“So are you coming or not?”, the anxious voice of the Eldest One asked.
At 10 am on a Sunday morning, a time which I usually reserve for calmly shuffling through the big newspaper and squinting at 6 pt. type on seldom seen blogs, a question of whether or not I’d be coming or going was usually met with the sneer of the sloth laying oh so close to my chest.
But this was the request of a different sort. It was Easter.
And Beth was getting baptized.
She made this revelation to Ally and I over dinner a few nights ago. We keep up with her in this way, you see, dinner with the Eldest Child (so long as we are the ones doing the buying or fixing) and high speed conversation trying to cover all the events in her life for the past 200 hours or so. With a 20 year old, big events seem to happen all the time. New job. Car getting wrecked. Taking tests for a possible gig with the Coast Guard, a move endorsed heartily by me. Signing up for a new adult softball team.
Many dreams she has and many choices. At an age where Ally and I have but a few choices left, the young ones are faced with all the days ahead of them that life will offer.
She was in the middle of a long and run-on discourse about all this stuff the other night, wearing her voice and heart out over complications and money and things difficult, when I leaned into an opening and asked, “So what does Mary have to say about all this?”
There was a pause and Beth frowned, briefly. “Oh we’re not talking much any more. I’ve kinda put all that behind me as a matter of fact.”
Put it behind her. A two year run of girls, starting with the infamous Lids and ending with the more demure Mary. Put it behind her.
“And oh by the way can you come to my baptism on Easter Sunday?”
Sometimes, when talking with my children, I feel like a boxer weaving in the ring, slipping and feinting as they jab and hook, looking for the proverbial opening so they can let go the solid left and put me on the canvas for good. She caught me with that good combination and I was gaping at her.
“You’re done with girls, is that what you’re saying?”
“Oh yeah,” she chirped, with a ‘What, are you really that far behind the times’ tone in her voice.
“And baptism, you’re going to a church I take it.”
She sipped long on an ice tea and coolly set it aside. “Yep, took the class. I really like it over there.” Over there turned out to be the mega-church not too far from us, a Southern Baptist conclave dwarfing most any other in this city full of churches. Acres of buildings that I had worked on from time to time in the course of a construction career.
“So, can you come?”
I looked at Ally with the parents stare of a thousand PTA meetings, softball games, birthday parties and rock concerts. “Um, yeah. Count on it.”
But she still called an hour before the service. Just to make sure.
Long ago I commented on the state of my religious participation in these scribblings. I grew up in a home that put church ahead of everything save possibly eating a sit down meal and wearing serviceable clothes. I went to a Christian school from the time I was 13 until I graduated high school. Church twice on Sundays, prayer meeting on Wednesday, church boys club activities. Sunday school.
I have a brother who is a senior pastor at a very large church three states from me. Two sisters, both very active in church work during the week, one working full time at a Christian college. All of their spouses are hugely involved too.
For quite a while Ally and I (Ally having a much more pedestrian upbringing) followed right in that tradition, starting with a membership and marriage in a mid-sized church down the street. We helped to start a fledging congregation in a storefront. I was a deacon for years, on the building committee and all that.
I tell you all this, I guess, to establish a backstory and credentials, if you will. Without getting intensely personal about it, I can tell you that I know the territory, the theology, the relationship. I know it better and have more historical perspective on it than could fill a dozen entry’s of this sort. Let’s leave it there for now.
A huge part of what keeps me at home on any given Sunday is what I saw coming down the road as long ago as the early 70’s. Aside from early burn-out from church and Christian dogma, the whole spectre of the faith began to change. I guess you could say that early on, it was a welcome change for a teen-ager. Standing in a church service that rarely changed (it was a Baptist one, if you’re wondering) most of the younger crowd was positively aching for something a little more modern, a little more relevant.
Boy did we ever get our wish.
The Jesus movement. All the hippies who tanked out on meth and speed? They took to religion with a fervor, made some music, covered their Bible’s with denim slipcovers and hit the road with a whole new outlook on life.
