My Brush with Church
My mother kept me strictly away from all things religious. So except for a few weddings and funerals, I had hardly ever been inside of a church. Then one day Libby went to Bible School.
Libby was our baby, ten years old, the last of our line. And Libby went to Bible School because Jessie went to Bible School, and he begged Libby to come because they'd been best buddies since they were in diapers, and it was going to be boring without her.
Why was Jessie going to Bible School? you might ask. As I did.
"Carla wants him to," my wife told me. "It's DeWayne's church." DeWayne - Carla's boyfriend. The one with the squinty eyes that were always fixed on boobs. The one who stole $400 from her. The one who grabs the last hot dog before the kids get it. Anyway, I found it believable that DeWayne was a churchgoer. He might conceivably have some things to talk to God about.
So Libby wants to go to Bible School with Jessie. OK. How bad could it be? I should have known. Or asked my mother.
Well, Libby went with Jessie on Monday, Day One, and came home with the verdict that it was "B.O.R.I.N.G.", and she was not going back. Jessie begged her every day, but Libby held firm. Until Friday. Maybe she loved him; maybe she missed him; maybe she was crazy. But she went back to Bible School with him on Friday. And not only was it B.O.R.I.N.G., but she hands me a summons* to attend the Bible School Grand Finale on Sunday afternoon.
My sweet wife took one look at it and said, "You can do it."
"Oh, c'mon, you gotta go with me!"
"No. You can do it."
"Cause I had eight babies, that's why! And I have to do all this kind of stuff alone when you're out of town! And you're not out of town; you are right here. So you're going, and I'm not!"
"Oh c'mon, you're acting like a baby!"
"Look. It won't be so bad.** You'll go with Carla, and she'll show you what to do."
"Do I have to wear a tie?"
"Yes! And a suitcoat! And shoes!"
So Sunday morning rolls around. Jessie's at our house, because Carla's at work. She's got one of those damn hospital jobs with responsibilities. So sure enough, she calls to say she's so sorry but she's stuck at work, and I'll have to take the kids to church by 1:00 because they have to rehearse or something, and she will try to make it there by the time it starts at 2:00.
I get them to the damn church on time, and hide in my car for an hour. The only person I know is DeWayne, and he's busy standing by the door checking boobs as they walk in.
So I sit in a pew by myself and start looking around at the stained-glass art. After a while a friendly gent slides in next to me and starts up a little conversation.
"You have a child in the class?"
"Yeah. You too?"
"Of course. My son's up there."
"So's my daughter."
"So here we are. A dad's gotta do what a dad's gotta do, right?"
He's about my age; we both have kids up there; we both have beards. But his is neatly trimmed, and he looks like he's used to wearing a suit. I don't. I always look like a raggedy hippie, even in a coat and tie. I have long crazy curly hair and a scraggly beard, and in fact I happen to have an uncanny resemblance to the classic Jesus Christ. Not the big blond version, but the classic Jewish hippie one.
So I'm trying to make small talk with this Christian earthling. We do the weather and our children's ages. Then I remember something from the morning newspaper. The biggest mall yet is opening today in West Des Moines. This is front-page, banner-headline news here in Iowa.
"So did you hear about that big new mall by Des Moines?" I ask.
"Yep. Supposed to be even bigger than the Coral Ridge Mall."
"Yeah. Can you believe that people would actually drive 120 miles, past several big malls, just to go to an even bigger mall?"
"I know what you mean," he says. "But then I'm sure the day will come when my wife will want to go shopping there. And me being the good husband that I am***, I'll just have to take her. But us guys don't mind taking the wives shopping, as long as there's a big sports store where we can hang out. Am I right?"
"Uh, sure." I know nothing about sports. Nor would I want to.
"Like that big mall in Dubuque," he goes on, "you know the one I mean."
"Uh, sure." I've been to Dubuque often. Never noticed the mall.
"You know that big mall. My wife makes me take her there sometimes. They've got that great big sports store there - Kabala Sports!" (I've since learned that the name is "Cabela", like maybe an Italian name. But I swear he said "Kabala", like the Hebrew - Kabala.)
"You mean there's actually a sports store named Kabala Sports?!" I'm trying to wrap my head around the concept of an orthodox Jewish sports store in Catholic Dubuque.
"Yeah. It's called Kabala Sports. What's wrong with that?"
"Well, uh, I don't know. I just thought that something named 'Kabala' would be, uh, something else. Not sports."
