The attraction between a boy and his bike, as William Maxwell writes about the attraction between boys and dogs, can be taken for granted. One Sunday morning, I felt a moist hand touch my cheek. When I opened my eyes, the light through the window was gray and I could only see the shadow of a kid standing above me. The clock on the nightstand said 5:47. “Dad,” Hayden whispered, his breath hot and foul. “I want to ride my bike.”
“It’s not even six o’clock.”
“Can I ride at six?”
“Let me sleep,” I said, rolling over. “You can ride later.”
“After church,” I said. I reached for my glasses. “You can ride
“Ugh. Church.” He bared his teeth. “Why do we have to go
I blinked at him in the silver half-light. I didn’t have a good answer. I wasn’t particularly eager to go myself, despite the fact I’ve been a churchgoer, regularly if not continuously, for most of my life.
I was Catholic, baptized and catechized until I was 12, when my parents divorced. Religion had never been a point of contention between my mother and father, but when their marriage began to falter, it had no power to hold them together. A few weeks after the papers were signed, my father left Texas for Southern California, where he soon married an evangelical children’s pastor and became an evangelical himself. My mother, whose Catholic foothold had been tenuous at best, became nothing. Still, a Methodist minister married my mother and together we all attended his church for several years afterward. We were most regular in our attendance whenever my stepfather’s son and daughter were in town, I think because my mother hoped that the six of us—my mother and stepfather, my stepbrother and stepsister, my sister, and me—lined up in the pew in our blazers and hot-rolled hair would cut the image of an intact family, unblemished by divorce. I never understood who might be looking or would have been able to spot us if they had. Most Sundays we sat in the back and were the first to shake the minister’s hand on our way out the door.
When I visited my father and stepmother, the audience was clearer. The money people dropped in the offertory baskets paid my stepmother’s salary. My father, sister, stepsister, and I sat in the front pew alongside the other pastoral families and lingered after the service on the plaza between the sanctuary and the fellowship hall while my father and stepmother kibitzed with the deacons and other members. The summer I turned 15, my stepmother presented me with a Bible, my name embossed in gold foil on the cover, and encouraged me to take notes during sermons. My father took me to a jewelry store to pick out a silver cross to wear around my neck, similar to the gold cross he wore around his own.
I resisted their pious overtures only at first. At the end of the summer, a few weeks after beginning my sophomore year of high school, my closest friend, his older brother, and their father were killed in a home invasion—a sudden, violent event that I’m still, decades later, trying to understand. But in the immediate aftermath of the murders, my father and stepmother’s faith felt, with its effusive demonstrations, like an antidote to tragedy. A life raft in a tempest. I reached for it and clung to it, and the next June, while sitting beside a bonfire on the beach, I used the words my stepmother had taught me and, as the ritual goes, asked Jesus into my heart.
Almost immediately, as though I’d climbed inside a car that had been honking and revving in my driveway, I was driven into a world that revolved entirely around going to church. Freed from its erstwhile status as a Sunday morning gathering, church became the touchpoint of every day of the week. Bible studies met on Monday or Thursdayevenings, fellowship meetings were on Tuesdays, my stepmother and father attended Bible Study Fellowship on Wednesdays. Even the Saturday morning, surf sessions began with a prayer on the beach, our boards staked upright in the sand, and ended with a scripture devotional over eggs at Denny’s. I was so young, my initiation so swift and powerful, that several years would pass before I’d think to question it.
My father and stepmother’s church was not Pentecostal in the contemporary sense of the term. Services did not involve spasmodic shaking or the casting out of demons or speaking in tongues. The church, however, skirted the fringes of that ecstatic realm. More importantly, the idea of Pentecost—that after Christ’s ascension the Spirit of God descended to earth to abide in the Apostles, and that the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of every true believer as an inner compass of joy and conviction—was central.
The enduring, ineradicable presence of the Holy Spirit was the message the church preached and propagated. Those mysteriously flaming words I uttered on the beach didn’t merely reenact the moment Pentecost; they worked to literally bring forth God’s spirit, as if unlocking the vault encasing the soul. Pentecostals express the presence of the Holy Spirit literally, with holy terror and a language spoken by angels. Evangelicals are subtler and more restrained, but not by much. For years I stood among believers (in some cases, thousands at a time) singing with their eyes clamped shut and their hands in the air, as if to gather in the spirit as it rained down from the rafters. I could never surmount my own self-consciousness enough to sing or pray this way, to allow myself to enter into the rapturous elation pouring forth around me, so I almost never tried.
In time I found the courage to leave the fold and to endure all the sundering and exile required of such a departure. If ever there was a time to give up the hocus pocus of religion, it was then. But though I could no longer believe as an evangelical nor assent to its politics or exhaustive litany of prohibitions, I couldn’t help believing in God. In my quietest and most private moments, I still believed in a grand intelligence at the center of existence, and that whatever change had occurred in me while sitting on the beach that summer night had been real, even if I no longer trusted the vocabulary used to describe it. The bathwater had been drained, but at the bottom of the tub remained the baby, pink and kicking and demanding to be held.
