©02 LeviteContinued from part 3
Road Trip -1
I fielded calls of requests to come and speak from all sorts of places. And as they came in, I kept track of where and when they were. A pattern emerged from several of them.
"IF, I can set it up. I can make a circuit from here to Michigan, down through Illinois into Kentucky, around into Virginia, and back up this way in just over two weeks." I pointed to the map.
"Do you know how far that actually is? Your car won't make it." Carol said.
She had a point. The engagements were hundreds of miles apart in most cases, my timing would have to be exact and in a couple of cases, I'd be driving all night to make the connections.
"But if you really want to try it, let me see what I can work out. OK?" She smiled.
I left it in her more than capable hands.
The radio show the next day was a rolling argument about a couple of bad calls by the umpire that had cost one of our favorite teams a game. There was only one caller that ever tried to defend the ump, and I had a secret suspicion that they were cousins or something.
It was one of the few times that I could remember over the last five years that we had only talked about one subject for the entire three hour show. But then thinking about it, it was more than just the two horrible calls in last night's baseball game. We reviewed how sloppy all officiating in all sports had become. To the point where the instant replay review of calls was being called for in several sports besides football. And it was a rash of several years of lousy calls that forced football to bring it in for keeps a few years ago. We kept returning to the obvious out from last night (the runner was two feet from the bag when the ball arrived) that the ump called safe. Then we'd banter about why the senior man on the crew wouldn't overrule him when they showed it time and time again on the big screen over the stands. And off the discussion would go onto cronyism or fear of reprisal from other refs if he did overturn the call.
Then on my way home I had one of those flashes that remind me that the Lord is in charge of everything, including baseball, and things happen for a reason.
"Cronyism in the church. Failure to see bad calls because of fear of having it come back on you." I said to my steering wheel.
The first thing I did was to call the TV network and get a copy of the tape of the calls in the game to use with written permission from everybody and their Aunt Millie.
I worked all night on the sermon, basing it on a couple of verses, one from the Sermon on the mount and another in Romans. A couple of other verses came to mind, about rebuking in love and the fact that we were all sinners at one time, now we are just forgiven.
It started to come together slowly, but I didn't have a 'Novelty Act' angle to it yet.
I decided to combine 'Reverend Samuel' with a couple of props and a costume and go with it. Play it straight and let the audience decide if I was trying to get laughs or not.
After the show Friday I went on a chase around town to get my supplies. It took some doing, but I got everything I'd need to present myself as... you might as well hear it now, as a Referee.
For effect I decided to hide my striped shirt under a black jacket with a very narrow front. If you looked close, you might figure out what was underneath, but I wasn't planning on giving anybody time to look that close.
As was my practice I unleashed it on an unsuspecting crowd one evening at our local church. Our minister, Mr. Waters, was more than happy to oblige whenever I needed Guinea Pigs for a new one.
"Every week is a trial sermon for me. Fortunately, you get far more mileage out of a single sermon." He smiled. "Literally."
I laughed with him. This time I was going to get about nine states worth of mileage out of a handful of sermons.
Two weeks later right after Tuesday's show I stopped at home, kissed Carol and the kids, and hit the road.
The car was a loaner from a member of another church in town. The owner of the lot had let me borrow it for some free advertising. There were large signs on the sides and back. Even though he didn't think somebody from Tennessee or Michigan would come here looking for a car he thought it was worthwhile. Art was quick to point out that he was writing off the rental on the car, and taking depreciation on it too, as a charitable donation to the church.
It was four years old, which was five years newer than my car. But it was in very good shape. If we both survived this trip, and were still on speaking terms, I was seriously thinking about buying it.
Driving west to my first destination in northwestern Ohio I felt strangely at peace. I kept having to change the radio station as I traveled because I hadn't been smart enough to bring along any cassette tapes. I promised myself that at my first stop I'd pick up at least a couple of them.
During a fuel stop I found one tape of a blues group that I liked and didn't think the three dollar price tag was robbery. The car was getting much better gas mileage than mine did so I was pleasantly surprised that the fill up left me with more money than I had expected. I paid for the tape and the fuel and a roll of mints and went back out to wash my windshield.
Back on the road I headed west to the town marked with a circled number one on my map for the first two services and sermons.
The church building was almost too quaint for words. White frame with a small steeple and a bell on top of the sign in front. It was also rather small to be hosting a revival that had promised an audience of at least two hundred. The address I was looking for was immediately next door with instructions to park in the street in front of the church.
I wasn't even out of my car when a young girl ran up excitedly asking me if I was 'Pastor Samuel'.
