The white Oxford shirt could have stood on its own, being heavily starched and ironed. The dress slacks, well-ironed, too. Shoes, shined and buffed to look like a mirror. The necktie, symmetrically knotted in a half Windsor, fit as seamlessly as it did on store mannequins, the smaller end of the tie hanging through the tag sewn on the back of the larger, front end without falling past the front face of the necktie. When younger, wearing ties that belonged to my dad, the smaller end had to be hidden between the buttons of the Oxford shirt, or wrapped around the tag, which made the tie sit out, away from the shirt. As I considered my clothes, while waiting to be called on stage with the rest of the church’s youth department, one absence weighed down my thoughts. It wasn’t clothing. It was my best friend. Had he been with us, the public announcement involving the entire youth group would not have seemed lonely or as destined to fail.
The pastor had been talking for a few minutes to the congregation about the commitment the youth department wanted to make when he called us teens to leave our seats in the front pews and join him on the stage. We stood up from our seats and in single-file order walked up the altar steps and formed a crescent line behind the pastor who announced to the audience why we teenagers had assembled before them.
“These young people have made a pledge to keep themselves pure for marriage,” he said. “They have signed the pledge, along with their parents, and they stand now before you and God to show their commitment to that pledge. It is my hope that we will pray for this group and for their parents, for the world is after them, and the devil is a roaring lion walking about, seeking whom he may devour.”
Several of us did not want to sign the pledge or stand in front of the entire congregation for signing the pledge. While I wanted to behave myself with regards to all aspects of life, which included getting up better for school, developing a left-hand for basketball, practicing scales and timing with my trumpet for band, doing homework consistently and with diligence, controlling temper, thoughts, speech, etc., the grand display in front of the entire church congregation seemed a set-up for failure because, though willing as my spirit was to be good, my flesh was that much more weak. Even though just a high school freshman, I’d been to the altar many times, from childhood into adolescence, and made many public professions to live for God and had stayed with those professions about as long as it takes vapor to rise and evanesce.
Like several of the teens that night, I took the pledge out of respect for my parents. They deserved that. Yet I rarely went to my parents for help or to anyone at my church and school, especially when it concerned the body. My parents, church, and school were faithful declarers for morality, as they saw it presented in Scripture, and they warned against the dangers of immorality. I didn’t want to get caught for my sin. And, more than that, I didn’t want to continue with my sin. Portents of a life, not only wrecked, but unmoored and estranged from God were attended by abject loneliness. I wanted to please God. I wanted to please those adults in my life who seemed to love God. But my interests and growing habits in sin, which afforded stronger ties with my friends, whom I also wanted to please, played a siren’s song that itched the ears and wooed the heart, mind, and strength.
The pastor carried on for a minute or two. He may have called the youth pastor to the pulpit to say a few words. Meanwhile, I glanced up at the chandelier lights that hung from the exposed wood beams that arched overhead from the high ceiling. My eyes felt the effects of the lights, and I scanned the congregation without really seeing anyone yet appearing as if I was at ease in front of a large crowd.
Then the glare effect wore off. I glimpsed who I’d hoped would have joined us on the stage. My best friend sat towards the back third of the auditorium in the middle of the middle section of pews. He wore a black T-shirt that had a moon, an evergreen tree, and a wolf’s head printed in gray hues. Over the T-shirt, unbuttoned, he wore a black and red flannel shirt. When we met up afterwards, I saw he also had on jeans and tennis shoes.
Before the big night, he told me and our other friends that he understood our reasons for taking the pledge because he knew our parents. He respected our parents, too. His interest in doing his own thing was no more pronounced in him than it was in any of us. A major difference between him and me, and him and us, was that his parents gave him free range. They thought he’d make the best decisions for himself. And when it came to academics, athletics, and finances, he did. He was neither a fool nor a bum. However, his not signing the pledge and joining us on the stage that night put him further from our church and school’s teachings. I don’t know what my parents thought about it, but they allowed us to remain friends.
