Roar the word

The members of this church of Christ say Jesus is the head of their congregation, and his message its only doctrine, so I would think there’d be some mention of loving one another and being joyful. Instead, the theme of today’s sermon is sin.

The minister is pale around his eyes where sunglasses go. I imagine him on a speed boat with blue glitter racing stripes. He tells us the story of David seeing Bathsheba and, even though she’s married, he’s determined to have her—which he does—and this sin unleashes a world of pain. The preacher says this shows us we must always, always say “no” to temptation. He tells us, “You can say ‘no’ a thousand times and just one ‘yes’ undoes it. It’s like a child with a cookie!” The message is almost identical to the Baptist minister’s the week before. That minister was once a cop who received a communication from God that he must “roar” the word of Jesus Christ. Luckily, God’s instructions coincided with his retirement. He warns the congregation to turn away from worldly things, to stay away from those activities like drinking alcohol because that is how you “open the door wide to Satan.” He shouts, “My job is not to be tolerant! My job is to explain what Jesus Christ wants!”

At the end of both sermons, my temples were left throbbing. Is sinning really so black and white? What’s wrong with a kid eating a cookie? If I went just on what these two preachers said, I would walk away thinking the goal was to stay away from “demonic” influences and “unclean” people—but what does that mean? Jesus laid his hands on lepers and socialized with prostitutes.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus entreats us to throw our assumptions out the window: people we think are holy may not be, just as the wicked could be righteous. At a Methodist church several weeks earlier, the female minister even told us that if we wanted to be true evangelists, we should “go to where the people are, go into the night clubs, and in those places be example of Christ’s acceptance.” I remember this very clearly because it conjured a mental image of me sitting at a bar trying to beam rays of unconditional love onto the dance floor. Would I need to stick to ginger ale? She didn’t specify.

After the service at the church of Christ, I was perusing the literature table when the preacher approached me. Up close, I could see blotches of sun damage across his forehead and cheeks. I told him his sermon was impressive and I meant it; for every statement he made, he directed us to a line in the Bible. We were flipping back and forth like maniacs. “Well, I know a thing or two about sin,” he said, “There was a time when I smoked a lot of marijuana and ended up in jail.”  I nod, surprised by this revelation—not that it happened, but that he would share it with me. Before I left, he handed me a workbook on being a better Christian.

“Read this,” he said. “It has a lot of good info on sin.”

I cry to thee

The women in this congregation remain silent while the men talk, as they believe the Bible instructs. As far as I can tell, this strain of biblical literalism began over 500 years ago before Luther came on the scene. Some who read the Bible back then noticed a key discrepancy between the church’s practice of baptism and how it was described in the book itself. The church sprinkled babies with water but in scripture Jesus is fully submerged as a grown man.

The people who called the church out on this inconsistency gained the name “Anabaptists” meaning “to baptize again.” They argued that the Bible version of baptism, what some called “believer’s baptism,” was far more meaningful because an older person had the wherewithal to understand and choose Christianity. A powerful argument, I must say, and church leaders felt threatened enough to have many of these outspoken literalists burned at the stake. Luther did not support their criticism of infant baptism, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their instinct to turn directly to scripture influenced him.

One of the men has gained the floor and is providing a lengthy outline of his recent battle with congestion. I find myself looking around the room, a silent scream echoing between my ears. “Who are you people?!” I want to shout. Then, all at once, I realize exactly who these people are: my beloved grandma and grandpa. My mom’s parents, with whom my mom and I lived when we first moved to Dallas, held these beliefs. I had always remembered Chapel in the Woods, my grandparent’s church, as being Baptist. Recently, my mom corrected me: it was non-denominational.

“Non-denominational?” I repeated when she told me that.

