Pastor Joel stood grand behind the pulpit as a showman in his ten thousand dollar suit, flashing his professionally crafted pearly whites. He used his voice as an instrument, becoming quiet for those moments of reflection, then screaming when reminding the attendees on how they were all hell-bound if they didn’t attend to the needs of the church. Every expense had been paid for the elaborate in-house lighting and sound boards that psychologically reinforced his message to the congregation.
Jillian hadn’t personally cared for the stories taught in Sunday school. The tales would prompt her to ask her teachers “why” too often for their liking. Why did God kill babies and kittens during the flood, why did God need Abraham to almost kill his son, why would a loving, generous God keep the devil alive? Her parents would get pulled to the side, resulting in Jillian having an extended “talking to” and even punishments. Jillian learned to stop asking questions to anyone beyond her grandmother.
Jillian’s grandmother had reservations about the church and its teachings. This had been true since Jillian had been a child. Her grandmother had been the single person in her life who would embrace her floating questions. She remembered her grandmother calling the pastor a “scamvangelist” to her in private, though she wasn’t sure what that meant at the time.
Her grandmother offered Jillian a safe harbor to dock her unwelcome reservations. Her parents’ beliefs had been easy compared to giving up money to the pastor over a new air conditioner during one especially warm summer. Her mother pressed her father to reconsider as they sweltered without relief. He told her pastor felt they would be “better off being warm during the summer than to bake in hell.”
Her parents made the decision to begin limiting Jillian’s contact to her non-believing friends when she had turned twelve years old. She had been increasingly aware that her parents had worked to replace her lifelong friends with church children. Jillian felt heartbroken at her lost friendships. Her new friends didn’t have the same enthusiasm for fun. Each felt like a cookie cutter version of her parents. They were all involved with church approved programs throughout the week, went to Sunday school, volunteered to raise money for the pastor and weren’t allowed to discuss anything from “sin culture.”
One day her mother had dropped Jillian off at the local library as she took care of some errands. The message had been clear that Jillian should focus on homework and not stray from her table to anything “sinful.” Soon after her mother had gone, Jillian arrived at a school problem that she was unable to figure out. She found something the staff called “the internet” that could help with her homework. Jillian had never heard of such a thing. The library assistant told her that the internet could answer almost any question she had. The young girl’s eyes widened. The librarian appeared shocked to find a young woman who had never been online. She showed Jillian how to access cyberspace.
Jillian first used the portal to find answers for her school work. She became mesmerized at how readily information could be found. She dared to ask the screen her most unanswered questions. Deep fears of being struck down by lightening or causing a plague of locusts held her momentarily incapacitated. She took a deep breath. Her fingers moved over the keys. Her question was simple. Why does God let bad things happen? She felt in awe at the link options. She clicked on responses, most echoing what her pastor said, suffering makes people strong and protects their souls.
She clicked on an answer from breakfreefromcontrol.com. She couldn’t believe someone publicly offered an answer that went in conflict to her teachings, even so far as to question the existence of her god. Jillian quickly panned around the room to make sure her mother wasn’t around. The information was heretic gold. The site seemed to have more questions about the teachings than she did. Why can’t God heal an amputee? Why do the stories in the Bible contradict one another? Why does the Bible support slavery and child murder? Jillian moved through the page as fast as possible, wanting to soak up a deep well of information. She decided that she needed to break away from the computer to avoid being scolded for using a “sin machine.”
The god that she had been raised to believe in seemed moody and temperamental, with seemingly random whims about what He wanted. Sometimes His need had been for foreskin, sometimes animal carcasses, other times towns to be sacked. She began her own logic travels to unwind what she had been taught. Jillian moved back to the table before her mother arrived minutes later. She felt happy to realize that she wasn’t alone in her questions.
Her parents continued to make judgments about who she conversed with, even as she turned nineteen years old. They made it clear that she should come home directly from work to avoid being influenced by “sinners.” Jillian never told them that she felt happiest when talking to those who let her be herself. She credited her grandmother with reinforcing her open mind. New mental freedoms allowed her to enjoy time away from the usual stagnation. She made friends that had new, exciting and different perspectives than she had ever been exposed to. They opened her to a world of bigger thoughts beyond what flowed from her pastor and parents’ lips.
Jillian’s grandmother quietly talked about her abandonment of religion with her. Her parents weren’t sure what to do with their non-believer. Her father’s mother had always been an important part of their faith circle before walking away from their beliefs. Jillian’s parents felt torn between respecting a parent as the book told them to and casting her out as the book told them. The compromise had been made that the grandmother could be a part of their family, except for Sunday. Jillian pondered about her grandmother’s failed path to salvation. Her grandmother had predicted that one day Jillian would come to understand the real truth, the one outside of her childhood indoctrination.
