For several years I have tried to write a book about growing up in church. This is one of those start and stop projects that may never get finished. I never get past the preface. When I start over after a year or so of not writing, I begin a new preface. I have about a half dozen prefaces just waiting to be tacked onto a yet to be written book. Since I have no time to write non-school related things, I thought I'd share the last preface I wrote. Tonight at our church Love Feast I got to sit back and watch things happen. I was joking with a couple of friends about the way people angle to try to get to hold all the kids running around. When I thought about the children in my church, I was reminded of writing this about a year and a half ago...
The church building that contained thousands of my childhood hours sits in the shadow of a newer, cavernous tin structure that has become commonplace among the small towns along Highway 31, which runs northeast from Waco, my current home, until it ends in Longview, the area where my parents grew up. The older building is made of a tan brick that is porous enough to hold the stories, secrets, milestones and memories of generations of people trying to discover how their lives, individual and corporate, fit in with the plans of a God who created the pine and oak that tower above the countryside surrounding them. The newer building was erected with an eye toward efficiency. Inexpensive and expansive, were it not for its size and cross perched atop a center column of red brick pointing to the sky, it would be indistinguishable from the numerous “dollar stores” that every small East Texas town apparently needs these days. It cost next to nothing, and remembers about as much.
As a young child I was held in that old sanctuary by the wooden pews with red-lined seat covers. The words coming from the mouths of preachers swirled around me and seeped into my soul as I learned the language of faith the same way any child learns any language— effortlessly and with little deliberate intention. I devoted my energies instead to discovering how long it took for me to sit on my hands before the miniscule diamond patterns of the upholstery would temporarily be imprinted on my flesh, and trying to count the amount of square ceiling tiles above my head. Eventually times would arrive when sitting through an entire church service would be laborious and excruciating, but I remember these early years as being a period of comfort, where even in a scary and uncertain world there would always be waiting for me a place where I felt secure, and where I was welcome to take a nap in the laps of numerous people who loved me as their own.
The sheet metal of the new building seems to me a little too contrived and sterile to hold the memories of the past, but if you get down on your knees and place your ears to the ground it sits on, you will hear the stories of a community of people fractured by animosity, incapable of breaking out of the human condition of brokenness and confusion, struggling to find an identity in those middle places between poor and rich, town and country, saint and sinner, yet clinging as hard as they are capable to God and God’s people. And in those stories you will find the preface and introduction to my life story, a story spent in the pews and chairs of around a half-dozen Baptist churches scattered in places as disparate as an old Safeway building in Waco, TX to an aging and dingy house of worship in a former Soviet Republic.