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Chapter 1: Catalytic Conversion
I was seven years old when my father accepted Christ. Up until that point, my family had been secular. With the exception of weddings and funerals, my brothers and I had never set foot in a religious establishment. But my father brought home the Bible as if it were a present for us. My brothers, Eli and Zach, who were eleven and thirteen at the time, eventually came to regard this alien theology as a new game, with its fascinating stories and rules (not to mention bloodlust), or perhaps a costume; a chance to lose themselves in a new identity – one of their choosing, not one they’d been imbued with. My mother and I regarded him as if he had contracted a communicable disease or, at best, adopted a new fad – like when he had come home with a boat when times were more prosperous – even though the closest body of water was 200 miles away.
My father accepted Jesus on a balmy Spring Friday. He came home and we sat down to dinner as if it were just another evening; but we knew it wasn’t – after all, this was lasagna night. Once we were seated, he grabbed my hand and that of my mother, and had each of us grab the hand of the son seated next to us. He then instructed them to hold hands. He bowed his head and requested that we do so, as well. Too intimidated to protest, we complied, and he announced imperiously,
“Dear Lord, thank you for this bounty you have placed before us, and thank you for the gift of your only begotten son, Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary Christ, to whom we owe our salvation. Thank you for the other blessings you have given us and we pray that they may continue and grow.”
He then started to eat, while the rest of us just stared, too shocked to pick up our forks, wondering what strange creature had possessed our father, who ate as if he had just told us he had replaced a light bulb.
In some ways, one cannot blame him for accepting any hope that was offered. God knows he needed it. Five months earlier he had been laid off from the factory in which he had worked for 25 years. He received unemployment benefits, but they were hardly enough to help with the expenses racked up by three children. Fortunately, my mother made a fair living as a nurse, but we had still become pretty proficient at scrimping and saving. His days at that point consisted of lining up what few interviews he could, but the going was slow for a middle-aged factory worker in the worst economy since the Great Depression competing for a shrinking number of jobs against people half his age – and factory work is employment that prefers strong young bodies eager to learn over middle-aged ones who are stuck in their ways, experience be damned. My father did have an Associate’s degree in business, but everyone knows that, as far as hiring managers are concerned, that is merely the new GED.
After dinner, he had us remain at the table, as if he were about to give us a chore list or a new set of family rules – and indeed he was. My parents had done this before, but this wasn’t my parents, this was just one, doing so without the consultation of the other.
“We have been living lives of sin, but from now on we are going to live in accordance with the Scriptures,” he decreed. “We will go to church on holidays and every Sunday.”
“What denomination do you intend on being?” my mother politely asked, slyly omitting the inclusion of the family by the use of the pronoun “you.”
“Christian,” my dad announced, plowing ahead obliviously, “We’re gonna get more appropriate television channels and a Christian Internet filter. From now on, there’ll be no more rock music.” He leaned forward in a conspiratorial whisper, “I heard even the great Norman Greenbaum was Jewish…”
“I just don’t think ‘Christian’ is a real denomination, honey,” my mom protested.
“Who’s the Christian here?” my dad curtly replied while my mother rolled her eyes. Once my dad’s train of thought had left the station, it had to unload all its passengers before my father could be talked to again. At least he hadn’t changed that much. He addressed us children, “And you kids are going to start going to Sunday school every week while your mother and I attend Bible study.”
“Now wait just a minute…” my mother protested. Still trying to be understanding, she gently attempted to redirect him, “Why don’t you tell us where this is coming from before anything else?”
My dad sighed as if he had already told us the story three times before, “I was walking back to the train from another interview [he didn’t need to tell us it hadn’t gone well] and there was this guy in the town square. There was a crowd around him, so I knew he had something important to say. He was crying and gesturing, criticizing the inequalities in society. Then he said something that resonated with me: he pointed out that suffering is only temporary and it’s not this life we have to be concerned with. He said this life is the doorway to Heaven, and all we have to do is let our righteousness be the key! The man’s name was Thomas Evans, and he’s the pastor at The First Church of the Rapture. He promised that God and Jesus will provide the rest if we just provide Him with the faith.”
“Provide who with faith?” my mom asked.
“What about Jesus?” she pressed.
“Him, too,” my dad continued, “So I asked the wise man what we needed to do and he said believing in Jesus is the main thing…”
“What about God?” my mother questioned again.
