Going to Heaven in a Hot-Air Balloon

What Pastor Reg realized one night after a worship committee meeting was that nobody read the Gazette's Saturday religion page as devotedly as Christians. At least the members of the committee seemed to know everything everyone else was doing.

Beth Olson said the Lutherans were showing the new Billy Graham film up on the side of the church and urging everyone to bring lawn chairs—homemade pie, coffee, and punch would be served. No offerings. "Wouldn't that be great?" she said. "Why didn't we think of that?"

Mark Trotter said the Unitarians were putting on a series of readings by local poets with background music from a string quintet. Cappuccino made right there in the sanctuary. "We'd never get it past the council," he said. "They don't think it's worship unless someone with a seminary degree raises his hands and says a few choice words."

Randy Blevens said Westminster Pres. was putting on a croquet tournament on its front lawn, the Church of Christ had scheduled the mayor to speak, and First Congregational was having a tent meeting—that's right, a tent meeting. The catch was, the tent was on the tee box of the first hole at Riverdale Golf Course, where the entire congregation was having a golf tournament. "How on earth do you keep up with the competition?" he asked.

How on earth do you keep up with the competition? Pastor Reg asked himself that night as he locked the church door and headed out to the parking lot. Maybe they ought to have a Sadie Hawkins dance. How about a Mitch Miller sing-a-long at a fire pit? Maybe they ought to build their own golf course— Maryvale Inspiration Hills: free golf if you sit through a song service and a short meditation. Maybe they ought to hire someone to keep up with the competition. Call this person "Minister of Fun."

It was almost Lent, he reminded himself. Lent. Denial.

The parking lot was empty, so he stood there at the car door, then turned away and leaned against it, looking up at a basket of stars in the inky night. Lent. His father had often joked about his Roman Catholic friends denying themselves fresh strawberries in late March—or watermelon, or cod liver oil. Denial.

The meeting had gone well, the whole docket of lenten services up and running, sermon topics arranged, choral music chosen, worship teams planned, kids' activities charted. They were going to do communion in three different ways on consecutive Sundays, and the art committee had created billowing clouds in off-white satin to hang from the ceiling. On Easter, with one deft jerk, the whole mass would withdraw like a system of blinds, and one gigantic spot would blaze through to the rock at the front, the stone rolled away. Everything was perfect. Except for the competition.

Meadowvale was doing a cutting from the Black Hills Passion Play, the Baptists had a choir of four hundred voices that would fill Donnelly Park with praise, and the Assembly Church was promising nothing less than the Holy Spirit. "As if he won't be at our service," Fred Van Os said disgustedly.

How on earth do you keep up with the competition? Pastor Reg asked himself at the car. The warm California night was still and moonless. He had been too busy to walk the twelve blocks to church that night, too busy to walk ever, really. Besides, people said that between the church and his house the area was tough enough to make driving almost a necessity.

Comfort, he thought. My only comfort is that I've got a car—I can save myself time and a walk through the grime next door. Comfort—now there's an interesting word. Like denial, he told himself. Something of Lent is denial. He knew the old bigoted jokes about Roman Catholics for what they were—false righteousness. For centuries thousands of believers had denied themselves comforts in a quest for a kind of purification—to break life down to the essence, to see what was important. Denial, he thought. Not strawberries, but something comfortable—like the car. He decided to walk home.

Not more than a block from the church, rusty motorcycles leaned forlornly in foot-high, front-lawn weeds. Litter from every fast-food place in the city was strewn on streets and sidewalks. Doors and windows stood open behind cluttered front porches in the warm spring night, and televisions, some of them huge, blazed in every house. On one graffiti-covered porch, two little kids, bare-fannied, hopped on and off their Big Wheels, far past their bedtime. A house south, three engine blocks stood on the sidewalk like a succession of barricades.

A huge man stooped at the side of an old orange van, fiddling with what Pastor Reg finally recognized as an old woman in a wheelchair, apparently locked in the hydraulic lift inside. She was toothless, her hair cut ruthlessly around a craggy face, big chunks of her spilling out wherever they could from the chair. But she sat there like a queen while her pony-taiied servant uttered all kinds of vulgarity at the technology that wouldn't let go of her.

There was no avoiding them. "Need some help?" the preacher said.

"Yeah," the man said, without glancing back. "I can't get my ma out of the van." When he turned, the streetlight above him lit a face as mottled and pockmarked as rotted wood. "This gizmo is jammed again, and I can't lift her by myself," he said. "She ain't no Tinkerbell—"

"You ain't no Peter Pan either," she said, then turned to check the pastor out. "Who are you?"

