An Atheist and a Saint

 

“You don’t believe in God?” I ask my girlfriend Liz.

It’s a legitimate question in Lynchburg, Virginia, a city whose population of Baptists is on par with Salt Lake City’s Mormons. Finding an atheist who is out around here is like spotting a yeti.

We approach the one traffic light on the way back to Liz’s apartment from the college where she teaches economics. It is dark out, almost ten at night. She’s hunched forward in the dull orange glow of the streetlight, hugging her coat closed. Without saying a definite yes to my question, she makes it clear. She turns her head down in the cold car as if laying it on a pillow, the bottom half of her face disappearing into shadow.

“Is that a problem?” she says.

“No,” I say. “Should it be?”

I begin to wonder why it is not. Though I left the Baptist faith of my childhood, I do still believe in God. What will it mean for our relationship that she does not?

We just came from a Richard Dawkins lecture at her college, which had been billed as a discussion of his book The God Delusion. Dawkins did not, however, spend the forty-minute talk arguing against belief in the supernatural, or some kind of divine reality. He had his rifle loaded for a single deity. Dawkins, a small, mild-looking man with a smooth British accent and ironic tone, stood at the lectern with a wry smirk and insulted Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. He ended his rollicking diatribe by calling God a “megalomaniacal meany.”

Of course, Dawkins knew he was only a few short miles from Fundamentalist Christian Liberty University, where all philosophy courses are apologetics classes. He also had to have seen the rows of Liberty students—whole classes complete with teachers—who are unmistakable around town in their unofficial uniform of J. Crew khakis and polo shirts. They took notes feverishly, flipped through books and Bibles, scrambled and shoved to line up at the microphone when he finally opened the floor for questions.

The Liberty students hit Dawkins with all the classic argument for the existence of God. They had a zeal and blustering pride typical of youth. Each kid appeared certain that Dawkins would cave before his or her argument, the old atheist would be publicly put to shame (or possibly even converted?) and the student would be the Young Champion of the hour. A seasoned professional, Dawkins slew these college kids one after the other, never flustered, never without a hint of a grin, never raising his voice.

For over an hour Liz and I watched students scramble up and down the aisles, flipping through their apologetics books, coached and goaded by their teachers. Eventually Dawkins stopped impugning the character of God and instead insulted the intelligence of anyone ignorant enough to associate with “that school on the other side of town.” The argument broke into little swirling eddies, none of them going anywhere. The undaunted kids were still lining up to get at him as we slipped out and made our way back to Liz’s apartment. Several times in the evening, I had noticed Liz nodding her agreement with Dawkins, and so I asked her about her unbelief.

I had just that week pulled the novel The Plague off my shelf and started reading it again. It had been twelve years since I’d last read it, and I was having a far different experience with the book this time around. At the time of the Dawkins lecture, this question was already in my mind: Why do I have such an affinity for Dr. Bernard Rieux, the protagonist of this novel? And why do I, a believer, feel such a sense of communion with the atheist writer Albert Camus?

 

In the early chapters of his phenomenology of religion God, Guilt, and Death, Merold Westphal writes of two basic human reactions to the idea of an Ultimate Other, however that is defined across religious traditions. These reactions he calls ambivalence and resentment. Though expressed in different ways, these are the reactions of believer and non-believer alike.

For the believer, according to Westphal, ambivalence begins with the awakening to the ontological poverty of the believing soul. The realization is expressed in phrases such as this one from a Baptist invitational hymn I sang countless times as a boy: “Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” From our earliest years in Sunday School we are taught to say, “He must increase, I must decrease,” a mantra which only brings our attitudes into plumb with the already-established reality of our nothingness before God. Stickers are popping up in car windows around town that say NOT I, BUT CHRIST—the website advertised below the message without intended irony was at first http://www.falwell.com, and has since changed to http://www.trbc.com. A perfect example of this very ambivalence.

