Christians speak often about what it may mean to be marginalised in the new world of hard secularism. To be a “creative minority”. Yet my own initial experiences of church were more “uncreative” minorities, rather than creative ones.
My family’s faith was birthed in Northern Irish fundamentalist minority, made its way to conservative non-conformity minority here in Perth, Australia, before shifting seismically during a family crisis to an unreconstructed Pentecostal non-creative minority in Fremantle for a period of time.
At each stage we belonged to minorities, but never creative ones. Indeed the last one, the Pentecostal experience, doubled up as both minority and marginalised, made up of low-income workers, single mums, broken families, physically and mentally broken people, and various lonely people who no one seemed to love but the church. In short people I had never done church with before. People who only Jesus and his people could ever love – and who, praise God, Jesus and his people DID love. It was a learning and humbling experience for me.
After that I got creative. In recent years I’ve reflected on that upbringing in fiction and non-fiction writing. The following extract is from something I wrote a few years ago that culminates in a deeply spiritual event. It’s fiction. The family crisis leading up to the first half of this piece of writing is not the actual family crisis, nor are the characters, but the experience that I recount in the second half of the piece is based solidly – and graphically – on my entry point into the non-creative minority of unreconstructed Pentecostalism.
I share it because it’s my observation that the angst about being marginalised is primarily being felt by middle-class evangelicalism and what I call “Pentecostal-lite” – the anaemic middle class “safe” version of the Pentecostalism I experienced in this story. By contrast the marginalised no-names of my Fremantle experience did not even have an understanding of what it meant to be marginalised as it had always been their reality. There’s something empowering about that.
Have a read if you like. It’s a longish extract that starts at a funeral, but it ends with a bang, I promise! And it gives a flavour to that uncreative minority experience. You might need to settle in with a glass of red (or a soda water).
It was two days after the funeral and Charis was driving me somewhere in my car.
“Come with me,” she’d said, switching on the lights walking into the darkened house. The sun was going down quicker these days and Charis’s knock on the door had woken me up. I’d been packing boxes, but the emotion of the past week had tired me out and I’d fallen asleep on the floor. I felt pasty and drooly.
“Give me a minute.” I went into the bathroom. “Where’re we going?” I called out.
“It’s a surprise.”
“How’d you get here?”
“Mum dropped me off.”
“Should I dress up?”
“Come as you are.”
“As you were, as I want you to be,” I sang under my breath. I felt and smelt like Kurt might have felt and smelt just before he did himself in. The cold water over my face woke me up a little and I looked into the mirror. Actually the mirror did the looking for me because I wasn’t up to it.
“Nearly finished packing?” asked Charis looking in the door, “Sorry,” she said, as she walked in on me having a piss.
“Getting there. It’s just temporary you know.”
“I know. And even if it wasn’t, that wouldn’t matter either. Your mum needs you at the moment.”
That’s the line I’d fed Benny too to fend off his questions.
“Back home? To your mum’s?” Benny had quizzed when I told him I was moving out. He made it sound like the regression that I felt it was.
“Mum needs a bit of support at the moment.” Lame answer.
“Suit yourself. The offer’s there to come back if you need it.”
It sounded just like what Pongo had said and it felt just like it too. All that was left was to get in the car and get the hell out of there.
* * *
What can I say about the funeral? Benny hadn’t been there for a start. He had to be “somewhere.” A client thing apparently. I was just as glad. I had come to the point where I didn’t want anything from him, not even his grief. Besides the funeral had been a bit embarrassing. The same celebrant who’d done the wedding did the funeral and I could have sworn that she’d used the same transcript and just exchanged the word “life” for “death”. It was all pretty and lovely, as if there was no difference between two people making vows to each other and a wasted body in a box. Vicki read some poem about Bevan only being in the room next door that made everyone sniffle. Actually she did grief well. She’d worn her blue wedding dress, only this time with a black shawl instead of the white she’d worn at the wedding. All her private school girlfriends were there, dressed to the nines, the odd one or two with a bored looking broker type suited up and standing next to them. Waiting for the coffee and cake in the room out the back, I’d thought at the time.
Chris had drugged himself up with something he’d got from some of the roofies he worked with. He’d looked more dead than Bevan had. He didn’t say anything that made sense between the night Bevan died to the morning of the funeral. Maybe it was my imagination, but Stuart had looked smug, like he was central to all this or something. True, he’d helped Mum organize the whole thing, from ringing the funeral directors to getting her friends to do the catering.
“It’s the least I can do,” he’d said, every time Mum protested and said she should do something for a change.
“He got that right,” Charis’d muttered after he uttered it for the umpteenth time. It was typical Stuart. Breeze in after all the hard stuff had been done; take all the attention. I guess people can do that when they’re the star attraction in their uni department. They get the big grants. They get the best names to come to their college. A brother’s funeral should be a cinch to organize, especially if all the hard work, like dying and helping someone die, has been done by everyone else.
