The sputtering headlights sliced the curtain of night making visible the bugs and dust caught blowing in the midsummer Texas evening. The poor pilgrims are bound for a weather-beaten cinderblock church perched like a wayward buzzard in one corner of a nondescript intersection in the darkness just west of town. The Baptists were not the first to lay claim to the building’s shelter from the roiling storms that ravaged the southern plains. It was built as a mortuary but death is a fickle business. Inside the unadorned sanctuary members mingled, milling around while waiting for the ringmaster. The Middle Child sat nearly invisible on the always empty front row waiting for the show.
Just three days earlier at their rented ramshackle house the children called upon their Lord Jesus to save them because they could not save themselves. Against the Preacher’s relentless emotional juggernaut they had no defense and had their souls saved whether they needed it or not. The Middle Child sat helpless, caught in a vortex where all futures hinged on his response so he mouthed the words, repeated the incantation, the invocation of the Spirit. A deep sense of gloom and despair hung in the darkening bedroom. The Middle Child felt the change. He felt a flutter in himself like an old bird rising from the roost. A longing, a small hope stirred and he was wary.
The show was Brother Jimmy Earl Bowie, a long, greasy, beanpole of a man with flaky, collar length black-from-a-bottle hair slicked straight back from a sharp widow's peak. He was an animated man manufacturing/conjuring attention with his every deliberate (and well rehearsed) gesture. Brother Jimmy Earl believed the congregation came expecting a show and who was he to restrain the Spirit? Hanging loose on his bony frame was a blue polyester suit with wide white stripes with a matching handkerchief, a once-white shirt and a pencil thin black tie. The handkerchief stayed in his left hand to wipe his holy brow. Following the service he would pray over it and offer it up for a small love offering. Brother Jimmy Earl wore a silver pinky ring on each hand because he thought it looked refined and helped to camouflage his eastern Kentucky white trash roots.
Becoming a man of God was one of the few avenues of power and authority available to a man of Brother Jimmy's education and breeding. But deep down he knew Baptist’s would ordain a potato. Still, he was a man on a mission. He prayed in Old English with a roaring torrent of thee's, thou's and thy's pouring out in a deep sonorous voice. He was Southern to the core but lacked the certainty of conviction. Eloquent? Every time. Honest? Hopefully. Sincere? Sometimes. He stepped into the cockpit, his eyes downcast with a pregnant pause hanging in the air waiting to be delivered.
"Our message tonight is taken from the sixth chapter of Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, verses ten through twenty. I just love the sound of them angel wings. I don't need to tell you that we live in a wicked world that ceaselessly assails us with its utter vileness. To combat this evil assault we will examine how the apostle Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of Christ. May we all rise for the reading of God's Word."
The words came like a calming flood filling the room with their mesmerizing, all-encompassing, unquenchable potency. He chanted the ancient words:
Finally my brethren be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Therefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, where ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit . . .
"Do you beleeva?" He slowly pulled the words from deep in his gullet. "Do you believe God is walking and talking amongst us tonight? If we are prepared we can stand fast resting assured in the unshakable promise of His word when old Lucifer comes roaring as a lion seeking whom he may devour. Hallelujah! We must take an active part, we must be willing to wear the armor. Don't let wily Lucifer catch you off guard, just let him bounce off of your heavenly protection.”
“And notice with me if you will that we have an offensive weapon. Verse 17 says, "And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." Just what is this sword of the spirit? How do we skewer Lucifer? With our beloved Bible, with God's holy infallible, inexhaustible word. But we are not like warriors of old, how do we wield this sword? By knowing God's word inside and out. Only with fervent prayer, daily meditating on the Word and the incessant seeking of God's will can we wield this sword of power. And you must petition the Lord with prayer. Yes you must petition the Lord with prayer.”
“Do not be caught unaware. Do not be mistaken. Do not be deceived. Do not let down your guard. Do not doubt for even one second that we face a mighty and a cunning foe. Satan is a slanderer, he is Lucifer, son of the morning, he is Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. He is the evil one, the tempter, he is the prince of this world and the god of this age. He is the serpent, the dragon and the false angel of light. But praise Him we have Jesus on our side and He is the dragon slayer.”
