Snow White and the Breastaurant

snow-white-picFifteen years ago, my wife and I played a practical joke on our youngest son that succeeded brilliantly in spoiling his sixteenth birthday.

Allie and I were hundreds of miles away at the time, signing the papers on a new home in Tennessee while Daniel completed his final week of classes at Fort Lauderdale Christian School.  We had allowed Daniel to stay at a buddy’s house in our absence, and we’d arranged for the friend to take him out to dinner on his birthday.

Daniel didn’t carry a cellphone back then — this was 1998, during the Pliestocene Age — so on the morning of the Big Day we phoned the friend’s house to wish our son happy birthday. His buddy answered, and under Allie’s skillful questioning he told us that dinner arrangements had already been made.

Where were they going?  [long pause]  Uh, Hooters.

In case you have been comatose or in orbit for the last thirty years, Hooters is a restaurant that specializes in beer, wings, and breasts.  It’s not a strip club or anything. The “Hooters girls” are clothed, but in a way that puts the goods in the window, if you know what I mean. Turns out, this form of merchandising is very good for business.

My wife found Daniel’s dining preference amusing rather than appalling. After all, she and I had patronized the place ourselves, several times. Allie likes the wings at Hooters. She was under no illusions about Daniel’s interest, however. She knew the kid wasn’t going to Hooters for the wings.

Allie extracted from Daniel’s buddy the exact time the boys would arrive at the restaurant, and then she swore him to secrecy.  When she hung up, she turned to me and said  “We need to make this birthday one Daniel will never forget — and I have an idea. Do they still do singing telegrams?”

“Kristin will know,” I said.  We called our daughter in Florida immediately, and in less than an hour she had arranged a wonderful surprise for her little brother’s birthday.

When my son and his friend arrived at Hooters that evening, dressed in their most grown-up clothes and reeking of after-shave, the place was nearly full.  The blonde hostess, who seemed to be expecting them, led them to a prominent table overlooking the beach.  Soon, a perky college-age waitress arrived bearing menus, favoring each boy with a flirtatious wink and acknowledging their orders of “Coke, I guess” with deep breaths that left the boys breathless.

As time passed, other Hooters girls sashayed past the table, and the boys became aware that some of the girls were watching them.

“Dude, did you see that?  She just smiled at me.”

“No, Dude, she smiled at me!”

The boys ordered wings.  By now, they were thoroughly enjoying the party atmosphere. The warm ocean breeze, the sound of the surf, the attention of sexy girls, the steady rhythm of classic rock pulsing in the background…

Suddenly, the music stopped, and Daniel heard someone calling his name.

He turned to see a figure standing near the bar.  It was a female figure, a strangely familiar female figure.  It was … Snow White! 

Okay, it was a Snow White impersonator, but a damn good one—a dainty brunette with a porcelain complexion, ruby lips, a blue bodice with puffed sleeves and a huge white collar—and she was gliding in Daniel’s direction, a look of innocent devotion on her face.  She was carrying a boom-box.

“Happy birthday, big boy!” Snow White said, placing the boom-box on the table and planting a kiss on Daniel’s cheek. His buddy snickered, and applause and whispers rippled through the restaurant.

Snow White pressed a button, and the strains of “Someday My Prince Will Come” filled the dining room.  “Dance with me!” she said, dragging Daniel to his feet.  Then, for what seemed like an eternity, she waltzed the blushing boy from table to table, pausing only to announce to individual diners and servers, “This is Daniel, and he is sixteen years old today!”

When we called our son later that night, he was still seething.  “NOT funny,” he said.

Allie and I tried to be sympathetic, but we couldn’t stop laughing.  “Believe me,” I told him, “Someday you will understand just how funny it was.”

* * *

It might be difficult for you to believe that I did not find Hooters the least bit titillating back then, but it’s true.  The reason was simple.  I was not moved by the sight of scantily clad girls because I was secretly staring at naked girls every day, often many times a day, and the constant exposure to all that bare flesh had left me numb.

