I recently had the strangest memory. It was not an event I remembered, as much as a vivid collection of circumstances like a deja vu - of gathering up exactly how a bunch of tiny things from the past made you feel in the moment.
I was about ten years old and my parents were in a stretch of family life where they were trying to do their Christian duty, both at home and at Church. Accordingly, even though we were a household of seven kids, my mother agreed to host a weekly Bible club which was premised on evangelizing the unchurched urchins of our immediate neighbourhood. Students from the local Eastern Pentecostal Bible College would run the venue, we just had to provide the space.
It sounds easy, except as I said, we were already a large family busting with kids. The downstairs recreation room where we hosted the event had a fireplace and enough space… except that it also doubled as a bedroom for me and my brother closest in age. We shared a bed in the middle of the room.
That meant two things. Every single week, we had to make the bed disappear and clean up. This may be hard to envision, but a household of seven kids is almost never clean enough for polite company. There were always toys and the personal effects cluttering up the space. This weekly attempt to hide our warts and magically become something we were not, was the stuff of true comedy.
This added commitment also stressed out my mother to the extreme. On the evenings that children’s church rolled around, we were “encouraged” to clean up as soon as we got home from school and finished our newspaper routes. That short window of time was filled up with a lot of shouting, short tempers, and my mother judiciously wielding a yardstick to motivate the unwilling. Toys had to disappear. When my mother was satisfied the house was presentable, she would disappear into the kitchen to prepare snacks. There, she would undergo a total transformation somewhat akin to the loaves and fishes of Biblical fame. She would change from the mother who was shouting and whacking my behind half an hour earlier, to the smiling maven who welcomed all the children in the most accommodating and beneficent manner.
It is funny to imagine that “duty” is those things we think we have to do publicly that privately, make us feel miserable. There was not much payback to be had in this situation. As kids, you hoped for a puppet show or some crafts, some distraction from our usual play, and of course the promise of cookies and hot cocoa. For the adults, extra stress, but hopefully a kind word from the pulpit that named our family in front of the congregation. As for the kingdom of God, it may well have been forgotten in the musical chairs of who does what, and what they look like, doing it.
The wild card in all of this, is those people who do not play along with the script. The fly in the ointment for Children’s Church was a kid named Marty who lived up the block from us. He went to the Catholic school, which already made him an outsider to our group, but it seems even the Catholics didn’t want him. He drifted down and joined in our games of hide and seek, and murder at midnight. Marty was an odd kid and his personal behaviour did not help matters. Marty had strange habits. One fixation was to use the outdoors as his toilet. You would be hiding behind a tree and suddenly your bare feet would mush into a warm steaming pile of what dogs get blamed for, compliments of Marty. He would also suddenly whip out his privates in front of you like he was showing you something wonderful, and in return, ask to have a look at yours. Marty was a blight and a nuisance and yet he seemed to revel in playing this role.
Like Murphy’s law in motion, Marty showed up at Children’s Church, knowing somehow that we would be trapped for two hours a week into acting like he was welcome. Marty would look on with palpable joy, basking in the free comedy. Unlike us, he did not have to pretend anything. He was unencumbered by the burden of appearances.
I recall the gathering. The Bible College students pulled out all the stops in a theological lesson about penal substitutionary atonement. They acted out a kind of play, where one person offered to take the punishment of the others. It was very dramatic, and very nineteen-seventies since corporal punishment was alive and well in the schools. The one taking the punishment donned a thick leather jacket as a buffer, and the one dishing out the punishment doubled up his belt and rained down blows which made a dramatic sound. Suitably impressed with the theatrics, we gathered around the fire to drink cocoa and take in the Gospel lesson.
I had a flashy leather-bound King James Bible that I had received for a Christmas present. It was large, the perfect kind of prop to show off your piety in front of a crowd. Marty gestured that he wanted to see my Bible and I handed it on down the line. When he passed it back, it was with a triumphant grin. I looked down and realized that Marty had plastered an enormous green booger on the front of my Bible. You would have to be a blind man to miss it. He knew that I would have to use the Bible. While acting holy, I would be secretly thinking the most horrible thoughts, all the while doing whatever finger gymnastics were necessary to avoid touching the booger.
It is a most ridiculous recollection. Not worthy of mention it would seem, except that it is so utterly human. It is what I would call a true Flannery O’Connor moment.
Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic writer from the deep south. Her tales gather up a slew of inconsequential details, combined with the strange inner thought life that accompanies such things. Her writing is of the Southern Gothic variety, filled with odd characters who play out their prejudices and religious assumptions in the most bizarre manner.
O’Connor’s plots always culminated in some violent and unexpected occurrence that would put the characters to naught. It was what she called, moments of grace. In a blinding flash, our human comedy would be struck with divine revelation that showed us up to be fools.
Apart from writing, Flannery O’Connor also raised peacocks. She loved them because they were legitimately beautiful, and alongside of that, a parody of themselves, strutting and preening as if looking for a mirror to see how they were showing up. They were remarkably similar to the kind of people she was writing about.
And so it is with Marty and the booger, and my big King James Bible. Here I was, imagining my parents were somehow hypocrites, and at the same time having my own religious pretensions blown apart by the unwelcome presence of Marty. A booger had entered the plot at the wrong moment. It is kind of how real life enfolds, with such tiny and inconvenient details.
The desire to do the right thing is a laudable quality which many people lack. It was praiseworthy in my parents, who did many such things as a matter of conscience. The kernel of truth we forget however, is that the sacred and the profane always occupy the same space. We are at any given time, a combination of our best and worst selves, trapped together in the spotlight.
Church always presents us with some odd choices. You can pretend to be better than you are, but that is false pride. You could flip that around and act with false humility, but that does not allow credit for the genuine yearning for good that God plants in the human heart. You could also jettison the topic of religion altogether.
Fortunately, there are those Flannery O’Connor moments which reveal the whole like a breath of fresh air, and let us understand that we are an odd collection of skin and bones, comedy and grace, bumbling through life, with a bit of help from above.