Day of Reckoning

The Man in Black has his Come-to-Jesus meeting

The rhythm of worship was distantly familiar, the progression of churchly routine vaguely comfortable as the Man in Black shifted his seatbones against the hard, smooth surface of a wooden pew at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Creve Coeur, searching for an angle that didn't cause pain to shoot through ancient football and horse injuries.

A long time had passed since he had been a Sunday-service regular -- lots of whiskey and road miles, a dead daddy, many towns and a couple of broken marriages. A Southern Baptist backslider, a sinner loud and profane in the eyes of the faithful, he still felt the spiritual balm of the old call-and-response.

His soul was rested. But his mind, his butt and his bad knees and back were not.

The hymns and Scripture readings ended. Very soon now, the sermon would start, and he would be called to the front of the church, where Rev. Scott Lohse would use him as a living prop for the day's message.

And then the Man in Black would do a little preaching of his own -- some sermonizing, a little testifying and a bit of begging for forgiveness. But first he would have to run the gantlet of Lohse's pointed ribbing.

A barn door of a man with an unruly shock of black hair, the good pastor of Mt. Zion is a gleeful trickster, both simpatico and sly. And the Man in Black had given him a target-rich environment as the guy responsible for the "Jesus Gets Even: Rams' Prayers Go Unanswered" headline that appeared on the cover of this newspaper on the Wednesday after the Super Bowl loss.

"Just about the time we are all trying to forget about the Super Bowl, the Riverfront Times newspaper has decided to rub our noses in it," Lohse said from the pulpit.

"He really did not sound like the devil all that much to me. The point he wanted to make was simply that besides our egos' taking a blow with the loss of the Super Bowl, so, too, did the idea that the Rams were God's favorite football team!"

Lohse also preached from the Gospel of Bono, Chapter U2, Verse 24: "'I sometimes wonder, when people who put out all kinds of junk thank God for their awards, if God isn't up there saying, 'Oh, please -- don't thank me for that!'"

Words like water to a man scorched and flame-broiled by the firestorm of outrage that seared his phone line and e-mail queue in the days since that cover appeared. Even though it wasn't clear what angered some the most -- the perceived blasphemy or the accompanying cartoon of a golden ram and a battered Kurt Warner, on his knees and bleeding in a pose similar to that famous photo of old-time New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle -- it was loudly obvious that the faithful, both Catholic and Protestant, were deeply offended.

And they gave him an earful -- early and often. Still do.

In a left-handed way, like a crackback block from a hyena wideout sneaking into a linebacker's blind side, the Man in Black learned a rawhide lesson about the deep religious sensibilities of this town. A less-than-innocent newcomer, he learned of St. Louis' twin pillars of faith -- the Rams and Jesus, often in that order -- and the paucity of humor about same.

Such is the culture of this deeply Catholic and clannish town, a place where the only question more basically vital than "What high school did you go to?" is "What parish are you from?" But it is also a product of traumatic and threatening times. In a country that's endured a harrowing terrorist attack, in a metropolitan area that keeps taking devastating economic hits, folks take an ever-tighter grip on the stuff that gives them hope and light.

And that plays right into the heart of Lohse's sermon.

"The point is that putting God on our team does not guarantee victory on the scoreboard,'' he preached. "If worshiping God does not guarantee our success, then why worship at all? The answer is that we worship precisely because success is not guaranteed and so we know that we are going to need a source of hope and healing in our lives."

More Lohse: "This Lenten season will be a good time to remind ourselves that Jesus did not go to the cross in order to guarantee us victory over the Patriots.... The message is, win or lose, God is never defeated or mocked. So as long as people have faith ... the proud parent of the Savior of the world will heal every wound and temper every triumph."

Strong stuff, easily overlooked by those who confuse deep and selfish desire with bedrock faith or those who make an overreaching claim on God's grace to puff themselves up, make themselves feel better than the other guy or drape religious raiment over a worldly agenda of cool self-interest.

Sometimes there isn't an evil motive. Sometimes it's just plain old everyday supersized ego that makes people take something that should be all about God and faith and turn it into something that's all about them. Quarterbacks and CEOs are oftentimes guilty of such innocent errors.

Editors, too.

And that's what the Man in Black told Lohse's congregation. Preaching from the text of a bent and blackened spiritual upbringing -- and poaching shamelessly from the Book of Ray (King Hartmann Version) -- he copped a plea of being deliberately provocative, rude and mean-spirited with that sacrilegious cover. Part of a newspaper's job is to anger, edify and annoy by poking a sharp stick at town's sacred sheep.

And to sell papers, too.

But behind all of that was the remembered teachings of a churchgoing youth. And the example of a mother who still talks the talk and walks the walk of a deeply held faith, a woman who would no more make a showy declaration of her private beliefs than she would follow her son into a saloon.

The cover in question wasn't meant to be a shot at Jesus or a slap at Christians, he told Lohse's flock. Nor was it the bigoted pope-bashing Catholics have historically had to endure in this country. And it sure wasn't meant to stifle any and all public expression of a private faith, be it in God or Allah, L. Ron Hubbard or Emperor Haile Selassie.

But it was a slap at those who would cheapen the coinage of God by trotting out a religious gesture or catchphrase as they would a high-five or touchdown dance. And it was a slam at those who stake an egocentric claim on a deity's grace, a line Kurt Warner crossed when he suggested the Rams were a team of destiny, assembled by God to win another Super Bowl.

Sorta like the Germans claiming it was God's will that they steamroller their army through Belgium to start World War I. Or the Rebels and Yankees holding their religion high as they slaughtered each other at Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga and Wilson's Creek. Rivers of blood have been spilled in the name of God and Allah and Buddha, as all of us were reminded on a morning of fire and death just six months gone.

People of any faith need to remember this grisly context when they bear a very public witness to their belief. They also need to be aware of the constant electronic braying of Christian mountebanks such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who blamed Sept. 11 on gays, lesbians, liberals and abortionists.

So ended the sermon from the Man in Black, lapsed Baptist and bourbon's own backslider.

Lohse was kind enough to ignore such windy presumptions by comparing the cover conflagration to the trials of Salman Rushdie, hit with an Islamic death contract for writing The Satanic Verses. Rushdie, said Lohse, meant the book to be a tribute to the very people who burned it in the streets .

The good pastor, blessed with the soul of a coyote, even said the Man in Black did a spiritual thing, lancing the boil of public despair. A joke, right? Maybe so. But Lohse sure looked sincere when he said this:

"What you did was almost pastoral. You were showing the dejected fans and naming it rather than pushing it all under the rug. You named the disease, and after you name it, you can cure it."

Unwarranted praise. Unworthy placement in high company. And, being a failed Baptist, the Man in Black had another religious analogy in mind as he returned to his pew and thought about his new hometown.

It was a decidedly Old Testament story:

Daniel in the lion's den.