I was 8 years old.
Miss Jan was my Sunday School Class teacher at church. "The Race" was her idea. It would change my life forever.
Miss Jan had thumb tacked a cut-out paper race track to the wall of our classroom. On the race track there were paper race cars we'd each decorated in our favorite colors and our names.
The rules to "The Race" were simple:
1.) Bring your Bible to class, move your car ahead a space.
2.) Recite your Bible memory verse for that week, move your car 2 spaces forward.
3.) Bring a friend to class, a ridiculous 3 spaces would be yours.
4.) Be the the driver with the car furthest down the road at the end of the quarter and you would win:
THE GRAND PRIZE!
The Grand Prize, of course, was a go cart. At least that's what I ASSUMED it was.
At that time in my life, all I could think about 24 hours a day, was getting my hands on a go cart. And I was willing to do whatever it took to secure one. Selling seeds, mowing grass, intensive prayer and semi-fasting sessions. When Miss Jan announced The Race, I could not believe that suddenly the answer to all my prayers was about to be fulfilled in my very own Sunday School.
And people wonder why I became a Preacher.
Naturally, I determined that I would win the Grand Prize. I would win hands down. I would take no prisoners. I would destroy the competition without mercy. I would win The Race by such a wide margin, there would be no disputing the rightful winner of the go cart.
My plan for this devastation was simple yet brilliant. I would keep my Bible in the car so that I would always have it at the ready for Sunday School (like a Spiritual Minute Man). My Back-up Bible would be kept at home so that I could pour over my memory verses every chance I could get and have them down cold. This would be the sticky part for me - memorizing was never my strong suit. Still isn't. So, I would have to depend heavily on my secret weapon to make up for it: Jimmy Menke.
Jimmy Menke was my best friend. Skinny, crew cut, black, horned rimmed glasses. He wanted nothing more in life than to be an astronaut (he said it was why he had to stay skinny - you have to be skinny to do space walks).
Jimmy was the most loyal friend I had. You HAVE to be loyal to be an astronaut. I could count on Jimmy to come with me EVERY Sunday.
With Jimmy on board, plus the 1 space I'd get for the Bible bringing, I would be looking at 4 spaces GUARANTEED EVERY Sunday, even if I blanked on the memory verse.
The go cart was going to be mine.
There was only one obstacle left standing in my way: Kelly Matthews. She was ALSO in my class, 9 years old, and a freak at memorizing Bible verses. She would be my only REAL competition.
Unfortunately for Kelly, she had no astronaut friends who were free on Sundays. I would crush her.
Weeks passed. Kelly and I were locked in heated Bible racing each week, the likes of which have not been seen since. We rarely spoke, rarely looked each other in the eye. We would simply show our Bibles to Miss Jan, then she'd kill me on the memory verse, then I would re-introduce Jimmy Menke to the class. A couple of times he even brought his little brother. One time Kelly wanted to cry.
At last came the end of the quarter. It had been a close, nasty, dirty, race - in Christian love, of course. None of us knew the final outcome of the race, because Miss Jan had kept the results of the last 2 weeks secret from us.
On that last day, I wore a suit, Kelly had on what looked like an Easter dress, and Jimmy Menke wore a suit with his astronaut/go cart flame-retardant uniform underneath. It was a BIG day. Then Miss Jan stood to announce the results of the race.
"I want you all to know, I am so very proud of each one of you. You all worked so hard and did so well. Most importantly, you learned more about the Bible in the process and gave some of your friends an opportunity to learn more as well.
"Get to it, Lady!" I screamed in my head.
"But there was one of you who worked harder than all the rest, "
"Me," I thought.
"Was more determined,"
"And has proved your dedication to God and the Bible,"
"IT'S ME! GET TO IT!"
"And so," she continued, "it gives me great pleasure to announce that the winner of The Race is...PREACHER!"
I almost blacked out. I stumbled to the front of the room, trying to look as humble as I could. Inside, I felt like a cross between the Apostle Paul and Al Unser. I thought Jimmy Menke would have a heat stroke from all his yellin' and jumpin' around in that astronaut outfit under his suit. Kelly looked ill. I loved it.
As I approached the front of the class room to accept my prize, I smiled and waved at my defeated minions, like an 8 year old Pope.
It was then that I realized that I hadn’t actually SEEN the go cart anywhere yet. Of course, there really was nowhere for Miss Jan to hide the go cart in the room. Perhaps it was still outside the building and she would take us all out there next to see it gleaming in the sun. I would then impress everyone by doing some “donuts” in the parking lot.
Or maybe her husband was going to dramatically wheel it in once she handed me the keys. That could be cool. I hoped the helmet was in the driver's seat already.
The Miss Jan said, "Preacher, here you are! The GRAND PRIZE!"
I closed my eyes and held out my hand as Miss Jan handed me...a BIBLE. I opened my eyes and looked at it. It was blue and had my name in gold letters on the front. I was confused. Miss Jan was beaming.
I looked at her and said, "What about the go cart?"
She said, "Go cart? What go cart, darlin’?"
I said, "The Grand Prize Go Cart that I've been workin' my tail off for all quarter!"
She said, "Sweetie, I don't know what you're talking about. The Bible is the grandest prize there is."
I said, "I understand all that but, I already HAVE TWO Bibles! One's in the car right now and the other's at home for memorizing! What in the world do I need another BIBLE for?! What I need is a dang GO CART! "
Things got kinda quite then. Miss Jan looked hurt. Jimmy started to well up. Kelly tried to suppress a self-righteous, 2nd place giggle.
Next I found myself being sent to mother who was informed of my use of the word “dang” in church and how I had mouthed off to Miss Jan. It was NOT a great morning for me after that.
I never saw Jimmy Menke again.
Kelly Matthews was elected Mayor of our town for 2 terms.
I never scored a go cart.
Though I did have a mini-bike a few years later.
Note to self: not the same thing.
Ironically, over the years, I grew to love that Grand Prize Bible. Preached my first sermon from it. It had fantastic Holy Land pictures in it, and a place for autographs of famous people from the Bible you could collect once you met them in Heaven.
In the end Miss Jan was right. It WAS a Grand Prize. Though a go cart woulda made a nice second place.
As together we stand and sing.