First Methodist Church, Newton, Iowa
What John and Charles Wesley would have thought of my youthful Methodism, I can’t say.
To be frank, I’m not certain I knew during childhood that John Wesley had a brother. I loved hymn-singing on Sunday mornings, but it was years before I realized that Charles Wesley had written most of my favorites.
I certainly didn’t know about the history of the denomination, the doctrine of prevenient grace, or why our Greek revival building looked more like the town bank than any of the other churches in town.
I only knew that our church was comfortable, and well-suited for children. No one had to force us out of bed on Sunday morning in order to force us into a pew; we suffered no nightmares because of Jonathan Edwards-style preaching. In spring, we played tag or jacks on the church’s broad, sun-warmed steps. In winter, we sneaked into the kitchen to filch coffee hour cookies: then ate them, giggling, in the narrow, hidden passageway leading to the dome.
Catholic, Presbyterian, and Lutheran friends all envied our youth groups. Hayrides, taffy pulls, movie nights, roller-skating or ice-skating parties in season, father-son camping trips and father-daughter banquets were as much a part of our traditions as Easter dresses, Christmas programs, and work days, when we polished, scrubbed and swept alongside the grownups.
Best of all was Vacation Bible School. One of the great summer trinity that included a week away at Camp Hantesa and a two-week arts and crafts day camp, it provided a week’s worth of field trips, plays, educational projects and musicals.
Always, there were stories. Related to the summer’s theme, they were told both to encourage old-fashioned virtues and to increase Biblical knowledge. One year, lessons were built around the hymn “This is My Father’s World.” Another year, we wrote a play based on the book of Genesis.
One memorable year, we studied the miracles of Jesus: his walking on water, changing water to wine, raising Jairus’s daughter, calming the storm.
Of all the tales told, the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes left me most perplexed. In our house, if we ran out of food, we ran out of food. No one ever had made another rhubarb pie appear on the table, or an extra dish of mac and cheese: at least, not without some extra time in the kitchen.
Puzzled, I consulted my mother. “How did he do that?” “I’m not sure,” she said. “Ask your teacher.” The next morning, with slight trepidation, I asked my teacher. “How did Jesus do that? How did he find so many extra loaves and fishes?” My teacher, pink-cheeked, plump, and perhaps not accustomed to theological discussion with a ten-year-old, said, “Well, sweetie — he could do it because he was Jesus.”
Walking home that afternoon, I expressed my frustration to a friend. A born sceptic, she was convinced the miracles were akin to fairy tales, but she had a suggestion. “Why don’t you ask Dr. Long? He’s our minister. He can’t kill you, or give you a bad grade.”
Arthur V. Long was tall, with thinning black hair, black glasses, and a serious expression. Given to wearing black suits even at the height of summer, he bore a striking resemblance to Ichabod Crane, and it probably earned us a black mark in the heavenly ledger that we giggled at him behind his back.
On the other hand, the door to his office always was open. He waved to us as we passed by on our way to choir practice, and he asked us questions about our vacations and our pets. Finally, I decided to ask him a question of my own.
“Come in,” he said, as I lingered just outside the door. “Come in and sit down.” It was the first time I’d faced someone across so large a desk, but he seemed to find the presence of a vacillating ten-year-old perfectly normal.
“What can I do for you?” he said. I blurted it out, all at once. “We read the story in Bible School. I don’t understand how he did that. The loaves and fishes. Jesus. Where did that boy get all that food?”
Not even a flicker of a smile crossed his face. “What did your teacher say?” “That he could do it just because he was Jesus,” I said.
Outside the opened window, sounds of robins and bees roiled the rising heat. In his suddenly silent office, Dr. Long studied a pencil on his desk, rolling it under his finger with only the slightest, wooden sound: clackclickclickclack. Finally, he spoke. “What do you think?” “I don’t know,” I said.
Suddenly animated, he looked up with more questions. “Did you have good time in class this morning? What did you do?” I told him about the songs, the Bible story, the bread we helped to bake. “That’s good,” he said. “Did you have some treats, too?” In fact, we’d had some of my favorites: grape Kool-Aid and cookies made from graham crackers and chocolate frosting.
By this time, I’d grown comfortable enough to describe the cookies and Kool-Aid with a certain enthusiasm. When I finished, he asked, “Was there enough for everyone?” “Of course,” I said. There’s always enough.” “What if there hadn’t been enough?” he said. “Would you have shared?”
Actually, sharing chocolate-frosting-sandwiches and Kool-Aid was pretty far down on my list of priorities, but I was talking to a man of God. “I suppose,” I said. “Sure.” “Well,” he said, “would you have wanted to share?”
He already knew the answer, but he was kind enough not to force me into saying it. Of course I didn’t want to share. I was ten years old. Even today, I’m not always given to sharing, and for that reason alone, it’s good that Dr. Long’s words still echo in my mind. “Maybe that’s the miracle,” he said. “Maybe Jesus touched their hearts, and helped them become more willing to share. Maybe all of his miracles were meant to help people live differently.”
Whatever else it may or may not be, Easter isn’t a time for arguing over what’s possible and what isn’t; for splitting theological hairs; or for ridiculing those who long to believe in miracles. Easter is a time for trust and reclaimed innocence; for celebrating the triumph of life over death; for affirming the power of love and the possibility of a world made new. Certainly, it’s a time for sharing, and so I share these words of Mary Oliver.
Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.