THE SECTARIAN STAGE
SCREEN MEMORIES OF A CAMPBELLITE DREAMER II
Basement cinderblock walls painted light blue boasted a sink with a plain white base cabinet. Cold, damp air cloaked the children seated around the plywood table top mounted on pipes with black rubber casters. Roger, David, Diane, Bev and I sat, happy to have moved up from the ladies’ bathroom with the knotty pine décor. Singing "This Little Christian Light of Mine" and "Jesus Loves Me" we marked workbook pages in a series called Gospel Treasures with Mrs. Waldrep, our teacher. With dark wavy hair and glasses she seemed about as old as my grandmother--about 150 years old.
I couldn’t wait to be four, because my neighbor, whom I called Aunt Betty--Mrs. Betty Whitlock, would be our next teacher. My heart beat a little faster when she opened her purse at church. She always found a piece of Juicy Fruit gum to share, something my mother never did. (I have forgiven my mom for this failure on her part.)
Mrs.Waldrep taught us that God’s church was not made with human hands. God’s church was made of his people. It was not a building. Somehow all of this confused me.
I imagined huge hands moving appartion-like shaping the people within the brick building-somewhat like the Invisible Man on TV. There were grease marks on the giant ghost-like hands as was common among the men who worked in the shops. Our dads, uncles, and neighbors all worked in shops. The ghostlike digits hovered over about half of the church's 300 seat auditorium. I believe we used theater seats because pews would be sort of denominational. Theater seats, I guess were not really spiritual, but I got the impression it was better to be like a movie theater than worship like another denomination of so-called Christians.
Sometimes I would sit in a grown-up’s lap and play a finger game: Here is the church; here is the steeple; open the church and see all the people
I couldn’t understand the game really because my Bible class teacher said the church was the people, and given our movement’s commitment to austere buildings in the 1950s, I thought only denominations had steeples.
One day the only preacher I had ever known, Brother Connie Wyatt announced his resignation. He intended to go preach at a Church of Christ in Kirksey, Kentucky. I got a chokey feeling and my eyes stung with tears. I recall one sermon by Brother Wyatt. He spoke of folks who followed God, but in ways not in accord with scripture. In the judgment, those folks would come up short and they would say, “But, ye, I thought.” Sadly, they thought wrongly, and found themselves in torment. Brother Wyatt said, "Ye, I thought" in a very kind, but sad southern voice about one million times.
The first grown up songbook song I remember was called “Trust and Obey.”
Trust and obey
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey.
A tract in the back of the building with a sepia-toned bride on the cover was entitled, I Married a Catholic. Mom explained the problem was if one married a Catholic the church required a vow on the part of the non-Catholic to rear any children in the Catholic Church. Mom didn’t say this, but I had the clear impression that all Catholics were bound for hell, including the children of that sepia-toned bride.
I made a note to self--don’t marry a Catholic.
It saddened me to think of all the Catholics going to hell, because everyone at my school was Catholic except me; Suzie Smiley, a Lutheran; Linda Greene, a Baptist; and Sherry Hill, a Jehovah’s Witness. Sadder yet was thinking those other three were hell-bound as well. Linda Green’s church, the Van Dyke Baptist Church, even had a cross-shaped neon sign that read, “Jesus Saves.” Ouch! They didn’t realize they were just saying, “Lord, Lord” and not doing what God had commanded. They thought Jesus saved them before they were immersed, so whoever put up that sign must have been “sent a delusion and believed a lie.”
The Jehovah’s Witness part saddened me, but I thought at the time hell couldn’t be a lot worse than life on earth with no birthdays, Easter bunnies, or Santa Claus. At least Catholics had birthdays, Easter, Christmas, and First Holy Communion. First Holy Communion was particularly cool due to the white dresses, veils, and gifts of money.
My dad’s mother was a Methodist. After he became a member of the Church of Christ, once my Dad tried to convert his mother from the Wesleyan way to the Campbellite way. She thrilled at the way folks flipped through scriptures at our worship services, but was saddened that after all her years of following Jesus, praying to him, and trusting Him, Dad would suggest she be re-baptized. She told my Dad on the Chippewa reservation Epicopalian and Methodist missionaries baptized them every summer. She believed God accepted least one of those baptisms.
I used to have bad dreams about my Grandmother Choate being in a coffin and wishing so much that such a wonderful woman was going to heaven. In the dreams there was only darkness and a light brown pine coffin and me wondering why this was so.
By the time I was in the fifth grade, I was safely baptized, properly, of course, by the interpretation of our tribe. Yet, since I was still just a child, I found myself in a scary little mind game I began after I heard a sermon about the “unpardonable sin.” This was the game: if Dad drives past that light pole, that means I have committed the unpardonable sin.
Dad drove by the light pole.
So, I was condemned. But then, so was everyone else I knew except the people at my church. I anguished over my lost state. I bargained with God. If I would become a missionary and baptize hundreds and hundreds of people would he then forgive the unpardonable sin?
Finally, I heard a sermon on adding to God’s word. Adding to God’s word was a sin. So, saying that driving by a light pole was adding to God’s word. Nowhere in God’s word does it say if your Daddy drives by the light pole at Van Dyke and Nine Mile will you go to hell for committing the unpardonable sin. The unpardonable sin after all was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Whew. I thought, at lease someone in the Church of Christ can receive forgiveness for adding to God’s word if they repent and ask forgiveness.
I finally disclosed to my mother this entanglement of sin and guilt. She seemed shocked because I think she thought I was smarter and more well adjusted than all that. She assured me if I were blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I wouldn’t really care if I was saved or lost anyway.
When I was a young teen, Arkansan Jimmy Allen, a fiery preacher and author of What is Hell Like? preached to thousands in Detroit's Cobo Arena. Over 300 people were baptized. It might have only been 10% of the harvest of Pentecost, but it was a dramatic experience for the Motor City congregations.
My freshman year at Harding University at the College Church of Christ in Searcy, Arkansas the same fiery orator, Jimmy Allen, preached, from Romans, a sermon on the grace of God.
For the first time in my life I heard that perfect knowledge and perfect obedience elude us all, but God's grace saves us through faith in Christ.
My Campellite life took a turn for the better that day, because though I had enjoyed many good memories on this spiritual walk, few of which I have recounted in this essay, I had never truly, to core of my being, experienced the gospel as good news until that night.
After studying Romans, Galatians, and the Bible in general, my sense of the gospel, grace, and salvation matured into a much sounder, much more joyful theology. Jesus did not come to judge but to save. He healed. He challenged sinners. He proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God. Sharing the yoke of teaching and serving is a much lighter burden that taking on the mantle of judgement that even Jesus reserved for God.
Trust and obey
For there’s no other way
To happy be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey