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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Monday, January 18, 2010

Unsettled: Chapter 49

Sunday Patterns of My Past:
Pop-guns, Penance, and Pot Roast

It was Christmas Break 1975 and my first week of living in the basement of our unfinished home. Strange as it felt to be living on the land we'd worked for seven years and to be drinking an showering in the water from the well, I think the strangest thing about being home in this new home was that my sister Kathy was not there.

Kathy had married her college sweetheart the summer before, and since he had moved to the Detroit area to work the year before, he had spent that Christmas with us, which meant this Christmas they'd be with Jack’s folk’s in New Jersey. Christmas fell on Thursday that year, and Kath and Jack were driving home to Michigan Saturday morning, but there was a very good reason, I had to talk to her before then: we had no idea what we were giving Mom and Dad for Christmas. It was always Kathy who coordinated the collection of our money and did the shopping for us. With only four days left ‘til Christmas, we boys hadn’t a clue what we were doing without our sibling leader.

For as long as I could remember, Kathy was a second mother to us boys. She was now an elementary teacher by profession, but like so many women in that field, she had been “playing teacher” ever since she learned to talk.

When we were little kids, she’d gather the neighborhood into our garage for “school.” She even organized a library there where kids could check out books. This type of play only went so far with the boys in the neighborhood. Eventually, we’d all grab our pistols and holsters and pop-guns and start playing Cowboys and Indians. Or we’d use make-believe machine guns to weed out the Germans in the grass. [Interesting to note that during those years we were in a cold war with Russia, but our gun fights were based not on current events but on the Westerns and WWII movies we watched on TV.]

Every boy I knew was proficient in bio-ballistic-sound effects (i.e. making all manner of gun noises with our mouths). Kathy and her girl friends would sometimes leave her “school” and try to join the boys in battle, but they could not make the sound of a gun-shot if their lives depended on it.

Oh, they tried, but “Keeyoo-Keeyoo” was all they said, as if there were actual letters in the sounds we boys made. There were no letters, just the aggressive plosives and fricatives, the jack-hammer tongue trills and guttural echoes needed for single shots and ricochets, grenades and machine-gun fire. All the battle sounds of a Hollywood back lot would be flying with spit from behind our pursed lips and billowing cheeks, and then the girls would come along pointing finger-guns at us and saying “Keeyoo-Keeyoo.” We just laughed with scorn. There was no way we were playin’ dead to that silly sound. John Wayne never ducked from a gun that went “Keeyoo.”

There is much to be said about the natural differences between boys and girls at play, but I digress.... What I meant to say was that on Sundays, Kathy had a much better chance of keeping us in her pretend school in the garage. Why? Because Dad had a rule that we boys could never play with guns on Sunday. This did not reflect his political view on guns but his understanding of “to everything there is a season,” and on Sundays we were to study war no more. Which brings me to the point of this long chapter.

The following post may read like a rambling essay that does not belong with this closing section of my storyline. Chapter 50, however, takes place on the Sunday before Christmas 1975, and since the vast majority of these chapters take place on Saturdays, I wanted to discuss some of the Sunday patterns that had come and gone the decade before.

My family’s faith was not put on like the Sunday suits we wore. We were taught and still believe that our relationship with God must be the same all week. Faith is to be lived out, not put on. There’s nothing wrong with looking your best on Sunday, so long as you are equally worshipful in the garments and actions of each day. In that sense, our family's faith played out in Dad’s old shirts, Mom’s frumpy robe, and the layers of old clothes that kept us warm in winter.

Christ deliberately kept his gospel simple and common; he compared himself not to cathedrals but to crushed grapes and aromatic bread to be broken and shared.

That being said, there is still a place for the patterns of corporate faith, for traditions, sacraments, and rites based on teachings of scripture. Communion, for instance, is not so much a ritual as it is a time of remembrance and reflection on what it means to live in community with God and the sacrifice that made it possible.