“Him, too…but to stay on the right track we need to attend his church, follow Scripture, and avoid temptation,” my dad claimed.
“All right, dear,” my mom conceded without meaning it, “We’ll work towards that, okay? But we’ve all had a long day – you especially, and to the best of my knowledge, sleep is not yet a sin,” she reminded. My father rarely caught on to her sarcasm, “So let’s get some shut-eye and we can discuss this later, okay? God isn’t going anywhere.”
“But our salvation might!” my father protested.
“Then are there any other new rules, darling?” my mother inquired.
“I guess not…” my father conceded like a scolded child.
“Then I think a good night’s sleep is just what the messiah ordered.”
My father nodded sullenly and we all departed to our respective rooms. He had always been like this: easily excitable, and we – my mother best of all – had learned how to accommodate this tendency over the course of their 15-year marriage. We expected this new obsession to last an evening, or at most, a week, so once we stopped his verbal juggernaut, we figured, there was a good chance it would never again rear its disruptive head. We had faced similar trials to this when my dad had discovered Civil War reenactments, Harry Potter novels, and tropical fish (there is a special tank in Heaven for those poor, scaly martyrs to fishdom, with 24-7 brine shrimp feedings and no chance of going belly-up), so that night we took our private ships across the sea of slumber with nary a gust of wind.
Chapter 2: The Wizard of Odd
The next day was a Saturday, and indeed, started off as if the previous night had never happened. My father was jovial, mentioning no deities, while my mom breathed a sigh of relief. In a conspiratorial tone she suggested we take a bike ride. This is the last unabashedly positive recollection I have of my dad. He was so good a rider that he could sail beside me and playfully kick gravel at my wheels in a hard gray snowball fight without slowing down. When I was younger, I would try to kick back, but this inevitably led to my bike going into an awkward tailspin that would have led to marinara stains on my spaghetti legs. But every time I tripped up, my father grabbed my hand and lifted me, laughing, onto his lap, as if I had been the only survivor worth saving on some glamorous cruise crash. I was a little big for him to pick up so easily now, but I still kicked, and for the first time I did so successfully. This led to a more traditional race, which I won thanks only to his largesse, as my stubby legs never would have been able to outpace him in a fair fight.
That night we got a call. My dad, resentful of whoever was interrupting such a great day, picked it up as if it were a piece of rotten fruit.
“Hello?” he answered reservedly. I only heard his side. “Yes, this is Tim Abraham.”
There was an inquiry on the other end of the line, to which he answered, “No, I haven’t found a job yet.”
His conversation partner blathered like Charlie Brown’s teacher, prompting my dad to say, “So Jesus will provide?” as if this were new information.
The trumpet mute played a solo, longer, to which my dad shouted, “Sure we’ll attend!”
The next morning started off badly. We awoke to the sound of a bell in our dining room, quickly followed by my excited father shoving my fancy flower dress in my face. It was the second time I would be wearing it, the first having been my cousin Kayla’s wedding (at least there were positive memories associated with it). My dad was clearly affectionate, but there was no doubt that we were in a hurry. It was quickly made clear that my morning was not going to consist of Disney movies, as had formerly been the case, which predisposed me to a miserable experience. My father had built the bell that night. If there was one thing that was admirable about him, it was the intensity of his fervency, however misplaced or ill informed. We came down like rats following the pied piper and sat beneath the new creation. It was a simplistic affair: two halves of a bronze flowerpot domed at the bottom, glued together, and turned upside-down, with a kitchen spoon clapper. It hung over the table like a thimble awaiting God’s finger. My father had made scrambled eggs and bacon, which he distributed onto our plates in the shape of a cross. We took our seats, still hoping this may be temporary.
“See? It’s the pig of Christ!” he exclaimed, proud of his convoluted Eucharist.
“Um…isn’t it supposed to be the Lamb of Christ?” my mother protested.
“Do you really think that we can afford lamb on our present salary?” my father snapped, instantly silencing my mother, who was too gentle to comment on his lack of contribution to the family income. Perspective never was his strength.
My father then poured the grapefruit juice, adding, “and this is just a bit of our delicious and nutritious Savior’s blood.”
Driving up to the church, I remember getting excited and commenting, “It looks like the Emerald Palace from the Wizard of Oz! Will God grant us each a wish?”
