Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Gospel, part 1

I grew up in a fairly quiet household. Just last week, my mother joked that if I still lived at home the two of us would undoubtedly find ourselves in different wings of the house, noses buried in books, only venturing forth to mingle in the kitchen when the time came for an afternoon snack. Sundays were even quieter than the norm. In the morning mother would hot roll my hair, press my dress and shove uncomfortable patent shoes upon my feet. I remember these mornings vividly; how she would put on her panty hose and cream slip before putting on her makeup. Spritzing herself with White Shoulders, she’d fluff her hair and pull on her dress, slipping feet inside brown or navy heels before loading us in the van for another lesson in Godliness.

Methodist churches aren’t really known for their frivolity and morning services were always an exercise in quietness. I don’t remember much about Sunday School, only the generic talk of Jesus and Noah, with a dash of the Holy Spirit thrown in for good measure. I do remember that if you got a question right that the teacher would give us a handful of sixlets, the precursors to M&M’s in my world. That tiny candy-coated spherical perfection of chocolate goodness was just the incentive I needed to review last week’s lesson during the drive into town, not so much caring about the religious implications but recognizing that there was a limited supply of sixlets and if I didn’t know all the answers then statistically, I was screwed.

After Sunday School came Big Church and in the Methodist world, the pastor still wears a long black robe, the choir sings in the second story awning and the only time you get out of your seat is when the man in front says Please Rise. From there, you pick up a hymnal and turn to page 352 for a quick choral interlude followed by a pastor-lead prayer with head bowed and eyes closed. Once finished, the pastor indicates that You May Be Seated and in unison, the entire congregation places their bottoms upon the hard wooden pews, legs crossed.

I tell you all of this because I need you to understand where my comfort zone resides. Until I was fifteen, I’d never seen a church without wooden pews and stained glass. I’d never seen people in blue jeans take communion. I’d never seen a full drum set on stage with guitars and tamborines and microphones or a big white screen behind the pulpit where a youth pastor gives a power point presentation on abstinence and tongue kissing. And I’d definitely never heard people interrupt the pastor mid-sermon with a heartfelt Amen! or a Right on, Brother! and you did not clap after a choral solo or even during a moderately upbeat song. Because honestly, have you ever heard anyone clap to organ music? Didn’t think so.

When I was sixteen my friend Melanie convinced me to go to Church Camp with her. Having been to Girl Scout Camp when I was little I figured it was much like that, only with a few more prayers thrown in and maybe songs that focused less on s’mores and more on iconic religious figures. We’d actually stopped going to church when I was nine and in the ensuing years I’d had plenty of time to form the beginnings of an opinion on organized religion, spurred mainly by my visit to a Baptist church at the age of twelve when the pastor pulled me aside and told me my family was going to hell if they weren’t Baptist and that my soul was in eternal jeopardy because I’d never been baptized. I never told my parents about that incident, rationalizing that if they knew that being Methodist sent you straight to hell, why would we have gone to a Methodist church? So I just chalked that episode up to someone’s mama feeding their baby paint chips filled with hate and never went back.

Melanie’s church camp seemed like a fairly reasonable way to spend a week of my summer, though, and I agreed to go right off the bat. So on a hot Saturday afternoon we shoved our sleeping bags and makeup bags and clothing bags and other extraneous bags into the back of her mother’s van, heading out to west Mississippi for some good ol’ Christian fun.

Once there we unloaded all of our belongings into the assigned cabins, picking out lower bunks directly beside each other. Her mom gave us both a hug, told us to be good and hopped back in her van, eager as us sixteen-year-olds were to be rid of her, and her of us. First on the agenda was a walk down to the meeting hall/commissary/gym/worship center. It was a big metal building with huge sets of doors across the front that opened up into a concession area filled with the smells of nachos and jalapenos and popcorn and over fried chicken fingers. Past the concession area was the enclosed gym/worship area. It had a raised red-carpeted platform at the end and the middle had already been filled with rows of metal chairs for the evening services.

At 6pm sharp the bell rang that announced our attendance was required in the gym. We’d finished dinner an hour before and I’d been standing silently by while Melanie made friends with the girls from our cabin.

We were a little late making our way up the hill by the gym and the three girls that Melanie had picked up took seats with us in one of the very back rows. Things started off fairly innocuously with the camp leaders introducing themselves, giving out the camp dress code, reminding us that this was a Christian Camp and we were to be filled with the spirit of the Lord on a daily basis. Translation: No sex in the woods.

Then everyone launched into what they called ‘warm-up’ songs, none of which I knew and none of which came with a hymnal or pamphlet. Nothing is more annoying to me than being surrounded by a group of people who know something I don’t, so I sat back in my chair, arms crossed, non-verbally expressing my growing discomfort with the four-piece band on stage and the unnecessary sounds produced by the drummer. It’s not that I found the drumming offensive but I don’t even like the sound of a toilet flushing or the sound that plates make when people put their dishes away and I go to great pains to gently place mine in the cabinet with as little sound as possible. So imagine my unhappiness with the overzealous drummer playing in the acoustic equivalent of a tin can.

Once the warm-up songs were over, the ones they figured everyone knew, they pulled out the movable white screen and slide projector and launched into an even louder display of musical ability, bringing everyone out of their seats for hand clapping and the occasional hop into the air, arms raised above their heads, eyes closed, faces lifted. Already uncomfortable with the previous display, I sat solidly in my chair, ignoring the arm pulls and head taps from the girls next to me. I kept hoping that if I kept as still as possible, maybe no one would notice me and I could slip out the back for some fresh air and silence.

But the songs continued on. My ass grew numb, the girls beside me grew even more frenzied and the people on stage had stopped pretending to sing recognizable songs and had launched into straight jam-band mode, the lead singer racing across the stage, shouting out indecipherable messages about Heaven and Redemption and Praising Jesus, all of which ended in an out-of-breath Amen. The teenagers in the front rows, obviously the ones much more enthralled with their camp choice than yours truly, had begun jumping up and down in completely erratic movements and I sat in my chair, no longer interested in the spectacle on stage but rather the chair jumping antics of one very tall, very skinny guy.

His face was continuously contorted in an expression of utter pain, his hands periodically tumbling down from above his head to slap his thighs in exuberance. I continued to watch in utter dismay as this young man jumped excitedly into the middle of the aisle, swung his arms into the air and opened his mouth to a screaming, streaming gibberish of nonsense and in unison the rest of the congregation began to offer him shouts of encouragement.

I felt my eyes growing wide, listening to shouts encouraging further possession by the Holy Spirit.

“What. The. Fuck.” I muttered.

How those people heard me I have no idea, what with the drumming antics, the exuberant Amens! on stage and the fast-talking looney toon twenty aisles up, but all three rows ahead of me did a unified Linda Blair to glare at me and I silently cursed their supersonic heathen hearing. But I was sixteen and full of the piss and vinegar, as well as some questionable hamburger meat, and I was not about to be out-stared. So I returned their glare with one of my own: left eyebrow raised, mouth pursed. All in my attempt to convey that I was not amused by these goings-on and I could damn well say Fuck whenever I wanted, thanks for playing.

It was then that it dawned on me that this kid, and now a handful of others, were speaking in tongues. I’d thought it was just a myth, like the Lochness monster or calorie-free ice cream. But figuring out what was going on did nothing to appease my fear, not even Melanie when she turned to me, eyes bright with excitement, “Oooooooh, look! He’s laying hands! Praise Jesus!!!!”

