Posts Tagged 'overlake christian church'

Part the Third: The Nowhere In Particular Years

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.

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.


I’m not sure why I just noticed this, but I suppose #6 represents some kind of a memorable milestone for this blog. Still, it would have been a lot cooler had the Owen White who was the old-school Ochlophobist of c. 3-4 years ago made fun of me, rather than the totally-over-Orthodoxy-and-if-I’m-not-going-to-go-to-church-anyway-I-may-as-well-not-go-to-the-Catholic-church-rather-than-not-go-to-the-Orthodox-church, “post-Ochlophobist” Owen. If I’d gotten a “Happydoxy” snipe or something like that, then that would have been major street cred, man.

I must offer a slight correction on a couple of points, however. I’m only an ex-Evangelical insofar as my mother took me to Overlake Christian Church as a child; I haven’t gone there regularly since I was 13 and at all since I was 16. To the extent that I’m ex-anything I’m an ex-Anglican. I won’t bother offering drinking and swearing bona fides to Owen, but he’s welcome to find out for himself whether or not I struggle to get through two beers should he ever come through Bloomington. I highly doubt this will ever happen for two reasons: 1) The drive between Memphis and Bloomington is awful and long under the best of circumstances, and there’s no reason to pass by Bloomington on any sane route out of Memphis unless Bloomington is exactly where you’re going, and I can’t imagine Owen ever actually wanting to come to Bloomington. 2) The only decent beer in Bloomington is from one of two microbreweries or specialty grocery stores, and surely there’s nothing more distastefully bourgeois than either of those. I could offer him a homebrew, except that I expect that a humanities grad student who homebrews is the only thing that could possibly be more bourgeois than a microbrewery.

I will note that Owen knows full well I agree with him on his criticisms of outward religious affectation in Orthodox converts, and that I’m neither the kind of guy to sign my e-mails “A sinner,” or to refer to myself as “Reader Richard”, so I have to conclude that he’s making fun of me specifically so he can refer traffic my way — in which case, thanks much! I do find it amusing that one of his busier admiring commenters now that he’s Catholic again is somebody who is one of the more notoriously argumentative anti-Orthodox online personalities out there, and who four years ago shrieked to me in an e-mail about how virulently and shamefully anti-Catholic he was, and how that was representative of most Orthodox bloggers. Maybe Owen will turn into the Catholic equivalent of… well, perhaps you already know who I mean without me saying the name, and I’d like to keep it that way, lest they appear.

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