I have been called everything from 'Minister' and 'Pastor', to 'Father' and 'Evangelist'. I had learned early on that it wasn't really worth arguing about in the short term. The only one I even tried to correct was 'Father', explaining that I wasn't a Catholic Priest. But some people thought in two dimensions and if you were a preacher of any description, you must be a priest as well. I honestly despised the title 'Reverend', which is why I used it to classify 'Reverend Samuel' as such. But in some circles it was the title applied to every clergyman no matter what brand name they carried, so you lived with it.
"Yes, miss." I smiled to the young girl.
"My daddy said to come get you and bring you back to the house." She pointed back the way she had come.
"Then let's go see your daddy."
"My mommy is there too." She smiled.
"Then let's go see both of them."
She grinned a 'missing three teeth' grin and skipped down the sidewalk.
"Oh good you're here, wash up a little and have a seat the chicken will be done in a couple of minutes." A striking woman said as the girl led me in the back door talking about how I was me. Then she told the girl to show me to the bathroom and go get her father. Before I could wash up she told me to go ahead and call home and let them know I had made it. I didn't have time to reply, Mrs. Overland looked me in the eye and smiled and nodded toward the phone.
It didn't take me long to realize that Mr. Overland's wife was a breathless bundle of energy.
She was constantly in motion. And it showed. The house was immaculate, the three children had been fed, washed, said goodnight to, and were upstairs playing quietly for a few minutes while Mr. Overland explained what we'd be doing tomorrow before the dinner and the revival meeting afterward.
"I know it's not a good thing to feed everybody before you preach to them, they tend to snooze off. But it's the best way to fill the gym."
"Gym?" I said.
"Oh yes. Our little building will barely hold a hundred people. Tomorrow night for the first night of the Revival we expect at least three hundred." Mrs. Overland said with a smile.
Her husband continued the build-up. "Both churches will all be there, and there are usually several from the little towns around here that just come out for the free meal and entertainment."
I nodded like I understood. "So you hold it in your gym."
"It's not our gym. We rent it from the Lutheran Church's School. A lot of the people that will be there will be Lutheran and other denominations, just coming out to see what all the excitement is about." He said.
"All the churches in town work together. When the Catholic Church burned down they held their services in the same gym for almost a year until they got their building rebuilt." The lady said as she washed the dinner dishes by hand before putting them in the dishwasher. She had been that busy for that long and still looked like she was made up and dressed to go out for the evening.
"That's nice." I said sipping the coffee she kept pouring for me every time my cup got below almost full.
"Do you want to go see the scene of the crime?" Mr. Overland asked me.
As soon as we were clear of the house walking toward his car sitting in the church's small parking lot he grinned at me. "If Stew gets too much for you, just let her know you're fine and don't need anything right then. She's like that with everybody. And sometimes, it's a little overwhelming."
"I'd say. But Stew?"
He laughed. "That's right, you haven't really been introduced yet. My wife, Stephanie, but she's been 'Stew' since she was a little girl. It's a long story."
"I bet it's a good one though."
He nodded and we got in his car.
Coming into the town I had gotten the impression that it was bigger than you expected, but smaller than it actually looked.
I was right. There was no actual town there. The businesses had congregated out by the highway. The downtown was a few shops and a couple of bars, and not much else.
"Check out this place." He pointed at a huge sign over a door.
"No." He smiled. "It used to be a bar, now it's a take out restaurant. But he kept the name."
The sign, in all its slightly faded, hand painted glory said, 'No Fat Chicks'. But underneath in somewhat fresher paint it announced sub sandwiches, Chinese food, and fried chicken.
"I hope he cooks better than he paints."
"He does. That'll be lunch tomorrow." Mr. Overland made a turn and I got a good look at the street we had been on. I could see both ends of town at once.
The denominational church and school was probably the largest building complex in town.
"They've got that many students?" I asked him as he turned into the parking lot.
"Not any more. Which is really why we can rent the gym." He nodded to the church side, they're attendance has been going down by a few every year since I've been here."
"Maybe in a couple of years you can buy their building and move in."
He looked at me sideways. "We've talked about that. Us and the Freedom Road Church combining and going for it. But there are some diehards that won't even consider it. In both churches"
"There's always a few. But if the Lord wants it done, they'll get out of the way one way or another."
He nodded. "My feelings exactly. But I haven't looked into financing just yet."
"You'll know when it's time." I said getting out of the car.
"This way." He told me and I followed him around the corner and up a handicapped ramp.
Inside it was essentially like every other parochial school in the Midwest. We walked into the gym. An old man was singing to himself and running a dust mop over the floor.
"Evening Parson." The man said changing course and heading our way.
"Good evening Phil." Mr. Overland answered. "This is Brother Samuel. He'll be speaking tomorrow night."
