Life for life

As she begins, Kay Warren tells us to find the guide to her sermon in the printed materials. I get mine, which is a four-paged supplement with sentences that have blanks where I can fill in the words from her presentation like a biblical Mad Libs.

The first sentence that needs my attention is this: “The altar represented the claims of a holy and righteous God which must be _________ before he can meet with man and bless him.” The missing word is “satisfied” but I need a moment to locate my pen so it stays blank. Further down: “Any deviation from perfection must be punished by the person or a _________.” I fill in “substitute.” Kay explains during the time of the tabernacle this substitute was an animal, provided as an offering. “Why did God require a blood sacrifice?” _________.  I write “because blood represents life.” The size and prominence of the bronze altar is no accident, it really was a hugely significant component of the tabernacle, perhaps even the most important element. Blood had to be shed for God in an attempt at restitution: the gift of life for the gift of life.

Now Kay’s talk turns to the act that birthed Christianity from Judaism. “Jesus was the __________.” I stare at the blank, knowing full well that “ultimate blood sacrifice” is the answer but unable to bring myself to write the words. Jesus was a human sacrifice. I’ve never thought of it like that, and the idea feels too big and powerful to reduce to a fill-in-the-blank response. His death didn’t occur on a bronze altar but his blood shed is interpreted by Christians as the last say in the “life for life” transaction, officially nullifying the need for further animal sacrifice and rendering all the other Jewish “rules” obsolete. To flesh-out the story, my study guide provides several quotes from the New Testament, like this one from Acts 13: “In this man Jesus, there is forgiveness for your sins! Everyone who trusts him is freed from all guilt and declared righteous—something the Jewish law could never do.” Whatever indebtedness to creation or God each of us senses was paid by Jesus and our job then is to believe in the power of this transaction. “Acceptance of Jesus as my substitute makes me ________ to God.” In tiny letters I write: “acceptable.”

At the end of the service Kay has an exercise for us. She asks us to find a small rectangle of paper that has been placed in each of our packets. This piece of paper has been made to look like an old-fashioned luggage tag, with a hole punched at the top and a string to tie to an imaginary suitcase handle. She tells us to write our sin at the bottom of the tag and, on our way out of the building, she wants us to rip the sin portion off and toss it in the red garbage bins placed by the doors for this purpose.

Audience members rise and begin to leave, but I stay seated and try to think of a good sin to write on my luggage tag. Finally, I scrawl, “Not feeling worthy.” This feels like the ultimate sin, something each of us struggles with on some level that causes any self-destructive behaviors that masquerade as the real sins. The Jews built into their system of worship an answer to this sense of unworthiness, an attempt to repay God for the gift of life. Christians accepted this basic premise but substituted Jesus as the compensation and sin as the debt.

The crowd streaming out has thinned by the time I join its ranks. The tall red bins are hard to miss. Each boasts a sign. “FORGIVEN,” they announce in big letters. I go to the nearest one and feed my paper to the slot at the top. I peek in at the mound of sins and watch mine flutter to the top.

The transaction

Three men explain the “Doctrine of Imputation” on the DVD entitled the “Biggest Question.” They tell viewers that the infinite debt each of us owes before becoming a Christian is eliminated once we receive God’s gift of Jesus. In fact, not only is the debt paid, but lots of extra credit is deposited into our accounts.

However, to receive the bonus of endless funds, an actual transaction must take place. If this transaction is not performed “rightly,” they tell viewers, we won’t get “Jesus goodness.” It’s quite likely, they explain, that we’ve been taught the wrong way. For example, people might have encouraged us to “ask Jesus into your heart.” They tell us we cannot “ask” Jesus or “make” him our “lord and savior.” Jesus already is these things. The idea of “accepting” this fact is nearer to the proper characterization of the transaction, but even this is not accurate because we don’t accept Jesus so much as he accepts us.

To help us understand, the hosts provide an analogy. Imagine you want to belong to a country club. You don’t just walk up to the front doors and announce: “I accept you as my country club!” You don’t call up the management and ask meekly, “Will you be my country club?” No, you fill out the application and provide the proper information. You submit a request for admittance. You let the country club review the materials and accept you.

After you’ve been accepted, you can then “come to Jesus.” But even this must be done “rightly.” Your motivation should never be gifts. You must seek the giver of the gifts. If the country club analogy was still in play, I suppose this would mean your request to join would not be accompanied by an expectation of access to the amenities the club offers. Golf? Tennis? Bonus!

