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Archive for the ‘Short Story’ Category

S0712071 (1)

 

Parson Plummet Says a Prayer*

by C. A. Hutchinson

 

I found my place at the end of the head table and took my seat. A sizable place card sat behind my empty plate, its letters neatly printed by one of those fancy script computer fonts: Mr. Silas Johnson, Vice-President, Trendex Industries. A low murmur began to intermix with the soft, piped-in music as the invited guests each checked the master chart and then made their way to their assigned seats. Attendance was good this year, up at least 20% from last year’s Breakfast, I quickly estimated. I reminded myself to get the exact figures from Bob before I left.

I looked around the room to evaluate the set-up and see how Steve had done. Pretty standard. A nice job as usual. Each of the round tables was surrounded by eight chairs and covered by a fresh, white table cloth. In the middle of each stood a centerpiece reflecting this year’s theme: an upright brass telescope with a forest green placard attached to the top, which I knew read, Where there is no vision, the people perish. I remembered from the planning meetings that each table had one place card with a red dot on the back, the lucky bearer of which got to keep the handsome telescope. I looked over to the middle of the head table, and seeing a telescope in front of the podium, quietly turned over my own place card to see if… but alas, no dot. I wasn’t surprised; I had only been on the committee a couple of years now.

I turned back to inspect the banner of peach and green which hung behind the podium. Welcome to the 7th Annual City Prayer Breakfast. Where were the programs, I wondered? Around the walls Steve had placed some of those motivational Christian posters to break up the monotony of the hotel’s tan panels. The kind with some majestic nature scene coupled with a scripture verse or two. Now that’s a bit much, I thought. Maybe I’d mention it to Steve….

The room was getting full with only a few seats here and there not taken. Most of the guests wore dark suits with bright ties, but a few were in sweaters and button downs, probably newcomers. A very few sported clerical collars under their jackets, a sure sign that our efforts to reach out to the mainline ministers and even the Catholics had met with success. The guests ranged in age from their mid-twenties on up, mostly men, but there were a few sharply dressed women as well, most of whom were quite attractive as things would have it. There was a good representation of African-American pastors and leaders, and I saw that we had done a nice job of splitting them up among the different tables so that folks could fellowship “across the tracks” as we called it. It looked good. Which reminded me; where were… oh, there, sedately in the back. Nestled between two doors I saw a small reporter’s table with representatives from the city’s main paper and perhaps some of the other local rags. Seeing them made me think that we ought to consider contacting the TV stations next year….

“Hey Si! How are ya?” Bob Batson slapped me on the back as he sat down next to me. AHow’s the wife? The kids?”

“Fine, fine. And you?” Bob was a local businessman, and like me, a member of his church board. We had both joined the Prayer Breakfast committee at the same time.

“No complaints. Quite a crowd this year. This is just great.” Bob unfolded his napkin and spread it on his lap, which reminded me to do the same thing.

“So, Bob, how are things at your church?”

“Great, great. The Lord keeps blessing us, and we just keep growing and growing. You know we have over 40 different ministry programs now? We’ve got to find a bigger building, maybe a place with some property, you know? Plenty of parking, nice landscape, all that.”

“Sure; it’s important that we don’t turn folks off for the …”

“Good Morning and Praise the Lord!” I was interrupted by Jake Matthews on the mike. Jake was senior pastor of one of the largest churches in town, and was asked to serve as MC.   “I never thought I’d see this many pastors up this early in the morning! But really, we are blessed to see all of you here today for this exciting event. I am convinced that the Lord is about to do something special in our city. To bring so many of the important leaders together is just really great. By being at this Prayer Breakfast, you demonstrate that you are crucial to what the Lord is doing ….”

Geez, he’s right, I thought; just look at us all in one room! I mean, if a bomb were to go off in this room, could you imagine what that would do to the gospel, the silence that would ensue in the city’s most influential pulpits? The impact would be… I shook my head and looked for coffee. Too many Schwarzenegger movies to be thinking like that that early in the day. Still, there are a lot of crazies out there. Corporations take security seriously; why shouldn’t we?

Jake went on, “Just the other day, I was spending some time alone with the Lord, and I felt Him really speak to my heart that He was going to do something exciting this morning, and tears started to well up and I just couldn’t stop them, and well, I know that many of you have felt the same thing, so let’s get started. We have a lot of ground to cover, so if you’ll take your programs and open them up to… what’s that?

