Monday, October 14, 2013

Circling the Christianity Buffet, Part 1

An abridged version of this article appeared as a guest post on the blog Ramblings of Sheldon.

In Which God and I Are Introduced

By age 23 I had made a full circuit of the American Christianity buffet table and if I hadn't tasted everything, I had at least gotten near enough to smell it.

I was dedicated to the Protestant God by my parents and a Pastor Dibble at a Christian & Missionary Alliance church in a college town in Pennsylvania. My parents, raised Lutheran from infancy, had been rebaptized there by immersion. They were enthusiastic about Bible study and campus evangelism.

I was wearing toddler sizes when I invited Jesus into my heart before bed one night. There wasn't a CMA church in our new town; my parents fellowshipped with a small, casual group that met in an old building named the "Sunshine Inn". I remember watching the adults perform skits for one another, sharing potlucks, everyone dancing to "Father Abraham", and a small printing operation in a back room. When the group decided to construct their own multipurpose church building, my dad was among the volunteers helping to lay block or hang drywall.

The church was young and charismatic, its members idealistic. Instead of hiring a single pastor, they attempted to follow the pattern of the book of Acts: a group of elders shared the responsibilities of leadership, sitting in front of the assembly together and taking turns teaching from the Bible. Our dentist was one of the elders--until his daughter returned home pregnant from Oral Roberts University and he resigned. Once when I was sick, a group of men from the church (some of the elders?) came to our house to anoint my forehead with oil.

During church services, people prayed out loud, prophesied in tongues, and danced or raised their hands in worship. Song lyrics were shown on the wall via overhead projectors and the song-leader was usually playing a guitar along with a handful of instrumentalists in the "orchestra". Against the wall were inconspicuous wooden boxes with mail slots in the top. Dad often let me slide his tithes and offerings envelope in—a treat I enjoyed and helped him remember. The envelopes were printed with a large Roman-style coin, cut into pie wedges to illustrate the ten percent that belonged to God.

There was a warm water baptistery off to the side of the sanctuary/gymnasium at the church, but my dad baptized me in the Great Lakes in a small ceremony with one other family. They sang “Our God Reigns”—my favorite. My friend’s mom wrapped me in my bath towel with the elephant on it, and I was excited because now Mom and Dad would let me share communion. Elders would stand in the aisles at church holding bottles of grape juice, ready to refill the the common cup as it passed down the rows. The cubes of homemade unleavened bread were fragrant with coriander and star thistle honey. I always tried to nonchalantly pick the biggest piece when the plate made its way to me. I still have the recipe for that bread; it’s one of my family’s favorite snacks.

I remember the men of the church being kind, and I was very aware of their contributions to the community. One was a Vietnam vet who became a veterinarian; he was renowned for his gentleness and good humor. My friends’ dad was an auto mechanic; his father served as principal for the church school and supplied bottled honey to local stores.  A craftsman builder with huge hands did the remodeling on my mom’s kitchen, and helped me ride a bike. When pipes in our house froze one winter, we called the plumber from our church; my brothers and I watched him work. Another dad built cabins from logs he cut himself, and showed my brothers how his bear trap worked. One couple collaborated on art and publishing.

Women and men seemed to participate freely and equally in everything but direct preaching. Except for the elders being an all-male group, I was never aware of restrictions based on my gender. Many adults, including my parents, took turns teaching Bible lessons to the kids in the school classrooms that doubled as Sunday school rooms. I can still quote many of the Bible verses I first memorized there, amid the alphabet posters, stacks of math workbooks, and cabinets of craft supplies. My teachers gave me The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as a prize, but Mom made me exchange it at the religious bookstore. By then, all fantasy, not just witches, was banned from our home. If my parents had heard of C. S. Lewis, they had certainly never read him.

My parents came to object to sensuality in the church. The church orchestra became more of a band, and this made my parents uncomfortable. They were more concerned about several of their friends’ marriages falling apart and about two divorcees from the church marrying each other. This upset my mom so much that we left that church and started attending a Friends meeting.

Part 2: In Which God and I Are Friends

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