Mom always loved Jesus more than she loved me. She told me so herself, over and over again, when I was growing up. Every morning she would say to me, “Jimmy, you’re my only child, and I love you more than I love myself. But I love Jesus even more.”
Then she would read the 22nd chapter of Genesis to me out loud. That’s the part where God tests Abraham, the great patriarch of the Faith, by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering to the Lord. Isaac was bound to the alter, the wood for the fire was piled up beneath him, and Abraham’s shaking hand was bringing the killing-knife down when, finally, the Lord spoke from the heavens and ordered Abraham to stay his hand. Having passed the test by being willing to kill his own son for God, Abraham was given a ram to sacrifice instead. Then God promised him future glory as a reward for his Faith.
After that cheery Bible story was done, Mom would pour me a glass of grape juice, warn me to be careful and not spill it, and then read more from the Bible while we ate breakfast. After breakfast, she would pray with me while we waited for the school bus. She always prayed that I would love Jesus like she did, so that I could grow up to be a mighty man for the Lord.
# # #
“Do you love Jesus?” Mom woke me up with this question on my eighth birthday.
“Yes, Mommy.” I answered through my fog of sleep.
“Do you REALLY love Jesus?” she persisted. “Do you love Him more than me? Do you accept Him as your personal Lord and Savior?”
By that point I was awake enough to open my eyes. Mom had the disheveled look she got after staying up all night praying and reading scripture. She was silhouetted in the darkness of our living room over the couch I slept on, her hair frayed out around her head like a flaming halo.
“Yes, Mommy,” I told her.
Mom looked at me hard in the dim light. Then she shook her head.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “You’re old enough now to be accountable to the Lord God. You WILL be punished in eternity for your sins if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, but you’ve got to TRULY accept him.”
Tears were streaming down her face in hot, glistening streaks as she continued.
“You can’t just tell me that you love Jesus to make me happy, you have to REALLY love Jesus, love Him like I do, so that you can be baptized and saved from the eternal fires of Hell. Do you understand me, Jimmy?”
I nodded my head.
“Good,” she said as she wiped her eyes with the ratty t-shirt she wore to bed. “I’ll ask you again tomorrow, I’ll ask you again every day until you are ready to love Jesus. Now, go get ready for our Bible Time.”
“Yes, Mommy,” I answered. Then I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth real slow. I always took as long as I could with dental hygiene, just to put off having to listen to the story of Isaac being bound-up and offered on an alter to my mother’s Lord.
# # #
I’ve never known who my father was. I never asked Mom about him. The closest I ever came to bringing him up happened when I was in the third grade. All the other kids’ fathers were invited to come in to talk about their jobs, but I didn’t have a father to come in. Or an uncle. Or a grandfather. Or anyone other than Mom.
I didn’t ask Mom about my father or her parents. I just told her what was happening at school. I probably hoped that she would tell me something about my family beyond her, but instead she just told me not to let any of those men lead me away from Jesus. Then she added a lot of stories about harlots and whores to our morning Bible Time.
# # #
I guess religion’s done a lot of good for a lot of people. At least that’s what I hear tell. I’m sure that those missionaries thought that baptizing an unwed, disowned mother and giving her a Bible would help both the mother and the child. I’m sure those missionaries believed their Good Works would bear Good Fruit, but, as Mom pointed out to me over and over again, the Good Works of religion will never get us into heaven. Us sinners are justified by Faith alone.
Without Faith in Jesus we all face eternal fire and torment. The Bible teaches us that Faith has healed the sick, raised the dead, and saved the sinners. Mom knew that religion couldn’t do anything without Faith, so we never went to church. Mom wasn’t concerned with mere religion; she only cared about Faith.
We moved around town a lot when I was a kid. Just in my third grade year, we went from a ramshackle house to a roach-infested duplex to an apartment over a mechanic’s garage. Everywhere we lived, Mom would use a magic marker to write “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” all over the walls. I asked Mom why she did that, and she told me that we are commanded to inscribe the words of God on our doorposts and our gates, but that since we didn’t have either doorposts or gates the walls would have to do.