Mum was numb. Numbness muted her, or at least damped her down. Charis’s mum had come over and sat with her, but she didn’t do the prayer thing. Mum made cups of tea, answered the phone, crying like it was the first time whenever she spoke to someone new. She said “uh-huh” to the funeral director’s sales pitch, letting Stewart and me handle most of it. We’d nearly had an argument about the coffin.
“A plain one,” I’d said.
“Let’s not be cheap about this,” Stuart had countered, with a “shocked” look.
“I’m not being cheap. I know Bevan. I know what he’d like. A plain one.” The funeral director had sat back at this stage. He’d been in this place before and if missiles were about to be launched he wanted well out of the way.
“Think about what Mum wants. We don’t want some tacky cheap box,” Stewart’d said, before turning to the funeral guy, “No disrespect mate.”
“None taken.” That had been his cue to start turning the pages of his brochure again. I could sense a deal closure coming on.
“Mum would want something nice.” Stuart had said it loud enough for Mum to hear and right on cue she’d looked up.
“What about everyone getting what everyone wants?” We’d both turned to him like hounds picking up a scent. He was a real professional. “How about this model?” We both nodded. “It’s actually an environmentally friendly model. The coffin is reusable, but Bevan would be placed inside a wooden sheath that sits inside it. Many people are environmentally conscious these days, so there is less desire to create unnecessary waste. The outer shell is returned to us, which makes it less expensive to provide something that has a touch more elegance than the base model.”
“If it comes in a V6 model, I’ll take it.” It was my best line for a while and it even made Stuart laugh. The funeral director had laughed too, but it looked polite and planned, just like his neat back and sides and sombre suit.
And Dad? Nowhere to be seen between Bevan’s death and the funeral. I wondered how it would be for him in those days. How much would Gracie allow him to grieve? Would Dad have to hold it back for “the sake of the children?” Sitting there in his chair, young Elvis giving him the eye from the wall? I wondered if he was even going to turn up at the funeral. Actually Mum had put that idea into my mind.
“He’s going to have to see people he wiped off years ago.”
“He’ll be there Mum.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“It’s twelve years Mum.” It had surprised me how much I’d used that line over the past year or so. It was the universal wrench in my conversation tool-box. All the same I suppressed the urged to ring Dad, instead quietly cursing Mum’s ability to plant fear into us, like she had when she’d refused to let us walk to school by ourselves when we were young. “You never know what might happen,” she’d said, before making sure we did know. By grade seven she’d relented, but only because she had to get to work earlier and would have missed the bus if she’d walked us to school. By then it was too late anyway. Grades five and six had been misery for the “mummy’s boy” who had been marched up to the school gate.
But Dad was there alright. I caught sight of him as we got out of the car in the cemetery, all suited and sunglassed, ready for the walk to the chapel. His head was bobbing up and down at the back of the entourage, – Zacchaeus straining for a glimpse of Jesus in a hostile crowd.
“Dad,” I said walking up to him. We hugged. He sniffed.
A couple of people I sort of recognised looked at us, then, as if despite themselves, turned to look at Mum. She was gazing into the distance, tottering a little, while the funeral directors fussed around collecting the attendance cards.
“Some people don’t want me here eh son?”
“They’re just rubbernecks Dad,” I gritted. I smiled over his shoulder at a stout middle-aged woman whose goitered neck did indeed look like rubber. She’d been giving me that melodramatic half-smile, half pity look we bring to funerals. It’s supposed to be in lieu of actually saying anything. Just stand there and look sad and dumb.
Stuart wandered over.
“Of course son. How’s your mother?”
“Shitty.” Stuart was enjoying this. Only four words spoken and already he’d boxed Dad into a corner. It just needed a ref to put him out of his misery.
“We’re moving,” I said, watching the bustle at the front of the entourage slow down and assume an air of gravity. Sweet relief! I dragged Stuart away from his prized catch and we settled in next to Mum, Chris, Charis and Vicki. Dad melted back into the crowd.
The way I figured it, there were about fifty hard-core mourners at Bevan’s funeral. The rest were indeed rubbernecks. Tourists without cameras. Death is an interesting place to visit, but no-one wants to live there. So people turn up; walk behind the coffin to the funeral; and talk about everything except death. The weather. The latest renovation. The footy. But not death. Save that for when one of their close relatives dies. Death has been kind enough to put on a dress rehearsal for them — a memento mori — and they treat it like a school trip to Disneyland. They go away with an experience, but really, where was the educational value?
