Tuesday, October 12, 2010

if i do what, i'll go where?

one day in art class as a seventh or eighth grader, i was busy not being good a painting a landscape when a girl of the southern baptist persuasion stopped by the table i was sharing with my friend of the hindu persuasion to share the good news with us. really she just wanted to share the good news with him - she knew i was probably okay, despite my presbyterian upbringing, since our parents were friends.

calmly and coolly, she shared that if he refused to accept jesus christ as his personal lord and savior, he would go straight to hell. without another word, she left to grab some more paint or another brush. she was, in her mind, a true messenger of the truth of christianity.

she was, in my mind, an idiot.

that day i started wondering why she, and others like her, were so sure about what happens after we die. it doesn't take long to figure it out. all you have to do is drive by rural churches like the one she attended and read their marquees. the "jokes" they put up there, tell a good portion of the story and explain why things seem so black and white in rural american religion even though life in rural america is an ever changing shade of gray.

i had the recent joy of driving through the appalachian mountains in southwestern virginia and northwestern north carolina on a trip to visit my parents and my grandfather. the town where my parents live is about 90 minutes in any direction from an interstate, so much of the drive was on two-lane highways that followed the curves of the mountains and spilled into the small towns that dot the region. a rough guess on my part is that there are as many churches in these towns as there are families who inhabit them, and thus a lot of drive time reading material.
(as a volunteer firefighter, i disagree stoney fork.)

"forbidden fruit makes lots of jams," said the first sign i saw. just down the road another church gave these instructions/warnings: "pray, believe, receive. pray, doubt, do without." not to be outdone, sometime later i drove past another wondering "is your prayer life well done or rare?"

seeing these reminded me of three others i had seen before moving from north carolina. the church my high school girlfriend attended at one point asked passers the question over on the left.

damn. tell me how you really feel next time. that shed a lot of light on the time she called me on a sunday and asked me what i was up to, and when i told her i'd just finished mowing the yard, she got silent in disbelief that i had worked on a sunday.

the next one, kindled hatred towards wizardry, saying "there's only one potter and his name isn't harry." i guess they're right, but harry seems like a decent name for god. i can trust a guy named harry, and with a name like that, he's probably good with his hands.

(this must be the remix no one ever heard.)

the all time best, however, came when i drove down to see my college roommate one break. just off the exit to his house, there was a church whose sign read, and i kid you not, "turn or burn." can't knock 'em for b.s. that's just straight to the point.

and that's when it hit me. these signs are an attempt to boil down the completely unexplainable questions of life into something we can use. for so long, i'd thought they were legitimate attempts to welcome people or encourage others to come visit. maybe they did that, too, but there is no part of me that is willing to believe that is the main purpose. rural churches aren't generally looking to expand. they're looking to survive.

like i said, life is a shade of gray in rural america. for those that farm, there's the constant worry about how good the harvest will be. for those in more touristy places, there's always the dependence upon visitors and enough snow for the skiiers, enough sun for the tanners, and enough color for the leaf lookers. so much is out of the hands of those who live in rural america, especially those whose livelihood depends upon the land.

and when you're livelihood is up in the air, the last thing you want is for your soul to join it. so while i may never agree that it's turn or burn or that doubt leads to loss, i can at least understand the roots of these pithy little statements and just laugh to myself. i'll even enjoy the humor in some of them because i know my dad would double over in genuine laughter at some of them, though they're no funnier than michael scott's email forwards.

but i'll never get why a trip to the paint shelf seemed like a great opportunity for a sermon.

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