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Church Towers

In Europe one cannot avoid the presence of ancient church houses. Their towers dominate the skyline while the influence of the congregations who built them has waned. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978.

I saw much of the public kind of religion growing up. I saw it put on like Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, but it did not always fit well like the too tight dress shoes you out grew not long ago. I saw. I was not blind. I could tell that it was a show that made no difference most of the time. But many of us for “Momma’s sake” or “old time’s sake” or just for “Pete’s sake” went through the motions. I wondered if some folk were touchy about religion because the one they had was not really theirs. They must have borrowed it, for even bringing up the subject made them feel a sham, and a good thump from a question was enough to produce an echoing hallow “thud” from the empty shell of their faith.

Even I went dutifully to church despite such considerations. In defense I cultivated strategies to endure the deadening weight of stultifying music inexpertly rendered with pretension and immodest but undeserved pride; I sat through endless pompous orations delivered with stentorian rhetoric that seemed so interminable, irrelevant and beside the point of my life. I found that I could entertain myself with mental games that only occasionally were disruptive. For example if I stared at the podium, spot lit with a single bright light, I could burn into my retinas the image of the scene so that I could erase the figure of the sweating evangelist and he would disappear. I could still hear his voice however.   I counted the holes in the tiles and did mental arithmetic calculating the average number of holes per tile and per square foot. As much as I could I often went elsewhere in my mind.

Despite the boredom I complied with my parents command to get ready every Sunday morning without audible protest partly because of the guilt I felt whenever I was apostate and partly because of the deep-seated hope that flickered in my breast that perhaps I would at last meet God in the church and that He would begin to answer some of my most troubling questions. But I was taught to look with suspicion on novelty in matters religious; questions raised by science and “Higher Criticism” were dismissed by most as new fangled and suspect. The “old time religion” we sang about that was “good enough for Paul and Silas” had to be “good enough for me.” Unfortunately and paradoxically, the religion of my fathers I learned was a twentieth century contrivance, and I suspected that the novelty of the first century Jesus-way would have shocked the congregants and parishioners of my church with its alien form and Middle Eastern subtlety.

All Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds

Now don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of things that I liked about the church, but they mainly had to do with the people, imperfect as they were. We were a family, or a community at the very least. I felt loved and cared for by people who did not have to give a care about me, but did nevertheless. This community of a few hundred souls was nowhere more evident than when we had “All day singing and dinner on the grounds.” The church potluck was something I looked forward to with the pleasure of a healthy adolescent appetite. Of course there was an etiquette and morality that was not spoken of in public nor declared explicitly but that you learned at home. I can still hear my mother’s admonition: “Never take as much as you want. If there is only a little left in the pot take no more than half. Remember the people in line behind you. Don’t embarrass your momma or your God. You don’t want to make God or me blush, now do you? Instead make them both proud of you.” I perversely dreamed of an all day dinner (and singing on the grounds) when we could have as much as we wanted. When I heard stories about heaven this metaphor always leapt to mind. I wondered about what was the church, at the first. I hoped it was like what I dreamed of.

The study of the origin of words that we daily use tells us much about how humans have used (and misused) them over the ages and what we are unwittingly saying when we speak them. The etymology of the word “church” in English versus the New Testament word “ekklesia” (the called out ones) that it translates is informative in this regard. Scholars of language tell us that “church” originates in the non-Biblical Greek word “kyriakon” (literally “of the Lord”) perhaps also a contracted form of “kyriake oikon” (Lord’s House). Over the centuries the word slipped into Gothic dialects as kirche that, in turn, migrated to “church” in English. How different is the current meaning and connotation of this word from the original meaning it translates! It seems that “church people” have mistaken the church house for the “called out ones” that assemble there, substituting architecture for biology. The Apostle Paul likens the ekklesia to the body and bride of Christ, a living entity, not a brick and mortar edifice.

Over the decades of my life, as I wandered from place to place, I came to understand more of this reality. I saw empty church houses throughout the world: beautiful buildings dedicated to God but that had no life within them any more. I have also observed ecclesiastical institutions that still functioned but were as empty of real vitality as a deserted kirk on the moor. Gratefully, I have known exceptions.

