The Third Row

Monday morning at 7 AM I was heading north on Interstate 55, heading toward my hometown. A woman I knew had died. She and her husband lived down the road from Mom on a few acres we had sold before I was born, and she and Mom were close.

Growing up, some of my earliest memories were of going to their house. The adults would play Yahtzee, and I would play in the living room, on the improbably white carpet. He was a few years older than Dad, and they had grown up together and had similar interests. They were very much a part of my life growing up.

Our lives revolved around the church down the road. It was a small brick building in those days before they added the fellowship hall and the new sanctuary. My granddaddy’s name was on the cornerstone, and my uncle had run the electrical for it when it was built. And generations of my people are buried across the street, in the cemetery there, including Dad.

They don’t really use the old sanctuary much anymore. It’s still there, though, and when I had finished eating my spaghetti Monday in the fellowship hall after the service, I crept over to the old building to look around.

It still looks the same as it did 40 years ago, except it doesn’t, mostly because I’m no longer the same. The first thing that grabs me is how small it was, just six rows or so of pews, and none of them really long. No wonder it always seemed packed in my memories.

The hardwood floors are still there, blessedly uncovered by carpet, as is the fate in many churches that tire of the upkeep required for hardwoods. The area behind the altar rail is carpeted now as it was then, although, in my memory, the carpet was maroon instead of the blue it is now. It is, of course, entirely possible they changed the carpet in the last 40 years, but it is far more likely that my memory is playing tricks on me.

The pulpit is now in the new sanctuary next door, with a piano in its place, which in my childhood was in the alcove to the right of the door. There was no sound system in those days, either, forcing Brother Leon to use his preacher’s voice.

The Heinrich Hoffman print of Jesus praying in the garden the night he was arrested is still there, in the same spot it was every Sunday of my youth. Just out of the frame of this shot, there were additional pictures of Jesus on each side wall, one a headshot and the other an improbably young Jesus, also prints from Hoffman. The headshot is still there, but the picture of adolescent Jesus is gone, a nail still sticking from the wall being all that proves I was not making it up.

Adolescent Jesus captured my attention to no end as a child. I would stare at him on the wall, beardless and with unruly hair, and wonder if he knew what he was in for, if he got in trouble a lot, and why his dad didn’t make him cut his hair.

The hymn board is still there, too. It always had the list of the hymns we would sing today, along with how much money folks had put in the offering the week before. I liked that the hymns were enlisted, as I would go through the hymnal and find the songs ahead of time and slip pieces of paper in to mark them so that I could find them later instead of being flustered and pressured when they were announced. Even then, I was searching for coping mechanisms.

In my memories, as a family, we always sat in the third row in this photo, on either side, but always toward the aisle if we could. I have lots of memories here. Mr. Hays interrupting the preacher, mid-sermon, that he had preached too long and it was time for lunch. Billy, who was what my people called slow and would now be considered special needs, always sang off-key but made up for it with volume and exuberance.

And I remember my daddy’s hands, curiously enough. In this memory, we are on the right-hand side of this picture, on our customary third row. He was wearing his one suit, dark blue, with a white shirt and red striped tie. I am to his left, and the preacher is praying. Daddy’s elbows are on his knees, his scarred fingers interlaced, forehead resting on his clasped, callused hands. His eyes were scrunched closed tightly as if, by sheer concentration, his petitions would go to the head of God’s line.

You could not have convinced me then that they did not.


I don’t understand prayer. I mean, not really. I don’t know how it works, or if it works, and I have noticed that when I pray for something to change, the thing that changes the most is usually me.

Maybe that is how it works, after all.

I once was pastor to a woman named Karen. Her partner – let’s call him Tony – was routinely physically abusive to her and trafficked her to support his drug habit. I knew she needed to leave him, she knew she needed to leave him. But she didn’t have the strength to leave. She, like many in her situation, was afraid.

Those of us who loved her tried to be supportive of her, and we all pretty much despised him. During our weekly chapel service, we would all pray for her safety. She and I would talk regularly, and she would tell me that she was praying something would happen to him so he wouldn’t hurt her anymore.

Several men in our small community volunteered to whoop his ass, but she asked them not to. It was a combination of her fear of him and that none of them could afford to catch a charge for assault.

But Tony was his own worst enemy. One day, he smarted off to the wrong person in a drug deal gone bad, and 6 guys beat the ever-loving shit out of him. I mean, they broke his legs, broke his jaw, broke his skull, broke his ribs, broke things inside of him. He was inside the hospital for more than a month and when he finally did leave, he left in a wheelchair.

While he was in the hospital, we bought her a bus ticket to go live with a friend of hers in another state. She was free. He would never hurt her again.

The following week, in our chapel service, we lifted her name up during prayer time and thanked God for her safety. One lady asked if it would be wrong to thank God for Tony’s being in the hospital. Or wrong for them to be glad he would never walk again.

I told them that they got to feel what they felt. I told them that there is no one prescribed response to trauma, and no one way to feel after trauma was over. And I told them that Jesus said he was in favor of tying rocks to people and chucking them in the sea if they harmed vulnerable folks. David, a man we are told is a man after God’s own heart, wanted to smash the heads of his enemies’ babies against the rocks.

I told them it was complicated, sometimes, this desire to protect the vulnerable while also wanting to model a better world.

But I also told them that Karen had been in danger, and now she was not. Because this happened, she was now safe. And I reminded them that this was caused 100% by his own actions. In other words, Tony got his ass beat because he was the sort of person he was. This was entirely the consequence of his own actions.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think there is a plan. I think God, or the Universe, or whatever metaphor you want to use for whatever is larger than we are, is just frugal and, since the universe wastes nothing, the tragedies that befall all of us are not debris left over from disasters, but building materials from which we build our lives.

So I don’t know if our prayer is the reason Tony will never walk again or the reason Karen is still alive. But I do know that those prayers changed me.

Miracle Enough

I spent this morning among Pentecostal folk.

I have never seen a blind man regain sight.
I have never seen a cancerous tumor go away untreated.
I have never spoken in tongues.

When I prayed over the dying, they still died.
Despite intense prayer, my church still has a hole in its roof.
And praying in Jesus name has yet to bring me wealth.

But each day about 5PM, the birds gather
in the bamboo grove near my house
And sing songs of praise as they prepare to sleep.

And for me, that is miracle enough.