Friday, August 26, 2016

Listening for God, II

So getting saved was a big deal. This ritual rivaled Pinetta Indian basketball and Madison's Woodard Theater as the top entertainment for most of us country folk. 

(A dedicated reader would listen to this instrumental while reading. It sets the mood perfectly!)

I remember watching people being saved, waiting for it each Sunday. Preacher Whatever would work himself into such a state his voice would tremble, 
and soon he would withdraw the handkerchief from his navy-blue coat, like a magician with his scarf, and he would wipe away the tears shed for our sinful nature, for our hearts encased in doubt and fear, for our willful descent into the fires of hell.

Each Sunday, I waited for this crescendo, for the inevitable first drop of rain from a looming thunderstorm. Another stanza of “Just as I Am.” The preacher wipes the sweat from his brow, pleads, prays and cajoles: “His Spirit is with us today, brethren, I can feel it, won’t you come now? Won't you come? The Word tells us, 'what you do for Jesus, do quickly.'" 

I scan the pews, trying to predict who it will be, hoping for one of the harder cases, a reprobate, a drunk, a wife-beater, oh, the excitement of a bad man mending his ways, ending his rebellion. (Later, people would say about him, "Did you hear about Rufus? He's changed." And we'd all know what that meant.)

Waiting, waiting for the troubled soul that could no longer bear its burden of sin, slowly dislodging itself from the congregation’s body, either drawn or pushed inexorably to the front of the church where the preacher had come down from behind the pulpit and stood waiting, his hands outstretched. O Lamb of God, I come.

On some days, the preacher's prayers were answered.

Leaving the rest of us behind, the Prodigal joined the Flock under the Good Shepherd’s care. Those of us who had yet to make that walk, fearfully gripped the sides of a gently rocking, slowly sinking boat, as we watched one of our kind go forth and walk across the water to the shore, there to rest in the arms of the Master.

Sometimes, though, no one came, and I felt that our stubbornness caused the preacher some measure of shame. I pitied him and felt personally responsible for his failing in front of all of us. Shaking his hand on the way out the door, I felt he was thinking of me, “You were the one. We were waiting. Why didn’t you come forth?”

I would eventually, but I reckoned it was going to take a miracle for a pathologically shy kid like me to make the roughly 27-mile hike from my pew to the front of the church.

* * * *
It was October, and I was approaching puberty. Pine Grove Baptist Church was having its yearly Fall Revival, which meant that a visiting pastor would preach evening services Monday through Friday in order to revive us. Usually, it was just a garden-variety preacher from a nearby Baptist church, but this time we were able to snag a celebrity from the big city.

I don't remember which city, but I recall the evangelist's occasional references to mingling with some higher ups from Standard Oil and the head honcho of Kraft Cheese. He mentioned other big wheels, too, which, from my point of view, added to his credibility, made him closer to God, more likely to have a Divine Connection than our regular, kind, gentle, humble minister who had to work for the power company during the week just to put food on the family's table.

I believed this because I was a gullible idiot, as many teens are even today.

I didn't know till later that my dad, sitting right next to me, thought the revivalist was a pompous jackass. I wonder how my life would've turned out had he told me his assessment while we were sitting there.

The exalted visiting pastor had not even broken a sweat when his sermon took the road to Armageddon.

"Who is to say," he asked, "we will live to see tomorrow's sunrise? What if we walked outside that door after tonight’s service only to see the sky lit up with the full force of Russia’s nuclear arsenal? Would you be ready to meet Lord Jesus? Or would our Savior turn his face from you, saying 'I know ye not, I spew ye out of my mouth and cast ye into that place where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth'?"
Khrushchev played a big role in my salvation.

That was a chance I didn’t want to take. Finally, there was something -- Hell -- I dreaded more than walking to the front of the church, so I made my move. 

When I reached the front, our regular preacher, Brother Chapman, asked me a series of questions that, with the last stanza of “Just as I Am” mingling with my own unmanly sobs, I could not hear, but I answered yes to them anyway. 

This was the very second when eternity met the temporal. As a pubescent teen, I had just chosen, using my free-will ticket, to turn the rest of my days over to at least one member of the Holy Trinity, maybe all of them, I wasn't sure. To God Incarnate. God made flesh. This was the moment when the dark skies cracked and revealed a sliver of Heaven's light. This was the moment when . . . 
Raggedy Ann

I looked out among the pews for Rhonda, a girl I had a middling crush on. I wanted to see her reaction to my salvation. Would she find this public display of piety irresistible? Would she interpret my tears as a sign of earnest, authentic devotion, and not weenieness?

Would she understand that it actually took manly courage to publicly cry like a little girl whose Raggedy Ann doll has just been stolen by a bully?

What would she be like tomorrow at school? Would she ask how it felt to be saved? Would she be able to tell I was “changed”? 

Tomorrow, would I share the splendor that shone forth from Moses’ face after his conversation with the burning bush as it was depicted in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic, The Ten Commandments?

Soon I was sent back to my seat next to my parents. I gave them a saintly smile which they answered with a look that asked, "What were you thinking?" The woman responsible for my first birth seemed uneasy about the second one, while my dad believed I had bought the Pearl of Great Price from a bombastic snake-oil salesman. Oh, they of little faith!

As I awaited the benediction, I pictured Rhonda and Nikita Khrushchev and mushroom clouds and the Hell I had just escaped. 

I forgot to picture Jesus, and I still don't know how to picture Heaven. Whatever. Tomorrow would be my first day of being saved! A whole new world!

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