| Whenever Jim Spencer preached about minding God, he was talking to me. From that three-foot, blue-carpeted platform, after the choir found its way to the pews on the far sides of the sanctuary, he would preach, man, let me tell you. Not the Southern Baptist throw-everything-in-my-face and spit on me kind of preaching, but more like a Garrett Seminary gentleman of the 1960s. We belonged to Broadway because my parents thought Rev. Jim preached the word better than the other pastors—nothing murky, nothing deeply theological. Just a weekly challenge to live close to Jesus. He didn't put stupid sayings on the church sign out front--only the titles to his sermons, which were usually something like "Mind God." He was consistent in that way. Rev. Jim's preaching style was not expositional--it was devotional, like Oswald Chambers had taken the post at my small-town church, and reminded me every Sunday that "minding God" likely meant going forward at the altar call to get my miserable thirteen year-old life right with the Lord, then and there. And the saints would gather round me, delicately praying with their hands on my shoulders. The Lord was calling me out.|
Rev. Jim was from Ashtabula, a cold and blustery Lake Erie town known for its shoremen, loggers, and railroad men. Bob Dylan knew it well, singing, "I'll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula." It was a tough place, and Rev. Jim was a tough man. The story went that before he got saved, he threw beer bottles at the television when his wife was watching a preacher. His old temper was legendary to us kids, but his penchant for jumping out of airplanes seemed just...ordinary. He was a skydiver up until the mid-1980s, I think. I remember he broke his leg in a landing once when I was a kid, well into his sixties. Why I wasn’t more impressed, I don’t know. Was I already too bored in the faith to be impressed by a pastoral stunt like that? Maybe I paid so little attention to him because I didn’t want him to pay much attention to me. He was just so…reverent and intense. Rev. Jim might look at me too close in church, and plan his next sermon just for me. As if the last one wasn't hard enough.
When you're in seventh grade, and you're a little chunky, and your cheeks are too rosy for any girl's liking, and your parents really don't help you dress well, and when you're one of three in a seventh grade Sunday school class where the other two guys are best friends, and the father of one of them is the teacher who puts a twenty dollar bill in the Sunday school!! offering each week...what else are you going to do besides enjoy the jelly donuts? How is it that those guys could muster the restraint to eat only one? I didn't much care about matching up to God's servant Daniel--my chance at the donuts was going to vanish in 45 minutes, and if I didn't get my fill, Rob and Brian would take far more than their fair share with them to the country club or wherever I imagined they must have gone after church.
As if the adolescent demons needed to pile more burdens on my ill-fitting soul, my parents were the hyper-responsible types. They could be counted on to fill in the gaps at Broadway wherever a need arose. Damn it! I never had to go to Methodist Youth Fellowship until someone asked them to be the volunteer youth leaders for the church. That meant that I was in, and was going to have to put up with feeling like an East Elementary outsider for two more hours every week. East Elementary outsider, you ask? In our town, there were three Methodist churches. Our church, Broadway United Methodist, was on the southside, where the pretty girls, the jocks, the new subdivisions, the open classroom school, and air conditioning must have given the kids their blessed self-assurance. First United Methodist was the old money town folks, all the kids who went to Central Elementary, and hung out at the city park with the older kids. And then there was frumpy Otterbein United Methodist, on the east end, near my elementary school. Low-key, decent folks, kind of campy. You could picture those folks having fun at a softball game, or maybe even a church camping trip. Unbeknownst to me, Otterbein had my heart, but Broadway had my attention.
In eighth-grade confirmation class, there I was, not minding God, faking my way among the angelic faces of (hey, where’d all these kids come from?) Gina, Kirstin, Nicole, Tonya, and Natalie, the aloof coolness of Rob and Brian, the friendly but not so helpful sporadic attendance of Dan and John, and the not-so-friendly arm punches from Bob and Tim. Why did I have to be the chunky one? Five foot one, maybe. Love handles, baby fat, where did that come from? Right you are. Those skinny kids with self-restraint all went to school together, and were cool at church together. None of them went to my hot and clammy East elementary, where the rural allotment, country but not farm kids, and the trailer park poor tried to get along. We weren't old money town kids, we weren't new money Southsiders, we weren't farmers from York elementary, and we weren't rough and tumble, beat you up punks from West. We were from East, and not much came out of that end of town. All those young boys and girls in that Sunday school class knew it. In a way, so did Rev. Jim.
Jake Burgett lives in Burlington, Vermont, with his wife, Mel, where he practices law, gives away sausage, and imagines what's next.
Nice bit of writing. I look forward to reading more.