I, the believing soul, am drawn to God, to the All, but at the same time I am repulsed because of what it means about the nature of my own existence: when faced with the Ultimate, non-contingent reality, I experience what Westphal calls a deficiency of being, a realization that my very existence is small and worthless by comparison. At the same time, God holds out to me the only chance at giving my small, weak existence any real meaning. Could I be anything but ambivalent? Like someone standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Westphal writes, or a toddler standing before a huge dog, I am simultaneously drawn in and repelled. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, as has often been noted, is a good example of this kind of believer’s ambivalence. Milton, a Protestant who opposing King of England, could not help feeling sympathy for his rag-tag band of fallen angels as they stood in defiance of the Dictator of all creation—for whose ways Milton had ostensibly set out to write a defense.

Nonbelievers experience ambivalence as a longing for something beyond material existence: for love that is truly love and not simply evolutionary impulses designed to propagate the species; for life to make some kind of sense; for existence to have real meaning. It is what Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” calls an “appetite for the absolute and for unity.” The absence of an Ultimate Other leaves a longing in the unbelieving soul—St. Augustine’s restless heart and Adrienne Rich’s lament about being an ice-fast rowboat gazing out at winter’s red light, with its own small gift for burning.

The ambivalence I’ve been talking about is rather self-centered. I don’t mean this in a negative way necessarily. I cannot not be at the center of my experience of the world, and therefore it is that experience which appears ultimate to me; I do however mature to realize that other individuals are at the center of their own experiences and, if I mature properly, I also realize that their experiences are no less important than my own.

This growing up does not make the ambivalence go away however. I suffer. I see loved ones suffer, and understand because I too have suffered, and I grieve for them. I learn to empathize with the suffering of complete strangers. At this point ambivalence shifts from its focus on the self in relation to God, to God in relation to humanity–the problem of evil and suffering. Particularly the suffering of children. The result is what Westphal calls resentment. This reaction is at the heart of the problem of evil, the reason many raised within a faith tradition turn to Atheism, and the central question of theodicy: If God is all-powerful, and all-good, then where does evil come from? At some point in her life the believer thinks, if I were God I would have created a world not marked by struggle and suffering, a world without blood and brutality. Surely God, being all-powerful, could have done better than this. It is a complaint about the way God is managing things: not only is someone other than me in charge of things, he appears to be royally fucking things up.

In The Plague, Camus’ protagonist Dr. Rieux echoes the bitter cry of Ivan Karamazov when he says, “until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” The disease ravaging Oran is no respecter of persons, and it tortures and destroys innocent children along with everyone else. Dr. Rieux is not equivocal about his conclusion: “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in him?”

As a youth, I heard more than one preacher quote Ivan Karamazov when he said if God is dead all things are possible, then point at the moral freefall of American culture as proof. Not only is this interpretation based on a questionable definition of morality, one focused almost entirely on sexual conduct and not on how you actually treat others (I had an African-American friend once lean over to me while we were listening to one such sermon and whisper, “Ask a black man how much worse things are.”), it is a total misunderstanding of Dostoevsky’s point. Camus understands that Ivan’s denial of God is far from a triumphal shout, because having a God who gives meaning and purpose to life is far more appealing than being able to misbehave without fear of punishment. Ivan is crying out that if God does not exist all manner of horrors are possible. Dr. Rieux looks around, sees that all manner of horrors are possible, and concludes that surely God must not exist.

Camus is known for his paradox of the Absurd, which is based on a dualism: we love and cherish life and existence, yet life and existence are marked by suffering, meaninglessness and ultimately death. It is absurd. The logical conclusion is nihilism and the only relevant question left is, according to Camus, why not just kill yourself and be done with it. Although Existentialism has gone out of fashion and become a sort of cultural joke, existentialists’ issues have not gone away.  The unbelieving side of resentment is simply the reasonable assumption that if there really is a good and loving and all-powerful God the world would not be as it undeniably is.

 

Liz works with the Lynchburg Neighborhood Development Foundation, an organization here in town whose work is among the poorest neighborhoods; at her job she champions service learning, teaching her students by taking them to work with community leaders in these neighborhoods on real economic problems. Her students must come face-to-face with the disenfranchised, know them as individuals, and treat them with dignity and respect.

