Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bridge 2

The next ten years piled up with wonder and work. Two events from this decade which I will add to the narrative are part of the focus on authority. However, I need to describe the period briefly as a whole and provide the story with a few markers in our overall journey.

My wife and I met in 1980. I had spent a year in the church as a single man; she had attended the church during her college years, then spent that same year away in another city teaching in the public schools. The church hired her in August to teach in the private school they launched in fall of 1980. We began dating in November, were engaged in December and married in March of 1981. Yeah, it was a bit fast; but that is another story beginning as we tell one another on our second date, we believed God had marriage in our future.

The first of five children born during the 80's came on July 1, 1982. In 1983, I went to work teaching in the Christian school. In that same year my wife left teaching in order to mother our children.

I finished college and was ordained an elder of GCC in 1985. I was thirty years old.

The pace of those years feels almost surreal now when looking back: Marriage, building our first and only home, five children in seven years; I taught in and was principal of a small Christian school and part of the leadership team of a growing fellowship. Those twenty-five families and multiples of college students grew ten-fold in that time.

My wife and I grew in love for God, for one another; and oh, how we loved (and still love) our kids! We grew in love, also, for a wonderful community of believers, many of whom still seek out and spend time with one another today. Our organized gathering waned piece-meal over the second and third decades since, but in hind-sight these folks note something wonderful took place between us in those years.

That our strong community faltered is the rest of the story coming up.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


On the last August Sunday in 1979, I sought out Graceland. The concert altar call had been too traditional; and I resisted it strongly, expecting I could have written the script from the time as a Methodist teenager when I'd helped with a Billy Graham crusade in Atlanta. Yet, I could not resist my curiosity about how they functioned as a church. I wanted to meet them on their turf and experience their service. Hitch-hiking east on the highway the poster listed as the address, I figured I'd find it.

Lee, a university student a few years younger than me, pulled off the road in an eight-year old, blue, road-hogging Buick. "I'm headed for church but I'm early. I'll take you where you're going, if it's not too far," he assured with a broad, disarming smile.

"Not exactly sure. I was looking for a church called Graceland Christian Center."

He reached his right hand for mine, "You're headed there now! That's my church and it's only a mile over that hill."

That first morning I was amazed. Graceland proved to be a passionate, dedicated, and lively group of about 25 young married couples, some with small children, a smattering of middle-aged couples, and a bunch of college students. They called themselves non-denominational and "every word" Christians; the pastor was from a Bible school in Alaska (Alaska has Bible schools?); and when they worshiped, the radiance on their up-turned faces competed with the sun streaming in the big, plate glass windows of the converted pool hall.

The meeting literally rocked with excitement. People spoke in tongues and time was given for individuals to stand and share. This is church!? I realized after thirty minutes or so, that I had been fully engaged emotionally without ever determining any reason to be so.

For two weeks I attended everything these people did: three meetings a week, S.T.Th.; nursing home visitation, choir practice, building maintenance, hiking with college students and dinners-hanging out in homes. On my third Sunday when Terry the pastor--only four years older than me--gave the altar call, I faced my first quandary. Was I saved in that Methodist church at fifteen? Did I need to respond to the altar call? The music played softly; he beckoned winsomely for decisions for Christ and my thoughts deepened into a theological musing over what is "salvation." He moved on to an invitation to be water baptized. My hand shot up! Saved before or not I wasn't sure, but the sprinkling the Methodists gave me no longer seemed adequate. It didn't meet the every-word criteria I quickly embraced. I saw a question in Terry's eyes and knew he probably felt I had missed a needed step, yet he smiled and offered up praise while my new family clapped.