I could go on, as I said, for a long time about the history behind all this. I dropped into that culture quickly and had some very heartfelt experiences with it all, right up to high school, with the predictable backsliding and spiritual highs and lows. High school is a miserable time to be messing around with your mental/spiritual health. It’s a time of doubt doubt doubt. Doubt and Christianity makes for troubled bedfellows.
Add to that a (and I’m going to do some horn tooting here, so duck as you see fit) mind that was fairly well advanced and not necessarily into the whole emotional aspect that Christianity in the modern day demands and I was doomed. I could not, for the life of me, stand in a congregation full of people singing a plea to God for fulfillment and raise my hands in supplication for a movement of the Holy Ghost. To sing with eyes closed and sway and invoke the spirit, as many a gushing song leader pleaded for the remission of sin and the cleansing of my heart.
Seemed damned embarrassing, for one thing.
I never made an alter call. Never got baptized. Never ran down and fondled snakes (okay, I’m pushing for levity here) or sobbed with a preachers hands on my head or spoke in tongues or beseeched God for a miracle.
It just wasn’t in me. I knew what I knew, and believed in a stoic sort of way.
But dancing in the aisles? Wasn’t in me. And I can tell you this. More than a few of the churches that I’ve attended in my life expect that, in a loving and non-pressure sort of way. Sooner or later they’re going to start to wonder. “Well now, Outfoxed hasn’t ever twirled in place, never did the raising of hands at the alter call. Now he’s a deacon and all, and a real fine one. And he serves on the building committee and teaches Sunday school (I did, too. I had the credentials, you see) but you never see him make a show of it and by golly, it just makes you sort of wonder, eh?”
I got by for a very long time on a pedigree.
Christian schools. Brother - minister, and a big name in the church community on the East Coast. Enough bible knowledge to be able to not only keep a conversation going in the midst of a heated theological discussion but to actually dominate it. Pretty wife, a general follower of the faith.
But somewhere in the midst of all this I just said enough.
It was a sham, and I knew it. I believe then, as I do now, that coming home from Sunday church, changing into jeans and popping a longneck before football wasn’t exactly what being a deacon was all about. I had a fellow slacker, and equally mentally sharp lad, son of one of the most prominent and believable pastor’s I’ve ever met, say it better that I ever could.
“You know, I believe the story. I can’t help but believe it, it’s been proven to me in ways I can’t explain. But I can’t live it. I can’t match up to it. And if I can’t live it at least I’ll respect the ones who try. I ain’t gonna muck up their world with mine. I got to respect them for that.”
I haven’t heard from that guy in 20 years or more, and I still wonder. Is he still sitting in a bar sorrowing over what he can’t be? Did he somehow find his way back to God and is living a committed life?
I have sources, and I haven’t seen any sign that he is living any differently than I am. You tend not to think of it much as years go by, you bend the elbow with your fellow heathen and listen to the filth that emits from those who never set foot in a church and you wonder. You absolutely wonder at the doubt that fills you, and the mind that you have that can never resolve it.
That was a helluva background to the story at hand, but I guess it just had to be. Ally and I didn’t exactly put on the Sunday best to go to Beth’s church. Times were, going to church on Sunday involved a suit for me and a nice dress for her. Bonnets on the girls and a tie for Ben. Bibles at the ready, and striding forth into an oaken pewed acceptance of what the community of Christian living was all about.
Not this Sunday. I tossed on a sweater and shoes with the khaki’s, and made do. For the mega-church battle that was to come.
20 foot tall projection screens. 100 people in a choir, a full rock band, and a brass and string section. Three television cameras for the live telecast. Swarms of greeters with badges. Ally and I stood at the back of the church looking for a seat and I swear, the only thing I can compare it to was the swarm of a college basketball arena before a playoff game. Absolutely incredible, and this was the FOURTH service of the morning. The fourth, and there was a thousand people in attendance.
