Monday, April 27, 2009

I LEARN ABOUT GOD Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 8.

After my early religious indoctrination, while I was in the early years of college, I asked myself if, had I grown up alone on an island and never been told anything by anybody, I would have conceived or discovered the idea of a God. My answer had to be “no”. I concluded that I, as a lone islander, would have felt that there was an awesome power responsible for Nature and my existence, but that I would not have come up with the idea of God as taught in church. The Power that created the ocean and trees and birds and fish and me would have been a great mystery, but not some kind of “person”, much less God in three persons.

Would I also have independently come up with the idea of “worship”? I don't think so. “Prayer”? I don't know. Maybe. To whom or to what? In what form? Is the impulse to communicate with invisible forces sparked by one's experience of reality, or is it taught?

As a university student trying to separate what I had been taught about God from what I might have found or invented on my own, I concluded that when the teachings of others were removed, what I felt and believed was that there was something – “spirit” was the best word I could think of – which underlay everything in the universe. Spirit was the source, the underpinning of everything. It was invisible to human eyes but was manifested in everything our senses could perceive.

What I was taught in earlier years was an entirely different thing.
In the time and place where I grew up, religion meant church and Sunday School. Daddy came from a Baptist family and Mother from a Methodist. It was because of strong feelings on Gramma’s part that we children were subjected to the Southern Baptist Church, which was generally regarded as the least sophisticated of the major brands offered in Gainesville – Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian – but also the most popular. The Roman Catholic Church was also represented in the town in a little white church the size of an ordinary home, but regarded by the great majority of the population as a tiny, strange, exotic, almost heathen denomination of idol-worshipers which had unnaturally survived and struggled on after the Protestant Reformation and was ruled by a foreign Pope from Rome.

From the beginning, my association with church and Sunday School was a disaster. My first experience was brief in the extreme. For a number of years it remained high in Daddy’s earliest list of complaints about me -- which included such offenses as carving my initials in the stepladder, spilling my drink on somebody at a football game, and aggravating a man in the seat in front of us when I was taken to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When I was very young, Daddy took me to nursery class at a church to begin my journey to salvation. There I was deposited among a bunch of little children sitting around a table covered with paper and crayons, surrounded on the walls by pictures of foreign men in bathrobes, many with rings of light above their heads. After I declined to prolong the visit, I am bawling as Daddy angrily carries me down the stairs over his shoulder and back to the car. I think that it was because of his embarrassment that I was spared Sunday School for another year or more.

I think that although both my parents believed, by default, in the basic tenants of Protestant Christianity -- that Jesus was the Son of God sent to save us, and that the Bible was dictated by God -- they both seemed to feel that a person could establish an adequate relationship with the Deity without going to church. Neither discussed the subject much, certainly not with us children, who were best left to the experts, but my father spoke of being able to worship God as well in a fishing boat in the middle of a lake as in a church building, and he scorned people who went to church “every time the doors open.”

Of course it is an ultimate consequence of Protestantism that church becomes merely a place to socialize with those of like beliefs, and to listen to a moral message from a person who is no more divinely anointed than the congregation which is listening. Proper belief and prayer — and in my mother’s and her mother’s case, reading the more pleasant and optimistic parts of the Bible — were sufficient to satisfy God. On the other hand, one had to consider the threat of hell (known in our house as “the bad place”) and those words about, “wherever three or more gather together in my name,” and the phrase, “the house of God,” and so there might be extra credit for attending church.

I would have been much better off if I had been told about God solely by my parents than sentenced to serve time in the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Florida, our spiritual headquarters.

This landmark in my life’s progress was located on the south side of University Avenue a few blocks north of the center of town, facing the State Theater – the facade of Christianity squared off against the temple of Hollywood, where it was my natural inclination to worship. The church was — is — a large red brick, three story building with something like the white front of the Parthenon embedded in the facade. The building is, I have read, in the Classical Revival style, and holds one thousand worshipers. Six white pillars across the facade alternate with two layers of tall windows. There may have been some rational motive for pasting columns onto the front wall of a brick building rather than having them actually hold something up — maybe to save the expense of genuine columns and a real portico. The entrance to the big sanctuary was from stairways on either side of the facade, rather than directly from the front. In the back part of the building was the warren of dim Sunday School rooms and offices.

Most of our Sundays during the period of my life from about the age of eight to sixteen began with Sunday School, which was followed by the main church service at eleven o’clock. Sunday School, as its name implies, smacked too much of school to be a welcome destination for a child on a weekend morning. It had grades and classes like regular school. The rooms smelled of chalk, crayons, books, deteriorating paper, and floor wax. There were inspirational pictures and mottoes on the walls, just as in real school, and one had the same dreary sense of captivity as when falling into the clutches of a home room teacher at eight in the morning on an otherwise beautiful day — brightened only by the fact that Sunday School lasted less than an hour.

