If you'll remember, earlier this year I had it in mind to write a book. I drove to East Texas to spend the weekend, get inspired, get ideas, and get moving. Well, I did get moving. For two weeks I wrote. But then I stopped. As I've mentioned, I'm ashamed of it. But I did get a few things down. While you're holding your breath waiting for me to finish it, I thought I'd share with you a chapter I wrote back in February. It's not the best, but it's what I got down.... so go easy on me.
(I'm cutting and pasting this froma word document, which can sometimes screw the text up a bit. Sorry if it causes too much trouble.
After the invitational hymn was sung, the weekly announcements made and we were dismissed from church, Corey, Hallee, and I would run across the street to the barn. This was, of course, after we had received the sacramental elements from our pastor. Which just happened to be, to our Southern Baptist and decidedly non- (and at times anti-) Catholic sensibilities, a half-stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum picked out of a worn out white envelope the pastor kept in his suit pocket throughout the service. We never doubted at all that he would have it for us when we asked; even though he would always answer our requests for gum by saying “I don’t think I brought any gum today.” He would fumble around his coat in such a way that he knew he would be disappointed then act as if he had found a clump of gold when his hand discovered the wadded up envelope. To my five year old mind this weekly “surprise” find brought great delight. It brings great delight to my thirty year old mind to know that this old man who lived with his wife in the house around the corner from the church and spent his days preparing sermons and visiting the sick and elderly, carved out a small part of every week to buy a package of gum, tear each stick in half and place them in a used envelope to make a group of kids happy.
(I’d be lying if I told you I knew why he only gave us half-sticks of gum, but I like to think he knew the ritual wouldn’t be quite as memorable had he went with a full stick.)
Gum in mouths we bolted across the street to play in the barn. This was years before Chandler had reached the “suburb of Tyler” stature and could still be considered rural, possessing numerous non-commercial or residential plots of land that held nothing except grass and horses and the occasional barn. This particular barn was located a stones throw from the front doors of the church, but just beyond the barbed-wire fence that was meant more to keep the horses in than the children out.
Crossing the fence proved to be not as big of a deal for most of my friends as it did for me, because I was a fat child. When you are a fat child everyday children things pose their own special set of psychological difficulties. If one of my friends were to fall down or rip their clothes in the trip across the fence it would be because they were careless or clumsy. If either were to happen to me it would have been because I was fat. Come to think of it, my childhood girth isn’t really relevant to this story and I should probably save those particular details for a future therapy session, but at least you now know a little more about one of the kids crossing the barbed-wire fence to play in the barn.
Once the treacherous crossing of the fence was completed there was nothing left to do but play. The barn was old and small. Its main purpose was to be a shelter for a few horses and hay as well as a storage facility for junk. There was a small loft from which the other children would climb up and jump off into piles of hay. Because of a particular aforementioned reason I generally avoided this activity by pretending to be interested in other things, like the old rusted drugstore soda fountain collecting dust behind a pile of damaged auto parts.
Children don’t typically stop to tell each other stories like they do to adults. Instead they talk as they play and assume that their friends are listening and processing what they are saying. On one particular occasion Corey, my best friend as a kid, as we were playing was telling me that earlier in the week he was in the barn by himself and saw a snake. (I now know his being alone was a necessary part of the story because it provided a lack of one key element—a witness.) Being a normal human being who possessed certain requisite tools of survival, namely a fear of snakes, I stopped whatever I was doing and said “Really?” Corey, sensing a good time coming over the horizon, said “Yeah, a whole family of snakes.” My entire body tensed as my head swiveled in every direction to detect the nearest exit. As I slowly made my way out Corey said gravely “Rattlesnakes.”
I was having none of that so I ran out of the barn to find my parents and go home. Cory and Hallee, his sister who was two years younger than me, ran out yelling “Rattlesnakes!” and by then I realized the joke but it was still fun to run away from the imaginary serpents.
