Thirty-seven is way too young to be having a heart attack, I thought, resting my hand on my chest and struggling to catch my breath. I’m sure it’s nothing.
But somewhere deep inside I knew I was lying to myself. Although I was a firm believer in mind over matter, my attempts to will away the waves of nausea and shortness of breath were failing miserably.
As my stoic resolve began to dissolve into genuine concern, I think there might actually be something wrong with me.
I looked at my watch, then over my shoulder into the serious-looking faces of forty or fifty strangers scattered in little clumps throughout the massive, mostly empty main sanctuary of a church we’d been attending for about a month. These clean-cut, well-manicured families in their suits and dresses and sensible shoes were way too straitlaced for my taste. In fact, they perfectly embodied the stereotype of church folks I’d carried along on my spiritual (and sometimes not so spiritual) journey from staunch atheism to recovery-based, power-greater-than-myself pseudo-agnosticism. They appeared boring and predictable; I saw nothing of myself in these people, and I was confident that their conception of Jesus as God was a farce.
Despite my growing concern over the pressure in my chest, I sat motionless, proud enough to choose the anonymity of the pew over creating a scene with a quick exit.
Of course, this begs the question: What was I doing there in the first place?
Faith aside, church and a nice brunch made for a surprisingly relaxing Sunday-morning routine that offset nicely the insane pace we managed to maintain Monday through Saturday. And since the kids liked meeting their friends there, it seemed like a benign sacrifice of an hour in exchange for some quality family-bonding time.
Even so, I didn’t really trust these church people. There was something about their unwavering propriety that I was sure amounted to little more than a thin disguise for a subtle yet palpable wariness of “outsiders.” Maybe it was the body language or the tone of their voices, but I always came away with the distinct sense that our presence was more tolerated than welcomed. Sure, they did all the right things. The smiles, hellos, and “how-was-your-week’s” were delivered perfectly, as if on cue. But, in the white space between the pleasantries, there was this underlying something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
It was kind of like a friend hosting a party who meets you at the door with a pleasant “Come on in. Make yourself at home. Can I get you a drink?” while shooting daggers at the husband she was fighting with as you pulled up the driveway. The words and actions say welcome, but you can’t help but feel otherwise.
Seven years in addiction recovery had conditioned me to believe that the newcomer—on the wagon or still drinking—is always the most important person in the room. This made the perceived lack of warmth distasteful enough that I thought it best to maintain a polite distance, just to be safe. That said, at this point in my life the polite distance suited me just fine. In fact, the protective cordiality on both sides allowed my husband, Martin, our three kids, and me finally, after nearly two years of halfhearted church shopping, to consider this a place where we might hang our spiritual hats.
I probably wouldn’t have been at church at all if I’d not married Martin six years earlier. When we met, in 1992, I was a single mother and a rabid atheist. More than that, my most potent venom was reserved for theists of the Christian persuasion. I’ve since been told that this brand of anti-theism is frequently born in bad experiences with the church or parochial school, but I was raised without any of that religious baggage.
Although my parents had grown up Roman Catholic, they abandoned the practice before I started grade school. So, coming from what could best be called a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps secular environment, I’d pieced together my own personal philosophy on religion and faith. In my view, people who embraced God and religion were emotionally, physically, or intellectually weak and unable to carry themselves through life on their own. This elaborate ruse called faith provided them with an external construct to prop them up. A fantasy scaffolding that I was smart enough and strong enough to avoid.
Although I vehemently disparaged believers, certain people or groups were paradoxically excluded from my disdain. My devout Catholic grandmother and others in my mother’s family fell into this category, as did anyone who embraced a spiritual path that I perceived to be cooler than Christianity—which included almost every religion or faith tradition on earth that wasn’t Christianity. I have to admit that their pardon was based on random criteria that made neither logical nor theological sense. Naturally, Martin—at the time a Bible-believing, Pentecostal-church-attending Christian—was exempt from my ire. But that was mainly because he was sexy, played guitar, and rarely talked about God unless someone else brought it up.
“In my view, people who embraced God and religion were emotionally, physically, or intellectually weak and unable to carry themselves through life on their own.”