Funerals are pretty short. It never feels that way, but it’s true. Once all of the trimmings have been removed; the long slow car ride; the getting out at the cemetery; the walking behind the hearse to the chapel; the settling into the tan fake leather seats – or standing with the crowd at the back if its someone young or well known – it’s pretty much over. All that’s left is a few thousand words to sum up someone’s entire life. Cut off some of the fancy marzipan and even that’s reduced to a few hundred words that really matter. Twenty to twenty-five minutes later the next tour group is hot on your heels, and everyone is ushered out of the chapel, free at last to plunge back into their busy lives. The closer friends and relatives will string it out at somebody’s house for a wake, but in the end they all go home and that’s when the real grief arrives. What you had before was only shock. Shock kicks in to give you the energy to get through the funeral. Shock is the lightning before the long low drawn-out rumble of grief.
Stewart had given the family eulogy. I’d wanted to do that, but he’d been pretty adamant.
“You’re good with words,” Mum had said to me when we’d sat down round the table with mugs of tea, blank paper and a few pens lying around.
“I’d like to give it,” said Stewart, up front as usual.
“Robert’s got a good speaking voice.” Mum was actually defending me!
“Yeah but he’s more emotional. You’re more emotional than me, aren’t you Rob?
“It’s a funeral Stu, I’m gonna be emotional. We’re all gonna be emotional.”
“Yeah, but there’s emotional and there’s emotional isn’t there?”
“What do you mean: “There’s emotional and there’s emotional?” As soon as I said that I knew it was over. I’d strayed into his linguistic territory. He had me in his sights now. He moved in for the kill
“You know what you’re like Rob. You’ll be a blubbering mess. You won’t be able to hold it together.”
“And you will?” Mum had a note of suspicion in her voice. Why wouldn’t Stuart be a blubbering mess? What was wrong with him? For a moment I sensed an unlikely victory.
“Bloody hell Mum, why not just get Chris to do it? If he can stand up straight on the day!”
Mum sat looking at her lap for a moment, her shoulders shaking a little. The first tear landed with an audible plop onto the apron stretched taut across her lap.
“Aww Mum, come here,” sighed Stuart, pulling her over to him. He sat there hugging her. “Don’t just sit there Rob, get the tissues.” I walked through to the bathroom and away from any chance of reading the eulogy. I could hear him “There-thereing” Mum, and I almost admired his tactics: go in brutal, then when the damage is done, bring out the bandages and ointment.
In the end I came up with most of the best lines, while Stuart read the eulogy, me standing next to him like a loyal handmaid.
“Lovely words,” they murmured, shaking his hand as we stood greeting a snaking line of people.
“Thank you,” Stuart repeated each time, false deference dripping from him. Everyone got hand shakes, hugs and kisses, depending on how well we knew them. Some wanted more than they got from me, but then again everyone wants to be your best friend at your brother’s funeral. As it happened the last guest left Mum’s house at eleven-thirty that night, and even she was someone Mum hadn’t seen for years, a real grief-junkie that cried real tears.
“You poor thing,” she’d gushed for the tenth time that evening smearing Mum with her foundation, Mum was just trying to get her out the door. She left in a wave, whirling round at the last minute to get her coat.
“My coat!” she said, in that explaining laugh people do.
“Don’t want to forget that!” I laughed back, handing it to her. I closed the door in her laughing face and flopped onto the couch, dozing off to the sound of Mum washing cups in the kitchen. Dad had come over for an hour or so, but looked lost. It was the first time he’d been in the family house since he’d left. He’d spent most of the time walking around looking at all the photographs. Eighteenths, Twenty-firsts, graduations. All the stuff he’d missed out on with us and hadn’t gotten around to experiencing yet with Lauren and Jesse. I could see he wanted an out, so I’d offered it.
“Gracie and the kids okay?”
“Fine, fine, good.” There been a look of relief at me breaking the ice. We hadn’t talked about them since Charis had done what she did.
“Gotta be getting home soon I suppose,” he’d said gratefully.
“No problem Dad.”
“Gracie told me to take all the time I needed.”
“I’m sure she did Dad. She would.”
We paused as Mum walked past with an empty sandwich tray. She started clanking around in the kitchen.
“She’s a good woman,” Dad’d said suddenly, his eyes watering. I didn’t know if he’d meant Mum or Gracie, and I didn’t ask.
* * *
“Take the next left.”
We were somewhere in the suburbs south of Fremantle, further south even than Charis’s. Nowhere I recognized. Old fibros and sixties Italian follies side by side; a corner deli past its use-by date; a couple of kids on a verge taking “speckies” in the gloom; the hint of light-industrial over the roof-tops.
We drove on past small-business factories, grey tilt-panels thrown up in rows like the housing projects of fifty years ago. “Mac’s Panel and Paint”, “Geoff’s Marine Upholstery”, “When only the best will do – call Pete and Sue. Mac, and Geoff, and Pete and Sue were probably having family or friends around. Right now they were probably sitting at home with a few tinnies and relaxing.
A few cars were following us, which didn’t make much sense for a Sunday evening. I’d learned to drive on Sundays in light-industrial estates. Places where languid three-point-turns and effortless parallel parking lull you into a false sense of security.
