Monday, August 18, 2008


The church was abuzz. Dr. John was the brand new preacher from Chicago. I had spent the whole of my youthful life in middling Bakersfield, but Chicago was a big city I had heard about. In fact, Chicago was a city just about as big as they come. Sure there were other big cities, but I didn’t actually ever get to see anyone from them. Chicago was as far removed from Bakersfield as I thought anybody could get. People from Chicago must be different somehow. I was excited to get to see him, this man from Chicago, who had come to our town to be our preacher.

The retiring patriarch of the First Baptist Church was a gentle rotund man who apparently liked kids because he always offered my sister and me a smile and small conversation. He had silver hair and was called doctor. All doctors were not always as frighteningly scary as those of the medical variety I supposed. He would stand at the pulpit every Sunday and speak gently and softly for about four hours at a time, or so it seemed. The adults seemed to like him and managed to sit without complaint for the twenty minutes that those four hours took. The pews were hard and uncomfortable and we had to bear them for at least one of the two Sunday services. The other service we could go to Sunday school. My parents were very disappointed that he decided he needed to retire.

My sister and I were church rats, especially in the summer, when school didn't occupy our time. We were always around the church -- two services every Sunday and often during the week when Mom went down to practice the massive pipe organ. We played hide and seek in and out of the building and found things to do while Mom played. For the most part, we weren’t destructive and the staff mostly left us alone except for vicarious parenting touches. We were generally unrestrained as we wandered the halls and made our discoveries in new hiding places.

We loved to play outside when the Japanese gardener was working. He would ignore us most of the time and then surprise us when we least expected it with a handful of grass clippings or some cleverly folded leaves. He had his things to do and we had ours, but when our worlds intersected it was always a happy occasion. He didn’t appear to speak much English, but he did speak the language of kids.

Being around the church so much one just couldn’t help but absorb some theology along the way. Some people who grow up without religion in the home find solace and comfort when they adopt faith as a response to whatever in their lives causes pain. In their religion, they are reborn. Even those who practiced it regularly, but never got around to formalizing and internalizing the “God” concept can experience this. Some people just grow up in their faith and there never is a conversion process. With us, we just picked up whatever Godly advice was offered our way. Believe me, hanging around a church, there’s lots of spare theology to go around.

The cleaning lady was older, portly, with few teeth and a face inopportunely graced with colorless moles. One morning she was clearly upset. John F. Kennedy had just delivered his stirring Race to the Moon speech the previous day:

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man…. We choose to go to the moon, we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard….”

She was opining that if God had wanted us on the Moon, he would have put us there. She harrumphed about the church kitchen pushing a mop and muttering to me and any other odd passerby that “We shouldn’t even try. People are going to get killed. God wants no part of that.”

Most learned preacher types will quickly offer the scriptures with authority on any subject with which they are presented whether it applies directly or not. A few are exegetic and will attempt to lead the argument through an authoritative and critical review of the text, leaving the precise interpretation to their student. Church janitors generally do neither, but that doesn’t mean they don’t represent the Word. They do work at a church after all.

As a budding builder of model planes, and avid reader of comic books, I saw no technical challenges to getting someone on the moon. You just build a rocket ship and go! I saw nothing wrong with that. Rocket ships were exciting. It didn’t seem to be morally confusing, nor did I think that Jesus was particularly worried about us getting ourselves to the Moon. He seemed to be more worried that we memorize the names of the first few books of the Bible, or have Noah save all the animals, or Samson grow out his hair after having his eyes poked out. (This latter touch was probably put in the story just to keep young boys interested in studying the Bible.) David wasn’t much older than I when he went up against Goliath with a sling shot. These were the important things we had to learn at church…oh, and, how to fold leaves, and where all the good hiding places were. I pondered why God would care one way or the other if we just flew to the Moon. This simple pondering became one of the greater theological questions of my youth. My Japanese gardener friend offered no help on the topic.

Even as a kid, I knew the difference in stature between a cleaning lady and a preacher who was a doctor. There were very few similarities to begin with, but the most striking difference was that the preacher almost always wore a tie. It wasn’t ever clear that their theology differed much or even aligned with the Bible stories we learned about. It was hard to find the point of a lot of those Bible stories anyway.

It was my first glimpse of Dr. John that provided me with another important piece to the theological puzzle. My parents had brought us kids along to a backyard barbeque with a bunch of church folks to meet their new pastor. Although as a kid, one doesn’t exactly qualify to “meet.” It was a typically late hot afternoon, midsummer in Bakersfield, where hot is the only thing that really happens. Dr. John wasn’t scheduled to show up until late so we made do with food and talk until the appointed hour.

