“Psssst! You better get off of that stage, Chambers. Security is going to come get you.”
I struggled to recall how I knew the familiar face; then it dawned on me that we had both attended Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas. He had known me as a preacher boy always in trouble because of the pranks I was involved with around school. Now, I wore a navy blue suite and sat on the platform at the beginning of the 1993 Southern Baptist Convention in Houston, Texas.
Some 30,000 messengers had made the pilgrimage to this giant convention hall to uphold the battle for the Bible and keep the momentum going in the so called “conservative resurgence.” I sat on the dais with many dignitaries that day, but I only remember one—the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics. Her image covered countless magazines and more importantly, her pixy haircut and million dollar smile had graced the breakfast of champions—Wheaties. Mary Lou Retton’s smile almost blinded me when we were introduced.
I straightened my yellow paisley power tie and stuck my hand out saying, “Hi, I’m Joe Chandler from Colorado. Chambers, I’m Joe Chambers. Not Chandler. I don’t know anyone named Joe Chandler.” She tilted her head to the side, flashed her smile and said, “Nice to meet you, Joe.”
We sat down beside each other and she mentioned she had done some training in Colorado Springs when she was an Olympian. She said she loved the mountains. My mouth dry, I felt a bead of sweat track down my back and, suddenly, I ran out of anything to say. I checked our schedule on my program. It said that I would open the Convention in prayer and then Mary Lou would greet her home town of Houston. An official approached and said the order had changed. My prayer was to follow Mary Lou’s greeting. We nodded and glanced at each other like we understood the new play the coach had drawn up in the commercial timeout. Mary Lou motioned to the man to come close and she whispered something in his ear, pointed to the podium, and giggled. He left on her errand with a smile.
I took a deep breath. She smelled so good. We had mutually and silently agreed to stop trying to chit chat. My skin prickled and my palms got wet. I was more than a little nervous to pray before 30,000 people, God, and Mary Lou. The night before I had been worried that I would get in front of all those Baptists and either forget my name or decide to preach, take an offering, and have an altar call. Glad I had spent some time on my very first written prayer, I reviewed it. Baptists don’t write their prayers. I had to hide the contraband inside my program because security might discover it and take me away to wear sackcloth and ashes. I asked Jesus to calm my nerves. It was the first time I prayed before I prayed.
Mary Lou was not nervous at all. Her hands were folded across her lap. She sat still, thoughtful, and ready. I was swallowing spit that was not there. The man came back and slid a wooden step behind the podium.
“That’s odd” I thought. Then I remembered that Mary Lou was four foot nothin’. Without the two-step riser, the only part of Mary Lou that the audience would see would be the top of her perky little pixy head.
That’s cute, I thought.
Ed Young, Sr. introduced her and she bounced up to a cheering and adoring crowd. I couldn’t see her face as she wooed the crowd, but I imagined her toothy smile and effusive personality translating well to the crowd of Southern Baptists who liked to swoon when a celebrity wasn’t ashamed to be associated with them. She had them eating out of the palm of her hand. I began to worry that I had to follow after her.
There was a lot to process: Please don’t look stupid in front of 30,000 Baptists, God, and Mary Lou, Joe. Drop your voice down in your register, speak slowly, and enunciate every word carefully. Sound authoritative. Don’t sound like a funeral home director and don’t sound like you are reading your prayer. Security is standing right over there.
Mary Lou was winding down her welcoming speech when I panicked. That man who had brought the wooden step was nowhere to be found. What am I going to do about that step? The audience doesn’t know it is there. Will Mary Lou move it? Do I stoop down to move it? Do I climb up the steps and stand where she stood? That would make me 7’10”.
“Dear, Jesus, what do I do?”
Mary Lou concluded, “So, on behalf of the mayor and the city of Houston, let me extend my heartfelt welcome to all of you to our great city.”
The crowd went wild. She smiled and waved two hands in the air like she had just scored a perfect 10 in the floor exercise. Then she bounded down the step, came over to me, winked, and smiled at me and said, “You’re next.”
The step is still there. She didn’t move it for me. Where is that guy? That step is sitting there like a step of shame. Sweat is running down my back in rivulets to my nether regions. I can’t breathe.
“And now, pastor Joe Chambers from Lochwood Baptist Church in Lakewood, Colorado, will lead us in prayer.”
With one more whiff of Mary Lou and 30,000 Baptists watching me, I walked to the podium and straddled the two-step riser like I was about to dead-lift a Jeep. Of course when I did, my stance was almost three and a half feet wide and I shrank by four inches. I imagined them thinking I had stepped into a hole. I imagined anyone who knew me when I went to college in Texas and remembered me being 6’4”, being confused at my loss of stature. I imagined Mary Lou, seated behind me, thinking—I don’t even want to know what she was thinking.
I bowed my head and hid my red face, licked my dry lips with a sandpaper tongue and began to slowly read my prayer:
We come before you as your children and we stand in need of your grace. Guide our thoughts these days as we make decisions about our portion of Your church. Give our president wisdom, patience and courage to preside in a way that honors You. Help us to not be so busy being Baptists that we forget the joy of being Christians. And now as we pause these moments at the beginning of these meetings, may we hear the soft sound of sandaled feet walking among us. And may He be pleased with our fellowship with one another. In His name I pray, amen.
Backing out of my straddle, I turned to return to my seat and sat down beside Mary Lou. My heart pounded and my mouth was dryer desert sand. The president thanked me and went on to introduce the parliamentarian and others on the main platform.
Mary Lou leaned over to me and said, “You handled that step thing well.”
“Thanks,” I said.
The man in the dark suite came back and escorted her off the platform; he told me to follow. She went behind the curtains where her people were waiting; I was told to go the other way where my people were waiting for me—30,000 rather pugilistic Baptists.
- Written prayers may not be Baptist, but they are Christian. (See The Lord’s Prayer)
- Praying before you pray is a pretty good idea.
- Worshipping celebrities is easier than worshipping God this side of Heaven.
- Mary Lou Retton smells really good.