I turned right. The cars behind me turned right too.
“Who comes out here on a Sunday?” I asked. Charis didn’t say anything. She looked anxious.
“Here,” she said suddenly. I braked a bit too quickly. The car behind beeped.
One of the factories had its lights on. There were cars lining the verges of the other empty factories. Lots of people movers. Old Toyota Taragos and Mitsubishi Econovans. There was a blue sign painted where the business name should be: “Living Waters.” I sat there for a minute before it registered. I looked at Charis at the same time she looked at me.
“God comes here on a Sunday,” she said in a measured voice, as if she was holding it all in. A couple in their forties walked past the car. The giggles of two teenage girls followed close behind. Charis waited until the four of them had walked through the door.
“The Hainsworths,” she said softly, “That must be the twins then.” My face must have registered my confusion. “The Freemasons wanted their hall back three years ago,” she continued, speaking like a tour guide at a castle, “They moved here then ‘cos the rent’s cheap.”
“Your old church?” I could feel my heart thumping for no apparent reason.
“I’m scared. Hug me.”
I leaned over to her. She hugged me tight around the neck, holding on like a claw. I’d done my fair share of physical contact parked in light-industrial estates on weekends in my late teens, but this was about fear and comfort.
“Are we going in there?”
Charis didn’t say anything. She stayed there, just hugging for at least two minutes. I knew she wanted me to say nothing. It began to get uncomfortable. Couples and families walked by, the odd single person, either oblivious to us in the dark, or trying to ignore us.
“Why are we going in then if you’re scared?” It seemed to break the spell.
“Because we have to,” she said, letting go and sitting bolt up-right. She opened the door. “Because I have to.”
“Church isn’t really my thing.” It sounded pathetic. Charis closed the door again and swung around glaring at me.
“Am I your thing?” There was anger there now, dangerous anger.
“I’m just saying…”
“Just answer me. Am I your thing?”
“No buts. If I am your thing, then today church is your thing.”
The way she said it doused my fear and stoked my curiosity.
“Church isn’t my thing anymore either.” She held my hand as we walked to the door. Her anger was gone. Fear felt like it was back. “But I have to do this. Besides it’s been ten years and a lot of people from back then will have moved on.”
I wondered why that mattered. I wondered what we were doing here. Still, the whole episode had an upside. I hadn’t thought about Bevan since we’d driven into the industrial estate, and that was a first. It hit me as we were walking hand in hand to the door of the church. I’m not thinking about Bevan. Oh, now I am thinking about Bevan but at least I had to work at it.
I’ve read somewhere that grief works that way. It dominates you for a while, consuming every walking moment, and heaps of the sleeping ones too. Grief.com. After a while though other things impinge on your grief; pop-up ads, determined to lure your attention. They say you feel guilty about it for a while, so set are you to hold onto the constant memory. But you have to live your life. Soon you’re visiting other websites, although Grief.com is still bookmarked and you can get there pretty quickly if you need to. That’s how it should be. Eventually grief becomes a pop-up, jumping out at you when you least expect it, still there, but not dominating. If that process doesn’t happen, then they reckon you’re pretty screwed up and in need of some serious therapy.
“Welcome to Living Waters, I’m Steve. You guys new?” The guy at the front door handing out stuff was in his early forties and dressed in what I’ve come to understand is the Christian uniform: chino pants and short-sleeved floral shirt. It’s not compulsory, but heaps of them wear it.
“I’ve been before.” Charis said it quietly. She was scanning the room for something. Someone.
“Good to have you here. We’re expecting great things from God tonight.”
I was about to say that I’d given up expecting great things from God, but figured that would only confuse him, or put him off-side. I was already way out of my comfort zone and the only way I figured I’d get back there was to sit down, shut up and hope we made an early exit.
“Over here,” said Charis, still giving directions. We made our way over to a row of plastic seats where an old lady with tied up hair was sitting.
“Someone you know?”
“Granny Barlow. We still get a Christmas card from her every year.”
That was a relief to hear. Whatever went on between Charis’s family and this church hadn’t been enough to stop this Granny Barlow woman sending Christmas cards. Unless of course she did if out of spite: A self-righteous reminder of the past. Perhaps Granny Barlow’s Christmas card was her version of a pop-up, a way to keep the flame eternal. Lest we forget. Or forgive perhaps.
“Granny Barlow?” Charis’s voice was child-small. Quivery.
The old lady turned to us. She had a pale gentle face, spoiled by a milky eye.
“Yes dear?” She was searching.
“It’s me – Charis.”
“Charis Sullivan.” It felt like she was announcing herself to God.