Phil extended his hand and shook it firmly with a huge smile. "Wonderful to meet you Brother. My wife will be tickled I met you ahead of time."
"Just be sure you don't tell her I'm good looking, then she won't be disappointed tomorrow night when she sees me."
His face fell a little. "She probably won't be coming, she's doing poorly these days."
Mr. Overland was concerned. "I hadn't heard that."
"We don't let it out much."
"I'd be delighted to stop by and see her." I said.
"That'd be great. It'd make her whole week." Phil said.
We set it up for right after breakfast in the morning.
Mrs. Overland was still going when we got back to the house. We carried in my two bags and an old laptop I kept reference files on. She had evidently done everything but paint the small guest bedroom for me. The lady smiled at me with her strong eye contact and told me about where was the best place for my suitcase.
Somebody had told her I liked to read biographies of religious figures, so she had checked out two biographies from the town library. Billy Graham and Billy Sunday.
"Well thank you." I said to her as she smiled warmly handing them to me. "I don't think I'll have time to read them both. But I'll be sure to look through them before I go to sleep."
Then she asked me if the blanket was OK, "It's a wool blend."
Then she asked me if the alarm clock was OK, "It's not very loud."
Then she asked me if the bathroom light was OK, "It's kinda bright."
Then she asked me...
"It's all fine, I'm a little tired from the trip, I'll just turn in. We're going to see the janitor's wife right after breakfast." I smiled at the lady as gently as I could.
She took the hint. After showing me where the phone was she assured me the dog next door didn't bark too much and smiled and said that if I needed anything just to look for it or ask.
"Good night, Robert."
The next morning when the alarm went off I had no idea where I was. But it came back to me when I saw the incredibly small bathroom next to the bedroom.
I figured out that this had been one small room of some sort. Now it was a small guest suite. They had partitioned it to make room for the phone booth shower stall, trailer sized toilet, and saucepan sized sink. The bed was full sized, evidently for two people if needed, but it only left enough room for a built in dresser and narrow closet next to it. The nightstand next to the bed was the only free standing piece of furniture besides the bed in the room.
It was an adventure in the bathroom trying to get far enough away from the mirror to shave without tripping over the toilet. But I managed.
Claustrophobia began to set in before I got showered and dressed and out of the room.
Mrs. Overland had breakfast. And newspapers. And a phone list of contacts for different things I might need while in town. And a hand drawn map of the town with various businesses and individuals of interest as related to their house, the gym, and the highway. She was as immaculately dressed and made up as she always seemed to be, and it was barely after sunrise.
The oldest child was off to school with little fanfare but with lunch in hand. Then the other one was standing by the back door waiting for his ride. The youngest wasn't quite ready then, but by the time the car pulled into the drive, she was.
After the kids were gone, Mrs. Overland only slowed down by maybe half a degree of intensity yet her smile never wavered as she told me about their routine.
Soon her husband was ready and I thanked her for everything.
She asked me three times if I had slept all right, four times if I minded if she went into my room to get my towels, and at least twice if I wanted her to wash my clothes from yesterday. The only thing that really caught me off guard was that every time she talked to me, she smiled.
"Do you mind the fabric softener I use Brother Robert. If you don't want me to I can rinse them in just plain water."
Mr. Overland got me out of it. "Go ahead. He doesn't know that if you don't you'll worry all day and half the night about him breaking out in a rash from it."
She smiled knowingly. "He's right."
"If it's no trouble." I said. I honestly didn't care if she washed them with the softener or with lye soap or in industrial waste.
She smiled and said it was no trouble at all.
Phil the Janitor lived in a tiny house in what was evidently the original section of town.
"Watch your head." Mr. Overland said to me as we stepped in shaking Phil's hand.
I ducked, and my hair just brushed the doorframe. I could stand up straight, but I knew several people that couldn't have. The furniture looked huge in the room that seemed to be in a playhouse. There was no couch, it wouldn't have fit in the room, but there were a few chairs and a couple of small tables.
"Let me make sure she's awake."
In a few moments Phil came out supporting an incredibly frail looking woman on his arm. She had a huge smile on her face.
"Penny. This is Mr. Overland from the Christian Church." She smiled and nodded. "And Brother Samuel. He's going to be speaking at the revival tonight and tomorrow night. He's from Eastern Ohio, away on the other side of Columbus."
Phil helped her sit in a rocking chair. Penny didn't speak. But she did nod a lot as I answered Phil's questions about everything from the condition of the roads on the trip over and where did I stop for lunch to how did I like the gym.