The pictures on the assembly and classroom walls, by the way, are all that I can remember of my very earliest years at Sunday School, because I thought those garishly tinted men and women draped in curtains looked so strange and alien. There was always Jesus with children gathered around him, and The Good Shepherd holding a shepherd's crook, and the miracle worker walking on water while his disciples looked on with typical expressions of astonishment. In deference to Baptist sensibilities the miracle of turning water into wine was omitted in favor of the much more impressive scene of distribution of unlimited loaves and fishes to an admiring throng.
Sunday School began with general assemblies, followed by the smaller individual classes separated by age and gender. In the general assemblies we were treated to greetings, prayers, and announcements, and were expected to join in singing a hymn or two. “Jesus Loves Me” was a favorite, along with “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.”

“Stand up and sing,” the assembly leader said. “Jesus hung up on a cross for you. You can at least stand up and sing for him.” Even at a young age, I thought that was a tasteless and stupid statement.

My assembly leader for awhile was Judge McDonald, who had the misfortune to adopt a child who turned out to be a Holy Terror, as my father put it, and who frequently had to be expelled from the very Sunday School assembly over which his adoptive father was presiding. (I wonder if Judge McDonald ever had to recuse himself from sentencing his own adopted son to prison.) At one time my father was the leader of my assembly. He and Mother both served a term as Sunday School teachers, as did numerous other parents during the time their children were in their formative years.

The entertaining part of Sunday School occurred during the few minutes that might elapse between the arrival of us boys in the classroom and the entry of the teacher. Is it remarkable that there was no spontaneous manifestation of piety or discussion of religious issues? Is it possible that at the ages of 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 we would not have taken an interest in God and His plan for us if adults hadn't told us there was such a Person who demanded our attention, obedience, and devotion? Is it strange that our Bible lesson of the day didn't arouse intense interest in the improvement of our moral characters and the salvation of our souls, or at least some growing curiosity about the details of Jewish history? The unsupervised behavior in the Sunday School rooms indicated that we boys had no interest whatsoever in the chronicles and genealogy of the Hebrews or in the letters of the apostles. On the contrary, an objective observer would have concluded that we were interested only in learning about sex and telling jokes.

One of the few things I remember from Sunday School was R.L. Coleman's story about sex with his cousin. R.L. was a nice fat country boy who appeared older than the rest of us at the putative age of 11, and who was certainly who more worldly than the sons of white collar workers and professors and doctors and lawyers and who made up the large majority of his school companions. He always wore blue denim overalls to regular school, but on Sundays he dressed up in a short sleeved shirt and khaki trousers. He carried a pipe wherever he went, at an age when the rest of us were still several years away from trying our first cigarette.

“Last night,” he began, leaning back and crossing his legs with an air of imparting wisdom to the unsophisticated, “I went out to the barn to smoke my pipe. I wasn't wearing nothing but my underpants 'cause it was late. I was standing by the pig pen with my foot up on the fence, just looking at the stars and sucking on my pipe when I seen something white move in the dark, and it turns out it's my cousin Arlene. She comes up and stands next to me, and she ain't wearing nothing but her slip. She acts real sweet, and so after awhile I put my arm around her and squeeze one of her titties. Next thing I know, she's ahold of my peter and starts squeezing on it. So I stop smoking, knock out my pipe on the fence, and turn around and start kissing her. The next thing I know she's leaning back against the barn and she's pulling up her slip, and we're screwing standing up. Mmmm boy! I bet none of you all had so much fun last night.”

It was a safe bet, on odds of about a million to one. R.L. closed his eyes and smiled contemplatively while those of us who lived on wet dreams and hopes that a girl would someday let us put a hand inside her blouse gazed at the obese master in mesmerized wonder.

The only Sunday School teacher I remember by name was Mr. Ted Eubanks, who ran a Sinclair gas station. He was a sincere, lean man. Maybe the reason I remember him is (1) that he told us in great detail about his appendicitis attack, which sent him running out of his front door and rolling on the ground, and (2) that he proved the existence of God by pointing out that the light bulb burning above our heads would go out if the electricity were shut off. God, of course, was the electricity, the generator, and even though we could not see Him, He kept us alive. I was impressed by that analogy but baffled as I tried to pin down its exact implications.

