Alien Aunt’s troubles started when she left Pali Presby.

It seems that I’m channeling Jonathan Franzen again. I’m probably about to subject my readers to a mindboggling tale of sex, repression, railroad employees who wield the whip hand over themselves and their daughters, the lazier and less reputable kind of railroad employees, Kansans who hate Ohio slackers, Ohioans who don’t give a damn and can prove it with a brief tour of their railroad’s decrepit infrastructure, inconceivable railroad metaphors for sex, and maybe a helping or two of liver and onions to welcome the old man back home from Cleveland. Just remember this: regardless of what else happened on the railroad, or in the City of Brotherly (and Sisterly) Love, the betrayals began in Signals.

Also remember this: if channeling Jonathan Franzen is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

Nah, this tangled mess will be a different kind of weird. There won’t be any liver and onions, for one thing; liver and onions doesn’t register as a punishment in my book, especially when Farmer Uncle cooks it. All right, I’ve already broken that promise twice, although it could have been worse; in a previous screed I broke a promise to refrain from distasteful references to Michael Jackson. All the same, this is definitely material worthy of Jonathan Franzen. He might add some sex, and probably some mighty weird sex at that, but he wouldn’t necessarily make the family dynamics any more bizarre.

Pali Presby was the nickname for the Palo Alto Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. It wasn’t actually in Palo Alto, but for purposes of plausible deniability it was. PCA isn’t the mellow sort of Presbyterian Church. It’s old-school, in some cases John Calvin old-school, and Calvin was a vicious bugger.

I’m sometimes asked how it is that Presbyterians can be so dour and judgmental and absolutist; surely I’m conflating these hardasses with some sort of Baptists or Pentecostals, or maybe I’m just telling a tall tale. I’m doing nothing of the sort.

If you don’t believe me, you haven’t spent enough time around Westminster. Not the one with all the Vietnamese, or the one in the Maryland horse country where my friends Lord and Lady Ballimer live, or the original one where petulant backbenchers verbally abuse the prime minister, but always in the form of a question; but the Confession. The Westminster Confession of Faith.

And a hard sort of faith it is. If you haven’t got the faith, you aren’t one of the Elect, and if you aren’t one of the Elect, there’s a place waiting for you downstairs, so don’t go riding on that long, black train. Actually, that sort of spiritual music really is more of a Baptist pastime. Less of a Baptist pastime is declaring that everything, including my ragging on Calvinists in this essay, has been predestined from before all time, and that we’re all slaves to the sinful nature, but we really ought to make an effort not to be so totally depraved nonetheless because that’s how we demonstrate our membership in God’s elect. If being a fool for Christ isn’t a virtue, being an arrogant piece of work certainly is.

I’m not saying that any of it makes a lick of sense. I’m just reporting what I’ve observed, so don’t shoot the messenger.

On the other hand, if you do shoot me, it will have been foreordained by God, so don’t worry about it. Juries have believed stranger defenses than predestination, or the “hey, it was all part of the plan” defense. That said, your pastor won’t approve, because murder isn’t a sign of membership in the elect, although judicially beheading adulterers in the town square might be. The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t kill people, because when your pastor hears about it and considers how your bad act has besmirched the name of reform theology he’ll have an even dourer hangdog look than before. Indeed, a few of those guys have real sourpuss demeanors. The amazing thing is how few of them do, given what awful things they’re saying in God’s name.

Shit, I’m being a bit unfair to the sola fide crowd, but I’m not the one proclaiming the perfect justice of condemning nonbelievers to an eternity in hell. Sure, a lot of Protestants believe such a thing, but the Presbyterians do more than their fair share of not shutting up about it for fifteen minutes.

And yet at the beginning of this essay I wrote that Alien Aunt’s mistake wasn’t her attending Pali Presby, but her leaving it. How can I rag on the Presbyterians and still say such a thing?

As it happens, squaring this circle is a lot easier than it looks. As noxious as their theology can be, Bible-thumping Calvinists tend to be firmly grounded in the real, observable world when it comes to economics. Their attitude is that if you want to make money, get a job.

