It’s official, Churched hits stores in paperback today.
If you haven’t read Churched, here’s a previously unreleased excerpt for your enjoyment. And if you would be so kind to spread the word for me, that would be awesome. Thank you. Also, if you RT this post with in the next 24 hours, you’ll be entered to win a copy of Churched in paperback!
You Know Where Liars Go
I learned what it felt like to hate somebody in the fourth grade. That’s the year Pastor Nolan’s mother moved to Chestertown from Georgia and became my teacher. I went to a Christian school. You weren’t considered a good independent fundamental Baptist unless you attended an independent fundamental Baptist school. Period. So when I was in first grade, my parents enrolled me in Bible Baptist Christian School. When Mom and Dad told me that I would be going to a new school, I walked into my kindergarten class at Worton Elementary the following day and announced to my class that I would not be coming back next year.
Mrs. Hessey gave me a perplexing look and said, “That makes me sad, Matthew. Why won’t you be coming back?”
“Because my church believes public schools are for heathens,” I told her. I think she understood, because after that, she didn’t ask me any more questions.
The Baptist school “rule book” warned parents in the opening letter from the principal that our school offered a kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade, God-centered education. In the beginning, Pastor Nolan created my school to be a way for parents who attended IBBC to protect and separate their children from the world. Eventually though, unable to financially support itself, the school opened its doors to students of other Christian denominations—not including Catholics—as long as the students and their parents signed a contract stating they had been born again in the blood of Jesus and would live their lives according to the school’s rule book.
Some people considered the school a godsend, a way to protect their children’s precious minds from hearing, learning, reading, or believing in things like evolution, secular philosophies, or the 1984 platform of the Democratic Party. Others called my school God’s little boot camp. For me, the school personified the church. At church, Pastor Nolan taught us how to be a fundamentalist, but it was at school that his teachings became a way of life enforced by the teachers. So, yeah—a boot camp.
From spelling to algebra, Jesus was infused into every aspect of our education. Our science books didn’t simply teach intelligent design. That would have been blasphemous. Our textbooks told us the world had been Jesus-designed in exactly six twenty-four-hour days. I learned that the dinosaurs no longer existed because Noah couldn’t fit them on the ark. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were born-again Christians and not only believed that the United States of America was a Christian nation but also considered America to be God’s “new Israel.” No other teacher was better at enforcing the rules than Nanny Nolan.
On the day I met her, I told my father, “This isn’t going to be a good year.”
“Ah, Buck, don’t say that,” Dad said. “It’ll be great.”
I didn’t believe him. By then I’d learned that, in regard to our school, my father’s optimism was actually just goodnatured denial.
“You need to have a good attitude, son.”
I nodded. “I know.”
It was Tuesday, and Mrs. Nolan came to class wearing the outfit she normally wore on Thursdays. She seemed very fond of how she looked in that particular dress. I once overheard her telling her teaching assistant, Mrs. Bark, that she believed the pink and white corduroy jumper made her look thinner. It didn’t. It made her look like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. But I knew better than to tell her that. Instead, I smiled at her when I walked into class and said, “Hello, Mrs. Nolan. You look so pretty today. I love that pink dress.” I sat my bookbag next to my chair.
“There aren’t many women who could pull off that outfit.” That I believed, but it wasn’t because Mrs. Nolan was doing the outfit any favors. No other woman should ever attempt to pull off that dress. Or put it on, for that matter. “Thank you,” said Mrs. Nolan in a tone that made it obvious she didn’t believe me. At some point during the semester I’d gotten into the habit of paying Mrs. Nolan random compliments three or four times a day. I felt obligated because she didn’t like me and I wanted her to. She was an authority figure in my life, and I needed her to like me, so I did my best to earn her acceptance. Prior to meeting Mrs. Nolan, I’d never been disliked by anyone before, especially an older woman. Old women fell head over heels for me. I didn’t even have to try—it just happened.
I thought I had a gift. As soon as I walked into church, women over the age of thirty-four threw candy at my feet like I was Mick Jagger and the Tootsie Rolls were underwear. But Mrs. Nolan was indifferent to the charm other women saw in me. She wasn’t impressed with me. I really needed her to be impressed. At my church and school, perception was everything. How people viewed you was much more important than how you actually were. The truth didn’t matter. What people believed to be the truth mattered. I learned early on that if everybody believed I was the well-behaved, good-natured boy without a sin in the world, it didn’t matter what the truth was. The truth was secondary to a person’s opinion or perception of the truth. It was all about good PR, and prior to having Mrs. Nolan as a teacher, nobody stared at me too closely. That was why each day I came up with something flattering to say to her. I hoped that one day I would find something that moved her to show some kind of affection. A smile. A pat on the back. A nonfrown would have been nice. Some days I came into school and complimented one of the dozen outfits I’d seen her wear over and over again. Other days I expressed how lovely her hair looked when she teased it out like a troll. During the Christmas season I even commended her handwriting. “I bet it’s just as pretty as the Virgin Mary’s,” I told her as she wrote in cursive on the chalkboard.
