Nels Johnson is an lawyer, lobbyist writer living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and dog. His work has been published in local and regional publications. His piece "Sitting in a Bar" was published in the December 2016 edition of the Scarlet Leaf Review. You can usually find him writing in darkly lit bars and coffee shops around Portland. Follow him on Twitter @mnelsjohnson.
The Red Guitar
R. J.’s flaming-red guitar was famous around the church. He was the worship leader, and on Sundays he’d pull the guitar out, crank up the volume, and lead the congregation into a state of rapture and ecstasy. “Holy Is the Lord,” that worship song from the early 1990s, was usually the big finale, played to get the congregation on their feet and hooting and hollering after the time of reflection. R. J. was a Pentecostal and believed those who were saved should shout thanks to the Lord and raise their hands in adoration.
R. J. would start his worship set strumming a few power chords, slowly building in volume with the rhythm and arc of the song. People would start by sitting in the pews but gradually stand as the Spirit or R. J.’s guitar moved them. Mrs. Vanderpool, the old widow from the upper valley, was always the first one raising her hands as high as they would go, trying to touch the face of God. As R. J.’s guitar got louder, her hands lifted higher and higher, frozen and outstretched. She stood on her tiptoes and shook in fervent determination to finally reach the places she’d never been able to reach before.
Once Mrs. Vanderpool got going, Mrs. McIsaac would follow. Mrs. McIsaac was around the same age as Mrs. Vanderpool. Her two children were grown and had been out of the house for years and never came around anymore. Folks in the church worried about her because she got to saying that the reason why she never turned her heat on in the winter anymore was because the Lord told her to have faith. She’d worn the same faded and threadbare coat every day through each of her ten cold and wet Oregon winters. Her slim figure was now as thin as a sapling. But her poverty never mattered to her, especially when she heard that red guitar play, carrying her prayers straight to Jesus himself.
Reverend Carter was a carpenter by trade and preacher by calling. He fancied himself like the Apostle Paul: carpentry was his tent making, but the ministry was his real work. He hadn’t gone to college or some fancy seminary somewhere back East but instead spent his years reading the Good Book, and believing every word in it. When he wasn’t swinging his hammer and pounding nails, he was thumbing through his well-worn King James leather-bound Bible. Some of the pages had become so tattered and the ink so smeared you could barely make out the red letters. Reverend Carter said the mark of a good Bible was a well-worn one—it showed that the owner had a healthy fear of the wrath of God and a desire to be saved by his mercy.
Reverend Carter believed that you could get saved through music. He’d seen it hundreds of times over the years as he preached the Gospel. Someone would show up to church, heart hardened, desperate, back sliding, and living a life of total depravity. But then they’d sit back, settle into the service, listen to the Word be preached from the pulpit, and God would start to do something in their heart. Pretty soon the sermon started to make sense, their internal walls would start to crumble as the Gospel would make its way past the person’s defenses, closing in on their heart. Then, the music would start, and the Holy Spirit would descend and remove the shackles of blindness and sin from their eyes, and they’d break down in tears and total surrender and get saved right then and there. Reverend Carter didn’t just believe that you could get saved through music—he expected it.
“Can any of y’all tell me if Jesus’s in the house today?” R. J. called out to the congregation. “Praise him.” He was vamping now, playing the same simple melody over and over, settling into a tight, crunchy progression of power chords with his right hand muting the strings in a staccato buildup aimed at unleashing the congregation’s pent-up emotion once the song slowly climaxed.
“Praise ya’, Lawd!” Mrs. Vanderpool wailed, her whole body trembling as the Holy Spirit start to wash over. R. J.’s power guitar howled on, creating space for salvation.
The louder R. J. played, the more he vamped, the more he noodled on solos, the more the temperature of the room increased and the mood of the people became wild, more expressive, more passionate. His guitar playing gave them all the release they were looking for. When he played, it seemed like he had a full band behind him, even though it was just him. He’d use his loop pedal to lay down a percussion line, loop it in, add a rhythm guitar line, loop it in, and keep building and building until he’d created his own powerful sixteen-piece band. Every new layer brought another person from the congregation to their feet, or caused them to shout out.
