Wednesday, October 26, 2011

God, Rocks, and Souls

The address that follows is an introduction to John McLarty’s book in progress, GOD, ROCKS, AND SOULS, a memoir of an “old, white, liberal Adventist pastor”.

What follows is a “chapter…not in its final form” from that book in progress.

Chapter 57 John Benedetto

Early in 1979, John Benedetto wandered into a Bible study I conducted every Wednesday evening at the New York Center, the Adventist Church’s evangelistic center on West 46th Street in Times Square. After coming just a few times, he indicated he would like personal Bible studies.

I was ecstatic. In our community, the typical path for someone who wishes to join our church is to take a course of Bible studies covering the doctrines of the church. At the conclusion of those studies, presuming the student has found the studies persuasive, he or she is baptized and becomes an official member of the church. I was sure John’s intense questions and his wish for private studies was evidence of a serious interest in our church. I was in New York to do evangelism and here was the first validation of my ministry. John wanted to be baptized. John was punctual to our appointments, but I had a hard time covering much ground. I had this whole list of Bible doctrines to cover and had a plan to work our way through them. But every time we met, he'd launch into a long recital of the problems in his life. He seemed far more interested in discussing his personal problems than in having a focused conversation on the authority of Scripture, the details of the Second Coming or Bible guidance on how to pray.

He was having trouble sleeping at night because of acid reflux. He had dandruff and was troubled by his body’s weird odor. He hated his job, but he was too old to quit and get a job anywhere else that would provide him any retirement. He wasn’t getting along with his boy and didn’t really like his son-in-law.

I began to despair of ever covering sufficient formal religious content for me to be able to present John for baptism. Besides he didn’t even really believe in God. He was constantly browsing book stores. When I asked him directly about whether he believed in God, he answered, “I know a lot of smart people do.” He knew the arguments of the critics. He felt them in his soul. And he found belief enormously problematic, but at least he could affirm that he knew a lot of smart people believed in God. So while, he personally found belief problematic, he was not being completely hypocritical to hang around and have conversations about life with religious people. Believers were not crazy. Some of them were really smart.

Over time, I heard more of John’s story.

He'd grown up in the Bronx where in addition to his regular day job, his father served as the sexton for a Baptist church. (In New York most of the churches I knew about had live-in caretakers. It was not prudent to leave a building empty for days at a time.) John liked to tell me, “I grew up in the church.” Sometimes he said that as a declaration of the depth of his acquaintance with Christianity but usually it was a preference to explaining why belief was so difficult.

Over and over John told me of being out in the street playing with the other kids in the neighborhood. About five thirty they’d hear the train pulling into the elevated station. He'd watch the other kids run toward the station to see if their dad had come in on that train. John and his brother would run hide somewhere so they could see if their dad was coming or whether they had a few more minutes to play. If they spotted Dad they stayed hidden until called for supper.

John’s fear of his dad was still palpable forty years later.

“I never knew what my dad would do.” He said. “Once, Frank and I built a club house in the yard behind the church. I don’t remember where we scrounged the wood, but it was a great club house. The other kids loved it. One day Dad came home angry and took and ax and demolished our club house . . . and I was in it!

“One evening we had come in for supper. Frank said something that got Dad mad. Frank was on the other side of the table and Dad couldn’t reach him, so Dad grabbed a kettle of hot spaghetti and dumped in on my head. I could never understand it. I hadn’t done anything. Maybe that’s why have some much trouble with my scalp now, all that hot spaghetti.

“The worst was the time he gave away my dog. I don’t see how he could have done that. That dog was my friend. Dad didn’t like him, though. He didn’t think we should be wasting money on food for a lousy dog.

“One day I came home from school and Buddy wasn’t in the yard. I went around the neighborhood looking and calling. Then my mom told me. ‘Your dad took him to the pound this morning after you left for school. He said he was tired of him.’

“Dad never said a word about it. And we lived in the church!”

Several times John told me the story of his marriage, the way he remembered it. He was nineteen. He could never quite figure out why he'd gotten married, except that he didn't know how not to once he started dating. And the dating hadn't really been his idea. He was set up by his friend. They were both going into the army. His friend had a steady girlfriend and they wanted another couple to do things with so the friend set John up with his wife-to-be. And when his friend got married, so did John.