Oh, apparently you do have them — they are under your plates. OK, I guess we goofed there.” I winced. Why did he have go and say that? Oh well. I found my program and looked it over as Jake went on. It was the usual fare: a nice cover with sponsors listed on the back and three to four pages inside with pictures and short bios of the key players. I knew the order of events but double checked anyway on the second page: Welcoming Comments followed by a Prayer of Thanks and then Breakfast.

Someone’s cell phone went off. I glanced up to see the offending party try to sneak out surreptitiously to take the call. I knew that several city and county officials were supposed to be here including the DA, and maybe even the deputy mayor who was vocal about his faith, so I vowed to try not to let those type of interruptions bother me.

While we ate, the head table and other special guests would be introduced, and then a multi-media presentation called Your City for Christ would be shown on a screen up front. I glanced around and surmised that the projectors must be hooked into the hotel’s slide system hanging discreetly from the ceiling between two track lights. After the breakfast, there would be an Award Presentation, followed by the Special Music, a nice little contemporary number sung to a sound track one of the Christian radio stations donated. After this was the main address, Mobilizing Your Ministries for Dynamic Growth, given by a successful pastor we had flown in from the suburbs of Dallas. We would close out the morning with ten minutes of Group Prayer, and still hopefully be done in time for everyone to get to work. Few things are worse for Christian witness than tardiness. I knew I had a staff meeting at 9:15 to get to; my secretary had better have had those reports done….

I heard my name and, jerking my head up, saw that suddenly everyone was looking at me. Jake had finished his welcoming comments and was pointing to my picture in the program. “What, what?” I asked automatically.

“He wants you to give the Prayer of Thanks. Apparently, Dick didn’t make it,” Bob whispered as he leaned towards me.

Now I have yet to forgive Dick for skipping out on us, and I don’t know why he did, but you can bet he heard about it the next time I saw him. The thing is, I hate to pray in public. Almost anything else I will do. Announcements, motivational talks, seminars on efficient ministry techniques, anything except prayer. Pray silently, sure; I do it all day long as if the Lord was sitting beside me, me and Him, my best buddy. (I sometimes even jokingly refer to Him as “My Co-Vice-President,” but nobody gets it.) I don’t know what it is; I just don’t like to pray out loud. So then I was on the spot, and suddenly the track lights pointing at the head table seemed brighter and felt warmer on my forehead. Someone coughed in the back. Now I promise you that I had no idea that my response would result in the subsequent fiasco, and that is the gospel truth. So I blinked a few times, and said the first thing that came to mind, “Why don’t we, uh, honor our senior guests by having the oldest minister here offer the prayer?”

I saw a few smiles and nods from the tables, and people began to look around, but Jake just stared at me, grinning and dumb struck. “Yeah, sure, we can do that, Si. You have any idea who that might be?” He looked down at his watch and licked his lips.

“Well no, but if we ask….” And then I saw him. Sitting at the table closest to the podium, but in one of those chairs facing towards the back, so that the occupant has to constantly strain his neck if he wants to see the speaker without missing his breakfast. The man had turned his chair around as Jake was looking down at his watch and stared directly over the podium into the top of Jake’s well groomed hair. He had a dark, leathery complexion with wispy white hair on the sides of his otherwise balded head. Small, round spectacles sat upon his broad nose which only seemed to highlight all the more his sharp, grey eyes. His lips were sucked in and straight, giving him a sort of vacant countenance which clashed oddly with those artful, attentive eyes. A collection of wrinkles completed the face and though they were not harsh, it looked as though he had borne more worry than he should have in his life. I reminded myself to not be judgmental, that his generation didn’t know the techniques of stress reduction that we have since developed. And he was clearly the oldest man there.

I knew he was a minister from his full circular collar which wound around his neck, a white halo atop the traditional black shirt that most clergy used to wear. Over that he wore a ragged tweed jacket with leather buttons and elbow patches which happened to match his plain, brown shoes. Upon his wrinkled, khaki pants sat a small, black leather Bible which looked as worn as the rest of the package. The old man folded his weathered hands in his lap and waited.

