My teenage years were difficult years for me as well as for my parents. My folks were going through a phase I refer to as their religious mid-life crisis. They had just left the Lutheran Church to join the Baptist Church that was located just two blocks down the same street. Two blocks, man. Two blocks might as well have been two million miles.
The truth is, I liked the old church. I had grown up there and I had just been confirmed there. My friends, cousins and, most importantly, my best friend, Paul, went to Trinity Lutheran Church. The church itself was massive. Huge wooden trusses with intricate carvings towered over the congregation. Every stained-glass window contained a Christian icon that told a story, if one knew what to look for. Personally, I just appreciated the windows for their artistic value. For as long as I could remember, my family had sat on the same wooden pew every Sunday. In fact, most families had their own pew locations as well. My family sat on the right side about seven rows back. This afforded us a great view of the choir that sang in an alcove just to the right of our pew.
The service itself was ripe with tradition. Each service tended to be identical to the week before. Repetition provides a warm feeling of comfort. Every week, our pastor followed the choir up the aisle during the first hymn. Thunderous chords bellowed from the columns of organ pipes that stood just behind a wood-framed cloth-covered arch. A symmetrical arch on the other side of the alter housed the baptismal font where infants were baptized almost every Sunday. I found baptisms boring and I would unconsciously bounce my legs up and down to try and speed things up. My legs would shake the long pew and my father would quickly reprimand me by squeezing my knee. The services had a rhythm and flow of group recitations, songs, prayers, a sermon, the final hymn during which the choir marched back down the aisle and, finally, our pastor shook hands with everyone as they exited the church.
For personal reasons, my parents left Trinity Lutheran Church. And, they were open to suggestions. We visited many different churches during their search. I unwillingly went along for the ride.
One of the churches we visited, a Baptist Church way out on Lapeer Road, actually brought pigs into the church for a metaphorical sermon. The pigs were spotless. They were penned in on one side of a straw-bedded corral. The other side of the pen had a trough of mud in the center of it. The mud represented sin and the pigs represented mankind. At the climax of his sermon, the pastor opened the gate and the clean pink pigs literally, and symbolically, returned to their filthy habits. Ahhh. Clever. I get it.
Another memorable service was at a Pentecostal Church that turned certain members of their congregation into trance-induced spastic zombies who couldn’t maintain their balance or their speech. They mumbled and spoke incoherent gibberish as they flopped and flailed about on the alter like a freshly-landed fish on dry land. This service freaked me out and I told my parents that I never wanted to go to that church again. My mother explained that those people were possessed by the Holy Spirit and that they were speaking in tongues. I made a mental note that I never—never—wanted to be possessed by the Holy Spirit if that’s what it did to seemingly ordinary people.
My favorite service was a Nazarene church. We attended an evening service with snake handlers. I was actually disappointed when I found out this was a one-time special event. Again, it was a metaphorical sermon in which the snakes represented Satan—pronounced, “Say-TEN-ah.” The guest speaker had several small wooden boxes perched on folding stands. He cautiously reached inside one of the boxes and produced a snake. I remember an audible gasp in unison from the congregation. To everyone’s horror, (and my delight,) the snake rattled. That got my attention—plus the attention of everyone else in the congregation. He was holding a live rattlesnake. Not only that, the snake was pissed off. This was too good to be true. Then he started taking chances. He held the snake precariously close to his face.
“This snake is Satan-ah! But I am not scared of Satan-ah because I am protected by the power and blood of Jesus-ah,” he preached.
“Bite him.” I whispered a little too loud,
My mother glared and my father snickered, but he quickly reprimanded me by squeezing my knee. This church wasn’t in his wheelhouse either, but he couldn’t be seen as encouraging my misbehavior.
Like I said, my parents finally found a new church just two blocks—and two-million miles—away, Griswold Street Baptist Church. This one had its quirks as well, but at least there were no pigs, rattlesnakes or people having seizures on the alter. However, the minister at this church wielded fear as an effective tool from his box of tricks. He constantly preached about hellfire and damnation that scared many members of the congregation into walking-up-the-aisle to accept Jesus into their hearts and be born again. I watched my mother, on many occasions, walk up the aisle. Usually she was crying and she would drag my father with her. I often wondered what demons were hiding in her closet.
Personally, I never felt compelled, or the need, to walk up the aisle. I’m pretty sure this bugged the hell out of her, but I wasn’t about to pretend to understand, or believe in something, that didn’t make a bit of sense to me.
Never have, probably never will.