Baptisms were held immediately after the service at the local in-door swimming pool. Half the church put off lunch to be part of this spiritual-family moment, as well. Terry and another young man in swimming suits (his baptism had been planned, Terry was just always prepared), and myself in shorts provided by the church stood at the pool's edge. Terry read from Romans concerning why we gathered. He spoke briefly to my compatriot in the dunk, then faced me. With one eye winked shut (too bright in here under a roof??), his other eye never wavered while he asked me directly about my salvation. Though I wasn't really clear about this question, a lengthy description of what I had been through and how I came to raise my hand for baptism seemed an unnecessary hold up. I answered a solid affirmation, he nodded without smiling and we went in the pool. I brushed off his winking eye, as I'm sure he brushed aside concerns he had never heard me pray the sinner's prayer.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

They are More than the Apple of My Eye!!

I just thought I take a moment to brag on my wife. Today she turned what's not been eaten of the two bushel of apples that grew on our backyard tree (it's a young tree and this is its first year of significant fruit) into seven quarts of canned apple sauce. If you have never had home-canned apple sauce, don't even think about the stuff under the Mott's label on the grocery store shelf. That would be like comparing the Statue of Liberty to a Lego block tower.

Anna made an apple pie with homemade crust and French crumble topping. Been good eatin' round here, folks! I haven't had time to think about a next post. Maybe tomorrow.

"Yeah, Hon. I hear you!"
Gotta run. The Roman apple cake is out of the oven soon.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Authority of Light in a Man's Eyes.

The basement room I rented from Ms. Bluefield had six foot ceilings. There was a door to the street and a door toward the back of the house which opened near a hot plate and fridge by her washer and dryer--she didn't use the big appliances to save money and I wasn't allowed use--then bending from the waist to clear under the furnace ducts, I reached a bath and the stairs up to her house.

During the first month of my stay in this town, I read that pocket testament daily. I visited a few steepled buildings, but couldn't settle into a religion where it felt like people hid. I visited a priest, thinking a tradition of leadership wholly different from the little I had experienced might have an insight I hadn't heard. He listened carefully to my tale of life on the night streets of American cities and a now growing desire for God from this point in my life. His answer mushed up in my head as psychological banter and theological words. I left his office confused about the parameters of Christian society. Acceptable society and the more colorful levels of social strata where I had lived stretched farther apart. I needed God but could not see clearly to enter a world of glancing eyes and disconnected mental constructs.

July was idling itself away in long hikes. I quit visiting churches and priests. My aloneness was becoming loneliness...again. I read of a commune in Tennessee that wasn't too far and decided my basement apartment would probably be too cold for the winter. I planned a move to the commune but not a date to go. A little more money saved before I made that journey seemed the best idea.

Late in August, my Bible reading had slipped to infrequent, and I was restless for a change. In four and half years of drifting, I had only twice stayed as long as six months in one spot. More often, in about three months time I would reach $500.00 saved, and that was enough wind in my sail to untie from the dock. Walking back one afternoon from my breakfast-cook job, a poster placed by Graceland Christian Center invited me to a concert presented on the universtiy campus. I don't recall anything about the poster other than my attention was drawn by a Christian message that didn't include the word church.

On that Saturday afternoon, I flipped back and forth about going. The stirrings of "go" confronted a high wall of "Don't Go!" The loneliness had four years of failed attempts to connect with others as evidence this would be more disappointment. Such feelings rooted beyond memory in never connecting with my dad. (I asked Mom once, had Dad ever held me as a young one. Without hesitation she replied, "Yes, the day of your christening, he held you in church.") I had been letting a homeless guy sleep on a cot in the basement without Ms. Bluefield knowing. He planned on the concert, as well--something to do. When the time arrived for walking across the street to the campus auditorium, his restless energy overcame my reluctance with a motivation I understood, "Just do it! Why not?"

We climbed the stairs navigating greeters placed about welcoming folks. I didn't want the false handshake routine again, but there was no going further without that social touch. While I looked left, a young man placed himself in my path. Before I could counter away, we were face to face. I reached for his hand and locked on his eyes. My street life had taught me much about reading what people held in their eyes, and intimidating people away when necessary with walls. A genuine, steady look struck my being like a NC lighthouse pierces a night fog off the coast! He never wavered from an honest care held in those lamps of his soul. The light there pulled on the longing in my chest.

