My earliest memories of church are now a bunch of random, black and white films that play in my mind from time to time. The little brick building sat on a hill in Powder Springs, Georgia. We seldom missed a Sunday morning service. I vaguely recall the times when my dad actually went with us.
We only had one car back then; and daddy was the only one with a license. The car was a dark green, 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne Sedan. This was a few years before my youngest brother, Jeff, was born. I remember climbing in the back seat of the old car and standing on the seat while Bill, my older brother and Myra, my sister, sat. Our driveway was red dirt. We didn’t have gravel, we had dirt. I would track in the clay and grind it into the back seat. I finally wore the seat completely out and daddy knew some guys at Puckett Upholstery. They gave him a small roll of orange vinyl. He took the vinyl home and… I’ll bet we had the only dark green Chevrolet Biscayne in the world with an orange back seat.
On Sunday morning, mom would make me dress up and then she’d drag me into the tiny little bathroom where daddy was still combing through the thick VO5 in his hair. She’d squeeze out a little and work it into my hair. She’d borrow dad’s Unbreakable black comb and I’d have the most perfect part you’ve ever seen. That was the brand name of the comb. I always wanted to challenge them on that, but I never did.
As soon as we all piled in the green car, daddy would light one up. He smoked Pall Mall Golds back then. He had a Zippo lighter with a very distinct sound. When he flipped it open, you could hear the trademark clink and when he closed it, you could hear the trademark clunk. Zippo lighters still make that sound and if I hear one, I think of him. 1958 Biscayne Chevys were big cars; big enough to hold all of the secondhand smoke from the two cigarettes that daddy would smoke on the four mile trip. We were used to it. By the time we got to church, we all smelled like Pall Mall Golds and we all had a little nicotine buzz. That would come in handy.
Our lessons were about Jesus and His love for us, God and His grace and The Holy Ghost and His particular interest in our denomination. We were taught that these persons were one person, but The Holy Ghost was the one you could really get ahold of.
It was hard to distinguish the difference, but rings and necklaces were ornamental jewelry. Watches and brooches didn’t count. You couldn’t even wear a wedding ring in those days. We couldn’t go to bowling alleys or theaters. There was the big ten and then we had twenty-nine really important teachings right after that. In those days, a lot of denominations were competing for exclusivity. There was The-First-This-Or-That and then there was a whole bunch of One-And-Onlys. We were one of those. I felt really lucky to have picked the one church that Jesus was actually coming back for. I had no idea.
The sermons were powerful. The preachers would really work up a sweat and I thought they were really mad sometimes. Maybe they were. They’d pound the podium and stomp their feet. It would get your attention. We were all looking for a deeper experience and this seemed to be a step in the right direction. The old timers had obviously gotten ahold of The Holy Ghost. I’ll have what he’s having.
As I grew up, I began to challenge some of the old doctrine. I had met some people who had never even heard of our church and thought they were a genuine part of The Body of Christ. I got in a few arguments about it and lost them all. I finally withdrew my membership when I was 28 years old. A friend was going through a difficult divorce and the pastor wanted to discuss her rights to fellowship with our church. This happened during a business meeting on a Wednesday night in 1992. I didn’t want to judge another person. That was nearly twenty years ago and I still feel the same way.
How often we get it wrong. Sometimes, we get it all wrong. To me, it seems that this is how we eventually get it right. The first time I ever wore a necklace, I felt self inflicted conviction. I thought it was a sin. It took a while for me to accept people who didn’t believe the way I did.
“I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” Psalm 37:25.
I was young when we were climbing in the back seat of that ’58 Chevy. Now I am old. I’ll tell you what stands out in that black and white memory: It’s my dad’s pressed shirt and shiny hair. It’s mama singing hymns all the way back home. It’s the orange vinyl seat. It’s a big meal and a big crowd at grandma’s house. It’s the red clay driveway and the tiny, cinderblock house. It’s the woods and the creek. It’s my brothers and my sister. We have not been forsaken.
I have a favorite tune from those days; it’s the clink and the clunk that daddy made with his Zippo lighter.