By Maggie Rowe
not shit on my class," he said. "You may not come in here and
take a shit on my class." Yvonne stopped singing and looked up in
shock at our instructor: legendary singing coach Leonard Jack, a genteel
stylish 80-year-old man dressed to the height of fashion -- for a homosexual
in the 1930's. Leonard came to every class wearing ballet slippers, whisper
thin nylon socks, and perfectly tailored dress pants, which he would hitch
up when sitting - to display his delicately argyle-laced calf. For
Leonard Jack continued, "You are singing horribly. You should know
better than to come here and shit on my class." Yvonne blinked back
tears and put on a brave smile. Her fierce Puerto Rican pride would not
allow this irate little ballerina octogenarian to see her cry.
After class, one of the other students asked Yvonne what she thought of
Leonard Jack. "Joo know, everyone thinks he's so fucking brilliant.
This Leonard Jack. Well, joo know what? Joo know what? I think he's a
pendejo. What he said to me in there? That was totally -- I mean,
Leonard Jack fucked me up the ass
.Literally." There was silence
as we all thought -- I wonder what she means by that
Maybe it was a translation thing. Because if Yvonne were talking to a
Puerto Rican she probably would have said something like "Leonard
Jack fucked me up the ass. Carajo." And in Spanish the word
carajo doesn't really mean anything -- it's just an expletive.
It's used for added emphasis. You know, like we say, "Dammit."
"Leonard Jack fucked me up the ass. Dammit." And when you think
about it, a lot of people use the word "literally" that way.
So Yvonne wasn't really that far off.
Like all the people in the church I grew up in, Calvary Valley Baptist,
used the word "literally" like that.
They taught me that all that stuff in the Bible literally happened. It
was history. Like Mt St. Helen erupted in 1980. Or John Glenn was the
first man in space. Or Thoroughly Modern Millie won best musical
in 2002. The Bible, I was taught, was like that.
Take the story of Lot's wife who turned into a pillar of salt when she
looked back on the city of Sodom. This is a fantastic metaphor, right?
It serves as an interdiction against excessive mourning, a warning against
becoming consumed by the bitterness of regret, drowned in the salt of
grief. But that's not what it meant to the people at Calvary Valley Baptist.
What it meant to the people at Calvary Valley Baptist was that Lot's wife
looked back over her shoulder, saw the city of Sodom, and turned into
a pile of salt. It wasn't a question of what it meant. It was true. Literally.
So when youth pastor Dale would say, "God is your father in heaven,"
he didn't mean anything by that, it wasn't a metaphor expressing
some aspect of the human experience. It just was. God was a Big Cosmic
Parental Ego in the sky. Like my Dad -- if he had made the world and had
a lot more responsibility.
Youth pastor Dale would talk all the time about how our Heavenly Father
was just. "The Lord is known by his justice."
"The Lord will shepherd his flock with justice." "The
Lord's justice will not tolerate the wicked." And what justice
well you had to figure it out.
But luckily you had help -- The Bible, which was the absolute Word of
It was true.
And the Bible has many examples of God's justice. There is, of course,
my favorite, the story of the Great flood, of Noah and the Ark.
I was in a play at Calvary Valley Baptist when I was 10 about Noah and
the Ark called
100% Chance of Rain.
the narrator and I started off the play by saying, "The Lord saw
the wickedness of man was great on the earth and that every intent and
the thoughts in his heart were continuously evil and the Lord was sorry
he had made man and he was grieved in his heart. And The Lord said, 'I
will wipe out man whom I created from the face of the earth. From man
to animal to creeping things to birds of the sky.' But Noah found favor
in the eyes of the Lord. And God said to Noah, 'Make for yourself in ark.
It's gonna rain.'"
Then came the opening song where we all danced with rain slickers and
Now the Lord was unhappy with the people on earth
They were not what they ought to be and not what they're worth
They were bad and ugly and mean as could be
So the Lord wiped them out as you will see
It's gonna rain, rain, rain
It's gonna rain, rain, rain
100% chance of rain!
to go over this. Basically God had told the people on earth to do certain
things and they tried to do them but they were imperfect so it came out
different than they intended so
God drowned them -- wives, children,
parents -- All of 'em. Just wiped 'em out. All except one family.
