Jesus….Don’t Leave Earth Without Him……
When I was growing up, organized religion occasionally entered into various scenes of my life like an actor taking the stage for a bit of dialogue and then exiting stage right.
It was never present long enough to recruit me into a particular belief system….or to create a spiritual foundation upon which my entire life would be built.
It seemed to do little for me when it entered and so I was its fair weather friend….really only interested when treats were involved as a child….when a cute boy was involved as an adolescent….and for the people watching value in my teens during our Pentecostal years.
When I was very young and my parents were still married….and my mother was still mostly undercover crazy….a great deal of my life, in my memories anyway, seemed to be circled around our church. We lived in a very small, cozy, mid-western town where it seemed everyone attended the Methodist church on Sunday mornings, followed by lunch at the only restaurant in town and then home to sit on front porches or call on neighbors….or recover from serious hangovers….my mom, not me.
I attended pre-school at our church in a room that had a mural on the wall painted by my mother. We attended church dinners, picnics, pageants, holiday events, craft bazaars, bake sales and various other social gatherings including a summer barbecue hosted by a family who owned a large farm on the outskirts of town.
Every year, they invited church members out to their property for a day of hay-rides, swimming in their large pond, playing in the hayloft’s and exploring their farm as if it were a giant petting zoo. If our community sounds like Bomont from Footloose, then I’ve properly described it.
Our church felt like a second home to me and the people in the congregation were like extended members of my family, but only because of their familiarity. Whatever spiritual lessons I was supposed to be learning, weren’t generally reinforced at home and so I promptly forgot them by Sunday evening.
After my parents divorced, my mother gained primary custody of my brother and me and promptly moved us away from our small town to a suburb on the outskirts of a small city in order to be closer to a guy she met in rehab.
We attended a few church services at the large Methodist church at the top of our street, but it wasn’t the same. We were tiny, unknown fish in a much bigger pond and in those days, my mother preferred we worship at the Church of AA.
We still attended Church….multiple times a week actually….we just spent all our time in their smoke-filled basements at AA meetings. If I said a prayer at night, it was no longer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
*Note: That prayer terrified me as a child. I would say it and then immediately follow it up with, ‘Please God, don’t kill me in my sleep.”
Anyway, it was replaced with, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. AMEN!”
Followed immediately by, “Keep coming back, it works if you work it!”
We all lived and breathed AA in those days. All of my mother’s boyfriends were guys she picked up at a meeting, or at an AA sponsored social event. Her friends and by extension, our friends, all came from people we met through the program, but everyone was battling a demon or two and often the relationships imploded in the wake of a relapse or due to some other drama.
It was in those days, that my brother developed an affinity for carrying a purse….he insisted on being Penny from Dirty Dancing any time we played house….we both had a little crush on Patrick Swayze….and he frequently walked to school with a dog turd stuck to the end of a stick to ward off the neighborhood bullies.
As for me, I lied….constantly….and about everything. I told kids at school that I had 13 additional brothers and sisters….but they all lived with my dad because my mother only wanted my brother and me.
I occassionally gave a riveting account of how my grandmother survived the sinking of the Titanic….except she was no where near the Titanic in 1912….in fact, she wasn’t even born yet.
I told people I was a Cherokee Indian….never mind my white blond hair, green eyes and fair complexion.
I convinced my brother that he was adopted and that his real name was Figgendad.
I routinely wore an old retainer I found….along with a pair of very old, prescription glasses belonging to my mother and I insisted that I required both.
I once brought an egg from our refrigerator for show and tell and adamantly defended my story that I had found it in a nest on the way to school.
And….did I mention I cursed like a sailor? As a third-grader, I had quite the repertoire of curse words and I wasn’t afraid to use them in social settings with my peers.
“Ready or not, here I come mother-fuckers!”
Perhaps, we could have used a little religion in our lives….albeit a very progressive and open-minded religion. Maybe something like a cult….probably couldn’t have hurt anyway.
Not too long after my parents divorced, my mother remarried a man named Clarence who she met at an AA meeting.
Clarence brought to our lives….a whole new layer of dysfunction.
That’s a longer story for another time….so for the purposes of this post, I’ll just say he met my mother’s criteria for a mate in the aftermath of my parents divorce….a handful of sobriety chips and an instability greater than her own.
The marriage was essentially doomed from the start. More often than not, they were embattled in vicious fights and my brother and I regularly inserted ourselves into the drama.
As their fights escalated to physical attacks….typically perpetrated by my mother….my brother and I would hurl heavy items at Clarence in her defense….trying to buy her the seconds needed to get in a good, swift, kick to his balls or a solid upper-cut….she was our mother after all….and we were like little assassins….constantly shifting our positions to maximize impact.
In the aftermath of their fights, it wasn’t unusual to find shards of coffee cups lying around, or matchbox cars lodged into the drywall….a police cruiser in the driveway.
Once, after a particularly nasty fight where Clarence picked my mother up and tossed her across the room, my brother carved the word “cock-sucker” into his briefcase. If this part of my childhood sounds like an episode of Cops, then I’ve properly described it.
Every now and then, when the bail was posted and the dust had settled, Clarence and my mother would come to the conclusion that we could really use God in our lives and so we would traipse of to church.
