Perhaps it was the fact a squirrel blew out a transformer last week and left the seminary without electricity for a few hours. Or hearing even nursing home residents are not safe from these critters. Or maybe it is nostalgia as I miss the folks in my former congregation. Or just as I am about to finish a big project I am a little giddy. Whatever the case, I thought I would dust off this story and share it today for some fun.
And perhaps the most disturbing thing about the following story is that, except for a few instances of poetic license, it is entirely true.
The reader or hearer of this story should be careful not to mistake it for another one that has a similar-sounding title, the popular children’s story known as A Tale of Squirrel Nutkins by Beatrix Potter. Nor should one think that this story is some type of sequel to Ms. Potter’s account. Oh, no. In Ms. Potter’s story, the little squirrel hero of her tale, Squirrel Nutkins, is pictured as a cuddly animal that warms the hearts of children around the world with its delightful antics that have a cute, mischievous nature to them. Clearly Ms. Potter was dealing in the land of make-believe. Perhaps she had spent too much time in her childhood playing with stuffed animals than encountering true wildlife. This story before you has been written to counter these false teachings of the Potterites, and to serve as a warning that the fall corrupted squirrels in a particularly dark way. This is another tale, the true story, of Squirrel Nut and his kins, and the cruel plot he and his cronies unleashed on the saints at the Sycamore church that came close to rivaling some of the lesser plagues on Egypt.
It all began a few winters ago. One morning before worship, some of the ladies of the congregation noticed white, flake-like material upon several pews in the sanctuary. Had the saints been more charismatic and dispensational in their theology, and not the staid Presbyterians they were, they might have seen this occurrence as some heavenly sign of blessing, such as angel dust or the return of manna. But they were much too down-to-earth for that, and the following conversation ensued among these ladies, all of whom happened to be the elders’ wives. (Now some might suggest this conversation offers testimony to the wisdom of closing the office of elder to women, but the actions of the elders you will hear in the remainder of this story will quickly lay to rest any appeal to pragmatic arguments regarding male headship. You will once again conclude that the only safe ground is Biblical ground.)
“I don’t think that it’s Greg’s dandruff,” Pam said. “The flakes are too large for him, we don’t usually sit here, and the Head and Shoulders has seemed to work lately.”
“No, I’m sure the children had something to do with it,” Sharon said in a grandmotherly sort of way. When I say grandmotherly sort of way, I don’t mean in the “grandma-just-made-cookies-for-all-her-sweet-grandkids” grandmotherly sort of way. I mean in the “grandma-just-caught-her-naughty-grandkids-playing-catch-with-her-favorite-vase” grandmotherly sort of way. “I just got done chasing some little boys out from under the pews, and they probably got dust on them.”
“But this stuff looks bigger than dust,” Pam answered. “And what’s this little thing?” Pam held a small, brown ball-like material between her fingers that she had found on the pew.
“It looks like the fecal material of the rodentia micelotus,” offered Susan, “which definitely proves it’s not dust.”
“Huh?” said Pam.
“It’s a mice dropping, Pam,” explained Sharon matter-of-factly.
With that a scream shot through the sanctuary (as did the dropping, which was never to be found again). Elder Greg, listening to Elder Bob retell the latest actions of Presbytery with all the enthusiasm of John Madden calling a football game, heard the yell behind him and was about to turn and chastise yet another child for breaking the house rules when he realized it was his beloved wife. Going up to her, he asked her what was wrong. Upon hearing Pam tell the horror of actually touching a mouse dropping, Greg smirked and launched into a deer hunting story where he made clear that far worse things had gotten on him. Yet a look from Pam stopped him right in the middle of the sentence, “Then I took the dripping kidney and…” Realizing his mistake, Greg then grew serious and spoke words that would later come back to haunt him and the rest of the congregation, “It’s just a little mouse. It won’t hurt anything.”
