Thursday, July 7, 2016
The House of God
This is the church I attended as a child. Yes, despite the fact that I'm now an atheist with Buddhist leanings, I grew up in a Christian environment -- Presbyterian, to be specific. It's a pretty church, isn't it? The stucco Spanish style is quite distinctive. I drove past yesterday just to see how it's looking these days.
So many things happened in this building. When my brother and I were really young, we went every week to Sunday School and then the first part of the main service, after which children were adjourned to the nursery. Only our parents had to endure the sermon. (And in my case, only my mother -- I don't remember my father ever accompanying us to church, though he did on rare occasions like our baptisms, which were done in infancy.)
My younger brother and I would sit in the pews and draw on the paper church programs -- dinosaurs (me) and cars (my brother). Were we absorbing a spiritual message? Maybe, in some general sense. Every week our minister worked Peanuts, the comic strip, into the service, using it to deliver a moral lesson, and I always looked forward to the Peanuts part. (Only years later did I realize these messages came from, or were at least inspired by, a best-selling book.)
As a young teenager, I took a special class to learn all about the basics of the church in order to be confirmed. That class met in the room you see on the right, with the two windows. I also met with a group there to discuss becoming a teenager, where we read from a book by -- believe it or not -- James Dobson, in which he discussed topics like puberty. I don't remember Dobson's message being particularly strident or conservative, but I specifically remember a passage in which he wrote that girls would become attracted to boys, "their strength and their muscles," and boys would be attracted to girls, "their curves and their softness." I remember thinking, "Hmmmm...muscles!"
Here I am with the cast of a church play. I'm in the bright striped robe, which I really liked. The big stuffed dog was our "fatted calf." I think I was an innkeeper. I don't really remember.
This might be the church youth group, with which I did lots of activities. We went to movies, including Neil Simon's "California Suite," which can get quite bawdy and probably gave our youth-group leaders severe heartburn. We went to Malibu Grand Prix, a local video game and car-racing emporium, where I once forgot my brand-new winter coat -- we were driving home when I realized it, and fearing my mother's wrath I actually cried, forcing the youth group leaders to turn the van around. I got the coat back.
Church was primarily a constructive social outlet for my family. Despite the weekly message that the gospels were real, I never felt expected to literally believe every word of the Bible -- especially farfetched ideas like the virgin birth. My mom leaned toward interpreting the Bible metaphorically. I followed her lead.
And then, when I was a teenager, a funny thing happened. All my friends stopped coming to church. I eventually wound up in a Sunday School class where I was the only kid. And then I got a job at McDonald's, and began working on Sundays, and that was that. No more church. (Maybe Christmas and Easter, with my mom, for old time's sake.)
I appreciate the fact that we went -- I think we did benefit from the friendly social environment and emphasis on kindness. I even returned to various churches a few times as an adult, despite never quite buying, literally, the spirituality. I don't really miss it now, I have to say -- but it was nice to drive past the building again. In these polarized times, I hope the message is still moderate, forgiving and positive.