I would normally associate that word with a very liberal theology or a looser interpretation of scripture—the opposite of what I’m seeing here and what I remember from my grandparents. Turns out this type of church isn’t inclusive of all denominations; they flat out reject denominations. They might bear the name “church of Christ” or “Christian church” or “Bible church.” They might call themselves “disciples of Christ.” These descriptors are intended to imply the absence of theology; they are not proper nouns but simple adjectives to describe followers of Christ from 2,000 years ago. You might think of them as Christian “ice-people,” perfectly preserved in a glacier that thawed yesterday. Each and every one of these churches is an independent body; like the “congregational” churches most of the first colonists established, they don’t belong to the overarching structures that tie together churches of a particular denomination.

The man who leads us in singing has all the vocal subtlety of Herman Munster. Why he would be selected for this particular job is beyond me. There’s no musical accompaniment to temper the ear assault because apparently instruments in worship service are not biblical, so the parishioners have no choice but to lend their voices in an effort to drown out his. We sing “Jesus, I Come”, a hymn based on Psalm 130:1 that reads, “Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord” and then we sing “Master, the Tempest is Raging” based on a story in Mark. During the refrain, I feel a pang of nostalgia for my grandparents, whom I looked upon with tender bewilderment. They beamed unconditional love at me but always seemed just out of reach. I don’t know if it’s because of them or because there are so few people and no instruments, but today I feel a greater sense of responsibility for my vocal contribution.

I sing with more conviction than I have so far. The rest of me may be guarded, but my voice is all in.

What Jesus wants

“This is the church Jesus would have established,” the woman tells me. She is sitting next to me along with about 30 other people in the living room of an old house converted into a church. Four rows of chairs face a wall that is adorned by a single map of the Middle East with lines that don’t appear to demarcate modern-day countries. Is it from Jesus’ time? The woman is in her early 60s, but her big upside down glasses and floral print dress put her worlds away from my own mom whose usual Sunday attire is yoga pants. She elaborates, “Say, you came to earth and you didn’t know anything and you found a Bible and you read the New Testament, this is the church you would create based on what it says in there.”

I’ve entered what some people might call the “fundamental” phase of this experience. This is comprised of churches whose congregants insist that the Bible is the “inerrant” world of God and, from what I can tell, that means they think every word is absolutely true including the part about how the earth was made in seven days. Some of these folks call theories of evolution “false science.” I was hoping they were mythical creatures I would never encounter. But here they are in surprising abundance within a stone’s throw of two major universities world-renowned for the research that takes place in their abundant laboratories.

I started on this path the previous Sunday when I attended services in a one-room Baptist church. It was an adorable building, all whitewashed wood with a perfect little steeple. The sort of church you might find in miniature at a hobby shop. But when I walked in the front door, I was automatically standing in the chapel. The congregation of about 20 adults was assembled early for a bit of bible study so I had entered in the middle of this activity and everyone in attendance turned at once to see who had come in. They were all in couples and suddenly I felt like the Jezebel come to snatch husbands. I have never been more thankful for my default angel status. The Bible says, “Forget not to show love unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels.” I forced my friendliest smile, and they had to smile back because it says so in Hebrews (13:2). When I walked in this week, I was relieved when everyone was a little more subtle about checking me out.

“Oh, good,” I say to the lady who tells me her church is what Jesus himself would have set up. I nod as if this makes perfect sense. I am sitting in what is called a “church of Christ.” The “c” is purposely not capitalized. A man gets up and makes a few announcements and then all the men sitting in the congregation chime in. They chat as the women sit quietly. Just like the week before, the ladies utter not one word. It says in 1 Corinthians (14:34), “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak.” It seems they are holding tight to this recommendation.

Narrow the way

A couple of months into this religious exploration, I was thinking about what an awesome outcome it is for any of us to be alive, and pondering why it seems we so rarely acknowledge this breathtaking fact. Then I stumbled upon something Jesus said that surprised me. He’s giving out his advice, like loving our neighbors and avoiding false prophets, when he says, “Because strait the gate, and narrow the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14). He implies that our obligation to make morally responsible decisions stems from the simple fact that we are among the living—despite chances too slim to imagine. And here I thought I had cracked the case of some giant existential mystery. Have Christians known this for centuries?

