Whatever Happened to Fire and Brimstone?

Here’s a piece I wrote several years ago, after a hot summer Sunday when the air conditioner wasn’t working at church.  Enjoy!

In Garrison Keillor’s fictional boyhood home of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, air conditioning (A/C) was placed in the same category of suspicion as “dishwashers, automatic transmissions, frozen dinners, and liberal theologians,” but until last Sunday I didn’t understand why.

For reasons too complicated to explain we didn’t have A/C at my church last Sunday and things began to get a little warm.  With the temperature nearing 90 degrees outside it was well above 80 inside.  Women with flushed faces began using their church bulletins as fans.  Men pulled off their jackets and loosened their ties.  Children squirmed in the pews.  And then the heat began to have another effect: it began to make people drowsy.  From the pulpit I could see heads nodding, eyelids beginning to close, and there, halfway through the sermon and desperate for an audience, I got what I can only describe as a “fire and brimstone” feeling:

I wanted to preach LOUD!

The way I see it preachers used to face a regular problem with the heat, especially in the South.  Even with the windows up and the funeral home fans flying, a southern summer Sunday morning could sap the attentive powers of an entire congregation.  A wasp bumping lazily across the ceiling would be enough to distract them.  A dramatic pause in the sermon and half of them might drop off to sleep.

Naturally, the preacher began to raise his voice, just to wake them up, and for a while that was enough (“…and MOSES saith unto PHARAOH, ‘Let my people GO!'”).  But people get used to things, and they eventually got used to loud preaching.  So the preacher began to punctuate his sermon by pounding on the pulpit (“…and MOSES [Bam!] saith unto PHARAOH [Bam!], ‘Let my people GO!’ [Bam! Bam!]”).  But they got used to that, too.  Until finally the preacher had not choice but to preach on matters of life and death, Heaven and Hell (“…CAST them [Bam!] into the FURNACE [Bam! Bam!] of FIRE [Bam! Bam! (and) BAM!!]”).  And that worked.  That kept the congregation awake.  And it was in that context that one of the great homiletical punch lines of all time was developed: “You think it’s hot NOW!…”*

But then along came A/C, and suddenly those same people who had been dozing off before were sitting upright in the pews, wide awake, with eager, attentive expressions on their faces.  Preachers found to their amazement that they could speak in their normal voices, and even wander off into such tepid subjects as “Providence,” or “Humility,” while their listeners hung on every word.

As you might imagine that was the end of fire and brimstone preaching, and evidence enough that there is a closer connection to A/C and liberal theology than you might guess.  As Garrison Keillor says about some of the people who move away from Lake Wobegon: “They get A/C first thing and crank it up to Cold.  They drape themselves over it.  Then they find a church where God is the gentle mist rising from the meadow and the smile on a child’s face.

“They don’t want to get sweaty anymore if they can help it.”**

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*Little wonder that the wide band of fervent faith known as the “Bible Belt” stretches across the sultry South and not the lukewarm North; those Southerners have had just about all the heat they can take!

**Lake Wobegon Days, p. 132

The Cure for Boredom

When I was a boy I attended West Virginia public schools, and although I had some excellent teachers the schools themselves left something to be desired.  I remember the kind of excitement that would begin building in the spring of each year as we anticipated summer vacation and our release from the stuffy confines of the classroom, from the tedium of bending over our desks, working math problems on lined notebook paper with Number 2 pencils as a single wasp buzzed in through the open windows and bumped up against the high ceiling of the room.  On the last day of school we watched the clock on the wall as if our lives depended on it, and in a way they did—the quality of our lives, at least.  The closer we got to 3:15 the slower that minute hand moved.  Even the big, red second hand seemed to slow down until it was dragging around the face of the clock like a stick through the mud. 

But then it happened: the buzzer sounded and we whooped and threw our notebooks in the air and off we went, tumbling out the front door and down the steps and to the waiting school buses where we sang in unison that great old hymn,

School’s out, school’s out,
Teacher let the monkeys out
One went east and one went west
And one went up the teacher’s dress!

It was magical, that ride home on the bus.  The windows were down and the warm breezes were blowing in and we were in the best mood possible, laughing and singing and shoving each other—absolutely intoxicated by the freedom we felt.  The only thing better was waking up the next morning and realizing that it was the first day of summer vacation.  My brothers and I—five of us at the time—would toss back the bedsheets, put on our shorts and T-shirts, and run barefoot into the back yard, ready to spend the day in glorious, useless, endless play.

Those feelings lasted until sometime in the middle of the afternoon, usually, and—although we could hardly believe it—by then we had already done most of the things we had been dreaming of those last few weeks of school.  That long list of things!  Knocked out in a few hours’ time.  Unbelievable.  We tried to hide the fact from ourselves.  We pretended that we were still having fun.  But even more we tried to hide the fact from our parents, because once somebody let it slip, once one of my little brothers let out even the tiniest, whispered, “I’m bored!” in their presence—well, that did it.  The next morning at 7:30 my mother would crank up the record player and put on an album called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  Lying there in our beds we could hear the scratch of the needle as it fell and hear the hiss of the speakers even before a John Philip Sousa composition came blasting out of 76 trombones like cannonballs, rocketing up the stairs, and bouncing around our room at something just above 100 decibels.

That was our cue—subtle as it was—to get up, get out of bed, and come downstairs for breakfast.  Mom would have cooked bacon and eggs, biscuits and grits, and we would all sit around the table rubbing our sleepy eyes and washing down our breakfast with glasses of orange juice and ice cold milk.  And then, just before eight, as someone was reaching for the last biscuit, Dad would hand out the work assignments for the day.  And with the exception of Saturday and Sunday this is how it would be every day for the rest of the summer.  This was my parents’ cure for boredom.

We would work in teams of two or three from eight until noon.  We would hoe corn, clear brush, muck out the horses’ stalls, stretch barbed wire fencing, and the sweat would run down in rivers, and we would start dreaming about what we were going to do as soon as noontime came, and the work was over.  We talked about it.  We made plans as we worked.  But the first thing we always wanted to do on those hot days—even before we ate lunch—was to go down to the river, to splash out into that cool, clear water, to dive headfirst under the surface, roll slowly over onto our backs, and come up spouting like whales.  Oh, freedom!  Oh, perfect, precious, delicious freedom! 

Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until you have to do without it.