Beckley Presbyterian, where I first learned about Lent
I’ve learned to recognize the mock look of confusion, even before I hear the question, “Do you mean pin or pen?”
The interesting thing is that in my 21 years of teaching Maryland students, not one teenager ever asked me that question. But adults seem to delight in pointing out that my Appalachian dialect, even though it’s been Marylandized for almost 27 years now, doesn’t distinguish between certain words that any educated person should know.
In West Virginia, we had far more homonyms than the rest of the country seems to have, but we seldom had trouble understanding each other. Though I sometimes had to translate my father’s much thicker dialect for my daughter, who was born in Maryland two months after I left West Virginia for the DC suburbs, even she learned after a while to understand. Especially when my dad held out a two-dollar bill and said, “Yhere, yore goin’ to need this,” meaning, “Here. This is special, and I want you to have it.”
If we were in the city, an hour away from home, we took a bus or helled a cab…if we could afford one. My family couldn’t—and didn’t have a car—so I walked to church. When I got there, I could hear about hell-far—not to be interpreted as a far away place. You know…that place with the fiery flames that would lick at my ankles for eternity if I didn’t repent—that kind of hell-far. And I could be sure that I would get a colorful description of the flames if I entered most any church in town on any given Sunday…or on Wednesdays for prayer meetings.
But I never heard about Lent. Except the kind that my mom irritably picked off her black sweater after she asked, “Who thew a towel in the dryer with my dark clothes?”
We had a church on every block in my small town, and I attended most of them at one time or another—for weddings, funerals, youth events, Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts. But in my small graduating class of 133 students, no one I knew observed Lent, though we did have a handful of Presbyterians. But everyone knew those Presbys were heathens who believed their sons were predestined for heaven even though they laughed about smoking pot in the fellowship hall and getting away with it because their parents were at home drinking wine, the fermented kind and not the grape juice that was served during communion.
I left that world for college, came back home briefly, and then moved to teach in Beckley, an hour and a world away from where I grew up. And I met the parents of a wonderful young eighth grader. Her father was a Presbyterian minister, and her mother a woman full of grace and love. In my 20s and beginning to question everything I’d been taught to believe, I wandered into their church one Sunday, and I’ve been Presbyterian ever since. It’s a faith that’s a better fit for someone like me who challenges everything and who can’t function when I focus too much on hellfire and damnation.
This week I will begin to observe Lent, though I’ll still have to concentrate not to call it Lint when I’m talking with my sister-in-law, who is a devout Catholic and the office manager in her church’s rectory. I’ll think about those 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness and consider what his life, leading up to the cross, means to mine. I’ll think about what an acquaintance of mine said to me a few years ago when I was wearing a cross my mother bought me when I was a teenager: “Don’t you think it’s strange that your religion makes jewelry out of an instrument of torture?”
Yes, it is, I had to admit to him. But it works for me somehow when I think about being the kind of person who is willing to minister to the sick, feed the hungry, and champion the least among us—who is willing to die for people no one else values. Fear petrifies me, but if I can somehow manage to focus on the selfless grace that led to that moment of torture, then I am the better for it.
So I’ll focus on continuing what my Presbyterian ministers said to our congregation two years ago that changed the course of my life: “Instead of giving something up for Lent, why don’t you think about taking something up.” And so it was that I began to write a book, to talk with others about the contradictions of my faith.
I’ve lived in two worlds, and though I chose one over the other as the better path for me to glimpse God, I value both for the gifts they have given me. That vivid imagery of hellfire and the command to honor my parents kept me safe when boys were “only after one thing” and when many of my contemporaries were experimenting with drugs, including my brother who died of an overdose and another who is still battling his demons 30 years later to stay clean. Those church leaders taught me to read the holy texts of my faith for myself, even though I came to a different understanding than they intended.
And so, this week, I think I may stop bristling when my friends and even strangers, eyes laughing, try ten ways to get me to say Lint. I’m happy for that world that gave me pin and pen, forever intertwined, teaching me to pin my world together with a pen, to write my way to understanding myself and my place in time.
What about you? How has your faith helped you find your place in this colorful, contradictory cosmos?