Monday, October 14, 2013

Circling the Christianity Buffet, Part 2

In Which God and I are Friends

This particular group of Friends was unique in that they did occasionally celebrate Communion, with grape juice and fluffy white bread. Everyone tore off a piece as the loaf was passed down the row. The congregation was small and the old wooden meetinghouse drafty, so they set up chairs in the basement for services through the winter. The pastor was young, with a sweet wife and baby boy. Through every sermon he would remove his glasses, set them on the lectern, put them back on, take them off, and so on. There was no band, no overhead projector. In the middle of the service, everyone sat down, even the pastor, for fifteen minutes of "quiet time".

A short white-haired lady whose neck had gotten lost in multiple chins frequently filled the silence with stories or thoughts from her week. Other times a grandfatherly jail chaplain shared his thoughts about God in a reassuring voice. His daughter-in-law played the piano for our services. There were college students who occasionally attended in shorts and t-shirts, a one-armed man who frightened my mom, a blind mother of three who played the guitar, a dairy farmer who also worked as a nurse, and a dark-haired young outdoorsman with a beard that made my pre-teen heart beat faster.

Dad took us all to midweek hymn sings and prayer meetings at the parsonage, where I learned to follow along from a hymnal. Mom and I did a discipleship study with a small group at the church, which groomed my shy child-self to pray aloud with an adult partner. I recall a boring video series called Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald, former chairman of the board of World Vision. About the time we were watching MacDonald on a TV screen, he was resigning as president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after admitting to an adulterous affair. But the Internet had not yet been born, so we knew nothing of MacDonald’s private world.

Another video presentation was more memorable. It warned of the AIDS crisis: the American population was forecast to be decimated in ten years’ time, or was it twenty? I didn’t really know what they were talking about, only that public restrooms could expose me to a deadly virus. The video had a lot to say about "homosexuality". Dad leaned over from his folding metal chair next to me in the dim room and whispered into my ear, "That’s when a man sticks his penis into another man's bottom." My eyes must have widened, but there was nothing to say.

I was twelve or thirteen the Easter that some of the church ladies decided it would be cute to have a children's choir. They taught us a Michael Card song (that included the line: "You can choose what not to believe in…"). There were perhaps eight of us on the stage. Standing there in the new skirt and blouse Mom and I had sewn for the occasion, I was painfully aware of being the oldest.

Changes came as more families followed us from the charismatic fellowship to the Friends church. When the congregation withdrew from the Quaker denomination, I joined the adults in voting for a new church name and was pleased when my favorite won out. "Cornerstone" soon voted to align themselves with the Evangelical Free denomination. We parted ways with them at that point, because the "E. Free" allowed divorced men to be pastors and my mother’s interpretation of the New Testament did not permit such low standards.

My best friend during this period was part of the local Mennonite church. Our family occasionally attended special meetings there, and we loved their potluck meals. Like us, Mennonite girls wore homemade dresses and eschewed make-up. Unlike us, the adult women all wore their hair tucked up inside pleated white caps. They sang unfamiliar hymns in four-part harmony from shaped notes. Marriage was a permanent bond. The pastors were laymen; women were homemakers who planted spectacular gardens and made their own ketchup. Their Anabaptist heritage ran deep; some couples spoke German at home. But the insurmountable difference was their approach to education: my parents were passionate about homeschooling, while the tight-knit Mennonite community expected all its members to support the church's one-room private school. So in spite of all we appreciated about the church, we could never really have fit in.

To his credit, my dad, despite homeschooling and delivering his own babies, never felt comfortable with home-churching. But hunting for a new church is a daunting process—all the more with five children in tow—so Dad and I formed a search committee and visited local Sunday morning services together, discussing their merits on the way home and reporting back to the rest of the family at lunch. Dressed in my mom’s hand-me-downs, I was mistaken for his wife more than once.

We settled at the Baptist church we’d driven past so many times early in my childhood: a traditional brick building with padded pews, a grand piano, and an organ. Dressed comfortably on our way to the charismatic church and gazing out the car window, I had always felt sorry for the proper, well-coiffed Baptists in their suits, Sunday dresses, and heels. They were obviously rich, and, I imagined, smug. I knew they didn’t dance or speak in tongues.

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