For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
For the wages of sin is death.
It is appointed unto men once to die; and after that, the judgment.
Pastor Watt’s words landed heavily on my ears, but that’s not what scared me. It was his eyes. As he preached words straight from the King James Bible, his eyes dug a channel to my soul. I was a sinner. I was condemned. I was born in sin and destined for hell if I didn’t repent. Of course, I had no clue what repentance was. I was five years old.
I was born just past midnight on a Thursday in 1952. I didn’t go to church that Sunday or the next. On the third Sunday, when Mom was fully recovered from giving birth to her second son, I went to church.
Back then the church had a longer name: Grace Methodist Protestant Church. It was part of a small denomination (Methodist Protestant) that in 1939 was absorbed into the Methodist Church (now the United Methodist Church). Some Methodist Protestant leaders walked out of the convention that produced the merger. They felt that Methodism was becoming too liberal in its theology. Clifford Kidd did not walk out.
Kidd reasoned that, since the Methodist denomination owned the church buildings, any church that tried to break away would be left without a place to gather. He in fact believed the Methodist Church was becoming liberal, but he did not want Grace to lose its building. Once he had secured from the Methodist Church the right to retain their building, Kidd led Grace out of Methodism once and for all. From then on, Grace had the generic-sounding name, Grace Protestant Church; Grace for short.
Grace’s pastors were drawn from the ranks of independent Baptists, as independent Methodist churches like Grace were few and far between. This led to minor internal controversies like what to do about baptism and how and when to celebrate Communion. My introduction to Quaker beliefs probably came when Pop told me one day, “The only baptism that really counts is being baptized by the Spirit,” a very Quakerly concept.
“Pop” was John Arthur Baisley, Jr., my dad. I’m not sure whether my brother, John, had been calling him by that name during the ten years before I was born, or whether “Pop” was a shortened version of “Poppo,” the father’s nickname on The Patty Duke Show, which was a favorite of mine as a preteen. Either way, we called him Pop, and Caroline Frances Armstrong Baisley was “Mom.”
I can’t recall ever feeling the love from above when we sang that song. It was the Father looking down that captivated and terrified me. Years later, as a high school junior protesting the Vietnam War, I hung a print of James Montgomery Flagg’s famous “Uncle Sam Wants You” recruiting poster on my bedroom wall. No matter where you stood or sat in my room, Uncle’s finger was aimed at you. I figured Father’s gaze was the same.
The thing is, I believed I deserved it. My only transgressions were occasionally disobeying my parents (a practical interpretation of the fifth commandment written, no doubt, by the parent of a middle schooler) and stealing a one-penny Bazooka bubble gum from the corner store, which I returned almost immediately. But like the apostle Paul, I believed I was the “chief of sinners.”
Being an accomplished sinner at age five, I was more than ready to be born again, saved, washed in the blood, and every other redemptive verb in the Christian fundamentalist dictionary, and my church was more than willing to accommodate me. Being unwilling to waste even one chance to bring a worm such as I to the throne of grace, we regularly had altar calls in the aforementioned Opening Exercises. I held out for a while, clinging to my sinfulness. Then my church pulled out their secret weapon: Rally Day, Sunday school on crack with a children’s evangelist dealing. I’ll paraphrase a story my mother told me about my first experience of salvation.
I was almost five when Rally Day featured a chalk artist. Chalk art was very popular in evangelical churches of that era. My dad even spent some time as a songleader/soloist for one of these artists. To this day they fascinate me with their art; drawing one picture and then revealing a second under black light.
Five-year-old me watched the gospel story unfold under black light. When three crosses mysteriously appeared on the hill, I saw my terrible self, nailed there with Jesus. When the artist called for anyone who wanted to ask Jesus into their heart to come to the altar for prayer, I couldn’t wait any longer. I prayed the sinner’s prayer and my life gloriously passed from darkness to light. So my mother said, and she summarized it on a page in a little blue-bound New Testament the church gave me to commemorate the big day. I remember nothing of it. It must have been exciting for my family and my church, though.
If walking the proverbial sawdust trail (it was scarlet carpet as I recall) saved me from the judgment of God, it also put me squarely in the center of judgment from everyone else in church. That’s what happens when you become a public Christian. I went through my early years ever aware of God’s judging eyes looking down on me. Being saved, this might have been a source of comfort to me. I can’t say it was; it was more like, “Jesus loves me, this I suspect, but still I’d better eat my vegetables.”
It was hard for me not to be in the public eye. My mom taught Sunday school, sang alto in the choir, and was active in the WCTU, a temperance organization that featured “white ribbon babies.” I was one of those little ones whose wrist was circled with a white ribbon as a sign of Mom and Pop’s pledge that liquor would never touch my lips as long as I lived in their care. It almost worked, too. My only taste of alcohol until my early twenties was a tiny sip of rye from a bottle found in the pantry of the man who lived upstairs.
Some people call God “the man upstairs.” That reveals more about their theology than about God. First, it places the Creator squarely in the camp of one small part of creation, the male of the human species. Second, it emphasizes one of the least attractive qualities of that being, the annoying tendency to want to dominate others, especially the female of the species. I never needed a god like that; I had Isaac.
More about "the man upstairs" next episode.
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