My sister Kelley helped me brainstorm ideas. Though she was eight years older than me, Kelley and I were the middle children, and I think that helped us understand each other.
“Have you complimented her teeth?” she asked as I sat on the bathroom vanity and watched her carefully apply blue eye shadow. “Most women really like to have people say nice things about their teeth.”
She smiled into the mirror, checking to make sure her own teeth weren’t showing any signs of breakfast.
“Really?” I said, mesmerized by Kelley’s attention to detail, color, and volume of her eyelashes. “Even if they have dentures?”
“Absolutely. That might even be better.” She pointed a tube of mascara at me. “If you compliment her dentures, she’ll think you can’t tell. Maybe you could tell her how white they are, or that they’re nice and straight.” She smiled into the mirror again, as if she’d forgotten how white and straight her
own were. “I think that should make her feel really good about herself.”
“But what if they aren’t white and only sort of straight?”
I asked. “Do I just lie?”
“Oh please, Matthew.” She held a pair of tweezers between two fingers, preparing to pluck one of her eyebrows. “Last fall when you told her she had the nicest pumpkins of any teacher
in the school, did you really believe that?”
“But at least her pumpkins were attractive,” I said. “They had nice stems. So it wasn’t an all-out lie.”
Kelley rolled her eyes. “You know Mrs. Jones’s pumpkins are always the best. And what about all the times you’ve told her how much you love that hideous black dress she wears with the different colored squares all over it?”
“That dress isn’t so bad,” I said.
Kelley looked at me. “Not if you’re a Rubik’s Cube.”
She was right. In addition to Mrs. Nolan looking like a Rubik’s Cube in that dress—one tragically left unsolved—I was a liar. Almost instantly, my stomach began to ache with gas pains, which I always assumed meant the Holy Spirit was trying to tell me something. When Kelley left the bathroom, I stayed behind so I could spend time sitting on the toilet in prayer. “I’m a liar, God,” I said, reaching for the toilet paper. “I’m sorry.”
Yep, you’re a liar, the gurgle in my stomach said to me. And I’ll make you feel bad about it until you confess. I flushed the toilet.
A few months earlier, before corduroy was in season, Mrs. Nolan had stood at my desk, looking over a few sentences to which I had just finished adding commas. By the look on her face, I hadn’t done such a good job. To me, commas seemed like fickle creatures, and I never was very good at placing them where they were supposed to go. However, since Mrs. Nolan wasn’t a real, certified teacher,she wasn’t very good at placing them either. My school didn’t
require teachers to have college educations. Most of the teachers weren’t professionals. At my school the kids taught themselves at their own pace using a curriculum that, in order to pass to the next grade, required twelve small booklets be completed in each subject. On that day Mrs. Nolan was checking my work to see if I was ready to take that book’s exam. I started to get nervous because it was taking her so long.
“Are those new shoes, Mrs. Nolan?” I asked, looking down at a pair of tan loafers that looked like the kind that
came with a prescription.
“No, they’re not, Matthew.” She pulled a green ink pen from the flap of her ear.
“Well, I really like them,” I said. “They match your legs.”
“Thank you, Matthew,” she snapped. “They’re comfortable.”
For an old lady, Mrs. Nolan had excellent posture. She probably practiced standing perfectly straight in front of a mirror. She seemed like that kind of woman who worried about things like posture. She probably made her husband practice with her.
I looked up to see Mrs. Nolan’s face crinkled like an angry raisin. “What is this?” She pointed at a small red dot above one of the sentences. “Is that red ink? That’s red ink, isn’t it?” She turned a page. “And look, there’s another!”
She was right—they were red ink dots. I put them there when I checked my own work at the checking table. And because I had been back and forth from my cell to the checking table about seven times, I eventually just put a couple of small, barely noticeable red dots above the spots where the commas belonged. In other words, I cheated. As soon as Mrs. Nolan began yelling at me, I didn’t want to be there anymore. I wanted to go someplace else, someplace safer, someplace where angels played poker and didn’t mind letting a cheater play along. I looked around my desk for anything that might make a suitable noose, but before I could prepare for my quick exit, the Holy Spirit showed up in my lower intestines and blew bubbles. I felt blood rushing from every part of my body and gathering like clots in my cheeks and forehead. A wave of nervous adrenaline washed over me as I tried as hard as I could not to look guilty. But I was guilty. I felt guilty. And I was sure I looked guilty.
