In the basement of Seventh Avenue Church the furnace was going, the computer humming, the Xerox running, and, upstairs, the organist practicing for Sunday worship. We’d been working on Pentecost. I’d been reading through the passage in Ephesians 5, the very famous passage about not being drunk on wine, but being filled with the Spirit.
It was a Tuesday morning, and I’d actually been chuckling, thinking about how strange life would be if we’d actually take the Bible seriously—perhaps I should say literally. Imagine me greeting my husband with the chorus “Holy, Holy, Holy” when he comes home from work at night. Imagine him greeting me that way. And yet the Bible says exactly that: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” He would probably like Paul’s holy kiss idea, as long as I’d go easy on the holy part.
I had been thinking about Pentecost—its zaniness, its messy abandon, its loose cannons, its spiritual drunkenness, all those tongues of fire on the heads of the blessed. I’d been thinking about Tony Campolo—the Christian life as a party. I’d been thinking about the madness of Christianity, its near insanity. And that had put me in mind of Madelyn Ringler, who just happened to come in to the church, a member on a mission.
She’d made it clear from the moment she’d joined our church that she was no novice. She was Roman Catholic as a child—step 1. Her father was a drinker, so she’d left the Catholic church when she was a girl, got baptized at Morning Glory Girls’ Camp in New Mexico—step 2.
Step 3 was New Age-ish—crystals and candles, pipe dreams and Native American chants in a colony of sunny colors in Arizona. That was the time her first marriage went kaput—she didn’t talk about him much, didn’t even use his name. It ended because of her immersion—she used that word herself—into New Age lies.
Step 4 was Pentecostal, a Holiness church just south of Phoenix, a place where she claimed she’d really found the warmth of the Spirit. But the folks there were not her type, so step 5 was Mesa Assembly—less fire, more fundamentals—at about the same time her second husband, a good man, she said, got caught up in some real estate scheme and went off to prison.
Meanwhile, her daughter lived in Terre Haute, so Madelyn had come north. That was step 6, and the fellowship was Lutheran, although she said the people in the church her daughter attended, full of God-knowledge, spent all their time wringing their hands at the waywardness of the denomination. She’d had enough of that in fourteen months. Step 7 was a community church, seeker-friendly but too shallow. Step 8 was us, Seventh Avenue.
Madelyn—colorful, enthusiastic, charismatic—was decidedly alone, her children in Indiana and Nevada, no husband to speak of, although she sometimes mentioned her second, the real estate jailbird. No one really knew whether she was still married to him. No one knew where she was getting her money, but she had it.
Madelyn, taking college courses—she wanted to be a family therapist—at the Extension. Madelyn, on the news every other week, sounding off at a zoning commission meeting or marching against fancy fur stores. Madelyn, who loved the front pew, whatever time she got to church. Madelyn, nearly fifty we figured, hands raised during singing. Madelyn, forever requesting her own services as soloist.
She came into church that morning with Pentecost on her mind. Couldn’t be business-as-usual on Pentecost, she said, because it wasn’t the way things were done in the first church—she meant apostolic. In one hand she held a shopping bag. “Pentecost,” she said, “is the time to light things up around here.” She raised her left hand to the Lord, palm open, fingers spread. “I’ve been part of Seventh Ave. for almost three years,” she said, “and I’ve never seen the place lit up. It’s time to trip the light fantastic.”
You had to love her, even if most of the time when she came in we headed for cover.
She put down the shopping bag to talk with both hands. “Here’s what I’m thinking,” she said. “Tongues is the sign, right? And we’ve done that already—somebody in Spanish, someone in Korean, someone in English, and another in Dutch. That’s old-hat.” She shook her head.
“The big deal—I mean the real Pentecost symbol—is the tongues of flame.”
One thundering nod.
No one spoke. That wasn’t unusual around Madelyn.
“So I’m at the 7-11 this morning, right? Got to get gas. I saunter up to the counter with my credit card, and then I see the whole thing. I’ve got this vision,” she told us. “The whole congregation with tongues of fire, because right there in front of me is a whole rack of Bics—hundreds of them.” She looks down at the shopping bag. “And just like that, the Lord tells me that’s the answer—Bics are the answer.”
Pastor Rich was smiling, but it’s the smile he puts on when he’s playing defense—a patronizing smile. I know it because I’m sure right then I was wearing the same defense.
