Hell, Church and the Sylamore

https://www.artworkarchive.com/profile/matthew-lee/artwork/sylamore-creek-arkansas

In kindergarten, I would get off the school bus and walk down Sturrock Rd., the long, paved, country road to get home, and some afternoons I knew by the strong smell of asphalt and motor oil that a light rain shower had come through, and I had missed it.  I liked school well enough, but I loved the rain.  The ditch in front of my house had that red, chalky dirt that when a little wet it became a young Potter’s dream—molding bowls and cups and sitting them out to dry.  But after a down pour, that clay became a hellish red color, and I didn’t trust it. I would submerge my bare feet in the mud, count to three and immediately pull them out.  Each second being a measure of courage.  And one wet day, I walked the complete length of the ditch, talking to the Devil.  My feet would sink low into the Earth, and I believed it was something or someone pulling me down to the pits of hell, grabbing at my ankles and chanting my name.  These are the thoughts of a child who watched horror films with her father while occasionally attending Sunday service at her grandmother’s Baptist church.  Hell was real and a layer of it was in the ditch of my front yard. 

But hell wasn’t the only landscape.  As early as I can remember I talked to God, along with the birds and anything else that would listen.  It was all very simple really, I could feel that God loved me, and I knew I loved Him back.  I felt very close to Him with knowing very little about Him, and I don’t remember a day I questioned if He was real, that came later.   I had already chose that belief for myself, I think.  And without a lot of people telling me or showing me, I just gathered from my conversations with God that He was really kind and good.  He was peace, and he showed up early for me in my life.  I needed that. 

But as I started attending church with my grandmother, my Nanna,  it was no longer just me and God. Now other people were involved, other voices.   Church for me was like finding a special, secret place to play and then learning that is was open to the public.  Church was like sharing the Sylamore creek.  My time in the Sylamore in Arkansas is personal and very hard to share.

I slowly hobble through water on visible stones below, avoiding any trench that would be too deep.  My body is awake and my mind, alive, aware of deep meaning without deep thinking. I turn my body and my breathing toward the flow of the water, toward the bubbling brook up ahead.  Clear, cold water.  I can see where to place my foot, and I can see that it’s just me and the minnows that have come to nibble my toes.  After the Hymns and after the organ, I sit down in the pew, and hear a car drive up on the creek bank, loud hoots and hollers from a dad and a mother trying to corral her five, loud and whiny kids, the sound of a large middle school boy trying to squeak and twerk his way into his little sister’s inter tube.  And on impulse, led by a charge, they stampede the Sylamore waters. My minnows scatter, and the water gets murky; I lose my footing and me and my flailing limbs flop into the breath-taking waters.  —-

But I hung around church long enough to see that the ripples eventually settle and the good things are often better shared.  

Truthfully, I’ve never been able to sit in a church service and see right to the bottom of this whole metaphor.  I’ve now learned to embrace the murky waters that we stir up, and I can speak to the value of inviting people in to my Sylamore church.  But as a young child who learned God mostly from the East Texas pines, church was disorienting. 

It became confusing because “Jesus was the way to God.”  Okay yes, if Jesus is God in human form, I believe in Jesus. And so I learned more about Jesus; and I loved Him too.  He was also kind and good, and so I needed him too. Done.   But then “I had to first pray a prayer and ask him in my heart.  And I’ll know it’s time when it’s time. But do not tarry.  Hell awaits.”   Although I began this process with gumption and fight, overtime I began to question myself, and I don’t take myself lightly.  Okay, Jesus you can have my heart. I know you are good. Done. Let’s keep going.  But I was met with faces that said “slow down.  You might be too young.”  All that peace tunneled into an underground pipeline, and I found myself pacing in that hellish red clay. 

My spirit stayed connected to God’s spirit, and no one could tell me otherwise.  I molded clay bowls from the left-over rain until I decided on my own I was His but just like going to school, I had to do some learning in the church or what they called Sunday school. Some of it I would benefit from, some would be garbage, just like school.  But since I only attended church with Nanna, my ride to New Hopewell Baptist was limited to mainly holidays and revival week. So here’s what happened, sitting on my metal framed day bed and my Holly Hobby sheets, alone in my room, I popped a VHS tape into the VCR and fell in love with the stories of the Bible.  A corny cartoon with two kids, their dog and a robot named Gizmo were sucked into a “Super Book”, the Bible.  My Nanna saw my interest or rather obsession with the stories and bought me the whole series as they were released.  I cried when Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, I cheered when David defeated Goliath, and I laughed when Jesus was born in a stable. And when I came to the crucifixion of Jesus, I turned the TV off, and never watched that tape again.  For five more years, these VHS tapes were my church.  I processed everything I learned with my younger sister and our naked Barbies.  And for the bigger questions, like that one VHS tape I turned off, I saved those questions for my Nanna at her kitchen counter. 

Today in my 30’s I’m making my way back to that little girl before she went to Vacation Bible School and Youth group and Bible College—she’s just as real and as important as the theology that followed her. 

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