Some of the patterns of my childhood church, however, were not rooted in scripture but had crept into common practice nonetheless. This does not make them wrong necessarily. For instance, driving busses to pick up kids for Sunday School was not “biblical” since busses did not exist in Bible times, but for several years our church used busses as a means of fulfilling Christ’s words “Let the little children come unto me.” During that time, my Dad drove a bus route for the church. In fact, Dave’s best friend, the one who drove him home from college, was a young man we first met as a kid on the bus with Dad. (Decades later, he also became Mom’s accountant.) Some time in the early Seventies, the busses broke down beyond repair and the church dropped its bus ministry.

The word gospel means “good news,” and the methods of spreading the news can change from century to century, decade to decade, without changing the truth of the gospel itself.

In the following paragraphs if I seem to be poking fun at some of my childhood “Sunday patterns,” I do so not with cynicism but with the kind of affection a grandchild should rightly show a grandmother who insists on wearing a hat to church. The relationship transcends the unshared ritual because the core foundation of faith is shared. Likewise, I smile at some of the patterns that my parents (or our church) imposed upon us while cherishing the faith that prompted them.

So here goes! Here are some of the things, in no particular order, that made Sundays predictable and formative for my childhood home.

We treated Sundays as the Sabbath (which, as we know, was originally the seventh day, Saturday). No matter how much work needed to be done around the house in Roseville or out at the property, we did not work on Sunday. It was a “day of rest”… sort of.

Our church pretty much ran us ragged on Sunday, beginning with Dad driving his “bus route.” Then he taught the high school boys Sunday School while Mom practiced with the choir; then came the worship service and sermon; then we hung around and talked 'til the halls were empty and went home to the most wonderful smell of roast beef, cooked with carrots in the gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans cooked in a mushroom-soup sauce with crispy onions on top. It was pretty much the same meal every Sunday, and if Mom ever suggested making something else we all moaned and made it clear that having the same thing every Sunday was perfectly fine with us. To this day I cannot smell a roast in the oven without feeling like a kid stepping through the front door after church.

But our church also met on Sunday nights. So starting at 5:00PM, we had teen choir practice, followed by “Young Peoples” (catchy name for the one-hour gathering of teens); followed by the evening worship/sermon service; which once a quarter was followed by a Singspiration (three or more churches getting together to sing “people’s choice” hymns and choruses until about 9:00PM). Once a month, the “young people’s” group had what we called an afterglow: we all went to someone’s house for pizza and games like “Honey if you love me, Smile” or “Fruit Basket Upset.”

So that’s what I mean when I say we treated Sunday like a “day of rest” sort of. I will say that most of the time, especially as an older teen, I did not mind this hectic Sunday pace. There were 75-100 teens in our youth group. It was my closest social circle, and we enjoyed being together.

It was a Baptist church, and true to form there were many things we were expected not to do as Baptist. When we joined the church, I was in third grade. We had gone to our previous church every Sunday, but it was basically a "put on the tie, sit in the pew, and go home" kind of church. My parents were hungry for solid preaching and teaching from Scripture and we found it at our new church. So when they gradually learned of the “Baptist no-nos,” they thoughtfully adopted each expectation: No smoking, drinking, gambling/cards, movies, dancing, etc.

Already they did not smoke or drink so that was easy. They played cards occasionally with friends but had no problem throwing out the two or three decks in our house. Card games taht did not use "traditional decks" were allowed (e.g. Dutch Blitz, Uno, Rook, etc.) As for movies at the theater: Dad and Mom rarely “dated” to a movie and taking the whole family cost a small fortune, and Dad agreed with our pastor that most movies made at the time undermined or values, so we officially quit going to movies. (The last one we saw as a young family was Mary Poppins in 1964.)

Dad and Mom had enjoyed ball-room and square dancing since their dating years, but like most parents of the day, they bristled at the new “rock culture” and all the pelvic gyrations that went with it, so they followed the Baptist pattern of lumping all things together and agreed to no more dancing—no square dancing, no polkas, no waltzes—if it was a rhythmical response to the beat of music, a Baptist body was to hold still. What starts with a toe tap may tempt the legs to beging moving in 1-2-3,1-2-3 steps. With some reluctance, my parents did not dance in public for about twenty years.

