Just as I Was: Confessions of a Fallen Southern Baptist

by Sheilah Bright


I sprang from a deep well of Southern Baptist blood—crimson, of course. One of my most frightful childhood memories involves waking up to find a strange man standing in the living room of our tiny two-bedroom house in Prattville. He was raining sweat as he tried to angrily force “Just As I Am” out of some black-and-white crying lap dog.

Later, too much later, I learned he was a visiting preacher man. The wailing animal was an accordion.

I freaked out again when someone on The Gospel Singing Jubilee television show (It might have been one of those bouncy Happy Goodmans) belted out “I Saw the Light,” and I fled into my bedroom, where I saw a glowing midget with wings. Chances are it was a cough-syrup induced hallucination or some kind of flashback from that flying monkey scene in The Wizard of Oz. Back then, it was interpreted as a divine sign, an angel encounter, perhaps gifted from my deceased Baptist tent revival grandfather. If the Holy Ghost had anything to do with it, I hoped he was the smiling Casper kind instead of those convulsion-laden spirits rumored to be flying around the Pentecostal church near my school.

So now you know why angels, accordions, and some Pentecostals creep me out. It is also why I am scared as hell that, if I keep babbling about religion like this, I am going to get struck down by God’s middle finger and not get into heaven where most of my family now resides.

Confession chagrin: (Touching the pages of an ancient family Bible just saved me from Pharisee paranoia at this midnight hour, so I’m going to keep writing, with y’all’s blessing.)

My paternal grandfather felt the call at an early age and spent most of his life stomping across Oklahoma and Arkansas, spreading the word in tent camps and tiny churches, where he was paid in pecans, cantaloupes, and the occasional chicken. The fact that he, the preacher man, married my grandmother, an unwed mother, made me love him even though he died several months before I was born. His heart was crushed by the steering wheel of his Volkswagen beetle when he couldn’t stop at an icy intersection and was hit by a car.

“If your grandfather were alive, you wouldn’t be wearing cutoffs.”

“Grandpa wouldn’t have anything to do with you crimping those eyelashes. And mascara? Forget it, sister.”

“The birth control pill? Lord, have mercy.”

Here is what my teen-aged self used to think: Thank God, he isn’t alive. I wouldn’t get to do anything with him around. I hate to admit this because I have grown fond of this preacher man. Many of his books were given to me and, from the sermon notes penned in the margins, I learned much about the self-educated minister who quoted Paul but also read Plato. In a funeral sermon preached in the latter years of his life, he wrote, “Falling leaves are but nature’s sermon,” and, “There will be a smell of varnish in the house when the casket is brought, and then the procession will slowly move toward the city of sighs and tears.” It was read again at his funeral in 1961 and at my father’s funeral in 1997. A few years ago, I read it at my uncle’s service, and I suspect it might get read again when his last surviving child leaves us.

I spend a lot of time at the pulpit these days because so many of my family members are dying. Apparently, I give good eulogy. Capturing and conveying a person’s life with words is what some in the family call my spiritual gift. Sometimes, it feels like a blessing. Other times, it’s more like a curse.

Baptists love a little dramatic reading at a funeral. It helps explain the wailing and gnashing of teeth. I have never heard anyone say they were saved at a funeral, but there is usually an altar call thrown in at the end. By this point of a funeral service, you’re wanting the whole thing to be over, and secretly I think most of the crowd is hoping no one walks forward to drag this thing out any longer.

Confession chagrin: (Verily, verily I say unto thee: The burden of this religious angst is weighing heavy on me so I have to lighten up before I sink too low.)

Operators Are Standing By

Vacation Bible School always lifted my spirits. It might have been the cross-shaped cookies or the Bible cakes. On the giant, felt boards used for story hour, it seemed so fun to dump all the felt people into one big pile and then grab-bag it so that baby Moses and Noah could spend time together in the same boat. The sad-sack Job looked perkier when you stood him next to the Wise Men in a manger populated by the shepherds, one of Daniel’s lions, and that hunk of a man, Goliath. There were a lot of snakes, and for some reason our teacher insisted that Eve’s serpent stayed in Eden. It was the ’60s.

