Sunday, 30 September 2012

It's Been a While

Note to Brethren People: I am not seeking to ridicule you.  I am trying to like you.

It's been a while since I took a walk down into the valley of dry bones.  Did that today.
   My father is of the opinion that Sunday morning church is the most private of things, and that one shouldn't bring any friends, or tell anyone what happened, or talk about it with "outsiders."   This is why, he says, that closed halls do not "announce" or "advertise" any Sunday services on their signs.  Outsiders aren't to come.  I do not agree.
   We spoke about how the Raven/Taylor Exclusives have no windows on their meeting rooms, and lock everyone out, and have a gate and security guys to "bounce" would be onlookers.  My Dad said I could come, but asked me to not video, take pictures, tape record, or in any way discuss what I saw at Breaking of Bread Sunday morning on Facebook.  I told him to "trust me."  And, in that spirit, I have tried to be nice, at which thing I do not often excel. Not only would he not want me blogging, he wouldn't want me admitting I went, or telling anyone about it, on Facebook or in person.  I do not agree to any of that, but I will try to be fair and kind.  I made no promise.
  Got up, drove to my parents' house with two bags of old Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and such books for my niece, who's getting into those. The books were the donation of a girl in my creative writing class who'd inherited them herself. I hugged my niece (eight) and patted my nephew (five) on the shoulder, as his father held him, because he's suffering from a cold/flu this weekend.  Schools are great places for your body to learn to deal with germs.
  Saw my parents all dressed up, borrowed a hymn book and drove in their car to the affluent homes built along the river.  Leisure boats everywhere and cottages and docks getting shut down for winter, and low-hanging autumn trees with flaming foliage.  Very idyllic.
  Filed into the nice house with the old people and took my place in the back of the living room in one of the two chairs reserved for "outsiders."  I sat beside Gerald, who I have sat beside in installments since 1980.  I first sat in the "non-members" area of my church with him when I was ten and he was in his forties, but then I asked to be a member at twelve and got to go sit at the front.  Then, once I was kicked out for satire in 1998, I was back sitting with Gerald again.  Gerald was delighted to see me and said so and gave my arm a couple of random squeezes afterward to show me this.  Gerald's not big on words. His wife is a member, and he's never asked to be one, so despite the passing decades, and the venue getting changed from a hall to a living room due to splits caused by acrimonious infighting, he's always there, silently sitting in the back.

  Forgot exactly what it's like.  Pleasure boats outside the windows and aforementioned autumn trees everywhere  Immaculately appointed elderly-people-style living room with ornate couches and love seats arranged in a big square with a table at one end.  It has a money basket, which may have been for buns in a previous incarnation, a tiny, long-stemmed glass of wine and the tiniest "loaf" of bread I've ever seen, which would have been about the right size for a hotdog to slide into and feel comfortable.  Oh how the loaf has shrank!  Gerald and I get the fancy dining room chairs with embroidered padded seats and wooden backs.  Clock ticking, breathing sounds, sniffing, shoes squeaking and occasional digestion noises of the elderly. My special Brethren Meeting Face of Stone descends upon my usually already fairly blank demeanor.  I can feel the muscles of my face lock into place to show reverence by showing nothing.  No sudden movements.  Breathe shallowly.
  Five couples, all seniors (bald head, tam, bald head, tam, bald head, tam, bald head, tam, bald head, tam), then one senior widow and also one widower who isn't even a senior quite yet.  An organ and a piano in the room, both with music books for the hymns on them, but neither of which will be played during the service, because that's a bad thing to do.  Brethren people praise with their hearts, without the aid of technology.  An embroidered text on the wall listing the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, longsuffering(ness), gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance).  In the Standard English Translation, they are listed as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." They are in a list, so "love" is at the top.  
  I wonder if love is kind of like the "gateway" fruit of the spirit, and if you mess that one up in word or treatment of others, you can pretty much forget about any of the others springing up in you anytime soon, and, according to Paul, you need to stop calling yourself a Christian at all, let alone a Christian group which puts that up on the wall. It kinda hangs there, condemning you until you are willing to make some kind of change...
