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A Stranger in the House of God addresses fundamental questions and struggles faced by spiritual seekers and mature believers. Like a contemporary Pilgrim's Progress, it traces the author's ...
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A Stranger in the House of God addresses fundamental questions and struggles faced by spiritual seekers and mature believers. Like a contemporary Pilgrim's Progress, it traces the author's journey and explores his experiences with both charismatic and evangelical Christianity. It also describes his transformation from religious outsider to ordained pastor.
John Koessler provides a poignant and often humorous window into the interior of the soul as he describes his journey from doubt and struggle with the church to personal faith
My friends and I are traveling down Church Street in procession, like pilgrims bound for Jerusalem. I am in the third grade at Chippendale Elementary School across the street from St. Angela's church. School has just let out for the summer and my brother, George, with his Dondi grin and tousled hair, is ahead of me. He is a year and a half older and thinks he can beat me if we get into a fight. He is probably right. Whenever we get into an argument, I threaten to punch him but don't have the heart to follow through. My sister, Lynn, a year and a half younger than me, is lost in the crowd. All skinny legs and pin curls, she looks like Baby Sally in the first grade reader. She wants to be like us.
I think I am fat but my mother says I'm just "big boned." My glasses are thick and my hair curly. I am always the last one to be chosen when teams are formed. I have never lived anywhere else.
When we come to the corner where Church Street intersects our block, I pause and peer into the distance. I want to see if I can make out our house at the other end. It is barely a quarter of a mile away. Whenever I come to that corner, I know I amalmost home.
St. Angela, the Roman Catholic church where most of my friends attended, was on one end of Church Street. At the other end was Beulah Baptist, the church where I heard the gospel for the first time. These two churches marked the boundaries of my earliest spiritual landscape. St. Angela was twilight cool and dark as mystery, with its statues of Jesus and Mary and its holy smell. Beulah, on the other hand, met in a plain building with pale walls and blond furniture. It did not smell holy. No statue of Jesus could be found in the place. Between the two, St. Angela felt more like a church to me, though I knew I was not supposed to think such things. My father, a lapsed Catholic, did not like St. Angela or any other church. I gleaned what I knew about the church from my friends, Catholic boys from Polish and Italian families, who attended every Saturday night and thought it a chore.
Once in a while I saw the priests in the market or the department store wearing their white collars. They walked with the stiff dignity of a religious procession. I marveled at the way complete strangers greeted them as they walked by. "Hello, Father," they mumbled, affording them the merest glance, as if they thought it might be a sin to look directly upon such creatures in the full light of day. Their reluctance compelled me to stare, wondering what it was about these men that made people so uncomfortable.
The nuns, too, could sometimes be found outside the confines of the church. They traveled in twos or threes, huddled together like bewildered sightseers in need of a guide. Like their brothers the priests, the nuns were often greeted by those who passed by, but with less apparent dread. Perhaps it was the veil they wore and the way they waddled along on thick legs. Something about the nuns made them seem more vulnerable. Things were different inside the church, according to my friends. There the nuns ruled with an iron fist.
On weekends I walked along with my friends as they went to catechism class. Despite their complaints of boredom, I was as jealous of their Catholicism as they were of my paganism. They envied my freedom. I envied them their confirmation. My friend Kevin explained to me the church's custom of "confirming" its members.
"You go to church and attend classes," he explained. "Then your uncles and aunts give you money."
From what he had said, confirmation was the church's chief rite of passage, recognizing those who came of age as its members. They marked the occasion with a celebration. Aunts and uncles came from all directions with cards of congratulation and monetary gifts. A child with enough relatives could clear several hundred dollars. Envious of their good fortune, I asked my parents if I could convert to Roman Catholicism. They only laughed. "We're not Catholics," they said. When I asked them if we were Protestants, they laughed even harder.
"If by that you mean that we aren't Catholic," my father replied, "I guess you could say that. If a Protestant is a protestant, someone who protests against the church, then we are."
I had hoped he would say yes. I wanted to have an answer when people asked me about my religion. It embarrassed me not to know what to say. My family did not attend church, but at least I could say we were Protestants.
The first time I walked with my friends to St. Angela, they told me I could not enter. I was not surprised. I knew I was reprobate. Jerry, the older boy who lived next door, had said as much when I accidentally tore the religious medal from his neck during a tussle. "You're going to be damned for all eternity!" he thundered.
Certain he knew more about such matters than I did, I fled to my room for refuge. I threw myself down on the bed and sobbed, imagining the flames of hell licking at my feet for all eternity. I pleaded with God to forgive me, explaining I had not meant to break the medal. But like Esau, I felt I could find no place of repentance, though I sought it carefully with tears. So when my friends told me I couldn't follow them through the door of the church, I didn't argue. I knew my place.
