I grew up in a Primitive Baptist church which met twice a month, first Sunday mornings and third Sunday afternoons. We met only twice a month because the preachers serve multiple churches in the association much as the old circuit riding preachers did.
I have always been curious about things, all my life, and though I was in this church from age 6 weeks to 32 years I didn't 'fit'.
I joined the church (aka was baptized) at age 9. I joined because my grandfather asked me to do so, telling me that he was dying (and he did two years later). I wasn't questioned too hard about my decision. The questions I raised were sort of pooh poohed and I went on with the thing, but I can tell you truly that even at that tender age I was very aware that something vital was missing in my decision, though I was unclear what. On the day I was baptized I became a member of the Primitive Baptist church.
From about that point onward, I was pretty much over church as a rule. I went every single Sunday that our church held service but my parents didn't visit other churches, they didn't encourage Bible reading and the Primitive Baptist church I attended discouraged Bible study groups. There were no Sunday school classes. The branch I belonged to had no musical instruments in the church, nor choirs. Women were pretty much ignored and it was assumed that they'd never speak during service. We didn't sing the usual church songs but only hymns published before 1900, lovely old hymns with what I now realize were powerful lyrics, but modern day music was discouraged. The King James version of the Bible was the only bible allowed and members were strongly discouraged from even thinking of looking at other interpretations. Communion was held once a year. Our communion service included a 'foot washing' service as well.
Yes, it was a strict faith in many ways but it was/is simple and straightforward. I suspect that now, as a born again believer I'd find the services moving but the church of my childhood is bound to have changed in the past 25 years or so since I last attended. I loved my old church, as one loves the things of childhood that were most pleasant. I loved the country setting and the simple wooden benches and my family's history in building that church and attending it for well over 100 years. I loved the corn fields and cattle and the oak trees and the dear old faces of the widowed women who made up the bulk of the congregation. I loved the 'First Sunday dinner on the grounds' where we all ate together once a month, bringing in the best dishes. I loved being in charge of passing out plates, counting heads and pouring of tea from the big gallon sized jars.
Even in the questioning years and in the indifferent years I loved that church. It was as much a part of me as Granny and her home, as my name. I played in the graveyard and I knew the names on the graves and whose birthday was the same as mine and which graves 'belonged' to me and my family. I loved the old concrete bench hidden between two huge Bridal wreath Spirea bushes and the old Magnolia tree that six children holding hands couldn't reach all the way around and the beautiful iron fences around some of the grave plots. It was mine in a deep way and I embraced it hard because of that. But it wasn't faith or religion. It was just the strong love of a child for the familiar.
At home I learned a lot of things that had little to do with faith and spirit and a lot about why I didn't particularly care to ever acquire the name Christian which seemed a synonym for hypocrite as near as I could tell.
Though Granny attended the church faithfully for 50 years she never joined it. I asked her once why and she made it very clear that she disagreed with many of the doctrine of that branch of faith. Granny had a very strong personal faith, stronger than any I came across in my childhood except perhaps Big Mama's (her mother). She tried hard to instill that faith in us children but we weren't allowed to visit her on our own often and she wasn't really encouraged to visit us much. But what I recall now, I deeply appreciate her teaching me. And of course, I had all these past few years to relearn and talk it over with her before she died.
As a young married woman I sometimes attended church and mostly didn't, but about the time I began to realize how sad and sorry my first marriage was, I attended church regularly. I was in sore need of something and I knew it was something spiritual but had no clue how to 'get it'. I was not the person I might have been in better circumstances but I found religion offered little help or consolation. I asked the pastor once what a person had to do to be forgiven of sin and he patted me on my shoulder and said "Oh sister...You haven't sinned." But I knew in my heart that I was a sinner and that I needed to find the answer. When I tried to speak with him about my marriage I was assured that marriage was hard work but if you tried hard it would all come aright in the end. Unfortunately there were two messed up individuals in my marriage and we neither of us knew how to be different.