I was like one of those aggressively discriminatory people who hate blacks or whites or gays, yet has one of those “friends who is different” from the stereotype. Somehow, the people I loved and respected were excused from my considerable contempt for Christians, yet I never disbanded my theory that faith was an illusion. It was this kind of convoluted mental calculus that allowed me to agree to a church wedding to Martin in 1996, and that fueled my sporadic church attendance—devoid of Christian faith—for the years that followed.
Surprisingly, in those months before and after we were married, I actually came to like going to church. There was something about the rhythm of doing the same thing once a week, every week, that was . . . I don’t know . . . comforting. Like playing house as a child.
And I got pretty good at playing church.
We went on Sundays and took the kids to a family program on Wednesdays. I even stepped in as a substitute Sunday-school teacher once or twice, which was really weird, since I couldn’t have answered even the simplest questions about the faith with any depth or accuracy if I’d been asked. Thankfully my students were four- and five-year-olds, and I’d been given a pretty thorough syllabus, so no one ever called my bluff. I probably could have continued attending church like that forever—a polite, clandestine agnostic—and no one would have been the wiser. But then we decided to move.
When we settled into our house in Warwick, a rural suburb of New York City, church became an inconvenience. The longer drive from our new house to church got real old, real quick and it didn’t take long for us to realize that losing twenty minutes of sleep to make it to church on time required a greater sacrifice than we were willing to make. After a couple months of setting the clock, overusing the snooze button, and vowing to “try again next week,” we figured we’d try to find a new church in Warwick. When our admittedly halfhearted search for a new place failed, we gave church a little rest. Surely Martin’s Jesus would understand that we were busy people with busy lives. Sunday was the only day that we were guaranteed a chance to sleep in. This omnipotent God had to know we worked hard to balance our careers, the kids’ activities, and the house all week and that we wanted—no, we deserved—a little extra sleep on Sunday mornings.
What we thought would be a short hiatus from church lasted about two years, until our daughter, Kesley, who was thirteen at the time, asked a plaintive question.
“Mom? Do you think we’ll ever go to church again?”
I had never gone to church as a kid, but I do remember what I was up to when I was thirteen. If I had a kid who was actually asking to go to church, I figured I should probably listen.
“Sure, Kels,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “We’ll go back soon.”
So, as quickly as we’d abandoned the Sunday-morning church routine, we reinstated it.
The routine was simple and predictable. We’d start out calm and quiet. Andrew and Ian, who were fourteen and five at the time, were the early risers. They’d wake up and make their way down to the basement family room, where they’d stretch out on facing couches and watch TV or play video games. Kelsey, who was a little slower and a lot grumpier in the morning, usually slept in until the last possible minute. Martin and I fell somewhere in the middle. We’d set the clock for far earlier than either of us intended to wake up and hit the snooze (love that snooze) before lounging in bed, talking or reading (or whatever . . .), until we’d lingered just long enough to get to church almost on time.
Now, if you ask me, being almost on time for anything is far worse than being completely late. Completely late makes it easier to resort to a simple, more relaxing Plan B, like “Let’s just sleep in” or “How about breakfast instead?” Being almost on time, on the other hand, held out a faint but real hope that, despite evidence to the contrary, Plan A may still be achievable. Almost on time got our competitive juices flowing and opened the door to chaos. It told us that, if we hustled, we might just make up the time—even if it meant tormenting ourselves and our children and ruining an otherwise peaceful morning. Martin and I took the bait every time.
“Kelsey, can you please finish getting ready and help your brother find his shoes?” I’d shout up from the bottom of the two-story foyer.
“You can’t wear that shirt, it’s dirty. Go change.” Martin would say as he abruptly intercepted Andrew in the kitchen.
Then I’d snap at our youngest as he followed me from room to room, holding a hundred trading cards and a shoe. “No, Ian, you cannot bring your Pokémon cards. Go ask Kelsey to help you find your other shoe.”
And finally, as if playing a role in a recurring nightmare, Martin would call from the back deck, “If you guys are not in the car in two minutes . . .”
Getting two adults, two teenagers, and a five-year-old showered, dressed, and out the door of a three-story house with three bathrooms shouldn’t be that difficult. And yet somehow it always was. So much for the nice, relaxing family morning.