When the pastor finished his remarks, he closed the meeting in prayer. Then the auditorium emptied as parents of small children and infants hustled to the nursery to gather up their little ones; the elderly ambled, talking with one another or their own grown children or grandchildren; young soldiers mingled, and some even attempted to talk to the high school girls as we teens left the stage and made our way to the youth group room for a pizza party.
Years later, my best friend told me that his mom spoke to him during that big night, saying she wished he would have stood up there next to me because, “That Mark Botts, he’s a good kid.”
That comment couldn’t have sat well with him, and he responded by telling his mom that, “None of those guys want to be up there.”
His mom, out of frustration and disappointment that he didn’t take the pledge, refused to let him attend the pizza party for all the teens that was held after the big service.
But his choice also caused a kind of vision to appear at the horizon of my thoughts concerning the future. Nebuchadnezzar saw a massive statue of a man fashioned by many substances. I saw no statue. Just a yaw opening in the earth, with my best friend and I standing on opposite sides. Who was on the side with God? Though my best friend made a bold, public choice to stay off the stage that night, I knew the duplicitous wolves that halved and roamed my own heart. In the chasm between us, my remaining high school years stretched out before me like a desert, a colorless haze void of hope, for I could not see how I would be able to keep my friendships going, as they lacked any strong desire to know God, and I was no prophet appealing to their souls. Ashamedly, too, I did little to discipline myself and take responsibility for my relationship with God.
And it seemed as if all those who exhorted a life lived for God stood more ready to punish rather than guide us through the dark woods of adolescence. They saw us as numbers for their ledgers: How many in the pews? How many down the aisles during an altar call? How many saved? How many rededicated to God? How many baptized? How many accepted the call to preach or enter full-time Christian ministry? My friends and I saw each other as ourselves, and we tried to help one another. But we were also poor counselors for each other because as we traversed those dark woods we moved away from God in search of what we wanted, and I remained, for too long, steadfast in my headlong descent away from the fear of God, that is freedom, and plunged further into the lightless, friendless bowels that are the imminent end of the fear of man.
I should have muscled through, like Daniel or David; Ruth or Mary, trusting that God would resolve my soul’s needs because “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” But I could see man. I could follow man. That, however, leads to the fear of man, and the fear of man enslaves. It slowly manacles through deception, tempting the worship, rather than the love of, our neighbor, and, thus, we usurp God by setting man in His place, thinking we’ll find what doesn’t exist: a life satisfied with devotion to man above God, which is to say, a life lived for the self. And that’s who I ultimately served: myself. Comprehending this wouldn’t happen until I was in my early thirties. Now, as I write this, in my forties, I intend to draw out the three strands that, though good, I allowed to supersede God. This is not an attempt to bring down the church, friendship, or the self. Rather, let this be read as a story that agrees with Scripture and with many of The Bible’s followers throughout time: when we fashion what God made into an idol, the idol will thoroughly dominate us like a tyrant, even when that idol is man, even when that idol is yourself.
The room’s drop-ceiling had several rectangles with translucent covers in which fluorescent lights shined. The ceiling tiles were pock-marked by minuscule punctures innumerable as the stars. The floor was carpeted with a high-traffic Berber that felt hard as the concrete it covered. The two long walls of the room had tall, slim windows that reminded me of the church’s auditorium windows, and the two short walls each had one set of double doors.
From where I sat, the double doors on the left led to another room which also had a set of double doors, and those took you outside to a section of the church’s parking lot. To my right, those double doors opened to a short hallway where, maybe, two more rooms, used for Bible classes, could be found. At the end of that hallway stood another double door set, through which you could go straight into the nursery wing, but if you turned right, you’d find yourself passing through another set of doors and entering the auditorium vestibule, where the adults and teens had their Sunday evening worship service. I’d be old enough, in another year, to join them.
Until then, it was the “Power Hour” for me.
