Note: Today marks the beginning of a series of Friday essays where I plan to explore issues that concern me. For the record, I tend to be liberal on social and environmental issues, a tad more conservative when it comes to economics, and a wee bit libertarian when it comes to personal matters. Does that make me confused?
I thought I would jump right into the fire, so to speak, and tackle religion. Let me make it clear from the beginning, I am not anti-religion. I believe it can be a powerful force for good. I know many people, including Internet friends, who have strong faith and are dedicated to making the world a better place to live. I like to think if Jesus, or Buddha, or Mohammed or any of the other the world’s great religious leaders were around, they would say, yes, these people get it. They understand the message.
But religions also have the power to do great harm. Look around. And this isn’t particular to any one religion. All of the world’s major religions have had violence in their past and have the potential for violence in their future. The same faith that gets people through the dark night, that can inspire great art and humanitarian efforts, can be twisted by ambitious people to obtain both wealth and power.
I am planning a series of three Friday essays on this topic, primarily based on my own experience ranging from being a six-year-old skeptic, to a teen-age believer, to the agnostic I am today.
You Can’t Get Absolution from a Tree— Father Bill
My adult daughter Natasha visited me once after she had told her minister that I considered walking in the forest a spiritual experience.
“You can’t get absolution from a tree,” he had admonished her with implications that I was flirting with the devil and better get my butt into a real church before all was lost.
“Why not?” was my immediate, if admittedly flippant response. With a little more thought, I would have replied that I had never actually asked a tree for absolution. I did apologize to a tree once for breaking its limbs when I was picking pears, however, and maybe that’s the same thing. We can all use a touch of forgiveness for the injuries we cause as we stumble through life, whether they are to our fellow human beings, nature or ourselves.
But I don’t think that is what the good Father had in mind. He was referring to forgiveness of Original Sin, for the stain on our soul we supposedly inherited from Adam and Eve fooling around in the Garden with Snake. If so, he may be right. I have yet to meet a tree that seemed overly concerned with the issue. Nor, for that matter, am I. But I have been concerned with matters of the spirit all of my life.
At some point in my childhood, I developed a curiosity about God and Heaven. Perhaps it was natural for my age. Or maybe it came from all of the time I spent communing with dead people in the Graveyard next to our house. Certainly old Mr. Fitzgerald’s death left me pondering the Imponderable. But I suspect it was the hours I spent wandering alone in the woods. If you devote enough time to watching mud turtles sunbathe or jackrabbits graze, you can acquire a sense of wonder and even awe about the world and its mysteries. It doesn’t take much to turn this awe into a spiritual experience. Mystics have been doing so for thousands of years.
Most religions prefer a more structured approach to finding God. It’s called going to church and accepting the True Faith, whatever it happens to be. Left alone in the woods, people often come to the ‘wrong’ conclusions. Of course kids don’t think these thoughts. I was young, trusting and impressionable; I was ready for some Old Time Religion.
I Hear You Knocking Lord
My family’s religious foundation runs deep. The Mekemsons trace their heritage back to John Brown the Martyr of Priesthill, Scotland. Brown was a Covenanter in Scotland’s Killing Times from 1680-85. The Covenanters refused to accept the King of England as head of the Presbyterian Church and were paying in blood. When John Graham of Claverhouse (aka Bonnie Dundee or Bloody Clavers depending on your perspective) rode in to Brown’s farm on May 1, 1685, religious strife had reached a peak. Claverhouse gave Brown a choice, accept the King or die. Brown refused and Claverhouse shot him in the head before his wife and children. Legend has it that Claverhouse would see a bloody apparition of Brown the night before he was killed in battle. (Peggy and I had our own ‘ghostly experience’ when we went to visit the grave.)
