The Gay Worm Turns

I have two equality stickers on the back of my car, one pasted right on top of the other so it looks like only one. The reason? Not long ago, after I finished classes and office hours, I walked out to the faculty parking lot and discovered someone had taken their ballpoint pen and dug a deep X through the equality sticker on my back window. I had no way of knowing who did it, so I simply waited for the Human Rights Campaign, which I support, to send me another one. Until I covered the defiled sticker with an intact new one, the angry reminded me why the sticker needs to be there in the first place.

When you have some free time, please spend a little of it with my essay The Gay Worm Turns. It is another from my collection about leaving Fundamentalist Christianity, up now at Atticus Review.

 

image, shop.hrc.org

 

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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.

 

 

— image  www.newdawnmagazine.com

A Prophet of the Most High

“A Prophet of the Most High” is an excerpt from The Calling. It first appeared in Rock & Sling.

 

One Sunday afternoon in February, James and Andrew were playing kick-and-get-through on Andrew’s bunk. Andrew reared up and said for James to stop kicking, he heard something. Their neighbor from across the church parking lot Perry Taylor cussing at Timmy Jackson, saying he was going to kill him, was what it turned out to be, but they didn’t know it yet. Andrew’s head was sweaty and even though it was winter, he smelled like outside in the summertime, like dirt and grass.

James didn’t want to stop kicking; he felt he could win the game this time.

The past week James had finished all his AWANA books early, won his Timothy Award, even recited extra Scripture. He could say 1st John all the way through, and the first three chapters of the Gospel of John, and the entire Sermon on the Mount–which he recited for the whole church from beside the pulpit, word-for-word—and a bunch of Psalms and Proverbs, and hundreds of other verses.

That very morning at church, he’d heard an old woman, who smelled like Hall’s cough drops and left the wet rubber things over her shoes all through service, tell his dad that he was precocious; she said he probably knew more of the New Testament than Jack Van Impe, which his dad had already said from the pulpit. His dad had laughed and said, with his hand on James’s head, “It’s clear that the Lord’s hand is on his life.” James had come home and looked up the word precocious. Then he’d looked up aptitude, which was in the definition of precocious.

Because of that, he was feeling especially good this Sunday. He’d been holding his own against Andrew at kick-and-get-through, and usually Andrew kicked his butt hard. The game had gotten so rough they had torn the covers and sheets off the bed and the mattress was starting to slide off the box springs and slope down to the floor.

It was turning out to be a glorious nap time. Some Sundays their mom would storm in with her switch and tan their hides, four or five raging times in one afternoon, like she was waiting outside the door to catch them in willful disobedience. Those days she had prophetic fire in her green eyes—and watch out then, she would tan their hides, use the rod of correction to drive the disobedience far from them, Proverbs twenty two fifteen. Some days her eyes looked dead as peed-on fire pits, and the switchings and paddlings didn’t have any oomph to them, didn’t even hurt.

This was the other kind of Sunday: they could make as much noise as they wanted and she wouldn’t come in once, like she was deaf or knocked out cold.

Andrew had kicked James flush in the ear last game and it was buzzing was why at first he didn’t hear the shouting outside. Plus, he was about to knock Andrew off the bed and win.

So now, when Andrew reared up on his knees and said to stop because he heard something, James didn’t stop. James gave him a good heel kick that grazed his ear and landed solid on his collarbone.

Andrew slapped his feet away and whispered hard, “I’m serious, buttwipe.” His sweaty hair was sticking to his head in front of his ears. His face had three red marks from James’s kicks, and seeing that made James smile.

James still thought that Andrew was trying to trick him so he could lunge and touch the wall and be kicker again. James put his foot on Andrew’s chest and pushed.

Andrew punched a knot in his leg and hissed, “Stop.” When Andrew whispered it was louder than regular talking, so he might as well just talk.

James rubbed his leg and said, “I owe you one for that.”

Andrew tried to punch his leg again, but he jerked it out of the way. Andrew said, “Shut the hell up.”

