Crossing the Stream
I remember the moment I decided to leave Christian Science. It was a Sunday afternoon in February 1994. By my bleak accounting, New Haven, Connecticut, was enjoying its seventeenth snowstorm of the winter. I was completing a one-year fellowship at Yale Law School. I had abandoned my sunny apartment in Washington, D.C., for a dark cave in the Taft Hotel with rented furniture that, I'd realized upon delivery, was identical to that favored by Holiday Inns.
I was sick — sick with stomach flu, a fever and chills that induced me to pile every blanket, sweater, and coat in the apartment on top of me. Still I shook so violently that my teeth chattered. I slipped in and out of consciousness all afternoon, but in a moment of lucidity I envisioned the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink. In normal circumstances, my medicine cabinet contained nothing more therapeutic than Band-Aids. I had been raised a Christian Scientist, and at the age of thirty-four — with the exception of receiving a vaccine before my family traveled to Europe — I had never visited the doctor, never taken a vitamin, never popped an aspirin, much less flu medicine. At that moment, what flashed in my mind's eye like a blinking neon sign was Tylenol, Tylenol, Tylenol. A friend of mine, I recalled, had left some Tylenol during a visit.
The bottle of Tylenol called seductively, and I followed its siren call.
I slipped out of bed and, steadying myself on the furniture lest I faint, crept to the medicine cabinet. Before I could stop myself, I downed one tablet, closed the cabinet, averted my eyes from the mirror, and stumbled quickly back to bed. Five minutes passed. My teeth stopped chattering. Another minute or so, I began to feel quite warm, no, hot, hot, what was I doing under all these covers? I threw off the coats and sweaters and blankets and felt the fever physically recede like a wave at low tide. Wow, I thought, I feel terrific!
It was not thirty minutes later when I was up for the first time in two days and cheerfully making myself some tomato soup; it was not then, precisely, that I incorporated medicine into my life. It would take me another sixteen months before I would leave the religion of my childhood for good. Soon thereafter, I announced this to my friend Laura one day at lunch.
"Oh, Barb," she exclaimed, squeezing my hand in excitement. "Now the whole world of pharmacology is open to you!"
And so it was. But three decades of religious training does not evaporate quickly. As a Christian Scientist, I had come to believe in the power of prayer to alter my experience, whether that be my wracking cough or my employment status, my mood or my love life. In that time, I had witnessed several healings. I had come to suspect that there exists another type of spiritual reality just beyond the grasp of our human senses that occasionally, and often unexpectedly, pierces the veil of our physical world. In Christian Science we called these "spiritual laws," and (I was told over and over) I needed merely to bring myself in line with those higher laws to banish the cough or the heartache.
I say "merely," but it's actually tough sledding, trying to fix all your problems through prayer. In my mid-thirties, I chose the ease and reliability of Tylenol over the hard-won healings of Christian Science. More than that, I was tired of my ascetic diet of divine law and spiritual principles. I suppose I could have walked away from religion altogether,
dismissing God and swatting away questions about eternity. But for whatever reason — my genetic wiring or the serotonin receptors in my brain or the stress hormones in my body — I held fast to the idea of God, of a Creator above and within this messy creation called my life and yours. I remained open to something unexplainable, even supernatural. But I did not have a clue as to how radically my life would be upended when I encountered that mystery one summer evening in Los Angeles.
On June 10, 1995, Kathy Younge and I were sitting on a bench outside Saddleback Valley Community Church. The Saturday-night service had ended an hour earlier. Even the stragglers had gone home. I was interviewing her for a Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine article about fast-growing churches — specifically, why baby boomers in their thirties and forties were flocking to evangelical churches. This took me into new spiritual territory. As a Christian Scientist, I had absorbed Mary Baker Eddy's version of Deity. The flinty founder of Christian Science defined "God" as a list of qualities — Life, Truth, Love, Spirit, Soul, Mind, and Principle. The Christian Science God is not a person. But to the evangelical Christians I met during my research for the Times, God is first and foremost a Person, one who came to earth two millennia ago and still yearns for a relationship with every human being.
Kathy Younge was my tour guide through this evangelical world. I was drawn to her because we occupied the same lonely demographic: both in our mid-thirties and single, we were wrestling with existential questions. But my questions paled next to hers. This woman had been fighting cancer for years. Her melanoma had recently returned, driving her to her knees in despair, and eventually to the comfort of Saddleback Church. Saddleback and its pastor, Rick Warren, are now almost household names, but in 1995, Rick Warren was unknown outside evangelical Christian circles, and his church drew only a few thousand people a week. (Now it's closer to 20,000.) Many of those people were like Kathy — broken in some way, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and famished for a living, breathing God who listens and intervenes. Saddleback is founded on this kind of God, and gives Him a structure to work with — twelve-step programs, ministries for every sort of physical, emotional, or financial challenge, and a massive prayer chain in which hundreds of Saddleback members pray for those in distress, like Kathy.
"Do you think the prayer group in the church will heal the cancer?" I asked Kathy that night, scribbling notes in the fading light.
"No. Healing comes from God," she said. "The church is here to be your family. They're really your support team down here because we don't have Jesus around to touch and talk to us. The church is God with skin on."
That was the quote that appeared in my Times article. What happened next did not.
"Kathy, how can you possibly be so cheerful when you've got this awful disease?" I asked.
"It's Jesus," she said. "Jesus gives me peace."
"A guy who lived two thousand years ago?" I asked, incredulous. "How can that be?"
"Jesus is as real to me as you are," she explained. "He's right here, right now."
Right, I thought. Yet there was something wondrous about Kathy's confidence as she struggled through this disease that could kill her. She told me then how she had been diagnosed with melanoma in her twenties, how her fear and loneliness had led her to Saddleback on a random Sunday, how she had come to believe that God had placed cancer in her life not to snuff it out but to give it a transcendent purpose.
As we talked, the night darkened. The streetlamp next to our bench cast a circle around us, creating the eerie sense that we were actors in a spotlight on a stage. The temperature had dropped into the fifties. I was shivering but pinned to the spot, riveted by Kathy and her serene faith.
My body responded before my mind, alerting me to some unseen change, a danger perhaps. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and my heart start beating a little faster — as it is now, recalling the moment. Imperceptibly at first, the air around us thickened, and I wondered whether a clear, dense mist had rolled in from the ocean. The air grew warmer and heavier, as if someone had moved into the circle and was breathing on us. I glanced at Kathy. She had fallen silent in mid-sentence. Neither of us spoke. Gradually, and ever so gently, I was engulfed by a presence I could feel but not touch. I was paralyzed. I could manage only shallow breaths. After a minute, although it seemed longer, the presence melted away. We sat quietly, while I waited for the earth to steady itself. I was too spooked to speak, and yet I was exhilarated, as the first time I skied down an expert slope, terrified and oddly happy that I could not turn back. Those few moments, the time it takes to boil water for tea, reoriented my life. The episode left a mark on my psyche that I bear to this day.
Excerpted from Fingerprints Of God by Barbara Bradley Haggerty with permission from Riverhead Books, a division on Penguin Group (USA)