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Last Christmas I snapped these photos of a nativity scene in the town where I live.

It struck me as odd, and I wanted to write a blog post about it… but I wasn’t ready.

My first question was intent. Why would a nativity scene — something that calls to mind “good tidings of great joy to all people” — carry an admonition with it?

My instinctual response may not be yours. I grew up, steeped in a tradition of conflict with mainstream Christianity. I grew up using the phrases “nominal Church” or “Churchianity” to describe all the other guys.

I remember having a conversation about religion with one of the older girls in the neighborhood (I was in 2nd grade, she was an “older girl” in 3rd or 4th grade) on our street. She said, “I’m a Christian. What are you? I think I said, “I’m not a Christian, I’m a Bible Student”.  She was concerned. It was obviously a bad thing not to be a Christian. I went home and asked my mom: “Am I a Christian?” Mom’s answer was too complicated for me to remember but my takeaway was that yes, in some way I was a Christian, but different. And in some way she thought we were better.

I remember a conversation with my sister, maybe a year later. By then my best friends on the block were two boys, Mike and Mark, who lived about 6 houses away. They were Catholic, whatever that was, and went to a different elementary school — St. James the Less. I was curious why a saint would be called The Less, and I wondered what it was like to have nuns as teachers. In those days I saw them at the store. They wore black and white robes and were known for being very strict. Mike and Mark were scared to death of them… and seemed to get in trouble a lot.

I found an agate the size of a football that looked a lot like this when I broke it open. I suspected a “bad Catholic” of stealing it.

There was another boy our age, three houses away from my house, who I passed every day on my way to Mike and Mark’s. I suspected him of stealing my dinosaur footprint fossil and my agate the size of a football. I’ll call him Sammy. My sister and I discussed it, and the fact my parents would not confront Sammy’s parents about the theft. I said to her something like, “Why would Sammy steal my stuff, but Mike and Mark would not?” And I remember my sister, 7 years older and the official wise child in our family, explained the whole thing to me in religious terms. “Mike and Mark are Catholic, but they’re good Catholics.” Hmmm. That was a new idea. For some reason I had never thought of Catholic as anything good. She went on, “Sammy is a Catholic too, but he’s a bad Catholic.”

I wasn’t ready to get any of what my sister said about religion. In some ways that’s still true. 🙂

Time painted over the grief, but not the soul-wound that remained. Mark and Mike moved away, a year or two after Tommy’s dad (another bad Catholic who we rarely played with) had a fistfight with Ricky’s dad in the middle of the street on a Saturday morning. Something about whose kid was the bully. I think Ricky’s dad was Methodist. Mark, Mike and I watched this surreal altercation with half a dozen other kids (and a few parents). No one called the police. Kennedy hadn’t died yet. It was a Free Country. Fools could fight… and it was mildly entertaining.

But we stopped playing at Ricky’s. And I now had a new category of bad Christians at the tender age of 9.

When I was 16 my best friend David died. I’ll tell you that story someday. But the result for me was that, surprisingly, I got interested in religion. It could have gone the other way, but it didn’t.

As David was struggling with his lymphoma, I was reading a ton of stuff about the Bible. And I even read the Bible, too! I was interested in religion but I never went to “church”. I went to “class”. We sat around and took turns trying to be polite while saying what the Bible really meant. On New Years’ eve we had “watch night” where everyone shared their testimony of God’s Love in Our Lives while the kids played games in the basement.

Then David died, and I was angry at God that it was him and not me. One day, a few months later, I was home on a Wednesday evening while my parents were at “class”. The doorbell rang. Our best friends — I’ll call them Jim and Don — stood at the door.

They said “We want to give you this.” They gave me the box of hymnals that for years I had helped to pass out at the Sunday meeting. The handmade wooden box with the brown alligator vinyl covering and the round metal corners. And they gave me the money box, and an envelope with the donations that had been in it neatly accounted for in pencil.

That’s all that happened. It felt odd, because they normally went to Wednesday class and could have given the stuff to my parents there. It was also weird that they didn’t come into the house when I invited them. No pleasantries… they just gave me the stuff politely and left.

I was barely conscious that the Sunday before, one of the two elders in the class had not been elected in the annual vote for leaders. They and almost half of the class simply stopped coming. No more monthly get-togethers. No more home-made noodles that Jim’s wife used to make. My parents never explained it to me, and barely mentioned Jim, Don, the other elder and his wife, for years. Sometimes I heard crying, behind my parents’ bedroom door. But stoicism was my main observation.

Our best family friends, who had a boy my age, also stopped coming. And at our monthly conventions around Ohio, I lost my friends Donny Lee, Cherry Sue, John, Susie, and a bunch of others … because the split didn’t just happen in my class. It happened in almost every class across the country.

As with the Saturday morning fisticuffs, I was old enough to form immature opinions about why this surreal altercation happened. I was convinced one side, and only one side, didn’t love The Truth. Of course my parents, a few friends, and me were Faithful. We didn’t want the division, but The Truth was more important than friendships.

Suddenly the issue of “Who are the Christians?” had a new meaning for me.

But I still wasn’t ready to get what “get ready” means.

to be continued….