“Don’t tell me shut up.” James knew that Andrew was jealous of him, like Esau was of Jacob. Andrew was almost twelve and still hadn’t gotten his Timothy Award. He didn’t have a very good memory; he had to go see a math tutor at school. Even Ricky could play guitar better than he could.

Andrew’s eyes widened and he cupped his hand behind his ear. The red splotch on his cheek, James remembered the specific kick that made that one. He smiled to see it.

Andrew said, “Hear that?”

James jumped to the bunk ladder, thinking his mom was coming to switch them was what Andrew was talking about. Andrew’s bed sheets were all on the floor. His hanging gray mattress had stains on it, both done by Andrew, yellow with dark brown edges. The big stain was from number one and the little one was spit up.

James closed his mouth and breathed hard through his nose and listened. Ricky was on his little mattress across the room, doing his beetle bug sleep with his butt in the air and his arms under his body. His mouth sagged open like a retard’s and he was drooling. Above his mattress was a plaque their dad had put up with a saying from that missionary, Jim Elliot, who got speared in the chest by Indians. Black letters on a white background: He is no fool who gives what he can never keep to gain what he can never lose.

Andrew tiptoed to the window and looked out. The window went straight up where the roof sloped down, so it was back from the wall inside a kind of box. It was low so that the windowsill was at their waists. When Andrew pulled the curtain aside, the bright white day flashed and hurt James’s eyes.

Andrew would get worn out good if their mom caught him out of his bed, and his bed all torn apart too. James felt a flutter of joy at the thought of watching it, and turned to let his eyes adjust back to the dark room, so he could see if the doorknob moved, still perched on the bunk ladder, ready to climb to safety.

Nothing.

He looked back at Andrew.

Andrew’s dark form in front of the bright window turned and put his finger to his lips and it looked like his arm fused into his body. James froze in place and listened. Men were shouting at the Taylor’s house. The Taylors lived in a brown house with a rippled metal roof. It was across the church parking lot. Two stories high, with a porch all the way across both levels, like a wooden hotel, except the upstairs porch sagged down so much in front, if you dropped a baseball it would roll right off. The house was shoved back against the hillside below the blacktop road, so that the only thing between the roof and the cars was a leaning guardrail and lots of weeds.

Men were shouting over there alright.

James tippy toed over and stood behind Andrew. He whispered, “What if mom comes?”

Andrew said, “Be quiet.”

James stepped into the window box and shouldered himself a spot so he could see. The paint was all scratched off the windowsill where their dog Barnabas liked to stand with his paws and look out and bark at squirrels. James had to squint till his eyes stopped hurting. They could look straight across the parking lot to the Taylor’s house.

Perry Taylor’s black pickup truck was there, with its rusty bed piled with rusty junk. There was also a red and white racecar with the numbers 442 painted on the side, jacked up with big wheels in back and little ones in front. The church parking lot was dirty tire-packed snow that you could dig up with a stick but not your church shoe heel. It shined like water.

James couldn’t see anybody, only the cars. “Where are they?” he whispered.

Andrew didn’t say anything.

James looked down the dirt road. The yards were melted to patches of snow under trees. Through the bald and black trees on the bank, the river showed all the way to the bridge. Flat white ice chunks flowed along, all broken up; looked like, if they were turned just right they would fit together like puzzle pieces and cover the river again. The ice chunks looked like they were sliding smoothly across the top of the brown water, not floating in it.

Last summer somebody had painted the old iron bridge down at the end of the dirt road light blue. Now it was easy to see it through the trees.

“Look,” Andrew whispered.

James turned back to the Taylors’ leaning house. Perry was striding down the front steps in his steel-toed boots and green work pants, a shotgun hanging loose from his fist like a stick of firewood. He only had on a t-shirt and no jacket. He was a trash man, and he was fat, so the cold didn’t bother him any. That’s what he’d told them one day when Ricky asked him where his coat was.