I could tell Penny was hanging on every word I said, and when Phil turned to Mr. Overland, she followed the conversation the same way. But she never spoke, whether she could or not, I didn't ask, and they didn't volunteer the information.
Finally Phil looked at his wife and smiled. She moved to speak and he leaned over to her and she barely whispered something to him.
"Oh. Yes. Sorry." He smiled to his wife. He sat up and looked at me. "I forgot the most important thing. Are you married, do you have another job, and where are you going after this?" He nodded at me. "Oh. Yes. And do you have any children."
I smiled and handed her the latest picture of the kids from my pocket planner and told all about them. When I mentioned the radio show she leaned forward and smiled broadly. Then she tapped Phil on his arm and whispered to him.
"She hears you on the radio sometimes. They rebroadcast parts of your show on Saturday and Sunday nights and she can pick it up. She likes the way you talk about her baseball team."
I smiled at the information. "I'd forgotten about that. We're cheaper than weekend satellite programming. But I didn't know the signal gets this far out."
She didn't talk, but she did laugh.
"Penny only sleeps about twenty minutes at a time, so at night, she fools around with her radio. She's brought in stations from all over the world."
We talked about the sports I covered on the radio and then it started to become obvious that Penny was getting tired. Mr. Overland made about a dozen excuses of why we had to get going and I nodded at them all. Phil helped her up and she shook our hands with a smile. He walked her back to the bedroom and we let ourselves out.
He had just gotten the car started when Phil came running out of the house waving.
"Thank you so much. That was such a blessing for her. She hasn't seen anybody new in ages. You really made her happy." He gushed pumping my hand in a firm grip. Then he went around the car and repeated the operation through the driver's window.
How many times and ways can you say, 'It was our pleasure'?
We visited a few more shut-ins before lunch. Then we went to the 'No Fat Chicks' place for sandwiches.
I've had a better sandwich, and I've been in more 'unique' restaurants. But this place took the top prize for the combination of the two. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a movie about the 'Hell's Angels' I had seen years ago. The food, while not spectacular, was very good none the less. And anywhere where the owner brings out the plates and checks back to see how the meal was rates very highly in my book.
"Oh, well, now I tell people that the name refers to the chickens I buy." The owner grinned broadly.
We laughed with him and thanked him for a wonderful meal. The check wasn't all that bad either. But Mr. Overland told me to put my money away saying I was the guest in his town.
"I'll return the favor when you come to my neck of the woods." I smiled.
We started to invite the owner to the revival, but he said he already had box seats for it.
Then we were on the road again driving out of town to visit an older couple in a farmhouse.
The gym wasn't packed when I snuck in a side door and sat in a front corner. They had requested the dirty dishes sermon for the first night. Mr. Overland and the others were very enthusiastic to have me do my new sermon, the referee, tomorrow night, but since the biggest crowd was always there on the first night, they wanted the proven winner first.
Their confidence in my ability to deliver on new material was overwhelming. But their small farm town honesty was refreshing.
They had the standard revival singing, and a few announcements, then some more singing.
Even though the crowd had just eaten enough ham and beans with fixings to feed an army, nobody looked like they were ready to snooze off.
I glanced up at my milk crate, it was still there, and I could see the dirty skillet inside.
Mrs. Overland had made me promise that after the service I'd let her clean them up. "But Robert, I just can't see taking a box of dirty pans to church." She had said several times.
"You'll see. It works. And beside, I'm taking them to a gymnasium. Not a church."
She was still openly dubious. But nodded.
They were singing the last song before the message. I got up and stretched my shoulders a little.
I hit the stage running and went through my 'new' intro to the sermon. The audience responded with genuine laughter.
"It was a chore cooking all that ham and beans in this pan, but now that the dinner is over, I've got to have it ready for breakfast." And I began imploring the Lord of the Universe to clean my pan for me.
I had just begun talking when I noticed that the scoreboard clock on the other end of the room had been on and counting down. It was sitting at about sixteen minutes when I saw it, I decided to bring my talk in done before it ran down.
Working against the clock gave me extra energy to work through the presentation. I had the entire audience pray with me for the Lord to wash my plate and pans. When I brought out the bucket and got the plate halfway clean I danced around waving it and some of them cheered.
The scoreboard clock was down to the two minute mark. I brought it back around and nodded for the two local ministers to come up for the invitation. Then I excused myself to go wash my dishes.
I liked the school's cafeteria's dishwasher. It was the exact same carousel type round tower unit I used to run on my first job. Now don't get funny, it was a few years ago but it wasn't that long.
Has it really been almost fourteen years? Wow.
I had everything in it listening to it clunk and whine, just like the one I had used before, when some of the people came looking for me.