"We do not fight alone. The Apostle John says that we have an Advocate with the Father. We have no need to fear for Christ is the Lamb of God and the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of lords. He is the Prince of Peace and the Prince of Life. He is the Son of God, the Son of David and the Son of man. He is the Chief Cornerstone and He is the skandalon, the rock that offends. He is the Way and the Truth and the Life. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. He always has been and He always will be. He is the Wonderful Counselor and the author and perfecter of our faith. He is the Dayspring, the Sun of Righteousness and He is the Morning Star. He is the Great Shepherd and he is the Bishop of Souls. He is the Light of the World, the head of the church and he is the Lo-o-ord Jesus Christ. Amen!”
“He is the Word of Life, he is the Logos. John says, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. That means He is indivisible from God. God is a triune God. He is all at once the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Jesus is fully God. He is Jehovah, He is the great I AM. He is El Elyon, the Most High, He is El Roi, the Strong One who sees, He is El Shaddai, Almighty God, and He is El Olam, Everlasting God. He is Jehovah Jireh, the Lord will provide, He is Jehovah Nissi, the Lord my banner, He is Jehovah Shalom, the Lord is peace, He is Jehovah Sabbaoth, the Lord of hosts, He is Jehovah Raah, the Lord is my shepherd, He is Jehovah El Gmolah, the Lord God or recompense, and He is Jehovah Nakeh, the Lord that smiteth. Glory be to God!" His voice rose to a sharp crescendo as he pranced. His thin chanticleer body refused to stand still as he strutted across the small stage. When he again began his voice was hushed and serious.
"Who will you choose? God says you are either for Him or against Him, lukewarm you cannot be. Will you wear the armor and do battle against Lucifer or will you join his army and speed your way to eternal damnation? Are you willing to stand up for what is right or will you be a spectator and sit idly by while our world slowly sinks into a quagmire of evil? Our Lord says we should enter by the narrow gate because the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction and many are those who enter by it. The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life and few are those who find it. Are you strong enough to stay on the straight and narrow? Those of you out there who think that you are too smart to believe in our God and his infallible word do not be fooled. The Bible says that the ways and the wisdom of God are foolishness to men. Throw off the blinders of sin and condemnation and look upon the manifest truth of God in the person of Christ."
The sermonic tirade continued punctuated by a steady beat of "amen" and "preach it brother." Eventually Brother Jimmy got around to dispensing the Lord's Supper. He was careful, as he always was, to warn his people not to eat of the flesh or drink of the blood with unrepentant sin in their lives or they would, as the Bible promised, face condemnation. The Middle Child sat spellbound. He sat the small clear plastic cup of grape juice on the edge of the pew until the deacons finished. He turned to look and when he faced forward he spilled the purple juice on Brother Jimmy Earl’s new red carpet. Only a momentary pause, a scathing glance, revealed the preacher's discomfort. The service continued unabated but less animated before finally ending with the inescapable and inevitable invitation. It dragged on through two complete renditions of "Just As I Am" before Brother Jimmy lifted his bowed head and nodded to the choir director. He wished everyone a good night and hoped that he would see them all Wednesday night for the prayer meeting, bible study and choir practice. Finally he descended.
The workman of the Lord had no control over his rage. With eyes flashing and a flushed face Brother Jimmy Earl exploded in a vehement whisper that by its very nature attracted attention.
"Why can't you be more careful boy? Do you know how much this carpet cost? What were you thinking? That was the clumsiest thing I have ever seen. This stain will never come out. My church needs to be clean and presentable, not stained and scarred. This is my house, my God's house and it is not a place for poor, dirty, ungrateful children who cannot sit still."
As the dressing down continued the church grew quiet but for the whirling wind's whine. The Middle Child stood helpless, nailed in place. He had no excuse and suddenly, clearly, saw that he needed none. He turned his back to this man of God, this pastor, this supposed shepherd of the flock. As he did the crowd cleared the Middle Child a narrow crooked path to the door. Alone the boy stepped out over the threshold into the cool wilderness of the darkened east. Behind him the dark wine spread into a small crimson bird caught, trapped in flight on the blood red carpet.