This scenario, minus the scream from Pam, played itself out repeatedly through the next few weeks. The men had determined it was falling from the air conditioning vents in the ceiling above the sanctuary, and was probably caused by a mouse building a nest on the vent to catch the warmth rising from the building being heated. Several of the ladies wanted them to take care of it immediately, for the thought of mice running overhead during worship sent shivers up their collective spine. The men assured the ladies they would take care of it on the next Men’s Work Night, which brought to the ladies’ minds a certain unfinished bathroom project the men had been working on for several years. This in turn conjured up in their minds images of opening the church some Sunday morning and waves of mice spilling out into the streets. The pastor also had expressed concerns that this might keep visitors from coming back, until he was reminded that their small church’s motto was “Where every visitor has his own pew” and that no one ever sat over there any way. Though occasionally mother’s hearts were set to palpitating when they found children doodling in the pew flakes before they could clean them up, at first the flakes were just a nuisance, not much of a problem.
Until the fateful day, that is. One cold, gray winter afternoon the pastor was in his office studying the finer points of the offering of the red heifer when he heard a strange banging noise coming from somewhere inside the building. He arose from his studies and traced the noise into the sanctuary, where he looked up and was amazed to see the grates from the air conditioning ducts visibly shaking. Something was scampering wildly about overhead. Running downstairs and grabbing a flashlight, he came back up and shone the beam onto the grate, just in time to see a squirrel grinning down at him.
“That’s no mice, it’s a squirrel! Oh, nuts!” he exclaimed, unaware that he had just named the culprit. This incident helps us see the wisdom of the Lord having had Adam name the animals in the garden before the fall rather than after it. One can only imagine what pests like rats or mosquitoes would have been called had this not been the case.
Hurriedly the pastor ran back into his office and grabbed a phone book. Finding a wildlife removal company, he called and was told by the man who answered he would be right over. Fifteen minutes later a truck bearing the sign Rodents-R-Us came screeching to a stop outside the building. A young, round man wearing a work belt with tools and wires hanging from it ran into the building, shoved a business card with a picture of a smiling possum on it into the pastor’s hand, and went up the stairs into the sanctuary.
“Yep, it’s squirrels alright. Sounds like two or three of them.”
“Two or three? How did they get into the building, and how did they get into the air conditioning duct?”
“Oh, they just need a small opening. Then they probably chewed through the foam board the ducts are made out of. Got themselves a regular jumbo-sized gerbil cage up there, that’s for sure, huh?”
The pastor found this attempt at humor rather annoying, so looked at the card in his hand to remember the guy’s name. “Brandon, how are you going to get these things out of here?”
Brandon smiled at the pastor. “Oh, I get rid of squirrels all the time. We’ll just open the duct up in the attic, put my special Yummy Delight Squirrel Food in the trap, and I’ll have them caught for you by the next day.” Brandon then lowered his voice and spoke as if he was a surgeon in a hospital waiting room informing a family about how the operation just went. “But don’t worry, Pastor. These are live traps and will not harm these little guys…”
As Brandon droned on in a way that would have made any member of PETA proud, explaining how he would drive fifty miles to release the little squirrels so they would be safe and not come back, he had no idea that the Covenanter blood of the pastor was starting to boil. “My spiritual forefathers used to shoot enemy soldiers – people! – so they could worship in freedom. What’s a few squirrels?” the pastor was thinking as Brandon started in on the nesting habits of squirrels. “I certainly don’t want to spare these bushy-tailed rodents who will be distracting the church come Sunday. I wonder if he can just kill the things?”
As if he was reading the pastor’s mind, Brandon paused for a moment, glanced around as if making sure no one else could hear him, then whispered like a funeral director, “Of course, if you don’t mind if the squirrel passes away, it will cost less.”
Money talks in situations like these, and already wondering how he would explain to the deacons the cost of sending for this guy, the pastor said, “Take them out dead or alive, whatever is cheapest.”
