God Touches is a memoir of my God-pilgrimage as it intersects both the church and non-religious spirituality. Anyone on a pilgrimage to see, hear and find God in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary will find this book to be interesting and perhaps even inspiring.
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Chapter 4. Vulnerability - Choir Robes, Christmas Floats, and Underwear
“‘Getting down on your knees’ might signify the experience of submission, of openness, or of vulnerability. But whatever the experience - however represented, however phrased, however conceived, however ‘felt’ – this positioning of one’s whole being connects the core spiritual act of the cry for help that admits one’s flawed imperfection with some sort of experience of fitting-in, of connectedness to others and to a greater whole, a higher power, a God”.
Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Modern Wisdom from Classic Stories (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p.72
By the time I was old enough to sing in my home church choir, the traditional robes worn by generations of altos and tenors, sopranos and basses had been phased out in favor of wide-collared leisure suits and bright print dresses. Unfortunately, when the robes disappeared, so did the choir processional that served as the official beginning of each worship service. As all Episcopalians and Presbyterians, most Methodists and some Baptists can tell you, God shows up for church when the choir enters the room so understandably, there was much concern that the quality of our worship might go down hill without the choir processional. Gone was the organ accompanied dirge-like march of the singers walking two-by-two with arms extended, holding music folders out in front of them like holy tablets fresh from Mount Sinai. Gone were those striking crimson gowns the color of Christ's blood, shed for all mankind, trimmed by royal golden sashes, representative of the crown of glory that awaits the faithful saints at the end of time. Even though baptismal gowns would remain in fashion in my denomination for at least another 20 years, church never felt the quite the same for me without the choir robes.
Choir was almost as big a deal in my church as the sermon itself. It was considered the warm up act for the preacher, the deliverer of the soul-draped melody that greased the skids of the heart so that the seeds of the Word of God could get planted in the right people at the right time. From my seat on the second row, the choir also gave all us little people in the audience something interesting to look at on those sleepy Sunday mornings when activity would oft-times grind to a praying halt. Adorned in their beautiful flowing robes, those 18 women and 2 men, perched high above the raised stage and oak pulpit, shone like Olympic athletes from ancient Greece awaiting their medals at the awards ceremony. Many a Sunday, when my mind wandered and my body squirmed on the squeaky pew, I would gaze past my father, hard at work convincing us sinners to love more and sin less and imagine the details of the lives and the under garments of each of the choir members. As we sang the first, second and last verses of hymns I knew by heart but never understood, I would study the singers, trying to figure out which voice was coming from what face and who was wearing or missing what piece of clothing beneath their concealing robe. If I had been any older than 8 years, I might have had to confess those innocent imaginings of perfumed hosiery, over-stretched elastic and baggy boxers. In my imagination it was not a pretty sight, so I am pretty dang sure it didn’t count as a sin.
I always thought it must have been difficult to sit in the choir loft week after week, listening to the sermon, knowing that everyone was watching to see if you were going to nod and jerk or rip the first snort of a surprise snore. Good thing I never saw anything like that happen, as I already had plenty of trouble from laughing in church. Something about the holiness of the hushed moments made any comment whatsoever from a mischievous friend seem wildly hilarious, dooming me to the impossible task of squelching my snickers. I can still feel the twitch of pulled rib muscles and twisted internal organs, the results of years of restrained church laughter. On one occasion, when the giggle bug got hold of my best friend and me, we couldn't have stopped laughing any more than we could have comprehended the concepts of eternity or manned space flight. The more we tried to maintain our composure, even after my dad interrupted his sermon to call me down by my first, middle and last names, the funnier our inside joke became. That was the same day that, before I saw him coming, Dad came down out of the pulpit, lifted me up by one arm and laid three rapid-fire swats on my rear-end in full view of the entire congregation. As I dangled in mid-air trying to block the punitive blows with my free hand, I realized in that moment that I was becoming the poster boy for preachers’-kids-gone-bad.