In Sunday School and sermons we were taught all that really mattered about the universe. God had written the Bible — dictated it, actually, to men in long robes with neon lights around their heads, eyes rolled toward the sky, hands poised with quill pens waiting to take down the next sentence. Therefore every word in the Bible was absolutely true, even the contradictory parts. It all began with the Jews, whose many shenanigans made some entertaining stories, such as Samson and Delilah, and proceeded until God got tired of punishing them for their disobedience and sent his Son to save all humanity under a new contract.

God was a very big person who created the Earth in seven days, rested, then put a married couple on it, and even walked with them in the Garden of Eden for awhile until they made him mad by eating fruit off the wrong tree. It was downhill for the human race from then on. Downhill, that is, until God sent his only begotten son so that whosoever believeth on him shall have everlasting life. (We had to repeat John 3:16 so often that we knew it better than our own names.) Having become fed up with his chosen tribe’s devilry several times over, even after having destroyed all but a handful of them along with everybody else on earth for good measure, God gave us one last chance by sending his son to be born on earth and offer salvation.

Salvation from what? Saved from going to hell, and therefore going to heaven, where one would be greeted by relatives beside a river and have a happy time forever. All you had to do was accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and God would take care of the rest.

It sounded a little too easy to me. And besides, how could God have a son? We had never been told about a Mrs. God, and we were also told by the more sagacious Sunday School teachers that God was not a man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere, but instead a super person who could do anything, who could make anything happen that He wanted to happen, and who was everywhere all the time, hearing and knowing everything that happened at every moment, even your thoughts. There was no way to hide from Him, even inside your mind, and He – like Santa Claus – was always taking notes so He could decide eventually how you would be judged and sent to Heaven or The Bad Place.

It seemed like a strange arrangement to me. If God was all-powerful, why didn’t He just make everything all right to start with? Why didn’t He create people good? Why did He let the Devil run around loose? Why didn’t He just create heaven and not hell? And what possible good could it do to send His son to earth to be murdered and then ask people to believe that His son was really His son in spite of having come to a bad end, and make that the ticket to heaven?

Such thoughts became very important to me as I got older and began to read philosophy and history, but at first I just had vague discomforts that got bounced from one specious answer to another like a volleyball.

One incident that stands out in my mind is when Dr. McCall, the minister who presided over the church, was indoctrinating a group of us young people in the finer points of theology preparatory to our graduating to a higher level of Sunday School.

Dr. McCall was a fine looking, pale, whitehaired man, tall and thin and dignified, with a wonderful Virginia accent which made him pronounce “about” as “aboot,” “house” as “hoose”, and “cards” as “kyards.” When preaching at the regular church service, he often wore an entirely white outfit — white suit, white shirt, white tie, white socks, white shoes. When I saw him raking leaves in his yard one day — in clothes other than the white suit — I could hardly believe he was the same person.

“Faith,” Dr. McCall told the candidates for baptism, “means absolute trust in the Lord. It means doing whatever Jesus wants you to do.” He gestured toward the open window with his long fingers. We were on the second floor of the church. “If Jesus stood down there on the sidewalk and called to you to jump out of that window and he would save you from harm, you would jump. If you have faith in Jesus, you would jump.”

My hand shot up.

“How would we know it was Jesus?”

“That’s what I mean: You must have faith, which can mean believing without proof.”

“But how would we know it was really Jesus?”

“You must have faith. If Jesus says, ‘I am your Lord. Jump!’, if you have the faith that’s taught in the Bible, you would jump, knowing you would not be hurt.”

“But what I mean is, how would we know it wasn’t just somebody saying he was Jesus?”

Dr. McCall cleared his throat and said something like, “Well, for the purpose of what we’re talking about, it really is Jesus, and I think you would know Jesus if you saw him.”

Thus my “But” was sidestepped, and I doubt that the dialogue continued, but I was left wondering from a practical point of view how I would know if God, or Jesus, was sending me messages — assuming any messages came — or if an impostor was at work. I can see now that this is a serious problem not only for me but for a lot of other people, some of whom have murdered even their own children in the belief that God had given them the order.

We were lucky to have Dr. McCall for our pastor. He was not of the fire and brimstone branch of the Southern Baptist Church. His sermons were serious and thoughtful, designed to instill belief in Jesus and to motivate good living according to Jesus’ teachings without scaring people half to death in the process. His references to hell were rather oblique, as I recall, although he did have his share of scare stories aimed at getting people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior without delay. One was about a young man of dissolute ways whose mother pleaded with him to be baptized. He scorned her earnest admonishments and sank further into the sinful mire of kyards and dancing, and even tasted liquor. As he was leaving home to go to college, his mother stood by the side of the train and begged him at least to say that he would accept Jesus and be baptized as soon as possible. He refused.
“And, do you know?” Dr. McCall said. “As that poor boy stood in a doorway of the moving train, the train gathering high speed, the boy leaning out to wave to his mother in the distance, his head was caught by a wire and he was decapitated. Suddenly, an unbeliever and sinner who had been given the opportunity to be saved, he was cast into Eternity without salvation.”

