Sighing, Pastor Meekly removed his glasses and placed them on the edge of the pulpit. Reaching into his back pocket, he brought forth a snowy handkerchief and patted the dewdrops of sweat from his brow.
“My precious flock, my heart aches for you. I’m pleading for you. No, I’m pleading with you. Bring your burdens. Bring your sins this day, and be loosed, be freed.”
Pausing, Pastor Meekly waited while two elderly women hobbled to the front, leaning into each other for support, tears glistening on wrinkled, rouged cheeks. One woman’s flesh-toned hosiery sagged further down around her ankles with every agonized step, while the other’s cardigan hiked up higher over the painful bend in her back. They stopped below the pulpit, weeping silently beneath the compassionate eyes of Pastor Meekly.
“Dear Sister Etta Mae and Sister Louisa. You are forgiven and released.”
The sisters smiled, comforted and assured that once again they had avoided hellfire.
At the back of the church, Deacon Rankin whispered to the man next to him, “It’s always Etta Mae and Louisa. What did they do this time? Too many lumps of sugar in their tea? Covet a doily? I tell you, Deacon O’Gile, I can name ten people who need to be up there confessing to Pastor Meekly. Look at everyone sitting there holy as can be.”
“Well, Meekly doesn’t exactly put the fear of the Lord in one, does he?”
“Not at all.”
“Perhaps it’s time for a friendly deacon to pastor chat. Inspire him to be a little more, shall we say, vigorous.”
The congregation sang the final hymn, then filed past the two deacons and Pastor Meekly, who had joined them. When everyone had departed, Deacon O’Gile inclined his head to Pastor Meekly, “I’m wondering if you feel discouraged, Pastor Meekly, if you feel ineffective.”
“We’d like to encourage you, see things change for you, for our little church. What do you say, Pastor?”
Pastor Meekly looked from one to the other. “What are you suggesting, gentlemen?”
Deacon Rankin glanced at O’Gile. “A makeover. Do something to change your image, your impact on the people, and help them respond the way they ought.”
Pastor Meekly pondered for a moment or two. “I suppose it can’t hurt. I’ll pray about it.”
Deacon O’Gile rolled his eyes behind the pastor’s back, and Rankin shook his head imperceptibly at him as he patted Meekly’s shoulder. “You take care, Pastor. I’ll be in touch.”
It was a different looking pastor who stood behind the pulpit the following Sunday; indeed, it was a different looking pulpit. Not only was the pastor sporting a new haircut and wearing a different suit, but the pulpit was shiny with a new coat of varnish. Pastor Meekly was so encouraged that he delivered the best sermon of his life and was astonished when no fewer than eight people came forward to confess and be forgiven.
A short conference with O’Gile and Rankin afterwards confirmed the results and a further action plan was determined. Could the pulpit be further embellished? Maybe another coat of varnish.
The next week, twelve people came up to confess and forgiven. Pastor Meekly was again encouraged and thrilled. But he wondered to himself, if doing such a little bit to the pulpit made such a change, maybe doing a little more would do more than they could imagine. But what could they do?
Deacon O’Gile had an idea.
Just a little on the cross on the front. It would set it off. And sure enough, fifteen people came forward the first Sunday afterwards, twenty-two the next. Someone donated the funds for more gold for the edges of the pulpit, then more was given for the top. After a few months, the entire pulpit had a thin veneer of beaten gold.
Pastor Meekly stopped blessing his flock, stopped looking on them with eyes of compassion. He stopped listening to confessions; in fact, nobody confessed anything anymore, they just wanted to be near the lovely golden pulpit, touching it, stroking its radiant luxuriance.
Month after month, layer after layer of gold was added to the pulpit.
One Sunday morning, Pastor Meekly arrived early, as was his habit, and in the darkened church, there was an unearthly glow.
The pulpit had disappeared.
There was a ragged, yawning hole where the pulpit had once been, and rising from the bottomless void, coiled wisps of caustic smoke.
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