A Pilgrim’s Progress

ONE WOMAN’S SPIRITUAL J0URNEY AFTER A BAPTIST CHILDHOOD.

Outside the small ranch house, I stood apprehensively on the driveway near the police car. It was my first real newspaper assignment-the murder-suicide of an elderly couple-and I was trying to get the facts and appear unobtrusive at the same lime. At 22, I didn’t want somebody in a uniform to ask if I wanted to go inside and see what two bodies looked like after several days. Cops, who can smell a greenhorn a mile away, do things like that.

I went back to my office and sat down in front of the typewriter. But I couldn’t gel my brain to write a lead. Fresh out of journalism school, all I had written about were campus issues, minor thefts, penny-ante politics. Now I was a general assignment reporter for a small daily on the Gulf Coast, supposedly ready to tackle the world, But I felt terrible, thinking about those two old people in such despair that the husband would shoot his wife and then himself.

The editor who had hired me days before was waiting for the story to go in that afternoon’s edition. He looked at me in disgust-writer’s block after one hour on the job! Then he tapped out two sentences and handed the story back. That little kick in the behind was all I needed. I hammered out the rest of the sad little tale, and writer’s block rarely plagued me again. Today, I can spend hours reading autopsy reports and I can look at photos of grisly crime scenes with no queasiness, though I still am not thrilled about seeing dead bodies.

But looking back, I can pinpoint that as the first time in years that I had thought about something beyond my career, my boyfriend, what club we would go to that weekend, when the next party would be.

This brush with despair and death set me thinking about things I didn’t want to think about: life and death and God and heaven and hell and sin and ail those memories from my Southern-fried Baptist childhood, memories that I had deliberately rolled into a tiny ball and tossed away when I turned 18.

I suspect that growing up Baptist in Texas is like growing up Irish Catholic in Boston-it’s embedded somehow in the tissue of your being. Even though you want to throw that spiritual heritage away, it chases you and pins you down and demands consideration.

Looking back, I can see it was that day, those two unhappy people and their desolate deaths, that put me hesitantly-indeed, kicking and screaming the entire way- back on a road toward faith in the God of the Bible, a road I’d rejected as irrelevant, superstitious, out of tune with the times. But roads back home are never as straight as the ones leaving.

I CANT SEE HIS FACE OR REMEMBER HIS name. All I remember is that booming voice, too loud for the tiny wood-frame church, rolling in a rich Baptist cadence with peaks and valleys that are the same whether the pulpit is in Dallas or a microscopic Gulf Coast town like Boling. He urged us to think about a day 2,000 years ago, and to imagine as, one by one, the nails were driven into the hands of God’s son. Eight or 9 years old, I was sitting alone on a wooden pew. I closed my eyes and, shuddering, watched as the scene unfolded. The bottom line seemed to be that the crucifixion was all my fault. I nailed Jesus up there. And if I didn’t “get saved,” I was going to hell. Tears leaked out of my closed eyelids. I didn’t ask my parents what they thought about Jesus and God and heaven and hell. They didn’t go to church, but they faithfully sent me and my four younger sisters to Sunday school and church services every week. I wondered about that at the time, but never asked why until much later.

In Boling-flat, featureless farm land as far as the eye could see, a town so small that the main crossroads had only a blinking red light-everybody seemed to be either Southern Baptist or Catholic. I knew only one family of Catholics-our next-door neighbors, the high-school football coach, his wife and four kids. I wasn’t really sure what being Catholic meant, except the kids had to go to something called catechism, and to listen to them, it meant being locked once a week in a small room and tortured with cattle prods by cackling nuns.

I soon realized that Catholics weren’t highly regarded in Southern Baptist circles. For one thing, they could drink, dance, smoke and play cards-all anathema to Southern Baptists, all sins on the slippery slope to backsliding. That’s why it was such a thrill to go visiting next door, where at any given time, the neighbors might be playing a card game called “Oh, Hell.” Two sins for the price of one!

When I was 10 or 11, we moved 25 miles to the much bigger meTropolis of Bay City, my grandparents’ home, where we rented The Vortex.

Well, it really was a house, a rambling, wonderful, genteelly dilapidated house with a large screened-in porch, high ceilings, two back porches and floor-to-ceiling windows everywhere. A former parsonage, it was smack dab in the middle of a kind of Bermuda Triangle created by the First Methodist Church on one corner of the block, the smaller Presbyterian church on the other corner and. across the street, the dowager of them all, the First Baptist Church.