After he got out of the army he and his wife tried farming in the south near where her folks lived, but they could never quite make ends meet. Finally they had to give it up and move back to New York. J.B. hated leaving the country.

“You know, John,” he told me. “That little farm in Arkansas was the most perfect place on earth. It was quiet. We had a yard and chickens. You’d see the sunset in the summer and see the fireflies and hear the cicadas. But I couldn’t make a living. I couldn’t pay the bills.”

Back in New York, over the next twenty-five years he earned a living working for the subway system, raised a couple of kids and tried to answer the questions of why.

Before I met him, he studied at least a couple years respectively with the Jehovah's Witnesses, Roman Catholics and Mormons. As we continued our “Bible studies” he was still searching, trying to make sense of the pain. Trying to figure how, when you grow in the church, life could turn out so bad. He wanted to believe in God, but could never quite make the leap.

Over the next six months, I talked about Bible doctrines and John talked about life. His cat died. His son-in-law drowned. His hiatus hernia grew worse. He took to sleeping on the couch propped up with pillows because he couldn’t bear to lie flat for very long. He described in great detail all of his stratagems for quitting smoking. He had been trying for several years. He was determined that this was one battle he was going to win. Even though he had been defeated dozens of times.

“I take the cigarettes and soak them in cleaning fluid. Then I dry them out. They taste so foul I can’t stand to inhale, at least not very much.”

Another time he described putting the pack at the bottom of the kitchen garbage can so that when he wanted a cigarette he would have to dig through the trash to get them. And they would smell of garbage as an added inducement to leave them alone. He tried cutting cigarettes in half. He lit them, let them burn a bit then put them out and put them back in the pack because, he said, prelit cigarettes tasted nasty.

He went through the Adventist Five-day Plan to Stop Smoking, the American Cancer Society program, a program offered by the Red Cross. I got a blow-by-blow descriptions of every new effort, every creative strategy.

John was still battling when I was asked to leave Manhattan to become a pastor on Long Island. John still wasn’t baptized. He wasn’t a member of the church. He still had dandruff, body odor and aching questions.

* * *
About three years later, I began coming into Manhattan on Sabbath afternoons to lead an English language Bible study group in the German SDA Church. Within just a few weeks John showed up! I couldn’t believe it!

He was proud to inform me he had quit smoking. It had been over two years since his last cigarette. I was pleased. John was making progress.

Visiting after Bible study a couple of weeks later, John told me he was having trouble sleeping. “No, it’s not because of my hernia. Yea, I still have to sleep on the couch, but it’s my son. He’s AWOL from the Navy. Andy says he isn’t worried. He says they’ll just forget about him. I’ve tried to get him to turn himself in, to try make things right but he won’t hear of it. He says he can’t go back now because they’ll bust him. He’s afraid the Navy might come looking for him at our house. So I never see him. I don’t know what to do.”

What could I say? What did I know about having a son on the lam?

John was being cheated at his job. He worked as a clerk selling tokens for the subway system. At the beginning and end of each shift, the clerks had to reconcile their money and token inventory. Because he was slow at it, his relief would always insist on helping him with the tally at the end of the shift. And he was sure she was ripping him off.

“Why don’t you talk to someone about it, John?”

“It won’t do any good.” He said. “The supervisor is an old friend of hers. In fact, I think she’s maybe his girlfriend. Complaining will only make it worse.”

“Can’t you try doing at least part of the tally before she gets there? Isn’t there someway to get it done so that she doesn’t get her hands on the stuff?”

“I’ve tried everything I can think of. The problem is that my shift is the busiest. And it gets crazy just about the end of my shift. I’ve put in for a different shift, but I don’t have enough seniority yet to get a better shift. I could transfer to a different station maybe, but all the best stations have long waiting lists of people trying to get in who have more seniority.”

I prayed for John. What else could I do? It was hard not to get mad at God, listening to John talk. Where was God while all this was going on.

No wonder the closest John could get to a statement of faith was, “I know a lot of smart people believe in God.”

I became the full time pastor of the German Church and it became The Church of Advent Hope. John was there nearly every Sabbath, leaving immediately after potluck to make his shift selling tokens. I was doing the job I had dreamed of for years, working with people who were wonderfully congenial and supportive. (The former pastor had not yet begun his attacks.) I had healthy, happy kids. And John was slowly being squeezed to death.

