Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Road to Confirmation: Part I

I was born into a non-religious household. My parents, however, wanted me to have some exposure to religion so that I could make up my own mind about it, but they didn't feel qualified to offer that on their own.

My first brush with organized Christianity came when I was about 4 or 5, when our kindly elderly next-door neighbors offered to take me to visit their church. That ended pretty quickly after I reported to my family that during the sermon the minister had pointed directly at me and said (I still remember it clearly), "Children are as black with sin as the inside of a pumpkin after Halloween." My atheist grandmother promptly raced me over to the World Book Encyclopedia and showed me the pictures of the inside of the human body on those transparent, overlapping sheets of plastic. "See," she said firmly, "no black, no sin."

A couple years later, my mom was willing to try again, so she sent me to church with a good friend of hers from work. Now, at 7, I was a painfully shy, socially maladjusted child. I was really uncomfortable around other kids -- I greatly preferred adults -- and hated new social situations where everyone and everything was unfamiliar. And yet, when this kind woman left me in the Sunday School classroom with a bunch of strangers, even though I remember feeling awkward, I felt welcomed. So at the end of the day when my mother asked me if I thought I'd like to go again, I said, "Yes."

Three years later, my Sunday School class was preparing for first communion, but when I revealed to the pastor that I had never been baptized he said, "Uh-oh, that's a problem." So on April 3, 1985, four days before Easter, my recently-divorced parents and I awkwardly gathered in the church with my sponsors (the parents of my best friend, who on that date gave me a Bible that I still treasure) for a private ceremony.

In the Lutheran church -- or at least, in that particular church -- Confirmation was usually part of the Sunday School curriculum for graduating high-schoolers. (For you non-churchy types, confirmation is basically the re-affirmation of your baptismal vows done when you are old enough both to understand them and to personally make the decision. [Oh, no, I just split an infinitive, Faustus is going to send me an email.] I decided I was not ready.

You see, following my parents' divorce, my father found himself led to the Baptist church, his paternal family's faith. (My great-grandfather was a minister.) He was born-again, big time. The Southern Baptists and the Lutherans have pretty different eschatologies; I had a vague notion that we expected Jesus to drop in again someday, but my father was convinced that the Rapture Clock was ticking. I had never even heard of "the Rapture," so on a camping trip in eastern Oregon my father sat me down with the Book of Revelation and explained it all to me, that all these "prophecies" had already been fulfilled and that Jesus was coming again any second to take away all the good Christians and lift them straight up to heaven. Everyone else was going to be left behind to deal with the Beast, seven years of literal Hell on Earth, culminating in Armageddon.

I knew I wasn't going, because I was gay.

As a teenager, I wasn't theologically sophisticated. I knew that my church and my father's church had different worship styles, but I didn't understand that we actually believed different things. And as my church had never broached the subject of Revelation with me, I had no basis for thinking there might be an alternate way of understanding these words, nor had I any tools to refute what my father told me. All I knew was that for the past several years, I'd been praying to God about a hundred thousand times a day to make me not gay anymore, because I didn't want to go to Hell. But now, for the first time, I "understood" that there was an imminent deadline. If I didn't de-gay myself in time for the Rapture, I'd have to sit and wait it out and be killed in the nuclear holocaust "foretold" by the Bible. And probably go to Hell anyway.

I couldn't talk to anyone at my chuch about it, because it would have meant coming out, and I'm not sure how that would have been received. So when the subject of confirmation came up, I just said I wasn't ready, because I was sure it must be some kind of horrible blasphemy for a homosexual to be confirmed; I was sure that far from making me a genuine member of the denomination, it would be signing my own ticket to damnation. And so I even left the church; not because I was thrown out, but because I felt like a fraud being there. A failure as a Christian, because despite all my prayers, I kept having those dirty thoughts. I felt so awful about myself that I decided it must make God angry to have people like me, dirty awful perverted sinners, showing up in church, pretending they're something that they're not. So I just quietly disappeared.


Elizabeth said...

This is powerful, Andy. Thanks for sharing part one of your journey. I'm looking forward to more.

Bigg said...

Wow. I agree: this is very powerful.

Luke said...

I'm not sure you realize how unique your childhood was in this respect! Most parents don't let their child actively choose their religion. It's more common for Americans to treat their child's choice in PROFESSION this way, I feel.

I know the reason that my parents didn't take me to church was NOT because they were afraid I would feel forced into choosing a donomination before I was ready, that's for sure.

In some ways your parents are pretty progressive, huh?