But just as we come face to face with the wonder of our existence, with the enormous responsibility this honor seems to demand of us and the terror that we’ll likely do nothing to prove ourselves deserving of it, we receive the second half of the one-two punch of the human condition: we realize an end point lurks. I remember being 13 when the idea of death wrapped its long ugly fingers around my neck and choked me—it went from an abstract notion that happened to other people to being something that would happen to me. It was nighttime, and I was lying in bed when this thought entered my mind: someday I will be gone. I felt so permanent. How could this be? I found it preposterous and, then, horrifying. I gathered fistfuls of bedding and kicked wildly at the air. I was throwing a tantrum directed at…what? God?

I’ll still pitch a fit if the notion strikes me just right. I was terrified by death then, and not much has changed.

People tussle with this twin realization—existence, granted and revoked—again and again throughout a lifetime. It might give rise to bouts of shame and fear, two sides of the coin of life, but it is during the teenage years when both aspects are freshly dawned. Is it any wonder that teenagers are such a mess? At that age, you either grow sullen and moody, lashing out at the people you love most, or you become obsessed with the most superficial distractions, the clothes and crushes and any and every materialistic thing. Or, like I did, you swing wildly between these two states of being.

Later, as we get older, we may continue to find ways to divert our attention—the work and the errands and all the STUFF—from the painful truths for long stretches of seemingly happy productivity. But we can’t keep it at bay forever. It seeps back one way or another, either turned inward as depression and anxiety or outward as bitterness and rage. It may bubble up and over as addictions, bad relationships, or terrible choices. Because, ultimately, what these truths do to us if we do not accept and move past them is make it really hard to love—either ourselves or whatever force brought us here and will eventually snatch us away.

It occurs to me that perhaps this is the main goal of religion—to help us look at and accept the difficult aspects of the human condition so that we can learn to embrace the joyful ones. Without this, how can we properly love others?

The cosmic lottery

If I had a vague sense of unworthiness as a little girl in Austin—the niggling discomfort that made the denials of Lent, as explained to me by my schoolmates, sound reasonable—when my mom and I moved to Dallas it blossomed into full-blown shame. I was eight when we packed our stuff and drove up Highway 35 and moved in with my grandma and grandpa. My mom used her brother’s old room and I got the bedroom she had shared with her sister.

I attributed these worsening feelings to our life situation, like my lack of goodness was exactly proportional to the difference between a conventional family and ours. Yet, recently, I’ve begun to wonder if my shame didn’t stem from a more universal source, if perhaps I would have smuggled the sense of being not-quite-good-enough into a perfect nuclear family if those had been the cards dealt to me. The more I talk to people from various backgrounds, the more I realize how many have struggled with similar feelings, and at about the same age. Is it the onset of greater self-awareness that occurs between the ages of, say, 8 and 12 that brings with it a dawning comprehension of one’s own shortcomings? I’ve spoken to some people who, exposed to religion and hoping to please God, became fervent during those years.

Others, like me, pinned their feelings of insufficiency on whatever scraps they could find at that age. What we experienced was the onset of a general level of anxiety, manifested in errant behaviors such as random bed-wetting or compulsive hand washing or other small acts of self-admonishment. Who doesn’t say to themselves at least once during these years—preferably into a mirror with tears welling—“I wish I was never born!”

Could these feelings go hand-in-hand with what Christians call “original sin?” Usually defined as the guilt all humans carry due to the disobedience of Adam and Eve, I’m beginning to wonder if the existence of this concept doesn’t speak to how widespread a sense of shame is (and if it doesn’t make sense that it would strike just as our individual identities solidify on the path out of childhood). Just the fact that this shame is tied to Adam and Eve seems to suggest the feeling has been around as long as humankind and that each of us suffers to some degree.

Perhaps we experience this guilt not because we got here by virtue of human reproduction but simply because we got here. Think of all the human pairings that had to occur since the dawn of human pairings and then within those couplings all the millions of potential seedling combinations. If just one of those had gone a different way: no you. Being alive is like picking the right string of digits in a cosmic lottery. To prevail in the face of such slim odds comes with a sense of responsibility—and, as is the case when any bar is set, there is the likelihood of falling short. We are fearful, somewhere deep inside, of not being good enough, of being unworthy of this life we’ve won.

