Authors: Jennifer Mathieu
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with enormous gratitude and respect
“Believing takes practice.”
A Wind in the Door
James Fulton is sweating like
a sinner in church.
Which, of course, is exactly what he is.
All of usâthe older kids my age and the mothers and the fathers and even the little toddlers whose feet don't touch the floor yetâall of us congregants of Calvary Christian Church of Clayton watch wide-eyed and silent from our metal folding chairs as James shifts his weight from one barrel-thick leg to the other, his ruddy face covered in a slick coat of perspiration. He squeezes his hands together as he sways back and forth, and a little map of sweat starts to form on the front of his yellow polyester short-sleeved shirt. Pastor Garrett stands off to the side, clutching his enormous Bible and nodding along with everything James says.
“I'm here before you with a purified heart,” James continues, looking at his feet. His white-blond hair is newly shorn, making his flushed face seem even more scarlet. “I know I need to live radically for the Lord again. And I'm asking you to help me walk with God again because I know the punishment for sin is separation from the Lord and eternity in hell.” Exhaling shakily and squeezing his hands together again, he makes the briefest of eye contact with the congregation before gazing back down at his feet.
My four-year-old sister Sarah is sitting in my lap, and she turns her little head to look at me and whispers too loudly, “Rachel, what'd that boy do?”
People shift in their seats around us at her question, but nobody says anything. “Shh, Sarah,” I whisper back. “He's talking about how much he loves Jesus.”
What James Fulton did was gratify the desires of the flesh, but I can't say that to Sarah. And I can't tell her that he looked at pictures of naked women on a computer and he got caught, and I can't tell her that he just got back from two weeks at Journey of Faith, a camp in east Texas where he spent hours in prayer and physical labor and repentance. Sarah's too little to understand about Journey of Faith.
She won't be too little to understand for much longer, of course. But for now, at least, it doesn't take much to distract her.
It seems one or two of us are sent to Journey of Faith every few years. By us I mean the older kids at Calvary Christian. Some are as young as thirteen or fourteen when they're sent away, and they always leave suddenly, spirited off by Pastor Garrett or a church elder, leaving the rest of us to consider the rumors we've heard about what Journey of Faith is all about. Long, forced hikes, little sleep, and endless, backbreaking physical work, along with hours spent alone studying Scripture. Those of us who've never gone put the pieces together from testimonies like the one James is delivering now. We know that Journey of Faith is a place where life is hard, but the Lord is supposed to work on your heart and transform you.
Everyone comes back looking like James.
His cheeks are cherry red, and the shame he carries radiates off him. He hasn't come out and explicitly stated his sin, but he knows we must know about how he's strayed. He knows we know about his stumbling block. We've learned about the sins that send some of us to Journey of Faith in the same way we've learned about the camp itself. In whispers and bits of whispers. In requests for prayers during youth fellowship and at evening Bible studies.
In the Scripture used by those who've fallen upon their return to the flock.
“So in closing,” James continues, “I want to say that the Lord is leading me to share with you this verse from Psalms, a verse that the pastor at Journey of Faith shared with me in one of our sweet fellowships.” I can tell he has practiced this part many times from the way his voice picks up speed and volume. “âWherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto, according to thy word. With my whole heart have I sought thee. O let me not wander from thy commandments.'” There's a ripple of nodding heads, and at last James makes his way back to his row to join his parents. His mother squeezes him around his broad, beefy shoulders and his father nods approvingly, and I see how James smiles at them, a quick upturned smile that disappears as quickly as it arrives.
Pastor Garrett makes a commanding motion toward the corner where Mrs. Carter sits at the upright piano, and as I hear the opening notes of “It's Through the Blood,” I lift my little sister in my arms and stand up to get ready to sing.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
After the service ends, all of us spill out onto the weedy patch of grass and gravel in front of the church. I put Sarah down and watch her speed off and start racing around with some of the countless other small kids her age.
I weave through the crowd, smiling back brightly at everyone who smiles at me as I try to keep watch on my younger siblings. When I was little like them I could climb back into the family van after services with my worn-out copy of
Anne of Green Gables
, but the last time I tried that, Dad said I wasn't showing a sweet spirit. I'm seventeen now, and not only am I supposed to watch out for my little brothers and sisters, I'm supposed to be their model of proper behavior.
