Boots in heaven

February 20, 2014

 

Overall, I’d say my experiences in church have not been entirely positive. I blame this on the denomination in which I was raised.

I will not name it, but in a South famous for its Hellfire and Damnation types, in the land that bred Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and other members of the “grab’em by the liver and make’em sweat” School of Theology, I managed to be born into a congregation devoted to boredom.

In my church, there was no joy, or any great terror. During the services, we did not sing the old hymns that everybody knows, but rather some of the newer, complex pieces. It was like singing an instruction manual.

In my church, as in others, Hell was something to be avoided. In ours, however, there wasn’t a lot of talk about lakes of fire and all that. I had the impression that our Hell was more like a bad neighborhood or tacky friends. Pastor Zack painted for us a sort of pastel damnation, where lackluster demons slouched around pestering the unlucky souls who had stumbled into the place, trying to make them read religious pamphlets.

Now, the tent revivals of the more colorful sects were something else again. I remember one in particular, though I do not recall where. The preacher was a stocky, sweating man with the shoulders of a professional wrestler and the eyes of a cherub who has imbibed too much Tabasco.

This preacher didn’t fool around with any suburban, split-level, air-conditioned Hell. No Sir. This man’s Hell was a wicked place, turbo-charged with fire and brimstone, cranked wide open with sin and misery, patrolled by lean, mean demons who loved their work.

In the cricket-laden nights you could almost feel the hot gusts of the flames in the summer breezes blowing in off the fields, almost hear the earth-crack with the shrieks of the damned.

Now THERE was a Hell you could believe in.

One left those tent meetings feeling small, contemptible and unworthy. A preacher like that could strip you of all your false pride and make you look again at the desolation you had made of your life. The feeling sometimes lasted for hours, and left you feeling purged, as though coming just that close to those flames had burned away a row or two of spiritual weeds.

Years later, in Mississippi, I was able to take part in what became a religious experience for a large number of people. It was an accident and, predictably enough, nobody thanked me for it.

I had rented the attic of the house next to my apartment to use as a studio. I had a chair and easel and a few odds and ends up there, nothing fancy.

The house was owned by a local architect named Phil, who regularly bought old houses and restored them. In this case, he had leased the bottom floor to a group of very religious, longhaired youths who wore tie-dyed shirts.

One weekend, the folks next door had a guest. He was a preacher, well known in their denomination, they said. A friend in the local police department said the person was a thief and a swindler, but the kids were convinced that the guy could all but walk on water.

That Sunday I sat in my studio working for several hours. After awhile, the rooms below filled with all manner of people come to hear the Reverend speak.

He didn’t speak. He bellowed. He shrieked. He damned. He exhorted, fumed and ridiculed. He made an awful lot of noise. So much so that I gave up trying to paint and stood, stretched, and walked across the attic in my heavy boots and clumped down the stairs and out the back door.

As it turned out, Phil and his girlfriend were downstairs, having been invited to the services by his tenants. Phil was of Italian extraction, and from an old-fashioned Catholic family, and was terrified.

“There were people having fits,” he said later, sweating, “They were talking in tongues, just like you read in the books, and they rolled around on the floor.”

I tried to explain to him the mysteries of the charismatic movement, but he stopped me.

“You should have seen the preacher’s face,” he went on, breathless. “He had been going on and on about the sins of the congregation. He raised his hand up and pointed toward Heaven, and also toward your room upstairs.”

Uh-oh, I thought.

“He said, real loud: `Lord, if I’m lyin` to these folks, I wish you’d send down a sign,”’ Phil said, beginning to laugh. “That’s when you decided to come clumping down the stairs in those clodhoppers of yours. That preacher’s jaw dropped almost to the floor. For a second there, I thought he was going to say: ‘Wait! I was only kidding!’”

I have no idea if my clattering exit from the space above the flock had any lasting effect. I know that the Reverend never returned to the little congregation on Central Street. I also know that the kids who lived in the house eyed me suspiciously from then on, as though there might be more to me than met the eye.

But, who knows? Maybe some doubter had his faith uplifted and nailed into place by the wooden hammering of my boots up there toward Heaven. They do say, after all, that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

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