Friday, August 17, 2012
Who Are You?
I know a lot about God.
I popped out of the womb into the lap of devout Christian parents. Heck, while I was still in the womb, I probably heard muffled hymns sung by the Bill Gaither Trio and hummed along and then froze in my amniotic fluid at the sound of Billy Graham.
At around five years old, I converted, "asking Jesus into my heart" at the dinner table over my Macaroni and Cheese. (At least that is what my parents tell me. I don't remember this moment.) Growing up, I went with my family to the "First Baptist Church of Whatever Town We Lived In" regularly -- once on Wednesday night for Bible study, twice on Sundays for the morning and evening services. I wore Holly Hobbie dresses and white, folded down socks with my heels. Every year on Easter, I always wore the very special dress I had picked out for this very special day. One year, I added a white rabbit-fur hand muff my Mother had given me to my Easter outfit. I buried my hands inside it. It was California and 80 degrees on Easter Sunday. I didn't need a furry hand muff, but it seemed fancy. And appropriate. It was Easter after all.
On almost every Sunday before the evening service, we ate dinner in the church cafeteria which was down in the basement of one of the big brick church buildings. The buttermilk ranch salad dressing at 1st Baptist Church of Reseda was awesome. I was baptized at that church. Don't remember exactly how old I was, but I do remember going under the warm water at the front of the church and then returning to my seat with wet hair as "Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul" was being sung heartily by the congregation. I avoided people's eyes, but I could see they were smiling at me.
In my early years of elementary school, I was in a group called "Whirlybirds", the Christian equivalent of the Brownies. Instead of badges, we earned little plastic "trinkets" for good behavior; each tiny toy had a loop at the top, so they could be sewed on to a special "Whirlybirds" beanie. I never wore the beanie. It was red and white, had a green plastic helicopter on top and with all the trinkets sewed all over it - it was really gaudy. Not to mention I was born with "The Horner Head" which in my family means my head is so big it does not fit well in most caps, especially not in this tiny skull cap they considered a beanie. What should have come down to my ears, sat on my head in a way that made me look like a Jewish man.
Once I got into 4th-6th grade, there was "Pioneer Girls" - yes, you guessed it, the Christian version of the Girl Scouts. We lost the beanies (thank God) and moved on to red and blue vests. Mine fit nicely. We earned small, round patches for helping our neighbor in the yard, old ladies across the street and Mom around the house.
During my "Pioneer Girls" days, my church assigned me a Christian mentor called a "Prayer Pal." Mrs. White was her name. Betty White. She was about 80 years old, widowed, had a large, white perfect perm, was super sweet, and honestly, I have absolutely no recollection of ever praying with her. This is probably not surprising since I was very young and my biggest prayer request was probably something like, "Please ask God to help me hit a home run in my Bobby Sox softball game on Saturday" or "Please don't let Dad get rid of our dog Goldie even though he ate a whole in the garage."
My summers were full of God, too. There was Vacation Bible School (VBS). This meant I got to hear a lot of Bible stories, memorize verses, smear paint, break crayons, scatter glitter, and cut construction paper into strips to make place mats. As a teen, it was in VBS where I discovered groups like Petra, Carmen, Michael W. Smith, the Imperials and Degarmo and Key. I really liked Petra. They rocked.
