There were four sections of pews that must have been about twenty rows deep. To the right was an organ, in the middle the pulpit, and to the left a row of chairs. Musicians were spread about behind a rail, a piano to the left side and behind that, back lit, a large wooden cross. Underneath were the words,

Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow — Hebrews 13:8

The services always began after Sunday school, a set of lessons taught with coloring books or placards shown by a teacher, a volunteer. He went along with all of this, without enthusiasm but without resistance, at least as far as he could remember later. It was just what Sunday was.

There was always a lot of glad-handing in the foyer of the church. Mingling and standing around. Then the organ would start playing some kind of improvisation of hymns, and that sound drifting out into the foyer was the first sign to start moving into the pews. He and his mom would sit in the back few rows, on the right side of the stage, the preachers left side.

At some point the pastor — they called him a pastor — would move into place near the chairs, and others would fill in. The woman playing the organ was the pastor’s wife. Once everyone was mostly inside he’d get up and start with a welcome. There would be announcements about this and that; then a big round of hymn singing, out of hymnals tucked behind the pews. Blessed Assurance. Or All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.

Ye chosen seed of Israel’s races,
Ye ransomed from the fall,
Hail Him who saves you by his grace,
And crown Him Lord of all.
Hail Him who saves you by his grace,
And crown Him Lord of all.

And the organist would sort of play a bit of a riff or improvisation on the last few notes, and the pastor the preacher now, would get up.

“All hail the power of his name! Hallelujah!” he’d shout. And there would be “Amens” and “hallelujahs” scattered from the pews. Some people would have their hands up, gazing upward or eyes closed.

Then a prayer.

“Almighty God, be with us here in the place today as we worship you and magnify your most holy name, for indeed, on that day of judgment no man knows when, all will hail the mighty name of Jesus Christ, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is the lord of all! Amen!”

Then the warm up.

“Turn with me in your bibles to Ephesians, chapter 8, verse 8 and 9.”

Then he’d read, loudly, with what had a vague flavor of a southern accent, though he wasn’t southern.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”

The most important syllables were drawn out. “You” is “Yoooooo” and “not” is just stamped out, like a chisel hitting a rock. A pause, after “yourselves” and then “God” becomes, “Gawwwd.”

Beautiful. Then he’d repeat a piece of it.

“Read it with me now, ‘this’” and he’d just hammer that word, “’THIS!’ is NOT from yourselves, it is the gift of God!”

The sermon would bounce from various citations of scripture; here and there, old and new testament. Usually, there would be some contemporary reference.

“Last night on the news, you may have seen it, there was a man who almost died in a fire. But the fire department got there in time. Did you see that? They went in and saved him, he couldn’t save himself. That’s us, my friends, we can’t do it ourselves; Jesus is our fireman!”

Then the closer.

“But will you accept his salvation? Will you stand there and burn to death, will your soul be saved or will it burn in hell for all eternity? For in Matthew 7:19we know that, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

He hated the next part, and lived in dread of it all morning. There is a certain tone, maybe it’s simply a big inhale from the preacher, or maybe it was intuition that had grown so strong even though he was only 10 years old, the moment when the altar call comes. Something falls over the room.

“ I want you all to close your eyes and bow your heads with me now.”

In his head he could here him self, “Here it comes.”

“Where will your soul spend eternity? If you die tonight where will your soul go? Will it be cast into the fire? Do you know? Or will you enter into heaven in everlasting joy where there is no more pain or loss or hurt? He’s done it for you. He will save you. He has saved you! But are you willing to be saved? “

And he’d have the same thoughts with his head down, and he’d wonder, “Should I go down and do it again? I’ve already been saved at least three times.”

But he didn’t feel saved. He didn’t know where his soul would go. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to kiss a girl. He wanted to go to college. He didn’t want to die. He’d be happy to just to get through this moment, walk out into the daylight, get in the car with his mom and go to brunch at Hobo Joe’s and eat eggs, ham, hash browns, and drink the cream out of those little white containers.