“Is That How High you Want The Steeple?”

Well, the preacher made a rare appearance at the breakfast stop, and I got to listen to his mellifluous voice expounding on his his line of work, herding the flock toward heaven’s gates. He pulls out a piece of paper and said “I want to share this with y’all, because it is the absolute truth.” And Brother John begins to make oration.

“The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect pastor preaches exactly 15 minutes,” Brother John began.

“The perfect pastor condemns sin but never upsets anyone.”

“The perfect pastor works from 8 AM to midnight. In his spare time, he is also the janitor.”

“The perfect pastor makes $50.00 a week, wears good clothes, reads good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50.00 a week to the poor.”

“The perfect pastor is 38 years old and has been preaching at least 40 years.”

“The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teens, and spends all of his time with senior citizens.”

“The perfect pastor smiles all the time and keeps a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work.”

“The perfect pastor makes 15 calls a day on parish families, shut-ins, and parishioners who are hospitalized.”

“The perfect pastor spends all of his time evangelizing the unchurched and is always in his office when he is needed.”

I was sitting there drinking coffee, black as hell and twice as hot, and thinking the poll respondents must all be Democrats, when the Preacher came to the windup of his oration.

“If your pastor does not measure up to these standards, simply send this letter to six other parishes that are tired of their pastor, too. Then bundle up your pastor and send him or her to the church at the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 pastors and one of them should be perfect. But remember, you must have faith in this letter. One church broke the chain and got its old pastor back in less than a week.”

I was thinking, as he read that, that there is more truth than poetry there. In fact, it wouldn’t take much of a workover to describe what folks expect out of any of who volunteer their time and services to a cause.

Now, speaking of preachers, pastors, sky pilots, and such, I heard there was an ecumenical council in Wichita last summer. Of course, they had to open the meeting with a prayer. The delegates were surprised when the moderator began, “Puke and weenie men as we are, er, I mean, weak and puny men as we are….

According to some gossip on a Topeka repeater, during that meeting somebody ran in hollering “The building is on fire.” At the shout of fire….

The Methodists immediately gathered in a corner and prayed.

The Baptists started a shout of “Everybody into the water.”

The Congregationalists shouted, “Every man for himself.”

The Adventists declaimed “It’s the vengeance of an angry God!”

The Lutherans posted a notice on the door, declaring the fire was evil because fire is the natural abode of the devil.

The Christian Scientists huddled together and agreed among themselves that there was really not a fire at all.

The Presbyterians appointed a chairwoman, who was to appoint a committee to look into the fire and make a report at the next meeting.

The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out in good order.
The Unitarians formed a committee, which concluded the fire had as much right to be there as anyone else.

And the Catholics passed a collection plate to cover the damages.

Speaking of committees, did you know there are no committees in Heaven? Nope, nary one. While God was creatin’ the animals a bunch of kibitzing angels told the boss that what He was doing looked like
fun. So the Boss told them that he would let them try their hand.

So a bunch of them gathered up and created an animal. The critter had fur like an otter, a tail like a beaver, feet like a frog, and a bill like a duck. God took one look at the platypus and told them he would finish the job himself. And ever since there hasn’t been a single committee in Heaven.

Now, since I have found a subject, I used to know a fellow name of Danny Grubbs. All Dan wanted to be was a preacher. His dad finally sold a quarter section and sent Danny to Southwestern Bible College.

Now, the Southwestern Bible College was big on what would have been called “circuit riding” back in the old days. When they thought a prospective preacher was ready they would send him to this little church or that little church to hold services. Johnny Grubbs had gotten to that stage and was looking forward to his first preaching experience when a fellow student wound up in the hospital.

The boy had been sent to one of the little pipeline towns that would spring up and fade away over a summer – and the pipeliners didn’t take a shine to the boy’s style of preachment. So they shot him! id

The next Sunday Johnny got directions to that same church. He had sand enough to go, and to preach, all right. But looking out at about three dozen of the worst looking men he’d ever seen he couldn’t help shaking in his boots all the time he was stammering through his sermon. And a mighty short sermon it was, too.

After the preaching was over one of the roughest looking men in the church swaggers up to Johnny. “Feller,” the pipeliner sez, “That was the sorriest sermon I ever heard. You ought to pay us admission to listen to a sorry sermon like that. Do you know what we do with preachers who preach sorry sermons? We shoots ’em.”

course, poor Johnny was about to faint at that point.

“But,” sez the tough, “We ain’t going to shoot no skeeredy cat like you. We are going to shoot the sorry SOB who had guts enough to send kids like you out here.”

That reminds me of the time little Cooter Johnson stopped at the church door to tell Preacher Hollingsworth that when he grew up he was going to give him some money. The preacher knew Cooter because the school used to let the Preacher exhort the students once a week – and Cooter was easy to get to know.

“Well, thank you, Cooter. But why would you give me money?”

“Because my daddy says you are the poorest preacher we ever had.”

