Quite a lively summer we're having. Jim and Tammy continue to claw their way back to the City of Heavenly Fudge with a shamelessness that seems to embarrass even them. Oral Roberts claims to be creator and coach of a team of Christian Zombies. UFO people are back, and presidential candidates are bouncing around like lottery ping-pong balls. I am enjoying this awesome display of societal bounty, certainly, but I have to admit that I'm over-extended. There's just too much. The other night I had three TVs going. One was tuned to Maury Povich's "A Current Affair," on which Jerry Falwell's lawyer was calling Jim and Tammy's lawyer an "oaf" and an "environmental protection hazard." Another showed Leon and Jayne Kennedy's vanity remake of "Body and Soul." And the third featured Robert ("The Brady Bunch") Reed as the heartless overlord of a steamy southern women's prison farm where tensions bubble and stew until one day the inmates -- clad in their standard uniform of tiny cutoffs and snug T-shirts -- have a mud fight.

I mention these distasteful matters only as a shame-faced way of explaining why I'm so late reporting on the celebrated "Tennessee Freezer Jesus," a religious miracle that revealed itself in early June. The awful truth is: I missed it. Here is a summary of the facts as reported in The Nashville Tennessean.

One evening in February, Katherine Partin of Estill Springs, Tenn., was looking out the kitchen window of her trailer home when she noticed that her front-porch light cast a curious blend of light and shadow on the side of an upright General Electric freezer sitting on the porch of her next-door neighbors, Arlene and Luther Gardner. The chiaroscuro image appeared to be a profile of a man with long hair and a beard. Katherine decided it was Jesus and felt it was "a message for me to do something important. So I did. I wrote a letter to a relative who had backslid. But it didn't go away, so I don't think the message was for me."

In mid-May, she told Arlene about the image. Arlene quickly decided the message was for her and spread the word that Jesus had manifested Himself on her chillbox. "It's a miracle," she told a reporter. "It's a sign that Jesus is coming again soon." Later she added: "I had a dream . . . Jesus said He connected that porch light with my freezer and turned my freezer into a TV by electricity . . . When the whole world sees it, it will go away." That time estimate was way off. When the word spread and hundreds of curious onlookers began making nightly pilgrimages to the rural site, the Partins and some other locals started having doubts that, before long, would spell "lights out" for the Freezer Jesus. As one citizen put it: "When the good Lord comes, it won't be on a {bad word} major appliance." Katherine Partin told Arlene that she was tired of being laughed at and that the image was ambiguous -- maybe it wasn't Jesus? Katherine's son, a minister, said he thought the face looked more like Willie Nelson. After two straight weeks of having strangers troop through his kitchen -- which was considered the prime viewing spot -- Katherine's husband, John Partin Sr., said he'd had it. "People have left their Coke cans on the sink, used the telephone, the bathroom," he complained. "We're worn out." Reluctantly, the Partins stopped turning on their porch light at night. The forces of darkness had won.

"We don't want it to end!" said an agitated Arlene, who added that her only crowd-related problem had come from kids who used their dirty fingers to draw eyeglasses on the face. "But it's not our choice. It's over." A few days later, though, she announced that she was looking for a new land patch with more parking, where she could set up a new light source and reilluminate the Freezer Jesus. "Tell everybody we're going to bring him back. It's our mission. I really believe I have a precious freezer!" Last week, however, I called the Gardners, and they were so mad about the snide coverage they got in People magazine that they told me (in angry tones, as if I had something to do with it!) that the Freezer Jesus will remain shrouded in a blanket until Hell freezes --

Hey, wait a second. Do I hear snickering in the audience? Now look, before you laugh at the Gardners, let's put this thing in perspective. First of all, these people are to be congratulated for resisting several hucksters who urged them to charge admission and sell Blessed Kool Pops frozen in the Jesus freezer. Second, try to remember that in terms of miracles, odd sightings and strange behavior, the real champs are not redneck Christians, but Roman Christians. If you don't believe me, take a trip through Lives of the Saints sometime. There, along with such bizarre phenomena as stigmata, spontaneous levitation, hair-shirt wearing, 30-year fasts and seeking martyrdom, you'll find characters who make the Gardners seem like apostles of rationality. St. Christina the Astonishing, who returned from the dead and said she'd been on a Super Tour through Hell and Heaven, spent most of her time trying to "escape the odor of humans" by leaping into trees, soaring into rafters and hiding in ovens. St. John Capistran rode through towns backward on a donkey, wearing a tall paper cap on which his greatest sins were listed. St. Conrad rolled around in thorns every time he had an "impure thought." St. Simeon Stylites lived atop a 60-foot column for 36 years, and St. Macedonius spent 45 years in an unsheltered ditch. (These guys would have known what to do with the Jesus freezer: Use it as an apartment building.) And St. Lawrence, while being grilled to death by the Romans, said, "My flesh is well done on one side. Turn me over." For this, a church punster made him patron saint of cooks and restaurateurs.

More recently, we've had the "swaying" Virgin of Ballinspittle, Ireland, the "crying" Virgin of Chicago and the "reflect-o-Mary" of Hanover Township, Pa. -- an image of the Virgin caused by a streetlight shining on clapboard siding. May I predict a miracle? Sometime this summer a Catholic film buff in Manhattan will put a colorized version of "The Bells of St. Mary's" in his VCR, the VCR will break down, and thousands of oohing and aahing people will line up to watch the machine not work.

Enough. My point is: We all have our quirks. Episcopalians ask the Big Guy to intercede on behalf of their duck-hooked tee shots. Baptists force their children to go to camps in church buses labeled "Jesus' Joy Caboose" and "God's Little Nightcrawler." Myself, I keep spare pennies in a "Lucky Money Buddha Bank" with a jiggling head . . . and I'm Presbyterian.

Okay? So we'll all try to be more tolerant? Good.

Now you can laugh at the Gardners. ::