Another man came from around the racecar. It was Timmy Jackson from down the dirt road. His mom came to church. His dad wasn’t saved and neither was he. James’s dad called them rough customers. Timmy was an ugly man, had shaggy red hair and a big forehead; he always looked like he was trying to figure something out. He had on bell-bottom blue jeans, and had his fingers shoved up high into his jean jacket pockets that were too small for his hands.

The two men met at the bottom of the Taylor’s driveway and stood where the dirt road would be if it wasn’t covered in snow. Timmy took one hand out of a pocket and pointed at Perry and said something. Perry stopped, spread his legs, pulled the gun up and aimed it right at Timmy’s head. His t-shirt was tight on his big belly.

Timmy pulled his the fingers of his other hand out of their pocket and stood with his arms hanging down.

James could feel the cold from the window glass on his face. It fogged with his breathing. He wiped it. Andrew’s nose made a tiny whistle when he breathed in. James said, “Breath through your mouth.” and Andrew was watching the men so hard, he just obeyed James without a word or a hit or anything.

“Think he’ll shoot him?” Andrew said, not whispering anymore.

James said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

One time his mom had gotten Perry Taylor to drive them to the Kroger in Clendenin, and had paid him twenty dollars for it—twenty dollars for a ten mile ride, and he hadn’t even asked to be paid. (Perry had a big belly but he was as hard as a train car; it hurt to bump against him.) On the trip he’d thrown one of his KOOL cigarette butts out his window and it blew into the truckbed on the cool river wind and got stuck between James’s shoulder and the truckbed. It burned James’s shoulder pretty good, made a black hole in his shirt. Perry didn’t say sorry, but chuckled and said, “That ain’t the worst thing that’ll ever happen to you, boy. I promise you that.” Perry was the kind of man who hurt people on accident and laughed about it.

Another time Perry had left his truck window open, and James and Andrew snatched a crumpled pouch of Red Man from the front seat and ran with it to the riverbank. It was sweet and gooey in their mouths, and made James feel lightheaded and good. It made Andrew barf. But when they came back up, Perry was standing in the parking lot, and he walked over to them, and they were too scared to run. He had out his big pocketknife, held it in front of his fat gut. He said to the two of them, “If I ever catch somebody stealing my chaw, I’m going to cut their hearts out and feed them to the dogs.”

Thing was, James hadn’t been able to tell if he was trying to scare them, which is what it sounded like, or if he was serious, because it was Perry Taylor saying it and not a man from the church.

Staring down at the two men on the bright, icy parking lot, James said, “Oh yeah.” He nodded. “He’ll shoot him alright.”

“Here,” Andrew said, reaching up to unlatch the window. James helped him push it up a crack. Icy cold air came in at their stomachs. They got on their knees and pushed their faces to the cold opening.

Perry Taylor and Timmy Jackson were arguing now, but so low that James couldn’t make out what they were saying. Perry motioned with the gun as he talked. His big arms were stuffed into the t-shirt and were red and splotchy from the cold. His face was red too, glowing hot like a coal stove.

James understood enough to know that the fight had to do with sex. Ronny Stewart brought pictures to school. Naked women with their boobies hanging, spreading their legs to show the hair and floppy skin down at their privates. “Look at that big old pussy,” Ronny would say, or “Wouldn’t you love to fuck that thing?” as he folded open the pages he’d ripped out of magazines. James didn’t understand the stirring it caused all down his body, or the crushing guilt he felt afterward, but he knew satanic power when he saw it.

The two men were just standing there talking now. If Perry didn’t have a gun, it would look normal. It was starting to get boring.

James thought that Timmy Jackson probably took off his clothes with Perry Taylor’s wife, and they probably kissed; he probably put his dick in her pussy. That was fornication. The mouth of a strange woman is a deep pit; he that is abhorred by the Lord shall fall therein. Proverbs twenty two, fourteen. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications…Matthew fifteen, nineteen.

If Timmy Jackson did put his dick in Perry Taylor’s wife, they should both be stoned to death. They didn’t stone people anymore, James thought, at least not in America where people were turning away from God’s laws. Shooting would do. Perry Taylor should shoot them if they were fornicators.

