If I hadn’t been there, I might not have believed it myself. The following story, while unbelievable, really did happen to me in a sleepy little church in Alabama one Wednesday night in the dead of summer.
My sister, my mother, and I sat in one of those red carpeted church pews that had that old church smell—not necessarily musty, but not exactly heavenly either. Like the good little pastoral family we were, we sat listening to my father teach the prayer meeting complete with PowerPoint. Now, I only tell you this, because if he had not been using PowerPoint; if the prayer meeting had been in the back of the sanctuary, like normal; if the stage lights had not been on, we might never, ever have seen the spectacular display of nature we beheld that night.
My dear dad was preaching and getting quite passionate about his subject as preachers are wont to do. It was quite the serious subject and he stood there with his arms spread wide and his brow furrowed. His voice raised to what was a fever pitch (for him) to match his raised arms and paused for effect.
And then we heard it.
Soft and unmistakable as it was, we heard it.
As children are prone to do, my sister and I turned to see what inspired this little bit of mirth, giggling already. Mom tapped us on the shoulder and gave us that stern church look that mothers—especially Southern ones—are extraordinarily good at.
But she was too late. The giggles had spread and now most of the tiny group of 10 or so of us were snorting, choking, and otherwise attempting to conceal our heaving shoulders.
And then Abby and I saw it.
Now in order for you to understand exactly I’m about to describe to you, I owe you an explanation. This little Seventh-day Adventist Church was built with one of the ten blueprints that all Adventist churches use some variation of. Specifically, behind the stage was a white (somewhat sparkly) brick wall, opened up in the middle about eight feet wide for an opening for the baptistery. Behind the baptistery was a huge three-angels stained glass mural that spanned from the nearly the peak of the A-frame ceiling to the top of the baptistery tank.
In that eight foot gap, way up high, almost too high to really see it, there was a flicker of movement. It took us a minute to realize what exactly it was that we beheld. Our eyes widened at the incredulousness of the display. Surely something so spectacular could not be happening here. It was too good to be true.
But there they were, clear as day.
Small, brown, flying squirrels leapt from one side of the high brick wall to the other. They soared and landed and soared again. It was magnificent. They were almost too small to see and yet too large to miss as they glided over the baptistery like some Deep South version of the Holy Spirit dove. It was mesmerizing and captivating and unreal. I had never had this much fun in church before in my whole entire life.
Nor had anyone else.
The chokes and giggles had now erupted into full on laughter. Was it the absurdity? Was it the fact my dear father had not the slightest idea and kept preaching on his sobering topic with all his precious heart? Was it the fact that we all saw it, but couldn’t say anything? Even as I write this today, I can’t help but wake my cats as I giggle at the memory.
I can still hear my mother’s soft half shout as she tried her best to somehow get his attention without making the situation worse.
He paused and turned to look at her questioningly, but could not read her face. There was a moment of shared breathlessness as we waited to see if somehow she could telepathically communicate the ludicrousness of what was going on behind him. He could not read it, if she had. He went back to preaching his heart out and the squirrels stayed soaring in the background.
By now the rest of the laity began pointing behind him.
But you see, that was the problem. My father couldn’t see the squirrels. To him, it appeared they were pointing at his PowerPoint slide. The confusion on his face as he slowed his passionate preaching and turned his face to the side only added to the rippling glee.
Somehow he missed them. He turned to stare at his slide and somehow didn’t turn enough. His slide appeared exactly as he had written it, so he turned right back around and continued.
The audience roared.
By now, my mother began to call for him to turn completely around. And then he saw it.
Now, we all were bent over in stitches.
And the squirrels kept flying. Completely ignorant or ignoring us, they kept finding freedom in their new found home. Their little brown coats glistened as they flew and reflected the stage lights back towards the audience. I have no idea how long we watched them for, but I know my sides ached from laughing at the absurdity of it all. I don’t rightly know how that night ended. I don’t know if my father managed to corral us or if the squirrels just got tired. I don’t know if we ran out of time or ran out of seriousness, but I do know I will always remember the day the (flying) squirrels went berserk in the first Seventh day Adventist church, in that sleepy little town of St. Elmo, Alabama.