If I had to name the god of my early adult years, I would name it Saved.
At the same time I was making kissy face with my first girlfriend, watching a sheep’s vagina explode, and punching a football player, I met Jason Foster. He wore those stupid Know Jesus Know Peace, No Jesus No Peace t-shirts. He and I became friends… despite the stupid t-shirts. One day at the end of lunch, as we were walking back into the school building, he incredulously asked me “you think we came from monkeys?!” It was the first time anyone had questioned my belief in evolution and, the way Jason said it, it made me wonder if I was wrong. Or maybe I misunderstood him and he meant that monkeys were wrong. They do throw shit at people in zoos.
I went home and grabbed my family bible. It was a big fucking bible with four different translations of the text on each page. I wasn’t sure which one I was supposed to read so I picked the one all the way to the left and read the beginning of the Genesis story. It was weird and the English wasn’t easy to read but it felt good to do something spiritual.
I told Jason that I had read the bible. Later in our friendship he told me that he took it as a sign that I was searching for something or that God was “softening my heart.” I also found out later on that Jason and his friends at his church were praying for me. A few weeks after I told Jason about reading my family bible, he invited me to his church. I laughed and said no. A few weeks after that, he invited me again. I said yes.
There was this smoking hot chick named Carrie that was in my computer science class. She had this big, hairsprayed hair and a tiny red car. She and her hair picked me up and drove me to the First Baptist Church of Lafayette, Louisiana. I don’t remember much of the ride there, other than sitting in Carrie’s passenger seat with my nerves building. When we got to the church, we went up to the Youth Building where Jason, Carrie, and a few other people I knew from school were part of a group of about 50 junior high and high school kids. There was this big, muscle-bound adult named Roger with a flat top haircut who was the Youth Minister, whatever that meant. All I knew was that Jason and Carrie liked Roger so he must have been a decent guy, despite the weird hanging-out-with-minors thing.
Everyone was nice, just like at my grandparent’s Methodist church, and there was this slightly nerdy feel to everything… but they were all so warm and welcoming and accepting. People hugged each other. People hugged me. People called each other “brother” and “sister.” After we spent some time in the Youth Building, we went to the main building to hear a guest speaker for something called a Revival Service. This man was named Junior Hill and, honestly, I can’t tell you a single thing he said that night. I just remember that, at the end of the service, they did something called an Altar Call for people to accept Jesus into their hearts. You were supposed to walk up to the front of the church and pray with the people standing up there. I’m sure there were many hugs and proclamations of brotherhood and sisterhood involved. I guess Jesus was there, too, with a box full of knick knacks he was going to put in people’s hearts to add a personal touch to his new living space.
As we all sang, I was a tightly wound bundle of nerves. I wanted whatever these people had but there was no way in hell I was walking up to the front of the church with over 1,000 people watching me. It was almost like the guy up front, Reverend Perry Sanders, was tuned into my spiritual frequency because he kept extending the Altar Call. “I feel like there’s someone else here tonight who needs to make a decision for Jesus,” he said, “so, we’ll sing another verse to give you time to come up front.” I nervously fidgeted with my fingers, amazed by this man’s Jedi powers.
What I learned later is that Jason’s girlfriend pointed out my nervous fidgeting and mouthed to Jason the suggestion to ask me if I wanted to go the front of the church. Jason, like many wise men throughout history, did what his ladyfriend asked him to do. He leaned down to me and asked me if I wanted to go up and pray. Relieved that someone was willing to support me, I told him that I did.
The whole pew of high school kids -who had all been praying for me and watching me the entire Altar Call- slid backwards to make way for me and Jason as we scooted down to the side aisle. I walked up front with Jason and was met by the big, beefy dude named Roger. He knelt down on one knee and had me do the same. As we knelt in the world’s smallest football huddle, Roger fed me a few words at a time that I was supposed to pray out loud. He kept this up until I had prayed what is known as the Sinner’s Prayer. He then gave me a huge bear hug. I had no idea what I had done but I knew that it felt good and that Jason, Carrie, Roger, and everyone else were totally pumped up that I had prayed and said I wanted to join their church. As suspected, there was much hugging and brothering.
I was saved.
Granted, I didn’t know what the hell it meant that I had been “saved” but it felt really, really good.
I brought my Catholic playbook with me into the Baptist Church and realized pretty quickly that this Jesus was different than the Jesus I grew up with. However, learning the new playbook had interesting moments.
