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Here’s a little taste of On Fire for the Lord.It’s one of my favorite bits, though at the time I was living it I very much wished I weren’t. Enjoy!

The summer I turned four I realized that the women in our church fell into two groups: the Good and the Wicked. The Good wore pointy brassieres on their high, cone-shaped breasts, neat fluffy sweaters over the pointy brassieres, and neat modest pencil skirts over flat, girdle-smashed bellies and backsides. They formed trios, had their hair done weekly downtown at the College of Beauty, wore matching dresses and scarves, and played the piano or the organ as opposed to the guitar or the drums. Their daughter arrived early for Sabbath School. They petticoats were starched, and their ringlets perfect. They ate only vegetarian foods, and quoted Ellengy White, who they referred to as “Sister White.” They pressed their flattened palms together, bowed their heads, and closed their eyes when we prayed like the children in Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, and called God “Our Dear Kind Heavenly Father.” The Wicked were something else again.

Theaters were forbidden, so naturally none of the Good Adventists would admit to having seen The Sound of Music, but word of the Family von Trapp had penetrated even our closed society, and family musical groups became all the rage. Such groups were known simply as “The Allen Manuel Family,” “The Dave Swanson Family,” or even more simply, as “The Singing Andersons.” These groups achieved some degree of local fame and sometimes even went on tour to other Adventist churches, as long as they were less than a Sabbath Day’s Journey away.

A few families cut records, which they marketed before sundown on Friday nights at Missionary Volunteers and after sundown on Saturday night at Vespers; buying and selling between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday was forbidden. More of the groups got reel-to-reel tapes of church services where they provided special music, spliced them together, and distributed them to their friends, gratis.

When a family friend asked Momma if we girls and Matt could sing special music for the Young Adult Sabbath School class Momma, flattered, said, “Of course. They’ll be happy to.” She did not consult us.
Pam was mortified at having to sing at the Junior High students, many of whom took pleasure in tormenting her. Marie didn’t want to sing, either, though she denied that it was for social reasons. She put a lot of effort into seeing to it that no one dared to torment her. For me, the thought of standing up in front of anybody, even without actually trying to sing, was terrifying, though I was flattered to have been asked, and my dreams of becoming Deldelker enjoyed a brief renaissance. My illusion that this was the start of bigger and better things for us didn’t last long; Pam saw to that. “We can’t sing,” she said bluntly.

“We can, too,” I said hotly. “Sally and I sing like Deldelker.”

“No, you can’t,” Pam said again. “None of us can. We’re flat.”

I looked down at my chest. “So what?” I asked, a bit defensively. “So’s everybody else.”

“No they’re not,” Pam said. “We can’t stay on key, and our voices wobble.”

“Deldelker wobbles,” Sally said defiantly.

“You’re not Deldelker,” Pam said. And that was that. She took organ and accordion lessons; she knew.

I started listening to us with Pam’s ears, and realized she was right. We sounded lost, lonely, and ragged, our thin voices piping out the high notes and chanting monotone through the chorus with none of Deldelker’s round, fruity tones. We had the wobble down pat, though. The song was “Wonderful Words of Life.” Every night after worship, Momma lined us up and drilled us.

“Sing them over again to me
Wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see
Wonderful words of life
Words of life and beeyooty
Teach me faith and d-o-o-o-o-t-y
Beautiful words,
wonderful words,
wonderful words of li-hi-hife
Beautiful words,
wonderful words,
wonderful words of life.”

Marie elbowed me. I elbowed her back, a little harder. Momma glared at us. “Sing nice,” she ordered. “At least try to follow the tune. You could sing nice if you wanted to. Now sing it again.”

We sang it again, sighing heavily between stanzas, yipping out the li-hi-hifes like lovesick coyotes, injecting a little of Deldelker’s wobble when we thought we could get away with it. We sang the wonderful words of life over and over again to the indifferent living room until we were letter perfect and the words had lost all meaning, and then we sang them some more so we wouldn’t forget them before Sabbath.
When we started practicing three weeks before our gig I didn’t care about the song one way or the other; by the beginning of the second week I hated it. By the beginning of the third week I simply stood and chanted sounds loud enough to satisfy Momma.

The Thursday before our musical debut Momma loaded us into the car and drove us over to a Wicked woman’s house to practice. Though she had agreed to be our accompanist, she looked no more pleased about the arrangement than we were. When we filed in her front door I looked around curiously, trying to spot something I could clearly identify as Wicked, but  it was just a tiny old house, both a little nicer and a little messier than ours. I wouldn’t have suspected she was Wicked at all if I hadn’t known that she was divorced and wore miniskirts.

She sat down at her organ and began thumping out our song. We straggled in on the third measure. Momma made us stop and start again until we all came thumping solidly in on “SING them ovER aGAIN to ME…”

After two repetitions the Wicked woman slid off the organ bench and said, “That’s enough; they’re as good as they’re going to get.” And we were, which was too bad.

“They’re going to laugh at us,” Pam muttered as we drove home.

