The thing hung from the front door of my trailer--that's what I remember. I was living there--in this very trailer--alone, painfully single, or so it seemed to me, especially on weekends, never darkening a church door, even though my origins were as steeped in churchliness as the good folks all around me in Monroe, Wisconsin, were steeped in Swiss cheese. I stayed away. It was 1971.
But one day after school I came home to find the thing hanging from my door handle, a note on card stock touting a revival at some Baptist church or another I'd never seen nor heard of, an old fashioned revival featuring some itinerant preacher who'd open the gates of heaven with his preaching by showing us, in diligence and truth, the road to hell. You know.
It would be interesting to know exactly why, that next Sunday morning, I got up and went. Was it guilt? Probably. I hadn't gone anywhere, hadn't found what my parents would have called "a church home." Hadn't even looked. I remember going past some churches and wondering if I should, but, come Sunday, I stayed in bed or corrected papers. I was a teacher, doing the school newspaper, coaching freshman basketball, and, as if I'd had nothing to do at nights, putting on the school play. I can't imagine any sane administrator assigning all of that to a first-year teacher, but he did. Besides, I'd had it with surly church folks.
Still, that Sunday morning, I got into my VW and looked for a little old cracker barrel Baptist church, and found it. Inside, there were all of twenty people looking to stoke some wild revival fires--and me the only mark, a 22-year-old single male. Can you imagine the hungry look on their faces? It took me three minutes to realize I'd walked directly into the cross-hairs of fervent prayers. I was the one they wanted to get for Jesus.
Good preaching, or so it seems to me, convicts us all. It finds a way to seep into all our hearts, the way April's sweet warmth seeps into us. That day, people were moved, but I wasn't. Even though every last word was aimed at the stranger within their gates, from the rollicking hymns one straggly-haired guitar man banged out up front, to the triumphant altar call that finally--good Lord!--ended the thing, they wanted my scalp for the Lord.
But they didn't get it. I walked out of that church's cardboard walls and stamped the sawdust off my feet, never went back, never went to any church in Monroe, Wisconsin.
But neither have I forgotten. I remember the woman stepping up front to bawl her eyes out about some crisis at home with her woebegone husband. I remember her confession--public as a restroom--about how she was going to live life anew this week, how things were going to be different, renewed, glorified, blessed. And I remember telling myself that if I'd come back next week, she'd likely be saved once again.
My grad school advisor, years later, once told me he too was a Calvinist. He didn't buy the sovereign-God thing, but he was sure on board with the total depravity. Maybe that was me back then, but I don't think so, because while I didn't go to church for a couple of years, my prayers were never so fervent, never so pressured, never so personal, which is something else I've never forgotten.
When Abraham Kuyper read of the Heir of Redclyffe, a rather ordinary popular novel of his time, a gift from his wife-to-be, whose reading tastes he sometimes harshly deplored, "he experienced a religious conversion," James Bratt says. The young Kuyper had been something of a Emersonian transcendentalist, but the way that novel humbled the arrogance of Mr. Phillip de Morville by way of the shocking death of his brother, put de Morville on his knees for the first time in years and put Kuyper on his knees because Kuyper had to have read his own haughtiness in that of de Morville, the deeply humbled de Morville. When Kuyper read that novel, he experienced "a religious conversion," Bratt says.
One of several. Like that teary woman up front at the Monroe revival, a woman who probably got to her feet again the following Sunday. And like all of us, even those who don't forget moments when such conversions didn't happen. Even a cynic who hasn't forgotten that cheap Baptist church, or the way, all morning long, that revival preacher kept his laser aimed at directly at my chest. Who knows?--maybe he got there anyway.
Kuyper had more than one, Bratt suggests, more than one religious conversion. But on that score, he's probably not alone. More of us do.
I don't remember where I picked it up, but on a shelf in the library upstairs sits The Heir of Redclyffe, unread.
I'm retired. Got more time to read. I'll have to grab it and have a look myself one of these days. Who knows what'll happen?
And we were in Monroe last weekend. Picked up a boatload of great cheese.
The trailer was old in 1971, but it's still there.
I didn't look up that Baptist church, wouldn't have known where to hunt anyway, so I couldn't check whether or not, up there on the wall, I'd have found an old scalp.