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. Keeping my eyes closed, I steadied my arms on branches above my head, knowing that the bark was coarse and would 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. Reaching into my backpack, I pulled out my copy of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and smiled contentedly. 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.
I looked out on the enormous, hulking church building. On this side of the building, there was a wall of trees, several hundred feet deep, a mixture of maple and oak, sprinkled with some pine. And, from my perch way up in the tree, 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 janitor 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 just wondered whether Christianity was just a sham, just an elaborate social construct to keep the masses in line. Looking at the church building, I wondered what was the difference between this, and Broadway. 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 unfortunate for me, they chose to smoke right beneath my tree. The smokers talked about french kissing, whether or not the band P.O.D. was Christian or not, and whether they were going away on the Winter Retreat or not. From forty feet above, I was furious, as I couldn’t concentrate at all on my book. But this week was quiet, as the 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 bought me a violin, from Ireland, 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 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. Born to Norwegian parents on a farm in Alberta, Canada, during the Great Depression, the pastor often used whimsical farm stories to illustrate spiritual principles. And while he could be funny, he could also be confrontational, and fearless in his criticisms of his own church. In all these things, he always seemed to care deeply for his congregation. Considering all of this, I listened to his 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, cleaning up a board game, making a cup of coffee, sweeping up the floor. The home was unique, it looked like the interior of an authentic Norwegian cabin, complete with ornate woodwork and rosemaling on the ceiling. Furniture was made out of old tree stumps, painted with Norwegian colors, and handmade teacups hung from hooks beneath the cabinets. 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, childish smile, and he kissed her and headed to the door. Sue looked over at me, and said “Ah, Bob, think we got an Irish fiddler here, do we? Look at this face. 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 invited 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 teachers. 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 needs being met 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. 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. In quiet affection, he was tender with his wife, and laughingly chided her for always being late for some upcoming appointment or service. Calling up the stairs to his twin sons, with a wry smile he would convey messages left for them on the answering machine by their girlfriends.
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 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 dangerous, because people 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 the counterfeit. But Pastor Forseth wasn’t distracted by others, he didn’t concern himself with anything other than living his life unto God. 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 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 him in a makeshift studio in the garage of the cabin. We passed the days, laughing, painting, telling stories, sitting on a lake overlooking South Dakota, talking, playing harmonica, listening to Pastor Forseth give lessons from the Bible, watching him warmly converse with his wife at the end of the day. 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.