Maybe it was the new year, with its infinite possibilities, or maybe it was reading The Secret and about all the chances of “attracting what you what in life,” and maybe it was all the conversations with Frank about “talking to your minister,” but I began to find myself also wanting a fresh start.
I knew I wasn’t happy, I knew I didn’t know why or how to fix it.
But after my mother’s death and my move, when I actually was able to think about me and my feelings, I knew something was missing from my soul. And this was odd because I really didn’t know what a soul was. As with everything, it was something other people had but I didn’t. I needed a peaceful feeling. Where do I even begin to look for it? Well, nothing else is working, so let’s try a church!
It wasn’t that I was missing my mother; no, not at all. So that wasn’t the problem. But there was no peace in my soul. It had been many years since I attended church. I didn’t come from a family of church goers. My mother insisted I know the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer and that was all I really needed to know. That’s what her grandmother taught her, and grandma was very religious. So that was all I needed. I did go to church during my elementary school years with friends—more just to get out of the house--but I was ordered not to bring it home. She didn’t care and didn’t want to hear about religion. As far as she was concerned, she was God and the sooner I accepted it the better.
When you have a parent who thinks she’s God, Satan becomes a wonderful option. I’m sure he would be much nicer.
Despite the day-to-day drudgery of caring for and just living with an elderly parent, I was totally convinced I would die first and I even felt horribly guilty because who would take care of my mother when I was gone? No one could put up with her even in the best of situations. She was a drama queen—I will feel this way, you may not. I am the victim, you’re just a lazy self-centered bitch. She may have switched the words occasionally, but often did not.
And really? I’m a lazy self-centered bitch? Have we looked in the mirror lately?
But something Frank had said just struck me at my core, because I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that phrase before. I’ve known many people who were regular church goers. I’ve know many who were religious and faithful. I’ve known more than a few Bible-thumpers. But I had never met anyone who actually declared: I’m a Christian.
I don’t know why that struck me as odd and stayed buried in my subconscious. People always profess to be a Christian, but don’t act like one. This was just so matter-of-fact. When I returned home one day, I saw the tell-tale pamphlets from the local Jehovah’s Witnesses: Alive! and Watchtower. The cover story on Watchtower was about Moses and forgiveness. It was kind of an odd combination, Moses and forgiveness (I mean, this wasn’t in The Ten Commandments, after all. Yul Brynner didn’t forgive Charleton Heston for anything.) and, feeling more than a little down and depressed this particular day, I decided to read the article. Followers of The Secret would say I attracted this article and, Twilight Zone theme aside, I could probably agree and admit I needed to see these words at this specific time.
Basically, the article told the story about Moses and the problems the ancient Israelites gave Moses for leading them out of Egypt. He could have easily just left them to rot, or taken them back to Egypt, but he didn’t. So even though you may be hurt, that pain doesn’t last. Get over it. God will provide strength, but basically, don’t let the turkeys get your down. Do the right thing and it will all work out in the end.
Maybe there was something to this religion thing after all.
But Frank’s statement haunted me: I am a Christian. I learned I needed the belongingness that comes with being part of a community. Did it matter which community? A church as opposed to a municipality? No. Either one is a community. Po-tay-toe, Po tah-toe, as they say.
After the trauma of moving into a new home in the middle of a flood, I figured the time was right to begin attending church. But which one? I started with the local Kingdom Hall—there actually was one in my new town! After reading about Moses and the hurt, I figured it was as good a place to start as any. I had attended a few meetings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses before (wouldn’t you know, I got the one kid who came back and insisted on giving a Bible study). They were nice people. All were very polite and respectful of every single person in attendance. They weren’t even freaked out when I attended, being the token white. Conversely, when I went to another hall to hear a co-worker give the weekly “talk”, that all-black congregation flipped out. Well, “flipped out” is a slight exaggeration, but I wasn’t expected and really wasn’t wanted until his wife, whom I had never met mind you, came up and gave me a hug. Of course I had to be there to support Antwon and hear his talk. I’ve worked with this guy for 12 years and never heard him say a dozen words total. To hear him give a talk and speak for 45 minutes straight? You better believe I’m watching this.
You never heard a cough during their public talks. No rustling of papers, no squirming kids. They are a different breed. And I have to admit, even though I didn’t agree with everything they said, I did always feel better afterward. Maybe a little lighter in spirit? But I was somehow changed. So I figured this new Kingdom Hall experience would be about the same.
They were nice enough people, but rather than feeling uplifted and consoled I was darn near suicidal. Was it me? Or them? This is not at all what I needed. I already felt crappy—I didn’t need to continue this feeling with a church.