“Okay, we can’t have candles—we’ve tried that and the fire marshal says no,” Madelyn said. ‘No candles on Christmas,’ he says. All right, I’m thinking, but what he never said was no Bics. Bingo!” She pointed down at the shopping bag I half expected to explode. “So the Spirit says for me to buy them—they’re cheap, three for a dollar and good for three thousand lights or something. They’ll be good forever.”
Bics, I’m thinking. Sure, Madelyn.
She reached into the shopping bag, hauled out a plastic bag with three of them, tore it open with her teeth and pulled out a green one, flicked it—once, twice, three times. Nothing. “How simple is this anyway? You give them out the way we do the noisemakers when the kids do rhythm stuff.” She kept hammering at the lighter. “Must be something arrears with this one,” she said, and she reached for another, this one red.
Shissh, shissh, shissh, shissh. Wouldn’t go.
“You’ve got to hit it right,” Pastor Rich said. “You’ve got to hold that little dingus in when you strike it.”
“You what?” she said, and Pastor Rich got off his stool and took it from her, pushed in something on the lighter, and it popped into flame.
“Sure,” she said. “We can announce it—how it works. We can tell everybody exactly how they work—that’s no problem.” When the pastor gave it back, she tried again. Nothing.
“With your thumb,” Pastor Rich said. “Push in that little black thing under the thing you flick—push it in.” Madelyn got nothing but a pathetic spark.
“Now watch,” the pastor said, and he nudged that little black thing in before he flicked it into flame. “It’s a safety thing, so kids can’t light it up. It’s like a safety on a gun.”
She took it once more in her fingers, looked down at the gizmo.
“Here,” the pastor said, and he took her hand in his, pushed in the little doohickey, and the thing popped into flame once more.
“I got it,” she said, and there she stood with that Bic’s flame jumping from her thumb. “Look,” she said, and she held it up to the top of her head. I was thankful for that jaunty beret, or her hair would have gone up like a burning bush. “Maybe we ought to have a run-through before worship,” she said. “But it’s no candle, right? No wax, no paper holders, no fire marshal.”
No danger? Madelyn is danger.
“It won’t pass,” the preacher said. “It’s an open flame, Madelyn.”
She was undaunted. “Then what’s wrong with a little civil disobedience?” she said. “Since when do Christians have to abide by the laws of a God-denying state?”
Nobody said a word.
“I say we stick the flames of our righteousness right in their faces,” she told us. “I say we thumb our Bics at the fire marshal. Indians get peyote, right? It’s a rite of worship.”
It’s wearying—it’s depressing—to know in your heart and mind that someone has to say no. Pastor Rich knew it, I knew it, even the church secretary—Gloria, who’d love to light up Seventh Avenue whatever way she could—knew it.
“I’m afraid it won’t work,” Pastor Rich said to Madelyn, whose fingers had to be getting hot with that Bic up there like a tiny red lighthouse in all the darkness around her. “It’s a wonderful idea, Madelyn,” he said, “but it pushes the envelope—and it’s illegal as anything.”
“Illegal—schmelegal,” she said. “You’re scared of the Spirit.”
Maybe she was right.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. That’s all—just that one word, and Madelyn took off his eyebrows with her own self-generated heat.
“That’s it,” she said. “I’ve tried to be a part of this church for a long time, tried hard. Every time I want to bring a little life into this place, somebody’s there with a wet blanket.” She raised her face, tipped her eyebrows up like someone who’d come to realize she was far better than the riff-raff around her. “I’ve tried and I’ve tried,” she said, “but this is the last straw.” As methodically as she’d done anything since she’d come, she looked at me, then the pastor, and finally at Gloria, who was, she knew, a kindred soul. And then she unflicked her Bic. “There’s no room for the Spirit at Seventh Avenue,” she said.
Madelyn turned on a dime. “Don’t look for me again,” she said, then turned back one more time. She took one look down at the shopping bag, then glanced up at us, then down at the bag once again, then left two hundred Bics, still cellophane-wrapped in separate packages of three, down there on the floor in a 7-11 shopping bag bigger than any I’d ever seen.
Like I said, nobody said a word. The spirit had come. The spirit had departed.
There we sat as if incinerated by a couple hundred cold multicolored Bics. Madelyn Ringler is not poor, she’s not uneducated, she’s not even unsophisticated. But she’s a holy fool, and we’ve got our share of problems with holy fools.
But she was gone. Have no doubt. We’d miss her, I thought. Maybe.