February, 1983. We are twenty miles south of Toledo on Interstate-75 north in a ‘79 Ford wagon, hurtling through flurries of snow. We are five Presbyterians from five Indiana churches–two directors of Christian Education (DCEs, they’re called) and three ministers. Our destination? Toronto, to attend the annual North American conference of church educators.
“I think it’s accumulating,” one of the DCEs says and then giggles. She’s from that part of Wisconsin where they punctuate their speech with nervous giggles.
“Yes. So it is.” adds Big Steeple Preacher behind the wheel. His words roll out in sonorous tones that make me want to bow my head and say, “Amen.” But I don’t. What I really want to say is: “What breed of moron sets up a February conference in Toronto?”
But I don’t say that because in this group I am much the least in age and importance. My travel mates are “icons” in the presbytery. They’ve spent years making names for themselves. They preach and lead workshops at churches throughout the Wabash Valley. Adoring fans fawn over them for their faith and wisdom.
They are icons” and I am…well…do you know that character who wanders uninvited into a party and naively kills the mood? That’s me–attached like a wart to this crew of cronies who have trekked together for 15 years, just the four of them, to conferences all across the continent. They see themselves as a single vital unit of Presbyterianism, a brain trust, if you will. And as I ride quietly in their midst, I imagine the conversation that put me here:
“Somebody’s gonna have to take the new kid?”
[Long, painful pause]
“Well, he lives closest to you.”
“What would Jesus do?”
[Long, painful pause]
“All right, all right! We’ll take him.”
Compulsory Christian guilt cracked open a door just wide enough to stuff me into this Ford wagon.
By the time we reach the Detroit suburbs, snow is buffeting us in big, thick waves, creating that starburst blast of flakes beyond the windshield that can hypnotize the most alert of drivers. But there in the cockpit, Big Steeple’s holy hands are tight on the wheel at 10 and 2. He cranes his neck forward, his knobby nose only inches from the windshield. God is his co-pilot.
No one has yet stated the obvious—that we ain’t gonna reach Toronto like this. So, trying delicately to broach that subject, I resurrect the question I’d muted earlier, only in a kinder, gentler way:
“Why did they schedule a February conference in Toronto?” I ask.
“Isn’t it obvious?” blurts the minister up front in the passenger seat. Let’s call him Big Steeple Jr, or better, Junior. He’s a balding 40-something whose blaring voice belies his belief that everywhere is his pulpit. Covertly, though, he covets Big Steeple’s bigger pulpit, and designs to seize it, once Big Steeple retires—or dies.
“You get much better hotel and venue rates when demand is low!” says Junior with a laugh meant to signal my ignorance. Then he looks to Big Steeple for approval.
“Quite so, quite so.” booms Big Steeple. “Are we not called to be righteous stewards of the bounty our Lord has bestowed upon us.”
“Amen!” blares Junior, a little too eagerly.
Make no mistake: by bounty, Big Steeple means money. And nothing brings out the crazy in Presbyterians like money. They are, after all, a manifestation of the Church of Scotland where, for centuries, penny-pinching has been the noblest of arts. I will eventually endure 25 years in Presbyterian ministry, and through it all, any mention of money always trumped all other topics. For example, I witnessed a presbytery meeting in which a debate over the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” (practicing?) descended into shrieking madness bordering on fisticuffs. Then, suddenly, near the back of the room, a peace-minded man stood up and shouted, “ONE MILLION DOLLARS!” Immediately the room fell silent, all movement ceased. Then came bewildered murmurs, “Where?” “Whose money?” “Are we makin’ a million or losin’ it?” “Quick, call the Finance Committee!” “Form a subcommittee!”
“Money” is to Presbyterians what “Squirrel” is to the attention deficient. Shouting the word works like the neuralyzer in Men in Black. Folks forget everything that came before it.
So here we are: money-minded Presbyterians, a faith-filled fivesome in a Ford, fishtailing to Toronto, dodging dozens of ditched and dinged-up vehicles, hanging our health and safety over the abyss. But it’s okay. We’re saving money!
In retrospect it’s clear I should’ve been terrified. We had no business on the road in those conditions. But two thoughts shielded me from terror. First, I naively believed that God was guiding the hands and brake-foot of Big Steeple–that God was his Co-Pilot. Years later I will come to believe that Big Steeple was as unbearably annoying to God as he became to me. But in February ‘83, it didn’t occur to me that God might be swinging at Big Steeple and whiffing.
Second, I was shielded from terror by my own eager anticipation. This was to be my first ever trip abroad. Okay, okay, I know. It’s just Canada. But to a boy who who’d just recently escaped the South, the Great White North was bona fide exotica. And so I believed that neither rain nor sleet nor snow could keep me from crossing north of the border.
So now we’re warping, woofing, weaving through the Motor City. Big Steeple is furiously working the wheel, hard and fast to the right, then to the left, back right again, all to keep the tail of the wagon in line with front. Junior squirms in the passenger seat, vicariously jerking himself in whichever direction Big Steeple jerks the wheel. The DCEs are wide-eyed and seem to have quit breathing. DCE Giggles starts to pray, “O Precious Pinnacle of Power, protect us….. [nervous giggle].” The other DCE interrupts with the wisest words said so far: “We need another plan.”
And Junior is ready to dispense that plan, for he is a train buff, among those whose Grandpa took him to see a Choo-Choo when he was a tyke, and, in that moment, the heavens opened and a voice came forth saying, “This is my beloved mode of transportation in which I am well pleased!” So today Junior can name and describe every locomotive, every train car that ever rumbled on two rails. Back home his attic is a sprawl of miniature towns nestled in an intricate web of model-train tracks over which little locomotives whistle and toot and tug long lines of flat cars, commodity cars, coal cars, passenger coaches and, of course, cabooses. There’s even a circus train that totes tiny elephants and lions and tigers and bears. (Oh my.)
“If we can get over the Ambassador Bridge and into Canada,” barks field marshal Junior, “we can take the Canadian National rail line into Toronto! CN has some of the finest, softest rail beds in the world! Leave the driving to them!”
“How much will that cost us?” asks Big Steeple, warily, Presbyterianly.
“Less than it’d cost to replace your car and pay our medical bills,” says the DCE who’d lobbied for a new plan.
Judging by the interstate beneath us, I don’t expect the bridge to Canada to be open. And, ill-advisedly, I say so. Junior is too ready to denounce my doubt. “O ye of little faith!” He explains that in its role as a major international artery, the bridge was designed for quick and easy d-icing. And yadda, yadda, yadda. Well, sure enough, we find the surface of the bridge quite passable, almost dry.
Across the bridge at customs, Junior maintains his command, demanding directions to the train station which turns out to be mere minutes away—a great convenience, not so much because of proximity, but because it cuts short Junior’s sermon on the history of railroads.
[Blogpost concludes HERE.]