I guess it was one of those holy moments, you know, like if it was a movie there would be some kind of heavenly glow emanating from above, drowning everyone in God’s good grace. The entire congregation was standing and singing. Some people had hands raised toward the ceiling, shielding themselves from an invisible force threatening to overwhelm them. Powerful stuff. I was there too, sort of. Ogling the sea of worshipers from a seat near the door had put me in a trance, which is to say that I fit right in. A middle-aged couple held hands and wept, sobbing to the rhythm of the praise song. Others nearby had eyes clenched closed and shook their heads to the beat, sweating feverishly with passion. It was enough to make me wonder if maybe there was more to the whole god-thing than I thought. Clearly they were experiencing something. But was it God?
I squirmed in place, desperately hoping that no one in the congregation had noticed my lack of fervor. Whatever invisible, intangible truth had consumed them and lifted their spirits to this frenzied state had yet to reach me. “Maybe it’s the kind of thing you have to work your way up to,” I figured, as if salvation were some sort of twelve-step process. It was the same juvenile analytical thinking that had brought me there in the first place, blindly following the naive assumption that the best place to pursue God was in a church.
My search had actually begun years earlier when, at age five, I asked my parents what religion I belonged to. It seemed like a simple question but they refused me an answer. I was told that religion was something I needed to figure out on my own. One day I would thank my parents for their selfless and unconventional response but only decades later, after years of resentment.
The task of determining my religion began with family. I knew that my father’s relations were Jews, as demonstrated by familial ceremonies that my friends had never heard of and that involved candles and speaking in strange tongues. My mother, on the other hand, was raised Catholic, and I always knew her side of the family by the gold lowercase ‘T’ that dangled from chains around their necks.
Holidays lacked any true religious connection. It made no difference to me whether the gifts were under a Christmas tree or a menorah. My primary means of differentiating one religious event from another was entirely culinary. There was Motzah ball soup and brisket during Jewish holidays, and lasagna with sausage and meatballs during Christian festivities (my mother’s Italian heritage was indistinguishable from religion). God was rarely mentioned, and if so, the conversation was brief and superficial, the way strangers might discuss the weather while waiting for a bus.
My religious upbringing was limited to read-aloud Bible stories, though I couldn’t distinguish Gospel from Aesop. As I grew older it became apparent that all of my friends were already aware of their own religious status; they knew what would happen once they died, they knew the rules set forth by God and all of the clever ways to break them. Confused, I carried on doing what I thought was right or what would cause the least amount of fuss from my parents.
Spurred on by rampant curiosity and a startling lack of identity, I decided at age twelve that the whole ‘God-thing’ just had to be figured out. My best friend Nick went to church every Sunday, and once I had made up my mind, I asked if I could tag along.
“I can feel God’s presence here with us now,” the pastor spoke into a microphone once the band had finished their tune and he had replaced them center stage. He addressed the crowd with authority, “Please be seated.”
Looking out over the auditorium full of the faithful, and me, the pastor requested that we all close our eyes and bow our heads in prayer. His words were soft and low, almost whispered, but they echoed through the hushed auditorium as the sound waves left the amplifier and bounced off walls, windows, doors, and people. The prayer had a lulling effect that soothed away the frenzied energy which had permeated that space only a moment before.
I had seen faith and it was time for me to hear it. The words rolled eloquently from the pastor’s lips and seeped into the ears and minds of his flock. The prayer was his dance, his fever, his praise song. He articulated beautiful musings regarding strength, morality and forgiveness while the congregation nodded along, but there was no sign that God had heard.
The pastor rambled on until every person in his audience appeared thoroughly impressed, but still, his performance garnered no sign of divine approval. It seemed odd to me then, and still does now, that the pastor alone had been elected to speak for all of us, to speak at all. I wondered what he could possibly pray that an omniscient God did not already know. To whom was he really trying to prove his dedication?
It was necessary though, I decided, for the community to hear how the pastor believed, to trust it, to showcase his faith. Without a man to tell us, to show us, how would we know? God doesn’t speak to everyone.
“And now,” the pastor continued, following a heartfelt ‘amen!’ “I’d like everyone to keep their heads bowed and their eyes closed. Just think about what we’ve experienced today. Is there anyone here who was unsure? Questioning? Curious? Raise your hand for me now, if you feel like you have come to Jesus. No one is watching, it’s just me and God as your witness. Raise your hand if you’ve come to Jesus.”
There was a stir among the congregation that dissipated quickly, like a single ripple in a placid pond. The pastor kept speaking.
“Yes, I see you there sir, so glad you found Jesus. And ma’am, you too, welcome to God…”
On he went, and my eyelids fluttered with curiosity until, braving the wrath of a merciful and caring god, I opened my eyes. It was difficult to look around without lifting my head, but as the pastor continued thanking people and welcoming them to faith, I could clearly see: not a single hand was raised.