Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, is pursuing a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the previous parts of this series, follow the links at the bottom of this page.
“Giving someone a blessing is the most meaningful affirmation we can offer.”
– Henry Nowen
Towards the end of grade 7, Pastor Jon visited the classroom during our daily religion class. He wore his black clerical collared suit, but he had long hair for a minister, a thick mustache. He looked a bit like a pared-down hippie, his flamboyant manners, his dramatic preaching, and he enjoyed singing hymns in church, his booming voice echoing through the sanctuary, a performance rather than a prayer. His presence among us aroused a certain emotion. It was not common for any of the pastors to visit the classrooms during school hours.
“I am here to congratulate you on completing your journeys to confirmation,” Pastor Jon thundered, raising his arms in a magnanimous gesture, a gospel embrace.
Most of the class had participated in Confirmation Education during the school year, preparing for our First Communion. A few of the students had belonged to different churches, Episcopal and Catholic, but the rest of us were about to become full members of the Redeemer Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
At the time, I did not understand the difference between the churches. It seemed like they were all worshiping the same Jesus, reciting many of the same prayers, singing many of the same hymns, and participating in the same rituals with a few minor differences here and there. For example, an Episcopal church I had once visited had a large cup of wine that everyone drank, with the priest wiping the rim of the cup with a white cloth before offering it to the next person. When I visited a Catholic church with one of my neighbors, the Seikel family across the street, they said the Lord’s Prayer like we did, but in the end they didn’t said, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever.
I remember continuing the prayer after everyone had stopped. Mr. Seikel nudged me on the shoulder, and my words trailed off, ending in a weak, embarrassed, “Amen.” I had no idea that some churches were “conservative” while others were “liberal,” nor did I know that many in my church viewed the Catholic Church as an apostate institution. For me, a Christian was a Christian.
Pastor Jon started asking us about biblical facts, asking us to name the books of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the difference between the Patriarchs and the Prophets. Almost everyone could tell the books of the Bible, a few were able to name the Patriarchs, even less the Prophets. He asked us about God’s Covenant, the Law and the fulfillment of the Law.
There was an awkward silence. I knew the answer, however, because I had thought about this concept when we discussed it in confirmation class weeks before. “Jesus is the fulfillment of the law,” I say.
“Because he was the Lamb of God, and died for our sins.”
Pastor Jon focused on me, looking at me with a questioning smile. I thought I could read his mind. Wasn’t I the kid who reported “no attendance” week after week when our teachers asked us about our attendance at church and/or Sunday school? But it was never my fault. I would have preferred to go to church most Sundays instead of babysitting my siblings while my parents overslept, watching Popeye cartoons on Channel 43 – the only Sunday cartoons. I hated the routine of Sunday mornings trying to silence my siblings, the tension I felt fearing my parents’ wrath, especially Dad’s, if we did anything to upset them.
Pastor Jon walked behind me, putting a hand on my shoulder. His fingers dug into the space between my shoulder and my collarbone, a light massage, but it hurt.
“Who was Enoch?
“He was a righteous man taken by God before he died,” I replied, thinking Pastor Jon had asked me the question alone, but a few other students responded as well.
“Who was Jephthah?
The class was silent, but I knew the answer. It was bubbling inside me, but I was suddenly afraid of drawing attention to myself. My excitement made me squirm. Pastor Jon’s fingers dug deeper and I winced.
“I know that!” I said with more emphasis than I thought, as much to exclaim that my shoulder hurt as to affirm my knowledge.
“Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to God.
“Because he won a battle and promised to sacrifice the first thing that greeted him when he returned home.”
Pastor Jon took his hand off my shoulder and I felt immediate relief.
“But why did God let this happen?” I asked. I had wanted to know why God intervened with Isaac but let Jephthah’s daughter die for over two years at that time.
“Who are we to question the will of God?
“But Pastor Jon,” I pleaded. “Wasn’t her daughter worth saving?”
Pastor Jon laughed. “You ask a lot of questions, but that’s fine…up to a point.
“Oh,” I said, ashamed. I looked down. It seemed like I was always doing something wrong.
“I’m impressed, though. It looks like you know your Bible, and that’s quite an achievement.
I had a smug sense of godliness, a radiant righteousness that was as uncomfortable as it was affirmative. Did that mean I was a better Christian than my peers?
