My late parents were God fearing people who were determined for me to fear him also. They did not make me go to church. My choices were two-fold. Go to church; eat and sleep at their house. Don’t go to church; eat and sleep somewhere else. I enjoyed eating and sleeping at their house, so church it was! And boy did we ever go to church! We went every Sunday morning and night, Wednesday night, Friday nights once a month and any time there was a revival, which to me, seemed like once a month. Moreover, my mom was the janitor and clerk, dad was the unofficial (and unpaid) maintenance man and treasurer. I helped mom clean the church and I mowed the church yard. So, if I told you we were church going people, would you believe me?
It seemed to me all the best television shows came on while I attended church. On Monday mornings, while all my friends were discussing the Sunday night television lineup of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, The Ed Sullivan Show or Bonanza, I could forget joining that conversation. I had been to church. A few times when the preacher was short winded, I had hopeful visions of catching the tail end of Bonanza, but after singing verse after verse after verse of Just as I Am for the invitation, those hopes slowly diminished. I was a grown man before I saw the entire Wizard of Oz movie, because it always ran past six pm on Sunday and back then, we had no recording options. Church for me. Wednesday night television boasted The Virginian. I had church. Later as sports became such an important part of my life, I swear (and I know I shouldn’t do that), our church looked at the sports schedule and planned a revival just when THE most important game would happen. No sports for Ronnie! Church!
Promise Land Missionary Baptist Church was founded in 1863. I always wondered why this was not a Catholic Church since the early church rolls listed many Irish and Scottish descendants, such as Riley, Kelly, Collins, Wells, Wallace, Kilcrease, and Sullivan, just to name a few. My mother, who was an incredibly determined lady, was convinced this church could be traced back to Jesus Christ, and all other churches were just “off brands,” as she so proudly proclaimed.
Attendance in this country church on a good Sunday was around 125 people. On Sunday evening, about 60, and by the time Wednesday rolled around, it was about 25. Rest assured, I attended every service!
While I remember several preachers during my youth, they all preached the gospel of hellfire and brimstone and the old testament angry God, as was the custom during this time. They painted a picture in my mind of a God, who I believed was tallying my sins on a giant chalkboard in the sky, and a prayer of forgiveness was the only ticket to have my sins wiped clean, with his enormous eraser. The only inerasable sins were drinking, dancing, and carousing, whatever that meant. I remember being taught that heavy petting was not good. I guess that meant light petting was ok, but I never asked where the line was drawn; I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, so I just let that sleeping dog lie. To be fair, and before you say I am being blasphemous, I believe with my whole heart, Jesus Christ is the son of God and died on the Cross for my sins. More on this later.
As a kid who missed so much entertainment on television while attending church, I was forced to discover my own forms of amusement attending my mom’s favorite pastime. Extremely fun and challenging games of chase often formed before and after church. During church, endless games of tic-tac-toe and crossword puzzles were played incognito. One Wednesday evening, my good friend Ronnie Spurlin, who was the preacher’s son, and I made it to the sanctuary with a couple of marbles. This was a BIG mistake. Our sanctuary had tile floors. Now marbles in the hands of fidgety pre-teen boys and tile floor in a quiet, stoic environment? Well, let’s just say that is a disaster that will happen. Early in the sermon, I dropped one of the marbles and that dad gum marble hit the toe of my shoe perfectly. The marble, which was one of my prized hand-crafted crystallized cat eye, shot off my toe like a rocket on a mission to the moon, upward and onward, to what seemed like infinity and beyond. In actuality, it was only the front of the church. But on the tile floor, the sound of that proud marble obtaining its long-awaited freedom was excruciating, bouncing once, twice, and yes three times before turning ooooooooover and ooooooooover and ooooooover, rolling for what seemed like the eternity in hell we were trying to avoid. The preacher, accessing the situation, took a break from preaching angry God just in time to hear the escaped marble crash into the front pulpit. He didn’t know whether to laugh or continue preaching. He did not laugh. The Sound of Silence, by Simon and Garfunkel, was an extremely popular song back then. At that very moment, this song started playing over and over in my mind. Hello darkness, my old friend! Silent doesn’t even come close to describing how quiet that auditorium became. It was deafening!
Meanwhile, that marble, oblivious to the chaos it was creating, didn’t stop at the pulpit. Oh no. It bounced four or five times like a raging bucking bull, having the time of its life, before careening sideways, begrudgingly but thankfully coming to a wedged stop in the pedals of our organ, which by the way, was bought with S&H green stamps. Both our moms, rightfully embarrassed to the core, stood up, marched back to us in front of the remaining fifteen attendees, with steam billowing out of their nostrils, grabbed us by our arms and pulled us to the front of the church. We finished the remaining sermon quietly seated by angry moms, not daring to look at each other for fear of bursting out laughing. I was convinced this sin was permanently etched on that great chalkboard in the sky, with no eraser in sight.
