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.