Sep 12, 2013

Male Bonding at the Altar Call

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, church services typically ended with an "altar call," an invitation for people to come down to the long, low railing at the front of the sanctuary, kneel, and "get raht with God."  That is, apologize for your sins and get saved from an eternity in the Lake of Fahr (preachers always used a fake Southern accent).

Teens rarely went down -- there were so many invitations to “bow your head right now and ask God to forgive you” in Sunday school and Nazarene Youth Society that most of us got saved regularly without going to the altar.

But one Sunday in the fall of ninth grade, I found myself going down.

Altar calls were only supposed to last for five or ten minutes, until the Preacher was satisfied that enough people had come down to get raht with God. But today, for some reason, no one went down, not after five miinutes, or ten, or fifteen.

The altar is circled
My brother  Ken and I exchanged looks of surprise, then consternation. “Just as I Am,” the only hymn ever used for altar calls, droned on and on and on. Brother Tyler, more red-faced and sweaty than usual, kept yelling “Don’t put it off ! This may be your last chance! Today you might be called home to Glorah or thrown into the Lake of Fahr!”

Why didn’t Brother Tyler just give up and let us go home? Ken was slouching in a pew, his Sunday tie undone, refusing to sing anymore. Back home, our roast beef was probably burning in the oven.  You should never look at your watch during a service, or someone would accuse you of being “bored with God,” but I snuck a peek anyway. The altar call had been going on for twenty minutes! We must have sung “Just as I Am” a thousand times:

Then Brother Tyler confirmed my worst fear. He yelled: “There’s someone here today  who’s not raht with God! You know who you are! We’re not going to end the altar call until you come down!”

It was a battle of wills. Who would fold first: the sinner, or Brother Tyler? Or would the congregation mutiny and storm the red double doors?

Suddenly it dawned on me that if I went down, we could all go home!

I didn't remember committing any sins since the last time I was saved, but He hated so many things that surely I had done something.

As the congregation started their three-thousandth chorus of “Just As I Am,” I stood, scooted across the legs of other people in the pew, and walked down slowly, hesitantly, as if my feet were almost too heavy to move. I kept my head bowed, but still I felt the stares and heard the whispering voices.  "Look, a teenager is going done?”

I knelt at a spot directly in front of the pulpit, with my knees against the base of the altar and my elbows against the smooth wood of the rail. I closed my eyes and began apologizing for getting mad at my brother last week.

But before God heard two words, a wash of male bodies enveloped me. Muscular arms in Sunday suit coats draped across my waist and back; strong hands pressed onto my wrists and shoulders;  the air around me grew hot and musky with sweat and fervent prayers.

As I apologized, beefy factory men, hardbodied high school jocks, junior high Fairies pressed against me with hands and arms and thighs. And when I announced that I had successfully Prayed Through to Victory, we became a single mass of men, all whooping and hollering and bear-hugging.

I knew that you always had company at the altar. Going down meant that you couldn't get saved "right there in your seat"; God was holding a grudge.  So in order to Pray Through to Victory, you needed several people beside you, beseeching God on your behalf, and propriety permitted only same-sex beseeching.

But I hadn’t expected this orgiastic abandon!

Nazarene boys: Mark, Allen, Verne
After that I  went down to the altar often. Not so often that people suspected I might be sinning on purpose, but every three or four weeks.  When I didn’t go down myself, as someone who was Saved, I had carte blanche to follow any boy or man that I liked down, to hug, hold, and caress him, to luxuriate in the sight, smell, and feel of the masculine as I helped him Pray Through to Victory.

Once I even I helped the Preacher's son, Verne, Pray Through from a backsliding.  He was always surrounded by groupies and unapproachable, so I'm certain that he only accepted a date with me later on because he remembered our jubilant hugs.