I was about to fold a pair of jacks when my little brother died. I was seated at a round table in the hospital waiting room with two cousins and my brother-in-law, taking a break from the prayer meeting my family had convened in the adjoining space. Not a very Christian way to avoid the assembly, in retrospect, but we were playing for artificial sweetener packets, so it wasn't really gambling. Besides, that level of deep and intense intercession is draining. I was exhausted, and I was losing, and then the room went weirdly quiet.
It was December 4, 2003. My younger brother, Luke, had reached down to change a CD in his car stereo on his way to school that morning, when he crossed the double yellows and smacked into a pickup truck, headfirst. His legs were mangled beneath the crumpled dash. He was still within the town limits, not five miles from where my entire extended family has lived and praised Jesus for generations.
Ours is an old clan on old land, hundreds of acres steeped in that old-time religion. My grandfather, a self-proclaimed apostle, founded one of the several local churches. The algae-ridden pond on his property is the baptismal pool. As children, if we misbehaved, we were brought to Grandpa for the laying-on-of-hands, to have rebellious spirits cast out of us, spat into the ether with a forced cough.
Grandpa was, coincidentally, if you believe in coincidences, the first on the scene at Luke's accident. He later remarked that, though the car was on fire and Luke was bleeding, trapped in his seat, Luke remained calm. He did not cry out. He only said, "I want free."
That day in the hospital, the doctors assured us that Luke would walk again, although he would never run. This meant Luke would never resume his position as goalie on the varsity soccer team. My father, the stoic country pastor, wept. My father was also the soccer coach. Another coincidence.
And so our family, thirty strong, prayed. Our prayers were not coherent. Our prayers, because we were from a non-denominational church (a descriptor about as helpful as "alternative music"), and because we believed in the awesome power of the Holy Spirit, sounded like unintelligible gibberish. This was "praying in tongues," an act of intercession peculiar to evangelical, Pentecostal sects of Christianity. This was the language of the angels, dredged up from our spirits when English simply wouldn't cut it.
When the room fell hushed, like those strange moments in a party's conversation, I dropped my cards. I opened a door, and then I fell. The prayers stopped and the screaming began. There was no further pleading with God. Now was the time for wailing and gnashing of teeth. The marrow from Luke's crushed femur had slipped insidiously into his bloodstream and stopped his heart. Our faith had failed him.
After a brief and violent assault on the hospital's wall, my thrashing and mucus-soaked sobbing subsided into a buzzing state of shock. I nursed a newly broken hand and grunted involuntarily every ten seconds. My foster brother, Patrick, sat on the floor with his knees drawn up. He looked up at me, eyes bloodshot and glistening.
"We can bring him back from the dead, can't we?" Pat implored. "We can resurrect him, right? We have the faith..."
For a splintered second, it seemed like a viable possibility.
The church I attended for most of my post-pubescent life classified itself as "non-denominational." This meant it had no affiliation with a recognized church system, organized under headings like Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, et cetera. In practical terms, it really meant that the church was a free-for-all. There were pastors and elders, as is customary for most Protestant practices, but there was no national backing or oversight. We were loosely tied to various other Pentecostal bodies, Vineyard and MorningStar and NewLife, but only by association, because we shared similar theologies and a laissez-faire approach to structure.
The sanctuary was the gymnasium of a defunct elementary school, draped in purple cloth and festooned with banners proclaiming "Christ is King!" and "The Messiah Is Come!" The church shared the building with a mental health facility. Even from close up, an objective observer might not be able to discern if the person entering those tempered glass doors was there for worship, or for psychiatric help. To be fair, in hindsight, I can understand why.
We were told who God had chosen for our next elected officials. When a prophet proclaimed the Word of the Lord over you, you listened, and you probably wrote it down. When a minister laid hands upon you, you were "slain in the Spirit," and you fell down. If you didn't, everyone saw how unworthy you were to be blessed with the overcoming power of His Mighty Breath. If everyone was overcome in fits of holy laughter, you went into hysterics until you vomited. If everyone was convinced there was gold falling from the ceiling, miraculously sent from Heaven like manna because God wants all His children to have shoes, then so be it. If your pastor's wife, the church mystic, dreamed that a witch had infiltrated the church and planted an altar to the Lower Powers somewhere on the property, than you bought a couple five-pound short sledgehammers and went hunting with your brother-in-law (the same who would win all of my NutraSweet packets in a Texas Hold'Em game) and found a pile of vaguely altar-shaped rocks, and smashed them to bits.
