Don't Make God Mad

Article excerpt

EVERY SUMMER, our church held a revival. Brother Joe H. West, our grandfatherly pastor, invited Baptist preachers from all over the country to travel to San Antonio and speak to us. It was a week-long event, Sunday to Sunday, with two sermons a night for eight straight nights. To a boy like me--one acclimated to weekends ruined by church--revival week gave me a full-blown Job complex. Every night I'd have to get dressed up to listen to some preacher I'd never heard of--or would ever hear from again--and fight the small, intense struggle to keep my eyes open.

Brother Joe hadn't trained us to stay alert during sermons. Our poor pastor was a natural-born bore, lacking the spitting gusto that spawns a megachurch or a Sunday morning TV show audience. The Prodigal Son was his go-to sermon: a sweet tale of unconditional forgiveness, perfect for a sweet old patriarch who was better suited to running a staid Sunday school discussion than jolting sinners into repentance. Sometimes he created object lessons out of gewgaws he found around his house, or he complained about uncontroversial sins like homosexuality and abortion. Even as a boy, I knew that if our church was going to have a real, spontaneous revival, Brother Joe couldn't be expected to deliver the rhetorical spark that would light the fuse. No, if our revival was going to produce a spontaneous groundswell of Christian passion, it would have to involve visiting preachers and, so, needed to be scheduled weeks in advance.

When I was ten years old the headliner for the 1989 revival was to be none other than Dr. Joe Boyd. I can't remember when I first heard about this holy man, but to the Baptist children of South Texas he was a mythical character, like Moses, John the Baptist, or Ronald Reagan--someone who enters your consciousness so early you can't remember not revering him.

Naturally, Dr. Boyd was the final speaker of revival week. I'd never seen him, never heard him speak. But he loomed big and bearded in my mind, someone who grumbled on mountaintops, swollen with indignation and seeding great thunderheads of heavenly retribution. I knew he'd been an offensive lineman at Texas A&M back in the fifties, that he'd been part of a national championship team. This seemed exactly right to me: of course he was an O-lineman; of course he was a champion. I remember thinking he could probably eat more than anyone alive. At the Sunday potluck, I looked for the man with the largest mound of ribs on his plate, the biggest gut, the strongest jaw. How could I possibly miss him?

I didn't actually lay eyes on Dr. Boyd until that night when he stepped behind the pulpit. From the youth section, where I'd fallen asleep a hundred times, I watched this grey-haired old man climb the stage. He wasn't that tall. He was overweight, but not gigantic--more jowl than jaw. He wore a plain brown suit and a wide brown tie. A real let down.

And then came the voice--slow Texas sugar that would have easily filled our church without the use of the PA system. It was quiet but powerful, threatening imminent explosion, as though his belly housed a brigade of broad-shouldered offensive lineman waiting to crash into each other. At its deepest, it sounded like his words percolated in a gravel-filled gizzard.

Like an old uncle, he joshed us about Sister Nugent's pecan pie, Brother Larry's expanding waistline, and Grandma Schendell's screeching but praiseworthy accordion recitals. He even complimented our mentally disabled janitor on keeping the crown molding dust-free, lovingly hinting that a more competent man might not have bothered. The women smiled, the men laughed, the kids--all but me--yawned, and the usual suspects shouted "Amen."

But after the pleasantries, Dr. Boyd didn't waste time. Like most Baptist preachers I'd heard, he announced his topic in no uncertain terms: "I'm going to preach tonight," he said, "on foolishness--the silliness of man. …