As I knelt at the altar, dim lights flickered around paintings of the saints that seemed to look in my direction. My arms and back warmed from the heat of the cathedral's lights, and the maroon carpet hardened under my knees.
“Dear God,” I prayed, folding my hands, “please help me find my way.”
A chill went through my body as I remembered moments from my past.
A bonfire twisted at a friend's house. The day before, a few pastors had asked us to bring evil, secular things (CDs, books, posters, anything non-religious) to burn.
The leaders expected everyone to bring something. I only owned one item that was “secular”—a set of three fantasy books.
My brother had scrimped and saved to buy them. He read the entire trilogy to me when I was little. But . . . they were secular. I still remembered us deducing and clutching after plot twists, laughing and joking about one dwarf’s wit—yet when the pastors asked me to take my turn, I stood with those books at the bonfire. Those same books my brother had given to me because he loved me.
“What did you bring?” the pastor asked.
“Fantasy books.” The ultimate offering.
He reached for them. I held the volumes to my chest, but in the end, I handed each of them over, showing what a follower I was. I watched as the pastor ripped them up. With each tear, my breath caught. He chucked the first two in the fire, and I felt as if my own flesh burned. “These are the work of the devil!” he shouted and everyone clapped. “By burning these, Elisa has loosened demonic ties attached to those books! Burn them!” he screamed. “Let them burn like the host in Hell and you'll be free!” He handed me the last book. “Go ahead,” he whispered. “Do it. We’re all behind you.”
I gripped the book. My hand turned white as I stared at it and then the dozens of kids who hungered for my next move. They all hushed because it was my turn to let go of secular belongings, to cut ties with the demonic realm.
The fire heated my arms, reminding me of Satan’s lust for humanity. I still couldn’t move, though. I stood there longer than anyone else had.
The book practically cried for me to spare its life, and for a moment I thought I’d rather burn in Hell than lose something my brother had given me in love. The pastor nudged me, though, and my heart turned to ice.
I thought of all those hours my brother had read to me. I thought of all that time he’d invested.
I couldn’t throw it in; not the last book of the trilogy. That funny little dwarf stared at me from the cover. Then, I closed my eyes. I stepped so close to the flames they almost ate my skin. I tore the book in front of those kids. I put on quite a show throwing in a section at a time because I couldn’t stand sending the whole thing in at once. When the last pages went up in flame, and the dwarf on the cover curled with death, I dropped to my knees and cried. The kids all hooted and screamed in ecstasy, thinking I’d been freed, when the ropes of religion had just twisted tighter.
That night, when I told my brother about the books, his lips pursed in pain, just like that dwarf as he burned. “You . . . you should have given them back. You. . . . But I gave those to you.” Then he walked from the room.
I cried at the altar, seeing things so clearly: I’d been a religious zealot. These memories were my own fault.
I sighed, praying hard then, my words a blur of repentance. “God, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for my actions. Please forgive me. Please help me forgive myself.”
The saints still turned toward me. Their eyes seemed kind. But although I felt as if God might forgive me, I couldn't forgive myself.
My thoughts shifted to my brother again, and another flood of memories hit. The most important one, the thing that made my heart clench, kept replaying in that moment. It had happened months after the bonfire.
We’d all gone to church, my mom, my brother, my sister. I sat by my boyfriend instead of my family. We sang and held hands. The sermon uplifted everyone—except me. There was no real reason to be sad that day, just the fact that I felt lost. So, after the sermon ended and all the people chatted in the back room, I sat in the front pew and cried. Someone put a hand on my back. It didn’t bother me; no, this hand felt pure, angelic, and filled with hope.
My tears subsided and when I looked behind me, there sat my brother.
I stared at him. I can’t explain the emotions I felt. Even though I’d burned those books, even though I’d judged him for listening to Metallica, he still loved me and would be there as much as he could. I’d done such horrid things, but still he showed more compassion than I deserved.
I hugged him after that, and tears flooded his cheeks, too. It was the best example of God I’d ever felt in my life.
I studied the patterns in the cathedral’s carpeted floor. If my brother and God could forgive me, maybe it was time to forgive myself.
“Thank you, God,” I said, “for the memories, for the forgiveness, for allowing me to go through things that would help me change.”
I waved to the saints as I left the building. When I got into the car, I turned my radio from Christian listening to my brother’s favorite station.
I drove home, crying from the peace inside—the peace I’d always longed for.
I listened to Metallica and realized, downfalls aren’t always bad after all.
Excerpt from Bible Girl & the Bad Boy
Tomorrow (7/23/2013), I'll be LIVE on TV. (You can watch the interview HERE).