|Written by Jason Brink|
|Tuesday, 20 September 2011 09:50|
I remember the feel of the springs in the pew through the thin weird burnt-orange-colored super-velvet upholstery. In front of me were the hymnals full of songs I hated to hear sung and the Bibles full of texts I felt were constantly being tortured to make stupid points for stupid people. I remember the way I used to slouch in the pew, allowing the corner of the book-holder to dig into my knee to keep me awake. Sometimes I would take the pen from the pen-holder, gummy with months of leaked ink, and scribble subversive nonsense onto the back of the tithe envelopes, or draw rebellious little figures holding swords and shields or fire-breathing dragons. Sometimes, I would draw maps of places that existed only in my mind, cobbling them together over Sabbath after Sabbath while cowering behind one of the massive slanted wooden pillars – escape maps to the countries in my mind. Anytime I listened, I would feel frustration boil up in me when I heard Pastor Strunk drone on about some pointless legality or whistle one of his incredibly self-important songs. I would see everyone sitting securely smug in the pew wearing their Sabbath-best and feeling proud of themselves for being part of the “remnant church.”
I do not begrudge my parents for raising me in the Seventh-Day Adventist faith, nor do I begrudge my father his faith. In fact, it is quite to the contrary; I know that what I saw in the walls of that church on the side of Highway 46 in Templeton, California, set me on the path to become what I am today. My parents always had the best of intentions, and had my father not been so persistent in promoting his faith among the family, I might have found it on my own and accepted it. However, it is my nature (regrettably or otherwise) to refuse to the utmost anything which I feel has been thrust upon me. The insistence that I accept that which I found to be wholly silly was one of the deciding factors that guided me to my present place of non-faith.
I clearly remember the day that Pastor Strunk made the altar-call. I was sitting apart from my family as I imagine most early teens are wont to do. For years I had been feeling the pressure to conform to a system that I didn't understand or believe in, and I didn't know what to do. I remember sitting in my Sabbath school class and listening to various well-intentioned teachers lead us through the lessons and the prayers, I remember seeing my peers professing their beliefs and being so happy in the security these beliefs afforded them. I remember trying so hard, with every cell in my body, to believe, but no matter what I did, it just seemed wrong to me. I remember spending nights in painful tears, pleading for whatever faith there might be to be given to me, so that I could just believe. There was never solace, just a cold and sickly discomfort that settled into my heart and bones.
All children have faith. They do not have faith in Jesus or in God or in any other intangible force; they have faith only in their parents. When a child is told of Santa or the Easter Bunny or Jesus, they believe. They do not believe because it makes sense, but they believe because they see the person telling them as a reliable authority on reality. However, as these children grow into adults, there comes a point where they realize that it would be impossible for a fat man to slide down a chimney with a bag of presents for every house on earth. They understand intuitively, that there isn’t a magical woman who steals teeth and replaces them with shiny quarters. For me, it was the realization that no matter how magical bible stories seemed, there was just something off about a man walking on water, something strange about a man who has unlimited strength until you cut his hair, and something just downright weird about a woman turning into salt just because. The harder I thought about it, and the most I tried to rationalize, I felt myself losing my religion – one belief at a time.
That day though, I decided to take the next step. For me, baptism was an all-or-nothing gamble for acceptance. In the movies, they always showed American Jesus™ being baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. The scene is always the same; John lifts Jesus from the water as the heavens open and a solid ray of “god light” spotlights Jesus and the voice from heaven booms, “Behold, my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” Maybe Christ had felt doubt up until that moment, so I thought I would try for my own god-light moment. I remember standing and walking stiffly to the front with some other people I now forget, and thus signaling my desire to be baptized. My father was proud and delighted, and while I was happy to have made him happy, I felt like a fraud inside.
Several days later, Pastor Strunk arrived to interview me about the baptism. The arrogant ass just pulled up and parked in the garage – I remember this clearly. Even my mild-mannered mother was irritated by his presumption. We sat at the corner of the kitchen table and discussed what baptism meant, while he looked at me seriously from beneath his plucked eyebrows and immaculately coiffed gray hair. Bible passages were read, questions asked, and he went home leaving my mother to vent her irritation as he pulled out of the driveway.