For those who find that last "no no" sad, I’ll mention that they later re-thought their position on the subject and danced again on many occasions. It was a wonderful thing for us to see. But they still held strong views about the pit-falls of an "anything goes" approach to male-female interaction on the dance floor. They would cringe at what "clubbers" do today in the name of dance. A dog would be kicked from a leg for doing what now happens in some settings. But Dad and Mom, and their children by example, eventually learned to sort out the baby from the bathwater.

Speaking of bathwater.... There was one Baptist “no-no” that we as a family simply could not adhere to. This one was not universally held by all Baptist churches but strictly espoused by ours. One Sunday, my mother learned that our church was against “mixed bathing,” and my mother said, “Jupiter, when did they start doing that. We’re against it, too.” But her adamant response was because she thought “mixed bathing” referred to unmarried men and women taking baths together, and based on the few times her young husband had tried squeezing into a tub with her, she knew it would indeed be a risqué venture that had little to do with bathing.

A few weeks later, however, Mom bit her tongue when she learned that what our church meant by “mixed bathing” was “mixed swimming,” males and females sharing company at the beach or pool in nothing but bathing suits. Uh-oh, hold the phone, Mom and Dad had grown up in Port Huron, we practically lived on the beach in the summer time, both sides of their extended family loved the water. We were boaters, snorkelers, and SCUBA divers. Every Friday night of our first five winters in Roseville was spent at the pool of Detroit’s historic YMCA where Dad was a member. (In fact, Dad and his brother Bob taught SCUBA at the “Y.”) Frankly, there was no way we could take water and “mixed bathing” out of our lives without completely segregating from our extended family. Even swimming like the Amish, fully clothed, was not an option unless of course everyone else on the beach agreed to do the same. So the whole mixed bathing thing was our family secret, it went on just as it always had before we joined that dear fellowship of believers.

(In fairness to those who may hold to the no mixed swimming rule, it is the skimpy, immodest, head-turning, “hubba hubba” nature of the female body walking past male eyes on a beach that prompted this Baptist taboo. Speaking as a former Baptist teen that was often at the beach, I confess that the rule was not unfounded. The children’s chorus, “Oh, be careful little eyes what you see,” is as true as any of the great doctrinal hymns of the faith. Nuff said.)

Within all of these patterns of Sundays and taboos was another pattern unfamiliar to most denominations, but in our church, it happened after both the Sunday morning and evening services. It was called the invitation.

The invitation system had sprung from the sawdust trails of old-time revival meetings of the late 19th Century and carried over to much of the 20th Century. I am not condemning it as a form of spiritual confession or accountability, but I will say it was a method easily heightened by good intentions and emotions, which is probably why it has fallen from common practice in many churches.

In my boyhood church, the invitation was typically a dozen stanzas of “Just as I Am.” There were only six stanzas to that old hymn, but our pastor always found creative ways to keep the invitation going as long as he sensed someone still needed to respond. Sometimes he’d just start singing all six stanzas again from the first. Sometimes he’d simply say, “Let’s sing that last stanza once more, and if no one comes, we’ll not sing another.” Quite often no one walked the aisle, and true to his word, we would not sing another stanza, but he’d lean toward the mike and say, “We’re going to hum a stanza or two. (To his credit, we never whistled a stanza that I recall.) It was almost as if we were really singing “We won’t go until we get some.”

There was a stretch in my teen years when I was particularly susceptible to the persuasive powers of what my pastor said between the stanzas. If no one walked the aisle, the potential needs for penance seemed to work down from felonies to misdemeanors to minor offenses. And if still no one came, he’d say something like, “Maybe you missed having your devotions this week.” [“Devotions” referred to the pattern of having a daily “quiet time” for scripture reading, meditation, and prayer. This is an excellent habit for believers, but as the name implies it should be based upon love not guilt.] Sometimes if no one walked the aisle, the appeal became technically inescapable: “Maybe you had a bad thought this week.”

