The man’s shoulder was inked with a tattoo of Jesus breathing fire out of his mouth, which I concluded to mean one of two things: the man was going to offer me the opportunity to be born again in the hot fumes of a firebreathing Messiah or he planned to kill me and make it necessary for me to be
Like any “good” American, I had already been born again–since childhood I’d pretty much been on shuffle and repeat–but I still feared either scenario. I couldn’t stop looking at the man’s shoulder. His Jesus was green and faded, and because of a small mole, it appeared as though my Lord and Savior had a foreign object dangling from one nostril. Then the man looked at me from the opposite end of the sauna, tightened the towel around his waist, and said, “How are you, man? My name is Jim.”
I didn’t say anything at first. His question sort of paralyzed me. Would he pull a small Gideons Bible from somewhere underneath that towel, look up a bunch of frightful verses in Romans, and then ask me to get down on my hands and knees and repeat after him? I wouldn’t do it. Not in a sauna. Not just wearing a towel. Besides, I had sworn off being born again again
in this decade.
“Hello.” I spoke carefully, still not ready to trust a person who had a flaming-tongue Messiah on an appendage. “My name is Matthew.”
“Good to meet you, Matthew. Man, I don’t know about you, but I have had the craziest day.” Jim stared at me as he talked. I think he was making sure I paid attention. “I didn’t even work out today. I just came right to the sauna.” He stretched his arms and then massaged his left shoulder, pinching Jesus’s face with his fingers.
I live in Nashville. The stereotypes about this town are true. Everyone is or has been a musician at some point in their life. Most of us who live here will carry on long conversations with people we don’t know. When it rains here, the majority of us forget how to drive and become fully capable of killing ourselves. And everyone here has asked Jesus into their hearts at least once, if only to fulfill the requirements for getting a Tennessee driver’s license.
But if I was going to stay true to the Nashville way, I would have to ask Jim to explain his “crazy day.” That’s not considered nosey in this town. He fully expected me to ask.
“What’s been so crazy about your day?”
“Oh, just work, man. One of those days when you wonder whether or not you should have gotten out of bed.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m an associate pastor at the Pentecostal church just up the road.”
“The apostolic one?”
“Oh, you know it?”
“It’s sort of difficult to miss.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. And it’s about to get bigger. The deacon board just approved a ten-million-dollar expansion. Some of the members think we need a new connection center.
I think it’s a waste of money, but what are you going to do? So Matthew, are you a Christian?”
“I love Jesus.
Does that count?”
Jim laughed as though he understood what I meant. At the time, I was going through a period when I didn’t like telling people I was a Christian. I didn’t want them to be scared of me, fearing that I would invite them to church or a “rock concert” starring Kutless. And I didn’t want them blaming me for the war in Iraq. Simply telling people I loved Jesus seemed like a cop-out to some of my friends, but often it kept me from having to own the sins of evangelicals in places like Kansas or South Carolina or two miles up the road at Jim’s Pentecostal church.
“You know, man,” said Jim, “I moved here a couple of years ago from Connecticut, where it’s–in my opinion
–spiritually dry. I thought moving here would make being a Christian a whole lot easier.”
“Easier? Why did you think that?”
“Because Nashville is the Christian Mecca.” Jim made air quotes with his fingers when he said, “Christian Mecca.” I’m sure he did it so I wouldn’t assume he believed Nashville was Mecca or that Mecca was Christian.
Among Christians, air quotes are a form of contextualization. I’m partial to using them myself, mostly because they prevent somebody from taking a potentially rash or exaggerated statement and using it against me. “Wait just a minute,” I can say to my antagonist. “I totally threw air quotes around the words big fat loser
when describing the pastor. That clears me, man. I’m clean.”
While they’re not biblical, air quotes seem to sanctify insults and debatable theology like baptismal water sanctifies a baby’s forehead.
But I understood Jim’s point. While I’m quite sure religious people in places like Chicago and Detroit don’t kneel southward when they say prayers to Jesus, I have met a good number of vacationers who come to Nashville because this city is a big ol’ John Deere buckle in the Bible Belt.
“Seriously, think about it, Matthew. Do you know of any other city in America better known for its fear of God?” Jim wiped sweat off his brow. “I don’t think I do.”
I thought for a second. “I hear Colorado Springs is rather fearful.”
“I’m sure that’s true. But I doubt it’s Nashville. I’ve been told this town has more churches per capita than any other city in America.” Jim nodded. “Honest-to-God truth, Matthew, that’s what I’ve been told by a number of people, and I can believe it.”
I believed it too. No doubt we have a lot of churches in this town. But since I’ve heard the same statistic used in reference to Dallas, Birmingham, and Orlando, I’m not sure it’s scientific. But scientific matters don’t hold much weight in Christian cultural claims, so it probably wouldn’t count even if proven.
Even if Nashville doesn’t lead with the most
churches, I’ve always said that one of this city’s chief exports is Jesus. God’s only Son gets shipped, bused, couriered, radioed, televised, faxed, e-mailed, and, if need be, dropped like a bomb from twenty thousand feet in places all over the world because of what happens here in Nashville. In many ways, we are God’s command center. His Pentagon. His newer Jerusalem.