In the evening twilight Dr. John eventually made an appearance on the steps at the back porch, the only elevated spot in the backyard. He made a point of shedding his navy blue suit coat in the 100 heat and rolling up the long sleeves of his starched white shirt. Even though he was from Chicago, he was astute enough to know it was politic to dress down at a barbecue and try to blend in with his new flock. He was framed by the screen door behind him. There was a yellow bug light above his right shoulder. He was tall, he had perfect dark hair, he was from Chicago, and he had a yellow halo. He spoke his welcome remarks with a clear baritone. Surely, God didn’t make finer preachers than this.

I have no recollection of his little talk because my attention was drawn to an errant June bug that was blinded and burned by the bare bulb above Dr. John’s head. This poor June bug bounced into the bulb and off it onto Dr. John’s shoulder. Dr. John unremarkably glanced at this pitiful bug and in one unhurried, sweeping motion, brushed it from his shoulder onto the pavement below. That normally would have been enough for most folks, but Dr. John literally took the next step and sent this small pathetic bug to meet his maker – our maker! In fairness, this was not done with spite, merely with casual dispatch. There was no pretext, no forethought, just a simple motion that only one with a keen interest in bugs would have noticed at all.

I was appalled at such an understated disregard for life by a man in so high a station as doctor preacher. What did he know that I did not? When did it get to be alright to squish a bug when you were minister? Oh, sure, I fried ants with a magnifying glass in my spare time, but this was different. This was a man who spoke of loving your neighbor as yourself, of following the Ten Commandments, of Jesus feeding the five thousand with loaves and fishes, of healing paralyzed men and leprous women, of raising Lazarus from the dead, and many other biblical subjects that I could not recall. These were all high and lofty things. Somehow it becomes a little hollow when even a minister cannot practice what he preaches. The dichotomy of life as it is taught and life as it is lived was brought into sharp focus under the sole of Dr. John’s shoe.


My mother got better as the result of her lessons and practice on the church organ and with the retirement of the existing pastor making the time ripe for a clean break, she decided to pursue opportunities as an organist at other churches. We became for periods of time, Congregationalist, Methodist, and finally Presbyterian. None of the preachers of any of these churches made quite the impression on me that the bug squashing Dr. John had -- nor did their janitors or gardeners.

Half a lifetime later, I was having a conversation with a young woman we had visiting with us from South Africa. The dialogue eventually turned to matters of faith and it turned out that her greatest religious influence was her second grade Sunday school teacher. My own youthful experience apparently was not so unusual.

It may not surprise the casual reader to know that Sunday school teachers are not educated as theologians. Sunday school teachers are usually parents who have been cajoled, coerced or otherwise arm-twisted into voluntary servitude for 1 hour a week. There is no training required, only a willingness to herd little kids through a brief lesson and then related handicraft time, such as cutting little loaves or fishes out of paper, or painting flowers with their name in the middle. To most Sunday school teachers, there is probably no longer minute ever lived than the minute before the church service lets out and parents come to retrieve their little cherubs.

As one who has taught Sunday school, it is a frightening thought that the 10 to fifteen minutes (if that!) we spend preparing our lessons could result in the single most influential moment that any kid could ever have in their religious upbringing. That we could hold so much sway over these young minds is absolutely staggering. When I consider just how hard it was to teach my own children when to say please and thank you, and get them to do it consistently, I marvel at my own inefficiency in teaching the important stuff.

If only we knew when one of those teaching moments was going to happen, perhaps we would be more prepared. If Dr. John had been more aware of his audience he might have thought more about his message. Perhaps Dr. John should have thought twice, but I doubt that he even had any regrets about stepping on that June bug. Both the Japanese gardener and the Bible were silent on the subject.

© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Love Story

Saturday, July 26, 2008 Darren and Amy finally got married. I say finally even though they had only been engaged since March 15th, the first year anniversary of their first kiss. They had been friends since the first day of college at Whitworth. Friends, just friends. Darren’s first attempt at a kiss was at a New Year’s Eve party 18 months prior to their wedding. Amy refused. She, ever the romantic, didn’t want it to be the alcohol talking. Darren, although mightily rejected, didn’t want to let it die. It would have been easy to say that this just wasn’t ever going to work. “You don’t have to tell me twice,” he could have easily said. He reported this incident to his law school buddies and there was universal agreement that any romance would be an uphill struggle. Fate entangles souls so deliciously.

Despite this obvious setback to any attempt at upgrading the level of intimacy between them, Darren and Amy continued to be the friends they had always been. As a law student, Darren was used to angst and this was just more of it. Amy was used to not settling for anything less than what was in her mind’s eye, and this was just more of that.