My sisters and I loved that house. After school, we strapped on roller skates and zipped along the network of connecting sidewalks between the sanctuaries and chapels and education wings. We climbed church trees, we rode our bikes up and down the church alleys, we hit tennis balls against church walls.

Wherever you turned, there was one of God’s buildings. Occasionally an elderly

blue-haired lady, irritated by our impertinence, came out and shooed us off. We learned to watch from a safe distance as people threw rice at weddings, or pallbearers loaded the casket into the hearse at funerals.

Every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night we five sisters went to church. We went to the Baptist Church, of course, the church my grandparents had attended for decades. I don’t think I ever set foot inside the other two sanctuaries. Compared to the little country church in Boling, First Baptist of Bay City looked like the Taj Mahal with a steeple and stained glass. Blood-red carpet lined the floor, the heavy oak pews were padded and behind the raised pulpit was a choir loft backed by red curtains. High above, a gorgeous, round, stained-glass window depicted Christ in prayer.

On Sunday morning, 50 adults wearing choir robes filled the loft, singing rousing old-time hymns in five-part harmony: “Nothing But the Blood,” “Rock of Ages.” “Blessed Assurance,” “Amazing Grace.”

Two chairs like thrones sat in front of the choir, occupied by the music minister and the pastor, known universally as Brother Baker. After three hymns, a prayer, a scripture reading and the offering, Baker-a dignified man with an elegant coif and a permanent smile, a man who seemed born to occupy a pulpit-would rise from his chair and preach to a congregation filled with many of the town’s best-known names.

Not long after we moved, my parents arranged to send me to First Baptist’s weeklong, co-ed summer camp down on the gulf. I was thrilled- The words “summer camp” smacked of suntan lotion and canoes and archery and making leather wallets. And boys.

But on the second day of camp, it dawned on me that when Baptists say summer camp, they mean something else. They mean three Bible studies a day, a twilight meeting called vespers, making plaques adorned with Scripture verses. They mean no mixed bathing-girls swim at one time, boys at another. And they mean interminable evening church services.

OK, some of it was fun. We played baseball and jumped on trampolines. I even liked vespers, where we sat on raised bleachers overlooking the ocean. As the sun went down, I thought about God and the boys we sat next to at dinner.

But at night, we gathered in a large, open-air auditorium for a service that was a peculiar mixture of stirring songs, religion and advice to adolescents-poise, responsibility, applying ourselves at school, not popping our pimples. Old-time revival meets charm school.

Every evening ended with the youth preacher talking about God and issuing an “invitation” to “get saved.” Life was One Big Question: Do you or do you not believe in Jesus?

See, you couldn’t be born a Baptist. Even if you had always attended the Baptist church, if your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had always attended a Baptist church, you got no credit for that. You had to be “born again” before you got into heaven,

One night toward the end of the week, the preacher made his big push. Istood and watched while most of my friends walked down the aisle to “give their hearts” to the Lord. “If you died tonight,” the preacher intoned ominously through the microphone, “where would you spend eternity?” Some of the older ones, backsliders who already had been down the aisle once at their home church, walked forward to “rededicate” their lives to God, just to be on the safe side.

While the preacher pleaded, we sang endless verses of “Just As I Am.” a dirge-like hymn popular at invitation time. Just as I am without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me and that thou bidst me come to Thee O Lamb Of God, ! come! I come!

Kids streamed down the aisle, sobbing, telling the adults at the front that they wanted to go to heaven, that they repented of their sins, that they believed in Jesus and wanted to be born again.

After 20 or 30 choruses of “Just As I Am,” I began to feel conspicuous. It seemed I was a spiritual holdout, one of the few who hadn’t made that walk. Everyone else was hugging and crying tears of joy. I was beginning to wonder how long this thing could last, how many verses we could possibly sing before the preacher would decide enough souls had been won and we could go back to our bunks.

I know il appears that I was the most obstinate 11-year-old in history. But my resistance wasn’t because I didn’t love Jesus. In all the pictures I had ever seen of Jesus, he looked like a gentle English poet, a loving and handsome Messiah. He went around healing sick people and doing miracles. The Bible said he died for me. Me personally. What was not to love about Him?

And it wasn’t that I didn’t think I was a sinner. I had committed most of those infractions on the Big Ten list, at least the ones I was old enough for. and the rest I had done in my heart, which Brother Baker and the other preachers said was just as bad. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to heaven. If there’s a choice-fire and brimstone or streets of gold-which would any intelligent 11-year-old pick?