In The Plague Dr. Rieux might choose meaninglessness, but he also refuses to follow it to Camus’ logical conclusion. He still behaves as if there were meaning to life. Throughout the plague he pushes himself to his physical limits combating the illness. He slaves with the devotion of Mother Theresa to alleviate suffering. He says that though he does not believe, he does feel he is on the right road in fighting against creation as he finds it and he believes we should “struggle with all our might against death.”

If you watch the man’s actions, it looks for all the world like a fitting answer to the bumper sticker: What Would Jesus Do? This. This is what he would do. But why? Why does Dr. Rieux persist in doing good when he honestly believes there’s no meaning to it? I think Miguel De Unamuno makes the distinction that answers this question. Psalms 53:1 says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God…” Another phrase I heard countless times growing up. In his classic Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes that it is a true statement, the fool hath denied God in his heart; but, he goes on to write that one who denies God in her head because of despair at not finding him is not who is being described in this passage of Scripture. For Unamuno, a righteous and good person can conclude in his head that there is no God and remain righteous. But it is the wicked and foolish one who concludes this in the heart.

This head-heart distinction goes down easily for a boy who grew up in the Baptist church hearing preachers talk about people missing heaven by eighteen inches—the distance from the head to the heart. What is astonishing here is the radical change of paradigm, the tectonic shift of categories.

To Evangelical Christians, a heart knowledge of God begins with an emotional response to a call, a moment of contrition in which Jesus is asked to enter one’s heart. What follows this conversion experience in the believing soul is a matter of debate (when I was in seminary it was called the Lordship Salvation controversy). In this tradition, it is the Atheist—the one who says in her head there is no God—who is the fool. Unamuno stands this interpretation on its head, and I think rightly so. A character in The Plague wonders aloud to Dr. Rieux if it is possible to be a saint without believing in God. Unamuno’s answer is an unequivocal yes.

What would Jesus himself say to this? Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night (John 3:1-21) and Jesus says to him, “Ye must be born again.”I know the story well. But going back to it, I notice the shift in Jesus’ own words from belief in him to actions: “For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light…But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought of God.”

I looked back over the rest of the red-lettered portions of the New Testament, to see what Jesus has to say. In Matthew 21, he gives the parable of the two sons. The one son says to his father, “Yes I will do as you ask,” then does not; the other son says to his father, “No, I will not,” but then goes and does as he is asked. Jesus is quite clear that the son who says the no and does the yes is the one who is truly righteous. In light of Unamuno’s words above, this parable could be seen as Jesus’ approval of a man like Dr. Bernard Rieux. What might make easy-living Evangelicals a little uncomfortable here is that once the dust settles on these new categories, if an Atheist is in, who might be left out?

This discomfort will not be alleviated by flipping forward to Matthew 25 and read what Jesus says about those who will be blessed and those who will be damned. Here he does not mention a conversion experience of any kind, or the keeping of rules. He doesn’t mention belief at all. He does speak in specific terms about blessing for those who have struggled against real, physical human suffering, and damnation for those who have not.

Liz considers all this talk of blessing and damnation so much poppycock, and so would Dr. Rieux; however, Camus has embodied in Rieux what he considers to be the only course one who longs for meaning yet sees none can take: hold out for meaning in the face of meaninglessness by sheer force of will. Act. Act and the action itself will create meaning. Not any act will suffice though. In his 1957 Nobel Banquet Speech, Camus’ call was to “fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.” But in an absurd world void of meaning, is it not just as much poppycock to call for action of any kind, much less one kind over another?

Here we return to the unbeliever’s side of ambivalence via the Stoics, who would rather cut off their feet than admit they need shoes. Camus refuses to take the Stoic’s way.  He has the integrity to admit that his heart longs for the Absolute, even while his head will not allow it. Even if his reason gives him no comfort, he still refuses to lop off his desire in order to make the denial of its object more convenient. His position is not so far removed from Unamuno’s “transcendental pessimism,” in which, after conceding that the evidence of reason is not enough in itself to justify belief, he concludes, “Let life be lived in such a way, with such dedication to goodness and the highest values that if, after all, it is annihilation which finally awaits us, that will be injustice.”

