Knocking Up Against What's Real?
December 4, 2016, 11am. I am seated on a metal folding chair at a Lutheran church, one I’ve been going to for almost four years. We’ve gotten through the opening hymn, the words emblazoned on the big screen. It’s the contemporary service, my default when I don’t get up early. The Old Testament and Epistle readings follow, courtesy of one of the vocalists. She hands the microphone to the burly 60-something pastor. He reads the Gospel, his booming voice filling the hall, then segues into a sermon titled New Sheriff in Town. He asks “why would I risk alienating half of my congregation with what I’m about to say?” With a creative stretch that boggles the mind, he explains the similarities between John the Baptist and President Trump. “Neither was understood or liked by their liberal elites.” He repeatedly mocks a Boston pronunciation of Haahvud, says “they think they’re all smarter than we are. We are Her deplorables,” he shares in a conspiratorial aside. Then, he wraps it all up with “I will tell you I am not displeased with the results of this election.” These are his words, verbatim, branded into my consciousness. Everything else has faded to black.
My first religious memory is an oak pew at the First Baptist Church, Kerrville, Texas. The organist and choir summon, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” It is the altar call, and just about everyone, one Sunday or another, eventually walks down to publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. I was nine years old when I made my way down in front of all those eyes, and stood facing the congregation as verse after verse droned on.
“Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing, passing from you and from me;
Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming, coming for you and for me.”
The next Sunday evening, at dusk, I was baptized in a giant pool. Elevated above and behind the pulpit and choir loft, it was backlit with a stained glass image of Jesus the Shepherd leading lambs. The white robe clung to my pants and top, as red-headed Pastor Don lifted me up from the water. My nose was still pinched between my fingers as I surfaced. My blonde hair streamed. I was saved. Jesus loved me. Faith was simple.
The only Christian churches in 2016 with increasing membership are the larger evangelical Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Assemblies of God, according to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. Although distinctly different, these denominations share with many other religious traditions a moral certainty wrapped around an us versus them ideology. “We’ve got it, you don’t” is a perspective I struggle with. I’ve often wondered how people get to that way of thinking. Like a Rubik cube, I’ve looked at belief one way, then another, to try to understand how people align life’s puzzle pieces so differently and create such different truths; why so many choose a one way, exclusive path, against anyone who sees it differently; why some see a faith journey of multiple options, inclusive of differences; and why still others have left the road completely. How are we shaped spiritually? I can only tell my story.
My foundation was poured out of my parents’ earliest experiences. As a teenager, my father found God on his own in a Methodist Church in Malden, Massachusetts. After graduation from Baylor University, he was ordained and got “the call” from a congregation. He served as their minister for several months, until a deacon told him he didn’t quite fit after all. A casualty of church politics, my father left the ministry and never looked back; he decided on the U.S. Army as a career. But he remained a spiritual man all his life. He didn’t talk much about it. A King James Bible was always by his chair, as were texts on world religions. And on those occasions when we talked about it, he displayed an expansive view of faith traditions. It should have come as no surprise, but was, that he read from Kahlil Gibran at my mother’s graveside, right after the 23rd Psalm and the 14th chapter of John.
My mother, her three sisters and their father were ruled by a tight-lipped Southern Baptist fundamentalist. Mam-Maw, as the grandchildren were required to call her, spoke continually of her deep faith, her commitment to Jesus. Yet, “I love you” never crossed her lips, to her daughters, her grandchildren, her husband. It was a scorekeeping God my mother came to know, born of a mother who excelled at fault-finding, shaped as God’s will. She loved through rules, insisting that Oral Roberts and Billy Graham were required viewing whenever they were on television. Always, the TV preacher clutched a big black Bible, shook it occasionally as he paced, threatened, warned about the need to repent. Mam-Maw, a 5 foot 9 inch big-boned presence, was the female incarnation of her Old Testament God.
When my father’s military orders sent us to France, we were left with on-post religious options. And for a few years, I found respite in a generic Protestantism, which was neither threatening nor engaging.
After years of living abroad, I returned to the US public school system and struggled to pick up the well-established norms of my peers. The turning point played out in the girls’ locker room, in seventh grade. I faced my locker, unfastened the waistband on my skirt, and slipped off my blouse. I heard giggles behind me and turned to face pointing fingers and laughter. It was my white cotton undershirt. Every other girl wore a training bra. Weeks later, my parents enrolled me in a Catholic co-ed school. It was my first exposure to Catholicism and I felt I belonged immediately. The school navy uniforms helped, with the removal of external differences. But it was more than that. My classmates, as well as the black and white-habited Sisters of Mercy, accepted me, the Protestant transfer, as one of their own. Although I’d been excused from religious class, I was curious and sometimes sat in to listen. I was fascinated by the rituals, in particular the Easter season crowning of the Virgin Mary in the outdoor grotto. Students volunteered to lead the procession and crown Her. “Who wants to crown Our Lady on Monday?” Sister looked shocked when I raised my hand. But she sent me home with the wire circular frame, four inches or so in diameter with spaces to insert flower stems. That Monday, I stepped forward, placed the crown on the Virgin’s head. Weeks later, my father’s mother came to visit. One night over dinner, talk turned to my schooling. This grandmother said, “You will surely lose her to the Catholics.”
When we returned to Texas, summers meant forced immersion in Mam-Maw’s world of fundamentalism. All too often I’d return to the house from a date, only to interrupt a prayer meeting with keening howls, weeping, and loud calls to Jesus. I would rush through, avoid eye contact, and escape to my bedroom.
She drug us to countless tent revivals and cowboy camp meetings, outdoor gatherings where barbequed goat and baked beans were served, and wailing men and women were center stage. Arms stretched skyward, some fell down—overtaken by The Spirit, she said. Years later I asked my cousins how they remembered those experiences. They agreed, the tent revivals were awful. For Mam-Maw, laughter, never hers, meant we were up to something sinful. God’s hall monitor and principal defined for us the sins of our fathers, our mothers, her daughters. Yes, my cousins remembered how Mam-Maw rarely left a tip, but sent a waitress back repeatedly for one thing or another that wasn’t to her satisfaction; how she talked a lot about the Bible, made a big show of loudly praying “And Jesus we just ask you ….”. And yes, she eavesdropped. Read our mail. And no one forgot Mam-Maw’s punishing middle finger that, when launched off a thumb, was a weapon on foreheads for infractions, real or suspected. No bedtime stories, no soft touch, no word of encouragement. Details of our memories jibed, yet they seemed to have walked away unscathed, unlike me.
Each time Mam-Maw came to visit, before she left she would call my mother out on some violation. “Martha, you’re not pleasing The Lord.” God, the Great and Mighty Oz, she his interpreter. It would be years before I understood the link between this form of religion and my mother’s struggle with depression, why I helped hide Smirnoff bottles before Mam-Maw arrived and what ultimately became my mother’s undoing. Faith was looking a lot less simple, less safe.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I was back at Mam-Maw’s Southern Baptist Church. It was another typical worship day, when Sunday School and church were required. There were 10 or so of us seated in school desk chairs in a semi-circle, facing the teacher. So many other Sundays I’d silenced my doubts. This time, as she went on for the better part of class about the sin of dancing, I couldn’t stop myself. I asked if she could explain what exactly made dancing immoral. Her face blanched, her lips tightened, and after a pause, she launched into a high volume takedown of me for my lack of faith. I was done. In 1969 I married an agnostic. For 15 years I only set foot in a sanctuary for a wedding or funeral. Thoughts about God, so integral to who I was for many years, were a distant memory. Prayer became a forgotten habit. And then came the night I walked in on my husband shooting up. I escaped, left an eleven year marriage, and returned home to file for divorce. Mam-Maw was quick to tell me I should go back to him, that divorce was a sin. My long letter, explaining what I’d been too embarrassed to tell anyone over the years, about the alcoholism, the drug addiction, didn’t matter. I should return to my husband to avoid God’s wrath.
Of course, Mam-Maw was nowhere to be found the last year of my mother’s struggle with cancer. Although she was only an hour’s drive away, a trip she made regularly for years, she stayed at home through it all. My mother was 57 when we buried her, just up the road from Mam-Maw’s place. Mourners flocked to the little wood frame house after the graveside service. People wandered outside, talked in whispers under the green-leafed canopies of pecan trees. Mam-Maw admonished me “you shouldn’t be sad. Your mother is with Jesus now.”
A strange thing happened after Mam-Maw died at 93. We’d been estranged for years; she never forgave me for the divorce. I got the call from a cousin, giving me funeral information. She would be buried next to my mother. I wasn’t going. At the last minute, though, I changed my mind. I had just passed the city limit sign when I heard, then felt my right rear tire go out. Later, as I stood waiting for AAA to arrive I wondered whether this were God’s poetic justice.
I was living with my father, trying to put the pieces of my life together. We were both searching—for what, we weren’t sure, and still visiting churches when my father dropped dead unexpectedly at 68. I was angry at a God I barely knew yet held responsible for the detritus of my life.
