The devil is in an air bubble floating beneath my baptismal robe.

This is troublesome, because I am trying to do the right thing - and, incidentally, avoid hell fire. I have walked to the front of my fundamentalist Christian church this Sunday morning to profess my love for Jesus, and to be buried with him in the baptismal grave. I will rise and walk anew, a new Christian, a good girl -- not sinless, but perfect, nevertheless.

But this damn bubble is getting in the way. It is Satan, come to thwart me.

I am a fundamentalist, born and bred. I know that in order to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus, I must be immersed completely in the water, be it in a baptismal, like this overly-large bath-tub-type model at the front of my church, or in the swimming pool at Green Valley Bible Camp where I go every summer, or in a river, or anywhere where the water will cover me completely. I must be buried, figuratively speaking because that is how Jesus did it with his cousin, John the Baptizer in the River Jordan. It is how I want to do it now. I came to the earth sinless - not like Catholic babies, who, I'd been told, drag Adam's original sin around like a tail. Not me. Had I died at birth, I would have shot back to God in heaven like a rocket. But I did not die, and the time I've spent on earth since my birth, I've spent accumulating black blots on my soul, like cigarette burns in a gauze curtain.

And here Satan has floated up in bubble beneath the thick white baptismal robe, and so I am not technically speaking completely immersed. My soul is encased in my body and my body is encased in this gown, and a small portion of it has swollen to break the water's surface, like a tiny pregnancy, or the beginning of a thought. My head is under. One hand is clenching my nose shut, and the other is crossed over my chest, half the posture of a corpse in a casket. But if this dress doesn't sink with the rest of me, the whole ceremony will be useless.

I am a fundamentalist, born and bred. We worry about such things.

I dated Jesus in high school. I'd been flirting with him since age 8 or so, the way a little girl will stand innocently next to her cutest uncle, will preen and dance for attention with only a dim idea of the greater weight of her actions. I meant no harm. I just loved Jesus. He made me feel happy, and it seemed the simplest thing imaginable to declare my love.

In my mind, Jesus had been flirting back, and why wouldn't he? Our families were close. I went to his house three times a week, sat in his living room, listened to his stories, loudly and lustily sang songs to him. Our relationship was inevitable, so one bright and terrible Sunday morning I nervously slide out of my pew to walk up the aisle during the invitation song, the tune we'd sing after the preacher gave his sermon. The invitation song is a time of relief for those who think the preacher has gone on too long, and a time of trepidation for the sinners who are paying attention. Although the song varies depending on who's leading the singing, all the invitation songs share a tone of exhortation firmly grounded in fear, meant to shake a few of the ungodly loose from the trees. And I am a sinner. I know that as assuredly as I know Jesus loves me. I am trying to live my life to meet the impossible ideal of perfection set for me exactly 1,972 years earlier by my boyfriend. The Bible said don't lie, but I lie several times a day. The Bible said don't steal, but I copied from a friend one morning in social studies because I hadn't taken the time to do my own homework. The Bible said not to lust, and while I am not clear what that means exactly, I harbor a deep and abiding crush on a series of pop culture icons from Bobby Sherman on - save for Donnie Osmond, because he is too Mormon and I don't think I could convert him. But Donnie is the only one from Tiger Beat magazine for whom I have no tingling feelings. I know that even though my church would frown on it because none of these boy/men are members of my church, if any of them save Donnie drove up in a Dodge Barracuda and honked the horn, I would hop into the front seat without a look back.

Oh, I sinned alright.

