5th grade, from the back row of chairs at a small-town weeknight Baptist revival
Silent tears, rolling down my face. He said if I want to give my heart to Jesus, I should come forward. It’s like a magnet, this force, pulling at my chest, propelling me to the front. But I’m afraid to be the first one, so I fight the pull. Tears stream continuously as my heart is tugged forward.
8th grade, lying in the swath of light from the hallway, while my mom and dad think I’m sleeping
A quiet, kindly man, hovering somewhere in the heavens. Kind of like a grandpa. Yes, I know he loves me, but the Bible isn’t all that interesting. Only the words in red mean anything, but even those, with all the verilys and thees and thous, don’t hold my attention for long. I pray through my checklist daily: Now I lay me down to sleep. The Lord’s Prayer, because my grandma said I should say it every day. Forgive me of all my sins, and help me to become more religious. Heal the sick and handicapped. Keep me safe. Thank you for everything. Check, check, check. Forty or fifty check marks every night. Big, general wishes, always the same, trying to stay on his good side — like the good girl I am.
Age 22, attending Mass
Holy, far-away God, keeping watch over this beautiful church. Light glinting through painted glass. The hush of an empty church, cold radiating from chiseled stone, the majesty of a big God. Our prayers, offered in unity, rise through the morning to Him in the heavens. When I pray, hundreds are speaking the same words, giving our prayers a special kind of power. I kneel, full of respect, praying for blessings and protection, certain that he hears, glad to be part of something important. I leave, wishing I could have this feeling at home.
Age 22, the briefest glimpse of a personal God
My husband, Tim, raised in the Catholic Church, is my sponsor, but he’s outside — and I’m on my own, being interviewed by Sister Pat, the last step before I can join the Church. She once asked us to imagine the place in this world in which we feel the safest, and then to imagine that safe place is God. Newly married, that was easy —leaning back, encircled by Tim’s arms, eyes closed, quiet, feeling his strength around me, secure in the knowledge of his love for me. I stammer, trying to articulate the vague insight I had glimpsed between the love of my husband and the love God has for me — simultaneously nervous to speak out loud this private revelation and frightened by the power of a personal, romancing God. As I struggle to find the words, her velvety soft, aging face lights up with joy.
Age 26, a new mom
I can hardly pray. All I can do is bow my head in humbling reverence.
Age 31, weeks after starting to attend a friend’s Pentecostal church
I love the music here. But I can’t sing like they can. Loud, full of life, with gusto. I don’t even sing in front of my husband. I have a horrible voice. God, I wish I could sing for you.
“I JUST WANT YOU HERE.”
I can hardly breathe. I don’t want to move, afraid of losing the moment. I’ve never heard from God before.
Age 32, sitting in the back of what is now my church
I glance up and see Jesus. Standing there, unaware of anyone else, my friend Peg has her head bowed and hands extended, showing me what I’ve never seen before: Jesus as a reachable, touchable God. He leans towards her, his forehead gently resting against hers, tenderly holding her hands. Quiet, private, personal. The intimacy makes me gasp. I might hold out my hands, too, if I thought he would hold me back.
Age 36, alone late at night in my living room
Someone at church testified about feeling, for just that moment, like she was God’s favorite. I’ve never felt that. I’m tired of doubting. No longer. I want more. The atmosphere is charged, electric, the weight of it on my chest forcing shallow breaths. Show me, Lord, how to yield my will. Show me how to take that next step closer to you. You’ll have to do it because I feel ridiculous and incompetent. My faith is so weak. But you are strong, God. You are righteous, and holy, and kind. You are my light, and my strength, and my salvation. I can’t believe you love me this much. I can’t believe I’m your favorite, even if it’s just for this moment. The fluttery wings of butterflies in my stomach take me back to when I was 14 and a boy first boldly whispered his love for me. But I know this is the real thing.
Age 37, standing waist-deep in the baptistry
Feeling my clothes pressed to my skin by the warmth of the water, I cling to Pastor Nathan’s hands as we pray. Even before going into the swirling baptismal waters, peace washed over me in long, slow waves of certainty. I’m not here out of fear for my soul — God’s had me, heart and soul, for years — but because my God asked me to do this. The prayers of my pastors wash over me in waves as tangible as the ones in which I was submerged moments before. No longer the innocent, blushing bride, I am the cherished wife who knows that this life built together is better than the exhilarating rush of new love, who trusts in their relationship as an entity so real it has an identity of its own. God and me, together forever.
Age 41, at the altar
Lying on my side, head resting on the Bible, I try to bring my watery eyes into focus. My world has been rocked. Mom has cancer. Breathe. Aggressive, metastatic cancer. Pull yourself together. I look up at the elegant altar, trying not to blame God, but unable to stem the flow of tears pouring out of me. My prayer is a plea — wordless, desperate. Help me. I can’t do this. And then, as a torrent of turbulent emotions rolls over me, only one word remains. Please. I’m drowning in these waves, topsy-turvy, disoriented, knocked under without any breath left in my lungs. More tears, more silent pleas, punctuated only by my sobs, deep, wrenching, painful. An awareness of a presence — but silence. A big, majestic silence.
Age 43, during worship at my church
I’ve tried to be a Godly woman, speaking the words of faith and belief that were expected of me. I didn’t realize this path of outward righteousness would lead me to the valley of dry bones. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that a 70-year-old woman should have cancer. But I’m tired of praising God for all he has done because, frankly, I don’t think what he has done so far has been all that great.
Age 43, a few weeks later, praying in the sanctuary
I put up walls, not to push out the worldly things but to keep God from getting too close. I hold up one hand in worship as though I am free and unguarded, while holding fast to the back of the pew with the other, fully grounded. When I pray, I pray with my journal and Bible open on my lap, props that keep me from appearing before God on my own, alone, face to face. I don’t have to acknowledge my lack of if all these devices are there to fill the gap. It’s like keeping the TV on in the background so you won’t feel like you’re alone in the house.
And it’s a complete and total farce.
At times I sit on the floor beside him, quietly, feeling his presence — not talking, but companionable. I remain closed, though, stubbornly curled around myself. If I let myself acknowledge the disappointment and disillusionment that have devoured me since I lost Mom — and even before that — I might disintegrate. Without facing this, though, there will be no healing, no resolution, no more intimacy with the God who is supposed to sustain me, the One who once changed me and cherished me and spoke to me. The One I’ve very nearly forgotten.
So I pray, eyes closed tight against the people and movement and worship all around me, willing myself back into that place I once knew, the place of surrender, the place where I can be vulnerable. As the walls lower — no, as I pry the bricks out of the crumbling mortar, painstakingly, one by one, tearing my fingers to shreds — tears consume me. Wordless gratitude mixed with equal parts fear. Fragile, exposed, I don’t want to risk. And then, suddenly, these words are impressed upon my heart: “I can’t be your balm…” And I know that I know that I know the rest: unless I offer Him my wounds.
When at last I emerge from that private audience with Grace, still trembling, freshly soaked in the viscous balm of His mercy, I raise my eyes to the altar, one of my God’s many thrones. No longer the silent, imposing place of the God who withheld from me, it stretches out its welcoming embrace. My pain remains, persistent but receding. My fear cowers in the face of fresh humility and blessing. I’m not yet fully healed, but I’m not nearly as alone as I thought I was. As I lift my face, I close my eyes. And hope.