As the instructions grow more complicated, I question my ability to pull off this transaction. I picture the distance between Jesus and me as a field scattered with land mines. I don’t know what’s less reliable: the map I’m being offered or my ability to read it. Either way, I’m anticipating flying shrapnel.

Thankfully, according to this thesis, there’s reason for hope. In a sense, the more I screw up, the better off I am—as long as I recognize my own ineptitude. The men assure me that what the divine has to offer is not something I can earn; nor is it something I can fail to earn. They assure me that believing I have anything to do with the acquisition of “Jesus goodness” is self-righteous, as is feeling superior. Apparently, the absolute worst thing I can do is believe I’m even just a tiny bit less wretched than anyone else. How this works with their assurance that once I embrace the Doctrine of Imputation, I no longer have to feel “lacking in goodness,” I’m not sure. To embrace my badness or not to embrace my badness—that is the question.

I watch the DVD twice. The first time I’m wide-eyed at all the fancy terms and the nuanced explanations and the banking metaphors. My second viewing, I struggle to grasp the meaning behind what they tell me, especially since all three of them seem confident in their interpretation. That’s when something troubling occurs to me: isn’t such certainty a form of superiority? If you think you know the right way of forming a relationship with Jesus, doesn’t that implicitly give you an edge, however slight, over the rest of wretched humanity?

The Biggest Question

A big question requires a knowledgeable reply, but “The Biggest Question” necessitates the explanation of three men by hour-long video.

The DVD was sent to me by a friendly young minister in Texas who must have read my op-ed when it was reprinted in the Dallas Morning News. His return address revealed him to be Baptist, but the video itself makes no denominational claims. I imagine its producers reside somewhere on the current Christian frontier where such distinctions are downplayed. The accompanying card explained that the minister hoped the DVD would answer my questions from the “evangelical/protestant point of view.” I thought that wording was nice: he wasn’t saying it was right, just another perspective.

The video’s main narrator is a guy named Todd Friel who is apparently a popular evangelical figure. He hosts a daily two-hour Christian-themed radio show called “Wretched” that streams from Wretchedradio.com. The website offers videos and podcasts, all brought to you by Burning Bush Communications. You can sign up to join the Wretched club and receive your Wretched news. You may also buy a T-shirt and baseball cap and save by purchasing them as a “Wretched wear combo.”

Friel is a tall, skinny guy with the vocal stylings and over-the-top enthusiasm of a morning rush-hour DJ. He may be a few years older than the evangelicals I’ve seen in person, like Jackson and the Christian boy band members, but not by much. The backdrop “set” for the DVD (and the other videos that stream on the site) looks like an industrial warehouse loft filled with old-timey furnishings. I imagine it’s someone’s idea of where Shakespeare might live if he rose from the dead and took up residence in a former factory.

Friel wanders around the loft talking into the camera. Intermittently, the video cuts to two other men who help him explain stuff. The first is Kirk Cameron, a former teen heartthrob (he was on a popular TV sitcom called “Growing Pains” in the 1980’s) turned evangelical actor/spokesperson. He does his explaining from a leafy yard setting. The second is a young minister who goes by the name of R.W. Glenn. He speaks earnestly into the camera while walking the streets of an idyllic-looking suburban “downtown” devoid of pedestrians. In the alternate reality of the DVD, women seem to have no presence. If they exist, it is only as implied by the wedding bands on the men’s fingers. As such, their most lively moments come when the men use their hands to make a particularly important point.

Does what they have to say answer the biggest question, as its title suggests?

Most of the DVD is dedicated to explaining what they call the “Doctrine of Imputation.” Embrace this doctrine, they explain, and experience freedom. Never again must we feel lacking in goodness.

The detailed thesis, to which each man contributes, is this:

We are criminals and an enemy of God with nothing to offer but our filthiness. Ours is an infinite debt of sin. We can do nothing God requires. We are bound for the eternal torment of hell. Put in academic terms, we all have failing grades.

Luckily, Jesus lived the perfect life and then died the death we deserve. Because God loves people who recognize their deep badness, He—in His mercy—is willing to substitute Jesus’ grade (A+) for our own.