But even then, I was a bit of a rebel, and the pressure got my back up. So it was probably verse 45 or 50 before I reluctantly edged out of my seat and. like everybody else, walked down the aisle. The feeling was intense, but strange. I was confused. I knew I loved God. but I wasn’t sure I was ready to make such a significant decision, one that would affect me forever.

Back home one Sunday night, I and a handful of other kids and adults donned white robes over our underwear and waited our turn to get dunked. With some denominations, a little symbolic sprinkling of water will do, but not with the Baptists. They believe in immersion, “washing away the blackness of sin” and coming up “white as snow.” Baptists believe in getting wet.

Brother Baker, also in a white robe, stood in the baptistery-a water tank behind the choir loft backed by a painted scene that looked like the banks of a river. I nervously walked into the water. The red curtains parted, and as the congregation looked on, I held my nose while the preacher dipped me under.

Dripping, I came up a new person, a believer. A baptized Baptist. My parents, there for the event, gave me a fresh white Bible. My confusion was gone. I was happy, somehow older, wiser, more spiritual. I had passed the test, I had correctly answered the Big Question.

But the truth was, my questions were just beginning.



AFTER I HAD FINISHED JUNIOR HIGH in Bay City, my parents announced that we were moving to Houston. I was thrilled; after three years at First Baptist, I still didn’t feel like I belonged. Most of the popular kids went to church there. Some were nice, but they’d formed their cliques long ago, and if you weren’t in, you were out.

We found a house in a suburb north of Houston, and I started my freshman year in high school. And of course, we immediately located a Baptist church. The routine started up again.

On the Sabbath morning, my parents dropped us off at Sunday school and church service. On Sunday night, there was youth choir practice and yet another church service; it was during this service, once a month, that we had the “Lord’s Supper.” Trays with tiny cups of grape juice (symbols of Jesus’ blood) and crushed crackers (symbols of his body) were circulated for the born-again. Then on Wednesday night, we went to Acteens, a kind of Baptist Scouts, followed by a prayer meeting.

That was the bare minimum for weekly church attendance. On Friday nights, we often had Teen Night-volleyball or roller skating or some other activity clearly designed to Keep Us Out Of Trouble. And on Saturdays during the summer, we had vacation Bible school and church softball. I pitched, one of my sisters caught. My life was home, school and the Baptist church.

As in Bay City, a lot of popular kids went to this Baptist church, but they seemed friendlier, more accepting. I didn’t feel isolated. In Acteens we memorized long sections of Scripture, sang at nursing homes and made presentations about missionaries to earn “badges.” Every year we had a big ceremony with long white dresses and male escorts to celebrate whatever level we had reached. In choir, we learned elaborate musicals and, dressed in matching outfits, performed at other churches.

I can’t tell you when things started to go sour. On the outside, I looked like the other Baptist girls: Despite a wide and voluble streak of what my mother called “smart ass,” I appeared pious, a goody-two-shoes. But on the inside, I was having serious doubts about this Baptist thing.

For one thing, if going to church was so important, why did my parents drop us off, only rarely setting foot inside the church? Religion obviously didn’t matter once you were an adult, and at 17 I desperately wanted to be a grown-up. I occasionally tried to stamp my feet and declare I wasn’t going anymore, but my parents had me out-voted.

Always a voracious reader, I began learning about other cultures, other religions, other denominations. Did the Baptists really have the inside track on God. or was it the Presbyterians? Then I saw Hare Krishnas at the airport and on downtown streets, swinging their ponytails and clanking their finger cymbals and chanting. Never mind the Presbyterians. What about these exotic people in saffron robes? Who was their God?

It was the early ’70s. I read about feminism and wondered at my religion that didn’t allow women to be deacons, much less pastors. I read about the sexual revolution and The Pill and wondered why preachers said almost nothing about sex. I read about man landing on the moon and wondered where science fit into the Bible. And even conservative papers like The Houston Chronicle had occasional stories about scholars who doubted the reality of the resurrection, about other mainline denominations such as Methodism moving toward “new” interpretations of the Bible that discounted the miracles Jesus performed. That raised more questions: How did we know Jesus really lived? Who decided what books went in the Bible? Were the stories in the Bible like Jonah and the whale literally true, or just myths? And-hypothetical! y speaking, of course-if Adolph Hitler got saved and baptized, would he go to heaven?

