The pressure to invite my high school friends to Church events wasn’t oppressive, but it was subtly consistent. This pressure- perhaps expectation is a better word- manifested itself through casual remarks made by my Parents or youth leaders, to the effect that we have such-and-such an event coming up and wouldn’t it be nice if we could all bring one person each. Oftentimes this pressure was what I placed on myself as a response to what I thought I should be doing as a proper Christian. It was as though to not share Church events with my friends was to be unfaithful to the essentially evangelical nature of faith.
Yet there were considerable risks involved in randomly inviting friends along to Church. What the parents and youth leaders failed to realize was that if something went wrong in a service, you were left to feel utterly embarrassed not only throughout the service itself but into the school week ahead. Every teenager secretly wants to be thought of as cool, and inviting them to a service with weird music and dorky speakers hardly seemed like the best way of achieving hip status. Yet despite the recurring doubt that my ongoing humiliation was at hand, I usually gave in to the pressure to do my bit for the kingdom of God.
And so it came to pass that a mere Saxophone solo threatened to ruin my friendship with Brett. Brett and I had formed a close friendship as a result us both being into the same music. We were both going through a massive Primus phase (it was the late 90’s), and with his bass playing skills and my drumming we formed quite a tight little rhythm section in the year 10 school band. This musical alliance of course spilled over into our extra-curricular life, and many afternoons were spent recording our silly little ideas on an old tape deck. Weekends were the same. We were basically inseparable for most of 1997.
So as you can imagine, it took considerable balls on my part to try and convince Brett to come along to Riverland Assembly of God’s upcoming Sunday night service. The service was the brainchild of my parents, who usually planned it to be more contemporary and accessible to those from non-Church backgrounds. There was ‘rock’ music, food and usually a reflective message about some aspect of life or current affairs and how this related to God’s plan for our salvation. My ever-resourceful Mum had asked if Brett might like to start playing bass in the Church band, but I thought that if I had to go through with this challenging mission then I should make it as easy on Brett as possible and just see if he might want to come along without the pressure of having to contribute anything. So, assuring myself that I was doing the right (that is, Christian) thing, I nervously approached Brett one lunchtime. ‘Um, hey mate. Yeah, um, so our Church is having a service this Sunday. I was, ah, maybe thinking if you are not doing anything else maybe you could come along. I mean, it’s fairly silly but we can just hang out if you want.’ My sales pitch was hardly the stuff that was going to turn me into a rising star of Wall Street, but to my complete astonishment Brett said that he may as well come along, as he wasn’t doing anything else. I was instantly relieved and terrified.
The evening services in questioned were usually a well-intentioned failure. The format tended to follow the usual Sunday formula, and included several ‘praise and worship’ songs that were usually sung about five times each. This was followed by prayer, offerings and either a ‘time of sharing’ or a sermon. Refreshingly, our Church usually bypassed the non-theologically justified ‘altar call,’ unless of course we were featuring a guest minister who needed to meet their ‘saved’ quota in the eyes of God.
In inviting Brett, what freaked me out the most was not the sermon or prayers, but rather what I perceived as the embarrassingly insipid music. Brett and I considered ourselves music connoisseurs, and excellent judges of what was quality and what was garbage. In coming to our Church, Brett would hear first-hand that the music I played was an emotionally manipulative three-chord slush that-were it for some minor lyrical changes- might very well be something you would expect the Backstreet Boys (popular at the time) to come up with. Yet in spite of my anxiety, the invitation had already been accepted by Brett, and I could hardly uninvite someone to a place where the sign out the front read ‘EVERYBODY WELCOME.’ The next day at school the scenario got even worse when Brett informed me that his Mum was planning to come to the service as well. I was doubly mortified.
Throughout the remainder of the week I tried to forget about the encroaching Sunday service. I distracted myself with music and hoped that Brett or his Mum might have some sort of mild accident that would prevent them coming. Nothing too serious, mind you. Just something that might distract them for the weekend and confine their looming Church attendance to the realm of some vague future intention. I suppose it may sound as if I was completely over-reacting, but in the mind of a 15 year old insecure boy who had only recently (and reluctantly) been accepted by the School crowd, preserving this acceptance was my core task in life. Anything that might put this in jeopardy was to be resisted, and here I was inviting Brett- my link to all that was cool- right into the Lion’s den. I mentally prepared for a life of lunch times spent alone in the school yard.
