I was five years old when it happened. Yes, theologically, God was present at my baptism. And unorthodoxly (if I may create such a word) God never left me, for I am made of stardust, a breathed upon earth creature that rose from the landscape of my mother’s womb. But I have few memories before language.
God comes to me– or I come to God–not in the light, but in the shadows of the old movie theater that our church rented out on Sunday mornings in Rome, New York. The people claim Charles Finney as their founding father, the one who came the area and ignited the great revivals from 1824-1832.
I sat in the squeaky movie seats holding my stuffed animals and some crayons, naive to the forces that drew my parents here. I watched my mother play praise music on the wooden piano that moved on wheels across the stage. I wondered how she did it so effortlessly, how she mesmerized the worshipers with her angelic voice. Sometimes my father played guitar with her. Other times he stood behind the people who went up for prayer. His job was to catch the ones who were slain in the spirit after the preacher puts his hands on top of their heads. My father laid the spirit-filled people up and down the narrow movie aisles, like sardines squished inside a little tin can. I watched their unconscious bodies twitch like fish out of water grasping for air.
They called it a second baptism when the people spoke in strange languages I couldn’t understand. They were the true believers, the closest to God. They raised up their hands and sang words like a baby babbling. When they did this, I felt the room grow warm, I heard the music circling around me.
One day, it got so hot I thought I might pass out. I opened my thirsty mouth and suddenly I began to speak like everyone else. I didn’t know my heart contained a secret water fountain. An ocean of joy bubbled up within me. I lifted up my hands, threw back my head, and sung words I did not understand. But I knew everything when I was five. I knew some mysterious love that had made my flesh a home.
I also knew that my mother was afraid of her parents knowing that I had been baptized (again) in a a swimming pool. I knew my experiences were dangerous. (Even confusing as my grandparents were the kindest most generous people I knew.) Still, talking about this love could make the kids on the bus tease you, or make your girl scout troop leader reprimand you, or make your teachers cast a frightened eye upon you.
I wonder sometimes if this is a divine encounter or merely a human experience that occurs when a potpourri of people and places create just the right moment to unleashes the flood. The praise band changes key, the singer’s voice cracks with emotion, the lights go down and the hands go up and the tears fall.
Regardless, I realized the other day: I want to feel it. I want to feel my religion.
Of course no one wants to be fooled either. How do we know when to trust our experience?
Andrew Young, in the PBS series, God in America spoke of the historic tensions between faith and reason, “This is a religious universe. Most people– particularly most educated Americans– get uncomfortable when their emotions and their spirituality get the best of their intellect. But there are times when the intellect can’t handle it. The truly religious moments in our civil rights movement didn’t make any intellectual sense. Nobody in their right mind would do some of the things that we did. But we did it because we were caught up in a spirit.”
And I have a sense that as much as we intellectually resist it, we want to be caught up in a spirit too, a living one as real as the air that fills our lungs. One that leads us to the top of a mountain to see the big view of life. One that knows the story behind our fortified masks and intricate scars. One that calls us to be our best self–or even better– something more than we could have hoped for or imagined. And yet we mistake the spirit in the extra drink of alcohol, in the secret affair, in the wings of Icarus. And then we fear that the spirit wasn’t even there in the first place.
And yet it still breaks into our world. In the twinkling of a child’s eyes, in the miracle of new life, when someone we love dies. And the embers burn. And our hearts yearn again to touch, to taste and to see.
A few years ago I traveled back to Rome, New York to see for myself. I wanted to know if I could close the book on this one. Leave it behind in my fundamentalist past. Chalk it up to smoke and mirrors. I found the people of Rome Christian Center now gathered in an old Lutheran Church. I greeted the same pastor who kept calling me Julie because I looked so much like my mother when he knew her so long ago. I listened to his preaching. I intellectually dismissed their theology. I sized up their patriarchy. And still, I encountered the mystery.
“We want you to get a word from God before you leave,” the pastor told me. And I prepared for my public reprimand on the evils of feminism and the wide way of Episcopalians, but when the prophet placed his hands on my head I felt it again, as strong as it has ever been, the love in this moment in time, in this strange place, with these strange people, in this strange flesh that had since become a woman, a wife, a mother and a minister.
Out of place and out of time, yet in a place and in a time just the same. It can catch me off guard. And yet it is not so very strange at all. I like to feel it. It’s like returning home to a place I’ve never fully known, one I will visit from time to time and one day, when the wind blows the dust back to where it came, I shall remain and see who it was that put this wondrous love in me.
–Excerpts from my memoir, “A Girl Called Loma”