As they disappeared inside, I peered through the glass at a statue of Christ mounted on a pedestal attached to the wall. His arms were spread in welcome, but not for me. Instead, he surveyed an empty hall below. There was a statue of Mary at the other end. She too had her arms spread, as if inviting an invisible audience to enter her embrace.
I gazed from one to the other for several minutes, my heart pounding. I was certain they might climb down and wave me away from the door at any moment. I wished I could step into the hall and examine the two figures more closely, but my friends were clear: I was not a Catholic. I could not cross the sacred threshold.
Being excluded from my friends' faith made it all the more attractive to me. I wondered what kind of strange rites went on inside that building. On Ash Wednesday they came out of the church with the sign of the cross on their foreheads, made from the ashes of the fronds they waved on Palm Sunday the previous year. I thought it gave them an air of macabre elegance. They gave up their favorite foods during Lent and went to the priests for confession. They lit candles. There was even a candle for the Holy Ghost. They said he was present as long as it stayed lit. Who knew where he went when the candle went out?
When the lesson ended, my friends appeared again in the deserted hallway, opened the door, and fled the place. The faint scent of holiness escaped with them, like the sweet and musty smell from an old woman's preserved wedding dress. I gave the statues one last nervous glance, just to make sure they had not sprung to life, and went off to play.
In my teen years I finally gathered the courage to enter the church. I visited at the urging of my sister's best friend. She was the first serious Catholic I had ever met and the first person to engage me in theological debate. She didn't want me to become a Catholic so much as to open my eyes to the reality of God's presence in the world. She saw him everywhere. He was infuriatingly remote to me, engaged in a cosmic game of hide-and-seek.
I visited the church on a Sunday morning, my heart skipping a beat as I passed through the door. I was afraid the priests might be able to tell I wasn't a Catholic, as if something in my demeanor betrayed the fact. I was aware there was bad blood between the Protestants and the Catholics. This undercurrent of tension gave an added thrill to my visit. I felt like a spy in the house of God.
I spent most of the morning trying to follow the order of service, a flurry of prayers, genuflections, and muttered hymns, interspersed with the priest's musical chanting. At one moment we were seated and then suddenly we were on our feet. When we weren't standing or sitting, we were kneeling. Uncertain about whether I was permitted to kneel as a non-Catholic but afraid that my failure to participate betrayed me, I sat on the edge of the pew hoping anyone who noticed would think I was about to kneel. I panicked when I saw people begin to exit the pews and make their way to the altar where the priest stood. Once in front of the altar, they opened their mouths and the priest placed something on their tongues. They bowed their heads pensively and knelt when they returned to their pews. I wasn't sure I should follow. But I worried that if I didn't, everyone would know I didn't belong. What would the priests do when they discovered a Protestant among them observing their secret rites?
As the worshipers at the end of my pew stepped out into the aisle, I made a bold decision. I decided the best strategy was to act like I belonged there. When my row began to move toward the altar, I followed suit and approached the priest. I was impressed by the way he served the congregation with machinelike precision. Worshipers came forward with hands folded and mouths open, like sparrows waiting to be fed by their mother. He muttered something unintelligible and placed a thin wafer on their tongues.
It may have been only my imagination, but the priest faltered slightly as I made eye contact with him. I was sure he saw through my ruse. Would he shout? Ask me to step out of line? I opened my mouth and felt the strange texture of the communion wafer, dry and tasteless, as it began to dissolve. Relieved the priest had not made a scene, I retreated down the aisle and took my place in the pew, trying to look both reverent and Catholic.
I left the church feeling exhilarated and considered returning the following Sunday, until I saw my neighbor's sister coming toward me with a frown. "I saw you this morning!" she said. It was an accusation not an observation. "What were you doing in our church? You're not a Catholic. Go to your own church next time." She knew as well as I did that my family did not attend church. I muttered something in halfhearted reply but did not go back.
Beulah Baptist was at the opposite end of Church Street. I was drawn there by a parade which took place at the time of year when summer stretches out like the rest of eternity. I was bored. None of my friends were around and I couldn't think of anything to do. Suddenly, I heard the sound of music and children's voices. Coming down the sidewalk was a makeshift parade of wagons, balloons, and someone dressed in a clown suit. A group of children marched behind waving. One of them ran over to me with a piece of paper inviting me to attend something called vacation Bible school.
This might be a good idea, though I felt some ambivalence about attending. The fact that I was unchurched didn't make me nervous. It was the "school" part that bothered me. I did not enjoy school. The thought of joining vacation and school together into some kind of hybrid was perverse, like the pictures one sees in the tabloids of babies reportedly born with the head of a dog and the body of a human. Who wants to go to school on their vacation?