“Rachel! Rachel!” Someone is yelling my name from across the parking lot. I turn and spot my older sister, Faith, waving me over with the one arm she isn't using to hold her infant son, Caleb. It's early May in Texas and five hundred billion degrees, but somehow Faith isn't sweating, and her lavender blouse and knee-length denim skirt don't have a spot of baby puke on them.
“Hi,” I say, joining her and some of the other young mothers of the congregation, several just a few years older than me. They stand in a loose circle holding their little ones, and their carefully groomed appearances and enthusiastic smiles make me run my fingers through my long, dark curls so I don't look too disheveled. I wish not for the first time that my hair were straighter like Faith's, but almost immediately I hear my father's voice reminding me that
a sound heart
the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones
. I imagine my bones strong and pure, constructed of nothing but molecules of good thoughts, absent of any vanity. I smile at everyone and wiggle my fingers at my little nephew Caleb, choosing to give him my full attention while the other girls chatter around me.
“I was just saying,” Faith starts, shifting Caleb from one hip to another with ease, “that James's testimony really moved me, really moved us all, actually, and I think the Lord has laid it on our hearts to try and organize some time for fellowship, where some of us older girls get together with some of the younger girls and talk about, you know, modest dress. About helping the boys and the young men in their struggle to remain spiritually pure. Just, you know, recommitting to that idea of biblical femininity.”
Faith's voice is filled with enthusiasm, each sentence practically spilling on top of the next one. The other girls are nodding. Faith has always been good at helping us think of others. When we were little, she taught me to flip over magazine covers in the grocery checkout line if they had immodest images of girls and women that might tempt the eyes of our brothers.
“That sounds like it would be nice,” I say. Faith is talking on excitedly when my eyes spot James Fulton by the side of Calvary Christian. He's alone. The quick smile he shared with his parents at the end of the service is gone now, and he leans against the church wall, staring out at a cinder-block building in the lot next door. The building used to house a tractor-and-lawn-mower repair service, but it was abandoned a long time ago, and now it's just a crumbling mess of a place. It's not anything to look at, that's for sure, but James is watching it like it's something worth watching.
His cheeks still appear redâmaybe this time from the heat outsideâand he takes a big gulp of air and tips his head back against the side of the church, shifting his gaze to the blue, cloudless sky. I imagine myself stepping up in front of the entire congregation to admit my deepest sins, and I know that James feels an embarrassment so painful he can barely stand to look any of us in the eye.
We should show compassion toward sinners, and James looks so pitiful standing there all by himself that I want somebody to walk over to talk to him about the weather or where he got his yellow polyester shirt or something that doesn't have to do with his sinful behavior or Journey of Faith or how proud we are of how he's walking with Jesus. But nobody goes to him, least of all me.
“I mean, I think we would be really honoring James's testimony if we put his words into action, don't you think?” Faith continues, almost breathless in her excitement.
“Oh, definitely,” I answer, offering a quick smile.
When my father finds me a few minutes later and tells me it's time to leave, James Fulton is still standing there alone.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“Rachel, are the beans almost ready?”
“Just about done,” I answer, giving them a nudge with my fork.
My mother smiles at me and nods. “What were you looking at out there?” she asks, motioning toward the kitchen window.
I shrug my shoulders and mumble, “Nothing, really.” I don't want to admit I've been distracted from my work and staring at some hummingbirds darting back and forth at the shrub of yellow bells in the front yard. They love to swoop and swerve at one another to get the best flower, like little kamikaze pilots. Everyone thinks hummingbirds are these sweet little birds, but they're really hateful, actually.
“Are you feeling okay?” I ask her, pouring the beans into a serving dish. She looks paler than normal, and there's a parade of pimples marching up her normally clear complexion.
“Yes, praise God,” she answers, touching her belly. Walker baby number eleven is just a couple weeks along, and the first few months are always the worst for my mom when it comes to being pregnant. With Sarah, she spent what felt like forever trapped in the bathroom, throwing up during what should have been school time at the kitchen table.