This swap is something Friel calls “Jesus as our propitiation” and serves as the heart of the Doctrine of Imputation, which can also be called the “Imputation of Jesus Righteousness.” It occurs as the result of an actual transaction, the specifics of which are also spelled out…

The Buzz

Out here, at the tail end of this leg of my religious journey, denominational differences have faded, church names have gotten creative, and the music has grown a steady beat. I’ve just left a rented event center packed to the brim with mostly young, good-looking college students. The music was played by five guys, each more adorable than the last, like an angelic boy band on the brink of fame.

The name of this congregation does not tie it to any kind of Christianity that came before. It’s christened for a sound and news too good not to share. I’ll call it “the Buzz.”

The cavernous auditorium was filled with studs, jocks, and even handsome hipsters; so many young women had clear complexions and long silky hair. A sprinkling of stylish middle-agers and mature high-schoolers rounded out the crowd. These were the kind of worshippers who don’t believe in wearing business casual to honor the Lord so much as the right wash on their denims.

The lighting during the services was dim and moody; I felt like Jesus might appear on stage at any moment with a big digitally re-mastered halo around his head. I had the impression of Jesus as the ultimate celebrity: all the boys want to be like him and the girls want to date him.

After attending the service, I find the website for the Buzz and click a link to send an email message to the head minister, Jackson, asking if he’ll meet me. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about the sermon he gave, which was not at all what I expected. With all those young people in expensive jeans as his audience, I imagined he’d talk about something generically positive like the power of love or manifesting abundance in your life. Instead he gave a detailed lecture about Nehemiah, a lesser known character in the Old Testament. I knew nothing about Nehemiah, whose claim to fame was rebuilding the destroyed walls of Jerusalem—hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. Nehemiah had never even been to Jerusalem or seen the walls before he decides his life’s mission. He was an unlikely candidate for the job. He was working as one of the king’s servants miles away when he asks permission to go.

I also realize I have no idea what denomination the Buzz is, or if it even has one. No mention is made of it on the website or in any of the literature from my visit. I go back and scour the local newspaper’s Worship Directory, but the church’s name isn’t listed. I search the phonebook but don’t see it there either. It’s managed to fly completely under the radar. Its members must learn about it by word of mouth. Come to think of it, that’s how I first heard of it. A teenage daughter of a friend of mine said I should check it out.

Jackson agrees to meet me at a coffee shop a few weeks after the semester ends. The girls working behind the counter know him by name. Others in the café say hello. Suddenly I feel like I’m meeting a member of Jesus’s entourage. Maybe Jackson will be the next mega-preacher superstar like Joel Osteen. He certainly has the camera-ready looks: friendly blue eyes and a full head of sandy blonde hair with just a touch of grey starting at the temples. Maybe he’ll head up a popular mega-church like Saddleback in California, providing sermons to hundreds of thousands both in person and online. He’ll write a Jesus-centric bestseller like Rick Warren’s the Purpose Driven Life.

We sit in a pair of cushiony chairs facing each other. We are roughly the same age and his easy-going and open demeanor makes him feel familiar. I tell him a little about my background: that I’m a None whose been attending church for more than a year now. I have my notebook on my knees, ready to take notes, but he wants to hear from me first.

The carpenter

 

Change happens, intentional or not. Time does that. The protesters become the establishment and a new wave of rebels rise up.

In the 1970s, before rock and roll had been integrated into many Protestant services, after the explosion of youth culture in America claimed its first and second wave of devotees, some within this emerging youth culture began to feel disillusioned by churches in which they grew up. They did not favor the dying Jesus or the risen Jesus or even the God Jesus. They were drawn to the real man who walked the earth in dusty sandals. They wanted to emulate his humility and simple desire to love and help others. Some were in the “hippie” counterculture when they began to gravitate toward a Christian message; others were Christians drawn to the counterculture. They saw Jesus as the ultimate hippie, and they aspired to be like him. They got labeled “Jesus people” or “Jesus freaks.”

One church in my town links its founding directly to the 70’s Jesus Movement, and I’ve been anticipating my visit there all year, wondering what it will be like to penetrate the invisible barrier that seems to separate its congregants from the rest of the community. Their building sits in stark contrast to what I know of the group’s humble origins. The founders of this church began as a ragtag group of college students who met wherever they could—in living rooms and borrowed spaces—until finally, 20 years down the line, they raised enough funds to construct their own building.