Mass hysteria. The brainwashing of children. Glossolalia. Encouraged hallucinations. I fought a demon in the back row of our church once, with a sword, right up against the folded-in bleachers and under the basketball hoop.
Maybe it was the cognitive dissonance finally creeping up on me, or maybe it was the stress of being a soldier in God's supernatural army. The questions kept coming, my brain insisting that this was all nonsense and I was, to put it vulgarly, losing my shit. The enemy of faith is reason. With faith so hammered into my psyche (and there's a Hebrew term for that, chokma, which my father adored), I had no choice but to cloud my own reason. So I turned to that mainstay of self-deluders everywhere, the bottle.
There is such a thing as being "drunk in the Spirit," and all the old hippies in the congregation loved that fad, but when you start leading worship music with a hangover, slurring the words and strumming off-beat, people notice.
Enough people noticed. I was quickly turning myself into a pariah. If I wanted to continue ministering, if I wanted to keep on pronouncing God's truth in a new and amazing and prophetic and cool way, if I wanted to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, I had to stop drinking.
And so I took a drastic step, the kind of choice that I hoped God would honor and my church would respect. I took the solemn vow of the Nazirite.
I have always been a vain person. Narcissistic, even. The first tenet of the Nazirite vow is that one cannot let a razor touch their head, including their face. My vanity was bound to suffer, which, I suppose, is the whole point. I would turn out to be hoary, bedraggled, mocked by my peers. I looked like a terrorist, or John the Baptist, depending on your perspective.
The second part of the vow meant I could not partake of any fruit of the vine. No wine, no grapes, no raisins (and you'd be surprised how many condiments have raisins in them), and for me—no alcohol. Granted, the Talmud doesn't condemn Nazirites for drinking alcohol made from something other than grapes, but that wasn't my goal. My goal was to stop drinking, for good, and with drama.
The third bit—and the easiest to maintain, in my mind—was to never touch a corpse. Unless you're Samson, you cannot touch any dead thing or you risk being unclean, and breaking your vow to the almighty Yahweh.
Eighteen months after taking the vow, my colleagues at the insurance call-center are calling me "Jesus." I'm sober. I've given up trying to tame my scraggly, thinning hair, and just slick it back into a ponytail. I know ponytails are terrible, but I've beaten vanity. My face is barely visible through a thicket of beard. I don't hunt, so I've never had to touch anything dead. I am sacrosanct, sanctified, set apart. I am still a pariah, but I've done this to myself. That makes it holy.
I set my cards down and folded a bad hand. The screaming, and crunch of bones against upholstered concrete. The question, "We can resurrect him, right?" For a shivering second... and then I knew, the answer was no. There was nothing powerful enough to stop this from happening. It had already happened.
I took the elevator down to the morgue. Luke's body lay under a beige sheet which might have once been white. His violated leg stuck out from under the cloth, stitched a thousand times and it still wasn't enough. I vomited on the sterile floor, and then I wiped my mouth, and the snagging beard, and I reached out to touch his leg, which would never kick a soccer ball again.
Luke wasn't there. His flesh felt like the gray clay at the bottom of Grandpa's sacred pond.
This was reality, then: cold meat on a cold slab and the taste of sick in my mouth. I could not call him forth from the depths. He wasn't "taken," he hadn't "passed on," he was simply gone. There was nobody on the other end to hear our family's collective call.
I went home, and I shaved my head, guiltless. I had broken my vow, I had touched a corpse. But goddammit, that wasn't a lion filled with honey or an unclean animal... That was my brother. My only brother. There was no answer, no judgment, no lightning or sword-wielding demons or whispers in the dark.
There was only the quiet of an empty heaven.
Jarad Dewing has been a West Point cadet, arborist, insurance agent, musician, and youth minister. He is currently a chef and freelance writer/editor who has recently started a blog exploring social injustice and prejudice in Syracuse, New York. Jarad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.