If you want to be demoralized, take a look at all the churches with differing views on the matter. Joel Osteen’s sermons on tithing are a slightly more articulate version of the Nigerian e-mail scam; God, in Osteen’s estimation, is the executor of some deceased Nigerian prince’s estate who asks the listener to please kindly forward only $20,000 USD$ to PO Box 6969, Kuku District Lagos 9424 Nigeria to collect on these moneys. A great many prominent televangelists and megachurch pastors peddle some version or other of the “prosperity gospel,” which has also acquired a particularly strong following in black and Latino churches on account of its appeal to poor people who are desperate to rise above their present circumstances. The “prosperity gospel” is in a sense derived from the Calvinist emphasis on material prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing and membership in his elect, but old-line Calvinists also emphasize the virtue, even the necessity, of hard work. They’re grounded enough to recognize the connection between work and prosperity. Amazingly, Osteen and company concede less free agency to individuals to manage their own professional and financial lives than do their orthodox Calvinist adversaries–in fact, much less. This is no mean feat.

The main things that outsiders heard about Pali Presby in the 1980s, when Alien Aunt was a regular congregant, were that it had an unusually young membership and that it was one of the most theologically conservative churches in the area, which, rightly or wrongly, was usually extrapolated to infer that it was politically conservative as well. I can’t say whether or not Pali Presby was in fact politically conservative, or whether its congregants were politically conservative as a group, although some of its members were certainly far to the right politically of the Peninsula average. This is a bit like calling someone a less fervent Nazi than Hitler; it doesn’t mean a hell of a lot by the standards that apply in flyover country. The very existence of a theologically conservative church and enthusiastic young members to attend it was anomalous for an aggressively leftist and largely irreligious town.

What became noticeable largely in hindsight, after Alien Aunt had decamped for more dubious churches and distant locales, was what modesty Pali Presby inculcated in its members. I’m unaware of any Pali Presby members who pursued belligerent religious spats with their less devout relatives and friends, or who turned on their families for the avowed purpose of becoming closer to God and His People. In my admittedly limited and secondhand experience Pali Presby’s members were consistently civil and conciliatory when dealing with the local majority, who were suspicious of and often hostile to their theological worldview.

Circa 1990, Alien Aunt left Pali Presby for the Brisbane Bible Bunch, a nondenominational church much more amenable to charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, as understood by histrionic goofballs, than the squares at Pali Presby. Was this church located in Brisbane, and did it have such a goofy-ass name? You be the judge. It did, however, have a much less prim and proper sort of fire in the belly than the stuffy old Scots to the south. It was a good place for some carryin’ on, a little shakin’ around, maybe even a little speakin’ in tongues that sound like Hebrew but aren’t, because in fact they don’t even meet the technical definition of language. If you thought the Calvinists were all about sola scriptura, consider that these guys had the scriptura, too, but none of the liturgical or apostolic hangups. No need to orient oneself in a holy tradition dating back to a time before the LBJ presidency or sing shopworn old ditties like the Doxology on account of some misguided sense of liturgical reverence. At the Brisbane Bible Bunch, anyone could ad lib it as long as he had a copy of the Good Book. God gave us eyes that we might read, and if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.

Let me rephrase the first part of that last sentence; it was too stilted, not to mention too coherent, for a crew like the Bible Bunch. As it is, I’m ad libbing this account, since I don’t know a whole lot about what went on at the Bible Bunch but can offer a pretty credible approximation from what I’ve observed and heard about fellow-traveling nondenominational loose cannons. There’s a fair amount of cut-and-paste exegesis at these joints. John Hagee, normally a vicious shit but in this case spot on, criticized this sort of Biblical scholarship with an absurd but relevant example: “And Judas hanged himself from a tree….Go thou and do likewise.” Where old-school Calvinists operate in a half-cocked historical and theological context, nondenominationalists are lucky to operate in any context at all.

None of the rest of us here on Earth knows exactly how Alien Aunt got involved with her next church, but my hunch is that the Bible Bunch played a role. It may have been a missing link of sorts between Pali Presby, firmly rooted in the real world of Mr. Rogers’ living room, and the Land of Make-Believe that Alien Aunt has since been exploring. Starting with Pali Presby, Alien Aunt’s church transfers have amounted to a series of step-downs, similar to a commercial jetliner’s staged descent on approach to landing, except that in this case altitude is a proxy for not being a completely dysfunctional basket case on account of crackpot theology. Also, there’s no runway that can be identified as rock bottom.

