Tales from Church

… and Other Episodes on My Journey of Faith

:: Disillusioned ::

Some Sunday in 1950

In the church of my childhood, Kenmore Baptist Church, in Kenmore, N.Y., I experienced my first disillusionment with organized religion. One Sunday, I realized the adults did not know the hymns by heart. They were reading the words off the pages of the hymnal. It was a cheap trick. They did not know everything. And thus began a distrust of grown-ups which endures to this day.

:: Baptized ::

December 1, 1957

On the Sunday evening when Tommy Rettig left TV’s Lassie, I was baptized. It was a full-immersion baptism, not some other denomination’s light sprinkle which Baptists hold laughingly insufficient for the task of washing away sin.

What I remember most from the evening was how cold the water was. The sexton, my friend Cindy’s grandfather, had forgotten to turn on the heater for the baptismal tank. He did fire it up a few minutes before church, but this was Buffalo in December, and it was not bath water.

Reverend Childs wore tall, green rubber wading boots under his white robes, a mystery revealed behind the scenes as we suited up. I was jumping with excitement and my friend Fred was telling me to stop jumping. (Fred is now the pastor of a Baptist church in Maryland, and would probably still advise me to calm down.)

When my turn came, right after Fred’s, I walked down the steps into the cold water, gasped loudly, which got a chuckle, folded my hands over my chest as Reverend Childs had instructed and under I went. I came up baptized and bolted for dry ground.

:: Sundays in Uniform ::

October 1968

I attended chapel in Basic Training, at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas. About eight of us, out of the 50 men in the flight, went every Sunday, mostly to escape the cleaning detail meted out to those who stayed behind. In the pews, we prayed for deliverance, which did not come, at least not in the time frame we had in mind, and then returned to the barracks.

:: Pantheism ::

November 1968

While stationed at the Presidio of Monterey, I begin worshiping the ocean every Sunday morning on the Municipal Pier, drinking chocolate milk and communing with the seals and otters and gulls.

:: Trusting Gentiles ::

1976

While visiting a girlfriend’s parents in Levittown, Long Island, I was a guest at a neighborhood get-together. A woman turned to me and asked, “Do you trust Gentiles?”

I had no snappy answer. I tried to look thoughtful and even more Jewish than I apparently already did. Whatever “religion” I was at the time — and it had been a while since I’d been formally anything — I at least knew I was a Gentile. My girlfriend reminded me all the time.

But I felt more comfortable in temple than I ever had in church. Everyone in temple knew where they stood with the Almighty. There were no anxieties about heaven and hell, no gusts of brimstone from the pulpit. I liked it. In my girlfriend’s home, I found the Passover ceremony to be meaningful. At temple, I felt honored to wear a yarmulke, the little hat Gentiles call a skullcap. And I was always learning. At a wedding, the mother of the groom asked the groom’s brother if he wanted a yarmulke, and he said, “No thanks, Mom, I’m driving.” He got such a smack and my girlfriend whispered to me, “Never joke about a yarmulke.”

But until that moment, no one had asked me if I trusted Gentiles. Struggling for a polite answer, I said, “I try to deal with people one at a time.” The woman wasn’t buying it, but I thought it was a good answer. It’s the same answer I would give now.

:: The King ::

April 17, 1981

At the Mt. Carmel S.D.A. Church in Syracuse, N.Y., I heard the Rev. Richard Penniman preach. He was on hiatus from being Little Richard, and filled with the spirit. I attended on the night he was speaking about drugs. He was a terrific preacher, made something of a display of not wanting to sell his gospel records inside the church, and kept a careful eye on the attache case that appeared some time after the offering was taken, placed under his chair by an associate. I was told the following night he talked about sex, and was even better.

:: The Great Spirit ::

Circa 1982

At the library, I found a book called I Have Spoken: American History Though the Voices of the Indians, compiled by Virginia Armstrong. It is a collection of native American oratory. In it, I read Chief Joseph’s reply to a U.S. Commission in 1871, that asked him why he did not allow churches on his reservation in Oregon. He said, “They will teach us to quarrel about God, as Catholics and Protestants do on the Nez Perce Reservation and other places. We do not want to do that. We may quarrel with men sometimes about things on earth, but we never quarrel about the Great Spirit. We do not want to learn that.”

