Chapter 1: Struck Christian

Thirty seven is way too young to be having a heart attack, I thought, resting my hand on my chest and struggling to catch my breath.  I’m sure it’s nothing.

Somewhere deep inside I knew that I was lying to myself, yet I preferred the phantom safety of denial over admitting that I might be facing something that I could not control. I was a firm believer in mind-over-matter, but my attempts to will this away with the right mix of deep breathing and positive thinking were failing miserably. Damn it, I reflected as my stoic resolve started to give way to concern, I think there might actually be something wrong with me.

I looked at my watch, then over my shoulder at the serious-looking faces of 40 or 50 strangers scattered in little family-sized clumps throughout the massive, and mostly empty, main sanctuary of the Dutch Reformed Church.  These clean cut families with color-coordinated outfits were a little straight-laced for my taste. They fit the stereotype I had carried with me through years of atheism and agnosticism about what church-people looked like and how they acted.  Despite unwavering appropriateness, their friendly smiles betrayed just enough wariness for newcomers that I wondered if I was imagining it.  Not entirely sure, I decided it would be best to maintain a polite distance, just to be on the safe side.  This allowed my husband Martin and I and our three children-Andrew, Kelsey and Ian who were ages 14, 13 and 4 at the time-to become one of those family clumps about two months before the sunny June day in 2003 when my life changed forever.

***

The day began like any other any other Sunday morning since we’d gotten back in the swing of going to church following a three-year unintended hiatus.

The routine was simple.

We’d start out calm, with Andrew and Ian watching television or playing video games in the basement family room while Kelsey slept in.  Martin and I might hit the snooze a few times before lounging in bed talking or reading (or whatever…) until we’d lingered just long enough to get to church almost on time.

For me, being almost on time was far worse than being completely late. Completely late allowed for a relaxing Plan B like “let’s just sleep in” or “how about breakfast instead.”  But being almost on time held out hope that, despite evidence to the contrary, Plan A may still be achievable.  Almost-on-time got our competitive juices flowing and opened the door to chaos.  It told us that, if we hustled, we might just make up for lost time-even if it meant tormenting ourselves and ruining an otherwise peaceful morning. Unfortunately, Martin and I took the bait every time.

“Kelsey, can you please finish getting ready and help your brother find his shoes?” I’d shout up to our daughter from the bottom of the two story entry foyer.

“You can’t wear that shirt, it is dirty.  Go change.”  Martin would abruptly intercept Andrew in the kitchen.

Then I’d snap at our youngest as he followed me from room to room holding 100 trading cards and a shoe, “No, Ian, you cannot bring your Pokemon cards.”

And, finally, Martin would call from the back deck, “If you guys are not in the car in 2 minutes we’re staying home.”

So long serenity.

Getting two adults, two teenagers and a five year old showered, dressed and out the door of a three-story house with three bathrooms shouldn’t be that difficult. And yet somehow it always was. Eventually, we’d pile into our SUV and back down the cobblestone driveway, catching a glimpse of our picture-postcard, red brick center hall colonial as we went.  The landscapers had just manicured the property, so everything from the grass, to the shrubs, to the flowers planted in two tiers of massive stone retaining walls looked absolutely perfect.

“Martin, can I have my sunglasses?” I asked, turning down the cul-de-sac straight into the surprisingly strong spring sunshine.

“Where are they?” he responded, leaning down to rifle through my bigger than necessary bag.

“They should be in the inside pocket.”

He took my black, cat-eye glasses and handed me a pair of dark Jackie-Os that set off my long blonde hair and monochromatic black outfit to complete the New York urban-chic look that I was trying hard to make look easy.

I looked down at the digital display-9:54 a.m. With 6 minutes to drive 5 minutes across town, we might just make it.

Turning into the parking lot as the church bells sounded the last deep doooong, we hit our seats just in time for the organist to play the intro to the first hymn.

Yes, I thought, there’s nothing like landing on the right side of almost-on-time.