 

We awaken and discover ourselves dropped into existence in media res, and it is impossible to lift ourselves above the flow of history to get a universal perspective. Like it or not, we are contingent; we owe our existence to something other than ourselves. Whatever we believe that something to be, we feel ambivalent toward it.

Even though the concept of evil is debated, there is no disputing the existence of suffering. Our natural reaction to senseless suffering—the suffering of innocent children—is anguish and rage. Our options are clear. If we act, our actions create meaning. The way I see it, being contingent as we are—and therefore being incapable of creating anything ex nihilo—the meaning we create with our actions is in reality a reaching down and drawing on an Ultimate meaning, an Absolute. God. The ability to create meaning through moral action is what Nicolas Berdyaev calls the Freedom of the Spirit, and he says it is clear evidence that humanity bears the divine image.

More poppycock Liz would say. That doesn’t bother me. In a later discussion of the Dawkins lecture, she told me that she was put off by his comportment: he was smug, cocky, derisive of anyone who disagreed with his position. For example, when someone mentioned the fact that Antony Flew had backed off of his own Atheism, Dawkins said it was a pity; Flew was old and losing his faculties, but he “once had a fine mind.”

It’s impossible for me to say what Dawkins is like as a human being. He’d stepped up to preach his atheism in Lynchburg, Virginia. The fact that he preaches with evangelical zeal leads me to think his opinions are not simply a result of his disinterested study of the empirical evidence. I know that isn’t the case with Liz; she grew up being told by her Southern Baptist classmates on Georgia playgrounds that she and her entire family were going to burn in hell because they hadn’t asked Jesus into their hearts.

I think Rieux appeals to me so much because, whatever his stated belief, he is good. He acts as if there were meaning even if his reason tells him it isn’t true. Liz is good also, good and compassionate and fair. She lives her life according to a high moral code, and she is interested in justice, but not without mercy. These things I know about her. She doesn’t need a bracelet on her arm to remind her how Jesus would handle a situation; she has the moral compass in her heart.

When I asked her that night whether or not she believed in God, she finally said, “I don’t see enough evidence to justify belief.” Fair enough. I do see enough evidence to justify belief, and I am a believer. As much as my head might spin in disbelief, unbelief is simply not a living option. Yet the senseless suffering of innocents fills me with anguished questions for and about God. I struggle with the problem of evil–every honest apologist knows in his or her heart there is no final answer that can satisfactorily put this question to rest.

What do I do then? I strive to act with integrity, to live simply, taking only what I need and no more than my share. I endeavor to deal compassionately with others, trying to understand them as human beings with dreams and desires no less important than my own for their being different. I fight against injustice, suffering, and death wherever I find it.

This is Liz’s position as well. And this is why, driving back to her place after the Dawkins lecture, I was comfortable with her answer. While our heads disagree, our hearts are in perfect harmony. She stands on one side of the question of God, and I stand on the other, but we are looking in the same direction with a deep and human longing, a longing that rises from a shared place where sorrow and comfort mingle and flow regardless of belief. We are standing close together. In fact, we are so close we could easily lock arms.

 

“An Atheist and a Saint” was originally published in Rock & Sling.

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Do not do this in church.

“Gnosis” was originally published in Saint Katherine Review.

 

 

Gnosis

Brad Pinter pulls into his space by the front doors, where the pastor plaque is bolted to the building. Carl Hudson grins proudly beside him in Brad’s wife Crystal’s new car—a minivan she bought on faith, with future children in mind. The young preacher has taken the Sunday school hour to drive to downtown Charleston, to the projects–Orchard Manor, or The Manor to local—and pick up the boy for morning worship.

Carl is wearing a dark blue suit Brad got him at Goodwill. It’s at once too large and too small: it hangs from his skinny shoulders but is an inch too short at his bony wrists. His hair is light brown and greasy, and there are comb rows pulled across his head with bits of scalp rolled into them, like clods in a plowed field. He is tall, slouches like a rock star. His face is badly pockmarked but scrubbed clean and pink.

Brad has not told his wife Crystal everything, only that he thinks the Holy Spirit has been working on his heart, possibly leading him back to school, and he’s told her that much is riding on the Inner City Initiative. She knows how unhappy he is at this ministry.