Sincere tears glistened in Dr. McCall’s eyes. Even if he did not mention the word “hell,” the implications were clear enough, and an unusually large number of people went up to the front of the church to accept Jesus as their savior that morning.

The only other Dr. McCall story I remember was one from his seminary days. He told how, after studying for awhile to become a minister, something — maybe some doubt about his vocation — made him consider quitting his studies. He agonized about it, prayed, and asked God to tell him what to do. He was packing his suitcases when he placed his Bible on the bed and was moved to let it fall open. Before him was a page on which there was a verse which said, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Dr. McCall unpacked his clothes and stayed. That event impressed me deeply. It exuded authenticity and something deeper than the command to believe this or that because the Bible says so.

The Sunday morning church services, which immediately followed Sunday School at 11 o'clock, were seemingly interminable periods of ennui in which prayers stretched on and on like parched deserts, and sermons were evaluated by me according to how many plodding minutes they consumed on the clock above the balcony at the rear of the church.

I preferred sitting up in one of the side balconies and looking down on the sea of ladies' Sunday hats, from which arose the scent of dusting powder. Many of the congregation held cardboard fans on wooden sticks. The brightly colored side of the fans depicted scenes from the life of Jesus, while the back side contained a funeral parlor ad – an appropriate reminder of the main reason one was in church in the first place.

Dr. McCall's prayers were long and methodical. They generally started with a request for a general blessing of this church and its congregation, then zoomed in on such people as Sarah Turnipseed, who was sick in the hospital, and the Jameson family, which needed strength in their time of loss, and then pulled back out to draw God’s attention to various other groups and categories who needed help or guidance — children and their parents and teachers, missionaries, our “black brethren” in their own churches, and also drunkards, kyard players, sinners generally — and finishing up with pleas that our president and our congressmen of both houses and both parties would receive wisdom in governing our great country, made strong by its Christian faith, and that the Holy Spirit would lead to the conversion of the heathen in all nations. Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be anybody left to mention, and when I was passionately wondering why God, since he was all-knowing and perfect, couldn’t do all those things without being reminded, Dr. McCall would think of something else to draw to the Lord's attention, and the prayer would drag on for yet another mile.

But much worse were the occasional prayers by one of the old men who sat together up front and to the left, and now and then intoned, “Amen!” when Dr. McCall would touch on damnation or make an uncharacteristically sharp attack on some particular category of miscreant. This would have been the vigorous “Amen corner” in some country churches, but loud vocal responses to sermons were looked upon as poor form in Gainesville. Anyway, if Brother Tom or Deacon Bob were invited to stand up and offer a prayer, just forget having that roast beef anywhere near 12:30 because not only were the speaker’s pet gripes all paraded out, one by one, for the Lord’s attention, usually including a few digs relating to church politics in the form of requests for enlightenment to the misguided, but the opportunity was also invariably seized to present an entire bonus sermon to the congregation in the guise of pleas to the Lord.

The regular church service also included, of course, the passing of big wooden plates for the deposit of offerings, and a plea for those who were moved to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior to come to the front of the church to the melody of “Almost persuaded. . . .” and sit in the front pew and be welcomed and prayed over. On some Sundays young people who felt a calling to missionary work received an invitation to come to the front of the church and be recognized and praised. Communion was not a weekly feature, but it was always welcome because jiggers of grape juice were passed down the pews on platters fitted with round holes. There wasn't much grape juice in a glass, but any deviation from routine was welcome.

When once or twice over the years we did have a fire and brimstone evangelist as a “revival” guest preacher, it was a relief even though it might give one nightmares for awhile afterward, because at least it was lively, and the sight of seeing a man leaping from one side of the platform to the other, shouting until he was hoarse, pounding on his Bible with his fist, drawing down vivid visions of a flaming and unending hell in which sinners writhed like worms on fishhooks, was a far cry from Dr. McCall anchored at his pulpit trying to reason quietly with people. I got the impression that a Baptist “revival meeting” was essentially a way to frighten a quiescent congregation back into avid belief and faithful tithing.

