I declined to answer a question about religion the last time I participated in one of those ubiquitous meme quiz thingies. Not that I'm terribly ashamed of whatever it is that I believe; it's just that much of the trouble in this world - not all of the trouble, and perhaps not most of it, but still a goodly portion - seems to stem from an endless traffic wreck of various theologies, and who wants to contribute to that? The fewer people who talk about their faith, the better, I think. Still, I've been musing on religion lately, and I'm reminded of my long-gone church-going days, and the particular Sunday I got my bona fides as a Baptist.
By the way: You know about Baptists, right? No half-hearted sprinkling of water upon unwitting infants for that denomination. Baptists go for a more immersive experience as old John advocated back in the day. Moreover, it takes a conscious profession of faith to enter the club, an answering of the call. Real "come to Jesus" stuff.
Imagine a boy in his early teens, dutifully attending services - Sunday school every week with the bi-weekly bonus of full church services led by the imposing Reverend Abrams*, whom my church shared with another house of God some miles distant. I say 'dutifully,' yet perhaps not wholeheartedly. Church attendance was not optional in my family - not with my grandmother on the choir and my grandfather among the deacons - but willing engagement was another matter. As hymns soared heavenward, my thoughts ever strayed to the comforts of a peanut and jelly sandwich, a bottle of grape Nehi, and The NFL Today. Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, Phyllis George (a former Miss America, even), Jimmy the Greek. The Dallas Cowboys vs. anybody. Sweet chariot, carry me home!
I came to dread those Sundays that featured actual church service not just because time ground to a halt, but because of the call to redemption, the moment in each service when the good reverend would descend from the pulpit to stand before the pews, arms outstretched in welcome, all while the choir sang of penitence.
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
And the congregation watched. Even while it sang, it watched, the communal eye fixed on some young man or woman old enough to make the decision for Christ. Would this be the day? Sometimes it was: the young adult would take those faltering steps up the aisle to be embraced by the pastor and held up, amid hosannas and praise, as a lamb returned to the flock. A couple of weeks would pass until the next full Sunday, when the floor behind the pulpit was raised on hinges to reveal a great sunken basin, a pool full of water - shiveringly cold water - made gray and murky with God's grace. The congregation would gather around as Reverend Abrams descended into the pool, followed by the initiate. The pastor would lay his hands upon his charge and intone the mighty words:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
And splash! Down into the water went the initiate, and up again quickly, sputteringly, into a life washed clean of sin. More praise, more hymns, and - a quick change of clothing later - a sermon dedicated to this new Christian existence.
Often, however, the call was not answered. On such occasions, the pastor would lower his arms, always looking a bit disappointed, and return to the pulpit as the hymns died away. This moment always filled me with relief as the suspension of time seemed now lifted and I might get home in time for kickoff. There was another element to my relief, however, surely more keenly felt by those a bit older than me: they knew that they had evaded God's spotlight, the laying bare of the self before judgment, the terror of the call. But sooner or later, they all answered - unless they dropped out of church altogether. The stare of the communal eye simply could not be resisted.
On one Sunday, I realized - somewhat belatedly - that the eye was now fixed on me. The pastor, the choir, everyone sitting behind me (I'm sure), all watching me. In that moment, my terror began.
Silent terror, to be sure. No adult came right out and suggested that it was high time I got myself good and baptized. My mother never said anything. Even my grandparents, both active in the church, remained silent on the matter. That was their genius; unspoken disappointment was much more powerful than anything mere words could convey. Greg, my younger brother, shrugged. "Better you than me," he said. He could afford to laugh. He was two years younger.
About a month passed before I did what had to be done. As I rose tentatively from the pew and moved into the aisle, it seemed to me that no one was surprised. My mother looked pleased. Other young people looked relieved that someone else had drawn the heat, as it were. Everybody else? They looked satisfied.
Reverend Abrams smiled broadly as he placed a strong hand on my shoulder; he turned me toward the congregation. Another lamb come home. I felt like a fugitive snared in a dragnet. Not charitable given the issues involved, but there it is.
The next two weeks flew by.
I arrived on the fateful day with a spare change of clothing to accompany my Sunday best. Dunking clothes: a t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, all of which I donned immediately after Sunday school. I was given a thin white cotton gown to wear and was made to wait in an anteroom as the preparations were made. I heard songs, some kind of address from one of the deacons, discussion of some church business, more hymns. About twenty minutes passed before I was ushered out and onto the steps of the baptismal tank. The good reverend awaited me there, waist-deep in the transformative waters. The congregation pressed against the dais - a big crowd, I remember thinking. Following a cue, I stepped down into the water. At first it wasn't cold, then all of a sudden it seemed freezing. I sloshed my way over to the pastor, who turned me around and placed one hand on the back of my head, another on my chest, all while saying something I couldn't quite follow. I heard the words "Holy Ghost" and suddenly I was underwater. All sound stopped, drowned in the cold water. And then, just as abruptly, I was up again. And sputtering.
I was quickly wrapped in a towel; accompanied by Greg and his best friend, Jerry, I left the church by way of a back door. I entered the church kitchen, a separate and rickety building that, if I remember correctly, had once served as an extra classroom for the nearby elementary and had actually been moved via truck to its new location. The room was unheated and unkempt and was stocked with castoff furniture and appliances. This is where I was to change back onto my dry Sunday attire. Then I would return to the church proper where I would sit in the front pew for the traditional post-baptismal sermon.
While I dried off as quickly as I could and began to change into my suit, Greg kept asking animated questions about what the experience had been like. Jerry amused himself in the meantime with an old ball peen hammer he had found in a drawer. Pretending to be the mighty Thor - a fairly heathen activity considering where we were - he swung the hammer in vicious arcs, this way and that.
At some point during what turned out to be Jerry's final swing of the hammer, the head of the ancient tool broke away from its handle. It flew across the room, coming to an abrupt halt when it struck me in the right temple.
The room turned white for just a second. I fell to my knees, not from the impact of the projectile so much as sheer surprise. Then, of course, came the pain.
Jerry blathered some kind of apology that I really can't recall. I took some time recovering but managed to regain my feet and finish dressing. Greg asked if he should go fetch someone; I told him no. Part of it was pure embarrassment, I'm certain, but part of it may have been that in some way, I figured I had it coming.
This is the closest thing to a religious experience I've ever had.
The Scriptures tell us that God is not mocked. I do believe though, with utter conviction, that He is easily amused.
(All names changed except those of my brother and the hosts of The NFL Today circa 1975.)
(Throroughly cross-posted. Many apologies for the length.)