“Who knows, dear, the Lord works in mysterious ways,” my dad answered, pulling into a parking space. I was beaming as we stepped out. I felt like Dorothy, with my pigtailed hair, walking up the sidewalk, which in its beigeness looked like a faded yellow-brick road. I made believe my father was the Lion, my mother the Good Witch, Zach the Scarecrow, and Eli the Tin-man. I even carried a stuffed dog I renamed Toto in my enthusiasm. Although the songs coming from the church were less enjoyable to my Hollywood ears, I had high hopes for this religious thing.
Opening the big oak doors, I saw that the church was no less impressive from the inside. My jaw hung like a hammock. However, there were only a few munchkins and they were draped in white robes, which fell far short of the kaleidoscope colors of the movie. All of them were tending to and milling about the glorious altar, which was itself a far cry from the joyously motivated little people of Oz (there were far fewer musical numbers – mainly: none). I learned later that they were acolytes doing their duty (most of whom had probably been coerced into it by their parents), but at the time I was not impressed.
The people in the pews were also less enthused than the bystanders of Oz. Many were sleeping and the rest were quietly talking. Few paid any mind to the choir to the right, whose jaws were bobbing down and up as if the singers were dummies controlled by an outside force. This, too, was less impressive to a seven year-old than good witches and dancing Danny DeVitos. Sulking, I stomped after my family and slinked into the pew between my brothers.
As the chorus wound down, the organist came in playing over the drum line underscoring the song “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The organ riff quickly followed. This prompted a tall, lanky man with a crescent moon face to jog out, waving to the crowd with a politician’s smile and a runner’s athleticism. He was in his late thirties, but his face and hair bore the grey scarred truth of the ages. His hair was peppered and slicked back in an all-too-formal manner. He looked like a cross between Jay Leno and a spray-painted Steve Martin. He was dressed like a groom who had missed five weddings. Nonetheless, he was smiling, crying, “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rapture?” as if he were announcing a wrestling match, “Welcome to the First Church, we’re glad to have you with us! We’re going to have a blast representin’ our faith to the Lord and our gratitude for His Son, Jesus. Now, can I get an amen?” a quiet echo bounced back, prompting him to challenge, “I can’t hear you!”
“AMEN!” the crowd screamed. My dad was on fire – and looked it, too, with how crimson his face was. Even my brothers were getting into it. “God is pretty bad-ass!” one whispered to the other, leaning over me.
“All right, we gonna focus on the Gospel of our buddy Matt. He was a tax collector, but we gonna trust him anyway ‘cuz he had the Spirit of the Lord workin’ in him. Now friends,” he resumed, pacing like a committed advisor, “Many of us face challenges in life…”
“See? He knows we’re going through hard times! He wrote this for us!” my father nudged my mother like a child waking his parents on Christmas morning.
“But these challenges are ghosts, irrelevancies – compared to the eternity that waits on your doorstep. And are you going to let Jesus in or are you going to mock Him with a locked door? If you lock Him out, He will lock you out. Some people walk around today cavalier in their caviar, traipsin’ around man-made Heavens like they cock o’ the walk! But all that means is that they chickens and farmer God’s waitin’ to swoop with an axe called the Angel of Death to slice they smilin’ heads, makin’ bloody fountains of their heretical necks. The rich among you have your warning. Be like Lazarus, not the rich man in Hell lookin’ to Heaven. But you, disenfranchised friends, turn to Matthew 5:5, for therein does your salvation lie. And who does it say are blessed? I wanna see hands reachin’ to Heaven, so the one I choose can tell us.”
My father launched his hand like a rocket that lifted his whole body up.
“I love that enthusiasm! Tell us, sir, just who is blessed.”
“The meek!” my dad screamed like a groupie on the verge of tears.
“That’s right!” validated the pastor, “The meek, the weak, forlorn and bleak! Blessed are they who can’t pay expenses loomin’ today! I know you got the kindness and heart, and as long as that heart belongs to Jesus, so do you. Now I can hear some sayin’, ‘Tom, I could rip my heart out, and the banks might take it, but they’d be askin’ for more!’ I’d say, you’re right! But I’d ask you, ‘who’s your daddy? Is your god a multinational conglomerate eatin’ poor folk like Doritos?’ If so, there’s the door. But if your god is my God – who gave His life on Golgotha for us – for you – then why don’t you come over to Matthew 6:24?
