Part 8 in the Growing Up Kansas series

I didn’t always detest the marimba; it happened by accident. I blame it all on a traveling evangelist and his marimba-playing wife.

My Dad worked in the oilfields but his real passion was to minister to a small country church he built with his own hands. He never took any pay and the church sent any leftover money to missionaries around the world.

As a result, the missionaries we supported occasionally came to speak in our church. All of these people gave up comfort in America to risk their lives taking the good news of the love of God to the jungles of South America or to sneak Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. I loved the missionaries.

We adored one missionary because he told cannibal jokes. [Tweet “There are few things little boys on the back row of church love more than cannibal jokes”]. He also told scary stories about the jungles of South America that kept me awake for three nights in a row. He was a friend of the five martyred missionaries documented in the movie, “End of the Spear.”

However, the traveling evangelists were another story. They were supposed to be sharing the good news of the love of God, too, but mostly they scared the living daylights of people. I was 43 years old before I heard an evangelist that didn’t make me wet my pants in fear.

Whereas missionaries came to give a report; evangelists came to make people git right with God. Missionaries felt called to share the love of God in the most primitive conditions imaginable; evangelists felt called to drink Dad’s coffee, eat Mom’s cherry pie and bellyache about us kids. Missionaries stayed a day or two; evangelists stayed a week. Evangelists lived up to Dad’s axiom that guests are like fish; after three days they begin to stink.

Evangelists held week-long revival meetings at our church which meant the pulpit took a particularly vigorous beating that week. Guilt and fear were their main themes and most lived by the motto; read the Bible; it will scare the hell out of you.

The evangelist’s goal was to pack people to the altar at the end of the service for rededication or repentance. Naturally, the best way to make people repent is to scare the hell out of them or make them feel lower than worm poop. After all, you were likely to get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church so you better git right with God.

We didn’t really have an altar; it was just a stage with a pulpit in the center, but it was symbolic of the holy of holies. The evangelist wouldn’t quit until someone went forward to meet Jesus and git right with God. This was a burning bush moment with Divine. Apparently Jesus didn’t hang out on the back row with us little boys; you had to walk up front to meet him.

It was not uncommon for my little rear to get dragged to the altar during those visits because the religious interlopers would convince my folks that I was the spawn of the devil and I’d better repent or the whole house was going to hell in a handbasket. One couple convinced my folks that my Leave it to Beaver language like darn, shoot, heck, and geewhiz meant I was cussing like a sailor. I was on the devil’s side and would soon be sporting a bifurcated tail and brandishing a pitchfork.

The evangelist would not quit until someone went forward to meet Jesus and git right with God. I won’t name names, but I know a few folks who went forward to meet Jesus just so the evangelist would shut up and we could head to Dairy Queen.

Revivals were about numbers. The number of people who attended, the number of people who converted to Christianity, the number of people who repented of all their sins to git right with God, and the number of dollars dropped in the collection plate for the evangelist.

One of the things I admired most about my Dad is that he finally quit passing the offering plate. Instead, he put a box in the back of the church and said; If you want to give, give; if you don’t want to give, don’t give. Shoving a plate under your nose while the piano plays I Surrender All is not a good reason to give; God loves a cheerful giver. Surprisingly, contributions rose significantly after he stopped taking up an offering.

The evangelist and the marimba-playing wife descended on our house in an old brown station wagon packed with the marimba and all its accouterments. As we settled in for a week-long series of hellfire-and-damnation sermons, I waited to see what new things I’d get in trouble for at home. It was always a crapshoot.

Mr. Evangelist knew it was about numbers, too, so he offered a contest: whoever invited the most people won a brand-spanking new leather-covered Bible.

Being the spiritually competitive person that I was, I invited all my friends from school who were pagans and backsliders. I told them about the exotic sounds of the marimba and how they were going to hell-in-a-hand basket and needed to come hear one of the greatest evangelists of all time. I didn’t bother telling them about the contest; I choose to obscure my selfish motives with righteous acts done for public recognition.

Each night, Dad opened up the service with a prayer and three hymns then turn it to over to the evangelist. The evangelist rambled on about the contest and how awesome the marimba was and how fortunate we were to have his wife bless us with her skill. She always fussed around with the marimba while he was talking and acted like she was embarrassed by the accolades. She would flit coy glances his way like the mama bear saying to Bugs Bunny, tell me more about my eyes.

She would then attack the marimba like it had personally insulted her. I’ve watched marimba players with exquisite skill play as if they are one with the instrument, but this woman looked like she was on the giving end of spousal abuse.

Being a Muppet fan, I associated the marimba with calypso music so I expected lively I’ll Fly Away or Shoutin’ in That Amen Corner kind of music. What we got instead were dirges and dark renditions of Judgment Day Songs because you’re going to get run over in the street when you leave here tonight so you better come forward to meet Jesus and git right with God.

The revival was drawing to a close on the last night and I was ahead in the numbers game. Hands down, I brought the greatest number of pagans and backsliders to the meetings. I was finally going to get my cherished prize.

Before Mr. Evangelist announced the winner, Mrs. Marimba walked over to him and whispered something in his ear. He rambled on for a bit about how good a week it had been, how many folks had come forward to meet Jesus and git right with God and how good the offerings had been and why he needed to come back soon. Real soon.

Then he dropped the bomb; the fine print in the contest said the competition for the brand-spanking new leather-covered Bible was only good for adults; kids were excluded.

I might not be the brightest crayon in the Crayola box, but I saw the lines in the coloring book well enough to conclude that Mrs. Marimba rigged the vote; she must have been from Florida.

Many years have passed and you will be happy to know I’ve repented and became a marimba-believer again. I got right with the marimba thanks to Muppets very own Marvin Suggs and the Muppahone.

Although the numbers from Mr. Evangelist and Mrs. Marimba were better than average, we never saw them in our church or home again.

However, the next Sunday in church, Dad called me to the front of the church. He made a comment about all the pagans and backsliders I brought the following week and how proud the church was of me then he gave me a brand-spanking new leather-covered Bible. He knew what it took to git right with God.


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