James wanted to see Timmy Jackson get what was coming to him; Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap. Galations six seven.

He said to Andrew, “He’ll shoot him dead, is what he’ll do.” He turned and looked at the side of Andrew’s face. The red mark from his heel was still there. He said, “He should shoot him too. And his wife.”

“How come?” Andrew asked.

“Because Timmy Jackson fornicated with his wife.”

“How you know?”

“God told me.”

Andrew leaned closer to the window and started chewing on the inside of his lip.

Timmy Jackson was the only one talking now. Calmly, with his hands out, palms up, like he wanted to play firecracker. Perry Taylor was looking at the ground shaking his head slowly.

Andrew said, “Shouldn’t we get mom?”

Perry Taylor had lowered the gun barrel and it now pointed at Timmy Jackson’s belly.

“Shit,” Andrew said. “He’s going to kill him.” He shoved James. “Get mom. Hurry.”

James said, “You get her.”

Behind them, Ricky’s sleep-clotted voice said, “What’re you looking at?”

Andrew said, “Shut up, retard. This is important.”

“What’re you looking at,” Ricky repeated.

Andrew, said, “Shut up,” and gave a half-hearted horse kick behind him that Ricky easily sidestepped so that it only grazed his hip.

Ricky pushed himself between the two of them. “Let me see,” he said. He had a sweaty head and sleep wrinkles all over the side of his face. His breath smelled like the roast beef gravy they had for lunch, only sour.

“You smell like number two, retard.” Andrew said. “Get away.” But he was watching the men, and didn’t shove Ricky out of the window box. He said, “James, go get her.”

Ricky still wore pajama bottoms for naps, and a special big kid diaper that their mom made him wear even though he was eight because sometimes he slept so hard he still did number one in his bed. Something was wrong with him. Except he could play guitar better than James and Andrew somehow, the little retard.

Andrew shouted, “Whoa,” and James looked back at the men.

Perry Taylor swiped down with his gun barrel like he was hoeing a garden and gouged Timmy Jackson’s eye and cheek. Timmy Jackson put his hands over his face and bent over. Perry swiped up under Timmy’s chin and made his head jerk back. He tried to turn away from Perry and keep his hands over his face, but Perry smashed straight down on the back of Timmy’s head with the gun butt like he was digging a post hole. Timmy fell to his knees from that one. He tipped and kept falling like in slow motion, without moving his hands to catch himself, and landed on the side of his head so hard that James heard the thunk of it—like his mom’s knuckle on an unripe watermelon—on the hard ice from across the parking lot.

Timmy lay on his side with his hands over his face. The blood coming through his fingers looked black against the bright snow. Perry’s breath came in white bursts out of his mouth as he grunted and kicked Timmy, who just lay there with his hands over his face. Perry stopped and rested for a second, looking around—Andrew and James both ducked down, then raised slowly and peeked back over the sill; Ricky just stood there staring like a retard—then walked around and started kicking Timmy Jackson in the back with his steel toes, grunting with every kick. Then he stomped down with his boot heel on Timmy’s ear. Timmy slid his hand from his face to up over his ear and Perry stomped his hand.

Then he stopped kicking and aimed the gun straight down at Timmy Jackson. Timmy Jackson didn’t move. He stayed curled up. His hands were all bloody. It dripped on the dirty packed snow.

Andrew was still chewing his lip. Ricky was just staring all wide-eyed.

Andrew whispered, “He killed him.”

Ricky said, “Damn man, he killed him dead.”

“Get mom.” Andrew shoved James toward the door.

Switching or not, James knew he was special, he was chosen of God for a time such as this. It was his time to step up to the plate.

“I’ll do it,” he said. He ran across the room and pulled the door open. The hallway was dark. Miriam’s door was cracked open, and though his eyes weren’t yet adjusted, he saw her form peeking out.

“Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson in the parking lot,” he said. “I’m getting mom.” They crossed in the hall as she ran for the boy’s room. He took the stairs three at a time and burst into his parent’s room, yelling, “Mom, you have to come–”

She wasn’t there.

He ran through the living room and jumped over the heater grate into the kitchen.

The plates from Sunday dinner were perched on the strainer where Miriam had stacked them. Beside them the glasses were upside down on a red-brown dish towel. In the light from the window, James could see tiny ants crawling in and out from behind the creased metal strip that fit into the crack where the wall and the countertop came together. The countertop was cream colored with golden squiggly lines all over it so that if you squinted, it looked like brains all smashed together. The ants kept crawling in and out at the metal strip.

Their mom wasn’t in there either.

The bathroom door was open; he ran and looked in there too. He hollered, “Mom, Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson.” He ran to the utility room. There were two piles of laundry as high as his waist. He got on his toes and looked out the back door, but couldn’t see, so he opened it. He hollered out into the back yard, “Mom?”

He ran back through the house hollering for his mom, looked in her bedroom again, and then he ran upstairs and checked Miriam’s room. He ran across the hall and looked in his room. Miriam and Andrew and Ricky were at the window.

“What’s going on,” he said.

“Get mom,” Andrew said.

Miriam said, “Hurry, Jamey.” She was crying.

He ran back down the stairs and into the kitchen. He swiped the ants and hefted himself to his knees on the kitchen counter. He leaned over the dinner dishes and looked out the window. He smelled his hand and realized that ants smell like that blue window cleaner when you smash them.

Their dog Barnabas was at the back corner of the new church building, walking toward the river. James knocked on the window and the dog looked back for a second, then turned and disappeared around the building. James saw a flash of Rae Goins’ Jeep go around the corner from the back parking lot.

Rae Goins was the AWANA commander. She could have that position of leadership as a woman and still be biblical because it was only kids she was leading. She walked like a man. Like a man who plays football. Once James saw a pickup truck full of men going hunting drive by him. They were all in coveralls and orange hats. As they went by Rae’s voice came out of one of them. “Hello, James,” it said, and it had scared him. Then he saw it was her, sitting there on the wheel well with her gun between her big spread legs. Something wasn’t right about her, James knew. He saw it now. The filth of iniquity followed her like the dirt cloud around Pig Pen from Peanuts, and he didn’t know why no one else noticed, except that God was opening his eyes to special, spiritual truth.

Rae and his mom had been dearly close friends for years.

The back door opened and his mom came in wearing her gray AWANA jacket, and he knew she’d been out in Rae’s Jeep. He could tell she was in sin by the wide-open fear on her face, like she’d been caught at something. It only lasted an instant, but that was enough. Then she frowned and said, “Young man, what are you doing out of your bed?”

He jumped off the counter and blurted, “Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson in front of the church.”

“What are you talking about?” Her face was red from being outside. Her nose was runny. She pulled a balled up tissue out of her jacket pocket and dabbed at it.

“In the front parking lot,” he said. “He killed him with a gun.”

His mom shoved the tissue back into her pocket as she ran for the front door.

He followed her, his heart swelling with the importance of what he was a part of, matters of life and death, and him just ten.

His mom stopped on the front porch and hugged her AWANA jacket around her. James followed her out, saying “He killed him and I came looking for you. That’s only why I came out of my room.”

“Hush,” she said. She stared hard across the parking lot.

A police car was parked over at Perry Taylor’s now, but the lights weren’t flashing. It was Mike Humphrey, the policeman who lived in a trailer beside the high school. He was big as Perry Taylor, except his chest stuck out as far as his belly did. He leaned back when he walked, and always held his thumbs in his gun belt.

Perry Taylor was sitting in the back of the police car. He was crying and rocking back and forth, hitting his head on the back of the driver’s seat. Not hard. The fornicator Timmy was still on the ground, curled up. Officer Humphrey was squatting down with his forearms on his legs, talking to Timmy.

James’s mom said, “Go back in the house.”