  Everyone's very nice.  I'm never going to be allowed to be a member again, though.  Not ever.  The party line is that they need to judge problematic behaviour.  I think it is obvious that they alienate and ostracize entire personality types. 
  But most of the people there aren't "they."  They wish "they" acted differently, but "they" don't, and what can they do about "them"?  It's always been like that. "They're" psycho judgiebeasts.
  There is a younger person even than my mom there now.  He's a widower.  My mom had been the youngest person there for quite a while, while he was out of country for a few years, but he's back, adding youthful energy to the room.  She's 69.  He's in his mid-50s.  He has to "start" all the hymns, as the aforementioned piano and organ aren't going to be used.  He sings like a 40s or 50s crooner, and can hit quite high notes.  He sings relatively full-on, though he's holding back a bit (for him). Everyone else kinda mumbles the hymns.  They're pretty old, after all.  All the songs are familiar.  Right from the moment one of the three men calls "Let us sing hymn number fifty-three," I'm thinking "Oh yeah!  I forgot about fifty-three!  So familiar.  Good old fifty-three.  Hardly a Sunday goes by without singing number fifty-three.  Now, which one was it again?  Yup!  That's it alright!"  I forgot how many exclamation points most of the hymns seem to have.  I forgot about rhyming "blood" with "good."  I forgot about moving verbs confusingly to ends of lines to use their rhymes.
  I reflect, as I often have, that although I'm not allowed to take a piece of the torn-open bread which represents all believing Christians/the shattered body of God As Man, nor a sip of the wine which represents blood/joy, nor to suggest a hymn or otherwise vocally help out, that I can sure sing all I want to.  I'm supposed to.  I try not to sing louder than everyone else, but it's hard.  I was just singing "She's Not There" by The Zombies at band practice not twelve hours previous.  And "Paint it Black."  I just match my voice to the man starting the hymns and then scale back a little bit, but try not to mumble or drone either.
  The service is mostly silence.  I forgot things like, no matter how old any of us are, any time a man suggests a bible passage to read, once he's said chapter and verse place, everyone's found it easily in under five seconds.  I can still do that, too, though I'm not even using my own bible and this one's got a kink in the pages.  Isaiah 52.  1 Peter 2: 21.  Bam.  Got it.
  I find that when my father or the other man keeps us waiting in suspense as to which chapter of 1 Peter or Isaiah or whatever that they'll be reading, that we all know which one anyway.  "Let us turn to the book of Isaiah" my dad says, and we all turn to Isaiah 52/53 without being told.  "Let us look at first Peter..." the other man says, and we all turn to 1 Peter 2:21.  In theory, there is no minister and so the men are being directed/led/inspired by the Holy Spirit of God as to exactly what gets said, read, prayed and sung.  But we all know it like a familiar bedtime story, so we can see it coming a mile off.  There's no fooling us.  When the men stand up and pray, in the pauses all the coming words murmur themselves to us before they reach the man's voice.  
  Apart from the man "starting" the hymns (he suggests one hymn hymnself), only one other man besides my father contributes scripture verses, hymns and prayers.  Everyone else is silent and immobile.  The man of the house sits in a place of honour, in an easy chair beside the table/fireplace. He doesn't speak or move. He is the only one there who does not greet me or look at me, neither before or afterward.  I am glad that his younger son isn't there.  He sometimes is.  I told him years ago that he should stop abusing his wife and he's never forgiven me.  It would be awkward to see him.  He's got a new woman now. He always does.  She's a teacher. I was kicked out for being a bad influence on him due to what I wrote, though he was the one with the daily hash habit, not me.  [When I go to Google to steal an image of the water and the bridge by the house where the service took place, in order to decorate the top of this blog entry, I find quite oddly that the very young man in question has uploaded this image to the Internet.  Looks to be taken from the dock behind the place where we met this morning. I use it on this blog entry anyway. I hope he never reads this.  I hope he goes on about his crazy life and finds peace and stays on his meds and treats this teacher well.]