As I begin to walk to the front pew of the sanctuary at Fourth and Forest Church of Christ, I can hear the giggles and gasps from my girlfriends left behind. Most of them have already taken the walk to the front to declare their love for Jesus, but I have dragged my feet. I know I need to be baptized - it would sure beat spending eternity in hell's fire - but it seems such an awesome step. I am walking toward the highest church office I can reach as a female - that of a baptized believer -- and for that brief moment, all eyes are upon me. I will be a Christian. I will teach Sunday school, and participate in the odd rite of church dinners, where the mark of distinction is given to any woman who can assemble an ordinary-looking cake out of ingredients you wouldn't expect, like beer. Or potato chips. I will grow up and marry a deacon, the worker-bee of our church, who will one day grow old - like 40 or so -- and become an elder. I will raise up my children in the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from me. I will wear red lipstick and aprons and gather my grandchildren to my ample lap (all grandmas being fat). And finally, I will recline in my rose-scented death bed with a brave, faint smile as my family gathers around me, and then I will rise in spirit to my home in glory, leaving behind a blessed bunch who looks and sounds and smells like me, and who point to my faith as their ideal. They will, of course, all be Christians and they will marry Christians and begat Christians, and not some watered-down namby-pamby type either, but fire-breathing and soul-growing Christians, members of the Church of Christ, saved by grace and fired with an obstinate belief in the black-and-white.

Give me that old-time religion! Yes, Lord!

It is all laid out for me, both in the Bible and in the talks our Sunday school teachers give us. I know my future as I know the St. Louis Cardinals line-up from the tinny transistor I sneak into my bed on game nights: Bob Gibson, Ted Simmons, Matty Alou, Lou Brock, Jose Cruz, and the man who will ultimately betray my faith in baseball and become a hated Yankee, Joe Torre. Those Cardinals will win the pennant one day, but I will be a Christian today.

The sanctuary in which I walk is a high-ceiled cavernous room covered completely - walls and ceiling -- in knotty pine that holds my secret sin. When I am bored - and in three-hour Sunday morning services, I am often bored - I attempt to count the knots in the boards behind the preacher. I lose count and start again, lose count and start again. I feel guilty about that, but I am sitting through three sermons a week and once I recognize the preacher's theme (sin, mercy, salvation), I start counting knots.

The room seats roughly 700 souls. I say "roughly," because we never fill it. It was built amid much discussion and hard feelings at a time when my church was among the fastest-growing Christian groups in the country. Of course we would fill it, we told one another, even if our regular Sunday morning attendance hovered around 300 or so. God would provide. We just needed to have the right amount of pews. The interior looks as we imagine the ark of Noah would look - spare, with not one cross on display. Jesus hung on a real cross. Who were we to use the emblem of his shame as decor? And why would we, as girls, wear small golden crosses when the real one was so much bigger and uglier? The pews are padded - another discussion - and there are no prayer benches for fear that would put us in company with the Catholics. Still, I never once saw someone drop to his or her knees during public prayer. We are, one visiting minister derided us, the only group of believers that sits to sing and stands to pray.

In fact, the building was built on prayer - and a painful schism. When you believe you are holy and have God on your side, you easily cross over into being didactic. We split over paving the parking lot. The anti-paving bunch argued that Jesus never walked on pavement, and we shouldn't be so fine-haired as to worry about muddying our good shoes as we scrambled to our (padded) pews. And besides, the money could be used for a greater purpose -- namely, saving souls. The grandparents of this crowd had cheered at the outcome of the Scopes monkey trial. Consider them opponents of creeping and sweeping modernity.

The other bunch - and, oddly, my notoriously hidebound family sided with them - said that paving a parking lot was right and good, that it didn't hurt to have a few creature comforts, and the anti-paving crowd hadn't kicked up a fuss over the fancy new air conditioning, now, had they? When the church splits, we stay with the paved group. And when it splits another time over whether the grape juice of the Lord's Supper (the communion we enjoyed every Sunday) should come from one cup, as Jesus may have shared it, or from tiny shot glasses set into special circular trays made for such an event, my family again sides with the progressives. The others we derisively call "one-cuppers," as damning a phrase as "dumb-ass hillbilly."

It would be my family's one bow to modernity - a word I would learn only much later.