How excited the two of them were when they arrived in Elkview fresh out of seminary. The church was three hundred strong, and he bested all the other graduates, some of them men much older, and with ministry experience. He joked from the pulpit that it was God’s timing because he’d just preached his last sermon from homiletics class. People like that kind of humor. It’s disarming. He was not kidding though, he was tapped out of good sermons. That was just less than one year ago.

He gets out of the van. It’s so hot and muggy that his forehead breaks into an instant sweat. Insects ring out from all directions like white noise on stereo speakers. Carl sits pat, so Brad walks around and opens the passenger door. The bell in the tower starts gonging the ten-minute warning. It startles Carl as he is stepping down, and he jerks and hits his head on the van door.

Cool air swirls around them as they step into the vestibule. In the sanctuary, Sandy Bowen, Larry’s wife, is playing “I Surrender All”on the organ.

Skip, the head deacon, is at the front door greeting today. “Brother Pinter,” he says and shakes Brad’s hand. As usual, Brad’s knuckles crumple in his grip. Like most men in Elkview, Skip doesn’t wear a suit jacket, and he shows up to morning worship with his shirt sleeves rolled up past his elbows, as if he were ready to cut firewood.

Brad says, “Morning, Skip,” and pulls his hand away. Skip is a big solid man. He works for a freight company in South Charleston changing semi-truck and trailer tires all day.

Skip’s wife Fran sees Brad and scurries through the vestibule from the girls’ room to the sanctuary to avoid speaking. One of the hardest things for Brad is knowing too much. He hasn’t gotten used to it. Fran had called Brad at four Saturday morning and told on Skip. Brad’s head deacon had met his daughter at their front door when her boyfriend dropped her off at three-thirty, grabbed a fistful of her hair and called her a whore, and as she ran to her bedroom, he’d hollered and asked her why she wasn’t walking bow-legged. Skip isn’t aware that Brad knows this.

Brad says, “Skip, this is Carl Hudson.”

Everyone in Elkview knows who Carl Hudson is. His family lived in a hovel up on the mountain above Route 119. They had chickens that were always fluttering off the hill and getting pancaked on the road. When he was young, his brother stabbed him in the head with a steak knife. At twelve, he held the police at bay for several hours while he waved a shotgun out the second-story window. That’s when he was put in state’s custody, and the family moved away without him. He eventually turned up again, thumbing rides up and down 119, living downtown in the Manor.

Brad saw him as the route to getting the inner city initiative started, and led him to the Lord at the downtown transit mall just last week.

“Morning Carl.” Skip’s smile is as wide and friendly as usual. Skip hands Carl a bulletin and offers one to Brad. Brad takes it to do the announcements from; it’s still soft from the printer and smells like fresh ink.

He asks Skip, “Is it okay if Carl sits with you and Fran today?” He puts his hand on Carl’s back and applies gentle pressure.

“Sure, sure, no problem,” Skip says.

Carl says, “Proper,” and pulls his sharp face into a toothy grin. His laugh is a staccato hiss, like rapid cat-sneezes.

“Carl,” Brad says, “Skip will take good care of you.”

“That’s dope,” Carl says.

Carl looks at the bulletin boards in the vestibule. He squints. His hands roll up the bulletin, then unroll it, then roll it up again. He sidesteps to the displays.

Brad watches as Carl checks out the displays. The first is the world missions map, with colored pins on all the places where Open Door Baptist Church supports missionaries. Beside the map is the AWANA board, with pictures of the boy- and girl-clubbers of the month, grinning down in their gray uniforms and red neckerchiefs. Brad looks at the side of Carl’s face to try to see what he is making of it. Carl is grinning right back up at those kids.

Sandy ends “I Surrender All” and begins “Just as I Am.” Both are invitational hymns, designed for the end of a service, and not on the instructions Brad had jotted down this morning.

Brad sits in the pastor’s chair behind the pulpit. It is a monstrous, ornate wooden thing from the old sanctuary, like a throne. The praise band starts. The guitar Frank Ryder uses is shiny wood grain and says Kasuga on the neck. He traded Skip a 20-gauge pump-action shotgun for it right in the back of the sanctuary one Sunday night after service. The guitar has a rich warm sound, and he can play. That’s not the problem.

