Every Sunday for the first ten years of my life, I went to church. In all that time, I missed the part in the Bible where it told me that I was in charge of letting Jesus into my heart. So, two weeks before my eleventh birthday, at Rez Life, during the altar call, I asked Jesus to come into my heart.
Afterward, when I got home, my mother told me that the invitation wasn’t necessary.
“Jesus doesn’t need to be asked, Sweetie, he already knows your heart.” My mother patted my shoulder before turning back to the cake she was baking.
But her phrasing on the matter troubled me. She had said, He knows my heart, but that left me wondering: did he live there? Even then I knew there was a difference between knowing and living.
For example, I knew about Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was the biggest city near our house, it was where we went for the auto show or for fancy Sunday brunch, it had a few tall buildings and brick-road side streets. But Grand Rapids was a temporary spot and when we got tired, we went home to where we lived, Hudsonville.
Hudsonville was a small suburb twenty minutes from Grand Rapids. Hudsonville was Salad Bowl City. Hudsonville was muck fields and the smell of onions blowing into the open windows of our classroom in the spring. Hudsonville was the wooden Dutch shoes on my mother’s mantle. Hudsonville was scratchy white dresses on Sunday morning and Spaghetti-Os on Sunday night. And Hudsonville was the sledding hill at Charlie’s Dump, where I rode on my purple Lion King saucers up and down the hill so much that the stars started to look like bleary fire balls streaming across the sky.
I asked Jesus to come into my heart and even if that act, as my mother said, “wasn’t necessary,” I fixated on the idea that if I ever slipped up and forgot that Jesus was living there, he would leave, he needed my permission; the reason I didn’t feel him in my heart, was because I wasn’t doing enough to keep him there.
Attending Rez Life had been an accident on my part. Our church girls group, the GEMS, had been invited. It was supposed to be a sort of meet and greet. A “Hey girls age 8-14! Meet other local Christian girls, who are just like you!!!” And I guess that’s why we went. If the leaders of GEMS had known that it was going to end in an altar call, they would have never taken us there. As my mother told me later, we didn’t really believe in altar calls, in the asking of Jesus into ones heart.
Rez Life was a mega-church, the complete opposite of my home church, Cornerstone. Rez Life was a monstrosity in my eyes. There was no steeple, no pews, no baptismal font, instead of these traditional church accoutrements, their sanctuary was comprised of a large stage, stadium-style seating, and a musicians pit under the stage for a full band. Didn’t they know that the organ was God’s preferred way of receiving praise?
I rolled my eyes when I saw a woman dressed as Mary, wrapped in blue linen with a tuft of her teased blonde hair peeking out. A skit of Christ’s birth, no doubt. A skit portraying the manger baby. A lamb and a barn. I was impatient, I’d seen this so many times, but I was a child and did as I was told. I took my seat and waited for the show to begin.
As a little girl, I liked the simplicity of Christianity. If you followed the rules, you got to go to Heaven; I was good at following rules. I attended both services every Sunday. I was polite to my elders. Teachers remarked that I was amicable and well behaved.
The minister would remind us at Sunday service that we weren’t allowed to judge who got to go to Heaven because you can never truly know someone’s heart, but I knew that wasn’t true; I knew I was going to go to Heaven.
But spurs of sin nagged at my subconscious.
I never did personal devotions. My mother asked me every morning at breakfast, “What were your devotions about last night?”
“Faith in hard times.”
My mother bought me devotionals and prayer journals, but never read them. I stuffed them under the pink skirt of my bed; I’d do it someday.
When my mother asked me if I prayed, I lied and quoted the Bible, “I never cease to pray.” I believed that saying the words was as good as believing the words.
But more than my failure to do devotions, there was a more pressing event that nagged at my faith. One night, I’d flipped the channel to a terrifying movie: A woman, an alien from another planet, was seducing a slow-witted man in a hot tub. To take over his flesh, she’d taken off her top. I gripped the remote in surprise; this was the first bare-chested woman that I’d ever seen in a sexual context. I was supposed to change the channel, this was naughty, God didn’t like this sort of thing. But I kept watching. There was a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, as though I were being tickled from the inside. Sin was supposed to hurt, supposed to feel bad. I would stop watching, if I stared feeling bad.
