Deep down in my dark heart, I still seek purity

(John McCann)

(John McCann)

There was a time in my life, and it was many years ago now, when I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. I was 17 and hungover the Sunday it happened, and the church was of a kind I had never been to before: bass and electric guitars, keyboards, drums, amateur Christian rock musicians. And teenagers, lots of teenagers. Arms raised heavenward, obeying the falsetto-voiced lead singer’s instruction to “keep pressing in, press in towards God”.

It was in February, late summer, in Harare, and it had poured down with rain the night before. The green lawn of the old sports club, where the church had set up a marquee and plastic garden chairs, looked as though it been washed and rinsed clean. After we finished singing, a sprightly American evangelist stepped forward to deliver the morning’s sermon. I forget his name now but I remember thinking he had the kind of face, radiating power and prestige, you would expect to see in a high-end real-estate brochure.

In the end I can’t really tell you what did it. Possibly the remorse and self-loathing that follows a night of binge drinking: the Saturday before, out on a weekend pass from boarding school, I was literally blind drunk and remembered circling our house a few times in a cab unable to find it. In any case I felt myself impure, surrounded by all those sincere faces, and in need of forgiveness.

At the end of the service, when the pastor called on those of us who had sinned and wished to be led back to the Lord to step forward, I was among a handful of solemn, tearful teenagers who made their way to the front, stepping on the wet grass to the sound of hands clapping.

“God is celebrating, huh, people,” the preacher said, speaking excitedly like a game-show host when you have picked the right box. “There’s a party right now in Heaven for the lost sheep who have come back to the flock.”

And for a time I had come back to the flock.

God, it seemed, was everywhere when I was growing up. Across the street from us, in an enormous blue house, was the Apostles of Christ Ministries and, to the left, a much smaller, nondenominational church. At school, we sang hymns three times a week at assembly, which ended with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. And every special occasion, a wedding, say, or a funeral, was marked with hymns and prayer. For my part, I had no objection to all this, and it would be a while yet before I did.

I was one of those children you see sometimes on Sundays, parodying adulthood, dressed in suits and bow ties or in a shirt and trousers held up by a pair of braces. My family belonged to a small local congregation, which was old-fashioned.

There was stained glass, wooden pews and organ music dull enough to occasionally induce sleep among the faithful. My favourite part was going to Sunday school. I loved reading the illustrated Bible stories, printed in A5 chapbooks. By the time I was 12, I could recite from memory most of the canonical passages in the Old and New Testaments: the Sermon on the Mount, Psalm 23, the Ten Commandments, ­

I Corinthians 13 — “if I speak in tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”.

There was also a girl, Nyarai. We were the same age and our houses were separated by a thin web of streets. She had a round face, a set of perfectly white teeth, and dimples sure to leave any 12-year-old breathless. In my daydreams, I imagined us remaining chaste until we said our vows before the Lord, and later raising children.

I say all this to you now with a certain degree of embarrassment at how clueless and two-dimensional my vision for the future was. But it is also telling of what I valued. I prized nothing greater than to remain “blameless and pure before God”, as we are instructed in the book of Philippians, “shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people”.

As a high school pupil, I began to drift away from the church, one missed Sunday at a time, until I had severed my connection. It was perhaps the most agonising period in my life. Though I never outwardly expressed this inner turmoil, my conscience remained unsettled, plagued with guilt and shame.

“We are never far from our nervous old mother, the Church,” says a character in Grace Paley’s short story, An Interest in Life, “and she is never far from us.” No matter how great the distances we may travel, we will always hear the faint echo of her hourly bells tolling.

The children of pastors, like Hollywood child stars, don’t have a great reputation for being well adjusted. They tend to veer towards extremes, either of belief or hedonism.

Pastor Ruth was no different. Her faith was rather severe. I met her shortly after I was born again when she appeared as a guest at one of our Scripture Union meetings. Thinking about it now, I’m struck by how young she was, maybe in her mid-20s, but when you’re 16 or 17, anyone not in a school uniform seems a great deal older than they actually are.