:: Bells ::

June 13, 1983

At dusk, Rod and Judith Tolley, Laurie and I followed a path around the side of the Parish Church; Eccleshall, England, whose foundations date from 1189, and slipped sideways through a slit into the wall. We climbed a dark corkscrew of a staircase that runs up inside the wall, each worn stone step not much bigger than a slice of pie, and suddenly entered the light and conviviality of a bell room, where eight ringers, including our friends Norman and Mary, were preparing to pull on the ropes and raise a joyful noise to the village of Eccleshall and the heavens above.

But before they did, Rod insisted we slip back into the wall and climb up to see the bells themselves. Six of the bells date from 1710 (cast from four “great bells” hung in 1547); the lightest of the six was recast in 1873, and two more were hung in 1956. They are massive, and while we stood there, 77 steps high, they began to rock in their mounts. The ensuing din was loud, magnificent and, as we felt the 15th century stone tower begin to sway, terrifying. We felt the time had come to descend and listen from below.

Some parts of me did not descend right away, but waited until I was at The Bell, soothing my jangled senses with pints of Springfield, Bass and Guinness, followed by a visit to The Railway for pints of Wem Mild and Wem Bitter. A glorious night.

:: Church & State ::

June 22, 1983

In St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, I discovered the sanctuaries are filled with dead people and their monuments; you can’t take a step without treading upon some fallen hero; it is an indoor cemetery. I was filled with a new respect for the American concept of the separation of church and state.

:: The Rapture ::

September 14, 1988

Prompted by the profitable musings of author Edgar C. Whisenant, the nation was caught up in speculation about the Rapture. One of my co-workers had taken the prediction to heart and bade us all farewell at the end of the workday. But, more importantly for our friend Brian, it was also Winship Wednesday, with a home-cooked meal in the offing. Brian picked me up at work and we drove home to Laurie and Abbie. No one was outside, and the house seemed oddly quiet as we walked up the driveway. I said, “Do you think the Rapture has come?” and Brian replied, “Well, if it has, we’re on our own for dinner.”

:: Lepers ::

October 8, 1989

At Luther Memorial Church, in N. Syracuse, N.Y., my daughter was seated on the floor for the Children’s Sermon, based on Christ’s healing of the ten lepers. Pastor Johnson asked, “What is a leper?” and Abbie replied, clear as a bell, “A spotted yellow cat.” And so the Great Physician became the Great Veterinarian. I beamed with pride.

:: Children of God ::

Some Time in the 1990s

A familiar figure was standing on the street corner in downtown Syracuse, dressed in a brown wool suit on a hot summer day. A worn, brown leather suitcase stood on the sidewalk next to him. He was not a tall man, perhaps all of 5′ 6″, but he had a very large head with a very expressive face. His dark curly hair and beard gleamed in the sun; his face was tanned to a shade that almost matched his suit, and his white teeth made his smile all the brighter coming out of all that darkness.

He was ranting, as he has been every day that week, holding forth in a very loud voice, an orator’s voice, giant clear tones that could be heard a block away. There must have been a hundred people within earshot, all walking to restaurants or doing errands, and, as with the prophets of old, giving him lots of room as he shouted, “We are all children of God!”

And then he tipped his head back, threw his arms out wide, looked up into the noonday sun, grinning wildly, and cried, “How am I doin’, Dad?”

A hundred people broke into smiles as broad as his own.

:: The Great Buddha ::

May 13, 1995

In Kamakura, Japan, I stood before the Great Buddha, the most extraordinary work of art and faith that I have ever seen in my life, and the most powerful. Not even taking into account the fact that it has survived in this world for more than 700 years, even without marveling at how such a gigantic piece of sculpture could have been made with thirteenth century technology, even without considering the state of Western civilization when this was completed. I was overwhelmed, awestruck by its beauty, its serenity. I could not imagine how anyone could be anything less than deeply respectful of a faith that could have prompted such an act of creation.