There was no divine intervention by late Sunday afternoon, and Brett and his Mum were still on schedule to come. My own Mum thought this was wonderful, but I remained as anxious as I had been the entire week. About 10 minutes prior to the service starting they still hadn’t arrived, and I was hoping that God had seen fit to send down a last-minute reprieve. But just as we started playing our first song in they both came, nervously looking around as if they were going to be snapped up instantly by an eager evangelist. I did the only honorable thing and pretended not to notice. I kept my head down behind the drums and continued to bash away. I stole the odd sly glance at Brett and his Mum through the corner of my eye. They appeared appeared to be a little confused and their eyes kept darting around the room, offering a mildly polite half-smile to anyone they made eye contact with. Of course, they didn’t know the songs so their confusion was understandable. In fact, the whole concept of standing together singing songs out loud must feel very weird for anyone who was not raised in the Church. But as I was to later find out, the music was just the beginning of the weirdness on this particular night.
After what seemed like an eternity the band stopped and we were all asked to be seated. I moved from behind the drums to the front of the stage, completely aware that there was no way of avoiding Brett now. I looked at him from the stage and mouthed a hello, and then made my way to sit next to him. I was hoping that if the service got too bizarre I could distract him with some sort of conversation. Better yet, I could see if he wanted to go outside for a bit (although to do this would risk the ire of my parents). For now I just sat tight and waited for the next phase of the service.
Apparently we were to now enter into a ‘time of sharing.’ For the uninitiated, this is kind of like a spiritual show and tell, where random people from the congregation would come up the front, grab the microphone and wax eloquent about the truly amazing work God had been doing in their lives. If I was attending by myself, I would usually find this the most entertaining part of the service, but Brett was here and I knew some of the kinds of things that had been said at prior services. It went something like this:
‘I’d just like to thank God for healing me of my lustful thoughts and the sin of masturbation.’
‘Praise God, through my prayer this week I was able to raise my friend from the dead. But it’s not about me but about God. Praise God.’
‘Lord, I just really really want you to send your presence and really really fill this place with your spirit.’
Now on the particular occasion of Brett’s visit to our Church, it just so happened that a young Woman* had a musical item that she wished to share with our humble gathering of about 20. I say ‘share,’ but I guess what I really mean is ‘inflict,’ but i’ll get to that shortly.
Dianah had been a regular at the Church for about a year. I remember her as being friendly enough, but a bit weird and intense. She also had a fairly obvious bung eye that seemed to stray off to the upper right corner of whatever room she happened to be in. This meant that I didn’t really know how to look at her. Would she get offended if I concentrated exclusively on her good eye, or was it considered rude to exaggeratedly look directly into her off-kilter right pupil? To avoid this awkwardness I usually tried to avoid speaking to Dianah at whatever cost. Looking back now, I just put this down to my teenage ignorance and insecurity.
There were rumors circulating that Dianah was having it off with an older gentleman from the Church named Geoff. They were allegedly disappearing for the odd weekend together, in what was politely described as being a sex-romp. The benefit of hindsight tells me that this was just two lonely, eccentric people looking for some companionship and, er, relief. Nevertheless, it raised more than one eyebrow at the time.
Prior to the Sunday evening in question, there were some signs that Dianah’s ability to engage with reality was a trifle diminished. At a prior ‘time of sharing’ she had marched to the front of the stage and told the meek congregation how much of a bastard her ex-boyfriend was. Apparently he had really hurt her in some significant ways. He had committed such crimes as coming home late, leaving the house in a mess and spending money at the pub instead of on outstanding household bills. As the tears flowed from Dianah’s eyes, she boldly claimed to the assembled faithful that despite her pain and hurt, she had now completely and unequivocally forgiven this man. We all affirmed Dianah in earnest. Someone started speaking in tongues. There were multiple cries of ‘Praise God, Hallelujah.’
But Dianah had not finished her story yet. In the days following her complete forgiveness Dianah had contacted her ex-boyfriend with a stern reprimand. She had told him that he had been forgiven for his past injustices, but that he needed to find Jesus straight away or else he would be damned to hell and eternal punishment. Dianah seemed to get rather passionate about this last point. As she regaled us with her account of tortured love, her face had become as red as a vine-ripened tomato. Sweat was pouring down her forehead in streams, and her words rose to fever pitch as she bellowed God’s impending judgement on her poor ex. Particular words were emphasized with scorn and maniacal glee: HELL, FIRE, BANISHED and ETERNITY. What made this whole performance more off-putting was (I hate to say it) her bung right eye, which gave the impression that her hate for this poor bastard burned so deep that she could not even focus her vision on a fixed point.
Still, this was the past. All the mattered was that Dianah had healed enough in the preceding few months to not embarrass me in front of Brett and his Mum. So with a hope born more of fear than faith, I held my breath as Dianah approached the stage yet again to share her latest account of Divine immanence. When I noticed that Dianah had picked up a Saxophone case off the floor I knew shit was about to hit the fan. My stomach churned, as I had the distinct feeling that the presence of a musical instrument could only spell disaster for my cool status. I prepared to say goodbye to my friendship with Brett.
