A quarter of a century ago, I was a teenager who held deep contempt for anyone who could, as I wrote then, "take this religion shit seriously." At the time, my family belonged to a small church in cental Massachusetts. The church was part of a denomination that was a Lutheran derivative. In some ways they were very liberal and open in their interpretation of beliefs and practices, but were very conservative and closed in their interpretations of other beliefs and practices. As I have found with most denominations down the line, it seemed to have been founded by someone with a checklist consisting of "Yes," "No," and "Maybe" columns.
I remember services during regular Sunday worship being on the pale side of boring, with long sermons and at best two or three hymns, usually sung with limited enthusiasm. Most of the time, the congregation was learning the words for the first time, and in the end all the hymns sounded the same. They just had different wordings.
During my rejection of religion on all accounts, which came to pass at some point in 1978, my father convinced me to return to church when he took a volunteer position as a kind of sound engineer. He sat in a glass booth and recorded the services, which were then given to church members who were ill or confined to nursing homes and the like. I would sit next to him while he recorded and sometimes I took the helm. It was the same year he taught me to program in Fortran, so making tapes of Sunday morning services wasn't much of a stretch. The only problem we tended to have was adjusting the sound levels when the organist played. The organ tended to overwhelm the sound equipment, partly because it was situated next to our little glass booth. Or so I seem to remember.
My little stint in the sound booth lasted for a couple years, up to the point where I refused to ever attend church again. In hopes of encouraging me to remain part of the church and to finish my confirmation classes, I was often the only person in the sound booth doing the recording. It was a strange time. During the week I wrote articles for little newsletters and magazines read by atheists and agnostics denouncing religion as the enemy of progress, enlightenment and mankind in general. On Sunday morning I was recording church services for distribution to the elderly and infirm.
Two things kept me involved in the church. The first was my father's attempt to keep me interested by giving me "work" to do. That work started with our sound recording sessions and later led to me running the food and beverage booth at the church's summer home, which was on a lake in Charlton, Massachusetts. The second was a small group of people within the church who seemed to be different than most. One was a minister named Denny, another was a man named Wally, and two women, both named Beverly, who convinced me to become a "counselor" at the summer day camp held out on Lake Charlton.
Now I was counseling young kids, helping them with arts and crafts and outdoor activities like volleyball and swimming, and going home to write my latest letter to the editor about how no intelligent human being would ever associate himself with religion.
The thing was, at the time, I did not consider myself to be a hypocrite. When it came to my time doing service for the church at Camp Charlton I had one steadfast rule. I always stood outside, alone, when everyone else went into the big cabin for vespers.
No one ever asked me to attend. No one ever questioned why I didn't. At least not as far as I can remember. The sign outside the house that looked like a frontier log cabin always contained the word "Vespers." There was always a time, as well as either a verse from The Bible or the subject of a planned sermon just below that word. While everyone else slowly made their way into the building, I would pick up a volleyball, or a softball bat, or a book and wander into the athletic field and spend time quietly by myself. Everyone pretty much knew that was how it was with me. I think some of them knew it was a kind of foreshadowing. It was just that no one knew what kind.
During my second year as a camp counselor, they moved vespers outside. The church had two ministers at the time. One of them was a cartoonist who studied under Charles M. Schultz and drew Peanuts cartoons to illustrate key points of his sermons. The other was Denny, a long-haired hippie-looking dude who I had met at overnight summer camp in New Hampshire a couple of years earlier. Denny played the guitar and turned gospel songs into rock and roll anthems. I wasn't exactly dealing with two fire and brimstone preachers who mumbled about the same crap every week in sermons that went on for hours. It didn't matter. I did not go to church. This was how it was and if God himself appeared in the sky and smacked my head between two stone tablets it wouldn't have changed my mind.
Years later when I was in therapy trying to sort my thoughts out following my efforts to end my life, I came to realize how complicated my rejection of religion really had been. As a boy I had talked to angels, and one in particular had kept hammering at the back of my head, pecking at me like a bird with a sharp beak. There are scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ that give me goosebumps every time I see it. Elements in that movie are so close to my own experience. I was a shy, skinny boy who was confused about everything and I had this voice in my head hammering away at my skull telling me to speak to the people and to tell them I had good news to share with them. I told the voice to "fuck off."
I suppose there are still some out there who think the reason I rejected religion as a teenager was because I was truly devoted to the principles of atheism and the atheist magazines I kept subscriptions to. I understand what Willem Dafoe was doing when he was building crosses for the Romans early on in that Last Temptation film. It is something I relate to very well. I also relate to the foreshadowing inherent in the cross building scenes in that film.
I never attended vespers during those summers, but I rode on the old bus that transported the kids to camp in the morning and home at night. They sang songs, usually led by my friend Denny, and everyone had a great time. I never sang along. I usually kept my arms folded and looked out the window.
No one ever asked me what I was doing there.
Wally was my father's closest friend in those days. He had been born without hands and his arms ended just below the elbow. Early in his life he had fallen into alcoholism and drug abuse, hating himself and the world for the cards he'd been dealt. Then he got married to a woman who helped him move past all that. They had two children together and got involved in the church whose services I once recorded.
They were part of that small group of people at the church who were somehow different than the rest. They were always involved, and not in activities involving preaching and pointing out sin. They worked with children. They held fundraisers for various needy causes. They helped people find better places to live. They brought food to people who were going through hard times. And they always involved me, the rebel teenager who told them God was a fairy tale and this Jesus character was a historical impossibility.
They taught me what it meant to not judge people, a lesson that later meant more to me when my parents divorced and they were given a cold shoulder by the membership of the church. That small group never turned away from them. In the end, the entire group left the church but remained steadfast in their belief that they were true Christians. Some found new churches to belong to. Others found different roads. Wally now works as a drug and alcohol counselor. Can you imagine confronting a recovering alcoholic and former drug addict with no arms and telling him your life is too difficult? Oh, and the dude was the best volleyball player I've ever met.
That little band taught me that the principles of forgiveness, giving and loving your fellow man was what it was really all about. They never tried to convert me. They never tried to get me to change my mind or accept any kind of beliefs. They taught me something else. By example.
Over the past decade I have taught myself religion. There has been no special formula to it. I listen to the voice of my angel. I write down the things she tells me and instead of having a bird pecking at the back of my head telling me I'm not doing what I need to do, I sleep well and find reasons to smile at everything in life. I read, watch and absorb what comes to me. I read holy books. I read what others have to say about holy books. I seek out others who have had mystical experiences and listen to what they have to say and share what I can of myself and my experiences. This is all I know how to do. I'm not a scholar or an expert. On anything. I used to think you needed to be. I don't think that way any longer. If only the so-called experts spoke up we'd never learn anything and we'd never get anywhere.
My parents, Wally and his wife, and the two Beverlys are all now divorced. Denny moved to another denomination and settled in as a youth minister, lost his long hair and wild man image, but still dreams of writing music and putting together plays for the theater, most of which don't seem to have anything to do with pushing religion. They all still just seem to really care about people.
And I keep trying to learn from their examples and our collective mistakes, which in the end teach us more than righteousness ever could.