:: Goggles ::

December 2001

Why does an irreverent sin-bag like myself go to church? A simple answer might be to worship, to give thanks, to support and be supported, to learn. But I think what really keeps me coming back are the wild, unexpected bonuses, like last Sunday’s safety glasses. It started with a young man in gray jacket and pants, fairly new to the church and fairly new to walking. He was the kind of person who used the seat of each chair to steady himself because the seat was at shoulder height and very convenient. When it was time for the Children’s Sermon, his parents gave him the go-ahead and he began working his way down the row toward the wide open spaces of the carpet.

Perched on his forehead were safety glasses, the big clear plastic kind with a black elastic band holding them in place. And as he came to our end of the row, he looked up at me, and I was looking right at him, and he said, softly, with a slight lisp, “Goggles.” And then he pulled them down over his eyes, and headed up front, hands out for balance, for a story about the Baby Jesus. It doesn’t get any better than that.

:: Sarah ::

January 9, 2002

When in church, I of course follow the litany faithfully and attentively. But during the pauses, I confess, my attention may drift to the children in the room. The Sunday before Christmas belonged to Sarah. The youngest of three, she is endlessly inventive, and will either be the Madame Curie of her generation or something more sinister. On this holiday morning, she wore a festive headband with a one-inch buzz of ruby tinsel, and she wore it like a crown.

You or I, to be sure, would have left it at that. It’s called a headband; where else could it go? But in the middle of the service, Sarah thought to try it as a belt, snapping it around her waist and pondering its effect. I returned to the service for a response or two, and when next I looked over the top of my bulletin, the ruby headband had become a brassiere.

My guess is that even in the most liberal Lutheran churches, sparkling red brassieres are not commonplace. Sarah’s older sister probably guessed at this as well, because the moment she saw the reconsidered headband, her hand shot out and swept it out of view. Sarah glared and silently demanded the return of the sparkling red headband. But it was the Sabbath, and the Court of Appeals was closed.

:: A Not So Wise Man ::

January 8, 2004

One Epiphany Sunday a few years ago, I walked into church and my friend Ken put his arm around my shoulders, and said, “Kihm, you’re Melchior.”

I said, “What?” And he said, “Melchior’s furnace blew out at 6 a.m. this morning. Now you are Melchior.” And so I became a Wise Man, wearing a Wise Man costume for the children’s sermon and singing about traveling afar.

My success on this occasion led to return engagements, among them this past Sunday’s appearance, which underscored how unwise I remain. It was not my best morning. I had to be coached into my outfit. First the choir robe, then the purple drapery, then the strands of pearls. “Where’s my gold?” I said, and my eyes were directed to a tea tin covered with gold foil. I picked it up. “Which one is my crown?” I said. And I was directed to a paper crown on a nearby shelf. I put down my gold and picked up my crown, and then my music sheet, and off we went to await our cue at the back of the sanctuary.

The organ began to play and I began to sing “We Three Kings,” supported by Gaspar and Balthasar, proceeding, following yonder star, realizing at that moment that I had left my gold in the choir room. It was too late, so I smiled a lot and sang my piece as best I could and pretended the absence of gold was not a problem. I prayed no child would ask where the gold was. None did, which says something for the power of prayer.

But crunch time came when the pastor said, “And now, they will leave their gifts for the Christ Child.” Gaspar and Balthasar dropped off their frankincense and myrrh, and I smiled and bowed and sang my way out, returning to the choir room by a different route to avoid the wrath of Herod.

I melted into the crowd for the rest of the service, but with the first note of the postlude, my friend Steve turned around in his chair and said, “I see you shorted the Christ Child up there.”

:: Micah 3:5-12 ::

November 1, 2005

At St. James this past Sunday, Snow White, a lion and a caterpillar took communion. I think this speaks well for the inclusive nature of our church, but what was more remarkable was the first reading, from the book of Micah. The prophet Micah lived in Judah, around 740-700 BC, a time of religious and political corruption.

In the lesson, Micah cried out against those “who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.” He lamented those who abhorred justice, those who would build a nation with blood and wrong.

“Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money.” I could not help but marvel at how relevant were Micah’s words and concerns. Today, the bribes are called campaign donations and rewarded with no-bid contracts and lax regulation, religious leaders covet wealth and White House access, and a chorus of pundits give oracles for money.

And what were the consequences 2700 years ago? “Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame.”

I shall be following the news.

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