In the late spring of 1981, there was an epic basketball clash which took place that you may have not known about. While the Boston Celtics with Larry Bird were facing the Houston Rockets led by Moses Malone in the National Basketball Association (NBA) finals, the unofficial Preacher’s Kid Basketball Association championship was being played out in the backyard of my house on Ogeechee Road in Savannah, Georgia.
My dad was the pastor of a church in Savannah. During one week in late May, he scheduled a revival with a traveling evangelist at our church. The evangelist arrived with his camper in tow along with his wife and son. They were a big-time husband and wife team back then and my dad had snagged a revival.
The son – who I will call “Harold” – was a brat. I don’t know any nice way to put it. I tried to get along with him but he would kick and punch me when our parents weren’t looking. When I would try to retaliate or defend myself, he would curl up in a ball and call out for his mommy. Yep, I knew it was gonna be a long week.
During this time, I was a junior in high school. Harold was two years younger than me and was home schooled by his mommy in their little camper.
Harold was annoying and I was warned to play nice.
I had basketball goal that I had in the backyard and thought this might be a good distraction for him so we started with shooting some hoops and talking about the NBA finals. He was good at trash talking and making fun of the fact that I liked Moses Malone and the Rockets. I think he would have picked the opposite of whatever I had said anyway. Did I mention he was annoying?
Finally, he threw down a challenge.
“I bet I can beat you in a game,” he said.
“Oh really,” I looked at him sideways. There was no way this brat could beat me.
Although he was big for his age, I knew I could beat him and I wanted to shut his mouth.
“You’re on. Let’s make it a best-0f-seven series like the NBA,” I proposed. “We will play every day when I get home from school.”
The battle was on.
Each game was played to 21. I thoroughly trounced him in the first two games. He was no competition. His trash talking grew silent as I was dribbled around him on the dirt court and cut to the basket like Moses Malone would have. He couldn’t block any of my shots unless he fouled me. I relished in the way I was easily scoring on him.
Midway through the third game of our championship series, I could see the light leave his face and the arrogance was being drained from him.
This is when I made a crucial mistake. I felt sorry for the brat.
It wasn’t much fun beating the crap out of him and I wanted some kind of competition so I did the unthinkable – I let him score a few baskets to make the game close.
Then I let him win the next game – huge mistake. I now led the series 3-1.
In game 5, he resorted to fouling – a lot. I still let him stay close and he hit some impossible shots with his awkward style – if you can call it that – and he pulled out a stunning win to pull the series back within 3-2.
The light was back in his face and the trash talking returned. I was intent on ending the series in game 6. Dispose of him and be done with it.
He played the best game of our series and I couldn’t hit anything. He won another close game and now the series was tied 3-3.
Our game 7 was played on a Saturday so I didn’t have school and had all day to get ready. I felt some nerves and felt the pressure of the do-or-die finale with the bratty preacher’s kid. The nerves showed in my game. My usual moves failed me and my shooting percentage was way off. I couldn’t hit the side of a barn. Meanwhile, everything was falling for Harold. He got more vocal with each score. The game went back and forth. I wasn’t going to show any mercy or let him score anything. My game failed me. Harold hit the game winning basket.
Harold won. I dropped my head in defeat while Harold jumped around me and yelled in my face something about being the best and beating me.
To make matters worse, he bragged about it to the entire church that night – the final night of the revival.
Everyone looked at me, then looked at him. They were puzzled.
How was this possible?
I didn’t bother with the “I let him win” explanation. That would certainly be the loser’s claim in any defeat.
I never saw Harold again. I never wanted to.
A rematch? What good would that do?
Boston defeated Houston in six games to win the NBA title in 1981.
I lost to a bratty P.K. in seven games.
The agony of defeat still stings as much as the stupidity over the decision to let him win a few games.
When I was growing up as the son of a preacher man, the first Sunday of August marked the beginning of a new church year in our denomination. Over the course of 18 years at home, seven of those first Sundays in August were the first Sunday in a new church. Let me tell you that those first Sundays in a new church were scary. I never liked them. The preacher’s family is always in a fish bowl but never as much as that first Sunday when everyone is checking out the new preacher and his family. It was never a fun experience for me and perhaps one reason I am quite reserved in the beginning when I meet new people or I am in a new situation.
Kids are cruel and I have experienced that first hand in the church and before any first day in a new school. In many of these first Sundays I heard their unfiltered comments. “He’s ugly” or “He looks nerdy” were the ones that pierced my feelings the most. Yes, it was a cruel initiation at a new church. Unfortunately, if the parents didn’t like my dad being the pastor, the kids took it out on me. I was just part of the collateral damage to their dislike for him. It wasn’t always like this but I would say it happened more than not.
