Mar 4, 2013

Fall 1974: Finding a Way to Fondle Phil

Phil and Friend
When I was a kid, most church services ended with an altar call, an invitation to come down to the front of the sanctuary, kneel at the long, low wooden rail, and ask God to forgive your sins (we called it becoming a Christian or getting saved, because you were "saved" from an eternity in hell).

It wasn't easy -- you had to work, sobbing and begging and moaning, for at least ten minutes, sometimes more.  And afterwards, the most trivial of sins -- an angry word, a lustful thought, a glance at the Sunday newspaper -- would negate your salvation, so you'd have to start all over again.

So it was not unusual to go down several times a year, and some especially sensitive types went down at almost every service.

Usually adults -- teens had regular invitations to "bow your head right here and ask God to forgive you" in Sunday School (just before the morning service) and NYPS (just before the evening), so we were usually saved by the time the altar call came around.

But in ninth grade, the first year that I was officially a teenager, I discovered a benefit to going down to the altar (other than the not going to hell thing).

Praying Through to Victory was such hard work that you needed someone by your side, hugging you, holding you, entreating God on your behalf.  Whenever you went to the altar, therefore, Christians (always of the same sex) rushed down to help.  Two, three, or even more, depending on your popularity. 

They pressed against you, hugging and holding, arms around waists and shoulders, and when you successfully Prayed Through, you became a single mass, bear-hugging and back-slapping and pressing together.  During those moments, I felt a lifetime's worth of hard muscle, and sometimes even private parts pressed surreptitiously against me.

Going down to the altar let me get hugged, held, and caressed by the preacher, the preacher's kid, Brother Dino who I saw naked at summer camp, and lots of other cute boys and men.

And the next service, if I was still saved, I had carte blanche to go down and touch, hold, hug, and fondle any guy I liked.

What I Thought Phil Looked Like
But never the guy I wanted most: Phil, a 12th grader, president of the NYPS (Nazarene Young People's Society) and Captain of the Jump Quiz Team, tall and broad-shouldered, probably barrel-chested, with a impressive hardness beneath his Sunday suit.

He was not only hunky, he was the coolest guy I had ever met: he and his parents lived in an apartment (how cool was that?), he worked at Country Style and could get us free milkshakes; he had actually read The Hobbit instead of dismissing it as Satanic; and he wasn't afraid to make friends with Catholics -- "if you don't talk to them, how will you ever win them for Christ?"

During every altar call, I eyed Phil hungrily, praying for him to go down.  And when I went down myself, part of my prayer was for "Phil to be here."  But it never happened.

Most likely Phil never went down himself because he had achieved entire sanctification, where you are literally unable to commit sins.  But even the sanctified could go down to help others pray through!  His reluctance was infuriating!

If I was ever going to grope...um, I mean hug...Phil, I would have to use strategy.

1. Girls

One day I approached Phil during Afterglow, the teen party after the Sunday evening service. "I'm troubled about something, and I want to ask for God's guidance.  Could you help me?"

"Is it about girls?"

"Um..sure, I guess."

He motioned for me to kneel against his couch, and he knelt beside me -- not touching!  After about five minutes of listening to him implore God to keep me safe from temptation, I had enough and got up.


Country Style in Moline, Illinois
2. An Emotional Song

Nazarenes considered it inappropriate for men to touch each other, except while Praying Through to Victory or during especially emotional songs. So one night during NYPS, we were sitting in a circle on folding chairs to "rap."  I positioned myself next to Phil and suggested singing "They'll Know We Are Christians," the most emotional song in the hymnal.

At the line "We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand," I took his hand.  He looked at me oddly, but didn't resist, and everyone else took his lead and held hands with their neighbor.

Afterwards I reached over to hug him, but he quickly disentangled himself, sprang to the center of the circle.  "Ok, who has a testimony?" he exclaimed, his cheeks somewhat ruddy with embarrassment.



3. Heresy

Theoretically the sanctified were incapable of committing sins, but in fact they often backslid, and had to start the whole process over again. I didn't want Phil to commit an actual sin and risk hellfire, but maybe something a bit questionable, something that would make him wonder if he had backslid and rush down to the altar to check.

How about doubting the Word of God?   The church taught that the Bible was literally dictated by God, historically accurate, without error.  It wasn't a sin to believe otherwise, but it was suspect.

David and part of Goliath
One Sunday evening during NYPS, I said "David killed Goliath with his slingshot.  That's an incontrovertable fact, right?"  David was one of my favorite beefcake stars of the Bible.

"Of course," Phil said.  "It's the Word of God."

"But 2 Samuel 2:19 says that Goliath was killed by Elhanan.  How can you be killed by two people at once?"

He looked up the passage.  "Wait..my Bible says the brother of Goliath."

"Oh, you're using the King James version.  It's a mistranslation.  The New International Version..."

"There's no such thing as a mistranslation," Phil said firmly.  God guides the hands of the translators..."

"Then how can it say 'brother' in one version and not in another."

"It must be a mistranslation."  The other teens twittered. He started to redden. "Don't be so nitpicky.  Just believe that the Bible is the Word of God, so there can't be any contradictions.  Period."

"Then Elphanan killed both Goliath and his brother, and then Goliath came back from the dead so David could kill him? Yeah, that makes perfect sense!"

"Dammit, Jeff, show some respect for  God's Word!"

The room got very quiet.  Phil paled as he realized that he had just lost his salvation.

I was choked with remorse.  I wanted Phil to experience doubt, not the far more serious sins of Anger and Swearing!

That night we both went down to the altar.  But at least I got my grope...um, I mean hug.