“Um, perhaps there,” I pointed and began, but Jake had already seen the man and smiled. “You sir, what’s your name?”

“Eh, what’s that?”

“Your name, sir,” Jake said a bit more loudly, his smile still fixed and sincere.

“Plummet. Ezra T. Plummet. I do beg your pardon, sir. Jehovah has not favored me with outstanding hearing this particular morning.” He spoke in a clear, alto voice which was overly loud like many who are hard of hearing, so that everyone in the banquet hall could hear his remarks though they were addressed to Jake only ten feet away at the podium.

“Where did this character come from?” Bob leaned over to me again, the back of his hand in front of his mouth. “Obviously from one of the smaller churches in town; I’ve never seen him before,” he continued, answering his own question.

“Rev. Plummet, would you care to offer a prayer of thanks for the food and for the blessings of this gathering?” Jake pushed on, stealing another glance at his watch.

“Eh, what’s that? Prayer? Indeed, don’t mind if I do,” the old minister responded, pushing himself up to his feet, and turning his frail figure round to face the room, his hands upon the back of his chair, as if to steady him.

“Yes, of thanks. A brief one,” Jake instructed, but it was too late; the old man had already closed his eyes tight and begun. And as we bowed our heads over our plates, I swear (and the audio tape can prove) that he then offered word for word the following prayer:

 

O Lord, Great Jehovah, we thank Thee for this fine day, a day like any other in The Day of import, the Day of judgement and the Day of redemption, in which Thy kingdom advances gloriously throughout the world, with or without us. We thank Thee especially for this gathering in which we can make Thy name known, perhaps together with our own, to the world. And so we thank Thee for the manifold blessings of this meeting:

We thank Thee that Thou hast brought together so many of the key-players and spiritual leaders of our city, that the world may see that Thy gospel is not contained to the outskirts of society, but that it is embraced by many who are successful, and influential, and well, normal like them; and that even though Thou carest equally for all people, the needy and the unneedy alike, Thou canst especially use the unneedy in Thy kingdom. And so for all the wise and powerful gathered here this morning, we thank Thee.

We thank Thee also for the blessing of syncretism which we enjoy: the joy of taking the best of both worlds and so deploying them that their synergy is far more efficient together than apart; that Thy Word can be so intermixed with the methods and assumptions of our society as to produce this most relevant gospel, undivided in its substance, if yet confounding her two natures. Oh how blessed we are! For though we are not of this world, Thou hast made us competent in it, and so we give Thee thanks.

And likewise, we thank Thee for the freedom to remain so ambiguous about our beliefs that we may unite with all who profess a general faith in Thy deity; for the freedom to apprehend Thy Triunity as a simpleton unity, the gospel of Grace as a gospel of moralism, and our state of sin as a psychological impasse.

 

Up until this point I had kept my head down and eyes closed as a good supplicant, and I admit, I didn’t really know what in the world he had been talking about. But at these last words I cast a glance up at him, not knowing just exactly what I expected to see, or how that would help explain this most uncomfortable prayer. I noticed several others also opening an eye here or there to behold the spectacle, but all they saw was an old man leaning upon his chair as he prayed. And still he went on:

 

And we thank Thee for Thy Word which Thou hast given for our use; a Word so perspicuous that we may comprehend its meaning at a mornings glance and immediately apply it to all those we run across that day; whose verses are so powerful in and of themselves, that we may freely lift them from all context and attach them to bumpers and strategies, seminars and refrigerators alike. For Thou hast freed us from the dead letter of study, so that our zeal may flourish unhindered by the burden of excess knowledge.    

And yet we thank Thee that even with Thy Word, we are not bound by the tyranny of its Truth, but are equally guided by life experiences and the mastering of our common sense of which we Americans have a particularly generous dose; and that we have testimonies and anecdotes so rich and entertaining that we scarce need to turn to Thy Word for guidance, except to find a verse or two to confirm the conclusions at which we have already arrived.