It never really stuck though, until one Easter Sunday when our neighbors invited us to attend services at their church. They were Pentecostal, which meant nothing to me….until we filed into the pews and the service began.
While the church choir jammed out to hymnals….accompanied by a small band….a projector displayed the words on a large screen as the congregation stood to sing along. I watched, mouth agape, as the people seated around me clapped their hands, tapped their feet, swayed their arms and raised their hands as if trying to catch something imaginary while shouting “PRAISE JESUS!”
The sermon involved a lot of yelling, pulpit smacking and intermittent shout-out’s to the heavens from the incessantly murmuring congregation. It seemed a bit too theatrical and over the top for me and I wasn’t at all drinking the grape juice.
It didn’t matter though, because the next thing I knew, I was in the Youth Group, we were attending Church three times a week and Clarence, tone deaf and without the slightest bit of rhythm, had unfortunately joined the choir.
Our deep dive into this new religion did little to change our lives between services. In fact, nothing changed….except, my New Kids on the Block and DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince cassette tapes were forcibly replaced with Amy Grant and dc Talk.
Car radio’s were permanently set to various Christian music stations and Clarence would warble along loudly while pretending to play a piano on the dashboard, randomly shouting, “Hallelujah!”
Our car sported a chrome fish emblem with “Jesus” in its center and bumper stickers stating things like: “WARNING! In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” Leaving me to wonder how God felt about false advertising.
I recall three very specific events during this time.
1. In the midst of one particularly spirited service, a very old woman who was driven to church each Sunday by another member of the congregation….and who gingerly made her way to her pew each week, aided by a cane and a Church usher…. suddenly stood as if 20 years old, left her pew and strutted down the aisle like a woman freed from Osteoporosis and began loudly and clearly speaking in some other language.
I had never seen anything like it and at first wondered if she was experiencing some brief moment of euphoria before dropping dead right there. The pastor and other members of the congregation rushed to her side, shouting praises to the heavens as people stretched to lay hands on her.
On the ride home from church that day, while my brother and I snickered in the back-seat, we were informed that the woman had been so overcome by the spirit of Christ that she was speaking in tongues.
And, “Hallelujah, Praise Jesus! Now shut up back there before I pull over and kick your asses so far up around your necks you’ll have to spread your butt-cheeks to sneeze!”
2. Not to be outdone by Grandma Moses, a few weeks later, Clarence became overcome by the spirit of Christ as well.
In the midst of morning prayers, Clarence threw himself into the aisle and began stammering in what sounded suspiciously like Pig Latin. As he wailed and sobbed….sinking to his knees….rolling around on the floor and then finally crawling toward the pulpit. No one seemed in a particular rush to lay hands on him.
My mother just sat there, staring straight ahead, her face betraying not a shred of emotion, but I swear I heard her mumble, “Awww, Jesus Christ.”
3. After a few months of gyrating like a moron in the Church choir, Clarence decided he was ready for a solo. The decision was a topic of much debate in our household leading up to the event. My mother was mortified by the idea, as were the rest of us and most likely the church choir director as well.
Clarence was totally lacking in musical skill. He was tone deaf with no range or even the ability to sing a single note. In the choir, he could be hidden and easily overpowered by the actual singers in the group….but a soloist? No.
Of course, he chose a song that was full of high notes and requiring a falsetto he did not have. For weeks he attended regular practice sessions with the choir director. On the few occasions we accompanied him to practice, the sounds of an animal….dying a slow and horrific death….were all that could be heard echoing throughout the church.
As his debut grew nearer….I prayed he would quit, get laryngitis, an unknown tropical disease that would cause his tongue to fall out rendering him speechless forever….but my prayers weren’t answered.
When the day came….I asked if I could sit in the very back of the church, where I would be free to crawl under one of the pews and remain there until the whole thing was over….but my mother refused, insisting we endure it like a family.
Clarence sidled up to the mic and just as I expected….it was awful. Amplified by the microphone and his awkward, lock-kneed dance moves, it was ten-times worse than could be imagined.
It sounded more like an exorcism than a worship service and he looked like he was having a stroke….or perhaps trying to fight back a bout of explosive diarrhea.
No one praised Jesus….there was no HALLELUJAH! Instead, the congregation crinkled their brows, stifled their laughs…. probably prayed that the good Lord would put us all out of our misery.
Our stint as Pentacostals came to an end not too long after that….I never knew the full story, but our membership ended in a blaze or glory and we were asked not to return.
After that, we bailed on the whole organized religion thing and fell into an every man/woman/child for herself type agreement with regards to our individual religious and spiritual well-being.
Moral of the Story: I’m struggling a bit with regards to introducing religion into the life of my three-year-old. I haven’t set foot in a church for anything other than a wedding or a funeral in years.
My maternal grandmother read the Bible regularly. I once asked her why she never went to Church since she read the Bible so much and she said, “I have a personal relationship with God. I don’t need a building for that.”
That sounded good to me.
Personally, I believe in God and always have.
However, I am also open to the idea that he/she may present himself/herself in various ways and methods of worship and that whomever or whatever is up there….gives credit to all who are good, nice, loving, compassionate people.
So….I guess I’ll just open up the doors and allow him the freedom of exploration and choice.