“Power Hour” was a church service for elementary students in grades three to six. It included lots of loud songs that used hand motions, standing and sitting, and a variety of speeds—super-fast being a house favorite. Skits were often employed, and the skits either announced an upcoming event, like summer camp or Vacation Bible School, or drove home a point from the night’s Bible lesson. We also played games. A staple game competition was Bible Sword Drills, which involved the calling out of a book of the Bible, or even a chapter and verse, and seeing who could track it down the fastest. Like all games, specific rules applied to Bible Sword Drills, like how you had to hold your Bible, by the spine, pages up, while the book or chapter-verse were called out; then you had to repeat the location; someone had to say, “Go!”; and then you could fly through the pages and stand when you found the goal and have someone verify your work. Games meant awards. And awards meant candy.
The labor that went into preparing and, especially, running a “Power Hour” left the children’s pastor drenched with sweat and almost voiceless. You would have thought he just left the sidelines of a basketball or football game for a national championship. What the children’s pastor put into his work seemed the standard for the entire church staff. The same should probably be said for the church members who volunteered because our church did everything it could do, and it did everything big. Our church was not a lazy place.
It also wasn’t a quiet or contemplative place, for quietness and contemplation weren’t disciplines that were taught. They might have been practiced by some among us, but, if so, none of those practitioners stood behind the pulpit, at least not as often as those who seemed to model their preaching to match the temperament of those Aegeans who witnessed their encampment walls breached and their ships set afire by the soldiers of Troy. Large gestures and loud voices and ceaseless calls to do more in the fight “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” And, certainly, we are in a fight. We are strangers passing through this world, looking for a city whose maker is God. Humans have been in this battle since time immemorial. Given that, our church, flawed as all human fellowships are, worked and carried itself with the gravity of an outpost commissioned to hold ground, mostly all alone, far into occupied territory.
Such a task requires all hands to throw in with all that they’ve got. As is common among men, the eyes tied to those hands pay attention to what other hands are doing or not doing. A watchman might very well be inclined to keep account, from time to time, over the conduct of his fellow watchers, and they of him. Because the work of our hands can be seen, however, it often becomes for whom and for how many will see us and praise us that we do good works. Works seen can be quantified, can be numbered. Consequently, numbers were regularly announced from the pulpit as evidence that all was or was not well with the church, its leaders, and its congregants.
Here’s some of what numbers entailed: doors knocked on, people invited to church, people brought to church, those who joined the church, those who attended the school, all who rode the church buses, those who accepted Christ as their savior, those who rededicated their lives to God, those who chose full-time ministry, people baptized, and those who came down the aisle during an altar call.
Altar calls were regular happenings at our church and school. Even at the end of a Power Hour service, the hard-working children’s pastor, who’d sweat out his body weight during the songs, announcements, skits, and sermon, instructed all of us kids to “bow our heads and close our eyes.”
“You heard tonight’s message,” the children’s pastor said. “Now, I want to give you an opportunity to respond. Everyone’s eyes are closed, and heads are bowed. No one is looking around. It’s just you and me and the Lord.”
“How many of you could say tonight, with an uplifted hand, ‘Brother McClean, I’m not sure that if I died tonight that I’d go to heaven to be with the Lord.’? If you would be that honest, just raise your hand. No one else is looking….No one….Okay…”
“Since no one raised their hands for salvation, how many of you can raise your hand to say, ‘I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I died tonight and entered into eternity, I’d go to heaven to be forever in the presence of the Lord’?”
I raised my hand. The sound, the feel even, of other hands going up took over the room.
“Very good,” the children’s pastor said. “Now, for those of you who raised your hands to say you have already accepted Jesus Christ as your savior, how many of you would be honest enough to say, ‘I could do more for Christ. And I want to do more for Christ. I want to be truly committed to and unashamed of Jesus’? If you would say that, raise your hands.”
That one gave me pause, but not much. It was like asking, “Who wants to be a sports star?” “Who wants to be great?” So, I raised my hand. Greatness is a desire common to mortals, for greatness implies being known by many people and having a world-changing influence. I raised my hand, however, without understanding or even considering what all goes into accomplishing such a feat. Not only do many things outside one’s control affect whether or not he becomes great, time tends to reveal greatness after someone has labored, after someone has a work or a body of work born out of that labor. Such labor requires a long train of days. I could see the need for effort, yet it was the long train of days that I did not see. I also did not know the distinction between great and good. The latter is preferred, and both grow from toil in time. What I saw was the Promised Land, a life formed according to God’s will, instantly being mine. What I did not see, though Scripture includes many accounts of its reality, is daily faithfulness, patience in the wilderness, the backside of the desert, the nights in caves, the years of drought, the prayer and fasting, the years of waiting for deliverance, waiting for Messiah.
