The Sermon

bible“Imagine, for a moment, that a cockroach walks up to your foot,” the pastor displays his own foot from behind the pulpit and gestures toward the ground, “shakes his fist and demands that you move out of the way so he can keep walking.” The pastor looks up, shaking his fist like the angry cockroach, inciting soft laughter from the congregation. He shifts out of his pantomime to carefully place his hands on either side of the pulpit, leaning heavily against the flat, wooden surface he lowers his voice and almost sadly says, “This is what pride looks like and our pride makes us just like that cockroach in God’s eyes.”

The lecture hall is filled with the sound of rustling paper and a crowd of bodies shifting in their seat. The air conditioning whooshes to life overhead as it blasts through the Indiana June heat. The pastor chuckles as he asks us, “So, what would you do? Would you move for that cockroach?” He points to the ground again and we laugh along with him. We all know that we would never move out of the way for a demanding insect. He pauses, then swiftly shifts gears, “of course you wouldn’t. Instead, you would do this,” and with a thunderous stomp, his foot decisively strikes the stage floor, crushing the imaginary bug. He has my full attention. The hall falls silent but for the echo of his foot. Sweat rolls down the pastor’s forehead, the hot stage lights beam down on him, shrouding the congregation in darkness. He moves his lips close to the microphone, almost touching, as he drives the point home with a low, even, somber tone, “and God can do that to us.”

I am paralyzed in my seat. Full knowledge of my insignificance threatens to suffocate me. I keep my eyes glued to the stage, trying to avoid the feeling that hundreds of people are watching me as I feel all the sins of my thirteen-year-old life being exposed in this moment. Guilt rips through me when I think about all the times I have been mean to my sisters, swore under my breath, stole pieces of candy from the Pick and Mix, or for all the impure thoughts that have me convinced I’m a teenage sex addict. I try to control my breathing as my heart pounds in my chest and crashes in my ears. Tears threaten to overflow but I blink them back. God is finally speaking to me, but I’m not sure I have the courage to respond. What if this feeling isn’t real? I’m afraid to trust my emotions because they don’t let me think logically. I am afraid to be cross-examined by my pastor when I do get saved, so I need to know my choice is genuine. I want to pass that test. I ache for the love and acceptance I will receive from my Baptist mother, the woman who I led back to God the day I was born. My salvation would be her greatest joy.

teenage-meI’m overwhelmed by my predestination. My name means “follower of Christ”, a name she gave me, her first child because I brought her back to God. “The nurse put you in my arms and in that moment I knew I had to go back to church,” she explained to me as a child while looking through my baby pictures. My little heart swelled with pride as I grazed my young fingers across the plastic covered photo of her smiling into the camera, holding me, swaddled tightly in her arms. My mother and father were married when she had abandoned her faith. She says that when she walked down the aisle on her wedding day, God told her she shouldn’t marry my dad because he wasn’t a Christian and never would be. But she didn’t listen and a year later I was born, calling her back to her faith. “You didn’t belong to me, I had to give you back to God.” From moment one, I was never hers. I was a gift she couldn’t keep. A symbol of both her disobedience and return to her Heavenly Father. I didn’t know then that this set me on a path to struggle between these extremes. I live in the place between sin and salvation, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, unable to choose one to reject the other.

My best friend, a pastor’s daughter, was Born Again when she was six years old. I want to be like her, but I’m confused about why it is so much harder for me than it is for her to know when God is speaking to me. Deep down, I know it’s all my fault. Pride makes me refuse to listen to God. It is so easy for the other church kids to get saved. I wish my pride didn’t help Satan keep me from God. I often imagine the Devil following me around, smiling a satisfied smile every time I say I am not ready to be a Christian.

The Devil and God have leading roles in my young imagination as they compete for my eternal soul. In my mind, the Devil is a beautiful woman in a red cocktail dress and black stilettos. She has a soft voice and caring arms that hold me close, soothing me from anxiety and fear. She is more intimate to me than God. God is a strict father who needs me to obey Him. He judges and punishes. God’s love is abstract and conditional, so I am always working hard to be worthy of His love. But following all the rules makes me tired and conflicted because all the things that are bad about me also make me feel most like myself. The Devil, on the other hand, is personal, friendly, seductive. She accepts and encourages all my desires. I don’t have the pressure to pretend to be something else with her, something I’m not – Good. The Devil’s sexual attractiveness suggests she knows something about me long before I do. But she also tries to convince me I am okay as I am. I am enough. But I know I’m not enough for God, for my church, for my mother until I reject my sinful nature. I have prayed while pastors maintain eye contact with me during fiery sermons, begging God to take me as His instead. But God demands that I reject my caring, encouraging Devil so that I can accept Him. I have to abandon the unconditional love that provides me with agency and twist myself into someone He will want so that I can finally be Good.  

Fear of spiritual acceptance, as well as rejection, creep through my veins, so I remain glued to my folding lecture hall seat while I watch members of the congregation stream down the aisles to the front of the stage where elders wait to pray with and bless them. I watch everyone group like freshly fed fish in a tank, hands laid on their head or shoulders as they kneel and cry. Tears of joy replace tears of sorrow as their sin is forgiven. And still, I refuse to be brought to my feet. I think about Jesus on the cross, suffering from the pain of the nails in his palms and feet, the thorns cutting his scalp, lips parched from dehydration. I press my left thumb into my right palm like Thomas placing his fingers in Jesus’ wounds so he could believe.

The worship music swells as I clasp my hands tightly together, fingers tightly interlaced until my knuckles turn white. I press my forehead against my knuckles and silently pray for this time to be different. Maybe this time, I am saved.