My dad pastored churches in Georgia. The worst memory of all was a small community in South Georgia named Axson. It wasn’t even a city but it has lasting injuries on my memories. My dad replaced a long-time pastor who was related to many of the members so that first Sunday was filled with people checking us out. This little community church had a lot of folks who were involved in tobacco farming which was a bit interesting since our church taught that smoking was a sin. Not sure how they worked all that out in their salvation but they were a tough bunch. The first Sunday I heard the kids’ cruel comments and their snickers as I would pass by. No one wanted to befriend me or even attempt to talk to me. I was an outsider and they were intent on keeping it that way. They made my life hell especially on the school bus where they would sit in the back of the bus and flip me off. I would have complained to the bus driver – and he did witness it – but he was related to them too. Yeah, some things you can’t forget – even 40 years or so later. Our time at this church didn’t last long as it became just too much to overcome the adversity.
So the first Sundays at a new church weren’t always a great experience and unfortunately the bad experiences burn into our memory more than the good ones but there were some good experiences. I remember two. The first Sundays in Villa Rica and Savannah were the best ones I have memories of. Both churches had teens that actually talked to me the first Sunday and included me as a part of their group. When I say teens I’m not talking about a huge megachurch. Back in those days and in the church I was a part of, a “big” church would be a congregation of 50 or more. Most were not. After the Axson experience, the young people at Villa Rica was the next “first Sunday” at a new church and was a total opposite of the bad I had gone through in that nasty little family church. (No love lost there) The young people at Villa Rica made me feel at home from the first Sunday. I still remember the Smiths and the Horsleys and how they were some of the coolest people I ever met. The first Sunday in Savannah was also very welcoming as well. I also loved the city. It was my last “first Sunday” I was experience at a new church.
The other churches were Valdosta, Moultrie, Temple and Homeland. You’d probably need to Google it to find Temple and Homeland. I was too young to really remember the first churches in Valdosta and Moultrie.
I have to tell the story about Temple. The church was actually called “Oak Hill” and was probably the smallest church my dad ever pastored. It was on a hill somewhere near Temple, Georgia but there wasn’t a tree on the entire property and most definitely absent of any oak trees. I don’t think I ever heard why it was ever called “Oak Hill”. My dad was appointed to this church after leaving a one-year stay in Moultrie, Georgia. We left a church that had a parsonage (a house for the pastor and family) to Oak Hill which did not have a residence for the pastor. My parents were unable to find a place to live in the short time to relocate there. With time running out, we decided to temporarily move into the Sunday School rooms in back of the church. It wasn’t a huge issue since the church was so small that they were using the Sunday School rooms anyway. The issue for us was that the church did not have “modern” bathrooms. The only facilities were two outhouses on the property. Yep, outhouses – like Little House on the Prairie days. We used them too and at my age I saw it as an adventure but my parents weren’t so enthused about it. We each took baths in my small kiddie swimming pool. I can’t remember exactly how we did that but it was quite an interesting temporary situation. Eventually we were blessed with an opportunity to buy a mobile home and set it up on the property. If memory serves me correctly, our pioneer days experience lasted for about three months.
As far as my first Sunday at Oak Hill….there’s not much to say about it since the church had no kids or teens at all. I was the youngest one there so there wasn’t any peer pressure to deal with. In the year at that church, my mother was my Sunday School teacher and there were some Sundays that we were the only ones my dad had in attendance for his sermon. Yes, it was small.
Those seven first Sundays formed me. Not just that one day but in the other Sundays that followed. It wasn’t a charmed life. Learning the new people. Knowing who you could trust and who were a bad influence. It probably had a lot to do with my introverted ways. I wouldn’t always open up too much too soon until I got to know people. Many times people would comment about how quiet I was. I was quiet but I learned to observe people first and I still do that even today.
These first Sundays in August prepared me for the other firsts such as the first days on a new job. In reflection those church Sundays might have prepared me for dealing with the new situations as an adult. I have learned that the person who tells you office gossip on the first day is always the person who is the problem in the office. Don’t worry, I’m not going to name those people here. I can tell you I learned that perception in the first Sundays in church and it has been true every time. I can also tell you that nobody in your new place cares about what successes you have had in other places, you always have to proof yourself with the new people.
Today is the first Sunday of August but I’m glad that I’m not in a new church this morning.
