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Pastor Bill and the Chirping Birds

There will be no sex, no drugs, and very little rock’n’roll today. Instead we’re going to discuss the intricacies of denominational doctrine in a Christian church, and it might be less interesting than it sounds. Please be seated.

Our church had a new pastor named Bill Bird, who was in his early-30s — half the age of the previous pastor. I don’t know whether he’d planned this all along, but when he started as the pastor, he had a thick, healthy head of toupee. He looked 32, and then, midway through his third or fourth sermon, to make a dramatic point about showing people your true self, he ripped his toupee off, revealing himself to be almost completely bald. Then he explained that premature baldness ran in his family. It was a shocking Sunday, let me tell you. Our church was always a very quiet place, but for the toupee trick there was an actual round of applause. 

After that, I kinda liked our bald Pastor Bill. He was definitely a change from the previous pastor, and the pastors that came after him, just because he wasn't decrepit. Sometimes he used slang of somewhat recent vintage, and told jokes that were funny and not necessarily religious, and talked about sports and ice cream and other things not necessarily next to godliness. There was even a rumor that he kept beer in the fridge at the parsonage, though that story remains apocryphal.

They’d fired the previous pastor, a very old man, and brought in Pastor Bill specifically hoping to draw a younger crowd. Other than a few kids like me, the church was mostly married couples in their 40s or 50s, like my parents, or even older. They’d had to cancel the Sunday School class for college-age churchgoers, because nobody college-aged was going to our church.

There weren’t many people in the pews at all, but the building was huge, with a balcony over the sanctuary, and a labyrinth of hallways and rarely-used rooms in the back and in the basement.

My dad said it had been a crowded place when he started attending — when he'd been in college — but all through my childhood it was just a big empty box with a steeple. A sign in the foyer (that's church-speak for ‘lobby’) announced the attendance, but you’d think God would be embarrassed at the numbers. On a busy corner in a big city, in a sprawling church that could seat a thousand, the sign said “Last week’s attendance: 98. Previous week: 103.” Even at Easter, the church had far more pews empty than filled.

This new, young preacher, Pastor Bill, was supposed to change all that. In his first sermon, when he had hair, he’d announced himself as “rock’n’roll, but wholesome,” a line that made teenage me chuckle, and made some of the old parishioners cringe. I wasn’t interested in wholesome, and they weren’t interested in rock’n’roll.

The old folks didn’t need to worry, though. The new pastor’s idea of ‘rock’ was singing slightly peppy hymns with his wife (hot) on guitar and his sister (not) on bass. They sang as a trio before every Sunday's sermon, and called themselves the Chirping Birds. Bird was their last name, so — get the joke?

One memorable Sunday, a fourth Chirping Bird sat in with the band. He was a very young-looking white boy with the world’s smallest drum set — one drum and one cymbal. The four of them then performed “Holy Holy Holy,” one of the most ancient, durge-like hymns in the hymnal, but in a somewhat drummed-up version that, surprisingly, wasn’t completely awful. I later heard from my dad, though, that some of the church elders had been none too pleased.

♦ ♦ ♦

You could become a full-fledged member of the church at 15, which appealed to me just because it seemed like a grown-up thing to do. With a senior citizen’s hindsight now, I’d say kids that age might be too rebellious and ask too many questions — and yeah, that was me. Not because I was particularly precocious, though. Most of my questions came by way of my brother-in-law, Vance.

Vance had grown up in the same church, oldest son of the church’s dominant family. He was almost as old as Pastor Bill, maybe too old for my sister, but he came from such stalwart stock even my father hadn’t objected. After they married, Vance and my sister could see that I was a weird, warped kid, so I was invited to join them for dinner once a week. I looked forward to it, and looked up to Vance.

