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.

 

 

— image  www.newdawnmagazine.com

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