I went in ready to listen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What's Up with Pastors?

I found a job on Friday at a restaurant that was closed on Sundays. Keeping my word to Ms. Hardin, I found myself mounting the steps toward two Sunday morning hours in a small local community church. All the worshipers slowed at the door. Closing ranks with those going through the door, I noticed why. The pastor of the church was shaking people's hands as they entered. That's different! I felt a bit of excitement rising in me. Something special here?

I reached my hand and looked into the pastor's face to make a connection. His eyes clearly focused on my forehead. He's hiding, too! The brief excitement evaporated. I found my place in the pews for announcements before everyone sorted out for Sunday school rooms. I cared little for the sick being mentioned nor the planned mid-summer vacation Bible school that needed volunteers. A scene from my stay in rural Georgia replayed in my mind's eye.

I recalled the afternoon sun chasing summer-like heat into my friend's rented house. The month was May, and already the landlord's field across the dirt road brimmed with waves of green hay. I imagined a breeze while I waited on the porch for four o’clock to send me to work. A white, four door sedan pushed along by a billowing dust cloud moved down the road and turned in the driveway. Three men emerged.

One man in a simple striped tie and white shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows, climbed the stairs to greet me. The other two men, matched in garb but minus ties, warily hung back on the porch steps, watching. Three heads of closely cropped hair and the pocket testament held against a full-sized black Bible in the first man's hands told me what was about to happen.

"Hello, Son." He reached to shake my hand while his eyes scanned my forehead looking for a place to land; I reached back. "I'm Pastor Dell Griffin of Bethel Church out on the highway." Pastor Griffin broke our handshake to gesture toward the men behind him. "These men here are deacons of our church."

"Hello," one man muffled while both nodded.

Pastor Griffin turned back to me and focused directly on the my eyebrows. "Concern for your eternal soul has prompted today's visit, Son." Pause. "Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?" Glancing back at the other two men, I had an impression of this pastor on a deacon's leash.

I considered personifying my eyebrows clearly holding Pastor Griffin's intent stare and answering, "Yes, we do." I knew he wouldn't get the joke. Seeking to chase this threesome away quickly, I simply said, "Yes."

"Well, very good." Pastor Griffin seemed relieved to be able to give me the last line. "On behalf of your brothers and sisters at Bethel, I wanted to give you a little gift." He passed me the New Testament. He mentioned times for Sunday school and the main service, and they left.

The opening prayer pulled me back to the present. I studied where I was, how it felt, what it meant to be here. In me were a tumble of conflicting feelings. I had been reading that little pocket testament off and on for a year. I occasionally attempted to sort out whether or not God would take me back. That brief moment of something-different-here excitement lay as a small pile of broken glass shards inside me. I was ready to sweep that away and move on, but walking down the hall looking for a door labeled "Young Adult Class," I realized that lost excitement bothered me. I found my class, and anger's heat steeped my feelings into a strong brew of resentment. Why do some pastors hide?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bridging the Narrative

The last four posts are intended to describe my context of lawlessness. When I decided a personal narrative illustrated both how I think things work best in the church and how I came to think such, I realized the topic of authority has more depth and breadth of meaning than simply how those of the ekklesia are governed. These first four posts glimpse my life before becoming part of a community of believers in Christ. For a context of the larger authority discussion, those lawless days needed a brief view.

Authority within groups of believers is the pre-quel of sorts to Jesus Christ, the living Truth reigning from His earthly throne over the hearts of all the redeemed of humanity at some point in the future. While the rebellion of man against God yet continues, so do our stories of living out Kingdom life as pockets of Jesus' authority on a planet populated by the rebellious. (I am not trying to raise a discussion of eschatology, just setting the parameters of meaning I intend to address. Though readers are invited, of course, to comment on any tangent topic any time.)

Like all of humanity, I am a lawless person. My coming under the authority of Jesus and growing up spiritually within a community of believers is next.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

When's Payday?

