After our comparatively staid denominational church gave my pastor dad what he later referred to as “the left foot of fellowship,” our new, thrown-together congregation met initially in the parlor of a massive home loaned to us by a friend.
This three-story brick showplace sat at the end of a winding lane, amid 200 bucolic acres. We thought it was a mansion, and, looking back, I guess it was.
When, 18 months later, our friend needed her house back, we rented the basement of the local Farm Bureau building for our worship services.
Finally, three years or so into our new adventure with God, we raised enough money to make a down payment on a small plot along U.S. 60.
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The small, clapboard farmhouse that sat at the front of the property became our sanctuary, office building and dining hall.
Its floors were buckled so badly that when you walked across a room you felt as if the sea were rolling beneath you. The carpets were frayed. The air smelled musty.
We knocked out an interior wall with sledgehammers to make enough space to arrange 40 or 50 folding chairs downstairs for Sunday services.
Our music came from an ancient, upright, out-of-tune piano with chipped ivory keys. For some reason, my mother took it upon herself to paint its brown varnish white.
A no-holds-barred Pentecostal pianist soon joined the church, and she made that ponderous, battered piano rattle the windows.
Usually somebody beat a rhythm guitar, too.
And other folks shook tambourines. I remember when, during a Christmas service, a lady clanged a tambourine to Silent Night.
On fast songs, people danced among the chairs and waved their arms. Preachers, including my dad and various guests, slung sweat and spoke in tongues. Parishioners fell splayed out on the threadbare carpet, grinning, dreaming divine dreams.
One summer, we erected a tent outside for a revival. The visiting evangelists included a guy who said he’d been a dwarf until, due to prayer, he’d miraculously grown to 6-foot-2. He indeed stood over 6 feet, but still sported the facial features, tiny head and high-pitched voice of a little person.
It all was crazy. And wondrous. And scandalous. And thrilling.
It was my ear-splitting, mind-bending re-entry into Christianity.
Years before, when I turned 16, earned my driver’s license and thus had a way to escape my parents’ stifling moral restrictions, I’d set out to become a wastrel.
I’d left the whole God business in the boiling dust of my Mustang Fastback’s exhaust pipes. I’d drunk, doped, rock-and-rolled and fornicated with formidable zeal.
I’d also managed to burn myself — flesh, mind and spirit — into a charred hull.
At length, I’d boomeranged myself into and out of the University of Kentucky and right back into a bedroom at my mom and dad’s place, feeling empty and jaded.
As timing, fate or predestination would have it, I arrived home just in time for my parents’ transformation from good reasonable Baptists into Holy Rollers Gone Wild.
To my astonishment and, if such as thing is possible, against my will, I ended up running with all the crazies myself, casting out devils and slapping oil on the lame. I saw a vision in which Jesus spoke directly to me. I prophesied, and some of what I predicted came to pass. Or I thought it did, anyway. I answered the call to preach.
That was a long time ago.
I’m still preaching — and our church still meets on the same hillside along U.S. 60.
But so much has changed.
I’m old, or nearly so. I am, by some standards, respectable. At least I’m more tranquil. A late friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister, joked that for a Pentecostal I was the best Presbyterian he knew. It’s almost like having come full circle to my childhood.
Matter of fact, the whole congregation has calmed down. We meet in an architecturally sound sanctuary. The carpet is plush. The décor is color-coordinated.
We’ve got a baby grand piano and a sound system that requires a squad of volunteers to run it. We’ve got a website and a Facebook page. We’ve got a printed bulletin than specifies the order of service, and greeters who welcome visitors.
I can’t remember the last time anyone fell on the floor, unless she tripped over a chair leg.
We have a great group of Christians, motivated by their love for the Lord and for their fellow man. They unfailingly feed the poor and visit the sick.
That said, occasionally I sure miss my adventures as a fanatic.
I’ve never felt greater joy, before or since.
There’s something incredibly liberating about abandoning yourself, about becoming a fool for Christ’s sake.
Back then, I felt the Spirit welling in my chest every moment, heard him whispering in my heart. Even my arms tingled, as if I’d been plugged into a breaker box.
Now I’m presumably wiser, and more-or-less in control of myself. Yes, I recognize the dangers of unbridled emotionalism; I’ve lived them.
Still, I recall wistfully that listing clapboard house, the rollicking hand-painted piano, the shouts of praises and the clanging of tambourines.
Sometimes I think respectability might be overrated.