# # #
Mom had Faith in her Bible, she really did, but by the time I was in junior high she stopped trusting her own ability to read it and understand what her God wanted of her. It started when she was studying the Epistles, trying to really understand what they meant for her. As a person of Faith, she read the words and truly believed them. She believed them even though they told her that, as a woman, she was a “weaker vessel.” I found her crying over the passages in First Corinthians, where the Apostle Paul told the believers in Corinth that a woman with questions about the Faith had to ask her husband to explain it to her.
Mom was working part-time as a checkout girl at the grocery store during those years, and money was so tight that the only way we had enough food to eat was because her manager let her take home expired baked goods, dented cans, and old eggs. A typical dinner for us back then was dry toast, a can of beans, and hard boiled eggs. Yet, somehow Mom found the money to get her first smartphone. We could barely make rent on our dilapidated duplex three blocks from the grocery store, but she needed a phone to plunge into the world of online dating. She signed up for some Christian dating service she’d heard advertised on her favorite radio station, the one with the preachers going on all the time about the Power of Faith.
I didn’t know much about online dating back then, but now I know that most people with an online dating account are looking for love, or at least affection and fun. Not Mom. She was looking for a male Head to answer her questions about God and the Bible. I snuck her new phone out of her purse when she was in the shower one night, praying loudly that the water would be her new baptism. I opened her phone and read the dating profile she’d written:
I am a Christian Woman who Tries to Serve the Lord Jesus. His Word has Convicted me that I need a Man for Headship over me and my son. He was conceived in Sin, but I have Repented Very Much. I have Tried to Bring the Boy to Jesus, but he needs a Christian Man to Lead him. I Hope that my Shame don’t scare you off. 1 Corinthians 14:35
Her profile picture was a blurry photo of the cover of her Bible.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Mom didn’t get any gentleman callers from her dating app. I guess even Uber-Christian men who take dating advice from radio-evangelists aren’t that desperate.
# # #
When I started high school, Mom was still waking me up every morning by asking me if I loved Jesus. I always answered yes, and she always refused to believe me. She would cry for my damned soul, and then she would read to me from the Bible as I tried to choke down the grape juice she was still certain I loved.
Mom’s readings began to skip around the Bible a lot, with passages plucked from context and read to me in a staccato rhythm over breakfast. Mom was a real fan of the Book of Proverbs in those years. Her favorites were “wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words” and “the mouth of an adulterous woman is a deep pit; a man who is under the Lord’s wrath falls into it.” She always admonished me with another Proverb as I was leaving for school: “Don’t lust for her beauty. Don’t let her coy glances seduce you.”
I was the only kid in my grade that wasn’t allowed to take sex ed classes. I guess Mom figured that Proverbs had given me everything I needed to know.
# # #
By the time I graduated from high school, Mom had given up on finding a man to be her “Head.” Since she knew that a “mere woman” like her could never fully understand God’s Word, she started using her old smartphone to take online Bible classes (taught by male preachers, naturally). She never stuck with one for long, though, and hopped from one “virtual ministry” to another.
After graduation I worked as close to full-time as I could at the convenience store. It took several months, but I was able to save up enough to move out of the tiny duplex Mom had been able to keep since I was in junior high. It was the closest thing to a home that I’d ever had, but it was a relief to get a couple of blocks away from Mom and have a small space of my own in the decrepit apartment building.
Mom still called and texted me at weird hours asking if I loved Jesus, and I would say yes, and then she would tell me that I had to MEAN it to be saved. She started taking walks that just so happened to bring her by my new place. She wouldn’t knock on my door or anything, she would just walk around the small apartment building a few times and then head back toward her place.
Even with the constant calls and texts and the frequent surveillance, it was the most freedom I’d ever known. I wasn’t waking up to a disheveled woman with fly-away hair asking me if I loved Jesus and then refusing to take my yes for an answer. I didn’t have to listen to macabre Bible stories while drinking disgusting dark purple juice every morning. I was paying for my own place and had my own phone, and that phone was eye-opening in ways that Mom wouldn’t have approved of had she known about the app I was swiping on.