“The truth isn’t a popularity contest. It’s what’s real.” Her grandmother offered.
“How do you know anything to be real?” Jillian proposed.
“Facts, verification, observation. I have felt such relief since being without the threat of your sin and hell.” A warm smile developed on her face.
“Ma-ma, that’s not enough. The church says that without faith, the world would crumble in a day.”
“Ah, you’ve been lied to. Have you ever seen the efforts of your god?”
“Yes, all the time. We helped the pastor raise money last month.”
“Did you raise the money or did your god do it?”
Jillian looked at her with confusion. A mental traffic jam took place in her mind. “Well, I guess we did that.”
“Jillian, I have seen the charm of your pastor. When was the last event he helped do anything, personally?”
“I haven’t seen him at any for some time.”
“The heart of your beliefs used to be so pure. Now, they are merely half true words meant to stream in dollars, with charity for cover.” Her words trailed off as his eyes reddened. Tears began to form. Jillian knew better than to press for more information.
“You will lose your belief one day, yes, you will too.”
They walked together in the park. Jillian remembered this as part of their last conversation. The family gathered for her grandmother’s burial a few days later in the family cemetery.
One Sunday afternoon, Jillian felt the need to process the loss of her grandmother with her mother.
“Mom, why weren’t you able to find peace with Grandma?”
“Your grandmother was a heretic and blasphemer. Her soul would be roasting in the fire right now if it wasn’t for Pastor Joel.”
“What do you mean?” Jillian looked stunned.
“Your father and I made a very significant donation to the church to make sure that your grandmother’s soul would make it to heaven.” Her mother offered with pride.
“You bought her into God’s graces?”
“Oh, no. Pastor Joel told us that the donation was a symbol of our sacrifice for her ascension into heaven and it was also a good deed because the church needs a new business plane.”
Jillian looked at her mother with pure confusion. Cracks began to widen within her faith.
“Oh, hun, don’t look at me like that. Pastor Joel said that the plane is needed to save more souls. It will also provide jobs, like the plane’s crew, catering, maintenance and clean up.”
“And make more money for the church.” Jillian barely hid her disdain.
“Maybe. It’s like Pastor Joel always says, ‘an investment in one’s soul should be spared no dollar.’” A hiding thought took full radiance in Jillian’s mind. She finally fully realized her grandmother’s term of “scamvangelist.”
Her mother didn’t trust the look on her daughter’s face. “Jillian, maybe you should worry more about your soul and less about what the pastor does with church funds.” Her mother scolded.
“I need to think for a bit.” Jillian desperately looked to leave the discussion. “Good, go pray on how you can ask less questions and be more faithful.”
Jillian didn’t know what to do next. She concluded that whatever she had been sold since birth was tarnished with greed and fear of free thought. After processing her thoughts for some time, the young woman decided that talking to the pastor might help balance the conflict within her heart.
She made an appointment with Pastor Joel. Her father expressed his happiness that she would want to connect with who they believed to be so close to God.
“You know, my child, faith is more necessary than answers. Answers tend to cloud the soul.” Pastor Joel sat back in his large, leather and gold lined chair smiling brightly.
“Don’t answers solve the world’s problems, though. Would it be acceptable to leave a doctor visit without an answer?” She felt this was a fair inquiry. “Well, perhaps, but this isn’t medicine, this is God.” He scoffed at the idea, hoping to get back to his office work.
“You told us that faith is medicine that the soul needs. Shouldn’t we use equal standards?” She did her best to pace herself, not wanting to cause a fight.
“Faith can cure any physical illness, Jillian. When we are sick and we pray to God, do we not get well?” Pastor Joel spread his arms with open palms, signifying that this was the only truth.
Jillian thought about this for a moment. She realized realized the shaky merit of the answer, yet she felt the answer to be lacking somehow. Jillian grew frustrated about his lackadaisical attitude. A sudden realization beamed like a lighthouse’s lamp through the fog.
“Then why are there hospitals and children’s cancer wards?” The question felt heavy coming off of her tongue.
Her pastor looked at her with disdain and sat forward with his elbows on the large desk. He quickly realized that her line of questions would were taking away the comfortable advantage in his own office.
“I think you have some confusion that requires prayer. I suggest you pray about this with your parents.” She looked at him, clearly seeing through his charade. “So, you don’t have an answer?” Her heart filled with equal parts delight and sadness.
“I feel that I have shared my answer. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a meeting to prepare for.” He began to stand for her to leave.
Jillian stayed seated. “One last question, Pastor. How does one know the soul exists?”