I retrieved my backpack from the luggage compartment of the bus. I had $65.00 left, but riding the bus had been a luxury I enjoyed. Three other passengers remained on the Greyhound destined for other parts west, but I hoped this small mountain town in North Carolina held a new beginning for me. Everything had gone wrong in my life. Badly. Though over two years in my past, a morning in 1977 when I had heard voices seducing me over the railing to an Atlanta interstate below by describing a personal introduction between me and a speeding eighteen-wheeler as a positive event, haunted me. I breathed daily pretending fear dogging me like a hungry, street mongrel wasn't there.

From the depot, I walked a block to Burger King, ordered a fish sandwich, and picked out a table facing the day's end. On this June, Thursday evening the BK was empty. I laid my remaining cash on the table by the steaming sandwich. I had never been so low on money and in a strange town with no job lined up. In all my drifting, I had never been this close to nothing.

Steam from the sandwich soon to be supper caught the last rays of the sun in delicate swirls. I have about that much substance, crossed my mind and a stillness took over. Contemplating what faced me was more than running out of money. The muffled noise of traffic faded. I tuned the world out again, a trance without meditation. Silence, the ease of quiet settled over me. I was familiar with moments like this: restful in a sense but unnerving. Always I faced an absence of ... of ... what to call this quiet hole? Self? Soul? My own thought broke the reverie: For the hundredth time: Who am I? I ignored the question because I couldn't answer it. I began eating the sandwich. Despite my emotions, I savored that sandwich. I hungered for fries or a soda or an apple fried pie or all three, but I needed the bit of cash to last until I had a job.

I chewed that last bite and fantasized a futuristic form of entertainment. Rather than watching a movie, you lived it. You paid your money and spent two hours feeling and thinking like the star with a script--a nightmare of someone else but good for a thrill. Only trouble for me was the theater never closed, and I was locked inside. Scripted lines never stopped. I was an act, rehearsed and ready, depending on the scene around me.

Trashing the paper from my meal like a good citizen, I shouldered the backpack containing what I owned at 23 years of age. I had sold first the car, then the motorcycle for cash to spend. I had given the ten speed away. For the last two years, I lived out of a portable closet. I headed for the university a BK employee told me was a mile or so down the road. Maybe I could charm my way into a dorm room for the night. As the day's light mellowed to soft glow, I found myself between the entrance sign of the university and a boarding house named The Beckonridge. (really!) The hair on the head of the lady answering the door had been gray for years.

"Yes, son?" she asked me.
"I noticed the rooms-for-rent sign. How much?"
"Come in. I have one available for one week. $25.00."

I never agreed. Her authoritative tone had done the deal. I entered the house and in a matter of minutes was watching TV with my landlady and her 55 year-old daughter. She invited me to church on Sunday.

"Sure," I said while thinking to myself, What does another hypocrite in church matter? Mrs. Hardin played a hymn on the piano after the television program, and I excused myself as being very tired before she started a second. Maybe by Sunday I will have a job, and that'll give me a reason not to go.

I turned off the overhead light which glared against the pea-green walls and lay back on the over-used mattress. After paying for the room, I had a little over thirty dollars. If a job didn't materialize in a week when this rented stay ran out, I'd have to move on to larger Asheville. Hunger pains from the too-soon digested fish sandwich gave me a second opinion of the situation. I could probably get some cash by ... all my ideas were illegal.

I had little money and no options: nobody to call, no dope or booze, nothing in the past to anchor against, and no plan for tomorrow. Mrs. Hardin on the other side of the sheet-rock wall waited to haul me off into Bible-belt religion, and all my ideas indicated life was over the edge farther than ever before. Considering how close the edge had been in Atlanta, that left me no more lines in the script. I sweated myself to sleep.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

No Authority but My Own

I remained in the denominational church for all my high school years and into college. I auditioned for and won a full one year's scholarship to study theater at a small, Methodist, junior college in North Georgia named Young Harris. One year of college paid for was accomplished! I worked over the following summer and saved enough for the fall quarter of my sophomore year. A man in my denomination and I became acquainted through the current pastor, Reverend Williams. This gentleman paid for my second quarter out of his pocket. I am grateful today, but Wow! I just realized I have no memory of ever writing him a thank you. I hope I did! My sophomore year was a struggle in a variety of ways.