But no one at church seemed to take my questions seriously. The answers were unsatisfyingly vague or merely platitudes. Just believe.

I probably could have fumbled my way through the questions and held on to my Christianity. But I began seeing the ugly side of religion: religious people.

Like the rare time we hosted a youth get-together at our house. The pastor’s wife peered into our cupboard and saw a bottle of wine. She sniffed something about my parents and how it was no wonder they didn’t come to church. (The bottle had probably been there three or four years, and to this day, I have rarely seen my parents take a drink of wine or anything else alcoholic.) I was stung and angry at her. Maybe this was why they didn’t go to church, I thought.

I learned that the most beautiful woman in the choir had had an abortion and that a man who worked with the church softball team beat his wife. I saw the preacher’s own kids running wild. I was having such a hard time being good; new temptations seemed to crop up daily. If they couldn’t live their beliefs, how could I?

And one morning after church, I was standing on the front porch talking to several people when the preacher put his hand on my back and, after patting me in a fatherly fashion several times, started playing with my bra strap. I stood there rigid, unable to move or say anything.

OK, it wasn’t molestation, maybe just absent-mindedness, a nervous tic. But my teen-age self saw it as one more example of Baptist hypocrisy, one more unanswered question. It was 1974 and as I moved into adulthood. I unceremoniously shed what now seemed to me quaint but antiquated beliefs that were useless in the development of the intellectual I was certainly destined to become. Translation: I was ready to backslide. And ready to have some fun.

When I went away to college, I left my religion at home.



ANYONE WHO DOESN’T BELIEVE IN hell has never been to Houston in August. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and already over 90 degrees and approaching 100 percent humidity. As we drove, I sat back against the car seat and tried to breath through my nose.

I couldn’t believe my boyfriend and I had agreed to go to church-a Pentecostal church at that-with George Bailey, a man I had dated in college. I hadn’t been to church in six years, but if Catholics were regarded with suspicion in Baptist circles, Pentecostals-also known as Holy Rollers-elicited downright alarm. Oddly. I was looking forward to the service. It might be interesting in an anthropological sort of way. I warned George that I didn’t want my current boyfriend to feel that manipulation and emotional pressure I remembered so clearly from my experience at Baptist summer camp. But George was on a mission-a mission from God.

Actually, his name was not George Bailey. But when I met him my sophomore year at Texas A&M, George altered my life in some profound ways, like the Jimmy Stewart character in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, whose guardian angel shows him his impact on the lives in his town.

George was an engineering student. I was. ..well, in the space of two years, I had four majors. I was aiming toward law school, but as I entered my junior year, I realized I couldn’t take abject poverty much longer, and three years of law school was virtually impossible.

I was muddled about my future, but determined to get a degree in something at which I could actually make a living. I had dated George a year or so, and after reading some English papers I had written, he suggested I visit the journalism school. I did, and it was as if I had discovered a missing piece of my brain.

Then George did something else that changed my life. He met Peter, a handsome accounting major who managed a local record store. They became best friends. After we graduated from college, George broke up with me, and Peter and I fell in love. I had my career and my future husband. And then George did something else that reshaped my life: He invited us to church.

Like me, George had grown up in a religious environment, one even more rigid than my own, and rejected it in college. Our mutual religion was music and general hedonism: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

The only time I ever thought about God was in philosophy class. There, I had examined other religions, other belief systems and found nothing to latch on to. The karmic wheel and reincarnation? The ultimate expression of that belief system is in India, and if there is a less attractive culture for a feminist, I don’t know what it is. Besides, people I knew who were convinced they were reincarnated always “remembered’ ’ such glamorous past lives. They were Egyptian queens, witches burned at the stake, Indian princesses- never peasants with bad teeth who died of typhoid in a squalid hut.

Existentialism? Why not just slit my wrists in college and get it over with? Buddhism? We are God. God is us. Exotic, attractive in a minimalist kind of way, but not really comforting.

I ticked through the various philosophies of great thinkers, great cultures. One student in the class argued that all this discussion was absurd. Life, he said, has no meaning. Humans are merely a collection of brain chemicals acting on one another. And a sonnet by Shakespeare is just black scribbles on a page.

I did my final paper on the only philosophy I could bring myself to choose: prag-matism, perhaps the only “religion” inspired by democratic principles. In a nutshell, pragmatism holds that there is no objective truth. All belief systems are equally true, even if they are contradictory, if they allow you to live a “good” life. But my rights to express my particular truth end where your nose begins. You don’t bother me, I don’t bother you. Now there’s a motto to live by.

