This essay will appear in Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, an anthology from Cascade Books, edited by Hannah Faith Notess.
ON THE DAY of my baptism, my father stood at the back of the church—hung-over, or quite possibly drunk even at that early hour—and shouted, “Hooray for Sara!” as I came up out of the water. I was eight years old.
That’s how my mother remembers it. My memories are less dramatic: the heavy white robe I wore that was more like a thick doctor’s coat than anything resembling the drapey garb of the flannel-graph versions of Jesus and his disciples I knew from Sunday school; stepping down into the chlorinated blue water of the baptismal; holding onto the solid forearm of my pastor as I followed his instructions—bend your knees, lean back, close your eyes, try to relax.
I did it because I’d seen other people at church do it. I did it for my mom, for my Sunday-school teacher, and also because I truly believed, at eight, that I was ready to make a public declaration of my faith. That’s how I understood baptism: you believed in Jesus and then you proved it. I’m sure my father saw it as something even simpler—his youngest daughter mimicking her mother. What he didn’t realize—what I would only come to grasp years later—was that he was witnessing a transfer of allegiance. When I came up out of the water, soaked and relieved to have not gotten any water up my nose, I was a member of a different family, the daughter of a different father.
There’s a scene in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is talking to a crowd. The topics are difficult and complex—the Sabbath, the devil, signs, miracles. Out of the blue, someone tells Jesus that his mother and brothers are standing outside waiting to talk to him. Jesus replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He points to the disciples and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus pulls no punches. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”
In either version, the point is made. When you follow Jesus everything changes, including and perhaps especially the strongest, most natural ties a creature can have.
This notion of the church, fellow believers, as my family was ingrained early. No small part of that was a function of time and place. I grew up in San Francisco in the seventies, the cradle of the Jesus Movement. The Bay Area was full of orphaned flower children—hippies disillusioned by the drug and free-love scene that had failed them, but still seeking the ideals of community that the sixties had promised. Some of these seekers found faith in Jesus and infused it with their nonconformist approach to living, and soon Christian coffee houses, street evangelism, folk-inspired worship songs, and the rejection of confining church tradition all added up to a bona fide social phenomenon: the California Jesus Freak. And I was one of them, or at least, among them.
Our little Bible church was a mix of these born-again hippies, neighborhood natives, a few church ladies, and a handful of families that, like mine, had landed in San Francisco from other parts of the country. We had moved there in 1972, taking up residence in a roomy one-bedroom flat that a family like ours would never be able to afford today. It was my parents’ last stop on a journey that had started in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and taken them through Ohio and Indiana, a road littered with the remains of my father’s career and relationships all but ruined by his drinking. San Francisco was as far west as a pioneering spirit could go—literally and philosophically. Somewhere on that journey my mother became a born-again Christian; my father did not. He didn’t have any enforceable objections, though, and my mother took us to and raised us in this neighborhood church.
Two prominent features on the landscape of seventies Christianity were the Second Chapter of Acts and the second chapter of Acts: the former, three siblings who made up one of the first contemporary Christian music groups and inspired many more who would come after; the latter, part of the biblical chronicle of the early church that includes a description of believers selling their possessions and sharing all they had, meeting in one another’s homes and breaking bread with “glad and sincere hearts.” Jesus Movement churches took this passage to heart, and most of our family bonding happened in the homes of members during the week. We’d crowd into each other’s apartments for food, singing, prayer, and “sharing”—the distinctly post-sixties way of talking about God’s work in our lives, how he spoke to us through the Bible and fellow believers, and the challenges of living our faith daily.
After my mom was hired to be the church secretary, I spent hour upon hour in the building after school, exploring all the little corners and closets, crawling on my belly under pews, stealing up to the balcony for a nap or to look again at the maroon choir robes that I’d never seen used and that had a smell I can only describe as pigeony. Though I liked the sense of privilege, the hours I spent there were also lonely, and symptomatic of my family’s problems. My father, deep into his drinking, couldn’t be counted on to take care of me, or to provide for the family, so Mom had to work, and the church was the only safe place for me to go after school. It was free of the alcohol-related anxieties that went with being home, but it wasn’t home. The building was a sanctuary for me, but also a place of exile, because I wouldn’t have been there if our family’s situation hadn’t been quite so desperate. Under different circumstances, if our blood relatives hadn’t been so far away, maybe we wouldn’t have run so quickly and completely into the embrace of a spiritual family. Maybe it wasn’t so much about running toward something, into sanctuary, as away from something, into a comforting sort of exile that was, at the time, our only option.
Whatever it was—sanctuary, exile, or a little of both—it was genuine, and the center of our lives.
Our little slice of Acts 2, the home fellowship evenings, did not exclude children. My sister and I sat cross-legged on shag carpet or reclined against beanbag chairs many an evening and listened to adult stories of drug abuse, sexual debauchery, broken families, and failed attempts at right living. Everyone had testimony—a story about how hopeless, empty, and appalling their lives were before they found God, or God found them, and lifted them out of their sin.