While it is true that Jesus often reminded his followers that our sinful nature is revealed in our thoughts if not our deeds, let’s face it, if every person who had a bad thought that week had walked to the front of the church, the floor would have collapsed. Most of the people in the church understood this fact and held their ground, but during these particular years, I could rarely escape the “bad thought” clause. I’d take a deep breath, slip past my friends in the pew, and walk down to the front of the church. I could hear the moans of those I passed who knew that my going forward just added at least two more stanzas to the invitation. There at the altar, my youth pastor met me with outstretched hand. His head leaned toward me for a quiet explanation of why I’d come. I'd tell him that I missed having devotions on Wednesday, but that was code for some other offense. It wasn’t a lie, I probably did miss a day of devotions, but it was typically an undisclosed less noble blotch that pulled me down the aisle.

Make no mistake, there were many times when my introspection, guilt, and desire for forgiveness was definitely prompted by His spirit, but forgiveness and fellowship does not require walking an aisle. I eventually realized I was treating life like a picture I was trying to draw. I mistakenly thought it had to be perfect and that it was in my power to make it so. Walking the aisle was my way of wadding up the drawing from the week before and starting over with a fresh sheet—this time making no mistakes. How naïve of me. If that were the Christian life, we would all be surrounded by paper-wads and not one useful picture of the gospel. Christ does not call his followers to perfection but to perseverance in spite of their imperfections. We do not start over when we fall; we rise and resume with the help of His steadfast hand. The picture we draw is not perfect, but it is made complete in Christ.

By 1975, we had been members of this Baptist church for over ten years, and when we moved out to the unfinished house on the property, we remained in that church well over ten more years. I have not been at a service there for over 25 years. In fact, in the mid-1990s, the building was sold and the much of the congregation relocated elsewhere. My brother and I drove by the building a few years ago. Inside now were strangers, but the outside looked pretty much the same, surrounded by the walks I felt obliged to shovel years before, and filled with memories of the people and patterns, quirks and all, that made it an extended part of home.

Why mention all this now? What has this to do with wrapping up this story of the house? Only this: the next chapter takes place on a Sunday, beginning with our coming home from church. There will be no mention of any of the above, but it would be a mistake for me to end these chapters about the rhythms that help make a house a home without giving a glimpse of the Sunday patterns that shaped the other six days through all these years.
Chapter 50-A coming late Wednesday night


Blogger the walking man said...

I don't know Tom, just seems to me to be the long way round through the narrowest opening in a fence that should never exist in the first place.

No criticizing because all mankind must walk their own path but seems rather a rule laden road when the laws of Moses had been wiped clean off the books.

I get a sense that this church was more exclusive than inclusive. How did the pastor handle them who would not do away with cards and dance etc?

27/1/10 8:12 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

My wife Julie questioned whether I should post this or not because it does raise the kinds of questions you pose. I wanted to include it because it was true of our lives at the time, but for some of the reasons you mentioned we worked through much of it. The church was receptive to "outsiders" and accepted them where they were (like the song "Just as I am" suggests), but to be an influential person on the inside of such a church you had to pretty much be in agreement on these topics. As you said, that is a choice people make so those who don't make that choice should not judge.

But the harm in having so many rules is not that rules don't have a place, but in thinking that "toeing a line" earns points with God. When we start thinking we are somehow spiritually superior because "don't do something" and when we condemn those who do, we are walking on thin ice. I run a school. We have rules. We enforce them. This is true of any institution involving many people, but there is a difference between expectations and protocols that lead to harmonious co-existence in an institution and "rules" intended to please God or "earn your own salvation." Christ said that all of our so-called righteousness is as filthy rags. We are all in need of the same redemption through Christ. It is his sacrifice and not our "goodness" that atones.

28/1/10 3:05 PM  

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