Throughout my childhood Sunday meant one thing and one thing only. Church. Sunday School and Junior Church in the morning. Adult Church in the evening. I didn’t know it then, but I loved the adult leaders of Sunday School and Junior Church. There was my fourth grade Sunday School teacher, Mr. Leblanc, who would one minute recount the Apostle Paul’s treacherous missionary trip #4 which included a shipwreck and snakes and then, somehow, would segue into why he believed that live beings roamed other planets way out there. I’m pretty sure our parents would have had something to say about Mr. Leblanc’s cosmic musings had we shared them at home around the lunch table when asked, What did you learn at church today? But we didn’t have any sense to question our teacher, and besides, talking about little green people at church was terribly exciting – akin to tasting the forbidden fruit. There was Mrs. Stroup trekking in with her live lambs, plopping them on her lap while retelling the parable of the lost sheep. At least, I’m assuming that’s what she talked about. I really don’t remember her lessons – I just stared, mesmerized at how she sat onstage holding a microphone in one hand while balancing a large farm animal over her ample thighs.
Then there was Mr. Haney.
Mr. Haney took it upon himself to ready us for “Big Church,” the time when we graduated from childish things such as sword drills and singing “I love him better every D-A-Y” faster and faster, and marched across the street to the large church auditorium to sit through real church services – long church services filled with robed choirs, dry sermons about the sanctification process and 34 stanzas of Just As I Am. During the work week Mr. Haney disguised himself as a pharmacist and small business owner taking care of doctors’ patients from all over our town of Muncie, Indiana, but on Sunday mornings he transformed into what I thought was his real job – THE MAN in charge of Junior Church. His nature was serious but kind, and his weekly announcement of Boys and girls, I need all eyes up here, hushed the over one hundred of us kids squirreling around in the green, scratchy, cushion covered pews. Mr. Haney never had to repeat himself because Mr. Haney had a secret weapon. Cold. Hard. Cash.
We may have been in a church, but no kid there was above bribery.
He continued. I have here in my hand two one dollar bills for the boy and the girl that I see sitting up the straightest, not talking, not giggling, and listening through the whole sermon. He called it a sermon, but it was usually something along the lines of the story of faithful Hannah giving up Samuel to God or Sinner Saul being smited into Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. I was always hoping for the retelling of Jael nailing the general’s head into the ground with a huge spike or Absalom being run through with a sword while dangling from the trees, his long locks tangled up in the limbs. But what I believed to be the most significant stories from the Bible never made it into any Junior Church talks. Then Mr. Haney introduced the special speaker – one of the many lay people of the church whose unlucky number had come up for volunteering to speak in Junior Church – and returned to his seat on the stage behind the speaker.
There he’d sit. Staring. Watching over us like a sentry in a watch tower surveying the prisoners in the yard. And we’d stare back. Barely blinking. Erect backs. Knees together. Bibles open in our laps – mainly to the maps section so if we grew bored, we could peek down at ancient Babylon while still appearing to be rapt with the retelling of the Israelites getting their asses handed to them at the city of Ai. Thirty minutes and an altar call later (My church was big on altar calls – somewhere out there was a sinner who needed to confess.) the speaker would sit, and Mr. Haney would rise as if he were General Eisenhower coming forward to inspect the troops. There was a collective whoosh as we all let out our breaths. Sometimes he would call on an adult helper to choose the Good Seat, but often he did the honors himself clearing his throat and slowly announcing the names of the Good Boy and the Good Girl who in turn skipped up to the stage and received their Holy Pay Out.
I don’t remember many of the speakers or their biblical exhortations, but I do remember the Good Seat. I remember trying every week to be OH SO GOOD. It went against my maniacal little nature, but I loved me some mammon so I’d sit statue like Sunday after Sunday only to be disappointed never hearing my name called. But somewhere in the middle of all that disappointment, I learned to long to be good. I failed miserably at being good. But the longing started to be there. I didn’t want to screw up, and not since it would cost me the cash prize. I simply wanted to please Jesus …just because.
Mr. Haney and The Good Seat showed up in my brain unannounced the other morning at 3 a.m. when not being able to sleep I ventured into my living room , and there sitting in the middle of the floor – screw top off and completely empty – lay a bottle of Rimadyl, a pain reliever for one of my dogs, Indy, who is 13 and can only get around with the help of some good drugs. Meanwhile, our other dog ,Suki, whose name was nowhere to be found on the Rimadyl label much less for a dosage of 15 pills lay peacefully on the sofa staring at me through her cataract covered eyes. Instinct told me that Suki the Scavenger was behind the empty bottle. My in-laws were asleep in my guest room upstairs unaware that their son, my husband of almost 18 years, emailed me that day from his stint working overseas to tell me he didn’t know if he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me anymore. The rest of his family was 20 minutes away at my mom’s house. It was our families’ big annual summertime brew-haha.
Timing’s a bitch.
New to the area, I had no idea whom to call at this time of morning regarding my possibly OD’ed canine. I was still reeling – shell shocked from my husband’s Big Reveal. I just fell there on the couch with my arms thrown around my blissfully peaced- out hound and sobbed. I asked God to spare my annoying but faithful pet. I pleaded with him to spare my kids from becoming yet another sad divorce statistic. I asked him to spare me from the electric chair because I was pretty sure my actions towards my spouse might land me there more so than The Good Seat. I was feeling all kinds of Jael and very little Hannah. I knew there was no crisp one dollar bill at the end of this for me, but that longing to be good no matter what the circumstance tugged on my heart. Because Good wins.
And God showed up like He always does. Because in my faith He/She/It never goes anywhere anyway. I move around…a lot, but God stays put. And He granted me some sleep. And He granted some clarity when blubbering my story to the vet whom I called as soon as he was in his office. And He granted life to my stinker of a dog after $800 and 48 hours at the animal hospital hooked up to an IV.
But most of all He granted me the grace to be good during a very bad time, and I know it’s not over yet – there better be a lot more grace headed my way or we’re all in trouble. It’s certainly not the story I planned on sharing as my inaugural blog post. Then again, I’ve never been much of a planner.
A few weeks ago I returned to the church of my childhood. The Big Church. Where big adult things happen. Like revivals. And weddings. And funerals. An 80 something Mr. Haney stood by his late wife’s casket dazed, greeting the friends lined up to pay their respects. The diminutive woman looked even tinier in death than she did in life. When we finally reached Mr. Haney, he told my childhood friend, Tammy (who never won the Good Seat either), and I the story of how he’d met his bride way back when in a Kendallville, Indiana, gymnasium. She was in eighth grade, he in ninth. Their eyes met, and he was a goner. They shared over 60 years of marriage together. When he was done reliving this sacred moment with us, I slipped a dollar bill in his lapel pocket and whispered, “This is for the Good Seat, Mr. Haney.”
He’d earned it.
And the other night in the midst of a colossal mass of heartache and confusion I think I finally did too.