The Marshall family also had difficulties with the King of England. They came to America as Puritans in the 1630s and gave their kids such names as Elijah, Sarah, Josiah, Noah, and Eliakim. These were folks who took their religion seriously and persecuted so-called witches. I will note, however, that my Great Grandfather times six had one of the first licenses in America to sell liquor. Later one of the Marshall’s would head off to the Georgia wilderness and help establish the Southern Baptist Church.
Pop, my father, inherited most of the religious fervor in our family. According to my mother, his mom was a hard-line Scotch Presbyterian with a sense of humor to match. One didn’t drink, cuss, smoke or perform any of the other nefarious deeds the devil so cunningly uses to capture wayward souls. Fortunately, Pop missed some of the thou-shall-nots his mother preached, but he did inherit a sense that church was “good for you,” and this meant it would be doubly good for his kids. While Mother had more doubts about religion, even she felt that a little God wouldn’t hurt us. Or, at least she recognized kid-free summer time when she saw it.
Eventually this led to the three Mekemson kids being spiffed up and marched off to Vacation Bible School. My brother, Marshall, and I got a rare midweek bath, clean clothes and the lecture: no shoving, shouting, fighting or farting. Our older sister, Nancy, bathed regularly and didn’t need the lecture. In those days, going to church in Diamond Springs meant going to the Community Church, a small, white, box-shaped building that came with a straight steeple and fundamentalist leanings.
Other than the fact that Bible School seriously interfered with my spending quality time with my dog Tickle, it wasn’t all that bad. At five, I was encouraged to color lots of sheep and no one seemed to mind that they were purple or that they ended up looking like pincushions. But the real fall-on-your-knees thing that grabbed my attention was all the stuff about miracles. I was fascinated to know how Noah got all of those animals on one boat, what he did with the poop, and how Christ walked on water. I had so many ‘hows and whys’ the Bible School teacher stopped calling on me. I went back to coloring sheep.
One day we were privileged to witness a true miracle in progress. Somehow we had escaped from Vacation Bible School only to be corralled into attending an actual kids’ service. I think it was a graduation ceremony meant to put the exclamation point on our lessons. It came complete with hymns, prayers, a sermon and lots of Amens. Then the big moment arrived.
“Would you like to hear the Lord knocking at your heart?” the Minister asked.
“Oh yeah!” “Wow!” “Really?” What little kid could resist? I hadn’t been so excited since the neighbor’s house had burned down. The minister instructed us to bow our heads and close our eyes. He was quite insistent on the eye part.
“None of you little kids open your eyes until I tell you to,” he ordered. Apparently you can’t witness miracles with your eyes open.
Twenty little children dutifully bowed their heads and screwed their eyes shut. Three didn’t. If there was to be a miracle, the Mekemson kids wanted to see it. So we watched the preacher with eagle-eyed attention. He glared back at us. Whoa, this was getting interesting. Next he tiptoed from the pulpit to the back of the church. What was he up to?
Bang, bang, bang. He was up to pounding on the back door. Yes indeed, the Lord does work in mysterious ways. We watched the minister tiptoe back to his pulpit.
“OK,” he said, “you can open your eyes now. Did you hear the Lord knocking?”
Twenty little sets of big round eyes popped open and twenty little mouths started gabbing all at once. The minister smiled smugly until his eyes fell on us. You could almost hear him thinking and I didn’t think ministers were supposed to think those kinds of thoughts.
“Vacation Bible School is over,” he announced abruptly. “I want you all to think about what you learned today. You can go home now.” We jumped up for a quick escape.
“Nancy, Marshall and Curt, I want you to stay.”
Uh-oh. We were about to learn that the devil had reserved a special place for us. The Mekemson kids were very bad and downright sinful. We had better change our ways or we were going to spend eternity in a very hot place. We were also being held hostage until the other kids left. It wouldn’t do to have us spread malicious rumors.