Sometimes after church we would pull a fast one over Susan, Corey and Hallee’s mom. Our plan was to bypass the necessary procedures in obtaining permission from my parents to spend the Sunday at Corey and Hallee’s house. To do this required careful planning by the most skilled and crafty minds. Hallee would ask her mom, who at this point was involved in some sort of conversation with another adult outside of the church (If you took a picture it would look like a Norman Rockwell,) for the keys to the car so she could wait. As the key exchange occurred Corey simultaneously walked back into the church looking very suspicious. He was a mischievous kid who had suspicious down perfectly. This was done slowly and deliberately in an effort to attract as much attention as possible to the trouble he may be up to. The second the keys passed into Hallee’s hand Susan immediately turned to follow Corey into the church. As she turned her back to her daughter and began walking, Hallee ran to the car…. (Note: If the Mission Impossible music isn’t playing in your head right now, it should be…..) to let me in the back seat where I would sit and wait in the floorboard. If we were lucky there would be a blanket of some kind to cover me up. A large blanket, that is. When Susan caught up to Corey and found out he was only walking inside to pick up something he left—bible, coat, anything—her conversation had been cut short making it a good time to head home. As she got in the car Hallee immediately started a conversation with her so her attention wouldn’t shift to the child hiding in the backseat floorboard. When the car pulled out of the parking lot we knew we were well on our way to an afternoon of jumping on the trampoline, playing Atari, and daring each other to call pop radio stations and requesting Willie Nelson or country stations and requesting Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.”
I know what you are thinking and I’ll go ahead and validate your suspicions-- We were geniuses.
We chose not to reveal our elaborate hoax to Susan until we got to their house for fear that she might turn the car around and drop me off at my parents.
As we approached the driveway, faces alive with expectation at the shock and awe we were about to inflict on this poor unsuspecting lady, Susan announced to the carload of kids “Corey and Hallee, when you get in go and start cleaning your rooms. Craig, you can go outside and play with the dog while I’m getting lunch ready.”
I guess we weren’t the only geniuses at work. I think over the years my parents and Susan worked out an understanding that if any of their children weren’t in the cars they were supposed to be, then they were with the other.
My earliest memories of church consist of expectation. I never knew, or really cared, if a “fresh wind of the spirit” was going to pass through the building on any particular day, but I knew sometime around noon on Sundays a very good man would extend his arm and offer me a half-stick of gum. Life changed quickly for a child, even in a small town, but there were always things such as half-sticks of gum I could anchor my world to.
My earliest memories of church consist of a lot of playing. We had Sunday School teachers who showed us the Bible and gave us our first peak into an ancient world that was strange and chaotic and seemed like it was a bit further away than even Dallas. They taught us about Jesus and who he was and what he did and because they did this our lives were changed and set on different courses than if we didn’t know about Jesus. But my earliest memories have more to do with the patterns of the tile in the floor of the nursery and that play kitchen set that we used to always sit on and break and an old barn across from church where we jumped and laughed and told each other stories as we played.
My earliest memories of church consist of people who I lived my life with. The people of my church sat in the pew together and sang in the choir together and went to Vacation Bible School together. But more than that they were people who I went to school with. They were people I played Little League basketball with and watched play Little League Baseball while I sat on the bench. (Little League basketball required that each player have at least one quarter to play. Baseball didn’t. I know… therapy.) I first heard the word “Divorce” when Susan and her husband got one. I ate meals with the people of my church and the adults treated me as their son, just as my parents treated their kids as their own. There were scandals and there were joys but through it all we were one thing: Together.
You see, I’m a Church Boy.
There are things I’d like to be identified with and, if you give me a chance, I’ll tell you stories about those things. And once you hear each story you’ll be able to peg me as a certain type of person. Book boy. Television Boy. Political Boy. Friend Boy. All of those things describe me at various times of my life but there has never been a time when you couldn’t call me Church Boy. Some may find the title demeaning. I wear it as a badge of honor.
