Fall to Grace: An Excerpt

I didn't have grace to lean on then. I didn't know where these rules came from, or what to do with them. Despite spending my whole life in church, I had hardly opened a Bi­ble. I hadn't read Christ's words highlighted in red, let alone Paul's letters to the Romans or Galatians-books that might have given me some comfort and perspective on grace.

My family crises were compounded by my problems with classwork in junior high. I had severe dyslexia, a condi­tion that would go undiagnosed until seven years later, long after I'd dropped out of school. It made learning virtually impossible for me. And when I couldn't keep up, I gave up and did what any frustrated son of fallen televangelists would do...I rebelled.

In cigarettes and wine coolers I finally found something at which I could excel. I was only twelve years old, but they were easy enough to come by. When I started partying, I told myself, I'll just have wine coolers. It's cool. Jesus had wine. But I always feared there was more to it. You see, the way I was brought up, sipping a wine cooler wasn't just a youthful indiscretion-I was sipping strawberry-flavored hellfire!

It seemed there was always someone around to remind me of the flames nipping at my heels. On one occasion, I was at an outdoor party in high school when a girl I went to Christian summer camp with drove by and saw me holding a bottle. She pulled over the truck she was driving, rolled down the window, and yelled: "I knew you wouldn't last!" It was straight out of the movie Saved! Today I have some ap­preciation for the complicated mix of guilt and anguish that drives someone to lash out as she did, but back then it was just a punch in the gut.

It's not that I didn't try to get right with God. I just didn't know where to start. Throughout my teenage years I got saved what seemed like every other week. I'd come down to the altar call with the rest of the guilt-stricken and confused junior high kids, bow my head, close my eyes, and shazam!-wait for God to transform me.

It never lasted, of course. Not for very long, anyway. Before I knew it, I'd do/think/feel something sinful and start looking for the next opportunity to bleach my soul clean. Instead of bringing me back into the fold, my guilt-reinforced by the judgment of those around me-drove me further from the church.

If a lousy Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler was all it took to separate me from God, then I was gonna accept my one-way ticket to hell... Reserve me a seat in the bar car!

I now realize that this was the classic dynamic of religious law at work. It wasn't the Ten Commandments per se, but it was a set of religious rules nonetheless: do's and don'ts that would decide whether God's love and Christ's sacrifice ap­plied to me. (Or so I thought at the time.)

Hitting Bottom

If my struggles with school and faith weren't complicated enough, there was still more Bakker family fun to be had. In December 1988, almost two years after the outing of my dad's affair, a long-running federal investigation into the fi­nances of Heritage USA went public. The accusation came down to overbooking: PTL had sold more lifetime mem­berships to Heritage USA-complete with the promise of three nights' lodging-than it could possibly accommodate at once. Dad was indicted on twenty-four counts of fraud and conspiracy.

The trial began with a bang in August 1989. Three days into it, my dad had a Xanax-fueled emotional breakdown in front of the press. Dad was paraded, sobbing and shack­led, through a gauntlet of TV cameras to the mental ward. It may have been great television, but it was torture for me to watch.

United States vs. James O. Bakker was about more than one organization's sloppy accounting or one man's malfeasance (though there was plenty of both to go around). The whole era of televangelism was on trial, and my dad was already guilty in the highest court in the land: the court of pub­lic opinion. The judge (nicknamed "Maximum Bob" for his draconian sentencing) made it official when he sentenced my dad to forty-five years in prison. He would ultimately serve five, but it was long enough for my parents' marriage to unravel.

The very night of my dad's sentencing marked the be­ginning (or radical acceleration, anyway) of my own down­ward spiral. I was thirteen years old when some older kids decided to take pity on me and take me out partying. I never looked back. Wine coolers quickly gave way to stiffer stuff: vodka and Gatorade (bad combination), pot smoking, even gas huffing. By the time I dropped out of school in tenth grade I was punching above my weight (using acid, psyche­delic mushrooms-whatever I could get my hands on). It went on like this for years.

Separation from my dad was my excuse for drinking, but his release from prison five years later wasn't reason enough to quit. If anything, his being out made things harder as we tried to navigate new dimensions of our father-son relation­ship. A lot had changed in five years. When he went in, I was little Jamie Charles: thirteen, chunky, and scared to death of losing my dad. When he came out, I was Jay. Just Jay, thank you very much: eighteen, pierced, and a raging alcoholic. Needless to say, things didn't go smoothly between us.

1/19/2011 5:00:00 AM
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