While We Waited for Jesus
By Michael Jesse
The summer I turned 13, I had my first real job, on an aluminum siding crew run by Duane's father. We were "grunts" — paid minimally to carry the ladders and scaffold boards, and to fetch tools from the truck.
Duane's father, Butch, preferred wooden ladders to metal and after a night out in the rain they would be waterlogged and as cold and heavy as iron. Even so he could toss them around with an ease that made me gawk like a spectator at a sporting event. He was thin and wiry from the waist down, but heavily muscled in the arms and chest. His build was not the kind you get from sports or weightlifting, but earned rather from a lifetime of daily labor.
His real name was Darrell, but he'd been called Butch since he was my age when he'd been sent to reform school for stealing cars and getting into fights. You could tell by the look of him that he'd been a rough kid. There was a ragged white knife scar on his collar bone, his nose was flat and he had a tattoo of a dragon on his right arm. It was not a very professional tattoo — just a green outline done by an older kid at the Boys' School, but even so it looked impressive, writhing and sweating with him, always with him, as he worked.
Butch said he wished he'd never gotten it, but that it reminded him of how far he'd come, through God's grace. He talked like that. He took very seriously the notion that we, as Christians, were thereby called to witness to people outside the church — people whom we knew were universally condemned, even if they did seem fairly nice. "Nice" just wasn't good enough if you wanted to escape the fires of Hell. Butch said you could be the nicest person on the face of this earth, but if you hadn't been saved then buddy you couldn't get into Heaven.
To me, that seemed like too much of a technicality, like forgetting to get your passport stamped, and it was not many years later when my faith began to crumble under the realization that the God I worshiped was apparently willing to send most of His children to Hell — not just to miss out on Heaven, but to spend Eternity in flaming torment — for such offenses as drinking beer or dancing or missing church on Sundays.
But in the days and nights of my 13th summer I could still accept the notion that God had a mysterious and unfathomable plan — like a secret wartime document — which would someday be revealed to us when we all met in Heaven. I imagined Him unrolling it on a table like a big map, with all of us crowding around in our new white robes trying to get a glimpse of what The Plan had been — and then kicking ourselves because we hadn't figured out something so simple.
The prospect of going to either Heaven or Hell — and nowhere else — was frequently the subject of discussion in Sunday School. Butch taught the Teen class, to which at 13 I had only recently graduated. After seeing him all week in t-shirts it always seemed odd to see him in a suit on Sunday. His tattoo and his scar were covered and his hair was slicked down, and he didn't have the little stubby pencil that was usually behind one ear. We were always asking him hypothetical questions. Would people in China or some remote Pacific island go to Hell if they never got the chance to hear about Jesus? How would your body be resurrected on Judgment Day if you'd been cremated, or squashed by a steam roller? And why didn't God help us win the war in Vietnam?
Butch wasn't much for quoting Scripture, but he almost always had an answer. He said people in remote places did have the chance to be saved because missionaries were spreading the Word everywhere, trudging into the jungles and smuggling Bibles into Communist lands. If you got run over by a steam roller God could put your body back together because he can do anything, but still it may not be a good idea to tempt things by being cremated.
As for the Vietnam War, Butch said, it just went to show you how powerful Satan was in this world, and how close we were to the end times. Because after the Rapture, when Jesus came and took those who were saved up with Him to Heaven, the world would go on for seven more years. Atheists would take over the countries of the world — as they already had in Russia and China and were trying to do in Vietnam — and Satan would rule in the guise of the Antichrist.
All this was explained in the Book of Revelations, Butch said, about how the Antichrist would first be known as a great world leader and peacemaker and how he would lead many astray in the days before the Rapture. And then afterwards he'd be the world ruler and show his evil side. No one could know who the Antichrist would be, but Butch had a theory about Henry Kissinger.
In those days it did seem like something evil was approaching a climax, with assassinations and riots, and the unchanging war that had lasted so far all through my childhood and seemed likely to still be waiting for me when I reached 18. Duane's cousin Jerry had joined the Marines when he was 17 and had been to the war and come safely back. Everyone said he was better off from the experience because he'd settled down afterwards and gotten married instead of drag-racing his Duster all over the county and smoking cigarettes in the church parking lot.
But another of Duane's legion of cousins, Jimmy Sands, had recently been killed in the war. I'd never met Jimmy. He didn't go to the church and — as people said in whispers — he wasn't saved. That made his loss so much more of a blow to those who knew him, because they knew he not only died, but that he went to Hell.
The only other guy around draft age was Lonnie Carter, who was also related to Duane but so distantly and by such a complex formula that Duane never tried to explain it, except to say it was on his mother's side.