It didn’t really matter. We worshipped music, and when George and I and our friends graduated and got jobs, we finally had the money to indulge our devotion. I was working as a general assignment reporter in Clute, driving 60 miles every weekend into Houston to see Peter, We made the rounds: concerts, clubs, parties. Occasionally we drove to Austin to go to a rhythm and blues place, or any of the clubs on 6th Street. We saw the Clash. The Cars. Whoever was hot.

But our real idol was Bruce Springsteen: The Boss and his high priests, Clarence demons and the E Street Band. Bruce was real, gritty-Everyman as Philosopher. (This was before MTV and Born in the USA, when even my mother thought he was adorable.) When he came to Houston in 1979 for a big concert, George and I and all our friends had tickets to floor seats.

A few days before the event, in homage to a Boss legend, Peter and his best friend climbed 50 feet up a large freeway billboard advertising the concert. They wrote various Boss-inspired graffiti across his gigantic chest, and on the night of the concert, Springsteen thanked ’’the guys who did the billboard.” We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.

As we were leaving that night after the fourth encore, a man in his 20s wandered by our seats, handing out a poem he had written. Long, heartfelt, impassioned, it read like he was talking about God. But he was really talking about Bruce Springsteen.

My day job for the last year had been writing the obituaries, the car accidents, the fires, the murders, the grisly life-and-death stuff that goes on everywhere, even in smaJl towns. I was fighting off thoughts of mortality, of accountability. It seemed that every time I did an obituary I was looking into an open grave and seeing my own face. Unbridled hedonism was wearing thin. For months, I had been feeling this gentle lug, like something pulling an invisible rope attached to my chest.

This Bruce-as-God poem hit me like a bass guitar upside the head. The great and wonderful universe, and the most powerful force in it-a rock singer? That was it? People over 45 might laugh at this, but a lot of Baby Boomers know what I mean. If music is your life, and music can’t soothe all the hurts or answer all the questions, where do you go from there?

My personal George Bailey-by far more enmeshed in Serious Music Adoration than the rest of us-had begun to figure out that music was not God.

In June of 1980, I moved 250 miles north to work at The Dallas Morning News, leaving Peter behind. He wouldn’t commit. I was unsure, blah, blah, blah…Meanwhile, George had started going to Bible study. During one of my visits to Houston, he came over to meddle in my life for the third and last time.

Bible in hand, George fervently explained all he was discovering. To Peter, a nominal Episcopalian, it was as if he was hearing about God for the first time. To me, it was as if my past had come back to haunt me.

Peter was deeply curious; I maintained an attitude of bemused disinterest. But now, for some reason, we had promised to go to church with George. I was digging in my heels mentally, but I felt that invisible rope, that light tug.

I don’t remember much about the service, but it definitely wasn’t Baptist. I heard someone speaking in tongues-a weird, garbled kind of singsong language. The congregation raised weir hands while they sang. The preacher prayed, placed his hand on a forehead, and the man or woman keeled over, “slain in the spirit.”

All that was intriguing, but the sermon was not particularly memorable. I listened instead to this inner debate. I knew two things. One-there is a God. Two-I was not God. For me, the months of thinking about death, about my upbringing, about the meaning of life, all came down to answering one question.

Was Jesus of Nazareth who he said he was? I am the way, the truth and the light. No man comes to the Father except by me.

Or, to paraphrase English writer C.S. Lewis, was he a lunatic on the order of a man who believes he”s a poached egg?

That day. Peter and I came to the same conclusion. Our lives haven’t been the same since.



THE WEDDING WAS OUTDOORS. PREsided over by an Episcopal priest. The groomsmen wore Bruce Springsteen T-shirts under their morning coats. Every time the priest opened his mouth, Peter and I started crying, we were so happy. Only three months before we had embraced our belief in Jesus Christ as God and Savior- and decided it was time to get married.

The change in us was so abrupt that our Houston friends were left dumbfounded. We stopped drinking, stopped going to clubs, sold off a lot of Peter’s extensive record collection. Our families were also surprised; they couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Hadn’t we been Christians for years? (One bemused relative asked if we were now going to become missionaries.)

We didn’t really corner our friends and beat them over the head with a Bible, but we weren’t shy about the basic reason for the revolution. We did manage to alienate one couple after we refused to let them spend the night together at our house because they weren’t married.