When the day of the baptism arrived, we all went to church as a family. I was sent to the special room to prepare for my spiritual rebirth. I was given the characteristic black robe that Seventh-Day Adventists wear to symbolize their culpability when it comes to the matters of sin. As I pulled the robe over my head, I recall feeling the weights in the hem knock against my legs and feeling oddly disillusioned. I didn't know the robes needed weights, and it seemed oddly corporeal for what was to be a spiritual experience. As I walked down the steps of the baptismal font to where Pastor Strunk was waiting, I was handed the cloth that was to cover my nose and mouth as I was dunked. With mechanical precision, I moved one step closer to baptism.
The baptismal itself disappointed me in some way. I don't know what I was expecting. It was a baptismal font in a modern building, so the fact it was just a big-ass bathtub probably should not have been surprising. I had never really seen it before, as it was usually covered with extremely colorful flower arrangements, but today I could see deep into the clear water all the way down to the drain with its utilitarian black plug. Behind me waited the rest of the candidates, standing patiently in their black weighted robes with their handkerchiefs, all waiting expectantly for the moment when the light of god would burst forth from the heavens.
I remember stepping down the steps into the big bathtub to where Pastor Strunk was waiting as an instrument of the divine. He led me into position, said the blessing over me, put the napkin over my mouth, and tipped me backwards into the water. That is when it happened...
...I got very, very wet. There, for that moment as I hung underwater, I waited for the feeling. I waited for the moment that I would be transformed. In the womb-like embrace of the lukewarm water, I waited for the moment where God the Father™ would reach down his hand from heaven and wrest me from the bosom of the water, thrusting me into the world like a newborn infant “Born-Again.”
When I finally broke the surface and the napkin was removed, I held my breath for a moment, waiting for the great cosmic reveal. Waiting for the moment I would join the ranks of the “saved.” I waited for the moment I would know. I waited for the moment that the powers of the Almighty would stand behind my long-failed faith and bolster it, showing me the truth behind the veil. I waited for the hand of god on my shoulder, telling the world that in this single action I had redeemed my soul from eternal damnation and exchanged the lake of fire for a golden crown. However…
There was no light...
There was no sound...
There was no rush of emotion...
There was no magic...
...only me in a wet weighted polyester robe with a wet napkin in my hand and a hole in my heart. It was a tragic moment for me, realizing that in all of this, it is up to me to accept that hole, and nobody else will ever be able to fill it for me.
The thing is this, and I have learned this after everything I have seen. People talk about the “god-shaped hole” like it is something that needs to be filled. I have to protest this concept, this hole is what makes us human. It is this hole, this recognition of our own mortality, powerlessness, and ultimate meaninglessness that sets us apart from animals. This void what makes you ache for the rest of life around you, makes you capable of feeling love and feeling hurt, makes you capable of rational thought. It is this hole that keeps you from ever being complete, but enables you to be beautiful in your incompleteness.
It wasn't long after that day that I was able to find the strength in myself to call is the way I saw it and quit attending church. It has been over a decade since I sat through a sermon (I believe I have gone to several random Catholic masses with my mother and grandmother, but I see that as an entirely different category). Most of the people I grew up with in the church have found their own ways, many of them still within the church.
Each weekend, they meet and clutch their Bibles and look at world events to determine when the inevitable Second Coming of Christ will happen, calling the “sinner” to atone for their sins. Each night, if they think too hard, they feel the weight of reality pressing down upon them. Instead of facing their doubts and reevaluating, they call it a “crisis of faith” and pray harder, wringing their hands in anguish as their mind attempts to rationalize the irrational input confronting it. Each weekend they come together to confess their shortcomings and to be justified by the projected faith of others around them.
While they do this, I laugh. I am not laughing at them; I could not care less what they do. Rather, I am laughing at the whole silly beautiful mess that life and our existence on this planet. No matter what happens in the end, we are here, we have lived, we have loved, and if this is all there is, I am ok with that idea.