That is one of the corrosive effects of pornography: desensitization. Because the brain learns to tolerate the chemical release stimulated by arousal, the intensity of provocative images required to produce the same effect increases with repeated exposure.   After two decades of looking at porn, a trip to Hooters was no more stimulating to me than a sip of coffee to a cocaine addict.

There was another sinister side effect of all that porn use; it had blinded me to the beauty of my wife.  Allie has always been a beautiful woman, but she hasn’t always known it, and she has naturally looked to me, her husband, for feedback.  I am the biggest mirror in her life.  Pornography, however, drew me into a world of air-brushed images and artificial intimacy, a fantasy world so seductive and deceptive that no flesh-and-blood woman can compete with it for long.

Allie watched my growing indifference, my emotional withdrawal, and concluded that child-bearing and aging had destroyed her beauty.  In her darker moments of self-doubt, she took my disinterest as proof that she had become uninteresting—not just physically, but intellectually as well.  Her entire self-image was affected.

That, I think, was one of the main motivations in Allie’s desire to move to Tennessee.  She was hoping that a fresh start in a new place might help us get back to the closeness we had felt when we first met.  I was hoping for the same thing,  And as it turned out, that is exactly what happened—although it came about in a way that neither of us had anticipated.  It was in Tennessee that I finally admitted my addiction to lust, became willing to face the devastation it had caused, and started the long and fruitful journey of recovery that I’ve described in Samson and the Pirate Monks.

 

 

The Other Church

Christ Church StellartonThere were two churches in the village where I spent my teenage years, one on Church Street and the other on Main Street.  To any tourist passing through our little town they would have looked almost identical, these modest wood-framed buildings with stained-glass windows and tin-clad steeples.  When the church bells clanged on Sunday mornings and the roadsides near the churches filled with parked cars, when well-scrubbed families filed through the double doors and organ music wafted from the windows, an outsider could be forgiven for imagining that these two congregations were laboring and worshiping in synchronicity.  But we knew better.  Our church, the one on Church Street, was faithful to the Bible.  That was something we would NEVER say about the Other Church.

To be honest, we doubted that the townspeople who attended the Main Street Church were actually Christians.  The denomination to which they belonged was obviously deluded on crucial points of doctrine, and some of their practices, we knew, were weird.  In matters of religion, Those People spoke with a vocabulary and tone that were different from ours — not in ways that would be obvious to a reporter from the New York Times, perhaps, but as distinguishable to the practiced ear as a Scottish brogue or a Texas drawl.

Yes, we all lived in the same town and went to the same public schools and always said hello to each other in the post office.  But underneath all of this small-town civility, we were like Shi’ites and Sunnis.

Our church belonged to a nondenominational denomination, a network of like-minded congregations that had survived the wreckage of a revival a few generations earlier.  Our churches, which were scattered over a radius of 300 miles or so, were in turn connected, albeit very loosely, with other churches in distant parts of the country and with missionaries around the world.  These were the Christians we knew.  We “fellowshipped” with our spiritual relatives at regional youth camps and men’s retreats and missions conferences, or on visits to the Bible School from which most of our leaders had graduated. Our family would drive for several hours to attend one of these reunions, but never, as far as I recall, did we even think about walking two blocks to visit the Other Church.

Over time, even our denominational events became strained.  Tensions were probably always present, but not until I was old enough to interpret the interactions of grownups did I start to see the signs of internecine strife: the strategic seating, the sidelong looks, the elliptical sermon references that bore no relation to the text.  And then there were the mysterious absences.  We would arrive at an annual convocation to find that friends who had been fixtures at those gatherings for years had suddenly disappeared, without a word of explanation, as though they had never existed at all.  Only later, when I was finally admitted into adult conversations, did I hear about the battles that had been waged for righteousness, and the casualties that our side (the right side, naturally) had sustained.