And whatever you do, don’t expect a smooth approach. She’s gonna buck. The Santa Ana Winds may make the approach pretty gnarly, and 19R is a tight squeeze in the best of conditions, so don’t be surprised if that hunka-hunka burnin’ rubber and unstoppable inertia crashes through the south perimeter fence, maybe taking out a Cessna or two along the way. The thing is, the captain has a strong “leading” to land at John Wayne; Jesus isn’t just Lord, but also Air Traffic Controller of Hosts. Actually, that’s probably considered a role of the Holy Spirit, but regardless, there will be some “Jesus, take the wheel” moments in the cockpit.

If it’s an Airbus, the only appropriate question is, “what wheel?”

Whichever person of the Trinity is doing the leading, the “leading” must be followed. In Alien Aunt’s case, it led not to Orange County per se, but to a Bay Area congregation of an OC cult called the Goldenwest Grape Orchard of God. The premise was that God’s faithful are called to bring in the spiritual harvest from the grape orchard of humanity. Normal people don’t call it a grape orchard, of course, but instead call it  by another name that eluded my spastic “orchard” worker Kyle last fall. What the fuck, I feel like being cryptic. Verily, its real name might have a little something to do with, say, vines, and might not refer to Goldenwest Avenue or God. He who has ears, let him hear.

Alien Aunt referred to the headquarters of this cult as “the mother church,” which to my mind evoked Star Trek. The mother church’s location didn’t inspire confidence, either. The OC is the sweet home of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, television churches that go tits up because they’re built of too much glass to pay the cooling bill, metastatic NIMBYism and, speaking of cults that evoke Star Trek, Heaven’s Gate. Put on your Nikes and drink your poison, dude; you don’t want Hale Bopp to leave without you!

The favorite scripture passages at the Grape Orchard were those concerning forsaking one’s family in order to go forth and spread the Gospel. At the Grape Orchard, gratuitously being a shit to one’s relatives was considered a sign of spiritual discernment and maturation. The Grape Orchard encouraged its members to submit to its quack psychoanalysis in order to more fully understand all the ways in which they had gotten screwed over by their families when they were growing up.

An important component of this analysis was reconstructing what one’s family had discussed at the dinner table. When Alien Aunt started pointedly asking her siblings this question, they didn’t know whether to be alarmed or just baffled. No one could give her a clear answer because there wasn’t one. They’d probably talked about the weather, sports, maybe what they’d learned in school that day, but there was no way to say for sure because their brains were occupied with more useful information. Alien Aunt seemed to regard these speculative answers as somehow sinister, another example of her family impeding her seeking after the Lord. The only solution, it seemed, was more churchy deprogramming.

Things came to a head at Grandma’s 75th birthday party, when Alien Aunt brought an uninvited minder from the Grape Orchard to an otherwise family-only reunion at a rented beach house in Trinidad. No one had any idea who the hell this woman was, nor did she have any better clue about us. When she and Alien Aunt weren’t off on their own, she mainly hovered awkwardly, making those who noticed her uncomfortable.

Alien Aunt was exceptionally mean to Grandma that week, which was ultimately part of  a years-long semi-estrangement. One afternoon, my dad told her to come with him for a walk on the beach. He flatly told her that she had no business being so nasty to her own mother, regardless of what she was being told in church, because her mother had done nothing to deserve it, and that it would be a tragedy if they didn’t reconcile before her mother’s death. Alien Aunt’s response was chilling: “Well, you have to make up with her in this life, but Mom and I will have all eternity together.”

Luckily, Alien Aunt wandered away from the Grape Orchard after several years and reconciled with Grandma. Her next move was a very different kind of crazy, a megachurch of sorts in Redding called the Northstate Nut Harvest. The Nut Harvest is a big deal in Redding, big enough that the county bus system has scheduled service to its campus. It’s a pretty big deal in the arm-raising and hootin’ and hollerin’ sort of evangelical circles, too. Its “schools” for what the critics of such nonsense sometimes call “worship junkies” attract “students” from halfway across the US and Canada, sometimes farther.