He looked at me quizzically, and then a light went on in his head, and I could clearly see the letters "J.E.W." light up in his cerebral cortex. The conversation stopped. He didn't know what to say. Neither did I. Then after a very long minute, he suddenly said without looking at me, "Hey I gotta go talk to these people over there." And he skittered away like a roach from a lightbulb.
So there I sat alone in my pew, even lonelier than before. I had tried to make contact with the natives, but had frightened them away.
Finally the preacher came in. Where did they find him? He was a classic, like a bad movie preacher. He even had a southern accent, which you don't hear much around these here parts.
First off, he has everyone rise for The Pledge Of Allegiance. Now, I stand out of respect, but I take the words from my mouth quite seriously. I simply cannot put my hand over my heart and vow to defend a piece of cloth with my life. I'll stand up and respect your insanity, but otherwise leave me out of it. Then right after that, they do a pledge to the Christian flag! Oh my God!! I didn't even know there was such a thing! But there it is, a white flag with a green cross on it, up there on the podium right next to the old red, white, and blue! So by the time they finish THAT pledge, surely everyone in the room has noticed that the Christ-Killer Jesus-Look-Alike is standing silently with his hands at his sides. It would be especially hard not to notice, because although the church is crowded, there is no one within twenty feet of me, like maybe I'm wearing dogshit deodorant or something.
Next up, they pass the plate. These people get right down to business! But the plate bypasses me, as though they are afraid that I would take money out of it or something. Which I hadn't even thought of.****
So I'd been in church maybe fifteen minutes, and I'd been ostracized three times already. Or was it four?
Then the preacher began preaching. I tried to make sense of what he said, but the longer he preached, the more I felt like a space alien. Ever been to a party where everyone was tripping except you? It was like that.
The theme of the week was The Kingdom Of Heaven, I suppose, because the stage set was a cardboard castle, and all the kids were wearing either crowns or halos. Royalty, angels, what's the diff?
All the songs were bastardized children's standards. Next to this stuff, Barney sounds like Beethoven. I jotted down the words to one song:
"God is my King
I bow to my King
He gave me two hands
To obey his demands
He demands that I sing
That God is my King"
While I was still trying to make some sense out of this, they launched into something called "The Obedience Song". I don't remember the words, but that title was burned into my brain.
Then the preacher gave the kids a little talk about how they should always obey the law, and the church's laws, and their parents' laws. Then he told a story about a brave Christian who disobeyed the law and followed Jesus and God loved him.
Did anyone else think this was odd? I looked around. Everyone was looking at me. Apparently I was the only thing they thought was odd.
After another brain-jangling song, we were in for a "special treat", a missionary from Mongolia! An earnest young lady got up and spoke of the plight of the Mongolian mission. Twenty million souls to save and only twelve missionaries from the True Church Of Christ, and we have to work fast, because other missionaries from the False Church Of Christ were already on it, so won't you sweet children please consider giving up your late teens and early adulthood to become missionaries for the only True Church Of Christ, before all those poor Mongolians were ruined by the False Church Of Christ, thank you, God Bless.
While these thoughts are still ping-ponging around my alien brain, the door slams open and a tall young man wearing a crown and a cape and two differently-colored shoes strides in and announces: "I am King Dumbledorf!" All the kids scream with laughter; this is what they've been waiting for! King Dumbledorf is funny because he's wearing two different shoes, and he has a funny name. So he yells, "I am King Dumbledorf!" three more times as he makes his way to the front. The kids laugh each time, they are so starved for entertainment. Then the door slams open again, and another young man in a crown and a cape falls through the door, get up, falls down, gets up, falls down. "Ah, It's Prince Tripsalot!!" announces King Dumbledorf. Prince Tripsalot is funny because......oh you already guessed it. So he falls down several more times on his way to the front, each time inspiring howls of laughter. When he finally gets to the front, he stands before the king and pulls a Bible from under his cape.
"King Dumbledorf," he announces, "I bring you The Word Of God!"
Then they bowed, and everyone clapped. That was it! That was the play!! My frontal lobe goes into a tailspin, and I'm just about to scream with irony, when a huge fart joined the cacophony of applause and laughter. Someone had been saving this bomb, and let her rip when they thought there would be the greatest noise cover.
Everyone looked at me, naturally, and I thought, "What would Jesus do?" So I stood, took a modest bow, and quickly exited the church. There was Carla, on her way in! I was so glad to see her, I gave her a big old hug!
"Oh God, it's over!" she exclaimed. "I missed the whole thing!"
"That's OK," I said, "you didn't miss much."
*they called it an invitation
**yes it will
***this he had to tell me?