Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Beat Generation

I am the baby who tumbled from the womb drumming.  I am the boy whose fingers tapped out a tattoo on a maple-topped desk in elementary school.  I am the teenager who split the calfskin head of an old Ludwig drum as my blue and gold clad fellows marched ahead, laden down with cumbersome brass tubas and silver cornets.

Be it a Sunday school class or a marching band, a book group or an English Lit class, I’ve never been swept along with the herd.  I might be singing along to whatever melody is being raised by the chorus, but the tempo in my head is always fighting with the cadence of the footfalls of the communal parade.

The rhythm in my head is upbeat and funky.  The snare drum barks with brassy insistence and the bass drum holds it all together, landing solidly on the beat, while a maraca trips erratically overhead, riding on the wind.

And the beat goes on.  

Those who love me have sometimes felt the need to explain or excuse me.  My childhood shenanigans would often elicit an exclamation of “Where did you come from?” from my bemused father.  Exasperated, my mother would plead with me to get in line with dress codes, mores, or whatever  parental vision I was supposed to be fulfilling. 

It’s no wonder that I’m marching to my own beat.  My parents set me up. 

While I was incubating in my mother’s tummy, she was playing Mahalia Jackson records, feeding my soul the music of a world that was vastly different to white bread New England. 

When she preached on Mother’s Day, it was to a congregation who wasn’t sure what to do with the idea of a woman having that kind of authority.  She was more progressive than she knew.

My father, a man’s man if I ever knew one, was somewhat of a pacifist, bringing yet another strange facet into an otherwise dog-eat-dog world.  He presided over the Rhode Island chapter of Habitat For Humanity, and he created a relief society to benefit destitute people in Haiti.

Dad was a minister in a Baptist Church, known more for what they don’t do than for what they get done.  Yet, unlike many Baptists, he preached less about Hell than of the Church’s responsibility to the poor.   He ruffled the feathers of his flock when he preached against the War in Viet Nam, and when he championed men like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Their literal interpretation of the words of Christ made them who they were.  They took faith seriously, and as such, set themselves apart from the self-centered suburbia they lived in.  They were truly “in the world, but not of the world”.

My parents were proudly Evangelical, and felt united with conscientious believers like Billy Graham and John Perkins, espousing an evangelism both theologically spoken and practiced.

There were many churches in Barrington, the upper class town we lived in.  Although Rhode Island was founded by the first Baptist, Roger Williams, being Baptist carried with it a hillbilly stigma among the bluebloods of New England.  The social climbers attended St John’s Episcopal or The White Church, an aptly named Congregational group on the banks of the Barrington River.

There were two Catholic churches, one Methodist, another less well-heeled Episcopal parish, and a synagogue just to round things out.

My parents would answer my questions about what the other churches believed with phrases that caused me to think that we at Barrington Baptist had quite a bit more truth than the rest of the town’s Christians.  “Well, they don’t really know the Lord the way we do” was the gist of it.  It was always something of a surprise for me to find out that an Episcopalian or a Congregationalist could be a “real Christian”.

My life was designed by my parents to revolve around church events several days a week.  Sunday was filled with Sunday school class, morning worship, afternoon youth group, and evening worship.  There was also Wednesday evening prayer meeting, which we thankfully were not required to attend, and Friday night youth activities in the church gymnasium.

By the time I was 18 years old, I had done enough church-going to fill the average lifetime.

When I left the warmth of my parents’ home for my freshman year of college, I sought out other Christians like them, but there were none that I could find.  At Taylor University, I recognized the religious jargon, and found some comfort in being with “real Christians”, but there was something missing.

I attended chapel services and occasionally went to one church or another on Sunday, but sleeping in seemed a more constructive option.  I let myself off the hook based on my behavior and “time served”.  I still do.

Over the years, the search for God’s presence led me in and out of a variety of traditions, from incense burners to barn burners, liturgists to improvisers.   In contrast to conventional church wisdom, the more active I became in one group or another, the less connected to Christ I felt. 

What my parents loved to experience with many, I cherish with one or two people, and more so under the low lighting of a bar than the brightly lit chandeliers of a church sanctuary.

Trying to remain a good parent to the end, my nonagenarian mother still sends me books by prominent Evangelical authors.  I’m in good company, mind you; she sends devotional books to the President of the United States!   Once, after reading something Barack Obama had said about his spiritual life, Mom told me that she was quite sure he had read the book she’d sent him.  If that’s the case, he’s one up on me.

