I was plunged into the luke-warm water, trying to remain in the sarcophagus position I was advised to hold. Awkwardly cradled in the ex-Nazi fighter pilots arms, I was exhumed from the watery grave with a ceremonial ring of water arching from my body.
“Do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
“Yes,” came my mousy reply.
The music started, the same song always played for baptisms, just as there was a song for funerals and matrimony, this way the elderly members of the church had a clue for their required response.
I dragged myself out of the tepid waters, weighed down by the needlessly baggy clothing I had been provided with, even when they clung to you, they left a mystery in all the folds. I don’t know whose clothes they were, they weren’t mine, they must have resided at the church solely for emergency baptisms, or fools like me who only came equipped with a swimsuit.
The next in line for emersion was waiting patiently with a stoic look on his face. This one had even prepared a speech; savior’s pet. The only active part I took in my baptism was choosing who would perform it for me, a family friend who I felt most comfortable with. Otherwise, this whole endeavor was my mother’s doing.
There was much hinting in the weeks before the ceremony. These were disguised as part of the announcement, “we will be having a baptism coming up, if anyone else feels inclined to participate in a symbolic rebirth through Jesus, please inquire with your nearest elder.” My mom took this as a direct message aimed at me. I was the last of my age group that hadn’t yet partaken in this watery ritual. But, most likely, this was just their attempt to get the most out of a tank full of water. Even pensioners blessed with spiritual bounty only have so much material wealth to spare. It’s easy to look back on this occasion and put the blame entirely on my mother, although she is completely to blame for the ridiculous haircut I was sporting at the time, which repeatedly had me mistaken for a boy. I undoubtedly had some motives of my own. I felt the unworthiness as the tray of wine and bread bypassed me during the morning communion, the shame of my unadorned head when I was surrounded by lace. All of my friends had already been baptized by the time they were 6, some even claimed to have done so several times, and here I was 12, one birth short of the rest. What was most likely my main hindrance in perusing the matter could be attributed to my crippling shyness; the whole process of approaching the elders and having to undergo the mandatory Q&A, to ensure that no pagan was trying to sneak a dip.
As I made my way stage left upon leaving the tank I was handed a towel and given some hugs and pats accompanied by remarks of well-wishing. An added perk of any occasion in the church when you were young were the gifts. Most of them ended up being dunces, objects with feel good spiritual scriptures scrawled all over them, obvious re-gifts, but sometimes there was the odd gem, namely edible goods. I didn’t even mind the books. If anything, they helped my sleep better at night. They would become part of my nightly ritual. I had a fear of evil spirits, stemming from bible camp demon stories, and thought if I read some sort of spiritual text before going to bed it would create an invisible shield around me. But, as it turned out, I was only able to sleep more peacefully after I had given up the holy ghost. A standard gift for a baptism, for a girl anyways, was a head covering. I unfortunately had mine made for me by Florence. She was a sweet lady, she perhaps came a little too close to your face and held your arm a bit too tight when speaking to you, but she desired to reside in that grandmotherly role among us youth. Little did she understand that the young are cruel, especially when it comes to the elderly, and sweets are the only surefire guarantee of loyalty.
As I wore the elongated doily she had handcrafted for me, I enviously looked at my friend’s quaint lacy accessories. It looked even odder perched atop my big curly hair. Like a delicately fashioned landing strip for Jesus to find his way home into my soul.
Years later when we changed to a more liberal church, I was no longer obligated to wear a head covering. I was more than happy to retire my doily. Some still set in their ways held on to the custom a little longer, but soon assimilated to the hair liberation. Women were also allowed to speak and participate in the service here. Baptism’s still occurred, but it was no longer to prove to the church you were devout, but as part of a personal, spiritual journey.
The warm and welcoming environment with feel good sermons was a nice change from the fire and brimstone scare tactics I had grown accustomed to. But at this point it was already too late. I had seen the dark side of religion and the anger was already brewing.
My previous church couldn’t exactly be labeled a cult, but it did share some the qualities. This included kicking out members whose ways of life they didn’t agree with; a single father who started dating another Christian woman, a mentally ill man who’s mumbling during communion was determined as too distracting and disrespectful to god, and our youth pastor, who was a Calvinist (believed in the pre-ordained). The final straw came when one of the elders was asked to leave after he had become personally bankrupt. What resulted was a Kafkaesque show trail, and the splitting of the already dwindling church.
I try to pinpoint when exactly I came to the realization of the farce I was being subjected to. There were moments of doubt and questioning, a sense that something was holding me back from giving myself up completely to the faith. It wasn’t until an intervention was held by an atheist boyfriend, who gathered my friends and presented a thoughtfully organized binder full of facts that would make any doubting Thomas quiver, that I finally confronted my beliefs. It didn’t help that my best friend Michael, who is gay, was present. He is not the confrontational type, and would never be offended by anyone’s beliefs, but when I was asked if I believed he was going to hell because he’s a homosexual, as the scripture says, he did seem a tad offended.
The scripture I was choking on was damning, and not in the way it would for a sinner seeking redemption, but as a hypocrite having a mirror held up to their lives. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t realized it before. Making sure to set an alarm after my drug, booze and sex filled night in order not be late for the Sunday school class I was teaching. I wasn’t about to compromise on the pleasures of life for a God who didn’t even make me feel safe from psychos after watching Scream 3.
What I lost along with my religion were a group of people who I had considered my close friends, but once it became clear that I was becoming wayward, they didn’t have much time for me. What I gained, and which may bear some semblance to what those turning to religion say, was peace of mind. I was finally able to rid myself of all the superstitions surrounding religion, I no longer had to feel guilty for a lifestyle which I enjoyed and gave me more satisfaction than sitting around discussing what god really meant when he said, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God,” or playing board games and getting a sugar rush off hot cocoa. I was also finally was able to reconcile my logical thinking with my beliefs. Sure, science still needs a level of faith, but the results are a lot easier to attest to the patterned behavior of quarks than the whims of the omniscient.
I can see my religious friends shaking their heads and saying that I wasn’t able to stand firm against the pressures of the world, that I fell too easily into temptation, some may even still be praying for me, I’m sure my mother is, that I will once again find the one true path.I was once one of them, and I can understand how it is to perceive the world through the eyes of the redeemed, adorned with a WWJD bracelet.
Ultimately, religion became an explanation for our existence that was full of holes, these were filled with faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful god. Any belief, even scienists or athiests can fall into the same trap, feeling a necessity to explain away everything. In the end, I was much more comfortable accepting the mystery, I would prefer not to label myself as an atheist or an agnostic, at the moment I’m happy being free from any doctrine and am satisfied that there is no fool-proof answer out there that explains life, the universe and everything, except of course 42, which seems perfectly reasonable.
If I were to rediscover my headcovering a few years back, while I was still dealing with my anger towards religion and drunkenly arguing everyone I encountered on the topic, my first inclination would have been to burn it. But now I see that it should be kept as a relic, as I was part of a dying breed, and religion was all part of forming who I’ve become. If anything I should be grateful for my biblical upbringing, at least it provided me with an easy go-to essay topic in English class.