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Secunda Pars, the Overlake years

Here’s how we got here, and here’s some corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

The whole point of moving to Wenatchee in the first place was that my parents wanted to get out of Anchorage, and my dad wanted to try to set himself up as a successful small business owner in a small town. After four years in Wenatchee, he still liked the small business owner idea but was done with the small town part, and in 1984 we passed westward over the mountains and wound up in Seattle. Well, Woodinville, which back then was barely no longer rural. Dad bought a small business furniture concern called Redmond Office Supply and we built a house maybe five minutes from Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, the house that I still remember my mother describing, on the day we moved in, as the house in which she and my dad would grow old.

Church was a question mark now that we were in something vaguely resembling a major metropolitan area. The truth is, I don’t think my mother ever had any particular love for the Augsburg Confession, and thought of it perhaps as mostly a default. My grandmother Helen (departed this life last September with her beloved husband Donald ten days previous, αἰωνία αὐτῶν ἡ μνήμη) had passed on some level of Danish-American consciousness to Mom, but nothing overwhelming, and nothing that I don’t think she got out of her system by living in Copenhagen for a year after high school. Since Dad certainly wasn’t going to church with us, there wasn’t any particular family cohesion to be maintained, so now that we lived someplace with more options, my mother wanted to explore them. I remember her taking me church-shopping several Sundays in a row; I don’t remember where, but I don’t recall that we ever went to the same place twice.

Somewhere along the way, we wound up at Overlake Christian Church, and I got saved for the first time. These were unrelated events.

This may be ancient history for some readers, but 30 years ago, kids actually would go trick or treating in a door to door fashion in neighborhoods rather than going to the mall. 1984-5 was the height of my Charlie Brown identification (which had a very interesting denouement I’ll go into later), so my recollection is that my costume in 1984 was the sheet-over-the-head ghost. Anyway, among the takings was a little card giving a phone number that you could call if you really loved Jesus and wanted to be saved. I really loved Jesus, so I asked Mom if I could call, she was thrilled to say yes, and a nice man on the other end of the line prayed with me that Jesus would come into my heart, and that was that.

Meanwhile, church shopping was going nowhere for us. At some point, my mom discovered KCIS, “The Christian Information Station”, on which Pastor Bob Moorehead’s sermons were broadcast. These connected with her well enough that one Sunday, we found ourselves in the middle of the humongous melee that was Overlake.

At the time, I believe, Overlake was the largest independent congregation in Washington state, with some ungodly huge number like 3,000 people. (Yes, I know, that seems like a small, quaint country church in present-day Evangelical terms.) They did something like three or four services a weekend, so their auditorium had around 1,000 people in it at any given moment in the course of a weekend. My recollection is that there was a huge cross on the wall with the text, “Go forth and make ye disciple of all nations…” You came in, and half an hour of lively singing to words projected on the walls was followed by some announcements, special music while an offering was taken, a 45 minute sermon, maybe communion, and then another twenty minutes to half an hour of congregational singing, usually wrapping up with an altar call. It was completely different from what I had experienced in our little Lutheran congregation back in Wenatchee, and it seemed to be exactly what my mother was looking for.

I remember asking my mom, “Does this mean we’re not Lutheran anymore?” “No, honey, we’re just Christians now,” she said.

One of the interesting things about Overlake — and to this day I don’t have a great sense about how common this is or is not for Protestant groups — was that a baptized Protestant Christian couldn’t just start going there and bam, they were a member. First you had to have a believer’s baptism — infant baptism didn’t count — then you had to go through the six-week “Basic Beliefs” class (so, yes, you had to undergo an action that, by virtue of its appellation — believer’s baptism — strongly implied belief in something, and then you had to take a class to find out what you had just professed to believe), and then you were welcomed as a member. My mother, who seemed to embrace what Overlake was all about fairly quickly, responded to an altar call one Sunday, took the class, and was welcomed as a member. I did not; I didn’t really understand why all of this was necessary — wasn’t I already baptized, and didn’t we make a big deal out of it? But there we were.

Even as a little kid, I can’t say I ever felt like a totally natural fit at Overlake. It seemed weird to me that you never sat next to the same people twice, I didn’t understand how it seemed that everybody knew the songs we were singing except me, particularly when all they projected were the words and no music? (This was also right towards the beginning of my boy alto period.) Why was all the music so incredibly different from what we had had at Grace Lutheran? Why was the music… well… stupid? Why was the sermon so long? Why couldn’t I leave to go to the bathroom? (Seriously. I got blocked at the doors by the ushers.) Who actually got to talk to Pastor Bob? Why did everything seem so centered around him? Why, if being saved was something that happened to us once, was a big point always made of saying the prayer to let Jesus into our hearts as personal savior at the end of every service?

Still, it was where we were going. Sometimes I went to the adult service with Mom, sometimes I went to the kids’ service. At the kids’ service, sometimes they showed things like the Christian anime Superbook (which went well with my love of Star Blazers), and a movie called “Music Box” that I’ve talked about before. I also remember them talking to us about evolution and AIDS, and sometimes in the adult service hearing them talk about abortion and how there were no Christians in Russia (keeping in mind that this was the mid-1980s).

Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, as I mentioned, had some interesting bits on various supernatural phenomena (including an article on demon possession that absolutely freaked me out). Among other things, there was a riveting, lengthy piece on the Shroud of Turin. I remember showing it to my mom, who said, “Well, most Christians don’t think it’s real.” In support of her answer, she gave me the book Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith by Josh McDowell, which had roughly a 30-page section debunking the Shroud. (Curiously, I discovered about ten years ago that newer editions of the book no longer have this section. I’ve not encountered any comment or explanation as to why; it just seems to have been quietly dropped. Perhaps McDowell changed his mind. If anybody knows anything about that, I’d love to hear more.)

