Step into the Garden
You find it only when you yourself connect with God.
His name was Alex. I think that was his name. I forget. He had sandy, well-groomed hair, penetrating blue eyes, sharp features, a generous smile, but more than anything else, he actually seemed to care about us boys. Not like the regular preacher, who was no doubt a good man, too. But the preacher always preached with his Bible in one hand and a white, flowing handkerchief in the other, to wipe the sweat off his face. He was pretty short, but big. You see what I’m say’in?
Alex had come as the new “Youth Pastor,” at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. The building was later used as a prop in the movie, “Driving Miss Daisy.” Alex was going to a school somewhere, learning how to be a preacher, too. I remember thinking, Alex don’t need no school to learn how to preach. He didn’t need a handkerchief, and he didn’t hold his Bible in the air while he preached, making a show of it. He just stood there behind the pulpit sharing himself, and his faith in God.
Me and Howard McClung, G.C. Bradshaw, and Gene Smith always sat in the back pew, as far away from the pulpit as we could get. We had important business to discuss in whispers, and notes written on offering envelopes, passed back and forth. Talk had to do with cars mostly, and girls.
But when Alex preached, as the preacher sometimes let him do, especially on Sunday nights, we always sat on the second or third row back on the right hand side. Alex would lead the singing, too. He had a great voice. Like Perry Como’s. When he led the congregation in singing, “Revive us Again,” our young voices followed lustily. We all liked Alex. When he was leading the songs, we sang right out, like we were good Christians and all.
And if Alex preached, and gave the invitation, we always went forward on about the fourteenth or fifteenth verse (waiting for that last hand) of “Just as I Am.” We’d stand there in front of everybody, our heads hanging low, repentant and humble. Alex would come down from behind the pulpit, put his hands on our shoulders and pray for our souls. And we’d say, “Yes, I accept Jesus Christ and my personal Lord and Savior.” We did it all, just like you’re supposed to do.
Come Monday, we would start smoking cigarettes again. Once, Howard, G.C., and me snuck into the church when there was nobody there, squeezed into the baptistry, sat in the bottom of the tub and smoked almost a whole pack of Luckies. We’d start cussing again. We could cuss pretty good, too. We knew all the really bad words and we’d use them whenever we could, when there were no adults around. We’d go to the Saturday night dances and sit on the side to watch the girls dance with one another, waiting for them to twirl their dresses, hoping for a glimpse of pink nylon. I guess we weren’t good Christians after all.
Life went pretty much along like that. I graduated high-school, volunteered to be drafted, spent two years in the U.S. Army, got out, tried to go to college, lasted two weeks, drove to California, got a job . . . by this time I was twenty years old, and smoking three packs of Chesterfields a day.
I had forgotten all about Alex, going forward, hanging my head and all. Fact is, I believed myself to be an atheist. I remember standing on the missile launcher doors (they were closed), in the rain. And while lightning painted the dark sky, and thunder shook the earth, I screamed at God, “If you’re up there, then strike me dead!” He could have done it, you know. There was plenty of lightning around. He didn’t, so seeing as how I had given him such a great opportunity to get shed of me, and he just acted as if I didn’t exist, I concluded that he didn’t either.
A few months after my discharge from military service, lying in my bed around midnight, staring at the ceiling of my sister’s house, I figured my luck had just about run out. I was making $40 a week holding down a copy-boy’s job at the local newspaper. I guess I was pretty depressed. I got up, lit up a Chesterfield and walked out onto the front porch. The moon was full and high in the sky. This time, when I spoke to God, I was a little more respectful. I said, “If you’re up there, I need help. I don’t know who I am or where my life is going. I need help.” I went back inside, knelt down beside my bed and cried like a baby. Never done something like that in my whole life.
The very next day, one of my four bosses came out to my desk and happened to say something about God. I don’t remember what he said. He said something about God. And I said, “I’d be obliged to talk to you about that, sometime, that is, if you don’t mind.” And he invited me to come to his house for dinner.
I came. I came as nervous as a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. I came. I was met at the door by their fifteen-year-old daughter, as pretty as a lily on a frog pond. One might say that day, that my boss, John, and his dear wife, Eva, “led me to Christ.” I can’t argue with that. But, after fifty-four years of loving Jesus, and following him, looking back and all, I think some spadework had probably been done by a man forgotten all except for his face, his sandy hair and his blue, penetrating eyes.
How is it that people enter our lives through a very small window, brush against us their love, impact us wondrously, and leave us to breathe the fragrance of that brush for the rest of our lives? Someday, maybe I'll tell you about Lizzie Mae, or Mrs. Gardner, or Tony King, or John Wesley Smith's mother. Sometimes people happen along the shores of our lives, throw a pebble in the water, and we feel the wash of the ripples for years past counting.
So thank you John. Thank you Eva. Thank you Leemay, and . . . thank you Alex, for helping me to “find it” at last, and connect with God. I'm still working on that "good Christian" thing. I seem to recollect that Jesus said being "good" was a pretty exclusive club.