Monday, March 3, 2008

Hillside

When I was six years old we left the Baptist church (Grandview Baptist on Porter Street to be exact) and started attending Hillside Bible Presbyterian. Our new pastor, one Dr Hobart Bennet, was a milquetoast with thin hair, thin lips and bi-focals that had rims that were black plastic on top and wire-frames on the bottoms, kind of like an extra set of eyebrows. His wife Naomi was a dour, dumpy matron with a severe, gray-streaked bun below the crown of her head. She played the church organ at ear-damaging levels. I don't remember Mrs Bennet ever laughing - she'd pretend to smile as the congregation filed out the front door after the service, but it's hard to say whether her attempt was more painful for her or for the unfortunate flock that had to run the chute in front of her. I remember Dr Bennet's hands: soft, smooth, limp, wet and cold - like grabbing a handful of calves liver fresh from the refrigerator. His sermons were liberally plagiarized from various commentaries and Dallas Theological Seminary journals, which was actually a great blessing; no one really wanted to have him wing it.

In Sunday school I received my religious instruction from a remarkably able staff of teachers (which at different times included both Mom and Dad). Dad taught my class when I was about nine. I remember one Bible lesson in particular: the subject was Lot (Abraham's nephew). Dad was having trouble explaining the cause of God's displeasure with the original Twin Cities (nowhere near Minnesota). Dad interjected, "That's where the term 'sodomy' comes from." There was a long pause as if Dad wanted us to follow up on his statement. I raised my hand to ask the obvious question. Dad regained his composure and, ignoring my imploring hand, he plowed on with the lesson. I made a note to look up the term in the dictionary when we got home. (It turned out the dictionary was no use at all.)

After Sunday school we little lambs would join Mom and Dad in the "Fellowship Hall" and then "as lambs before the shearer" we were led into the auditorium to receive instruction on patience and poise (i.e., the sermon). "Suffer the little children to come unto me...", "Blessed are they who endure to the end, for they shall receive a crown of righteousness..." Dr Bennet's sermons were an ordeal, but for us, the cursing was turned to blessing by the "Sunday Pix", a type of a religious "Weekly Reader" (Does anyone else remember that six-page elementary school journal?). The Sunday Pix was somthing less than a comic book but more than a church bulletin. It contained maybe six pages of Bible stories in cartoon format. I could absorb the contents of the "Sunday Pix" three times over during Dr Bennet's opening prayer (and I was not in the top reading group), so that left me the rest of the church service to improve the pictorial journal with strategic editing. It's amazing how you can alter the meaning of sentences by the removal of a word here and there. ("I will blot out thy transgressions...") My older brother Roy particularly admired my literary style. I'd try to keep him from viewing my work during the service since he had a tendency to snort his appreciation, and Dr Bennett did not approve of inappropriate laughter during the sermon.

The year we started going to Hillside, 1958, two women greatly influenced my life: Mrs Hecker and Miss Nash. Miss Nash was the hood ornament on our 1954 Nash Rambler, a stunning vision who through a tragic chrome-plating process had lost her face. But what chromium concealed it also revealed. Although at the tender age of six I wasn't fully appreciative of the female form, I was aware that this winged creature had a peculiar charm that emanated from her symmetry, graceful lines and smooth curves, which I suspect were there for reasons other than aerodynamics. My concept of female pulchritude was greatly affected by Miss Nash, that willowy angelic creature whose wholesomeness was manifest by her brilliance in the west Texas sun.

Mrs Hecker was far less glamorous, but ultimately she became my greatest benefactor. I was in Mrs Hecker's Sunday school class. She was in her late sixties, although at the time my limited understanding of gerontology would have placed her at twenty or better. She came complete with flannel board and felt-backed figures of Moses, Abraham, Noah and Jesus. While I'd been introduced to most of these guys back at the Baptist Church, I learned something new about this Jesus character. Mrs Hecker informed us that Jesus was God who became a man and died as a sacrifice for our sins. "OK", you say, "So what?" She also said that all we had to do to receive salvation (eternal life and a whole lot more) was to believe in Jesus Christ. We bowed our heads and I silently expressed my faith, but (as far as I could tell) nothing happened. I later learned that salvation is sometimes like that, but at the time I thought the efficacy of my faith was in my "feeling" saved. Convinced that we were seeing the "signs of the times" and that the rapture was imminent, I was very concerned about being left here on Earth when the rest of my family met "the Lord in the air".