Pastor Ruth was thin and not very tall, and often wore long dresses that stretched down to her ankles.

For the short time that I knew her, I trembled at the thought of looking at her straight in the eye. I had seen people sway and fall at her feet after she had lain hands on them and I was afraid that, if our eyes met, by some miraculous power she would be able to see through me, to divine the secrets of my dark heart.

I attended a semiprivate all-boys school, hypermasculine in every respect, but I was never quite sure about the nature of my feelings for some of my schoolmates.

It was inconceivable to me then to imagine Pastor Ruth as having any sort of sexual desire, however latent. She seemed to exist on a different spiritual plane to the rest of us, beyond the sinfulness of the flesh.

She had once told us that after receiving a word from the Lord she had gone for seven days and seven nights without food or water and, at the end of it, Christ himself had appeared before her. Most people would have called her a fanatic and kept their distance, but I was not one of them. Put simply, I was in awe of her and everything she represented. I saw in Pastor Ruth the embodiment of an ideal I had been striving for all my life — purity.

In the winter, the Spirit spoke through Pastor Ruth and said we had to fast for 40 days. She called it the “Jericho fast” and it would be a test of our faith, and I suppose, too, our willingness to serve the Lord.

“Therefore,” she said, quoting from Paul’s letter to the Romans, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.”

It was evening and we had congregated inside the school’s chapel, where the Scripture Union society sometimes met. As Pastor Ruth spoke, imploring us to be as child­ren of God, led by the Spirit — “Remember brothers, when Jesus was in the wilderness the devil tempted him with bread, loaves of bread! And Jesus answered: man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” — I thought of Abraham, that great exemplar of faith and obedience. How remarkable is it that when God asks him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, he does not stop to think: but you’re asking too much of me?

The following morning, we began in earnest, staying clear of the dining hall until 6pm, when we broke fast with prayer before supper. But as the days passed, my resolve weakened. I began eating in secret, concealing my deceit and shame from my brethren who remained steadfast.

The school’s tuck shop sold fresh, golden-brown chicken pies, which, under the circumstances, tasted heavenly. It wasn’t long until I was once again a constant feature in the dining hall at meal times and I told the others that I was endangering my health by going to rugby practice on an empty stomach.

Some failures speak to us more deeply than others and, for a long time afterwards, I despised this part of myself: the inability to rise above the sinfulness of the flesh, its impurity.

When I moved to Cape Town after finishing high school, I spent the best part of 10 years moving from one small Pentecostal church to another. A few people would get to know me but then, inexplicably, after some months, maybe a year, I would vanish.

There has remained a part of me that has always wanted to experience that transcendent sense of lightness I felt that morning, long ago now, as a teenager. I suppose, too, that I have also been seeking that sense of wholeness that touched me as a child, and the one place I knew to look for it was in the church.

But, over time, with every Sunday morning service I attended, it started to feel as if I was auditioning for a part I knew deep down I was never good enough to play.

It is difficult for me to say this, and to say it without judging myself or others, but the church is not for me, not any more.

But I haven’t given up on the idea of God; I have merely broadened the search area. Last Thursday, I dropped in at the Hare Krishna Temple close to where I live. I have been to a mosque and I have also spent a morning chanting with Buddhists.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I have given up looking for definitive answers on who or what God is. That kind of certainty is no longer important. I’m simply searching now, with an open heart, and an awareness that I might not find anything.

The last time I saw Pastor Ruth, it was Friday evening and we had gathered again in the school’s chapel, at the end of the 40-day fast. I don’t recall much of what she said that night but I remember looking through the arched doorway, at the bare-limbed trees, the quickly darkening sky.

Pastor Ruth called each of us to the front so she could lay hands on us. We stood in a row, heads bowed. Moved by the Spirit, she began speaking in tongues and all around me people fell at her feet until only the two of us remained standing. I had my hands lifted up to the sky, knees trembling, as Pastor Ruth prayed over me. But then nothing. I remained standing.

Then I opened my eyes and we stood there, staring at each other, face to face. She could see it, I thought, my dark, impure heart.

 

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