Though you cannot tell from the black and white Polaroid in my mother’s scrapbook, my sister, and I got to wear the choir robes one year before we donated them to the local Shriners or the volunteer fire department (I can’t remember which). For three years running, due primarily to the artistic touch and obsessive persistence of my father, our church had won first prize in the float competition at the annual town Christmas parade. This parade was usually on the Friday after Thanksgiving, just like the one in New York City, except that we didn't have any inflatable cartoon characters or grown men riding on little motor bikes. The highlight of our parade were the local farmers on their naturally festive red and green 3-wheeled tractors pulling seven floats with marching bands from three counties interspersed between. The weather was usually football game crisp the night of the parade except for the year we entered our "Happy Carolers Saved From Hell" float pulled by a brand spankin’ new holly leaf colored John Deere. An Artic blast visited us ahead of schedule breaking our winning streak and reversing our religious fortunes. After all, it was a statistical reality that the winner of the Christmas float competition typically saw an increase in attendance at their morning services sometime after the New Year, though the headcount usually dropped back down to normal the week after Easter.
That night, the temperature dipped below freezing and all our moms dutifully showed up with coats, hats, scarves and gloves just as the float was about to pull onto Main Street for the judging. That which, only minutes earlier had been an immaculate display of 5,000 pieces of white tissue paper neatly tucked into chicken wire, with five rows of angels wearing snow-white choir robes and dapper red ribbons, was now an array of browns and blacks leaving us to look more like a sled from the homeless shelter than an award winning float. Not even our heavenly voices could help us win the coveted trophy that year. We had spent so much time preparing the flatbed float we had forgotten to practice our song. And while some of us remembered the words to our obscure carol, the majority of us were singing lines that sounded like, “Good Thing Wesley Moss Looked Out, His Hair Was Uneven”. From our frozen perches, we watched in disbelief as the judges awarded the non-instrumental Church of Christ first place in the float contest for their Sign-language rendition of “Silent Night, a Cappella Night”. In what would be my last Christmas as an anchor member of First Christian’s perennial promenade, I took comfort in knowing that beneath my corduroy coat-covered choir robe I wore nothing more than a worn set of Fruit-of-the-Loom long johns and a thin layer of holy thankfulness for the Christ child that was born to make Christmas presents and parades possible.
Like my father, I would find one-day find myself in the role of professional minister. Though my ministry would lack the penchant for creating Christmas floats and directing Easter cantatas, it would be earmarked by the same naked (metaphorically speaking) vulnerability I once imagined and experienced beneath those scarlet choir robes. While the lengthy Bible College lectures and the endless stream of chapel sermons I would endure and sometimes enjoy (not to mention mounds of assigned readings, papers and projects) would be necessary in order to get my degree diploma and certificate of ordination, none of these would prove to be as effective a tool for helping others as would sharing from a vault of personal experience, strength, and hope. This authentic aspect of pastoral care may certainly have been a part of my clergy training, though I do not recall any intentional coaching in this area. It is understandable if this was not emphasized by my professors, for when the ministerial student is little more than a teenager and has not yet garnered much wisdom from either good works or bad choices, it is imperative that he or she garner the tools of original language, systematic theology, biblical hermeneutics, church history, and public speaking if he or she is to be an effective preacher of the Gospel. As the result, these were the sole contents in the bag of tricks I carried into fulltime church work, and were the primary, if not exclusive, source I drew from for winning souls, changing lives, and attracting crowds to what I hoped was something in the neighborhood of the kingdom of heaven.