***

As the notes boomed out of the enormous antique pipe organ and the robe-clad choir fought to find the right key, I found myself looking up at the two-story stained glass windows that flanked the massive stone church. Someone had told me that the panels were museum-quality, designed and constructed by Tiffany & Co. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.  They were truly amazing. Intricate patterns of metal and glass joined to form complex jewel-toned images of Jesus and his crew that exploded when back-lit by the early June sun.  I followed the colored beams as they cascaded through well-defined images of faces, bodies and crosses into an impromptu dance of color that shifted on the floor as if projected by giant, priceless kaleidoscopes.  I could always appreciate the majestic beauty of a church or cathedral.  It was the religion that happened inside that turned me off.

I wonder how much you could get for those things at Sotheby’s,” I thought, as I focused my attention on the Pastor who was calling the congregation to order.

The Pastor was about the same age as Martin and I-somewhere in his mid to late 30s.  Despite the fact that he was a little geeky, he seemed nice enough.  He wore a long white robe with a purple sash which was the standard uniform for what was called the traditional service.  We’d heard from the mother of one of Kelsey’s friends who played piano and sang in the choir that there were plans underway to start a less formal, contemporary service in the near future. Apparently the line between traditional and contemporary was drawn around the use of amplifiers and Microsoft Power Point.

We were told these kinds of “major” changes could be a big deal in church world, and that they needed to be handled very delicately.

“Are you kidding me?” I thought, smiling and nodding like I knew what she was talking about.

I had grown up in a secular family, the daughter of two non-practicing Catholics, so I was way out of touch with the unwritten rules of church life-especially in the Protestant tradition.  Beyond the occasional family wedding, funeral or communion, I’d only attended one church in my life-the Presbyterian church where Martin and I were married. Personally, I could have done without the church wedding, but Martin was a Bible-believing Christian and it meant something to him.  I figured that if he was willing to overlook the fact that I was an alcoholic and a single mother with two kids, the least I could do was deal with his being a Christian and having a church wedding.

Even though he had grown up in church, Martin was not one to get involved in the political end of things. Neither of us was wise to the mayhem that can result when someone tries to change something in church or that minor disagreements over something as simple as the style of worship music could split a church down the middle. That didn’t sound very “what would Jesus do” to me, but what did I know?  Kelsey’s friends had asked if she, Martin and I might want to join the band and, since we all sang and played instruments, we thought it might be fun to jam with the church folk.

“Before we get started,” the Pastor announced, clearly pleased.  “Mary Rooney and her son Jason are going to be accepted as new members of our congregation.”  I almost clapped, but forgot that the people here never applauded.  Even when singers did a fantastic duet or solo, everyone just sat in silence.  I found it to be awkward enough that I asked a woman who seemed to be involved in a number of church activities why it was that no one ever clapped for the singers or musicians.  She didn’t even attempt to hide her disdain for my question.

“This is a church, not a concert.”

I guess she told me.

As Mary and her elementary school aged son came to their feet, I wondered whether they were alone because of a divorce, if her husband had died or if she had just chosen to have her child on her own.  Whatever the circumstances, they reminded me of how difficult it was to be a single mother and how lucky Andrew, Kelsey and I were to have Martin in our lives.

The Pastor made his way across the stage (I think there’s a more formal name for it, but it looked like a stage to me) and opened a huge book that sat on a quarter-sawn oak pedestal.  He asked us to stand and, after a short prayer, started to ask Mary and Jason a series of questions.

“Do you accept the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the only way to eternal life?”

I will,” they answered.

“Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner, sinful by nature, but that by the grace of God alone your sins have been forgiven and your old nature put to death, so that you may be brought to newness of life and set apart as a member of the body of Christ?”

“I do,” they said.

This Q&A went on for a few more minutes, covering promises to pray, seek God’s guidance, grow in faith, attend church and accept and obey the rules and guidance of the church elders.

They responded with a dutiful “I do,” at the end of each question.

Next, the members of the congregation were asked if they would welcome the woman and her son into the “community of faith” and if they would “pledge to them your love, your prayers, and your encouragement as they live the Christian life with us?”  The response of a few dozen congregants in a room that could fit 400 sounded a little empty as they delivered the best “we will” they could muster.