When the scene was over, I hurriedly turned off the T.V. and went to bed. I thought about asking for forgiveness, but I didn’t want to talk to God yet, I didn’t want him to see the residual image in my mind. When I called on him, I knew he would see what I saw, and I didn’t want God inside my head.
The auditorium darkened as our Mary figure entered a single spotlight on the stage.
She held her hands palm up reflecting the light off her white skin and began to tell us about her walk with God. How he saved her from a life of evil and torment. I zoned out. I was tired of hearing testimonies, they were all the same. They always uplifted me and simultaneously emptied me out. Those giving testimony were always so hopeful. After the agony and pain of life, the notes of their voice took on a cheery lilt. Jesus is the Way and the Truth, and the Life. Just follow. Just believe. I would walk away from these stories determined that I would feel this way about my relationship with God. But with each step away from their tales, I found that hope eked out of me from some mysterious puncture under my skin. I was clearly broken. Or maybe I didn’t think I was broken. Maybe I thought I was just waiting for God to form a special bond with me. I was waiting for him to make move.
My eyes refocused on the stage and the woman. The pale yellow light she was shrouded in was deepening to red. There were dark shadows moving about behind her and I began to realize that this wasn’t the manager scene, this was the crucifixion.
A bass guitar had been playing during her testimony, but as the scene unfolded more instruments were added, a keyboard, and a thudding drum beat reverberated in the floor.
A cross rose behind the woman and light shifted to it.
A young girl, around my age of ten, dressed in similar linen as Mary, came forward to the stage. The spotlight was still on the cross, but she was lit up by some residual light in the musicians pit so that I could see her. I thought she looked scared. A horrifying thought crossed my mind: They were going to crucify this girl.
The girl neared the woman, who put her hands on the girl’s shoulders and turned her towards us. “Now hear THIS,” the woman shouted above her microphone, “If you have not accepted Jesus into your heart, DO NOT DELAY.”
It was strange, but at that moment, I realized this was how I imagined Heaven to be. God, with his hands on my shoulders, turning me to face the crowd. On a mega screen behind me would flash every sin I’d ever committed. The crowd would watch. Would participate in God’s judgment.
“Believe in Jesus TODAY. And you will be SAVED. ASK. REPENT. BELIEVE.”
The crowd in the front, who were in on this production, began to chant the last portion, “Ask. Repent. Believe. Ask. Repent. Believe.”
I gulped. There is a clash of symbols as the woman and the girl move to their positions at the cross. The woman raised her hands over her head, palms out again. The girl kneeled at the base. I breathed a sigh of relief, no crucifixion for her. But as happy as I was for her, I couldn’t help but feel a growing pang of disappointment. Not at the fact that we weren’t witnessing a human sacrifice, but that all responsibility regarding my faith had perceptibly shifted from God’s responsibility to mine.
It was my fault that Jesus wasn’t in my heart. A clash of symbols interrupted this realization. Around me everyone had their eyes closed. They were praying. Should I pray? Hadn’t I been all along? No. It was clear. I had not been praying. This religion I had found so accessible, multiplied tenfold in complexity in one fell swoop. Here was a new Truth: God couldn’t choose me unless I chose him. Was that the answer? Was I supposed to keep Jesus and God locked in my heart at all the times? But what about when I didn’t want them there? He would go away because of me. What about the moments of my life that were dripping in sin? He would go away because of my sins.
Out of fear, I finally closed my eyes, bowed my head, and did the thing that I was being asked to do. Dear Jesus, Please come into my heart. Forgive my sins. Let me live a life that is pleasing to you.
I opened my eyes. I knew for certain. Asking God into my heart was no different than any other lie I would tell. As much as I wanted to feel God, the fact was that I didn’t feel the thing that everyone around me was talking about. God was an abstraction inaccessible to me. I would fake a relationship with this figment for the next fifteen years. My God was fake, but the guilt I felt for not being able to make myself believe was real. This guilt has scorched into my soul so deep, no amount of penance can repay.
Rori Leigh Hoatlin is a third-year graduate student and a second-year Teaching Fellow at Georgia College and State University in the MFA program. She was a 2012 Agnes Scott Finalist and is a member of the editorial staff for GCSU’s Arts and Letters. Her work has previously appeared in Young Scholars in Writing and Prick of the Spindle.