by Randy Ford
We rarely missed a Sunday. We rarely missed church. We went to church on Wednesday night and twice on Sunday. And we read our Bible everyday. And if I memorized a Bible verse my mother gave me a quarter. Then I can truthfully say I know my Bible.
Then if for some reason we couldn’t go to church, we kept the Sabbath holy at home. My parents made me go to church in order for me to be saved. They said, I was lost. I was born a sinner. I was taught we’re born sinners. Born sinners? I not sure I bought it. But how could I contradict them? They were my parents.
How many times had I heard them repeat these things to me? To me directly and indirectly. Particularly after I disappointed them by doing something disruptive and disorderly, they told me that I would get it when we got home. That was where I would be punished and lectured to. Through my parents I learned about penitence and salvation.
I was lost. I was lost, lost, though I didn’t feel lost. Lost … it was something that I didn’t like to think about. I thought I knew where I was. But I couldn’t be certain. If I were lost, how could I be certain about anything.
How many times have I sinned, really sinned, done something really bad that I was ashamed of? More than I could count. More than I’ve been caught. But if I were lost how could I ever be caught. Caught … more times than I could remember. Then how could I be lost? Oh, yes! Me! Lost. A sinner.
Mama always prayed, prayed for me, prayed for my salvation and prayed that I would dedicate my life to Christ. She instructed me on how Christ died, died for me on a Cross-, yes for me whereas without Christ she thought that I couldn’t resist impulses that would cause me grief (she meant caused her grief). And, if truth were known, she was more concerned than I was for I continued to do things that disappointed her.
So in my mom’s mind there was a direct relationship between good behavior, clean clothes, and God. I’m not sure however that God was picky.
I got into trouble the previous night. For fun I stole hubcaps off a car. So I felt I had to answer an altar call if I didn’t want to go to hell. I didn’t want to go to hell. So I looked forward to Sunday.
I never listened to Rev. Brown, never before. I always sat in the balcony so that I could sleep through his sermons. And I didn’t know it until then that there was substance to his sermons. “Why do we need to be saved? Because we were born sinners and sin’s ultimate punishment is hell.” Rev. Brown’s voice was so sharp then, and specifically seemed pointed at me. “Salvation is your ticket to heaven. But that’s not all the Bible says.”
I didn’t publicly profess my faith in Jesus that Sunday. By time Sunday rolled around I thought and thought long and hard about what I did, and had come to the conclusion that what I did wasn’t a mortal sin. Of course, I prayed about it. And I was diligent, even obsessive about my praying. (It was my mama who taught me what to say to God.) That week I also tried to be good and eagerly helped my mother, did my chores without complaining, and acted as if everything was okay. For after all stealing hubcaps wasn’t a mortal sin, and I promised myself that I would never do it again.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. It is a gift from God.”
Sunday was designated as a day of rest. After what I did night before I needed Sunday. After crime I committed … theft of four spinners from a Corvette and after tossing them into a ditch and me too scared to keep them as trophies, I sneaked back into the house. A crime and I thought I got away with it.
Sunday was a day of rest after sinning all week.
I couldn’t tell anyone about my crime, though it wasn’t such a big deal to me, but it stayed with me as I lay in bed. Lying there a sense of relief came over me after I realized that I hadn’t completely gotten away with it. Still a crime, a petty crime as far as crimes go, got in way of sleep.
Lord Jesus Christ! one who was crucified for my sins and died on a cross at Calvary. I am not lost. I am here Lord.
For my dad might’ve beaten me, after all. He might’ve taken me to woodshed, had we one. Wouldn’t it disappoint mom? Hadn’t I been taught difference between right and wrong?
I hid my crime. I kept it a secret. Dared not confess to anyone (so upset and angry with myself that I thought I wouldn’t get over it) but I thought going to church might help (where we went every Sunday with our marked Bibles, sang old hymns, and listened to Rev. Brown sermons: “This great judge, who’s coming to judge the world, died on a cross at Calvary for you.”)Knowing of course what I did, pitying myself as I sat in my pew. Through a long sermon in the balcony. I dozed, of course. I hadn’t slept much the night before…yet even though I dozed, I heard God speak to me.