The building watches over one of the busier intersections in town, the impression of its size magnified by its position at the top of a hill. The church is a modernist structure, all right angles and glass. Large beams protrude above the entrance, one on either side, each bent in the middle, supporting a long thin cross. They look very much like enormous arms holding a sword poised to stab hapless bystanders. The hillside leading to the church is covered in hundreds of juniper bushes with sharp points like enormous shards of green glass. No path leads to the church’s door, the only entrance is a driveway for cars.

Despite the flashy building, and its lack of consideration for pedestrians or anyone who might approach on foot, the emphasis is still on the Jesus who walked. Every member is encouraged to take the “foundation course” called the “Carpenter Series” to help students build lives more like Christ “whether you have never heard much about Jesus…or have been walking with Him for years…”

The denomination is listed in the newspaper Worship Directory under a category called “Interdenominational Charismatic.”  It’s a label that downplays denominational divisions while focusing on the extraordinary works—“Charisma” means “gifts” in Greek—faith can bestow. Such gifts may include spontaneous healing and impulsive displays of joy. The name of the church alludes to the burning conviction in such works; it’s called something like “Vibrant Belief.”

So large does this church’s insular reputation loom in our community that my None friends use it as an explanation for anyone who seems to minimize contact with them. If a coworker or neighbor barely speaks to anyone but seems normal in every other way, one explanation is always that he or she is “probably Vibrant Belief.”

Even though this church’s distance from my house is walkable, I drive there and park in a guest spot…

Celestial messengers

Several minutes before the Seventh-day Adventist program begins, I slip into a chair next to a woman who is dressed to the nines. She and I appear close in age, though I am a dull stone next to her sparkle. She is wearing a bright yellow dress with a full skirt and matching heels. The color is electric against her black skin. The vibrant, lady-like attire simultaneously fights and flatters her tall, athletic physique. If life was a fashion spread, hers would be part social commentary, part satire: a fresh interpretation of the 50’s housewife. Her smoothed-back hair highlights a perfect heart-shaped face.

In a charming patois, she tells me she has recently moved here from the Dominican Republic to start a graduate program. I listen, enraptured. Her family wasn’t religious, she tells me, and didn’t attend worship services; she would watch from her bedroom window as a school acquaintance waited every Saturday morning for the bus to church. Something in her classmate’s patient demeanor piqued her curiosity about the destination.

Then, in high school, she began to receive visits from Jesus. She explains matter-of-factly that for many nights, he came to her in dreams, so vivid and real. I can tell by the sincerity with which she speaks that this experience had a profound influence on her. Not long after, she began to wait for the bus with her friend.

What she describes is not so different from what happened to Ellen White, the spiritual head of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. White’s visions began within a few weeks of the Great Disappointment. Something about the failed prediction regarding Christ’s return emboldened this otherwise ordinary young woman to channel divine messages.

During the visions, White grew limp and unresponsive on the outside; on the inside, she took epic journeys guided by angels and other heavenly creatures. She learns that Christ’s failure to appear was all part of God’s plan. Jesus hadn’t come to earth, but he had taken up residence in a “heavenly sanctuary” that, from what I understand, is an intermediary space a little closer to earth than wherever he was before. From this new location, the angels tell her, Jesus is conducting an “investigative judgment” of the planet’s inhabitants. In the meantime, true believers must get ready for the moment when Christ’s invisible presence becomes visible. Engaging in this preparation is the backbone of the Seventh-day Adventist belief system.

My new friend is hoping to meet Jesus again, this time in the flesh.

The Seventh-Day Adventists may be anticipating Jesus’ imminent return, but they don’t seem overly concerned regarding the details. The only mention of any sort of apocalyptic vision came at the end of the service as the microphone was passed around for congregants to share a few words about this or that. The microphone landed in the hands of an older Asian woman. She looked aristocratic, with her hair in a chignon and streaks of grey at her temples. She said, “I’m just so thankful the lord will be returning soon.” Everyone nodded their agreement and then it was time for lunch.

Jesus’ last day

Given our collective reluctance to believe anyone claiming to be the messiah, why have so many people over the last 2,000 or so years accepted the actual historical Jesus as the son of God? I decide it’s time: I have to go back and read every word Jesus said. It sounds like an enormous task. But, really it isn’t. All the dialogue he is purported to have spoken would fit in fewer than 100 pages if collected back-to-back and, by some accounts, would take a person about two hours if she were to perform it as an enormous, disjointed, and somewhat repetitive monologue. But it can’t possibly be exact quotes, can it? The words attributed to Jesus were written down 50 or more years after he died and, then, not necessarily by the original guys to whom he spoke them. After that, copies of the originals were made by hand until the printing press was invented and later the texts went through translations into modern tongues—all of which has created some distance between the source and us contemporary folks like some epic game of telephone.