Speaking of sorry preachers, I saw a want ad in the Minneapolis Star last summer that began “TAKE OUR PASTOR, PLEASE. Thriving congregation in rapidly developing suburban area desperately needs new, creative, clerical leadership. We would like to trade pastors with a congregation that needs a kindly but do-nothing pastor. We will pay the first year’s salary package plus a substantial bonus for speedy departure. Please respond ASAP to box 275, the Star.”

Which reminds of the ad in a newspaper for a position in Lebanon. That ad supposedly ran, “Middle Eastern Diocese looking for candidates for Bishop. Must be athletic, agile, and have great endurance. Former track stars preferred. Salary and benefits negotiable. Package includes private bunker and armored personal carrier for travelling. Must be willing to relocate.” Considering the situation in that part of the world, the qualifications sound reasonable to me.

And thinking about Cooter Johnson reminds me that before the Johnson family moved to town so Cooter and his sister could go to school, they lived so far back in the woods they had to sweep the coon farts off the porch every morning. Cooter had been in school, oh, a couple of months I guess, when he comes home with a question.

“Mama,” sez Cooter, “Preacher Hollingsworth said Jesus was a Jew.”

“Well, that’s right son,” his mama told him. “Jesus was a Jew.”

“Well then,” sez Cooter, “If Jesus was a Jew what’s He doin’ with a Messican name?”

If memory serves me right, Cooter’s sister was Carol. She was a year older than Cooter, and more than a little outspoken. One time somebody invited the Johnson’s over to their church. And that church was a “holiness” church.

Carol was impressed no end by the old preacher, standing high above the congregation in an old fashioned box pulpit, shouting and waving the Bible like a man possessed. After a while she leaned way over to her Mama and whispered “What will we do if he gets loose?”

Now, speaking of Preacher Hollingsworth reminds me that I spent several hard days working in his plantation. Digging holes in clay that was as hard as brick to plant folks in.

Most of them for good folks who were missed by everyone who knew them. But every once in a while somebody would come along whose departure was a relief to all.

One of those was for Old Lady DuFresne. Now, you talk about a heller, Berta Dufresne had a bad case of naggin’ fever. Besides being under the mistaken impression she was pretty. She nagged husband Bill constantly about things he had nothing to do with and couldn’t do anything about. You know, that kind of naggin’ will upset a man as bad as a plague of flies will upset a horse. For about the same reason.

Not only that but she drove her kids half crazy trying to run their lives, gossiped about everybody within a hundred miles, and the family dog would hide under the porch whenever she set foot outside the house. Yessir, she was a real friend to nobody, a plague to be avoided at all costs.

And one day she cashed in, bought the farm, passed over, croaked. Died! Dead. So I got the job of opening and closing the grave. It was a hot day, too, and when the hearse got there I noticed a little cloud coming up in the west. Didn’t look like much, but those prairie thunderheads will fool you.

But bad weather didn’t stop a prairie funeral. Skin don’t leak, you know, and most folks were glad enough to get soaked as long as it rained. I thought Preacher Hollingsworth preached a mighty fine sermon, myself. Although I noticed a couple of the DuFresne’s neighbors looked mighty doubtful when the Preacher dwelled a little on her points.

The preacher began a prayer to speed the dearly departed’s soul to its final rest as they lowered her casket down. Just as the ropes slacked there was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder loud enough to might near deafen every one in the graveyard – and the smell of ozone permeated the land.

And somebody hollers out “Hallelujah, Preacher, she got there all right!”

It sounded a lot like Bill to me. But speaking of Berta DuFresne reminds me of how natural everybody said she looked.

Everybody looked, you know. Because she was one of those folks who have a big funeral. Everybody came to make sure she was dead. The undertaker was an old man name of Dollarhide. Alexander Dollarhide.

Al was a real artist at making the departed look like they were still breathin’. After Berta’s departure somebody put a limerick in the paper, contributed a verse that the editor put in the paper, about Dollerhide’s expertise.

Alexander, the cheerful mortician

With makeup is a real magician.

For all sexes and races,

He paints smiles on their faces,

So they can grin as they go to perdition.”

Now, while I’m on the subject of funerals reminds me of a grave I dug over at the Odd Fellows plantin’ ground – and the deceased and all of his kin were so hard down mean all three of the local preachers refused to say a good word for him. So they called the Southwest Bible College for an emergency substitute.

I don’t know what they told him about the defunct’s people but that young preacher sure was nervous. He got so bumfuzzled he points at the box and sez, “What we have here is only the shell, the nut is already gone.”

Which didn’t please the survivors at all. But cooler heads prevailed and the young preacher got away with his still attached.

Thinking back to that part of the world reminds me of an old Ponca Indian the Jesuits converted to Catholicism. But the old feller never learned a word of English or Latin. His grandson had to translate everything anybody wanted to say to him. Somebody asked the boy how he could translate the priests Latin Mass for the old man.

“I don’t,” sez the boy. “That’s all Cherokee to me.”

The old man got deathly sick so the boy called Enid to get Father O’Brien in to give the old man the Last Rites. One of those rites is the “Apostolic Blessing,” what the Padres call “the Pope’s blessing.”

Father O’Brien carefully explained what he was about to do and the boy dutifully translated for his grandfather. After the translation the old man murmured something. Quite a bit of something!

