Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Circling the Christianity Buffet, Part 4

In Which I Return to the Beginning

We had exhausted the church options in our own community; now we crossed county lines heading east, south, and west. We piled into our 12-passenger van and rotated directions each week, laughingly calling ourselves a "circuit-riding congregation".

The Church of Christ had fired their ATI pastor, and he was now leading a small fellowship of mostly homeschooling families who met on Sunday mornings at a public school to the east, near the lake. The school would rent them the library for something like $10 a week, and we could drag in a piano from down the hall to accompany the pastor’s guitar. This band of believers sang a lot of praise songs I remembered from my childhood. The pastor would print out his sermon notes and pass out copies to everyone. Then he would put the same notes on the overhead projector, stand to the side, and proceed to read them to us. But the homemade cubes of communion bread were nearly as delicious as the charismatic kind, and they served it every single week. On Sunday nights, many in the church liked to have bonfires, s’mores, and guitar-led sing-alongs on the beach.

In the opposite direction, we knew an ATI family pastoring an old country church. Their theology was more covenantal than ours and the congregation more blue-collar, but their music was safely conservative and I borrowed interesting books from the minister. Having connections to the Methodist tradition, they took their monthly communion at the altar rail. Until I asked the pastor to officiate at my wedding, I did not realize that Bible Methodists do not endorse jewelry—including wedding rings.

Other weeks, we drove south to join an eclectic "plain" fellowship meeting in a township hall. Some families were ex-Amish, having been forced out of their communities when they were "born again". One couple had been raised Catholic and now vehemently objected to the celebration of Christ-mass. Another had been Episcopalian, turned Amish (exchanging their minivan for a horse and buggy), and were now neither. When they decided to have a baptismal immersion service at a farm pond, no one knew how to do it. The baptismal candidates didn't even get completely moistened, though, as a female observer, I didn't tell them so. 

Everyone homeschooled, the girls all wore dresses, there was little interaction between the sexes, and the women all wore scarves around their hair, with only an inch or two revealed above their foreheads. The a capella singing was painfully slow. The men took turns preaching. I doubt anyone in the group had a college degree; some of the adults had not even finished high school. I cannot recall the fine points of their theology because it was primarily discussed at men’s meetings. As non-members, we would not have been allowed to take communion.

I was annoyed with the extreme patriarchy and made a point of wearing lipstick (gasp!) and my boldest pale pink dress (short sleeves, print of scattered full-blown roses, dainty lace collar, decorative brooch-like button, and wide belt). Though I enjoyed hats, I did not wear one there. I was accustomed to being the most conservatively dressed in any social group, so feeling like the "harlot" was a new experience! I suddenly realized how most normal women must have felt when they visited our family. 

After months of riding our little circuit on Sunday mornings, we settled at the fellowship that met at the school. The pastor was soft-spoken and kind, there were lots of other children, and the families were the most like us. In many ways, that church was a spiritual rehab center or halfway house, attracting the hurt, the lonely, the ones who didn’t fit elsewhere. It was, for the most part, a safe and quiet place for us to park while our emotional wounds healed.

I moved to Oklahoma (to work for Bill Gothard's cult) and fell in love with a Christian & Missionary Alliance Church there. For the first time since childhood, I looked forward to going to church. The people were friendly and the service combined all the elements I most enjoyed. Even though I couldn't remember the CMA church of my infancy, I had a feeling of returning to the beginning, of coming home to where I belonged, and for a year I participated to the fullest extent my cult involvement would permit.

Theologically, I liked the CMA teaching on the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts; after all I'd seen, it felt centered. One week the pastor prayed for a sick man to be healed. The man was anointed with oil and we all prayed. I went home for a visit and when I got back, the man was dead. I tried to understand. I wrote a poem for his widow, imagining the man in heaven and trying to put a hopeful spin on his passing. Faith was so mysterious.

One of my coworkers at Gothard's training center was confident she heard God’s spirit communicating with her. We talked about faith and what we wanted it to mean. During the lunch hour one day, we went up to my room and she prayed for me to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That afternoon I spoke in tongues for the first time. After decades of stories, curiosity, contradictory advice, and yearning to "experience God" in a physical way, this strange and awkward exploratory event felt like losing my spiritual virginity. I basked in a sense of fulfillment for a while.

But my job moved out of Oklahoma and CMA church in my new city wasn’t as inviting. The charismatics weren't down-to-earth enough; the Lutherans were too old or too certain; the Baptists far too stuffy. I kept exploring, learning from each church I was part of, but never able to put down roots. I married, and we eventually settled at a Christian church in our neighborhood that both my husband and I could appreciate. The music leader played with skill and gusto, though some of the more suggestive songs about Jesus made me giggle now that I had sexual experience.

Since Christian churches share a common ancestor with the Church of Christ, communion was a weekly ritual. Unfortunately, this particular congregation used tasteless minuscule crackers that got stuck in my teeth. I tried to think reverent thoughts, picturing the tiny cup of grape juice "blood" as an oral vaccine, passing Christ's immunity on to me and strengthening my resistance to various temptations. It helped for a while, but eventually I started taking two crackers at a time, to get a morsel big enough to chew. Then I switched to selecting the darkest bit on the plate, because at least Burnt Bleached Flour is a flavor.

Once in a while, I would pray in tongues again, sometimes because I felt overwhelmed by life, other times just to see if it still worked. This went on for years until one week, sitting in the sound booth in the back of an evangelical church in the middle of Kansas, my husband and I knew we didn’t belong anymore.

In an attempt to preserve what faith we had left in the God of the Bible, we found a Methodist church with a beautiful pipe organ and a heart of compassion. But even singing anthems with the robed choir, attending the pastor’s Bible class, and dipping bread in grape juice in his study didn’t help. One Easter Sunday, we helped the children’s department with the resurrection-themed crafts, then quietly slipped away. Even as an atheist, I found I could still speak in tongues.

Friends sometimes suppose that if I had ever met their Christ, I would have to love him. But I was presented to the Lord at two weeks old and have seen more of the Body of Christ than most. I found that we simply weren't compatible. For thirty-odd years, I thought we had a relationship; I even thought we were close. But after years of thinking the problems were all mine, his behavior at last began to trouble me.  Could he be trusted? Could he be schizophrenic? Was he cruel? Was he real? And I finally had to conclude: eternity would be far too long to spend with anyone so enigmatic.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that you got to see a Methodist church with a heart of compassion.