Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Promise Keepers

By definition, “Promise Keepers,” or “PK,” as the legion of members refer to it, is a group of Christian men, mostly husbands and fathers, who subscribe to a set of Christian-based rules rooted in the conservative and old-fashioned notions of family, in which the father and husband is the ultimate authority.  They meet often, sometimes in church, sometimes at each other’s houses during Bible study and ““Men’s Accountability Group”” sessions, sometimes in hoards – large numbers of them filing into conference rooms or convention centers.

I’ve seen them -- I’ve been to one of those gatherings, one of the few where they allow wives and girlfriends to attend.  Usually, women are not allowed into the auditorium or to the seminars at all.  Women are, however, allowed to sell PK t-shirts and key chains in the booths at the front entrance.  At the large gatherings, the men of Promise Keepers can be seen holding their Bibles in one hand, gripping them like footballs.  They file in, one after the other, into the stadium-like convention hall wearing Dockers, golf shirts bought at Costco, white tube socks, and the latest high-top Nike's.  The outer layer is usually a navy blue or forest green waist-length jacket, or sometimes an NFL windbreaker or Old Navy jersey.  Or, as in my husband’s case, a Big Dog dark purple sweatshirt.

No matter what the attire, everyone has the same stoic looks on their faces of born-again certitude.  It is the sort of look that surely adorned the same faces during the halftime speeches of their high school football coaches.  The soldiers listen in rapt attention, soaking up the words of wisdom like loyal, earnest puppy dogs.

The PK army I witnessed cheered a lot.  Staring intently from the multi-layered bleachers, they focused on the massive drop-down screen to absorb the impassioned words of the righteous speakers -- Suburban Prophets preaching about the honor and integrity involved with leading a promise-keeping sort of life.

“Put your wives on pedestals.”
“Be there for your children.”
“Lead your family with strength, courage, faithfulness, and integrity.”

Admirable messages, really.

On the third day of the Portland PK convention, I stood silently observing my comrades on the light-rail train into town.  We stood, packed like sardines, into the train after parking several blocks away due to the sheer number of devoted Christian followers attending the gathering on this Sunday afternoon.  I looked into the smiling, proud faces of the other predominantly white and well-dressed suburban women on this particular train car.  One woman tightly clutched her husband’s hand into her own as her huge purse dangled from her shoulder.  A pastel, calico, quilted book cover on her Bible peeked out of the top of her bag as she looked out the window of the train.  She stared blankly out the window past the homeless man in a floral skirt rifling through a garbage can, then turned her face up to project an endearing grin of pride at her square-jawed husband with the crew-cut hair.  Without even looking down at her, he squeezed her hand, gained eye contact with a fellow retirement-aged high school linebacker in pleated acid washed jeans and issued a respectful, manly half-nod at him.

I caught myself thinking that men are always looking for some sort of clubhouse, some kind of fraternity.  Promise Keepers certainly fit the bill, and it was Christian-sanctioned.  Like a modern day Elks Club, but more acceptable, respected even, by the wives who give their husbands unquestioning permission to meet and bond with other Jesus-loving jocks.

I am jaded now.  Back then, I considered myself a good Christian suburban wife and mother and felt a huge sense of confidence and security in the fact that my husband, rather than playing poker or visiting bars with his buddies, was meeting with other Christian men, reading scripture and discussing how to become a better husband and father through the word of God.

I followed my husband, grabbing his thick, meaty hand as we moved en masse with the parade of pious PK couples.  It had been a weekend event for Mike and most of the men from our church.  The PK convention was a well-planned and advertised gathering at the Rose Garden arena, beginning with a Friday night meet-and-greet and evening service.  Saturday was a day-long event, complete with individual seminars, like “Help with Marriage and Family” and “Help with Sexual Purity,” ending again with a ground prayer and something akin to saying “good game,” but more Jesus-like than smacking each other on the butt or punching each other in the shoulder.  Embracing your neighbor and giving him the strong one-pump handshake was the PK way to end a huddle.

