I believed, in the beginning, that I was not of this world. That is, I believed I should not love the things of this world, because this planet was not my home, and my actual residence was a faraway paradise that existed beyond what we humans could see or know. And so I grew up understanding that the place where I lived in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina would not be the place where I’d end up, and that this land — with its waterfalls churning silver wakes inside spectral pools and its lookout rocks where one could view blue ridges like frozen waves retreating into infinity — offered merely a foretaste of future glory.
My first problem was that I loved my home. The house that my parents had built, and where I lived with them and my sister, sat in a shadowy cove, on a hill of grass and moss, below which two creeks converged in a rhododendron thicket to form a single stream. Our water came from a springhouse squatting on the side of a mountain, where you could unlatch the screen door and, unhooking a metal dipper from a nail, scoop yourself a cold drink. We’d hike a dark path — a tunnel through tangled woods — to a garden, where we’d pluck string beans from vines and turn clumps of soil with spades to unearth potatoes. We ate honey that my beekeeper father drizzled from combs he’d stolen from recently smoked hives, and we watched hummingbirds stab their needle-like beaks into the buds of hanging fuchsias. Our house smelled often of baking bread and cinnamon rolls and vegetable soup. We sat on the porch during summer storms, and in the evenings we listened as my father held cupped hands to his mouth and called to owls that answered from unseen places. In winter we sat before a roaring fire while our mother, having cracked open a hymnal, played our favorites on the piano. Persimmons fell into our yard, and opossums visited the cat-food bowls on our back porch. My sister and I spent our days in creeks, building dams and catching crawdads in Mason jars. I had a basketball goal and a two-tone ball imprinted with Michael Jordan’s signature, whose cursive M I imitated when I signed my own name. I watched The Cosby Show and longed to live in a city neighborhood, watched Silver Spoons and yearned for my own personal video-game arcade, watched I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched and wished that magic were real. I had my own room, with books and paper and pens and Lego bricks and action figures and a tape deck. I drew plans for my mansion in heaven — it would have a long, curving water slide from my bedroom to an indoor pool — but, truth be told, I wouldn’t have minded staying right here.
I believed, even as a child, that I was being raised up in the right way to live. My family attended the local Seventh-Day Adventist church every Saturday. I sang songs about David and Goliath, and I belted out that I was “too young to march in the infantry” or to “ride in the cavalry” or to “shoot the artillery,” but not too young to serve “in the Lord’s army.” I watched slide shows about the beasts of Revelation and filled in answers on work sheets that asked me to explain what the seven-headed dragon represented. I read church magazines that featured kids who disobeyed their parents or told lies or refused to share but who always learned their lessons and never upset their mother and father ever again. On long car trips my family listened to audiocassettes of dramatic tales about God-fearing historical figures and children who, when tempted to do wrong, heard the deep, resonant admonitions of their good angels, which always overcame the sly, nasal voices of their evil ones. In keeping with Adventist belief, I was dressed in modest but never tattered clothes and fed a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains, often in the forms of lentil patties and Veja-Links and Special K loaf — a mock meatloaf made from eggs, walnuts, butter, cottage cheese, and the eponymous cereal. I gazed into a cumulus-flooded sky and wondered if the clouds I saw might be the same ones that would bloom into a starship of angels, upon which Jesus would ride as the dead rose to meet him in the air.
I believed that I possessed facts that much of the world refused to acknowledge: for example, that when people died, their souls didn’t go to heaven or hell or purgatory but instead entered a kind of suspended animation, to wake only when Christ blew the final trumpet and their dispersed atoms came rushing back to restore their physical selves. I believed that there was no such thing as eternal hell, and that the images of infernal caverns and horned creatures wielding pitchforks were deceptions cooked up by the real Satan to instill fear and doubt in the minds of humans and to besmirch the character of the Almighty. I believed that Noah’s flood could account for the geological wonders of the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest. I believed that Jesus had not been born on December 25, nor anywhere near it (since shepherds in Bethlehem would certainly not have been tending their flocks by night in midwinter, unless they wished to freeze to death), and that the one important part of the Easter story that no other denomination seemed to notice was that after Jesus died, He kept the Sabbath by resting peacefully in his grave on Saturday. I believed that Satan had once been in charge of the heavenly choir, and that his influence could clearly be heard in the hypnotic beats and vulgar lyrics of contemporary music. I believed jewelry was an unnecessary adornment that revealed the wearer’s vanity, and that God had a very good reason for commanding the Israelites to avoid pork and lobster and catfish: as indiscriminate omnivores, these animals were likely to be carriers of disease. I believed that Saturday — not Sunday — was the day upon which God wanted human beings to worship Him, and that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was the one true Church, and that God had chosen us to carry out an essential mission: to show the rest of Christendom and the world the truth.