I swear even Granny Barlow’s milky eye lit up. She gave a low cry and tried to get out of her seat, her hand searching for the cane next to her. Charis let go of my hand and sat down. The old lady sat there hugging Charis. I stood, looking around. People were glancing over at us midway through their conversations. Most turned back to their own thing, but a few kept looking. My neck felt hot. A few started to come over. Old people mostly: probably the ones who were around ten years ago when the Sullivans had left. I sat down next to Charis. Granny Barlow was doing the tongue-speaking thing, holding Charis and stroking her hair.
“It’s Charis, Charis Sullivan,” said Granny Barlow to those who’d come over, “Jesus’s special one,” she added before lapsing back into quiet tongues. The others murmured and started saying stuff like “Praise Jesus” or “Thank you Holy Spirit”. Charis’s head and shoulders disappeared under a sea of old peoples’ hands like a doomed extra in a zombie flick. The only difference is that she wasn’t struggling. In fact I could see her face melting into it. When they’d found a comfortable spot on her head they stood there murmuring quietly and rocking in unison.
I’d been the centre of attention for the past week or so because of Bevan, so it was a relief to have the spotlight shifted someplace else, but this was starting to freak me out. I was the extra here, not Charis. She was the A-list star with all the good lines. The few times I’d been to church I’d been hanging out for the service to finish. Now, as they were building up a head of steam, I was hanging out for it to start. I looked around. The place was filling up. Most people were ignoring us. Not the kind of ignoring you do when you walk past a crazy smelly guy in the Hay Street mall, but the kind of ignoring that suggested the strange liturgy unfolding in front of them was straight out of the Living Waters procedures manual:
“Step Six – Old people move across room and gather round young woman. They start touching her. Commence prayer in strange languages. Continue to do so until young woman’s guest starts to feel bloody uncomfortable.”
I was hoping like hell that Step Seven didn’t involve the guest. By now there were musicians on a stage getting sorted out; a keyboardist, a few guitarists, and a drummer. They were warming up, doing sections from songs that didn’t sound very churchy. Two girls around my age were standing at microphones, so I figured we were going to sing soon. I wasn’t even going to second guess what that would be like. Some unknown cue alerted the oldies, and they drifted off back to their seats. Whatever it was around Charis, subsided. Now Granny Barlow was alone with her sitting there holding her hand. Alone with her except for me. Charis turned to me and smiled. Her face was flushed and her hair, flattened by all the hands, was springing back.
“Granny Barlow, I’d like you to meet Rob.”
It was like the old lady only just noticed me, which is quite possible as I was sitting on the side of her bad eye.
“Hello dear,” she said, leaning over Charis and offering a fragile hand. I shook it gently. The skin was like tissue paper. Arthritis had white-anted her fingers.
“Good to meet you Granny Barlow,” I said. I figured with the performance we just had Granny Barlow wouldn’t mind strangers being overly familiar with her.
“Granny Barlow’s known me since I was born.”
“And born again of the Spirit.”
“And born again of the Spirit.” Charis laughed, but sounded embarrassed. “Rob and Mum get on really well, Granny Barlow.”
“She’s a woman of God, your mum.”
“She is, isn’t she Rob?”
“Pure like Jesus,” said Granny Barlow, rubbing Charis’s hand, “That’s what I used to say about your Mum. So many signs and wonders. So many!” The old lady looked like she was going to lapse into a senior moment, but she quickened again. “And do you love Jesus Rob?”
“Rob’s still figuring some of that stuff out,” said Charis smiling at me and raising an eyebrow. There was something deliberate about us being here, more than a whim of Charis’s. The music started. Salvation was at hand! Granny Barlow turned to the front, grabbing her cane and struggling to her feet. There didn’t seem to be any particular person telling us what to do, but as if on cue everyone got up and the two girls on the stage started singing. Well, they started something, whether it was singing or not I couldn’t tell. I soon realized that it was tongues too. Everything here was tongues. Soon everyone was sing-chanting to some common tune they all seemed to know. It rose and fell with the shimmer of the cymbals. Most people had their hands raised. Charis had one raised, but the other holding mine. I half-expected to feel something like a current running through me, but no.
What can I say about what happened next? Try to imagine a church service where the whole congregation is on speed. I stole a few glances. Older people, who should have been in a Church of England parish in Devon getting tea and scones ready for some ruddy-faced vicar, swayed and rocked in ecstatic frenzy. Teenagers, who should have been sullen and sitting in the back row chatting, had hands out-stretched to the ceiling, twitching and tensing like they’d put their finger in a power-socket. Even the younger parents were into it. One woman was pushing a pram back and forwards to the flow; the Spirit rocking her child to sleep. Not that it was a free-for-all. When the music ebbed so did the congregation, and eventually, after half an hour or so, a tall man in his forties, dressed in the chino/floral shirt camouflage gear walked up the steps and took the microphone. That was the cue for the Spirit to subside, and with him, the congregation. I’d been standing there for the full time, but as others began to drop to their seats one by one, I sat down too.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon us to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
“Amen,” said Granny Barlow loudly.