“I’m sorry.” He looked at her with angered confusion as he slowly eased back down. Jillian could see that the conversation had him on his mental heels. She felt emboldened.
“Well, we don’t know what it looks like, where in the body is rests or how it travels after we die. How can we worry about saving something that has no form and we know so little about?” She offered with the giddiness of someone winning a chess match for the first time.
“This sounds close to blasphemy. I hope you aren’t going to imply that because we don’t see God, He doesn’t exist.”
Jillian sat back for a moment. Her mental train had not made it through that station, though she could immediately see the similarities. Jillian mentally thanked him for making the connection. She decided to be smart about the next steps.
“No, no of course not, pastor. I shouldn’t have bothered you with stupid questions.” “That’s what I hoped you would say.” He leaned closer to her, smiling as if to remind her that he held the cards. “Let’s agree that if you never ask these ‘questions’ again, I will keep our conversation from your parents.” Jillian clearly understood the implications of the statement.
“Yes, pastor, thank you.” Jillian savored the feeling of her win.
“Good, make sure to give to the donation box on your way out.” He flashed his patented smile.
Jillian thanked the pastor for his time once more. The ride home became full of deeper questions, most she fought through the years of indoctrination to satisfy. The conversation had made the goal of researching questions even more important. Jillian decided that she should separate herself from the church for the time being. This would be the test of her life.
The early Sunday morning felt fresh as she heard her parents downstairs getting ready for church. Jillian didn’t have the patience to be bothered with stories that she had heard dozens of times. She told her parents that her stomach had been bothering her and she needed to rest in prayer to feel better. They told her that she could remain home as long as she prayed the entire time. Jillian agreed. She spent the day enjoying doing nothing and quickly realized how she wasn’t struck down by a lightening bolt for lying and missing church.
Jillian wondered about the world’s history with its plagues, pandemics, wars and starvation. She wondered why counting God’s failures had been easier to count His successes. Her mother would have said that every morning is a success, every birth is a success, every time a wound heals, God has a success. Jillian began to realize that these were less the successes of a deity and more nature doing what nature had done for millennia. She openly wondered how her god wasn’t able to heal any amputee all throughout history. Someone, somehow should have been deserving over two thousand years. Her hands shook as she stared at the YouTube screen in her friend’s home later that day. She assessed that this could be the final nail in her belief coffin. She had been referred to several websites that offered a critical thinking view about her faith. Jillian watched clip after clip of freethinking content, each poking deep holes into church teachings. Contradictions, falsehoods, fantasy all called out in videos. She felt empowered to begin her life without the church.
She recalled that when her family was away from church, they would watch Pastor Joel’s DVD sets that her parents paid hundreds of dollars for several times a year. Jillian remembered this clear enough as it was the same money she had asked for to get an embarrassing mole removed from her face. Her mother had reminded her that “the face is a place of vanity, but, like Pastor Joel says, ‘an investment in one’s soul should be spared no dollar.’”
She considered the worst case scenario, being thrown out by her father. Jillian imagined a big fight would occur with threats of being disowned and a loss of salvation. She believed in her heart of hearts that her journey out of their control was salvation in itself. Jillian steadied herself for the inevitable.
A packed bag of clothes and her most personal effects had been moved to her friend’s house as she worked to make a transition from her old life. Jillian imagined herself as a butterfly ready to push out of a chrysalis. She thought about raging out the door and making them hear what she had concluded from her own investigation, with an imaginary hope that they could break free along with her. Then she considered the core of everything that she had been indoctrinated over the years. The idea that peace, love and forgiveness would make a better world could still be salvaged and used as a weapon against the two of them who would be yelling.
Her parents returned home beaming with excitement about the pastor’s purchase of the new plane. They went on and on about how he had praised the good work of the church for another of God’s miracles. Her father explained that their next project had been given to them as well. A new yacht. Jillian didn’t bother to ask how a large, expensive water vessel could be justified in the saving of souls. This became enough for her.
“I am done with this madness. You and your god and your pastor are all insane.” She said without ceremony. Her parents glared at her in shock.
Before they could begin their tirade, Jillian took to the stairs to her room. She packed the remainder of the possessions that she would need for the next several days. She came downstairs with a smile. They both began yelling about what an ungrateful blasphemer she had become. She raised her left hand to them. Both her parents stopped. Jillian responded in a soft tone.
“I forgive you both. It’s time for me to turn the other cheek. Good bye.”
Jillian left as the onslaught resumed. The yelling commenced once again, threatening her with eternal damnation. Jillian felt sorry for them as the door shut behind her. She pitied their inability to grasp the reality of their delusion.