He was about half-counterculture, and it was the 1970s so that was still cool. He had a responsible job, and a mortgage, listened to folk music, and sometimes he wore a suit, but he also wore a “question everything” pin. He cursed, smoked pot, told dirty jokes, and dang it, he was who I wanted to be. Sure as hell I didn’t want to be me, because ‘me’ was a pimply, awkward kid with one friend in the world. 

Despite having grown up in the church, Vance had mostly stopped attending, and eventually I asked him why. He shrugged and said, “It’s all bullshit, isn’t it?”

Well, yes, of course it was, but that’s not something an adult said out loud, certainly not to me. Over the next few dinners the next few weeks, between talk about boxing and baseball and hydroplane racing, he told me his doubts about God and the church. Me being a super-sheltered church kid, I’d never heard anyone seriously question it like Vance did, and I was riveted. My question for Pastor Bill, then, really came from Vance.

♦ ♦ ♦

To officially join the church, you sat through a six-week catechism class, one hour one night every week, in an otherwise unused room, down one of the church’s many long, mostly empty hallways.

The pastor taught the class by reading aloud from a special catechism book, so it was like school, except extra boring, and all about God, and there were only three students. One of them was me, barely 15, shy and quiet; one was a woman who could’ve been somebody’s grandma, and knitted through the catechism sessions; and one was a woman who looked about 40, and always asked if she could smoke during the sessions.

“Sorry, no smoking,” Pastor Bill said patiently every week, so when class was finished the smoking Christian would hurry outside for a cigarette without even saying good night. She stopped coming to catechism after a few weeks, and after that it was just me and somebody’s grandma. The setting did not yield itself to easy questions and answers. I sat quietly and tried to follow along and stay awake.

After six weeks of this, Pastor Bill reached the end of the catechism book he’d been reading to us, and said that the last step toward joining the church would be a written test — and the answers would all be yes.

I’d never had a test before or since where they told you the answers in advance, but this was not a normal test. The questions were all, “Do you believe [this particular nonsense]?,” and “Do you believe [that particular nonsense]?,” listing twenty points of church doctrine, all of which the pastor had explained in detail over the previous six weeks. You were supposed to answer all the questions by saying “Yes, I believe that,” then sign your name at the bottom, and when you did, poof, you were accepted as a member. Please make tithes payable to the church.

As he handed us our tests, the pastor, for the first time in all six sessions, asked me and the old lady whether we had any questions. She said no, but I had a question. Just one, and it was about Doctrine #3: The Holy Trinity. 

This is one of the basic beliefs of most Christian churches, and it’s rather strange even for religious doctrine: In the Bible’s Old Testament, God is the star, and he goes by several different names. In the New Testament, Jesus is the star — the hippie dude who’s hailed as the son of God, dies on a cross, yadda yadda yadda. When the book’s many authors waxed poetic, they described a third recurring character called the Holy Ghost, or the Holy Spirit.

Well, here's the equation: God the Father + Jesus the Son + the Holy Ghost = all the same entity, a three-headed God Almighty. But in addition to being the same, they're also all three different entities. That’s the blessed Trinity, the church’s third doctrine.

To me, now, this is nonsense about nonsense. Each character of God seems far-fetched, and merging them into a triangular godhead only triples the lunacy. When I’d talked about it briefly with my brother-in-law Vance — Mr Bad Influence — he’d boggled my mind by telling me that the Trinity isn’t even in the Bible. He had a concordance (a dictionary of the Bible, word by word) so we looked it up, and nope, the word ‘Trinity’ isn’t in there.

Feeling like a revolutionary and armed with the truth of the concordance, I said to Pastor Bill, “The Trinity makes no sense to me, and it’s not in the Bible.”

And here’s a moment that’s stayed with me for the rest of my life: Pastor Bill smiled and chuckled, and said, “Yes, it certainly is in the Bible.” He opened his Bible, flipped directly to a particular page, and frowned. Then he reached behind his desk for his concordance, which was bigger and presumably more exhaustive than Vance’s. Maybe it was a special “Pastor’s Version,” so as he started turning the pages I thought he might find it and cite a reference, but instead he paused when he got to the T’s, and saw that ‘Trinity’ wasn’t there. He said “Huh,” and turned as white as the Holy Ghost.

