I wedged my foot into a recess at the base of the trunk, and I leaped for the large branch extending over my head.  Slowly, I pulled my weight atop the branch.  Shimmying between the trunk and another large branch, I made my way steadily up the tree.  I kept my eyes closed as I steadied my arms on branches above my head, knowing that the bark was coarse and bits of it could fall into my eyes.  I shook my hair, letting all the bits and pieces of bark fall, watching them land in the grass forty feet below.  My hand disappeared into my backpack, I pulled out my copy of  “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and a smile spread across my acne bespeckled face.  I was fourteen years old, it was youth group night at Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, a large, protestant church in the middle of Long Island, and I was having my communion with Mark Twain.

From my perch up high in the tree, I looked out on the enormous, hulking church building.  On this side of the building there was a stand of trees, a hundred feet deep, a mixture of maple and oak, Norwegian Spruce, sprinkled with some Tupelos.  Here in this place of solitude, I could faintly hear the low rumble of a bass system, beating in time with some contemporary Christian grunge music.  The youth group played music so loud that the windows could actually be seen vibrating.  Perhaps the music was louder tonight, as there was a guest band hosting the youth group service.  Before I had the chance to slip out, I saw the lead singer of the band, clad in skin tight shirt and baggy jeans, run and leap over a piano, grab the microphone stand and flip it upside down, and croon on his knees the final words to the worship song, “It’s all about you, Jesus.”  He wiped sweat off his forehead, and resumed running around the room, telling everybody that revival was here, that the Spirit was gonna fall, and if you don’t feel like worshiping, well, you’d betta get used to it, because that’s what you’re gonna do for aaaaaaaaaaaallllllll eternity, around the throne in heaven, worshiping God just like this, so get up on your feet and clap yo hands.  Before I exited through the back door, I wondered if God might make me a custodian in heaven, so that I could perhaps just sweep up late at night, when everyone was gone.

And now, as I sat up in the tree, I thought about God.  I loved praying to God, I knew that he heard my every word, and somehow the yellow, orange, and red autumn leaves around me told me that there was a Creator who loved me.  From boyhood I knew that Creator to be the greatest artist, one whose palette was comprised of living things.  But I remembered back to my young childhood, and recalled some of the crazy, evangelical churches that my parents had attended, before Smithtown Gospel, and I was revolted.  And here I was, years later, with that bitter taste still tainting so much of what went into my mouth.  I looked out at the building, that stale, postmodern structure, and I wondered whether Christianity was just a sham, just an elaborate social construct to keep the masses in line.  I wondered what was the difference between the church and Broadway- lights go dim, the minor chord is borne aloft, now the major chord, here comes the resolution.  I found my spot in my book, sprayed myself with the bug spray I kept in my backpack, and began reading.  I was hoping that the smokers would choose to loiter in a different spot this week.  Last week, as always, the same group of kids slipped out of the building, and unknowingly they chose to smoke right beneath my tree.  The nicotinista talked about french kissing, whether or not the band P.O.D. was Christian, and whether or not they were going away on the Winter Retreat.  From forty feet above, I was furious, as I couldn’t concentrate at all on my book.  But this week was quiet, as the loquacious smokers went walking in another direction.  And as I looked at the faint glow of the cigarettes in the distance, my mind wandered from my book to the upcoming week.  My grandfather had returned from Ireland with the gift of a violin for me, and this coming Wednesday I was going to take my first violin lesson.  My teacher was a very talented classical violinist, and also happened to be the wife of the senior pastor of Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle.

Wednesday came, and with it a great deal of nervous excitement.  I couldn’t wait for school to end.  Aside from the thrill of the instrument inside of my case and the wonder of how the violin lesson would go, I was also curious to enter the home of  the senior pastor of the church.  On the pulpit, the pastor was a warm,  sincere speaker.  I found his earnest, straightforward manner of talking to be engaging, yet stripped of any coercive artifice.  He wasn’t flashy.  Born during the Great Depression to Norwegian parents on a farm in Alberta, Canada, the pastor often used whimsical farm stories to illustrate spiritual principles.  And while he could be lighthearted, he could also be confrontational and fearless in his criticisms of his own church, a quality which I found comforting.  And as I thought of Pastor Forseth, I was reminded of Jesus looking out on a crowd of people that had journeyed so far by foot to hear him speak.   Jesus looked out on these masses of tired humanity with pity, that they were as lost sheep without a shepherd.  Pastor Forseth had this sort of a compassionate spirit.  Considering all of this, I listened to his earnest sermons on Sunday morning.