I loved the language of the Old Testament characters, always crying “Alas,” and “Behold,” but I couldn’t memorize a Bible verse to save my soul. If the words sounded awkward or not prophetic enough, I simply reworked them, ensuring that the Bible Bowl championship would never be in my future. The songs were fairly lively and lyrical except for “Onward Christian Soldier,” which caused me to stiffen. “Marching as to war” was the last thing I wanted to do. For some reason, “I’m in the Lord’s Army” caused no alarm because acting like you were riding a horse to “ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery” made it seem less violent than it sounded. The warm fuzzy of religion felt better: “Joy in my heart” and “Jesus loves the little children.”

Many years later, I would think about those innocent songs when one of my sons visited Africa on a mission trip and heard children happily singing, “Telephone to Jesus, Telephone to Jesus, every day.” “Talk to Jesus” had probably been the original message, but they were so happy singing the mixed-up version that, thankfully, no one corrected them.

I walked the aisle at a church camp in the Kiamichi Mountains, and it stirred something deep inside me. Honestly, it may have been the preacher, who looked a lot like Robert Redford. You got a hug and his autograph in a Bible for “going forward.” Everyone wanted to know when I would take the next step, which involved letting someone hold you under water while the congregation held its collective breath.

My cousin’s baptism gathered us onto the rocky shores of a lake in southeastern Oklahoma. We clasped hands and beheld her gentle backbend into the same murky water where we caught catfish. She emerged a cleansed soul with a mud-stained robe, and everyone applauded then sang a personal favorite, “Shall We Gather At The River.” I had trepidation about this kind of immersion because those sacred waters were also home to cottonmouths and turtles big enough to remove your toes.

I opted for the citified baptism, although there was some doubt whether the church water was any cleaner. No one had ever seen the baptistry changed out. The organ mood music and dim lights were the most sacred selling points for me. They gave that “this is a Broadway show and you are the star” kinda quality to the ceremony. The bonus was that the church ladies always made special desserts out of Cool Whip and pudding mix for the after-party in the fellowship hall. People shook your hand and hugged you. If you were lucky enough to be the solo baptism act, you got all the glory.

My luminous moment lost its glow before the crowd even finished the second verse of the first congregational song. That’s when I realized I had forgotten an extra change of clothes to wear at the reception. Thinking the baptismal robe would cover my “what nots,” I stripped down to my underwear and tossed the holy cloth over my head.

Like many times in my life, I overlooked some details. I forgot to hold my nose so I sputtered and coughed spastically onto the preacher as I surfaced the frigid water. And for some ungodly reason, likely rooted in a clearance sale at Froug’s or TG&Y, I was sporting a hot-pink training bra under the white robe. Jesus may have turned water into wine, but my holy experience turned a cotton cloak into sheer humiliation. People gasped as my fluorescent breastlets rose from the spiritual dunk tank. One of the church ladies nearly fell in as she tried to scoop me up into a scratchy towel. At the time, it felt like the Rapture.

Stop, in the Name of Love

I rededicated my life often during my teen years. There is no doubt that our youth ministry program kept us busy and guilty-minded enough to dissuade a lot of bad decisions. It didn’t stop me from doing things before I should have, but an internal moral compass pulled me away from some things that could have been my downfall. At least that’s what the youth leader said.

Confession chagrin: (Dear God, Can I still seek forgiveness for that incident back in ’77 when I told my mom that I was helping paint the church youth room? I was really drinking beer and possibly smoking pot at Estill Park. Sorry. I think I did give double to the Lottie Moon Fund on that next Sunday.)