“What did he say?” asked Father Pat.

“He says thank you, but he wants to know how the Holy Father knew he was sick,” sez the boy.

I ‘spect that was one of the few times Padre Pat was at a loss for words. One time he hit up an old reprobate about missin’ mass real regular.

“Oh, I haven’t been to mass in years. Too many hypocrites in church for me, Padre,” sez the old codger.

“Oh, don’t let that keep you out of church,” smiles Father Pat. “There’s always room for one more.”

Anyhoo, Preacher “Double H” Hollingsworth was a Methodist, and I don’t remember the name of the Holiness preacher, but I sure remember Horace Harris, the Episcopalian preacher. Double H was a second generation Scot and he sure enough lived up to the Scots rep for bein’ cheap.

One time some lady came out from Okie City canvassing for the March of Dimes. The lady had a card she was handing out with a picture of FDR, you know the March of Dimes was President Roosevelt’s favorite charity – him being a polio victim and all, FDR’s picture captioned “President Roosevelt asks you to give until it hurts.”

She marches up to Double H and after a round of mutual introductions she sez, “Reverend Harris, I represent the Oklahoma March of Dimes.”

Double H looks at the card, reads the caption, and hands the card back.

“Lady,” he says, “The very idea hurts.”

But I kid you not, tight as he was, Double H spent money fancying up his church. You talk about a gold plated church in a dirt poor town, that was it. I kid you not, if you weren’t an “old settler” with money you would not be accepted as a member. Period.

One time Phillips Petroleum hit oil on a place a few miles outside of town and pretty soon they were paying the old Sooner more money than he could figure out how to spend. Since he had come up in the world he starts getting the swellhead and figures he ought to quit the Holiness church and go to the swells church. One that fit his new lifestyle.

So he hits Double H Harris up to put his name on a pew in the swellest church around. Double H sez he ought to think on it some more and pray for guidance. And maybe put about six figures on a check by way of greasing’ the way into a pew.

The next day Double H is doing his grocery shopping’ at the IGA when that same farmer hails him.

“Preacher,” he says, “I got down on my knees last night and asked the Lord for guidance. And Jesus appeared to me! He asked me what church I wanted to join. I told him I wanted to get in your church and He just laughed. `Why, Jim,’ he says, `I been trying to get inside Double H’s church for the last thirty years, and I haven’t made it yet.'”

Which sort of reminds me of Charley Mitchell’s saying. Charley always claimed that if you wanted to give God a good belly laugh, just tell him your plans.

Well, lookin’ back I see I mentioned Enid’s Father O’Brien. That Padre was a fine man, one of the kind that would put his dignity aside and help a man push his A Model Ford out of the ditch if the occasion arose. Which it did frequently and often before they paved the roads. And he liked a drop of the Irish whisky and a good joke as well as the next fellow.

One time he came into the five and dime for some envelopes and old Mrs. Ippolito buttonholes him. And she’s some upset!

“Oh Father O’Brien,” she says, “I was just down to the Church and I went into the confessional and there was a strange face at the grill. `You aren’t our regular priest, I said, what are you doing here?'”

“`I’m not a priest at all,’ the man said. `I’m the furniture polisher.'”

“`Well, where’s Father O’Brien?’ I asked.”

“I’m sure I can’t tell you, lady, but if he’s been listening to the kind of stories I have all morning I’m sure he’s gone for the police.”

Speaking of Father O’Brien, one time they called the Padre to come to Breckinridge to administer the last rites to old man Jones. Eldridge Jones.

After he had done everything he could for the man, he steps aside to make room for the family. The old man’s only granddaughter stood at the old man’s feet, the rest of his children and the grandsons gathered around the bed, and the waiting began.

After a while one of the children said “I don’t see him breathing. I think he’s passed on.”

“No,” says the granddaughter, “Papa’s feet are still warm. Nobody dies with warm feet, so he’s still alive.”

Just then the old man’s eyes blinked open and he looked around at the family gathered around him. He raised his head up and chuckled a little.

“Joan of Arc did,” the old man whispered. And then he died.

That Eldridge Jones had a grandson, Jerry, who was a general contractor in Stillwater. Every summer he would join a caravan called the Christian Carpenters to go fix up or build new churches in the more remote areas of the Dakotas, Montana, and places like that. I heard that one time Jerry and his crew pulls up to a place and the preacher was right there to meet them. After the introductions were over the preacher picks up four bricks.

“Brother Jones,” sez the preacher, “We want a church built on this lot. We want the southeast corner right here.” And the preacher drops a brick to mark the spot. Then the preacher steps off about fifty feet and drops another brick.

“We want the southwest corner right here.” Then the preacher takes of at a right angle and after stepping off 75 feet he drops another brick.

“We want the northwest corner right here.” The preacher takes off, stepping off fifty feet and dropping a brick.

“And we want the northeast corner right here. Is that clear?” sez the preacher.

And Jerry picks up a brick and throws it just as high in the air as he can.

“Preacher,” he says, “Is that how high you want your steeple built?”


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