Eventually, we’d pile into our SUV and back down the cobblestone driveway, catching a glimpse of our picture-postcard, red brick center-hall colonial as we went.
That Sunday morning in 2003 was no different.
“Martin, can I have my sunglasses?” I asked, turning down the cul-de-sac straight into the surprisingly strong spring sunshine.
“Where are they?” he said as he leaned down to rifle through my bigger-than-necessary bag.
“They should be in the inside pocket,” I said, hitting the gas, checking my makeup in the rearview mirror, and handing him my glasses in one unconscious and mindlessly dangerous motion.
He took my black-framed, cat-eye glasses and handed me a pair of dark Jackie-Os that set off my shoulder-length blond hair and monochromatic black outfit, completing the New York urban-chic style that I was trying hard to make look easy.
I looked down at the digital display—9:54 A.M. With six minutes to drive five minutes across town, we were still in the game. I made a quick right out of the cul-de-sac, rolled through a couple of stop signs, and turned into the parking lot as the church bells sounded the last deep doooong. Breathing a sigh of relief, we hit our seats just in time for the organist to play the intro to the first hymn.
Yes, I thought, there’s nothing like landing on the right side of almost on time.
As the notes boomed out of the enormous antique pipe organ and the robe-clad choir fought a losing battle to find the right key, I found myself looking up at the arched stained-glass windows that flanked the massive stone church. Someone had once told me that the panels were museum quality, designed and constructed by Tiffany & Co. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. They were amazing. Intricate patterns of metal and glass joined to form complex jewel-toned images of Jesus and his crew that exploded when backlit by the sun. I followed the colored beams as they cascaded through well-defined images of faces, bodies, and crosses into an impromptu dance of color that shifted on the floor as if projected by a giant, priceless kaleidoscope.
“With six minutes to drive five minutes across town, we were still in the game.”
I could always appreciate the majestic beauty of a church or cathedral. It was all that religion that happened inside that turned me off. I wonder how much you could get for those things at Sotheby’s, I thought as I turned my attention forward, where a boyish-looking man was calling the congregation to order. He wore a long white robe with a purple sash, the standard uniform for what the church people referred to as the traditional service.
This pastor, whom I will call Pastor Thomas, was about the same age as Martin and me—somewhere in his mid- to late thirties. Despite the fact that he was a little geeky, he seemed nice enough from a distance. We’d only spoken to him once or twice: brief, nice-to-see-you-back-again, so-nice-to-be-back conversations as we left the church. We might have avoided these rather awkward exchanges altogether were it not his custom to stand at the back door of the church sanctuary at the end of the service. It was like the receiving line at a wedding: people making their way down aisles at the left, right, and center of the enormous room, converging at the back into a human traffic jam.
“Before we get started,” Pastor Thomas announced with a broad smile on his face, “Mary Rooney and her son Jason [not their real names] are going to be accepted as new members of our congregation.” Apparently, anyone can go to church, but becoming a member took it to the next level. I just wasn’t sure what that next level looked like.
I almost applauded when the two of them stood up, but caught myself, forgetting that the people here never clapped. Even when singers did a fantastic duet or solo . . . nothing. No one else seemed to mind, but I found that pregnant pause while the musicians cleared their music and returned to their seats in silence to be distractingly awkward. One day I made the mistake of using the no-clapping thing as fodder for pre-service small talk with one of the women who seemed to be involved in a number of church activities.
“I almost applauded when the two of them stood up, but caught myself, forgetting that the people here never clapped.”
“Why is it,” I asked, “that no one ever claps for the singers or musicians?”
She made no attempt to hide her disdain for my question as she said curtly, “This is a church, not a concert.”
As Mary and her elementary-school-age son came to their feet, I wondered whether they were alone because of a divorce, if her husband had died, or if she had just chosen to have a child on her own. Whatever the circumstances, they reminded me of how difficult it had been to be a single mother and how lucky Andrew, Kelsey, and I were to have Martin in our lives. Once Ian was born, our new family was complete.
Pastor Thomas made his way across the stage (I think there’s a more formal name for it, but it looked like a stage to me) and opened a huge book that sat on a quarter-sawn oak pedestal. Then, without speaking, he raised his hands and swept them upward in a small circle like a conductor, and we all came to our feet. After a short prayer, and maybe another hymn, he began to ask Mary and Jason a series of questions.
