Robert went around to get Pat as she stepped up to the stage. Then he went and told the choir director the new instructions, then he went back to Andy. He told him to put on several lively numbers. He would try to keep the kids upbeat until John came on. John could hear his tape start, and Robert’s premixed voice boom out over the group. He looked between the canvas curtains at the crowd. Not many adults at all. A few old ladies, but if “Holy Joe” hadn’t shown up it would have been very sparse indeed. Even the choir was missing a few people. But, he did see Patty out there. She had her bright smile on, and not a hair was out of place. She looked like an angel in her choir robes. She, and the rest in the group, was clapping their hands in time to Robert’s song. He pulled the curtain back and went a few steps into the field, alone
“What should I do, Lord? You tell me what to say. Please let me say the right thing. What I do tonight can change a child’s life. That’s a big one, Lord, and I am not worthy, yet here I am.” He put his hand on his brow to think.
All of the sudden there was a strong smell of roses around him. He thought he’d gotten a whiff of some ladies perfume, but the odor increased. It was not unpleasant, nothing like the vinegar smell. It was like a tea rose smell. Light. Like a burning candle smell. It seemed to lighten his heart. In the distance he could swear he saw Sharon’s eyes laughing at him. Wishful thinking? No, they were there. Then they were gone. Were they ever really there? The smell stayed. Deep within his mind he heard a little voice, yet not a voice. A thought.
It suggested, “John, we have just one problem, you and I. Your will, verses my will. I will win. The sooner you understand that, the quicker we can get on with the next thing you have to do. Hear her!”
For no apparent reason at all, emotion overwhelmed John. Tears came to his eyes. There was no doubt in his mind about the voice. John accepted. Conversion comes when we least expect it. All of the arguments evaporate in less than a second, and leave a soul naked before God. For one heartbeat he was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher standing in a field just outside a small town. The next heartbeat he was a citizen of the universe, standing at the edge of eternity.
He stood there crying to himself for a few minutes, and he didn’t know why. He was crying for joy, sorrow. He was crying for his dead father. He was crying for every one of those kids out there, and that very beautiful man who had brought them all here. Robert’s voice brought him back in control. He wiped his eyes, made himself presentable, turned and went to the front. Robert and Pat were just finishing up when he came around to the front. He walked right to the stage, but he didn’t go onto it.
He hiked himself up, and just sat on it with his legs dangling off. He motioned to Robert to hand him the microphone. Taking it in hand he looked at the audience. “You all are quite a surprise for us tonight.” They burst out laughing. John used the laughter as an excuse to wipe his eyes again. He could explain the “tears of joy” to these kids if he had to.
He continued, “I’m not gonna give you a sermon tonight. I don’t think I need to come across to you kids like a Bible beating preacher.” He was talking in a normal voice to them. As if he were sitting in a car at the drive-in movie. One on one, with scores of kids. Andy slowly boosted the volume up on John’s mike.
“Last night, and the night before, I was explaining the ‘Highway to Hell’ example to the congregation, but I don’t think I have to tell you kids about that highway, do I?”
A bunch of “No’s” came from the group. They shook their heads and made numerous comments. John nodded and went on, “No, you know where the highway to hell is. And you know all about the parking lot of Heaven, ’cause Brother Joe has shown you that.”
All the kids clapped their hands, and Joe beamed from the rear of the tent.
“And ‘Holy Joe’ loves you for who you are. He sees the potential in every single one of you. He believes in you. Ain’t that right?”
More confirmation’s came from the crowd.
“Even when you make mistakes, like a good father, he loves you anyway. Even when things don’t look so good, he’s there with you. How many of you out there ever run away from something? Ever look bad in front of your friends, or did something stupid?”
This question took a while to quiet down.
“I’m gonna tell you about John Mark. He was about the age of most of you in this group. He met Jesus as a young man. He wasn’t a disciple, he was just a kid, whose ma-ma owned a big ol’ house that the Lord liked to go to. We now know that it was probably at this house that Jesus had the last supper. Now, John Mark could’ve been running with the other kids his age, but no, he chose to stay around and listen to Jesus. But kids, he was a kid. As a scripture scholar I know that he leaves his ‘signature’ on the Gospel of Mark in the fourteenth chapter when he tells us about the young man who fled naked away from the arrest of the Lord.”
He smiled, almost laughing. “Think about that. The cops made a snatch at him and he ran plumb out of his clothes to get away.”
They all laughed. “Dude was swift,” one boy in the front yelled.
“Yes, he was. But later he made the apostle Paul so mad that Paul sent him away. Paul had to fire him!”
“Sounds like a punk to me, ” a girl said. Patty stiffened, and waited for John to rain down fire and brimstone on the girl for such a remark. None came.
“Well, I don’t know what the Jewish word for ‘punk’ is, but I’ll bet you Paul called him that and then some. Cause maybe that’s what he was right about then. But you know what? In one of Paul’s last letters he asks someone to bring Mark back to him, because Paul claimed that Mark was helpful to his ministry. Mark wrote the book of Mark. If you study the Bible you know that the last verses in the book of Mark are written a little different than the rest of that book. Scripture scholars say that the book of Mark was finished by other hands. I think that’s beautiful! You know why? Because that tells me that John Mark, the boy who ran away not once, but twice, kept writing about his friend Jesus until the Romans did something to him that stopped his writing forever! He was the young idealist. He wasn’t smart like Paul, or tough like Peter. He was a kid. . . who believed in his friend. How many of you here would stand by your friend no matter what?”
Every single hand shot up. “Well, Jesus is your friend. I don’t want any of you to loose a single bit of that courage to stand by your friend. And, boys and girls, he don’t care who you are. He don’t care what kind of money you got. He’ll just stand by you no matter what. That’s the kind of person Jesus is. He’s the dude who mean’s exactly what he says. He ain’t no punk!”
He let that statement soak in. Then he lowered his voice, “This is a revival. People are supposed to come here to be ‘revived’ spiritually. Well, it works. Looking at all of you has ‘revived’ me spiritually. I feel like this is the first time I ever looked out at a congregation. But, that’s what Christianity is. It’s new. It’s not some concept in some dusty ol’ book, it’s as new as a new baby. It grows with every generation. Some of you out there will share the ministry. Some of you ladies will be the Sunday School teachers. I pray to God that each of you experiences the joy I felt tonight when those busses rolled up. I think that if Jesus were here tonight, well he’d most likely be a bus driver.”
He didn’t pray. He just got up, and walked out among the kids and started talking to them. The choir stood there, and waited for the signal, but none came. Patty could not take in all that she’d heard. Having to say that Jesus was not a “punk.” It was bad enough that the Reverend Joe Spears brought the ragamuffins into his church, but to the revival?
The children came up out of their seats, and rushed up to meet “the preacher.” They were all trying to talk at once, and John could only make out a little of each conversation. He was treated like a favorite uncle. And, they were all beautiful! Even in their street clothes they were beautiful. All of them had bright eyes. None held back. “Holy Joe” came up front to help John field questions.
“How long you been a preacher?”
“How old are you?” “You married?”
“Why don’t you have your own church?”
“What color you think Jesus was?”
There wasn’t any time for a long theological explanation to anything. These kids were up front all the way, and they were honest. They had come out of the streets of the worst part of this town to follow the dream of a man they called “Holy Joe.”
The revival began to disperse for the night. The band hadn’t played one song, the choir hadn’t sung one song. Yet, for John, it had been a success.
“We didn’t pass the plate,” Robert reminded John.
“They don’t have any money Bob.”
Bill the Butcher