The Long Invitational
Here I sit, ten years old, squirming on the hardest of hardwood pews, my Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes in shambles. My collar button ripped off during a tussle in Sunday school, where three weeks ago my only clip-on tie vanished under similar circumstances. My shirttail has been out since just before they passed the collection plate, and I've wiped my runny nose on my sleeve so often that it's drenched and sticky. Momma quit trying to make me behave an hour ago. She now acts like I'm some orphaned waif who snuck into the services. When we get home, she'll probably set my bottom on fire, but for now she pretends she doesn't know me.
I fidget restlessly as the choir begins its forty-third repetition of Just As I Am. Most are still singing, but some of their throats dried up during the thirty-ninth verse. Brother Paul begins the second half hour of his invitational, a new record for white bible-believing churches in Louisiana. For those of who don't know, we Southern Baptists focus intently on salvation. That means going to heaven, but we really stress avoiding hell.
The Sunday morning appeal comes in two stages. First, Brother Paul preaches a hellfire-and-damnation sermon, designed to scare the wits out of the unsaved. Then comes the invitational, during which those frightened into repentance receive the opportunity to walk up the aisle and whisper their profession of faith to the preacher, to which Brother Paul responds with a resounding: "Praise the Lord!" At some churches, Just As I Am lasts for only three or four verses. Our minister thinks differently, believing that sinners should receive every opportunity to wrestle with the devil. So his appeal to lost souls goes on forever, at least in the mind of a ten year old.
How can Momma expect me to sit still during this endless petition to fear? Wasn't this morning's sermon long enough? In his typical doomsday parlance, our pastor warned that the "brittle thread of life will snap," after which the unsaved will "plunge into the eternal lake of fire." He described the legions of fire-singed damned, screaming for Lazarus to dip his finger in some of heaven's cooling waters, to let a thirst quenching drop fall on their parched tongues. Of course, their screams resonate in vain. No remedy awaits the scorched soul of a condemned sinner! My childish mind wanders, conjuring up a different reason for Lazarus's inaction. He isn't unsympathetic; he's just not listening. He gallivants nonstop up there on Cloud Nine, flirting with some of the more buxom angels. As a leper back in New Testament times, Lazarus didn't have many girlfriends, and now he makes up for missed opportunities.
Next, Brother Paul foretells the Rapture, when lost souls will face the terror of pilot-less airliners, runaway eighteen-wheelers, and doctors who suddenly get sucked up into heaven while performing open-heart surgery. Poof! Boy, I'd really like to see a driverless truck run off the road and smash into a bridge abutment. Crash! That would be so cool! And how'd you like to be the lead surgical nurse when that heaven-bound doctor ascends through the roof of the operating room, penetrates the upper nineteen floors of Mercy Hospital, and then disappears into the clouds? Shaken, Nurse Wilson collects her wits, completes the operation, and stitches up the patient--just like she's seen the doctor do many times. As for me, I want to be the passenger who lands the plane. I make the smoothest landing since the days of Wilbur and Orville, and then the passengers break out in thunderous applause.
You see, I've already decided that, if indeed a second coming occurs, God will pass me by. My behavior at church is usually abominable, and I just can't swallow this "getting saved" stuff. Besides, if hell actually exists, it can't be all that bad. I've already endured three years of preaching services at Salvation Baptist Church and relentless pressure at our associated Christian school.
Oh, those young born-again elementary school teachers; they're really on fire with the gospel! Most are wives of student preachers at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. They strive to Christianize the whole student body, and lately I've become their pet project. I'm the only kid in the fourth grade who hasn't walked up that aisle and made a profession of faith. Maybe one day I'll give in and tell them I've accepted Christ as my personal savior, just so they'll leave me along.
In the meantime, I must conform to their bizarre pedagogical methods. A couple of months ago, I got all of my spelling words right, which doesn't happen very often in my case. But when my test paper came back, a big, fat, red 99 appeared next to my name in the upper right-hand corner. Since I hadn't missed one word, I asked my young teacher why I deserved less than a 100 percent. "Only Jesus was perfect," she admonished.