Among the literal-minded, schisms are just waiting to surface, ready to crack open at any moment. Elsewhere, the other churches of my faith - we had no central hierarchy, opting instead for home rule by a group of older men, the elders - would split and split again over adding a pastoral counseling service, or adding a day care center -- more modernity, in other words, but that was later. For now, we felt the sheep were scattered, and when we brought them home, they could clatter across pavement to sit in padded pews and partake in the liquid part of the Lord's Supper from tiny shot glasses meant for just such a purpose - and likely to form a barrier against the common cold, as well.

I may have passed my parents as I walked up the aisle, but I don't think so. My stepfather - the one responsible for our membership here in the first place - like the back pew, and my mother had headaches so she often needed to leave the services. She also volunteered to babysit in the nursery, a depository for unruly children who weren't old enough to count knots. My mother had come late to fundamentalism, via my stepfather, her second husband. He was raised in the church. My mother was raised by a stern couple who came north from Arkansas' Boston Mountains and trusted no organized entity, not banks and certainly not churches. For years, they buried their money in Mason jars out back, and they spent quiet Sunday mornings at home, reading the paper and arguing over which radio station to listen to. They were moral people, but they did not darken a church pew until after my grandfather's retirement from Atlas Chemical Co. Then, they went whole-hog and converted to Pentecostalism, and for years my grandfather's donations kept a little Pentecostal church's heat and lights on. But in her youth, my mother was responsible for getting her own self to church. More often than not, she met up with friends at the First Christian Church near her home in dusty little Carterville, Mo. Despite the similarity in the names between her old church and her new one, the church of her youth was looser in its adherence to scriptural literalism, and so it, in the eyes of her new church, hardly counted as church at all.

If my stepfather hugged the back pew, and my mother hid in the nursery, I usually sat up front in the right-hand corner with the rest of the youth group, a gaggle of fresh-faced teens and pre-teens who wanted so badly to do the right thing. We gathered there every service, saved places for one another, went for Cokes on the weekend. We were supposed to date one another, but that would come later and would always have the feel of dating one's brother.

My close proximity made my walk of shame (or triumph, depending on your point of view) infinitely shorter. By the time I realize my heart is beating in my chest, I am already at the front row. A few deep-voiced men intone "Amen!" as I move. I think I hear my older brother in that group. He'd been baptized years before, and was giving sermons by age 12. He, the child prodigy, is going to be our very own itinerant preacher and even though he and I don't like each other much, I know he'll be happy for me that I've decided to spend my eternity in heaven, with him.

When I gain the first pew and sit down, an elder hands me a response card and a stubby pencil, and I scratch out that I want to be baptized -- something everyone from my parents to my youth group had taken as a fait accompli. No one knows I count knots in the pine walls. That is my private sin. In public, I am Bible Bowl champion. I read my Bible on my own without any one telling me to. My King James Version - and later, my New International Version - is scored with pen and pencil underlines, and when I find a verse I particularly like (much of Proverbs, actually, and a great deal of Hebrews as well), I bear down so hard that I tear the page. Yes! Right on, God! Good point! It is a point of honor that I even mark a few verses in the rarely-read book of Ezekiel, and when it comes time to gather with the other saved, I make a point of flashing Ezekiel just to show them how serious I am. That, I think, marks me as a true Biblical scholar. I even read the boring books - read them and find portions of them pertinent enough to underline. The better-read books I drink in. On several pages in Matthew and Mark, all but a few verses are underlined. On Judgment Day, I intend to wordlessly hand my marked-up Bible to God, and He will wave me into heaven.

I go further than that. Unlike my lax fellows, I actually work my Sunday school lessons - in advance, and not in the car on the way to church, either. However much they let me do at church, I do. I sing alto in a youth group that travels around to old folks' homes. I work a puppet in a pretend gospel quartet that sings along to recorded hymns. I go to church camp every summer and sit beneath the stars on chilly nights to sing hymns by a campfire. I never once, as did my friends, glance around the glowing circle to imagine which of these short-haired young men will one day take me for a bride. I have bigger plans, although if you ask for specifics, I can't name any. I sign letters to the friends I made at church camp "In His Service," just like that, without a trace of irony. I vow to do a good deed every day, and several nights a month I sit up fast in bed realizing I'd forgotten, and that I'd disappointed Jesus. So I double up the next day. I set the bar unbearably high, because Jesus died for my sins and it seems the least I can do to pen a card to a shut-in, loan some lunch money, or plant a flower bed for a neighbor.