Here’s a staggering statistic: there are now approximately 41,000 Christian denominations in the world.  That’s right, 41,000 separate and distinct groups of churches, each with its own organizational chart, its own doctrinal priorities, its own style.

This diversity is nothing new — nor, for that matter, is it necessarily bad.  Archeologists and sociologists tell us that tribalism is universal among humans and practically as old as humanity itself.  The Bible describes the Children of Israel whom Moses led out of Egypt as a very diverse population — twelve distinct tribes, each a collection of multiple clans — whose calling to be the People of God did not erase their tribal identities.

If you stop to think about it, you must admit that a monolithic and homogeneous Church could never reach a world population as culturally diverse as ours.  In fact, no single church could be expected to reach all the various subgroups within, for example, just one typical high school.  A gospel message phrased in a way that reaches a Geek might confuse a Jock and elude a Stoner altogether.  That’s why it was so wonderful and miraculous that, when the church was born on the Day of Pentecost, foreigners who had come to Jerusalem from the far corners of the earth all heard the gospel, but each in his own language.

In employing the imagery of the human body, the New Testament makes the point that this living, breathing thing we call the Church is actually a very complicated organism whose various parts are different by design.  Diversity makes it possible for the Church to adapt, to speak countless languages simultaneously, to identify and meet a whole spectrum of human needs. And whether we see it or not, the Bible insists that the Church is actually a unified spiritual entity, with “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of us all,” and that it functions under the direction of one Head, Christ himself.

Complications arise, according to the Apostle Paul, whenever one organ in this body begins to regard the others with contempt.  It is there, at the point where believers take so much pride in their God-given identity that they lose sight of their place within the larger whole, that they fall victim to a debilitating spiritual sickness.  The whole church suffers when this happens, and the mission and witness of the church suffer as well. The single characteristic that is supposed to mark us as Christ-followers is lost.  “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples,“ Jesus said, “That you love one another.”

After I left home, I wandered away from our little tribe and began to explore the larger world.  At university, I discovered Church History, a subject I had never encountered before.  Our denomination, after all, was less than a hundred years old.  Since we regarded our movement as a restoration of the New Testament Church, I had never paid any serious attention to the nineteen centuries that had passed between the Day of Pentecost and the modern descent of the dove.  Had the Holy Spirit been absent from the earth during that time?  Had Jesus, in abrogation of his explicit promise, forsaken his disciples for nearly two millenia?

Delving into the archives of the Christian faith, I was astonished to discover committed believers in every age and in every place where the gospel has traveled.  Each of these Christ-followers was born into to a certain people-group and spoke a specific language.  Each one inherited a set of cultural norms and an incomplete understanding of the physical world.  All of them were surrounded by political realities and historical forces from which they could not escape.  It is not at all surprising. therefore, that despite their common commitment to Christ, these believers ended up interpreting and articulating and applying the gospel in different ways.  Of course they did!

It was especially humbling for me to trace my own Christian heritage.  As it turns out, the movement in which I was raised did not emerge spontaneously from a vacuum, immaculately conceived by the Holy Spirit without any cultural influences.  Yes, I do believe the Holy Spirit was involved in the birth of our movement.  But in the many generations prior to our revival, religious sincerity regularly mated with socioeconomic factors, military and political realities, racial biases, and even, at times, naked ambition, to produce our progenitors.  Eventually I came to believe that it was this half-forgotten and mostly unacknowledged genetic material, rather than theology alone, that made us unique.

Today, I live in a historic town in the American South, one with plenty of churches.  Only 150 years ago, most of the white Christians in this town defended the institution of slavery on biblical grounds.  Most of my neighbors still go to church.  People who grew up here tend to attend the church their parents attended, or one like it.  Those of us who moved here from somewhere else typically look around for a church that speaks our worship-language, shares our cultural values, and endorses our political views — and it isn’t hard to find one that fits.  There is a church for every taste in Franklin, Tennessee.

