I love you,” said Tyler. I smiled at the little guy, all freckles and brown hair cowlicks.
“Same here, bud,” I said.
Kristen leaned across Tyler. “Got home in one piece, I see.” I nodded my head as the organist pumped up the volume launching into the first hymn. The pastor entered the chancel from a side door, walked to the altar, and turned to face the crucifix behind the altar. With my hands full of kids I didn’t bother to dig out the hymnal to find words to “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I just chimed in when I could remember the words.
During the brief interlude between the hymn and the pastor’s congregational greeting Kristen and I talked in hushed tones.
“How’re you feeling?” I asked.
“Wiped out. The kids were up watching a movie when I got home. Doug is a terrible sitter.”
“I hope you didn’t pay him,” I said. Doug leaned forward. My brother-in-law had slicked his brown hair back from his forehead and his tie looked a little tight against his thick, ex-wrestler neck.
“What did you do to her?” he asked. “She crashed in bed after she stumbled in last night.”
“Wasn’t me, Dougie. She has her own free will.” We sat up straight as the pastor gave his welcoming remarks before leading us in prayer. The traditional service comforted me and his sermon hit home. It focused on fear and reliance on God to see believers through their trials if they would trust Him and His timing. Lord knows I would need a miracle or two tomorrow.
After the sermon, the choir trouped to the front, Mom front and center. They sang a set of choral hymns and at the conclusion the normally staid congregation treated the singers to a standing ovation. As the final notes died down the pastor gave the benediction and lead us in a rousing rendition of the “Be Present at Our Table” prayer hymn. He marched down the center aisle trailed by the two young acolytes. Ushers began escorting the congregants from the pews and soon we were in line for the meet and greet with Pastor Leonard Tomkins.
“Jessica,” he said when I offered my hand. He smiled and clasped my hand in his. “It’s so nice you were able to attend services and listen to your mother sing. We don’t know what we’d do without her direction for the choir.”
I squirmed a little under his direct gaze. I know he’s only being sincere but sometimes I feel as if he’s searching my soul for my sins, especially my sin of skipping church most weekends.
“I’m glad I made it. Thanks for your visits with Dad. It’s been so hard on him to have to miss men’s coffee time at church.”
“Anything for your family, God bless you, Jessica.” He released my hand and I fled to the narthex. I joined the line forming at the top of the stairs which snaked down into the church basement. Kristen, Doug, and the kids gathered behind me.
“Aunt Jessie, I wanna sit next to you,” said Katie. She latched onto my arm pulling me slightly off balance. I caught myself before tumbling down the stairs. I shook her off my arm and held her hand.
“Be careful, honey. Sure you can sit by me.” She hopped down a step.
“I want to sit by you,” cried Tyler. He grabbed my free hand from behind. I felt like a chicken wishbone.
“No way!” said Katie. She stuck her tongue out at Tyler. He gave her a noisy raspberry in reply.
“Guys, no fighting,” I ordered. “I have two sides, one for each of you. Katie you go in front of me and Tyler you go after me between me and your mom.” The kids shuffled into position, Tyler hanging onto the rear pockets of my dress pants as we slowly filed down the stairs. We finally reached the swinging doors which were propped open by bricks.
Long tables with folding chairs crowded around them filled most of the floor space. More than half of the tables were full of happy people chatting and eating. A long line of people filed past the two tables laden with every imaginable Lutheran church potluck dish. All macaroni dishes, both hot and cold, known to mankind filled the tabletops along with a kaleidoscopic array of gelatin salads. Buttered wheat and white dinner rolls formed pale mountains among the entrees. Egg coffee and cherry punch rounded out the menu.
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