The people of this church were incredibly faithful. I remember watching the offering plate being passed and observed men putting their cash offerings in that plate religiously each Sunday, knowing food was being sacrificed. Those without cars or those whose cars were broken down, started walking to church each week, knowing someone would stop and pick them up. One man, Mr. Elmer Wells, drove his rickety old tractor to church. Talk about committed! That made such a positive impact on me! I remember Mr. Grubbs’ German Shepherd, Jabbo, attending church more faithfully than some of our members. He stood just outside the door, ready to shake hands with anyone who wanted, before and after each service, always with a smile.
The teachers in this church were amazing. Faithfulness personified! My favorite was an incredible woman named Mrs. Francis Kilcrease. She taught us Bible stories using a flannel backed board and Bible characters with Velcro attached, allowing us a 3D type visual as she taught. Through her stories, Mrs. Francis taught me about a God that was more loving, and not quite as angry. Later in my life, I had the wonderful opportunity to be in a Sunday School class taught by the world-famous Zig Ziglar. People constantly asked me if I felt honored to be in Zig’s class. I always told them he was the second-best Sunday School teacher I ever had, right behind Mrs. Francis. She was and still is my hero!
My mother liked to take liberties with the Bible and make her own commandments. One of her best dealt with wearing shorts that were above the knee. “It’s just not biblical,” she would say. As I grew into my sarcastic teenage years, I challenged her to show me in the Bible where it stated “thou shaltest not wear cutoff shorts above the knee.” We had more than one conversation about the merits of my rather revealing gym shorts, twelve inches above the knee, worn in P.E. class at school, which were approved by her, but yet my cutoffs had to be worn below the knee. “Because I said so,” was her rather weak retort, knowing I was making a compelling argument. Picture Jethro Bodine with capris and that was me. Today, some men proudly wear male capris below the knee. Heck I saw some in church last week. They would make my mom proud. It still makes me shudder every time I think of this. I guess she was just ahead of my time.
As I grew older, it came time for me to attend college. I could not wait for this next phase of my life. As my parents dropped me off at my college dorm, the last words I remember mom saying was, “remember to go find and attend a good Missionary Baptist Church. It can be traced back to Jesus Christ!”
Well I actually did find a Missionary Baptist Church while I was in college and I did attend it. Once. Then my life started to unravel. First, I had a season ending injury while trying to make the football team. I had to have surgery on my shoulder. Afterwards, I couldn’t even tie my own shoes or button my own shirts. Ever ask a dorm full of self-centered jocks to tie your shoe? I was terribly homesick. I became depressed. I was at an all-time low. I stood outside my dorm, looked in the sky and cursed God. “Are you satisfied? Is this what you wanted for me? After all those hours and hours of attending your house of worship and you let all this happen to me?” I cried. Soon, I discovered the joy of sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Now I could watch Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza and whatever was on television, whenever I wanted. I started having a grand ole time. Parties were included. I learned the definition of carousing and petting. It was the seventies and I wanted to grab everything life had to offer. On the outside, I was happy as a lark. But on the inside, I knew I was doing wrong.
After a year of rebellion, I decided this was not the way I wanted to live the rest of my life. I started attending University Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which was full of college kids who were living the kind of life I wanted to live. I was introduced to a new kind of God. One that was not quite so angry. One that was in the New Testament. One who loved me and wanted nothing but good things for me. I wanted this God!
I returned to the very spot where a year earlier I had cursed God. I got on my knees and begged forgiveness. I’m not sure, but I think I saw the sky open and a smiling God took the biggest eraser I’ve ever seen and wiped the entire slate clean! Even the dropped marble incident! What seemed like the weight of the world was lifted and I became a different man, full of joy and happiness. Man, that was a great feeling, surpassing anything I had previously experienced!
I’m not proud of my year of indiscretion. What a tough year! It seemed as though every time I turned around, I was getting blindsided. I got knocked down eight times. But you know what? I got up nine times. Looking back, no doubt in my mind, loving and caring hands were gently placed under my arms, helping me to my feet. Those hands nudged and encouraged me to get back in the game. I’m standing stronger today as a result of that terrible year. Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the ugliness was necessary for me to develop my wings and set myself free. Since that time, I’ve not been a perfect Christian by any means…that animal does not exist. I have been a member of six different churches as I’ve moved extensively over the years. I’ve tried to give back by serving as a teacher, working in the nursery, serving on committees and currently as an usher.
My faith has been and continues to be a journey. As with any journey, it began with the first step. I’m proud of my first church. Without that base, my foundation would be made of sand. But I’m still searching for that biblical verse on the appropriate length of shorts!
I would love to hear your comments, both good and bad. I would also love to hear some of your church experiences.
Have a great week!