When we arrived in Pasadena for our sojourn in a postdoctoral assignment we, as was our custom, visited the local church house on Sunday early in our stay. When we walked into the meeting room we were immediately embraced by the group that included (to our surprise and delight) friends that we had known years before and thousands of miles away. The seminarians in the small gathering of the Sunday School, who were as transient as we, showed us that we must “love in a hurry.” Strangers no longer, we went deep and were loved well even to this day.

A Sojourn in the Desert

Our assignment called for a time abroad in Germany and Hungary. Despite our best intentions, we were unsuccessful at connecting with a local congregation in the six months we were abroad. Surrounded by kind but secular friends and coworkers, we were nevertheless “on our own” spiritually. It was a sojourn in the desert, dry and difficult. We felt the presence of God as we traveled but we missed the encouragement and fellowship that we had known in Pasadena. Great was the rejoicing when we returned. I resolved never again to live in isolation.

Thus, as we have relocated the several times in our itinerant life, we have sought out where God would have us graft into His body, the church. There were occasions of heartache, for sure, on this journey when human imperfections caused hurt in the body. There were times of desperation that drove us to our knees, as when our long-time faith family came close to shuttering the church house doors. But from our humbled position God amazed us and filled our hearts with joy as we realized that it was not “our” church but His. Yes, it was a Lazarus moment when the congregation roared back to life as satellite a “campus” of a larger, healthier body. Ultimately, the resurrected congregation became again a separate and independent entity, unique in its context and membership. It was then that I re-learned that a real church was not a social club but a living, breathing collection of Christ-following but not yet-perfected-saints committed to Christ and one another.

It was there I was known most intimately for the first time outside of my family and—wonder of wonders—loved anyway by my brothers and sisters in Christ, a terrestrial example of heavenly grace. When we were led at my retirement to leave the college town to be nearer our children, we grieved our separation from the dear saints we had come to love. In our annual migrations to and from our summer retirement home in the Colorado mountains, the pull of this faith family is irresistible. We inevitably find reason to deviate a few hundred miles from a direct route just to worship again with our sibs there, for it was there we learned that church means “doing life together,” complete with mutual accountability and encouragement. You cannot long mutually care deeply about others and appreciate them without it becoming habitual and natural.

Church Mosque Pecs

 

The church/Mosque in Pecs, Hungary that was constructed as the Pasha Gazi Kasim Mosque during the century-long Turkish occupation, demolishing the original Gothic church to obtain stones to build the mosque. Then in the 19th century, the building was rededicated for use as a church. In the foreground the Matteson girls pose in the late fall of 1978. Photo credit: Sam Matteson

 

 

 

 

So now that we have moved in retirement to two new locales, we as genuine “snowbirds” we have identified two congregations where we can do life. As we alternate seasonally between the two ranges, the Rockies and the Cumberland Plateau, we have endeavored in each venue to invest in the lives of our Jesus-sibs and be shepherded and nurtured in return. Thus, we hope that in a real sense we can continue to partake of an appetizer of the banquet that awaits the church, the All-day-singing and dinner-on-the-grounds.

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Who can find a virtuous woman?  for her price is far above rubies.”
Proverbs 31:10

         A sister is often, for a brother, a dubious blessing at the start.  At the beginning he cannot easily see what value is her half of humanity. Sisters are truly different, bona fide members of that subspecies of homo sapiens that is uniquely female and, thus, alien to him.   My sister was no different, nor was I.

Cindy Lou, of course

         Cynthia Lou Matteson, known, of course, as “Cindy Lou” was always part of my world, just as were my mother and father.  From my first memories she is there with them, but as somewhat of a competitor for their attention rather than as a collaborator.  And nearly two years my junior, she seemed much more vulnerable and helpless than any of my peers as we grew up, so that—unfortunately—I slipped into that common brotherly state of mind that discounted her as one not having much to contribute to my interests.  I was wrong.  I did not understand her for a long time, or any other woman, for that matter.  If I had paid closer attention to the lessons she could have taught me then, I would have been so much better prepared to become a husband, a father and grandfather of the girls and women of my life.  But brothers begin thickheaded and slow, more inclined to rough housing than to listening, more attuned to footraces, marbles and tree climbing than insights into feeling.