# # #
After a year of living alone, Mom started to get desperate in her search for spiritual guidance. I know it’s probably hard for you to believe, but I still visited her two or three times a week. She was the only family I had, and I couldn’t just leave her all alone. On one visit she told me that she HAD to find a teacher she could trust. She needed a Wise Man to lead her because the Bible warns not to “lean on your own wisdom.” I told her that I hoped she found what she was looking for soon.
After praying and fasting for a week seeking a man “anointed by God” to teach her, Mom visited me at work to share the news that her fast was over because the Lord had revealed the Teacher she was supposed to follow. I couldn’t talk to her much because of the long line of customers buying smokes and booze, but I was glad that she was going to start eating again.
I wanted to treat her, so after I clocked out that night I got us a pizza from the convenience store and took it over to her. We were eating pizza as Mom explained that the Lord had revealed to her that she should study under Pastor Aiden Foley. I was shoving pizza into my mouth like a hungry 20 year-old guy, even though I’d been eating pretty regular since I’d moved out and away from Mom’s spontaneous fasting. Despite having not eaten for seven days, Mom was eating dainty and slow.
“Who’s Aiden Foley?” I asked through my full mouth.
Mom swallowed her own small bite before answering.
“Pastor Foley,” she said, “founded Light-Bringer Ministries. His teachings focus on the Redemption of Sinners and bringing us to Salvation.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Even with all the years of Mom reading her Bible at me, I’d never figured out how to respond to her projection of cosmic dread in my direction. All I could think to say to her was, “If it makes you happy, I’m glad for you, Mom.”
“My happiness doesn’t matter,” she answered. “What matters is pleasing the Lord.”
“If you think following this Paster Aiden Foley will make God happy with you, and if making God happy will make you happy, then I guess I want you to do what this man says.”
Mom smiled at me then. It was the first true smile I can remember her ever giving me in all my years on Earth with her. She handed me a tract with a drawing of a blazing star encompassing a cross on the front. On the back of the tract an intense man stared out from a black and white photo.
“Jimmy,” she said to me, “I really want you to read this. It will change your life.”
“Okay, Mom,” I answered.
I skimmed the tract as I walked home. The front was dominated by a blazing star printed in garish yellow ink. The star almost subsumed the small cross silhouetted before its brilliant light. Around the logo were the words, “Jesus sacrificed for you. What will you sacrifice to him?” Inside, the text made it clear that Pastor Aiden Foley was big into sacrificing what you valued most to the Lord, only naturally those sacrifices needed to be routed through Light-Bringer Ministries to be effective. I couldn’t see what my mom found appealing about the man, but since she had nothing to sacrifice it didn’t seem like she was at much risk from him. I tossed the tract into the recycling when I got home.
# # #
Mom started cooking for me again, and not just the canned goods and past-date eggs we used to live on. By then she was Head Checker at the grocery store, so while she wasn’t making good money she didn’t have to rely on charity anymore, either. Between having improved pay and still getting a store discount, Mom took to making dinners that were fancy, at least by our prior standards. I would come by, she would ask me if I loved Jesus and pray for me, and then we would eat together.
I was still only coming by two or three nights a week, which made Mom sad because she wanted to see more of me. Of course, those two or three nights a week were plenty to annoy my girlfriend, the first and only woman I’ve ever “known” in a Biblical way.
I met Elaine on a dating app Mom wouldn’t have approved of. She lived a couple of towns over, in the county seat where the courthouse and hospital are. She’s older than me by a couple of years. She’s been to college. She has an office job, and she even has a car.
Maybe it’s weird for the girl to drive on a date, but I didn’t mind. She would drive to town to pick me up, and then we’d go to movies and bars and restaurants and other places Mom would never allow and couldn’t afford. There wasn’t any way to avoid Mom’s duplex leaving my apartment, so I would scrunch down in the seat as we drove by to keep her from seeing me riding around with a woman I knew Mom would assume to be a harlot of Biblical proportions.
