Sipress cartoon from The New Yorker, 3/10/08, p. 91
Behind the altar in the Baptist church of my childhood was a velvet curtain. If I ever did think about it as my mind wandered during Sunday services, I’d have thought it was simply a decorative touch, a bit of burgundy (or was it gold??) that matched one of the colors in the stained glass windows.
When I was about thirteen, my church-going contemporaries and I were herded into a baptismal class. The lessons “taught” to me there didn’t stick in my memory – but for the revelation that a large concrete water trough had been secretly lurking behind that velvet altar backdrop, and that one by one my classmates and I were going to be paraded into that tub and get our heads wet. In all the years past, church folks had been smart enough to do this sort of thing after all the young kids were sent down to their Sunday School classes. None of us had previously witnessed this strange event.
On “the big day” we donned some sort of white cotton choir robes, got in line, and then one-by-one waded into the tank. The water was waist-high, the minister asked me the pertinent questions, I answered as I’d been instructed to, and SPLOOOSH: the bastard tipped me over backward and under water. Apparently I came out of that tank a saved Christian; in reality I decided this religion was for the birds, or maybe the fish.
At some time after “organized religion” was washed out of me, some family friends came to visit. Their daughter Donna Jean and I were the same age but of ever more differing interests, making it harder and harder to know what to do during these occasional social get-togethers, and on this Sunday I said, “Why don’t we sew? We could make something.”
Donna Jean looked a combination of horrified and all-knowing while proclaiming, “Don’t you know that every stitch you take on a Sunday will be a stitch of pain before you die?” I must say that I didn’t know that…but not wanting to push her into doing something that she obviously felt was wrong (and apparently dangerous), I answered something like, “Yeah, oh, well, we don’t have to sew.”
My logical brain scoffed. I already had one foot planted in my father’s agnosticism and was secretly turning away from my mother’s Baptist church, and Donna Jean’s nonsense was laughable. Or was it? My mind raced. Had I sewn anything on a Sunday before?? I had. Yikes. Could Donna Jean’s proclamation be true?? Nah. But could I be sure?? Pain scared me. Building up a large cache of stitches of it that would have to be endured before death scared me not a little. We didn’t sew that day, nor did I sew on a Sunday for many, many years.
I’ve had pain now and then in the years since God’s ways were revealed to me by Donna Jean. Maybe I’m paying down the cache. Or maybe there’s a Christian equation that looks something like this:
(Life allotted) + (Sunday stitches sewn) – (Pain stitches experienced) = Time Remaining
Who knew God was a mathematician?