In earlier days, Amy always seemed to have a boyfriend. One of them had even been a roommate of Darren’s in the dorm. Years later, Amy had moved to the forgotten and forsaken town of Fernley, Nevada, from Virginia to teach and be close to her current love interest, and he continued to do what brought him to a town like Fernley. The ever independent Amy lacked neither commitment, nor single mindedness, nor, ultimately, common sense. Fernley is not a compelling community. It does not inspire careers. It does not speak to growth, maturity and life long happiness. It is merely a waypoint in life’s journey. It cannot be more. And, it simply wasn’t to be for Amy.

Darren continued his education at law school. When he was home from Baylor, she came to visit again and again, conveniently dis-entwined from her current beau. One cannot say that she was brazen in her overtures but, she was clearly open to letting bygones be bygones. They would sit on the couch watching TV and Amy would be leaning uncomfortably close to Darren. So much so that it would have been impossible for him not to get a hint of discomfort himself. But, he remained both stoic and platonic. Once burned, twice cool as the saying goes.

Darren was home for his last academic spring break. Amy came to visit. They were both disciplined and wary. When it was time for him to go, His mother and I said goodbye to him at our front door because Amy drove him to the airport for his last trip back to school. It was at the airport then that Darren grabbed her and asked her if their relationship could be something more. She drove home. He flew back to Baylor on the clouds. A promise sealed with a kiss.

At their wedding reception, Darren told the story of Whitworth traditions by way of explaining the Ring Pop party favors on each table. It seems that there are three traditions at Whitworth that are well known and revered; 1) Catch a virgin pine cone, 2) Drop a food tray in the commons, and 3) Ring by spring. Amy had found his calendar and surreptitiously entered the accomplishments of these traditions on random future dates though she was unable to disguise her handwriting. As the pages turned, Darren caught the virgin pine cone, he rejected the wasteful disregard for real food, but, as if passing all of the requirements, presented her with a Ring Pop on the given day; thus, sealing his fate -- a fate little known to either of them at the time. Amy, of course, had other romantic interests and Darren was just a friend. When he ultimately proposed, the diamond engagement ring he presented was nestled in a plastic facsimile of a Ring Pop. The Whitworth tradition lives on.

The tradition of toasting at weddings derives from biblical blessings. The original Jewish concept was that blessings were conveyed by God onto his people. Moses, as God’s conduit, passed blessings on to the twelve tribes of Israel. The blessing became a matter of passing the spiritual and birthright inheritance down to subsequent generations. In the hundreds of generations since, it has become a way of passing good wishes on to those being blessed. The Irish have turned it into a poetic art form. At this wedding, we carried on that tradition -- though not necessarily the poetic part.

The fathers of the Bride and Groom toasted their children. The Best Man and Maid of Honor spoke personally about the qualities of their own relationships with the betrothed. Both Amy’s father and sister struggled with their comments, overwhelmed by their own sense of loss on the occasion. They were clearly happy and yet their happiness was tinged with a profound sense of emptiness that only the tincture of time will cure.

I was able to toast to their happiness with composure. I think that this sense of loss manifests only in the bride’s side of the family. I could be wrong about this, but I go by my unerring guage for this sort of thing, my wife Anne, who will cry when only the merest suggestion to be sympathetic exists. She was beaming virtually the whole time.

As the father of the groom, I personally felt no need for bereavement of any kind. I am happy with the union of these two of our progeny and I am delighted with the prospect of what is to come. They have both accepted the independence gained with adulthood and embraced their future with each other. Their marriage can only be modeled on what they have seen from their parents and extended families, that is, years of stability and working relationships that are built on mutual respect, love, trust, faith, and friendship. What could be better than that?

A toast:

Anybody who knows me even casually has probably heard me say that my life began when I met Anne. Though she rolls her eyes almost every time she hears it, truer words were never spoken. If you knew me a little better, you might have heard me say that there’s a reason that God didn’t give me girls. The shrill shrieking and squeaking that accompanies most of them through their formative years is way beyond my ability to cope. But when they come into your life at the age of 25, they’re kind of nice to have around. So, to Amy: Welcome to the family.

I could stand here and tell you cute stories from Darren’s youth…interesting stories from his adolescence…embarrassing stories. But somehow these stories always seem to circle back to illustrate one of my own failings. I think I will forego the humiliation for the both of us.

I present to you Darren and Amy Indermill, standing at the very beginning of their journey. May your journey together be blessed with a smile on your lips, the sun on your cheeks, a gentle breeze to cool your temperaments, and no burdens larger than together you both can bear. To a long and happy life together.

We raised our glasses.

This was far from a fairy tale. In retrospect, the story unfolds with certainty, with all the signs pointing in the direction of wedded bliss, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. That these two found themselves together after seven years of friendship is a testament to how well they knew what they wanted for themselves rather than any perseverance or patience either of them may have had for the other. If this was a marriage made in heaven, only heaven knows how Darren and Amy managed to put up with God’s plan. The only regret either of them may have is how muddled the path seemed from their first day at Whitworth to this.

© 2008 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved