By Neil Joiner
The story of a young man named Eutychus is found in Acts 20:7-12. He was seated in the opening of an upstairs window as he listened to the Apostle Paul. Paul was planning to leave town the next day, so he kept preaching until midnight.
I’m not sure at what point Eutychus drifted off to sleep, but I’ll bet his pals were amused as they watched his eyes grow heavy. Eutychus wouldn’t have attracted much attention, except he fell backwards from a three-story room and died when he hit the ground. Thankfully, Paul was used by God to intervene and Eutychus’ life was restored in a miraculous way.
It’s a given that everyone present was alarmed by Eutychus’ fall, shocked by his death, and amazed by his second chance at life. After things settled down Paul broke bread then continued talking until daylight. Scripture doesn’t say, but I’m certain Eutychus stayed awake the rest of the time.
There’s a smiley face in my Bible by those verses that I drew at some point when I made a notation: “Sleeping in church is a longtime problem.” I imagine Eutychus still gets some good-natured teasing about that episode. I don’t know exactly what heaven will be like, but I have no doubt that laughter will be common.
Eutychus’ story reminds me of a Sunday night service at Harmony Baptist Church during my early childhood. I was sitting with my cousin, David Dunaway, and his older brother, Larry.
Larry must have stayed up late the night before. David and I were tickled as we watched Larry’s predictable path toward slumber. We were hoping for some free entertainment, maybe a head jerk or a forward slump noticeable enough the preacher might call his name. Much to our chagrin Larry remained upright although his eyes were fully sealed. That’s when David had a moment of inspiration.
David opened a green Broadman Hymnal to number 162, “Just As I Am.” He put the hymn book in front of Larry and whispered with urgency, “Stand up! We’re singing!” Larry popped up from that pew like sliced bread being sprung from a toaster, but he quickly noticed he was standing alone. That’s when he gave David a “you just wait until we get home” kind of look that I still vividly remember.
At Vienna First Baptist, where I’ve been a member since 1976, Mr. Emmett Stephens was our champion pew sleeper for decades. In today’s congregation Frank Hulsey would give him some competition, but back in the 1970s Mr. Emmett was without peer in competitive dozing. Like my cousin, Larry, and my friend, Frank, Mr. Emmett had a gift for napping without drawing attention.
JW Wallis was the pastor at Vienna First when Jane and I became members. He didn’t fret over his much older friend Emmett nodding off during the service, and Mr. Emmett was very appreciative of his young pastor. He told JW that he had slept through the sermons of other preachers, but assured him, “I’ve never slept as soundly as when you preach.”
One late night at home Mr. Emmett listened in frustration to the ticking of the clock by his bed. He was quietly miserable for a while, then finally spoke softly to his wife. “Christine, are you awake?”
“I am now,” she answered. “What is it Emmett?”
“I’m having trouble going to sleep,” he told her. “How about calling JW and see if he’ll read me a little bit of one of his sermons.”
JW and others of us from that era still enjoy revisiting that memory. It’s a funny account of a man who sometimes slept better in church than he did at home. But within that humorous framework is a reminder that pastors need more than members. They also need friends. JW didn’t worry about Mr. Emmett sleeping on Sunday mornings. He knew he could count on him the rest of the week.
I’m sure Mr. Emmett and Eutychus have swapped stories by now, and he’s no doubt looking forward to introducing Eutychus to JW somewhere down the road. I can almost hear him saying, “Eutychus, this is the fella’ I’ve been telling you about that used to put me under.”
When Eutychus stops chuckling Mr. Emmett will likely be serious for a moment and share how much JW means to him. “But Eutychus,” he’ll probably add, “if you’re ever in a service when JW is preaching, I’d suggest you keep a good distance away from any open windows.”