For several summers, when I was about junior high age, I also went to BMA camp - Bible Memorization Association camp. Yes, that is a real camp. Here's how it worked: If you memorized enough verses during the year, you got to go to camp in San Diego where you got to memorize more verses. I'll never forget the "entrance exam" for this camp. You had to sit at a picnic table at the front of the camp with Dolly, a mentally disabled, ill-fitted denture wearing, drooling, earnest Christian, who would ask you to recite verses to her out loud. You had to know ten by heart to get in to camp. I was always petrified. What if I only remember 9 and then my parents have to take me home? This was a long drive to get here! Why can't I remember 1 John 1:9! Can I recite John 11:35 instead? Maybe John 3:16? Please?! Dolly, have mercy! Luckily, Dolly was very sweet and wasn't paying too close attention, so I always got in. Once in, BMA camp was an adventure. The campsite seemed to go on forever in all directions. There were hills and trails and pine trees. In one spot, there were big, gray boulders all piled up on each other and I used to jump around on them like a mountain goat. There was Martinelli's Apple Cider in the snack bar, a freezing cold above ground pool that was in the middle of no where (creepy!) and small log cabins with wooden bunk beds. They were scattered around the camp, but close enough together so that everyone could hear the trumpeter play Revelry in the morning and Taps at night. Even with the rock jumping, the leather jewelry making and honestly the best camp food I've ever had, I was so miserable, self-conscience and homesick, I don't think I went to the bathroom for the entire week. (Except maybe in the pool.) I did have one friend at camp that made things a little better. Her name was Karen and she was from Garden Grove. She loved to jump on the rocks. We wrote letters to each other between camp sessions. We used fancy stationary and had perfect penmanship. See you next year at camp! Stay in touch! Gotta boyfriend?
Then in high school, my parents sent me to a different camp - Hume Lake Christian Camp up in the Sierras. It was beautiful. Huge. Well maintained. A professional camp for Christian kids. I hated it. Except the year that Joel Weldon was the guest musician. He was great. I wanted to play the guitar and be on stage with him. He had so much passion for God and he "kept it real" and didn't talk to us like we were a bunch of dumb kids or just throw around a bunch of "Jesus lingo." His voice was soothing, friendly and his music was personal. While I sat with hundreds of other teens in the camp auditorium each night listening to him sing, I could feel my batteries recharging. I was so drained because I hated every minute of being away from home, not to mention all the swimming, rowing, tug-o-war, water relays, and horseshoes. Then, after Joel, and before lights out, we had "Come to Jesus" campfires under the stars -- big glorious bonfires with sparks and pops! We'd sing Kum By Ya and What a Friend We Have In Jesus. Someone would read the Bible and rile us up about becoming a Christian if we weren't one, being a better Christian if we were one, or about taking our "fire for Christ" down the hill and staying "lit for Jesus" back in our home towns. I wanted to go home. I couldn't wait for it to be over. I wanted down off the mountain. I didn't bring the fire with me.
Once at home, it was just like I was at camp only without all the homesickness, mosquitoes and campfires. There was a lot of praying, singing, Bible trivia games and study. My parents read the Bible out loud and Christian classics too, like Pilgrim's Progress and the Chronicles of Narnia. We took turns praying around the dinner table. Occasionally, we even had communion at home. Always grape juice, never wine. The body of Christ was usually store-brand white bread.
My schooling was overseen by God, too. No "secular" public school for me. I was home schooled by my father who has his teaching credential in English and a PHD in Theology. My Mom was my homework helper, french tutor and piano teacher. She got her degree from Bob Jones University and used to tell me stories about how school administrators went to great pains to keep boys and girls separated. Boys walked on the blue lines painted on the ground around campus, girls on the pink she said. They had "date nights" where a boy and a girl could sit in a room and talk while a chaperone listened in nearby. I wasn't shocked, only amused. I could picture her at this Bible belt college in her ankle length dress, New Testament in hand, "walking the line." Johnny Cash would have been proud.
After homeschooling, I went to private Christian schools from 4th grade through my sophomore year of college. I loved my Christian high school. It was an international boarding school in Northern California and I had friends from Alaska, the Virgin Islands, Korea and all points in between. I was on student council, played year round sports and wrote for the newspaper. We didn't take Bible classes at this school - we stuck pretty close to traditional high school curriculum, but we did have Chapel every Wednesday in the gym. Before and after the Scripture lesson, aspiring singers would belt out Amy Grant and Sandy Patty hits. One time, the wife of the principal sang a lenghty, opera style song entitled "Throw it Down Moses." The lyrics told the story from Exodus 4 of God commanding Moses to throw down the rod. Moses was being defiant. He did not want to throw down the rod. Mrs D's voice was high, passionate and shrill as she sang out God's commandment over and over -- "Throw it Down Moses!" "Throw it down Moses!" On and on Moses refused and God commanded. The song seemed as endless as Moses' stubbornness. We shifted our numb butts in the metal bleachers. Finally, I turned to my best friend Jackie and said, "For goodness sake Moses THROW IT DOWN ALREADY so we can go to lunch!"