Lonnie was in his mid 20s by this time, but hadn't been drafted earlier because he had a lot of medical problems. No one ever said exactly what those problems were, but it was obvious he wasn't in the best of health. He was pale and exceptionally thin and he generally looked so brittle it seemed he might break a bone or bleed to death at the slightest provocation. It was also generally assumed he had mental problems because he so rarely spoke and never smiled. Lonnie lived with and cared for his ancient grandparents, who had apparently once been rugged farm people, but who when I knew them were stooped and fragile.
The Carters were a silent, secluded branch of an otherwise talkative family. Lonnie's dusty frail grandparents sat in the same pew every Sunday and spoke only on rare occasions. There were a few times when old Mr. Carter rose in his seat to testify, and when he did we would all sit as quietly as possible and strain to hear his mumbled recollections of how he met his Margaret some 60 years previously. He always seemed to tell the same story, but since we could only hear parts of it each time it was always worth listening to again. And then he would sit down again and be silent for the next six months or so.
It never seemed especially strange to me that old Mr. Carter and his Margaret sat so silently — after all, they were in their 80s. But behind them Lonnie sat just as impassively, and in fact more so for he never testified, except once.
Our minister was the Rev. Dan Hurley, but everyone just called him Rev. Dan. He was very young for a preacher. He'd come to us right out of Bible college two years earlier after Rev. Samuelson died of a heart attack a year before he was planning to retire. Because of the circumstances Rev. Dan had to take over on short notice, and as it happened, he had just had all his teeth pulled and wouldn't have his dentures for three weeks. The church elders had been willing to invite visiting ministers for a few weeks to give Rev. Dan time to move into the parsonage and get his new teeth. But Rev. Dan decided to take the pulpit right away, and he preached his first three Sundays with no teeth. He even made that the subject of his first sermon, explaining that God loved us the way we were, and we didn't have to be ashamed in front of Him.
I remember being a bit stunned by the sight of him gumming his way through the Scriptures, but I admired him for it. By the time he had his new teeth three Sundays later he was fully accepted by the congregation, and after a few years it seemed he had always been with us. We all took to his wife just as quickly. Mary Beth Hurley was tiny and perky and seemed to have eyes and teeth belonging to someone twice her size. Her dark hair was cut short — a bold fashion at our church — and she looked like a little French ballerina to me. Her voice was like a whisper, but she made a squealing sound when she laughed that you could hear across the room. Everyone loved her, especially, secretly, me.
Every Saturday for five weeks that summer Butch and Duane and I would work on the church, putting new white aluminum siding over the rotting wood. We didn't get paid for it, though I suppose Butch got reimbursed for materials. It was our gift to God and I gave it freely, though not perhaps entirely to God It was a special day for me because at lunchtime Mary Beth would walk over from the parsonage, bringing us fried chicken or grilled cheeseburgers wrapped up in dishtowels which she carried in a wicker basket. I would start glancing for her at 11 o'clock or so, and eventually I would see her walking carefully, almost painfully, barefoot, across the gravel parking lot.
We would put aside our tool belts and sit in a circle in the grass between the parking lot and the cemetery, and Mary Beth would have us hold hands as she said grace. I always managed to sit next to her and I was convinced she squeezed my hand with some secret special feeling. Through false prayer I watched her as she tilted her head into the sun and spoke to God. The sun burned on my skin, and glared harshly off of my tools as they lay half hidden in the grass, and as I held her hand I gazed secretly through the fiery gates of my eyelashes up the length of her arm, even to the pure white hollow of her underarm, held up for me alone.
"He came unto the world, and the world knew him not." The Rev. Dan stalked back and forth behind the pulpit, pausing for dramatic effect. It was a sweltering evening in July or August and we were in the middle of a week of "Revival." Normally we went to church on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings for prayer meetings. But sometimes, usually during the hottest part of summer, we would have a Revival and go to church every night for a week or so of fire-spitting, Bible-slapping, soul-saving sermons.
"He came unto his own, and his own received him not!" Rev. Dan's face was shiny with perspiration and his voice was hoarse from preaching every night. His eyes scanned the room accusingly and as they met mine I pursed my lips and nodded slightly in an imitation of understanding, but it was a superficial gesture. My concentration was mostly occupied on the rubber band Duane had twisted tightly around the fingers of my left hand. The rubber band game, like paper football and thumb-wrestling, was a way to kill time in church while assuming a posture of attentiveness. As Rev. Dan slammed his open hand on the pulpit I lifted the first and tightest loop and then a second, and as Rev. Dan shouted something about Jesus not having been sufficiently appreciated in his home town I tossed the rubber band into Duane's lap and sat casually back, knowing I had beaten his best time.
