My father was the youngest of 5 born into a very strict Pentecostal family. He once told me that, by the time he was 15, he'd attended enough church to last him the rest of his life, so he stopped going--much to the chagrin of his deacon father. My mother was raised in a Methodist household that attended church during major religious holidays, but not much during the rest of the year. Neither of them ever guided me in a religious direction as I grew up.
When I was about 13, I was invited by a friend of mine to attend church with her. She went to a big, impressive Southern Baptist church that had just opened a cool new family activity center that had a gym, an indoor running track, classrooms, etc. Other friends of ours attended this church, and so I thought nothing of it when I agreed to accompany her family to a few worship services. Since my family didn't "do" church, the only way I was going to go to church at all was going to be by tagging along with another family who did.
After a few visits to the church, I started accompanying her to other youth-focused events there, and eventually agreed to go to an over-night "Lock In" with her. For those of you unfamiliar with what goes on during a Lock In, allow me to break it down for you:
Your parents drop you off at the church's family activity center early on Friday evening. There are lots of other kids there your age, some from your school, some from other schools in the town. The chaperones are made up of youthful members of the congregation who you've maybe seen in Sunday school or in the pews and the church's Youth Minister--a (usually male) minister who is young enough to connect with the kids but old enough to command their respect. The evening starts with an orientation and low-down on the schedule and the rules, and then you're set loose to eat pizza, roller skate, play basketball, racquetball, watch movies, do arts and crafts, etc. At about 2 am, they gather you all in the gym and start to talk to you about the Lord. About how we're all sinners, and about how, if we die without accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior, we will go to Hell. The chaperones get up and tell emotional, dramatic stories about how they were "saved," and about how they don't want any of us to burn in Satan's inferno because we were unwilling to accept the gift that God gave us through his Son, Jesus Christ. It goes on and on. There are prayers and crying. There are readings from scripture and more praying and crying. And then they start asking who in that room wants to come to Heaven with them. Who wants to be saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. Exhausted, over-sugared, puberty-addled kids start to stagger up from their pillows and sleeping bags and walk toward the Youth Minister, crying. He asks each of them if they accept Jesus Christ as their savior and will agree to "witness" for the Lord and be baptised into the church. Yes! Yes!! We don't want to die and burn in Hell! Anything you want, Youth Minister! We're young, highly impressionable teens who are sleep deprived and wanting more than anything to fit in. And as we see peer after peer head toward you and agree to be saved and baptised, we get swept up in the moment and say we believe. Oh how we believe, Youth Minister!!
When my mom came to pick me up the following morning, I was a ball of electric energy. I couldn't stop talking about being saved and how I was going to get baptised and how I was going to go to Heaven because I'd accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and I hoped that she was saved so that she could go to Heaven too. She agreed to come and watch me get baptised, but she wasn't sure about the "church 3 times a week" request I made of her.
After the Lock In, I became insufferable. I would "witness" to my friends and family--preaching to them about what my faith meant to me...how good salvation felt...and how, they too, could join me in Heaven if they'd just agree to accept Jesus as their Lord. I prayed obsessively. I tried, with all my heart, to be the model Christian I felt like Jesus and The Youth Minister wanted me to be.
I got baptised during a Sunday evening service a few weeks after the Lock In, and attended church all the time: Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening youth fellowship, and Wednesday evening service. My mother dutifully drove me to and from, but never joined me. I even worked as a junior counselor at Vacation Bible School that summer, earning $150 for an entire summer's worth of work. My Pentecostal relatives were relieved that I'd chosen a different path than my wayward father, even if it was with the Southern Baptists rather than their much more conservative (if you can even imagine) church.
My religious fervor continued for about a year-and-a-half and then? I got over it.
Many, many years later, I revisited this whole bizarre time in my life. It felt like someone else's memories had been downloaded into my brain. Was that really me? Was I really that zealous and blindly accepting? What the Hell did my mother think about the whole thing? What made me decrease my commitment to my church and my religion?
Now, when I see others with this kind of fundamental faith and belief in their religion, I find it equal parts scary and admirable. Maintaining that kind of faith and devotion requires a surrender to an intense myopia that I can't even imagine. It requires that you view the world in terms of absolutes: Black and white; Yes and no. There is no room for shades of gray or maybes in a mind filled with the idea that there is only one path to heaven.