Amazing. In spite of a lengthy, intense and earnest Facebook dialogue about Christianity with some Friends, there will be those who think that I am some kind of minion of Satan’s for, in an attempt to defend my position, “merely” quoting Jesus’ words. Good Grief. Does the semantic maelstrom ever lift? The attempt was to offer measured, systematic responses within a dialogue on the subject raised.
My grandmother, the closest to a human saint I will ever know, was notably fond of responding to most entreaties by “merely” quoting Jesus’ words. The fact that my dear friend Patty’s husband, Mike, wasn’t sure he was having a discussion with a Christian could be taken in so many ways, one of them in offense, but I won’t even go there; rather, herewith my only defense, commonly called: The Testimony.
At the age of 6, following the close of a Bible Club session at Ruth Erb’s house on Wayne street, I accepted Jesus into my heart – along with Frannie, my cousin (no; while I love my cousin very much, it was just Jesus who gained entrance that day – is this essay being picked apart by a creative writing professor with an agenda, by chance? 😉 if so, no harm, no foul); and, as the two of us walked home, we discussed what we had just experienced.
We agreed that we always thought we were Christians, but didn’t remember ever “doing” it, meaning: praying the “sinner’s prayer”. As I grew, my “faith” was measured by the totality of my behavior toward others: memorizing verses and chapters; reciting these; praying every night, before bed; passing out tracts at conferences; and, then witnessing to people, most passionately as I reached my pre-teen years when these considerations seemed paramount.
It never occurred to me that reality was measured by any other standard; I was a Christian, nearly all my extended family were Christians, the Catholics who lived in the neighborhood and walked to Holy Rosary wearing high heels and lace mantillas were pagans, the Presbyterians at Emmanuel up the street were church-goers, and everybody but the thirty nine people who met on the west side of 28th & East Avenue every week were all going to Hell unless they got saved.
When I reached the age of about 13, in attendance at one of the yearly Eastern Bible Conferences held at Grove City College, I was caught up short at my age group’s daily Bible class by the words of the beloved Dave Baseler, who would come to seem like the precursor to Letterman in his delivery, perhaps because they shared the same mandibular set-up and mid-western origin, those words being: “What is faith?”
I remember that he stood for several beats of weighty silence, holding his head up in challenge to us all, rocking on the balls of his feet, eagerly awaiting our reactions. I do not remember if I raised my hand, though it would have customarily been my wont; what I DO recall is that this question bore a hole in my head and set me on a course that would lead me down a path of emotional trauma from which I never fully recovered.
By the end of that week (yes; those conferences were always one week in length, a total departure from life as we otherwise knew it and our family’s ONLY yearly vacation), I had totally detached myself from the social milieu normal to us preteens and was scurrying around, nailing every Laboring Brother I could find with my un-ending, un-answerable questions.
They were ALL earnest and warm toward me, each one caring a very great deal about my concerns. Brothers Leslie Grant, Bob Costen, Don Smart……..these men became my fixation thereafter because, suddenly, they and their insights seemed of paramount importance to my increasingly-fractured reality. Was it true? Was any of it true? How did we know? What did this mean? What was the unforgivable sin? How did we know? And, if it was unforgivable, how could any of us obtain salvation, particularly if we couldn’t determine whether we had committed it?
What I would come to realize decades later, after being trained as an educator, was that my brain had chosen to reach full-on Formal Operations that summer and was firing off electrical impulses so fast and loud that I am surprised my body did not spontaneously combust. I had come head to head with abstract Reason, and this version of reality which my childhood had embodied suddenly found itself on radically shifting sand.
I embarked thereafter, and for several years, on a quest which continues to this day. In our time, as you know, we had only concrete reference material. I had to dig up old, dusty books and scour them. One, on the Canon of Scripture, was particularly convincing to me. But, that reassurance, along with so many more, would only be temporary; as soon as one question was answered, and my euphoria ( yes, praise God, it WAS all true and I WAS going to Heaven) had buoyed me yet again, that near-mania would soon be encroached by another, invariable, intractable question. These my mother called Doubts. I would soon find out that we all had these Doubts, that they were “the tool of Satan” and that we should recognize this important fact. That, in itself, was a problem for me, because honest questions being defined as tools of Satan scared the Hell into me all over again.