"I thought you were going to let me wash them, Robert." Mrs. Overland said. This was the first time she had talked to me without smiling that I could recall.
I told her I had asked the cafeteria lady if I could borrow their unit. She nodded when I told her I was familiar with it and promised to clean it out and drain it.
"Well. OK." The smile was back.
I was relieved she saw things my way.
The ministers and elders thought I had done a marvelous job. Several people had come forward with decisions for Christ. Others wanted to reaffirm their faith, or simply learn more about the faith. All of which was fine with them, and me.
An 'Afterglow' meet and greet coffee drink wasn't on the schedule. But we had one anyway for about an hour with maybe twenty people. There were six different ministers that I remember being there, a couple were from the denominational church who owned the gym, others were from different churches in the area. Others were just people from here and there.
Some of them asked deep theological questions that I really had no business answering. Others wanted to know about the prospects for the Redwings this coming season if they couldn't sign their top draft pick.
After the second pot of coffee was gone people started to wander away.
"Mrs. Overland said not to bother you until everybody was done visiting, but I'm your ride back to their place tonight." A young woman said.
"Oh. Very good." Then I got a good look at her. "Are you old enough to drive?"
She laughed and her eyes seemed to light up. "It's OK. Everybody says that. I'm almost thirty and have two kids."
OK, I felt stupid. If I had looked closer I would have seen the age in her around her eyes and the few gray hairs peeking out around her temples. But... well, nevermind.
She drove very responsibly through town and dropped me off at the Overland's. I thanked her and waved as she pulled away.
Mrs. Overland was waiting for me. "He's got to work tomorrow. I told him to go on to bed and I'd wait up for you." She smiled.
I nodded. I had learned when I first backed into this business that in Small Town America, those with early morning jobs hit the sack before the late news came on. Only in cities did people stay up to see who was on the Midnight Talk Show. "Thank you. But I'm fine. I just want to turn in."
She mentioned how tomorrow night I wouldn't be able to stay out to chat with because I should get on the road at first light. Then she told me about how some of the ones in other churches would stay and talk the visiting evangelist's ear off, and finally she asked me if I wanted a snack. She was still going full speed, with bright eyes and a full face smile this late at night.
"No, thank you." I said.
Mrs. Overland turned the light on in the guest bedroom and showed me how she had hung up my clothes and which drawer the rest of my laundry was in.
"Thank you." Was all I could say looking at her still smiling face.
Finally she was satisfied that I wouldn't want a three course dinner in the middle of the night. She told me how wonderful the dirty dishes sermon had been again and bid me to sleep well.
After the door closed behind her I felt a little breathless just from the almost unbelievable pace she lived at. If I could get that many words into a breath I could do my entire sermon on three deep breaths. OK. Maybe four.
I washed up quickly and crashed on the bed.
The next thing I heard was the morning sounds of kids and Mrs. Overland telling them to be quiet. I got up and got moving in self defense.
"Can I get you anything?"
"If you want, I can sit and listen to you practice your new sermon."
"It's a shame your wife couldn't come with you."
"If you need more light in here I can bring in the reading lamp."
It didn't take me long being in the house alone with Mrs. Overland to invent an excuse to go out and do something.
The woman was making me a nervous wreck waiting on me. If I had asked her for a live Ox and a stone alter so I could demonstrate a Jewish burnt offering for the sermon that night, she would have found one and built the alter.
And had it cleaned and pressed before lunch.
And done with a smile.
I talked her into letting me return the library books. And she only gave me directions to the library twice.
There was no danger of missing the town's library. There was only one, it was on the main street, and said 'Lending Library' on a big sign out front.
It was probably the smallest library I had ever been in. But it was nice enough, and quiet. The lady had no problem letting me borrow one of the three reading tables to review my sermon. And when it became obvious I was there to review my sermon instead of discuss the crowd that had been in the gym last night, "I think everybody in town was there," she let me read without further conversation.
I read my sermon to myself for about an hour. Then I chatted a little more with the lady, and went out to see if the local 'five and dime' had another tape for tomorrow's drive. Yes, she called it a '5 & 10' even though it was a dollar store.
There wasn't a cassette tape in the building I would have spent a dollar on. But I did find another prop for my sermon tonight. A regulation football. It said 'Regulation' on it. But I couldn't find anywhere on it or the bag it came in what sanctioning body had authorized that word to be used. Evidently whatever professional football league played in Korea used this ball. It sure wouldn't meet any standard I was familiar with. But for three dollars, it was perfect for my use tonight.
For lunch I had to go back to the Overland's. She had told me to. And I was glad I did.
The older minister from the church/school/gym was there waiting on me.
