Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Pumpkin Preacher

    Bright orange pumpkins caught my eye as I drove along a remote country road. A bountiful harvest garden with rows of tall cornstalks and root vegetables was backed by a huge sign, “God Makes Them Grow”. Wearing a scarecrow hat, the gardener stood, spot lit by September sunshine, posed as if in an autumn painting. I had to stop the car to admire the sight and to thank him for the luscious scene, including the words of faith on his sign.
Despite the deep ditch between us, we had a friendly chat. He said that local children loved his annual pumpkin giveaway. I spotted tall red flowers growing among the withering vegetable leaves and with my usual restraint shouted, 
“And look at those gorgeous gladiolae!” 
He took out a pocketknife, walked across the clods of dirt and sliced off a handful of long green stems with their brilliant scarlet blooms. As he gallantly handed me the bouquet, he told me that he was the lay minister at a nearby “Community” (no-name) Church and welcomed me to attend their Sunday morning gathering.

Sometimes when we travel, my husband and I visit random churches and we decided that we would return to the charming man’s service, partly to show our appreciation and partly because we’re curious about different renditions of  religious faith and spirituality. You just never know how God may appear next and what you might learn.

Three days later we entered a small white church building to the cheery sound of piano music. An older woman wearing a hat played the beat-up instrument with vigor. I quickly surveyed the room in case I should have had my own head covered, but I was safe; the eight other women were also bare-headed. The pianist, who turned out to be our gardener-preacher’s wife, expertly rocked out old hymns and current church songs. A few people sat scattered among four rows of chairs to the right of a centre aisle. On the left, three empty rows stood vacant in front of five folks who filled the last row! Stifling our grins at such back-row determination, we sat down ahead of them.

My inner decorator cringed at the unappealing worship space. It wasn’t just the plywood panelling, flowered curtains, a profusion of artificial plants and the incongruous lacy table coverings. These aesthetics were hard to ignore, but truly repulsive was the “artwork” on the wall directly in front of us. A photocopy of a painting was taped to the wooden panelling. Between two cities gaped a wide canyon, spanned by a cross-shaped bridge. From out of the canyon leapt monstrous flames of orange and yellow, filling the sky with dark grey smoke. It was hard to see details but the metaphorical image was familiar. In fundamentalist Christian religion, such images represent earth, heaven, and the hellfire torture waiting for any who don’t intentionally traverse the spiritual bridge created by Christ's death as they pass from life on earth to an afterlife in the heavenly city of God.
Maybe sometimes we need to be scared into what's best for us, the way cardiac patients finally begin to exercise, but the old-fashioned picture creeped me out.

Needless to say, we were the only visitors. During the announcements, our new friend, both Chair and preacher, introduced us and told the group how we had met. I was glad for a chance to describe his spontaneous gift of flowers. He strolled over to hand us two pens, clarifying for our benefit that the evening service noted on each pen no longer happened. Wince.
At his nod, his wife hit the keyboard again and the congregation of fifteen sang a welcome song to us.
My heart felt stretched like the crevasse cross between their sweet kindness and the hilarious horror of my confusion: Why do they all know a welcome song? How often can there be anyone visiting a backwoods church of this size? Do they practice the song just in case? And how can they afford customized pens, never mind the heating bills for this north-country building? Will we be allowed to leave???? 

I was impressed that the leader didn’t mention any donation or offering, and I admired their willingness to project all song lyrics on a screen as some big city churches still refuse to do.  

Whoosh! Suddenly back to my childhood in a fundamentalist church.  
The preacher began, “If you have your bibles with you, please open them to …”
Oops, not only didn’t I remember head coverings, I didn’t bring my own bible the way every proper person did in my parents' church.
When he started to read aloud, I realised that we were among what may be the last group in Canada who still choose to collectively read the bible in Shakespearean English (the King James version) instead of a modern translation. Time travel.
He followed his reading with another peculiar norm from my past:
“May the Lord add his blessing to this reading of his word.”
I wondered how this de rigeur prayer, a revised bit of the Anglican rite, had become a standard coda adopted by this sect. If you know, please tell me.

Then, the sermon. Cue shark-attack music.

My dear gardener-preacher began with the story of Jesus during his trial. In answer to Pilate’s query about whether he had committed sedition against Rome by claiming to be the king of the Jews, Jesus said,
 “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” (John 18)

Our preacher leapt from these provocative comments about truth to reminiscing about things that had been considered true in his youth but were no longer considered true. With anticipation my husband and I waited to hear how his thinking about Christian life and beliefs had evolved by the Spirit’s faithful teaching.
But no. Instead of focusing on what Jesus clearly taught, like “love God with all your mind and heart, and love your strange neighbours as much as you love yourself and your own kind”, the preacher talked about how far our society has strayed from the "truth” norms of the 1950’s when he was a teenager. He shook his head at the fact that homosexuality was accepted now. He lamented the fact that Canada has no current laws on prostitution (indeed that discussion is in process). He added pornography, abortion and illegal drugs to his list of sins, but didn't point out that his list related to the very people Jesus welcomed, those shunned by the self-righteous religious leaders of his day and still shunned by too many. 
He finished the talk without ever mentioning the type of personal failures most likely experienced by his audience, sins like our critical attitudes, over-consumption, self-absorption, envy, etc. He left us without any celebration of God’s loving forgiveness given to all. There was no encouragement to improve both our personal attitudes and our culture's skewed perspectives on justice, healthy sexuality, and materialism, for instance. 

I wrote and prayed my way through his talk, thankful for  God's merciful patience with us all in our blindness. I gave thanks for this live reminder of my first religious experiences and my escape from some misunderstandings about Christian faith with which I was raised. I thought of the wise, honest writers and mentors who had helped me gradually change my thinking. I felt grateful for moving at least a little, despite my lazy, dragging feet, toward more humility and more compassion for the failures of others.
As the writer of Psalm 130 says, "God, if you kept a record and punished us for our sins [destructive choices, stubborn selfishness, closed minds], who could stay standing?"

Wholeheartedly, I bless this man, his loyal wife, and whatever good they do in the world. May they and their congregation discover ever more of the abundant freedom that is Jesus’ standing invitation. (See John 10:10, Galatians 5:1)

Nothing but thankful.