His daughter had remarried and bought a house. To buy the house she had borrowed money from John, twenty-six thousand dollars from his retirement fund. Then when he talked to her about repaying it, she just laughed. He was a grandpa, but things had gotten so tense between him and his daughter that he wasn’t really welcome at her house. So his wife spend her time at their daughter’s house, enjoying the grandkids while John wandered the aisles of bookstores and went on shopping sprees for stuff he didn’t need. He had thousands of books in his house. Not that he was planning to read them, but he couldn’t resist a bargain. He bought inexpensive electronics–radios, tape players, clocks, gadgets and gizmos. If it was a bargain he couldn’t resist.

I had visited him several years earlier before I had gone to Long Island. His apartment was unremarkable except for the overpowering smell of the cat box. Now he was too embarrassed to have me come to his house. It was so filled with stuff that there was hardly any floor space left. Just aisles among piles of books, outdated food, electronics and clothes. John tried to describe it to me, but I couldn’t believe it was that bad. When I finally went, it was.

The lady who had been ripping him off at work moved to another position. Before long, her replacement was doing the same thing. Only ten more years to retirement. John didn’t know if he could hold on, but he didn’t see that he had any choice.

At church, John was a stand out. Especially as the English service continued to develop. The older Germans became a smaller and smaller minority; young adults, newly arrived in the city to chase careers and futures became the dominant demographic in the church. People came to church dressed. And “dressed” reflected the standards of the work place. These were not Bohemian artists, they were employees in mid-town offices. They worked for American Express and Chase Manhattan. A couple of the regulars were fashion designers.

Everyone looked good on Sabbath morning except Alex and John. On warm summer Sabbaths, John would show up in a white tank top with a red bandana rolled and tied around his head to keep sweat out of his eyes, dandruff evident in his thin hair.

He looked out of place, but the young adults treated him kindly. He was even invited to read Scripture occasionally. But as far as I could tell his faith had not grown at all. We occasionally talked of God and faith and salvation. But mostly we talked about trouble.

He came to church one Sabbath with some superficial scabs on his face and forehead and casts on both wrists.

“John, what happened?”

“A couple of muggers threw me down the stairs as I was emptying the turnstiles of their tokens. I don’t know why they did that. They had already grabbed the bag from me. They had what they wanted. Why did they have to throw me down the stairs.”

“Are your arms broken?”

“The doctor said one bone is broken in my left arm. My right wrist is sprained. The doctor said it may be worse than the break. I just don’t understand why they had to do it. I didn’t do anything to them.”

I helped John empty some of the stuff from his apartment. We filled my big Plymouth station wagon from behind the front seat to the tailgate window high with books to give away. We went through some of the food and began putting some of the most seriously out-dated items in garbage bags. It didn’t make much of a dent, but it made the aisles in his house a little wider.

Then eighteen months later, John showed up at church again injured. No casts this time, but both hands were wrapped in white gauze. His face looked strange. It wasn’t cut, but it was, how can I put this, messed up. John told me the story.

“Early this week I yelled at a couple of fare-beaters when they jumped the turnstile. I hate those guys. They’ll look right at you, know that you are watching, then wait until the train pulls in and jump over the stiles and run to the train.

“So I yelled at them through the intercom. You know I have one of those new self-contained booths they’re putting in.

“Well, those same guys came back on Thursday. I know it was the same guys. I recognized them. They tried to pour gasoline through the vent on the door, but they couldn’t so they poured the gas through the token slot and set it on fire.”

“How did you escape?”

“Fortunately, they ran off and I managed to get out the door. The booth was completely destroyed.”

John’s burns, that is the wounds on his skin, were relatively minor. The doctor promised his hands would heal with only minor scarring. But I wondered what it did to his soul?

* * *
About six months later during a sermon, I invited anyone who felt called by God to be baptized to talk with me after the service. As I was visiting with people at the rear of the church, John approached me and in his trademark stutter told me he wanted to be baptized.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had heard about John’s unbelief for eight years. And here he was asking for baptism.

“John, that’s fantastic. Can we meet here at the church on Wednesday to talk about it?”

“I-I-I’d like that.”

On Wednesday, John came by the church.

"John, I am thrilled you want to be baptized. I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Tell me, what made you finally decide?"