And so we thank Thee that Thou hast freed us from the endless and impossible struggle of attempting to pursue means which are as godly as the ends Thou hast commanded us. Oh! All thanks be to Thee for unveiling new economies to us, particularly for unwrapping that most remarkable gift of Pragmatism as our unassailable guide: that we might win people to faith by any means which work. For thou hast freed us from that oppressive law of David, that we may count our numbers and so assess the strength of our ministries, that we might not be a burden to Thee nor stand in Thy way for want of effectiveness. For all those Thou givest to our ministries that we might cajole and maneuver to further Thy cause, we give Thee praise. Help us to feed on them in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

 

Fully half of the room were now fully erect, eyes wide and mouths agape, wondering why someone didn’t put a stop to this embarrassment, for the old man’s own good, you understand. But no one moved; we all just sat there, watching, the drool of inaction beginning to collect in tiny pools on our plates, as Plummet droned on:

 

We also thank Thee that Thou art a just God, and though we may lose heavenly reward by parading our positions and good works here this morning, yet Thou hast promised that we shall receive our reward in full here on earth and so for the blessings of fame and prestige and influence we give Thee thanks.

And so, for the presence of the press here this morning, we also thank Thee, that this event may receive the publicity it deserves and so gain a hearing in the marketplace of ideas through a two or three inch column and maybe even a picture with a snappy caption. Guide the photographers to just the right people to capture on film, while displaying their best profiles, so that they might have a nifty clipping to put up on their church bulletin boards.

And we thank Thee for the many other blessings which Thou hast rained upon us and of which we can only mention a few in order that this might remain a short prayer: for head tables and head honchos, for titles and telescopes, for car phones and catacombs, for piccolos and peccadillos, for every conceivable Christian trinket currently on the market; and oh, yes, for this food which we are about to receive. Bless it to our use and loving service. Amen.

 

And so ended the breakfast prayer of Rev. Ezra T. Plummet. There then ensued a quiet so long and so total that were it not for our worldly dress, one entering the room in those moments would have thought that he had stumbled upon an order of silent monks enmeshed in some Ancient Rite of Sacred Dumbfoundedness. Jake just stood there behind the podium, his expression one of pure shell shock, for once having forgotten about his watch.

Finally, from somewhere in the back, the calm was broken by a simple: “What was that?”

Bob responded with what was perhaps his most profound statement of the morning, “Whatever it was, it sure as hell wasn’t my prayer!”

Rev. Plummet turned to him and spoke, simply and quietly, “Make sure of it, sir.”

And then a most remarkable thing happened, subtlety at first, but then more distinctly, almost as if it had been predetermined. Every one of the gentlemen and ladies who were sitting between Plummet and the entrance way began to shift their chairs until an unobstructed pathway was created to the door, lined on either side by a row of unrelenting eyes. The old man was still looking at Bob, but when he shuffled around, he saw their unmistakable invitation.

Jake saw it too and quickly leaned down to the podium mike, his hand grasped around its flexible stem. “Well sir, uh, that’s up to you. You’re welcome to stay of course… but if you feel that it might be better… “

“Don’t worry, I’m leaving,” Rev. Plummet interrupted. And with that he glanced at his pocket watch, and headed down the golden path created especially for him. Jake visibly relaxed behind his podium. He flinched, however, when half way out, Plummet suddenly stopped, turned around and strode back to his table, just as fast as his gait would take him.

“Yes?” Jake asked. Plummet reached to the middle of his table, grabbed the telescope there and tucking it under an arm, responded, “Red dot, you see. I do enjoy my souvenirs.”

“Of course,” Jake said, “you’re welcome to it. The least we can do….” And so the old man finally left, while I wondered how he had managed to land a red dot.

Everyone turned back toward Jake who was running his hand through his hair and smiling. “Oh well, everyone’s a prophet, I guess! What’s next? Uh, well, let’s do introductions later and get that video rolling, while you enjoy your breakfast. I think you’ll find it just tremendous, the video I mean, or both really. We got it ready? OK, let’s roll.”

The rest of the meeting was uneventful, and apart from that one prayer, everyone agreed that it was as successful as always. We never saw or heard from Ezra T. Plummet again, nor learned from what church he came. Doubtless none big enough to do too much damage.

The next year the planning committee instituted admission tickets for the Prayer Breakfast. To communicate properly the importance and quality of the program, you understand. After all, corporations and schools have invitation lists for their award banquets and such. The church of Christ should do no less.

 

 

* Loosely inspired by The War Prayer,

a short story by Mark Twain.

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