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.


  1. I grew up Episcopalian with similar background, getting dismissed from services before the sermon for Sunday school. I remember I asked my sunday school teacher once that if the bible was true what about evolution (or something like that). she sputtered an unsatisfactory answer that I can't even remember now. I can remember questioning the doctrine from an early age. original sin just didn't make sense to me. how could a brand new baby be a sinner and I almost failed confirmation classes cause I wouldn't do any of the work. they made me do a special assignment so I could be confirmed with the class. we stopped going to church when my mother couldn't face anyone because of a scandal in her social group and it was left to my father to take us and he only went because mother insisted. we'd go to breakfast instead of church and eventually even that pretense ended. we'd still go on Easter and Christmas until I was 16 and declared I would not be kneeling for prayer. when my mother failed to force me to my knees during the service, she made us all leave creating an even bigger scene. that was the last time we went as a family to church.

  2. Whoa! Ellen has always been a rebel, hasn't she? That woman is made of backbone.
    The first church I remember being taken to was in Roseland and it was the Roseland Gardens Community Church. Sometimes we kids went to the Sunday sermon and sometimes we just played outside. Sometimes we had Sunday School and sometimes we didn't. It was sort of free-range and most of the attendees were retired older people who used the church as yes, a social outlet where there were very few. I don't remember much fire and brimstone. The preacher probably would call himself a Unitarian now. But the old hymns were sung and we did Christmas pageants. Our minister decided that he needed to do something about integration in the 60's and partnered up with an African American church of some denomination at one point and invited them to our services. Half of our church's members left the church over that one but I remember meeting this black kid who taught me how to use my thumbs to whistle and it was awesome. Later it came out that our minister was REALLY into integration and had an affair with the other church's organist. His wife, who was my mother's best friend, and the best teacher I ever had, divorced him but then went to teach at a predominantly black school.
    So I got some good stuff from that church and it was on the banks of the Sebastian River and the minister had planted a rose garden in among the pines and it was beautiful there. It's now an Ashram.

  3. Steve, i picked you out right away. You really haven't changed much. Ah, church. The church of my childhood did not inspire me to be a church going adult; i slept through communion kneeling on the cushion with my head on my hands resting on the pew in front of me. I must have looked very pious. After church, it was a gauntlet of seeing how quickly I could get to my dad's car before all the church ladies clucked over me about how fat I was. The most interesting thing I recall about church was the family of cute boys who always sat in the pew behind us, and whom I snuck glances at throughout the service. One of those cute boys grew up to marry a family friend, and moved to maryland, and we are all good friends now in adulthood. He must have got something from that church that I didn't though, because he's a churchgoer now. I love that Mary's church is now an ashram, and that she has some good memories of it. Me, as soon as I could choose not to go, I exercised that choice. More or less, I exercise it still. And yet I am a believer, possibly Buddhist at heart, but resistant to all forms of organized religion. And yet I pray. I think God speaks to us in all languages, in all faiths, and is called by another name, Love.

    (Look what you started!)

  4. I don't have any fabulous stories like Ellen's or Mary's! I had an exceedingly calm church experience but it went much the way yours did, Steve, except I went to the United Church of Canada. I even taught Sunday School when I was about 14 or 15 along with my best friend. I stopped going at about 16 and never went again except two Sundays at university when I was homesick, and a handful of weddings, including my own. I do remember getting a kitten from the minister's household, though! Three kittens in the litter, two easygoing and one a scratcher, and guess which one I picked?

  5. That's a bizarre fatted calf you were holding!...I have been an atheist since I was ten years old but I was a choirboy at our village church between the ages of nine and fourteen. How tedious were those sermons I had to sit through - so boring and irrelevant they would turn anybody into an atheist... but there's a peacefulness in many churches that I still enjoy today. It's as if the shadows of all who passed before are still moving across the church floors.

  6. What an enjoyable set of memories. I too remember those early years of going to church on Sunday and to a Catholic school until the 4th grade. My parents were never very devout and we only went to church on special occasions and when the sisters at my school got too controlling, they moved me to public schools. I have lots of fun memories from then and I even drive by the old church when I visit Quincy. Next time I'm there I should go inside. I bet it looks exactly the same.

  7. The building I went to church in is long gone. I had difficulty with the exclusive aspect and so drifted away and never went back. Your last sentence sums things up nicely. The previous comments are most interesting as many people have the same experiences.

  8. Whoa! Essay comments to your post....

    That is you in the striped gown. I had to look closely, I thought it was the dog in the striped gown!

    Just joking - an interesting and as always, a balanced point of view.


  9. I didn't get much out of my Catholic upbringing either. We went to church every Sunday, my dad played the organ at church for a while until he gave up the church and my mom continued to take us. Funnily enough, she turned Catholic when she married my dad so it was her adopted religion. When I was little mass was said in Latin so it was truly a snooze fest. The only fun thing about it was that we got out of school to attend mass on special days and got to walk from school to the church. Not so fun was the nun poking me in the back to kneel up straight instead of resting on the pew. Or the time I was chewing gum in catechism class (I went to public school but had to take classes to be confirmed) and she made me put it on my nose and stand in the corner. They also used to still whack the back of hands with a ruler (not mine thank god).

    BUT .. I love what Yorkshire Pudding said at the end of his post. There is a certain feeling of peacefulness about a church, especially the old ones. Impressions left behind ... Have you ever read "The Pillars of the Earth"?