Dianah placed the strap for the Alto Saxophone around her neck and approached the microphone. Her eye made it seem like she was looking at everyone at the same time. With a look of intensity and indignation she approached the microphone stand and paused. A total silence descended over the congregation. My poor stomach was continuing is churning, and felt like how I imagine Playdoh must feel as a child’s hands repeatedly knead it. I stole a look at Brett out of the corner of my eye and noticed his expression- a weird mixture of revulsion and fascination creeping over his face. At last our guest of honor decided to speak.
‘God is speaking to me tonight, and his spirit has filled my heart with joy.’
The joy of the spirit, it seemed, was obviously an internal thing that permitted no evidence of it to show on ones face. Yet Dianah continued.
‘He has given me his spirit so that I might share with you a new song of encouragement to walk in the ways of the Lord.’
Here it comes, I thought. The moment of doom.
Dianah gently brought the reed of the Saxophone to her mouth, and with her bright red cheeks puffed out, proceed to produce the most infernal, dissonant, mortifying and discordant sound that has even been produced by one of God’s creatures. Without any hint of exaggeration, it is fair to say that her unearthly tones sounded akin to a fart from the ass of Beelzebub. It was an horrific assault on the ears. And it did not stop. Dianah just kept blowing into the mouthpiece of my destruction without any regard for the emotional well-being of her forced listeners. I glanced at my own Mum, who was intently looking at Dianah with a strained smile and pleading eyes that were undoubtedly trying to send her a telepathic message to please STOP!. It was clear that Mum knew this was a monumental cock-up, but in spite of the satanic wailing some people in the congregation actually seemed to be enjoying it. Old Cliff was gently rocking back and forth in his seat, apparently lost in some sort of mild spiritual ecstasy. Beryl Richards was having a more profound moment, speaking in tongues with her arms outstretched toward heaven. It felt like how I imagine life in a lunatic asylum might feel. You are the only sane one in a sea of madness, so you start to question your own sanity. Perhaps it was the others who were normal?
Whatever the status of my mental health, Brett and his Mum were clearly not enjoying themselves. Throughout the service Brett had maintained his composure, albeit for a mild look of confusion. As Dianah’s blaring and wailing continued, however, Brett became increasingly agitated. He leaned over to me and whispered ‘What is happening? How long is she going to go on for?’ I could only reply that I didn’t know. For her part, Brett’s Mum continued to regard the service with increasing bewilderment, but she did manage to maintain her faint smile. It was extremely uncomfortable to watch.
I can’t remember exactly how she wrapped-up the performance, but Dianah eventually stopped her God-forsaken screeching and resumed her seat. My own Mum returned to the front of the stage and thanked Dianah for her sharing, and reminded us how good God was. The rest of the service was a blur, until the redemption of being set free by the speakers parting prayer. Tea and coffee were apparently available, but Brett and his Mum were having none of it. Thanking me for the invite to ‘such an interesting service,’ they hurriedly disappeared into the Church car park and from there made their journey back to the real world. .
I only had the remainder of Sunday evening to come to terms with what had happened and consider how I would act around Brett the next day at class. I went home and watched some television with the family before going to bed. The whole time I was preoccupied with how much my reputation would suffer at school if Brett totally flipped out as a result of the Saxophone weirdness. So with a nervous mind, I tucked myself in bed and somehow fell asleep.
The next day at School was difficult for me. It’s not that Brett stopped being polite or friendly as such, but was more a case of him regarding me with just a little bit formality and coldness. The easy going nature of our friendship had been replaced with a subtle but distinct suspicion. And although Brett and I continued to hang out together, it was now usually in the company of others. I felt like I was the guilty one, and that Brett and his Mum had probably felt as if they were being manipulated into joining some crazy cult. I was too young to appreciate that I was the one being manipulated with all the pressure to use my friends as Church statistics..
Still, they say that time heals all wounds and thankfully my reconciliation with Brett arrived just at the point where I was beginning to feel like I could not take the daily awkwardness any longer. The redemptive moment took place one Wednesday afternoon at the weekly School band rehearsal. After whizzing our way through a mediocre version of ‘Take the A Train,’ our band leader informed us that we had a new member of the band, who just happened to play the Saxophone. The poor kid was asked to play the lead solo in the next Jazz standard we were about to embark on. When the time came for the solo it was beyond shocking. Notes were being played that hadn’t even been invented yet. The poor sod made Dianah sound like John Coltrane. It was during this atonal wailing that Brett looked at me with a glint of amusement in his eye, as if to say that all was forgiven now that we had discovered an even worse Saxophonist. We both abruptly burst out into fits of laughter and promptly got ourselves kicked out of the rehearsal.
From that day forth my reputation had been restored. Brett and I resumed our friendship in earnest, content in the knowledge that the Church aren’t the only ones to have a monopoly on bad music.
*When I say ‘young,’ I am of course referencing the Church’s definition of young, which is anyone under the age of 40.