“Who here’s hada long week?” R. J. asked, his voice still raspy with morning fog as he continued the buildup.
“Lawd help me, I have!” Mr. Wimmers called back, eyes closed, his head slowly shaking back and forth as he engaged in silent communion with God.
“Church, d’you wanna be saved by Jesus?” R. J. said as he continued his call and response.
“Lawd, have mercy on me!” another voice cried out.
“I said, church, d’you wanna be saved by the blood of Christ today? D’you wanna experience repentance and forgiveness for all of your sins?” R. J. said, more urgently, his voice getting louder.
“Jeeeezus save us!” the church replied, collectively emphasizing and drawing out the vowels of the Holy Redeemer’s name.
The prayers and gentle outbursts by the members were now coming at regular intervals, just like one of R. J.’s loops.
“Jay-sus, save us. Jay-sus save us.” People would individually call out, each worshiping from the intimate confine of their own mind. Every repetition of the mantra increased the tension and dissonance in the sanctuary.
Whooom! R.J . suddenly clamped his right hand down on his guitar strings and stomped on his loop pedal, silencing his layered symphony. All that was audible was the soft and urgent groans and cries of the church, each person locked into worship, each communicating with God directly, each in such a focused state of urgency that the outside world was shut out of their thoughts. All that mattered was before them—a longing, delicate, and open line of communication directly to God. The Holy Spirit descended on the congregation, wafting in between the churchgoers. The air inside the sanctuary was thick and heavy with emotion, stifling even, with women using the church bulletins to fan themselves. As the seconds silent of R. J.’s guitar ticked by, the tension continued to mount, and the cries to heaven continued to grow and grow until they could not be held back anymore. The church was reaching its apex.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. R. J. thumped his right fist over the pickup of his guitar in rhythmic fashion, each strike hitting harder and faster than the one before. All of a sudden, he stomped his loop petal, and the sixteen-piece band came roaring back to life.
“Holy is the Lord. Holy is the Lord!” R. J. cried as the church boiled over.
“Worthy, worthy, worthy is our God.”
Everyone extended their hands to heaven, feet dancing in the aisles as the Holy Spirit came upon the Church of the Holy Redeemer.
“Lord, I come before you this mornin’ as somebody who’s naked an’ afraid, impure, covered’n sin and mud, in need of your holy cleansing. Father, forgive me, for I have sinned,” he whispered into the early morning darkness. First light was still an hour away. The stillness of his quiet bedroom unnerved him a little but he continued anyway.
He lowered his head, “Lord, please, please forgive me” he said, this time with a little more urgency as he thought about all the times he’d sinned this past week – looking at a woman with a lustful heart, drinking too much, sneaking away to a card game at the bar just outside of town; more lustful thoughts towards women. By this time his eyes were firmly closed shut out of reverence and supplication.
“Lord, I know I ain’t no good without you. I know that all I do is sin all the time, I just can’t help it. Please Jesus, won’t’chu save me?” R. J. asked meekly, his voice horse with emotion at the guilt he felt. He hadn’t been any more sinful this week than any other week, but the thought of disappointing God, of sinning repeatedly had left him racked with guilt – again. His eyes were still closed, his fists clenched as he sprawled his long frame out on the floor in his room, naked and face down in the carpet; an act of total surrender before God.
“Lord!” he croaked, barely able to make audible sounds as the guilt had firmly set into his heart. “I feel horrible, I’ve let’chu down, I know I have, I can’t help but sin. Please, please help me t’ not to sin no more. I know what I do’s wrong and offends you but I jus’ can’t help it.”
R. J. laid there, quiet and unmoving, sprawled out on the carpet in his room, waiting for the Holy Spirit to come upon him, free his heart from his sins and his mind from condemnation. He hated this. He hated sinning but he was too weak to do otherwise. He was tired of living this way.
He laid on the floor of his bedroom for about an hour until the sun came up, emotionally raw and empty, but slowly feeling better. The as the guilt resided with the rising sun, replaced by the return of his normal thoughts, God’s grace seemed nowhere to be found. But at least he’d gotten right with the Lord. Again.