We had a nice long talk about last night's tirade about the dishes and why I believed doing something in the name of the Faith was so important.
We covered the kitchen table with Bibles and reference books and sheets of paper with illegible scrawls and drawings on them.
I don't think I got past his Faith Only bias, but I definitely had him thinking hard and fast. And a few times he nodded at my points before he withdrew into his pat answers and structured statements.
Mrs. Overland was in seventh heaven waiting on us. Eavesdropping. Making fresh iced tea. And asking the occasional question. I'm pretty sure by that following weekend she had it sounding like St. Thomas Aquinas had debated Alexander Campbell in her dining room.
"Well. Thank you very much. I feel I must go back and rethink a few things." He said to me shaking my hand. "It's not often one gets such lively debate in this dinky little town."
"It's not that little." I said defending the town.
"I'm born and raised in Chicago. I grew up five blocks from the Loop."
"Then this is a dinky little town." I laughed. "You planning on going back some day?"
He shrugged and adjusted his collar. "Maybe to retire, or to teach. I couldn't handle a full time ministry in the city any more. Traffic, noise, the speed of life. I'm getting too old for all that. When you see your fellow priests with pagers and cel-phones in their ears, it's time to find a place like this."
I nodded to him. "I don't even own a cel-phone. Although the station makes me carry a pager, though I seem to have forgotten it on this trip."
"Good for you."
I was at the gym in plenty of time for the dinner. I even helped set up some of the tables in the cafeteria while talking to the people that were helping out.
Finally it was time for me to take my gym bag and get changed. Oh, yeah, no pun intended, but that's what I had put my referee outfit in at home, long before I knew it would first be used on the road in an actual gymnasium.
In the outfit I could have passed for a ref. No problem. I got into the jacket to hide the shirt and went to hang out behind the stage area waiting for my introduction after a solo by the woman that had driven me home last night.
Like I had said, she was a nice lady. Attractive, a good driver, apparently a good wife and mother, and she sang with some enthusiasm. But her voice was almost painful to listen to. It wasn't that she was off key, she didn't seem to have a key. She knew the song, and didn't appear to be sick, and the microphone wasn't the problem because I could hear her without amplification. But, Lord have Mercy, her singing was truly a joyful noise. I know I don't have any room to talk, that's why I'm a preacher, not a singer. And I know I really don't agree with women as preacher's per se, but in her case, maybe an exception should be made.
They introduced me and I thanked her for her message in song anyway. It's what you do. Period. She did it to the Glory of God, not for the praise of men. I believe that. Somebody at some time had to have told her that her singing could be mistaken for a chainsaw running without oil. At least I hope they did. But she was up there, in front of her home town, singing her heart out. And, knowing people like I do, there were a few that probably liked it.
So I thanked her, and prayed for the message I was about to bring. And moved on.
In the course of my other career covering sports, I had heard game officials called things I had never heard before or since. People called into question their eyesight, judgment, family history, and sobriety. And sometimes, although I didn't agree with the language it had been expressed in, I agreed with the sentiment.
I had seen some really bad calls, nonsensical penalties, and some confused reasoning for them that made you wonder if the refs weren't as insane as the fat bald guy with the beer in the home team T-shirt and face paint had just said he was.
And I had been in hearings where league officials questioned the ref's calls the following week after running the tape frame by frame and showing where he had blown it. Then I had sympathy for the referee. Sometimes. Except sporting events didn't happen in slow motion. The pitch was coming in at over ninety miles an hour. The running back was barreling along at full speed. There were five guys on the floor wrestling for the basketball. And sometimes, the ref makes a bad call. It happens. And occasionally, I'd even defend them if it was close and wasn't a really obvious mistake, or it didn't decide the outcome of a game.
We are all human, and I know I wouldn't want to be out there with the State Championship riding on my getting every call perfect. I had reffed a few softball games in my time. And an occasional flag football game. And that was enough for me. I wanted no part of the striped shirt brigade's job.
And tonight, I was wearing a striped shirt and carrying a whistle to make a point or two that I hoped everybody could relate to, I even had my Grantland Rice quote about the Great Scorer ready to go. I prayed hard, and meant every word of it. The scoreboard lit up as arranged as I said 'Amen'. I let the quiet hang there for a little bit, then I went into action by taking off my jacket.
In a few seconds I threw a yellow flag and blew my whistle sharply and marched across the stage and put the ball down on the floor.
In the best Referee voice I could muster I made the appropriate hand gestures and called the offense for illegal procedure, movement on the line before the snap, five yards, repeat first down, and put the ball down with a thump.
