Saturday, November 8, 2008


My earliest memory is of church. I distinctly remember toddling down the aisle at church in California: ambulating my pigtailed, three year old self past several rows of pews. I even remember what I was wearing. Grey flannel overalls with little black puppies peeking over the edge of the front pocket, like watchdogs set on guiding little me safely down to the stage. I am not sure what exactly I was headed towards, or even what the pastor had called me down for. I am not sure whether it was about Jesus or not. I only remember one thing: he was holding fruit snacks. And to me and my pigtails, he might as well have had the world.

Matthew Paul Turner has memories of church, too. In fact, that’s what his latest book is all about. Close on the heels of his quirky, provoking, and sometimes controversial books aimed at twenty-somethings, Turners proffers a new type of book: a memoir. He moves effortlessly through a graceful portrayal of life in a fundamentalist Baptist church, where legalism reigned supreme, and the mercy of God shone through in rare moments. Indeed, the grace of God weaves itself like a ribbon through the poignant and wrenching tale. And it’s funny. Did I mention that? I laugh and cry through a lot of books, but during Turner’s retelling of the creative censoring of cinematic masterpiece ‘Ben Hur’, I was simultaneously gasping for air and crying buckets. He narrates in painfully funny detail, his first haircut, which deemed him a satisfactory Baptist: “To my father, this haircut was about much more than doing away with my Bobby Brady mop. It was about me looking like a Baptist. I think my father thought that the angels in heaven would be a good bit happier once my head looked as clean-shaven as a Marine’s.” He discusses his first Sunday at the new church, describing the feeling as “being kidnapped by Puritans, except without the witch trial and the dunking booth”. He does such a masterful job at retelling the “Barbie burning”(a very innovative way of “scaring the hell” out of him and his Sunday school peers) that one very nearly can smell the scorched plastic.

Turner is a storyteller. With “Churched”, he joins the ranks of Donald Miller and Anne Lamott, with a loping, candid pace that carefully and meticulously shuffles along. ‘Churched’ is like those moving escalators at the airport: you step on and it moves so steadily you start to become comfortable and relaxed, and before you know it, you’re being shuffled off right back into the real world, thirty yards closer to your destination. Maybe this book will move people closer to a destination of a more genuine love affair with Christ’s bride, His church. “Churched” is not a stab at parish life. In fact, it is a kind, benevolent look at a life clouded by legalism, where the grace of God shone extra bright. Rather than bitterly recollecting the hurt and confusion he felt as a child, Turner approaches it with an optimistic cheer, urging us to examine how we view church, and what it means to follow Jesus. He ends with a moving paragraph, and I wept when I read it. “Last Sunday, Jessica and I went to church. It was Easter. A couple people got baptized. The guy sitting next to me took two smoke breaks. I closed my eyes during the praise and worship. Pete gave a sermon about hope. We took communion.
I wasn’t afraid.”
I’ve always admired Turner for his gritty and droll style, and was ready to leaf through another jaunty book where I would laugh and maybe learn something about being a college student in the twenty-first century. At least, that’s what had happened with his previous works. I was wrong. I read it through overnight. I couldn’t put it down.
I cried.
I laughed.
And then I opened it and read it all over again.
I learned something about myself. How I view church. What my role is in the body. Why I come every Sunday, Why trips down an aisle don’t guarantee a heart right with God. That no matter how many sermons we annotate or people we convert, it comes down to loving Jesus with the abandon of a child and an eagerness to do His will.
Even without fruit snacks.



Julianne said...

Hey Grace,

You always remember what you're wearing! :)

Pastor said...

When I was 8 years old I was sitting in "big" church with my folks because I didn't like Sunday School. During that service God revealed to my heart that heralding the Gospel was the most important job anyone could have. He then told me that was my destiny. I said no. 12 years later...He was right all along. I'm glad too! I love church!

tollefamily6 said...

Hi There, I actually have much better stories of my girls in church. I do remember though that when I was growing up in church I played more tic tac toe and connect the dots to make the box games in church than listen to the sermons. During on sporting trip on the bus growing up I remember have a discussion with my friends(yes I do remember what I was wearing also) about God and defending my beliefs. I had this overwhelming feeling come over me. It was very hard to explain but I knew at that moment that the Holy Spirit had entered my heart. God truly revealed himself to me and I haven't looked back. To be honest I still did play some games during church but not as often. I did begin to really listen and apply more in my life.
God does work in mysterious ways; on a smelly "sporting" school bus ride he changed the heart of a 12 year old girl.

Anonymous said...

She had a mohawk. Not a half-hearted, cheaply gelled number. No, it was the real deal: at least a foot tall, heavily sprayed, and the most impressive thing I think I’ve ever seen—and it made me more than a little envious at her daring. After all, she stepped inside one of the most conservative churches in the already conservative ‘Bible belt’ sporting a hairdo that, if nothing else, invited the condescension of every old lady in the building. She was parading her differences for the unforgiving world to see.

I felt out of place myself. Had for years. Every Sunday I sported a new band/skater tee and my ‘rock n roll’ sentiments were lost on most of the members who regarded me with little more than petty ignorance: choosing to let their eyes rest just above where I stood, pretending I wasn’t standing in front of Sister Super-Spiritual or Brother Better-Dressed-Than-Thou.

When Mohawk (as she will hitherto be referred) stepped inside the church, it was like the very space/time continuum had been disrupted. These two social groups rarely ever interact. And yet, here she was, quietly looking for a seat, not at all embarrassed—and what was that I saw on her face? No! It couldn’t be! She was EXCITED to be there!

The service started as usual. Hymns sung in the key of “dull-flat” and held together by the off-kilter claps of a lady whose hearing had arguably “gone on to be with the Lord” many years before. When I thought the music was done, however, the pastor motioned for Mohawk, who sat unabashedly on the front row, to “come up and give us a song.” He looked at her through squinted eyes, clearly uncomfortable with her appearance, and yet it seems he anticipated her coming, had even asked her to sing.

Taking an acoustic guitar to the stage, she stood behind the podium after being introduced in name by our pastor—apparently she was now dating the son of one of our church’s long-standing members. She smiled sweetly, strummed once, then opened her mouth and poured out a haunting melody. There was no fanfare. No clapping. In fact, throughout the song I heard the sniggers of some of the more sheltered young people in our small youth group. But no doubt: the music she was making was real. It was uninhibited by social groups or worship norms. It was praise. In fact, halfway through the performance, she stopped playing guitar and let the soothing nature of her voice wash over us in genteel serenity, like a brook dancing over the rises and falls of small rocks.

I learned something that night. The more cynical church members responded to Mohawk’s genuine gift of worship with a shameful face—crinkled nose, raised eyebrows, the usual—but the rest of us were taken aback by this sweet little wisp of a girl who had poured out her praise without a hint of teenaged rebellion, with no desire to “stick it to the judgmental old fogies” that might deride her. I was taught the beauty of unity in the song she sang. I was chastised for my own arrogant retaliation toward the church elders (even though it was some time later that I began my own pursuit of Christ, in full). I remember Mohawk. In fact, she’s become a dear friend. These are the sorts of life moments that remind you of the beauty of creation as it was meant to be—not quarreling with one another over generational disputes. But loving as the Father loves—generously, and without price.

vaneblu said...

I used to dance at church when I was little, I used to stand up go to the front and put my dress up and dance dance dance... My mother says my dad used to be like: "that aint my kid" :P

Melissa B. said...

I remember getting in trouble with the Sunday School Teacher because I (as the PK) informed her she was telling the story wrong. I mean, really... I did have the inside track on accuracy, right? :-)