I decided to try a Lutheran Church, because I had traveled past this church at least twice a day every day. I figured close enough: I had graduated from a Lutheran university, and who knows? I was baptized a Baptist. I’m an equal-opportunity offender.
Not exactly the friendliest group of people. I’m not a social butterfly. I admit it: I’m pretty antisocial. But this group had me beat.
Just by luck, one Thursday evening I was driving home and noticed a lighted sign for a church. They had Saturday night services. And this one particular week I needed … something. I decided to try it out come Saturday night.
The red brick building was small, but adequate. There was a short wing with classrooms, two on each side. There was a lobby area the width of the church, with several clusters of chairs and some tables which look like they came from someone’s office reception area. One thing that struck me was there were racks and stacks of brochures and reading materials, even one for the local cemetery. Really? Who advertises cemeteries? And –wait a second—this is where my great-grandparents are buried. I took the pamphlet with. I was in no mood to battle mentally with anyone or anything.
As an observer, this first service was all right. The people weren’t standoffish or overly friendly. The minister was all right. I guess he could grow on a person. Something he said in the sermon struck me:
“Don’t make snap decisions, especially in regards to your faith. Take the time to understand what you are feeling. When you decided to join this church, you may have taken the time to talk with people. Don’t base your decisions on individual personalities, because we are not all alike. Some days we may be feeling out of sorts and be overly critical, and other days we may be in a happier mood where we agree with everything. As Jesus told us to forgive seventy time seven, keep your hearts open to a second chance, or a third, or a fourth … However many is needed.”
Hmmm, it’s almost like he’s speaking directly to me. Maybe I was too critical of the last two church visits. Maybe I will need to give this church thing another try. Maybe I will come back here next week.
This was a Lutheran church, but they said they were LCMS. Maybe that was a bigger question I needed to ask.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“We’re a Lutheran Church Misery Synod,” one older woman replied to my inquiry.
Misery Synod? Like Stephen King‘s Misery? What—are you guys snake handlers? I didn’t think they were this far north. Or do you sacrifice virgins? Oh, shit—and I’m a newcomer and a virgin, aren’t I? This can’t possibly go well for me.
I took home some brochures, including the one for the local cemetery, the one where my great-grandparents are buried. Odd, I thought, why would they be advertising a cemetery? Do they get kickbacks for their sacrifices?
I began reading the cemetery brochure first. Even though I had never met my great-grandparents, and from all accounts I heard from relatives they were very religious, I couldn’t fathom what connection they would have with this ankle-breaking, Cujo-worshipping cult of snake handlers.
“To be buried in Concordia,” the brochure explained, “a person must belong to one of the eight following Lutheran Churches-Missouri Synod.”
Come to think of it, that woman did have a touch of a twang. So—I’m just guessing here—maybe she was saying “Missouri” and I was hearing “Misery”?
Then it dawned on me—how did Grandma get buried out there? Did she attend one of the eight churches?
One of my mother’s cousins did a pretty extensive family tree, even tracing each dead person to their funeral program, to the hymns sung and Bible verses recited. I was interested in genealogy and was the keeper of the information. But my interest began some 25 years ago when I thought I would have descendants with whom to share this information. I found the genealogy and flipped the pages until I got to my great-grandparents. Her listing, more than a half-century after her death, put her right in the middle of the list. A lot of predecessors and a lot of progeny.
The cousin did have everything listed, including the church name (one of the eight!) and the number of burial in Concordia.
Seriously? The number of burial in the cemetery?
As I said, she did extensive research.
As I looked over the pages, at people long dead and gone and not even a blip on my radar, I found many were also buried in Concordia. And then it dawned on me.
Holy shit, we’re Lutheran!
I swear, nobody tells me anything.
But I found that the Cujo worshippers were in actuality a very nice group of people and welcomed me as one of their own. It was a wonderful feeling, actually filling that void I had in my, for lack of a better term, soul. Occasionally, a few would ask amongst themselves, “Where on earth did she come from?”, but no one bothered to ask me.
Not that my past is a secret, but … it’s not that important to me. I had moved to this town to get away from my past and that really wasn’t important now. Did it make a difference who I was or where I’m from? I don’t want to relive it. Not that my background was bad, but I’m not exactly proud of it. How do you explain to people about the characters you met as a child as a place holder in line for your mother in the welfare office waiting to pick up food stamps? Most of these people were Republicans, wealthy (in my opinion), grew up in two-parent families and raised their children with the person they married and with whom they had these children. In my family, I need a scorecard of how everyone is related and to whom. I can’t explain it to people because they just can’t fathom it.