So I hopscotched denominations, first to the Presbyterians with my future wife and future in-laws, then to the Episcopalians where I was married and my sons were baptized, and most recently, to the Congregationalists—a politically progressive, liturgically moderate congregation with a brick-and-glass church overlooking the river, a quasi-professional choir, and a robust Sunday School. I’m not as involved as I once was, but I’m still involved. I sometimes lead the scripture readings during the service. My wife takes her turn teaching Sunday School, and our two sons sing in the youth choir. We’ve baked plenty of lasagnas for plenty of potlucks and have ladled our share of soup to the homeless men and women who sleep in the fellowship hall during the coldest months of the year.
And yet, for all the countless hours I’ve spent inside churches, I can’t recall a single Sunday—either now or in the past, as a Catholic, an evangelical, or a mainline Protestant—when I’ve actually looked forward to going. Once uncomfortable among the jubilations of the evangelicals, I now find myself restless, struggling to concentrate on either the message or the art of its delivery. Part of the problem is that church is no longer a place of quiet, solemn reflection; it is now most typically the conclusion to a morning of screaming for the boys to hurry up in the shower, a cup of coffee swigged at the kitchen sink as we’re running out the door, and a Super Mario Kart race across town. By the time we’re squeezing ourselves into the pews, I’m harried and exhausted, and I spend the service simply waiting for it to end.
The temptation to avoid church is sometimes so great that most Sundays I can barely resist it. On many occasions, I have not resisted and have opted instead for a second cup of coffee, an old movie, or a long phone conversation with a friend. I’ve thought that if I could only give up believing then I could quit the enterprise of churchgoing altogether.
But faith no longer belongs to me alone. Long gone are the days when I anguished over the afterlives of my non-believing friends, but the boys… the boys upend my logic, my every resolution. The fear of perdition was implanted in me so deeply and at such a young age that, though my faith has changed in every other way, I cannot extricate this last remnant of it. It’s hypocritical and hedging and theologically unsound; I can’t determine the destinations of their souls any more than I can protect them from cancer or car accidents. I know it, yet I’m helpless to it anyway. As I watch them leave for Sunday School, I only hope their time there, despite its inconveniences and discomforts and boredoms, will one day prove meaningful. That I will one day see them in heaven, by God’s grace many years from now.
When we got home from church, Hayden jumped out of the car before I pulled into the garage. “Careful!” my wife shouted, but he was already on his bike, without his helmet, still in his khakis and brogans. “Come inside and change,” I said.
“In a minute,” he shouted over his shoulder.
“I don’t want you to ruin your clothes.”
“I won’t,” he said.
I let him ride while I made lunch. I set his sandwich on the table, opened the backdoor, and called him to come in. “Hand it to me when I ride by,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re that proficient a cyclist just yet,” I said. He shrugged and kept pedaling. “How about you come inside, eat, and change your clothes. Then we’ll all go for a ride together?”
Usually a finicky eater, given to horsing around the kitchen during meals, Hayden sat down to his plate like MacGyver before a bomb. The sandwich disappeared in less than a minute, and his chips and apple were dispatched shortly thereafter. Five minutes after entering the house, his plate was in the sink, he’d changed into his shorts, and was back outside, hollering Come on! Come on!
“If we could harness this hurry-up,” my wife said, “school mornings would be much easier.”
We rode past the post office and performing arts center, the appliance repair shop, our local congressional office until we reached the path that followed the river. The trees forking over the asphalt were more golden than yesterday and the leaves beneath our tires sounded like paper crinkling. The path crossed the railroad tracks and meandered beneath our church, the windows of the sanctuary visible above the trees. I could see silhouettes moving inside and felt relieved to be on this side of the glass.
I looked away from the church, toward the river, avocado green and passing beneath the trusses of a rusted railroad bridge, the buildings of the university along the opposite bank. And that’s when I saw it: the change in Hayden’s face as he leaned forward on his bike. I watched him take in his surroundings with an emotion I’m still working to name. Pentecost is the word I want to use —that holy, rapturous sensation of wonder—but the word’s hoary baggage makes it difficult to wield.
Whatever name it goes by, Hayden seemed to glimpse, however briefly, his place among the hidden structures of the universe, and when he glanced over at me I felt we shared an understanding, perhaps even the Big Understanding I’ve been grappling toward all my life. I wanted to tell him, that’s God you’re feeling, or at least it’s the feeling that I’ve always connected to God’s echo moving through me. But I decided I didn’t want to name it for him, not just yet. I wanted him to feel it first. I watched his spokes spin around, the wind flap the sleeves of his t-shirt, and stayed quiet.
Up ahead the trail dropped fast and sharp through the trees, a hairpin turn at the bottom that followed the river’s bend. Lose control at the wrong time and you’ll end up in the drink. I could smell the fish and algae blooming in the river, the fallen leaves turning to broth. Galen bombed the hill like an old pro, followed by Hayden, his elbows out and his head crouched over the handlebars, yelping the whole way down. Woo hoo! Woo hoo! Is there a better sound in the world?
Hayden zipped around the bend and out of sight. I listened for a crash, a splash, metal scraping over concrete. When I didn’t hear anything, I started after him, certain I’d find him on the other side.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, December 1, 2014.