Some people, judging from the loudness of their vocal contributions, enjoy singing hymns. I discovered very early that, basically, I could not sing at all, and I merely moved my mouth to appear cooperative rather than risk an off-key squawk. In any case, I disliked all hymns, which I continue to feel are for the most part insipid music and worse words. When the Music Director enthusiastically called for “one more verse” I felt as if another stone was being added to those already bending my back. I later appreciated learning that the famous Christian convert C.S. Lewis disliked hymns as much as I did. He avoided church services that included music, and said, “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”
There were two exceptions to church music boredom. One was the fact that the organist for the First Baptist Church was Claude Murphree, the University of Florida organist, an excellent musician. A rotund homosexual man with a balding head, he played great and often rousing organ classics before and after the spoken parts of the service, and although my appreciation of music took time to develop, I would sometimes pause at the end of an aisle — after all that waiting to get home to the roast beef — just to listen to a little more Bach.

The other entertaining musical exception was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Claude Murphree's beautiful performances. It invoked laughter. There was always at least one song each Sunday by a soloist, and some of the soloists had mannerisms which were more comic than artistic. Some singers overreached in their effort to project piety, while some were just plain bad. One woman in particular invariably sent me and any children near me into spasms of laughter. When I saw this woman's name on the program I experienced a mixture of delighted anticipation and dread because, although laughing uncontrollably was a great treat, in church it was also a juvenile misdemeanor.

Her primary idiosyncrasy was to prolong the “s” on any word ending with “s”, and to do so with sudden explosive emphasis and volume, thus: “. . . eternal blissSSSSSSSSSSSSS”. Or “the love of JesusSSSSSSSSSS”. The accent on the beginning of the extra hiss was so violent that people jerked in their seats, perhaps jolted awake from a pleasant doze, and the sea of fans stopped waving for an instant before resuming their leisurely motion. I was literally on the floor under the pew by then, holding a hand over my mouth in a vain attempt to stifle the sound of my laughter. . . which was sent even more out of control by the “hee hee hees” and snorts coming from other children.

To make the hilarity more excruciating, this same woman had another vocal trick – putting a gratuitous “AAHHHH” on the end of an occasional word, so that “this blessed rock” at the end of a line became “this blessed rockahhhhhhhh.”

With tears wetting my cheeks, it would sometimes take me an entire ministerial prayer or set of announcements to recover from my fits of hilarity, and then I would sit upright again and watch the clock, waiting for noon, when we would drive home to our Sunday roast, whose aroma I could already smell.

Dr. McCall would at last walk to the entrance doors at the back of the congregation and turn and raise his arms. “The Lord bless and keep you, and cause His face to shine upon you.” Then the church would empty with solemn shuffling slowness, and the roast beef would have to wait yet longer on the line of unbelievably non-hungry people who shook the preacher's hand and praised his sermon.

Copyright 2009 Fleming Lee


  1. Whoa! Does your story bring back memories of my own experiences as a child in a Southern Baptist church!

    Love your humorous style! This writing needs a wide exposure so many can share the laughter. Who'd want to miss it!

  2. Thank you very much, Anonymous. I wish I knew how to give my "memoirs" a wide exposure, but your Comment tells me that at least I'm not just talking to my computer. It was most kind of you to leave positive remarks.

  3. What?! no mention of sword drills? no exhortation that the only real way to please God was to vow to become a missionary to China? no written declarations that you would never consume alcohol? (Dancing and playing cards were also off limits, but we didn't have to sign cards for these devilments.) Actually, I'm grateful for the sword drills because recalling those biblical verses has helped me to develop my own understandings of God, limited though they may be. Thanks for the blog!

  4. Dear Anonymous, you've stumped me on the sword drills. They sound like a welcome relief from Bible reading, but I'm sure there's a catch. Our church didn't lack frequent exhortations to dedicate one's life to missionary work; maybe saving all those heathen souls was considered a shortcut to heaven. I don't think we were asked to sign pledges never to drink alcohol (maybe your church was more Southern Baptist than mine!), but we were certainly reminded at every opportunity that even one sip of beer would lead to alcoholism and perdition. In the same way, dancing wasn't demonstrably evil in itself, but would lead swiftly to fornication and consequent damnation. Cards (kyards in our church): I've never been sure why they were considered sinful, why "a deck of cards is the Devil's prayerbook". Maybe, as with tasting beer or dancing, a game of Old Maid would lead to gin rummy and hence to poker (inevitably accompanied by rum and whiskey) and the ruin of the homes and lives of all the players.

    Thank you very much for commenting.

  5. Now You have to get Your thumbs out as we say in Sweden and write some more :-)

  6. Thank you for the encouragement, Christer. It gives me an incentive to tackle the next chapter, which keeps eluding me like a bird in the forest.

    Thank you!