I remember church being something foisted upon us by our parents at the behest of Grandma Hanson, mostly so we would not later “burn in a lake of fire.” Wow. That sounds like a hateful way to go. If all I have to do is attend church once a week on Sundays, then yeah, I would happily opt to avoid such a tragic and preventable end. Of course, Grandma was talking about my spiritual self, not just my here-and-now mortal self. Perhaps she was a believer, perhaps she knew that this mortal life is but a precursor to an eternity with Jesus. Mostly, I think she just wanted us children to stop cursing so much. Ah, the sequelae of a mother who could swear to make a sailor blush. Maybe Grandma believed that if we got a little Jesus on us that she could use shame effectively whenever we let loose on an expletive tirade. Her strategy worked.
In my teen years I would take confirmation classes and be confirmed in that church.
But so what? Who wants to belong to a group of so-called Christians who would bad-mouth my father right within the church walls and in front of me? Although my kin had been buried in that cemetery since Ole Elgstuen got off the boat from Norway 140+ years ago, I dismissed the current Yellowstone Church congregation as a bunch of pseudo-Christian occupiers.
During my college years I was too busy defining and discovering myself, drinking beer and chasing girls to be concerned with eternity. My only religious experience to date was dealing with those sanctimonious, opinionated Lutherans back in Argyle. I dated a troubled young lady from the Latter Day Saints when I was working in Payson, AZ. I witnessed a LDS baptism and saw the outside of the Mormon Temple in Mesa, AZ. I learned enough and witnessed enough to not want to drink that Kool-Aid. Growing up excluded, I had learned to reflexively back away from any group, religious or not, that valued exclusivity above nearly all else.
A vast amount of time passed before I was married and ready to start a family. Sara grew up Baptist and I grew up Lutheran so we sought a nice happy medium for a church, which we found in Community Heights Alliance Church in Newton, IA. I got into church league softball and got to know our pastor a bit more. We felt strongly that children need structure, the more of it the better, and without it…they begin to unravel. Soon Sara and I realized that this was the ONE hour of each week that we could sit and hold hands and be just Erik and Sara–not “mom! dad! mom! dad! MOM! DAD!” Simultaneously, I was growing closer to God, coming home. I began to listen to pastor Cory’s sermons and take in the message, take it to heart. I began to pray, silently, in my bedroom, in my car. I didn’t want things, material things from God. I had a physician’s income as a nurse–I had all the things I wanted and needed. I wanted God’s love and guidance. I wanted to feel Him with me, in my heart and mind.
In late March of 2008 I started to have chest pain–nothing terrible but nagging pain at the left sternal border. I decided to be seen in the ER and my cardiac enzyme troponin was slightly bumped and there were non-specific changes on my 12 lead ekg. As soon as I mentioned that my father had an out-of-hospital arrest at age 39 (I was 41 at the time), they whisked me right to the heart catheterization lab. I prayed. I had conversations with God and felt his presence. Many hours later Dr. Ianone, the cardiologist, was sitting in my room, post-cath, and explaining that my coronary vessels were “pristine.” What had caused this then, I asked? Likely it was a bout of pleurisy, he said. It was an $18,000 day just to learn that I need to take motrin every six hours until the bottle was gone.
Pastor Cory visited me at home in the days that followed this scare. I remember his line of questioning growing too personal, too invasive for my comfort–and I told him so. I explained that my relationship with God was mine. It was personal, not to be questioned or dissected by any mortal being, pastor or not. Honestly, I resented his intrusion. I explained that I think of faith and religion like I do a tooth-brush. My tooth-brush is mine, not yours and just like I expected pastor Cory not to use my toothbrush, nor would I ask to use his. My tooth-brush works for me–it will not work for him or vice versa.
In October of 2012 Sara and I began scoping out Hidden Valley Community Church in Dodgeville, WI. We made a plan to get in, get out, and leave no trace or identifying marks–just in case the church smacked of kookiness or our cult alarms went berserk. We had just moved to rural Hollandale and were thrilled to find a church akin to CHAC in Newton. Never before had I felt so at ease. We both took to HVCC quickly and easily. By August of 2013, I was baptized in Cox Hollow Lake at Governor Dodge as Jesus had been by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. I felt honored to be baptized as Jesus had been, rather than simply the sprinkle of water upon my forehead as a baby.
There are many in the scientific community who believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive, that the two cannot be reconciled. A truly inspiring book by Dr. Eben Alexander called Proof of Heaven addresses how scientific minds can also be believers, and shares this physicians’ spiritual journey through e. Coli meningitis back to good health as a neurologist. In the words of Dr. Alexander, “my experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares for each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going” (Alexander, 2012).
Alexander, E. (2012). Proof of Heaven. New York: Simon and Schuster.