|Photo by Texas State photographer, Wyman Meinzer|
Out of the ivory palaces,
Into a world of woe,
Only His great eternal love
Made my Savior go.
Only His great eternal love
Made my Savior go.
- Ivory Palaces
When I was in high school, I sang this song with my grandmother at the Methodist church in our West Texas town, pop. ~8000. Nannie was in the choir and played piano. She played beautifully, and learned new music well into her sixties, until Alzheimers robbed her of the ability.
We sang a lot of duets together, and I have really fond memories of those times. I love Ivory Palaces, and Ave Maria. Amazing Grace is my favorite because the harmony is so beautiful. Nannie grew up a Baptist, but became a Methodist after marrying my granddad. Church and faith was a big part of her life and so it was a big part of mine.
Her parents, my Mamaw and Pa, were Baptist. For 25 years, Pa taught a Sunday school class for fifteen year old boys; and later, he held a weekly breakfast meeting at the First National Bank for men who didn’t like going to church, but who loved my great-grandfather. I guess it was a sort of fellowship, breakfast, Bible study.
My parents were really young when they got married, and so I was lucky to have known my grandparents and great-grandparents into my adulthood. My great-grand parents lived through my graduation from college, and I had Nannie and Grandad (Granddaddy Rabbit) through law school. I think I’d still have Grandad today if he hadn’t died in an airplane accident in 2000. He was an amazing man.
I can distinctly remember being in my Aunt Carol’s kitchen when I was pretty young, although I can’t remember my exact age, but still in elementary school. Nannie was there. Carol, too. I was asking about heaven and hell, about Jesus and what it meant to ‘be saved’.
These things were on my mind and I was scared. That week, there was a big revival going on down to the Baptist church. It seemed to me everyone in town was there, certainly a lot of my classmates. I don’t remember my parents or any cousins, or even my brothers being there. But I was there. And I can’t even remember why.
The church was so white, the carpet a worn, deep green, and there were these long, soft, purple pads in the pews. Unlike my church, there was just a bunch of sitting and singing – no kneeling and repetitive praying, incense or crucifixes. Communion was grape juice (Welches – my favorite!) and a real piece of bread, not a wafer. And a man in a suit and tie was preaching, with passion and conviction, about sin and hell and the saving power of Jesus Christ.
Somewhere along the tail end of his preaching, the organ started playing. All around me, kids were crying and he was asking people to come up and be saved. One by one, people were walking up, head bowed, hands clasped, some in tears, some with smiles. I remember it being a beautiful moment and it felt very real to me.
I was scared, too. I was moved by the words, by the actions of those around me, by the things I’d heard the man say, and by what I was feeling in my heart. I didn’t fully understand what I was doing, but I walked to the front of the church. While two people came up to me to pray, I remember a sense of observation. As though it wasn’t me standing there…or it was me, but I was watching it happen, observing it all over my own shoulder. I prayed the prayer and I ‘was saved’.
And it felt good! But it was kind of scary, too…this notion of heaven and hell. What did it all mean? I knew I didn’t want to spend eternity in a 'lake of fire'. As a kid, eternity is unfathomable. Today, eternity is unfathomable. But still, I asked…what kind of people are going to hell? Why would God want that, much less allow it? How did it all work? As Carol made dinner and Nannie helped, I asked these things while getting milk out of the fridge.
Every summer, I went to Bible School at the Methodist church. It was a blast - lots of arts and crafts and snacks and singing and coloring, and of course, a lot of my friends were there. Plus, this was a place I associated with my grandparents. Safe, familiar, familial.
The hallways of the classrooms have a distinct smell, of books (hymnals and Bibles), and crayons, and candles. And on one end, a kitchen where the church ladies make amazing homemade lunches and desserts. Oh, it’s a good smell. On the day we buried my grandfather, I was overcome by that smell. Summer’s home on college breaks I would attend Rotary lunches there with him and my dad. That smell…it’s embedded in my DNA, just as is the smell of a West Texas sky in the face of rain.
One summer, I think it was the summer before high school, I went to a Methodist church camp. I was nervous, because all the kids riding up to the camp were older than me and they were so cool. All the girls were beautiful and worldly and funny, and I was just this lump. Although I was nervous, I was also excited, because lump though I was, I was in the mix! That excitement turned cold in a heartbeat when I overheard someone say the cabins only had group showers.
There was no way I was undressing in front of any of these goddesses, and so I didn’t shower the whole weekend. If anyone noticed, they were kind enough not to mention it.