You Jake. You think you’re hot stuff. With voice I have, people always told me that I sounded like God. Like God, imagine.
Only a few of times had Rev. Brown got through to me. Though I went to church every Sunday. Though I sat through his sermons. Nothing sunk in. A. J. who was my archrival, since I don’t know when, kept me entertained when I was sleepy. Hell, yes…we were rivals. We would egg each other on, but he could get away with it more often than I could. And everyone assumed that I was the guilty one…falsely. As if A. J. could do no wrong. A. J. was the preacher’s kid. Often A. J. would sit there quietly and egg me on. Then after a while I had to respond. Then everyone would assume that I started it. “A. J. involved? Preacher’s kid?” As preacher’s kid, he had to set an example and wouldn’t have started it. “He’s completely innocent.”
So I couldn’t win, and by degrees accepted it. Rivalry and ill feelings existed, or were beneath surface. A so-called truce had been brokered long ago by our parents, or so they thought. So whenever A.J. started something, he would choose a time when he wouldn’t get caught and I looked bad.
I accepted Jesus as my Savior. I was to blame, so I accepted Jesus as my Savior. Then why would I have to do it again?
One Sunday, as we sang the old hymn “Just as I Am” with the declaration “O Lamb of God, I come! I come!” I heard Rev. Brown plead “Come! Come! Come!” I didn’t need to be told that he was singling out me. Lost, I was found; a criminal and yes a thief because I’d stolen a set of spinners. Mom’s eyes filled with tears as I made a public profession of faith, but I’m not sure she would’ve been crying had she recognized the truth. I cried too, while big boys weren’t supposed to cry.
A typical Sunday morning at First Baptist Church. It would be my Sunday; I seemed to know it. I could never stay home unless I was too sick to get out of bed. Our record of perfect attendance hadn’t been broken that year, or the previous year, in years, because we were amazingly healthy. Though I generally skipped Sunday school, no one said anything about it as long as I was sitting in my pew when worship service began.
Not that I much liked being there …”forced into it” as I would later say… with my underlined Bible in hand.
Bored. Bored. Bored. I couldn’t be more bored. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Balcony only place we could get away with stuff. It was the only place we could be ourselves. The balcony was the ony place we could cut up. But how much did we really get away with? Presumably, Rev. Brown saw us. Presumably Rev. Brown didn’t miss anything. If he did, why then diidn’t he talk to my parents, for if he had they would’ve exploded? Or lectured me. God would’ve known, since God knew everything.
I agreed to behave in church, at my parents’ urging. Looking back on it I didn’t have a choice but to agree, agree to behave in church just as I didn’t have a choice about attending. But Jesus, Jesus, it was hard, but I wasn’t given a choice. Jesus didn’t help me either. After sitting for almost an hour with nothing to do. I dozed more often than not … better than acting out. A tough situation … but I never asked for help.
There was A. J.: preacher’s kid. Tried to avoid A. J..
After he got me in trouble. And in front of girls. Embarrassment it caused my parents! I was mad, my heart wasn’t in the right place. So I vowed to get even, with Jesus’ help. But there was nothing that I could immediately do to A.J.. I couldn’t think of anything. I couldn’t break my promise to my parents, or at least not right away. It was as if I had switched places with A. J. and had become goody-two-shoe or what everyone wanted him to be while he was nothing but a little devil. Nor could I get away with it like he did. When? Where? On Sundays and in church because he was preacher’s kid.
Help me, help me, oh Lord. It wasn’t my fault.
And so Sundays were torture. Instead a day of rest Sundays were torture. No wonder I skipped Sunday School, turned Rev. Brown off and slept when I could get away with it and missed what he had said about Jeremiah, prophet of doom and usually only caught the altar call. “Come! Come! Just as you are.”
There was a discovery, a discovery discovering that he was actually speaking to me, never heard Rev. Brown until then. For always it went over my head, or I missed it. Like I said, I generally slept through his sermons. (though I couldn’t swear that I missed everything he said.) Hearing him then perhaps for the first time, Mom, yet Rev. Brown, when he pointed a finger directly at me was when I knew he was talking to me. For I squirmed in my pew when he pleaded with me to “come.” If I hadn’t been sure that he was singling me out I would’ve just sat there. Closed my eyes so that I wouldn’t have to look at him.
