Give us your crippled; give us your tired and your hungry. Give us your poor, and give us your rich—hold on, who are we kidding?—okay we’ll settle for just the poor. Give us your morbidly obese; give us your teenage mothers and their hair-lipped baby-daddies. Give us your lonely, your desperate, your “reformed” sex addicts, your struggling alcoholics (no Gary, the wagon is thisway). Give us your old, give us your young; give us your gullible and your bored. Give us your clinically insane and all their unwashed offspring. Give us your—no, wait—actually you can keep your homosexuals. And all your liberals for that matter. But everyone else, just shove ’em in. It’s going to be quite the party.
My sister asked to be baptized at age six. I watched her stand in front of the congregation. “Emily, do you take Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?” “I do,” she said, looking down. The room erupted in applause. She’s trying to upstage me, I thought, clapping in half time. She had taken me off guard. I knew baptism was expected of me, but of course it was “my choice” when to do it. I had already watched most of my peers ask to be baptized. One by one, dipped into the converted Jacuzzi tub at the back of the sanctuary and lifted out, supposedly new people in the eyes of God. Washed clean of their sins. That part sounded pretty good—a free ticket into heaven for the price of a simple dousing. But still I waited. Shouldn’t God tell me when the time is right? That was the way everyone else described it, as if they had a direct line to God and they talked on the phone for hours every night like teenage girls. But God never spoke to me. In the worship service while everyone sang the “praise thees” and “hallelujahs” I always mouthed along, waiting for some feeling that might justify the whole charade. But it never came. I watched Emily as she was lowered into the tub by our pastor and born again. Emily 2.0, washed clean by the blood of Christ. I decided, sign or not, it was my time. After all who knows, maybe there was some subtle cue from God and I just missed it the first time around. After waiting a few months to make it look like it wasn’t the copycat baptism it really was, I walked to the front of the congregation during worship service and asked to be saved. Standing in front of all those smiling faces I waited for a sign, a feeling to let me know that I was on the right path. Once again, the feeling never came.
And it still hadn’t come by the next week when I had an oddly formal and exceedingly uncomfortable talk with my grandparents. With dour faces usually reserved for reprimanding misbehaving grandchildren (was I in trouble?) they talked about the gravity of my commitment and exactly what it meant to be a Christian. Could they see that I was a fraud; that whatever divine inspiration everyone else had found was fundamentally lacking in me? Could they tell that every time I said I was sure that I wanted to bring Jesus into my heart it felt more and more like a lie? Maybe not. After all, they seemed strangely preoccupied with making it clear that having sex before marriage was a really, really, REALLY bad thing. Like, really bad. I could con my way into a religion I didn’t believe in purely out of insecurity, but apparently as long as I didn’t get down and dirty before I said ‘I do’ everything would be peachy in God’s eyes.
The day of my impending re-birth arrived and whatever epiphany I was waiting for still had not come. If I went in to Jesus’ holy hot tub without conviction would it spit me out like a bad grape? Or would it burn my unworthy skin like holy water on vampire flesh? But it was too late to back out. My entire extended family, a few well-meaning acquaintances and, strangely, a few people I had never seen in my life waited around the baptismal as I reluctantly changed into a feminine white gown in a room just off the stage. I emerged in my frock—not unlike a white hospital gown—to expectant smiles. I stepped down into the water (it didn’t immediately reject me for the liar I was; unlikely as that would have been, it was still a relief) and Pastor Wes knelt down and took my hand to ask once again, “Jacob, do you take Jesus Christ as your lord and Savior?” I nodded, swallowing hard. He covered my mouth and said, “Then I baptize you in the name of the father, and of the son-” and lowered me into the water. About three seconds later he lifted me back out, in the middle of saying “-amen.” My family clapped. Pastor Wes slapped me on the back and congratulated me, saying I was reborn. I smiled and said thank you, but I felt the same as before. I had the same slightly pudgy stomach, the same pimple on my left temple, even the same itch on my right shoulder that was there before I stepped in the water. How was someone supposed to feel after giving his or her life to God? I assumed they would feel happy at least—fulfilled even. I just felt the immediate need to get out of that cold, clingy baptism gown.
I had missed something.
My Sunday school teachers in middle school were a married couple named Bill and Linda who, it is clear to me now, absolutely hated each other. Bill was a short, athletically built redhead with a chinstrap beard and tight-fitting slacks. Linda seemed to be in a perpetual state of pregnancy, or at least her wardrobe did. I always pictured her closet filled with loose-fitting denim gowns and thrift-store sweaters. Maybe a few pairs of orthopedic Birkenstocks. Her oily curled hair hung long and shapeless over her shoulders and down her wide back. Bill and Linda obviously had no sexual relationship—at least other than to procreate in the most puritanical sense. And it seemed to be their mission to make sure that none of the students in their Sunday school class would ever enjoy sex either. After seeing a commercial the night before for the latest episode ofFriends, Linda commented: “How can she not know who the father of her child is? I can’t imagine a woman having more than one man’s sperm in her body. It’s disgusting.” I was disgusted too, but only because this conversation unavoidably made me picture Linda with more than one man’s sperm in her body. Or any man’s sperm for that matter. Bill went on to comment (in the most emotionally vulnerable manner of course) that he used to be “wild,” and would “just have sex with anything.” Cue gasps from naive twelve-year-old girls who had been trained to think “sex” counts as profanity. But what stuck with me was that he didn’t say anyone, he said anything. I imagined a young Bill humping the side of a lamp post, bathed in an orange glow that matched exactly the hue of his auburn beard.
