...make the most of it. This essay deals with my departure from Oneness Pentecostalism.
Why I Left and Whither I Went
So how did I come to reject Pentecostalism? One of my favorite pastimes is reading deconversion stories. I find that most people leave religion for one of two reasons: either their faith leaves them wanting emotionally, or it leaves them wanting intellectually. My case was emotional unfulfillment. When I began posting on the Ex-Pentecostal forums in January of 2006, I still believed Pentecostalism was truth. By that point, however, my faith was dead. I knew God was impotent in my life. I was calloused to the threat of Hell -- I didn’t give a damn about being damned. I was utterly discouraged and bone-weary. But what brought me to that, and why didn’t I just adopt a more liberal form of Christianity rather than rejecting it altogether?
I was raised in the Pentecostal church from the time I was a baby. I was named after Biblical characters, and I was “dedicated” to God as a baby by my parents. The church was life. All of my friends were there. People cared about me there. It was home. As a child, I wanted to follow Acts 2:38; I wanted to be saved. I wanted God to make me into a better person. It took me a while to get around to doing it, as I was shy and didn’t want to go down front and be surrounded by yelling people, but eventually I did get saved. I did so in an upstairs room, with my father. I was exuberant; so happy that I had done the right thing, followed the rules, and no longer had to worry about going to Hell or missing the Rapture.
Being a child, though, I didn’t know how to maintain my newfound “relationship”. As I went from being a preteen to a teenager, I knew I had to “get right with God” and “pray through”. I did so at a revival with a man named Steve Grimsley -- the white male version of Miss Cleo. He dressed like an undertaker, looked like a corpse, and had a deep, booming voice. His "gift" was prophecy. His parlor tricks are laughable to me now, but being a superstitious kid, they terrified me. When he approached me, I was clutching the backs of the pews and weeping profusely, scared to death and knowing that this was it: God was going to get me. It was scary, but when Grimsley motioned for me to come out, I did. He prayed for me twice, both times telling me I had received God’s spirit. I told him I didn’t hear myself the first time, so anxious was I to be sure. That night, I became a Christian.
Unlike my preteen experience, this go-around was “real”. I started stepping outside of my comfort zone and raising my hands. I sang loudly and did “victory marches” around the church during hyperemotional worship services. I prayed all of the time and read my Bible; I went to the rallies and the conferences. I became a Young-Earth-Creationist by watching Kent Hovind’s tapes. I was at my fundamentalist peak in tenth and eleventh grade…but all was not well. September 11th happened when I was in eleventh grade. My first instinct was to pray, and I did: this was the Beginning of the End, I knew. But I was terrified, as I closed my eyes in English class. What if the Rapture had preceded this and I missed it? I was never quite sure that I was going; I had been worried about that all of my life and old habits died hard. That wasn’t the only problem: I couldn’t get excited about Heaven. The general idea, yes -- meeting Jesus and my namesakes would be fun. But my idea of heaven was a park with grass and lush trees and a sparkling lake -- not streets of gold and gates of pearls. Those things didn’t appeal to me. The Rapture, even though I wanted to go, didn’t excite me either. I didn’t want to leave Earth: I liked it here. I wanted to graduate high school, marry, and raise a family. Even at the height of my fundamentalism, I longed for heaven on Earth -- I wanted to see the earth peaceful, healthy, and united in love.
There was another problem: a huge one, one so insurmountable that my only way to deal with it was to ignore it. The problem was that I had never had an intense emotional encounter with God -- not the life-altering kind people spoke of. What was so basic that even the lowliest sinner could do it -- feeling God -- was alien to me. I’ve never felt a supernatural presence the way other people claim to. I recognize why now, but back then it scared me. I thought I had somehow blasphemed the Holy Ghost. Evangelists coming directly to me encouraged me into thinking that God hadn’t forgotten about me, but those emotional experiences always evaporated. I didn’t want to be like Esau or Saul: I was scared of the possibility that I had somehow pushed God so far that he had shut me off from his grace forever.
This was not a momentary crisis of faith; these feelings were in me for years. I hid from them, covered them up with wishful thinking, pretended that they were not there. They started getting to me, though. I stopped wanting to go to rallies and conferences because they reminded me of what I wasn’t: God was directing the lives of those people, working on their behalf and allowing them to serve him. I felt estranged from God, even abandoned sometimes. In late 2004, I could no longer hide from my doubts. I realized that I couldn’t be saved; not without that emotional encounter.
2005 was a rough year for me. My hope in God waned slowly, painfully. I was coming to terms with the fact that I was going to Hell. I realized I deceived myself back during that revival with Grimsley and THAT was why God would have nothing to do with me now. I sympathized with Isaiah, who cried “Woe is me! For I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips, and […] mine eyes have seen the King.” I felt cursed: cursed because I had been raised in this, and had somehow failed despite the advantages “God” had given me. I felt my life was futile and worthless -- that I was going to be forever lost. I felt like spiritual jetsam. It didn’t help that I was utterly alone in this: I had told no one what I was going through.
By the time November of 2005 rolled around, I was done with religion. God had failed me and I him. He was ignoring me, and I was ignoring him. I left services (I wasn’t going out of choice) depressed and angry. I was angry at myself for the failure I was unaware of. I was angry at God for allowing me to be born into this hellbound life; angry at him for ignoring me. I felt like the character of Luke in Cool Hand Luke, speaking to God: “Ol' timer, let me know You're up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it…” Eventually, like Luke, I concluded: “...I'm just standin' in the rain talkin' to myself." In January, I signed up at the Ex-Pentecostal forums to see what they were like. I told my story and started on a journey that has had a profoundly positive impact on my life.
At the Ex-Pentecostal forum, I discovered freethought. I learned to rely on reason and empathy to live life -- not an old book. I went back to my roots -- a love of education and a love for humanity -- and flourished as I never had before. I no longer believe in the god of my parents, nor do I believe in anything supernatural. Neither of them pass the test of reason. I worship at only one altar; the altar of love. Love for truth and humanity drive me these days. No religion, belief system, or god can compete with the power of a free mind and an open heart.