Nobody in my family enjoyed washing the dishes after our family meals.  As the dessert was finished, my sister and I would glumly look at each other.   The first to speak was sentenced to a lonely half hour over the sink.  At first it was just the two of us, Cindy and I, who sat in jeopardy, but later, when “Baby Dale” was older, there was a trio of potential bottle washers.  So loathsome seemed the task that I, sometimes, would give Cindy a provoking look or whisper, “It’s your turn.”  Somehow I often could get my sister to speak out loud.  “Sammy talked first!” Or “Mother, make Sammy stop tormenting me.”

Cackling syblings

“You children stop ‘nyah-nyahing’” Mother would plead. “The first chicken that cackles laid the egg,” she would intone and Cindy was often chosen.  The pronouncement would be met with “That’s not fair!”  And it probably wasn’t fair.  But more often than I, Cindy was sentenced to sink duty, although it did not seem to me to be too frequent at the time.  For things in the kitchen were “women’s work” when I was a child.  Such tasks were resented by my masculine prejudices.  When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was heard to reply, “A man would do nicely.”  Indeed, I was very glad I was not a woman.

It seemed to me that girls were held captive by their bodies.  A guy was okay if he showed the least bit of athleticism, or he could compensate with knowledge of sports or automobiles or even science.  No boy thought it a compliment to hear that he was such a pretty baby.  A heavy male could be a lineman on the football team.  A freckled-faced carrot top, known naturally as “Red,” could still be a cheerful pal.  But a girl was judged fit or worthless by her looks and that was the end of it.  If she were overweight or plain or shy in the critical eyes of her peers and of those she admired, then she was doomed.  What is more, her emotions were the slave of hormones that raged through monthly cycles with frightening changes, both publically visible in acne or bloating or more intimately and more distressing.  I had only a dim understanding of human physiology in general and that was primarily focused on the masculine gender in particular, despite a provocative but remote interest in the female anatomy admiringly inspired at a distance by women other than those of my clan.  I did not really know nor appreciate what women endured.  I was only glad that I was or would some day be a man.

When I did ultimately become an adult, I began to understand what passed between my sister and me.  I once was asked to give advice to a newly wedded colleague.  He had lived as a bachelor for a long time and had never had any sisters.  He recounted how his bride was angry with him for hurting her feelings.  “I told her, honestly, that I did not mean to hurt her feelings…She was still mad as a hornet.  What can I do?  She is just not being rational about it.”

I thought back to my own experience.  I should have begun to understand this very situation, years before, on that day when I was playing with an old sock.

My sock-full of angry

In my part of Alabama, we had to make our own fun.  I had found an orphaned athletic sock, the kind that eventually everyone finds in the wash, its mate absconded to parts unknown and the forlorn lone sock destined to live out its miserable existence abandoned in a drawer.  I had rescued the lonely hosiery and put it to better use.  I sat on the grass beside the sandy cul-de-sac of Broadmoor Place filling the sock with gray sand and pounding the ground with this surprisingly hard dirt hammer.

I heard my name called.  I twisted to look over my shoulder to see Cindy.  She frowned at me and called out again, “Sammy Gene, Mother says you need to come in to wash up for supper…and by-the-way it’s your turn to do the dishes tonight,” she added a little too sullenly, I thought.  Then she turned to reenter to the house.

In disgusted resignation I carelessly flung the sand-filled sock one more time into the air.  “Ah, forget it all!” my action said.  I jumped up and turned to go in.  To my surprise and horror, the sock that I had released had become a ballistic missile that was arcing in a high and graceful parabola toward my retreating sister’s back.  I calculated the place where it would land and extrapolated Cindy’s position.  I had thrown the projectile with a precision that was far beyond my skill.  I wished I could reel in the airborne bludgeon with invisible threads of regret, but it was now beyond control.