It boiled down to frightening confusion over where was I headed with my life. I didn't know. A very large issue for me was whether or not I could remain a Christian. I struggled with whether or not Christianity was the answer. Two experiences guided me. One, I had a serious sexual sin problem that I never felt safe to expose to anyone except others who experienced it. Reverend Dunlovey and Reverend Williams both helped me, but I never framed their help beyond the paradigm of "they did their job." I liked the youth pastor, but something about that relationship never made me feel safe to be honest about who I "really" was.

Second, what was my moral obligation to God anyway? I had taken a course at school on comparative religion. We studied Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity. I determined there was a common thread in each, the Golden Rule. Chewed up by confusion, I cast my future into "whatever happens." I applied for and was hired for a summer job in Wyoming at Yellowstone National Park. The "whatever happens" had turned into a job offer across a continent and required dropping out of college at the end of my sophomore year, second quarter. I plunged deliberately into whatever.

For the next four and half years I drifted around the United States. I lived from one job to the next; I stayed with people randomly; I hitch-hiked and slept on the side of the road several times; I rented rooms or shared houses or apartments with friends and acquaintances. I was a law unto myself in New York, San Francisco, DC, rural Georgia, and Key West, Florida.

In Key West, during the last hour of daylight, the pier facing west morphed into a stage before an enormous ocean auditorium stretching past the wharf. The hot tropical sun was the only patron of an epic circus: clowns and jugglers and balloon sellers; people wanting to be made by people on the make; tan, hunky young men in rough clothes who worked the shrimp boats and those in designer duds who rarely worked, but both were drinkers with a Hemingway angst angering then eating their youth; rich and strong, beautiful, high-brow women, who were loose, lonely and despised by the men who feared to approach them and the dour women who envied them; children with a parent; people openly toking joints striving toward the next relaxed high; and the low folks with no brow at all plowing the gutter's wash. A huge family reunion of the varied types inhabiting the island, dancing their dance, with curious tourists watching from the wings both appalled and fascinated before the now orange and bulging sun.

The sun tired of the show, then silently slivered on the horizon's blue-steel edge abdicating the rule of day over to a waiting, lusty night. The rumbling tremor of the crowd carelessly rattled higher. As the last slip of sun hissed out, the colors of the ocean and sky abandoned normality for a momentary, frenzied abstract of the spectrum. Darkness reached claw-like from the east, and the people on the pier erupted into clapping whoop-cheers, the banging of drums, the kissing of lovers and the kicking of dogs. Night in Key West had begun.

In lawless Key West, I felt normal.

Denominational Church

I sat in one of the leather office chairs facing Reverend Dunlovey's desk. I took in the books floor to ceiling along one wall, carpeting, big oak desk, two sets of double windows which filled a corner of the office and opened the view down Fairburn Street, a maple-lined block in the middle of this small suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. The granite church building was forty years old in that year of 1971. It stands to this day. The stability here made me feel safe and substantial, feelings that were not very common for me. He sat behind the desk listening to the fifteen year old asking to become a member of the church. I had been attending services and active in the youth group for a year.

We discussed briefly the tenets of the Christian faith on which my decision turned. We marked the Sunday, a month away, when there would be room in the order of worship for me to be accepted in membership of the church and baptized in the name of Jesus. Pastor Dunlovey pulled a book from a drawer and asked me to be reading it. It was the Book of Discipline for his, no our!, denomination. So I was introduced to the many schisms in the Christian faith, though I was oblivious. The other churches were just other churches, nothing particularly special about that. I chose Fairburn Methodist because friends I had from school went here.