My wife Allie and I joined a church when we moved here 15 years ago.  It’s a good church.  We’re comfortable in our church home, and we are deeply engaged in ministry.  More than that, we’re proud of our church.  It is probably the best church in town.  At least that’s what I was thinking a few weeks ago when an unexpected email suddenly arrived, an invitation to speak in another church just a few blocks from my house.

I had walked past this Other Church nearly every day for 15 years, but I had never so much as looked inside the building.  Frankly, I had no interest in looking inside.  In my mind, the denomination to which this church belongs is deluded on crucial points of doctrine, and some of its practices are weird.  But when its new pastor, a likable young guy whom I’d met a few times at Starbucks, asked me to lead a weekend men’s retreat and then preach on Sunday morning, I didn’t have the heart to turn him down.

I finally entered the Other Church this last Friday, late in the afternoon, feeling like I was crossing into North Korea.  And what I found inside both shocked and humbled me.  Rather than foreigners, I found men like myself, flawed men who are aware of their sin and grateful for forgiveness, who are committed to their families and doing their level best to follow the Savior.  I didn’t know all of their songs or understand all of their jargon, but the Spirit among these men was unmistakable.  It felt like I’d arrived at a family reunion for the very first time, along with relatives I’d never met before.  When the introductions were over and the initial awkwardness had passed, I found that we have an awful lot to talk about.

The Woman Grew More Beautiful

A year passed, and the woman only grew more beautiful.  On the weekends when I came home from college, I always went to church to look for her, and on those occasions when I was asked to sing the offertory, I sang only for her.  I noticed that the handicapped women who followed her around like goslings called her “Alice,” and there was also a gawky preadolescent boy with wiry hair and glasses who called her “Mom, Mom, Mom.”  Everyone else, including the hordes of men who tracked her as hungrily as wolves, referred to her as Bunny.

This woman did not seem to reciprocate or even notice the sexual interest of the men.  Her passion for God, on the other hand, was single-minded and sincere.  The second time I saw her she was carrying a bible, and not a ladylike New Testament either.  No, she packed a whopper of a Word of God, a preacher-sized study bible in a leather case embossed with a sword.  She adapted quickly to our worship routine, and within weeks was clapping and singing during the fast songs and, when the tempo slowed, standing in silent contemplation, eyes closed, a blissful expression on her face.  During the sermon, she would focus on our pastor, Brother Joe, with laser-like intensity, nodding thoughtfully at every point and hunching to scribble notes in the margins of her bible.

On a weekend visit in the autumn of my junior year, I managed to bump into her in the parking lot after church.  My plan, which had come to me in a flash during the closing prayer, was simple and plausibly innocent.  By this time I had learned that she worked as a house-mother for mentally challenged adult women, and that she lived in a group home about twenty miles away, in Watertown.  This home, or “hostel,” as it was called, was located a few blocks from the bus station.  That was the key.  Greyhound gave me a perfect pretext for an innocuous non-romantic date.

Camper VanI waited outside the fellowship hall and watched as the parking-lot slowly cleared. Finally I saw her.  She was walking toward a red Volkswagen camper van, her son scuffing through the gravel beside her.  “Hey Bunny,” I called, “Are you headed into Watertown by any chance?  I’m looking for a ride to the bus station.”

She gave me a sunny smile.  “Sure,” she said.  “It’s just me and David this morning.  Plenty of room.  Jump in!“

The camper was cluttered with paper napkins and plastic action figures, and it smelled faintly of dog.  There was a jumble of blankets in the back.  Bunny plucked a pack of cigarettes from the front passenger seat and slipped them quickly into her purse. “Pardon the mess,” she said, sweeping the seat and motioning for me to climb aboard. “We just got back from camping, and I haven’t had a chance to clean this thing out.”  She rolled her window down and cranked the ignition, and off we went in a clattering roar.

