(The following prologue is excerpted from the memoir On Heights & Hunger, forthcoming from Outpost19 in September.)
I said the Sinner’s Prayer with Mom when I was five because I loved Jesus. I think it was real love, too, because I had fed on all those New Testament healings and raisings from the dead, felt the injustice of the crucifixion, imagined the sneers of murderous hypocrites. That’s what Dad always called the Pharisees: “Hypocrites.”
The stories settled deep. I digested them all and they were bearing fruit, a bona fide Jesus love.
Christ’s literary competitors were also a little limp. The recalcitrant bunny in Goodnight Moon or stubborn, uppity Max in Where the Wild Things Are. The Son of God was sitting on a loaded narrative throne: kindness in the midst of cruelty, a revolutionary of goodness who boldly denounced the powerful and rich and haughty. So they killed him.
And then, of course, resurrection. Dawn at the end of a dark night. I was smitten. At five-years- old I wanted Jesus in my heart, deep and settled, because it seemed like the place that was the absolute closest to me. My center. The fleshy mechanism that worked like a pump to make all my blood ebb and flow. “He could be right there,” Mom said, gently touching my chest.
I took her words literally. A beautiful, intimate, interior love—forever.
But it was love shot through with fear. I was equally terrified that Mom and Dad would rocket off to heaven, having already said the Prayer, and leave me alone, perhaps sitting right there on the edge of my bunk bed (bottom mattress) where my hands were clasped tightly between Mom’s. The early sermons of Christ’s passion included a few caveats. I had a distinct vision of those same maternal hands—warmth, pressure, two palms pressing inward—suddenly vanished.
I’m not sure I had ever made a decision so deliberate. I loved Jesus, yes, and also felt the panicked sentiment of: Take me with you!
Mom was tender and serious. She knew this was a threshold, and that at five I was crossing it sincerely, little-boy eyes wide open.
So I wept and repeated after her: “I invite you, Jesus, to be my personal lord and savior, and to come into my heart and forgive my sins and fill me with your holy spirit. Amen.”
I’m pretty sure that’s verbatim. The most accurate dialogue I’ve ever written.
Then this happened: all the fear and anxiety I felt over being left alone, left with the unsaved, those who had never asked Jesus into their hearts like Dad and Mom and now me, transferred in a flash to my big brother, Aaron, who was eleven months older and kind of bad. Sometimes really bad. He had done things to me, to others, to small animals with a BB gun that were serious sins in need of forgiveness. Forgiveness I knew he had never asked to receive.
In that moment with Mom on my bunk bed I closed my eyes and saw him from above, a diminishing view of his face as I ascended further and further into the atmosphere, his expression at first defiant, then blank, then kind of scared, framed between my dangling feet, growing smaller and smaller amidst our front-yard stand of sagging, sharp spruce trees until he was a pinprick of light, a flesh dot, and then altogether gone beneath the clouds.