Today is Reformation Sunday, a fact that means little to any here but a few churchgoing Protestants of the Calvinist tradition. It’s not a holy day, exactly, but it requires some observance. In our congregation, tradition (that bugaboo of the Reformers) dictates that we invite a bagpiper and eat shortbread, although I personally take great delight from the idea that John Knox must be turning in his grave to have so many women in the pulpits of the Presbyterian church.
Today we talked about John Calvin, about the fact that John Knox wrote the Scots Confession with five other men named John, and the ways in which that could have gone wrong.
Err, that was after the service, after the bagpiper blasted out our brains and we were punch-drunk on shortbread. We were properly reverent when we should have been.
Tomorrow is Halloween, which meant that despite being a woman and not a John, I had to invite approximately 2 bazillion kids (quite a feat in a town of 200 people) into my church this afternoon. Then I cleaned up and came home for a well-deserved a nap.
In the middle of my nap, the church bell rang, not just a little bonk like a pigeon might have crashed into it, but several minutes of bong-bong, bong-bong, bong-bong, long enough for me to hop off the sofa, find my shoes, stumble out of the manse and dash up the office stairs and into the church, while mentally reviewing the list of disasters that might precipitate a bell-ringing. A fire in town? A declaration of war? The president shot?
Our church bell weighs 700 lbs. I can barely ring it if I grab the highest knot in the rope, lift my feet and put my full weight into it. To get it ringing repetitively, bong-bong, bong-bong, requires more strength and more weight than nearly anyone in my congregation has. We usually ring it with the hammer that thunks against it, but that won’t make it go bong-bong, bong-bong, no matter how hard someone pulls on that rope.
The church was empty. There was no doubt; empty buildings are silent in a different way than a building in which someone is hiding. Empty churches are peaceful places. Even the dust motes settle down. Just to be sure, I climbed the stairs to the belltower, in which there’s nowhere for anyone to hide. The bell ropes weren’t swaying. There was no one there.
I went out by the front door, which was locked, and found three little boys milling around the front steps. The ring-leader was, coincidentally, a boy named John. If hellions exist, Johnny must be the prototype, although he has good reason. His mom is a big-time tweaker. His dad makes her homeschool the kids after the school nurse reported them to Social Services because their teeth were rotting out of their heads. The family had a child die under suspicious circumstances. The kids lived in foster care for a while, but now they’re back. Ours is not to reason why; we just feed them, buy them coats and mittens, and call Social Services frequently.
We do what we can for Johnny, and it’s not going to be enough.
But Johnny might weigh 70 pounds soaking wet. He hadn’t rung the bell. There was no reason for him to be looking so pale. I’ve shaken him down for all manner of sins and he’s been gleefully unrepentant.
I didn’t have much hope that he’d rat on someone else, but I had to ask: “Who was in there?”
“Preacher dude,” he mumbled.
What preacher dude? (Dunno.) How did you know he was a preacher? (He had on a black dress — which wasn’t all that startling to hear, considering that we’d worshipped that morning with a guy in a plaid skirt.)
Three parishioners arrived, summoned by the bell. Once they realized we had no emergency, they had the same questions I did: What preacher dude? Where did he go?
Johnny didn’t know that, but besides the black dress, the preacher wore two little neckties.
Geneva tabs. Wow. On the other hand, some of us do wear them on Reformation Sunday.
Other congregants arrived. Some searched the church. Some checked the locks.
Some sat on the steps and talked to Johnny and his sidekicks. Had they seen him go in? (No.) Had they heard the bell? (Yeah.) Had they seen him go out? (Yeah.) Out this door? (No.) Out the office door? (Um, no.) Where, then?
Uh, over there. Between those windows.
Where the side door used to be before the kitchen and bathrooms were added — before Johnny’s birth. He couldn’t have known about it. I didn’t, until one of the older members’ eyes grew wide and he blurted out, ‘The old door.”
There was no evidence of it at all. Whoever had matched the lap siding had done an exceptional job, as had the plasterers inside. The steps were long gone. The grass had grown in, which is no small feat in a place where the annual growing season is approximately 27 minutes. The church now sported a well-established flower bed along that wall.
There’s no moral to this story, no way to make sense of it. I don’t know who rang the bell; I don’t know whom the kids saw. He didn’t frighten them, so much as startle them. His presence seems benign.
I do know that in our church history book — which is not something any small child, let alone one of Johnny’s ilk, would ever page through — there’s a picture of a tall man in a black robe and Geneva tabs, dedicating the new church building in 1892.
His name was the Rev. John Ramsay.
And I know that if the bell rings in the middle of the night, I’m out of here.