“Hallelujah,” came another voice from somewhere behind us.
“And why has God called us to do this?” he went on. I half-expected a few answers, but it actually was rhetorical this time. “He’s called us to do this because what hope is there in this world but for Jesus. But do people want Jesus?” Whether this one was rhetorical or not, a few “no’s” still rang out, with an “I do!” from towards the back.
“When Jesus read those words from the prophet Isaiah to the congregation of his day, what did they do to him? They ran him out of town. But he went out in the power of the Spirit, transforming, healing, and casting out demons.”
At this the keyboardist started up again, and the congregation lapsed into their ecstasies for a minute or so, dying down only when the cymbals shimmered again. I stole a glance at Charis. She had her eyes closed, swaying slightly. The wave dissipated, everyone dropping to their seats again. Was I supposed to be feeling something? I wasn’t sure? Was there anyone else here like me, maybe even faking it to keep up appearances?
They started to do some of the stuff you’re supposed to do in church; taking up an offering, praying, giving out notices. A young man came up to the front with a slip of paper. A prophetic word perhaps?
“The owner of a white Mitsubishi Magna, registration 9TR 129, you’ve left your lights on.”
There was the usual guffawing and an older woman got up and went out looking flustered and embarrassed. If this was a word from God, he’d stooped to reveal it to us; an effortless blending of the sacred and the profane.
The service picked up where it had left off. We all got to our feet. Most of us. Charis stayed seated. I’d gotten up before noticing this, but it felt too awkward and exposed to sit down again. Besides it seemed like something was going on within her. Or between her and something, perhaps. I didn’t want to disturb her.
Eventually the songs became quieter.
“We’re coming into a time of worship now,” said one of the girls leading the singing, “Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to come into our presence and prepare our hearts for the Word of God from Pastor Glenn.”
There were a few more minutes of gradually softening murmurs, like the remnants of a strong wind, before the tall man who’d read the Bible to us earlier came up on the stage. That was the signal for the musicians and singers to leave the stage and find a seat. Pastor Glenn was standing there by himself, a spotlight directed at the Perspex podium. At least he isn’t wearing a white suit like the guy with the funny haircut on TV, I remember thinking. Charis was holding my hand. I couldn’t turn and look at her. I was the outsider here, the detached narrator of her experience, not a participant.
Pastor Glenn adjusted his lapel mike and began.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The lightning bolt that went up my abdomen and out my throat made my heart pound. I felt like I did whenever we’d run the hundred at school. The shock forced my head to jerk around and look at Charis. She had turned to look at me, in what I imagined was the same way I was looking at her.
“Lord, if you had been here,” Pastor Glenn repeated slowly and with building emphasis, “My brother would not have died.” He paused, turning deliberately to all parts of the room.
“It is the first thing Martha says to Jesus when he comes to visit the grave of her dead brother. It is the first thing her sister Mary says to Jesus when she sees him too. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Another pause. More electric out of my throat.
“And why did Mary and Martha, the grieving sisters of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, say this to him?”
“Yes, why?” called a voice from the back, more out of rhetorical engagement than curiosity.
“Because,” he announced, grabbing hold of the podium and leaning forward, his face intent, “Because, if Jesus had been there, their brother would not have died!”
Somehow at that moment this seemed more true than it did obvious.
“And the question is: Why was Jesus not there?” He paused and drew a deep breath. “Jesus knew Lazarus was sick. Jesus even told his disciples that Lazarus’s sickness would not end in death. Yet here we have Mary and Martha both crying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died! How did the Jesus who calmed storms, fed thousands, healed lepers, misjudge this one so badly?”
I stole a look at Charis. Her eyes were closed again. Her head leaning back. Granny Barlow’s knobbly hand was resting on Charis’s knee.
“Lord if you had been there,” said Granny Barlow, trying to say it softly, but failing. Charis gave a low moan.
Pastor Glenn’s voice broke through my distraction.
“’Take away the stone from the tomb,’ Jesus says, ‘Take away the stone.’ It’s the Middle East, it’s hot. Martha gets straight to the point. ‘It’s been four days Lord, he’ll stink!’”
It had been two days and the image of Bevan in his coffin under all that sand and soil broke into my mind. Mum hadn’t wanted a cremation.
“Cremation’s are for pagans,” she’d said, “I want a burial.”
What was Bevan’s body like after two days? What would it be like after four? Had he started to smell? He smelt bad enough in hospital those last few days, could it be any worse now? My head went all swimmy. Pastor Glenn was still talking, but the loudest thing I could hear was the blood pumping in my head. The veins in my temple felt engorged, like in those cartoons were someone gets angry and their face goes really red. I started to zone in and out of what Pastor Glenn was saying. He was still telling the story.
“Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’”
I could hear some people shouting out; affirmations, hallelujahs, prayers.
“Show us your glory Lord!” called someone, “Your glory, your glory!”
