At home I attend a tiny Reformed Baptist Church with creaking pews and a red door. We bought it from the Methodists for a dollar. Our unwritten cultural bylaws require the following:
No man shall collect the offering unless he sports Wrangler jeans and a plaid shirt.
None shall expect punctuality from anyone with milking cows.
All sisters-in-law shall share dress patterns.
No speaker shall be so abstemious as to organize the announcements before giving them.
Above all, anyone may cry or laugh or ask a question at any time, for we are a big fun family.
I knew of no churches like mine in the greater D.C. metro area, so in moving here I consigned myself to a brand new adventure. Last Sunday I went to a Presbyterian church in the strength of thrice-caffeinated dining hall coffee.
The first minor-keyed hymn had tiptoed past like a spider when the caffeine started taking effect. I began to feel like Coleridge on opium. I saw everything, and wrote it all down. I filled 25 pages, and even leaked to the back cover of my notebook.
First, I observed some common church ingredients. The preacher's eyebrows crawled across his face like caterpillars. I smiled at several babies, a boy in an odious stage of adolescence, and the harmless deacon who brought the wine.
Having wine in church came as a surprise. I wanted to resist the literary temptation to wax wild about the sacraments, but I scribbled about the prospect of my clumsy arms overturning the tray into a bloody flood.
Another surprise: the jungle of khaki legs to my right, which sat staunch beneath very dry eyelids. I soon found I could hardly control my own legs. My blue shoes bopped up and down. To propitiate the persons in my row I crossed my legs like a Buddha.
With more caffeine in my bloodstream than suited my body mass, my interest in the sober Presbyterians continued to surge. They seemed to find a comfort in orderliness and reverence that I had never thought of looking for.
"What are your besetting sins?" pleaded the minister. "Write them down! Talk to God about them!"
I didn't; I wrote about the Presbyterians.
In the lobby I caught a green-eyed girl just before she went out to play in a February puddle in her Mary Janes and pink stockings.
I asked, "You got baptized last week, right?"
"Did you feel different afterward?"
"I felt wet."
"That's what happened to me, too," I confessed. I didn't mention that I also fell down the stairs into the water. They had sprinkled her and she wouldn't understand.
The many mirrors and white cinder block walls render the Presbyterian bathroom a purgatory of self-revelation. There I met a woman named Mrs. Butterfield who has a Ph.D. My eyebrows shot up, for in my red-doored church the phenomenon of a Ph.D., particularly a female one, might crack the stained glass.
As a means of common greeting, Mrs. Butterfield and I tried comparing our moral degeneracy. We achieved nothing, since each claimed herself more depraved than the other and neither could prove it.
I ran through town to the Butterfields' for lunch without gloves on, my blood still hot with caffeine.
Over roast beef, the Presbyterians informed me of their denomination's history, before moving on to discuss the U.S. Constitution. Mrs. Butterfield left the table to remove the welcome sign from the front of the house, saying, "Between this conversation and the wind it will crack."
In time they asked me what I had written down. I began reading aloud to them at an alarming pace, and soon laughter overtook. Hearing themselves described, the Presbyterians threw back their heads and held their stomachs.
That means, I think, that my big fun family is bigger than I knew.