Thus it happened that one Saturday afternoon I stood in our driveway with thoughts of the Lord's coming on my mind. I looked up and saw the Angel of the Lord, radiant in the west Texas sun, looking down at me from atop the hood of the Nash Rambler. I prayed, "Wait, don't come yet. Wait until tomorrow." I'd decided that at the close of the Sunday morning service I was gonna fulfill Romans 10:9,10. I would make a profession of my faith. At the end of every service Dr Bennet always made the usual appeal for the unregenerate to come forward. As far as I know, he'd never had a taker - that is, 'til now.

Dr Bennet made the call and I raised my hand, but he droned on, oblivious to my tiny gesture. Dad told me the service was almost over and I could go to the bathroom right afterwards. I told him, "No, I don't need to go pee - I'm believing." Dad said, "Oh! Well, in that case, go to the front." As I strode up the aisle, Dr Bennet grew silent. I suspect he was silently cursing that rotten kid (who was always defacing the Sunday Pix) for once again interrupting the service. But then the light dawned and he realizing that his fervent prayer for the lost souls among the congregants was being answered. He quickly recovered his composure and welcomed me into the fold; I had eternal life.

We went to Hillside for another twelve years, but I don't think Dr Bennet ever learned my name; to him I was just one of the horde of kids in Joe and Clara's family. Someday when we gather in heaven, no doubt Dr Bennet expects to have a great congregation fall in with him. Me? I'll be standing in the ranks behind Mrs Hecker.

Not long after my thrilling conversion I remember my maternal grandmother (a.k.a., "Gramma") visiting El Paso and going to church with us. I was a brand new believer, but amazingly becoming a "new creature in Christ" hadn't made me any more attentive to the sermon. In fact, I'd very quickly grasped Romans 8, and I was now resting secure in the fact that "neither life nor death, nor angels nor principalities, ..." could separate me from the love of God. So there seemed to be less urgency about listening to Dr Bennet's meandering messages. I sat there in the pew beside Gramma; Dr Bennet began. I leaned up against Gramma's over-stuffed arm. Mom was on the other side of Gramma but saw me. She hoarsely scolded, "Sit up straight!" Gramma whispered back to Mom, "It's alright."

I closed my eyes and went to sleep.

8 comments:

jennifer said...

Bob, I've got to be honest with you. I am too sleepy to read your post tonight but I will be back tomorrow, or the next day to read. You can hold me to it. I left a message or two on that Joyce lady's blog. You were right, she is very well written.

I mentioned your name on my Sunday post and an award is up for grabs if you are interested. Some folks are, some won't be interested, but just know that I like your blog! Jennifer

LadyBugCrossing said...

I love that story!
There were days I wish my kids would have slept through the sermon!!
xo
LBC

joyce said...

How come your folks kept going if the sermons were so weak? Just curious.

And which churches did your Dad build? I forgot.

Now tell the story of coming back from the bathroom at church with your clothing on in reverse order. Or, have you told that one already? My mind is going.

Joel said...

Uncle Bob,
I love your blog. I have heard most of my dad's stories (at least the ones he can tell without fear of prosecution.) Your Nephew,
Joel

Hula Doula said...

I laughed until my side ached. I am still achy.
You have no idea how close to the target this story hit my story. Hell, fire and damnation was my true fear. I hit the fire escape button at 6. Rededicated at 24. (between the ages of 19-24 I had to figure out who He was to me and if I really wanted to serve Him)
I was the one with the spit balls. Shamefully, I must admit to this. I was also the one who decided to make a decision with my dress tucked into my underwear. Oh my. My parents were appalled. You just gave me something to write about. Thank you for that.

Bob said...

Joycee --
I don't think the sermons were actually all that bad. It's just that I was six years old and had no appreciation for Dr Bennet's Biblical insights. I know that as long as Dr Bennet was on eschatology, Mom was on the edge of the pew. But to me, Daniel's statue with the head of gold and the feet of iron and clay was just a weird drawing in the adult Sunday school classroom.

As for my re-dressing myself with my shirt over my suit coat and then returning from the bathroom by way of the center aisle, I did that when I was probably four (about the time the portrait photo that appears on this blog was taken). We were still attending Grandview Baptist. (Hmmm, that's odd ... we left that church soon after my sartorial faux pas. What a coincidence, eh?)

Gumpher said...

Hey Bob,

I'll guess we'll never see eye to eye on the whole religion thing, but I like your blog, and if this is about blogging, I guess we can get along. ( I hope so,anyway).

You may need to learn about the Welsh and how rugby is the greatest sport in the world, and I'll probably need to learn more from you.

But, hey, it's all a big learning curve

Jerry said...

I remember your Aunt Betty being so happy that your sister returned to "the true faith" when she married me.

Pretty funny when you realize that I am basically a Presbyterian in Baptist clothing.