As the invitational draws to an end, it seems one-third of the congregation has come forward, either to make tearful professions of faith or rededicate their lives to Christ. One guy slobbers all over Brother Paul's suit coat, and cries out so loud that even the most ardent true believers exchange tortured glances. This particular pain in the ass gets saved every week, despite the fact that our Sunday school teacher says you have to do it only once. That's the beauty of Southern Baptist doctrine. No matter how much you backslide, once you get saved you always go to heaven. Of course, if you screw up too much, the old ladies in the pews--or the prissy little girls in your fourth-grade class--will whisper that you really weren't saved in the first place.
I haven't always been this skeptical. At age seven, I shook when the preacher described the horrors of hell. By eight and a half, I started having my doubts. Now, at the wise old age of ten, I regard the whole notion as horse feathers. Will God condemn some fifty billion ancient Chinese to the scorching torture of eternal perdition because they never accepted Jesus, when not one of them ever heard of the bible? Will he let the thief on the cross, who admittedly led a rather riotous life, into heaven because of his last-second conversion, while condemning Ghandi to hell because he never accepted Jesus? For that matter, will Mother Theresa roast in flames because she subscribed to the Catholic idea of Christianity, rather than brother Paul's evangelical Protestant admonition to accept Christ as one's "personal savior?"
If so, I'm not sure I want to go to that God's heaven.
When, I mentioned the Chinese problem to my Sunday school teacher, he uncomfortably mumbled something about the Holy Spirit manifesting itself to the unchurched. But Mr. Dial A. Bible-Verse uttered no scriptural reference to back it up. Usually he's pretty handy with a passage from one of the Gospels or from the Apostle Paul. On this subject, he's probably as uncomfortable as I am, but we both know that professing skeptics don't stay in good graces around here. His wife would make his life miserable, as would Momma with me if I ever expressed a contrarian's attitude. So we keep our doubts to ourselves.
That doesn't stop me from rebelling inwardly. I still laugh when I remember the pained look on Miss Willingham's face in Vacation Bible School, when my little guest from the federally subsidized housing project matter-of-factly responded to a question about her father: "My grandma says that my daddy wasn't worth the bullet that sent him to hell." Red-faced, our teacher tried to shush our giggles by changing the subject. That marked the end of my family's gospel outreach program to the lower social class.
It's a good thing Mrs. Willingham hasn't heard Uncle Leo talk at family reunions. Grandpa's brother says life won't be so bad in hell, because most of our friends and relatives will be there--especially both of his ex-wives. Leo wouldn't mind getting a little warm himself, just to see those bitches roast at the end of the devil's pitchfork. Momma doesn't approve of that kind of talk, and usually makes me go out and play when the adults get liquored up, profane, and irreverent.
Well, the invitational finally finishes, and the choir quits singing just before its members come down with a terminal case of laryngitis. Perspiration-soaked Brother Paul, the shoulders of his suit coat wet with the tears and nasal mucus of the newly saved, revels in the joy of a couple dozen souls who are now destined for eternal paradise. However, he reminds them that, until their bodies rest on the other side of the grass, they need to tithe their ten percent. In case Jesus came into their hearts after the offering, there will be a collection box available as they head out of the door.
Now church is finally over. Mark Twain once described church lettin' out as the weekly event that liberates a kid's soul. Well, we already know where my soul is going, but with regard to my ten-year-old body, there's nothing more refreshing than having that invisible seatbelt unbuckled, and then bolting off of that hardwood pew. I play grab-ass with other kids in the foyer; they're just as happy to be free. Of course, after momma gets finished with me at home I may be sleeping on my tummy for the next couple of days, and if she ever reads these words she'll wash my mouth out with soap. But my whippin's at least an hour in the future, and of little immediate concern in my childish mind.
She could blister my bottom every day for the next week, and the pain wouldn't nearly match the ordeal I'll face next Sunday. Then I'll have to endure another longwinded preaching service and everlasting invitational. I wonder how many previously hell-bound sinners will get saved next week, and how much money this week's converted will drop in the collection box. After all, that's the purpose of this sanctimonious horse flogging, isn't it?