“Yes it is true that if the Lord had been there their brother would not have died. But would they have seen the glory of God if he hadn’t? No!”
“Your glory Lord, your glory!”
By now I couldn’t focus straight. I felt myself swaying in my seat, bumping into Charis’s arm every now and then. I realized she was swaying too when I finally managed to bring it under control and found she was bumping into my arm. I’m going to vomit. I need water. I need a piss. What is happening to me?
It went on for another ten or fifteen minutes, ebbing and flowing to what Pastor Glenn was saying.
“Lazarus come out. Lazarus come out. Lazarus come out!”
By now Pastor Glenn was off the stage and standing at the front row in the aisle. I tried not to look up at him, but couldn’t help it. I could see the glistening sweat on his face. There was no wide-eyed craziness though, just intensity; an intensity that made me look back down, in case he decided to single me out for special attention.
“People come out! People come out! If you need to see the glory of God this evening, come out! Come out here to the front and let the power of the Spirit release the grave clothes that bind you. Come out from the place of death and live again. Come out and see the power of God bring life where death would rule. Whatever it is this evening, come out!”
Charis had hold of my hand and I felt the dread and desire for both of us. My backside gripped the seat like it had been superglued there. I was not going out there.
“Maybe you’ve been crying out to the Lord, “Lord if you had been here my life would not be a mess! Lord if you had been here my heart would not be broken. Lord if you had been here,” he paused, his trembling voice searching for what I knew he was going to say, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
I can’t remember it happening, but in a blur Charis and I were both out the front with a whole bunch of other people, most of whom were yelling out in tongues with their hands in the air. Charis just stood there, crying quietly next to me, her shoulders shaking. Everything had becalmed in the space around me. I was watching what was going on, but felt separate from it. I looked at Charis and it struck me: This was not grief for me, this was grief for her. She was not up here for me, but for her or for something about her that I was not part of. I zoned back in. She was speaking in English.
“Lord if you had been there, Lord if you had been there.”
The band was playing again. A couple of songs over and over. I looked around. No one seemed to be paying much attention to those of us at the front. Everyone seemed caught up in an ecstasy of their own. Some men, including the guy who’d shook hands at the door had come up the front. They weren’t up for prayer and they looked official. They went to the end of the row and stood behind the first person, a teenage girl, as Pastor Glenn stood in front of her. She was shaking and had her hands up, fingers outstretched like she was in agony.
The shock I felt when she fainted into the waiting arms of the two men behind her snapped the back of my eyes like a lacky-band. They laid her gently between two of the seats, before moving onto the next person. An older woman who looked like the young girl’s mother, came up and sat on the floor cross-legged next to her, her hand on her head as if soothing a fever. It was only when the second person, a professional looking man in his fifties, went down in the same way that the shock turned to fear. I wasn’t sure whether he’d been pushed by Pastor Glenn, but he didn’t seem to protest. I wanted out of there, but it seemed too late to move.
“Shaddarabbana, shallamannuna,” called Charis next to me, crying and shaking. She’d let go of my hand and had hers in the air, imploring, begging. I felt alone.
The next two or three people didn’t fall down, though their bodies seemed to try before thinking better of it. They stood there staggery for a while, one of them sitting down in the front row, her head in hands. A couple behind her reached forward and put a hand each on her shoulder, eyes closed and praying. Whatever it was that had happened at the start had worn off by now.
Suddenly Pastor Glenn was at the person next to me. I looked at my feet. I could smell his aftershave working overtime as he prayed, his hand pressed tight on the man’s, I think it was a man’s, forehead. I could hear him sucking prayers in and out like deep breaths in those kill-or-be-killed battle scenes in movies. The man went over. Pastor Glenn kneeled next to him, still praying. I was starting to shake. Nerves? Fear? Grief? What was it? A black rain-cloud of whatever it was sat above my head just out of my sight-range, but still there. Building. I could feel it building. Building to burst.
He was with me. His hands hovered near my head.
“How can we pray for you?”
I was trying to gabble it out, but it wouldn’t come. It was the dream where you can’t say what you want or you try to do something and your body won’t let you. I could feel the men were behind me. Charis seemed to have disappeared from sight.
“Bevan!” Bevan! Bevan!” I heard me calling it out. I was in a tunnel.
Rabbanathamana! Rabbanathamana!” I could feel the breath of his words in my nostrils, tendrils curling up into my eyes and brain, smoking into my lungs and heart, spreading out into all my extremities. My whole body was convulsing. I no longer cared.
“Bevan!” Bevan! Bevan!” He stood back and took his hand away. And then zap! There was no other word for it. The rain-storm burst over me in a thunderous shout. A single lightning bolt crashed though my skull and without even knowing how, I was on the floor, arcing and quivering like a KO’d boxer, the shouts of the crowd phasing in and out. Music in the background. Someone falling next to me. Phasing in and out again. Trying to sit up. Warm honey pouring over my entire body, slow-motioning my movements, rendering time sticky and unresponsive. So much warm honey bearing me down. More gravity than I could handle.