Oh well, I thought.  I could never become a member of this church.

Putting myself in this woman’s shoes, I knew there was no way I could respond to all of those questions with an honest, “I do.”  Given the havoc I had wrought on myself and others in my 20s, I could almost accept that I was sinful by nature.  I’d even come to a place in my 30s where I could pray to a “power greater than myself” with some assurance that something might go my way. But Jesus?  The Old and New Testaments?  Eternal life?  Martin believed in all of that stuff, but not me. No way.

***

I was hoping that the church membership thing would not extend the service longer than the usual one hour.  I was pretty hungry and looking forward to some pancakes and syrup, even though yogurt and fruit would have been the daintier option.  As the announcements finished, the Pastor began his sermon. The message was from the book of Revelations

The end of the world as we know it, oh my.

I knew very little about the Bible beyond my absolute confidence that it was not the divinely inspired Word of God that the rabid radio-Christians claimed that it was.  How could it be?  So many writers over so many centuries and not one typo?  I believed the whole thing was an elaborate ruse perpetrated by people with power and money who wanted to control the uneducated masses.

The Pastor started talking about Jesus returning at the end of the world riding on a horse with a sword in his mouth.

A sword in his mouth?

That’s when my chest started to hurt.

At first it was just a small hollowness right below my sternum-like the sensation you get from swallowing too much pool water.  Then came a wave of nausea, then another. Finally, I started to have trouble catching my breath. Did I eat something bad? I wondered.  Maybe it’s just indigestion.

Looking again at my watch-10:45, just 15 more minutes. I contemplated leaving, but walking up that wide center aisle between row after row of intricately carved wooden pews while clutching my chest and gasping for air was more drama than I could bear.  And I was just image-conscious enough to risk death by heart attack to avoid it. Instead, I took another deep breath and tried to focus on keeping myself from throwing up.

Martin was completely unaware of what I was going through.  Then again, I can’t blame him.  The heaviness of his eyelids, rhythmic bobbing of his head and occasional half-snore betrayed that he was fighting a battle of his own.  He could usually count on me for a gentle-but-firm elbow to the ribs when he was about to descend into REM sleep during a church service. But today was different. As the minutes passed and my condition worsened, I had to admit, to myself and to him, that something was very, very wrong.

“Martin,” I finally whispered with an uncharacteristic sense of urgency, “baby, wake up.”

“What?” he said looking around, “I’m not sleeping.”

“I’m not sure,” I replied, ignoring the ‘I’m not sleeping’ delusion.  “I think I might be having a heart attack.”

Martin had been with me long enough to know that I was the kind of woman who was more prone to ignore illness than overstate it.  Looking at me with a combination of uncertainty and concern he asked, “Do you want to go to the hospital?”

“No,” I said, still allowing self-consciousness and the fear of causing a scene to trump my mounting alarm“let’s wait and see what happens.”

So, intent on maintaining my composure, I quietly struggled to catch a healthy breath and endure the distinct sensation that there was a 500 pound weight perched squarely in the center of my chest.

Just 5 more minutes.

When the service ended, I took Martin’s arm and, kids in tow, we sped down the aisle and toward the exit.  Trying to remain ever so dignified in the midst of my increasing distress, we weaved in and out as quickly as possible without drawing undue attention to ourselves. The church folks were in no hurry as they waited in line to be greeted by the Pastor who had planted himself between us and the door.

Please don’t try to talk to us. I have to get out of here.

Thankfully, an ancient woman whose curved body stood about 4 feet high was speaking to him as snuck by. Still holding on to Martin, I felt like my legs might go out from under me at any moment.

When we finally made our way to the car, I managed to lift myself, with Martin’s help, into the passenger’s seat of our Jeep Grand Cherokee and close the door just as a wave of intense emotion came over me.  The pain in my chest lifted and I began to sob hysterically. There I was, generally a model of rigid self-control and modern accomplishment, crying ugly and repeating over and over again, it is all true, all of it, it is all true. And in that moment I knew I was not having a heart attack.  Instead, despite lifelong skepticism and outright animosity-without asking or seeking-this skeptical atheist turned churchgoing agnostic had somehow been struck Christian.