James stared at the scene before him and knew the Holy Spirit was sending him a message: he was chosen by God because he was so smart, or made smart by God to do a special work–either way, he was a special, precocious boy, chosen for great things. If they called Jack Van Impe the walking New Testament, they were going to call James the walking Bible .It wasn’t called the King James Bible for nothing, he didn’t think.

He hadn’t forgotten about his mom’s sin either. She’d better watch out, he thought. Their women did change the natural use for that which is against nature…burned in their lust one toward another, Romans one twenty six and twenty seven. James knew things. His heart leapt for joy at the thought of his calling. He was a prophet of God. He had the fire.

“Obedience, young man,” his mom said.

Timmy’s leg moved. He was not dead. Perry Taylor’s wife came out of their house. She was flabby fat and only wore big loose dresses that James once heard his dad say she bought the material for at a tent store. She didn’t wear a coat either. All that fat. It was like having a coat on under her skin. Officer Humphrey stood up and walked over with his chest stuck out and talked to her. She pointed and waved her arm, the bottom part of it hanging down and swinging.

Without looking away from what was going on, James’s mom said, “James, obedience is?”

“Doing what you’re told, when you’re told, with the right heart attitude,” he mumbled as he turned and stepped back into the house. That wasn’t even in the Bible, and she used it like it was. He skipped up the stairs and ran to his bedroom. Andrew and Miriam and Ricky were still at the window, watching Perry Taylor get arrested. An ambulance was there now. Its red lights flashed silently across the white and shiny parking lot.

They all three turned and looked at him.

Andrew said, “Did you find–”

“Did you find mom?” Ricky cut off the end of Andrew’s question.

They stared at him expectantly.

What things the Lord had entrusted to him, to James Samuel Minor. He put out his chest and said, “For he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings…”

“Shut up, showoff,” Miriam said. She turned back to the window.

James raised his voice and continued, “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. Acts nine–.”

“Remember what mom said about being a know-it-all?” Andrew said. He still had the red mark from James’s heel on his cheek.

Ricky said, “Yeah. Shut up, you know-it-all.”

“You shut up,” James said. “You little retard.”

Andrew and Ricky turned away from him too, and looked back out the window where the ambulance lights silently flashed.

A prophet hath no honor in his own country, John four forty four.

They would appreciate him in the fullness of time. They would stand amazed when he told on their mom, exposed her hidden sin.

God called Noah in Genesis six thirteen. He called Abraham in Genesis twelve. Jacob, Genesis twenty eight; Moses, Exodus three; Gideon, Judges six; Samuel, First Samuel three; Elijah, First Kings seventeen. He called Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea. John The Baptist, Jesus, the disciples. Paul. James Jesus’ brother. Charles Spurgeon. Billy Sunday. D.L. Moody. John R. Rice, Dr. Harold Perkins, Zechariah Minor.

And now: James Noel Minor. He would surpass even the great things his dad was out doing this very minute.

The Lord’s hand was on him. He was going to speak the Holy Word of God without fear, not letting any man despise his youth. Righteous anger rose in him—be angry and sin not—at the Devil for the evil he poured on this old world.

James would not neglect the gift that was given him by prophecy, 1st Timothy four twelve through fourteen. He was sure—beyond the shadow of a doubt, he was sure—that God had already made him a better preacher than Charles Spurgeon or Dwight L. Moody. He might be killed or crucified or scourged someday for the name of Christ, Matthew twenty three thirty four. What an old sin-sick world he was called to proclaim the truth to. The others weren’t paying any attention to him. They were watching out the window again.

What a glorious day. He’d been called with a holy calling before the world began, Second Timothy one nine, and soon he would stand before the nations and tell the truth he knew.

 

Belief and Belonging: Against Groupthink

Belief and Belonging

Last week I went and watched my son graduate from Virginia Boys State. After the ceremony, I waited through waves of boys in identical white shirts and blue shorts for him to emerge, and when he did, his shoulders were slouched and his eyes tired.

In the car I asked him, “How’d it go?”