For the first 46 years of my life, church was my life. I rarely missed a Sunday. For most of my early years it was a Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night routine for me. Church attendance, in my mind, was equal to having a relationship with God. I never remember a time when I rebelled against going to church. It was ingrained into my being. There was no other option – at least for my first 18 years. Then when I left home it had been instilled so much in me that I was afraid to miss.
Let me just tell you in the beginning of this series that I do not miss the church. I’m sure that to my friends who are still in the church that my admission will shock them. It is not meant to be a slam or criticism to them or people who still go to church. Each person is different and this is my story. It isn’t meant to be a blanket judgment for all only the reality for me to share with you.
CUTTING TEETH ON THE CHURCH PEWS
My father was “called to preach” when I was just learning to walk. He asked for God a sign and he apparently got one when God worked through my mother to call him into the ministry. You see, my mother had grown up as a preacher’s kid herself. She told the story many times that she had no desire whatsoever to marry a preacher yet that’s exactly what happened. My father was appointed to his first church in Valdosta, Georgia in 1967. For the next 15 years he would be my pastor. From Valdosta to Moultrie to Temple to Homeland to Axson to Villa Rica and then Savannah was the journey I took with them. I saw the good, the bad and the very ugly about the church. I am not happy with a lot of things I experienced and witnessed growing up in the church. Many people naturally assumed that I would follow my father and my grandfather into the ministry of being a pastor. I did not and, although I tested the waters, it was never meant to be for me.
When you grow up as a preacher’s kid, there are expectations placed upon you that can be overwhelming. Everyone watches what you say and do. When you don’t meet those expectations there are people more than willing to let you know how you have disappointed them. The expectations are the hardest part of my life in the church. Your life is in meeting those expectations and not disappointing people. It doesn’t matter if they disappoint you or not. I spent a majority of my life working to please others. That’s how I was raised and that’s how my brain was wired for all those years.
I will get into the church in Part 2 of this series. I will say that it was a cult in spite of those who would object to such a description of the church. I will lay it out for you next week. Since I left the church I had to unlearn many of the erroneous things I was thought. I really had to spend a lot of time sorting through it all and figure out what was true and what was not true about God.
Growing up in the church was not about the fear of God but more of the fear of disappointing everyone which was the same of disappointing God. There was a culture of unhealthy fear being in the church.
When I left home for the United States Air Force, many people told me that I would give into the temptations to alcohol and other sinful things that was assumed that people in the military do. Contrary to those assumptions, I never had any of those desires. I wasn’t raised with it so it wasn’t something I desired to do. Was I perfect? Heck no. I had my issues but I was too afraid to disappoint my parents or people in the church. I was expected to keep the teachings and everything about the church.
I tried my best to make it work. I tried to “drink the Koolaid” as they say. You know, one thing that I absolutely could never understand was the whole thing about speaking in tongues. Yeah, I know the look most of you have right now. If you are in the church and knew me you’re probably shocked. Those of you not in the church probably have a different look. Let me tell you that I never got it. I never could grasp it. Others around me did and spoke in tongues frequently. I don’t know. I won’t say it’s fake but I sure saw a lot of misuse in that function of the spirit. People would use that “gift” to manipulate things in the church. I just missed it somehow. It’s not that I didn’t try. I tried many times to speak in tongues and read books, listened to tapes and sermons on the subject but it just simply never clicked for me. Honestly, I still don’t get it.
Most of my life in the church I tried to fit in. I never did. I taught Sunday School, Bible Study, worked in Youth Camps, worked with Youth in the church and tried to preach but never felt my fit. The only place I have ever felt my fit in the church was in writing and the church didn’t even birth that in me. Working as a sports writer at a newspaper got me on that path. The last job I really had was as the media minster which was where I worked the computer and audio for church services. I didn’t even fill like that was my fit either. In fact, one year I worked in a men’s retreat with the media and one guy comes up to me and fusses me out about not having a tape ready for purchase yet later that night he was standing up in front of the congregation crying and talking about reaching out to people. Really? Yeah, that was much of my impression of the church. Hypocrisy everywhere. Of course, where else should hypocrites be? Of course the biggest hypocrite was me. In fact, I penned this writing during my last year with the church:
Welcome to Hypocrite City, Population: Me.
I am the chiefest of all hypocrites.
None can do it better than me.
I am a pro at the “church game”.
Just answer “fine” to all questions.
No one cares otherwise.
Don’t believe me? Try another answer.
They don’t know how to respond
Or they try a religious cliché
“Keep looking up”
“I’m praying for you”
etc, etc. etc.
