I’m not writing this with the expectation that you will convert to my beliefs. I didn’t embark on this series as a way of suddenly ambushing my readership with spiritual ideas. But if we’re going to get from point A to point C in my story, we must pass through B. Let’s just try to stay calm and get through it.
I know some people hate the subject. I know some people hate – or at least strongly oppose – Christians. I understand. This is a highly personal subject to me as well. Try to separate your notions of the faith from what you’re reading here. This took place in 1981 or 82, long before the subject of Christianity became quite the flame war / political battleground it is today.
Feel free to skip this entry if Jesus talk makes you uncomfortable. Feel free to read it and not comment. But whatever you do, don’t read it, get mad, and then rage out in the comments. That will not lead to edification for anyone. Also, please don’t do the passive-aggressive, “I respect your right to believe whatever drivel you like.” I know how you are, internet, and you’re not nearly as tolerant as you imagine when you do that.
I will be moderating the comment thread with an eye to preventing fires. Don’t post mad.
Mom, raised Lutheran, is now a kind of pagan hippie. She’s decided to not talk about religion with my brother and I, and instead allow her sons to, “Find the truth on their own.”
One Wednesday she takes us to Skate Castle (which still exists!) to enjoy some roller-skating. Actually, not “skating” so much as “slamming into walls and faceplanting”, in the case of my brother and I. But these are dues that must be paid if one is to rollerskate. Better to do this when one is four feet tall than to wait until mass and gravity are more dangerous adversaries.
People keep coming up to us and asking, “Are you here for church night?”
“No. I’m here for skating.”
“Oh, because tonight is church night.”
Whatever. I don’t know what to make of this, and neither do Mom and Pat. It’s Wednesday! Who ever heard of church on Wednesday? Maybe these folks just came from church? Maybe they are going to church after skating? I’m sure it doesn’t apply to me.
Halfway through the evening, the music stops. The lights go out in the rink. Everyone gathers in the concession area. “Church night” evidently means, “Pay for a full night of skating, get half a night of skating and half a night of some nutjob preacher.” He’s got a guitar and he plays some awful folksy gospel music, and stops every once in a while to read a bit of the Bible. He seems to be focusing on the whole “all the sinners get thrown into the lake of fire” bits, which doesn’t resonate with me so much as creep me out. I don’t like this guy.
Mom is not amused. She endures this business in silent rage, but when it becomes clear that this preaching isn’t just a short interruption, she storms out right in the middle of his talk. She tells the story again and again over the next couple of days, about the religious nuts who ruined our night of skating.
I am more circumspect. I have already decided that I believe in God, although I’m not particularly impressed by any of the churches I’ve visited in my life. I’ve been to some for weddings and funerals, and now I’ve been to “church” in a roller-rink. These feel wrong to me, or misguided. I’ve only met a few Christians in my life, and most of them I have mentally placed into the ever-growing file labeled “Jerks”. Despite all of this, I find value in a few concepts. There are ideas here that I accept, and some that I question. I don’t know how to investigate this on my own, and I sense Mom would be hostile to the idea, so I let it sit.
Late in the year a guy knocks on the door. I’m the only one home. We live in a bad neighborhood. It’s nighttime. I have no idea who he is. He’s a grown man. I’m a little kid. Both rules and reason say that I should give him the shove, but I let him in. He reads me a few verses from the Bible. John 3:16, and a bit of Romans. He talks about God, tells me about Jesus.
This. This is what I’ve been looking for. I’ve been snatching bits of understanding from my various encounters with the faith, like someone watching a game of baseball through a hole in the fence. The various unconnected ideas have drifted around in my head, and this guy gives me enough understanding to begin tying these concepts together and building something out of them. I have no idea what this will do, but I accept Jesus.
I don’t have it all worked out yet, and when he leaves I have more questions than answers. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t regret my decision.
I’m apprehensive about what Mom will say. Will she be angry? She’s been hostile to this business in the past. Things are already really tense around here, and I’m terrified to add any new conflicts to the mix. Still, I think I’m prepared to hold my ground on this one. I have no idea what this struggle will look like, or what the fallout will be. I brace for the worst. I’ve made this decision, and nobody can change it through force.
To my surprise, Mom isn’t upset at all. She doesn’t say much, but she seems to think it’s kind of nice that I’ve found something that makes me happy. My brother follows suit a few days later. A couple of weeks later we experience a shocking and unprecedented turn when Mom does as well. I don’t quite know what to make of this. Wow, Mom? Really?!?
There are repercussions for this. Mom’s friends largely abandon her. “Have a nice life,” says one as he and his wife (girlfriend, whatever) storm off in disgust. I’m relieved, since I thought most of these people were jackasses, but this rejection seems strange and incongruous. After all the awful crap you people say and do to each other every weekend, THIS is where you draw the line?
Mom goes through some trials as she transitions from the old life to the new. Things actually get worse for a couple of months as she experiences sweeping changes to her circle of friends, her lifestyle, and eventually her entire worldview. It’s like shifting without a clutch.
Mom cleans up, and things calm down. Soon enough we find ourselves attending two churches. On Sundays we go to an ultra-conservative Baptist church. That means fire and brimstone preaching every Sunday, warning people about the evils of fornication and riches. The congregation flinches under his booming assault of condemnation and warnings. I’m only ten years old, and the word “fornication” is new to my vocabulary. I’m not very savvy about the world of adults, but I’ve seen enough to realize that this guy’s message is ludicrous. Really? Is this the message these people need to hear? Fornication and riches? These people? (Gossip and pride, on the other hand…) They don’t like that Mom wears pants, and several times encourage her to wear dresses. They also think rock & roll is the devil’s music, and that Mom should stop smoking. Dancing, even at weddings and the like, is strictly forbidden to these people.
On Wednesdays, we go to church in an ultra-liberal charismatic church. (Note, dear reader, that “conservative” and “liberal” have very different meanings here than in American politics. There might be a tiny bit of overlap, but not enough to start extrapolating labels like “Democrats” and “Republicans”.) The service is held in a fire hall and the preacher is a young guy who talks about love and peace. They have upbeat, joyful music. People dance around and sing and have a grand time. They’re loud and often yell out in agreement when the preacher says something they like. Nobody cares how you dress or what you listen to, as long as you love the Lord and are good to your neighbor. Their behavior unsettles me a little, but they seem like nice enough people.
It’s culture shock, moving between these two groups. I begin comparing them to the fancy “High Church” (large, ornate, highly ceremonial) places I visited when I was younger.
If I had only attended one of these places, I probably would have concluded, “This place is what being a Christian is all about”. But these three points form a plane, and by moving around on that plane I can view Christianity from a lot of different angles and extrapolate a lot of other kinds of churches. I’m able to separate Christian ideas (which I embrace) from Christian culture (which I will soon grow to despise) and lay the groundwork for a lot of the thinking I’ll be doing over the next thirty years. I suppose if I had to choose between the two I’d side with the Wednesday-night folks over the Sunday-morning ones, but I’m not ready to throw my lot in with either one just yet.
The Dark Year is over.
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