"There are RULES to this game people!" I said to the congregation like a ref lecturing a team for dirty play. "If you are playing baseball, you play by the rules of baseball. Get the pitch in the strike zone, don't slide in with your spikes up, once the pitcher starts his stretch he has to deliver to the plate. And don't even cork your bat." I nodded sharply at them and walked across the stage to harangue the other side of the gym.
"The game is basketball. I'm going to call you for traveling and charging and goal tending every chance I get. And you coaches don't even think about yelling at the officials, I'll throw a technical at you so fast you won't know your own name." I blew the whistle again.
"HANDS!" I yelled and called a soccer penalty indicating where the ball was to be placed.
"There are RULES to everything! If you are going to bake a cake the rules are called a recipe. If you want to repair your car the rules are the shop manual." I stepped briskly back up the steps of the podium to the pulpit. "If you want to LIVE the LIFE the LORD wants you to..." I blew the whistle and moved the football across the stage. "Offsides. Defensive player lined up in the neutral zone... Five Yards, still second down." I said sharply with the exaggerated arm signals.
"If you Want to Live your Life for Him! The rules are right here!" I held my Bible up.
It brought a few 'Amen's from the crowd.
I called another penalty on the unseen ball players. "Personal Foul! Unsportsmanlike conduct. Unnecessary Roughness. Offensive player is ejected from the game. Half the distance to the goal line. Loss of down."
"Some penalties can loose the game for you. They can break a team's spirit and cohesiveness. Some put you in holes that are very hard to break out of. Others almost give the other team an advantage. But that's part of the reason it is not a good idea to break the rules."
I tapped the Book. "Of course, if you break these rules there isn't a guy in a striped shirt around that is going to throw a flag and blow a whistle..." I looked out at them. "Or is there?"
Blowing the whistle I went through a range of motions from ineligible player down field to touchback and even threw in a clipping call.
"The Church is supposed to have people that call penalties and recommend corrective action. Under the Law it was the Elders. They threw more than yellow handkerchiefs, oh yes. Sometimes they threw stones. But the rules were well known to everybody. The LAW was something they grew up with, and the rules did not change from one officiating crew to the next. At least it wasn't supposed to. Now it is still the Elders. And the Law is now the Gospel. Paul went to great lengths to explain in some fine detail what is and is not allowed."
I blew the whistle and waved my arms and called an unseen basketball player for reaching in. Then I turned back to the crowd.
"If you see a brother committing a foul you are supposed to step to him, IN LOVE, and mention it." I jumped back up on the podium and continued. "There's a reason for this. Maybe your eyes are as bad as some major league umpires and what you saw as a strike was really a ball." I turned to the right to call the strike, then changed my mind and called it a ball.
"So you don't make a fool of yourself, that's the best way to do it. That is also the way the Bible says to do it."
"Oh Yeah! I SAW Brother Foxfire driving some young woman into that restaurant out on the highway. Have Mercy!" I mimicked somebody trying to get maximum shock value out of it. Then I cast my eyes down and muttered in the same voice. "Then I found out he was taking his daughter in law to work."
I did another voice trying to stage whisper into the microphone. "You heard that Bertha said that Karl heard that Lucy said that Ray saw Mrs. Whiterose at a liquor store." I looked around, and changed voices "But Mrs. Whiterose said she only borrowed the phone because her car broke down."
"This isn't a sermon on gossip. But just in case you were wondering... The BIBLE is against it." I smiled at them and ran back up onto the stage.
"OK... Let's open the Rule Book for a minute..." I picked up my Bible and fiddled with my bookmarks.
"Why are Jesus and Paul and indeed the Law of Moses so specific about not trusting one witness? Why does Luke in his books, and Peter at the Day of Pentecost so emphatic about establishing that there were hundreds of witnesses to these acts? Lets look at the Law first. Deuteronomy seventeen, right near the beginning of the chapter, this is the passage that is later quoted in Hebrews, 'On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.' That is about the same as a verse in Numbers thirty-five dealing with murder. And on into chapter nineteen of Deuteronomy, 'One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'" I looked up. "Pretty specific huh? OK let's go on. Matthew eighteen. The Lord is speaking here, and is talking about the brethren, 'If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.'"
I backed away from the pulpit. "A HEATHEN or a TAX COLLECTOR.... eeewww."
Then I ran down the steps of the stage and threw a flag and blew my whistle and waved my arms and rattled on about something that made no sense at all. "How often has one person made a mistake about reporting something that was glaringly wrong and yet it gets repeated all over town? Something that is later refuted by almost everybody, yet the rumor gets repeated for three years after the fact?"
Several people had very guilty looks to them. I went back up on the podium and turned to my next bookmark. "Second Corinthians thirteen, then right into the end of First Timothy five... "'This will be my third visit to you. "Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses."' And First Timothy, 'Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.'" I grinned. "Boy, they must have thought that everybody's memory is as bad as mine."
