*Extract from my manuscript, Blood and Fire: Losing Faith in God’s Army, a work of fiction, sprinkled with elements of memoir.
Major Green was nearing the end of his sermon.
‘Folks,’ the major said. ‘Can I remind you of the price Jesus paid for your sins? He suffered and died hanging on a cross. He was sent there by his own father, so that you DO NOT HAVE TO DIE,’ he shouted as he emphasised the last five words. He moved from behind his pulpit and walked to the very edge of the platform. He rocked onto his toes then back again. I wondered what might happen if he toppled over and suppressed a chuckle at the thought.
‘You. Yes, you,’ he pointed indiscriminately around the congregation. ‘And how do you repay that sacrifice?’ I knew he didn’t expect anyone to answer his question. No one was supposed to speak at all during a meeting, unless it was a testimony period. We were all to remain quiet and listen to the wisdom of a man who by default of his red epaulettes held greater power than the rest of us. I waited for the major to answer it himself. He tightened his lips into a thin line.
‘You ignore his pleas. You live a life that is full of sin. You fornicate. You lie. You don’t pray or seek forgiveness. You don’t try to bring others to Jesus.’
Major Green was gearing up for the altar call. I sighed heavily and my shoulders slumped. The altar call had the potential to drag out the meeting for another twenty minutes or half an hour, maybe longer. My tummy rumbled with hunger. I looked at the clock ticking on the wall; it was seventeen minutes past twelve o’clock. I ran my hand over my grumbling belly and remembered that it was my turn to have lunch at Auntie Marie’s home. Auntie Marie was my dad’s sister; she sung in the alto section of the songsters.
I looked up at Major Green on the platform, his face was red and he seemed to be panting, like a runner. He raised his hand, and slipped his forefinger into the snug-fitting collar and gave it a tug, a gesture I noticed he did habitually. He paused, his shoulders raised as he took a breath.
‘Lay all your cares at Jesus’ feet,’ Major Green said, now quietly. His face was still red, but he wore a gentle, sincere-looking frown. I saw Marie in her seat with the songsters, to the major’s left, and smiled at her.
I was about to whisper something to Becca, daring my mother’s wrath, when I saw Sarah rise from her seat to approach the holiness table. My interest soared. Over the past month or so, there had been rumours of an affair between Sarah and Doug, both of whom were thirty-something, married to other people and had young children. Sarah wavered on her high heels down the aisle, her cheeks burned a bright shade of pink. Her eyes were glassy as she stared directly at the floor. She knelt and bowed her head in her hands, the top half of her body heaved as sobs overtook her. After a minute or so, Mrs Green, left her seat on the platform and knelt beside her, placing her arm around her shoulders. I noticed Sarah’s body shook even more.
I stole a glance towards where Doug was sitting with his wife and children. He stared straight ahead, his jaw set firm. Doug’s wife, Mellie, bent towards her children, who were quietly reading picture books beside her, her fingers pointed to something in their books. I saw Doug still wasn’t in uniform; both Sarah and Doug had been ‘stood down’ once the major had discovered the affair. During a period of time, decided by the major, neither were able to sing in the choir, play in the band, or participate in any volunteer role. Nor could they return to being a uniformed soldier until forgiveness had been publicly sought before God.
Sarah, still at the holiness table, was wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. Mrs Green’s arm was rubbing her back. Leaning over to Becca, I whispered, ‘What do you think they’re saying?’
‘Maybe Mrs Green’s telling her to keep her legs together,’ Becca spat.
I gasped at Becca’s spite. It seemed over the top. I liked Sarah; I’d babysat for her and Derek, her husband, on many occasions. They sometimes held suppers at their house on Sunday evenings after the meeting.
‘Whoa, that’s a bit mean,’ I responded to Becca. ‘I don’t think Mrs Green’d say that anyway.’
Becca shrugged. ‘I overhead my dad say it’s not the first time she’s done this.’
This time, I shrugged.
Major Green strode about the platform, his lapel mic picking up his beseeching to us all. ‘I can feel the Holy Spirit moving here this morning. Don’t resist. Are you struggling with your walk with the Lord? Have you been leaving him out of your life? You know that God loves you, despite your unworthiness. Don’t delay your safe passport into heaven. Confess your sins, and come to Jesus.’
Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit were terms used interchangeably, but referred to the separate, yet connected trinity. The doctrine had been taught through Sunday school lessons. The analogy of water, steam and ice was frequently presented as a means of explanation: they are all the same matter, all have the same base, yet they are different forms of it. It still confused me.
Sarah stood from her spot with Mrs Green at the holiness table, smoothed the front of her skirt. She turned to face the congregation as she walked back to her seat, avoiding eye contact and with a smirk on her face. Her eyes were blotchy red. Mrs Green returned to the platform. She reached for the major’s hand and gave it a squeeze as she went past.
Major Green walked towards the pianist and organist to ask for a different hymn to be played. Melancholic tunes, with lyrics that spoke of anxieties and cares being brought to the feet of Jesus, were a very effective trigger. But despite Major Green’s best efforts, Sarah was the only seeker to come forward that day. He wrapped up the meeting after she’d sat in her seat.
Everyone dispersed from the main hall into the foyer. Some left straight away. Others stayed to chat and mingle. I said goodbye to my parents as they handed me a bag with some clothes to wear during the afternoon at Auntie Marie’s. I saw her, talking with a group of people, so I went to her. As I approached, voices lowered somewhat, but still loud enough for me to hear they were talking about Sarah and Doug.
‘…left the kids asleep in their cots and a note for Derek to find. Planned to run off together, I heard,’ Rita, the queen bee of morning tea, tutted and shook her head.
I slowed down, pretended to look for something in my bag.
‘But what happened then. Why’d she come back?’ That from Betty, one of Rita’s close friends.
Marie looked around her as she said quietly, ‘I heard Doug called it off. Got cold feet. Didn’t want to hurt Mellie.’
‘I wonder how that’s working out for him now. She looks hurt to me,’ Rita muttered.
‘Sssh, little big ears are close,’ Auntie Marie nudged Rita as she spoke. Turning to me, Auntie Marie grinned broadly and stated, ‘Ready then?’
© Linda Kemp 2018