I can still hear the words to the old hymns and the contemporary music of my youth – urging, beseeching, pleading . . . “Follow Jesus, I will follow Jesus . . .,” “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, Come home . . .,” “Take up your cross, and follow Jesus . . .” They take me back to a time of simple belief that was tinged with doubt, but saturated with earnestness. Maybe zeal is a better word. I longed for peace, assurance, and a sense of finally belonging somewhere – and Jesus wanted me. His arms were always depicted as outstretched, or he was continually knocking at the door of my heart, or the church, or the house. I just needed to be willing to let him in and take control. I needed to take up my cross and follow him down the Via Dolorosa and be willing to crucify my old self – offer up a living sacrifice – holy and acceptable.
I really tried. I would go knocking on the doors of strangers’ homes and offer to share the good news. I would talk to kids playing outside and make them kneel on the sidewalk to pray the Sinners’ Prayer after I had led them down the Romans’ Road. I studied the Bible, could win all the sword drills, memorized scripture – and sang – fervently sang – “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” I made countless trips down to the altar to confess stubbornness and hardness of heart – asking for Jesus to help my unbelief – for Jesus to save me because I wasn’t sure I believed hard enough the time before. I desperately wanted to “lay my all on the altar” and know the “peace and sweet rest” as I yielded my body and soul to his ultimate will.
And yet . . . doubt persisted . . . and in spite of what I thought was my single-minded devotion, peace and sweet rest proved illusory at best. Often I felt as if I was alone in the world. Everyone else could see the power of God in a thunder storm – and I only heard the thunder – and feared the fire and brimstone that it seemed to portend. What was wrong with me that “blessed assurance” seemed so impossible for me to find?.
Throughout college and young adulthood I never did find the security in Christianity that everyone else seemed to find. But I didn’t want to give up. There must be something to this if so many people could devote themselves wholeheartedly to Jesus – right? While I could not manage to drag myself through the doors of any church, I couldn’t let go of everything I had been taught. Even after wrestling with my sexual orientation and coming out of the closet, I tried to figure out a way to remain in the Christian Kingdom. I tried to reconcile the truth of who I was with everything I had been told to believe about people like me. It was by no means an easy time. I had literally cursed God – I hated God for all those years of feeling isolated and trying so hard while heaven remained so silent and closed. Now – after all of my attempts to enter the kingdom of heaven though the one who proclaimed himself the “way, the truth, and the life”– I had been given an additional burden – a stigma far greater than anything else.
But I did find my way back to God and the slow, sometimes painful process of becoming reacquainted with my Creator began to melt the anger that I had carried for so long. At first I could not sing the old songs or even open the Bible. But I was surrounded by love. It was love in the form of a caring congregation that cradled me in their arms and allowed me to find my own way in my own time. Slowly I found it easier to sing again – and to talk about God - and experience a faith tradition that was not so alienating and judgmental. But it was also a safe place – this wonderful congregation. I was safe to explore my spirituality, to ask questions, and – most importantly – to be myself. Their nurture and caring enabled me to begin the next phase of my spiritual journey with courage.
In 2011 I knew God was encouraging me to begin a new faith journey. I was scared but confident. Years of questioning the validity of my faith tradition had led me to the brink of the Jordan River – all I needed to do was take that first step. Nervous, but knowing that staying put was no longer an option, I called to make an appointment with a local rabbi – the first tentative step that eventually led to my conversion to Judaism. I had no precedent – no real exposure to Judaism – but I had been convinced by my own study and by reading the works of Abraham Heschel that Judaism was my spiritual home. I had heard "Lech l’cha” – Go forth from your people, your friends, your faith – and everything that was spiritually familiar – to a new place – and find yourself.
From that first timid meeting – to a succession of false starts and then consistent meetings with a new rabbi – I grappled with the realities of leaving behind everything I knew and traveling to place that was both familiar and foreign – new and yet so old. Sitting in the middle of the synagogue during Shabbat services I felt conspicuous. I tripped over the unfamiliar Hebrew words, I got lost in the prayer book, I didn’t know when to bow or how to bow or if I should bow . . . but in a strange way I felt I was home.
As the months passed and a became a year . . . and then two years . . . I grew impatient. I began to feel the weight of Christianity pressing hard against me like an unwanted burden. I struggled with the political commentary of fundamentalists as they made their pronouncements against the LGBT community. I wanted to desperately to shed the label . . . to lay down my cross. I had been existing in a limbo – untethered and between faiths – not a practicing Christian – but not quite a Jew. And in those few months toward the end of my conversion process, I began to feel suffocated by being linked to something I no longer wished to be part of.
When my rabbi sent me an email with a date for going to the mikveh I was ecstatic. As the date approached I was nervous, excited – and joyous. I met with beit din and after gaining their final approval – entered the warm waters of the mikveh to a new life. I had experienced baptism by immersion at the age of 10 – but there was no equivalent to shedding myself of everything – even my clothes – and entering into a sacred ritual that would bind me forever to the Jewish people. I recited the prayers and the Shema – and as I came out of the water for the final time I felt this incredible sense of peace and wholeness.
I am an imperfect Jew at best- still working out what my Judaism will ultimately look like . . . still trying to get through a hectic academic endeavor to create space and time for study, growth, and mitzvot. But I am excited that the next phase of my journey has begun. It may be as slow and halting as my initial steps toward conversion – but progress will come. And now, standing on the opposite bank of the Jordan, I can look back and be grateful for everything and everyone that brought me to this place. . . . and proud to be Elisheva bat Avraham v’ Sarah