Our first date had been the night before Mom got convicted to follow Pastor Aiden Foley and his Light-Bringer Ministries. It was immediately clear that things were serious between Elaine and I. Since my work schedule was so unpredictable, she wound up spending a lot of time at my apartment right away.
But as much as she loved me, Elaine was more than a little angry over being my dirty little secret.
“There’s no reason for us to be in the closet,” she said to me one Friday night at my place. “It’s bad enough to shove gay people into the closet, but I at least understand how fucked up shit like that happens. We’re a super boring straight couple. We’re both adults. This sneaking around so that you mom doesn’t notice me has got to end.”
I promised her that I would find a way to tell my mom about her by our first anniversary. I swore that if I couldn’t find a way for Mom to accept Elaine, then I would cut Mom out of my life and focus on the woman I loved. I wasn’t sure how I was going to come clean to Mom, much less convince her to accept Elaine into my life. I didn’t doubt that Pastor Aiden Foley and Light-Bringer Ministries had more than confirmed Mom’s longstanding conviction that a woman who regularly spent the night at her boyfriend’s apartment was exactly the kind of dangerous harlot Mom needed Jesus to deliver me from. I hated hurting Elaine, but Mom was the only family I had, and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her, either.
I didn’t believe in Mom’s God, anymore, and I don’t think that I ever really did, but I still I felt guilty for wishing that Mom would just die before the year was up. That would spare me the pain and anguish of telling her that I had a girlfriend.
# # #
When Mom invited me over for what her text called a “Special Dinner to Celebrate A Year of Serving the Lord God and Pastor Aiden Foley,” Elaine was looking over my shoulder as I read the message.
“It’s almost been a year, babe,” she said to me.
“I know, sweetie. I will tell her. Just as soon as I figure out how.”
Elaine looked at me with her piercing blue eyes.
“You’re going to figure out how, and you’re going to tell her,” she said. “Or you’re going to tell her to fuck off for good. You promised it would just be a year. If you don’t come clean to your Mom by the end of her special dinner for the Sky-Man she loves so much more than you, you and I are through.”
She was sobbing as she said it, though, and I started to bawl too. I hugged Elaine and held her close. I hoped rather than prayed that somehow this would work out and that I would be able to have both my mother and my girlfriend in my life. In that moment I wished that I had the Faith of my mom, Faith that everything would work out according to some divine plan.
# # #
“Do you love Jesus, Jimmy?”
Mom greeted me at the door with her usual question. I was fidgety. My palms were sweating, and my mind was on Elaine. I’d left her pacing in my apartment waiting for me to get home from Mom’s. She could have stayed at her own place, but she told me that she wanted to be there for me in the aftermath of whatever happened with Mom. I hoped there wouldn’t be an aftermath, but knowing Mom I figured there would be.
I looked at Mom standing there inside of her front door. She looked even frailer than usual, and I suspected that she’d been fasting again. Her hair was gray now, but still long and unrestrained. She was wearing a simple white linen dress I’d never seen before.
“Yes, Mom,” I answered her. “I love Jesus.”
She continued our ritual.
“Then do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God? Do you accept him as your personal Savior?”
“Yes, Mom, I do.”
There was a tear in her eye when she looked up at me and said, “Then you should be baptized for the remission of Sin.”
That wasn’t what I expected her to say, and I think the surprise showed on my face. Mom ignored my bewilderment.
“Come inside, Jimmy. I’ll draw the bathtub full, and we’ll use it to baptize you before dinner.”
“Umm, okay,” I answered. I didn’t really want or need to be baptized, but I figured that it would make Mom happy. Once I was saved in her her eyes, maybe she would take my news a little bit better.
She led me down the hallway, past the single bathroom and into what used to be my bedroom. My old single bed was still shoved up against the wall shared with the vacant unit next door, but everything else about the room had changed.
