Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Sacred Sand

I have attended a number of churches in my lifetime. The first experiences happened during my tender, formative years so, naturally, they are imprinted upon my brain forever, amen. They all happened at a Southern Baptist church in very Southern Baptist South Carolina. To be fair, there were Holiness churches in our neighborhood too. My mother wouldn't let me visit one of those because, she said, those folk were primitive and spoke in 'tongues'. I think it was because the women didn't wear cosmetics but I didn't dare say that because this kind of remark could put her right in the mood to twist my unerringly straight hair into exceedingly tight coils and pin them to my scalp with an “x” of “bobby” pins. Some of the pins were missing the little gobbet of plastic on the ends. A special little hell for special little girls...

I left my childhood church somewhat interestingly. I was fifteen, had taken tests and skipped a couple of grades (3 and 11) and had just started work on my higher education at the local college. I was keenly feeling the salty burn between the raw freedom of college and the itchy rash of my glaring 'minor' status. I was looking for a way to ease into rebellion when it waltzed right in and curtsied.

There was to be a special Wednesday night prayer meeting.

The deacons (somebody help me come
up with a good anagram for this term) who were the 'ruling body' of the church, and my father (who was not allowed to be a deacon because he was married to my mother who had been married before), who was instead the church trustee (they liked the guy) had decided to try to resolve a congregational issue by applying Democracy. The issue had nearly divided the congregation in half. Tempers were getting hot. The offering plates were getting light. Democracy was the last resort.

The congregation in attendance this Wednesday night would vote, by silent ballot, on this world-shattering issue; whether or not the women in the church would be allowed to wear 'slacks' to Wednesday night services. The astounding thing is that this was the seventies. You have to understand that almost universally, the Deep South had decided to ignore the sixties and seventies and proceed cautiously to the eighties in 1996. It wasn't that hard. There was no Internet. There was no cable. I left in 1997 so can't say when they are now.

When the floor opened for comments I approached the 'casual pulpit' on the floor below the dais that held the important one. I walked up wearing my favorite 'hippie' drawstring skirt and said my piece, which included the words "throw-backs", "moronic", "narrow-minded" and "exclusive.” When I was done, I walked from behind the podium amid gasps of horror in my favorite frayed, faded straight legged Levis and flip flops, having left my skirt on the floor behind the pulpit. I very clearly remember walking to the doors in the back, fighting the urge to run, in an absence of sound that could only be called a sonic vacuum. The massive double doors of my previous life swung closed behind me with an unceremonial hiss.
Other details have escaped me because, two weeks before that service, I had visited the Church of Mary Jane.
Now I was ready to join and did. Needless to say, many of the details are lost, having not occurred in my tender formative years and having been gathered during an altar-ed sorry state. But one thing I do remember is thinking a lot about what I believed in.
Later I attended the Episcopal Church. That year was largely unremarkable, except that it’s where I became interested in learning about religions in general, and
found that a pastor could conceivably accept me as a human being even if I didn’t buy into the program. Thank you, Reverend Paul.

Looking back, I’ve come to better understand some of the similarities and differences in the churches of my experience.
For instance, in the typical SBC, the pews were wooden, and treated with
polish specially formulated to stick to the legs of children and amplify Satan-induced farts.
In the EC, the pews were darker wood with padded kneeling benches (Southern Baptists are loathed to bend their knees in public) and padded seats. The Episcopalians seemed to believe farts were gas-induced and generally didn’t hate their children.
The pews of the church of MJ were generally lawn chairs, but during prayer the pews were earth and the pulpit the sky. Farts were neither revered nor condemned. Our children existed far in our futures, with names like Butterfly Rainbow, Karma Nirvana and Krispy Kreme.

The organist was generally Rick Wakeman and played like a god.