The ride was exhilarating.  I watched the wind ruffle her hair as the trees flew past, the sun playing across her hands while we talked.  David jabbered away in the back, and rather than ignoring her son, she drew him into the conversation.  I found this act unspeakably winsome.  Here was a woman who regarded her child as fully human, as someone whose thoughts and feelings were worthy of attention.  She asked David about his favorite dreams.  He said he liked to dream he was flying, and she responded with advice about navigating in the air at night. “Lift your head up and you’ll go higher,’ she said.  “Put your chin down, and you’ll go lower.”  He told his mother a joke, a silly pun that made no sense.  She laughed, and I felt a sudden pang of jealousy.

And suddenly it was over.  The Volkswagen spluttered to a stop outside the Greyhound station.  “Here we are,” Bunny said, bumping the stick-shift into neutral and yanking the emergency brake.

“Yep,” I said.  I placed my hand on the door-handle and held it there.

“Back to school, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Well, it was nice talking to you,” she said.

“Yep.”

She gave me a quizzical look.  “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said, reluctantly opening the door.  “Hey, thanks a lot for the ride.  I really appreciate it.  If I can ever do anything for you, just give me a call.”

“Sure,” she said.

“Let me give you my number,” I said, fumbling in my pocket for a pen.  I picked up a napkin from the floor and scrawled a number on it.  “That’s my dorm room.  You can call me any time.”

“Sure,” she said, accepting the napkin and holding it uncertainly.  “Well, good luck.”

“Same to you.”  I slammed the door and waved.  She waved back, then drove away.  I stood at the curb, watching until she disappeared.  My bus didn’t leave for another six hours, and I still had to find a way back home to retrieve my backpack.

* * *

I could not make the 75-mile trip home from college as often as I wanted to, and the weekends when I was stuck at school dragged on interminably.  In the middle of a Sunday afternoon near the end of the first semester, the telephone in my dorm room rang and my roommate answered it.  He handed me the receiver.

“It’s for you,” Deke said.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know. Honey maybe?  She’s crying so hard I can hardly understand what she’s saying.”

All these years later, she doesn’t even remember making that call, but my memory of it is crystal-clear.  She was distraught, but I was elated, because she had called me.  She had needed someone to talk to, and she had chosen me.

The cause of her distress, I quickly learned, was an announcement that Brother Joe had made that morning at the conclusion of the service.  The news, which Bunny conveyed to me in choking sobs, was that he had decided to resign from his position as pastor, and that he and Sister Donna would be moving away.  “What am I going to do?” Bunny wailed.  “It’s not going to be the same!”

I murmured soothingly, assuring her that everything would be alright.  God had not abandoned her.  He would send another pastor.  She would be okay, and I would pray for her.  I prayed for her right there on the phone, asking God to guard the heart of my dear sister, while she snuffled and gurgled adorably in my ear.  “Thank you,’ she said when I was done.  “I hope you don’t mind.  I didn’t know who else to call.”

“Any time,” I said.  When I hung up the phone, I felt like a million dollars.

* * *

Despite my assurances to the contrary, the pastoral transition at our church did not go smoothly at all.  Within weeks of Brother Joe’s departure, our idyllic worship community was sundered by one of those pietistic pissing contests for which evangelicals are justly famous.  Much to my embarrassment, my father was one of the leading contestants.  When the turmoil reached a fever pitch, a large faction pulled up stakes and departed for Watertown, where they set up camp in a union hall and incorporated a new church under my father’s leadership.

I kept myself busy at college while all of this political wrangling was going on, preferring the boredom of a campus weekend to the train wreck that was unfolding in my hometown.  The whole situation back home was depressing.  Instead of one congregation there were now two, and everyone was being forced to make a choice between them.  As I monitored developments from a distance, I was surprised to learn that many of the young, hip, and energetic new believers were choosing to follow my father.  Would Bunny join them?  I prayed that the stress of the situation would give her a reason to call me again, but she never did, and I continued to get conflicting reports from the field.  She had friends in both churches, and she had been spotted at both services.  It took weeks for her to make up her mind, but when she did the news turned out to be even better than I had dared hope.  Not only had she elected to join my father’s church, she had become a friend of the family, someone who might drop by the house for Sunday dinner and bring her son along.  Suddenly, I felt the urge to go home.

