Tarzan Faith

Tarzan Faith

Born in 1962, I was raised in the low Episcopal Church, and my father was a “minister” (Back then the only “Priests” I knew were Catholic.).  I grew up inundated with “Christianity” as a part of everything in my household.  Being a “PK” is somewhat unique, I think, in that I did not see church as something one did on Sunday, as some disconnected activity or situational posture.  I grew up literally “in” the church and “in” faith.  It was where I often went after school or on Saturdays.  The graveyard was one of my favorite places to play.  I knew every hiding place, every toy of even the remotest applicable play value, even which drinking fountain sprayed me in the face and which was safe to drink from in my church clothes.  The church was an extension of my house, and its members were like extensions of my family.  Talk around the dinner table was about the church and the people in it.  We were privy to all sorts of non-repeatable information.  I learned early how to keep my mouth shut, but my young mind was not kept from thinking of the people in my church the way I had heard my parents speak of their concern and care for them.  My parents did not gossip.  But they spoke of people and things out of their vocation of care.  And I often overheard my mother’s daily prayers for them.  But a young mind goes places that the burden of information takes it. “Oh THAT’s Mr. Smith.  I wonder what he actually looks like drunk and in jail.”

I was the only kid in my third grade class who knew second-hand what spouse abuse, chronic alcoholism, suicide, and adultery were, though I know that many of my young playmates knew what they were first-hand.  I was the only kid on my block, and maybe in my church that knew what abject poverty was, and could discuss the problem of racism with adults.  But church talk was earthy and practical and kind, like my father.

My father was a doer, a believer in living what he believed.  He was a believer in the present Kingdom of God.  He was a believer in the real power of God.  And he was a believer in the essential goodness of people, even those who regularly did him wrong. He was uniquely just and patient.  I would describe him as even-handed and even-tempered.  I knew him to be an introvert, but oddly I would not describe him as terribly introspective.  I could no more have told you what a cogent “Doctrine of God” was than flap my arms and fly to the moon.  I’m not one hundred percent sure my father could either.  But he had an eighty-mile-an-hour fastball and that carried more freight with me.  Faith, or in the paradigm of my father’s house – following in the footsteps of Christ, was about what I believed, but it was more about what I did with what I believed.  My father frequently reminded me that great thoughts are just thoughts.  People DO what they believe.

Church itself, the Sunday part, always seemed anti-climactic.  I mean, what was this kneeling, and praying all about?  It was just what you did.  Some people would pray, and some people would read, and I could just read along in the prayer book and that seemed to be the extent of it.  There was a lot of critical banter among parishioners that I overheard about how poorly this person had read, or how this other guy had just gone on and on with the prayers, as if one’s Christian walk was judged largely by one’s reading level.  Read this stuff right, and one was right with God.

I grew up in the worship and sacramental life of the church, as well, even though I didn’t understand any of it.  First was confirmation.  Memorize a bunch of stuff, and the Bishop patted you on the head in a special service.  “Poof!”  Like magic, I was a Christian.  I did like that Bishop, though.  He used to come to the house for dinner and he treated me like I was somebody.  He knew my name, and spoke to me at church when he visited.  He was just a guy, and that earthiness resonated with me even at that early age.

After confirmation, I could be an acolyte.  I thought that was kind of cool – the uniforms and all – until I found out that if word got out at school that I was an acolyte, the high school kids would beat me up and steal my lunch money.  My first battle for the Lord was me and my metal lunch box holding our own in the back corner of Bus 5 on the day that the four “big kids” got wind of my Sunday vocation.  I faired pretty well in the fight, a bloody lip and torn shirt, but I blackened a few eyes, smashed a finger, and made one big kid cry (I didn’t know they did that), and the kids on the bus left me alone after that.  Of course, this pretty much soured the notion of being an acolyte, and other uniform-related church activities.

Sunday just wasn’t it for me.  For some people, linking church life to the notion of an active Christ-like faith out in the real world is the challenge.  But for me it was the other way around.  For me, church and “Christianity” didn’t really get exciting until the late 1960’s.  We lived in Kansas City in those days, and there was a great deal of civil rights activity there at the time.  I was largely sheltered from the really “cool” stuff, but I remember to this day the energy in our house when things would start happening downtown.  There would be a bunch of ministers in their black shirts and collars (to this day I think of them as “riot clothes”) gathering in the kitchen around the table, talking in low voices so as not to disturb the family.  You could almost smell the adrenaline in the room.  They would go out after a serious phone conversation, and wouldn’t come back until very late, if not the next morning.  It was not unusual to have the radical Catholic priest whose name now escapes me, long hair and beard, short sleeve black shirt with the white collar peeled back, drinking coffee at the breakfast table with my dad.  I knew what a post-adrenaline euphoria looked like, even though I could not have told you then what it was.  But it was exciting.  What do you know?!  Christianity had some action after all.  I was a “Johnny Quest” and “Tarzan” kid, and this kind of excitement and activity just made the “Christian Life” irresistible.  It made me feel ten feet tall when I walked downtown with my dad because he had “stood up” in the riots (whatever that meant).

I remember one particular early-summer night in 1968; school was out, it was right after the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.  My dad and a bunch of clergy had gone out to do whatever it was they did when the National Guard had been called out.  The TV, such as it was, was on with lots of excitement and news flashes.  Word of a “riot” was all over the neighborhood.  I still remember the sound of the ticker tape they played for a “news bulletin”.  Mom was very upset.  Mom and dad argued before the “crew” left the house.  My mother’s way of expressing worry was misdirected anger and so I knew to stay clear of her.  My sister and I were told to go to bed, but we sat at the top of the stairs and listened.  The crew came back late, or seemingly so.  There was rushing around, and laughter.  I came later in life to recognize this laughter as post-ordeal laughter.  I snuck downstairs to have a look.  Of course I snuck downstairs.  This kind of action was just too much to resist.  Apparently the crew had gotten between the National Guard/prison guards and the rioting prisoners or the “poor” folks in the surrounding neighborhood (the prison riot had spilled over into the surrounding neighborhood), and they had been gassed by the police and beaten up by both sides.  I remember them looking pretty roughed up.    They were a damn proud sight.

This episode, and many others like it, were the experiences that shaped my spiritual life.  Prayer wasn’t spiritual to me at that age.  This stuff was exciting, and this kind of excitement and connection to things more important than us was spiritual.  Following Christ wasn’t just reading out of the Prayer Book on Sunday anymore.  It wasn’t just Sunday School class where you got yelled at, and did silly games that made you look goofy in front of the girls.  To me, the spiritual life was “doing Christianity”.  It was action and it was adventure.  And to a young boy of my temperament, there was nothing else of meaning.  And “Christianity” was all of a sudden big.  I did not understand that it was the times that made “Christianity” what it was then.  And when those years came to an end, and “Christianity” once again became Sunday school and Prayer Books, I lost the excitement of what being a Christian was to me.  It was fifteen years before “Christianity” was anything like that to me again.  It was as if the Church of the Living Jesus Christ had simply gone back to sleep.

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