“Do you accept the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the only way to eternal life?”
“I do,” they answered.
“Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner, sinful by nature, but that by the grace of God alone your sins have been forgiven and your old nature put to death, so that you may be brought to newness of life and set apart as a member of the Body of Christ?”
This Q and A went on for a few more minutes, covering promises to pray, seek God’s guidance, grow in faith, attend church, and accept and obey the rules and guidance of the church elders. They responded with dutiful “I dos” and “I wills” at the end of each question.
Next, the members of the congregation were asked if they would welcome the woman and her son into the “community of faith” and if they would “pledge to them your love, your prayers, and your encouragement as they live the Christian life with us.” The responses of the few dozen congregants in the large room sounded a little empty, as they delivered the best “We dos” and “We wills” they could muster. Not wanting to appear rude, I lip-synched the words along with the crowd.
Oh well, I thought, I guess I could never become a member of this church.
My understanding of the church-membership thing was still a little sketchy. Best I could tell, signing up with a certain church presupposed a heightened level of commitment, or maybe it just indicated that you intend to stick around. While I was okay with getting involved in some church activities or playing in the band, saying “I do” to anything involving Jesus was a commitment I was not willing, able, or interested in making.
“Saying ‘I do’ to anything involving Jesus was a commitment I was not willing, able, or interested in making.”
Sure, given the havoc I had wrought on myself and on others in my twenties, I could almost accept the notion that I might be sinful by nature. I’d even come to a place in my thirties, through the literature and guidance of a 12-step program, where I could pray to a “power greater than myself” with some assurance that it was better to pray than not to pray. But Jesus? The Old and New Testaments? Eternal life? Martin believed in all of that stuff, but not me. Not today. Not tomorrow. No way.
I was hoping that the church-membership thing wouldn’t extend the service longer than the usual one hour. I was pretty hungry and looking forward to endulging in some pancakes and syrup, even though yogurt and fruit would have been the more responsible option. As the announcements finished, Pastor Thomas began his sermon. The message was from the last book of the Bible, called Revelation.
The end of the world as we know it, oh my.
I knew very little about the Bible beyond my absolute confidence that, despite the heartfelt claims of the radio Christians, it was not the divinely inspired Word of God. I mean, how could it be? All of those writers with their hands all over it across the centuries and not one typo? I couldn’t understand who in their right mind would ever believe that all of those angry monks and sadistic inquisitors never changed a little bit of this or that to tip the scales in their favor. How gullible could people be?
While it might have been a lovely notion that some benevolent creator of the universe whispered down two thousand pages of frequently contradictory text because he loves people, I believed the whole Christianity thing had started as an elaborate ruse, perpetrated by powerful and wealthy people to control the uneducated masses. Then, like some centuries-old version of the kids’ game Telephone, the rules and the false hope they promised became a sad and pathetic crutch for the weak and a powerful hammer for the pious.
“I believed the whole Christianity thing had started as an elaborate ruse, perpetrated by powerful and wealthy people to control the uneducated masses.”
Pastor Thomas started talking about Jesus’ returning to earth—for what would be the end of the world—at a time that no one could predict. Judgment day. Armageddon. You don’t need to be a Christian to be familiar with these terms and the notions they conjure. I was half-listening and wondering what any of this could ever have to do with me when he began to read:
Then I saw Heaven open wide—and oh! A white horse and its Rider. The Rider named Faithful and True, judges and makes war in pure righteousness. His eyes are a blaze of fire, on his head many crowns. He has a Name inscribed that’s known only to himself. He is dressed in a robe soaked with blood, and he is addressed as “Word of God.” The armies of Heaven, mounted on white horses and dressed in dazzling white linen, follow him. A sharp sword comes out of his mouth so he can subdue the nations, then rule them with a rod of iron. He treads the winepress of the raging wrath of God, the Sovereign-Strong. On his robe and thigh is written, king of kings, lord of lords.
Apparently, unlike the love-everybody-Gandhi Jesus, the come-back-at-the-end-of-the-world Jesus is a wild warrior who’ll show up ready to rumble.