“Thank you. For those of you who raised your hands,” the children’s pastor said. It felt good to know that some other kids also wanted to do more for God. If he called us to the front of the room, as was common, I wouldn’t have to go alone. But the children’s pastor made no such invitation.
“Okay, everyone, put your hands down. You may raise your heads and open your eyes.”
We all did that and sat for a few seconds looking as if we’d just woken from a nap, our eyes adjusting to the light. The service was over. It was time for dismissal.
“Before we go,” he said. “I want those of you who raised your hands to say you wanted to do more for Jesus, I want you all to walk up here and face everyone else in the room. Show them that you mean business. That you’re not afraid.”
It was an unorthodox idea, and it seemed all of us kids were shocked into stone figures. None of us shifted in or moved out of our metal folding chairs. Our metal folding chairs half-way lined two walls of the room and one entire wall of the room, forming a large, square U-shape. Within that horseshoe, a few rows of tables sat perpendicular to the children’s pastor’s lectern, and kids sat in chairs at those tables. A row of two or three tables, where more kids sat in chairs, also ran horizontal before the lectern, giving the square U-shape a lid. The entire space, then, where we kids sat, looked like a rectangular box. I had not taken the space into account until the children’s pastor exhorted us to make a public statement by leaving our chairs and standing before our peers, thus showing our desire to do more for God. But when no one moved, or even breathed, I became very interested in the room’s layout. I sat in one of the corners in a metal chair. The distance from me to either set of double doors out of there was greater than the distance between the doors and the children’s pastor.
“Is that how it’s going to be? I thought you were serious,” he said.
Because the children’s pastor had said that more than one person raised a hand during the altar call, I assumed he was talking to whomever else that was and maintained my interest in the layout of the room. How quickly could I get to either one of those doors out of here?
Two, maybe three, kids stood up from their chairs and approached the lectern where the children’s pastor stood. I thought he’d be satisfied with that.
“This isn’t everyone,” he said. “There’s one more I’m waiting on.”
All of us in our seats, and the small gang standing next to the children’s pastor, looked around the room. I played as convincingly as possible the role of a curious and clueless onlooker. Kids nearby asked each other who it was, and when they asked me, I shrugged my shoulders as they had done and repeated the question back to them.
“Don’t even try it,” the children’s pastor said. “Don’t even try it.” And he called my name.
I turned my head to look at the children’s pastor, as everyone else turned to look at me, and found him staring at me, his face all downward angles. I’d seen that face on him one other time. It was the previous summer.
That summer I was at junior camp and headed into the sixth grade. A certain girl attended camp that summer, too. She was in my class, and I liked her. But her presence stirred a feud between two best friends, Luke and Caleb, both church-school kids a grade younger than me. The guys were handsome and athletic, and neither one lacked confidence. Both boys made it known that they liked this certain girl. I don’t know what she ever thought or said about that. Very soon, however, the two friends vowed to fight each other over who would get to be the girl’s boyfriend. And they agreed that they could gather unto themselves whomever was willing to help them in the fist fight.
Perhaps Luke approached me first, and that’s why I took his side, but I was a friend to both him and Caleb. I didn’t want to see either one get their face punched or their teeth kicked in or the wind knocked out of them. It makes no sense, then, that I gave my word and stood next to Luke and waited with him in a dirt lane at the bottom of a small hill for Caleb and his gang to arrive so we could engage in what I imagined would be bloody combat. Maybe I thought some glory would be obtained, a story that would follow us through middle school and high school, a legend in which we were the brave, heroic figures, able to carry the tale with us and one day pass down to our own children and our children’s children. Of course, it’s most likely I let the drama of the moment blast away the past and future, leaving the present to hold on to its own all the weight of all that I thought was most important. Instant, absolute gratification compressed upon the scene as much as it could in my juvenile imagination, and real consequences took flight like a covey of birds flushed out of their homes by dogs and guns.