Alien Aunt wasn’t too cool for school. When her sister, Caretaker Aunt, asked her if she could possibly come to Eureka for a while to help their mother recover from a car accident, she declined on the basis that “I really think I should focus on school right now.” “School” in this case was a “School of Supernatural Ministry.” Caretaker Aunt, who had her own school-age children (enrolled in old-fashioned, nonsupernatural, public schools) in the house and an ailing mother down the street, was understandably steamed.

The Nut Harvest began as a relatively orthodox Assemblies of God congregation. That’s an absurd statement, like “a relatively reformist member of the North Korean Politburo,” but especially in cases like these everything is relative. Sometimes a congregation only seems totally bonkers until one has taken a cursory look at its successor.

In the case of the Northstate Nut Harvest, bonkers gave way to hot-damn-batshit in the mid-1990s, when by some kind of popular vote the congregation brought in a new pastor from Weaverville. It was a bit like Parliament inviting William and Mary to assume the throne, if William and Mary had been stark raving mad necromancers from the ass end of Yorkshire.

The new pastor quickly executed the classic cult power play of authoritatively staking a claim so outrageous that reasonable people give up and leave en masse, so that only the crazed and the impressionable are Left Behind (TM). Dude worked the Overton Window like a pro. The new pastor’s view was that Nut Harvest had to be in a constant state of revival. It needed more of the Holy Spirit, which in evangelical circles is the equivalent of Will Ferrell announcing, “What this song needs is more cowbell.” This “Spirit-filled revival” was a euphemism for wacky-ass shit that you just wouldn’t do at mass. Examples included worshipers falling on the floor and laughing uncontrollably–and openly–during services. Even by Assemblies of God standards this shit was so far out that the Nut Harvest lost about half of its membership in a year.

What it gained was purity. That is to say, pure nuttery. Refined, unadulterated nut paste, to be spread wherever God directed through one of His “leadings.” Sweeter than meth-spiked Nutella, and about as wholesome and edifying.

You see, God will provide. God may well provide through His people. In fact, He will almost certainly work in that fashion. Perhaps the Provident One will appear to be the CH2M Hill project manager who supports his wife after she quits her Forest Service job for holy shits and giggles with other godly people, but fear not, God is behind that.

The Lord works in mysterious ways. These ways include enabling Alien Aunt to see a Mexican guy at the Transbay Terminal in her dreams, then see him in person the next morning and minister to him. These ways also include enabling Alien Aunt and the Former Forester to bilocate. That’s right: they can be in two places at once, physically in one place but spiritually also in another place at the very same time. I once chatted with a homeless guy at an Inglewood bus stop who could do that; he didn’t know where all the planes were flying, although I had a hunch that it was LAX. When I was listening to Alien Aunt and the Former Forester talk about this cuckoo-bananas nonsense a few years ago, the Former Forester turned to me and said, “You must think we’re pretty crazy.” I mumbled my agreement because I didn’t want either of them to realize just how right she was.

If the money doesn’t come from one’s engineer husband despite his annoyance with Pentecostal hoodoo, perhaps it comes from one’s fellow Christians. “Alms for the poor! Alms for the pilgrim! I’m feeling a leading to go to Turkey to apologize for the Crusades, and to buy cheap sweaters. I’m feeling a leading to go to Thailand to hang out at a Chiang Mai orphanage; I may not speak a word of Thai or have any interest in learning, but I’m really feeling that leading.”

A friend of mine calls Alien Aunt my “traveling aunt,” and with some good reason. Alien Aunt has gazed at her navel in an impressive number of exotic locales. The trip to Thailand was preceded by an orientation session near Kalispell, MT. Some years earlier, Alien Aunt spent a few months in the hills above Lancaster, CA, writing Christian music. At the time, she expressed an interest to me in supporting this retreat by “getting some rich dot-commers to give me a grant.”

Alien Aunt spent several years in Redding, learning how to seek ever more after the Lord, if not so much after employment or professional advancement. I don’t recall her having a paying job in Redding, but I do recall some impressively long periods of couchsurfing and housesitting.