I’m trying to remember how old I actually was when I read McDowell’s book for the first time. Maybe eight? Nine? Anyway, much of the Shroud of Turin stuff seemed a little over my head, but a lot of the evolution/creationism material was gripping for an eight year old, particularly since we were doing a unit on Jericho at school that could serve as a bridge between the “historical” past and the “creationist” past. I was inspired to try to calculate the age of the earth counting what seemed to be the Biblical chronology backward from the historical dates we were talking about in class. I can’t remember what I came up with — a 10,000 year old earth, maybe a 15,000 year old earth. My dad pointed out that even that was far older than what most creationists seemed to want to talk about.

McDowell aside, there was a nagging question that I had that nobody could seem to quite answer for me. I was becoming aware through certain cinematic tropes and articles in — again — Strange Stories, Amazing Facts that what seemed to be the Christianity of history and the Christianity I experienced at Overlake Christian Church were two different things. Why was this? I mean, I got what seems to have been the standard fundamentalist lines about Catholicism and Mormonism being in the same category as “non-Christian cults”, and I also was starting to become aware that Christian bookstores usually had a shelf devoted to the subject of Why Catholics Were Wrong, but I didn’t understand who the Pope was supposed to be (beyond my dad saying once, “He’s an old Polish man who believes that he has a direct link to God”), and I didn’t understand the disconnect at all between past and present. The way some people talked, it sounded like we were to understand that there were no Christians between the time of the apostles and Martin Luther. Could that actually be? The way other people tried to explain it, however, it sounded like their way around it was to say that if there were Christians during those centuries when the Roman Catholic Church was all there was and they were leading everybody astray, they were saved by the grace of God and that was incidental to their being Catholic. Well, whatever the case, I had to admit to myself, even at the tender age of nine or ten, that as far as Overlake was concerned, that I didn’t understand all the hand waving and I hated the music. Regardless, since Overlake was where the real Christians were going in the Seattle area, that’s where we were going.

An anecdote that, while random-seeming, demonstrates even a small way that I felt this disconnect — in sixth and seventh grade, I was big into Piers Anthony. I’ll go into how big in a different post. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that there is a key moment in On A Pale Horse that involves the singing of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”, and depends on its near-universal familiarity. I had never heard of it before, I could not place it, all I knew is that for all the book implied its fame, it was never sung at Overlake. It was easily another eight or nine years before I heard it, and of course by now it has achieved “old chestnut” status, but it’s an example of the gulf between the Christian culture that Overlake promoted and “recognizable” Christian culture.

Another thread in all of this was that starting in 1986, our lives were falling apart. The really short version is that Dad’s livelihood was not coming from being a small businessman in a Seattle suburb; that was a hobby. Rather, to the extent that we were at all affluent, it was a result of Dad’s interest in a commercial building in Anchorage, and this is around the time that the price of oil collapsed, tanking Alaska’s economy. Some of this I talk about here. The house my parents built for $250,000 in 1984 was sold in 1988 for something absurd like $150,000 after more than a year on the market — and one of the tragedies there is that, had they been able to hold onto it for another few months, they would have been able to catch the rebound of the Seattle housing market which just went up and up and up and up for the next twenty years. As you can see for yourself if you check out the Zillow link I provided, the house sold again for $425k in 1994 and peaked in value in 2007 at around a million. It’s now sitting somewhere around $625k, I think. And we, the family that built it as our dream home, had to take a $100k loss. Before my parents got divorced and when I still thought I might walk away from the software industry with something worth having, I had a dream that someday I might be able to buy back that house for them — just show up on the doorstep with a blank check, ask whomever lived there, “Hey, I think I can convince you to sell,” and give them whatever they wanted. Ah well. Anyway, we lost our shirts, to say the least, and to call it a strain on our family doesn’t even begin to describe the hell that the three of us were collectively in from 1986-1993.

And when I say strain, I’m not necessarily talking in terms of subsistence. The money was what it was — the real tragedy was the irreparable damage done to relationships, some of it immediately, some of it long-term. I’m not going to go into the details of that here, although I’ve alluded to some of the permanent consequences of it here and there throughout the life of this blog. The point is, my mom was starting to discover that the emotional high she got from Overlake’s services simply did not prepare her for what the reality of the rest of her week actually was.

In the spring of 1989, I got baptized again. As I said, each service at Overlake ended with an altar call, and one Sunday, for reasons still unknown to me, I felt compelled to respond. My mom, as noted earlier, had gone through the membership process, but I never had. This was, theoretically, the first step. A nice man took me back to an office, we talked a little bit, I explained that I had been baptized when I was little, and he asked if I wanted to be baptized again. I said yes. He said the same prayer with me then that the other nice man had said with me over the phone at Halloween in 1984, so once again I was saved, and I agreed to be baptized the next Sunday.

Dad didn’t understand. “Wasn’t he already baptized?” he grumbled, but he came anyway. (Ironically, he, the grouchy atheist, has attended three out of my four reception ceremonies, thus holding the record of any of my friends or family members for such things.) I showed up early the next Sunday, I was led through the back to a changing room where I was given a white robe. During the service I was led to the baptistery — a pool built into the stage — and somebody, not Pastor Bob but a different member of the ministry team, baptized me by threefold immersion in the name of the Father… <dunk> …and of the Son… <dunk> …and of the Holy Spirit <dunk>. <applause>

That was that; when I got back to where my mom was sitting, Dad had already left to go sit in the car for the rest of the service (somehow getting past the reverse bouncers at the doors).

So, supposedly, after getting baptized, I should have gone on to take the Basic Beliefs class, and then I would have been a member of Overlake. Shortly after my second baptism, however, we stopped going to Overlake altogether.

More to come.

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