“So what?” Momma shot back. “They laughed at the Lord.” Pam had no answer for that—everything that hurt us, Jesus had had, and worse. What right had we to complain about anything?

Friday night Momma ironed our matching lavender gingham cross-stitched skirts and wound pink spongie curlers into our hair, as she did every Friday night. We each had an assigned hairstyle. Pam’s was a sort of log that ran around her head, topped by a donut on her forehead. Marie’s was ringlets, or a ponytail surrounded by a doughnut. Mine was the log with straight bangs. Sally alone didn’t have to suffer rollers; she had Momma’s naturally curly hair. That Friday when Momma wound the rollers into our thin, fine hair, she swathed our heads in scarves and hair nets, and threatened us within an inch of our lives if we lost even one roller.

The next morning I got up and pulled off my hair net. Three rollers lay in it. My heart sank. I scurried into the bathroom and looked. Straight muddy blonde hair dangled over my right ear. Pink rollers clung to my scalp above my left ear. Momma poked her head into the bathroom, took one look, and yanked the curlers free. She ran a comb through my hair, wound as much of the log around her finger as she could, then rolled the straight part and sprayed it hopelessly.

Finally she sighed, said, “That’s the best I can do,” and turned to Pam, whose doughnut had smooshed into a flat tire. When we were done she looked at us, tight-lipped. Our hair had become an Act of Outright Defiance. We could have had pretty curls, like she and Sally did. We just hadn’t tried hard enough. “Sing it through just once more,” Momma said. “Just to be sure.” We started half-heartedly. “Not like that,” she interrupted us. “Like you’ll sing it for the Young Adults.” We started again, floundered, forgot the words.

“Sounds like you didn’t make’em practice enough,” Daddy observed, jingling the car keys. “Sounds like they spent too much time outside playing.” Guilt swamped us.

“You kids get in the car,” Momma said. We drove to church in silence. Momma herded us down the long flight of crumbling steps to the school, where the Young Adults worshipped. I was too frightened to relish the fact that I was skipping Sabbath School, something I had long yearned to do.

Momma opened the door to the Young Adults’ Sabbath School room. Her friend, the class leader, came bustling back to us, smiled her infectious smile, said “hello,” then bustled back up to the front. “Today we have a special treat,” she said brightly. “The Dan Parkhurst Family will sing ‘Wonderful Words of Life’ for us.”

And it hit me. The Young Adults thought we were a musical group. Boy, were they ever in for a surprise. The Dan Parkhurst Family shambled to the front of the room. They darted a quick glance at the lanky bepimpled high school boys lounging in their chairs in their Mandarin-collared shirts, and at the teased-and-hair-sprayed high school girls in their miniskirts, go-go boots, black eyeliner, and white lipstick.

As one, the Dan Parkhurst Family dropped its eyes to the floor, where they remained throughout the performance. My own particular memory of that experience is of a pee-colored stain shaped something like what I later learned was Florida.

The Wicked woman teetered over to the piano in her tight little miniskirt and spike heels. The bepimpled boys in their Mandarin collars gaped, open-mouthed, as she shimmied onto the stool and spun it experimentally. Then she pounded out our introduction, and we were….ON.

“Sing them over again to me…” we whispered. “Wonderful words of life.”

Momma and Daddy’s friend smiled encouragingly from the back of the room. The Young Adults were silent—apparently equally stunned at the sheer improbability of five tone-deaf children in a single family, at our nerve in attempting something for which we were clearly unfit, and at the Wicked woman’s tiny skirt.

We stared at the floor, our mouths opening and closing like goldfish. I assume at least some sound came out; it could not have been good. I have a dim memory of our old family friend hustling us out of the room when it was over. We had been granted our five minutes of fame and we had squandered them.

Momma chivvied us back up the hill in time for our Bible Study classes. On the way home after church Daddy asked, “How did it go? Did you remember all the words?”

“Yes,” Pam replied. I couldn’t have told him if I remembered all the words or not.

“See, you can do it if you try,” Daddy said smugly. “I told you so.”

“But we were awful,” Pam burst out. “We sounded awful.”

“But at least you tried,” said Daddy.

“But we were awful,” Pam protested again. “They laughed.”

I was surprised; I had been too terrified to see anything except for the pee stain.

“So what?” Daddy asked. “You did your best.”

“But we were awful,” Pam muttered sadly. “They laughed.”

Marie folded her arms and set her jaw. Her blue eyes were steely. “I’m never doing that again,” she announced.

“Yes, you will,” said Daddy. “The church is full of people who won’t help out because they can’t do something perfectly. If you’re asked again, you’ll do it again, young lady. And you’ll keep on doing it every time you’re asked. I’m not going to have my girls saying ‘no’ when they’re asked to do things.”

There is this to be said for doing something very, very, badly: People don’t ask for an encore. Perhaps the truest measure of the Dan Parkhurst Family’s musical career lies in its brevity; we were never, ever, invited to sing anywhere again. The moral of the story lingered on, though. We understood that, no matter how good the reason, and no matter how painful we found a thing, we could not say “no.”

