(Disclaimer: I understand that not all who read this will necessarily agree with the details of past events. I have written them as I remember them and as they have shaped me. Forgive me where I am wrong.)
From the time I was 8 months old, my dad was the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Douglas, Wyoming. I have many fond memories of growing up in that church. It was a second home for me – I probably have nearly as many memories in that church as I have in my childhood home. I went to Sunday School every week, moving from room to room every time I grew a few years older. You could almost say the big long Sunday School hallway in that church basement gives a timeline of the first 17 or so years of my life. I have had many dreams of being back in that hallway – a testament to how much time I spent there. They are creepy dreams of course that seriously distort what the hallway actually feels like, but they always preserve the shape: long, long, long, and skinny, with many, many, many doors on both sides.
As we moved from room to room down the hall as we got older, we would learn the same things we had learned in earlier years, just retold appropriately for our age. We would learn Bible stories: Abraham, Moses, David, Noah, and of course Jesus. We would memorize verses. We put on plays and played games. Really it was great fun. When the teacher asked you a question, you probably didn’t have to think about it, or at least that’s what we thought: if you answered, “Um… Jesus? God?”, you were right 90% of the time. During Children’s Church, in the big room at the end of the hall, we would sing songs and do crafts. I don’t think I will ever forget Miss Lori’s guitar and her “Pharaoh, Pharaoh!” song. In all those years of Sunday School we hardly ever read the Bible. We certainly never read a whole book of the Bible and most certainly not the whole thing.
The big room had stairs going on up toward the kitchen. The top and bottom of these stairs are settings for two very vivid dreams I remember having. My dream at the bottom is that I jumped into the (nonexistent) fireplace, landed on top of a train, and sat on it as it took me through caves, open spaces, and somewhere far. My dream at the top of the stairs is that there was a compartment in the ceiling that you could climb into and hide. I had that dream many times. At least once when I climbed into that compartment I ended up in Narnia.
I have a similar wealth of memories from the gigantic sanctuary upstairs. My parents say I learned to walk in the front of the church, but I don’t remember that. We have a home video tape of me crawling across the front, so I guess you could say I remember that. Only not. What I do remember is being extremely short and walking across the back of the sanctuary next to my dad’s office. It’s just a picture in my head, but it is vivid. I remember being told by the church elders not to run in the church and to sit properly in the pews instead of sprawl myself out on them. I resented that very much – I always resented being told what to do when I was little, but especially by anyone who was not my parent. When I got older, I remember drawing pictures during the sermon in the thin brown books that people were supposed to mark their attendance in. I remember very clearly using a computer for the first time in my dad’s office. He had an ancient Mac that had a few games on it. I was fascinated. As I got older and he got more modern computers, I would help him make the PowerPoint presentations for church in his office. My dad says that one day I had hardly used a computer and had never used PowerPoint, the next I was standing behind him watching, and the next I was teaching him.
During middle and high school, when I was in and out of the public school system, I would often go sit downstairs in the Adult Sunday School rooms and hallway and do my homeschool work or just hang out with my brother. The place feels different when you are there alone, and it becomes even more especially yours than it normally would. I owned that place.
Through most of my years in that church I was happily oblivious to the torture that my parents were going through. Almost since we arrived, there were problems, but I never heard about it until the end got close. People would try to tell my mom how to raise her children, which is one of the reasons she got so overwhelmed and had to send us to school. But worse than that, my dad was always in a disagreement of some sort or another with the Elder Board. I think it must have been like this all the way along, but I only know details from the end. The elders thought that my dad didn’t do enough work (after all a pastor only “works” on Sunday… only not… ) so they would never give him any more pay than they were forced to. They also just pretty much disagreed with every change my dad ever made to anything. He was an innovating guy and they were not an innovating church. But by far the worst of all, he was a reading, thinking guy, and they were NOT a reading, thinking church. He read books by pastors who would think outside the box, as wasn’t as concerned with tradition as truth, so he came to a couple unacceptable conclusions. In the end, it was one of those conclusions that got him forced to “resign” from the church after leading them for (17?) years. Apparently if he kept that belief the church could no longer be a part of the Conservative Baptist Association, and that was just going too far.
So, not to be discouraged from his calling to Douglas, we started a new church. It kind of felt like an underground operation. Just after we left, we had a meeting in our house of the people who wanted to come with us, to let them know what the plan was. Needless to say, when word of this meeting got out we were not very popular people. We met in a conference room in the Holiday Inn for several months before we got our own place. Rumors flew through the small town like mad: people said we served alcohol and played pool during church, we danced on the tables, my dad sat on a motorcycle to preach, and of course we were preaching heresy. Even to this day, when people first meet my dad and learn who he is, they tend to say things like, “Oh, you’re THAT guy.”
None of those rumors were true, but we were (and they still are) a very unconventional church. In reality, my dad’s chair is a motorcycle seat turned into a chair and the congregation sits around round tables, not dances on them. Two of the inside walls of the room that they meet in are covered in very large murals that I myself painted. In the back of the room is a mini coffee-bar. There is in fact a pool table in the middle of the room, but they don’t use it during church. Every single Sunday there is a potluck served on the pool table immediately after the service, and if not enough people bring food they order pizza during the service to arrive just in time. The idea is to make the church attractive to everyday people instead of scare them away. They do attract a lot of non-churchy people and scare churchy people away. But, not to worry, churchy people have about 30 other options in the 6,000 person town. My dad’s 1 church is for the ones who aren’t welcome in the 30.
First Baptist set out straight away as soon as we left to erase my dad and every trace of him from their church. If he made a change they didn’t like (most of them), they simple changed it back, and if he made one they did (very few), they claimed it as their own and just erased his fingerprints from it.
My parent’s house is quite close to First Baptist. After we started the new church, I used to pass by the old one on the way to or from their house and look at it in wonder. Once my second home, now I was not welcome inside. Once my dad’s haven and life, now every trace of him meticulously erased.
I learned from that experience how to be an outsider and to be strange and keep your head about you.
I acquired from my parents a respect for the written word and a belief that reading is the road to knowledge and knowledge is the path to truth. Not everyone thinks that way. It is a common idea among Christians (even if no one would admit to it) that too much reading will ruin your faith – at least if you are going to read anything that is not teaching exactly what you already believe. Those who disagree with you simply do not know the truth and are out to get you. Not only do you have to be careful about reading things written by non-Christians, you have to beware of reading books written by the wrong kinds of Christians too. They are just as likely to screw you up. That is what they would probably say happened to my dad. He just read too much and read the wrong stuff.
I learned from my dad that in religion you can’t just believe what people tell you, you have to think for yourself. The stakes are too high in eternity for you to go on believing something because that is what you are told to believe or because that is what you have always believed. Even though I knew that, I didn’t bother to think through what my parents believed until many years later. I figured that they had done the reading and the thinking, and as long as somebody had we must be right.