One service we Youth were sitting upstairs in the balcony and Reverend Sanders, aka “Brother Perry,” asked us to flip somewhere in the bible to follow along with him as he read. Everyone around me whipped almost immediately to the text and I just sat there not sure which direction I even needed to go from the middle of my bible. The girl next to me flipped my bible over to where we were supposed to be. It was hard for me to think about anything other than the few pieces of paper between her hands and my junk but I remember internalizing that I needed to learn the bible better if I wanted to be like these people.
I eventually figured out that Brother Perry didn’t have Jedi powers. He always extended the altar call. I became one of the regulars and groaned just like they did as he pleaded with nonexistent people to come forward and accept Jesus into their nonexistent hearts.
The summer after I was saved, we went to a church camp in Panama City Beach, Florida. If you’re not familiar with these events here’s how to sum them up: carbohydrates and sugar, lack of sleep, emotional decisions for Jesus on the second-to-last night based largely on diet and exhaustion. Anyway, I wasn’t familiar with the pattern. This was all new to me. Every day was filled with singing about Jesus, learning about Jesus, playing on the beach with friends, eating carbs and drinking soda, and trying to not stare at the hot college chaperones.
On the second to last night, Big Beefy Roger stood up and asked us to identify where we were spiritually, based on the parable we had just learned about. I stood up and identified myself as one of the group who was being choked out by the worries of the world. As the handful of us in that group stood, Roger led us in a prayer for change. I sat down and then Roger then asked the whole group which of us were like the plant that bears fruit and multiplies. I wanted to be that, desperately, so I stood with that group as a pledge to Jesus that I wanted to be one of these people. Roger’s jaw dropped when he looked at me and I realized I must have done something wrong. No one had told me you could only stand up one time. My Catholic playbook led me into a place I wasn’t supposed to go. I realized that I really needed to be more Baptist.
Fast forward to the end of my senior year of high school. I had the stupid Jesus TShirts. I threw out all of my secular music and listened to DC Talk, Pray for Rain, and the Newsboys. I went to church Sunday Morning, Sunday Night, and Wednesday Evenings. I took a class on Evangelism on Mondays. I only dated Christian girls. I had pledged to not have sex until I was married. I read my bible voraciously. I didn’t say shit or fuck or asshole or even any Spanish or French curse words anymore. Not only had I drank the Cool Aid but I was homebrewing it by the gallon for others to consume. Jesus had changed everything in my life.
Well, almost everything.
My heart sank one day as I read the book of Deuteronomy.
A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.
I’d always felt wrong. Like something dark was growing in me. Like a fucked up, twisted freak. Now I knew that God felt the same way about me. I mean, the word detest isn’t exactly a weak word. A boy doesn’t play with his sister’s Barbie swimming pool. A boy doesn’t feel more comfortable with the girls. A boy doesn’t want to wear dresses. A boy doesn’t even think about putting on lipstick. A boy doesn’t have to hold a lid over a part of himself screaming that he isn’t himself.
“God,” I prayed, “please forgive me for that. I don’t want it. I renounce it. I ask you to wash the memories of it in Jesus’ blood.”
Surely something as evil as feeling at home in the world and ways of women couldn’t be named directly. That was something that could never be spoken of, even with a God that lived in my heart. Surely, if I asked Jesus in just the right way and he saw that I meant it, he’d answer a genuine prayer for forgiveness and transformation. If he didn’t then maybe I just had to keep trying, believing harder, and finding another path up this mountain.
My friends at church all had it together. They were so happy. Jesus had made them so close to perfect… and I was the flawed freak hiding in plain sight among them. I heard the jokes told at the expense of The Gays and The Crossdressers and The Backslidden. I told the jokes as well, just so I didn’t feel like the spotlight was shining so fucking brightly on me.
In my mind, the worst thing that could ever happen was for these people I went to church with -or anyone at all- to see that I was not as normal as they were. So, I hid, I repressed, and I lied. Not direct lies. Lies of omission. I just didn’t tell anyone that I wasn’t as perfect as they were. Or that I always had one hand firmly pressed down on the lid that I had placed over a piece my heart.
I never articulated it, nor did anyone say it to me, but it was clear to me that this was the cost of belonging. I had to conform. Even if that meant part of myself always remained hurting, hated, and hidden.
I started to feel a crack forming in the façade of this god named Saved but, this time, I couldn’t walk away from it as easily as I had walked away from Obligation and Nothing.
Jesus really had changed everything.
Part 4: A God named Rigid