It seemed like an eternity. Opened my eyes, stared and there he was…yes, Rev. Brown had asked the congregation to sing one more verse of old hymn “Just as I Am.” His hands then up as if he were reaching for heaven.
God I’m sorry.
God, forgive me.
God, I’ll never do it again.
I didn’t want anyone to hear me but God. Certainly not, since A.J. was sitting next to me. And there was Dad’s voice, which he never raised in anger. (As incredible as it may seem, he only raised his voice at me once, and that was when I threw a pencil at my mother.) And my mother’s voice chiding me. As if my quarrel was with them instead of with God. And suddenly A. J., who was preacher’s kid, nudged me not giving a damn what was going on inside of me, out of my seat and down the balcony stairs, and not a minute too soon because hymn was almost over. A few seconds later and I would’ve missed an opportunity, and mom and dad would’ve missed their moment.
Tears: I would try to avoid them. Tears: if I didn’t appear strong and cried. I wouldn’t allow myself to cry in front of whole congregation. Hurried and hurried before I cried. (If truth were known, I wasn’t in control of emotions when I found myself pulled down a long aisle with a bowed head. I couldn’t see, which was a blessing.) And the rest was a blur.
Amazingly: how good it felt; it was immediate, and I’ve never felt like that since.
That day when I accepted Jesus as my Savior (to my mom’s relief), and after church, in the reception line, welcoming handshakes and smiles. And to Rev. Brown one less soul to worry about and most members of congregation understood significance of my decision, and most rejoiced.
There were a few who didn’t, like A.J., who didn’t congratulate me. What was the matter with him? He acted as if he lost his best friend. I was lost and was found and he lost his best friend.
Though we were never close friends.
Always got on each other’s nerves, even when we didn’t mean to.
Sometimes not really meaning to we stole each other’s thunder, or say something nasty to each other, or pull a prank, or intentionally embarrass the other person, in particular A.J.’s habit of just being a pain in the ass. Just wouldn’t give each other an inch. “Why you! It’s you again! Why don’t you crawl into a hole?” Automatically there was friction, which more often than not would turn into aggression.
Yes and sparks would fly and ruin a perfect day, or we’d be punished for something the other did, but A.J. never as often as I was. His inside connection helped him, but not always.
Some Sunday mornings, you hardly guessed he was a preacher’s kid. Some Sundays he was an ordinary kid, an ordinary boy.
Rev. Brown would remind us that we were all sinners. He knew how I was. I needed to be reminded each week.
And about A.J..
Can’t say. Because I can’t. If I could, I would.
Playing with me. His idea of fun. So predictable. That he, A.J., more conniving than I was, had power over me. Set traps. Knew I’d lose my temper. He set me up. Set up by a mean asshole.
Strutted down the aisle like a big shot at beginning of altar call. His big round mug, jubilant smile and slicked-back hair. It was last thing that I expected, particularly from A.J. but then … he could hear the call just as I had. In front of whole congregation and strutting like a big shot. Rededicating his life to Christ, A.J. even I was impressed but skeptical too, I thought I knew him having been a victim of his pranks and seen how wild he could get. My impression wasn’t exactly unbiased because I saw him showoff. He was drinking and was ready to party. And I could swear he was drunk. It wasn’t on a Sunday, and I swear he came to the party drunk. He hadn’t been exactly invited, so I guess he had to prove himself by getting drunk. Drinking beer and straight vodka, A.J. had a reputation to keep, so he tried to prove himself by drinking more than anyone else did. And then shortly after that to have him rededicate his life to Christ. I guess he needed it. Who am I to judge?
Yet almost everyone except me believed him sincere. How could he be? I know we’re not suppose to judge other people, but sometimes it’s impossible not to.