“I think you cheated,” said Mrs. Nolan loudly. “You put those red dots there on purpose, so you wouldn’t have to go back to the checking table. So you could come back to your seat and put commas there with your pencil. I’m right, aren’t I?” Don’t look guilty, Matthew, I thought. Don’t look guilty.
“No!” I said. “I can explain.” I was lying again. I couldn’t explain. It hadn’t crossed my mind that I needed to prepare an official statement or excuse to cover my tracks—or my red dots, as the case was. I wasn’t a professional cheater, just one who dabbled in cheating from time to time, like somebody who sells Tupperware in the evenings for the free storage containers.
As Mrs. Nolan scanned my book for every red dot she could find, I did what I always did when I felt the pounding ache of anxiety and I couldn’t find a guillotine: I prayed. God, I thought, Do you help sinners? Do you even like sinners? If you do, please help me. P.S. You are awesome. Mrs. Nolan’s voice filled the room in a tone I couldn’t imagine Jesus ever using.
“Oh, so you think you can explain, can you? I would love to hear your explanation, Matthew.”
I thought about my mother and father and the pride and joy that would seep from their faces if they found out I had cheated. It was an unsettling experience to confess any kind of sin when you were a ten-year-old fundamental Baptist with a deacon for a father and a mother who thought the television should be taken outside and shot execution style. Confessing I was a cheater would have been like telling my parents I was Hindu and that I thought I was born that way.
I looked at Mrs. Nolan, and with the guilt of a thousand prisoners written across my face, I made up a very stupid lie. “I must have accidentally hit the paper with the pen,” I blurted. “When I was checking my work. The pen just hit the page a few times.”
Once I said it out loud, it didn’t sound nearly as stupid as it had in my head.
“Oh really?” said Mrs. Nolan. “And it just so happens that eight out of the ten marks are located where commas are supposed to go?”
It suddenly became stupid again. I thought about suggesting that it might have been a miracle, but before I got the chance, her eyes got big, and an angry look appeared on her face. I thought she was going to do what the prophet Elijah did when a group of children mocked his bald head. I didn’t know how a couple of grizzly bears would get into our classroom and eat me, but I was convinced that Mrs. Nolan did.
“That’s it!” she yelled. “Go to the principal’s office! I don’t want your cheating soul in my class. I don’t even want to look at you.”
“But Mrs. Nolan—”
“Don’t you say another word, Matthew Turner. Not another word. I feel sorry for you. You had your chance to confess your sins to me, and instead you lied. Everyone in this classroom heard you. God heard you. You lied! And you know it. Go.”
I walked through the door and down the stairwell toward the principal’s office. I felt alone and dirty and unprepared for what might come next. I’d never been sent to the principal’s office before. I’d always gone there voluntarily for hall passes or to hand in a doctor’s notice. I thought about my friend Kathy. The week before, she had been caught cheating, and when she told the truth, she still got two days of suspension and a slew of dirty looks from Mrs. Nolan after she returned. I thought about what my father might say. “You know where liars go, right, son?” He would then direct my attention toward the cat-o’-nine-tails he used to keep his pants from falling down.
When I opened the door to the principal’s office, I felt like I was opening the gates of hell. The musty scent of wood paneling hit me in the face. I poked my head inside, and the secretary motioned for me to come in. It was obvious Mrs. Nolan had used the intercom to let her know why I was there. The secretary was a girl named Charlene, an older student who, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, filled in while the real secretary taught church aerobics to a group of women.
“The principal will be with you in a bit.” Her face was pale and perfect like a china doll, and she had a comforting smile. She picked up a box of tissues and offered me one so I could wipe the tears and snot off my face.
“It’s going to be okay. You don’t think it is right now, but it will be.”
After only a couple of minutes, the door to the principal’s office opened, and he ushered me inside. As he shut the door behind us, I caught a quick glimpse of Charlene. She winked at me like I imagined an angel doing. And she nodded her head as if to remind me again that it would be okay.
The following year a rumor spread around our school about Charlene. Some of the women in our church suspected she was sleeping with the principal. The truth never came out. Her parents pulled her out of the school, and I never saw her again. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why she was so kind to me. Maybe she understood that, under our circumstances, the truth didn’t always set you free. Sometimes it just made you lie. When I arrived at school the following day, the classroom seemed cooler. As soon as she saw me, Mrs. Nolan followed me to my desk, grabbed my arm, and turned me toward her.
“You might have convinced the principal and your mother and father that you didn’t cheat,” she said, “but I know better, and I’m going to watch you like a hawk, young man!”
“Okay,” I said and put my head down on my desk, begging God silently not to send me to hell. I told him I was sorry and pleaded with him to let Jesus come back into my heart. Then I reached into my book bag and grabbed a container of Rolaids. Right before I popped one, I said, “Holy Spirit, forgive me.”
Excerpted from Churched by Matthew Paul Turner Copyright © 2008 by Matthew Paul Turner. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.