***

As ridiculous as it sounds, my story might make a little more sense if I actually needed a spiritual experience.  Like if I were fighting a serious illness or we were down on our luck financially; or maybe if we were struggling to deal with a painful loss or trying to navigate some tough personal challenge and I needed to lean on something to get through.  I’d still think it was ridiculous, but at least it would be comprehensible for me to grab hold of some spiritual fantasy to get me through.

But I was happier than I had ever been in my life. Our family was on top of our game. I didn’t need some “come to Jesus” moment. As far as I was concerned, my life was perfect.

I had spent the past several years pulling myself up by my bootstraps, going from living hand-to-mouth in my late 20s to landing as a successful PR executive by my late 30s.  During that time, I’d learned to skillfully juggle the demands of a healthy, happy family and a satisfying career while pursuing the American dream.  Our rambling 4,000 square foot home was filled with beautiful furnishings, stylish clothing and all of the latest goods and gadgets for making life more comfortable and entertaining.  When we found the time (which, admittedly, wasn’t often) and the energy (which was in short supply), Martin and I enjoyed the company of close friends and found interesting ways to spend our considerable disposable income.

Sure, keeping all of those balls in the air wasn’t always easy.  But when my life’s pendulum had swung from chaos to success, I’d shifted from devil-may-care to multi-tasking away obstacles by being a vicious control freak-a necessary evil for someone with my lifestyle.

Sunday nights were spent updating a half-dozen to-do lists for the week-one for work, one for Martin and the kids, one for household business/responsibilities, one for managing real estate and other investments and one for personal needs like doctor’s appointments, oil changes and manicures.  I hit the ground running on Monday mornings; out of bed, to the gym, at my desk by 8:30, recovery meeting at lunch, back to work by 1:30, after school activities, home office for a little more work, order dinner (I rarely cooked), then a little more work or an evening activity of some sort.  By 8:00 or 9:00 collapse on the couch with Martin for a few hours of mindless TV until we’d fall asleep and drag ourselves upstairs at 2 a.m. only to wake up at 6 a.m. and do it all over again.

And there was no doubt in my mind that the tight schedule was worth it.

Unlike those people who got everything they ever wanted only to find it lacking, I loved it. No guilt. No emptiness. No longing for something deeper or more meaningful.  I was utterly content.

That’s why what happened to me makes absolutely no sense.  I didn’t have a heart attack-I had a profound and transformational change of heart.

3 Responses to “Sample Chapter”

  1. Teresa Ortiz Says:

    Joan,

    It amazes me how God works the same work from two utterly different angles. You in all your sucess and array, and me in my single-parent home, moving from place to place depending on mom’s latest boyfriend.

    But in the end, it was all about self-sufficiency and no need or room for anything else. BUT GOD, (my two favorite words in the Bible) steps in and meets us where it counts.

    This was beautifully written and you painted your outside success in such a humble manner, which to me,is evidence of a changed heart. I can’t wait to read the rest!!!

    All praise, glory and honor be unto our God who sits upon the throne! Hugs, Teresa

  2. Joan Ball Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement Teresa. Interestingly, in my early to mid-20s I was the single mother moving my kids around–not to follow boyfriends–but because I was living in the chaos that comes from the waning years of addiction before getting sober. Rebuilt after meeting my current husband and getting involved in recovery. There are so many paths.

    Be sure to keep in touch,
    Joan

  3. Stacey Pierce Says:

    This was great! I can’t wait until your book is done. I enjoyed reading it and because it is a work by someone I know, it makes it even more moving! I don’t attend church regularly but I am a member of a church in North Jersey. I go periodically and boy what a wonderful feeling when I’m there. I do pray all day and read the Bible when I get up and before I go to bed. Loving God is a wonderful life and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wish you continued success!!
    Stacey~

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