Is this religion’s most fundamental role? To help us grapple with this particularly human concern?

First communion

In preparation for communion, a group of about ten men makes its way to the front of the gym; the pastor introduces the men as church elders. They wear suits and stand shoulder-to-shoulder like a band of benevolent gangsters. In a well-choreographed routine, each takes a basket of bread and a section of audience and oversees the distribution. The mounds shrink as baskets glide down each row, handed quickly from one person to the next. Soon, everyone has a hunk. I hold mine, thinking we might eat in unison, but I realize the little boy next to me has already eaten his. I pop mine into my mouth.

I’m watching the kid for clues on how to do things. The tray of wine passes, and I follow his lead as he quickly drinks his. Surely it was grape juice, though I didn’t hear mention of nonalcoholic options or gluten-free alternatives like at the Lutheran services. Perhaps these folks have stronger digestive tracts and less checkered pasts. I can feel that tiny sip like a measure of warmth traveling down the center of my body.

The kid has noticed me checking him out. His actions have become more pronounced followed by a pause and a glance to see that I’ve mimicked him; he is the scientist and I’m Koko the Gorilla. A few moments after communion, he sends his arms into the air and turns to face me. I consult my program. We’re at something called “Commissioning” where “God blesses and sends his people.” It says, “The congregation may raise hands.” I put my arms up and the kid looks pleased. For the length of a hymn, everyone holds the classic pose of surrender, but somehow I feel like the criminal.

At the end of the service, the golden-ringleted mother of my aisle-mate family tries to engage me in a bit of polite conversation. I can sense her struggling between a duty to be welcoming and an apprehension of newcomers. She says she moved here from California and I tell her that’s one of the states I call home, too. This does not seem to reassure her. I can’t help but think that if it weren’t for this religious elephant between us, she and I might be friends.

She and I say an awkward goodbye and I wander slowly toward the exit. I see no open invitation for fellowship, no table with cookies and coffee. Now that they aren’t here, I sorely miss those treats. I have a feeling that members of this congregation will break off and gather in private living rooms, creating “invisible churches” of their homes.

Calvin liked to point out that not everything is as it appears: there is the church you see and the church you don’t see. I think he meant to highlight an ambiguity—a person associated with a religious institution is not necessarily more indicative of God than an “unchurched” person. It depends on the person. Just as we can never know for sure who is saved and who is not, the walls themselves assure us of nothing. But among members of this congregation, Calvin’s concept of the “invisible church” seems to take on added meaning: so much of what they do operates on a parallel track to the larger community, happening in isolation, out of sight.

Driving home, my mind wanders back to communion. How did it make me feel? It happened so quickly. Was I empowered by it?

Actually, what I felt was the opposite of what I’d normally consider empowerment—it was vulnerability. For a moment, the barriers that keep me standing alone dissolved. Briefly, I let myself be one of many. It made me hopeful because even if I am a None, and even if they aren’t sure whether I’m in the saved pile and I’m not sure whether they think slavery is okay, we can look past our differences and honor the basic humanity in one another. It’s such a loving gesture, a gesture worthy of Jesus. I feel lightheaded from the sheer wonder of it. It’s not until I get home and look again at my program that I see in fine print: all communion-takers are to be baptized and current on church membership.

It’s their rules I violated, but I’m the one who feels like crying.

The saved

Some members of this congregation may look like Nones, but they’re actually sort of the opposite. Unlike Nones, who tend to marry later in life and have fewer children, these exceptionally fruitful multipliers start early. But the differences are more fundamental than that. They see humanity as divided into two groups: the “saved” vs. the “not saved.”

