It was a church in Harmony, all right. In fact, it was the only church in Harmony, a little town I'd pulled into just moments before. I was admiring the church's shining steeple and freshly painted white clapboard siding when a young man came out to greet me.
"Welcome!" he said, and smiled. "Will you be joining us this morning?"
"Well, sure," I answered. "I'm just passing through on business, but since it's Sunday morning—"
"Wonderful!" he enthused. "We're glad to have you. You're a bit early, though; service won't start for a few minutes. Since it's such a nice day, why don't we just stand out here and chat?"
"Sounds fine," I said, glancing around. "I was just admiring your building. Looks perfect as a postcard."
"Thank you. We like it, too. As you can see from the cornerstone, Harmony Community Church was built in 1879. It's not too big, but it seems just right for us. We try to be big enough to serve people, but small enough to know them."
"That's good," I said. Just then I happened to glance past the big oak doors into the foyer. Then I noticed a picture on the wall, hung in a fancy, gilt-edged frame. It was a portrait of a rather large, stern-faced woman.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"Oh," the young man answered quietly, respectfully. "You mean Miss Bertha June Biggs. She was a very special person, you know."
"No, I didn't know."
"Oh, yes, Miss Bertha June Biggs was our founder, in a manner of speaking. We owe a lot to her. Almost single-handedly, she made Harmony Community Church the peaceful, beautiful place it is today."
"You don't say. How did she do that?"
The young man smiled and got a faraway look in his eyes. "Miss Biggs was a lady with the courage of her convictions," he said. "She never hesitated to stand up for what she knew was right. She opposed the forces of evil wherever they were found—even when they were found in the church."
My eyebrows went up. "Evil?" I asked. "In this church?"
"Oh, yes, indeed. Miss Bertha June Biggs had uncanny spiritual sensitivity. She could always tell if something was wrong in the church—even if everyone else thought things were fine. It takes a very spiritual person to do that, don't you think?"
"It certainly does," I said.
He leaned against the wall. "Take those preachers, for instance," he said earnestly. "Miss Biggs was here when Harmony got its very first pastor. He was fresh out of Bible school, and the whole congregation was grateful to get him. All except Miss Biggs, of course. She knew what was really going on."
"Naturally. She knew that young pastor was wet behind the ears. He couldn't possibly know how to run a church." His voice dropped to a whisper. "He also wanted to do all kinds of terrible things."
I leaned closer. "Like what?"
"Like electrifying the pump organ?" he cried. "Can you believe it? Miss Biggs knew that would never do. It would lead to a weakening of the organist's ankles and probably the congregation's morals as well. You can see that, I'm sure."
"Anybody could" he said. "Fortunately the board of deacons saw it, too, when Miss Biggs pointed it out to them. They got rid of that pastor, so the church and the organist would remain strong."
"Oh," I said.
He sighed. "Unfortunately, the organist was too unspiritual to see the value of strong ankles, and she quit. But Miss Biggs knew that was fine, because the organist had always endangered the congregation's hearing by playing too loud, soft, high, low, fast, or slow—and by making a racket when she turned the pages of her sheet music. But that wasn't the worst of it."
"She hardly ever played Miss Biggs's favorite hymns," he said. "Nor did the organist realize the danger of singing the 'Amens' at the ends of songs, which Miss Biggs knew was unhealthy—except of course in the case of the Doxology."
"Uh of course."
"After that, another pastor came to Harmony. He was the Reverend Peachtree, Miss Biggs' favorite. She approved of him for the first twenty-three hours or so—but then he stood up to preach. Miss Biggs could see right away that he wasn't going to work out."
"Because he moved his arms too much when he talked. Just watching him made people tired, Miss Biggs said, and would cause them to fall asleep during sermons. And he didn't use enough illustrations about street urchins. Miss Biggs loved street urchins, you know. Not the actual urchins—she'd read you could get a disease or something if you got too close to them. But she loved to hear about them in sermon illustrations."
"Still, she could have ignored all the Reverend Peachtree's shortcomings—if not for the shocking thing he did at the end of his very first sermon."
"What was that?"
The young man gazed at the picture on the wall, shaking his head in sympathy for what Miss Biggs had been forced to endure. "The Reverend Peachtree went six minutes overtime," he intoned, incredulous. "With her spiritual insight and all, Miss Biggs knew he had to go."
I stared at the picture, too. "What did she do to getrid of him?" I asked.
The young man gasped. "Get rid of him?" he cried. "Miss Bertha
June Biggs never 'got rid of anybody. She simply exercised her discernment, as was her duty." He paused and regained his composure. "She wrote some thoughtful, anonymous letters to Reverend Peachtree, suggesting that he explore some of the marvelous opportunities available in other parts of the country. He must have appreciated her helpfulness, because he left within the month."