A sword in his mouth? I thought. These people are nuts.
That’s when my chest started to hurt.
At first it was just a small hollowness right below my sternum, like the sensation you get from swallowing too much pool water. Then came a wave of nausea. And then another. Finally, I started to have trouble catching my breath. Did I eat something bad? I wondered to myself. I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, so maybe last night. Maybe indigestion? My watch read 10:45.
Just fifteen more minutes, I thought as I began to break into a cold sweat.
I contemplated leaving, but I was on the center side of a twelve-foot-long pew, which left me with two equally untenable choices: either I walk up the wide center aisle between row after row of intricately carved wooden pews while clutching my chest and gasping for breath, or I climb over Martin, the kids, and another family to get to the side aisle to do the same. I looked left and then right, considering my options, and decided that both involved more drama than I was willing to risk. And I was just image conscious enough to risk death by heart attack to avoid it. So I drew another deep breath and tried to focus on keeping myself from throwing up.
“I was just image conscious enough to risk death by heart attack to avoid it. So I drew another deep breath and tried to focus on keeping myself from throwing up.”
Martin, who was sitting to my right, was completely unaware of what I was going through. The heaviness of his eyelids, the rhythmic bobbing of his head, and his occasional half snore revealed that he was fighting a battle of his own. He could usually count on me for a gentle but firm elbow to the ribs when he was about to descend into REM sleep during a sermon, but today was different. As the minutes passed and my condition worsened, I had to admit that something was very, very wrong.
“Martin,” I finally whispered with an uncharacteristic sense of urgency, “Baby, wake up.”
“What?” he said, looking around. “I’m not sleeping.” “You’re not going to believe this,” I replied, ignoring his I’m-not-sleeping delusion, “but I think I might be having a freaking heart attack.”
Martin had been with me long enough to know that I was more prone to ignore illness than to overstate it. Looking at me with a combination of uncertainty and concern, he asked, “Do you want to go to the hospital?”
“No,” I said, still allowing self-consciousness to trump my mounting alarm. “Let’s wait and see what happens.”
Intent on maintaining my composure, I quietly struggled to catch a healthy breath and endure the distinct sensation that there was a five-hundred-pound weight perched squarely on the center of my chest.
Just five more minutes.
When the service ended, I took Martin’s arm, and with the kids in tow, we made our way down the center aisle toward the exit. Trying to remain ever so dignified in the midst of my increasing distress, we weaved in and out of small groups of people as quickly as possible, intending to beat the exit traffic without drawing undue attention to ourselves. The church folks were in no hurry as they waited in line to be greeted by Pastor Thomas, who stood between us and the door.
Please don’t try to talk to us. I have to get out of here.
Thankfully, an ancient woman whose curved body stood about four feet high had cornered Pastor Thomas, serving as a welcomed detour on the highway of people squeezing past them to make their way into the parking lot. Still holding on to Martin’s arm to maintain my balance, I scurried to the car, fighting the sensation that my legs might go out from under me at any moment. Come on, come on, I repeated to myself. I needed to get into the car. I needed to get home. I needed . . . I needed . . . I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I didn’t need to be standing in that parking lot.
Martin unlocked the passenger-side door and helped me lift myself into the seat of the SUV as he closed the door. The kids stuffed themselves into the backseat, ignorant of what I was going through and likely expecting me to ask where they’d like to go for brunch. But what they got was something very different.
“Somewhere in the midst of all this, the pain in my chest lifted, and there I was . . . crying ugly and repeating over and over again, ‘It is all true, all of it, it is all true.’”
The minute I found myself in the privacy of the car, a wave of intense emotion came over me. It was like a dam had broken, a flood of pent-up pressure released behind it in the form of sobbing and hysterical crying. Somewhere in the midst of all this, the pain in my chest lifted and there I was—generally a model of rigid self-control and modern accomplishment—crying ugly and repeating over and over again, “It is all true, all of it, it is all true.” In that moment I knew I was not having a heart attack. Instead, despite lifelong skepticism and outright animosity toward traditional religion, without asking or seeking, this skeptical atheist turned churchgoing agnostic had somehow been struck Christian.
© 2010 Joan Ball