R. J. was walking to church like he did every Sunday morning. He loved the big white bundle of steam that came out of his mouth every time he exhaled. It was one of those rare crisp and clear fall mornings in Oregon, piercing bright light, free of the burdens of rain and fog. The leaves were showing off their full range of colors, bright reds, yellows, and browns. The rising sun illuminated his 7:00 a.m. hike from his house in the hills, about two miles away from the church. The early morning was still and silent, the town and the day not yet fully awake. R. J. always preferred to walk to church on Sundays rather than drive. The fresh air gave him time to think, reflect, and get in touch with the Holy Spirit so that he’d be able to get the congregation saved.
Occasionally R. J. softly sang bits and pieces of his favorite hymns and worship songs. This morning he realized he was trying to remember a new worship song he’d heard on the radio. It was strange it had stuck with him, since he wasn’t one of those guitar players who was acquainted with every song under the sun, and he wasn’t in the habit of chasing after new tunes just because they were new.
R. J. cut quite the peculiar figure walking down the gravel road, clutching his cased red guitar, his old flapjack hat pulled low over his ears and his bushy reddish beard sticking out in all directions. R. J.’s long, loping gait and his tall, pencil-thin frame made his shadow look like one of those wind-up jack-in-the-boxes that had just popped. His shoulders mechanically moved up and down in a slightly off, disjointed way. When he was in high school, he figured out how to turn his long, shambling frame to his advantage when Coach Willis taught him how to do the long jump. He was one of the best long jumpers in the Columbia Gorge and even placed at state one year.
Suddenly, a Steller’s Jay’s harsh high-pitched cackle cried out from his right, interrupting his thoughts. R. J. looked up and saw the bird’s black-and-brownish head about three-quarters of the way up an oak tree, serenading the world with its morning hollering. R. J. didn’t care much for Steller’s Jays—their calls sounded more like caterwauling to him. He preferred the nice mellow warble of a swallow. However, he did admire that the Steller’s Jay was crafty enough to mimic other birds, like the red-shouldered hawk, all in an effort to scare off predators. R. J. liked the way that the bird could use its voice to get other creatures to believe it was something other than a plain old Steller’s Jay.
Ronald James Townshend Jr. grew up about halfway between the church and where he lived now, just outside of town in the foothills of Oak Hill. His father, Ronald Sr., was a mechanic, good at fixing farm equipment, while his mother, Millie, had stayed at home tending to R. J. and his six older siblings. The family lived off of the meager earnings from Ronald Sr.’s mechanic shop and the bit of profit Millie made from farming the family’s homestead.
The Townshend family history had been rooted firmly in Catholicism, but the roots started to die in the 1960s after Vatican II. Ronald Sr. felt like the church stopped standing up for God’s teachings and, thought the Pope was giving in to the hippies and beatniks by allowing priests to protest the Vietnam War, a real travesty and a betrayal of folks like Ronald Sr., who had fought and bled during WWII. It felt like the Pope was betraying his sacred duty. So by the time R. J. was born in 1970, the family found Pentecostalism to be the true embodiment of the Holy Scriptures, with its passion for saving people, condemning sin and sinners to hell, and experiencing the Fruits of the Spirit. By the time R. J. was in high school, Ronald Sr. was a lay pastor leading the congregation to revival every Wednesday night at the Church of Apostolic Faith in Jesus Christ, located just on the edge of Oak Hill. Ronald Sr. would vigorously implore the church to confess their sins and repent so as not to end up in the fiery lake of hell, eternally separated from Jesus Christ.
Every Wednesday Ronald Sr. would speak out in front of the congregation, boldly proclaiming his faith, and the Lord would use him to save the congregation. Listening to his father preach left R. J. in awe of the power of the Gospel and the lengths people would go to experience it. Ronald Sr. would shout at the congregation, “The world’ll tell ye the devil don’t exist, he ain’t real, he’s justa figment of your imagination or some ol’ crazy old time religion that only holy rollers and trash believe in.” He spit out the word figment with contempt. “Well, I’m here t’ tell you that such a statement is from the devil himself! From the fiery pits-a hell! Repent! Don’tchu ever, ever, ever pay the devil no mind! In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was wit’ God. You is gonna die in the flesh someday. Do’you know Jesus? Is you saved? ’Cause if you ain’t, you is goin’ straightta hell. It’s black-and-white. The Lord will separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the wolves. Is you a sheep? I’m here ta tell ya tonight that if you ain’t saved, you ain’t a sheep.