“Dead it is, then. Now we’re talking,” Brandon replied with a gleam in his eye. “I used to be a police officer, and I love being hot on the trail of criminal squirrels. Hold on just a minute.” Brandon ran out to his truck, and returned with two small wooden boxes with heavy spring-loaded traps inside. “I call these my Back-Breaker Traps,” Brandon said, his eyes narrowed to deadly slits. “Look in here.” The pastor peered into the box. “Mr. Squirrel comes to get the food, hits this little trigger with his neck, and BANG!” Brandon yelled, letting the spring slam the bar down and making the pastor jump, “the little buggers back is broke and he’s dead in no time. I’ll put two of my best traps up there. Then just have your janitor check them each day…”
“Excuse me, but I don’t have a janitor,” the pastor interrupted politely.
“Okay, then just have your secretary go up and…”
“Uh, I don’t have a secretary.”
“Minister of music?”
The pastor snorted. “Certainly not!”
“What kind of church is this, anyway?” Brandon interrupted. “Oh, never mind. Any way, you go up each day and check, and let me know as soon as I get them.”
Brandon’s optimism far outweighed his results. Days then weeks went by, but the squirrels never went into the traps no matter where Brandon set them. The squirrels grew bolder as well, no longer frightened by people in the building. As if they were demon-possessed, every week the squirrels distracted people during the worship service by jumping and banging on the grates so hard people thought they would fall though. The thought of a squirrel actually being loose in the sanctuary kept everyone on edge.
That another plan needed to be put in place became apparent one day as the pastor went to check the traps. As he climbed the rickety attic ladder yet again to see if the traps had yielded anything, he thought about how much he disliked going up there. “I wonder how many pastors meditate on their sermons in the church attic looking for trapped squirrels?” he mumbled to himself. Actually, if the truth be known, it was not so much missed sermon time but rather tiptoeing around the creepy attic the pastor did not like. And if the real truth be known, in his congregation of he-man car enthusiasts and outdoorsmen, the pastor was a bit skittish about perhaps finding a squirrel still alive in a trap.
He went around the old organ pipe room to get to the last trap, which was overhead in one of the ducts Brandon had opened. A small ladder, set on a piece of plywood laying atop the ceiling joists, leaned against the wall in order to aid in checking the trap. After walking as if on a tightrope across a ceiling joist to the ladder, he began climbing up to look inside when all of a sudden he heard a scratching noise directly overhead. Letting out an “Ahhhhhh-arrrrrgh!” he stepped back off the ladder, missing the board and stepping between the ceiling joists. His foot continued down through the insulation, breaking through the lattice, plaster and ceiling tile in the hallway below. The crashing of building material cascading down the stairs brought students in a mid-week class running upstairs to see a leg with a size 13 shoe dangling out of the ceiling above. One of them yelled, “We didn’t catch a squirrel, but it appears we have caught a pastor!”
“Oh, nuts!” The pastor sighed above. He had been up to his neck in trouble many times before, but never down to his thigh in it. As he slowly pulled his leg back up, he remembered the noise he had heard and looked up. Not seeing any squirrel, he grabbed the ladder again, only to realize it had been his climbing up it that had made the squeaking noise on the duct above. “Oh, nuts!” he said once again.
During the next several hours as he cleaned up his mess, the pastor heard the squirrels out in the sanctuary once again, their sound like nails on a blackboard to his shattered nerves. He had to figure out a solution. Finally, an idea dawned on him, causing his eyebrows to arch in delight across his never-ending forehead. The idea was so Presbyterian he could not believe he had not thought of it before. “We need a committee!” he exclaimed out loud.
At the next session meeting, after much deliberation, a committee was formed. The elders called it the Squirrel Watch and Ambush Team, or SWAT for short. Elder Tom was made Chairman and Head of Ballistics, who, having defended his family on several occasions from marauding groundhogs, was a natural choice. (However, it was clear Tom needed someone else to communicate the committee’s work to others, for Tom had made several contributions over the years to Sycamore’s Top Ten List of “Things not to Say to First-time Visitors.” At the top of the list was “Thou shalt not mention guns.” One day after the worship service, in an attempt to be welcoming and loving, Tom had invited a man visiting with his wife and children to the annual congregational shootout held out at his rural farm. In his desire to be warm and encouraging, Tom had explained enthusiastically how the Sycamore saints loved blowing half the hillside away in their target shooting. During his recounting of past shootouts, replete with Tom holding a pretend rifle and going “Pow! Pow!” he had been unaware that the man’s eyes had increasingly been growing wide with fear. By the time Tom had turned back to invite them to this expression of Christian fellowship, they were no where to be found, the poor man having gathered his family and made a quick exit out the door, never to be seen again.) The pastor was chosen to be the press agent, and his weekly bulletin announcements began to read like the front page headlines of a supermarket tabloid: “Deviant Squirrels Once Again Avoid Capture,” “Near Miss as Rodent Scampers Free.” The elders also figured the committee needed deacon representation and the wildlife expertise of a Canadian, so Deacon Ron was added. When the pastor and Ron asked Tom what to do, Tom simply told Ron to take over checking the traps in order to protect the pastor and that he would take care of the rest.
You can imagine the pastor’s astonishment one early Saturday morning when the phone rang and the following conversation ensued.
“Pastor, this is Tom,” he said with an excited type of breathlessness. “I just shot a squirrel out of a tree on top of the church roof, but he’s not dead…
The pastor interrupted. “Tom, you were up on the roof of the church with a gun?”
“No, not a rifle, but a pellet gun. Don’t worry – I don’t think anyone saw me. I was lying down on the roof to avoid the squirrels spotting me. Also, that way no one else on the street would think I was a sniper or something.”
Looking at his watch, the pastor asked, “But Tom, it’s 7:30 in the morning. Why did you go so early?”
“Well, I have been observing their active times, and they are early risers. I knew this was my day to get one, and boy was I right on,” Tom said with all the enthusiasm of a guy who had just landed a twelve-point buck. “I sighted that bugger through my scope and pow – or maybe I should say poof since it’s an air rifle – I nailed him. Anyway, I shot this squirrel in the neck, and when he fell to the ground he wasn’t dead. His front legs were just paralyzed and he was still running around with his back legs.”
The imagery of this caused the pastor to tune out momentarily, as the thought of a squirrel moving along the ground like a little snowplow struck him as humorous. But the question that came over the line awoke him from his mental slumber.
“So pastor, is it okay if I bring him over?”
“So the neighbors around the church don’t see me plugging away at the squirrel – I wouldn’t want to scare any of them away from coming to worship -is it okay if I bring him to your house?” Rather than killing the squirrel with another shot, Tom had gotten a snow shovel out of the church, thrown the squirrel into the back of his covered pickup, and wanted to finish him off in the alley behind the pastor’s house.
Knowing his neighbors would find nothing he did very strange anymore, the pastor reluctantly agreed. “Sure, Tom, bring him over.” The pastor figured he would enjoy seeing one of the rodents get his due. He hung up, sighing once again, “Oh, nuts!”
A few minutes later, as a light rain fell, Tom pulled up in the alley and got out of his truck. As the pastor went out to meet him, he stared in astonishment as he saw Tom dressed in camouflage and wearing a suede, wide-brim hat. He even had mud smeared across his face. Without saying a word, Tom went to the back of his covered pickup truck, opened the back window, and with his pellet gun sighted in the squirrel with his scope.
“Blasted thing, hold still. He’s scooting all over the place.” Tom exclaimed. “Here, take that.” Poof went the pellet gun.
“He’s still alive!” The pastor then watched as Tom, known for his frugality, went around to the front cab, opened the door, took out one BB, loaded his gun, then went back around. “Hey! Quit chewing through my jumper cables!” Poof went the pellet gun.
This process continued for some time. A shot, some grumbling, a march for another munition, loading the singular BB, and returning to the truck bed for another shot. Finally even the pastor was beginning to feel sympathy for the squirrel. After Tom exclaimed, “I can’t see through the scope – it’s too dark back here!” the pastor suggested, “Tom, just put the gun up to his head and get it over with.” Tom complied, and the squirrel finally succumbed to its predestined fate.