* * *

In what could in retrospect be regarded as a troubling sign, I made multiple attempts to distract myself with other girls, motivated by loneliness and vanity.  In my mind, the best way to advance in the hierarchy of single males and demonstrate my desirability to single women was to be seen around town with a girl on my arm, the prettier the better.  The inner lives of these conspicuous girlfriends did not really interest me much, although I learned the benefits of feigning fascination, and the thought of marrying any of them filled me with a nameless dread.  Whenever I sensed a lasso sailing in my direction, I ducked and ran.

Meanwhile, Bunny continued to steer clear of romantic entanglements.  This was something she was no longer required to do, for in an announcement as momentous as the Emancipation Proclamation, my father had shocked his congregation one Sunday morning by declaring, out of the blue, that his views on divorce and remarriage had changed.  Dad had always been a pulpit-pounder on this subject, firm in his assertion that marriage can only be dissolved by death, never by divorce.  This position was a source of nervousness for those married members of the congregation whose spouses were both unhappy and armed, and any divorced members who dared to disregard it were haunted by hellfire.  The air was electric, therefore, when Dad suddenly announced that he had received clarification on the subject in a dream, one in which God himself had shown up to challenge him.  “What makes you think that divorce is the unforgivable sin?” God had asked, and my father had woken up without a defensible answer.  His sudden change of heart sent a wave of astonished relief through the church.

Now that Bunny was fair game in the Relationship Sweepstakes, I felt my confidence flagging.  I knew I was outclassed.  My dad’s church was seething with single men, tall, broad-shouldered guys who were close to Bunny’s age, guys who drove sports-cars, who had careers.  I was barely out of my teens, a scrawny college kid who shaved once a week and didn’t even have a bank account.  What made me think I had a chance with a woman like Bunny?  Sure she was nice to me, but she was also nice to handicapped people and puppies.  She was nice.  If she ever found out I had a crush on her she would probably be nice about it, and that was a prospect too shameful even to contemplate.

To be continued.

An Impossible Love

Still today, she loves to tell how her heart jumped the moment our eyes met, how she knew at that very instant that I’d come running to meet her the second the service was over.  That, of course, is precisely what I did.  Vaulting a couple of pews to get around the traffic in the center aisle, I approached her with all the casual detachment I could muster.  “Welcome to our church,” I said, and stuck out my hand.

Up close she was even more intoxicating than I had imagined, and I was now finding it difficult to breathe.  I was in the presence of a grown-up girl-next-door, a woman with the freshness and exuberance of youth.  And at that crucial moment, I ran out of things to say.  Suddenly, just standing there seemed stupid, so in a desperate bid to to salvage my self-respect I abruptly wheeled toward the closest warm body, who turned out to be a sunburned farmer, and engaged him in a spirited conversation about, of all things, rain.  When I looked back again, she was gone.

My infatuation had not gone unnoticed, however.  A few minutes later, as I sprinted toward the parking lot in search of the woman of my dreams, I was intercepted by one of the congregation’s eligible young ladies, a gingham girl who had always monitored me in a proprietary way. “Who are you looking for?” she asked.

“No one,” I lied.

“You don’t even know her name, do you?” she said.

“I have no idea who you’re talking about.”

“Her name,” the girl said, pausing dramatically, “is — get this — Bunny Bean!”  She giggled.  “And guess how old she is?”

My heart was racing, but I maintained a poker face.  “Oh, you must be talking about the visitor,” I said evenly.  “You talked to her?”

“No,” said the girl, “but I know someone who did.  And guess how old she is.”  She raised her eyebrows.