I visited another church on the opposing Sundays when our church was closed. It too was a simple country church, a non-denominational little chapel. They sang mostly older hymns albeit some were from the1950's or so which was positively modern compared to those I'd grown up singing, lol. They had a keyboard or a guitar that was played as accompaniment. For the first time I watched as the sick were anointed with oil and prayed over. Communion was held about every three months and was different than what I'd experienced at my home church. They had Sunday school for the children and a summer Bible camp. The leadership was different as well. The pastors were a husband and wife. The wife didn't call herself pastor but her husband worked at a paper mill and was on duty every other week so she filled in for him. To be honest, her sermons were very powerful. She spoke to me on the level I best understood. One sermon I recall to this day began with a story about how she'd burned peas one night and ruined a pot. She used that humble household occurrence to illustrate a verse from Jeremiah that just opened up that scripture to me.
God pulled and tugged at my heart in these years. I felt very much that something in me had to surrender to a stronger power but I was frightened and unsure and then later, when I understood, I felt I was too unclean, too full of sin to go before Him. I clung to my King James version of the Bible and seldom tried to read it because I spent more time trying to figure out all the Thees and Thous than the scripture itself. I was satisfied to let someone else tell me what the Bible said...like one who was illiterate or blind. And I was, oh I was!
Well eventually my oldest daughter wanted to be baptized. She understood something I had yet to understand, that salvation was hers for the asking. This was a decision she came to on her own. She asked to be baptized and the pastors were all overjoyed...Until the day our home church pastor realized that Amie had no desire to be a member of any church, she just wanted to be baptized.
Heaven Forbid! Neither pastor would baptize her. The non-denominational pastors didn't want to offend the pastor of our home church, although they didn't know one another and were unlikely to ever meet. The home church pastor was convinced I'd finally committed that sin he'd previously thought me incapable of committing. Amie was told that she must choose and in the end she chose the non-denominational pastors who were more approachable. And as a result I was asked to stay after church one third Sunday afternoon and told that I had done irreparable harm to her soul by allowing her to follow any faith other than the one true faith that would be recognized in heaven and I was 'cast out' of the Primitive Baptist church forever and ever amen.
Can I just share for a moment how very hurt I was? Shattered. I was already aware that I was missing much, but truly it never occurred to me to blame the pastor of my church for what I was missing. I did feel the pastor had been wrong in thinking that only the Primitive Baptists were going to heaven, but I was sick at heart all the same. I grieved for the family history, for the shame of being asked to leave, for the part of my childhood that could never again be caught up and held tight. But now, from this side, almost but not quite 30 years later...Oh thank God I was tossed out!
We attended, more often than not, the little chapel in the woods. I wept often during service, and felt such pain that it became hard to want to attend. Yes, God was still tugging hard at my heart and I was still convinced that I was too deeply in sin to ever answer His call. My marriage continued to disintegrate. I was deeply depressed and had been for years despite counseling and medications. I began to run hard away from myself and my troubles. I drank too much. I indulged in behavior that I choose not to discuss. I was truly in sin at that point and in danger of losing my life because of it. Terrible things happened in those years, horrible things and I was very much alone in dealing with them because I'd learned absolutely to trust no one or anything.
What I'm about to share is odd and I know it. It happened though and I can't deny that it did. I'd become physically ill and fought repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia for more months than I can even think to tell now. Depression is a horrible thing. It suppresses the immune system and causes you to become ill and that physical illness increases the depression which further suppresses the immune system. It's a vicious cycle, truly it is. I was very ill in January 1991. One night my husband took the children to a special dinner at church, but I had no energy to go. The doctor had sent me home from work earlier in the day demanding I go to bed, stay abed or he'd put me in the hospital.
That night it seemed that I just couldn't go on any longer. I thought again of taking my life, as I'd thought many many many times over the years. I prayed a prayer of desperation, crying uncontrollably. Not a prayer for salvation, because I still didn't believe that I deserved that, but simply that God would change something, anything, in my life, anything that would make what I'd become, what my life was at that point, different.
I heard a rushing wind and when I opened my eyes I was nearly blinded by a light so bright that I was disoriented. We lived in a house that was 150 years old and drafty and dark as pitch inside at night. I thought at first that the light was outside my window, but when I blinked two or three times I realized I was turned away from the windows. The light was in a corner of my room and I suddenly felt calmed and peaceful and warm. I closed my eyes again thinking I'd double check the 'vision' and heard the same rushing wind and when I reopened my eyes the light was gone. But I felt that same sense of peace and calm and I went to sleep for the first time in weeks with ease. I didn't wake until my family came home later that night...