Being the experienced Baptist that I am I grabbed her arm and dove neatly into a row second from the back, on the aisle. “Don’t give up that aisle seat for anyone, you hear?” I hissed. “If they ask you to scoot over to the center, give ‘em the look you give me when I tell ye I’m going up to the Watering Hole for a few, okay?”
It might seem questionable, for someone who hadn’t been inside of a church for a very long time, when I tell you that the entire service was predictable. Oh, the technology was amazing, no question. I soon found (since the opening twenty minutes were nothing but music) that hymnals are stacked in the pew merely as decoration now. The high tech innovation was to keep your eyes squarely on the big screen, like a liturgical Karaoke machine, and sing along with the music. Or not. I was silent out of a protest that only I could have explained. I knew a fair number of the songs, could do the bass line and the tenor on a good day. I can read music from a hymnal just fine. I don’t like Karaoke night at the bar, and I surely don’t like it at a church.
A cajoler of my age led the singing with much waving of arms, complete with the sort of neatly trimmed beard and rimless spectacles that made you think “Ex-hippie! He was smoking Peruvian back in the day!” all the way through a 6 verse post-modern hymn that had the lead guitarist wailing in a frenzy, the drummer blasting a rolling riff worthy of a Phish intro, the choir beginning the little vertical bop with just a twinge of the frenzy you might see at a good jazz concert.
Then they had an immediate, and I do mean immediate prayer. It was a common theme of the service, no breaks, no introduction of one pastor or another, no solemn procession to the pulpit. This was MTV, this was production oriented. This was an attention grabber, ending with a clash of cymbals and a get-down from the lead singer, warbling up and down two octaves in a search for the ending.
It was curious to me that the baptizing began immediately after. An older man, one who I assumed was the main pastor (oh ye of little knowledge, it could well have been just a random guy who happened to have hip waders for all I know) sloshed into the well for a go at the innitiants. Beth happened to be first. The cameras and spotlights swung into action as she stood in 3 feet of water, grinning and blinded, aside the white haired elder 30 years her senior.
“Now I have her our sister Beth who told me a story just a moment ago. Our Beth is an athlete, and she said that this was just like running out before the start of the big game, isn’t that right Beth?”
I tightened the fingers that happened to be digging into my wife’s shoulder at the time and whispered, “No. You think?”
Beth giggled. “That’s right!” and the organ swelled appropriately in the background.
The elder chuckled in a folksy way. “Well Beth, we just have to ask you this question,” and he swung the beam of the face of Christian bonhomie to her. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and do you now make public your confession of faith to Him?”
I tried really hard to unclench my jaw.
“Yessir, I do.”
The elder swung a handkerchief to her face. “Then by your profession of faith, I do baptize you in his name.”
Beth is not a small girl. He characterized her as an athlete, and she surely is. She had at least six inches on this poor fellow, and when she covered the handkerchief holding hand with hers I noticed that his hands just kinda disappeared. Normally, the elder would just bend her backwards by sheer muscle and raise her the same way.
It was touch and go there. The dunking of Beth, by faith or not, wasn’t going to get done by some little guy out-muscling her, there was a momentary skirmish, but Beth finally bent her knees to accommodate him and basically dunked herself. For a minute there, I thought the only one who was gonna get baptized was the elder himself.
“Baptized by faith, rise and walk!”, he cried, and a chorus of ‘Amens’! rang out from the multitude as Beth did the breast stroke to the pool ladder.
A couple of small children followed (which demonstrated, I guess, that the elder had some sense. He dunked them with little trouble after trying to man-handle the female version of Mark McGwire) and the baptizing was over.
Another lengthy and artfully staged session of singing followed, with me finding it more convenient to watch the proceeding through the camera mans viewfinder located right in front of me. Although the drummer got a workmanlike session going on that put me in mind of a Steely Dan show I saw a few years back.
If you couldn’t tell, I was already going through my production supervisor role with this whole show. And it was, no mistake, a show. Worthy of applause, applause following virtually everything, as though you’d wandered into a real estate pep rally with musical accompaniment.