I did not know how my tormenter had learned the identity of the mystery woman so quickly, but I did respect the girl’s resources.  She was, after all, a female.  More than than, she was a church girl, which meant that she had access to several intelligence networks.  In the Young People’s Group in our church, most of the girls competed with each other constantly on multiple levels, forming alliances and trading secrets in an ongoing drama that, at any given moment, could cause any one of them to erupt in tears.  But if an outsider appeared, a female pretty enough to attract the boys, hostilities would be suspended while the girls worked together to assess the threat.  They were master researchers, all of them, and they could transmit information via prayer chain or semaphore at the speed of light.

“She’s twenty-eight,” the girl said smugly.

This was an unexpected development, but I instantly determined that it was irrelevant.  I had assumed that our angelic visitor was older than I — I’d guessed she was in her early twenties — but that fact had only added to her appeal.  The truth was, I liked older girls.  My previous girlfriend had been four years my senior, and age had never been an issue in that relationship.  So if this woman really was ahead of me by — holy crap, a decade — so what?  I shrugged.  “Really?” I said.  “That’s interesting.”

The girl’s eyes narrowed.  “If you think that’s interesting, then you’ll be fascinated to know she has a kid.”

“She’s married?”

“No,” said the girl, a triumphant gleam in her eye.  “She’s divorced.”bigstock-Eve-And-The-Rotten-Forbidden-F-25810802

Divorced.  The gingham girl had obviously saved that crucial piece of information for the coup de grace, and she delivered it with sadistic finality.  Game over.  The target had been acquired and neutralized.

In our church, we talked and sang a lot about Amazing Grace, but when it came to the subject of divorce, grace was in short supply.  Sure, an exception could be granted in the case of an unfaithful spouse, but divorced persons were forever second-class, barred from any important role in the church.  Anyone who married a divorced person committed adultery, case closed.  And since, as everyone knew, I was destined for the pulpit, any association with divorce would mean career suicide.  I was free to pursue any maiden or widow who caught my fancy, but a divorcee?  Out of the question.  Our beautiful visitor deserved my pity, but she could never be a legitimate object of desire.  A romantic connection was out of the question.

My world collapsed.

A Visitor from Another Planet

bigstock-Woman-Door-440997She arrived at our church on that first Sunday morning like a visitor from another planet, and from my very first glimpse of her, I was captivated.  But within hours of that first encounter I learned that she was unattainable.  Worse, she was off-limits, because in the Pentecostal church where we met, there were rules about these things.

There were regulations in our little world, most of them unwritten, that governed almost everything.  There were standards for dress, for hair styles, for poses and facial expressions during worship.  There were phrases to avoid when presenting a prayer request (“this killer hangover,” for example) and others (such as “the Lord told me”) that were essential to a proper testimony.  But on this miraculous morning, as we rose to our feet for the opening rendition of “This is the Day,” there appeared at the door of our church a young woman whose aura, even before she had uttered a single word, shouted that she did not know the rules, or if she did, she did not care about them.  I could not tear my eyes away from her.

She had not arrived alone.  There were six people with her, six  bobbing and shuffling women whom she blithely ushered into the back pew.  Her companions were, in the parlance of the day, “mentally retarded,” and yet I detected not a hint of condescension in the way she treated them.  She might just as well have been sharing a pew with the leadership committee of Women’s Aglow.

When her charges were settled in their places, the woman looked up and took in her surroundings.  She was trim and bright, with bobbed brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and she was wearing an outfit that, while it was not immodest, conformed more to her figure than to the standards of the sanctified sisterhood.

With an expression of frank curiosity, she surveyed the sanctuary. I watched as she studied the stained-glass windows, the song-leader on the platform, the organist and the piano-player and the polyester-clad backup singers and the banner above the choir loft on which a flaming dove dive-bombed the baptistry.  Then her gaze suddenly shifted to the second pew on the right-hand side, where I was sitting, and she caught me looking at her.  Before I could look away, she smiled, and I almost passed out.

To be continued.