Not long after my father’s death, my aunt took me to an Episcopal service. It would be a turning point. During the processional, led by the white-robed young acolyte holding a giant gold cross aloft, I was transported back to that 12 year old girl, safe in the Catholic school. When I returned home to San Antonio, I began visiting an Episcopal Church. A different picture of faith began to emerge. There was a focus on the individual journey, the giving of time, talents and treasure to more than self. This was not a place of defining others; it wasn’t about who’s in, who’s out, or their sins. Sermons, I discovered, were based on one of the assigned Bible readings of the day. There would be no extemporaneous diving off into the secular cause du jour. No Roe v. Wade, nor telling you how to vote, something I’d run across repeatedly in other sanctuaries. And unlike anyplace before, women were prominent in the clergy and lay leadership. A female priest became a friend and mentor, and asked me to help with adult Sunday School classes. Months later, she invited me to vacation with her. On a silky sand beach in Monterey California at dusk, we sat side by side drinking chardonnay, talked of life, men and God. Gone was the finger-pointing, scorekeeper God.
The great divide, tenaciously held by so many traditions, sometimes seems inescapable. Recently, when my husband and I visited relatives, we joined them at a small town Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. There were index cards in holders on the wooden bench backs on which you were instructed to list family names in attendance and whether or not they were eligible to receive communion. At the bottom of the card was a statement in bold, “Only Baptized members of this congregation may receive Communion.” And in case you missed it, it was repeated at the bottom of the church bulletin. Religion as the exclusive club again. I wondered: how do they reconcile that view with Gospel portrayals of Christ speaking to the Samaritan woman, eating with tax collectors, sinners and non-believers.
It’s a problem. The E word. Evangelism. For many, it is nothing less than pounding their version of The Truth into others. I grew up surrounded by them, watched them offend and drive away more than they ever brought to faith. And I can’t forget it was evangelizers who laid hands on, prayed over my mother, when her cancer returned; who called my mother’s faith into question when she lost hope, scrawled red-inked words of despair in the margins of her Bible; who were conspicuously absent when the going got tough, who left me and my father to manage it all on our own.
Four years ago, my second husband and I moved our church membership from an Episcopal parish in San Antonio to a Lutheran congregation. It was a lot closer. The two liturgies have much in common. The minister was a dynamic speaker. The people were welcoming. These are the kinds of things that get people to churches. But clues began to appear. Sermons started veering into us versus them, like when the minister said he was proud to have played a part in the 2001 formation of the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), that despite other Lutheran churches approving shared communion with Episcopalians, he stood against it. Because, he said, Episcopalians pray through a bishop. I was shocked. It wasn’t even close to the truth. Yet I kept going to church there. In October of 2016, at coffee hour at the same church, I sat, wordless, at an eight top round table as others volleyed back and forth their hatred of Muslims and Hillary Clinton and anyone who didn’t respect the police. Other things I’d ignored now bothered me, like the feeling I got when a popular contemporary Christian piece filled the hall with keyboard, two electric guitars, a frenetic drummer and a handful of vocalists jamming to “Our God Is Greater” the words in giant letters overhead. We’re competing?
I finally wrote the minister about the December 4 sermon. I asked: why bring politics to the pulpit when what we need more than anything is leadership to help heal our country’s divide? To his credit, I got a written apology, sort of. In a page long exposition, he said he had asked some of his staff if they remembered the sermon, allegedly keeping my letter in confidence. “It was mentioned that it might have sounded like I was equating Trump to John the Baptist as a savior. They knew I did not intend that understanding but it could be heard by someone in that light.” But then, that wasn’t the only problem with the message.
Weeks later, I drove the extra miles to the nearest Episcopal Church. As I looked around the nave, I was handed a bulletin by a smiling woman about my age. “Are you visiting? May I introduce you to our priest?” White robed, green-chasubled and smiling, he was waiting at the entrance. He introduced himself by first name. I sat down in the sanctuary, read the Welcome, printed prominently at the top of the bulletin, part of which read,
“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay and filthy rich or dirt poor…. We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome YOU.” I knew I’d be back.
In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Franciscan priest and writer, Richard Rohr says “If we go to the depths of anything, we will begin to knock upon something substantial, real, and with a timeless quality to it. We will move from the starter kit of belief to an actual inner knowing. This is most especially true if we have ever (1) loved deeply, (2) accompanied someone through the mystery of dying, (3) or stood in genuine life-changing awe before mystery, time, or beauty.”
I have traveled far from a child’s eye view of faith. Piece after piece has been added to the puzzle. A different picture emerges today, one with light and hope—and unanswered questions, too. And that is okay. What next? I like what American theologian Frederick Buechner says “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
About the Author: Carrye is a writer whose work has appeared in Stereo Stories, among others. She lives in the Texas Hill Country with her husband and two rescue dogs. Besides playing in the world of creative nonfiction, she volunteers at an animal shelter and writes for area publications to educate and influence change in the factors driving pet overpopulation.