“But fear not, for God so loved the whole entire world that he gave his only begotten son, and whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Do you want everlasting life? Do you want a life lived in the Spirit of the Lord? Well, then, get down on your knees and pray! Pray that God will save your soul! Pray that God will forgive you of your sins! Pray that God will banish all traces of evil from your heart! Pray that God will bless you with the gifts of the Holy Spirit that you might be able to speak to him in tongues.”
When he was seventeen years old, R. J. got saved one Wednesday night when his father was urging the congregation to repent and seek the Holy Spirit. Though he’d heard his father give similar sermons countless times, for whatever reason, this one stuck. He didn’t remember the exact words that his father used, but he remembered feeling a sense of warmth and hope comfort him. He couldn’t explain it really, but on that night, the Holy Spirit left him a weepy mess, crying out to the Lord in worship. He suddenly felt lightheaded, but his body didn’t move. It was like he was looking down on himself from above. His heart was burning hot, and he felt a sense of peace he’d never felt before or since.
R. J. loved getting saved. He would get saved again and again, often after a particularly long bout with lust or pornography, or depression. But the Lord was always good to him, always forgave him, always saved him, though it never felt quite like it did that first time and lately it hadn’t felt like much at all.
R. J. started playing guitar at about the same time he got saved for the first time. He played by himself for a couple of months, learning chords and playing hymns along with the Gaither Family old time radio broadcasts.
“Praise the Lord!” Reverend Carter bellowed. “Praise the Lord! Can I get an amen?”
“Ay-men, Rev’nd, hallelujah,” the congregation replied.
“It is a good day to worship the Lord, is it not?”
“Sure is, Rev’nd!”
“I’ve got a fire in my stomach today, a fire that is only from the Holy Spirit.” Reverend Carter clutched an old beat-up microphone in one hand and clasped at his heart with the other. It was eight fifty-nine, one minute before church was supposed to start, but Reverend Carter was already getting himself worked up.
As he continued to whip the congregation into frenzy, talking about the need to expel the week’s sin, he started pacing back and forth across the worn stage. With every staccato phrase that burst from his mouth, his voice grew louder and louder and he started pacing, flying back and forth across the stage.
“And the blood of Jesus is as real today as it was when the Jews shed it two thousand years ago, and that blood is just as good today as it was yesterday and as it will be tomorrow. Amen!?”
“Praise you, Jesus!” Mrs. Vanderpool cried with her hands lifted high.
As Reverend Carter continued his Sunday morning ritual with his usual command for repentance in the face of the advances by the devil himself, R. J. couldn’t help but let his mind wander, thinking about leaving town for a bit, maybe heading down South to somewhere warm, maybe trying something new. He’d been listening to Reverend Carter deliver some form of this sermon every Sunday for the past fifteen years. Every week was largely the same. Repent, rebuke the devil, throw yourself at alter of the Lord, and beg for mercy. Anyone who didn’t do this was liable to end up in hell, eternally separated from Jesus. God only gives so many second chances. You have free will for a reason, and if you don’t make the most of it, then the devil will. It wasn’t that R. J. disagreed with what Reverend Carter was preaching, or that he wanted to start backsliding or something. It was just that after hearing these threats of damnation every Sunday year after year, they didn’t seem as serious and as real as they once did. R. J. didn’t feel like repenting this morning, but was still afraid that failing to do so would somehow land him in hell if he weren’t careful. Frankly, R. J. had stopped feeling close to God, and going through machinations to get saved every Sunday wasn’t helping. This made it hard to go up on stage and pretend that he was into it, that he was examining deep in his soul, confessing all of his sins and getting ready to be saved. Maybe he needed to take some time and try something else. Maybe he just needed to try harder.