Scientists, or as we called them "heretics" or "lunatics"
estimate that at the time of the Flood, the population of the earth was
fifty million people. And according to the Calvary Valley Baptists, with
the exception of one family, God slaughtered them -- fifty million people
by dropping water from the sky that filled up their lungs until they asphyxiated.
That's just what happened.
for some reason, God also decided to include the animals. He drowned the
bears and the elephants and your kid's turtle and your neighbor's golden
retriever. He drowned the green alligators, the long-necked geese, the
humpty back llamas, and the chimpanzees. He drowned the cats, and rats
and elephants. And sure as you're born, our Father who art in Heaven drowned
That crazy God even tried to drown the fish.
murderer, this mass grave filler, this sick twist
is your Dad.
So you've probably known dads with really bad tempers -- maybe your dad
was like that or your friend's dad -- but a big coping strategy with this
kind of dad is you GIVE HIM HIS SPACE.
But according to youth pastor Dale, that wasn't possible with our Father
who art in Heaven because the Lord is ever-present. He is always with
us. Watching us. Literally everywhere.
this point, Dale loved to recite the Footprints in the Sand poem
-- which you've probably heard. A billion times.
It's about the man who dreams he's walking on the beach and sees two sets
of footprints -- one is his and the other is the Lord's. But when times
get tough, he only sees one set and so he says to God, "You promised
me, Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I
noticed that during the most trying periods of my life, there have only
been one set of prints in the sand. Why, when I have needed you most,
you have not been there for me?"
The Lord replied, "The times when you have seen only one set of footprints.
It is then, my child, that I carried you."
Sweet, right? Just lovely imagery. Unless you BELIEVE IT. Then it's really
uncomfortable and fucking creepy. Like when the fat guy on
the subway is breathing down your neck. He might not be a pervert.
He might just be a businessman. But still, you don't want him breathing
down your neck. I mean imagine that God were here with us right now --
like right here -- watching us. Creepy, isn't it?
When I was ten, I told my youth pastor Dale that I had these thoughts
about wanting God to go away because I thought it would be nice to have
a little privacy now and then and I was afraid God was going to punish
me for them. Youth Pastor Dale, aware I was at a tender impressionable
age and that his answer would have a strong impact for years to come,
said, "Maggie, listen. It is very, very important that you not feel
the way you feel. God wouldn't like it very much if he knew you didn't
want him around. I bet you don't like it when people want you to go away.
No, you don't." And then he went into that whisper voice that every
Baptist pastor does when he wants indelibly to etch some bit of churchly
horror into a malleable child's still growing skull. "And Maggie,"
he said, "God sees and knows everything that we think. All the time.
So God was my Father who was always with me but then there were more images.
God was a Dove. A Mother Bird. A Pearl of Great Price. A Spirit. A Ghost.
The Son of Man. A Loaf of Bread. A Ray of light. A Grain of Wheat. A Glass
of Wine. A Fish. A Bridegroom. A Lamb. A Mustard Seed. Yeast.
So I told youth pastor Dale "I'm really
Dale said "Maggie, those things are metaphors. Like when Jesus says,
'I am the bread.' He is saying his path of love and compassion offers
spiritual nourishment, just like bread that you eat offers physical nourishment.
So I said, "Oooooooh well that makes so much more sense. So God isn't
literally a Father and He's not literally always with me, watching everything
I do." Youth pastor Dale said, "Maggie
So I was left with two choices. Either God was a trigger-happy pathological
maniac who was going to be breathing down my neck for the rest of my life
or every adult I knew, everyone at church, my parents, my friends, my
friends' parents, our neighbors, the little guy with the scarf at Blockbuster
Video, the nice Indian family who ran the White Hen Pantry and every single
one of my relatives and their parents -- were whacked out of their minds.
And so I grew up terrified.
And what's frustrating to me is that it would have been so easy to take
away that terror. It would have been as easy as taking away the word "literally."
And replacing it with the word, "dammit." That's all. What they
could have said was that "Jesus Christ was such an illuminated
man, he so embodied the qualities of love and compassion, that he was
he was like God. Dammit. And if we could likewise embody these qualities,
our lives would be radically transformed and it would be as if we were
born again. Dammit. And we are guided so surely to this realization by
an inborn sense of truth that it is as if we have a wise Father. Dammit.
Who is always with us. Dammit. And never leaves our damn side. Dammit.
But of course that's not what they said. So I guess the best way to describe
my experience is to say that Calvary Valley Baptist Church fucked me up
the ass. Literally.
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