I was baptized at the First Baptist Church of Depew when I was around 10 years old. I say “around 10” because I’m kind of hazy about what age I did anything back then. All I know for sure is that it was a complete hoax which I never intended but was inextricably immersed in blind obedience. I’ll explain.
I have mentioned elsewhere that my family was not especially religious during the time when I was between five and nine. At nine my widowed mother moved me and my sisters to Depew, where we began to socialize outside our nuclear family.
We attended the First Baptist Church. After a few weeks, my older sisters started sporadically attending the Methodist Church where many of the high school teachers went. Mama said as long as they went at all, she didn’t mind where they attended. The girls liked their teachers and it was nice to have a few recognizable faces in the crowd of unknown townspeople.
I had a lot of grade school teachers at the Baptist church. I was very curious about God and being the obedient child that I was, I believed what I was told about God being everywhere and listening to your prayers. I used to look up at the sky at night (the sky, God’s address) and pray for a sign or a word or a burning bush, or even the Virgin Mary might come down and have a chat the way she used to do with saints long ago. Send down an angel; send my dad back for a bit before he goes back to heaven to get his wings! I’m right here; I’m ready to talk with you.
God never showed. That was okay though; God only seemed to appear to humble people who later became great, so maybe I wasn’t supposed to be great. But I was expected to be good so I went to Sunday School and sat in church every week and listened to Brother Swofford holler and sweat and mop his sweaty brow with a handkerchief as crisp and white as his high-combed pompadour. I listened to the impressively mournful sound of the church organ and piano that accompanied the robed choir, and with a deep breath I took in the rich deep smells of old hymnal books and lemon furniture polish. I stared up at the painting of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and paid attention to the lectures of Being Right with God.
I didn’t get what everyone was so excited about. Who said the Bible was nonfiction? The people who wrote it; the publisher who sells the copies? Wasn’t that stacking the deck? Why doesn’t God show up anymore and burn a bush or make sky announcements? Why did I, a poor little half-Indian, half-white kid fresh from the banks of Sand Creek, need to follow the Old Testament which is full of violent stories and a lot of rules that Jewish people were supposed to follow? I wasn’t Jewish; what did Deuteronomy have to do with my life? We didn’t sacrifice doves; we didn’t even shoot pigeons.
But in 1967 in rural Oklahoma, the very buckle of the Bible Belt, a kid doesn’t ask questions, especially when the teacher stares at you gobsmacked for a moment before she ignores you and changes the subject. You sit down and hush and do what your mama and the teachers tell you. They are older and wiser and it’s just how it’s done, kid.
So when the other kids in my Sunday School class prepared to be baptized, my name was included on the list. I didn’t ask to go on it; it was put there for me. I didn’t know back then that I had any right to object. I guess I didn’t have the right; I had the expectation to perform, like a perfectly trained seal balancing a ball on his nose. A seal doesn’t know why he’s supposed to balance a ball, but he realizes he can do it and it doesn’t hurt, so why not. Well, that’s how it was for me. I didn’t know why I was supposed to go along with being baptized, but I was told to do it and it wouldn’t hurt me, so why not?
Mama had me wear a nice little dress she made for the occasion – oh I hated the whole girl thing and resented being born a girl in the first place, but I digress. I joined the other kids on that anticipated Sunday morning in the church. Everyone in the First Baptist Church were thrilled for us, and the entire roomful of beaming faces were there to celebrate Our Big Day. We had front row seats to this impressive rite of passage, and the boys and girls with me squirmed with anxiety and preened as they readied to follow Brother Swofford into the big baptismal pool behind the curtains in back of the pulpit area. I was also anxious, but perhaps for a different reason.
I was living a lie. I didn’t know the first damn thing about any of this. I had been attending Sunday School for maybe a year. As usual, it was assumed that I somehow absorbed knowledge of the Bible and spirituality and the story of Jesus, et cetera, in this brief year of time whereas my classmates had it drilled into their heads ever since they could walk. I was bright and knew how to appear to be present and thoughtful and know what the hell I was doing but it was all an act, a defense against unwelcome standards. I perfunctorily attended church but I wasn’t getting any answers to the kind of questions I had. I didn’t think lived in a vacuum but had somehow been sucked up into this situation.
