Where we last left off, I had been given an immersion, threefold, believer’s baptism at Overlake Christian Church in the spring of 1989, only for my mother and I to stop going entirely.
Why did this happen? Well, it’s complicated, and I’m not completely certain I understand it myself. What seems to have happened is that, as I said, domestically we were in crisis mode, and while Overlake’s services did a nice job of whipping you up into an arm-waving frenzy under their roof, Mom seemed to be weighed down by the disconnect between that stirring up and the despair that we were dealing with in the rest of our life. To a very real extent, I think the unraveling of our collective household well-being was also underscoring for my parents what it meant to be “unequally yoked”. In the midst of all of this trouble, the only two things my parents seemed to really have in common were me and their mutual unhappiness, and I think my mom maybe wanted to de-emphasize the religious difference to see what would happened, and perhaps she just wanted some time away from God to try to understand why he had put her there. On a practical level, between it taking over a year to sell our house, starting to hop from rental property to rental property once every year or so, and also having to go back to work, maybe Mom was just too exhausted to make Sunday mornings work for awhile.
Whatever the case was, she wasn’t going, and that meant I wasn’t going. For us, that changed a lot; absolutely zero changed for my dad, except that he didn’t have to worry that somebody was going to pressure him into doing something he didn’t want to do. (“Why in the hell would somebody who can’t think of a halfway decent way to spend Sunday morning want to live forever?” was one of his memorable lines in this period.)
In the vacuum, I became… I don’t know. Between all the arguing and the stress they were constantly under, all I wanted was to not be part of the problem. So I basically stopped talking to them and did my best to be a good kid, whatever that meant, on my own. In religious terms, I had absolutely no idea how to make that mean anything by myself; the only concrete ideas I had to fall back on were the precepts outlined in Josh McDowell’s Answers book, but those weren’t really holding up very well anymore. There was no community to reinforce anything, and my parents were dealing with their own problems, so I was scrambling.
I became a goth kid of sorts; I started wearing mostly black, I discovered the Cocteau Twins and David Lynch and Gary Numan and Blade Runner and Christian Slater and re-discovered anime, I started playing Rush songs on the guitar, and I got into the major Seattle bands a couple of years early. More about this later.
I have to skip ahead to my junior year of high school, because there really isn’t anything of note between the time we stopped going to Overlake and ’92/’93 in terms of me and Christianity. My grandmother tried to insist to my mom that she needed to find a good old-fashioned Lutheran church, and my mom just smiled and nodded. My dad had made friends with one Rick Snodgrass, an Evangelical pastor who had started a church in Redmond, and my mom and I tried to go there a couple of Sundays, but it just didn’t take. (Rick also offered to let me play guitar in their praise band, but I went to one rehearsal and felt like a square peg in a round hole.) The one major thing I can say, I suppose, is that I never lost my faith; there wasn’t anything in particular supporting it, and it was becoming evident to me that the Evangelicals on a national scale were distinctly interested in pointing fingers at other people as much as they could with no room for disagreement, but that couldn’t mean that Christianity itself was invalid, right? I didn’t really know what that meant for me, since so far as it had been explained to me, there were the real Christians who went to Overlake, explicitly non-Christian cults like Catholicism and Mormonism and Unitarianism, and then the “denominations” which were basically implicitly non-Christian cults made up of people who weren’t really serious about Christ. So where in the world did somebody like me fit in, somebody who believed but who wasn’t thrilled with who appeared to be controlling the conversation? I had no way to answer that question. It was kind of academic anyway, since I didn’t drive until my senior year of high school (I’ll explain later), and couldn’t get anywhere on my own Sunday mornings.
Junior year of high school, I had a crush on a very nice and very pretty Christian girl who went to Overlake. This was, alas, not destined to be my first successful attempt to convince somebody I liked that they liked me back enough to want to actually call ourselves something (that would have to wait a few more months), but she liked me enough at least that when I said that I used to go to Overlake until my mom stopped going, she offered to pick me up on Sunday mornings. Well, okay, then.
It was a curious experience, being back after four years. The high schoolers had their own separate service with their own pastor, which is what my friend and I went to, although it was basically the exact same format as the adult service. The very best thing I remember about the experience is that the high school pastor was a wonderful guy who genuinely cared about kids and had a very real love for God. He also had a heart for the outsider, which meant that the couple of times I specifically went to him because I needed to talk, he knew exactly what to say to me, and he appeared to actually be concerned with what became of me. I’m really grateful for that man, and only wish I could have gotten to know him better.