But my Dallas friends didn’t know me B.C.-before Christ. I’m sure they thought I was a religious nut, born and bred. A journalist who doesn’t drink? Heresy. A few of my fellow reporters made jokes about it; a handful of others were genuinely interested. Most were simply wary. Journalists-to make a massive generalization-view people with strong religious convictions as somehow less intelligent, narrow-minded. They often prefer to be observers, not participants, as if holding strong beliefs might somehow impinge on their objectivity.

But the only time my beliefs ever became an issue was when an editor at The News told me she wouldn’t send me to cover abortion issues because I was not (and am not) in favor of abortion on demand. Ergo, I couldn’t be objective. As far as I know, my objectivity had never been questioned before; I can set my own beliefs aside when I write, and I trust good editors to give me a jab when they detect bias, But that editor’s own biases didn’t allow her to see that a reporter who was pro-abortion wouldn’t be truly impartial either.

Still, I think the reaction from my peers had I worked in, say. Philadelphia, would have been much more negative. Dallas is a very religious city. Two Bible belts-an east-west swath across the south, and a zone north through the Midwest-meet here. Dallas has Tom Landry, God’s Own Football Coach. It’s got First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the biggest churches in America, as well as several powerhouses in the evangelical movement-Dallas Theological Seminary. Criswell Center for Biblical Studies and, in Fort Worth, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It has Robert Tilton and W.V. Grant, two self-proclaimed healers with their own cable TV shows.

Movers and shakers unabashedly talk about going to Bible studies and prayer breakfasts. Zig Ziglar. the nationally known motivational speaker, teaches a very popular Sunday school class where you can hear his gung-ho philosophy for free. Singles join certain Dallas churches because they are great places to meet upwardly mobile mates. In Dallas, being openly religious doesn’t bring persecution. The problem for the recent convert is deciding where to go to church. In some neighborhoods, it seems like there’s a church on every other comer. And unless a familiar name-Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian-is attached to the sign outside, it’s hard to know what they preach.

After our wedding, Peter and I moved to a small duplex in East Dallas. We started attending an Assembly of God church. It was the same type of church we had attended on that momentous day in Houston. But the main reason was that it was just down the street from our house. We could walk.

A Pentecostal denomination, the Assembly of God church teaches that it isn’t enough to believe and be baptized with water. You should be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” as well. The primary way you know that happens is that you begin speaking in tongues, as believers did on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts.

This seemed far-fetched to me. but I made a conscious decision to set aside my chronic cynicism. It was just possible that I didn’t know everything, and I had spent a lot of my young adulthood being closed to spiritual things. I was ready to make up for lost time. The people were warm and loving; many were well-dressed professionals, not the uneducated backwoods people I mistakenly had come to associate with Pentecostalism while a Baptist. And I loved the Assembly of God’s music; They didn’t sing hymns, they really rocked.

But we finally left that church because it seemed that the emphasis wasn’t on learning about God, it was on feeling about God. The stress was on miracles, healing, getting God to answer your prayers the right way. The theology often seemed no deeper than trite-isms: “Let Go, Let God,” “I’ll pray about it,” “It was God’s will.” Frequently during a church service, someone would have a message “in tongues” that was then supposed to be “interpreted.” To me, the messages frequently seemed pointless, little more than religious filler,

Someone would offer “a word of knowledge,” supposedly information directly from God for a particular person. These “words” could be harmless-telling a woman her unborn baby was going to be a boy when it was really a girl. Or they could be devastating-telling a couple that despite their lack of training and support. God wanted them to give up their homes in Dallas and become missionaries in South America. And when a “healer” came through, he might stand in front of the congregation, close his eyes, and offer that God had told him someone was suffering from hemorrhoids, and if he would come forward, he would be healed. Now, in an audience of 200. what’s the probability that one of them has hemorrhoids? We knew people who claimed to see miracles in that church. We never did.

To be fair, the pastors struggled against the excesses. But one night, a sweet middle-aged woman we knew well came up to us, unable to speak except in tongues. We decided it was time to move on.

The next church was a kind of reformed charismatic church. It was tiny, and the congregation had a family feeling. There was less emphasis on the “gifts of the spirit,” more on personal holiness. That seemed refreshing after the Pentecostal church.