Urging him to drink just so they could make a fool of him, more he drank bigger fool he became, and his face turned bright red from all the drinking, he was so drunk and so happy! (But wait: could this be reason he rededicated his life to Christ? Who knows! Who am I to judge?) A.J. knew that he’d get in trouble if he wasn’t home by midnight, which was his curfew, knew his father would be waiting up for him (he had a dilemma: whether to break curfew or go home drunk) and kept hovering over toilet and throwing up where it would’ve been fine if he had only drank a beer or two. One of the boys at the party volunteered to drive him home, and A.J. stammered for a while. He said he didn’t want to go home but would have to. If you saw him right then you thought that you were looking at someone who was about to face a firing squad. I actually felt sorry for him. At the party A.J. drank beer and straight vodka, and he became stinking drunk. He was sweating by then. His breath smelled of alcohol, like any drunk’s would, and it would’ve been hard to cover it up. I spent most of the time talking to my friends, as A.J. drank and made a fool of himself. And of course I couldn’t see him going home until he sobered up and didn’t think he could get away with staying out all night, though breaking curfew seemed like a better option to me than going home drunk.
A. J. strayed. God, help him.
Reaching front of the sanctuary, he had his father standing waiting for him, ready to forgive him, ready with a Bible. Will he give his testimony? Is that what he’ll do next? Would he confess? Would A.J. confess in front of congrgation? No, A.J. didn’t. Not that Sunday. Perhaps he knew better. Perhaps. His father put an arm around him, A.J.’s face now solemn, his father looking down at his son speaking quietly, earnestly and A.J. stood transfixed staring at whole congregation with a smile on his face. To me it was as if he got away with something.
Forgiven! But only one, only one who could forgive him was God.
Sometime during the next week Mom said something about how wonderful it was that A.J. rededicated his life to Christ. Did she know about A.J.’s escapade? Then if she knew, she knew I was there and that I particapated. But how could she know? I then made the mistake of responding when I should’ve kept my mouth shut. Jealousy jealousy hurt like a thorn in my heart. We were at home where my mother felt free to say what she thought and what she said about A.J. stuck in my craw. She said I should be more like A.J., A.J., A.J., though she couldn’t know that he got stinking drunk at a party, one of many sinful things he did that I knew about because I was there. It was time she stopped, time we both moved on. I didn’t want to hear any more about A.J., especially from her. On and on she went, on and on about A.J. while I was steaming, boiling inside and muttering to myself “fucking asshole!” and when after she heard me curse she scolded me about my unchristian attitude. Hey A.J.: Christian asshole! That was when Mother urged me to turn to God for answers.
The first question that came to me, Oh God, as A.J. walked past me after he rededicated his life to Christ, and I cursed under my breath. Caught with a curse on my lips while not seeming to care about where I was, I almost choked on envy. Why Lord had you made me so weak? Something hit me then, and I knew I had to do something to clip A.J.’s wings. You think you’re something, don’t you?
Yes, he did.
Always, you watch your back.
Every Sunday morning we went to church and me more determined than ever. A few weeks passed without an incident, so it seemed as if A.J. and I called a truce, which wasn’t true. All of my envy was still there. I just wasn’t showing it as much nor was I talking about A.J. (like Mom said to do: I appeared to be concentrating on myself), but my brain I was still plotting. No, but was waiting for an opportunity.
Out of the corner of my eye, I kept track of my rival…yes, whenever I was at church I looked for him. Envy flourished in my heart, even though Mom had warned me about what it could do to me.
(Of course, there were reasons why I envied A.J., why he bugged me more than anyone else did. Considered a lady’s man … didn’t he always have girls running up to him? It was his flirting and how girls flirted back, prettiest girls too, nice girls, at church at course, Dixie Kee with the cutest smile, and my heartthrob Judy Hicks.
“I’ll get to him. He’ll be sorry”- I muttered under my breath and realized, as soon as I did that someone heard me, and that was God.
I opened my heart to Jesus; yet had I changed? But I didn’t want to think about it. It was all A.J.’s fault. If he hadn’t been so popular with girls it would’ve been different.
Kept awake at night. It was two in the morning, and I still couldn’t sleep. Only one person knew what I was thinking. God knew and wouldn’t let me alone. Wouldn’t let me sleep. Now there was only me and God and beating of my heart in my ear. Yet it didn’t deter me. Beating in my ear kept me awake.
From when he was first introduced to the congregation by his father, that first Sunday, I somehow knew that A.J. and I wouldn’t get along. Isn’t that how it often is, how we often know such things … as certain as we know God is listening? Going to church on Sunday may have been mandatory, but why couldn’t I be free rest of the week?