To begin with, the closet had doors. They were just cheap folding doors made out of fake wood, but they were doors just the same. Over the years our landlord had always refused to put doors on our bedroom closets, saying that we would just break them anyway. Mom must have put those doors up herself, but I didn’t know how or why.
Mom had also painted the faux-wood paneling on the walls with dingy white paint, then she’d scrawled more Bible verses all over the cleanish slate. There was Mom’s old favorite verse, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” but there were others, too.
She opened the new folding doors on the closet just enough to slide her hand inside. She pulled out a linen garment like the dress she was wearing, but longer. She handed it to me.
“Put this robe on for the baptizing while I go draw the bath,” she told me.
I nodded. The wall behind her shouted, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Mom left and closed the bedroom door behind her. I stripped and donned the white linen. It was scratchy and new on my skin. I folded my clothes and put them on the bare mattress of my former bed.
“You shall not commit adultery.”
I heard the water running in the bathroom next door as Mom filled the tub.
“Love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and with ALL your soul and with ALL your mind.”
I wondered what Mom was hiding in the closet.
“Be not deceived: neither fornicators, not idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the Kingdom of God.”
I opened the folding doors and peaked inside.
“The fire will test the quality of each person’s work.”
There where I used to pile my clothes and toss my shoes was an altar made from a secondhand sofa table. The table bore a small cross and a large framed picture.
“A promiscuous woman is as dangerous as falling into a narrow well. She hides and waits like a robber, eager to make more men unfaithful.”
The picture was a black and white photo of Paster Aiden Foley staring out with a fiery passion. Large font printed over the picture read, “Do you love Jesus enough to give Him your all?” I shook my head and stepped away from from my former closet.
“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and Fire.”
On the closet wall behind the makeshift altar was an enormous poster of the Light-Bringer Ministries logo. When the logo was blown up to that size, it was as if the blazing star was swallowing the tiny cross.
“This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, I’ve done nothing wrong”
I heard the water in the bathroom turn off.
“Bad company ruins good morals.”
I slammed the closet doors closed with a gasp and tried to compose myself before Mom opened the door to the bedroom.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The door opened.
Mom stood just beyond the threshold. For some reason her dress was already soaked from filling the tub.
“It is time, Jimmy,” she said.
I walked into the bathroom.
# # #
The baptizing wasn’t easy, because I’m a good foot taller than the tub was long. Mom wound up holding my head under water while my feet stuck up on either side of the faucet. She used a plastic cup to pour water over my exposed legs while the rest of me was submerged. She was meticulous in her work, deluging my toes, my ankles, my shins, all while her other hand on my brow held my face beneath the surface.
I started to squirm, not wanting to disappoint my mother but desperate for air. Finally, she grasped the hair of my head and drug me gasping up into the air.
# # #
Mom insisted that we eat right after the baptizing, even though we were still dripping in our raiments. Dinner was simple, just fish and dinner rolls. She’d bought them both frozen, and they’d apparently been baking while I was getting baptized. After I sat down at the kitchen table, Mom opened her refrigerator and poured me a tall glass of grape juice.
“I always think of you when I see this in the store,” she told me. “You used to really love grape juice when you were a little boy.”
I took a sip of the deep purple juice and gagged a little on its cloying sweetness.
“You were so pure and innocent then,” she continued as she sat down across from me and began to eat the fish and the bread. “I’ve been praying for you to accept Jesus ever since then. You know that, don’t you, Jimmy?” She looked like she was about to cry.
“I know that you’ve prayed for me, Mom. I know that you wanted me to be baptized more than you wanted anything else in this world.” I took a bite of the fish and was surprised by its saltiness.
“It’s not just that I wanted you to be baptized, Jimmy!” Her eyes were glistening with tears and glowing with zeal. “I wanted you to be SAVED! I want your sins to be forgiven! It’s because I LOVE you, Jimmy!”
I took another drink of the juice to wash down the salty fish.