We slowly grasped that though the people involved in the church were deeply sincere, the emphasis was on constant self-examination and repentance. It bred an isolationist attitude, a self-righteousness that was based on your personal holiness, The theme appeared to be “us versus them,” and the “them” wasn’t just the great unwashed, it was people in other Christian churches who weren’t as holy.

One thing this church did was force us to study Scripture seriously for ourselves. The result was the discovery of large areas of disagreement. When we finally realized that the pastor exerted unchallenged authority and viewed doctrinal disputes as rebellion, we bailed out.

For a while we were nomads, wandering from church to church: charismatic Episcopal, lots of Bible churches, non-denominational churches of every stripe. When I did a story on Dallas’ “power” Sunday schools, we even went to First Baptist Church downtown.

What were we looking for? It’s probably easier to say what we weren’t looking for. We knew we didn’t want to live in The Fort, the protective cocoon many Christians in Dallas form around themselves. They send their children to Christian schools, and all their friends are from church. They listen to Christian radio and TV shows. (Sorry, but Bob Tilton makes me cringe.) They never go to movies rated R. They buy all their records, books and magazines at Christian book stores and exercise at Christian aerobics classes. They use the Christian yellow pages to find places to shop and ask their friends for names of Christian doctors and dentists. In fact, it sometimes seems that Christianity in Dallas is not so much a belief system as it is a marketing tool. Keith Green, the Christian singer from Lindale who died in a plane crash, had a description for all the T-shirts, bumper stickers, plaques and other merchandise that glut the religious market. He called it “Jesus Junk.”

We also didn’t want a church that espoused rigid male-female roles, Peter and I are partners; he’s the CEO and I’m the president of our family “corporation.” (I guess that makes our two boys non-voting stockholders.) Together, we make decisions that fit our goals and personalities. I have worked part time or full time since I had my children-with a loving, grandmotherly caretaker in my home-but in many of the churches we visited, there was a spiritual frown at a woman working unless her husband was unemployed or going through medical school.

I guess what we were looking for was an attempt to move beyond “Bibleland” to genuine faith, to get away from a Christian conformity that may be comfortable but not particularly more spiritual than the life of an atheist who tries to live morally. Of course we also wanted a church with sound doctrine, with mature believers who wouldn’t be chasing the latest Christian fads. Also important: a theologically knowledgeable pastor who made his points without shouting from the pulpit.

Last but not least, we wanted a church with a good nursery.

Nothing fit until we found Trinity Fellowship in Richardson. Pastor Carl Anderson is our age, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary who knows both Greek and Hebrew and-lo and behold- doesn’t mind wild questions. (He, too, is a renegade Baptist.) Anderson preaches well-crafted, 30-minute sermons that actually have some bearing on real life, some understanding of how difficult it is in the trenches. He puts Scripture in the context of the times in which it was written. And he never shouts.

With 130 families, and about as many children. Trinity is low-key. laid-back. There is no pressure to walk down the aisle and get converted, and sometimes Anderson forgets to pass the offering plate. My Sunday School teacher is Dr. Darrell Bock, a thirty something professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. He’s renowned as a New Testament scholar and knows how to tell a good joke.

Though it is small. Trinity helps support a ministry in West Dallas, as well as missionaries to Peru, Taiwan and Austria. There is no “’New Right” mentality-none of the “we’re the good guys and you’re not” thinking common at some other conservative churches.

It’s not perfect. After the charismatics, the music is…let’s just say it’s well-intentioned. But Trinity is trying; in the last seven years, they’ve added choruses, music more like the music we prefer.

It is, however, patriarchal. Women can’t be deacons, can’t be elders. I still consider myself a feminist and this rankles. Occasionally, when appropriate, I bring it up. But I have decided-for now-to set that issue aside. The truth is, I’ll never find a church that meets my exact specifications.

But we have seen Trinity attempt to get beyond Bibleland. to be real. An example: During the first year we attended, the pastor asked the congregation to remain after the sermon. We watched in amazement as an elder announced that he and several other elders had been counseling a married deacon for nine months, but the deacon refused to give up his mistress.

With tears streaming down his face, with all the other elders weeping, the elder explained that the Bible was clear: The deacon in question was no longer welcome at Trinity. Now, I had attended one church or another for at least 15 years as a child, and I never saw anything like that. People gossiped about who was doing what with whom, but nobody ever did anything about it. But was this deacon’s wife, was the church better off? I had to say yes.