My senior year I went to Mexico on a missionary trip with my Spanish II teacher and classmates. We shared Bibles and The Jesus Movie to locals in Rosarito and Tijuana. I remember homes made of scrap metal and cardboard, dirt roads, chickens and skinny dogs, lots of hills and really sweet Coca-Colas. I gave a Bible to a boy named Juan who wanted to be my boyfriend. I came back with a colorful hand made blanket and a Rolex watch with what I soon discovered had painted on hands. It was 11:00 o'clock all day, everyday. Well, for $10 at least it was right twice a day. And looked cool.
My high school days also meant more music by Petra, only played a little bit louder in a Walkmen, and at one point in the late 80's - along came Stryper. I could never quite get in to this heavy metal Christian band. Something about big-haired men in makeup and leather singing about Jesus just didn't sit right with me.
My comprehensive Christian education continued into college. With it, came Christian classes, Christian textbooks, Christian counseling, Christian uniforms, Christian curfew, and required Christian church attendance. Each Monday, I would file into the school gymnasium for Chapel service with hundreds of other appropriately dressed college students, find my name on a clipboard, and "sign in" indicating that I had gone to two church services that past Sunday. Chapel was three times a week at this conservative university. My freshman year was spent almost entirely on Bible classes like Old Testament and New Testament studies. I will spare you the details of my experience at this college because I don't have many. I have blocked out most of my time there and the memories that do remain are not pleasant. Let me cut right to the chase. When I entered this conservative Christian university, I signed a document that said I believed certain things and would behave certain ways or I would be disciplined and eventually expelled. There was no smoking, dancing, fornicating, cussing...the list went on and on. I agreed to go to church, attend Chapel regularly, and go to my classes. I would be in bed at a certain time and not hang out in places of disrepute. I lasted almost two years. Then one day, the dean of the school called me into her office to tell me that I was being expelled. I hadn't lived up to the code and even though they tried to help me, she said, I had refused to change, so therefore, I was never to set foot on campus again. She pulled out a book the size of War and Peace that contained "notes" about my "case" -- all the ways I had broken the rules, all the counseling sessions, things my room-mate(s) had seen and heard me do and now, she said, it was time for me to go. Her final question to me was, "Would I prefer to call my parents and tell them the news or would I like her to make the call?" Oh, that's awfully kind of you to offer, but I'll take it from here, thanks.
My last two years of college I went to Cal State Northridge. It was great. I took a class called "Women in Religion" and it blew me away to hear a teacher talk about the apostle Paul as a misogynist. I took another class --philosophy-- from a teacher who was a transsexual in progress. SHE was becoming a HE right before my eyes and spoke openly about her/his "transformation." I stared at her throat and wondered if an Adam's apple would suddenly appear. I wondered where her boobs went. I noticed the inflections of her voice diminished as the baritone increased. Wow, I was really in the world now I thought. When David Duke came to campus, or Rodney King was acquitted, the school erupted into violent, noisy, angry student protests. People shouted and hooted and cursed and picketed. Columbus Day at CSUN was fun, too. I learned the man who discovered America was a murderer and a fraud. At least that's what was written in chalk all over the campus sidewalks. Even with the occasional political uproar and the 1994 earthquake, my time at CSUN was peaceful and easy going. I commuted, barely studied, worked part-time, joined softball leagues, played guitar, made new friends and graduated with good grades. I stopped going to church. I started going to dance clubs.