The interminable “time of greeting.” No more than three minutes, but nonetheless my most dreaded part of Sunday service. Shake hands with strangers. Make nice with the elderly. “Oh my, Elane, Jacob is getting so tall!” Like I hadn’t heard that before. Like I wasn’t standing right there, all five feet, eleven inches of my eleven-year-old self. But still I smiled until my cheeks hurt. Hating myself for it. “What a beautiful day to be in God’s house!” Liar. Everyone knows the weather is always gray on Sunday. Even when there isn’t a cloud in the sky, it’s still gray. “Wonderful to see you!” Does everyone hate this as much as I do? I need to wash my hands. “My goodness Jacob, you’re so tall! I feel so short standing next to you!” Laughs. Good one Mrs. Jones, you should really bring that act to Def Comedy Jam. “Good morning Jacob, so good to see you!” Wow, finally someone who didn’t- “You’re getting so tall!” Nevermind.
Dear Lord, it is with heavy hearts that we come before you today. One of your children, Jacob Rosok, age thirteen, has fallen off the path. He and his family have been sheep in your flock for years now; grandparents John and Val, uncle Greg, mother Elane. All are your devoted disciples. That is why it comes as such a shock that he, a boy of such a tender age, has sunk so low in your eyes, Lord. We know that we are all sinners, and it is only by your grace that we have hope of eternal life. But truly Jacob is the lowest of the low, and even the most beneficent God must have limits on what He is willing to forgive.
Even now he taints us with his presence—third pew from the back, sitting between his mother and grandfather. How can he bear to be in your house, Lord? How can he sit amidst your holy congregation, when just this morning in bed he touched himself impurely to thoughts of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider? He thinks—hopes—that we don’t know about his evil sexual impulses but we do. We also know about how he so viciously shoplifted a Santa hat from the dollar store, and how he laughed when his cousin Timothy told him a filthy joke about a poor woman mistakenly eating a man’s severed penis because it looked like a pickle.
He thinks we do not see his sins, oh Lord, but we do. We see and we judge as it is our right to do—our duty as Christians. Every time he bypasses the parental lock on his cable box to watch Jessica Simpson music videos, and every time he locks himself in the downstairs bathroom for more than forty-five minutes (that’s right Jacob, you’re not fooling anyone), we are there, Lord. And so are you.
We lift Jacob’s soul up to you, oh God. We know he is beyond hope of salvation, but perhaps even a sinner with a heart as black as his can find mercy in your everlasting light.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I attended Normandy for eight years, and enjoyed it for exactly three months. This brief bright period was not brought on by renewed interest in spirituality, or for any religious reason for that matter. In fact, it was for the most secular of reasons: a girl. I walked into my Sunday school class at 8:30 a.m. expecting the usual faces; Kayla Richards, a mousy brown-haired girl who, I am convinced, still could not read by age twelve (when asked to read aloud she sounded out each word in the bible like it was Pat The Bunny. “Fuh-fuh-for Guh-Guh-Guh God suh-so luh-luh-loved the wuh… wuh… wor-world,” etc.); Kayla Wolff, the overweight girl in a purple windbreaker whose nose was constantly clogged; Tor and Evan Richter, two almost identical blonde soccer-playing brothers who both had girlfriends (if only I could be so worldly!). But in addition to these usual suspects, there was someone I didn’t recognize. She was a vision in a baby-blue Old Navy fleece pullover. Her frizzy hair seemed to float around her perfect freckled face like a light brown cloud. Her slate-gray eyes briefly locked on mine then shot away. I became intensely aware of every muscle in my body and simultaneously forgot how to use each one. After I landed in the nearest seat Bill introduced her as Aubrey, the niece of Joel, a long-time member. For the rest of the summer Aubrey attended church with her uncle every Sunday. I found myself looking forward to Sunday morning for the first time in my life. My mother was delighted by the change of heart, though I wonder if she would have been as thrilled if she knew what percentage of prayer time I spent examining the way Aubrey’s legs filled out her faded denim capris under the table. But after three months she was gone, and with her went all my newfound religious zeal.
Step 1: Take any classic Christian hymn. Go ahead, open that hymnal I know you keep handy. I’ll wait.
Step 2: Alright, now take that hymn, and cross out all the “thees,” “thous,” and any word longer than three syllables. Cross it right out, don’t be shy.
Step 3: What you should have now is a jumbled collection of “Lord”, “Love”, “Faith,” “Savior,” “Grace,” etc. Give that list to the least talented person playing acoustic guitar in the quad of your local college campus and tell him to use those words to write a song in under five minutes.
Step 4:What you will end up with is called a “modern worship song.” Now put that song on loop for twenty minutes and you have yourself a worship service at Normandy Christian Church.
As bad as the music was, it could always be counted on that someone in the worship service—usually a woman approaching the upper limits of middle age—would become so inspired by the insipid lyrics and generic chord progressions that she would lift up her hands and close her eyes in order to more closely commune with the Holy Spirit. What resulted was a pose that resembled a blind person waiting to catch a falling bean-bag chair filled with twenty-dollar bills. It was polite for the people around these showoffs to pretend they didn’t notice, but I couldn’t help myself—I had to watch. There was always something about their faces, a quiet smile, that seemed to say, “That’s right everyone, I feel God’s presence more than you. Aren’t I great?” Sometimes one of the more talented actors could even muster a tear, which dangled precariously at the corner of one eye before trailing down her cheek. What a performance. Somewhere Jesus himself, with a mouthful of popcorn, was applauding.
Everyone calls this God’s house. If that’s true then it’s a vacation house that He visits infrequently due to its less-than-desirable location. Or maybe it is Gods house but He rents it out on a monthly lease—only visits to serve eviction notices and clean the carpets. Or maybe it isn’t His house at all, and every church is just a franchise that pays to use His name. If it is God’s house, He’s never around. If I had a choice I wouldn’t be here either.