I believed that we Adventists were a largely unknown denomination, and that non-Adventists often conflated Adventism — which they usually mispronounced as Ad-VENT-ism instead of AD-vent-ism — with Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Christian Scientists. I knew that Seventh-Day Adventist doctors at Loma Linda University had operated on Baby Fae — who in 1984 lived for twenty days with the heart of a baboon — and that Prince and Little Richard and Magic Johnson had all been raised in Adventist homes. I was aware that a good number of the cereals I enjoyed bore John Harvey Kellogg’s name, and that this man had also once been an Adventist, though he’d been disfellowshipped for spreading pantheistic views. And I knew that Little Debbie snack cakes, of which I consumed an astounding number between the ages of nine and thirteen, were made by the McKee family, and that, many years before my birth, Mr. O.D. McKee — himself an Adventist — had proposed to my grandmother, who had turned him down, for which I was thankful, because otherwise neither I nor my immediate family would ever have existed.
I believed from an early age that disobeying the rules God had set before man would result in nothing less than absolute catastrophe. I had heard the story of Lot’s wife, the woman who had been transformed — after glancing back at the infernos of Sodom and Gomorrah — into a pillar of salt, and I knew that she could easily have avoided this fate by obeying the one simple rule given to her by a visiting angel: Don’t, under any circumstances, look back. I’d always felt sorry for Lot’s wife, in part because I could see myself doing the same thing. It had been one of the great themes of my life: tell me not to do something, and I’d wonder what would happen if I did it. As a child I’d heard an account of a vision God had granted to our denomination’s prophetess. In a dream Ellen White had witnessed the inhabitants of Earth walking a thin pathway along a precipice toward heaven. These travelers could see the light at the end of the path — a light emanating from the face of Jesus himself — and as long as they kept their eyes focused on this brightness, they would not fall. If, however, they glanced at their feet, if they submitted to what seemed to me a fairly reasonable concern — whether they were about to step off the narrow path and into the void — they would immediately tumble over the edge to join the other feet-lookers who had also fallen and were now wailing inconsolably in a deep, dark abyss. Whenever I heard this dream retold in church or at the church school I attended, I always imagined myself falling into the pit. It wasn’t that I wanted to fall. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to look to the light of the face of Jesus. It was because I knew myself. I knew that I would look down, and that I’d fall and be lost.
I believed I should love Jesus, and I sang with conviction songs about loving him and about his loving me. I had read many stories about Jesus in the Bible and in my church’s weekly literature and in My Bible Friends, a series of children’s books about Bible characters, all of them portrayed in realistic illustrations as beautiful and beatific Caucasian people with Roman noses. Above my twin bed was a framed picture of a garden of colorful flowers, and in it sat serenely a bearded and sad-eyed man with blondish shoulder-length hair, and upon his lap was a little girl in a fluffy red skirt and patent-leather shoes, and at his feet was a boy wearing a sweater and shorts and a pair of brogues. The caption for this picture read, “What Happened to Your Hands?” (Either the kids depicted in this garden had yet to hear the Christian message, or they didn’t recognize this robed and bearded gent as their Savior.) I had heard the horrors of the crucifixion preached many times, a number of pastors seeming to relish the particular and numerous pains that a human body would experience after being nailed to a woody edifice by the wrists (that’s where the nail marks would’ve appeared, as one’s hands couldn’t bear the body’s weight, and nails inserted there would’ve caused the crucified person’s palms to rip apart) and left there to hang.
Had anyone asked me point-blank, “Do you love Jesus?” I would’ve said yes, in part because I knew this was the answer I was supposed to give. And I did love Jesus and admire him — at least, as much as I could love and admire someone in whose physical presence I had never been. I’d often addressed specific questions to him in my head but had never received any answers — aside from the imaginary ones I’d created myself — and I had never really felt anything, in the way that people who heard God’s voice were said to feel the warmth of the Holy Spirit. Even so, I believed that Jesus loved me, and if I hadn’t yet heard his voice or felt his presence, I had only myself to blame. I hadn’t concentrated or prayed long enough, hadn’t been serious enough about my relationship with him, hadn’t spent enough time in the Word, and even though every year I told myself that I would do better, that I would read the Bible from cover to cover and pray more often and try harder to follow the example that the Savior had set, in the long run I’d end up procrastinating, or I’d forget, or I’d get distracted. After all, there were NFL box scores to pore over, MAD magazines to read, Lego starships to build, pop songs to play on my Yamaha keyboard. The truth was, I could’ve chosen to immerse myself in Bible stories and Scripture. Instead I allowed myself to be seduced by the world.