But one evening, I had an epiphany. The youth group was trying to raise funds to attend a mission conference. I could direct a show using them, they could sell tickets, I could get the directing bug out of my system, and it would be a win-win.
And where on earth did this directing bug come from? One of the English professors at GNU U also taught theatre. By way of introduction and welcome to Great Northern, I ended up being forcibly volunteered to help him with the student production. I didn’t do much to help, but I did get to observe him work a few scenes and thought that would be something I would like to try.So a simple thing with kids, controlled experience—I could probably do that.
Ironically, the sermon that night dealt with “using your talents”. So after the sermon, I asked to speak to the pastor. He was a fairly young man, just barely 30, with short dark hair and a goatee that would appear and then disappear about a month later. The youth group was a special source of pride to him—he helped create it at this church. So the importance of supporting the group was not lost on anyone in the congregation. And as it takes a village to raise a child, this church was that village.
“Funny you should mention using your talents in the sermon this evening,” I said. “I was thinking of offering my services to help the youth group raise money. I would like to direct a play and I could use the kids. This could be a fund raiser for them.”
His eyes lit up. “Could you direct a Christmas show?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Sure.” I knew I was going to regret this, but what the heck. He became more animated and excited.
“And for Easter?”
“Uh, sure.” I had never heard of an Easter show before, but what the heck? I didn’t know much about churches.
His eyes were sparkling and he was smiling, shifting his weight on both feet. “Can you direct a choir?”
“Uh,” could I? I remember in sixth grade music class we had to learn conducting in 2/4, ¾ and 4/4 time. I still remembered that. “Probably,” I lied.
As I left, I realized that he was downright giddy. People aren’t giddy anymore. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who was actually giddy. Is that word even part of the lexicon anymore? Something’s rotten in Denmark, I feared.
Two weeks later, I discovered why the pastor was so giddy. His sermon that week was a plea for assistance from the congregation because Eunice, the woman who single-handedly ran the Sunday School Program as well as directed the Christmas programs, was moving downstate and, as this was mid-October, there was no one to take on the Christmas program.
Now, I hate being set up. And I walked right into this one. Thanks a lot, God.
As I was new to church and didn’t know any of the children, I began visiting the classes during Sunday School to listen to the children read. The shows were very simple—there were no auditions, no rehearsals during the week. The shows were pretty much already written for all of the LCMS churches and could be downloaded off a web site for free. The shows basically consisted of putting kids in costumes and having them read from a script. Very simple, no muss or fuss.
Yes, they actually had some very nice costumes, in storage. Many years ago one mother, who made her own children’s clothing, decided to make very elaborate Wise Men costumes for her son and their friends, so they could be the three kings. The crowns were bejeweled, the smocks had gold trim and a few jewels on them. There were about a dozen various shepherd costumes and about two dozen “angel” costumes (basically, white polyester ponchos and gold Christmas tree garland pinned in a circle on the little heads). It was a ritual with the kids, having grown up with it ever since they began preschool Sunday School classes. The boys knew they “made it” when they got to wear the Wise Men costumes.
The preschoolers had their own costumes—they were all sheep. Pillowcases with big black circles, representing the curly wool, were pulled over their clothes and white knit caps, with black felt ears on each side, were pulled over their heads. Their big scene, also an annual tradition, was singing Away in a Manger. It stole the show every year. They only knew the one verse, and you could barely see them from the back, but the entire church loved it.
So, for a first experience, this was simple enough. It wasn’t broke, so no need to fix it.
After a few years, I found myself volunteering to teach Sunday School. I know, I know—I walked right into that one as well. But my soul purpose (no pun intended) was to do my casting for the show throughout the year, see which kids were regular attendees and could read well. I was feeling more and more at home with these people, this new family. After about a year, I decided to become a Lutheran. Once I did that, I became more active with the church. For once, I felt wanted. It’s a really nice feeling.
During my spring break, the women at church knew I was free and invited me to join them in preparing for Holy Week.
