Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Did I do this wrong?

While shopping around at a local furniture store the other day, I was greeted by owner, who very nicely asked me how I was doing. I replied "Just fine, thanks for asking, and how are you?" because I am polite like that. The gentleman answered "Better than I deserve to be. Can you say the same thing?"

A chill ran up my back. A cold sweat broke out on my neck. A goose marched over my grave, because I realized in an instant that this rejoinder was no off-hand remark. My interrogator's reply was, I sensed, more than likely a well-rehearsed opening gambit in the "save a soul" message developed by the fraternity of the Born-Again Christian Men's Association of the Deep-Fried Fundamentalist Arm of the Southern Baptist Church.

Take your hat off, son, you're in the presence of the Lord.

What to do, dear heavenly days, what to do?

I did an evasive glance out the window (don't look in his eyes, Tiff!) while frantically riffling through the mental rolodex for what would pass as a response that was (a) affirmative and (b) non-committal.

In that half-second of blind panic at "wanting to pass the test so I can just keep looking at the daggone recliners," I came up with this gem:

"I do believe I can, thanks for asking."

SUCCESS!!!! He beamed at me, said "all right, you have yourself a good day then," and turned toward another "mark," a smile on his face and salvation in his heart.

This southern thing is dang tough, y'all.


When I was a child, and through my college years, I went to church. A lot. Once on Sunday, and choir rehearsals on Wednesdays. I loved the way the grand music would swell from the pipe organs (we were Presbyterian and Methodist, and so had money for things like that), the smell of candle smoke, the big Bible in the pulpit, the way the church sanctuary always seemed to be full of something grand and mysterious. I enjoyed going to church, because I was usually singing, and therefore part of the act, the little show in the middle of the praying and preaching that gave people a chance to unwrap those mints or shift in their seats a little to get comfortable for the next big act in the three ringed service.

(first ring - everything up to the sermon, including the gospel readings and the offering. second ring - sermon. third ring - everything after the sermon, including the shaking of hands in the vestibule.)

The choir was like the clown act, a distraction between stage sets that keep the show moving along but doesn't require rapt attention to understand.

I liked church, but I didn't "get it." I wasn't what the Southerners would call a "Christian," even though I had been baptized and confirmed and went to VBS (that's vacation bible school, y'all), and was a good girl.

For, you see, I had not been "saved." Nobody that I knew, back in the day, had been either. We Protestants didn't DO such things. Oh sure, we went to church and supported missionaries and put the lights out at midnight on Christmas eve so the one candle could illuminate the darkness and sang grand old hymns and had brass quintets play at Easter, but we did NOT go around confessing our salvation to all and sundry. Heavens, no. Being "born again" was for thoseBible-belters, those snake handlers, those evangelist preachers who bilked people out of their money in the name of the Lord. Our style, it seemed to me, wore its religion in much more muted colors than those lit-up Baptists down South.

Religion's role in New England's culture, I was glad to find during my 15 years there, seemed like a comfortable pair of socks on a cool day - present, useful, but not too restrictive. People who went to church didn't ask you about your eternal soul very often. Congregationalists (the major religious body there) are calm and gentle people, and don't want to pry too much. I suspect they simply avoid intimate knowledge of the state of your soul for fear the talk will turn to their lives and some sins might fall from a dark closet shelf and they'll have to have a serious talk with the preacher. Best to leave all that tucked up where it is and get on with life.

But the South, dear Sweet Lord, the South. The hot, bright, biblical South. Crismons on cars, fish swallowing Darwin, VBS, AWANA, fried chicken lunches, exhortations on billboards to come to Jesus and be saved, crowded parking lots on Sundays, furniture store owners concerned about your heavenly reeeward.

Brightly colored Christianity, so bright it seems to shimmer.

However, their religion, as bright as it may be and no matter how it may light up lives, has nothing on the stained-glass window of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that hung in the church of my youth. Brightly colored glass Jesus, kneeling at the rock, bloody sweat pouring from his brow as he prayed for the world and for his life and for his acceptance of death and for his love for all man. The scene shimmered and swam in and out of focus one Christmas eve as I kneeled at the communion rail in my yellow choir robe. The light flooded my sight as I took the bread and cup. The words that rang in my head as my vision blurred with unexplainable tears have since become my whole "religion" :

God is love.

It's simple, isn't it. It's what I believe. It's what I try to live. It's who I try to be. It's enough for me, and it makes me happy.

But that's not something I can reel off in 3 seconds in order to keep looking at recliners, now is it?

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