I stepped forward into the warm pool, my bare feet scampering over the white-hot cement of the June afternoon outside Tucson Community Church.
"Nice and warm," I said, wading in waist deep.
"Feels good, doesn't it?" the pastor observed. People I barely knew surrounded me, some going through this ceremony, some there to watch, but all of us there to root each other on. A few small children laughed and giggled and longed to step in the water.
"There's a lot of people around here, a lot of distractions." he said in my ear after he motioned me to the side of the water. "But this is a moment for you and God. Take a moment, and when you're ready, say, 'I confess Christ as my Lord and Savior.'"
I bowed my head.
God, you have brought me this far, I prayed. My friends have brought me this far. Help me as I continue this walk with You.
I had already walked a long way, some of it in detours.
I grew up in the church. I took part in the youth club, and I went to Sunday school. I attended services with Mom and Dad and brother Michael at my side. When the children's musical came around every year, I always tried out for and landed one of the lead roles.
I went through Confirmation classes like a good young Presbyterian, confessing Christ as my Savior in a credo which I read out loud to my family and other church members at a banquet. But reflecting upon it, the whole process felt more like a typical college essay exam. I spent a weekend with a dozen other kids reviewing the theology with our pastor as he laid it out in front of us in magic-marker writing on an easel. He gave us a take-or-leave-it approach: look at it, and write down your thoughts. I did. Others reviewed my work and I rewrote. Yet what I put on the paper wasn't what I believed; it was what others thought I should believe, trying to earn an "A" from the elders who would vote on my membership. I don't know what I did with that credo. It didn't matter.
I drifted away from Sunday School and Youth Club as other interests took over: computers, mostly. Virtual reality replaced actual reality in the early days of computer networking. With the sturm und drang of growing up, the feeling manifested that others didn't understand me and didn't care. My Sunday School teacher wrote a letter noticing my continued absence and trusting I had chosen to spend my time in some other productive matter. I thought about writing him back and saying, "You left first."
When I moved with my family from Kansas City to St. Louis, it took awhile for us to find another church, and it didn't happen before I went off to college. I had disconnected myself from Sunday services by then. My first job after graduation required working nights and weekends, meaning worship would conflict with my schedule anyway. This went on for twelve years. About the only time I went to church was on Christmas Eve, and then, only with my family.
I still believed in God -- just not like churchgoers did. I hadn't given up on Him, even though sifting through some of the news headlines in the course of my work -- the killings, the crime, the inhumanity -- might have shaken my faith.
But God doesn't give up either. He would find a way to reach me again and pull me back. He would work through a curiosity I had about Colonial American life and a desire to heal some old wounds of rejection from my younger years and peers.
It started a year and a half ago when I walked back in time into an 18th Century ball -- a night of beauty, kindness, elegance and manners. When I attended, I did it to satisfy some curiosities and a spirit of adventure. I thought of it as the Prom night I never had. I mainly wanted to have fun.
But I never imagined a few graceful turns in breeches and a tricorn would be an expression of God's grace. He was working that night, through this crowd of strangers who suddenly treated me like family, this collection of warm and wonderful people who bowed and curtsied me into a world I thought only existed for others. The gentlemen offered many words of encouragement and no lady refused me a dance. When that ball ended, I knew I was on the first page of a new chapter in my life. I couldn't get it out of my heart. It uplifted me. It kept me awake.
I didn't think of it at the time as the Holy Spirit, but that's exactly what it was.
I attended several more historic balls with a happy urgency, like a child counting the days towards summer vacation, escaping from the stress and deadlines of a broadcast newsroom and eager to experience a bliss I had never known over and over again. I re-lived the past on the battlefield, in the full regalia of war, hoping to inspire and educate others, just as others had done the same for me. Friendships blossomed, and I noticed what I call Miracle Moments: signals from God that He was watching over me. Some I remember, some I've forgotten, but a newsroom memory from my birthday last year will never lapse. A class of elementary-school children on a station tour spontaneously began singing "Happy Birthday" after I explained why I was donning a three-cornered hat.