"Well," he began, "you know I have a lot of problems. My father abused me when I was just a kid. I grew up in a church but our home . . ."

I interrupted him. "John, I know life has been difficult. I wish it had been different. But what I want to know is how you finally came to decide to be baptized.”

“Well, you remember that for a little while I had a farm in Arkansas, and that I only came back to New York because we couldn’t make a living farming. I really wanted to stay on the farm. . . .”

“John, yes, I remember that and your son being AWOL from the Navy and about your daughter and the money.

“But I want to know, what made you finally decide to be baptized. You’ve been coming to church all these years and I know that faith has been hard for you. Do you believe in God now?”

"W-W-Well, I know that many very intelligent people believe he exists. Even many scientists believe in him."

I was flabbergasted. John was in exactly the same spot he had been eight years ago when we first met and talked about God.

"But John,” I interrupted again, "Do you believe in God yourself?"

"I'm not too sure. It seems reasonable that he ought to exist. And since all those smart people believe in him, I don’t think God is an impossibility.”

I was getting exasperated. I changed the conversation. “John, have you accepted Jesus as your Savior? Has Jesus forgiven your sins?"

"It would be nice to think so."

“You mean you don’t know if Jesus has forgiven you?”

“It would be very nice to think that.”

Now what? Here was someone asking for baptism who did not know if he believed in God and did not know if Jesus had forgiven his sins.

I picked up my Bible and opened it to 1 John 1:9. I handed it to John and asked him to read it. He didn’t stutter when he read.

If we confess our sins,
he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins
and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness

He looked up.

“John, have you confessed your sins?” Silly question. I knew he had. He had confessed them to me a hundred times.

"Yes." he answered.

“According to what you have just read, does God promise to forgive our sins if we confess them?"


Good, I thought, he’s getting it.

"So, John, you've confessed your sins, and God has promised that if you confess he will forgive. So tell me, has God forgiven you your sins?"

He hesitated, then answered in a timid, plaintive voice, "It would sure be nice to think so."

I was dumbfounded. He was in exactly the same place spiritually he had been in our first visit back in the New York Center. What to say?

It was my job to say something. John was asking for baptism. I should be able to offer some kind of guidance for dealing with his doubts. I should be able to help him come to faith. I rambled on about theories and ideas and church history and science a bit. John was patient. He listened. He answered direct questions. But he could not make any clear affirmation beyond his awareness of the testimony of smart people who were believers and his scant hope that God (if there was one) would be merciful.

How could I blame him. Given his personal history I couldn’t question the sincerity of his search. But after half an hour of searching for some way to lead him to voice a personal affirmation of faith I was exasperated.

"J. B." I protested, "You don't believe in God. You can't bring yourself to say you believe Jesus has forgiven your sins. So why do you want to be baptized?"

"Well, as you know, I studied with several church groups and at work I’ve been ripped off and mugged and nearly burned alive, and . . ."

"John, John, I know.” I interrupted, trying to keep the impatience out of my voice. “But just tell me, why do you want to be baptized?"

"Because," he said, "this is the one place in the world where I am safe."

Regarding some teachings of the church, all that I can say with confidence is that some very smart people believe them. However, I cannot say like John, “This is the one place where I have been safe.” Unlike John, I’ve been blessed with kindness and faithfulness from many people and in many places. But the Adventist Church has been wonderfully gracious to me.

Awhile back I was visiting with an importance personage in the church who joined the Adventist Church as a young adult. He said he had given up everything for the church. I think he imagined a career he might have had outside the church given his drive and abilities. He would have been an acclaimed writer enjoying a good income. But he had given up all that to serve the church. Instead of being listed on the masthead of The Atlantic or Harper’s and writing for America’s elite, he was the editor of church publications read by lowly believers. It was a magnificent sacrifice . . . in his eyes.

Listening to him talk about his sacrifice for the church, I realized my experience is something else. My greatest treasures are gifts from the church–a global circle of friends, confidence in the goodness of God, a retirement plan for this world and an attractive vision of the next world, a reasonably wholesome pattern of life, ideas worth several lifetimes of exploration, the privilege of writing books, a decent education. Certainly God might have found other ways to supply these gifts, but for me they have been the gifts of Adventism.

Like John, the most I can say about some church dogma is “I know a lot of smart people believe it.” And like John, I have found this church to be a safe place. Why would I leave?


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