I don’t know how long I lay there. Five minutes maybe? Half an hour? I couldn’t tell. Gradually the weight started to melt away, though my left arm felt heavy still. I turned my head and through the chair legs and feet I saw Charis lying on my arm. Granny Barlow was at her side. Crying. Praying. The honey was still flowing over Charis. Everyone else seemed to have gotten up. I propped myself up on my elbows, not knowing what to do next, where to go. Maybe I should just lie there. I heard clanking cups. Chatting. Pouring water. I sat up. In the time I’d been out of it church had been transformed into a cafeteria. Everyone was having tea and coffee. There were tables out with milk jugs. I could see packets of Arnott’s Family Pack plain biscuits. The man who’d fallen next to me was chatting and joking with another man, pointing out something on the wall. Kids were running around with mouthfuls of biscuit. Toddlers squealed. Mums were grabbing at the more vigorous ones.
“Hot tea sweetheart, hot tea.”
One of the women who’d prayed over Charis at the start sat next to me.
“Cup of tea dear?”
“And some biscuits.”
She handed me a plate with two milk arrowroots and one of those cheap thick mugs you get at Coles filled with watery looking tea. I sipped the tea. Hot, weak and sweet. “The Spirit was at work here tonight wasn’t he?”
I nodded, not quite knowing what to say. Whatever was at work it had lifted the rain-cloud. Charis stirred beside me. Granny Barlow looked over at us.
“Can you get her a cuppa Marjorie?” The woman went off. Charis started to sit up, the honey pouring off her like water from a re-floated ship. The smoothed expression left her face and she smiled at me, almost embarrassed. Granny Barlow was stroking her hair.
“You okay?” asked Charis, reaching for my hand.
“Yes. No. I don’t know what I am. You?
“You’ve finally left it at the altar, haven’t you love?” said Granny Barlow, still stroking. I watched her fingers as she did it. Not one went in the same direction. Charis read my face. She gently took one of the hands on its downward stroke.
“Granny Barlow’s hands have reached out to everybody at one time or another,” she said, her turn now to do the stroking, “That’s why they are they way they are.” She kissed the hand and gave it back, before smiled at me. Marjorie came back with a tray of cups, all weak and white. The teabags were still dangling in the cups, vainly trying to give up their strength in the milky water.
“You’ll be needing one too Pearl,” she said. “Too weak?”
“It’s not weak, it’s helpless!”
The four of us sat there drinking tea, not saying anything. The cuppa things were being cleared up. I could hear dishes being washed in a kitchen off to the side. Men were folding tables, while the musicians were wrapping up leads and putting instruments in cases.
“Suppose we better get these cups back,” said Marjorie finally, picking up the tray. Charis and I took that as our cue to get up. The place was emptying fast. Pastor Glenn was near the door talking with a flouncy-haired woman who kept putting her hand on his arm. Another woman, his wife perhaps, was standing near him holding a struggling toddler. She had a grimace on her face, nodding at hair-lady while all the while inching closer towards the door. She wanted to go home.
Charis hugged Granny Barlow again.
“Come round and see me love.”
“I will Granny Barlow, I will.”
“You come and see me too Rob.” I went to shake her hand, but leaned in a little more. She hugged me, planting a kiss on me that smelt of old lady’s powder. “Take care of each other.”
“We will Granny Barlow,” I said. The effortless authenticity in my voice surprised me. We made our way over to the door, managing to get past the hair, the pastor and the toddler without being stopped. The night air was cool. We walked to the car. Silent. Holding hands.
“Let’s walk on.”
“Okay,” said Charis, “I could do with the walk.”
We walked on still saying nothing, past wreckers’ yards, gardening suppliers and steel fabricators. A guard dog hurled itself at a gate, its bark making us jump, and kick-starting our conversation.
“Well?” asked Charis.
“What did you think?”
“I don’t know. Weird eh?”
“Well not weird.”
I could tell she was looking for something more. Affirmation perhaps.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” I said, stopping and turning to her. “Is that what it used to be like for you?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Didn’t it freak you out?”
“Not if you grew up with it. That’s what we expected it to be like. Some Sunday nights it was even more out there than tonight. It felt really strange going to school the next day. Everyone else would have been talking about watching the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night, while we did that stuff.”
“You didn’t tell other kids?”
“No, but they knew we were different. Didn’t do Halloween stuff, or read books about dragons or dinosaurs.”
We walked again, turning at the next block and making our way back to the car. Our car was the only one in the street. The factory was empty and dark now. The Living Waters sign had been taken down and the gates locked. A portal had been closed. Someone or something had spoken to us tonight, but by six am the secular sounds of hammers, drills, buffers, swearing and FM radio crank calls would have drowned out all traces of God.