It was true that I acted like an ass. At church. Next Sunday. It happened to be when opportunity came. First A.J. would have to be caught off guard. Not suspect anything, that is. There would have to be other people around to witness my handiwork, see it come down and talk about it later. And preferably girls our age…something despicable. Of course I knew both our parents … Rev. Brown of course would get involved and discuss matters afterwards. I knew I would get in trouble, but it didn’t matter to me as long as I embarrassed A.J..
There was also the congregation of the First Baptist Church, the largest church in town. “Congregation …there wasn’t one person in it who didn’t recognize A.J., which meant he had a hard time getting away with anything …wasn’t too large to be a friendly church, with a time set aside for fellowship after each service. So everyone knew everyone, and many of the relationships went far deeper than handshakes and smiles that one would expect at a friendly church. Social hall at rear of the church had recently been repainted a bright, cheery purple and hanging on walls were several Christian banners, giving the hall more life than ever. Fellowship time also gave the congregation time to gossip and talk and would be when they heard about what I did. I certainly didn’t think ahead or think about repercussions or buzz I would cause. I simply didn’t think. For my part in it, I took responsibility. I was having fun. I’m not ashamed of myself. I expected A.J. to react. I expected, like someone said, that he’d let the congregation down. The congregation had their own way of responding, of course. For that was how they were, Baptist: at first utterly disappointed in A.J. and me. Then felt relieved that it wasn’t more serious.
If he weren’t a preacher’s kid, it would’ve been totally different. Because he was a preacher’s kid, it surprised people when he got into big trouble.
He was coming out of the men’s restroom just as some girls were coming out theirs. It was between Sunday school and the 11 o’clock service, a little before it. People were rushing to get there on time. As A.J. came out of the restroom, I was taking my time at the water fountain. Cool water made it worth while. A.J. wasn’t paying attention to me, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye. Saw an opportunity! Raised my hand. “Peace, brother!” If I hadn’t had the opportunity, there wouldn’t have been a war.
“A.J.” I yelled. “Your fly, you forgot to zip your fly. It’s unzipped.”
He fugitively looked down, as the girls looked in his direction. In front of Dixie Kee, Judy Hicks and Jean Bridges. Before it was over, I embarrassed him in front of girls we both liked.
There was the fact that we were in church and the fact that he hadn’t merely left his fly unzipped, but also had been utterly careless when he pissed. He hadn’t noticed it at all until he looked down. And standing there when he did was Dixie Kee, Judy Hicks, and Jean Bridges, three of the prettiest girls around. I’d been watching the girls all along: what an opportunity. And now I watched the whole scene unfold in an unperturbed way, and as if I had nothing to do with it. I watched as A.J,’s face turned a crimsoned red.
“You. You’ll pay. You’ll pay for this.”
He wouldn’t have been embarrassed, yes of course, if there hadn’t been girls around, even if other people were rushing to the 11 o’clock service (there was evidence on his trousers that he could hide if I hadn’t yelled “your fly is unzipped”), there in a crowded hall between sanctuary and social hall. “Come, come, come.” He approached me slowly; I stepped aside. He now stood in front of the water fountain.
But I had more in store for him, something more sinister, another opportunity once A.J. stepped in front of the water fountain.
I knew what I was doing as I turned the fountain on full force and deflected some water onto his crotch, which drenched his trousers. “Look,” I yelled. “Look, look, look!” That was when I ran, and he chased after me.
A.J. wouldn’t have a chance to change his wet trousers before 11 o’clock service. He had on a good pair of trousers, and now they may have been stained, or at least it would take them a while to dry. I don’t know how he really felt, but I could see that he was angry when he chased me.
Didn’t we know that we weren’t supposed to run through halls or make a lot of noise? We knew how to behave in church, we were told, scolded, taught; boys were boys, but we were Christian boys, and were expected to behave as such and were held to higher standard than most boys. If we then misbehaved we knew that we’d have to face the congregation, accept our punishment, and knew we’d get it again when we got home. Even for something minor, even for a prank that really didn’t hurt anyone, and especially for running through halls and when we nearly ran over several people on their way to 11 o’clock service. Yelling, yelling. A frenzy of accusations that weren’t very complimentary. People disturbed by loud noise. We both knew that we’d hear about it, but we didn’t care at that point. We were old enough to know better, but we had a savage need nevertheless to run and chase each other. Why? Because we were boys.
