This is chapter two in “A Life Unplugged”. If you want to catch up, you can click a chapter index at the bottom of this post.
Chapter Two: Southern Exposure
My parents became weary of all the confusion, arguing, and disconnect associated with the commune “Green Pastures”. So they did the most logical thing. They sold everything they had including real estate, gave most all of the proceeds to what was left of the church, packed what remained of their lives into a 1972 Volkswagen van and set out on the open road to the other side of the country! Seriously, with only enough money to survive a road-trip to the southeast, this Christian family of five (my sister had recently been born) barreled down the interstate headed for Mississippi. Mississippi was where my dad’s sister lived, and that was where we were headed. If you can’t laugh at such bravado then you might not be human. What they lacked in intelligence, they made up for in faith! I need to progress in my testimony, but I don’t want you to miss the humor of a hippie family from Los Angeles living on a wing and a prayer. How do you move from the crazy, liberal world of the West coast to the religious seat of the Bible-belt? Awkwardly…
The whole Mississippi experiment failed in record time for a variety of reasons: no money, no common ground, a less than cordial welcome, a land filled with irritating creatures like snakes, mosquitoes, every kind of insect that my mom was sure were all abominations in the eyes of God, a humid heat that never allowed mom’s make-up to sit still or accommodate my dad’s studded jean jacket, and a language that neither of my parents understood or spoke. After a quick stint with my aunt, we left Mississippi in a cloud of dust and critters. We decided our best bet was to go to Springfield Tennessee where my mom’s maternal grandparents lived. It still had its share of humid heat, critters, and a strange dialect, but not to the extent of southern Mississippi. We lived with “Granny” and “Paw” for a short while until we found an old farmhouse tucked quaintly at the back of a cow pasture, sleepily shadowed under a stand of maples and oaks. My parents were convinced we could learn to live in simplicity and adapt to “living off the land”. Pardon my language, but we sucked at this type lifestyle! All the progress my dad had made at being “Christian” was eaten up by the cacophony of curse words lifted high above the deciduous forest of middle Tennessee as he attempted to plow us a garden. All of my mother’s lofty dreams of being a patient, proper woman of God quickly evaporated in the tears of frustration brought on by the reality of raising chickens and growing green beans. We ate a lot of canned tuna.
In many ways, my parents had lost their faith by the time I reached the age of twelve. It was an impossible task to trade the experiential spiritual life for the old, musty halls of southern religion. We tried church after church. My parents’ ears were used to electric guitars, drums, the familiar Jewish song “Hava Nagila” that we all cherished, and the rhythmic worship songs of our little commune. It literally hurt their ears to listen to old hymns wheezed out on a Wurlitzer and sung with the howling harmonies of southern folk whose voices had been steeped in tradition and birthright. They never made the transition from the revolutionary message of Christ to the one of strict, moralized religion. When they trekked across America with a Bible in one hand and a joint in the other, they realized they could not hold on to both! What seemed like freedom quickly turned to slavery; it made no sense to them. This was their perspective and not necessarily my take on it. I liked Sunday school, the dependable regimen of discipline, the guidelines of what is acceptable and unacceptable, and I really liked the simple and charming people of the old south. That sentiment was not shared by my parents; they were judged and judged harshly. We were obviously very poor and my dad didn’t own a suit when we arrived in Tennessee; in fact, it would take a long while before we enjoyed anything like monetary privileges that would afford us new clothes. So when dad and mom arrived at a Southern Baptist church donned in jeans and a sundress respectively…well, you can only imagine the horror that ensued. We were certainly out of our comfort zone, and the scandal of having hippies residing in the small and orderly town of Springfield was just too much for the locals to bear. It didn’t take long for this clash of cultures to alienate one another. The only time I remember going to church with my dad was the day he sported a new suit from JCPenny just to “rub it in their face”. But all was not lost.
One of the reasons we left California was the craziness of it, but another major reason was that my parents were convinced that southern California would end up permanently submerged in the Pacific Ocean! If you are old enough, you can remember the best-selling book in 1970 called “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey and Carole Carleson. This started a strange phenomenon that has lingering effects to this day. As a Christian, I must confess that the Bible is succinctly clear about the “end of the age” and we all need to be watchers as it were. However, the paranoia that this book created (and successors continue to create) borders on an unhealthy obsession with eschatology. I will address this phenomenon later in the book, but suffice it to say, my parents were convinced that Jesus would arrive at any moment. When Jesus didn’t arrive as soon as the “experts” had foretold, this added to their loss of faith. Don’t get me wrong, both my parents still believed in the core message of the gospel, but they felt lost and disenfranchised with Christianity as a whole. They felt on one hand that they had been fooled by charismatic crazies and finished off by the coldness of religiosity. The apparent lesson in this is obvious: every person must make a full commitment to reading the entire Bible, every person must grow and progress in their faith, and every person will fall into traps if they listen to any one teacher exclusively. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only true and completely dependable voice is God as He expresses Himself through Scripture and His Holy Spirit. We all are too easily susceptible to what “tickles the ears”, and we all have a tendency to put God in a box. The cure for what ails us is the commitment to be steadfast in our passionate pursuit of intimacy with God through prayer, the study of Scripture, and a support network of other believers. If you take your eyes off of Christ, especially as a person who has experienced the Holy Spirit, the enemy will pounce on you like a ferocious predator. When you taste the Living Waters and you step into the light, God sees you…but so does the enemy! So my parents abandoned their quest to “walk in the Spirit”; my dad told me later in life, when I was sixteen years of age, that it was too difficult a line to toe and, in his estimation, an impossible undertaking to walk in the spirit for any appreciable amount of time. This statement of his would have major implications in my life later on.
