[Note: This is Part 3 of my Conversion Story. The other parts can be found here.]
“You should be baptized,” said the Voice.
It was the night of Holy Thursday, 1991; the start of the Easter Triduum. I sat by myself on a pew in the little Episcopal church. It was nearing ten o’clock. The service was over. I was reflecting upon the evening’s liturgy while the ladies in the altar guild assisted the vicar with stripping the altar and shrouding all of the immovable items in the sanctuary with a fine violet gauze.
“You should be baptized.” It did not repeat itself. It was the same statement, outside of time. It was not like an utterance normally heard and then passing attention or capable of being forgotten, rather it felt as though my soul could see the words upon a grand illuminated sign.
Nobody in my immediate family was baptized, except my Dad; he was baptized as a child in the Methodist Church. I only knew this because I saw the certificate once in an old family scrapbook. He never brought it up. The only thing that I knew about him and his experience with church was that my grandparents made him go to Sunday School, he had perfect attendance as a boy, and he grew to hate everything about it.
In 1989, my family moved from Sonoma County to the Northern Central Valley of California, from a “city” of 100,000 to a “town” of 5,000. A square whitewashed building with wood siding, a small belltower and wide porch in the main commercial district of the town purported to be the Christian Science church, but we never made it inside because there were no members left in town. The local paper reported the times in its “Church Services” section, but the doors were locked. No services. We tried a few other churches, and within a few months we started attending the Episcopal Church.
I would have preferred not going to any church at all. It seemed a waste of a perfectly good Sunday morning. I objected. Why did I have to go? Why couldn’t I stay home, like Dad? Apparently Dad preferred having the house to himself, and offered no asylum for me.
Since I was being forced to go to church, I made it known that I preferred the Episcopal Church to other options. First, it was close to home, just down the street. But the thing that mattered most, the thing that stayed my objection from evolving into obstinate refusal was: Coffee Hour!
Episcopalians know how to lay a spread. The ladies in the parish essentially served lunch to the entire congregation every Sunday after the 10 a.m. liturgy. Cookies, cupcakes, doughnuts, tiny egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Coffee for grownups and juice for kids. For me, it was one of the better meals of the week – far better than what waited at home – and as an awkward fat kid, I relished eating more than anything else. While I resented being forced into spiritual practice, I consoled myself with the anticipation of being rejoined with my one love.
Coffee Hour kept me going to church; I would have increased my efforts to avoid going otherwise. And while I believed myself to be immune to all the prattle about liturgy and creed, God was silently working on my heart, planting seeds here and there. Perhaps I might like to be an acolyte. An invitation to youth group, where a few of the kids were actually cool. A request to help work in the kitchen on Shrove Tuesday or in concession stand at the county fair, which carried the bonus of free admission each day that I worked.
“You should be baptized.”
“But… I’m only here for the food.”
[Chuckle.] “You should be baptized.” (“There will still be food.”)
With that, I received a vision of the Paschal Mystery. Jesus asking me to remain with Him while He prayed. Jesus inviting me to walk with Him to Calvary tomorrow. Jesus assuring that I would see Him again on Sunday. Jesus offering to remove every pain and anxiety in my life, replacing what I felt with love and mercy. Jesus knocking at the door to my heart. Jesus even suggesting who to ask to be my godmother.
I rose from my pew a Christian. I had met Him. He had actually spoken, to me! I had heard the Lord.
“You should be baptized.”
On the night of that vigil in the Garden, nothing was left for decoration but for the small tabernacle behind the altar, and the sanctuary candle which bled its red flame like a distant beacon at the shore of salvation – a symbol representing Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
I walked my dog every morning before school. After Holy Thursday, we would walk to the church and I’d stare inside at that candle, always lit. “I am within,” this church, and your heart. And whispering the Doxology heard each Sunday, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”, sometimes again and again and again while the melody filled my mind, living in the beauty of praise and prayer, I began to know the meaning of another word: “Amen.”
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