I called 2006 an epiphany year. I found new purpose and joy, a new zest for life. Or... I thought I had.
Inside me, a void still loomed. It poked at me, lacing my thoughts with depression and involuntary solitude, and I couldn't understand why. Had I softened my heart so much that it was breaking? You need a thick skin to survive in journalism. Maybe I had gone too far.
You're happier in the past than you are in the present, I thought. What is wrong with me? I dealt with it as best I could.
When I fell victim to heat exhaustion while skirmishing with the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War re-enactments at Picacho Peak, a feeling of uselessness hovered over me like a storm cloud. I couldn't march and I couldn't battle -- commanders' orders. All I could do was sit under the tent fly of headquarters, not wanting to leave and thus surrender, but at the same time embarrassed and wishing my fellow soldiers had not seen me like this.
But again, God was watching over me. And so were my fellow infantrymen.
"We were praying for you," one of them told me later.
Praying for me? I was worthy of prayer? Me, the rookie who could barely get the drill right? I could not comprehend it. In a camp church service the next day, I learned General Robert E. Lee had also fallen into tears upon hearing others had prayed for him. "I am just a poor sinner," he said. When the service ended, tears had streamed down my cheek as well.
A friend of mine who led this service saw the cry for help. After I explained it all to him in an e-mail, he gave reassurance: looking out for me was "simply who we are." He posed a question: "Why has God brought you here?"
I already knew the answer, but I still felt the void. Stresses of work still pressed on me and confusion about my purpose gnawed from within. I didn't know where I stood with God and I was afraid of the answer. I remember looking at a knife while making lunch one day and thinking, I don't think I should be holding this.
Several weeks later, after another wonderful ball and a post-dance feast, our commander came to my spiritual aid in a place I least expected: outside an In-N-Out in Phoenix.
"I feel comfortable asking you this because I've known you for awhile. If you're uncomfortable with anything, just say so and I'll immediately back off. Have you asked Jesus to come into your heart?"
"Probably," I said, "but not in exactly those words."
He said he noticed I was being drawn back to God, especially after that sermon at Picacho. The truth came out of me then, first in a few drops, then in a cascading waterfall of nervous admissions about the emptiness within me and how journeys into the past were helping me deal with the present. With a few friends by my side, our commander prayed with me as I asked Christ to come into my heart -- another poor sinner wanting to get right with God and heal.
On Easter weekend, I went back to church on my own for the first time in more than a decade.
And now I stood in the water, head bowed.
"I confess Christ as my Lord and Savior," I said, my voice laced with trembling humility, my eyes welling with tears, as I gave thanks to The Almighty and to all those who had led me back to Him.
"Pinch your nose," the pastor said to me. He leaned me back and let the fluid consume me.
"I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!"
I arose from the water with a contented joy as the family of Christ cheered and applauded for me. All I could say was "Thank you" as I shook hands with the smiling gatherers who congratulated me in the glorious sogginess. I had forgotten to bring a towel, but I didn't care. Letting the wetness drip from me like the mistakes of the past didn't bother anybody, and besides, the 100-degree Arizona sun would dry me out as we celebrated with chocolate cake and punch afterwards. The angels were celebrating, so why not us?
No members of my family witnessed the event, no friends, no colleagues at KOLD. I had told nobody about it beforehand. I wanted the moment to be about God, not me. Some of my extracurricular activities are the stuff of sideshow. I wouldn't allow that.
I have been attending TCC for the past two months. I'm on their production crew. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoy going to church, and it's because the pastors do such an amazing job of teaching in a way that's relevant to the way people live. I'm getting the message. The journey continues. I'll need some help along the way -- working in a newsroom and serving the Lord seem incompatible at times.
But I've made the commitment to the profession I chose. I'm not about to walk away and become a monk. Walking away, after all, was the start of the problem.