For those lucky enough to survive crashes of humanity and to be given another chance in the ministerial profession, this is the point at which making grave errors and having serious lapses in judgment comes in handy. To the ones willing to accept whatever God would teach through these difficult circumstances, out of a sea of bitter emotions that includes despair, bewilderment, frustration, terror, regret, despondency, and disillusionment comes an education in the school of compassion, love, forgiveness, and tolerance that cannot be taught from a book. Though any and all who have been given this gift would gladly have taken another route if possible, it is probable this valuable life tutorial may have been unavailable to us by any means other than by the painful path of ego-deflation. It is important to note that while a life and ministry that flows from these rivers of reality and crests on the tides of transparency may be a natural fit for the one who has surrendered his sufferings to God, a regular commitment to relationship with Christ and the continuing transformation of self and selfishness is required if this desired course is to persist. There is a daily choice that must be made to rely on God and this decision must be rooted in specified times and places of prayer and study. There must also be the decision, as occasions arise, to love and lead out of the healed (and still healing) places from whence humility and service are realized and released. It is easy to respond to need from a place of self-knowledge and rote learning, but if we listen carefully, we can hear the Spirit knocking from within our hearts to let God love others through our wounds and scars, both past and present, as well as our learning and giftedness. Admittedly, this takes courage, and requires paying attention to the ways of God. It also implies that we will be ready and willing to go naked beneath the choir robe, even when the weather outside, metaphorically speaking, would advise us to do otherwise. This, in addition to learning to laugh in church, is an indispensable ingredient for enjoying and sharing the God-journey with others.
Introduction to God Touches:
Finding Faith in the Cracks and Spaces of My Life
“The ways to God are many. They appear when we are ready for them and when our faithfulness has shown we can live with the consequences of further growth.” – John Punshon, 1987
I grew up in a church whose theology was so narrow that not only were all of “them” going to hell, many of “us” thought we were probably headed there, too. Having heard so many sermons and stories about people suffering in the unquenchable flames of eternal punishment, many of whom were there because I didn’t tell them what I knew about the love of Jesus, I didn’t get a good night’s sleep from Kindergarten until I drank my first bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine at age 15. Though I was as good a kid as any, because of my curious constitution and appetite for disobedience I never felt like I measured up to the religious standards that were meted out from the sanctuary pulpit and the Sunday School flannel graph board. Every night, I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus to forgive my sins, naming them one-by-one, knowing in my heart that I was forgetting something that God would remember and punish me for when the time was right. I was confident Jesus would come like a “thief in the night” when I least expected it and steal back my soul because it was marred by sin. Somehow, I had missed the point that it was my very inability to be flawlessly obedient that had led Christ to make the supreme sacrifice on my behalf in the first place. It would be years before I would fully believe and accept this gospel.
Almost everyone I have met in my lifetime grew up with some kind of religious influence in his or her home. Only a percentage of these people transitioned through puberty and into adulthood without some kind of faith-shaking or religion-altering experience. I once lived in Oregon for two years and met an unusually large number of people who claimed to have no belief in God, at least not in a supreme being that cared about them or influenced the events in their lives. What was interesting to me was that among this fun, loving and interesting community of self-proclaimed witches, pagans, Buddhists and fairies (and interesting combinations thereof) I found that almost all of them had a Christian background of some sort and were in the process of rejecting this form of faith. They had not yet completely worked out what would replace their childhood beliefs but they were certain that they did not want what their parents had or what the popular voices of mainstream evangelicalism were pandering and they were willing to go to any lengths to find something else. Even if they had to make it up. To be sure, in these circles “mystic” is a much cooler spiritual label than “Methodist” and “Buddhist” is hipper than “Baptist” any day. Who cares if you don’t know the beliefs behind these labels, as long as the label isn’t “Christian”.
Though it may be currently popular to wander from original systems of belief in search of more palatable perspectives on spirituality and more user-friendly interpretations of truth, it is apparent that, if allowed to wander, in time, many of these searchers eventually come full circle. They return to the familiar communities and campfires around which they first heard God-songs and stories bringing with them a deep commitment and a rich testimony of change. Indigenous cultures, as well as the American Amish, are known to have encouraged and even forced their adolescents to venture out and explore the unknown, testing their new experiences against that which they have learned and received from the elders and families of their tribe. If we are to believe Proverbs 22:6, then if we “train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it”. This means that those of us who have parented and discipled their children well will have nothing to fear when the curious, the disenchanted and even the disturbed youngster leaves the nest to test his wings and try her truth through whatever means necessary to affirm his or her faith. Though we might prefer to protect our loved ones from painful experiences, I doubt that any of us would choose to have robots for children incapable of thinking original thoughts or making personal decisions.