A gift of Easter lilies kept on giving

Here's an Easter tale that's different: Back in the early years of the 20th century, an evangelist named Frank Sandford was in the news because of problems at the religious colony he had founded in Durham, Maine. For our purposes today, suffice it to say that things were not well with his society of the Holy Ghost and Us, and his utopian community began to fall apart.

Among those persuaded and recruited by Mr. Sandford were certain Swiss Mennonites and in particular one family named, let us say, Rhochzahn. They had five sons who stayed in the community after the breakup. One of the sons was named David.

David was reared in the Sandford theology, then studied at a theological seminary and became an ordained minister in the Congregational Church, which was rather much the established church of colonial Massachusetts and therefore acceptable. Perhaps tainted by the word "Shilohite," however, as followers of Frank Sandford were dubbed, David Rhochzahn did not have a parish and was not a settled minister. This led to a happy circumstance of particular interest to us at this Easter season.

At the time, the one-room rural schools where barefoot boys and pig-tailed girls had been so well taught and properly "fetched up" were being ridiculed as antiquities. Centralized schools with bus rides were the guarantee of better education, ha-and-ha, and the Cedar Brook District School was closed and became available.

The Rev. David Rhochzahn now appeared at the town office and made an offer. Thus for a pittance he became the owner of the discontinued Cedar Brook schoolhouse, which was in good repair and sat in a grove of tall trees at a crossroads, a site both handy and convenient - and solitary and serene as well. Why would anyone want to own an old schoolhouse?

Then Mr. Rhochzahn came with a ladder and took down the sign that said Cedar Brook School and put up one that said Rhochzahn Church.

Think about that. David Rhochzahn is the only man I ever heard about who owned his own church. Churches are owned by societies, parishes, bishoprics, papacies! But Rhochzahn owned his own church and began holding Sunday services the way a man might open a grocery store and speculate on customers.

Every Sunday he preached, whether anybody came or not. People did come, out of curiosity, perhaps, but the church was situated pleasantly and Mrs. Rhochzahn was an excellent parlor organist. The sermons were effective, and Rhochzahn had a good pulpit voice. The collections may not have been munificent, but they belonged to the owner and were dedicated to his purposes. Perhaps I should say that while Rhochzahn was from the Shiloh community, he didn't persist with those evangelical manners. He kept to a Congregational style with dignity and scholarship.

Now it happened that we had a greenhouse and a small florist business, and on an Easter eve we were relaxing family-style after a profitable day. We had had but 10 unsold Easter lilies, which is good because it's better to have a few left over than to run out, and just then there came a knock at our front door.

We never used the front door. People came to our back shed door, which was never locked, and walked in without knocking. Now the knock was repeated. I jumped up, shoved my feet into my boots, and being careful not to trip on my untied laces I strode to the front hall, pushed things aside, and opened the front door.

There stood Rhochzahn with a wide smile and his hands in a penitent posture. "May I step in?" he asked. To which I responded, "Of course! To what may I attribute this happy surprise?"

"I am on an errand of supposition," quoth he. "Do you have any Easter lilies left over?"

"Come in, come in," I urged.

He paused at the lintel to bless our home and its family, came through the door, and took a seat. He came directly to his point. "As you know," he said, "I will conduct Easter services tomorrow at 11 hours, and it is my hope that you have some lilies unsold and I may borrow them to embellish my church. I'm not in a position to buy lilies, but if I may borrow some, I can return them in good condition tomorrow afternoon."

Knowing I was stuck with 10 unsold lilies, I readily agreed and went to the greenhouse to stake the lilies and wrap them. Reverend Rhochzahn drove off into the night to set up my lilies by his pulpit and make his little church ready for the morrow. Before he left he asked me, "If I should sell one, how much do I pay you?"

Shortly after noontime on Easter Sunday, Rhochzahn knocked on our front door again. When I opened, he said, "He is risen!"

I said, "He is risen, indeed!" and he held out a handful of money to me. "What's this?" I added.

Rhochzahn said, "Before the benediction, I raffled off the lilies, and you have contributed liberally to our Easter collection. Here is your price for the lilies."

Something came over me and I was suddenly flushed with generosity. He had sold the 10 lilies I would otherwise have thrown on the dump! "It's Easter," I said. "Keep the change."

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