In the 1990s, when the Southern Baptists began kicking up their heels over abortion and gay rights, I began backsliding from my home church. Then my dad died, and all I could think about during Sunday morning service was how his casket had been sitting right there. Invitation songs made me burst into tears. The offering plates kept getting deeper. The contemporary praise music put me in a bad mood. I usually stayed out late on Saturday night, so getting up in time for Sunday service bummed me out. People started wearing pajama pants and shorts to worship the Lord. Excuses, don’t get me started.

After we survived the millennium, it seemed like Baptists started spending way too much time bashing the culture instead of nurturing the congregation. It was the dawn of multimedia presentations, where snippets of television sitcoms might pop up on the big screen that electronically rolled down over the rugged cross of Jesus. Country-and-western song lyrics, news clips, and product commercials became launching pads for parables about how liberal sinners were dragging the country down into Gomorrohland.

Someone who once taught my Sunday school class tried hard to convince me that Oprah was the Antichrist. My homosexual friends were being asked to admit their sins or find another place to worship. Meanwhile back at a church that I once attended, a deacon had slipped out of town with a pocketful of building fund money and his arms around another man’s wife. He was at the top of the prayer list.

One Sunday, I snuck into another house of prayer expecting to rediscover “Showers of Blessings” or a “Sweet Sweet Spirit” in my heart. I walked out about 10 minutes later because the congregation was celebrating something called “Abortion Sunday: Free the Babies.” The propaganda machine churning during the presidential elections made me want to speak in tongues filled with curse words.

The pastor at my home church was kind, but I couldn’t hear the goodness for all the Southern Baptist badness swirling around. So I stopped going to church.

Slip-Sliding Away

On a certain shelf in my library, there is a dedicated shrine of Bibles and religious books, including an old green one entitledThe Blood of the Lamb. I’d like to say they get pulled from the shelf every day, or week, or month, and read, but it would be a lie. I pray. I believe in God. I sing hymns sometimes when I am walking. Becoming one of those “you don’t have to go to church to worship” kind of folks was never in my master plan. It may not last forever.

In my travels abroad, I have spent a fair amount of time in mosques and monasteries. It makes my Baptist family really nervous when I say things like, “I think I should have been a Buddhist,” or, “What they believe and what we believe isn’t that different.” The characters are just mixed up and wear different names. Just like on that Bible school felt board.

Last year in Morocco, I became somewhat addicted to a certain imam’s call to prayer. Unexpectedly soothing and so unlike what we hear on televisions, the public broadcasts lulled us to sleep and nudged us to awake. “What is he saying?” I finally asked the Muslim guide.

“Come to pray,” he said. “Praying is better than eating or sleeping.”

I told that story once to broaden the mind of a rigid Republicanostal. She made some nasty comment about how “those” people always tried to make everything about religion, and that we don’t do that here in the United States.

Really? Check out the “Agape” or “Trinity” listings in a Tulsa phone book. (Under hair salon listings, roofers, you name it). A few years back in our Sand Springs Christmas parade, a group of kids were marching with a banner that read “Twirling for Jesus.” Does Christ want people twirling in his name? Is that what it means to carry the baton of God? Wouldn’t it be better to say “Feeding the Homeless for Jesus?” In India, a young guy who was driving me back to the airport asked if I was Catholic, and when I said that I grew up Baptist, he replied, “Why do you Baptists make such mean signs?” It took me a few questions to realize that he had seen news coverage of that warped Westboro Baptist Church and their funeral protests.

Nobody every promised that this religion thing was going to be easy. Some days, I think I might become Methodist or Presbyterian or Unitarian, but it just takes too much mental energy to start anew and learn all those dos and do nots. Quakers sound nice. My memory skills aren’t good enough to be Catholic. People are always making fun of Lutherans. Non-denominational sounds like you’re chickening out on commitment. I don’t like the clothes or hairstyles worn by the Pentecostals. A back-sliding Baptist is likely my destiny.

From the moment I learned about Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt for trying to catch one longing last glimpse of sin-laden Sodom, I knew faith was going to test my life. The best that I can do for now is to see more of the good than the bad in people and their religions.

I’m hell bent to try to be one of the good ones.