I believed that once a person accepted Jesus as Savior, he or she should announce this publicly and — like Christ himself — be baptized, not by asking a minister to sprinkle water on one’s forehead, but by allowing one’s entire person to be lowered by an ordained pastor into a body of water.
I was baptized in a deep pool fed by a stream that cut through the one hundred acres my grandparents had purchased after my grandfather had retired from medicine. The day of my baptism — my eleventh birthday — church members parked their cars along the gravel road that ran parallel to the stream. Old ladies were led down a staircase my father had built by embedding creek stones into the ground. People sat in folding chairs on a massive slab of rock that jutted like a balcony above the pool, a space my father had recently cleared with a chain saw. I remember the water, the pastor’s hand on me, the hymns being sung, the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the handkerchief over my nose, and the feeling of falling backward into the water. I remember singing “Shall We Gather at the River?” afterward and just how cold — frigid, in fact — the water had been. I remember there were dry towels, and a blazing fire on the rock ledge overlooking the pool. I remember feeling thankful and lucky and special because I had been baptized in a mountain stream, which was somehow more authentic than getting dunked in a church tub.
But what haunted me — and what I would learn not to think about — was that I did not, after rising from those waters, feel changed. I had been baptized and was thus an actual member of my church. I could now take a cracker and a thimbleful of grape juice during Communion, and I could close my eyes and chew the cracker thoughtfully, as I had seen my parents and other church members do, and I could use a silver basin to wash my father’s feet during the ordinance of humility, and he would wash mine. I would watch the other men slip off their dark dress socks, whose elastic left marks on their legs, and I would glimpse their white, blue-veined, barnacled feet. I would stand afterward with the men of our congregation and utter publicly a sentence or two of gratitude for what the Lord had done in my life. I would feel overwhelmed by the terror that I would have nothing to say, or that someone else would say what I had been planning to say, or that whatever I had to say would sound phony or insincere.
But I didn’t feel transformed. To be fair, I was only eleven. Though I never would have admitted it, I would rather have watched football than listen to a sermon. I had been swept away by the pageantry of the National Football League: the team colors and insignias, the slow-motion replays of acrobatic receptions, the elusive breakaway runs by tailbacks, the poise and accuracy of the quarterbacks. I recorded games on VHS tapes. I collected miniature helmets and pored over trading cards. I dedicated page after page in notebooks to sketches of players. I spent hours on our sloped, mossy lawn throwing the football into the air, then running and diving to catch it. I’d leap over a shrub at the corner of the yard, pretending it was a pile of linemen over which I had to hurl myself to reach the end zone. In my mind I was blessed with speed, agility, and evasiveness. I often dodged players during recess or used misdirection to elude opponents. I fantasized about a career as an NFL running back: I would literally come out of nowhere, an undrafted walk-on, having never played in high school (because most Friday-night games were held after sundown and therefore on the Sabbath) or college (as the vast majority of games fell on the seventh day of the week). I would be so good, in fact, that the coaches of whatever team I tried out for — the Dallas Cowboys, naturally — would let me opt out of Saturday practices. I would be so phenomenally unstoppable that everyone else would have no choice but to accept the rules around which my life revolved. In a notebook where I kept track of my future stats — and where I predicted that, in the impossibly futuristic year of 2006, I would average 6.5 yards per carry and run for 2,558 yards — I wrote the story of this future self. It was titled “The Wish,” and it began, “Once upon a time, not too long ago, in Dallas, there was a Cowboy. His name was Matthew Vollmer.” In this version of my life I would run, catch, and, when called upon, play quarterback. I would lead my team to come-from-behind wins and the first shutout in Super Bowl history. My number, 23 — a number worn in honor of another famous athlete from North Carolina — would be feared by defenses. There would be nobody like me in the history of the game: a guy who never once played or practiced on the seventh day of the week, but who would nevertheless obliterate records. It was, of course, the ultimate fantasy: that I could become a part of the world without sacrificing what I believed. As long as I could prove myself to be extraordinary, my peculiar beliefs would be accepted and legitimized and honored. I would participate — and thus matter — in both this world and the next. Of course, it was a ridiculous dream, but it seemed achievable at the time. I only had to believe.