According to Calvin’s theory of “double predestination,” God sorted and tagged us before we were born. Those who are saved have done nothing in particular to deserve their special status and can do nothing to mess it up; on the flip side, the damned cannot be saved not matter how good their behavior or how devout their faith. While mainstream Presbyterians have officially given double predestination the boot, I think it still surfaces from time to time in some congregations. I can’t help but sense its presence here, like everyone is sizing me up wondering where I’m headed when I die because they’re for sure in the saved group.

A man approaches the lectern and we stand. So, this is the infamous pastor. Oh, the imaginary debate I’ve had with him regarding his alleged pro-slavery comments. It culminates when I shout, “What happened to ‘Do unto others?’ Do you want to be enslaved?!” (“Thank you,” I say, bowing to thundering applause.)

In person, he is not so beastly—middle-aged, sporting a well-groomed beard, dressed in a suit. I hate to admit it, but his face looks extremely kind. His eyes shine with sympathy.

First, he announces the engagement of a couple who met in church. The happy pair stands and I can’t help but notice how very young—I’d say just out of high school. Everyone applauds. A robed choir I hadn’t noticed springs to life, singing “Hallelujah Praise the Lord,” a traditional hymn dating back to 1562.

Then it’s time for confession. The congregation falls silent; for several minutes, the underlying symphony of baby babble surfaces.

Today’s sermon topic is Old Testament Psalm 54. To accompany the talk, everyone has received an ordinary sheet of paper of 8.5” x 11’’ printed single-spaced on both sides. The psalm is six lines; the pastor’s “summary of the text” is three times that length.

The psalm is a quote of David talking to God after he’s been informed that he will be turned over to the tyrant Saul. The minister dissects the text, looks at it this way and that. He carefully examines its thorny minutia, unswayed by antsy children or squawking babies to skip parts or cut to the chase. His talk spins off into elaborate discussions of atheism and judgment.

The pastor brings up the “troublesome issue of works.” This is the old Calvinist Catch-22: why bother doing good things when God has already made up his mind about who’s saved? The pastor explains that rewards and punishments will be distributed among the saved based on “how we live our lives.”

Eventually we get to communion. Today I plan to participate.

Much to Luther’s chagrin, Calvin argued that the bread and wine do not actually turn into Jesus; Christ’s presence is purely symbolic and pours a “life-giving power” into those who partake. With this new interpretation, I feel I won’t besmirch the sacred act with my lack of understanding. Besides, communion is also about the people around you. I looked it up and it comes from the Latin word for “mutual participation.” Somehow, this feels like the right time and place to partake in my first communion. It will be a gesture of fellowship with this group of people I have kept at arm’s length. I’m pretty sure Jesus would approve.

Two worlds

After the infamous pastor established his church in the 1970s, he slowly expanded its network to include local private education options from elementary school all the way through college. The college, which enrolls about 200 students a year, offers a “classical education in light of scripture” and is located just a few blocks from the state university in a building on Main Street—though I had no idea it was there until someone pointed it out. It occurs to me that kids born in this congregation whose parents are inclined to send them to its series of private schools could grow up having almost no contact with the outside community.

In addition to the education system, several local businesses are affiliated with the church, some more forthrightly than others. The most prominent is a café (named, I realize now, for an obscure Protestant reformer). The latest is a bustling clothing shop. This business savvy is a realization of Calvin’s belief that every aspect of society, including the economy, could operate in honor of the Lord. My None pals give those establishments a wide berth if they can help it.

When I announce my intentions to attend services at this church, my friend Emily rolls her eyes, “Ugh, that guy.” She’s the only person I know who says she’s seen the video where the pastor made the slavery remark.

I gasp silently as I enter a few minutes before the service starts. The congregation long ago outgrew its previous building. While the members await construction of a mega-church on the outskirts of town, Sunday worship is being held in the gymnasium of the church’s private grade school. Row after row after row of folding chairs—except in the few aisles I’m sure the fire marshal has declared necessary for possible escape.