“Cue the prayer. Signal the offering, cut to the solo during the offering, swell of organ now, camera three should pick up the profile shot of the hot blonde in the choir doing the contralto back up” and so forth. Amazingly (or not, given the experience I’ve had with this) enough, the players hit their spots to my mental commands pretty much on time. I was at once amused, guilty and a little wistful at how little things had changed.
“Cue the sermon, pace right of pulpit.” The preacher was not the elder from the pool but a young lion with a triple breaster and a beeper on his belt. He roared emotion like Emiril on a BAM! Bender. Given the whole staging of the thing, emotion seemed to be the only card he had to play. There was no scholarship, no reading of the Bible. It was in your face pleading, the waxing to glory for the faithful and the pleading for the not. The big screen seamlessly followed along with scripture references of obscure relevance, complete with chapter and verse for those whose multi-tasking was up to following along with the good book.
I read Elmer Gantry as a floundering youth and it hit hard with me. For those of you not familiar with it I’m not going to delve too deep, but it was all about a preacher who’d rather do a snort out back with the boys but could yank a sermon chock full of homilies from his breast pocket at a moments notice.
For the sake of the theatrics involved at this service, the only topper for me would have been if Elmer himself had ridden down from the domed ceiling on a trapeze wire with a unicycle for conveyance. And a chimp on his shoulder.
“Cue the alter call.” The preacher hit the 25 minute TV cut-off with a flourish, as the band (who no doubt had their own cue cards close at hand) started picking up instruments a scant 30 seconds before the prayer and again, with no break or seam, swung into a hushed and mournful dirge to coax the hesitant.
He gave three alter calls. That was a new high for me. Two used to be unheard of, even if one was expected.
“Wrap-up. Choir up. Hallelujah Chorus (Bee Gees, Best of). It’s Easter, after all. Enter the flag and the banner.” Applause light, please.
Beth came up to us later, beaming. “Guess what? I got a copy of the baptism video! Just like when I rode the roller coaster at Busch Gardens and they had that high speed camera on the down slope! This oughta be cool!”
It was not always like this.
When I was a kid, the Hallelujah Chorus (Handel, Messiah) was the only time anything unusual happened in church. I mean the one and only time anything deviated from the norm, the expected, the written in the paper bulletin handed to you by an usher. The opening lines would swell out upon a seated congregation at the end of service, that glorious and celebratory beginning, and an old man in front of the church would stand up, resolutely. Then another, and then another. In seconds, the whole place would be standing in absolute rapture, seemingly completely ad-libbed, a respectful and worshipful meeting of the minds for the most honorable of music.
Not an arm in the air, not one pleading palm. No needless seeking of attention. Not a sound from the audience. But the eyes.
The eyes had everything and nothing. You’d feel all of Christendom flowing through you, and the tradition, and the belonging and the suffering as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords was honored.
Respected. With several dozen trained voices and a Hamburg pipe organ.
It went on for several minutes and we could’ve listened to it forever.
And when the final note died away in an echo and you sat down in silence, often with tears flowing from you and the ones around you, you knew. You knew without doubt. The doubt that would soon plague for the rest of your days.
That there was more to life than the silliness, and the repugnant musings, and the filth of life lived among those who hated and scorned.
You felt alive, my friend.
Whether your church was large or not, you felt reborn. You felt as though the struggle was perhaps not just your own, and that a presence large and comforting had flown through a sanctuary with a soft breath on a morning new with Easter and a stone rolled away.
You felt it in a way that I may not ever again, not in this age. That was a time when the whisper appeared unseen, without large video, without lead guitar and the screeching of men better given to pyramid schemes and tax plans.
You felt it when the pastor, a good little man who‘d given his whole life for this very moment in time, would slowly ascend back to his pulpit, wiping his eyes just a bit and saying “. . . and all the people said?”
And we all did. To the very child, the people did earnestly say it.
Respect, it was. God help me, we did have respect.
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