  I reflect about the fact that, my father's repeated advice as to Sunday worship (and Christianity in general) is to "just never mind" any of the other people (they don't matter, only God does), and "just make it about" you and God.  I reflect how everyone tries this, but the system is such that one can't but look over one's shoulder as one lives one's life, knowing one is being watched and found wanting by "them," by people in positions of power, at all times.  You can't but keep looking over your shoulder like that.  Your reputation will certainly be eroded until you lose membership unless you work hard to always maintain it.  That's how it works.  I have no membership, so in theory no status or reputation to lose.  In many ways, this is liberating.  
  Everyone's nice.  Except "them."  You can tell who the jerks are in any group by the fact that they want to run things.  No one else seems to.  And people who demand to run things too, but somehow aren't big enough jerks are quickly knocked aside jerkishly by the actual jerks, and they go run things somewhere else, where the standards for jerkishness are perhaps lower, and they can have a hope of keeping up. 
  Years ago, when I was seeing the spirit/attitude of the hypocritical "all for show/competitive piety" Pharisees at work in those groups, someone told me "watch for the spirit of Jezebel there, too."  No one was even wearing much makeup, but when I reflected upon it, I realized that Jezebel was also a woman who, when she wanted power over something (like real estate), she got the person killed if he didn't let her take what she wanted.  And then I started to see that everywhere.  Every division/split that "we" have ever had has been a story of rampant betrayal, backstabbing, lying, character assassination and double-dealing.  And yet most people (the people not running things) aren't like that.  But "they" are, and "they" run everything and make all the decisions.  The most merciless and the most easily offended wins.  And it's like that everywhere in the world, in all walks of life.  Plato wrote that the action of lusting for power ought to disqualify a person from being trusted with it (my wording). I agree. Especially once I've worded it how I like.
  When the man who isn't my father prays over the wine and mini-loaf of bread, he makes a point of reminding us as he prays to God that, when we look at this loaf, it represents all Christians.  He means I'm in there too.  His voice shows he's including me. How nice of him.  That's really good.  I'm never again going to be allowed to join them in "partaking" of it, but still.  Nice.
  Then, after we've sung a more uplifting hymn to end the service on a high note, we wait for the closing prayer.  My father finishes up by standing and praying.  The other two have been using their indoor voices, but my father throughout the service has had his full-on gym teaching voice going. It comes back at us from across the spacious house, which is as nice as the one on The Sopranos and kinda looks like it.  I wonder if there is any fresh prosciutto in the fridge.  Some gabagool at least? My dad also obliquely refers to me/makes me feel included, by telling our God that right now we are thinking, not just of Christians in fellowship here, but of all Christians.  "All Christians in the universe," he says, casting the net ludicrously wide so I can't but feel included in that.  Again, nice.  "We like you.  Sorry about being required to shun you and all."
  And then it is over and everyone can talk.  A little huddle of men forms.  Gerald and I, and two other guys.  The one who starts the hymns, and the one who isn't my father.  It turns out that the one who starts the hymns' daughter is teaching at the other high school in the town where I teach.  The Catholic one.  I didn't know that.  The son of the man who isn't my father is also teaching, but out west. I didn't know that either.  Everyone repeatedly tells me how good it is to see me and I tell them how good it is to see them.  And it is.  This is my birth culture.  A lot of people squeeze my arm or shake my hand, though technically, once someone is cast out of membership, "delivered unto Satan for destruction of the flesh" as a wicked/evil person, they aren't supposed to eat with me, nor shake my hand.  They're supposed to cut me out of their lives until I am repentant, and then bring me back in.  Our group doesn't do that.  It usually still shakes your hand, but it generally never lets anyone back in, except for sexual sins.  I haven't committed a sexual sin, so I've been "out" for fifteen years.