The praise and worship service was Brad’s idea to bring in some younger—and to be honest, hipper—people. He wanted to have a laid-back community-church style, be more seeker-friendly. Frank answered his call for musicians and commandeered the whole music ministry. He and Skip pounded down stakes out on the front church lawn facing 119, and stretched out a red vinyl sign announcing the Contemporary Praise and Worship Service. The sign is still out there. It fills and sags with the changing wind like a boat sail.

Carl sits between Skip and Fran four rows back, in their usual spot. Fran’s face is a heavy mask of makeup—she  looks like a corpse in a casket. She sells Mary Kay Cosmetics. She won a red Grand Am. Brad has wondered about the red car. He thought they gave out pink cars. The way she cakes it on herself, she’s like a drug dealer who’s in the business to support her own mammoth habit.

Frank starts out the service: “Father we love you, we worship and adore you. Glorify your name in all the earth…” Linda and June, the two women who sing backup, both join in on alto. The microphones are all wrong and the ladies are louder than Frank. Linda holds a tambourine at the ready. Lew Griffin plays the drums. Before he was saved, Lew played in a rock band in Boston. Sometimes a girl from the high school class stands off to the side with her clarinet. She’s not here this morning.

The congregation joins in singing. Carl beams his squinting smile around the sanctuary. Frank has on a cowboy shirt with rhinestone snaps that sparkle in the pulpit lights. He turns around, faces Lew at the drums, and nods his head in time as he plays. Lew nods back and drums more fervently.

The music shifts and the ladies sing, “As the deer panteth for the water…” The congregation follows, “so my soul longeth after you…”

Frank plays his country-western tinged praise for thirty minutes. People sway and clap and raise their hands in the air. Carl hums and stumbles over the words and looks around smiling. Sometimes his head weaves back and forth looking up, like Stevie Wonder. His shoulder keeps touching Skip. Skip glances the first few times, then stiffens himself to endure it. Fran chews her gum slow and open-mouthed.

Brad’s gaze moves to his wife Crystal. She sits at the inner edge of the front left pew, right in front of him as always. She has her hair French braided. Her olive sweater looks like it was made to go against her tan neck, and she only ever wears a little eye makeup, and she doesn’t even need that. With her hair pulled away from her face, she looks young, like when they first married.

She supports Brad one hundred percent. She takes notes when he preaches. She has made no secret of the fact that she’s relieved to be out of limbo and starting their real life. It’s the first salary he’s had in their seven-year marriage, the first time she hasn’t supported him by cutting hair. She wants to get pregnant. She is singing and clapping with the music, and, seeing him look at her, beams a great contented smile.

The ladies go into a chorus that eventually comes around to say, “I will stand up and praise you Lord…” and Crystal stands up, which makes the congregation start standing up in scattered clumps till most everyone is up. Good Crystal, doing her part. All those nights while he was getting his M. Div., she came home exhausted, her hips aching from being on her feet all day, spiritually tired from working in a secular setting with girls who weren’t saved, who drank and smoked and slept around. That was hard on her; she’s a trooper.

Carl sways. He puts his arms in the air. His skinny hips are rocking near Skip’s averted face. Skip reluctantly stands.

Frank puts a clamp on the neck of his guitar and goes into a chord progression that sounds familiar, but Brad can’t exactly place it.

“This is one I wrote,” Frank says into the microphone.

Lew’s head is down like he’s drumming himself into a trance. He’s only been saved for a few months, a babe in Christ. Rumor is that he’s a secret drinker.

Frank’s mouth touches the mike, and it makes an amplified thwack. He says, “I hope it blesses your heart.”

Linda and June join right in, still too loud, “Jesus, we feel your presence in this place. We know you are here by the expression on each face. Lord fill our hearts with your mercy and your grace. Jesus we feel your presence in this place.”