Mom was incredulous, unpacking my clothes. “What do you mean you didn’t shower the whole trip?” she questioned. At that point, though, what could she do? I ended the weekend with a long soak in the tub, glad to be home, and we never discussed it further that I can recall.
Other than that mortification and failure in personal hygiene, nothing about the weekend stands out.
I was a late bloomer in a lot of ways. I was in junior high before I realized why all my friends were so concerned with their hair and make-up and clothes, and boys. I still didn’t comprehend why I was not.
But, the why was starting to sink in. And it scared me. I didn’t want to be that way. Everything I knew about being that way meant I was going to be one of those people who ended up in the lake of fire.
And so, I spent more time studying the Bible and looking for loopholes. Something…anything…that would either change me or provide a way out.
As a family, we went to church every Sunday – without fail. But if you’ve ever been to a Catholic church, you know that it is always the same, week in and week out. Unlike all that singing and sitting and clapping and praying those other churches do, a Catholic Mass has a distinct and timeless order to it.
Having had a taste of how it was done elsewhere, as well as struggling with these feelings growing inside me, I rebelled against my parents and Mass every Sunday. I distinctly remember fighting with my mom one evening, in church, during a Veneration of the Cross ceremony.
All heated whispers:
“I’m not going up there, Mom.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not. That is a statue. It’s not Jesus. And I’m not kissing the feet of that statue. That’s idolatry, Mom.”
She could not sway me. As she and my dad and brothers walked up to the front of the church with the rest of the congregation, I walked to the back and watched from the door. Smug. Holier than thou. A know-it-all brat.
During this time, I had begun going to church with my friend, Marlene. I played guitar and she played piano and we both loved Amy Grant and God and music and singing and going to church and by our senior year, we were writing our own stuff, which we thought, no, we KNEW, was amazing.
To this day, I think my mom believes something was going on between me and Marlene. But there wasn’t. We were just kindred souls, looking for meaning and answers in our own way. Marlene really did love Jesus, and has gone on to be a teacher, still performing and playing and preaching.
My ‘preaching’ carried on to my freshman year in college. On one hand, I was the silly, always laughing and up for an adventure, goofball. Surprising, I know. On the other, I was questioning everything, because I was deeply questioning myself.
And I was struggling with the answers my self was telling me at every turn.
Away from home, I didn’t have to go to church every Sunday if I didn’t want to. Instead of partying or drinking, I gravitated to what I knew and ended up very involved in Campus Crusade for Christ. Still playing guitar and singing all the familiar hymns and LOVING EVERY SECOND OF IT because Dyonna and Michele were there and godilovedbeingaroundthem.
So that’s why, when my family, including my parents and granddad and brothers came up one weekend to visit, my dorm room door was covered in scripture and pictures of starving kids from Ethiopia.
And it’s why, in the course of holding Bible Study one night, it was perfectly understandable that Michele and I would continue our discussion after everyone had left, under the covers and in the dark and ohmygodwhatishappening.
And reconciling that has been a lifelong endeavor.
I still question everything. Before, I questioned and clung and judged because I was afraid of who and what I was. Nannie (or maybe it was Carol or my mom) had a beautiful needlepoint piece on faith. I can’t remember it in its entirety, but a portion of the inscription read “Faith is the belief in things unseen…”
That’s hard (and, let’s be honest, CRAY CRAY).
That whole “loving your neighbor as you love yourself” thing is, too.
Like the hallways of that Methodist rectory and the scent of rain in a West Texas sky, these things are embedded in me. And they matter.
I have come to terms with who and what I am; and, for the most part, I am content. Still...I question and rail and judge and argue every day.
And these things are kicking up because my dad has cancer. Again.
He was in remission for a good while, but it’s come back. And every day for the past few weeks, and every day for the next month or two, he is undergoing radiation. Every day, five days a week, my parents carve out two hours. Dad, in the room getting poked and prodded and zapped, while mom prays The Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
And during this time, I’ve been going to choir practice with him and Mass on Sundays, where we sing.
And sometimes while we sing, tears roll down my face. And I am moved.
What I believed when I was younger is different from what I believe today. When asked to reconcile being gay to a belief in God (and, after all, being raised inTexas, I get this question a lot), I would always say that I am not presumptuous enough to know the mind of God, and I’d be reminded of a verse I clung to one night, in tears, really just not wanting to have to answer the question. It’s from Micah (6:8):
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Although I know my dad would say otherwise, I don’t have the answers.
I have only this moment, and the hope that my dad will get better and I will have more years with him and Mom in my life.
And faith. The belief in things unseen, and the never-ending struggle towards reconciliation.