I love puzzles.
Pretty much everyone who knows me is aware of that fact, I think. I can spend hours doing them, till my neck feels crooked and my feet have fallen asleep multiple times and I can no longer see straight.
Sometimes I branch out, and make a building.
Or maybe a whole new shape.
And that title isn’t quite applicable, actually. I am quite good at puzzles. Order out of chaos. One piece at a time.
I’ve always loved Coldplay’s song “Talk,” which says “Do you feel like a puzzle / You can’t find your missing piece?”
My life feels like a puzzle. But not because I’m missing a piece. Or the stereotypical, “You’re in the middle of putting together your puzzle of life and while it doesn’t look right just now, it will form a beautiful picture once it’s complete!” Complete with sunshine and rainbows and birds chirping.
No, more like….I put a puzzle together in the dark. Someone handed me pieces and said, “This piece goes here. This piece connects with that. What do you mean it doesn’t feel right, that’s how it is and don’t you dare question it.” Fine, this piece goes there. This is how that is. This is truth, because you said it was so.
And then morning came. I could step back and actually look at the finished puzzle. “Hmm, this section looks like it might be ok. This part sorta forms a coherent picture. This part….wth is going on there?! Surely it isn’t supposed to look like that. That section is all wrong, there is no way that can be right. The pieces just don’t fit.” That someone is physically gone but is in my head now, telling me to just shut up and go along with it, or I won’t be good anymore. Several someones, actually, and they are very imperious.
But then other people start noticing. “This piece doesn’t fit right,” they say. “That section looks awful. And look, you’ve left out this piece altogether.” And I start to realize….it’s not just me. This puzzle was put together wrong. All wrong. The pieces are there, some parts look right, but most of it? Most of it needs to be redone.
So now I’m taking my puzzle apart. I can’t assume anymore that this piece fits with this one because a someone told me. I’ve got to look at each piece and decide. I’ve got to study each piece closely, not assume I know what picture it’s trying to show. And who knows, maybe I’ll take it apart and never be able to put it all back together. Maybe I’m not supposed to.
And maybe….that’s ok.
My puzzle was started, oh, 25 years ago or so. I am the fifth of lots of siblings, and spent my growing up years playing with them, reading encyclopedias for fun, climbing trees in the back yard, crocheting blankets and random odds and ends, memorizing “history is a narration of events, in the order in which they happened, with the causes and effects” each year for (home)school, and spending an unusually large amount of time at a little “country church in the city, where pilgrims progress.” This place, barely 30 members small by the time I was old to notice, was led by a rather forceful personality of a person we later christened OP (old preacher).
OP was….a strange old bird. Apparently he was energetic and dynamic back when the church started 30-odd years ago. It was also originally some sort of Bible Institute, and attracted many young Navy guys for reasons unknown. My newly-saved uncle had found him somehow, one thing led to another, his sister (my mom) met my dad there and they got married within a few months, my uncle later married OP’s daughter (so OP was kinda sorta related, with his grandkids being our cousins). I don’t know how many members it had at most. But OP always had a horror of established denominations. I remember my mom telling me one time that we were “independent baptists, but even they didn’t like us very much.” Having around single digits in years at that time, I had a curious pride in the fact that we were so…radical, I guess you could say. I think over the years, his circle of pastor friends got smaller and smaller, and his theological beliefs got narrower and narrower. Didn’t help that he apparently idolized Peter Ruckman, who believed in the double-inerrancy of the KJV and also aliens and conspiracy theories galore. It wasn’t enough to say the original texts were inspired, the KJV translation itself was also inspired, and could correct the Greek texts. Every word, every single letter, was divinely inspired and exactly how it should be, no error at all, whatsoever. After all, “every word of God is pure,” right? “All scripture is given by inspiration of God,” obviously the KJV and only the KJV. My dad swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker. He and OP were good friends, and he respected him so much. Everything that came out of his mouth was like the words of God, and when you have no one to disagree with, of course it is. Once the internet grew, my dad took to arguing with non-KJVers on forums, making fun of people who cross-referenced things from other translations. By this point he was so entrenched that someone could have had direct revelation from God himself and my dad would not have believed it if it differed from the KJV.