He shrugged.

“Did you have a good time?”

“No.”

“Did you learn anything?”

“No.”

“Nothing at all?”

He said no, he hadn’t learned anything.

I kept pressing him, and eventually said, “If you had to give someone your takeaway from this past week in one sentence, what would it be?”

Without pause, he said, “Republicans are assholes.”

All rising seniors, the boys were there for practical learning on how government works. They broke up into cities and formed governments, with adult counselors to steer them clear of a Lord of the Flies week. The boys ran for various offices, they competed and negotiated with other cities.

They made promises for votes. They traded votes for political favors. In Evan’s final analysis it came down to “a big popularity contest.”

I can understand why he would find a week like this unpleasant. He’s reserved and bookish. He has strong opinions, but in large groups he watches from the fringe, keeps his opinions to himself. Politics is a game he can’t play.

But something deeper was troubling him about the week. “You had to think their way or you were shunned,” he told me. He went on to describe how boys with dissenting opinions were marginalized and shamed by boys and counselors alike.

In the final service, the boys sang a song, and as they repeated it in rounds, it began to sound more like a chant than singing, several hundred strong young male voices calling out, “What does the Lord require of thee?” and the response, “To seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before your God.”

“Three boys were sent home because they said they were atheist and didn’t want to go to the religious services,” Evan told me as we drove home. He shook his head. He rubbed his tired eyes.

In order to drive out and watch Evan graduate I had missed the Bar Mitzvah of my friends’ son, Spencer. My family came into the house shortly after Evan and I got home, talking about how impressed they were by Spencer’s Shabbat morning service. The d’var Torah, his commentary on the week’s reading, was on the old familiar story in Numbers about Balaam and the talking ass and the companion passage, Micah 5:6-6:8.

My daughter thought it was the best thing she’d ever heard in a religious service when Spencer introduced his homily by saying he was glad he got this passage because it gave him the opportunity to see how many times he could crack his brother and sister up by saying “talking ass.”

After that, Spencer gave his exposition on the very passage the boys were singing two hours away: It has been told of you O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you—Only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

When he got to walk humbly, Spencer proclaimed, “I don’t know if I believe in God or not and religion isn’t how I make my decisions every day.” He said, “I’m still working on what I believe about God,” and called it a “developing relationship.”

My sister, who was raised Fundamentalist Baptist as I was, wept as she watched Spencer stand before his congregation and speak honestly—and even more, as she looked around and saw that no one was scandalized, no one outraged, no one red-faced and angry.

How different this is from anything we ever experienced in a religious congregation. How different it is from Evan’s experience at Boys State.

I do not want to talk about politics—it only comes up because it is impossible to describe Evan’s week without doing so. I do not want to contrast one religious tradition with another either.

This is about the contrast between two ways of being in community: on the one hand is a closed and fearful view of the world, a constant worrying that if the boy doesn’t toe the line, vocalize assent to the letter of the law, then he cannot be trusted, cannot be a part of the community.

On the other hand is an open view, a willingness to let the boy express what he actually thinks. This comes from a place not of fear, but of confidence. Everyone in education knows that the strictest disciplinarians in the classroom are the ones most afraid of losing control.

This technique might keep order in a classroom, but it serves no good purpose in the realm of belief. As William James points out in Varieties of Religious Experience, you cannot believe what you do not believe—there are living options and non-living options, and you cannot breathe life into a non-living option; fake it till you make it is a call to nothing more than shoddy self-deception.

Robert Penn Warren writes that it is possible to be a “heretic in the truth.” Even if what the boy proclaims is true, if he embraces it because he is coerced, cajoled, shamed, then he doesn’t have the truth at all. A faith foisted on him is no faith at all.

I am not idealizing; I know this synagogue has had its share of drama. It is inevitable when so many personalities come together in community. But here is what my family observed: The Agudath Sholom congregation embraced this boy even as he stood and proclaimed his doubts.

It was a beautiful service.

Originally posted at “Good Letters,” July 25, 2013