We were sitting behind Duane's older sister Dana and her friend Becky — or "Becki" as she preferred spelling it, with a little circle dotting the 'i' — and Duane flipped the rubber band lightly in a deftly shallow lob, over Becky's shoulder. She noticed it but made no apparent response, except to lean over and whisper something to Dana. I watched the back of Dana's neck, where a silver chain glittered against her dark skin. The zipper of her pink blouse stuck out from between the folds that were intended to cover it, and I notice it was painted pink also. I imagined her freckled bare shoulders as they might look without the zipper and the pink fabric, but my elicit imaginings were interrupted as Becky tossed the rubber band over her shoulder and Duane lunged to catch it before it hit the floor, bonking his head loudly against the back of their pew as he did so. Becky's hair jiggled with silent suppressed giggling and Duane held his head wincing and turning red while I tried to act like an adult seated uncomfortably close to immature company.
Becky was 15 with substantially developed breasts and Duane had already embarrassed everyone except himself with the way he pestered her constantly in order to bask in her attention. But he was so fixated on her that he'd forget to be careful. Thirty seconds after the head-bonking incident he was trying to carefully place the rubber band on Becky's hair without her feeling it. He had his tongue out in concentration and I was attempting to disassociate myself from the whole affair by actually listening to Rev. Dan talk about Jesus preparing to return as quietly as a thief in the night.
I looked through the open window into the blackness, considering the fate that might await me. And just then there was a sudden bang like one of the windows falling from its wooden stick to come crashing down, startling everyone in the room. But it was not a window slamming shut — nor the worse that I imagined — but Butch snapping his fingers and pointing at Duane from across the room. Butch had an impressive way of snapping his fingers and pointing in a single quick-draw motion, and when he did so it was invariably at Duane, who was instantly stricken dumb by his father's accusing finger, and thereby notified of the inescapable doom that awaited him after church.
The authoritative presence of Duane's father was one of two forces which could really get our attention and make us straighten up. But as intimidating as Butch could be, the other force was far stronger. It was the supernatural dread which would creep under my collar when the preacher began talking about Hell and Judgment and the coming end of life on this sinful planet. Rev. Dan had already begun to talk about it when Duane's flirtations were brought to a halt, and in the silence that followed, fear drifted into my soul.
"Like a thief in the night" Jesus would return. Silently he would come, and perhaps the time of his return was only moments away. And then in a flash, trumpets would blare, sinners and backsliders would wail and be carried off to the depths of Hell. All would be judged, instantly, by the all-seeing eye of God. It would be too late then, too late for forgiveness, tragically too late. I glanced tentatively out into the black night beyond the open windows and expected to see Jesus soaring over the horizon, flying like Superman but with a flaming sword in His hand. Behind the pulpit Rev Dan paced, holding his Bible open before us, trying to warn us of the danger.
"Are you ready?" he whispered urgently. "If Jesus comes back tonight, will you be ready to welcome Him? Will He say 'my faithful child' and lead you home with him to Glory? Or will he look down sadly on you and say 'thou abomination!'"
We would stand for the call to the altar, and the organist — Becky's grandmother — would improvise chords while Rev. Dan continued. "Are you ready, dear friends? The time may well be tonight — it surely won't be long. The Prophecies have been fulfilled. The State of Israel exists again, as the Scriptures said it would. Amen! The Temple has been rebuilt. We are living in a time of pestilence and war and immorality that would make the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah blush with shame. These are the last days. The Day of Judgment is nigh!"
By this time there would be a few people kneeling up at the altar. And I would be fidgeting, standing behind Dana — whom I had been picturing with her blouse off a moment before — convinced that Jesus would come at any moment, and that he would find me an abomination. I stood in the dank warm air looking for Jesus through the opened windows through which came only the chirping of crickets and the rich stench of cow manure. I stood shifting my feet with my hymnal open to page 54 as we all slowly sang, "Paaasssss me not oh gen-tle Saaayy-viour / Heeeeere my hum-ble cryyyyy. Whiiiile on oth-ers Thou art caaaaallllinggg, Dooooo not passss mee by."
In between verses Rev. Dan continued to speak, and I had no doubt that God was at that moment peering into my black soul, seeing within me that writhing, burning, sinful desire which I could not hide from Him. There were many women in my dreams. Some I had entirely made up or had seen on TV. Others were real. Girls I knew at schools. Girls from church. Mothers of some of my friends. All of them frolicked naked through my bedroom each night before I went to sleep.
And among them — most revered among them but still among them — was Mary Beth Hurley, the pure wife of the minister of my church. Though I loved her with what seemed at times holy reverence, that had not prevented me from undressing her as I did the others. She did not dance and frolic, however — that would have been disrespectful — but stood white and pure and naked on a grassy hilltop as the wind stirred her hair.
