POST 12: In the Shadow of a Steeple

As a kid I attended church services at least three times a week in the company of my grandmother and Bud, two of the saddest and unhappiest people I knew. On the other hand my grandfather never attended church and he was one of the happiest and sweetest people I knew. Ironic? Our church was a very fundamentalist expression of Southern Baptists which basically meant all of us church members were issued a general list of things good Christians should avoid so as to not be sent to you-know-where: no dancing, no cursing, no drinking, no smoking, no sex. Occasionally someone named Jesus was mentioned in brief as it related to miracles, Easter, or Christmas.

Our pastor was a huge man who spent half of all his sermons talking about God's love for all the world and the other half screaming at the top of his lungs about how the world was going to burn in eternal damnation. His face would turn red with anger, large beads of sweat dripped down his puffy round face, and spit flew from his mouth as he yelled. Probably the reason no one sits in the front pews of a Baptist church - no one wants to be hit by flying spit.

I struggled early on with the place of church in my life. I had so many questions. If God is so loving then why did Jesus have to die? Why do people go to hell? What is hell? Who really gets to go to Heaven? Why does God let good people suffer? Why can't God make evil things stop? I had far more questions about God than I had answers. On the occasions when I did go on a truth seeking expedition and pose my questions to some faithful followers, people who would no doubt know the right answers and be able to help me, I was shot down. They all answered the same way - You have to trust God. Read your Bible. Don't question God. These answers seemed like a cheap way out of a tight spot and I didn't buy it.

But it wasn't just the idea of God that confused me. Aside from the yelling in church and the blatant disinterest God had in my life, I was deeply troubled by the people in my church. Our church was small, a congregation of less than fifty. We all knew the ins and outs of each others' lives. If someone lost a job, we all felt the blow. If someone passed away, we all mourned alongside the family. If someone missed a Sunday, we all noticed. In such a small, closely knit community it was impossible to not feel like we each lived in our own version of a tiny fish bowl. There was nowhere for any one's problems to hide.

When I was eight-years-old or so (maybe older; sometimes it's all a blur) Frances came home for one of her extended stays. She always came home suddenly and never stayed with us for too long. On this particular "visit" it seemed that Frances' depression had reached a critical point. Late one night I awoke from my sleep to the sound of an ambulance siren. I scrambled out of bed with sleep still in my eyes. I was startled to see paramedics dash through our front door hastily followed by two police officers. They raced to the back of the trailer. What is going on? I stood frozen in place, half from sleep and half from fear.

Bud made his way over to my room. I asked him what happened and he didn't even try to cushion his answer,"Your mother tried to kill herself." What do I say to that? I was motionless. Wow. She wasn't kidding. Some of my most vivid memories of my mother are of her crying in her bedroom, pleading for God to help her, praying she'd never been born and telling me she just wanted to end the whole charade. I understood. Beginning at seven years old thoughts of suicide played in the back of my mind like a continuous viral tape recorder that wouldn't shut off.

I watched from a distance as paramedics placed my mother on a stretcher and carefully maneuvered down our narrow hallway. As the paramedics made their way through the living room, I saw Frances' face. She was pale and her chin was slightly covered with what appeared to be vomit. When our eyes met she jerked her head away from me and closed her eyes tightly as she screamed between tears, "Don't let her see me! I don't want her to see me!" I quickly turned my eyes to the floor as huge salty tears fell down onto my feet. Frances had never tried to protect me from anything but even she couldn't suppress the maternal need to shield me from witnessing her in this desperate moment, her darkest of all hours.

The police officers were just sitting down with Bud to get his statement when two men from our church walked in. News travels fast in a small community. These two deacons were both young and kind with children my age. Bud tried to explain to them between rattled sobs what had happened: Frances had overdosed on sedatives. Bud had found her locked in the bathroom and called the paramedics. Help arrived before any permanent damage was done to her body. I only half-way listened.

After the deacons finished talking with Bud they glanced up and saw me standing in my doorway. I hadn't moved from that spot since I first got out of bed. They came over to me and hugged me gently but firmly as if to silently say that they were sorry for all of this and that they wished they could take me home with them. I wished they could too. "You need to be in bed," one of them told me. They were obviously saddened by what they were seeing. They put me in bed and tucked me in. I lay there with the bed sheet tucked tightly around me, my body convulsing as I cried myself to sleep. They walked out of the room with their heads hanging. As they left, one man turned to the other and asked, "Have you ever seen anything sadder than this mess in all your life?" He was right - the filthy trailer, Bud's wailing, my mother almost dieing, me wrapped in dirty bed sheets crying and hoping to all hope that it was all just one long terrible nightmare I would wake up from.

Looking back on my childhood experiences, I can pluck out so many defining moments. We all have them - those moments when your life and spirit were forever changed. This moment was one of them. Frances didn't die but even a child couldn't overlook the sadness of that time. I was sorry for her, sorry for myself, and I suppose a little curious as to what lay ahead for me in the future. Will my journey be the same as my mother's? Will my own children someday watch me unravel just like this? Will I, too, someday look for a way to end it all? Will I spend my whole life searching for peace that won't ever come? A very real fear of the future gripped my tiny beating heart that night.

In a few short days Frances made a full physical recovery but this event had left all four of us deeply shaken. When she got home, Frances cried a little more than usual but anxiety medication kept her from going over the edge. Bud was afraid to leave the house for fear of what he might come home to. My brother and I were afraid of the same. Each of us possessed more than his or her fair share of wounds. Were life a Hallmark movie this would have been the time when a knight in shining armor in the form of a family counselor or a pastor, friend or family member would step in and get us all on track. Don't worry! Things have been bleak so far but help is finally here! Wouldn't it be great if real life were like that?

Over the next few days and weeks I waited for something like that to happen. Wishful thinking meets desperation and a child's naivete I suppose. It seemed like that evening's scene shouldn't be the punctuation mark for the whole event. No one from our church (or family for that matter) came by to give encouragement in a time of confusion and hopelessness. No one came to steal me and Buddy away for a few hours so we could just be kids and forget about what was happening at home. No one told us how sorry they were about the whole blame thing or told us it wasn't our fault. No one said a word. Sunday after Sunday people looked at us knowing the whole story - every bit of it - and nothing. No help. No hope.

I was deflated. I didn't want anything to do with these church people, and if they were any honest representation of this guy Jesus they kept squawking about I didn't want anything to do with him either. Maybe it was unfair for me to blame them. After all, they didn't make my mother depressed or my father unemployed or me be molested, but there was something nasty and bitter about them trying to sell me week after week on a God who's existence didn't make any difference at all.

Week after week I listened as these people sang songs about a loving God who changed hearts and made theatrical commitments to their fellow man to the tune of an upright piano - We will work with each other/ we will work side by side/ We will work with each other/ we will work side by side/ And we'll guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride/ And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love /Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love - but all the while the proof was in the pudding. I tired of the same fake smiles on every one's faces. It sickened me to see people so smug and comfortable in their own lives while we were barely surviving. My life existed in the same sad reality with or without them. No shouldering of burdens. No giving of grace or hope to a person in real need of both; a profound missed opportunity for people to literally practice what they preach. Sunday after Sunday my resentment grew as I confronted a fictitious and cruel God who dished out good lives and bad lives haphazardly and ignored people who came to him for help.

Who has time to believe in a God who doesn't even care I exist?

Not me.