Nothing of substance – just words.
Words are empty without actions.
That’s why it’s best to answer: “fine”
No one wants to hear me whine.
The church is a joke
Christ isn’t laughing
I have proof of what I say
No calls or emails sent my way
No encouragement or even one of those clichés
Tomorrow is Sunday, and then will I exist to them
Well, until next Sunday that is.
As long as I play my role and do my deeds
I don’t want to hear it
I want to feel it
I don’t feel it.
Maybe saying the church has too many hypocrites is the reason you think I left the church. No, not necessarily. It was just something I came to expect in the church. I had my fill of people who would be totally ugly and later speak in tongues in the Holy Ghost. Yeah, that still makes me sick to my stomach. Growing up with my father being a preacher whenever we would move to another church the first church member to tell us about all the problems with the church would be the very one that would cause the most problems. If expectations were on me then I had expectations to be suspicious of the motives of others which is one thing I have had to work on a lot since leaving the church.
Yes, there are a lot of negative things from my experience with the church but that wasn’t the overriding thing that caused me to leave the church. Since leaving the church, I had to pick the good parts from the bad. I left the church but I did not leave my relationship with God. The honest truth is that my relationship with God is better now than it was in all those years in the church.
I left the church but I did not leave my relationship with God.
FORSAKE NOT THE ASSEMBLY
I know preachers will quote that scripture about not forsaking the assembling yourself with others. (Hebrews 10:25) I know it well. The reason they will say that is because the church is their lives and, well, they need people and their finances so they will be able to continue in the ministry. I’m not saying they are in it for the money because I know some good people who are in it and they are working jobs to support themselves and pastoring their churches. They are not all about the money but it is their livelihood so of course they want to encourage people to come to church.
Let me say that for many people it is important to attend church and be involved in church. I won’t tell you that I will never attend or be a part of another church. I don’t know that for sure and I would never say never. I just know that at this time in my life I am doing better without it after all the years of expectations and hypocrisy. I would never discourage anyone from attending church. I have to be careful not to be critical of people who do. I often catch myself in a mid-eye roll when someone says they belong to a church.
So is it easy to keep up a relationship with God without church. No it isn’t easy at all. It’s honestly a lot of work and there is a lot of self-discipline involved. When I was in the church, I really only had to be “on” a few hours a week. Two hours on Sunday and maybe an hour for Bible Study. I have discovered that without church I have to work to keep my relationship in the right place. For me, it works to listen to at least one Podcast, listen or read the Bible at least every other day and constantly praying as well as spending time being quiet before God. Nothing super spiritual or anything but doing what works for me.
I eventually came to a crossroads in my life and chose another path of which I am on now. I made a choice to live the life that I could live. It does not involve the church.
I have some memories about the first Sunday in August.
Growing up as a preachers kid in Georgia, this particular Sunday signaled the beginning of a new church year in our church organization. Six times while I was living at home, this was our first Sunday at a new church. Meeting people I had never met before and being guarded about what I did and what I said. It was a fish bowl existence for me and probably the main reason I have an introverted personality today. Even now, it takes me a while to warm up to new people or a new place. I am also careful to not open up too much too soon.
There are some things we learned about these experiences.
The first person to tell you all the problems of a church was always the one that was the troublemaker. I remember at one church we had barely got moved into the parsonage before someone came and told us about the problems of the church. That was the person who turned out to be the problem.
You learn to be very observant and know the motives of people. Just watch and it doesn’t take long until their true colors come out. You would assume that you shouldn’t have to think about these things with church people but the reality can be very sobering.
People who bragged on themselves and what they did in the church were usually the ones that you couldn’t get to do anything after the “honeymoon period” was over. Some people just simply resist submitting to authority. They don’t want a pastor to lead them.
I know it sounds negative but I’m just telling you the experience I had with this. Opinions will vary depending on who you ask but I know other preacher’s kids who had very similar experiences. It just always amazed me how things developed from that first Sunday. God – and people – work in mysterious ways.
If I can be totally transparent with you, I would have to admit the worst first Sunday experience was in a tiny community church in Axson, Georgia. Man, those folks were tough and the kids my age didn’t cut me any slack at all. They made fun of me and keep me as the outsider. On the other end of the first Sunday in August was the first Sunday in Villa Rica. The kids there accepted me from the first time we met. Both of those experiences have stayed with me even today. I look at some fondly and others not so much.
Thankfully I don’t have to deal with the first Sunday of August the same anymore.