March 9, 2018

stepping stones

Before I un-saw the light, in my mid-twenties, I went church shopping.  We had just moved to a small North Carolina town, and I towed my wary, non-religious husband to Main Street Baptist Church one Sunday evening.  It had caught my eye as being, perhaps, the sort of place I was accustomed to belonging.

All unstoppable movements of progress generate backlash along the way.  In the midst of growing doubts, relentless theological questions, I was keen on fighting back by solidifying my faith.  Tightening the bolts of the pew, as it were.

Sunday night service crowds are typically scant in a Baptist church.  I suspect this transcends denomination and is a bit of a universal.  We sat in the middle of the sanctuary and listened to the sermon and bowed our heads during the prayers and sang the hymns.

The choir director heard me singing from across the room and rushed over as soon as we were dismissed.  It was Palm Sunday.  She wanted me to join the choir, then and there, and sing their Easter cantata the next Sunday.

So I did.  Instant belonging.  Just add quarterly grape juice and stir.  This was our church now.  We attended every Sunday and I sang in the choir.

The preacher was a mildly portly man, bald, with the congenial smile and the preacher-voice.  There is a way of speaking that I think all Baptist preachers learn in seminary around here, whether at Wake Forest or Bob Jones or Liberty.  Things are drawled out just a little and there's an oily sales pitch coating the cadence of the voice.  It would seem the profession attracts the charismatic.  His wife was just as archetypal, the meek behind-the-scenes dutiful woman, quiet and gracious.  And subjugated to him through scripture.  It showed in a thousand little ways.

We came.  We listened.  I came away every week irritated, without knowing why.

It took almost two years to escape the trap that I sprung with my singing voice.  The sermons each week were increasingly self-righteous, until we came to the sermon rife with prosperity gospel.  Hearing the naked sentence, "If you obey God, he will prosper you financially!" was the terminal prod out the double doors.  The incongruity between the words spoken in that sanctuary and the reality outside of it could no longer be willfully ignored.

We stayed away for a few weeks, and then I visited the church office one afternoon to speak with him and formalize our departure.  I was met with, not quite a sneer, but mocking sarcasm aimed at the otherness that he knew I now belonged to, when the preacher said, "So ... I guess you've come for closure?"  I don't think he understood that my boat was headed out to sea, with or without wind in its sails.  "Yes," I said simply, and spoke my piece, and turned and walked away, going out into the free world.

That voice still echoes.  I can hear it crisp-clear.  "Closure."  Scorn for the fish that escaped his net.  It doesn't make me feel the way it was intended to make me feel.  He is slimy-slick and I hate him and I think that's all right.

That was the day I was done with the Baptists.

I went on to church shop, but I was now free to break out and taste forbidden fruit, unwittingly making strides toward departing faith altogether.  We went to a Lutheran church, a slap in the face of Main Street.  They used wine instead of grape juice.  I ended up in the choir immediately, though we never officially "joined" the church (i.e., signed our names to the book in a show of public profession and thus pledged tithing).  The content of the sermons and worship rituals were far and away more palatable than the repetitious evangelism of the Baptists.

But the day came when I saw exposed the corruption under the skin of one of the ministers there.  He visited each day while my first son was in the hospital, usually while I was eating my lunch in the cafeteria.  He would sit and talk and I would eat and listen.  He liked to hear himself talk.  And one day, he slipped in the well-greased sales pitch:  Did I know that if we joined the church, we would be entitled to up to five free burial spaces in the cemetery adjacent to the church?  My son lay upstairs dying, and I stopped cold with my mouth full of salad, a sunflower seed stuck to my lip with ranch dressing, and stared at him in disbelief, trying to process what had just happened.  He went on to talk, oblivious.  I waited for him to leave, then phoned the church office and let his secretary know that we were no longer in need of his services.

More church shopping, breaking further out of the mold.  We went to an Episcopalian church, a Church of Christ, a Presbyterian church, a Wesleyan church.  A Quaker meeting that turned out to be liberal and mildly Buddhist.  Stepping stones across a creek.  I had always been taught that the driveways of these churches were the hidden roads to Hell.  That made them even more appealing.  We read things from books.  We smelled incense.  I sang strange melodies and nobody cast a fishing net my way.

I even went with a friend to a Catholic mass.

The Catholic church was three blocks away from our apartment, and there were many nights that I walked down the sidewalk to the church with purposeful strides, hunting something.  They left the front door of the church unlocked.  I assumed it was because they welcomed people who wanted to stop in and confess or pray or whatever, like the Catholic churches in the movies and on TV.  But it was a small church, and the lights were always out.  Not even a candle burned.  I sat in the dark on a rear pew on these nights, looking around and straining to hear God, in awe of the ornate altar that I could just make out in the light of street lamps through the windows.

I returned, alone, again and again, to the place I saw as the opposite of Main Street Baptist Church.  Is He here?  Then one evening I tugged on the door and found it locked.  Instant un-belonging.  I will never know if this was for me, or if something else happened within the church and they tightened up security with no knowledge of my interloping.

I had not found God there, but I felt loss anyway.  There was no country that would have me.

Update:  The slimy man is still out there spewing.  Get a load of this fresh, steaming clump of wildebeest shit:

"I have been reading some statistics on religious diversity in America. This study compares the religious diversity of 232 countries around the world.  The gist of the findings is that the USA is not nearly as religiously diverse as one might think. We rank 68th among the world’s countries for religious diversity. As far as I can tell, 75.3% of the US population is affiliated with the Christian faith.  Those who are unaffiliated with any religion account for 20% of the population. The rest of the world’s religions combined account for only 4.7% of US residents.  These statistics tell me that we are not being turned into a nation of Muslims, or Buddhists or Hindus as one might fear.  Three quarters of the American people are members of some kind of Christian church.

The 20% who are unaffiliated with any religion are a vast mission field of approximately 64 million people. There are 300,000 Christian churches in America. If every one of these churches won 214 unaffiliated people to faith in Christ in the next five years, the US would be a 95% Christian nation. I would love to see North Main Baptist win 214 people to the Lord in the next 5 years. I would love to spend eternity in heaven with these people and with you all. Will you help me bring people to saving faith in our precious Lord? Let’s begin by earnestly praying that Christ will give us His love for the lost. Then let’s pray for America that a national revival will sweep the land."

I can't even begin to take on all of the alternative facts in this.  Ignoring the numbers pulled out of somebody's fiber-deficient ass and flung about, there's more here.  "I would love to spend eternity in heaven with these people and with you all."  No.  No, you wouldn't.  Not me, buddy.  I'd bring silly string and a kazoo with your name on it.  And you and your sheeple are the ones who "fear" we're "turning into a nation" of religious diversity.  You sew the fear yourself, capitalizing on xenophobia and tribalism, and then you reassure them?

Leave me out of your "vast mission field" of the "lost" in America.  See above.  We didn't end up here by wandering aimlessly.  We had to go across stepping stones and journey long and hard and make our way through the storm.  We came here deliberately.  We aren't lost.  We just didn't leave you a forwarding address.  We have closure.

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