“That surprises me,” he said. “Well, maybe the word isn’t in the Bible, but the concept is, absolutely,” and in just a few minutes he was able to page through his Bible and find several references that alluded, vaguely, to God in three persons, though God's three names kept changing.

Still wanting to stir things up for whatever 15-year-old reason, and still echoing what I'd heard from Vance, I told Pastor Bill that the Trinity wasn’t real, and wasn’t God; it was just a concept made up by confused people, trying to explain a God that was over their heads. Actually, Vance had said “a god they’d made up in their heads,” but that seemed too harsh to say to Pastor Bill.

Why I was such a stinker about the Trinity, I don’t know. I’d never been deeply religious or anything, but it seemed like a kooky concept — and kookier still because it wasn’t in the Bible. That’s what intrigued me.

See, they’d always told us that everything about the church and Christianity was based on the Bible. It's The Word of God. That’s also what the pastor had told us in catechism class, but this ‘Trinity’ concept wasn’t really in the Bible. It’s a cornerstone of the whole church, but if it's man-made more than God-made, maybe everything the church teaches might topple.

The old lady who’d been my only classmate said, “Well, I have no questions,” and looked at me like I was degenerate scum. I remember her glare, because it felt insulting, but then instantly felt sorta good. Yeah, degenerate scum here, pleased to meet you. 

She’d already answered all twenty questions and signed at the bottom of the page, so Pastor Bill spent a few minutes shaking her hand, welcoming her to the church, and then she left, throwing another harsh stare at me on her way out. An old lady who questioned nothing had disapproved of me, and I couldn’t have been more proud.

After she’d left, Pastor Bill turned his attention back to me and the Holy Trinity, and we talked about church doctrine for a few minutes. Then he had to hurry home to his wife, but he promised he’d get back to me in more detail about how the Trinity works. 

I was (and remain) bemused that a guy who’d gone to divinity school and gotten a degree in godliness and taught the concept of the Trinity, didn’t know that the word isn’t in the Bible. When he said with such certainty that it was in the Bible, and then figured out that it wasn’t, it was a revelation to me — even someone who talked about religion for a living literally Didn’t Know What He Was Talking About.

Pastor Bill deserves credit, though, for patiently trying to answer a pimply teenager’s question. And he did get back to me about it, as he’d promised — the next Sunday at church, he handed me a sheet he’d written himself, which explained the concept in great detail.

It all seemed flimsy to me, though. I already had my doubts about God, and the pastor’s struggle with the Trinity led to further doubts. Soon I was wondering whether I wanted to be a member of the church. Then I wondered whether I even wanted to be there on Sunday mornings. Then I wasn’t.

Still, bald Pastor Bill remains my favorite pastor ever at that church. He was a nice guy who, predictably, didn’t last long in the job. Despite being a preacher without wrinkles, and despite the wholesome rock’n’roll of the Chirping Birds, young people did not fill the church. Attendance continued to dwindle under 100, and with no results to show for their youthful experiment, Pastor Bill’s contract was not renewed.

We soon had a pastor like most of the church’s other pastors over the years — a very old, very dull man who made the church’s old and dull audience feel more comfortable, and who didn’t sing in a band before his sermons.

12/01/2021

itsdougholland.com 

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3 comments:

  1. Google fucked me in the ass again and I lost a half hour comment about the holy trinity. No, I forgot to save it. So I not only got fucked in the ass, but also fucked myself. I can assure you that, as an old man, I'm ill-equipped to do either. Motherfucker.

    jtb

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am sincerely sorry about the assfucking.

      Delete
    2. I'm not gonna have a tombstone, so if you want to borrow your own sentence for an epitaph, consider it a gift.

      John

      Delete

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