There’s a lot of hanging around trying to discern the inscrutable in outer-orbit Evangelical circles. It’s called “waiting on the Lord.” The Air Traffic Controller of Hosts is busy with other traffic. You think you may have heard a visual clearance to follow that Southwest 737 on final to 19R, but you really would like to hear it again, just in case John Wayne isn’t the quite the right place for you. Until then, or until fuel runs low, you can always just chill out in an offshore holding pattern at Flight Level 100. The burn rate is a bit high, but the views of the coast are rad, man.

In 2005, Alien Aunt made a road trip east, getting as far as suburban Nashville, where she fell in with a sister church of the Nut Harvest’s. The Holy Horse Country Hootenany was compelling enough that Alien Aunt decided to relocate to the land of Nicole Kidman (whom she eventually saw in Starbucks one morning) in pursuit of her spiritual development. Caretaker Aunt thinks that her real motivation for moving was to break out in the Christian music business, which seems plausible enough to me.

Another church, another hometown, another storage unit. The move didn’t go as smoothly as Alien Aunt had hoped. She left Eureka in August 2006 after the annual family reunion with something like $500 to her name, at least $200 of it from Grandma. She hit up Alien Uncle, a financial hot mess himself, for additional funds, but I don’t remember whether she got any. I suggested that she stay at KOA campgrounds (pardon me, Kampgrounds), since in my experience they were cheap and clean. Alien Aunt replied that she wouldn’t be able to afford more than two or three nights of $25 lodging.

Bad sign. Alien Aunt told me that she had a possible place to stay in Coos Bay and definite crash pads in Kalispell, Miles City, MT, and Grand Rapids, MI. The only way to make it from Miles City to Grand Rapids without getting some sleep along the way is to take a dose of that righteous crank, or to be Lisa Novak. (Stephanie Lazarus really wasn’t that badass. She only had to drive to Glendale, and then to Santa Monica to throw a missing gun into the Pacific.) Just like Lyle Mayer had a hunch that a couple of Mexican burglars were good for the job, I had a hunch that Alien Aunt wouldn’t make it to Nashville nonstop. High burn rate, no reserves, not the most proficient pilot: when Alien Aunt left Eureka, I was expecting to hear of transmissions to ATC in the tradition of the late Mauricio Klotz, or maybe a Sully-style glider run followed by an impromptu cool change.

I was about right. A couple of weeks after Alien Aunt left for Nashville, I received an e-mail from her: “I’m currently in Grand Rapids. Not sure whether Nashville is still part of the plan. Would like it to be part of the plan, but so far Grand Rapids is the plan.”

I had no trouble at all translating this cryptic missive. Alien Aunt had run out of money in Grand Rapids and was waiting on the Lord, and His people, for the funds to proceed to Nashville. Verily, the Lord and His people did provide, so Alien Aunt rolled on south and got to really mix it up at the Hootenany.

This circus rolled east the summer after I got my bachelor’s degree. Gallingly, just before Alien Aunt left Eureka, she asked me, “So, are you planning to get a job?” I somehow kept a mostly straight face and answered earnestly. It took all my self-control not to say, “Eh, I dunno. How about you?” I really should have asked her. It’s a bad habit of mine to try so scrupulously to hold my fire against people who have already fired the first shot.

Alien Aunt’s snarky question was particularly galling because she had no plan at all to support herself in Nashville. She eventually cobbled together work as a home health aide and a waitress, sort of and some of the time. She wasn’t getting a particularly bong-ass hit of that 3:20, though, so she had to ask for alms to visit her dying mother last year.

More recently, she had people praying for a car miracle. The Lord will provide reliable transportation. She also somehow (probably through her goobers on Facebook) found the money to pay a Christian piano mover based in Artesia to move Grandma’s “heirloom piano” back east. This “heirloom piano” is a worthless old piece of shit that can’t hold a tune and that has nonworking keys. Even Goodwill didn’t want it. Alien Aunt probably figures that she can sell it on eBay for cash flow in a pinch.

She’ll need the money before long. But don’t worry, God will provide. He’d really provide if she were married to a long-suffering engineering geologist.