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It wasn't that I hadn't tried to read the Bible. On my eighth birthday I'd thought to celebrate by reading about David. But the writing in the Books of Samuel was neither as dramatic nor as well-paced as my grandmother's story-telling. Also, as my clan disapproved of vernacular translation, my personal Bible was King James' version. Though I'd happily waded through the adverbial verbosity of Victor
Appleton, the Elizabethan English bogged me down. Then the gazetteer finally defeated me; I foundered in Ephraim and Ramathaim-zophim, never got to Gilgal, much less Bethlehem; I was lucky to get out of Zuph.
Still, at Advent I'd resolved to read the Christmas story, thinking it might go easier since I already knew the plot. As the text took up but four chapters of two Gospels, I'd breezed through, and, encouraged, had hunted up the prophecy of the Messiah. But Isaiah's images -- wounds, bruises, putrefying sores -- recalled the playground; I put the Bible down. Now I wondered if that could be the transgression that caused my trials and tribulations. Perhaps preferring Tom Swift to the Pentateuch was like having gods before God. So I took the Bible up again.
I found the fifth chapter of Matthew easy going, for it too was partly a familiar story, the Sermon on the Mount, and was mostly the Beatitudes, which I'd memorized before I could read, and recited a hundred times since. At first the reading merely reminded me of the general theme: peace was the path to blessedness; the peacemakers would be called the children of God; the meek would inherit the earth; and those that hungered for righteousness would be filled. But then it began to seem that Jesus' words, inscribed in red, were meant particularly for me:
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
There was my answer: I was not being punished by God, merely persecuted by Man, which persecution was consistent with my religious destiny. It could be the playground was some testing ground, on which I could prove myself worthy of a Call to the ministry. But then Jesus said:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, pray for them that curse you, do good unto them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.
No question; reading scripture did help me see my situation clearly. If I wanted to be a Christian I must abandon all thoughts of fighting, of counter-cursing, too. I had to reach the higher standard, go the second mile. Such were the teachings, not of God, but of my friend Jesus; it was He who seemed to be telling me to rejoice and be exceeding glad when I got beaten to a pulp. And if I didn't -- if I couldn't -- I would be disappointing not only God the Father and my own father, but Jesus my friend. Though He would forgive me if I failed, failure it would be -- failure so fundamental I could not imagine how I could ever after be Called to the ministry. I was pondering this painful possibility at the beginning of Holy Week.
In Bedford, Holy Week was laudably ecumenical. On Palm Sunday there was a concert, featuring some oratorio sung by a community chorus. On Tuesday, on which day Jesus said the poor were always with us, "gleaners" -- slotted cards, distributed on Ash Wednesday and filled during Lent with dimes -- were combined in a massive offering for the needy. On Maundy Thursday, at midnight, bells of all churches pealed as one to signify the start of the watch on the Mount of Olives. On Good Friday, at a service held during the hours when Jesus was crucified, His legendary Seven Last Words became texts for sermons by Bedford's ministers. One of the most respected ministers preached at an even more symbolic service, at dawn on Easter Sunday on the shore of a nearby lake.
To me, these public rites were usually less important than the private rituals of Mt. Pisgah and my clan: our Maundy Thursday communion service, mysterious because it took place at night; our Holy Saturday preparations -- baking of hams, roasting of ducklings, stuffing of shad, the baking of pies and cakes, the coloring of eggs; our Easter Sunday services -- morning worship at which the tiny congregation was swelled by emigrants returned; the evening Easter Program, at which I and my fellow Sunday-Schoolers recited dogma in doggerel and received the gruff praise and gentle criticism that told us that we were much loved and that much was expected of us. But in 1959 the public rites had special meaning. My mother was a soloist in the Palm Sunday Concert. My father was to preach at the Sunrise Service. My family's prominence made me exceedingly proud. Though I was too young to see it as a change in local race relations, others did, and their hope was infectious. By Good Friday I was fairly fevered.
That morning, at school, all the children were excited. We would be dismissed before noon and until then there was little work; just parties and candy, and, after a recess, an Easter pageant, complete with cross and Centurions. Perhaps it was just the excitement, or the sugar in the chocolate bunnies. Perhaps my family's prominence aroused resentment in other children. Or perhaps rehearsing the Passion play made the plot seem a game. In any case, at recess, a minyan of white trash assaulted me with the foulest genealogical and racial epithets I had ever heard. Confounded by their number and this sudden and incongruous ugliness, I ran from them with no attempt at dignity. The mob indeed seemed satisfied, but one boy -- a Goliath-like hulk, in his third year in third grade -- hounded me even unto the farthest reaches of the playground, where a chain-link fence forced me to turn to bay, and a copse concealed us from the sight of all but God. Continued ...
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