The river flowed wide and with stately calm, though I’d later discover the places where it tripped merrily over rocks and down small falls further upstream, where the floodwaters—or possibly a glacier—scraped a narrower path. On the lower side of the wide gorge, the rolling hills gleamed with crops destined for the dinner tables of America, but on the steeper northern side, the austere brick of Elk River College lined the rim.
From the off ramp of Interstate 70, I caught the first glimpse of this new home, more spectacular than the advertiser’s photographs could render it. In the brochures, I’d seen the campus at the height of each season, and had built up a detailed plan for how to spend time over the next eight months.
Autumn afternoons would be for studying under a golden sycamore, the stately academic halls of Elk River rising behind me under a windswept sky, the bricks all leafed with ivy and shimmering against a cloud of golden amber and deep russet.
In deepest winter when the delicate lace of an ice storm frosted the squares of pavers and grass on the Quadrangle, I’d be one of the students scurrying between classes in their warm yet fashionable down and woolen jackets, tightening coats against the bitter cold winter wind.
In spring, when white and pink trillium fringed the edge of the gorge, I’d frolic and dance on the hills, throwing arms wide and lifting praises to the skies like a nun escaped from the convent for the day.
As all these ideal images flashed through my mind, our Expedition and all my worldly possessions trundled up the winding driveway that led up through the campus’s main entrance and back to the dormitories. We unfolded ourselves from the leather seats and stretched. My sisters continued the bickering that hadn’t ceased since we left Columbus that morning, and our parents tried in vain to barter peace between them.
I could barely pay attention to them; I was so completely absorbed with drinking in the surroundings. Somehow, the repertoire of seasonal fantasies had left out the first days on campus. Having no template to compare, the gorgeous thrumming life of the stately campus at the height of an Ohio summer delighted and enthralled me. Spreading branches of sycamores, dogwoods, red buds and tulip trees shaded the lawns of Elk River and the air buzzed with insects whose vibration of the air made tangible my rising anticipation and anxiety.
By the end of the day, the Gottliebs would start the long drive back to California and I, Giselle, would face this exciting new world all alone. Well, not quite alone, as of course, God is everywhere. And since I’d been baptized as an infant, my heart was in some mystical sense home to Christ Himself. Yet even as good as I had been lately, I wondered why I couldn’t really feel Him in there.
The Sunday before classes started, I had a literal rude awakening. There were no Lutheran churches in town, so I’d just picked a random church that offered an evening service. After years of going to the eight o’clock traditional liturgy, I planned to enjoy sleeping in for once.
Then Lacey’s alarm clock went off at seven o’clock. Worse, she proceeded to turn her radio to loud praise and worship music.
I heard my loft creak and a hand gently shake my shoulder. Then a nasally twang. “Better hurry, sleepyhead, or you’ll make us late for church.”
Muttering that it was not a big deal to miss church once, I tugged the covers over my head and turned my back to Lacey.
Lacey quoted something with a lot of “thees” and “thous” about not forsaking the fellowship of believers. Then she began to sing cheerily along with the music, about a half-step flat.
Now I was wide awake, annoyed and feeling a little mischievous. “What was that old-fashioned thing you just said? It sounded familiar. No, wait – let me guess. Shakespeare, right?”
After spending my elementary years in a private Lutheran school, of course I knew very well that Lacey had quoted Scripture. Could even identify the chapter and verse if called upon to do so. They didn’t call me Bible brain in Sunday School for nothing.
Lacey’s hand stopped in mid-air, clutching a fake eyelash. She turned from the mirror above the room’s built-in chest of drawers, the hot rollers on her head making her look more like my Oma than a freshman in college. “Don’t you recognize God’s Word when you hear it? I thought you said you were a Christian.”
I climbed down from the rickety loft bed and turned off the blaring music before speaking. “Relax, that was supposed to be a joke. But really, I don’t see what’s wrong with skipping church once in a while. Sometimes life gets in the way.”
“All the more reason to go to church – to keep life from getting in the way in the first place.”
“Just going to church isn’t going to stop bad things from happening to you, you know.”
Lacey countered, “What I meant was, if your relationship with Jesus ain’t touching every part of your life, what good is it? Might as well find a new country club to join, one with fewer rules.”
“Good point,” I said, “and all kidding aside, I’m pretty much agree with you. Being a Christian really does affect every part of my life. My parents had my baptized as an infant. I grew up going to church and Sunday School every week, and even went to a private Christian school. I’ve been on two mission trips, and…”
“That’s not exactly what I meant.” Lacey turned back to the mirror and applied her second eyelash before unwinding the hot rollers from her caramel colored locks. “Though I don’t exactly believe in infant baptism…. Well, never mind all that. Any way, now that you’re up will you still come with me? I hate sitting in church alone.”
I agreed, determined to prove to myself as much as to Lacey that I was a “real” Christian.
I took a cue from Lacey’s pink skirted suit, complete with nylons and matching pumps, and threw on a flowered dress. Fingers flew through my curly mass of hair, trying in vain to rein in the frizz. I’d let it grow out from my prom night cut, and it was looking shaggy. When it became obvious that I was stuck looking like a blown-out Q-tip in the humid environment, I gave up and slapped it back into a simple pony tail.
“What church were you planning to go to?” I asked, hoping Lacey would say College Drive Presbyterian. Some of Mom’s family were Presbyterians, so at least I could be sure they weren’t wackos.
“The Pentecostal congregation on the corner. No offense, but the stuffiness of those other mainstream denominations drives me crazy.”
Warning bells went off. Pentecostals? In confirmation class in eighth grade, my teachers took us through all the major denominations, listing how they fell short of the absolute truth of Lutheran doctrine. I couldn’t remember anything about Pentecostals. That could mean either that they were okay, or that they were one of the insane fringe groups that the teachers didn’t want to spend too much time on.
I guess I was about to find out.