When I came home from school later that week, Mom was sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette. She blew out a cloud of smoke and tossed her cigarette butt into the yard, landing among a dozen others where it smoldered, a thin trail of smoke rising above the grass and dirt.
“Do you have something to tell me?”
I couldn’t make out his tone of voice, less malevolent than it was sometimes but not quite cheerful. My mind was racing. Did I do something wrong, forget a chore, get a bad report at school, or did my brother or sister tell me something I forgot?
“I do not know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I got a call from Pastor Jon. He and some church members are coming tonight. They want to talk to me… about you.
“So tell me what’s going on?” Did you do something?
I felt a bit panicked, sure mom was going to punish me again. What was Pastor Jon’s problem with me?
“Mom, I really don’t know. I swear to god.”
Mom pulled another cigarette out of a small purse, a lighter from a side pocket. She lit the cigarette and took a long drag. She held the cigarette between her fingers and she put her face in her hands. The red coal from the cigarette burned a strand of Mom’s hair, causing a faint line of smoke, but it quickly disappeared.
“Come home and do your homework,” which was code for you’re not going anywhere tonight.
Pastor Jon and some elders from the church came after dinner. They sat in our living room, now wall-to-wall wallpaper with short blue fibers mixed with slightly longer paisley-like patterns. We still had our old furniture, chipped and scratched; one end of the sofa supported by a brick.
Mom had put on clean clothes, pants and a gray sweater. She had even taken the trouble to do her hair and makeup. She was sitting in her usual armchair, shaped like a half-moon, covered in a light green fabric that looked like velvet but had long since lost its luster.
Mom chased me away and I went upstairs, sat on my bed to wait for the verdict.
After a long time, mom called me downstairs. Pastor Jon and Mrs. Schuler smiled at me. Mr. Hackman looked at me, his face expressionless but not hostile, his bald head gleaming, his glasses halfway up his nose. Mom looked happy, smiling without showing her teeth.
“We would like you to deliver a message on a Sunday,” Pastor Jon said. “Something about your faith journey.”
I felt a surge of pride. I was not in trouble. I was praised for doing something good, and they wanted me to preach in church. “You mean preaching?
“Well, not exactly. More like a testimony of how you came to Jesus.
Ms. Schuler, the kindergarten teacher at school, smiled at me. She had distinguished gray hair with tedious styling, neatly placed curls. She had tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses with a chain attached to both sides. The chain shone in the light.
“It looks like our experiment worked.”
I remembered Dad’s bragging years before about my admission to school, an opportunity for his children to become Christians. So it seems knowing the Bible makes you a Christian, and if someone is a Christian, that means they won’t go to hell. A little light broke through my confusion about religion, bringing a sense of dignity.
On Friday, instead of a religion class, I was sent to the senior pastor’s office. He wanted to talk to me. When I arrived, he was sitting behind his desk, varnished in a light brown veneer, austere but solid, solid. He had behind him a bookcase full of thick volumes, some old, some new, the wood to match his desk. Unlike Mr. Haus’ office, Pastor Boelker’s office was warm and inviting. Maybe it was his smile.
“Hi Paul. Please sit down.”
We talked for the next hour, a captivating discussion of faith and religion. He showed me a book written in Hebrew and told me how the pages are upside down in books written in English.
“It’s because they write and read from right to left.”
He read in Hebrew while pointing to the words written with an alphabet, nothing like I had ever seen. He also showed me a Bible written in Greek, from left to right as in English, but the letters were not the same. Greek sounded different from Hebrew but was still very foreign. Just the sound of those words, both in Hebrew and Greek, struck me as sacred, and I suddenly had a deep desire to understand those languages, to read the scriptures in their original form.
“Where did you learn to speak Hebrew and Greek?
“At the seminary.”
“What is the seminary?” »
“It’s a place where people go to school to study the Word of God and become pastors.”
I suddenly felt excited. “I want to go to seminary.”
Pastor Boelker smiled, a light shining in his glasses, almost like a spirit. I saw my reflection in his glasses, my image and the light together.
“I want to be a pastor,” I said.
Confessing that felt right, truer than anything I had ever said. I wanted to know these languages, to understand the Word of God as it was spoken by the Patriarchs and the Prophets, by Jesus himself, although it took me several years to learn that Jesus spoke Aramaic.
Last updated March 11, 2022, 9:19 p.m. by Brett Dickerson – Editor