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THE TEMPORARY ONE-DAY INSTANT SALVATION CAPER
As Bronnie Nichols lowers my head underwater, I squeeze tight my eyes and suddenly realize I am about to die.
I can’t swim! I think in panic. What if he lets go of me? What if I get disoriented and can’t figure out which way is up, which way is the surface? Holy Moly!
I obviously survive the ordeal, or I wouldn’t be telling this true story so many decades later. So, to begin at one of the many beginnings from which I can select:
Bronnie Nichols does his job and baptizes me and gets me wet with God and makes me sputter a bit.
Reverend Bronnie Nichols is our pastor at Forest Lake Baptist Church when I am trying to grow up in Tuscaloosa, back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. We call him Brother Nichols, out of respect and tradition.
Brother Nichols is a distinguished-looking white-haired man with a laconic and pleasant manner, and in the pulpit, he appears even more laconic and pleasant. He doesn’t act like the other Baptist preachers we listen to on the radio or see delivering guest sermons at the church. Bronnie Nichols is nothing like the fire-and-brimstone evangelists who come through town during revivals, or who pitch tents or commandeer Denny Stadium for mass soul-savings.
No, Brother Nichols is kind of laid-back, intellectual, mildly profound, though he is judged harshly by some who say he does not make us in the congregation feel guilty enough to get through the week, once the Sunday sermon is over. Bronnie Nichols’ delivery is a sort of sweet, sing-song series of Bible quotations and moral lessons which he never seems to read. He actually “wings” his sermons!
That is impressive, because back in these long-ago days, folks feel that a preacher ought to be inspired by God or Mary or Jesus or Somebody Up There…so inspired that he doesn’t need notes or written-out sermons. Baptist preachers are supposed to walk back and forth across the stage (and during sermons like that, it certainly is a stage rather than a pulpit), waving their arms and making you regret the day you were born in sin—or at least regret what you did late last night. So, Brother Nichols does fill the bill to that extent—not having to rely on notes or worked-up speeches—but he fails in the arm-flailing department. He is just too distinguished to stoop to that sort of behavior.
One particularly guilt-provoking part of the Sunday sermon always comes at the end (the end being way past Noon…a good preacher proves his goodness by showing you how long he can hold you captive past Sunday lunchtime). This is when the choir and congregation join together in sad, passion-filled hymn-singing and Brother Nichols invites those who are ready to come down front and dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ and the other Powers Up There. In fact, the success of his sermons depends almost entirely upon how many people come down the aisle and say they want to Get Saved. If nobody comes forth, the Sunday lunch (we of course call it Sunday Dinner, as did just about everybody else except Yankees) conversation centered around whether or not Brother Nichols’ sermon has been good enough.
We really love Brother Nichols, because he looks so much like a preacher in the movies, and because he never makes us feel too guilty to show our faces in church next Sunday.
Anyhow, during those end-of-sermon hymns, little boys like me quiver in fear and expectation. We fight the impulse to run down front and let everybody know that we, too, want to be righteous and holy and forgiven for all we’ve done or want to do (in these days, we are mostly wanting pardon for what we want to do, since we don’t have much opportunity to escape the watchful eyes of family and neighbors). But going down in front of all those people is a terrifying prospect. Everybody will be looking at you. Everybody will be reminded that you haven’t already Been Saved, which means you are probably still sinning regularly. Then, they might want to know what you have been sinning at. Also, if you Get Saved, you’ll have to exert the effort to be good all the time, and that is totally alien territory.
But the sermon and the hymn pull and pull at you. The joyful sadness of knowing you can’t get to Heaven without a passport personally signed by Bronnie Nichols is almost unbearable. What if you don’t go down this Sunday, and you get run over by a ‘52 Ford pickup during the week? In spite of all your good intentions, you will wind up in Hell, and Hell is definitely a hell of a place, the way Brother Nichols describes it.
But the hymn goes on and on, and if only one or two people show up down front, Brother Nichols will have the choir sing yet another chorus, which puts even more pressure on you. Getting down to that sixth stanza that nobody knows by heart, is excruciating.
I hold out till I am thirteen years old. In fact, I am so stubborn that I hold out till a revival meeting is in progress, and a guest minister—not Brother Nichols—grabs me by my guilt and wrings it dry. Then I get the urge and follow it. I go down front, but immediately have second thoughts. That’s because during revivals, dozens of people pour down each night. In fact, many of them must spend the year preparing to go down only during revival. We know of some who go down every year, even though they have long ago been Baptized and Saved. They usually confess to additional sins and want some re-cleansing.
But going down front with so many others sort of takes the show biz out of the moment. I am hardly noticeable among the throng. It is hardly worth doing a good deed if no-one is watching. I later learn that comedian Tom Lehrer knows this all too well, too, when he sings,
“Be careful not to do your good deed when there’s no-one watching you.”
I go through with it, though. Getting baptized is a big event in the life of every Baptist, a cross between graduation and a funeral. You have to wear these stiff white robes (they tell you to wear a bathing suit underneath) and step into a pool (that’s what the kids call it) in front of the Sunday night congregation…and get dipped….submerged, not sprinkled…shaken, not stirred. I identify with other confused people I read about, such as Dorothy Parker, who was expelled from Catholic school for referring to Immaculate Conception as Spontaneous Combustion. What if I get all the terms mixed up?
The robes cling to my skin once I am standing there up to my chest in warm water, and Brother Nichols is kind of wet, too, calmly doing his recitation. Then, he leans me back into the water and takes me all the way under (I am told to hold my nose and cross my arms at the same time, so that I will look like a devout drowner. I long at this moment for a cyanide capsule).
After that, it is over. I return home feeling sacred for a whole night, before all doubts and temptations creep back in.
Strangely enough, getting baptized sort of washes me clean of wanting to go to church anymore, and I disagree with my father for years over the fact that I don’t want to go and he wants me to. It isn’t the Baptism so much as it is the structure of Sunday School that turns me away from the organized church.
Sunday School is painful, though I learn a great deal about what the Bible spins in the way of interesting and dramatic tales. In fact, I remember those Bible tales all my life and am amazed when others don’t know anything about some of the Biblical heroes and parables we study in Sunday School. These are great stories to live by, fables to guide me, and I still use them every day, just to get through the day.
The teachers are only human, often preaching against the very things they do themselves—smoking in the alley after telling us smoking is sinful, telling “dirty” jokes while urging us never to do such a thing, using profanity after cussing us out for doing the same thing, and so on—like real humans! There are exceptional exceptions. Pearl White and Festus Barringer are teachers who are every bit as good as their teachings! How do they do that?
At home, I have been taught that really good people practice what they preach. So I figure church is no place to go in search of really good people. We are told that only Christians can get into heaven, which makes me worry about what happens to heathen babies and Jews and people who have never even heard of Christianity. Of course, Sunday School and Bible School teachers are always annoyed by such notions, so I learn to keep my mouth shut—most of the time. I can open it now, because I understand more about the need to preach what my Mother calls little white lies in order to give people hope and the energy it takes to get through a day…Santa Claus and Jesus give us something to strive for, something positive and benevolent.
So, thanks, Bronnie Nichols, thanks for giving me a standard to live up to. Thanks for setting an example I can at least work toward.
Sorry about not becoming a preacher myself, which Pearl White always assumed I’d do. I may not get into a Christian heaven, but at least I know right from wrong and, on good days, manage to do more right than wrong
© 2016 A.D. by Jim Reed
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