In the beginning, Mom and Dad fell in love over mashed potatoes.
As the story goes, mom bailed on their first date by calling up last-minute to say she had an intramural basketball game she absolutely had to attend instead.
Somehow this particular line of excuse seemed less than convincing.
Crestfallen, lovelorn—but not without a gaggle of cute, blond girls trailing after him all the time, mom likes to point out—the future dad went about his studies and the future mom, her basketball, until she got up the gumption to phone again.
One thing led to another, and soon enough Dad was asking Mom whether she was Justified and Sanctified by faith, evangelical speak for ‘Are you actually a Christian Christian or just a churchgoer Christian?’
You know, normal progression when boy meets girl.
He called this Missionary Dating.
Shockingly, the tactic worked. They got married once school let out, and in good time, two became seven.
Along with filling their quiver with an appropriate amount of children, my parents raised us in solid evangelical fashion.
Our church experience was extensive. When church ran out of its early, late and mid-week renditions, we went to Vacation Bible School.
The Presbyterians were full of good ideas. Vacation Bible School consisted of themed weeks along the lines of Anchors Away, my Christians and Space Ships for Christ to get us kids enticed by the idea that we might somehow get to sail or go to space by showing up, and bible verse memory competitions that were really the disappointing bulk of the experience instead, all swigged down with the most watered down CountryTime Lemonade this side of hell.
It was fair to surmise that some people were not putting enough change into the offering plate. Either that or we weren't memorizing enough bible verses.
When it came time to recite, my brother, sister and I seemed to suffer consistent losses, which couldn’t, unfortunately, be chalked up to a bad case of Trembling in Fear of the LORD. As a result, nary a one us of ever got to carry the victory VBS flag to the gymnasium as all the VBSers processed behind. This particular, proud pleasure always seemed to fall to a certain VBS attendee, who must have spent his entire summer pounding the self-same Focus on the Family Bible Flashcard Set over at his house that my mom put out on our kitchen table in an attempt to encourage our lackluster efforts.
Had we had the words to convey our disgust with this processional line-up and had not been under strict orders never to utter Bad Words, on pain of mouth-washing with soap, I imagine we would have come up with something like this, mid-trek to VBS pow-wow:
Said attendee’s mom happened to be our mom’s friend and confidante, however, so we got to see our competition more than we might like, pre- and post- Bible Verse Wars at VBS.
The Mrs. had a discerning eye when it came to her friend's little hooligans.
Indeed, we did not appear to be the cream of the crop—or shall we say, the wheat rather than the chaff—when it came to our biblical efforts. During one family prayer time that we had each night, my older sister, Mary Ashton, came up with a brilliant addition to our often short-lived supplications. We’d had a Meet the Missionary session at church that morning, and the missionary on the podium must have put a burden on Mary A’s heart and given her a strategic, prayer-lengthening burst of inspiration all at once.
Natalie from Uganda, who was definitely not from Uganda, became a regular in our prayer-time line-up after that stroke of genius.
I have no idea how my parents kept it together as kid after kid, night after night, prayed for the daughter of our dad’s fellow church Elder, who was resolutely from the state of South Carolina and not Uganda, but somehow they did. They must have been saying the Serenity Prayer the whole time.
In any case, the writing was on the wall.
If only my parents had had their very own Daniel, he could have interpreted the message for them.
But alas, they didn’t, and anyways, we were mostly having one hell of a time growing up. So we carried on, despite the tell-tale signs of our being potential Prodigals, interspersing our prayer sessions and twice-a-day family Bible readings with biblical renditions of our own, particularly around Christmas time.
Year-round, we rocked out to WLFJ-FM His Radio!, passionately singing along to whatever Contemporary Christian Music was on air while Dad drove us to school. We pretty much knew all the lyrics.
On the hour, Dad would switch the CCM over to NPR, listening for the day’s news. We saw no irony in this radio line-up.
I spent a good deal of my afternoon carpool melding my faith with my political knowledge in an attempt to convince our neighbor to vote in my stead since I had a long road till age eighteen.
Such belief was not without its sincerity, however. At eight years old, I told my mom about God and me, and it was a love story, and her eyes shone heaven-like between the rose thorns.