The sand-loaded sapper struck Cindy between the shoulder blades and sent her sprawling under the oak tree.  I heard her scream in pain and anger.  She lay there for a short while with the breath knocked out of her.  I started for her.  Then I stopped.  Breathlessly at first, she pushed up to her knees, then, deliberately, ominously she climbed to her feet.  She turned to me with eyes of fire and came running at me, her fingers spread with claw-like nails to scratch my eyes out.

She would not listen to my protests of innocence and apology.  She clearly wanted blood.  Fortunately, I was bigger and stronger and caught her by the wrists before I was blinded in her wrath.  I held on tight and struggled with her.  She cried and yelled in pain, fury and frustration.  At last, her anger finally began to abate as I continued to apologize.  Eventually she relented in her attack, but I think she was still not convinced of my truthfulness despite my continual protestations of innocence and of regret.

Many times since that day I have let loose reckless words that flew in what seemed like a high ballistic arc out of my control; I always wished that I could suck them back into my mouth or freeze them in place so that they fell to the earth and shattered, anything, as long as they would not hit their unintended mark.  But alas, words, like sand-filled socks have a mind of their own when we have flung them out.  And every time I let fly reckless missiles I relive the sickening scene of remorse.

Not all lessons are lost on brothers

Fortunately, such lessons are not always lost, even on brothers.  Sibling-inflicted pain is not necessarily simply perverse or suffered in vain.  I had learned a lesson that was valuable, a lesson taught to me at my sister’s expense.  I told my friend to imagine that he were working on his house, happily and distractedly driving nails into the siding with a large hammer.  “Imagine,” I continued, “your wife softly comes up behind you unnoticed.” In my parable he strikes his dear one in the head, hard but unintentionally.    She is gravely hurt.  “Of course,” I said, “you say, ‘I’m sorry that you are hurt.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.’  But she continues to cry and perhaps is unreasonably angry in her pain.  Then will you say to me: ‘Now isn’t that just like a woman! So irrational!  I said I’m sorry but she still is upset.  Women, who can understand them?’”   He got the message.

I wish I had got the message sooner, too.  I guess that I should have paid more attention when I was just a brother; then I would have been wiser, sooner and a better husband from the start.  Too bad I was asleep during most of my adolescence, dreaming my own dreams.

I did try to make it up to my sister afterward, but I now realize that even the kindness I showed her was still selfish at its base.  I would, from time to time, surprise her with a little toy I made for her, like the inch-long knife, spoon and fork that I hammered from a wire for her to use when her dolls had tea.  I would carve pine twigs into dolls for her dolls.  She always seemed to appreciate whatever I gave her.  I secretly appreciated her, although I did not really show her.  When you are self-absorbed and uncertain, you are more than a little bit frightened that who you are becoming is not who you want to be, and you have little time or interest in any other person, except when they make you feel capable, admired or at least more worthy.  Sisters rarely make you feel more capable or worthy when you are an adolescent.  Their opinion can’t be trusted, you see; sibling rivalry and jealousies make them untrustworthy.  And besides, they have their own problems.  They also are much like you, since you are from the same gene pool and household.   And you may not care much for such a faithful mirror.

So you’re a Matteson?

So I left Cindy to fend for herself most of her high school years.  I think that she did not have an easy time following two years behind me in school.  Sisters rarely do.  Whether a brother does well or not, expectations and biases among teachers cannot be avoided.  “So you’re a Matteson, huh?” a teacher might remarks ominously and vaguely.

But the magic of maturation and experience happens even when we are not looking.  While I was away from home, first at college and then on my own, my ugly duckling of a sister metamorphosed into a swan.  Somehow the awkward girl became a capable woman when my back was turned and my attention diverted.  Some may wonder if it were she or I that changed—or both.  In any case, now I look on my sister’s accomplishments with pride, and marvel at her affection for the not-always-kind brother of her youth.  I must not be such an awful human being if a person of her caliber finds me worthy of friendship.  Or perhaps it is just that she is a person capable of saintly forgiveness.  Nevertheless, I listen to her with new interest and wonder. I have learned at least one thing: I now know that brothers have much to learn that sisters were specifically designed to teach, both at their beginning and later on.

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