I memorize my Bible verses, memorize the books of the Bible (which I can still say in record time, as if somewhere there's a hair comb with John 3:16 stamped on it waiting for me, my prize). When my church like so many others in our area starts a bus ministry, I enthusiastically volunteer to be a teacher. I take notes at the sermons, and carefully navigate life at my secular high school, where it seems like everyone is drinking and having sex but me. I try to draw my friends to the faith by my own fierce good example. I don't gossip. Any school activities scheduled on Sundays or Wednesday nights will have to count me out. I am in church every time the doors are open. I am the town virgin and it isn't a sacrifice. It is, instead, a way to avoid the inevitable groping and pawing that scares me to death. I am Jesus' and his alone, and I am pretty sure I am sincere.

I wish I could say I am motivated by love totally and entirely. I love Jesus, yes, but I also fear him. I fear his return for Judgment Day, when he will come like a thief in the night, when I most likely will be found not ready, and I will shoot straight to hell, my soul boring through the bedrock and limestone straight to the fires. I can't quite get my literalistic mind around how I can burn for eternity, so I settle on being stung by hornets, and that is bad enough. That, and the shame I imagine in my parents' eyes as I trudge off behind the devil. The sermons I half-listened to on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening all carry with them cautionary tales of not being ready, and how awful that would be, and how disappointed God. And we know not when it would happen. It could happen on a sunny day, a wintry day - although I tend to think it will happen during a particularly fierce summer thunderstorm. I am afraid of the thunder, and it seems a perfect venue in which to end the whole shebang, in one fell swoop scare the pants off of me and end the world at the same time.

This is southwest Missouri, the Ozarks, which rests comfortably in both the Bible Belt and Tornado Alley. I sometimes wonder if there is a correlation. If you spend your formative years driving by piles of sticks that a half hour before were homes and schools, you may be more inclined to believe in a vengeful, Old Testament God, the kind that can roll down from the hills and destroy your life with the flick of a tornado. Had I grown up in, say, Helena or Baltimore, would the threat have seemed so great?

No storm shelter can provide succor from that kind of power. If I am daily doing a good deed, I am doing so to earn, as the old hymn goes, "stars in my crown." There will be an accounting and I want to be sure to have done a lot of nice things that will make God and His Son treat me favorably.

I have a picture of God in my head. He is a white man with a white beard in a white robe, holding a thunderbolt as if to throw it like a javelin. The picture is heavily influenced by a book I find in my grandmother's attic. With pictures and maps, the book explores ancient Greek and Roman gods. I am envisioning Zeus, but I never would have admitted that out loud. That book is a classic and I wish I could bring it home, but I leave it there at my grandmother's so that during interminably long visits when the grown-ups are content to sip iced tea and talk, I have an escape. I like that book a great deal; the Greek and Roman goddesses carry a lot of weight, and not just because they are favored by God to bear His son. I come across the notion of a vestal virgin, and think I would be well-suited for such a position. Figure you give your first 40 years over to religion, and then you get the best seats in the house. For life.

We don't have such offices for women. We have Ruth, known mostly for her willingness to throw over her own culture for that of her husband's family. And we have Esther, who is a beautiful queen who works it to help her people. I prefer the antics of Minerva, the huntress, or even Aphrodite, who doesn't appear to have a practical bone in her body. But she is smart and people worship her.

Nestled in a box next to the myth book is a worn copy of "The Children's Bible," complete with pictures and easy-to-read text. It is my first Bible geared to my own age. When I am old enough, I am handed an onionskin-paged Bible just like my mother's, and I am expected to make sense of it without any pictures -- if you don't count the multi-colored maps in the back, and I don't.

