I understand that scholars on the subject now generally can neither agree nor disagree whether Martin Luther, ordered to recant the ideas he was spreading which ran contrary to Catholic doctrine, refused to do so, quite dramatically, by uttering those famous words, “Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen.”
“Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Pretty cool, right? A brave man indeed. A man of true conviction.
Whether he said it or if it’s apocryphal, Luther truly had some major beefs with the Catholic Church, and he wasn’t about to allow them to shut him up. No way was he going to take shit from them on a good number of issues.
I always wondered, as I rode the bus from happy Honolulu Children’s Opera Chorus practice over to sad Lutheran Church of Honolulu Catechism class, why a great Saturday had always to turn into a lousy one.
Also, I wondered why, if while Luther were tossing Catholic notions about transubstantiation out the door, and damning the practice of selling indulgences to get into heaven, why couldn’t he also have managed to find something wrong with catechism class and dropped it like a hot potato.
EVERY Saturday, for TWO years, we were indoctrinated in the ways of Lutheranism, studying not only its foundational beliefs, but also reading the heck out of the Bible, memorizing ten verses every week, and reciting them in order for our Pastor to comment on them and apply them as illustrative examples of all that Lutherans believed and held sacred.
Those bus rides turned me blue. Often I would not have memorized all, or any, of the ten verses, and I’d try to cram them into my very unreceptive head on the 30-minute trip over from choir practice to church.
Thoroughly brain dead after two hours of Catechism, I’d then have to bus it home, now to face some grueling afternoon hours of house and or yardwork. My mom was a Saturday tyrant about those two household duties, and it was a rare Saturday that I escaped her Luna’s whip. This was the cherry on top of my crappy ending Saturdays.
We are to fear and love God. That is the way every tenet of Lutheranism begins. We are to fear and love God pretty much for everything after we staggered through our two-year stint. Did I?
Well, maybe. God? Not so much. But they pound it so hard into you head that you’re for sure fearing something by the end of that two-year sentence, and you’re loving the fact that you’re just about done with this stuff.
In my first year, I used to eye the second-year students with growing envy. The finish line was at hand. They were on short time, comparatively, and that meant they would walk a whole lot sooner than I.
The something we feared was the final exam, an oral interrogation administered not by God, but by the Pastor, in front of our family, friends, and any members of the congregation who wished to witness our negotiating this tortuous final obstacle on the rocky path to Confirmation.
I can still remember that long, long night. Each in turn, we’d have to spit out the legion whys of our fear and love of God, recite and explain both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed – two other gems I wished Luther could have jettisoned, and then the dreaded recitation of select Bible verses and their meanings as laid out by the Pastor over those two long years of not memorizing the verses well if at all.
It was a blood bath. Well, it would have been, if our Pastor had not cued us as we faltered along way. His little hints meant that we would all make through. He had to give us quite a few. Audience members actually laughed at some to our lapses. This was good? I guess.
I’d not thought of it until this very moment, but no one ever flunked second-year Catechism and had to repeat it. I wish I’d realized that in the days leading up to the Spanish inquisition. Perhaps that thought would have eased the tension.
The goal of all this instruction was the taking of Holy Communion. You weren’t allowed to participate in this crowning ritual unless you’d paid your dues. We’d all paid, now we’d play.
My folks bought me a suit, blue pinstriped searsucker, for the occasion. Very natty. It was only worn that one time, so I’d call that an extravagant purchase, but what the hell. You only get confirmed once.
As an aside, I’ve only worn a suit twice in my life. To church for my first communion, and to deliver the graduation address to the University High/Laboratory School Class of 1986. That second suit, for the graduation speech, was purchased that morning and worn only once as well. Suits and I don’t seem to ever want to get too well acquainted. I’ll be buried in an aloha shirt.
So it was now time for us to legally drink in church. The ten or so of us, all dressed in our Sunday best, jammed the rail and bowed our heads as the Pastor came down the line, first with the wafers that melt on your tongue and usually stick to your teeth and the roof of your mouth, and then with the little shots of wine, red wine of course, that don’t really give you a buzz, but truly do make you feel all church grown up.
“The body of Christ, given for you.” Pastor’s hand on my head.
“The blood of Christ, shed for you.” His hand on my head again.
But remember now, because we’re Lutherans, the wafer and wine are only symbolic of the body and blood. They do not magically transform into real flesh and blood. This is one of the ideas that made Martin Luther climb the walls.
From there, it was all gravy. My Saturday’s were freed up a bit, and my Sundays, well, they were still Sundays, just busier.
One of the deals with Catechism and Confirmation was that you had to start working more during Sunday service. For instance, you could no longer nod off in the rear pews of the church, because you were now drafted into the alter boy/girl society.
In rotating pairs as acolytes, we’d have to light the alter candles and extinguish them at the end of the service. But it wasn’t that easy. We also had to follow the Pastor down the rail as he distributed the Communion wafers and the wine.
