You were probably afraid that we were going to be hanging around the fifth grade for the next year or so and my story was going to have seventy-three chapters. But I'll spare you the dull years and fast forward to when I was fourteen because this is when the really juicy chapters of my spiritual journey begins. My eighteen-year-old uncle started dating a sixteen-year-old girl who was a back-slider from a Pentecostal church. (Incidentally, I hate that word: back-slider. What does it even mean? Like you're hanging out with God and suddenly you fall backwards and slide down some hill, and you hit the bottom all dirty and disheveled with sticks in your hair and God doesn't like you anymore? I only use this word because it's how she described herself.) They ended up getting married a year after they met, and she and I got pretty tight.
One night I stayed over at her house and she started to tell me some really scary stories. It was exactly like when you have a slumber party with your friends and someone says, "Let's tell spooky stories!" except she was dead serious when she got to the end and said, "And it's really true!" She told me stories about the moon turning to blood and the stars falling out of sky like scud missiles. She told me that God was going to come back any day now and all of the "saints" (folks who spoke in tongues and were baptized a particular way and believed exactly what she believed) would suddenly disappear like smoke, and everyone who was left behind would be in serious shit.
Now, I had been a good little Catholic my whole life and I went to church every Sunday and went to confession and attended catechism and was even recently confirmed and no one had ever mentioned any of this to me. It seemed like a pretty important thing to skip over. At first I felt really sorry for her because she obviously was confused. I tried to correct her as gently as I could. But she pulled out her Bible and started giving me the low down on the book of Revelation. To be perfectly honest, I had never once read the Bible and I fully expected that the names of the books would be The Book of Jesus or Mary, The Really Good Mother. It gradually occurred to me that no one had actually taught me much about the Bible. This left me feeling pretty betrayed and it also left me completely vulnerable to her version of exegesis. I was MAD. But mostly I was terrified that someone was going to come and stamp 666 on my forehead before I had a chance to get myself "saved".
I made an appointment with my priest and asked him very nicely why he had not bothered to talk about this stuff. I don't remember much of the conversation, but I vividly remember that he had a huge commentary open in front of him and at one point he slammed it shut furiously and said, "You're putting the cart before the horse!" I don't have any idea what he meant by that, but I don't think it was a reference to the horses of the apocalypse (one of which is pale green and has a rider named DEATH, in case you didn't know.) When he slammed that book shut I knew that my Catholic days were over.
My first Pentecostal service was a youth revival. I didn't know what that was, but it was not at all like your average Catholic mass. People were clapping and dancing and running around and speaking in tongues. I'm tempted to make fun of it, but the truth is that it had a strange beauty. These people were utterly abandoned to God in ways that I had never seen before. The music was loud and pulsating and really kind of awful and cheesy, but it just dared you to open your mouth really wide and sing along. The preacher was also loud and pulsating, and just in case I was thinking that my new aunt had gotten it wrong, he confirmed the whole bloody moon story. My heart was thumping so loud in my ears that I only heard about every third word he said, but that was plenty.
So I became a Pentecostal, propelled along by sheer crazy paranoid fear. This church viewed Scripture sort of like it was a big legal document and they were the only ones with the secret decoder ring. No one was getting into heaven but them. Catholics taught this too, but at least they said it in a boring monotone voice so it wasn't quite as convincing. I shed one form of legalism for another, more virulent form. The really horrible side-effect of this view of the Bible is that it makes God look like a crabby shriveled-up prosecuting attorney hunched over his desk finding all the ways to send you to eternal bloody moon jail. Yuck.
Oddly enough, I honestly encountered God there. Despite all the propaganda, I was able to keep my vision of him intact. And the crazy environment actually gave me permission to go after God with passion. I was able to abandon myself in worship. I was able to explore regions of the Spirit that I never knew existed. When I look back on Catholicism or Pentecostalism these days, I have a much kinder view than I ever did before. But I wouldn't go back if you paid me a million bucks.
The truth is, even though I spent the next nine years there, I never was a very good Pentecostal. I was always asking annoying questions and getting myself in trouble with the rules police. I finally went and got myself kicked out. But that's the next chapter.