Personal Jesus 2: Unholy Ghosts

Continued from here, which I thought was complete, or at least finished, when I posted it.

It’s funny how the ghosts linger. Holy or otherwise, they hang around on the edges of vision or consciousness and every so often make their presence known.

Looking back at the previous post, one could easily ask how I didn’t end up an atheist. It happens pretty often when people, immersed in traditions with little room for metaphor or ambiguity, find irreconcilable differences between parts of the axiomatically monolithic whole. I have met people for whom it was profoundly faith-shattering to discover the stress fissures in the overarching literalist worldview, to come to the terrifying conclusion that this part or that part could not be exactly, literally true – and if any part of it was not true, then all of it could not be, because coming from that place there is no picking and choosing, no allowance for discernment or judgement: all of it must be true, for fear that none of it is. The flip side of this absolutism underlies the anxious anti-theism of many who have abandoned these traditions: None of it can be true, for fear that any of it is.

I couldn’t do that either. The idea of Hell made no sense at all, and the literal factuality of the stories in the Bible (including all the miracles and the notion that Jesus rose from the dead) was dubious, but when I walked away from the church in my early teens I knew that God – or something like it – walked with me.

This is one of those stories that I did not tell for a very long time. It is a story that I still hesitate, sometimes, to tell in public, because it is close to my heart. And it is also a story that wants out.

The church I grew up in practiced believer’s baptism, full immersion. Every week the worship service ended with an altar call after the sermon: they’d play a hymn and the pastor would stand in front of the pulpit with his hands open, and anyone who was Moved by the Spirit to join the church, or rededicate their life to Jesus, or request to be baptized would walk up during the hymn and stand there with the pastor. Some weeks it was nobody. Other weeks whole families would go. As I understand it now, one could join the congregation by letter of transfer from a church with similar doctrine, but if there was any uncertainty whatsoever about whether the person had been baptized the right way – that is to say, being of the age of reason and baptized by full immersion at their own request – then it would be done again, just to make sure.

If there were ever any confirmation or orientation classes for children or newcomers, I never knew about them. It would not have mattered, anyway: I did not plan to walk up to the front of the church. I certainly didn’t ask my parents for permission or talk to the pastor about it. I didn’t know it was going to happen until it did.

I think I was ten, toward the end of fifth grade. I don’t remember the rest of the service; I do remember the hymn which played at the end of it (a melody that still touches deep places in my soul, but the words would be… difficult to use in a UU context.) I don’t remember standing up. I do remember seeing my feet, in black patent-leather mary-janes and little white socks with lace on the cuffs, against the blue sanctuary carpet and realizing that I had stood up and was moving. I remember a moment’s hesitation, a flash of wondering what was happening and fearing that I was going to be in trouble if I didn’t sit back down. And then I remember this: a gentle nudge, a sensation like the warmth of a hand on my shoulder guiding me forward (though no one stood behind me) and a pulse of encouragement, not exactly words or a voice but an unspoken whisper. “Yes. Go.”

So… I went.

After the service was over I remember standing there in the front of the church with my mother and the pastor having an agitated conversation quite literally over my head. I waited patiently, because good children did not interrupt adults when they were talking to each other, but it never occurred to either of them to ask me what had just happened. In any case I was fairly sure no one would believe me if I did tell them: I knew about the kind of stories that are absolutely true when you read about them happening to other people (a long time ago and far away), but which cannot possibly be true if they happen to you (here and now), and I knew this was that kind of story. The kind you don’t tell because it would just make too much trouble to go there.

So as later I came to question (and ultimately reject) the Wrathful God of the Old Testament and Rambo Jesus of the Revelation, it was in the presence of… something else. I had no name for this safe, comforting spiritual presence in a tradition where Ultimate Good was just as terrifying as Ultimate Evil. But not having a name for it did not make it not real to me; it just made it very hard to talk about.

I still do not know the name of that mysterious presence. It came to me first in a church and claimed me for its own, but I have felt its presence in the moonlit woods and on the shore at sunrise and in the cool wind that blows from caves. I have felt its presence in music and in ritual, pulsing in the thunder of drums around a fire or the flicker of candles burning on an altar. I have felt it in solitude and in human community. It is as real a thing as I have experienced. I do not need to believe in it any more than I need to believe in gravity.

But do I call it God? Sometimes, now. Not always. I think my mysterious presence might be what my Pagan folks are talking about when they speak lovingly of the Lady. I think my invisible friend is what some of my Christian friends might mean by the presence of God, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. Often I avoid specific language because for too many people I have met, words like “God” and “Jesus” point to the tradition I grew up with and the angry, jealous images of power within them. And within that tradition there are no words to adequately share this holy thing.

Oh look, part three happened.

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