Church attendance on Sunday mornings was non-negotiable when I was growing up. When you lived in Iowa, you went to church. And so it was that every Sunday, and sometimes even on Wednesday nights, my mom, brother, sister, grandmother and I dutifully attended services. My dad never went, having found a loophole in the system, but he probably felt assured that his children were hearing some good old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone lectures on the evils of…well, pretty much everything.
The church we attended was fundamentalist and therefore did not condone instrumental music or dancing. (Talk about the most effective way to alienate a teenager.) In fact, virtually none of the beliefs of our church were appealing to the average teenager, and so as my two siblings and I entered our teens, we became more and more resistant to hearing the Gospel.
Being the oldest, I felt too responsible to actually stop going, but when my brother got a little older, he finally became exempt from mandatory attendance. My sister and I were appalled at this blatant unfairness, but he was 6’1″ and physically impossible to wrangle into the car for the 45-minute drive to our remote country church. There was a period of time when he stoically went with us, out of respect for my mother. But having been out very late the night before, he was quite the sorry picture on Sunday mornings: bloodshot eyes, hickeys on his neck and the faintest aroma of stale alcohol wafting from his body. (Not to worry — he is now a loving father, successful engineer and all around great guy.) At any rate, my mother finally gave up on being able to rouse him from his Sunday morning comas. At that point, I think she decided to cut her losses and focus her attention on the two remaining children who still had a shot at eternal salvation: my sister, Wendy, and me.
While sitting in the congregation, our eyes locked on the preacher and nodding in agreement, Wendy and I presented a united front and appeared to be alert and on board. Yes, alcohol was sinful. And dancing? The work of the devil, absolutely. The reality, however, was that this was torture for us. Oh, the singing and the initial announcements were fine. But the sermons were interminable. The “men-are-the-heads-of-the-household speeches” and the righteous indignation wore pretty thin, even to my mother. And what hypocrites we were! We had always gone to dances and parties and participated in all of the usual teenage coming-of-age rituals. If we were to believe the church’s message, we were basically just biding our time until death and the ensuing, inevitable fall into the eternal fires of hell. What was the point?
The phrase “eternity in hell” caused me many worrisome nights as a child. I just knew that I had committed several sins that qualified me for long-term residence in this torturous den of punishment. And while I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the word “eternity”, I knew that spending it being burnt to a crisp was not something that appealed to me. Worse still, since my dad didn’t even attend church, I presumed that he would be right there with me. At least I’d be with family.
When I was 12, I was baptized and thought for sure that I could cross eternal damnation off my list of things to worry about. In our church, baptism consisted of being dunked in a baptismal tank behind the preacher’s pulpit. I remember the solemn ceremony well and I respect it to this day: putting on a white robe, hearing the splash of the cold water as I descended into the tank, the preacher gently lowering me into the water and bringing me back up. Then, regaining my footing, gagging a little from the chlorinated water that shot up my nose, and seeing my mother crying, joyful and relieved that I was “saved.” It was to be the first of several times that she cried with joy over something I had achieved, big or small, and it was a moving experience for both of us. I felt tiny, and yet empowered at the same time as she held my face in her hands and kissed me, tears in her eyes. In her face I saw that she loved me, period. This ceremony was simply an insurance policy for her that I would be a good person and wind up in the right place at the end of my journey.
I had very good intentions at that particular moment. Baptism gave everyone a clean slate, similar to a “get out of jail free” card. I thought, okay, at this point I’m sinless. I just have to keep it up, and I’ll be on the express train to the pearly gates. That lasted 2 days. I don’t remember what my sin was, but I remember thinking, well, that’s that. I gave it a shot.
Out of curiosity, I counted my sins for a while, but they soon got away from me. I thought if God was as forgiving as they say, I was still good. My parents had been very skillful in teaching all of us self-love, so I didn’t lose too much sleep over it. In the meantime, I would go to church and listen to the sermons, regardless of how I felt about some of the content. I owed my mother that much.
To keep each other entertained, my sister and I would pass notes to each other. I remember one particularly skillful rendition that Wendy did of the back of a bald man’s head who was sitting in front of us. His ears stood out at 90 degree angles, so from the back it looked as if his bald head was about to take flight. The imagery was too much and we were soon unable to contain ourselves. My mother looked irritated, but when she saw the drawing she began to laugh as well. Comic relief was a necessary evil.
When services were over, everyone greeted each other and chatted about their week and upcoming events. I have to say, some of the nicest, most genuine people I have ever known attended that church. This only made my sister’s guilt and my own even worse. Wendy had undoubtedly done something the night before that God would frown upon, and I was more than likely daydreaming about my boyfriend and when we would next be able to grope each other. Yes, we were quite the paragons of virtue.
Today, my siblings and I are happy, productive people, and who knows how much of that is due to attending church regularly in our formative years. More likely, it’s the result of coming from a loving, supportive family. Or both. We’ll never know.