“Thanks, Mom, I know you love me.” Then, before she could say anything back to me I added, “but not as much as you love Jesus. And not as much as I love Jesus, either.”
Mom smiled at me, almost like she was trying to convince herself to be happy. She topped off my glass of grape juice.
My mind was getting fuzzy, somehow, but I remembered that there was something I needed to do, something I needed to say.
“Mom, there’s something I need to tell you.”
She shushed me like I was a baby.
“Not now, Jimmy. Wait until after dinner. Right now you’re pure and clean from your baptism.”
Then my chin drooped to my chest and it took an act of will to snap my head back up.
Then my forehead hit the juice glass, shattering it into a thousand shards. The pain woke me for a second, and I remember the blood from my forehead mingling with the dark purple juice. The mixture ran across the table and coated my face. It dripped down onto the tattered vinyl floor of the kitchen. It stained the clean, wet linen I wore. Then my eyes closed, and the world went dark.
# # #
Mommy, if Jesus loves us, why would he burn us for being naughty?
Mommy, Mommy, please, it’s too tight, it hurts, it hurts!
Please, Mommy, please . . .
# # #
I heard the splash of liquid being poured out around me, or perhaps it was the righteous vengeance of an angry God. There was the taste of blood and grapes on my tongue. I smelled gasoline on still air.
Eyes. I had eyes. “He who has eyes, let him see,” I told myself. Then I raised my heavy lids.
I was in the closet atop the alter. Around me were rags of Mom’s old clothing, all stinking of gasoline. Above me I saw the blazing star of Light-Bringer Ministries. Beside my head, the grim photo of Pastor Aiden Foley asked if I loved Jesus enough to give my all.
Even though my head throbbed and blood still dribbled from my forehead, I knew that I shouldn’t remain on my mother’s altar. I began to swing my feet down, but there were ropes around me, binding me in place. I managed to turn my head away from the wall and the picture of Pastor Aiden Foley, and when I did I saw Mom sitting on the bare bed I used to sleep in. She was stroking a pack of matches like she used to stroke my hair when she read me bedtime stories from the Old Testament.
She smiled at me when my head turned.
“Welcome to Salvation, Jimmy. We’ll be with Jesus soon.”
Then she struck a match.
# # #
I don’t remember if I screamed, but I do remember Mom smiling as the flames shot up the walls and licked at me upon the altar. I remember her praying for deliverance from our sins as her gown caught fire and raged around her. I remember the smell of my own hair burning and the pain of my sizzling flesh, but I don’t remember if I screamed.
# # #
Elaine found the inferno.
When I’d been gone too long for her comfort, she’d texted me. When I didn’t respond to her text, she turned her pacing in my apartment into a nervous walk toward my mom’s duplex. When she saw the flames and smelled the smoke, she called 911 before she crashed through the door.
It would be poetic to tell you that my brave Elaine saved me from my mother’s burning altar, but that would be a lie. The walls of flame were too much for her to penetrate, and the smoke turned the tiny duplex into a confusing maze. Elaine gave herself first degree burns trying to save me, but the firefighters are the ones who drug me out. They came in a torrent of water and sparks and black smoke that I still taste and smell, even here in the ICU.
I don’t know how much of me remains beneath these bandages. Elaine sits with me for as many hours as the hospital will let her. I think that she was here even through the two weeks I was drugged into a stupor to keep me from feeling the worst of the pain. All I remember from those days of haze is the anguish of a blue-eyed angel. Elaine tells me it was probably just the drugs.
Now there are stretches of time when I’m conscious enough to slur short conversations with Elaine and answer the doctors’ questions. The price of my wakefulness is that I feel the fire take my flesh again, until finally my next dose of pain killers returns me to a cloudy state that exists beyond pain but still far from salvation.
They’ve wrapped me in a shroud, from head to toe, as if for burial. The doctors tell me that I will be in these bandages for many more weeks. Perhaps I will yet be able to cast them off and be raised, but I just don’t know if I have that kind of Faith.