“And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
When I was in my first year of college a pentecostal preacher in a one-room schoolhouse of a church told me if I didn’t beg for God (or Christ, the details are hazy there) to come into my heart I would die. “Do or die.” were his exact words.
My family had decided to go to Pensacola to visit my aunt at the last minute, and having nothing else to do I tagged along. A devout pentecostal known for attending church at least twice on Sundays, we were expected to attend church with her. Here the details become hazy again, but I remember thinking we would get to go to the buffet after, so it seemed a fair exchange. At the time I was still a believer, but I was not evangelical. I believed religion should be personal, not some gauche accessory you brandished at people to show how evolved you were.
So anyway, my aunt dragged us along with her to visit a church at which she was a guest soloist. The church was old and composed of one room and a bathroom conveniently located at the entrance of the church. It smelled a lot like urine and sweat. Everyone wore their best except my parents, my sister, my cousins, and me. Decked out in jeans and a t-shirt, I slouched in the back of the church next to my cousin.
At any pentecostal church it isn’t really over until the holy ghost has swept through the building wrestling condemned souls from the bored yet overworked hands of satan, so there was a long period of people being guilted down the aisle to be pressed violently back from the altar. I supposed that if a mild concussion didn’t follow your encounter with christ it didn’t take.
Sometime during the service the preacher received a message from The Lord. He said, “someone in here is in danger. The Lord says “do or die.”” Clearly the person for whom the message was intended was supposed to make their way to the altar and fall prone, begging for forgiveness. My heart began beating wildly in my chest. I wasn’t particularly drawn to Sin, though I had attended my share of parties and underage drinking was involved. But I felt the approximate amount of guilt, so like the others I stared around searching for the guilty party. I remember eyeing my cousin thinking it might be her, since she was obviously much more likely to sin than I. As I was compelling her to the altar with my eyes the preacher shouted “You!” His finger looked like the branch of a tree as it pointed to me. I jumped and pointed to myself, absurdly. “You!” He shouted again.
My first thought wasn’t relief. It was fear. Not the fear of the lord, which I never did master. It was the fear of death. I had carried the fear as a form of anxiety from the time I was twelve. I believed death to be constantly lurking around the corner ready to catch me unaware. To hear that God had Death on a leash waiting for me to not beg him back was terrifying.
On shaking legs not my own I stumbled to the altar, tears blinding me. My heart was beating so fast then it kept pace with the wild music that welcomed the holy spirit.
Knees buckled and fastened to the altar I prayed aloud, “forgive me!”
I wasn’t sure what I was asking forgiveness for, but I asked anyway. When I was released, my soul firmly in check for the lord, I didn’t feel relief. I didn’t hear the voice that told the pastor I was in mortal danger in the first place. I felt humiliation that I had to be called; clearly those present knew the love of the lord and, were it not for this pastor, I would have likely died on the steps of the church.
Immediately after the humiliation came doubt. If God wanted me so badly, why didn’t he ask for me himself?
In the years since that moment I moved from pentecostal to non-denominational to spiritual to catholic to agnostic and now atheist. Or maybe I’m still agnostic.
The anchor that the preacher from the little pentecostal church in Florida cast about my soul is still in me. Occasionally the fear of not doing wraps itself so tightly around my neck it becomes difficult to breathe. At the time of the great humiliation I assumed the “doing” was repenting of all sins and asking for forgiveness and love. Now I question, as everyone questions, compulsory love: if I pretend to love you, will you not hurt me? If I tell you everything I’ve ever done, will you let me live?
Is it blasphemous that, on Sunday, as I do every Sunday, I will take my children to church to pray to a God I don’t believe in?
Is it blasphemous that I have anticipated the questions my children will ask? That I will tell them we live in a world where people hurt you for not being what they want and the God will be the first?
He chastises you because he loves you. No, whomever you love shouldn’t do that because it’s manipulative and wrong. But he who loves you most of all? He will do this and humiliate you because he loves you. He gives and he takes away.