My earliest memories used to be close to me, the jumble of them kept around like a lucky coin I could touch when I needed to know the truth of things. But then my head became full of more important things, like keeping another human alive or not ending up in the news for saying something dumb to a classroom full of teen tyrants. Recently I found a flash drive full of old essays and remembered with dismay a host of things I thought I’d never forget. Like Pandora’s box, the heap of them came pouring out. Also like Pandora’s box, only one left me with any tangible sense of hope.
The reels bleed into one another, long fumbling scenes of house fires and birthday parties, nightmares and 80’s workout videos (no relation to the two), carrot cake and Great Danes and more house fires. Beneath them all is a memory that used to be my favorite, dusty, but still retaining some of the magic it once held.
I am three and I am in the living room with our cleaning lady, Lois, who also attended our church. Maybe it is the living room or maybe it is some other space, presumably the same where my parents inserted workout videos into a VCR and whirled their arms backward and forward, backward and forward, the exertion of their jumping jacks rattling the single pane windows of the old stone house we lived in. In my memory there is a braided rug on the floor, though that seems unlikely given my mother’s taste in decor and the fact that I’ve never known her to have a braided rug in any of the many houses where we lived. I do know there is a rug, because I am kneeling on it and praying with her- Lois that is, not my mother. I have very few memories of praying with my mother until I was 11 when, after the divorce, she would have us all get into the bunk bed she shared with my sister so we could round-robin our daily prayers before getting ready for school. Inevitably, my brother and I would fall back to sleep before our turns and, inevitably, my sister or mother would cluck disapprovingly and recant the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane instructing his disciples to stay awake, at which point I would make a more concerted half-hearted effort to keep my eyelids open while wearily accepting that fact that I was both a sloth and a sinner who would never have the chops to hack it as a disciple. Perhaps by then she had realized the imminent danger we were all in but not that our perfunctory effort through the remedial Focus on the Family devotional was a poor substitute for a licensed psychologist.
Anyway, in 1986, I knelt next to Lois on a braided or not-braided rug with hands folded and head bent, and I earnestly and with every ounce of physical effort I could muster toward a spiritual act, asked Jesus to come and live inside my heart. I imagine that afterward we both stood up, dusted our knees, and exclaimed, “well, that’s taken care of” before turning to plump the cushions on the couch. For years, I would deliver that folded-hand exchange as a means of appeasement when asked for my testimony, when asked to define the singular moment I locked in my membership to Club Christian. For years also, I would subscribe to the belief that a single act performed at the age of three in our living room/workout room could embody an entire relationship with the Creator of the Universe, could summarize the actuality of my faith.
Even as I write this, I am still faced with the confusion of what that moment actually meant to me. On the one hand, it retains a sacred sort of significance- the first tangible understanding that human existence could extend beyond the physical realm. On the other hand, it seems trite, as though repeating back a series of words I had no comprehension of could hold any meaning beyond allowing someone to sleep easier at night. Then again, I loved our Lois. I loved her sincere love for me and my siblings and later, I loved her sincere and relentless faith. And that moment- that fragile, minute-long moment that I nearly forgot in recent years- was the basis for a narrative that would run parallel to the entire rest of my existence.
I do not blame Lois for the simplicity of that exchange. She is not responsible for turning Jesus into a replicable, sellable experience that could be easily transmitted to a three year-old and later transmuted into a two-minute testimony. Nor is she responsible for the subsequent years of confusion that marked my attempts at understanding what it all meant. Though those early memories are hazy, one thing I’m sure of is that I was already trying to make sense of what it could mean. I was the only known skeptic in my Sunday school class, sniffing out the incongruities displayed among the felt-board characters and trying desperately to figure out why God didn’t actually catch me when I fell. I often put the theory to the test. While lying in bed at night, I would roll to the edge of the mattress and dangle first an arm and then a leg. I would teeter there for just a moment, squeeze my eyes shut, concentrate on summoning God and his Host of Angels to reach out their hands and catch me, and let my body plummet heavily toward the floor. That God never intervened didn’t deter me; I was certain he had more important things to tend to and suspected that, were he to answer, it would mitigate the necessity for believing. Later, I read a Bible verse about how we shouldn’t God, and I stopped falling out of bed.
But I continued to speak to God with the certainty that he could hear me and the expectation that he would one day speak back. I will never know if those conversations began because Lois took me aside in the living room and my parents trotted me off to church each Sunday or if those conversations had already been taking place. Were they the result of a belief in the existence of God or did that belief stem from the intuited sensation of a presence known even at an early age? Later, years later, I would try to rid myself of the belief itself, of the obligations and rituals and fear incumbent in not believing, but I would not be able to rid myself of the conversations, of the presence I viscerally experienced in solitude.
Faith is a funny thing. It is a penchant toward the invisible, a sustained relationship with the unseen. But does it stem from an intuitive feeling or from an intellectual knowing? Do we believe because we sense an accompanying presence or do we believe because we are told something is and therefore choose it to be so? The extremes of Christian theology pit the two ideas against each other. On one end, faith is seen solely as an intellectual commitment, and on the other, faith and reason stand in opposition to one another- knowledge inhibits faith. There are complicated and detailed arguments in both camps and all the ones in between. I have slept in both. But I have concluded that my own faith would not have been sustainable were it not for the ongoing, tangible sensation of the accompanying presence I have felt since I was a small child.
I have visited churches all across the country. I have watched men fight and squabble and sweat over a single line of scripture in order to justify the laws they have created, in order to justify church orders and denominational positions and particular stances that ultimately support positions of power, that ultimately subvert, and subdue, and suppress. I have listened to arguments that have dragged on for days, weeks, months, and years, arguments that have split churches, wrecked marriages, torn apart families, and ended people’s faith entirely. Because they needed certainty. Because the rules mattered more than the relationship. Because the knowing was more important than the silent, sacred conversation.
That is not the kind of faith I subscribe to any longer.
The promise Elohim makes is of his presence. Faith is the surrender that enables us to connect to it. It is the gift unearned, the realization of the thing that has always been so.
I wonder if a three year-old might have understood such a thing. I think so. I think it’s only the grownups that make it all so complicated.