“R. J.! R. J. Townshend, why don’tchu come on up here!” Reverend Carter shouted, startling R. J. out of his daydream. “Bring that red guitar o’ yours. It’s time to praise the Lord!” Reverend Carter said, emphasizing the word praise long and hard, like an auctioneer or used-car salesman would.
“Church, are you ready to worship the Lord? Are you ready to repent? Are you ready to fall on your faces before our lord and savior Jesus Christ? The Holy of Holies, the Alpha and Omega, the Great Lion? The Slayer of Sin? The Messiah? I hear the Lord telling me there is sin in our midst this morning—confess it! Repent! Get on your knees and pray to God for your salvation! Stop backsliding! Our God is a good God, but a God whose angry wrath must be satisfied.
“I need a prayer. I need a song. I need the voices of this church to carry my prayers to Jesus. I need you to worship like you’ve never worshiped before!”
That was R. J.’s line to start strumming his red guitar, working his way into the chords of “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” As he started strumming, an electricity filled the room. Suddenly, everyone was quiet and focused, swaying to the rhythm of his chord progression, eyes shut in fervent prayer, their communion with God occasionally interrupted by Reverend Carter imploring the congregation to spill their whole souls before the Lord.
“Open the eyes of my heart/Open the eyes of my heart/I want to see you,” R. J. crooned softly. By this time, the fervent silent prayers of the congregation were slowly turning vocal, with Mrs. Vanderpool taking the lead, crying out to God, telling him and everyone else how much she needed Jesus and how much of a sinner she was.
R. J. repeated this verse four or five times, each time sung with a little more urgency and intensity, all building toward the powerful chorus. The last time through the verse, R. J. played the chords muted, which was the sign to the congregation that the crescendo—the burst of energy found in the chorus—was coming.
“To see you high and lifted up/Shining in the light of your glory.”
“Yes, praise you, Jesus!”
The entire congregation was in ecstasy, hips moving to the rhythm, hands thrown in the air, trying to touch the face of God. People were dancing in the aisle, shouting their fears and praises to God and anyone else who was listening. With so many people praising the Lord, it was hard to tell who was behind the individual voices that would occasionally rise above the cacophony.
Even though he’d played these exact same songs in the exact same way virtually every Sunday for as long as he could remember, R. J. still derived some joy from it. Not from the music itself—no, that was stale to him, though he didn’t mind playing things the same way every time. He still found it deeply satisfying to lead others into the arms of the Lord. Sometimes he wished he could try something different, maybe a different song, maybe a different arrangement. But Reverend Carter was a stickler for the Gospel and a stickler for delivering it the same way every time, whether by spoken word or song. Besides, Reverend Carter felt that the way the church conducted services was meeting needs of the congregation and getting people saved, so why mess with it? R. J. understood that it was important to help people experience God’s grace, but he wondered if trying a new song or two might not still get people saved.
R. J. proceeded to power through the rest of his set, just like he always did. When he was finished, an exhausted glow emanated from the congregation. An almost sexual glow R. J. thought. As folks took their seats, content and resting in the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Reverend Carter took the stage and delivered another barn-burning sermon about how the wages of sin were death and about the need for repentance and honest, pure living.
At the conclusion of the sermon, R. J. got up on stage one last time and led the congregation in a version of “Holy Is the Lord” and then closed with the benediction. Once the song was over, Reverend Carter delivered his own closing and dismissed the congregation with a final prayer. After the service ended, the men lingered in the old sanctuary fellowshipping while the women scurried to the kitchen to prepare for the weekly church potluck.
R. J. mostly tried to keep to himself, staying on the stage and breaking down his gear while the men milled around below. He was tired and didn’t feel like talking today; it had taken more effort and energy to get emotionally invested in this morning’s service than normal. All he wanted to was pack up his things, have some of Mrs. Wimmers’s famous greens and fried chicken, and start the long walk home before the rain set in.