I have seen this moral fiber in other real situations. A man who had AIDS was appointed deacon, though the elders knew of his illness. And when a husband left his pregnant wife with three children to support. Trinity helped her financially for five years. When she then got pregnant out of wedlock, no one condemned her. Without condoning having sex outside of marriage, they helped her through that pregnancy, and consoled her when she gave the baby up for adoption.

Those stories say a lot: The church cares, even when you screw up. But they will also hold you accountable. To me, that’s kind of reassuring.

I’ve grown a lot in the 12 years since I came back to Christianity. I’m less concerned with externals and I focus more on my internal relationship with God. Six or seven years ago, after realizing that the Bible doesn’t say not to drink- it says don’t get drunk-we started having an occasional glass of wine or beer.

Peter and I go to clubs when we want to see a musician we like: we recently took our children to a Czech social club where we all danced to “nuclear polka” by the Denton band Brave Combo. But our most frequent husband-wife dates are to the theater. We never really got into “’contemporary Christian” music. I hate to say this, but with a few exceptions, it’s very mediocre. I have found some Christians who play great music, though: Bob Dylan, Fori Worth singer-songwriter T-Bone Burnett, Canadian rocker Bruce Cockbum. (You won’t hear them on Christian radio. Try KERà.)

In spiritual terms, we are raising our children very differently from the way we were raised. (What parent doesn’t say that?) We talk to our children about our beliefs frequently, naturally, without browbeating them. We stress God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, and our responsibility to respond.

We’ve decided that-unless a good education is otherwise impossible-we will not enroll them in a Christian school. We don’t want Jesus to become just another course in school, a daily routine with no meaning. We don’t want them burned out on God,

Most of all, we answer tough questions, like “How did I get born?” “Are ghosts real?” “Why did Grandma die?” When Eric was 4, he asked me where God lived. I explained omniscience, that God is everywhere, “even right here with us.” He walked to the from window, looked out at the curb where his baby sitter often parked her Volkswagen, and said. “But where’s His car?”

I worry about them, though. I know myself well enough to know (hat I, too. can be a hypocrite. I recognize that perfect is a long way off. Will they see me preaching one thing and practicing another? So, when I screw up. I go to my children, admit I was wrong and ask them to forgive me.

This isn’t always easy. But they surprise me. Last week, driving in rush-hour traffic on the freeway. I yelled “You idiot!” at a guy who cut me off. Furious. I was about to yell something worse when I remembered Eric was in the car with me-Eric, who often is told not to call people names. Chastened. I told htm I shouldn’t have screamed at the man, and apologized.

“Thai’s all right. Mom,” said Eric, who is now 8, patting my hand. “I’ve done that myself.”

1 talk a lot to my children about why I believe they can put their faith in the God described in the Bible. When 1 first returned to the fold, I promised myself no more blind belief. I wanted to know how the Bible was written, what the evidence is for the resurrection. I want to know the truth about who God is, not just a comfortable set of rules to live by.

Since then, I’ve read a lot about archaeology and Scripture scholarship-pro and con. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that Jesus was who he said he was, that he died and was resurrected, that he was the promised Messiah of the Jews and, by extension, of everyone else. (Let’s face it: If the disciples had made up all those stories, they surely would have made themselves look belter.)

And 1 don’t think I’m alone. I talk to lots of people. Baby Boomers for lack of a better description, who are inching their way back to Christianity. Many, like me, turned away from a denomination that seemed irrelevant to them through the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s. But that invisible rope is pulling on their chest.

But they’re not coming back to the churches they left behind. Religious surveys show that non-denominational churches are the wave of the future-churches that are relevant, that stand for something and, perhaps most importantly, have well-run nurseries.

This fall, I went back to First Baptist Church in Bay City for my grandmother’s funeral. All my sisters were there; though the five of us were baptized in the church, none are now Baptists. One converted to Judaism when she married. The sister with four kids is an enthusiastic Catholic. Another married a Lutheran, but they don’t go to church. The baby of the family is still waffling. “I don’t know what I believe,” she says. Brother Baker, silver-haired but hardly aged a day, did a nice eulogy for a feisty, fabulous 81-year-old woman who smoked and adored glamorous clothes and jewelry and probably hadn’t set foot in the church for 20 years. She always listened on the radio.

But I was oddly upset because the wonderful house across the street, the house I lived in when life and God and the world seemed so simple, had been bulldozed years ago to make room for a playground for the Methodist church. Peter was amused. “Did you expect it to be there forever?”

I guess I did. You always expect home to be there forever.

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