The Plain Truth

They chuckled softly and wagged their heads remembering the times they’d been converted–gone to the front. Ed went three times; Junior only once. He’d tried time and again, but he was only eleven years old and they didn’t take his raised hand seriously. Of course, he didn’t wave it around, like in school to get the teacher’s attention. Church was too serious for that. Perhaps they didn’t see his small arm and hand, bent up at the elbow. But they had eagle eyes out for every other hand.

Even Joe Pike’s, who’d once tossed Junior over his yard’s picket fence to break up a fight Junior had been having with Joe’s boy Jimmy. Joe cussed and drank lots of beer. They took him, quick as a wink. His hand was barely above his shoulder when an usher swooped down to help him scoot sideways onto the carpeted aisle for a walk to the front with an arm over his shoulder.

Junior’s cousin Ed, at fifteen, was of a much better age to be seen with a hand up. They saw him every time, and Junior envied him a lot. A grown-up man in a suit came from the back of the church, leaned in, and grasped Ed’s hand. They walked slowly to the front, the man’s big hand resting on Ed’s head while the electric organ played, “Just as I am / Without one plea.” After that things became mysterious–intriguing. First they knelt down on the floor just below the pulpit where Pastor Angelo Petsnick had preached one of several sermons that Junior would always remember. Ed knew some of them by heart too, and years later he and Junior had pleasant moments recalling great crescendos from these sermons.

Their predictable patterns soared from passages like the third chapter of Revelation, “I know your works. You have a name [Church of Sardis] for being alive, but you are dead. . . . Remember then what you received and learned; obey it, and repent.”

“Thank the Lord,” he’d say, smiling brightly from his dark handsome face, “we’re not dead like those poor fools in ancient biblical Sardis.” Then, after telling us how good we were–coming to church regularly, giving rather generously, not being thieves, murderers, and the like–he’d tally our evil thoughts and deeds in an assault that left the endangered Sardis congregation only slightly askew.

We were not only sinners but vile hypocrites–thinking we were pretty good when we knew full well that we were a jealous bunch lusting after other husbands and wives, after the money in our neighbors’ pockets, after fame and worldly approval. On and on it went until he shouted, “Don’t you need to repent?” Our fingers twitched with the desire to stretch upward and answer, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Ed, Junior, and their families only went to Petsnick’s church on Sunday evenings. They were regular members of the Holland Reformed Church in North Prairie where they heard three-point sermons every Sunday morning. But later, for the second service, they wanted more. Their pastor, Rev. Vroom, only had three pointers. Petsnick had many points, and he never closed his Bible. He walked around with it, shook it at the people and sometimes he slapped it with his open hand to make an explosive clap. Junior guessed that’s why Petsnick called it the Open Bible Church. He always had at least four and usually seven points–mostly about bowls, horses, and horns. He alternated–bowls one Sunday, horses the next, and then on to trumpets and horns.

Junior could only recall sermons from Revelation, the last book in the Bible. That made good sense because Petsnick knew that the world’s end was coming soon. Revelation gave him a calendar of events for the last days. “Signs of the times” were clear to him during the Cold War. Stalin, of course, was the antichrist and the last great battle, Armageddon, was shaping up in Palestine because the Jews were back and they were going to rebuild Solomon’s temple. The atomic bomb would probably be God’s instrument to set the world ablaze. Only the saved, those who raised their hands, would escape and then fly up into the sky and worship God forever in Jerusalem the Golden. Who wouldn’t want to raise their hand?

Junior did, repeatedly. Finally someone took his raised, curled fingers and led him down to kneel at the front under Petsnick’s pulpit. He was deeply relieved because Petsnick had just finished a sermon on the seven bowls of God’s wrath, mostly, though, about the first bowl which “poured out loathsome stinking sores on all those who had the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.”

Junior thought he was safe. He’d never worshiped images of any kind–no golden calves, no stone saints, nothing. Petsnick saw things differently. “Images,” he shouted, “were things people wanted too much. Things they thought about until there was no room for God–new cars, fancy clothes, expensive dinners at nightclubs with singers, dancing, wine, and cigars. Toys too!”

Junior was trapped. He’d been wanting a new bike–a lot–the black and white one in the Sears Christmas catalog. He’d even been thinking about it during Petsnick’s prayer. As soon as he learned the true meaning of image worship his ankle began to itch. He scratched until the blood ran down on his white sock. Junior raised his hand, high this time, with blood under his fingernails.

Up front, on his knees, he forgot about the itch and the bleeding stopped. Later, he thought, that was probably a sign. His family liked the Open Bible Church because Petsnick believed in signs. The Bible was full of them too. The Bible seemed clearer and less complicated in Petsnick’s church. He knew what the signs meant. Rev. Vroom hardly ever mentioned signs. Petsnick said it best, “We don’t need big-word creeds or Bible-thick catechisms to understand the Bible. ‘No creed but Christ!’ It’s the plain truth in plain language. The words mean what they say.”

By the time Petsnick stopped repeating “every head bowed, every eye closed, just slip up your hand,” and when the organ’s tremolo phrases had finally gone silent, three penitents were kneeling below the platform under dimmed lights. During the final prayer the usher who brought Junior to the front took his hand and led him to a closet-sized prayer room. There he held Junior’s arm, tightly, so it hurt and he looked so piercingly into Junior’s eyes that he looked away. They were alone.

Then the usher opened his Bible and said, “I’ve got a personal text just for you. Whenever you feel tempted to sin, whenever someone tries to lure you into sin, when your faith seems weak, remember John 3, verse 16. Say it like this, for God so loved Junior that he gave his only son so that because Junior believes on Me Junior will have eternal life.”

Junior tried saying it after the usher but it didn’t work. He couldn’t get around the plain words of the text. Plain as day, it said, “For God so loved the world.”

H. J. Brinks is professor emeritus of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.