by Jesse Scott Owen
“I’m from Belleview,” Jesse said, turning toward her, “If I convinced you to marry me, well, we couldn’t wear wedding rings.” Most girls he knew weren’t okay with that. They were fine with the standards: no jewelry, no make-up, no cutting their hair, and all the rest. But, their churches were a bit more lenient; wedding rings were okay.
“I can deal with that.”
Jesse walked quickly—the teenager’s hair trimmed and neatly organized, a button-up shirt and a tie, cuff links, a black suit and sharp black dress shoes—navigating towards the side door through the throngs of people, several hundred Apostolic Pentecostal youth from around the state, and their youth pastors and some parents, milling about the huge dark church.
He turned when he heard his name. “Hey Sister Robbins!”
She hugged him, “Have you seen Natalie yet?”
“I haven’t. I’ve been running all over.”
“Well, she’s around here somewhere.”
He smiled. “I’m sure I’ll run into her.” He started away, but a deep voice stopped him.
Jesse turned to shake his hand. “Pastor Robbins.”
The minister smiled, “What did I tell you about hugging my wife?”
She smiled and interrupted, looking up at him, “Have you seen Natalie?”
He looked at Jesse sternly, “Not since I got here. You looking for my daughter?”
He laughed. “I think she’s practicing with the worship team.”
Of course. “Well, I’ve got to keep moving. I’ll see you both around.” Jesse turned to leave, and the Robbins looked at each other.
“My dad likes you.”
“Really? He always seems so brusque.”
“He's that way with everyone. But he mentioned the other day that he likes you.”
As armor bearer, Jesse sat on the platform behind the man himself. He stood and clapped and raised his hands at the appropriate times during worship service, but didn’t let himself get too caught up in the music, in case the young evangelist needed a mint, or a water.
The sermon was amazing, as every sermon from every Lehman has been for a hundred years. As it came to a loud and energetic end, the worship team came back out and began to sing, and the hundreds of teenagers flooded the altar, standing, jumping, dancing, crying and speaking in tongues. The glistening, wild-eyed speaker walked down into the midst of it, planting his hand on people’s heads and praying loudly in their ears, speaking words that would change their life.
The whole night had gone off without a hitch. Lehman was hydrated, minty-breathed, and handkerchiefed. The crowds were hysterical and filled with the Spirit. Once during service, Jesse even caught Natalie glancing over.
I stopped sweeping. I started again, and stopped. Nathan looked up. “Is everything okay?”
“What’s up, Jesse?”
“It’s all for real, isn’t it, Duby?” I asked.
I had just left home, working as an assistant counselor at a sleep-away camp in Maryland.
Before I left, I told an old pastor about the job. He said, “Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun. But that's dangerous. When you spend much time with other people who call themselves Christians, you start to think they’re saved and going to Heaven as well.”
If only I hadn’t decided to brush up, to be strong in my faith before I left home. Reading the Bible, I began to see that my beliefs didn't match. I was perplexed by the notion that speaking in tongues and an apostate formula of baptism were more important than “Love God; love others.” I had been the one twisting verses, not those Christians I thought were sinners.
So I was seventeen, and I was clotheslined. The foundations of my life crumbled in a matter of weeks. They crumbled, but I was still clinging to every piece. I was trying to hold them together. Away at camp, some things got away from me; others I let go. I wore short sleeves, people could see my elbows. I began to wear friendship bracelets, strictly forbidden in my growing-up years. I put my grandfather’s dog tag from WWII on a piece of leather and tied it around my neck. Once I swore.
Most nights at camp, I stayed working late in the kitchen, cleaning with Duby.
“Talk to me,” he said.
“God. Heaven, hell, Jesus, all of it. It’s all real. I have to deal with this,” I said. He put his mop into the bucket and walked over to me. “Nate,” I asked, “What’s a Christian?”
We sat in dry storage for hours and talked. For the first time in my life, I admitted, “I am not a Pentecostal.” I didn’t know what I was, but I knew what I wasn’t.
If mainline Christianity has it right, then those who call upon the Lord will be saved. If my parents and the people I grew up with are right, then I’m going to hell, and so are most Christians, and so are a lot of the Pentecostals too. And everyone’s at risk all the time.
So according to some insane Pascal’s wager, my best bet is to go back to my roots, to repent of my backsliding (because that’s what I’m doing; my mother almost certainly prays every night that I come back to Christ), and live as the song says, as a “one-God, Apostolic, tongue-talkin’, liberated, born again believer in the power of Jesus’ name.” But I can’t.
I can’t, because I know better. I wish I didn’t. I wish I could be oblivious again, attending Gateway Bible College—Bishop once said he’d pay my tuition—or maybe graduated already, engaged to Natalie, serving as children’s pastor at her dad’s church. People who know me now can’t fathom it, but these were my plans, my hopes, my dreams. And I was well on my way, until I picked up a Bible.
Maybe that’s why it took so long to pick one up again. The fear it might tear my life apart again.
Thumbnail image by Dean Graham.