Despite my parents’ flirtation with a lukewarm faith, they were nevertheless unwaveringly positive that the world was hopelessly lost and headed to imminent judgment. Their response as loving parents was to ensure that all of us children received a Christian education. It was while attending a Christian school that my first taste of disappointment in the religious institution came crashing down on my young psyche. I was in the 4th grade when the preacher of this small church-school I attended ran off with the secretary. This was very confusing to me; how could a man of God do such an immoral thing? I did not return to this school. We found an independent Christian school not too far away (“far away” being a relative term when you live in the boonies) that proved to be a great move all around. I loved this new school, except for the 1.5 hour bus trip twice a day, but I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I formally received Christ while attending one of our weekly gatherings in the gym. Once a week on Wednesdays, the pastor/principal would give a sermon and altar call. It was on one of these mornings that I realized I had never prayed the “sinners prayer”, that I had never formally invited Christ into my life, and realized I had assumed that because my parents were Christians that I was saved by association. It is hard for me to believe even today that I sat there for three years and never even contemplated my own salvation until the 7th grade. The sermon burned my heart up! I could hardly sit still. I was convinced the message was aimed directly at me, and when the pastor gave the altar call I literally leapt out of the bleachers and almost went head first into the podium at the bottom. That would be irony wouldn’t it? To die a tragic death and go to hell on your way to the altar?!
My parents were ecstatic to learn of my decision to give my life to Christ; they were also confused. You see, my parents only tolerated the religious scene. They assumed that all was good in my life, but I guess they never thought about my personal salvation. Again, they were not students of the Word. They could, however, tell you all you ever wanted to know about the anti-Christ, the end of days, and the mark of the beast! To their credit and my benefit, they sacrificed a great deal of not only money so I could attend a Christian school but also a great deal of pride in the process. I still remember the nasty arguments that ensued when I was periodically sent home for my hair touching my collar (that was not allowed). When my mother asked the principal how on earth this notion could be a Biblical principle or how the ancients were able or willing to cut their hair above their collars (which didn’t exist in ancient times), the proper and curt response would be an allusion to the availability of “sharp rocks”. This would send her into complete madness. She never achieved any traction or foothold in the argument, and I would simply wait for the storm to subside, sitting quietly in the car with the windows rolled up. This weighty theological debate would always rear its ugly head later when my dad returned home from work. He would laugh as he popped open a beer and this proved to only fan the flames of my mother’s zealousness. Many a beer ended up splattered across the floor of the kitchen in those days. Dad never got involved with the school issues; he hated confrontation. After a multitude of wasted beers, one would assume that he would have been a bit more supportive of her scripturally sound dissertation on the length of one’s hair. Maybe it was worth the price of admission to hear my mom go “Old Testament” on the Baptists. Anyway, they were both glad I gave my heart to Jesus, even if it was a short-haired, Baptist Jesus!
One thing to keep in mind about those formative years in my life: 99% of the sermons given were about hell and your absolute, immutable destiny to said hell if you were not saved. The thought of hell and the paradox of hell vs. a benevolent God did not go unnoticed by my little brain. I must refer you back to my original statement that I always knew there was something wrong with the universe. At this age, I was happy to have my ticket punched for heaven regardless of my sneaking suspicion that there was more to it than that. I actually got quite adept at tuning out the yelling and screaming of the preachers that dotted my radar screen over those years. I assumed that all men of God pounded on podiums, and part of your holiness was the ability to spit at least 10-12 feet while vehemently enunciating the word “sin” (if you are not from the south or been privy to this, the proper transliterated pronunciation is SEE-yun). I’m pretty sure a droplet hit me on the cheek at one point while 10 rows back. That has to be a record, but I’m not sure. So, did I give my life to Christ because I was scared of going to hell? You bet I did!
I had a nice little life on the farm in Springfield. Dad started work in a salon situated in the middle of the small town of Springfield, and he was a hit. Women love eccentric, mysterious men. They especially like men who are considered artsy; dad was a phenomenal hair stylist. Mom hated being trapped at home in the farmhouse; she was a city girl. It didn’t take long for her to demand the right to go back to work. She was simply going nuts! For many years I thought we (the children) made her irascible, but I realized that we couldn’t take all the credit for her steady decline in mental stability. Mom and dad decided to open their own salon together, as a team, and make a go of it. We moved to a larger town about 40 minutes south of Springfield called Goodlettsville where Rivergate Mall beckoned as an economic Mecca for a 50 mile radius. We moved into a house right across the street from the Krystal fast-food restaurant. Life changed dramatically for all of us. With the greasy smell of tiny burgers wafting in the air, I was ushered into my next encounter with God.