And it was true; the tall, skinny guy who’d started off the pack of tongue-talkers was now making his way down the aisle, forcefully pushing his palm onto the foreheads of individuals who waited in breathless excitement before falling to the floor in a crumpled heap. He’d made it halfway down when I realized I’d taken the aisle seat as I’d straggled in with my group only an hour or so before. I hadn’t minded any at the time, thinking it made an easy escape route if the building caught on fire or the hamburger I’d eaten decided to make a reappearance. But I knew, with the kind of certainty that stiffens your back, that no amount of chair sitting or no-eye-contact rules were going to keep this guy from touching me and I decided right then, “Whatever he’s got, I don’t fucking want it.”

Unfortunately that statement came out with a little more forcefulness than the first and my vibes of distrust and hate must have reached the preacher in record time because he focused on me with blinding speed, urging ‘the girl in the back’ to get out of her seat and participate in the Spirit of Jesus. I politely declined by recrossing my arms across my chest which really just served as a bucket of encouragement and he again called me out, telling me to stand up and glorify in Jesus Christ, My Savior. I politely declined again, thinking that my only savior was my mother magically appearing outside to take me home, stat.

All this time the tongue-speaking, hand-laying teenager was methodically making his way towards the last rows and as I focused on his bouncing, neurotic path I noticed a strange, darkening stain on the front of his jeans.

“Did he just piss himself?” I asked to no one in particular. But before I even got out my last word, the piss-stained teenager fell flat to the ground, fell flat like if you held up your broom and just let it fall backwards, no cushion, no resistance, just bam, right there in the aisle not ten feet away.

A few of the counselors rushed forward, all while the people on stage continued their frolicking and drumming and Amening. The four people each grabbed an extremity and carried him into the concession area and as they passed, I heard one of the girls exclaim that he was drunk with the spirit of the Lord and right then and there, I promised God that I was never drinking again and told him I was right sorry about those two sips of cinnamon liquor I’d had at Ella’s party a few weeks back.


Drunken Chud said...

i have tears in my eyes as i'm typing this. and not cuz i think you're going to hell. moreso becuase this is absofuckinglutely hilarious.

on of my friends is a professional singer and she got her start in churches. when we were in high school i would drive her to some of her "gigs". she liked having me cuz i have no real love for organized religion and therefore would not be offended by goings on at the bevvy of churches she would be at. we went to this mostly black holy roller church. complete with fat women fanning themselves and people fainting. it was so glorious, i had an afterglow for a solid week after witnessing such wonderousness in human behavior. i mean, wow. babies crying, men crying, women screaming, every other sentence out of the preachers mouth was "can i get a amen!" and then most of the congregation saying, "mmmhmmm" to everything else. oh it was heaven on earth. however, the one chance i had to visit a speaking in tongues church i fell ill and was forced to miss it. so sad.

i know this is a long comment, but again, as a teen, i had a buddy who was die hard baptist, and he met a girl at some religous camp thing who happened to be a tongue speaker church goer. apparently, this was huge for him. he would constantly come to me and be all, "i can't date her anymore she's one of those. she's going to hell." i tried to convince him there was no hell, then i tried to convince him it wasn't his place to judge, then i tried to convince him that he's not gonna marry the girl so just have sex and be on your way. apparently, i needed to study baptist beliefs before attempting those arguments. anyhow, they had premarital sex, couple years later they split. moral of the story? who fuckin cares. sorry, this was so rambling.

Carl from L.A. said...

Ah yeah - the charismatic church.

Despite all the different Christian denominations, there are really just two main schools of Christians - fundamentalists (Bible thumpers) and charismatics (aka pentecostal, the spiritual worshippers). The "fundies" are too judgemental, and the "penties" are too nutty.

I was raised Catholic and went to a fundamentalist church in college. I used to be able to quote scripture and had a worn out bible with verses highlighted. Now I don't go to church and I am not sure if I want my kids to go. I blame the self-righteoud idiots and the nuts.

rob said...


I wonder if it hurts being retarded.

Adam said...

Is Rob drinking in his photo? DID HE NOT LEARN ANYTHING FROM THIS STORY?