Blinders

Angie Romines

A Pretty Word for Goodbye


Welcome & Announcements

My church meets at night. We have to because the building isn’t ours. It’s borrowed from a more-traditional Presbyterian congregation that uses it on Sunday mornings, which means I have the benefit of looking at dusty stained glass with missing fragments without having to sit through a formal, liturgical service.
  I have my own pew, chipped and wooden—left side, six rows from the back. It’s technically not mine, but I sit there almost every week, so it feels safe to assume some form of ownership. I need to have a stationary place in this building, something to clutch.
  Every Sunday is like this Sunday. I wonder how and why I got here. I am twenty-three, old enough to choose not to attend. And yet I am here, grown up and back in church. It feels strange that this choice is mine, yet it feels unrecognizable to me. The major force behind my being here is not faith, but a longing for familiarity, to be part of a whole that has grown up with the same flannel boards, Sunday dress tights, and church jargon.
  Even after I’m positioned in my pew, I want to duck out and go home. But I stay, sitting in my hard seat and studying the painting on the wall above the piano. I hate that painting, an asymmetrical cross surrounded by a gaudy crown with a feather sticking out of it. I’ve been in this Christian snow globe—a world within a world—my whole life, and I’ve never heard of a feather being used as a religious symbol. A dove, yes. A sparrow, sure. But not a mangled-looking writing quill.
  I know all about symbols of faith. From the time I was five and my mother told me she was sending me to Blackhawk Baptist, I have been learning. I have all the answers to the questions that don’t matter. I can tell you the name of the oldest man in the Bible, the high priest of Salem who compared himself to Jesus, and how a man carved a prostitute into twelve pieces to teach somebody some sort of lesson. But I have none of the answers that I need to know, like why I sit here week after week.
  Back in school, our teachers would say that going to church didn’t make us Christians. What they meant was that church and faith are two separate entities. In saying this, they were implying that to live a holy life, both church and faith must be a part of the equation. But if church is the home of the Christian, why is it so uncomfortable for me to be here? Is it because I’m not a Christian? Or is it because I’m not a certain kind of Christian?
  I can’t stop looking at that damn feather painting, and I can’t stop hating it. Maybe I like hating it. It forces me to focus on something small, something less huge and terrifying than why I’ve come. I sit with my Bible in my lap and silently hate the painting, which has nothing to do with my salvation.
  I don’t think salvation is supposed to be scary. The dark, jagged place you are before you are saved is supposed to be frightening, but not the actual saving part. The only trouble is, I can’t remember where I was when I decided to ask for God’s salvation. I was four, maybe five when it happened. And it didn’t just happen once.
  Picture this scene repeated for five or so years. I’m young and small. My hair is damp from my bath and in braids because that’ll make it wavy for school in the morning. Even though I’m tired, I get out from beneath my quilt and kneel beside my bed. The carpet bites the skin of my knees. Doesn’t matter. This is important. I clasp my hands tightly while I pray. It is less scary when I have a good grasp. “Dear Jesus, please come into my heart and save me from my sins. I will love you forever. Amen.” It is okay to sleep now? I do wonder what sins I was feeling so guilty about at the age of five.
  In school they taught us that when the Bible said, “Fear the LORD,” it didn’t mean he wanted us to be actually scared of him, but just that we should respect him. It felt like they were lying. When I was young, I was scared all the time. I dreamt of angels falling from the starlit heavens and yanking me down with them into the fiery lakes of hell. They told us the fire is not the worse part, that it is the separation from God that is unbearable.
  My mother and father were afraid before I was born. My mother gets uncomfortable when asked to share her testimony because she wasn’t saved once, but many times—like me. Every altar call, every church camp revival, my mother would find herself being drawn to the front with the crowd of people seeking redemption. She isn’t sure which time was the “real time,” so she doesn’t want to talk about any of them. My father was converted by his mother’s hand that held a switch. When he was older in high school, he knows he made The Big Decision in earnest, but he can’t remember any of the particulars. He knows it happened, though.
  But I never knew the spiritual version of my parents. All I knew were the two people who never answered my questions. “Faith is private,” my mother would say. I was angry that they didn’t go to church. We were taught that our parents were supposed to be spiritual examples for us, especially our fathers. Once I was old enough to argue convincingly, I made them take me to church. My mom would pour my cereal, brush out my hair, and dress me in Sunday clothes, and then my dad would drop me off at Blackhawk Baptist Church, which was attached to our school. That way I didn’t have to be embarrassed at school by being the girl who doesn’t go to church, and my parents didn’t have to sit through an unwanted service. It was our great compromise.

Call to Worship

  I like to sing, but only in church. And not up front with the piano, guitar, and microphones, but I like singing from my row amongst the many. It’s comforting to hear my voice blending with dozens of others. No pressure. Worship songs are characteristically easy to sing. I try to match the voices around me, and it sounds beautiful, possibly because I can’t hear myself. I don’t have to depend on my one voice but can rely on a collection of voices.
  In junior high, everything I experienced was with an intensity of emotion, usually as an unpleasant side effect of rapidly fluctuating hormone levels. But when it came to God and spiritual matters, I see this passion as something special, like a piece of old jewelry I was allowed to cup in my hands for a short while before gingerly returning it.
  The songs especially caught me. I used to be very concerned with the message of the worship songs I’d sing. I can remember standing with my friends in our youth group building—the floor was tiled in black and white; vintage video games lined the walls; basketball hoops and foosball tables were scattered throughout—and feeling so full and happy and calm.
  If I was ever truly converted, it was during this time in my life. One night after an especially moving worship service, I locked myself in my bedroom and hummed songs we had sung earlier. After closing my eyes and singing the last few lines aloud, I decided that it was time to really be saved. I was nearly thirteen, and I could feel God.
  And so, I was converted. From what, I’m not sure.
  I dug through the chaos of my dresser drawer and found a stationary set this girl I didn’t know very well had gotten me for my birthday. The cards were blank on the inside with pictures of kids kissing and playing in piles of leaves on the outside. I wrote in cursive because cursive is more special than print.

    Dear Jesus,
    I now know the meaning of the song “Surrender.” I will be coming home to you in
    someday. I am officially saved on this day, Wednesday, April 16th, 1996.
    Yours forever,
    Angie

  The song, “Surrender,” was actually pretty awful. There were echoes, so the word “surrender” was repeated far more times than necessary. The lyrics were trite and the chords repetitive, but I was too young to recognize cliché. For me, it was perfect, transcendent moment. The kind that doesn’t last.

***

  I never liked Ken. He technically was the high school youth pastor, but he loaned himself out to us younger junior high kids from time to time. I’d never actually spoken with him, so the only tangible evidence I had for my aversion was his choice in music. Most of his songs I liked, but he had a penchant for the song “All in All,”, which I did not appreciate. It moved too fast and scaled too high. We sounded like mice when we sang it.
  “He’s a bad man,” I used to whisper to my friends when I’d hear the familiar intro chords to his favorite song.
  “He’s a pastor. Pastors are good,” they’d tell me.
  “Not this one. I can feel it,” I’d say before joining the song.
  Ken left our church the summer before I graduated from junior high to high school youth group. It took a couple of months for the news to trickle down to the younger kids. They told us Ken was caught dating one of the high school girls from a nearby public school.
  “How do you date someone when you’re married with kids?” a friend asked me.
  “You don’t. That’s the point. Told you he was bad,” I answered.
  Youth group was no longer a place I wanted to be. Emotional sways weren’t enough anymore. I wanted it to make logical sense. I wanted to see it lived out. This man didn’t just go to church, he was a pastor. He was as involved as you could be.
  That’s the problem with pastors. They tend to be charismatic, which works well for spiritually moving a congregation, but not so well in one-on-one counseling with a damsel in distress. I didn’t want to be in a place where the people who were positioned in leadership were the ones you could trust the least.