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A few weeks ago, for the first time in something like ten years, I found myself in a church. I’ve known about this church for quite some time; we drive past it when we go through the orchards and out past the old Hudson’s Bay property west of town. It’s one of those little old churches that just screams, “I’m a church!” when you see it: white paint, delicate, nicely proportioned steeple, fellowship hall tacked on out back, gravel parking lot, doors that open pretty much right onto the highway.

We were there because Patrick had been asked to play the tuba at their “Family Fun Night,” and as a loving and supportive mother I was playing chauffer.

Church-going does not come naturally to me. I arrived at the location with my stomach in knots. We found an open door and followed the sound of voices to the fellowship hall, where an assortment of men and ladies were cooking supper.

Patrick and I found seats off to the side and sat quietly. A lady hurried over and informed us that Patrick’s accompanist would be arriving shortly, and that it was fine if we went down the hall so Patrick could get his tuba warmed up.

We slunk gratefully into the cool, welcoming quiet of unused children’s classrooms. Patrick assembled the tuba, played a few scales, and ran through his song. Then there was nothing to do but go back to the all-purpose room. It had filled considerably in our absence.

The tuba marked us as Special Music, just as our faces marked us as Strangers Within Their Gates, and the church members responded accordingly. They greeted us, sought to identify a family or social connection we might have with someone they knew (such is life in a small town), urged us to eat, and then hurried back to cooking supper and setting the tables.

I seized the opportunity to ask a question of my own in one of these fleeting conversations. “What denomination is this church?”

The lady I asked looked blank. There was a pause just a little too long to be comfortable. “I think we’re sort of Congregationalist,” she said at last, “but not like the Congregational church in _____,” she finished hurriedly, naming the next town over. She thought for a moment. “I think our minister used to be Baptist or something.” She smiled sweetly and whirled away, back to the chicken in the kitchen.

Patrick’s teacher–the issuer of the invitation–arrived. And then the minister arrived, and turned out to be the father of some of the “step-aheadians,” as Patrick has taken to calling the regulars at Megan’s school and day camp.

“Eat! Eat!” everyone urged us. We declined–Patrick because he had to play, and me because my stomach was so knotted up I didn’t think food would be possible.

“Can we leave right after I play?” Patrick had asked me on the way over.

“Sounds like a plan,” I had said. “You play, and then I’ll take you out for supper.”

“You might as well eat,” Patrick’s teacher told him now. “We’re going to be having a sing-along after supper, and before you play.”

“Okay,” I said, smiling while my heart sank down to rest on the knots in my belly.

Patrick and I each got a plate and then scurried over to sit with the “step-aheadians.” It felt safe, like a life raft in a storm-tossed sea of church members. I looked around at the familiar faces I knew from Step-Ahead and was grateful.

After dinner we all trooped into the sanctuary for the sing-along. I had been expecting gospel favorites, sung dolefully and probably off-key. Instead we sang “Sidewalks of New York,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and “Bicycle Built for Two,” and on and on, old favorites that reminded me of summer evenings, listening to my Grandpa singing in his soft, cracked voice. Patrick’s accompanist, a tiny, white-haired lady who seemed to carry a bubble of coziness with her, sat with me. Outside, the setting sun shone through stained glass.

The sing-along ended and Patrick played his solo. I had never heard him play better. He and the cozy white-haired lady sounded like they’d been playing together for months. And then another boy played a solo, and we couldn’t leave then, and then it was on to karaoke.

The ministers wife and daughters sang. Some of the other girls sang. And then Patrick got up and sang. I watched him, stunned at his courage at getting up and singing in front of a churchful of strangers, and a few friends. Suddenly I realized that I wouldn’t have missed this evening for the world, watching my son sitting with his friends, experiencing something he never had before, stretching himself in new directions.  Someone got up and sang “Takin’ Care of Business.” When they got to the line about being self-employed the cozy lady elbowed me. “That’s you,” she hissed, grinning at me.

So what’s the point of all this? First, I am very proud of myself for having attended–and enjoyed–a church function. I can’t remember the last time I was in a church that I didn’t go home feeling a toxic cocktail of rage, guilt, and depression. There is a large church along one of the major highways here. Every time I pass it, I think, “I’m so glad I don’t go to church.” Feelings like that don’t happen overnight. It takes a lifetime to pack that much emotional baggage. When we went to this small church Patrick carried his tuba. Though my hands were empty, I carried the heavier load: I was hauling every bit of the emotional baggage I had accumulated through the years. I only went because Patrick had been asked to play, and even then we tried to limit our exposure to the whole church thing.

But it didn’t work out that way, and I’m so glad it didn’t. Because my plan for us to duck in, show Patrick off, and duck out was foiled I got to share an evening with a group of people who might be foggy on what denomination they are, but are crystal clear on what it means to create a welcoming, warm, accepting place for each other, and for those who only come because they don’t see how they can get out of it.

I don’t know that I’ll ever become a regular church-goer–I tend to find Spirit in other places–but I hope we find our way to their Family Fun Night again. Who knows? I might even sing karaoke.

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