Six times–six times after Brad starts counting—they sing through Frank’s chorus. Carl Hudson’s eyes are filled with tears as he sways back and forth. Fran digs around in her purse and hands him a tissue all balled up like she’s already used it. He takes it and dabs at his eyes and leans over and laughs his sneezing laugh.

Frank and Lew bring it down. It’s been thirty minutes and Brad told them to cut it at about forty-five so he could get in his twenty-minute message. Linda and June share a mic. June sways with the music. Linda holds her tambourine behind her and bends at the waist and says, “Jesus, we feel your presence.” Her voice is husky and low. Her eyes are closed.

June says something in the background that begins, “Praise you,” and trails off as she backs away from the mic.

Linda lifts her arms, “Can you feel Jesus’ presence here today?”

Carl gives her a wide-eyed nod, like a child talking to Santa Claus.

“Because he is here with us right now,” she says.

June says, “Praise you Jesus…”

Carl nods and stares.

Linda says, “Can you feel his presence?”

“Praise you Jesus…” June’s voice again trails off.

“Can you hear his still small voice?” Linda says. She says, “Listen. Can you hear Jesus today?”

Carl’s arms fall limp at his side and he stares in front of him like a blind man staring into nothing. He says something. Skip and Fran both lean in to him. He starts shaking.

With deliberate calm, Brad steps down from the pulpit and walks back to Carl. He palms Carl’s arm. “Everything okay?” he whispers.

The praise band keeps playing. Fran turns her clown face to Brad and whispers, “He’s a little moved.” Her warm breath smells of her spearmint gum.

Carl says, “Jesus is here.”

Brad says, “You feel the Lord’s presence, Carl—”

“I smell his presence up in this place.”

Fran whispers, “You what?”

“I smell Jesus in this place.” Carl is breathless, exhilarated.

Skip looks straight ahead with a stone face. His hands are shoved down in his pockets.

Fran says, “Honey.” She puts her hand on Carl’s shoulder. “What does Jesus smell like?”

“Funky sandals,” he says.

Fran leans back a little and says, “Sandals?”

“Sandals.” Carl is still nodding, his eyes still child wide. “And ass. Jesus smells like ass up in here.”

“What?” Fran yelps and puts her hand to her mouth.

“Like when you don’t get a shower for a long time. You smell like ass.”

Crystal twists her neck. Her braid flips over her shoulder to the front of her body. She gives Brad a worried stare, then turns back to the front.

“You have any more gum?” Brad asks Fran.

She gets a half stick out of her purse and gives it to him. He presses it into Carl’s hand and says, “Sit down for a second.”

Carl obeys. He sits down. He puts the gum in his mouth and rolls his tongue around it and starts chewing. Brad turns and twirls his finger at Frank to wrap up the music.

 

Brad steps behind the pulpit as the praise leaders find their seats. His sermon is short and pithy. Babe’s milk. He’s given up on feeding them the meat of the word. No Calvin and Arminius (forget about Augustine and Pelagius). No defense of Dispensationalism against the Covenantal heresy seeping into Baptist churches these days. They aren’t interested. They don’t care that the large number of hapax legomena in the book of Colossians in no way creates a credible argument against Pauline authorship. He doesn’t want to preach the three-points-and-a-poem sermons that got him the job.

They don’t see the use in knowing that when Jesus says what shall it profit a man, and what shall a man give in exchange, in the original Greek it is the language of commerce, of selling and buying—the Greek word translated as world is cosmos, and really means the entire created order. One human soul, because it is eternal, is worth more than the entire created cosmos, which is passing away. That’s what Jesus was saying, if you look at the Greek.

“Save that stuff for Wednesday nights,” Crystal told him one morning, because an old woman had told Crystal that she wasn’t coming back to church until Brad got that college-boy stuff out of his system. She’d told Crystal that he could get away with it on Wednesday nights—the people who still came to church on Wednesday nights would sit through anything.

Nobody wants it on Wednesday night either.This Sunday, as always, Crystal gets her Bible ready, opens her notebook. She bites the lid off of her pen, twirls the pen in her fingers and shoves the back of it into the lid between her teeth. For an instant, it looks like she’s snarling. She writes on the top of the page and looks up to Brad, ready to write what he brings from the Lord today.