"Naturally," I said.
"Then came the next pastor, a Reverend Trimble. He met Miss Biggs's common-sense standards for preaching. But he had an unfortunate quirk that could have ruined the church if left unchecked."
"What was that?"
The young man frowned. "An obsession with missions."
"You mean Miss Biggs didn't like missions?"
My informant threw up his hands. "Of course she liked missions. Why, her favorite song was 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains,' which she successfully requested every Sunday night. But the Reverend Trimble didn't understand missions at all; he was always trying to convince people to be missionaries, which Miss Biggs knew perfectly well was heresy."
"Oh," I said.
"Nor did she like it when the Reverend Trimble invited all those missionaries to come and show their slides of foreigners and other things that were best left to National Geographic. One Sunday night a visiting missionary showed so many slides there was no time left to sing 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains.' Miss Biggs knew the kind of harm that sort of thing could do to a church, so she made sure Reverend Trimble left, too."
"Hmm," I said. "She must have had a high position on the church board."
"Sadly, no," the young man said. "It was hard just to get the board's attention, since they were always busy wasting the church's money, taking offerings for unnecessary things like roof patching and gas bills. One year they evenwanted to get new pews!"
"Really," I said.
"Miss Biggs knew the old ones were perfectly fine. As she told the board, if the congregation would just wear thicker clothing, the splinters would be no problem at all."
"And did they?"
"The truly spiritual ones did. But quite a few backsliders—no pun intended—chose the coward's way out and left the church. That upset the board, so they resigned, too."
"Oh, no, not at all. Miss Bertha June Biggs' campaign of purification was succeeding. By now na preacher dared venture near Harmony, having heard of Miss Biggs' exacting spiritual standards."
"Was that good?"
"Of course! That meant she could turn her attention from removing preachers and deacons to removing members of the congregation who failed to measure up. Now there was a task. Most members had already left—no doubt recognizing their spiritual inferiority—but there were still a few left to weed out."
He thought for a moment. "I remember reading in the records of a Claude P. Flackberry, Sr. His prayers were always too long. He'd go on and on about the sick and the lame, the needy and the hungry, the lost and the destitute—all things Miss Biggs knew should not interest a good churchgoer. Fortunately, he passed on before he could lead the rest of the members astray!'
"And the others?"
"They were everyday 'wolves in sheep's clothing,' as Miss Biggs called them. She graciously helped speed them on their way by letting the townspeople know what sins these members had confessed at prayer meeting. She had a verse for it, or course: . . That which ye have spoken in the car in closets shall be proclaimed upon the house tops.' I believe that's Luke 12:3—King James version, of course. Miss Biggs was always very careful with her use of Scripture."
"So I see."
"After these impure elements were removed, the Harmony Community Church was able to rest in peace at last. Miss Bertha June Biggs had finally transformed it into a truly harmonious body."
"How many members of this body were left?"
He beamed. "Just one—Miss Bertha June Biggs."
"And where is she?"
"When her job in Harmony was done, she moved away. She went to another church, I expect."
I scratched my head. "I don't understand," I said. "Miss Biggs killed the church. I thought you said she made it what it is today."
"I did," the young man replied. "It's a place that's 'big enough to serve you, small enough to know you.' Why, it's the finest restaurant in all of Harmony."
I blinked. "Restaurant?"
"Well, of course," he said. "Once the building was empty, my partners and I couldn't let it go to waste, could we? It's solid as a rock and pretty as a picture." He knocked his knuckles on the clean, white siding.
"But I ... didn't see a sign," I objected slowly.
He nodded. "There's just a small, tasteful one on the other side of the building. Don't want to look too commercial, you know."
"Of course not," I replied faintly.
"So," he said cheerfully, "shall I seat you now? I'm sure our food service has gotten underway. We have a lovely Sunday brunch. The salad bar is where the pulpit used to be. You'll find the sunlight streaming through the stained glass is just—"
"Uh, no . . no, thank you," I said, feeling numb. "I--I have to be going."
"Oh," he said, disappointed. "Well, do keep us in mind."
"I will," I promised, walking to my car. "Believe me, I will."
"Good!" he called after me. "And if you ever hear of any other churches that are being ... purified, be sure to let us know."
I turned around. "Why?" I asked.
"Because," He said, smiling. "We're thinking of opening a chain!"
It'll never work, I thought. But as I drove away, passing that peaceful little church in Harmony, I just couldn't be sure.