During Advent each Christmas, we gathered to sing hymns and light the candles nestled in our Advent wreath, special-made out of the clippings of our perennially-misshapen Christmas tree felled in the mountains above our house, until all of us kids lit one of the five candles and the Christ Candle finally flickered forth in flame.
Using that fire, we lit candles in bowls and, with the lights completely out, trooped together up the stairs, singing Carry your candle, go light your world.
On those nights, it seemed as if the next step up that smooth wooden staircase could very well land us in heaven, that those lights and that love could reach evermore into eternity—and hold us.
And maybe it did.
Maybe it did.
As time went on and the age of adolescence dawned darkly ahead, Mary A and I went to Youth Group. Youth Group, Youth Service Week Retreat, Youth Summer Retreat, Youth Winter Retreat, Youth Repent of Your Manifold Sins Retreat—it turned out we needed to do a lot of retreating to get the point across.
Whatever came next was definitely not healing.
I became convinced that maybe, perhaps possibly, I was the some of You Stephen Speeks was speaking about. How could I really, for sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt know what my sexuality was? He must have known something about me that I didn’t yet know about me. After the Winter Retreat, I was pretty convinced this was a fate worse than death. The streets became torment.
This struggle went on for years, inserting pernicious doubt into just about every new social situation I was thrust into.
It wasn’t until I met Jake under the grapevines that certain things became irrefutable.
Falling in love with a boy presented problems itself, however. After all, when not scaring the bejesus out of fourteen year olds about their potential sexuality, as if being gay and eventually finding someone who loved you deeply and vastly and perhaps you could say, godly, but happened to be of the same sex was a sure route to saddening God until the whole Earth flooded with his tears, the Youth Group leaders generally harped on the depravity of run-of-the-mill heterosexuals. It turned out we had a lot to watch out for.
After that particular Sex Sess, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I abandoned Youth Group. The Youth Group leader, who had lived with us a few years before, and his wife, who he married right after packing up at our place, came up to dinner to stage an intervention.
Of course, when one cog in the wheel of faith comes loose—or completely bails on you, as the case may be—the whole wheel starts to wobble and then to quiver the entire axle and then kerflop! There goes your wheel on the side of the road to salvation. Unlike in sermons, however, this metaphor does not lead back to The Great Mechanic coming to fix your f#%$ed up wheel free of charge.
The wheel is still on the side of the road to salvation.
Our long drives down rural SC-HWY 11 after church went from celebrations of God’s mercy in inspiring mom’s new choice of car cuisine, exuberant sing-alongs to all the hymns the cutting-edge Christians had turned into almost-but-not-quite rock songs, and animated analysis of the day’s sermon to drives of a different kind of distance.
We’d moved churches to the new church plant so the drive was shorter and didn’t necessitate cheese sandwiches, and we didn’t need the Suburban Gas Guzzler that Dripped AC fluids on the Unfortunates in the Back anymore because the older among us had gone away to college and mom had sold The Guzzler on the day she had to pay fifty dollars for gas and said Good Riddance, and I could not handle any of these losses and what they meant.
My best friend and lemonade confidante, Mary A, had followed my only and favorite brother in going away and I didn’t know what was between God and me anymore but it did not feel like a love story, or maybe it did and it was just one of those terribly sad and depressing love stories where the partners have loved each other passionately and excitedly and for what seemed like would be forever but something or somebody has slipped in and put an edge somewhere that cuts at the essential tie—and refuses healing.
I spent a lot of time reading
and perhaps not much came of it except the idea that for some reason God disliked Cain’s gift of vegetables that were no longer from Eden but brought forth by the sweat of his brow and Cain acted in anger because who wouldn’t be hurt by God rejecting you like that?
And Cain killed Abel maybe because he couldn’t ever kill God or the memory of God within him so he had to go after Abel instead and Abel’s blood cried out from the ground and God cursed and blessed Cain for it all at once, cursing him with exile and blessing him with that mark that said Cain is God’s.
And perhaps not much came of it except the idea that all of us carry the mark of Cain because didn’t we come from him and not Abel dead and gone on the ground? And it is Cain’s pain and Cain’s joy that we carry because if the Bible says anything it’s that the story repeats itself but that we have the chance to change it some ourselves.
We are given that chance.
And since the story repeats itself and finds new minds and hearts to act through, maybe one day there might be another Culla and Mary A sometime to say
And it will be good. It will be good.