We stood about 50 rows up.  Sunday’s events were to be the icing on the cake of the retreat, and all the men had brought their wives to share with them not only the gospel, but to participate in a mass renewal of vows.  We were surrounded by a sea of fellow PK couples numbering in the thousands, all of us there to benefit from their refresher course in Promise Keepers official instructions on how to conduct our marriages in the approved PK way.

We looked ahead dutifully, our eyes fixed on the big-screen version of the little man dressed in a suit and tie on the stage far below us.  We’d have looked with duty and reverence into his real eyes if he hadn’t been so tiny and far away.  The massive television version of him floating in the sky above the stage commanded our attention anyway.

“Dearly beloved,” he began.  In my mind, I giggled like a dorky 14-year old girl remembering my favorite Prince song that began the exact same way, but quickly collected myself and stared intently ahead again, rejoining my humorless brothers and sisters.

We chanted in a monotone hum, repeating obediently the words belted out with conviction by the little PK man on stage.  He had brought his own wife on stage with him, her head down in prayer, also repeating his pious poem of marital vows.

When it was over, there was a moment of silence, except for a few mumbled “Amens” and sighs.  Almost everyone’s head was down, and one could feel reverence lingering in the air, like a thick cloud of holy smoke.  Soon, everyone looked up again, and, with permission from the suit onstage, the men quietly shook hands of the fellow Promise Keepers next to him, the vice-grip-one-bump-shake that looked like the secret handshake of the PK; then the men turned afterwards to their wives to hug them.  No passionate kisses here, or lascivious looks of desire or longing that would indicate that wild sex would follow in the back of the minivan or the church parking lot after the service was over.  Instead, there were lukewarm, lingering hugs between dutiful husbands and wives, followed by a sigh of collective relief to have gotten through this particular string of words one more time. 

Marriage vows had been resealed, like Tupperware. 
We had renewed them as a herd.

We filed out again through the cold metal turnstiles one couple at a time, slowly escaping the group vow renewal.  I felt like a part of a herd of silent and God-fearing cattle, waiting for the slightly numbing effects of the whole ordeal to either sink in or wear off.  Ranks of golf-shirted PK volunteers flanked the exits, holding mass quantities of 18” x 24” cardboard-backed, vacuum-sealed, cellophane copies of large diploma-like certificates to testify and remind our friends and family that we had renewed our vows on this day.  I wondered for a moment if I were supposed to frame it.  If I did, where was I supposed to hang it?  Over the fireplace?  Over my bed?  I wanted to say “What the hell?” when the PK guy looked over my head as he handed it to me, but I was afraid of being inappropriate and violating the orderliness of our parade to the exit.

Back on the train to the suburbs, each woman gripped her shiny cellophane-wrapped diploma tightly, and stared out the window next to her husband.

Only a few months later, one of Mike’s friends from the “Men’s Accountability Group” was helping Mike move his bedroom furniture from our house.  Mike was moving out after what I now refer to as "The Big Bang", and he'd enlisted a fellow Promise Keeper to help him deconstruct our home and belongings.  Matt looked into the garage to take inventory of which items needed to be loaded into the back of his red pick-up truck. 

There, against the wall, were the disassembled remnants of our bedroom -- the headboard, dresser, mirror, and nightstand -- the furniture I’d shared with my husband for almost 17 years.

I’d washed and folded the sheets and packed them in a box.  Matt silently loaded everything into the car along with Mike’s golf clubs, camping equipment, boxes of miscellaneous items, and some tools.  When almost everything was out of the garage, he asked me if there was anything else that belonged to Mike.  I quietly eyed the almost empty room. 

The huge Promise Keeper diploma announcing our renewed vows leaned against the wall, flanked by a stray dust bunny.

“Just one more thing,” I said, as I handed him the still cellophane-wrapped certificate.

{ exerpt from upcoming E-book, Before the Light }

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