  I have always found that instead, they live out this scripture by not letting people like me attend or eat at church social functions (if there was a special church lunch today, I'd have had to leave right afterward so as not to eat with them), but they will eat with me any other time, and will shake my hand almost anytime. 
  The "repentance" thing is interesting.  If anyone wants to know why I can't break bread, "they" will be quick to tell anyone who asks that it is because I am unrepentant. They term it: "he has not shown sufficient fruits of repentance."  (note: they are judging me to be still unrepentant at this time.)  But when I offered recently to meet with one of "them" so he could judge if I was, as he's been telling absolutely everyone, actually still unrepentant, as we haven't spoken in fifteen years for him to make this judgement, he said that I was "out", and quoted a scripture about how "we" do not "judge them that are without."  Tidy.  Catch 22. Verse 16.
  It takes a special sort of Brethren person to actually refuse to shake my hand.  They pretty much will all shake it.  Our group is old-school, so when people meet one another, shaking everybody's hand is a greeting we always do.  One guy I grew up with will still refuse to do that.  I used to hang out with his older brother.  I offered him my foot one time at church when he'd ignored my hand.  He gave me a pleading look, which said "Please don't make me look ridiculous. You know I can't shake your hand and demonstrate disapproval of you at the same time" while he continued making small talk with me just like all that wasn't happening.  
  The other hand-spurner is the very doctor who delivered me from my mother's womb by cesarean section.  He travels all around the world telling them about Jesus and being a Christian and loving everyone.  The hand which drew me from the cradle of life actually refused to shake my hand at the funeral of my friend who'd shot himself through the head.  The man was there to speak at the funeral and comfort us and so on. (This is hard not to take personally.)   He also refused to eat at the "do" after the funeral, because I and others like me were there to grieve for our lost friend.  He also requested that I not be invited to my best friend/his niece's wedding to my other best friend.  I went anyway.  He didn't eat there either. Again, tempting to take that personally, but it's really just about him maintaining his superChristian, loving image.  When his own son got married and invited me to his wedding, he, as father of the groom, was trapped in a line expressly for handshaking.  I lined up, interested to see if he'd spurn my hand in front of all of these witnesses.  Would make him look pretty bad, I thought.  He didn't have the jam.  But that was a special occasion. I hope he does read this.  And I hope we talk about it sometime.  It's not cool.
  Anything not covered by the shunning and the judgment of  "not sufficiently repentant/'broken in spirit' yet" can be covered simply by calling me bitter.  "Well, yes, but he's so bitter."  There really isn't a single natural emotional response to being shunned by one's birth culture, and by the doctor who pulled you from your mother's body that isn't going to be called "bitter", thus neatly invalidating your right to have an opinion or perspective entirely.  "Do you love church?  Are you happy?  Not really?  That's because you're bitter.  Get over that."
  But today, apart from the man whose house it is, whose hash-smoking, wife-abusing son I will never be forgiven for contributing to the moral decline of whom, by writing a jokey parody of a Sunday School pamphlet about Jehovah (and thereby 'making light of the things of the Lord, and as a BLASPHEMER' (hail of stones from women wearing false beards) etc.) every single other person warmly squeezes my hand and absolutely could not be nicer. Their eyes say a lot too.  We leave the man's house at full old person speed.
  Outside, my father is in the car, with it running and turned around, eager to escape the confines of a room full of ten people. He's agoraphobic, but doesn't know that word.  Mom and I get in and he slowly, impatiently drives his car right up behind the old people slowmarching across the lane to their own cars, instead of letting them clear the way before he drives up behind them.  He does not honk his horn, though he really wants to.  He knows someone might instantly keel over dead from the shock.  
  Finally, canes are stowed and arthritic legs are on board, out of the laneway, and we can drive, slowly, past them and off home where a roast beef with potatoes, gravy and carrots has been steeping in the oven all the while and a tortoiseshell cat will want to cadge table scraps.