Yes; I had become a tool of Satan, me and my endless questions. I had become the embodiment of everything that was wrong about being human – a real sinning sinner, a girl, no less, who developed the habit of biting her nails until they bled while looking around the Assembly Hall room at every single person in it, wondering a thousand things all at once. What were they thinking about when their eyes were closed? Why were they all so relaxed?? Did they not ever wonder if they had committed the unforgivable sin?? Why was it only the Laborers who ever spoke ABOUT the Lord in any of the conversations I overheard between Morning Worship and Sunday School? How could they all seem so inanely oblivious of the very real questions that were of galactic importance??
Attending the Youth Retreats, well, thank God for those. At least, then, I could preoccupy myself with the boys, and my hair, and my clothes, and the food, and getting to fly to St. Louis or ride to Detroit.
Up until then, “witnessing” had really empowered me. I had pored over my Bible so many times that some even resorted to teasing, calling me “Sister Ruth.” I would approach total strangers as boldly as a marketing researcher, on the beach, in public “street meetings” going door to door, at school, spreading the Word.
But, the Youth Retreats were an almost total reprieve from all that – except for the Gospel meetings, which were unendurable. [OH! I forgot to include: in my 13th summer, I’d expressed those doubts to my mother at the Bible conference, where she had knelt to pray with me, guiding me toward repenting and asking Jesus into my heart all over again. I also chose to be baptized, thinking that this would seal the deal forever. But, the verse about “confessing with the mouth” nagged at me; I never admitted that I had been saved all over again that week, and would wonder thereafter if, by not confessing that, the deal was not, in fact, sealed.]
Yes; the Gospel meetings caused High Anxiety. To this day, I can still hear the grande Englishmen at the podium, one a more spectacular orator than the next, in that hot, sweaty, sticky, scratchy-velour Crawford Hall Auditorium…..solitary babies, wailing in the outer lobby……the August locusts’ relentless chirring……and, later, in the dark in our beds, that one, remote train, mourning all our madness and offering to carry it all away into infinity….
At each subsequent, yearly conference, I got accustomed to observing its several levels of life. There was the head-covering, hymn-singing social strata, where everybody went to test out God’s Match for them at eHarmony. Then, there were the established families, with all their babies, the ones that got carried out during the meetings in that rite of passage followed by the tracking eyes of every girl in the room. Small cliques, gathering in the evenings for grapes and cheese curls and chips that had been purchased from the town, populated by the conference administrators and select guests. And, there were, as my father so transparently revealed, the “foreigners”. From every conceivable country on the planet, whispered about by the “old guard” contingent because of the Free Will Offering in place for payment from each family, these were those in unspoken, third world status; saved, sanctified, but likely not prepared to pay their freight for the week of meals, lodging, and the Olympic pool.
And, then there were the Laborers, and their wives (and, in some cases, families, but mostly not), these leading all the Bible studies and all the decision-making all week long, including announcing who had decided to accept Jesus as their Personal Saviour after each Gospel meeting.
By the time I reached high school, there was a semi-conscious decision to detach from the lurching and careening emotional terror. Just stepping away from the zealotry, even a little bit, seemed to render a kind of calm to my psychic core. Not thinking about any of it – at all – began to work me into at least a superficial version of a well-adjusted young woman.
I did not know that I was living in a subculture. I did not know that the people in it were part of a sect. I only knew that there was Us, and there was Them, and that distinction had always been, if not cleanly defined, repeatedly revisited. I was one of those in whom the Almighty God was well-pleased; the rest of the world was hostile, alien, a lesser form of life, the Lost.
The Lost. Those who were condemned to an eternity in Hell-fire, lest they repent and accept Jesus precisely as I had. Or, sort of like I had. Just once was all it took, or so it seemed, at least to the Evangelical Fundamentalists not to be confused with the Independent Baptists or the Pentecostals. In my case, it took more than once, because I was a Doubter. Or, something like that.
My Mormon friend, Nathan, thinks that if we can define “Christian” and “The Church” we can have a better discussion but believes, with sadness, that we will not reach an agreement on those definitions because everyone has a different size bucket and umbrella.
My feeling is that we won’t reach an agreement on these definitions. We never will. And, that is because, over time, their definitions have endured, dare I say it, their own evolution. As for me, whether or not I am a Christian seems up to everyone else to determine. Or, at least, to The Deciders. Or, something.
My dear friend Patty’s husband Mike, since this piece was written, has passed away. For myself, I only know that the words of Jesus still ring in my ears, sometimes fill my heart, and, a long time ago, penetrated the nucleus of all my cells – and, that, for all eternity.
© Ruth A. Scanzillo
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