In the children's Bible, the pictures of my Jesus show a wan-looking lemon-blond Swedish man, always with one finger pointed heavenward, and a hand clasped to his chest with the most unreadable face I'd ever seen. Is he angry? I am familiar with anger. Is he bemused? That is a new word for me. He looks more than anything like his mind is on something else, someplace far from the dusty streets of Nazareth. Honestly, with his flowing blond locks he looks more girlish than anything, but a careful reading of the scriptures teaches you that turning water-into-wine is not much more than a party trick for Jesus. My savior packs a punch. I am a big fan of his throwing the money changers out of the temple. The Son of God, with his notable connections, is capable of far, far more. And so Jesus is a boyfriend who drives a Charger and has tattoos - gentle as a kitten most of the time, but you wouldn't want to cross him.

Back on the front row, I feel exposed. I confess on the response card that I have sinned - thankfully, a blanket confession of sin was sufficient; we aren't required to go into detail like the Catholics - and nice Mrs. Brackett - my sometime Sunday school teacher - takes me into a small room behind the pine wall at the front of our sanctuary - although we don't call it that. We don't call it anything, really. It is where we have church, and that is enough. I am given a heavy white robe that swallows me and told quietly to remove my Sunday best. I fold my clothes and place them on a bronze-colored folding chair, and wonder for a moment what to do about my underwear. Wearing nothing beneath a white robe that is soon to be wet could be social suicide, so I decide to risk discomfort and wear my bra and panties. I cinch the robe's waist - later, when I don my first karate gi, I will feel the fabric's thick texture and be back in the baptistery. Mrs. Brackett pulls a curtain aside, and I step into the chilly baptistery water, and am met from the other side by the smiling minister, a young man with too-longish hair (if you asked my parents) and a beautiful wife. He tells me softly to watch my step, and then I turn to stand with my back to him, as if he were hugging me from behind. To my right is a pastoral scene painted on, as I can see now that I am up close - a cheap piece of particle board. A curtain that hangs between the baptistery and the congregation is noisily opened, and I stare into the water. No one has to tell me what to do. I have sat through countless such rituals. The minister raises one hand over us, says my name, and pronounces me buried with Christ, then I am dunked completely underwater because that is what we thought John the Baptizer did when Jesus came to him before he started his ministry. Sprinkling would not be good enough, because it would not emulate real-live burial and the point is to bury my old self and rise to walk anew.

But then the heavy white robe floats up on an air bubble as the nice minister is leaning me backward. I panic a moment and wonder if I should perhaps reach to smash it down. Would the baptism count if clothing remains above water? When you are raised a fundamentalist, the world turns on a literal axis, and nowhere is this more evident that in the few rituals we allow ourselves. The New Testament scriptures carry no evidence of a piano being included in the worship services of the early church, and so we do not allow a piano - or an organ or trumpet or drum either. Later, a friend of mine who is a member of the church will ask if she can wheel a piano in just for the duration of her wedding. She is told no. It isn't that the elders (our leaders) object to "The Wedding March." For us, weddings are not a sacrament, not a part of a worship service and so if you want to have trained monkeys carry your ring in on a May pole, that would be fine as long as you clean up after. It is a very particular point of faith that keeps the elders from allowing a baby grand to come inside our doors. The elders worry that someone will drive by the church, see a piano going through our wide doors, and think that we have finally given in on this most important matter of faith.

"But can I bring it in under cover of darkness?" my friend asks.

No. The risk is simply too great. For years, my church had set itself apart by not allowing musical instruments in our worship, and now is no time to bend.

And so my friend is married at a local country club, where a piano is already a part of the decor. The elders will not budge, despite the fact that her father is a doctor and much loved by the fellowship. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if they'd allowed a piano to come inside our church, and then discovered they liked it.

That literal axis would often cause me pause. We are taught not to capitalize "Church" in "church of Christ," and to this day, I know if someone's the real thing if they leave the "c" small. We are taught that women are to keep silent in the assembly, and so women are not allowed to talk in church, at all. They can teach Bible classes, but not if there are any men in the room. The first time I hear a woman's voice over a public address system at a religious function is at a Tulsa bus ministry expo, and before the woman at the podium can speak, a man comes through and ushers out the door the handful of men who've inadvertently wandered in. Whatever the spiritual state of those men, they cannot hear a woman's voice over a PA if she is going to talk about God.

And there is my gown, floating up. I am worried about revealing my underwear to the minister but my main concern is whether this baptism counts. I try to think how I might signal to the minister that there is a problem, but before I can do anything, the bubble breaks, the robe sinks with me, and my spiritual crisis is averted. I rise to walk anew with my Lord, my Savior, my Jesus, to the "amens" of my newly-acquired brothers and sisters in Christ.

As I peel off the robe and dress back behind the baptistery, I wait for the enormity of what I've done to hit me. I would be surprised in the same way later, the first time I had sex. I had thought on both occasions that the event would be so huge that people around me would see how altered I was. Five minutes ago, I was a sinner. And now? I'm a Christian. Five minutes ago, I was a virgin? And now? I'm a - what? - woman? Harlot? Really pleased with myself that I finally managed to hand over my virginity with as little fuss as possible?

At 13, you may not know a lot, but perhaps more than at any other time in your life, you know how to believe in something. You are capable of a faith that is deep and bedrock-firm. I had entered a fundamentalist Christian faith, a throwback to the days when people decried what they saw as the erosion of God's plan, with symptoms like movie theaters, dancing, divorce, and promiscuous sex. But I was raised in the '60s and '70s and all of those things were so much a part of the culture that you couldn't ignore them. We could no more deny them than we could the Vietnam War where my dad was fighting, and so our faith was woefully out of step with the rest of the world. And that, given how we read the Bible, told us we were onto something. Early Christians were out of step with their world, too, were they not? We could take comfort that the rest of the world thought we were nuts. The farther afield we appeared, the closer to God we felt.

But the floating white robe weighed on my heart. I hadn't been open to the spirit at that moment. I'd been worried about a little piece of floating fabric. Maybe I had not been in the proper mind frame. Why else would I feel so little while all my friends and many of the adults in the church gathered around to congratulate me afterward? Why did I only shiver at the feel of my wet underwear against my skin? Where is the fear and trembling I'd been taught to expect? When the small crowd that had gathered to congratulate me disperses, I climb into my family's back seat - for once, acquiring a window seat without having to argue for it with my two older brothers - and ride to McDonald's for a celebratory meal. While everyone chatters around me, I wait to feel something - the dove descend, the earth open up - but I feel nothing.

I ponder that through a few more thunderstorms, and then, a few months later, certain that I haven't really gotten the job done, I repeat the whole process. I walk to the front of the church and fill out a response card asking to be baptized. No one thinks this odd. Most of the kids in my youth group have gone up twice to be baptized. A few even go up three times, and one poor soul tried it a fourth but was intercepted by her Sunday school teacher on the way up. We've been so buffaloed by the rules, we are afraid we might be missing one, and when Jesus comes again, we'll be the chaff, not the wheat. Again I step to the back of the pine wall - this time an old hand at it, not nervous so much as determined. This time, I remove my underwear. I know the robe is plenty thick, and when the nice young minister bends me back into the water, no air bubbles form, and the amens are just as loud as they'd been during my earlier practice baptism. Better safe than sorry, one woman tells me afterward, and I couldn't have agreed more.

In a confusing and conflicting time, I have come to love Jesus as I couldn't love even my mother, certainly not my brothers. Over time, Jesus floods my thoughts and my dreams. He is the one place I can go for a smile, a hug. He is the perfect boyfriend, asking little more than my fidelity. I can immerse myself in Jesus as I'd immersed myself in baptism, and he will be my armor against all the confusion of adolescence, the modernity, the marijuana, the whole sex thing. I will be a good Christian woman, a loaded phrase if ever there was one.