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

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