Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
My father was, for all intents and purposes, a religious skeptic. He’d been raised by the unlikeliest of parents, a true believer for a mother, and an agnostic father. The whole of his life, he’d felt pulled in two directions, but he still attended church regularly. This was, after all, small town Alabama in the 1950’s.
In keeping with rural southern colloquialisms, my two sisters and I called my father’s mother “Granny”. Granny Camp was a usually sweet and maternal woman, but she also dealt with frequent bouts of debilitating chronic illness. The youngest of four, her medical problems were severe and arrived in waves, starting from birth. In all seriousness, at least one of her sisters put forth the notion that it might have been all for the better had Florence not even been born. No one disagreed.
Her minister father was Pentecostal, one step down from handling snakes. The congregation did, however, speak in tongues and believe wholeheartedly in faith healing. It was the latter that consumed my Grandmother the most. Her only son was transported with her from church to church, week in and week out. She believed that, with time, eventually someone could channel the Holy Spirit with enough authenticity and power to remove her suffering forever. No one ever could.
Dad’s suspicion of organized religion began early. In the summertime, during revival, he’d spend many a dull, humid weekend underneath a tent. The large, covered space lacked air conditioning, so women kept themselves cool with large, palm-shaped fans, usually bearing the name of a local bank. A procession of speakers and hymns followed one after the other. Dad usually couldn’t wait for the whole thing to be over.
Seeking the restroom, Dad spied something that would forever influence his understanding and tolerance of organized religion. Three or four men who had played pious up on stage had retired to a quiet corner away from the audience. They were telling dirty jokes amongst themselves, using the sort of foul language that contradicted everything my father had ever been told. While I’m sure the interminable service tested his patience and belief already, this dose of hypocrisy left an indelible mark.
By the time I came around, the South had changed, but showing up in the pews every Sunday was still simply something one did, without really even questioning why. My upbringing was liberal Methodist. Hell was merely an abstraction, one never confronted. Had anyone risen to his or her feet and let forth a polysyllabic procession of foreign sounds, the whole congregation would have been shocked into silence. Healing was a case for doctors and specialists, not ministers.
To put it a certain way, this regarding houses of worship, we moved around a lot. I saw my father grow regularly disgusted with churches and church leadership. We probably changed churches five times before I graduated from high school. I wonder what it would have been like had we arrived and set down solid roots. Would I be a different person now? Instead I was a religious refugee of a sort, the kind of peripatetic existence that I followed for years in my adult life.
Dad would always raise salient points, but I think sometimes he had very high standards. Given the opportunity, he would grill the minister like a defense attorney cross-examining a witness on the stand. In a Quaker context, we might consider that speaking Truth to power. After Dad had enough, we'd be off to some new destination. After a couple years or so, the process would repeat itself once more.
I've tried to keep his example in mind when I get frustrated with my Meeting. Like my father, I have the basic personality and active impatience of a reformer. I live in the shadow of his past decisions, for better or for worse. At times, I can be skeptical to a fault. Meetings thrive when people do not feel the need to hold themselves back, guardedly. In the oldest of old clichés, we’re all in this together.
In her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, author Elyn R. Saks discusses a truism for each of our lives.
“Most of us figure out, as we grow up, that we will ultimately belong to (or struggle with) two families: the one we’re born into and the one we make.”
Which one is ours? What is our struggle?