Still, the clown was a hopeful sign. These people promised vacation Bible school was fun, an intriguing thought. I had never viewed church as a fun place. Perhaps the Baptist church was more like a circus - all colored lights and sounds and laughter.
Beulah Baptist, however, was all business. A large metal map of the world hung on the sanctuary wall just behind the pulpit, sprinkled with small pinpoints of light. I thought this was an odd choice for a decoration, more suited to the United Nations than a church. The map, I learned later, was meant to remind church members of the importance of missions. The people at Beulah were big on missions. Every day in vacation Bible school we were treated to a missionary story. I could never remember the names or the locations but the plot was always the same. Some child realizes the whole world is going to hell and dedicates himself to becoming a missionary. He leaves his weeping parents behind and goes to a distant jungle land. Communication with the natives is hard because he doesn't know the language. It doesn't help matters that the natives are cannibals. As he tries to tell them about Jesus, whose own story was almost as depressing as the missionary's, the natives capture him, cook him in a pot, and eat him. He is quickly replaced by another missionary who has been inspired by his sacrifice. The moral of the story, as far as I could tell, was, "Come to Jesus and this can happen to you too!"
I did not want to go to a distant country and tell cannibals about Jesus. I didn't even like being more than a block or two from my house. I certainly did not want to be boiled in a pot and eaten.
Beulah also had a weekly children's club, a combination of the Cub Scouts and vacation Bible school. Apparently these Baptists were good at creating hybrids. The gospel message, like the church itself, was presented each week in an unadorned, matter-of-fact way. Every Wednesday night we sat on metal folding chairs and listened as the leader described the torments of hell and the beauty of the cross. The message weighed heavily upon my soul. I knew I was a sinner and destined for hell. My Catholic neighbors told me as much. Now the Baptists said the same thing. My own conscience confirmed their accusation. Hadn't I once looked at a picture of Sophia Loren in a negligee? On another occasion, while whirling a jump rope over my head like a helicopter rotor, I struck a sparrow sitting on a fence and watched in horror as its small head sailed across the yard. The decapitated torso just stood there, frozen in place for a moment, and then the little body tumbled to the ground. For these and many other crimes I knew I deserved to go to hell.
By the end of the lesson I was sure everyone around me could hear my heart pounding. I could tell what was coming. The leader was about to ask us to "accept Jesus." He would ask us to lift our hands, "right where we were," and let him know we had prayed the sinner's prayer. I was too embarrassed to comply and too afraid not to. What if I was the only sinner in the group? How many sinners could there be in a room full of Baptists? But what if I didn't do it? The speaker said this might be my last opportunity. I might walk out the door, die on the spot, and be ushered into a Christless eternity that very night.
In the end, my fear of hell won out over my embarrassment. The metal folding chair groaned slightly as I lifted my hand. The leader asked us to repeat a prayer after him. It was as simple as that. Very neat and businesslike. A few days later I received a nice letter from the pastor of the church, a man I had never seen, congratulating me on my decision. I was proud of his letter, impressed by the way the pastor signed it in ink above his printed name. I read it over several times and then tucked it away somewhere in my dresser drawer.
Despite my pretensions to Protestantism, I felt as out of place at Beulah as I had at St. Angela. Most of the other kids who attended came for the game time. Apparently this was the fun they promised us when I attended vacation Bible school. But the only game anybody really wanted to play was dodgeball, and I was terrible at it. Overweight and slow on my feet, I was afraid of the ball. It was more like a half hour of target practice than a game, and it didn't take long for the predators in the group to spot the weak animal in the herd. I hated the way the leader's son called me by my last name instead of my first, uttering it in a way that made it sound like a character slur. I arrived every Wednesday with a sense of dread, embarrassed by my unfamiliarity with the Bible stories and afraid of becoming a target at game time. Eventually, I stopped attending.
Not everyone was unkind to me at the church. An older man named Joe took an interest in me. Unmarried and somewhat slow, Joe roomed at the YMCA. He phoned my house every week to check on my spiritual progress. Our conversations were awkward, confined to his labored observations about cold weather and long underwear. After a few weeks I asked him to stop calling.
Although I heard the gospel first at Beulah Baptist, I encountered Christ - really encountered him - in the back room of a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant. The fast-food joint was a mile from my home on a block that intersected Church Street coming from the other direction. Just graduated from high school, I was working the night shift, waiting on customers and cleaning the fryers. I am contemplative by nature, and the midnight shift only intensified my introspective tendencies. The situation in my family was an added burden. My mother was sick, wasting away from an illness that eventually took her life. My father's long-standing alcoholism grew worse. It did not help matters that my favorite radio station played only the blues after midnight. Before long I felt myself sliding into depression.
Excerpted from A Stranger in the House of God by John Koessler Copyright © 2007 by John Koessler. Excerpted by permission.
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