If fewer people in general are going to church these days, here’s one congregation that’s bucking the trend—although it’s possible its members aren’t attracting converts so much as giving birth to them. So many young children are present that I feel like I’ve been teleported to the part of Disneyland where the rides are for preschoolers. Every woman seems to be pushing a baby stroller or holding an infant on her hip. All around, dads are pouncing on little escape artists. Chains of hand-holding siblings make their way gingerly through the crowd. There have been some children in every church service I’ve attended so far, but I easily could have counted them. I wouldn’t know where to begin the tally here.

But what I find hardest to fathom is that most of the couples here are “hip” in an urban kind of way. The women sport funky skirts with leggings and chunky boots. The men are lanky lumberjacks: close-cropped hair, broad shoulders, plaid. I get the impression they chop firewood and build things. If I saw them in a different context, I would totally peg them for Nones. But their facial hair? Ironic or not?

In a daze, I take the first available chair at the end of an empty row near the front. An angelic young woman with a halo of blond curls asks if the seats next to me are taken. When I tell her no, she nods to a clean-cut man who comes over with a newborn sleeping in a carrier and four small children trailing him like fuzzy ducklings. They file in to the spaces next to me, which is how I end up sitting elbow to elbow with a very well-behaved five-year-old boy whose blond crew cut sparkles under the fluorescent lights. I smile at him.

“Hi,” I say.

The other guy

For a bunch of spiritually complacent loafs, my None friends sure are hungry for religious information. They know I’ve set out on this quest, and now every time we see each other they want to shake me down like I’m some giant tree of knowledge. But I’m not even a sapling yet.

“Where are you now!?” my friend Kelsie cried when I ran into her at a party.

To prepare myself for the next Sunday’s service, I visit the church’s website. There’s an advertisement for the church’s upcoming conference. Using a medieval-looking typeset (where “u” looks “v”), the title reads, The Institute of Awesome: Keeping Calvinism Sassy for the Next 500 Years. I chuckle: a bit of Protestant reformer humor and I’m in on the joke.

Going to the library to find books about John Calvin, I scratch my head at how many there are and how broad the titles: The Calvinistic Concept Of Culture, Calvin and The Foundations Of Modern Politics, Calvinist Roots Of The Modern Era, Calvinism and The Capitalist Spirit…several shelves that include Calvin but then expand into social concepts much bigger than any single individual.

I had no idea Calvin was credited with developing the foundational structures we in the United States hold dear—you know, little things like our version of democratic representation—and how closely these are tied to the history of Christianity. If such basic activities as voting and accumulating wealth can be considered derivative of Jesus, can any of us really claim to be a None?

Calvin, who was just a few years younger than Luther, entered the picture just as many Europeans were expressing a growing disenchantment with the church’s current leadership: its bishops and Pope. In a classic instance of “right time, right place,” the detail-oriented Calvin decided it was up to him to develop a new governing structure for the churches. He would create a system that could take the place of Rome and allow the gist of Luther’s ideas to be practiced on a wide scale sustained over many years.

His idea was for each region to have a church guided by a group of elders (“presbyters” in Greek—which is why churches modeled in this vein are often called “Presbyterian”) selected by the congregation; a few chosen elders from each church would meet in a larger body to discuss issues on a regional scale. A leader would be selected from these chosen elders to head the whole operation. It was a bottom-up structure versus the old top-down—an embodiment of Luther’s “priesthood of believers.” Basically, he developed the blueprint colonists used when they formed the U.S. Congress—a wee fact you’d think I would have learned as a political science major who was employed for several years by the federal government.

While the church I’m visiting shares theological roots with Presbyterianism, it goes by the more generic Calvin-inspired label of “Reformed.” This label suggests devotion to Calvin’s theology, but permits a dodge from the overarching governing structure he developed. Instead, this church belongs to a looser affiliation of like-minded churches that seems to better suit its maverick pastor. He is something of a local celebrity, heralded by many as a true and righteous leader, but infamous among my peers for allegedly having gone on record suggesting American slavery may not have been such a bad thing because it exposed Africans to Christianity. Of all the churches in my local Worship Directory, this one has me the most wary.