I think the only good thing I got from OP was the idea of dispensationalism, the fact that the old testament and the new testament were different eras, so to speak, so laws or promises given directly to the nation of Israel were not applicable for all times and people. But he took it waaaaaay beyond that. It wasn’t enough that there is a promise of a heaven and new Jerusalem. No, that was only for the poor Jews, while we Christians, the church, would be even more elevated, on the right hand of God with Christ as well. He decided that baptism and communion, only two of the most sacred symbols of Christianity itself, were for the Jews as well and as such we did not practice either. Kind of odd to still keep the “baptist” in the church name, in my opinion. He also thought the idea of tithing was stupid: probably because he could not live on only 10% of the congregation’s income, and needed more than that. He was also SUPER vigilant about possible worldly influences behind the most simple things. Christmas trees were pagan, Christmas itself was pagan, Hallowe’en was pure devil worship (and had the Chick tract to prove it), Easter was pagan, etc etc. My parents didn’t give out Christmas presents till I was…..at least 7? Even then they were originally given out on New Years. He was always convinced he had some special insight into the Bible that most pastors simply didn’t have, he was unique, possessor of knowledge unknown by mere mortals. But I suppose OP did have the technique of preaching straight through a Bible book, not picking a random topic and pulling verses out willy-nilly to support it. Remember that bit, it’ll become important later.
He was also VERY Calvinist. The sovereignty of God was very very important to him. He was very hung up about the “elect,” that God chose who would be saved beforehand and you would get saved whether you wanted to or not. Kinda like him, actually: you had no control over your life in the slightest.
I never ever remembered my parents disagreeing with him in front of us kids. It simply was not done. Though who knew what things they thought in the dark by themselves. Everything he said was followed to the letter, there was no room for ifs or buts or conflicting opinions. I don’t even remember him admitting he wasn’t sure what a passage was supposed to mean, or that a meaning wasn’t clear. Nothing was EVER up for debate, the KJV was clear and final down to the each individual letter. I can’t say I recommend that method. When you grow up assuming some things are firm and unchanging for all times, it’s quite unsettling to realize the foundation is actually quite muddy.
Now, just for fun, let me give a little snapshot of what church was like for me growing up. We were supposed to spend Saturday evening resting up for Sunday morning, so we rarely planned anything for Saturday afternoons/evenings. Sunday morning was always a flurry of showers, breakfast, and dressing 10+ people. Looking back I am quite grateful we were so isolated, because our clothes were odd, to put it mildly. A random mish-mash of homemade jumpers, old lady skirts, low pumps and socks was the uniform of the time. The guys in mini suits and ties, all with our KJVs and notebooks. We always got to church (in a large van or two) at LEAST 30 minutes early. No idea why, as there was no socializing beforehand. Came in, solemnly walked to the fourth wooden pew from the front, spread ourselves out along the length of it, and…..sat there. We couldn’t talk about anything other than spiritual things before the service, or it would take our minds off the coming sermon. The pastor’s wife would sit at the piano at precisely ten minutes till the hour, and bang out some hymns till the hour struck. The pastor’s son-in-law would lead us in a few hymns, sung at a properly mournful dirge-like pace. Especially noticeable for songs like Revive Us Again; we just don’t want to appear to have too much joy about it. OP would preach at least 50 minutes, on some deep theological passage, usually from Paul’s epistles. We would close with another hymn, spend a good 20-30 minutes “socializing” but trying not to be too loud about it or have TOO much fun. Unless it was his grandkids, talking about the latest fun thing they were doing or watching. But you couldn’t just leave after 10 minutes: “what, you have something more important to do than socialize with God’s people? These should be the best friends you have!” Go home for Sunday lunch, take a nap, and be back by 6 for another THREE HOURS of the same deep, theological sermonizing.
One other characteristic of OP was his intense love of the oldies. No, not the Beatles or Frank Sinatra. While most Christians of the day were reading Tim Keller or quoting Francis Chan, OP was stuck firmly in the 50s….the 1750s, that is. Spurgeon, Muller, Newton, Edwards, Matthew Henry, Baxter, Bunyan, JC Ryle (who was, ironically enough, Anglican): all people from at least the 1800s. These were his heroes. Their books were the only theological books he ever recommended. And oh boy would he recommend them by the dozen, and like a dutiful church member my dad would buy them up and we kids would try to slog our way through. I’m sure some really are decent, but when you’re ten you’d rather read LIttle House on the Prairie. My personal favorite was the ladies manners books he had us get, Beautiful Girlhood and the like, telling how girls should practice walking with a book on their head and the like. Such a hoot. Our music was firmly pre-1900’s: even at home we only listened to classical music or a capella hymns for the longest time.