Fencing & Invitation to the Table

  We line up for communion now. I’ve always liked communion. It is somehow comforting to know that the same symbolic gesture has been repeated for two thousand years. The bread and the wine are a constant.
  Pastor calls communion a sacrament. That means there is a mystical, supernatural element to the act, and it is sacred. Because of the gravity of the act, he fences the table by saying, “This sacrament is intended for those who have been saved by the grace of God. If you are a part of that family, come and partake. If you are not, we say, ‘Welcome,’ but ask that you do not take the bread and the wine.”
  It always makes me nervous when the table is being fenced. When making a covenant with God by participating in one of his holy sacraments, it is the not time to be dishonest or even uncertain. And so I always hesitate, unsure if it is sin to remain seated or sin to partake. I end up having to convince myself that no one is ever really sure. And so, I file behind the other believers. I consume the soaked bread and return to my pew, letting my tongue roll over the familiar taste of wine.
  Through most of high school, I had no idea what alcohol tasted like. I started off my senior year tentatively sipping mixed drinks, but by the time I reached college, I was educated. There was even less of a reason for me to go to church on Sunday morning when I was still dehydrated and shaky from Saturday night’s drink of choice--usually vodka, rum, or tequila. I didn’t like to waste time with anything that didn’t kick you in the face after each shot. But even if I wasn’t hung over, I still wouldn’t have gone to church.
  Disillusionment. I didn’t know there was an actual word for it until I grew up and went to away to college, a Christian college as per my parents’ unarguable request. During my four years at Indiana Wesleyan, I skipped mandatory chapel whenever I could figure a way to get around the chapel monitors. On Sunday afternoons, I’d go to lunch in the cafeteria having just woken up, my face striped with sheet marks. People would say, “Oh, looks like someone went to Bedside Baptist with Pastor Sheets,” and I didn’t really care that they knew.
  When Indiana Wesleyan friends—good Christian friends—would ask me why I had such an aversion to church and chapel, I’d make it simple and say, “I don’t believe in organized religion.” But to my classmates who were raised that Sunday mornings were to be spent in church fellowshipping with other believers, to say “I don’t believe in organized religion” meant I needed to be labeled as disillusioned, a backslider. At least now I had a word for the unanchored position I was in, and a smart-sounding word at that. I needed that word. I needed something to cling to while I was hovering between two worlds, belonging to neither.

Confession of Sin

  When I was a junior in college, I thought I’d found a boy that could save me from my apathy. He was reformed, saved from his years of rebellion through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. During his freshman year, he did so much cocaine that blood would pour from his nostrils at very inopportune times. But he quit all that and came back to the church, said it meant more to him now that he had fallen so far and yet had chosen to return.
  He was always concerned with the state of my soul.
  On Mondays after class, we’d get coffee and have confessional time. With him and me, confession was informal, more storytelling than relaying my sins with a penitent heart.
  “Well, let’s see. Saturday night, I drove down to Indy with friends from high school, got lit, and made out with [insert name].” Not as hardcore as snorting coke, but then again, I wasn’t very sorry about it.
  He never told me to stop doing any of it, just asked if he could pray for me. I thought if he knew enough about me, what I had done, then he’d step in and fix it. For two years, I continued my recitation of sins, hoping he’d forbid me to drink. But he never did. So I kept talking, and he kept listening and praying. And nothing ever changed.
  I feel ridiculous looking back, hoping that I could pass off responsibility for my soul on another person. I don’t know what made me think I could replace God with a boy from rural Ohio.

Benediction

  The service is ending. It always ends the same. With the benediction, which is just a pretty word for goodbye. The pastor places himself in the aisle between the two rows of pews like Moses at the shore of a freshly parted Red Sea. He reaches his arms up toward the vaulted ceiling, looks out upon us and says, “The benediction is a good word from God. Hear it now and be blessed. ‘May the LORD bless you and keep you. May the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’”
  I like that last line about peace best. It always calms me as I gather my Bible, purse, and keys and walk through the doors onto 2nd street, leaving the congregation behind me. The feeling follows me all the way to my car, but it always dissipates by the time I’m alone behind the steering wheel. I don’t know that I will ever have a lasting sort of peace. I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be stupid but sure, like I was in junior high. I’ve been told many times that it is considered a blessing to wrestle with your faith. That it should not come easy. That doubt is the sign of a well-formed mind.
  I don’t pray very often. When I do pray, it’s when I am feeling unfinished and lost, if I have nothing left of me, when my brain can’t hold these complex, ethereal ideas anymore. With this kind of prayer, I don’t kneel; I collapse. I pray too fast and frantically to remember all the words. I ask for help over and over. When I rise up from the floor, there is no knowing, no stillness, no peace.
  This idea that I might be someone different than who I thought I was for the past few decades, that I might not fit into the only world that’s ever been offered to me, I cannot believe. Faith is laced through my bones. It is me, more so than my face, my name, or my family. If it were to become separate from me, then I don’t know what would remain.
  I walk through those heavy church doors every Sunday evening. I come in out of the dark and into the light. I sing with the others and make a joyful noise unto the LORD. I tear the bread and dip it into the wine. I recite the words of confession. I hush my questions and doubts. Answers are not for this fallen earth, they tell me.






Angie Romines

ANGIE ROMINES received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The Ohio State University in 2009. Her work has been published in the anthology Jesus Girls and has placed in several writing contests such as the Tiny Lights narrative essay contest and the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Angie teaches English at Ohio State, infrequently blogs about 1990’s Christian romance novels with her sister at undertherjg.blogspot.com, and is currently working on a magical realism novel set in Eastern Kentucky.





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