The sharing and the testimonies and the prayers were my family stories. They asked and answered questions about who I was and where I’d come from and what my life would be about. What I heard, over and over, was this: Jesus lives. Jesus saves. Jesus loves, and loves me. I heard that even the most depraved, screwed-up lives were not beyond his saving grace and love. No one could go so far over the edge that they wouldn’t be welcomed, like the prodigal son, back into the father’s household. This knowledge, those testimonies, created one of the fundamental tensions of my childhood. Yes, my father was a sinner with a drinking problem, but at any moment he could have an experience like those I heard about in the home groups—a shock of recognition followed by surrender and the sinner’s prayer—and he’d finally be part of our family, too. The possibility of his salvation, remote as it felt, hovered over every story and testimony that I heard. Maybe next time, I would think, it will be him.
One shadow lurked over and beneath all of the bonding and sharing and potlucking: the end times.
An obsession with end times theology was a hallmark of the seventies Jesus Movement. Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth was a monster bestseller of the decade—The Purpose-Driven Life of its day, only with a profoundly disturbing message. Lindsey explored biblical prophesies about the end of the world and drew the conclusion that the apocalypse was mere moments away. The world was in for a good seven years of tribulation, complete with plagues, wars, and famines—unless you were a believer, in which case you’d be raptured. One second you’d be brushing your teeth, the next, your pajamas would be a puddle on the floor, your unsaved friends and family looking on, dumbfounded. We heard constantly in sermons, small groups, and conversation about the rapture, the anti-Christ, the mark of the beast, the tribulation, the millennium, the second coming of Jesus.
I couldn’t imagine a future for myself, as I doubted I’d inhabit the planet through the week, never mind past eighteen. The horsemen and trumpets and Christ himself would be glorious, if I could remain faithful. If, in my own Peter-esque moments, I was strong enough to claim Christ and not deny him. When all my unbelieving friends were lining up to receive the mark of the beast, would I have the courage to say no? Knowing intimately my fundamental weaknesses as a human, I was pretty sure I’d be one of the sad, weak people who buckled early in the tribulation. Before age ten I’d already accumulated a lengthy roster of sin: stealing candy from the corner store, lying to my mom about how much TV I watched, calling the telephone operator and swearing at her, gossiping, reading from the copy of Penthouse Stories circulating at school. If I couldn’t resist a candy bar, how would I withstand the genuine trials that were sure to come?
Our fear and trembling about Christ’s return and the accompanying separation of wheat and chaff had another implication: each person’s salvation was subject to eventual authentication. Even someone who appeared to be “in the family” might have a heart of darkness that would leave them behind while you were caught up in the clouds. After all, it says right in the Bible that “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my father in heaven will enter.” The sense of impending world destruction created a heightened desire to be absolutely sure that you and the people in your spiritual family were really headed for the mansion in the sky and not the Other Place. More than once, I heard about various church members who were “backsliding,” a term that seemed to mean anything from relapsing into drug use to missing a few Sundays in a row.
My angst over backsliders (including, possibly, me) was not helped by the Jack Chick tracts that surfaced everywhere during that time. I was mesmerized and horrified by the most ubiquitous of them: This Was Your Life. In it, a man is visited by the grim reaper, then taken by an angel to his appointment with judgment, where he watches as though on a movie screen every sinful moment of his life. In the end, even though people thought he was a good person and he went to church on Sundays, he is tossed into the lake of fire. This punishment seems to be the direct result of enjoying a cocktail, telling a dirty joke as a teenager, and wondering who was winning a football game instead of paying attention to a sermon in church. The last few pages of the tract depicted an alternate life for this man, in which he prays to receive Christ, visits the elderly, reads the Bible to children, and witnesses to the unsaved. The back included a prayer one could recite and thereby attain salvation. I said the prayer every time I saw it, just in case.
Ironically, those of us in that movement really thought we got it, thought that we more than anyone understood the gospel and all of its implications. We talked about grace, and about other churches and their “legalism.” Looking back it seems that what grace meant to us was being able to wear jeans to church and play the guitar, that we still didn’t really get it. At least I didn’t. The more information I absorbed from various quarters, the more I believed it didn’t take all that much for a person to move from being right in the center of the family to being more like a distant cousin, then a black sheep, and eventually not in the family photo at all. The one comfort was that as far as I knew, those who left did so by choice, not by force. The church’s open door worked both ways—anyone seeking Jesus could come in, and anyone who decided they needed to leave was free to do just that.
This proved to be the case with my biological family, too. Shortly after the eighties began, my father left us for good, returning to Pennsylvania without a California testimony.
The final nail in the coffin of idealized seventies Christianity, for me, came in the summer of 1982. While visiting my father and grandmother in Pennsylvania, I hid in my father’s childhood bedroom and watched TV while they fought. A news report came on: Christian singer Keith Green—who I idolized, and had seen in concert—two of his children, and nine other people had died in a small-plane crash while Green was showing off his Last Days Ministries property.
It didn’t seem possible. My parents were divorced, the Cold War was coming to a frightening crescendo, Keith Green was dead, and, Hal Lindsey notwithstanding, Jesus hadn’t come back yet. Where did that leave us?