Despite Tom’s success, the squirrels still ruled the roost at Sycamore, gleefully playing above while the saints, and especially the pastor, cringed below. They continued to avoid the traps despite Brandon’s efforts, and further SWAT raids on the rooftop yielded nothing. Since the ducts were some twenty-five feet overhead, someone had suggested renting a lift, moving the pews, and attacking them from below. However, this would have cost hundreds of dollars, and the mere thought of spending this money on rodent removal prevented it from being put into action.
Finally, one day as the SWAT committee was huddled in the hallway hatching more plans, Elder Paul, a retired pastor filled with God’s wisdom, came up to the group.
“Excuse me, but I’ve got an idea about the squirrels.”
“Really?” The committee responded in unison. “What is it? We’re desperate.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about the book of Matthew a lot lately, in there where it says the Lord even cares for the sparrow,” Paul began to preach. At first the group thought they were about to be chastised by the old man for wishing for the squirrels’ death. But then Paul went on, “So also God cares for you and this problem you have. We also learn in Matthew that no bird, and certainly no squirrel, falls to the ground without his say so. So my question and idea is this: Have you prayed God would get rid of the squirrels?”
“Well, uhhh, no,” they stammered, feeling a bit squirrelly.
“Why not?” Paul inquired, making the SWAT members feel as if they were being confronted by Elijah.
“I guess we thought this was too unimportant.”
“So let’s see, professional trappers, almost losing a pastor, a new ceiling, guys shooting off the roof, a committee, endless meetings, and you say this is too unimportant? I think God wants you to be spending your time on better things. These squirrels are our enemies. Let’s pray an imprecatory psalm and be done with it.” Paul had a unique way of taking Scripture and applying it to everyday events, and in this case he left the SWAT committee with its tail between its legs and no excuses. Ron immediately prayed a prayer for deliverance, though the mercy he had shown many a man came through as he concluded, “But please if it be possible, just let them escape and not come back.”
An amazing thing occurred after that prayer. The next day there was no noise, nor the day after. The following Sabbath the Sycamore saints’ worship service went uninterrupted for the first time in months. After several weeks they believed the ordeal was over. The SWAT team was even dismissed, with Tom given special recognition for his heroic efforts.
But about a month later a peculiar odor began to be noticed in the sanctuary, and each day it worsened. The men came out for a Men’s Work Night at that time. Once again they did not work on the bathroom, as they made investigating and ridding the building of the odor their highest priority. Finally, after determining the odor was coming from the duct, Tom crawled into it and found that only the imprecatory part of Ron’s prayer had been answered. Using scissor tongs, Tom extracted a squirrel that perhaps, in some other part of the world where rodents such as these are considered a delicacy, would have been in a package in the meat department labeled “Dehydrated with no preservatives added.”
Later that evening Ron and the pastor were crawling around in the duct, which was four feet wide, two feet high and ran the length of the sanctuary, cleaning out the other small, brown ball-like materials Squirrel Nuts and his kins had left behind. At one point Ron looked through the grate down into the sanctuary below, where other men were at work.
“Hey, Pastor, look at how small those guys look down there from up here,” he observed.
The pastor scooted around and looked down. “Yeah, and consider how small we looked to these squirrels as they played around up here,” he retorted.
“Actually, I was thinking about how small we look to God every week as He looks down from heaven upon us as we worship. It makes us, and our problems, seem so little.” Ron replied.
The pastor, reeking of the smell of squirrel remnants, was not in the mood for theologizing, and thought to himself, “Hasn’t been a little problem to me.” Raising himself to move back to a better cleaning position, he whacked his head on a beam overhead. “Ow! Nuts!” he said. Yet the bump on his head cleared his thoughts, and as he returned to cleaning he had to agree with Ron. The Lord had taken this problem of squirrels, small in God’s eyes though large to him, and reminded the congregation of the importance of prayer and His power over all things.
And he recalled that is always the lesson of plagues, if only we do not harden our hearts as Pharaoh.