“I’m gonna put it in today’s terms: you gonna serve God or you gonna serve an earthly master, be it a company, money, a job, or gov’ment. But no power on earth can punish like God. Life’s your probation, a second chance after Eden, and if you ain’t learned who you serve, then, as Jesus say, ‘There be weepin’ an’ gnashin’ of teeth’. Check it, Jesus says it four times in this gospel. And weepin’ and gnashin’ may sound tame in this day of Resident Evils and Quentin Tarantinos, but make no mistake, Hell ain’t no heavy metal concert. If you ask Dante, folks in Hell live in poop, live in fire, live in ice, and some push rocks for eternity. If you think your boss is bad, Satan’s worse. I guarantee God’s more creative with punishments than some Italian, ‘cuz if He’s as good at anything as He is at rewarding winners, it’s punishin’ sinners.
“Be thankful for what you got, but if you hurtin’ for cash, be more thankful…you gonna have more blessings than Bill Gates has pennies when Jesus come collectin’. You say, ‘Tom, blessings won’t pay bills.’ You right! God will! Turn to Matthew 6:26. This gem says it in ways that make sense after 2000 years. How cool is that? ‘Look at the birds; they don’t sow or reap or store…but your heavenly Father feeds them. Ain’t you more valuable?’ If you been to the city, you seen more pigeons than Uncle Bubba got tattoos. I ain’t once seen ‘em carrying a suitcase. I don’t care how down and out you are. I ain’t gonna agree you down and out ‘til you dead, and then we know that if you had Jesus’ back, He has yours. But while you waitin’ in Heaven’s lobby, God ain’t gonna forget you. He always provides. As long as you a believer, that’s no matter what.” There was more, but that was when I fell asleep. I awoke to him saying, “The Lord instructs us to abandon possessions to serve Him; to facilitate that, be generous with the collection plate; money you give are manifested multifold in the hereafter.”
He passed a plate. My dad took a fiver he’d been saving to pay for his interview clothes to be cleaned and dropped it in with some tears. Mom buried her head in her hands.
As we were leaving, I broke away and glided through the flock, which loomed like human redwoods, talking asinine back and forth. Eventually, I found the pastor, who was laughing with a handful of disciples. I tugged at his suit, but received no recognition. I mumbled his name, intimidated by the crowd, but he didn’t hear me or didn’t care (admittedly, probably the former, but to a child, the smallest affront is the end).
Before being escorted out by my mom, I timidly approached the wizened organist, hiding behind a curtain, and shyly asked, “Mrs. Wizard-lady? I decided on my wish: please make my dad like he used to be.”
 The songwriter responsible for the 1969 single, “Spirit in the Sky.”
Without having to spend his time constantly job-hunting, my father was able to focus more energy on his religious pursuits and impositions. He became more adamant about going to church – rain, shine, or apocalypse. That Sunday was the first time we stayed to attend the after-church blesstivities: Bible study for my father (my mother refused to escalate to this level of insanity), and Sunday school for my brothers and I.
I came to the Sunday School room hesitantly. My dad guided me…Continue
Posted on December 5, 2011 at 11:00am
“I got a job!” my dad cried excitedly, bursting into the living room. It had been nearly a solid three months of rejections since the human plumbing malfunction, and I must say, my father had been more stable than any of us had anticipated. He had been taking better care of himself since the conversion and all of us were beginning to think that his newfound salvation was an improvement. In the evenings when he came home, he was pleasant, despite the string of rejections he had suffered. He…Continue
Posted on December 4, 2011 at 5:00pm
The afternoon ritual of my brothers and I had always been the same as the ritual of most American children: hours of the pleasant vacuousness of television, the Internet, and video punctuated by dinner, homework, and bed. The system had worked very well. The violence and sexuality of such media had never led my brothers and I to the atrocities of rape, assault, prostitution, drug abuse, drive-bys, or the equally sinful cursing that were touted by more reactionary individuals, so no one fully…Continue
Posted on December 3, 2011 at 5:00pm
Jesus may have given my father hope, promise, the faith to go on, and the blind assurance of an afterlife. Unfortunately, he was unable to get my father a job. Perhaps Jesus Fernando, our former gardener, would have been able to, but he was long gone.
It had been a week since my dad’s conversion, and his transformation seemed for the best. Every morning he would wake up earlier than anyone to pray for a successful interview. He would gather his briefcase filled with resumes and cover…Continue
Posted on December 2, 2011 at 5:00pm