As I stood sweating and singing "Just As I Am" I knew the magnitude of evil that resided within me. It was that sin, the Sin of Lust that brought me to the altar that night as it had countless other nights. I seemed to float away from my seat and up the carpeted aisle to the altar where I would kneel and pray and cry, and soon men of the church would be kneeling around me, praying for my immortal soul. Someone's strong rough farmer's hand would be on my shoulder and through the darkness of my clenched and dripping eyelids I would hear the older men praying out loud, their low voices overlapping. "Ohhh Jesus . . . Help this young man . . . Lord hear his prayer . . . Show him your will . . . Ohhhh God."
Afterwards it was generally expected that those who had been saved or renewed would testify, though fortunately specifics were not absolutely required. I usually just said I had "backslidden," which was certainly true, or that I had been "tempted away from God's Will." That was usually enough. Everyone would say amen and someone else would say something else similarly vague.
Normally the testimonies at the end of the service were made only by those who had gone to the altar, but often at these Revival meetings the experiences of those who had just been cleansed would spark a flood of testimonies throughout the congregation. People would leap up one after another to praise God and say whatever it was He had moved them to say.
It was during one of those revival meetings that Lonnie stood quietly up and announced, in a paper-thin voice almost like his grandfather's, that God had spoken to him and called him to go to Washington D.C. to talk to the president about ending the war. He did not elaborate, but stood there as if waiting for some ordained response.
This was not the typical sort of thing people testified about and for a few seconds there was an odd and increasingly uncomfortable silence. It went on just long enough to catch everyone's attention — except maybe Duane's — but then Butch cleared his throat and loudly said "Amen" and Duane's Aunt June popped up to tell how sometimes the Lord warned her to go back home because she'd left the iron on. I watched Lonnie as he sat quietly back in his seat. Testimonies were still flying around us, about recoveries from mysterious ailments and the miraculous starting of automobiles on cold mornings.
I don't think anybody gave much thought to what Lonnie said that night. Everyone knew he was a little odd, and even normal people got carried away sometimes at Revival meetings. But later that week I heard from Duane, who heard it from Butch, that Lonnie had been in to see Rev. Dan about going to Washington. Butch was president of the board of elders that year and Duane said they had a special meeting to decide what to do about Lonnie. Duane said Rev. Dan suggested the church buy him a plane ticket, but the board voted it down. Nobody in our church had much money and apparently most weeks the collection plate barely brought in enough for the building fund and the preacher's salary. What little was left went to the missionary fund and the Iron Curtain Bible Project, which helped finance those who risked their lives to smuggle the Word of God into Communist lands.
One day that week at work I asked Butch about Lonnie and he said the board's concern wasn't just the money. He said he believed in miracles as much as the next person, but he also knew when someone was going off the deep end. He said Lonnie had been a friend of Jimmy Sands, and that Jimmy's death in Vietnam probably made Lonnie's mental condition more unstable than usual.
That did make sense, but it seemed an oddly clinical explanation coming from Butch, who often told a story about how God once put an open pack of Marlboros — his former brand — on an open windowsill of a house he was working on. The window was open and there was a book of matches lying nearby. It was right after he'd been saved and given up smoking, and he was being tempted. He could have easily taken one and lit it and gone about his work, but he didn't. Instead he began to sing hymns and tears ran down his cheeks as he sang, resisting the Devil's temptation.
Lonnie missed the next couple of Sundays and there were all kinds of rumors. Duane claimed he heard Lonnie had tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists, but Butch said Duane didn't know what he was talking about. Butch said Lonnie was getting help for his problem and that he'd be back.
And he did come back, after missing only those two Sundays. He was just the same as he'd always been, silently sitting behind his ancient grandparents. I was in the row behind him that morning and while we sang the morning hymns I tried to see if there were scars on his wrists but his shirt cuffs were in the way.
But we were all glad to have him back, being his same old odd self. It seemed to make everything right again. Rev. Dan went on preaching his red-hot sermons, and Duane went on pestering Becky, and Butch went on punishing Duane, and the whole congregation went on waiting for Jesus.
But Jesus never came, and these windows that were once propped open on sticks are now nailed shut and boarded over. The gravel crunches under my tires as I pull out of the lot and in the rear view mirror I see the dust rise from the too-dry ground as the little building disappears behind me.
I don't know what happened to that church. I suppose the old people died off waiting for Jesus, and the rest of us just lost our faith and drifted away. I'm not much for religion these days. I find it difficult to believe in miracles, or signs from God, or either of the comings of Jesus.
And yet, when I recall that church and those times, I often have the feeling that there was something real in the breezes that came in the windows on those humid nights. Maybe there was some sign given to us, and we missed it.
Maybe Jesus came and we just didn't recognize Him.