Still it shouldn’t have been a big deal, not a big deal for me or A.J., at most embarrassing for A.J., but everything deteriorated from there.
My parents were pleased when I sat down beside them instead of sitting in my usual place, my usual place in the balcony. They hadn’t heard what I did yet. They didn’t have an opportunity to question me. They couldn’t ask what was up? Or if they did, they didn’t say aren’t you ashamed of yourself? It just felt strange, strange to sit next to them in church.
Another indication of a problem came when Rev. Brown asked my parents and me to stay after fellowship. A.J. was there too, of course. “A.J. what’s this I hear about you chasing Jake through the halls after Sunday school?” I also had some explaining to do, but I acted as if I wasn’t interest. My father, as head of the household, normally would’ve taken charge; instead my mother did. There was no way to gage her annoyance, as if she wanted to defend me but couldn’t. She had her family to think about, however, difficult. Had she seen the incident herself she would’ve been more certain about what her response should’ve been.
After some hesitation, she believed enough of the story to ground me for a week, a punishment that I felt was unfair. She however didn’t consider it too harsh. A point of contention that was never resolved, and I saw that rivalry between A.J. and me was far from over. He wouldn’t give up, and I wouldn’t either. He’d get even. I couldn’t let my guard down.
Nothing happened for next few Sundays, giving me a false sense of relief, something I soon learn meant nothing. This time, thank goodness, I was clearly the victim.
Thank God for small miracles.
No one would be able to blame me for what happened, or could accuse me of anything since A.J. jumped me in the bathroom.
What were words I used to provoke him? None, I swear. None … I don’t remember saying anything, anything, anything to provoke him into hitting me and bloodying my nose. I remember him hitting me at least three times. There were words exchanged, or he was the one who yelled at me, though there wasn’t anyone else in there to hear him (that is there was only God and me, God and us, as we often spoke of God in that way).
Perpetrator, who was A.J. Brown, preacher’s kid, was then horrified by what I did next. Unless he thought I’d fight back, and he’d go down swinging. The bastard. The son of a bitch. I beat him to the punch. I collapsed and started screaming, I mean, screaming. Other times I would have taken it.
Eventually, of course, the whole congregation would come to know a version of what happened, or at least what could’ve happened. At the time, however, all anyone knew was that I was screaming really loud. Beyond that, people, who saw me decked out on the floor, didn’t exactly know. They saw blood, a lot of blood, and heard my screams. Ask ten different people, and you got ten different stories, and when they asked A.J. he told them he didn’t know. (This was A.J. lying to get out of it.) When I stopped screaming, I said, “I want to know who’s going to help me?” A.J. was the first to move to get me a paper towel for my nose; by now blood had gotten all over my shirt. I expected then to hear A.J. say he did it. I said nothing. I expected someone to figure it out. No one did, or no one wanted to, orI don’t know if anyone did. It didn’t make sense to me. Okay, now.
Something happened, right?
This was just so surprising to me, that no one put it together. With me decked out on the floor, with a bloody nose, and me screaming my head off.
A.J. was in there … standing over me … surely they could’ve made something of it, or got him to say something.
He knew what he did: he must’ve expected me to say something; or at least when I was home, I would tell my parents when they questioned me about blood on my shirt. He thought he would get in trouble after that, but I decided not to snitch. “Oh, no! I had a nosebleed and stomach cramps. You know nosebleeds run in the family.” Mother felt my forehead. “I got sick so fast, and I got well even faster. I can go to school tomorrow. It just scared me, that’s all.”
A.J. never said. I didn’t care to bring it up either. It established a bond between us. We sinned. We were sinners. Everyone sinned. Everyone was a sinner. Big deal. We were saved.
But mama was a little suspicious. I’m not sure my dad wanted to get involved. And Rev. Brown? I don’t know what he thought. And God? It was between A.J., God, and me.