I liked the idea of a great magnificent spiritual Godly Father who looked out for falling sparrows, who kindly gave us a ten-point list of do’s and don’ts to follow, and who would accept us into Heaven when we died. I appreciated that Jesus came down to Earth even when he didn’t have to, just to say some really nifty things and then get killed for his trouble. Oh, and then he rose again like the most awesome superhero ever! I would even learn to play the harp after I died, I supposed, or perhaps a lyre. The illustrations in the King James Bible looked more like lyres than full-fledged harps.
See, these were the sort of Intellectual Whack-A-Mole thoughts I had whirling through my mind as I sat in that front pew.
We lined up for the Big Event, and I nervously watched as the kids before me stepped down into the largest tub I’d ever seen. I say ‘nervous’ because these boys and girls bore expressions of delight and rapture and thrill at their public embrace of God and Jesus and the Holy Ghost. I didn’t feel any of that. I felt bewilderment and a very strong sense of panic. Suppose I get into that water and it turns out to be a direct conduit to the mind of God, and He realizes I’m there under false pretenses? Oh, I believed there was a God but I wanted to love God, not fear him as so many people did. Love God and you won’t burn in Hell for eternity, that was the basic tenet I heard every week. What? – no! Love God because He created this wonderful world of climbable trees and rolling hills and adorable puppies and kind people who made me laugh! Why would I love any God who would send a kid to Hell if he had stayed in the country, never attended church, and never got dunked in water? What kind of God do you people follow, anyhow?
Then it was too late; my Sunday school teacher helped me climb up the steps into the tub. I sloshed over to Brother Swofford. For a moment my dress billowed around my waist, but as Brother Swofford launched into one of his long-winded prayers, the cloth soaked up enough water to hang down like a weight around my body. Brother Swofford placed a handkerchief over my mouth and nose, and his other hand went to press against the back of my neck. As he dipped me back into the water, he continued his impressive spiel of inspirational words. I couldn’t concentrate on what he said. I couldn’t think about joining Jesus or becoming a new creature or even looking forward to playing a lyre someday in the Great Beyond.
All I could think was, “God, I hope he remembers he’s holding me under water and that he’ll shut up long enough to pull me back up before I drown.”
Well, he obviously did remember, and I came up out of the water cold and wet and glad it was over. I got out of the pool so the next candidate could come in, and the teacher gave me a towel to sop up the excess water. After everyone had their turn in the baptismal pool, we were brought out to the front and praised by our fellow churchgoers. Mama was pleased that I had my get-out-of-Hell card, and my sisters glanced at one another and shrugged. Baptists baptized, so Methodists… methodized? They never asked and neither did I.
But I felt guilty, convinced that perhaps I should have been so caught up in this Holy Spirit thing that none of those hideous unchristian thoughts would have come to mind. I hoped maybe in time I would develop the same kind of fervent joy my classmates claimed, but I never did. Of course by the time we went to high school, very few of my classmates behaved in a way that the churchgoers would have approved, but that was not my business. My business was my OWN conduct, and I continued to try to find the real God for years and years. I looked into other religions and even no religions at all. I liked the formality and structure of the Roman Catholic Church, and raised three wonderful children in it. We needed rules and explanations, even if the rules are tough and the explanations sounded more like science fiction than fact.
I have come to the conclusion that perhaps we exist for the improvement and edification of our spiritual states, our souls; that we ‘become man’ in order to experience the sort of human frailties and emotions we would not otherwise have in the realm of milk and honey and streets of gold. I don’t think God personally answer prayers; He inspires us, gives us inner strength or courage or the ability to get things done for ourselves and others. When our ‘prayers’ are answered here on Earth, it’s just the roll of the heavenly dice. I think of it as winning an angelic lottery – things happen for a reason of which we are unaware but there was no activity on the part of a busy God with millions of different worlds to tend. Maybe angels rush in to help fools tread. I distinctly felt arms around me when the Ford Ranger pickup I was driving went end-over-end on a slick rainy highway a few years ago, and I was the sole occupant. So yes, I believe in angels. I believe in a loving God who gave us everything we need to make it in life, but had to let us learn how to do that on our own. I believe there was a Jesus, but His message was so thoroughly screwed up by Paul and Peter and centuries upon centuries of corrupt men and jealous factions, there is no formal church in which I trust any longer.
I like Pope Francis, though. He sounds like what Jesus had in mind when He said care for the sick and the poor and suffer the little children to come to you. Francis sounds like someone I wish I had met when I was ten years old. No… actually Jesus is someone I wish I had met when I was ten years old, but I didn’t know where to look.