Sunday nights were for drinking. Rising early, walking two miles to church, setting up the musical equipment, practicing, performing sound checks, sitting through a two-hour worship service, breaking down the sound equipment, attending a potluck with the congregation afterward, and then finally making his long walk home left him completely exhausted. He rarely got home before four in the afternoon.
It was the same routine every Sunday, at church and at home. After the service, he’d feed Betsy, his old gray-whiskered back lab mix, let her out, turn on the end of the football game, get the flank steak and potatoes out and ready for cooking, and then open his first Coors. Cracking his first wet one was permission to stop thinking for a couple of hours to turn his brain off and stop worrying about things. Worrying how he was going to pay the bills, worrying about whether he really was going to live alone for the rest of his life; to stop worrying about Reverend Carter and the church, and to stop worrying about music and faith. Each beer led to another, to another, to another, and more after that until he finally passed out on the couch, the TV’s white noise on in the background and Betsy sleeping soundly on the floor near him.
He’d earned the time to drink, he thought, especially tonight. He’d worked so hard earlier in the day to get himself right with the Lord and get into a position where he could lead the congregation to a place where they’d all get saved. He had arrived at church early that morning and spent the first hour confessing and praying with Reverend Carter before the service started. Salvation was exhausting. Frankly, the whole thing is exhausting, he thought. Just conforming to the expectations of the folks at church and living like you ought to be living wore him down. And getting saved was different—it was much harder, much rawer and more emotional than living like a regular Christian was. Getting saved was guaranteed to take you higher than you’d ever been, right after it took you lower than you’d ever gone. It wasn’t so hard once you got back home, but going to church and getting saved left a guy sore, emotionally drained and spiritually empty. Getting saved meant looking deep into your heart and confessing the sin in it, repenting and begging God for the strength to never sin again—even though deep down you knew that no matter what, you’d sin again and be right back begging for forgiveness next Sunday, and every Sunday after that. Honestly, some Sundays he didn’t feel like getting saved—it was too hard. R. J. loved going to church and leading worship, but it was hard enough that a man deserved a couple of drinks Sunday nights to relax. However, he didn’t dare tell anyone in the congregation about his Sunday night ritual for fear of them judging him and word getting back to Reverend Carter, who was fond of saying, “Drinking alcohol is doin’ the devil’s work for him. Drinkin’ made ye weak, stupid, and ’sceptible to temptation. The Scriptures are very clear—if ye drink, yur a drunkard, and drunkards are separated from God an goin’ to hell.”
Following Jesus was hard work, really hard work. R. J. wondered how you could believe so fervently all the time in something you couldn’t see and something that didn’t always answer your prayers, and when it did, you sometimes don’t know it until a long time later. He still believed in faith—in fact, he believed deeply—but it was hard, and he was tired. Tonight felt different. His tiredness was deeper than just his normal Sunday exhaustion; there was something deeper in him that yearned for a break or at least a little grace once in a while. He wished he could talk to someone at the church, but he was afraid he’d be accused of backsliding and not having faith.
Reverend Carter had served as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He still abided by his strict military upbringing in his appearance: a high and tight haircut (out of respect for himself and his country); a trim and in-shape figure (he did a hundred pushups and sit-ups every night before he went to bed); and an appreciation for the chain of command (he believed in the authority of both the Holy Scriptures and the Church and hated when people questioned either). Reverend Carter also came to faith in the Vietnam War. As he liked to explain it, he was a “backsliding heathen with no purpose in life other’n boozing and whoring around” until the Lord took mercy on him and delivered him from his sins. One day he was listening to the army chaplain deliver a sermon, and all of a sudden, it became clear as day to him that he was a sinner living a horrible, no good life, and if he didn’t repent, he’d be joining the devil in hell before much longer. From that day forward, Reverend Carter was a new man—he swore off booze, whoring, smoking, swearing, and all other vices and instead dedicated himsel to reading the Holy Scriptures and applying them to his life every single day. So far, he’d succeeded—he reckoned he hadn’t backslid once since he got saved twenty years ago. Such a feat wasn’t easy, but anyone could do it. You just had to have faith in the Lord and work hard. Faith wasn’t that complicated—all you had to do was obey.