I pour over the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the books of the New Testament where the bulk of the Jesus story is told. It’s amazing what I learn. Again and again, Jesus lets others draw their own conclusions about his identity. He asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and they’re the ones who say “messiah.” He asks several times, “Who say the people that I am?” When rulers call him “King of the Jews,” he says, “If you say so.” I count about a dozen variations of an exchange like this one: “And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou are the Christ.” I find it truly remarkable that I’ve gone through life thinking that Jesus went around saying, “I’m the messiah,” which has colored my impression of him despite his many good qualities. I’ve just bought what other people have said about Jesus as words he said about himself. On a few occasions he even warns against believing anyone who claims to be Christ.

I arrive at the church at noon expecting that I’ll go through the stations of the cross guiding me through the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life alone because the minister mentioned that they’ll be numbered and easy to traverse. I don’t really know what to expect. I picture a Halloween haunted house with little vignettes—some frightening, some merely creepy—set up around a series of darkened rooms. Here is a ghost that pops out at you; here is a bowl of ketchup and spaghetti that feels like human brains. Are you sufficiently terrified? Why, yes, I am. Thank you.

A small group of three older women and a man plus the minister is assembled near the altar when I walk into the sanctuary. I recognize one of the women; she sat next to me at the Sunday service. She has short white hair and the cute round face of a cabbage patch kid grown old. Today when she spots me, she smiles and waves me over. “We’re just getting started,” she says putting her arm around me and giving me a squeeze. As soon as my shoulder presses against hers, I realize how relieved I am to have companionship through this strange little journey. I wrap my arm around her.

A date with Jesus

I dab at my face with my shirt sleeve and try to quietly suck the snot back into my head because I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about me. I’m not having one of those ridiculous “coming to Jesus” moments you hear about. I’m just moved, that’s all—and there’s a difference…a really big difference I will learn eventually.

The minister invites us to return later in the week to go through the “stations of the cross,” which he says he’ll be setting up throughout the sanctuary over the next couple of days. I’ve never heard of “stations of the cross” so I go home and look it up and learn that it’s a Catholic tradition in which a number (usually 14) of “shrines” are erected, each dedicated to one event in the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. The idea is for the faithful to experience step-by-step that fateful day. It’s not usually celebrated by the Methodists, but the minister says it’s something, “he’s trying out.” I’ve read that a trend is afoot in which the mainline Protestant faiths are embracing elements of Catholic tradition they once distanced themselves from and I suppose this is an example of just that. I decide to return on Good Friday, the day Jesus’ crucifixion is traditionally recognized, to walk through the stations.

I spend several days obsessing about Jesus like I need to prep for a blind date with him at the end of the week. By all accounts, he was a real man, a carpenter and a Jew who was interested and knowledgeable enough in religion to be called a rabbi. Just from the Bible snippets I’ve been hearing over these last several weeks, I know he preached love and equality, even stopping to talk with individuals considered so lowly that his friends wondered what he was doing. All of which makes me like him very much. Yet, I’ve never quite come to terms with his claims of divinity. Why is he exalted as the son of God when others making similar claims are locked away in loony bins? When my best friend Julie and I were 12, she confided in me a painful secret. We were walking home from school and I could sense something was wrong. It wasn’t like her not to tell me everything. Finally she spat it out, she said, “My dad is in the mental hospital.” I knew she was referring to her biological father, a talented artist she didn’t see very often. She called her stepdad by name.

Her face scrunched up, it looked like she was in physical pain, like the time we stepped barefoot into those cactus needles. “He went crazy. He thinks…” She couldn’t say it, whatever it was, it was too horrific.

“What? What? He thinks what?”

Her face was a map of agony. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “He thinks he’s Jesus!”

I didn’t know what to say, how to react. Judging by her face, it was about the worst thing imaginable—and I got the sense it wasn’t the crazy part that so disturbed her, it was the Jesus part. Her shame was apparent, and I wished for something to say to make it go away. She had me promise not to breathe a word to any of our school friends.

Season of Grief

So it is with a mix of skepticism and heartfelt curiosity that I approach the topic of Jesus now. It happens to be Lent. Before this, what I knew of Lent came from my elementary and middle school years, when a classmate would proudly exclaim that they were “giving something up for Lent.” It might be chocolate or video games or, if she was super hardcore, television. I thought this was a fascinating and impressive endeavor, especially as it seemed to come out of nowhere, like a little personal challenge of willpower. My secret feelings about my own worthiness lent a certain logic to the notion that a person might deny themselves something they loved: a self-inflicted punishment for whatever deep badness lay hidden inside each of us. What any of this had to do with Jesus, I remained blissfully unaware of until recently.

I’m learning that Lent is the time of year when Christians are meant to reflect on the last chapter in Jesus’ life. Sometimes called the “Season of Grief,” it stretches from late winter leading into spring and is recognized over several Sundays that culminate with Easter. Catholic clergy are more likely to formally integrate its commemoration into their services, but it seems Protestants are coming around to honoring Lent with more than a just passing mention. The sequence of events at the heart of the season is so ubiquitous that one need never step foot in church to know the basic facts: Jesus is condemned to death and nailed to a cross. So pervasive is the associated imagery, that it’s hard to actually feel anything in response. (A bloody young man hanging from planks of wood? Just Jesus.) The purpose of Lent is to move past the desensitization, to go deeper into the painful aspects of this story, to at least reach for understanding. In fact, in some cultures a decadent party is thrown before Lent to help sweeten the bitterness of what is sure to be a difficult time of sadness and sacrifice. Carnival in Brazil is an example, as is Mardi Gras in New Orleans—just think of all those partying Nones participating in the preparations for an ancient Christian ritual without even knowing it.

Last week, when I was at an Episcopalian service, the female priest acknowledged how difficult Lent is, explaining that she understood why people would rather leap frog over it and land on the happy Easter part. Today, the Methodist minister, an absent-minded professor-type with a beard and a wall-eye, leads us into the eye of the storm. He explains that when Jesus was summoned to stand trial for his crime, which was claiming to be God’s child, he was greeted by the people as a hero. They knew Jesus had never been anything but exceptionally kind to everyone he encountered, had gone around practicing the love that he preached. The people lined the streets and cheered and spread palm fronds on the ground so that the hooves of the donkey he was riding wouldn’t touch the dirt. After his conviction, the people turned on Jesus, spitting on him, kicking him, ripping at his clothes. They clapped as he was lashed and then cheered as the spikes were driven through his palms and feet.

I’m thinking about how I would have reacted if it were me that was unjustly sentenced to death. I would have been both terrified and pissed, I would have hated all those people, I would have gone down with the bitterest anger in my heart and the worst expletives spewing from my mouth. But Jesus goes willingly, with nothing but pure love for every one of those jerks. Then I think, ‘what if I were one of the crowd?’ Would I have stood up for Jesus? Doubtful. All my information would have been through the grapevine: this man claims to be divine. I wouldn’t buy such a claim now, what makes me think I would have bought it then? Even some of his most loyal followers turned their backs on him. The people who lashed out physically were caught up in a frenzy, they were not any more “bad” or “good” than any of us. We fool ourselves if we don’t recognize that in each of us exists this same capacity for cruelty. Even Jesus knew it, but loved them anyway. I think about the many public examples of greed in our culture, the CEOs who take million dollar bonuses when their businesses have just been bailed out by taxpayers struggling to make ends meet, and all the smaller versions of selfishness we perpetrate throughout any given day, and how Jesus’ actions and message were the antithesis of this kind of behavior.

I glance up at the whirring fans, hoping to blink away whatever this is I feel rising in my heart. Then it happens: tears well up in my eyes. My reaction is about more than just Jesus, I realize. It’s the bubbling up of emotions I’ve kept tamped down throughout my church visits so far. These designated places where life’s most profound subjects take center stage, all the devotion that pours out, all the people who show up on Sundays to search in their hearts, even if not everyone comes for this reason or the “right” reason, I still think most people are sincere when they walk through those doors. They want to remember the importance of love, forgiveness, kindness. If nothing else, they will lend their voices to those of their neighbors. They will hear the words expressed on these topics by wise people who have lived and died, and maybe they will be touched by their meaning. It’s such a beautiful attempt at something good.

This moment feels like a small victory, a step toward some greater wisdom I’m in desperate need of—a small step, but a step nonetheless. I can’t possibly understand the essence of Christianity unless I get Jesus. I have yet to tackle the biggest challenge: how to wrap my mind around God. But Jesus is a start.