The rest of it… well, not to put too fine a point on it, but my chief impression was one of conservative rich white kids patting themselves on the back for being conservative rich white kids, and it was plain as day to me that I didn’t fit in with that crowd, no matter how much I wanted to go to church somewhere and no matter how much I wanted to make this girl like me. (She herself also didn’t entirely fit in, but she fit in better and more naturally than I did.) Most of my memories on this point are somewhat impressionistic — I remember a couple of guys who were very reminiscent of Roger and Burt, the two Young Republican groupies from Bob Roberts, getting up and singing a song one day called “All He Needs Is A Few Good Men”. I remember there being this guy who was far, far, far more of a suburban goth-wannabe than I ever was who was bragging one day about having written a “gay-bashing techno song” that he had poetically titled “Hey You Faggot”. I remember Bill Clinton’s candidacy being of great concern, with somebody getting up one Sunday and talking very solemnly and seriously about how we had to consider the possibility that he could be the Anti-Christ, and somebody else saying that the central credit card computer was being openly referred to by the banks as “the Beast”. I remember there being nobody who really talked to me besides my friend (plus a couple of other people I already knew who went there) and the high school pastor. I even tried to do some of the social events like rollerskating and whatnot, but I just felt awkward and didn’t know where to put myself. (Again, the pastor was the main person who talked to me that evening.)
I talked with one of my other friends who went there about feeling lonely at Overlake. “Well,” he said very sincerely, “you’re somebody who’s got a lot of questions. Overlake is really someplace for people who have accepted the answers.” Huh. Okay, then. If even this guy felt I didn’t belong there, then maybe I didn’t belong there. By that point it was also clear that my friend had considered the notion of being more than friends with me and found the idea ultimately wanting, which was making the extra effort for her of picking me up something of a strain. The best thing to do seemed to just stop going, and that’s what I did. I wanted so badly to be a Christian and to have a church to go to — but the feeling wasn’t being reciprocated, apparently, and it seemed really hard to fit in where affluent suburban Evangelicals wanted kids like me to fit in.
Shortly thereafter, during my very first trip to Indiana in fact, the word “girlfriend” actually became a practical word in my vocabulary rather than simply a theoretical construct. She was raised Lutheran, more or less, which, as somebody with Lutheran roots for whom non-denominationalism hadn’t worked, sounded potentially promising to me, only to find out that she herself had no particular interest in it. Ah, well.
A few months after that, another girl was in the picture (oh, the drama that was my senior year of high school) who had been raised Unitarian, sort of. By that point I actually had a driver’s license and could go to church wherever I wanted if I wanted to go; I did so want, and she was okay with going with me. The question was, where to? There was a Baptist church that one of my favorite teachers went to, and I had gone there once with my mom, but it was too much like Overlake. I was completely out of the loop otherwise and had no idea where to go.
One day at school, I overheard a guy, an acquaintance whom I liked and respected but didn’t know all that well, talking with somebody about the sermon they had heard at church the previous Sunday. I can’t remember a thing about what he actually said, but it sounded interesting and thought-provoking at least, so I asked where he went. “Northlake Lutheran,” he said. Huh. Okay. I looked it up, and it was maybe 10 minutes from where I lived. Well, why not.
That’s where I found myself the next Sunday. The first thing that jumped out at me was that the place was small. There were certainly less than 200 people in the nave, which made it smaller than Overlake’s high school service alone. The next thing was that there was some kind of order to the service — “liturgy”, I heard this referred to as, which was a word I couldn’t remember hearing before. The singing free-for-all at the beginning and end wasn’t at all what happened here; there seemed to be specific moments where music happened, and it was regulated. There were hymnals, and we were supposed to be able to pick up the hymnals to follow what was going on. There was an organ and a choir, characteristics that had seemed to be stereotypically “churchy” in the movies but hadn’t ever been part of my experience. The next thing was that the sermon was short — like ten minutes tops, and the pastor seemed to base his homily on something other than his personality, which was hardly magnetic. He was kind of awkward, really, but that actually made the content of his sermon all the more powerful. Well, I did my best to sing along from the hymnal, I stumbled along with service as best as I could, with everything being sort of half-remembered (since it had been ten years since I had been to a Lutheran service), I was sort of scandalized by the use of real wine at Communion, and then that was that — the service was over. Maybe an hour.
The moment that brought me back the following Sunday, though, was that as the congregation filed out of the church, the pastor (Wm. Chris Boerger, now bishop of the ELCA Northwest Washington Synod) greeted everybody personally, and when he got to me, he shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Pastor Chris. I don’t know you. What’s your name?”
What? The pastor knew his people well enough to know that there was somebody there he didn’t know? And he cared enough to find out my name? That was beyond my comprehension after what I had been accustomed to at Overlake. The very best part, though, was the next Sunday, when he saw me and said, “Hi, Richard!” Beyond anything else — beyond creationism, tribulation, abortion, whatever, I desperately needed somebody to actually notice that I had shown up, and cared enough to say something about it. Going by myself at the age of seventeen to a church I had no family history at whatsoever was really going out on a limb in ways I think I understand better now, and that notice and welcome kept me in the game at a time when I might not have otherwise felt like I had any reason to stay in it.
I kept going to Northlake up through my high school graduation. It started to actually feel like a “church home”.
Then things became a little complicated.