But we trundled right along, mentally in the 1850s and keeping any doubts or disgruntlement to ourselves. But the last few years we were there, things started to change. More people left till there were barely 20 members. OP found the internet and oh good lord, the conspiracy theories. The UN is bringing in the New World Order, Bush is going to take over the world, the illuminati is EVERYWHERE! We started looking for the “devil” sign in all of our movies: I found one in Peter Pan. Hide yo kids, hide yo wives, etc etc.
Around this time, my older Sister 1 was somehow allowed to start writing to penpals, found in a Christian homeschool magazine. Her first penpals were odd, often more odd than us, even. Borderline Amish at times. We were careful to keep those on the down-low though, don’t think OP would have approved. I remember writing a mennonite girl in Virginia, and another weird one in Alaska. I wrote back and forth with them and a few others for several years, until one day my mom put a stop to it. I cried: I had no friends in real life. These weren’t deep friendships by any means, but it was communication of some sort. I went back to reading Lord of the Rings for the 20th time and sitting up in a tree, crocheting and daydreaming by myself. When you have no friends I guess, you have to make them up. But Sister 1 kept writing, eventually meeting a girl who lived in western Florida. We visited them several times, an awesome family, both then and now. Of course that wasn’t mentioned either: we were careful to leave Wednesday after church, and get back before Sunday. Can’t be on vacation on a church day, can’t even attend another church while you’re gone. Thus says OP. But it was the very beginning to the end: we were discovering new things, new perspectives, even though we were still so glued to our way of doing things.
But thank God for the internet. Sister 1 met a person on a conservative blog. She and that person became close, and that person moved down in order to date (and eventually marry) her. Oh boy, the wringer that man went through. My dad on one side, OP on the other. OP decided early on he didn’t like him. After all, he was a yankee and not personally picked out by OP himself. My parents went along with OP for the longest time, and there were quite a few discussions about it. Eventually they came around to Sister 1’s point of view, and they were allowed to marry. But OP had put them through such a personal hell by that time, that Sister 1 refused to get married there by him: the ultimate insult apparently. Bless you, Sister 1. I remember the sermon after the wedding, with him full on RANTING about people who leave, and how their lives would be destroyed within five years. I went home afterwards and cried my eyes out, it stressed me so much. But the damage had been done. A personal eye-opener for me was a week before the wedding, on the way home with my mom, and her telling me things about the state of the church. I don’t even remember what she said, just that it shocked me that my mom was actually….disagreeing with the preacher!! GASP!! Of course I didn’t write about any of that in my journal, sadly.
OP went full-on crazy after that. My dad had started to sink into a pretty serious depression, and OP would publically rag on him from the pulpit. No names, but very obvious. But still, my parents stayed. When you’re told for literally decades that OP had the best preaching in the city and any non-KJV church is of the devil, you’d be understandably hesitant at breaking away and trying something new. I remember when OP got a heart attack, and I started having daydreams about him dying, because I was sure that was the only way we would ever leave.
But the cracks were there, further exacerbated by a school situation. Background: for most of my homeschooled years, my mom used a mish-mash of textbooks and personal research (OP’s preferred method was little more than memorizing definitions and facts, all backed up with Bible verses of course). We could never afford personal textbooks or printouts, so we would have to copy a sentence from the grammar textbook and add the correct punctuation, etc, instead of filling in just punctuation. Tests were all fact-based/memory, but we weren’t allowed the luxury of multiple choice/true false: everything was short answer. I remember basically memorizing my entire notebook in first grade. My poor mom would have to manually check tests for 5+ kids, on 5+ subjects. Well OP’s daughter (my aunt) got frustrated with all the work involved in this: nevermind my mom who had been doing all of this for almost ten years, with many more kids than my aunt. But my aunt started using an actual curriculum, and eventually she and my mom started a sort of correspondence course with my two next younger sisters, with the youngest siblings kinda piggybacking off the old materials.
