House Of God

(an essay I wrote for an expository English composition class in college) 

For Peter Maas

A single rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding
than a hundred blows delivered into a fool. Proverbs 17:10

“Look at those nasty kids. They have no respect for the house of God.”

My mother’s nostrils flared a bit and her top lip, slightly peeled back from her teeth on one side, quivered with just enough of a sneer to register her deep contempt, not merely for them, but for all children in general. Watching the youngsters race through the church sanctuary, laughing and squealing in their tag-play, justified every ounce of her loathing.

“Oh, lighten up, Mother,” I said, rolling my eyeballs to emphasize her overly judgmental attitude. “Church doesn't even start for another fifteen minutes.”

We were just visiting my mother’s church that day, and my own two boys were seated quietly on either side of her, clearly out of my jurisdiction. I am, after all, one of those errant and incompetent types of parent who doesn’t get her undies all in a bunch when children commit the unforgivable sin of behaving like children.

“That's not the point,” she snapped back. “Those kids are disrespecting God’s house. When I was a kid we never dared to act like wild hooligans in church. And we never blah blah blah blah blah...”

Ah yes.. I recall fondly from my own youth: Church was men in dark funeral suits and stuffy old ladies wearing pearls and fur coats in July. Church was in the super-rich neighborhood clear across town, because none of the churches in our (lower middle-class) neighborhood were good enough for my mother. Church was where my mother believed in God and Jesus for an hour on Sunday, but hung her Christianity up in the closet all the rest of the week along with her Sunday-best dress. Church was music from songbooks with lyrics beyond comprehension, sung slightly off-key by my mother's loud alto voice, accompanied by piano and that most loathsome musical instrument of all—Dr. Phibes’ pipe organ.

Church was where the preacher delivered fiery, emotionally charged sermons on the dangers of hellfire and damnation and occasionally knocked his glasses of his head in the heat of the moment, while the congregation sat bored with complacency, fanning themselves with their bulletins and periodically checking their watches.  It was where Good Christians (like my mother) went religiously every Sunday and Bad Christians (like my step-father) went only on Easter and Christmas.

Church was where kids were forced to go, even though the unwritten rule stated emphatically: Children are not allowed!  Church was where I was never permitted to help pass the offering plate and never allowed to partake of the Tiny Cup of Grape Juice and Tiny Cracker ritual. The unwritten rules, on which my mother was a self-appointed expert, stated that Holy Communion is not for children.

“You can’t take Communion until you’ve been baptized.”

“When can I be baptized?”

“When you’ve reached the age of accountability,” my mother informed me.

“When will I reach the age of a cow billy?” (And for years I often wondered what cow billies had to do with Communion).

“When I say so,” she said.  After all, she was (and is) the foremost expert on everyone else’s relationship with God. My mother’s conscience, to this day, serves as a perpetual guide for everyone in the entire world—everyone except herself (since she never does anything wrong).  She has first-hand knowledge on who is going to heaven (her), and who is going to hell (mostly the entire world, but especially me.  And Barak Obama and Oprah Winfrey—because they’re black and both devil worshipers. But mostly because they’re black).

Roughly at about twelve, the mysterious Age of Accountability had coiled itself like a snake inside of me, just waiting for the opportunity to strike. And it was the very last time my mother ever forcibly dragged me to church with her.

I was determined not to go that day, and my mother and I fought for nearly two hours over who would have her way. Through brute force she won her last battle; I was defiantly standing there, still in my pajamas when she grabbed a fistful of my hair and screamed in my face: “GET DRESSED AND BE IN THE CAR IN EXACTLY FIVE MINUTES, OR SO HELP ME GOD, I WILL BEAT YOU WITH A BELT WITHIN AN INCH OF YOUR LIFE!!”

Naturally the unwritten law stated that ‘getting dressed’ meant in your Sunday Best.

Six and one half minutes later, in silent, angry protest, I marched out to the car wearing a big black Rolling Stones t-shirt (you know, the one with the big giant red lips and tongue silkscreened across the entire front) and my rattiest pair of torn-up Levis.

My mother was furious and caught in a true quandary:  Be late and look bad (no way!), leave the rebellious kid home and lose the battle (never!), go to church on time and win battle, despite a few minor casualties (YES! Because that’s what my mother's religion is all about; wars and fights and instilling deep animosity in the hearts of those you conquer!)

Needless to say, we arrived.  On time.  And as we went down the center aisle to take our seats on the pew in that fancy church on the super-rich side of town, I overheard a furry, pearly, stuffy old woman remark to her companion: “Look at that nasty kid. She has no respect for the house of God. What kind of mother would bring a wild hooligan like that to church?”

While I was flashing back to the past in a fleeting daydream, my mother continued to ramble on and on and on in her oft-repeated lectures entitled ‘How It Used To Be’ and ‘I Never Allowed You To…’ and ‘We Never Dared…!’  I politely nodded my head and smiled every now and then, trying my darndest to look like I was hanging on her every word.  But I secretly drifted back into my own memories of ‘How It Really Was’.