It was during this time that I tried many different things to help me forget about God and the words of the "Christian Counselor" from the first college, who told me I was disgusting and going to hell because of my "lifestyle." I think deep down I believed her. This God I knew all about, well, he knew all about me too and despite all my badges and books, camps and campfires, he was pretty much disgusted with me too. Turned out this counselor was a hypocrite in every sense of the word. I held on to that for along time. I held it against God, too. If this God, who all my life I had heard, read, sang, talked, painted, even flannel-graffed about -- didn't love me then well, I didn't love him either.
Out of college, through my twenties and early thirties, I was flat out sick and tired of God and sick and tired of Christians and sick and tired of all the religion, religious people, religiosity, the religious religion of religiosity - AAAACKKKKK! Cut me loose! For goodness sake, Petra SUCKS! Stryper is an embarrassment! (Sorry guys!) I want REAL heavy metal. I want Rated R movies. I want to smoke. I want to see the inside of a dance club. Have a drink! Dance! Kiss! Get caught kissing while dancing and drinking and smoking in a dance club.
So I did.
And it was a just a hell of a lot of fun.
Then it became just a hell of a lot.
Then it became just hell.
And I wanted out of hell, but I didn't want to go back to the hell of religion either.
So I wandered and searched and cried, self-destructed, self-repaired, wounded, healed, questioned, rested and writhed...I flailed and hid. I kept a perfect smile on my face while around others, especially my parents. I knew how to put on a good facade. God's people taught me that.
It has only been the last ten years or so, off and on, that I have started to find out for myself who exactly this God, this Jesus is. Who is this person who supposedly loves me so much he died for me? And wait, does he really love me? Why? Who exactly did I commit my life to just a few years out of diapers? Who in the world is Jesus and why did I allow him "into my heart"? Is he even really in my heart or just in my head? Just in my past? Just in my parents' head? Their past? Is he in my DNA? If I hadn't been raised in the Jesus commune, would I even want to commune with Jesus? Do I even WANT to love him? Now that I don't have to, do I want to? Why would I? Should I? My life is my own now, my parents don't make me go to church. Do I even want to go? Why do I want to go? Is it guilt that propels me? Habit? Security? Is God just like the Wizard of Oz and once I pull back the curtain and look for myself, I'll find some tiny man in a nice suit with a megaphone and a bunch of heart-warming promises of a better life?
Eventually, I was rescued by real Christians. They didn't rush in to save me. They just loved me where I was. They were there for me in my despair; in my darkness, they were a light of hope. They said God loved me. I didn't believe them right away, but they met me where I was. They could meet me there, where I was, because they had been there too. They had been in despair. They had doubted; heck, some still doubted, but they loved anyway They loved God. They loved me. Some were friends. One was a boss. One was a pastor. One was a cancer survivor. All were human. I started to see my world, Christians, this God, in a new light.
And so here I am. 40 years old. Still wrestling, but not running, not flailing. Don't misunderstand me. I am thankful for my Christian upbringing. My parents are wonderful, humble, loving Christians and I respect and admire them immensely. They made enormous sacrifices so that I could get a top-notch Christian education and participate in countless activities. It's just that in the last decade or so, I've figured out that my upbringing taught me a lot ABOUT God but it never really helped me get to know him personally.
It's kind of like this - I know where all the books are in the Bible; but I realized I have no real, personal understanding of the love story they contain. I can't see the tree, for the forest. For awhile, I thought maybe I need to chop down some of the trees in the forest. Throw out some of what I know. Throw out all I know. Or maybe I need to weed through all of it - all the books, sermons, lessons, songs, and search for the Truth. Maybe I need to mull it all over, think about it, study it...Then I realized, no, that's not it. That's the religious part of my faith kicking in again, that's what I'm good at. Maybe I need to let go. To be still. To listen. To be open. To rest and be receptive. That's where I've been for awhile. That's where I am now.
Here I am God. Who are you?