Reverend Carter was a good man, but the Holy Spirit ran hot through him like molten lava, constantly burning out all of the impurities in his body. He didn’t have much time for doubt; simply expressing exhaustion or frustration meant that your faith wasn’t strong enough and you better go repent and make sure you didn’t keep doubting the Lord’s power otherwise you were liable to backslide your way into Hell. The Scriptures were very clear: repent and obey, even if it hurts. The reason why it took the Israelites so long to get to the Promised Land was because they lost their faith. As Reverend Carter told it, the Israelites were all crying and sniffling like a bunch of ungrateful little cowards, always demanding more from God, never trusting his providence or his provision. Rather than pray, and get themselves right with the Lord, the Israelites lost their faith and repeatedly made fools out of themselves and their families by building false idols, never trusting, never really loving or repenting. As Reverend Carter said, it was a miracle that God let those lousy Israelites into the Promised Land at all.
That morning, Reverend Carter had preached his message of absolute faith with extra piss and vinegar. He got himself worked into lather, as he did when he was really feeling the Holy Spirit. He was one of those preachers who used the whole stage, like an actor, pacing back and forth, jabbing his arms into the air for emphasis, using the whole of his body to communicate the urgency of the Gospel to the congregation, and willing them to salvation. His face was already beat red, and the vein above his left temple pulsating so wildly R. J. was sure you could see it from the back row of the sanctuary. Sweat poured down Reverend Carter’s face and he stopped every few minutes to wipe it with his handkerchief before carefully and meticulously folding it back into a perfect square and putting in back in the back pocket of his slacks. He did this even when he was completely lathered up. He’d stop hollering and shouting for a moment and look around the sanctuary as he folded and tucked his handkerchief slowly back in his pocket, trying to extract maximum drama.
Reverend Carter had been really on a roll, completely enraptured with the Holy Spirit to the point that it appeared he hadn’t taken a breath in about five minutes. Suddenly, he stopped dead, transforming from a loud, gesticulating wild man into a statue, still as the night and cold and deadly as stone. It wasn’t clear if he was still breathing.
He turned his head to the side, body still firmly rooted and still on the stage. His voice went low, really low, almost to a whisper, as if he could barely summon the energy to force the words out of his gullet. He called Mr. Wimmers out in front of the whole congregation for backsliding and not having enough faith. Mr. Wimmers, a brick mason, had lost his job earlier in the week and told Reverend Carter that he wasn’t sure if he and Mrs. Wimmers would be able to give their tithe this week. Reverend Carter would hear none of it, instead saying that Mr. Wimmers needed to repent and confess his backsliding and his lack of faith in God’s provision and ask God to have mercy on him for his weakness. Reverend Carter also said that Mrs. Wimmers needed to repent, that she didn’t support her husband right last week, and as a result, his faith wasn’t strong and he’d started backsliding. Something about listening to Reverend Carter dress Mr. Wimmers down in front of the whole congregation for backsliding didn’t sit right with R. J. It felt harsh to him. After all, the man had just lost his job. Surely God would show Mr. Wimmers a little grace.
“Sumbody here today don’t have no faith!” Reverend Carter bellowed as he rose out of his silent crouch and resumed pacing around the stage from side to side, his arms shooting in different directions, acting as extensions of his wild mind, acting out his insanity. “Sumbody here today’s backsliding, don’t believe in the Good Lord’s provision. Sumbody here today’s just plain weak, just like the disciples in the boat who lost their faith and cried out to Jesus ta save ’em from the storm,” he said in a mocking tone, hands clasped together in faux piety.
“‘Jesus, save us, save us!’ they whimpered. ‘We don’t believe like you told us to. Come save us.’ Well, church, we got sumbody like that in our midst here today. Sumbody who don’t trust the Lord’s promises when the storm comes. Instead he whimpers like a dog. His faith melts like an ice cream cone in the hot July sun. It’s jus’ pathetic. Jus’ pathetic, I tell ya!” Reverend Carter’s said in a biting tone.
“Mr. Wimmers! The Lord’s speaking to you today! Yous decided you wasn’t gonna tithe today, didn’t you?”
