Of the six churches I served as pastor, three were small and rural. They were all white, both the buildings and the people. One was made up of the descendants of German immigrant farmers. Another was dominated by two brothers and their families. And there was one, I kid you not, that was featured in a Meatloaf rock video. The people of that congregation are still trying to figure out how decent parents could name their kid Meatloaf.
Naruna Baptist was the smallest and most isolated of these churches. It was also the most picturesque. Surrounded by ancient oak trees, you couldn’t help but smile when you drove up to it. The old cemetery beside it only added to its charm. This was what you imagined when you thought of a country church. I loved it the first time I saw it.
Inside was a different matter. There was a resistance to modernization that defined the place. The old-timers spoke fondly of the days when the outhouse, still standing out back, was in full use. Indoor plumbing was viewed as an unnecessary luxury by some veterans, though their children and grandchildren were quick to disagree. The church had no air conditioning, but it did have gas heaters on the sides of the sanctuary. Opening and closing the windows was the answer to any temperature issues that might arise.
Preaching at Naruna was weird. The pulpit was set on a platform a couple of feet off the main wooden floor of the tiny sanctuary. What made this strange was not how far off the ground you felt, but how close to the ceiling you were. There wasn’t a high ceiling like you find in most sanctuaries, and I often had the illusion that I might bump my head if I wasn’t careful.
Two members always caught my attention when preaching at Naruna. Duard was a deacon who sat on the back row to my right. On my first Sunday he had assured me that I should not be alarmed if I saw him with his eyes closed during my sermon. He insisted it helped him to pay attention if he listened without looking at anything. I never got the guts to ask him if the snoring we all heard from him also helped him listen better.
The other dominant personality was the matriarch of the church, Mrs. Vann. Nearing 90, she sat on the front left side next to one of the gas heaters. She had circulation problems and kept the heater on throughout the year. Even in the Texas summer, when the temperatures outside routinely topped 100 degrees, Mrs. Vann had her heater fired up.
It was on one of these summer Sundays that I had the only mystical experience of my religious life. I was at the pulpit offering a prayer after the sermon. And then something bizarre happened. As I spoke words of gratitude to God, I could feel myself leave my body. My soul or spirit or mind, whatever you want to call it, slipped up to the ceiling and watched from there. Now remember, it was only a few feet to travel from my body to the ceiling, but even so this was a stunning experience.
I have never felt so bifurcated in my life. As I continued to pray from the pulpit, I had the sensation that I was viewing me and everyone else from my perched position. Thoughts were flooding through my disembodied self. “Is this what the Apostle Paul meant when he said he had been to the seventh heaven?” “Am I reaching a new level of spiritual depth because I can now exit my body and look around even while I am praying below?” “Will these Southern Baptists fire me for having a Pentecostal experience?” As I contemplated all of this and more, I slowly felt myself descend back into my body. After saying a quick “amen” I stumbled off the platform and slunk into a chair, exhausted. Mystical encounters apparently are depleting to those privileged enough to experience them.
On the ride home that evening with KaKi, who was my fiancée at the time, I wrestled with what to say about my dramatic episode. Would she think I was mentally unhinged? Would she feel inferior because she couldn’t hover around the ceiling? I wasn’t sure, but my conscience compelled me to tell her about it. She had a right to know about the unusual spiritual abilities of her future husband.
She listened without interruption to my curious tale, but when I reached the conclusion of the story she blurted out, “Oh God, Jack, you weren’t having a mystical experience. Mrs. Vann had her heater on so high this morning that we were all light-headed. I almost passed out myself!”
Though her facts were incontrovertible, and I never again was able to float around during my public prayers, I still wonder if KaKi was just jealous.
- ► 2012 (12)
- ► 2011 (12)