"My name's Reg," he said. He avoided adding "pastor," since that word always changed people.

"Reg—like the Archie comics," the man said. "Tell you what, Reg, you take a side of this old woman here, and we'll deliver her from a long night in a smelly van."

"It's nice of you to take her places," Pastor Reg said, putting one foot in the van.

"Nice, you say?" the guy said. "Saintly, I'd call it— but she don't appreciate it either, not a bit. Not another woman on earth I'd do this for—"

"If you'd be nicer to women, you wouldn't be alone at forty-eight years old," his mother said.

"I didn't have to do this for none of them women I married," he said. "You're my ma. I don't ha' no choice." He took hold of the right side of the chair, then looked over at Reg. "Ready?" he said, and the two of them clean-and-jerked one substantial woman from the lame technology of an old van.

"His bark's a whole lot worse'n his bite," the old woman said. "Know what he did just now? Took me to Feller Air Park and put me in one of them balloons."

Except for her weight, she looked a hundred. "Balloons?" Pastor Reg said.

"Hot-air balloons," she told him, pointing. "He took me, my boy Shep here."

"Shep?" Reg said.

"I can't help it what she named me," the man said, rubbing arms full of what was either grease or old tatoos.

"I'm dying," she said. "You know what that's like?"

"So am I," Pastor Reg told her gently. "So is Shep here."

"You're a preacher, aren't you?" Shep said. "Only people I know say stuff like that are preachers."

"You're a preacher?" the old woman said, her face lighting up. "Then let me tell you what I saw tonight, 'cause it was a vision, sure as I'm sitting here—"

"Ma," Shep warned, and turned to Pastor Reg. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't ha' said that. Nowyou're in for a sermon."

"Shep here," she said, "he took me on my own special Make-A-Wish." She pointed proudly at him. "I told him, once before I die I want to see this place like God intended it. So he got me a trip in a hot-air balloon just tonight. I floated on wind as silent as the Spirit. It was beautiful. Nothing like it."

"You should'a heard those heaters roar to get her off the ground," her son said.

"It ain't at all like a plane because it's all quiet, and you just got the sense up there that the Lord said to this city, 'Just shuttup for once and be still.' You get up there, Preacher, and you want to know what you see?"

"What do you see?" Reg said.

"How good it is—that's what you see." She lifted one huge arm and gestured up the street. "None of this filth. From up there, the whole world looks beautiful. No trash, not a whit." She nodded hard. "It's a way I'd like to go, like Elijah, except no chariot. I'm scared of animals. I'd like to go to heaven in a hot-air balloon." She turned to her son. "Now get me in the house, Shep," she said, "This preacher's got people to visit." Then to him. "Thanks for stopping—my son here'd like to kill me if you didn't come along."

"What do you mean, 'like to'? Would have," Shep said, frowning at her. "Think the Lord's going to want her, Reverend?" he said, winking. "Who's to say Saint Peter won't just tell her to take a hike down the block to other side—know what I'm saying?"

"I got a seat in glory," she told him. "Now you let this pastor here be up to his work and get me in the house. You tryin' to starve me, Shep, is that it?"

Shep winked again, then wheeled his ma up a sidewalk outlined by old weeds, gold as straw every crack of the way.

"Shep," Pastor Reg yelled. "Where d'you two go to church?"

"Ma's an invalid," he said. "You saw her." And then he winked a third time. A wave from both of them, and they were gone.

Lent, he thought, then Easter.

In ten minutes tonight, he'd found the unchurched three blocks from Maryvale, people who didn't read the religion section of the Gazette. These were people who didn't play golf, listen to the region's best poetry, or get all excited about free pie and a Billy Graham movie on the side of the church.

In ten minutes tonight he'd got himself ministered to, the preacher become seeker. He'd found something in the neighborhood, something in its own way God-made and Jesus-saved.

He figured he could tell the committee that next year they ought to rent hot-air balloons, get a leg up. They'd love it. He could do that. But this lenten season, he'd just walk home quietly, not tell anybody a word about the car in the parking lot and what he was denying. It would be his own hidden walk. No fanfare. No bells and whistles.

Why not? He was no more than a half hour into Lent, and already he felt like he had to praise the Lord for his marvellous acts. This year, he'd just worship, that's all.

All the way home, he whistled,

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.