Mr. Wimmers fidgeted in his pew, shoulders slumping, head bowed in embarrassment at being called out in front of the entire congregation. He continued to shirk down lower and lower, like he was melting. The silence was starting to grow uncomfortable, it felt like hours but was merely seconds until finally Mr. Wimmers meekly responded, “Yes, Rev’d, ’tis true. As you know, the boss laid me off this week. I ain’t got no income. The missus and I are struggling to just pay the bills. The electric bill is late again; if I don’t pay, the electric company told me they’ll shut it off—ain’t nothing I can do about it.” Mr. Wimmers’s voice barely raised above a strained whisper; the shame and stress of the job loss must have taken his dignity and confidence away from him. Mrs. Wimmers could be heard sobbing in the background at the tragedy of it all, but the congregation sat there in stilled silence, equally fixated on what was happening while simultaneously looking down and away, silently praying that Reverend Carter wouldn’t make a spectacle of them next.
The tension, embarrassment, and shame were so thick and sticky you could feel it on your skin. Everyone was waiting to see how Reverend Carter would respond to Mr. Wimmers’s meek and broken confession. Reverend Carter just stood there, as still as a stone statute, his eyes closed in fervent communication with God, hands clasped together in perfect supplication.
“Walter, the Lord loves you, but you should fear him. You’re a sinner, and you sinned against him today by not having faith that he’ll provide for all of your needs just like he does for the sparrow and the lilies. “Therefore I say unto you, ‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, the body than raiment?’”
Reverend Carter continued to recite the Holy Scripture from memory, body completely still, eyes closed, hands clasped in front of him in pious dedication, face clenched in holy grimace. “‘Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.’
“Walter, are ye not much better than they?”
Mr. Wimmers raised his head from his bowed shame, his eyes slowly raising to focus on Reverend Carter—first the reverend’s prayer hands, then his closed eyelids.
“Water, have you ever considered the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin,” Reverend Carter continued, still unmoving. Mr. Wimmers’s lips were now starting to tremble from the guilt and shame he felt at that moment. He wished he could trust the Lord, but the fact was that he was scared.
Suddenly, Reverend Carter’s eyes fluttered open, his body jolted like he’d been struck by lightening or the Holy Ghost himself. “Walter, oh ye of little faith!” he shouted, his hands and face raised to the heavens. His feet finally were moving, and he was walking across the stage, down the stairs, and right toward Mr. Wimmers, who was sitting in the fourth pew, center row, just to the left. The whole congregation was static, simultaneously scared and awed in anticipation of the Holy Spirit pouring out over Reverend Carter, certain to spill over onto them at any minute.
Reverend Carter slowly approached Mr. Wimmers, the reverend’s face emotionless Mr. Wimmers’s face and body frozen in fear and uncertainty. Reverend Carter slowly placed his hand on Mr. Wimmers’s shoulder and continued his recitation of the Kings James version of the Bible: “Walter, therefore, take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? Or, wherewithal shall we be clothed?’ Wherefore, Walter,” Reverend Carter said, continuing to use Mr. Wimmers’ first name for both dominance and emphasis, “‘if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast in the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?’”
Mr. Wimmers suddenly burst into tears; he was a scared and broken man who had been stripped of all dignity and pride. “Yayayes Rev’d.” He sniffled, his body convulsing; soon he was gulping for air “I just want to please the Lord. Have mercy on me,” he managed to say finally, as he lowered his head again in total defeat and supplication.
Reverend Carter kept his hand firmly on Mr. Wimmers’s shoulder, gently rubbing it for comfort. Reverend Carter was silent as he slowly raised his head and scanned the congregation like a shepherd scanning his flock, stopping to make eye contact with parishioners as his eyes worked across the sanctuary. “Church,” he said in a slow and controlled but powerful voice, “Church, this is a broken man, someone who’s faith has failed him, someone who cries out to God to save him.” Reverend Carter enunciated every syllable as he spoke. “But church, have no fear, for we serve an awesome God.” His eyes closed in reverence, and his fists clenched and raised toward heaven.
TO BE CONTINUED