Unfortunately, what was once meaningful jargon now falls flat when it hits my ears.  I can’t read these books.  It’s hard enough for me to read the Bible, so familiar is it to me.  But the language of Evangelicalism seems like a pair of loaded dice; I know exactly where the roll will take me.  I need something fresh.

Surprise me, God.

Once I tried to explain to my mother that I was grateful for my upbringing in the household of faith, but no longer felt comfortable defining myself as Evangelical.  She voiced her disappointment by projecting it through my father, long deceased, saying, “Your father would be mighty disappointed in you.  He was proud to be Evangelical”. 

Ah, yes, Mom will always play the Dad card.  But it never works; it stings for a moment, but it’s never a surprise.  It’s a Band Aid being pulled off, nothing more.  Dad never worried about the drumbeat I was following.  Mom feels bad that I’m not in the club any more no matter how much I explain that I am still trying to follow Christ. 

What I don’t say, but perhaps she understands, is that I can’t seem to find Jesus in that world that loudly proclaims him.  The fever pitch of the crowd makes it hard for me to hear what the Old Testament calls “the still, small voice”.   The rants of the church are about hanging on to theological and social real estate, while the whisper of the Spirit is “Let go.”

I’m doing my best to let go, by God.

I try to give my mother some comfort in the idea that she is largely responsible for my exit from Evangelical World, after all, she never let the word “Baptist” define her parameters, never caved to the status quo when it would have been convenient.  She was a pastor’s wife who didn’t limit herself to playing the piano on Sunday mornings.  The open-minded attitude she had as a young woman probably had more influence on my father’s ministry than anything else.  They were a team, trying to live out the words of Christ.

I’m their son, trying to live in the words of Christ. 

While I am trying to escape the sound of her voice, I try to silence it by reminding her that her affection for her Lutheran upbringing, with its liturgical trappings, paved the way for me to find life in the closely related Episcopal tradition.  I like the ancient prayers, concise and reflective, and empty of ego and emotion, unlike the risky extemporaneous offerings of some long-winded preachers I’ve known.

But despite my explanations and arguments, I think she is left to wonder if her son is what she used to call “a real Christian”.  Why couldn’t I have just tuned out that damned drum beat, and blended in?

A friend asked me once if I could go back to my hometown and life in the world I knew as a young man.  He already knew the answer.  Thomas Wolfe said it best, “You can’t go home again”.  Indeed, the place of my beginning is dear to me, but it is only a mirage of Home.

Home is what I hope my children sense when my arms are around them.  It is a place I see in my Dearest Companion’s eyes.  It is the vibration of a lone guitar, tuned to an open D, resonating with the room it sits in.  Home is the unmistakable pattern of two drumsticks on a calfskin head; it is the humming that accompanies Pilgrimage.


  1. I really like the sense I get that you're showing forth the good in both Grandma and Grandpa, even though you're not the same as them or up with the same trappings. And you're right--Grandma was a progressive. She loves the idea of my going to seminary and getting ordained!

    I could identify with a lot of this. Not all of it, not surprisingly. But it's a good reminder to be grateful for my roots and yet continue "pilgriming."

  2. Love this, Phil. Did you know I'm up in New England now (Vermont)?

  3. I love it too. Sounds alot like Chapter 1.
    I'm in New England, too. (Maine) or (ME)

  4. Thanks, Curt. Hope you are enjoying Vermont.

    M/C, thanks for reading. Yes it does sound like an opener- might be, although I'm leaning towards "Southern By The Grace of God"... Of course, all my chapter titles will be changing to something less poetic, but more to the point, for the sake of folks who browse thru a table of contents.


  5. Thanks for posting, Phil. Some things I can totally relate with. And your unique past (we all have somewhat unique pasts, yes?) was definitely interesting.

  6. Thanks for reading, Chris.

  7. You say it so well. Thank you. My folks had enough adventure in them that they moved to Germany just post-WWII for five years to do relief work and help missionaries. By the time I knew them, I judged them rigid and conservative. (Partly typical teenager, partly growing up in L.A. with Nashville parents.) When she was offended and mystified by my choices, I told my mom, "I am doing what you raised me to do: take the Bible seriously. It's just that it doesn't look like you thought it would."

  8. I feel like I was privileged to walk a part of this path and search with you. As always, I learned from you as you are the forever student of life. I love to walk with other students because I take comfort in the "not knowing" but the forever learning side of life.This is a great post!

  9. Wow - I so get this Phil. I know I am still left "here". But boy do I get this. Well said.

  10. Wow....i could have written a lot of that post myself...Protestant MK turned Catholic...my mom also plays the 'dad' card (he passed in 1998) and it also does not work! :)

  11. Thank you all!
    Happy New Year!


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm