I came of age in an ardently literary family. My father served as United States Poet Laureate in the late 1950s, published more than a dozen books, and won most major literary prizes. I grew up surrounded by creative people, friends of my father. Their burning energy gave me a small, mirror-like glimpse into God’s creation of the entire universe. And, like Dad and them, I felt that I might be a writer too.
I grew up in the Episcopal Church. But in my high teens and young twenties I drifted. At seminary in Berkeley, California, during the 1970s—a time and a place where anything you wanted went—I created my own religion. I called it Godianity. Certainly, I believed in the existence of God, hence the name of my religion. But I didn’t know much about that Son of God fellow, and the little I did know seemed impossibly weird.
God and I were pals. We talked to one another, like the creatives we were, discussing my new books. I was sure, in fact, that he had dictated the final 60 pages of one of my novels—Paradise—during an 18-hour burst of ecstatic writing.
Then something happened. I married a Jew. She was an atheist, and her family was mostly secular. My wife’s atheism and my Godianity coexisted comfortably enough, since my Godianity was a private credulity that didn’t war against anything else, not even against unbelief. At any rate, our passionate love triumphed over any possible squabble in the holy zone.
Then my wife became pregnant. Nine months later, our first daughter squirmed in her mother’s arms. Here’s the sudden realization of an atheist: Such a perfect, urgent, demanding, and beautiful creature must be the gift of God, not the product of some random swirl of atoms. My wife’s atheism bit the dust. Her new God belief was Jewish, and it grew stronger theologically as the years passed. My Godianity should have taken notice. “Listen up!” it ought to have heard. “You’re in trouble, too.”
That trouble came five years later. Our daughter and I were swinging in a hammock under a tree on a windy day. On the strength of my doctorate, I had an administrative and teaching position at a seminary, and my Godianity pal was helping me write another novel.
Normally an eager chatterer, our daughter fell silent and then said, “Daddy, I know there’s a God.” I was enchanted. “How, sweetie?”
She pointed at the tree and its leaves. “You can’t see God. He’s like the wind. You can’t see the wind, but the wind makes the leaves move. You can’t see God, but you know he’s there, because he makes the people move, like the leaves.”
My heart swelled with love for this perceptive child, but then she crushed me. “Daddy,” she continued, “What do we believe?” Really, what she was asking was, “Mommy’s kind of Jewish. You’re kind of Christian. So what am I?” And despite my three advanced religious degrees and seminary employment, I couldn’t answer.
In that instant, I shucked my Godianity. Right away, my wife and I retreated into an urgent executive session. She was a Jew who was no longer an atheist. By Jewish mandate, since our children’s mother was a Jew, all of them (there would be four in total) were Jews, too. I adored the Old Testament—that very human story of our very human ancestors, with their striving, falling, picking up, and striving all over again. As for the New Testament, I just didn’t get it.
Resolved: We shall raise our children as Jews. And we did—as Reform Jews. Yet I still teetered on uneven ground, conscious of being an outsider. I provided support and answered questions (I was an academic, after all), and I led our Shabbat Friday evening prayers and our Passover Seders. But still—I was me, and they were they.
Then something else happened. During services on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, God spoke to me: “If you should desire to come to me, my door is open to you.” I looked toward my wife and our four children. None of them had heard this invitation. Had my wife glanced at me just then, she would have noticed that my face was on fire. Right away, I knew I needed to become a Jew myself, and three years later my conversion was complete.
A quarter century passed, as it does. We moved to the Maine coast. The children grew in Judaism and began going off on their own. For some time, my wife and I had noticed something: While Reform Judaism respects Torah, many Reform Jews themselves were selective in their adherence to its strictures. But we objected. We wanted a faith that wasn’t in the habit of accommodating itself to the surrounding culture.
By coincidence (or was it design?) a new Orthodox rabbi came to town. My wife and I befriended him and his family, occasionally attending his shul (the Orthodox name for synagogue). We began experimenting with the three Torah-based requirements for Jewish ritual life: kosher cooking, Sabbath observance, and family purity.
Across our rural road, there happened to be a small Baptist church. Some of our neighbors had invited us to visit, in case we Jews should ever want to know more about Christ. We realized that—oddly—these neighbors seemed concerned for our souls.
We kept up our experiment with Jewish strictness for another year or so, even though it deepened the isolation between us and our larger community. But gradually, we drifted away. We tried attending a local, non-affiliated synagogue—one with only a cantor, no rabbi. Eventually, we stopped going altogether. We were lost.
More than a year later, desperate for direction, I crossed the road to the church one Sunday morning.
That day, the pastor was preaching from 1 Timothy. I was astonished to hear a Baptist preacher using Old Testament references within his message—and with accurate Hebrew nuance. The pastor and I began meeting each week, sometimes for two or three hours at a time, and my wife frequented the women’s Bible study. She and I began devouring book after book, faster and faster, thrilled by each new discovery of seemingly impossible truths that were actually true.
In the secular worlds we inhabited, two opposite things couldn’t be the same. Water is not fire; stone is not air. Yet Christianity taught that two opposite things were the same—Jesus Christ was entirely human and entirely divine at the same time. How does that work?
Even as a Jew, I knew the Passion story. But I crossed the road once it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, that story might be real—and if it were, then everything would need to change. Our Torah-based lives would be as dead and ineffectual as Godianity. Instead, we would give our souls to the personal love of the Incarnation, the God-man who dwelt among us. We realized that the Old Testament begged for the climax of the New Testament.
It took nine months, an appropriate duration for re-birth, before I committed myself to Jesus. My wife did the same three months later (on our anniversary—a beautiful gift!). Our younger two children followed soon thereafter.
When God spoke to me in the synagogue all those years ago, inviting me through his open doorway, I had assumed he was summoning me into Judaism. Little did I know he was actually calling me to Christ.
Dikkon Eberhart is a writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia. His memoir is The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told (Tyndale).
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