"Two or three witnesses. Paul was right. Back in the Old Testament days if three people testified that they saw you do thus and so, you could be executed. But then, if it turned out later that they had lied for whatever reason, their own gain, jealousy... Well, their payment on that sin wasn't just being made to stand in a corner. It seems that people that believe in God have always taken Perjury rather seriously." I stepped down from the podium and threw my flag and did that dance again.
Right in mid 'unintentional face mask five yard penalty' call I stopped, "No ref would call something they weren't sure about right?" I walked slowly across the front. "No CHRISTIAN would intentionally lie about a thing like that just to get somebody in trouble now would they?"
I got real serious. "If you repeat gossip, if you don't dispute something that 'might be' true, if you just let somebody talk instead of telling them if something is not right... Are YOU guilty of the same thing?"
"We HAVE a referee. And HE wants us to play this game fairly. And HE has given us the Rulebook and even a long list of suggested legal plays to call as we go through the game. But this isn't just a game any more. Folks. THIS IS THE PLAYOFFS! This is our Final Four! Our Rose Bowl! No you won't get to spend a day with Lord Stanley's Cup, but if you win, you will get to have a Cup with the LORD for a day that lasts through Eternity."
The 'Amen' from the crowd was the loudest I had ever heard. I had about another half page of notes. But as the applause died down I let it go and nodded to the elders in the front row. Mr. Overland stood up and signaled to the piano player to get ready.
"The Rules are clear. There is only one way to win. Only One! You have to meet the LORD on HIS TERMS. Period. ITS IN THE BOOK! When The Great Scorer comes to write against your name, what He puts there, is up to you. Now if you want to play by your rules, and call your own plays, well, the Lord's Penalty Box lasts a little longer than a five minute game misconduct call, and the consequences of being sent there cannot be appealed to the League Office. So..."
I blew my whistle and threw my flag down the aisle and looked out at the audience.
"So. What'll it be? It's Your Call."
The invitation began playing and I walked down the aisle to retrieve my flag.
But I as picked up the flag and stood up a young man with tears streaming down his face grabbed me and began blubbering about how he'd never thought of it like that before. I walked with him up the aisle to the front as a couple more people walked toward the front.
I couldn't escape. I was surrounded by preachers and new believers and speaking with the young man's parents as he spoke with Mr. Overland of he faith in Christ. Then the young man was holding my hand tightly as he professed his belief in the Lord and nearly begged to be immersed as soon as possible A couple of other ministers talked to others as they came up. Then they announced the baptisms would take place at the Freedom Road Church in about an hour.
The assembly broke up with a jubilant singing of several praise hymns.
At the Freedom Road church we sang a few more songs and read some Scripture and prayed a lot. In a few minutes the new believers were immersed and we sang another old song of the faith.
Later in the small guestroom I thanked the Lord for allowing me to be the catalyst for the Call of The Spirit to those that had come to believe and act on that belief tonight. Then I thanked Him for the Overland's hospitality and Mrs. Overland's enthusiasm. Then I Blessed the Name of the Lord... that I was leaving in the morning.
Mrs. Overland thought the evening had been great. And that I had preached a wonderful message. She made me some 'soothing herbal tea that will help you sleep.' Then she turned down my bed, checked to make sure I had all my stuff ready to go. She presented me with a shaving case that she had found at the thrift store, "You really need one with all the travelling you do", and asked me if I had an insulated mug to take some coffee with me for the road. Then she listened with rapt attention when I told her about how I had one, and had made a fresh cup of coffee to drink in the car, and it was still sitting on the counter at home.
In the morning Mrs. Overland was everywhere and into everything at once. She had been quiet when I called the radio station and chatted with Art for a minute on the air. But then when I hung up, she began telling me about everything almost in one breath. She had me a lunch fixed, she had passed the hat around the church ladies for me to have gas money even though I had received half the cash from the offerings from both services and several other personal gifts from different ones from inside and outside the local churches. The checks I had mailed home to be deposited and used to pay on my credit card that I bought gas and other essentials with. On one trip that card had paid for a brake job on my old car when the master cylinder had decided to stay in New Jersey when it was time for me to drive back to Ohio.
The breakfast Mrs. Overland fixed was enough to clog fresh arteries, but it was very good.
And it was served with a smile.
I was on the road an hour and a half earlier than I had intended. Everything I had brought had been double-checked, repacked, and secured in the car. And I had a new drink mug resting on the dashboard full of very good coffee.
And now I had time to think... about... her...
Continued in Lord's Lunatic part 5
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