Returning home from church that day, at the Age of Accountability, I demonstratively laid my bible on top of the kitchen trash can, and right in front of my mother.  Yes, I wanted to see her face when I stripped away her power to threaten me with hellfire and damnation.  I was not afraid of hell anymore.  I was already living through the worst that hell could ever offer.  And in my heart I cursed God and Jesus and my mother’s religion of hypocrisy, vowing never to step foot inside the house of God ever again, for as long as I lived.  That was how it really was.

I sighed out loud and shifted in the pew, no longer trying to pretend like I was listening, and hoping to God that my mother would get the hint. Which, of course, she didn’t.  (She never does!)  So I sighed again, even louder, while she droned on and on with her hate and contempt and railing judgments against people whose bratty children were disgracing the house of God with their fun and laughter.

“…blah blah blah and you really need to get on the ball and start teaching your kids to respect their elders and the house of God...”  she interrupted herself by slapping my oldest son’s hand (he was eight at the time) as he reached for the communion tray when it passed by. Then:  “You see?!” She gave me the I Told You So look. “He just tried to get his dirty hands on the Communion and you don’t even care.”

Oh, but that’s where she was dead wrong.  I cared.  A lot.  And I had noticed long ago, the true mark that separates the sheep from the goats. Traveling back into my daydreams, I remembered the true day of reckoning and accountability.  The day I had reached out with my own dirty hands.

Near the end of my seventeenth year, after having been on my own for nearly two years, I’d begun to feel a tug way down inside of my heart; a deep hunger and longing that came from a definite God-shaped void. The void had become an insatiable vacuum, no longer susceptible to drugs or alcohol, not satisfied by running away from home or running from my Narcissist Mother, not by dabbling in weird cult religions or even by Satan himself. 

I distinctly heard a voice that day, asking me: “Terri.. why do you despise me so?”

Realizing that I was standing before the majestic and almighty God of the universe, truly accountable, I could not answer.  Because I knew, deep down.. that God was neither the author nor the co-conspirator in my mother's hypocrisy and hatefulness.

“My home is not inside of any building,” the voice continued. “My home.. is inside of you.”

The pages of scripture suddenly came to life before my eyes:  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dwell with him, and he with me.”

Jesus Christ!  Oh my God! Wondering if anyone else knew such things as these, I found myself rushing into a church that following Sunday to tell them all the good news, that I know Jesus; that Jesus knows me!  He knows my name. He really KNOWS me. 

I was not overly concerned with my appearance that day, which definitely had that outdoorsy look and aroma of a teenage runaway, and which consequently had nothing at all to do with the changes that were occurring inside of me.  But as I plowed through the huge, double doors of the church, I was more stunned by them than they were by me:  The Church was men and women smiling, dressed in the majesty of Christ, which included suits and fancy dresses, Levis, and even a pair of Bermuda shorts! The Church sang songs that they knew by heart to the accompaniment of guitars, drums, and other twentieth century musical instruments. Few of the congregation participated in the merriment with tambourines while the rest of them clapped their hands.  They looked and sounded.. happy.

The Church had their bibles opened to discover what the truth truly was, and as the preacher preached, they flipped through their treasured, black books to see for themselves whether it was so.  And it was all so suddenly obvious that Good Christians loved Jesus, while Bad Christians faded into oblivion, having no meaning whatsoever.  And as I strolled down the middle aisle and took a seat in one of the pews, a woman leaned forward from behind me and whispered into my ear: “We’re so glad you came today.  We’ve been waiting for you.” (I will never forget you, Ruby Miller).

I turned around to get a look at who was speaking to me like that, and was so amused to find her all dressed up in pearls and a fur coat.  She was one of the most beautiful old ladies I had ever seen (next to my Mima). And she, too, seemed much amused by me, even nodding her approval at my Sunday Best—I had come as myself.  Just as I am.

Returning to the present, my mother’s endless monotone had now shifted to the new generation of sloppy dressers and the whole attitude of outward nonchalance where God’s house was concerned: “God’s going to step in and do something. It isn’t right.” (Sigh)  Secretly, I could not wait until the service at my mother’s church was finally over; until I could get away from her and her poison again.  Far away from her religion... and back to the place where the bible is the standard for all that is true and where unwritten laws do not exist. The place where children rank first in the Kingdom of God.. because Jesus said so. The place where the House of God isn’t a building to go to one hour per week, all dressed up in your Sunday-Hypocrisy, but is ultimately.. something to be.

Terri M. © July 1990

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Lissa Fenix-Hammond said...

I cannot tell you how much I love this, how much this blessed me, and how much I needed to hear this story. Love you. Love Jesus. You are my family in experience, and in Christ.

Lissa Fenix-Hammond said...

I cannot tell you how much I love this, how much this blessed me, and how much I needed to hear this story. Love you. Love Jesus. You are my family in experience, and in Christ.

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