I was reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis this week, and I was reminded of the hippie in the choir robe.
I was raised in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. When I was in high school, however, I attended a Baptist church for a fairly considerable amount of time. The youth group at my Lutheran church had essentially disappeared, and several of my friends attended the Baptist church. I started going to the Baptist youth group on Sunday evenings, and was actually convinced to show up early for youth choir practice. And that led to singing with the choir on occasional Sundays, and, well, you can see what happened. Those Baptists were smart marketers.
For the Sunday morning worship service, the teenagers did what most teenagers usually do at worship services. We sat together in the balcony, unless we were singing that morning; then we sat in the choir loft in our robes. That was another thing my Lutheran church didn’t have – a choir. Not to mention the robes.
The balcony afforded a few of the entire worship space. We could see the pastor, the choir and most of the congregation. And the balcony was my introduction to something I had never before experienced – people would occasionally speak aloud during the sermon (which would never happen in my Lutheran church).
Sometimes they would shout, which didn’t seem to faze any of my peers in the balcony but rather blew my mind the first few times I heard it.
The pastor would make a point in the sermon. Someone would invariably say “Amen!” in response. Sometimes several people would say “Amen!” and sound something like a chorus. If the point was really, well, pointed, someone might even shout “AMEN!” and partially rise from their seat.
Invariably, we could count on Fred to shout the loudest “AMEN!”
Fred was on the short side, and sported a moustache, which wasn’t something you saw much of in the 40+ age bracket at the time. Fred was likely around 50. His wife had left him some years before. His son had moved out of their house in his late teens and then left the city. His daughter, Betty, was a year younger than I was. And she was something you might find down around Jackson Square in the French Quarter but you did not find in a Southern Baptist church in the suburbs – a hippie.
Betty was also one of my closest friends at the church. I loved her fearless flouting of convention and her sweet, winsome personality. She liked my acceptance of convention, my rather shy demeanor, and the fact that I was comfortable enough in my own skin to be good friends with the Baptist rebel hippie. We never dated; we talked a lot on the telephone and ate together at the meal before choir practice; we usually sat next to each other in the worship service.
One Sunday, her father shouted his “AMEN!” during the sermon – not once but three times. And I saw Betty do something I hadn’t seen before. She clenched her fists. “Are you OK?” I whispered. She shook her head and silently mouthed “Later.”
After choir practice that night, she asked if I could drive her home. This wasn’t unusual; I would often pick her up for choir practice or bring her home because her father would be out. We parked in front of her house, and it all came pouring out of her.
Her father, the shouter of the loud “AMEN!” during the sermons, was an alcoholic. Whenever he drank too much, which was often, he would begin telling her she was the devil’s child for how she dressed. And then he would begin hitting her, to “beat the devil out of her.”
And then I understood why she occasionally sported a bruise on her face. She’d claim she ran into a door or wall, and she was just spacey enough to convince me. But it had been only an excuse.
I asked her why she didn’t tell someone, some adult, and she shook her head. “I’m afraid. I don’t know what would happen to me.” The devil she knew was better than the devil she didn’t know.
She didn’t want me to tell anyone. She thought he could straighten himself out. But she agreed to call me if it happened again.
A few days later, she called. It had been bad enough this time that she couldn’t go to school.
I went to the pastor at the church.
As it turned out, the pastor knew about Fred’s drinking problem. He didn’t know about the beatings. He promised to do something. And he did. For quite a while, the beatings stopped. At church, Betty seemed almost lighthearted.
And then she called. It had started again. I was back in the pastor’s office. He said he’d look into it. He may have, for all I know.
Betty called me one last time. She said she was leaving, running away. She wanted to say goodbye. And just like that, she was gone, likely disappearing into the hippie culture that had become a national phenomenon. I never saw or heard from her again.
Her father still attended church, but he no longer shouted “AMEN.” I stopped going to the church not long after.
C.S. Lewis addresses the question, how do you explain why there seem to be so many nasty Christians and so many nice non-Christians? Aren’t Christians supposed to be different? He does a good job with his answer – essentially saying we are works in progress, and that some of us need a lot more progress than others.
And I remember the hippie in the choir robe, and her father, and I think Lewis is right. But the answer still can hurt.
Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter have been leading us in a discussion of Mere Christianity. To see more posts on this chapter, “Nice People or New Men,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.