With a push of a button, we can have a million Bibles dropped in a remote location in China. With a phone call or two, we can get a person carrying some very good news to show up on your doorstep, like Publishers Clearing House. The only catch is, you have to die before you’re able to afford that mansion you’ve always dreamed of.
Jim and I walked out of the sauna to cool off. He sat on one of the benches, and I went over to the water fountain.
“So tell me why you thought moving to Nashville would make it easier to be a Christian,” I said.
He laughed. “Because Christians are everywhere. I thought it would be amazing to be in a city where Jesus is as much a part of the culture as Dolly and Cracker Barrel.”
I laughed. “Okay, I get that. I’ve probably been there at some point in my life.”
“I also thought it would make being a pastor a lot easier. I mean, back home I would never have had this kind of conversation with somebody at the gym. Here, it happens every time I work out. It’s almost annoying. Sometimes it feels like we’re playing church. It’s difficult to explain.”
“But I understand what you’re saying.”
I’d been looking for a way to ask about the tattoo, but with no open window, I just blurted, “Jim, you have to tell me the deal with the tattoo.”
“You mean you don’t like it?” He laughed. “Man, I was young. I guess it was my way of sharing the truth about Jesus without having to say anything.”
“And that truth would be what? That Jesus is a flamethrower? Puff, the Magic Dragon?”
“Dude, I was an idiot back then. Now, I’m embarrassed to go to a public pool where people who don’t know me can see me without a shirt. I’m scared to death somebody will take it seriously.”
“I kind of did. It’s one of the most awful tattoos I’ve ever seen. I’d call that ‘doctor’–you know, the one who advertises on 107.5–and have that thing removed.”
I headed back to the sauna for another round. For a few minutes, I sat there alone, thinking about my conversation with Jim.
I wasn’t a pastor, but I had been to church more times than I could count, and I had lived in Nashville for a while, so I knew something about what he felt. At first, this town feels like a shot of faith in the arm.
When I first moved here, I thought it was energizing to be a part of a community where you were odd if you didn’t believe in Jesus. I felt at home. Even alive at times. But I started thinking about it too much, which led me to wonder if I was just filling a role in a Stepford
Jim opened the sauna door, stepped inside, and sat down. He didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either.
My mind wandered back to a service I attended at one of Nashville’s largest churches a year or so after moving here. I hadn’t really wanted to go, but a friend begged me. “It’s our annual Harvest Festival on Sunday,” he told me. “You’ll love it. Please come. God always shows up on Harvest Sunday.”
Against my better judgment, I agreed to go with him. I didn’t want to miss an event that God had in his Day-Timer. Taking our seats in the balcony, my friend said, “They’re expecting something like fifteen thousand people. An extra service had to be added. Just think about how many people will be saved today.” He shook his head like people do at the circus while watching the trapeze act or when Spider-Man shows up. My friend was anticipating acrobats and special effects.
By the time the choir filled the loft, the room was packed, and the orchestra began playing an old hymn. I knew the song from the first notes.
“Bringing in the Sheaves.” I used to sing it when I was a kid. Back then, I knew every word, but I didn’t understand what they meant until much later.
The choir began singing the first verse.Sowing in the morning,
Sowing seeds of kindness…
Hearing that old song reminded me of the time my father
and I went to a neighbor’s farm and picked a bushel of sweet
corn right off the stalks. The farmer had a lengthy driveway.
As we drove over the bumpy gravel, Dad pointed out a golden
“That wheat is ready to harvest, Buck.” My father’s eyes brightened any time he saw a ripened field of wheat, corn, or anything edible. “You know, when I was a kid, harvest was one of my favorite times of the year. Workers came from all over the county and helped us bundle up the wheat into sheaves. It was such an important day for us, sort of our payday. I remember Daddy being so particular about his crop, making sure those workers got every piece of wheat in that field. He’d get so mad when somebody wasn’t doing a good job; he’d go behind the workers and pick up whatever they left.”
My friend’s pastor only mentioned the word harvest
once during his sermon. He didn’t talk about wheat fields and never mentioned a sheave. He asked, “Have you given any thought to what will happen on Judgment Day?”
Then he directed the sermon toward the members of his church. “Church, souls are being lost every single day. Why?
Because we aren’t doing our job. We aren’t out harvesting God’s crop. People are going to get left behind because of you and me.”
I sank back into my pew, my heart feeling anxious. I’d heard that same message a million times, it seemed, but rather than making me feel hopeful, on that day the Good News scared me. I thought about my grandfather. Even he didn’t want to leave any wheat in the field.
I could only imagine God feeling the same way.
Jim jarred me out of my thoughts. “You think this is what hell feels like?”
“You talking about the sauna or living in Nashville?”
He smiled. “The sauna.”
“Then I doubt it. I like this too much.”
“Well, I guess I’d better get going. I have a meeting with my pastor tonight. He’s convinced that I don’t speak in tongues.”
“And that’s a problem?”
“Of course–we’re Pentecostals. It’s what we do.”
“Sounds like your church might have a little baggage.” My grin faded. “But who am I to judge? I’m still unpacking my own.”
Excerpted from Churched by Matthew Paul Turner. Copyright© 2008 by Matthew Paul Turner. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photo-copying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Churched by Matthew Paul Turner. Copyright © 2008 by Matthew Paul Turner. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.