I was in church from the beginning and I’ll probably be there in the end. I went to Sunday School and received the perfect attendance pins. (My Southern Baptist Church held attendance in such high regard that if you were traveling out of town and visited another church, you could bring the church bulletin from the place you visited and it counted as being present.) I have lived my life learning the ins and outs of church. As time went on I learned things like this: Pastors don’t always stay at the same church. They sometimes receive calls to other (usually larger and wealthier) churches. At first I didn’t know who did the calling (although I suspected Who it might be) and why they would want another church’s pastor.
Throughout high school I carried church with me on my t-shirts and in the music I listened to and in the places I chose not to go. I went to a liberal arts church college where I majored in Church. (Christian Theology, to be exact.) I learned “the way church should be done,” although it seemed to be taught differently by every person doing the teaching. I spent a little time in a church that dabbled in charismatic Christianity and learned that people in those churches can be the most loving and alternately the most alienating people in the world. I learned about different types of church structure and church movements and what seating arrangement says about a church. I’ve seen that too many times church pastors become involved in sexual affairs with their secretaries or the wives of their youth ministers and, in one case, a university student at the Christian college I went to. I’ve learned ways to creatively look down on people because their church doesn’t sing the same songs in the same way that my church does. I worked at a church whose pastor sent his kid to the Wednesday night activities of another church and wondered why the children’s minister at our church had daggers in her eyes for him. I’ve been a member of a church full of farmers and factory workers, one with drug dealers and welfare moms, another with scholars and bankers, and still another with college students from wealthy homes and artists. I’ve been to church conferences that tell you how to do church and one meant to stop a church from splitting. I’ve seen what goes on behind the curtain.
If you want to know about church, I can tell you. I’m the Church Boy.
A few weeks ago I found myself sitting in the Sunday morning service of the church I grew up in. Well, at least in the church that bears the same name as the one I grew up in. Just as it does in individuals, time has taken its toll on that little congregation—both for better and worse. While I was spending my twenties in other churches, this church had added people and subtracted people. Many people got mad at the pastor (a different one from the gum dispenser,) and left to go to another church. A few years later some more got mad and left to start their own church. Then a whole new bunch of people came in who liked the pastor that the people who left didn’t like, and started doing church the way they wanted to. These people built a brand new building on some land the church had owned for years, then the pastor they liked left and then they all left and all that is left is a huge half-aluminum, half brick building (that goes way too high into the skyline of a small town,) and a few people to pick up the pieces.
I sat in this church, a few months after turning thirty, saddened, but not sure why. I guess I was expecting to walk in the doors and see the same church I saw when I was five. I knew I had changed, but I had hoped that place hadn’t. But it has and I guess that’s ok because churches are nothing more than people and God and at least part of that formula is prone to change.
As I sat in the chair and sang the songs and listened to the interim preacher say in 40 minutes what could have been said in 2, I thought about my life, my world. I thought about Jesus and how he has changed in my mind but how he is still the same person I learned about as a five year old and how everything I do, every breath I breathe is different because of him. I thought about how much I love my parents more now than I did then, but how it was much easier to be around them at five than it sometimes is at thirty. I thought about and thanked God for the rag-tag group of people I do church with these days and for my friends and the children of my friends with whom I am madly in love with. I wondered about the world and about, as Tim McGraw sang, my next thirty years and I thought about what it might bring and how I should best approach it.
As I was lost in contemplation this realization came to me: I’m sitting where the barn stood. You see, the land the church purchased is the land that is just across the street from the church building I went to as a child. Years ago they tore down the barn and the barbed wire fence, sat on it for too many years, and built the big ugly brick and aluminum church that sits there now.
I was sitting where the barn stood and I realized that all I’ll really need for the next thirty years is what I had standing in that barn twenty five years before: Expectation, people to play with and to share my life with.
Incidentally, in case you were wondering, Susan was standing in the choir that day a few weeks ago and didn’t know I was in the building until I came up to her at the end of the service to give her a hug.
Genius never leaves a person, does it?