Now, I didn’t mind doing this. Nor did I see the big red cape being waved at me. Excuse me while I charge headlong into this situation …
They were the Altar Guild, given the responsibility of preparing the church each week for services. Each woman had a month where they were responsible for preparing the communion ware, some light dusting, and getting the flowers for the sanctuary. Luckily, the florist was right across the street—such an easy job! At certain times during the church year, a few would get together and change the paraments and banners in the church. Depending on the holiday or time of the year, there were certain colors that were used: Light blue for Advent; purple for Lent; red for confirmation, Pentecost, and Reformation; white for Christmas and Easter and the occasional saint. As Lutherans, we didn’t worship the saints as the Catholics do, but if a certain saint’s day falls on a Sunday, then we change to white. This engendered quite a discussion one June when John the Baptist day was on a Sunday. Who knew he got white paraments? Who knew he had a day?
I always chose a summer month because those six months of the church year require green paraments, so there are no big changes. Unless it’s John the Baptist Day. Again, simple enough.
How I got to be a member of the Altar Guild is still a matter of debate. I know what I did—I made the mistake of climbing a ladder in front of several 80-year-old women to hang a banner one holiday. They couldn’t manage it with the long poles they used, so just using common sense and taking advantage of the obvious, I placed the ladder and up I went. When I came down, they were all smiling. I couldn’t figure out why—I didn’t do anything that spectacular.
Except climb a ladder. They could no longer do so safely and they were in awe of me.
Once again, I’m just too stupid for my own good.
And right then and there, at the base of that ladder, I became the newest and youngest member of the St. Mary of Bethany Altar Guild.
“You people do realize I know absolutely nothing about Lutherans?” I protested.
“Oh, that’s all right,” they said sweetly. “We’ll help you.”
“No, seriously,” I said, “I just converted last month. I really don’t understand what you people do.”
“Oh, that’s all right. You’ll learn.”
As they say, bad news travels fast. I walked out of the sanctuary and into the recreation hall, a matter of 20 steps max, and was greeted by a woman who congratulated me on becoming a member of Altar Guild. How on earth did she know this?
I still wasn’t sure who all these people were, but I politely thanked her and again stated my misgivings. She patted my arm and said, “Oh, that’s all right, honey. Just do everything Doris says and nobody gets hurt.”
Hmmm … which one was Doris? There was a very tall woman who was in charge of something there. Everyone steered clear of her. Yeah, she could kick my ass. But for some reason I thought Doris was literally the “little old lady.” She was only 4 foot, 8 inches tall. At 87, she acted like she was 47.
That Doris? Just do what she says and nobody gets hurt? Naw, it couldn’t be.
As the one woman walked away, two of the women who had witnessed the Miracle of the Ladder came toward me, concerned by the look on my face. “Is everything OK,” the taller of the two asked.
I relayed the conversation to them. “She was congratulating me.”
“She who?” asked the thinner of the two ever so sweetly, standing just behind the taller one.
I shrugged my shoulders and pointed in a general direction. “Lucille?” asked her friend.
I gave a slight nod. “Could be. I still don’t know everyone. Anyway, I told her that I didn’t feel qualified to be on Altar Guild because I’m still so new and she said,” I furrowed my forehead at this, as if that would help me understand the situation better, “ ‘Just do what Doris says and nobody gets hurt.’ “
The two women immediately took a step backward at the mention of Doris’ name, their faces growing serious, and nodding in assent, almost terrified of a past memory where they had witnessed The Wrath of Doris, maybe even directed at them specifically.
“Oh, yes, she’s right,” the taller one said. Her friend was now hiding behind her back, her finger tips gently on her shoulder, nodding vigorously.
Now, which one was Doris?
I did enjoy helping these women with their duties. And by the time I did learn who Doris was—she was the little 4 foot 8 inch dynamo—I realized how true those words were. Even the one time she asked the pastor a question, he backed up to get out of her reach. She wasn’t violent, but no one was taking any chances, it seems. She was very particular and took this Altar Guild job to heart. But it wasn’t a power grab or vindictiveness. She truly was doing this to please the Lord.
And woe unto those who would get into her way.
But the Altar Guild is a very nice group of women, the majority of whom are in their mid 80s. I want to be them when I grow up. They’re still active, mentally alert, and just really enjoy life. They go to concerts and plays and lunch and all over the place. They’re a lovely group of friends. I sit home alone.I know this is my problem and I’m the only one who can undo it or fix it. But … I don’t know if I want to fix it or if I would even know how to do so.
I’ve kind of gotten used to the solitude. In a way it’s kind of nice, but in many ways it’s frustrating and lonely. I’ve never been one for small talk, so being alone is perfect. No one is interested in anything I have to say, or if they are, they are very needy people and want someone to take care of them, more emotionally than physically.
Newsflash: I’m needy, too. I would like for someone to take care of me as well. I don’t mind listening to your problems, but, buddy, I’ve got a ton of my own.