Then, at the crest of the hill someone appeared on the dirt lane, only it wasn’t Caleb. He did show up, he and a host of kids from our camp group, but the first person to show his face was the children’s pastor. His tow-colored, tightly cropped hair and forehead glinted as he jogged over the hill and descended the dirt lane towards Luke and me. The children’s pastor had his face set in a scowl. He wore a white t-shirt with a large image of an outline of a hand accompanied with printed text that said “Body Glove.” The legs of his black wind suit pants swooshed together while he jogged, and the sound the pants made mimicked that of small pieces of paper being quickly ripped, as if an assembly line existed in the ethereal world whereby spirits or sprites shredded by hand the dreams, hopes, and prayers sent from mortals into the heavens. His white Reebok tennis shoes sent up dust plumes where his feet stamped the earth while he ran, and when he halted before Luke and me, it seemed as if the dust issued forth from his feet like ghostly heralds dispatched in service of a figure cut out in fashion similar to the icon the three Hebrew children refused to bow to.
Luke and I said nothing. We only gave each other a look as if to say, “What’s going on?” Then we watched the crowd of kids catch up with the children’s pastor and form a circle around us. Caleb appeared next to the children’s pastor. And the certain girl, for whom Caleb and Luke were willing to bust each other’s mouths over, stood among those who formed the circle.
Word had reached the children’s pastor about the avowed showdown between Caleb and Luke. The pastor arrived to put an end to the foolishness. He first called out Luke, letting the kid know that he could sling the punk through a nearby tree. “Yes, sir,” Luke said. Then the pastor turned on Caleb and found Caleb smirking at Luke. “You think that’s funny?,” the man said, and he pointed two fingers and lowered them like a crane onto Caleb’s sternum.
“I’ll poke my fingers through your skinny, little chest. We’re at camp,” the pastor said. “This is not the time or the place for some stupid fight. If any of you want to fight, you can fight me, but you know how that will turn out. “That goes for all of you,” he said, casting his remark to all of us kids. “Now get out of here, and I don’t want any more of this garbage.”
The entire circle of kids came undone like links in a chain clipped apart. Some kids bolted, doubtless ready to get in a few more minutes of free time before evening services. Others drifted away while they whispered their comments concerning the quashed fight. Luke, Caleb, and I stayed put. I don’t know why we didn’t leave immediately, but I was glad that the children’s pastor put an end to the whole fiasco. I was also glad he didn’t single me out for my stupid participation. But, then, he turned to me, his face all downward angles, and said in a tone thick with constrained fury, “I know you, Mark Botts.”
Did he know me in the way that meant he didn’t like me? Did he think my parents let me have too much liberty? Did he know that my parents were raising me better, which they were, to not take part in foolish squabbles? Maybe the children’s pastor observed me enough in action and found me annoying. Maybe he had issues with my parents or other members of the family so that by proxy he had issues with me. In my adulthood, I’ve met kids who were ornery and immature yet were just so only because of their youth. I’ve met other kids who were enduring from the start, and I’ve encountered kids who struck me as deceptive, manipulative, cowardly, lazy, entitled, prideful, mouthy, rough, selfish, and very much a cut from out of their parents’ personalities; liking them, or their parents, was not an option. I may very well have come across that way to the children’s pastor, especially when I think of that Sunday evening “Power Hour” service in which he spoke my name because I raised my hand during the altar call but refused to make my decision public in a room full of my peers, among whom was the certain girl from the previous summer’s church camp. She and everyone else, it felt like, bore holes in me with their undivided, mute attention. I made a face to act as if I was confused, that the children’s pastor was mistaken that I ever raised my hand during the altar call.
“Don’t even try it, Mark Botts,” the children’s pastor said. “You raised your hand. Now come up here.”
