God, Church and Construction Sites
Any Sunday, 1966 – Sunday was a day of paradoxes growing up in a house of four boys ruled by a father we affectionately referred to as “Colonel Kurtz”. My mother was a very spiritual person and found herself closest to God while lying in bed one day a week, with all five men out of the house at church. It fell to my father every Sunday morning to dress four boys and shuttle us to the local congregational church. The routine was a black comedy of ironies as my father would rush chaotically from room to room, tying double Windsor knots that in the old west could have been used to lynch cattle rustlers. He would swear, yell, and comb down cow licks with spit. We would then race to “our” church which was over ten miles away in an adjacent town. By the time we reached our destination, Dad would be relaxed and acting “ Christian “ while we would look like shell shocked soldiers returning from two weeks in the bush.
You see the church that we used to attend – – that friendly Presbyterian Church that was literally two blocks from our home where all our friends attended, had been taken over by “pinkos”. We were not really sure what “pinkos” were. We surmised there must have been a hygiene problem and everyone was getting conjunctivitis, a common condition we often exchanged at home. My older brother Miles explained that a “Pinko” was a “Communist “. This perplexed me. We saw no Cubans at the coffee table. No toasts were ever concluded with “dasvidnaya” and a smashed glass.
In looking back now on that fateful day, my brothers and I theorize that the annual stewardship sermon perhaps edged too stridently close to the notion of income redistribution and it sent my father into political apoplexy. That night, he declared we were going to “try” a new church the following week. That “try “turned into a ten year hiatus from our beloved sanctuary, friends and as a result, any desire to attend church.
Sundays always confused me. There was tension, swearing, tears and then a worship service that was the equivalent of watching paint dry. We refused to attend Sunday school as we knew none of the children from this new town. I would endure the sermon by doodling on offering envelopes and drawing football plays on the limited white space of the worship program. My tight shirt collar, hand me down blue blazer and loafers that could give blisters within ten steps, were the uniform of a religious slave. I hated it.
The values espoused in our new church – – worship, tolerance, compassion, empathy and service to others seemed so incongruous with the Bataan Death March experience we endured each week. As if to inflict a final unintended indignity, our drive home from church would invariably take us past a construction site where my father would surreptitiously pull the car to a stop and point to a pile of wood and debris. My father loved to have fires in the fireplace, a rare treat in LA where temperatures rarely dipped below 60 degrees. He would pathologically collect “discarded” two by fours at construction sites extolling their virtues as perfect kindling. He would then order each son to wiggle through a chain link fence like a Vietnam soldier and gather up an arm of “discarded” wood and rush back to the car before a junk yard dog or passing security guard might chase us for liberating the wood.
Any Sunday, 2006 – I now awaken each Sunday to a quiet house of people pretending to be asleep – one eye on the clock and one ear to the ground. As a new age Dad, there is less yelling and infinitely more negotiation. The Windsor knots are replaced by wrinkled button downs, khaki slacks and Merrills. Yet, the same moaning and reluctance returns as my possums are exposed. The half-hearted grousing about being tired, sick or not feeling spiritual. I smile. Their resistance is weak and a charming memory.
The reality is they need a church community and the church community needs them. They are the next generation of members who will form the nucleus of the lay ministry that serves the church membership and our community. I realize it starts with my resolve which on a cold day or after a late night out, wanes. But if I want my family to develop skills to cope in a world that seems so unwilling to reward character over charisma, they will need some spiritual grounding and it’s up to my wife and I to ensure this happens.
The key was finding a church home that felt right. It starts with clergy whose views best track with your own views of the world. As descendents of Huguenots who fled Europe to avoid the demands of a church that sought to control all aspects of their lives, we sought out a church that offered a community of people that sought to understand before being understood. Our pastor, Gary Wilburn, preaches tolerance, inclusion and responsibility to be a peacemaker. He avoids the harder edges of a more orthodox theology that can sometimes judge, exclude or seek to proselytize those who do not exactly blend into a singular view. My Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Islamic and Hindi friends all have found similar experiences at churches and synagogues as they sought a community that helped them form a healthier spiritual balance in life.
They say “Comedy is Tragedy plus Time” and in many ways, I can now laugh about my Heart of Darkness Sunday experience and the fact that after all that, the path through the jungle led me back to a community of God. 1966 was a different time and place. Yet, the need to serve a greater purpose than one’s self and to yield to a grander plan of a higher power stirs within all of us and has throughout time. In a town with seventeen churches, it seems like there has to be something for everyone. The key is getting everyone out of bed and getting involved in service.
One word of advice — God is generally not found in construction site woodpiles, especially on Sunday.