Pastor Forseth greeted me at the door with a quiet nod.  Off of the pulpit, he moved slowly, spoke quietly, even looked somewhat stern.  I nervously entered his house, and sat down in a side room with my violin.  I watched the white haired, old man as he moved slowly about, as he cleaned up a board game, made a cup of coffee, swept up the floor.  Pastor Forseth and Sue’s home was unique, it looked like the interior of a transplanted Norwegian cabin, complete with ornate woodwork and rosemaling on the ceiling.  Their furniture was made out of old tree stumps, painted with Norwegian colors, handmade teacups hung from hooks beneath the cabinets, a hand painted harpsichord sat quietly in the corner.  Suddenly, a door burst open.  Sue Forseth entered the room, violin in hand, and yelled out “Oh, Bob, you are just wonderful!  He came home on his break this evening, and played scrabble with me, just to keep me company.  And thanks for the coffee, too.”  His stern face broke into a wide smile, and as he kissed Sue he suddenly looked like a little boy.  Sue looked over at me, and said “Ah, Bob, think we got an Irish fiddler here, do we now?  Look at this face.  Fun.  Let’s go.  MacElroy, right?”

Every Wednesday, I would walk from my school to the Forseth home, and Pastor Forseth would greet me at the door.  At first we only spoke for a few short moments, but after a short while, he would invite me into the kitchen to talk to me.  He told stories about his childhood on the grass plains of Alberta, and described Canadian folk instruments to me, his favorite being the saw.  “You put the saw, any old carpenter’s saw will do, between your knees, drag a violin bow across it, and bend it for pitch.”  He asked me how school was going, and he laughed when I told him stories about the deluge of dittos that Mrs. Olitsky would rain upon the desolate wasteland of eighth grade history.  He described his years as an itinerant folk musician playing gospel music in war ravaged Europe, after the second world war ended.  He talked about how things were going at Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle.  He had traveled to sixty countries, and spoke about the work God was doing across the world.  While we spoke, he warmed up food for me and filled my glass with iced tea.  We would talk for hours on end, and his conversation was often about God, though he never came across as forced.  It was as natural for him to talk about spiritual matters as it was for other people to talk about baseball.  I listened with such delight, his sincere love for God was so wonderfully engaging.  And when we were finished talking, I would watch him closely.  With the solemn manner of a farmer of the plains, he walked about the house.  But the thing that I watched closest was his relationship with Sue.  His every interaction was imbued with such a quiet, tender affection for his wife, and I reflected how attractive it is when genuine love is witnessed. He thanked her for something or other, listened to her talk about the events of the day, and he laughingly chided her for always being late for orchestra or for service.  And once Sue disappeared into the side room to teach another lesson, with a wry smile he would call up the stairs to his twin sons and convey answering machine messages left for them.  It was something to behold, the dry monotone of his Canadian accent, relaying the content of a Long Island girl’s cooing message.

As months went by, I grew better at the violin, and eventually I was invited to join the orchestra at Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle.  And as years went by, I grew close to Pastor Forseth.

On a Wednesday night, I climbed the same tree behind the church building, and pulled out my book to begin reading.  And then, I thought of Pastor Forseth.  He was somewhere in the building, getting ready for the adult Wednesday night sermon.  He preached his sermon, he served people, he visited people in hospitals, he helped pull together broken families, he challenged the congregation to be more like Jesus, he moved forward.  I once read in the New York Times that counterfeit money is not dangerous because of the risk of inflation, as the common misunderstanding goes.  Counterfeits are in fact dangerous because counterfeits cause people to stop believing in the validity of the value of the bill.  I was prepared to reject the whole currency, because I was so disillusioned with some counterfeits that I had come across.  But Pastor Forseth was the real thing, and he wasn’t deterred or distracted by others’ perceived faults, he simply lived his life unto God.  “Kevin, stay close to God, stay close to man, and do all you can to bring God and man together” were the words he often relayed to me.  I lifted up a prayer to God, climbed down from the tree, and walked into the youth group service.

Three weeks ago, I flew out to the Forseth cabin in Minnesota, with my wife and sons.  Though I had seen him a few times, I had not spent time with Pastor Foseth in about ten years, as he had retired a decade ago from his position as senior pastor at Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle.  Hundreds of miles away from all civilization, I spent two weeks painting Pastor Forseth’s portrait, beside a lake, in a simple garage that was on the property of a cabin.  There, beside lawnmowers and garden tools, with brushes and palette in hand, the days passed with us laughing, telling stories, remembering all the wonderful things that God had done in our lives, sitting on the lake, playing harmonica and saw, listening to Pastor Forseth give lessons from the Bible, watching him warmly converse with his wife at the end of the day.  Ten years later, and I still loved watching Pastor Forseth and Sue  converse with such quiet warmth.  Their love for each other was so beautiful, theirs was a love that was contagious.  And on his eightieth birthday, when the entire Forseth family arrived at the cabin, with five children, and eleven grandchildren all around him, I presented him with his portrait painting.  And afterwards, at 12:30 at night, I played the Irish fiddle, and a bunch of crazy Norwegians danced around the cabin.


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