After being pummeled by twenty minutes of non-stop haranguing, we were finally turned loose. It was pushing 100 degrees outside and Mother was waiting impatiently in one of our ancient cars. She lit into us with an intensity that would have made the Minister cry “uncle.” I wondered if our punishment had already begun. But Nancy straightened things out quickly with all of the righteousness of a 12-year-old girl and forever became my hero. Not only was the minister a ‘lying, deceitful, old so and so,’ she was never coming back to that church again. Ditto.
Marshall, who was seven, sought his own peculiar form of revenge. Our friend, Lee Kinser, lived next to the church and had an old outhouse up behind his home. In-door plumbing had long since replaced its primary use and the daily deposits had turned to dust. The outhouse’s appeal to Marshall was that if he sat on the seat and left the door open, he had a straight shot at the church’s bell. All Marshall needed was his BB gun and a Sunday service. Actually, I think he enjoyed several services from his box seat. In my imagination, I can still hear the minister saying to his Sunday congregations, “Do you hear the Lord pinging?”
Brother Jones and a Glowing Jesus
And that was my introduction to religion. Almost. Another fine tutor was Brother B. Allen Jones, or some such name long since forgotten. He was a southern radio preacher par excellence in an era when radio still dominated the airwaves. At least it did in Diamond. There was only one TV in town and it certainly didn’t belong to us.
Normally, Marshall and I focused our radio listening time to standard kid fare like the Lone Ranger, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and the Shadow. We would sit glued to the radio with all the concentration of later TV generations and listen to such immortal words as “Who was that masked man?” “I don’t know but he left a silver bullet behind.” And then an awed, “That was the Lone Ranger,” as off in the distance you heard “Hi O Silver away!” We knew that Sergeant Preston and his faithful dog King would always get their man, just like we knew the Shadow would open his program with the question, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man?”
The Shadow knew. And so did Brother Jones. He also knew how to ream it out. On Wednesday nights, we belonged to him. I am sure the devil quaked in his hooves to know that he had such a ferocious opponent. Brother Jones was more than fire and brimstone, however. He could cure anything. After his show the lame would walk, the blind would see and the deaf would hear. Even hardened criminals would fall on their knees and start sobbing. It was at the conclusion of the show that Jones was at his finest, though. It was time to go for the gold.
“I can see you now. I can see you sitting in front of your radio.” The good Brother would start out in his most hypnotic voice, repeating himself so people would get the message right.
“I can see you reaching in your back pocket. I can see you reaching in your back pocket and taking out your wallet. Praise the Lord! I can see you opening your wallet. I can see you opening your wallet and taking out a ten-dollar bill. Hallelujah! Now you are taking your ten-dollar bill and laying it on the radio. I am blessing you and your ten-dollar bill. Lay your hand on the radio. Feel my blessing coming through. Do you feel it? Do you feel it? Hallelujah and Amen Brothers and Sisters! Now I can see you getting out an envelope and a pen. You are addressing the envelope to me, Brother B. Allen Jones. You are now taking the ten-dollar bill and placing it in the envelope. Thank the sweet Lord! You are closing the envelope and stamping it. The first thing you will do in the morning is mail it to me. Blessed are those who give! In return, I will mail you a fine gift, a genuine picture of Jesus Christ that glows in the dark.”
I always wanted the genuine picture of Jesus, but I was a little concerned about its glow in the dark qualities. Marshall and I had been given a cross that glowed in the dark at Vacation Bible School and Marshall kept it on our dresser. It scared me, like the tombstones in the Graveyard. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and there it would be, glowing at me. You couldn’t turn it off and Marshall wouldn’t let me shove it in a drawer. My only solution was to hide under the covers. Can you imagine the trauma of growing up with a glowing cross that forces you to hide under the covers? Who knows what damage a glowing Jesus might have caused.
As you might imagine, by this early point in my life I had already developed a somewhat warped view of religion, not to mention a frustrated pair of parents. But they weren’t about to give up. Their savage little beasts would be tamed. Join me next Friday when Tarzan shows me the light.
Three blogs that relate to the above post that you might want to check out: