The large and square church stuck out on Paradise Road in Modesto like the sole grown tooth in the Kool-Aid stained maw of an eight-year-old kid.
I could have been that kid. I was there, anyway — one of a dozen or so poor white children clustered around the matronly Mrs. Pacheco for an hour and a half every Sunday morning. Our holy universe consisted of an outbuilding, white like the church and all of its parishioners, the size of fifth-wheel trailer in someone’s front yard.
Here we were taught about Jesus the gentle shepherd, staff in hand and glowing with heavenly paternity. The walls all bore posters celebrating this brand of the messiah, pre-digested and over-chewed like an old Microwave steak, to present little threat to the easily distracted, frequently oblivious, children of the congregation.
There were nursery rhymes and coloring books, pencils that in a regal font bore some righteous one-liners like, “Let go, and let God,” or in the vein of recent public service announcements surrounding the dairy industry, “Got loaves, got fishes.”
Inasmuch as religious training was offered, it centered on making God and his only begotten son into everyone’s second favorite uncle, the one who bought you nice presents and gave great hugs but was the one you’d least like to have over to the house for board games and Polish sausage. This combination of swine and Monopoly was a family favorite, and Jesus would’ve just made everyone self-conscious.
Yet after adjusting for this wet-blanket effect — and realizing finally that this uncle would never drunkenly apply a head lock or Charlie Horse to somehow facilitate the outpouring of lush affection: “No, I mean I really love you, kid. True story,” — Jesus was just alright with us.
As I got older, my parents would sometimes excuse me from the rote bible-study Sunday school classes, and drag me along to hear God’s word on hard wooden pews with the adults, most of them swathed in the nicest clothes J.C. Penney had to offer. Here, in due time, I was exposed piecemeal to that other brand of Jesus, the hell-fire-breathing doppleganger of Kinder Gentler Jesus, who would forever ruin any chance I had at a thoroughly Christian upbringing.
I remember the story that undid me. Rev. Cody, normally a soft-spoken, tame sort of man prone to wear his collars tight and ties cinched, was seemingly plugged into the source.
Modesto summers scorch the earth, and this one was no different. Outside, the temperature likely broke 110 degrees, and though the church was equipped with air conditioning, budget concerns had prompted the deacons to significantly limit how often the system was used. On this day the vents were still despite the rising mercury, and sheets of sweat seemed to peel from the preacher’s red face, soaking the collar of his shirt and pooling into a swamp that claimed the man’s lower back.
Yet he endured. Cody in detail described the foundational Sermon on the Mount, painting in vibrant strokes the scene of an apparently living God sparking what would become no less than a spiritual revolution.
Though his nasal voice in conversation over cookies and coffee could grate, Cody this Sunday spoke with all the magnetism and energy he ascribed to Jesus, darting artfully through relevant chapter and verse, rousing the red letters of his God’s word with authority and conviction.
And through his delivery, I was suddenly the one convicted.
It is as much of a sin, Jesus said, to entertain fantasies of adultery as actually consummating the affair. Pluck out your eye, lop off your hands (at least the right one, in my case) if they prove unfaithful, but never indulge even the thought, he said. It’s far better, the story went. to lose these appendages than your eternal soul.
After Rev. Cody finished his sermon that day, the crowd rose and dispersed slowly down the aisles, conversing in soft tones about the passion Cody laudably displayed.
Paralyzed as if glued to the pew, I was suddenly and overwhelmingly confronted with my own wickedness.
In my head, at that age, such thoughts were the rule. Exceptions included action figures, the San Francisco 49ers, sweet treats and “Three’s Company,” but even accounting for those few interlopers, the bulk of my brain worked, in any given moment, on cataloguing faces and social interactions for future fantasies. For an 11-year-old boy, it was a way of life, and I’d become something of an auteur in this regard.
I’d have pit the lamest of mine against the Penthouse Letter Writers’ Gold Collection, and would have believed myself assured of victory in the comparison. My passion for weak smut was wired into how I’d come to view myself, the identity I worked hard to forge, and feeling risque was, to me, liberating. As such, swearing off self abuse, or somehow casting my gaze elsewhere when a lusty view suddenly materialized in the world, wasn’t going to happen.
Suddenly, I knew I was going to hell. Night after night for weeks following the sermon, I distinctly remember lying in bed, wondering why a loving God, full of mercy and affection for mankind, his masterwork, would deploy a disciplinary system that so flippantly sent the souls of countles hordes flying end over end into boiling Lake Forever Pain.
It was this bit of cognitive dissonance that started as a soft moan, the barest wind of an alarm, before swelling into mad resonance. Soon, the lurching tones and violent tremors shook every fiber of my faith and finally sprung the whole structure into a dully ringing pile of struts and bolts.
God, if he was real, wouldn’t stand for such malignant stupidity. If he did, I didn’t want anything to do with him. More likely, it was an empty threat concocted by holier than thou evangelists and missionaries seeking to control populations they either couldn’t understand, or just didn’t like.
So I maturely settled into what I knew myself to be. James a chaste boy does not make.
When I accepted this fact, I found myself once again falling back on the many kernels of wisdom that were so garishly adorning the gawdy walls of my old Sunday school.
I let go of the guilt, and so, ultimately, let go of God. This kind, anyway.
James Faulk is a writer, family man, and cemetery worker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.