Why is it that even now, as an early-middle aged adult, I have a difficult time keeping a straight face in church?
God must love a fool; after nearly 44 years yukking it up when the congregation and preacher are at their most stone-faced, I haven’t awakened in some fiery pit with a dozen or so pitchforks poking my backside. Isuppose it still could happen – sort of a divine “ha, kid, the joke’s on you” kind of moment – but I think if the Good Lord really wanted to punish me, he wouldn’t send me to that kind of a nether region.
    No, he would probably lock me in a room full of frothing religious nuts – folks who nderstand the Bible like a fork understands rare roast beef – for all eternity.
    When I was a kid, I would spend an awful lot of time fretting about going to hell because I couldn’t keep a straight face in church. When I got older, I concluded that God gave me this weird sense of humor, so if I got in trouble in his house, it was his fault. But since God has no faults, then he must have known what he was doing; therefore, I was following his plan for me to the best of my ability.
    But try explaining that to your parents when you’re 10 years old. Hey, try explaining it when you’re 43.
    I think back to days when all it took was a glance around the sanctuary to keep me in paroxysms of fist-biting, snort-stifling hilarity.
    First, there was that ancient old man, probably a great-uncle, iron-stiff, slicked back and scrubbed clean as a new turnip, sitting ever so piously in the front row, reading glasses perched atop his head ready to be pulled into action to magnify those swimming letters of scripture printed in 24-point-type in his well-worn leather Bible, which had not left his vest pocket for the last 30 years. Without fail, every Sunday, he would begin his ritual of nodding off five minutes into the opening anthem. He would never quite snore, but his mouth would slowly fall open, his uppers sliding just slightly forward, giving him this buck-toothed, lightly drooling, crazed baby-bird look.     He didn’t look much better in everyday life, either. In fact, that sort of narcoleptic effect – accentuated with orthotic shoes, Mr. Rogers Sweater and hat that looked as though someone scalped Rocky the Squirrel before making a World War I flying helmet out of him– was downright scary behind the wheel of his ’56 Studebaker, especially when you saw it close up in your own rear view mirror, or worse, front and center in your front windshield.
    The man had a constant cruising speed – Interstate or church parking lot – of about 27 and half miles per hour and no sense whatsoever of lane ownership. Turn signals, traffic signals and stop signs were completely out of his realm of understanding.
    Anyway, as the service progressed, his head would bob up and down, his glasses sliding off his forehead, eventually hitting him in the bridge of a bulbous, gin-blossomed nose – if a lifelong tee-totaling lemonade addict could develop gin blossoms – waking him abruptly from his drooling rapture.
    He would open his eyes, suck in his uppers, look quickly around the sanctuary and give the congregation a loud, stage-whispered, “Amen.”
    This would go on for the entire service. But that was just the beginning.
    My cousin was the devil himself in church. I ran a close second. Between notes passed in the collection plate, hymns sung in cartoon falsetto and my cousin’s silent but oh-so-infectious, under-the-breath snickering, the two of us sitting together were a guaranteed recipe for disaster.
The basic problem was, church was probably a good thing, but wasn’t really my cup of lukewarm grape juice – and a visit to Bamberg meant going to church. Period. If you had failed to pack proper attire in the foolish assumption that your lack of Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes would excuse you from compulsory church attendance, that was your peril; truly heinous hand-me-down combinations would be provided. I have attended church tastefully outfitted in a plaid leisure suit jacket, the base color and fiber of which cannot be found anywhere in nature, high-water khakis two sizes too tight, the better to inform the world of my religious affiliation, white socks and my cousin’s little sister’s moccasins – a sartorial accent my cousin immediately broadcast to every single hot girl within five miles of us.
    I probably committed my worst sin during a revival one summer. We were bored by the droning sermons and unimpressed with the attempt at encouraging conversions by cutting off the house lights during altar call. Eventually, our parents, cattle prods at the ready, urged us forward to receive the Lord.
    As four of us knelt before the altar, eating the body and drinking the blood of the covenant — specimen cups of hot grape juice and tiny bits of stale crackers — I whispered to the youngest, “Reach over there and grab me another one.”
    Her eyes bugged, her face went scarlet, and she turned away with her hand over her mouth, but not before unleashing a loud, wet snort.
    I understand that on the third day of intense dry cleaning the holy Eucharist arose from the velvet.
    It was some time, like two days later, before I could sit down again. It was some time later – like last year – that we were ever allowed to sit together in church again.