In the suburbs, eventually, where we moved when my mother remarried. We still attended and participated in my childhood church, but it was different. With people moving out of the city and having kids and real jobs and real money and real mid-life crises, home gatherings were no longer so convenient. There was a sense that we’d given Acts 2 our best, naïve shot, and it was time to move on. Not that those ideals were completely discarded—I think members of that church still believed there was no point just showing up Sunday mornings if you weren’t ever going to share your life with anyone. Efforts were made. It was just that other things were now allowed to get in the way. After all, if we weren’t actually as close to the end times as we’d thought, there was no longer any real rush.
And, as it turned out, you could fight with your church family as readily as with your biological family. It was frighteningly easy, in fact, to lose touch with anyone you wanted to lose touch with, or anyone who wanted to lose touch with you. Minor or major doctrinal differences, arguments over whether or not to invest in new chairs or hymnals, the content of Sunday school curriculum, plain boredom…anything could be an excuse to leave if that was what one wanted.
My disillusionment was complete when the pastor I’d grown up with left in a church split. I don’t remember the specifics, just that discussions were heated, meetings endless, emotions high. Members were left wounded and questioning whether anything they’d experienced during the good old days was as authentic and meaningful as we’d believed while it was all happening. Some wanted to prolong and duplicate past experiences; others wanted to get out and start fresh somewhere else. Those of us who stayed became more protective of ourselves and our stories. Why couldn’t we “go home again,” even though we’d never left, even though a spiritual family was supposed to be a reflection of something different, better, eternal, and redeemed?
As an adult, after having been a member of three or four different churches and seen more politics, splits, and failures, I’ve begun to understand the fly in the church family ointment. I grew up loving and believing in the church as much as I believed in God, maybe more. Jesus had become synonymous with churches’ names, pastors, worship styles, congregants. My experience of a particular expression of Christianity had come to replace faith.
In the scene in Matthew where Jesus tells the crowd who his real family is, maybe we had focused on the wrong part of the story. We grasped at the part about being brothers and sisters because that’s what we understood, and it sounded appealing and right. Especially in the seventies, it fit in with the ideals of peace, love, and understanding. Doing the will of the father was the part we perhaps paid less attention to. And maybe Luke’s harsh, hard to read, version is more helpful in the end: hating, or rejecting, anything, anyone, who ends up coming before following Jesus, is the only way to avoid the problems that come with the almost idolatrous worship of “the community.”
Though the creation of an idealized, utopian society based on two verses in the book of Acts is probably just another way to deny that we need grace every second in order to be at all Christlike, I still tend to gravitate toward churches that attempt to act like families. It would be easier, honestly, not to. Because once you find your congregation and commit and make this public claim of family, and moreover once you start living like you believe what it says in the Bible about unity and the body of Christ, you open your life in every way to exactly the kind of pain and grief and frustration and inconvenience that we all spend so much time trying to avoid. Life is difficult enough without taking on the problems of a dozen or thirty or fifty or two-hundred people who aren’t even your relatives, and being part of a church family brings at least as many problems as it soothes. Why would I seek that, rather than simply slipping into a different church each Sunday, no one knowing my name or my life story? Maybe because it’s what I know, or maybe something mystical did happen in my baptism, joining me to this family that reaches across space and time. And, given the model of adoption laid out in John 1, I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of family that isn’t about me choosing it, but it choosing me.
My father died at Thanksgiving, 2005, alone, still alienated from family—biological or otherwise. As far as I know, he never had the conversion experience we’d hoped and prayed for, and the instructions he left with the funeral home were brief: cremation, and no memorial or funeral or religious services of any kind were to be held. My allegiance lying elsewhere, the first person I contacted was my pastor, asking him to help arrange a brief and simple service to observe my father’s passing. Within hours, members of my church—a Presbyterian church in Salt Lake City, years and miles and cultures away from the Bible church of my childhood—turned up with flowers, urns of coffee, cookies. Our house filled with people who never even met my dad but were connected to him and his story through me, familial ties extending in ways that can’t be charted on a family tree. We all walked the several blocks from our house to a nearby cemetery, where we picked a spot on a hill to pray, and read a Psalm.
My sister and I had visited my father in the hospital the night before he died, and though at the time we had no idea that was what we were doing, were able to make some sort of peace. That’s not easy when your father will barely look you in the eye, speak a sentence that indicates any interest in your life, or admit to profound failures. The promise of family and adoption inherent in baptism—the promise of belonging to Jesus—allowed us a kind of compassion for our dad we most certainly would not have been able to muster had we been relying on him to head our family. It’s that contrast, between the way things are when we’re on our own and the way they can be when we’re God’s, that keeps me looking to my church to be my family. Even in its most dysfunctional moments, a Christ-centered church family seems infinitely more right than a flailing biological one. With every Sunday service, potluck, home group, or hillside memorial, there’s a momentary glimpse of a dim reflection of the glory of true home, where hating your mother and father might actually make sense, given how short they, and we, fall. Why would a bunch of Christians stand in a cemetery remembering the life of a man who disdained their faith, a man who didn’t even want to be mourned? I think it was—and in all our attempts at family-making, is—our way of saying: this is how it could be, this is how it should be, this is how it will be when Christ finally does return, and all our families are redeemed.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.