Oh lawdy, the work they put in. The history curriculum especially was very detailed, and my mom would spend hours and hours studying with my two sisters to help them understand and pass the tests (in hindsight, if they had done more to work with the material then simply read and try to memorize it, just might have gone better). But hours and HOURS, so much stress, for barely passing grades. Meanwhile, my cousins were simply flying through the materials with great grades. My mom was in the depths of despair about what she was doing wrong. And then….my cousin mentioned to my sister in passing that my aunt would look at the tests ahead of time, drill her kids just on that material and let them take the test. Voila, instant A’s. My mom was flabbergasted. And in a dilemma. That was obviously NOT the way to do school. She wrote the parent company, but unless she had proof there was nothing they could do. But instead of asking her about it like an adult, my mom stewed over it for weeks and months, not wanting to make a fuss, but unwilling to let this gross mismanagement pass.
So, in true us-fashion that I can TOTALLY understand, she…..wrote a letter. To someone she talked to personally fairly often and saw at church 3 times a week minimum. My aunt was….let’s say, less than amused. But, she wasn’t brave enough to come out and discuss it with my mom either. Instead, she abruptly ignored my mom while we were at church, staying glued to OP and her mom. My mom would have to stand there awkwardly after church, every service, while my aunt stayed on the other side chatting with her mom. As far as I know, nothing was ever discussed between them, but OP definitely ramped up his scathing, thinly veiled comments towards us about people who tell other people where they’re wrong just to “cover up their own failures,” and dove even further to the negative deep end. Several journal entries at that time expressed my frustration at just how overwhelmingly negative he was.
This went on for MONTHS, and we gradually riled ourselves up until we were making fun of them all the time, just pure anger. My mom finally unleashed all the pent up anger and hurt and oppression she had been storing up, for years apparently. I don’t particularly blame her. She was always told, explicitly and implicitly, to sit down and shut up and play second fiddle to the preacher’s daughter for, well, as long as the church was in existence. She spent years coming up with school materials, watched her chemistry degree go unused, always tried to make sure we were modest enough and read the right books and weren’t too “worldly,” limited our pastimes, birthed tons of kids (birth control was NOT ok, of course), constantly scrimped on groceries and clothes, few vacations, nothing ever really fun, all while being told she would never be good enough, her kids would never be good enough, to please that narcissistic despot. It isn’t any wonder she eventually snapped.
And so one day, a week after my graduation “party”, we just….left. We were done. We were free. Well….kinda. I don’t think we learned what we were supposed to learn from that situation. But here’s what I got out of it, here’s a snapshot of me at that point in time.
My trust in pastors had taken quite a blow. I realized that most of the trouble came about because my parents could never bring themselves to oppose anything OP said, and I decided I was going to take my time trusting the next time around. I was enjoying how things around the house had lightened up: we were allowed to wear jeans, I went to a movie or two, we listened to Josh Groban and Jonas Brothers and watched movies that came out in the last decade. I was toying with the idea of college one day, and being my own person outside of the OP’s watchful eye. I was tired of having to be constantly vigilant in what I said or did, tired of having zero relationships with girls my age, I was ready for some socialization. I met my now-best friend L around that time, and my early attempts at friendship were quite weak but growing, and I wanted more. Spiritually…I don’t know. I still don’t really know. I was told all these things, I “prayed the prayer” about half a dozen times, though it was only remotely meaningful once. God was no more real to me than King Henry VIII in the encyclopedia, just someone I learned about. But I didn’t know how to open up about that, or anything really, and never brought it up with my parents. They tried to have one-on-one time with us when I was younger, but as the years went on that gradually died out, and I have not had a real, serious, adult discussion with them….well, ever, really. But I was good, VERY VERY good, at sitting down, shutting up, not making a fuss. Not saying what I really felt, not speaking up, even if all I wanted was to go down to my grandparents’ with my older siblings, for goodness’ sake. Like ice inside, didn’t know how to talk.
My dad had researched a few local churches, all KJV of course. One was TINY, basically the church we just left, and my parents, thankfully, realized they wanted something bigger, a place where us kids would have friends and things to do. So, one fateful Sunday morning, we visited Berean Baptist church.
End Part 1