The faces of every kid in the room, even those standing next to the children’s pastor, were unhelpful. Not a single supportive visage. Not another soul to stand up and say, “I am Spartacus,” resulting in a room full of kindred spirits rising up and chanting the refrain.
I looked at the children’s pastor and shook my head, no.
“Oh, that’s how you’re gonna be?” he said.
I just stared back at him, but it was not a stare down as if I was a gunslinger ready to face the end, and I’m sure I looked stupid, my face and my entire body frozen like Silas Marner in an epileptic fit, unable to respond to or with direct communication of any kind.
The children’s pastor made his point about who was serious or not when it came to serving God. He could have closed the service, and I would have been out of time to change my mind and stand before my peers as one who loved God, so I don’t know what compelled him to do what he did next. Maybe he was tired of working with kids. How many parents carry in their souls or even give voice to their frustration, the exhausting frustration, of raising kids who do not obey or show gratitude for so much of the parental work and sacrifices? Who hasn’t worked with or trained someone else or a group only to have persistent lack of enthusiasm or competence or capability, and also feel the weight of the blame upon themselves, rightly or wrongly, for the lacking? And who hasn’t had several things pummeling you, and you take it out on someone else who has done little to nothing to cause your outburst? And who hasn’t, in pride, refused to let someone conflict with you, deny you a request or command?
“We’ll see about that,” the children’s pastor said. And he strode away from the lectern towards me. He was between me and the door by default of where I was sitting. Had I dashed for the other set of double doors on the opposite side of the room, he could have easily beat me to those, too. “You’re gonna stand up here right now,” he said as he approached me and reached out his hand to grab me.
I slipped off my seat and ducked under a nearby table where other kids were sitting, and they moved their legs to make room for me. I was still an easy target when the children’s pastor reached the table. I readied myself to scramble out from under the table and crash by everyone else to get to the doors on the other side of the room should the pastor drop to the floor and try crawling after me. But he stopped when he got to the table. I watched his brown loafers with tassels and the pleats on his khaki dress slacks. He could have bounded after me. He could have commanded other kids to block my way. Instead, the children’s pastor stood next to the table for a few seconds before saying, “Go ahead. Stay down there.”
“Everyone leave him alone. Leave the coward alone. Let him stay there,” the children’s pastor said, and he and everyone else made their way to the doors to leave.
I stayed under the table until most everyone was gone from the room. Then I also left and found my family, and we drove home. I never told them what happened. I didn’t really know what had happened. Being a Sunday evening, too, Monday morning and school loomed over my thoughts, and I probably put my attention on our Sunday night family snack and episode of Murder, She Wrote, trying to will Monday away from its inevitable appearance.
Not until I was in my late thirties did I tell my family about that “Power Hour” service. I didn’t tell them the story to be vindictive. I was trying to understand what happened, how it seemed connected to the fear of man that slipped into our church and that appears pervasive throughout history and in every context and institution, for it is a common failing in human nature. So, while I’m investigating this fear of man as it manifested itself before me, I’ve witnessed this fear reign as overlord wherever it gains ground, and it gains ground, first, in the individual’s heart. Regardless of ethnicity, economy, education, or sex, whether religious or not, whether pursuing after God or not, the fear of man, like a spider, finds itself in the palaces of kings and in the homes of families and in the souls of men.
The night the children’s pastor chased me under a table I was probably in the sixth grade, so when school ended that year, I forsook one last summer camp with the children’s church and, instead, joined the church’s teen group summer youth conference. Youth group and junior high seemed distant enough from elementary days and large enough to hold promises I easily imagined would come true. I was ready to run with the big kids. Even when the first youth conference introduced me to being, for the first time, the odd man out because I was the only soon-to-be seventh grader who joined the teens for that conference, the first days of junior high awaited just over the horizon, and I was ready to ride into that day.
“Only Men” is part of a forthcoming book-length memoir that follows a young man through his days in a Christian school where he discovers a conflict common across time and among all people—that the fear of man, which is the worship of man and the worship of self, can take over the rightful place reserved for the fear of God.
Image credit via Met Museum