Carl still rocks back and forth, as if he still hears Lew’s drums in his head. Skip and Fran have him hemmed in, and they sit as rigid as bookends. Fran’s jaws work that gum. The congregation looks expectantly at Brad.

“Turn with me if you will to John 3:16,” he says. “The book of John, chapter three and verse sixteen. The first verse most of us learn as children, and is probably the most beloved verse in all of Scripture.” He flips the almost translucent pages of his Bible. Most of his congregation still carry the KJV. Some use NIV. Brad likes the Authorized Standard Version best; it’s truest to the actual words of the Lord.

He says, “Martin Luther called this verse the gospel in a nutshell.”

Brad preaches the gospel, plain and simple. At one point, someone’s phone starts playing “Brown Eyed Girl.”

He stops and looks at one of the new Bose speakers hanging from the ceiling and waits.

The ringing stops.

He resumes preaching.

Faces stare, blank as frogs. Crystal sits poised with her pen but doesn’t move to write. Apparently, she isn’t hearing anything worth noting. Carl rocks and nods. On the way up the river this morning, he asked Carl if he’d ever been to church before. Carl said yes, he had all kinds of times, but only the Union Mission Chapel. Never a real church.

It might be because Carl is so into the sermon, but Brad begins to manage a little emotion in his delivery. His homiletics professor consistently gave him low marks in the emotional appeal column of his sermon assessment sheet. He wouldn’t today.

Carl responds with more rocking. When Skip, or Larry Bowen, says amen, he joins in, if a little late.

Brad says, “I was sinking in sinking sand. Jesus threw me a vine.” He steps away from the pulpit, something he almost never does. It makes him feel unmoored, like an astronaut cut loose, floating out there in front of everyone without notes to tell him what to say next.

A man on the left side of the sanctuary, halfway back, says amen.

Carl says, “Yeah.”

“I was as lost as a ball in high weeds,” Brad almost shouts. “And Jesus pulled me free.”

Carl says, “Hell yeah.”

People turn and look at Carl. He doesn’t notice. His attention is on Brad. Brad goes back to the pulpit and searches his notes.

The silence goes too long. Someone coughs.

Abashed, Brad says, “I was a sin-sick soul. I was a castaway and nobody cared if I lived or died.” Brad’s father is a preacher, and Brad grew up in church and asked the Lord into his heart when he was four years old. He’d prepared this sermon with Carl in mind.

Carl grips the pew in front of him and sneezes his laugh. The suit jacket rides almost up to his elbows. His forearms have light purple scars on them. He holds on tight, his bony knuckles going white.

Brad looks at Carl and Carl looks at Brad.

Brad says, “Jesus pulled me out of the very pits of hell, my friend.”

Carl jumps up and shouts. He shouts, “Fucking right.”

Faces open in astonishment are turned on Carl. Gasps. Some of them voiced.

Carl laughs through his pointy nose. It sounds like a wire brush scrubbing a grill. He slouches, his body convulsing as the air goes in and out of it. He throws his fist triumphantly over his head and looks around.

Fran’s jaw stops chewing and hangs open and her Mary Kay mask stares up at the boy.

“Fucking-a-right, preacher man—”

“That’s enough.” Skip is up.  He grabs Carl by his upper arm and pulls him into the aisle, and half-carries, half-pushes him toward the back door.

“Let go of me, asshole,” Carl shouts, jerking his head from side to side, trying to dig in his heels.

In the narthex, Carl screams obscenities and insults. Frank gets up in his cowboy shirt and walks back. Then Larry Bowen—Sandy has to stand up to let him out of the pew. Carl continues to shout and scream. Two other men get up and go back.

Shouting and cursing, Carl leaves the building.

The congregation turns silently back to Brad. He looks at Crystal. The sanctuary is silent. He had told Crystal they should pray for the Spirit to give them a clear sign as to what they should do, and this is clear. In the instant of eye contact Brad makes with Crystal, he sees in her expression that she knows it: he has to leave this ministry; the Lord is leading him back to seminary for his D. Min.

Crystal puts the cap back on her pen and shakes her head.

 

 

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