At the SB church the men who smoked hung around outside by the shrubbery prior to the service, avoid glares of their wives. The organist of the SB church was generally a kind-hearted volunteer who played her own arrangements of favorites from the Hymnal like, "What a Friend we have in Jesus" or if she were the young alternate organist, a carefully camouflaged arrangement of 'Hey Jude".
The Episcopal Church organist was generally paid and played Bach. Or, if he were the young alternate, played a carefully camouflaged rendition of a Gershwin tune. At the Episcopal Church the men and women smoked openly at covered-dish dinners. (Hence my mother’s comment that if I were going to attend the EC, I may as well not bother.) At the church of MJ, the smoking was part of the service, which consisted of the shared smoking, deep discussions of various topics, silent contemplation of the sky, with a post-service pizza.

From the three, I gleaned many truths, but my favorite was taught only in the church of MJ and it is this:
You are not where you live, what you wear, your dress size, or your skin color.
are what you think. You are what you say. You are what you do.
These three things have consequences, for which you are solely responsible.

The church of MJ was the only one that insisted that the state of the world was up to us and that we could change things. Boy, were we ever young.

There were more churches, though shorter-lived after the first three. They included "A Course in Miracles" (loved the text hated the people), the Church of Life Experience (hated the people), The Church of Me (hated the people), The Church of Antidepressants (hated the numbness), The Church of Art (works better as a philosophy) Just a brush with the Church of the Subgenius (Jesus-on-a-stick whatabunchofslackerbullshit but killer quotes) and the winner, No Church At All.
I have maintained academic interest in all.

Just lately I've felt a new twinge. The Church of the Desert has called me. Twice I've felt a subcutaneous tug. The desert has its own language, is generous with its inspiration and asks little in return.
But I'm safe. I'll explore it, but I will not join. I know too much to buy into any program; no matter how comfy a blanket it might offer to wrap me in.

Still, I can visit, once in a while, just to see what’s new.



marrije said...

thank you for a lovely post.

Anonymous said...

Gorgeously written. Thank you.

Craig Steffen said...

Your story about speaking at the pulpit was awesome.

I have a story in the same direction, but much less tumultuous. My father, step mother Fern and I visited my father's mother one time on a Sunday afternoon. My father is a pastor, my grandmother's father and grandfather were too. Apparently that side of the family is the kind of German where drinking is a terrible thing because it's sinful, and church is taken extremely seriously.

We arrived, I in jeans, and my grandmother asked at some point when we'd stopped to change clothes. We hadn't; those were the clothes I'd worn to church that morning. She got rather annoyed at me.

I don't remember what she said really. What I remember was my grandmother, Fern, and my dad having a long discussion about it while I was in the next room but within earshot. My grandmother and Fern were both pretty down on the whole wearing jeans to church thing. My father countered that most kids my age (I was probably about 16 at the time) don't go to church at all, and I'm going of my own free will. He felt that I was welcome in church whatever I chose to wear.

Anonymous said...

I went to a Catholic college in the late 60s. No such thing as wearing slacks to classes. In fact, the wearing of slacks was allowed only in the privacy of your dorm room. And if you got a phone call on the pay phone in the hallway, you had to change out of slacks or put on a skirt over the offending garment. I've never figured out why the sight of a girl in slacks in the hallway was so much worse than seeing same girl in the same clothes but two feet away in a dorm room. Ah, the mysteries of faith!
I've explored all the same religions as you -- as you well know. But my favorite remains the Church of the Golden Rule. Never fails to make sense to me.
Pam (aka Cinder-fuckin-ella)

Anonymous said...

Someday, when you're feeling strong, you might try a church where people try to meet the real God, who doesn't care where you live, what dress size you are, or your skin color. Instead, the important things are what you think, what you say, and what you do; and these three things have consequences for which you are solely responsible. (Sorry for the plagarism, but it's true!)

Unknown said...

Hi Lisa,
This is your long lost cousin Tammy. I hope you read this because I have wanted to find you for so long! Your story brings back such memories and actually some of my same feelings about growing up. I remember that house and thinking that you were the greatest thing in the world. I got all of your "hand-me-downs" and worshipped you! I am so proud of your art. I am in anti-aging medicine and own a practice called Integrative Women's Health. It is an alternative medicine type practice. My website is There is a link to my email address on the website and I would love it if you contacted me. I am writing a similar memoire of my childhood written from the perspective of a little girl sitting in our Aunt Jimmie's kitchen. Please contact me!
Tammy Worrell (formerly Adams)