Of course this meant that we had to collect the little wine goblets and take them into a tiny room just off to the side of the choir. We’d deposit trayful after trayful on a big wooden table I there. Once when I was working the shift with the Pastor’s own son, he started using the goblets to spell out some words. Much to my amusement, he, and then I helping, spelled out, finally, a big, shiny Fuck You, or the table.
We scrambled the cups on our last run in order to get rid of the evidence of our vocabulary lesson for the day, but as we took our seats next to the choir, we were still laughing.
At the end of the service we stood and headed over to extinguish the candles. We returned to our seats to hear the final Benediction, and as the organ began to play the exit tune for the congregation, one of the choir members said to us, “I saw what you boys wrote in there. How could you do that? And you,” he said to my partner, “the Pastor’s son. You should both be ashamed of yourselves, and you especially.” He pointed an angry finger at me friend.
With great sincerity and abject sorrow, we assured him we were very much ashamed. After we went into the side room to pick up the goblets to take them out to the kitchen for washing, we laughed uproariously at what we’d done.
Now too that we were all grown up in the church, we had to take turns reading scripture to the congregation. This, I have to say, was actually pretty cool. Standing at the lectern, looking out on all those expectant faces, I used to deliver the lesson for the day like I was Father Mapple in Moby-Dick. In my mind I did. In my mind, with that lesson for the day, I was raining down hellfire and brimstone on these poor sinners. I mean my reading was always fairly intense, but I held back, outwardly.
This work for the church continued. Also as grown-ups, we were expected to perform other duties, such as taking up collection. My mom started me out at a dime. But as the years went by, she expected me to throw in larger and larger amounts. I think I may have gone all the way up to a whole dollar by the time the end came.
It started while we were still serving our two-year sentences in Catechism class. Every Halloween, mine would be ruined by having to participate on behalf of the church in our Trick or Treat for UNICEF public service. I don’t know why my sister never had to do this, but I kind of resented not being able to hang out back in my neighborhood with my bike gang buddies collecting candy and generally screwing around on that night that was meant for kid-type antics.
Anyway, the first year I paired off with one of my friends. I’ll call him Matthew. Matthew and I would go door to door for UNICEF on Halloween for several years to come. I think the last time we did it was in 10th-grade, but I’m a little foggy on that. We’d go through our assigned section of Makiki rattling our cans for cash while all the kids around us were scoring big time with the candy.
Why, I do not know, but we were instructed not to ask for candy. Maybe it would work against the notion of the seriousness of our intent or of our mission or I don’t know. From time to time folks would offer us candy, but we’d very adult seriously say, “Oh no, I’m sorry, we can’t accept any candy.” It sucked.
One guy one year said, “How do I know you people are really collecting for UNICEF? How do I know you didn’t steal those cans and are going to keep the money for yourself?”
Matthew and I looked at each other, shrugged rather than flip him off or tell him to go fuck himself, and turned to go down the front stairs.
“Wait wait wait,” the man said. “I’ll give you some money if you can tell me what the letters of UNICEF stand for.”
I said, “It’s the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.”
“Well well well,” said the man, “that’s very good. I now believe you are doing the good you say you are. Here,” he held out his hand.
I went back and lifted my can. He dropped in a quarter. For all that grief?
Damn. He should have at least dropped a dollar. On the way to the next house, Matthew and I were talking stink about the guy. Matthew said, “That fuckhead is lucky we’re not going to do something to his house.”
“Well we could come back after we’re finished,” I said.
Then we both just laughed. “Nah nah nah,” we both agreed to be Christian and moved on. What a dick.
So Matthew and I did acolyte rounds from time to time. Once we stopped UNICEFing together, we were less chummy than actually all of our group had been when we were thrown together for those two years of hardcore indoctrination.
Once senior year kicked in, I hardly saw Matthew anymore. I asked his brother what was up, and he said that Matthew had taken on a weekend job. He was working for a construction firm.
And then that one Sunday came when I decided I’d had it with the Lutheran Church of Honolulu.
Matthew’s parents, his brother, his grandmother, and a girl I didn’t recognize were sitting near the entrance to the church when I arrived. The grandmother, the mother, and the girl were crying, the grandmother sobbing, and his brother and father did not look well.
People were filing past them, talking to them, shaking their hands. I asked another friend what was going on.
“Oh, didn’t you hear? Matt was working last Sunday morning at a construction site. They’d put up some concrete staircases, and they were knocking out the wooden supports because they thought the stairs were set. They weren’t. One fell on Matt. He was crushed under tons of concrete.”
I’d never had someone that close to me die. And crushed to death under all that concrete. It was horrible to think about. I joined the line. As I was getting closer to the family, I began to hear what people were saying.
If it had only been words of condolence, that would have been fine. But that was not the case. I heard people asking why Matthew had to be working on a Sunday. Did he really need a job? Wouldn’t it have been better if he’d been in church on Sunday morning?
God. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I went through the line. It was awful. The girl was Matthew’s girlfriend. I was angry.
That was the last time I ever attended the Lutheran Church of Honolulu. I’ve not practiced any religion since then.
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Happy #WriterSaturday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post it somewhere I can read it. I would love to see what you write : )