Monday, February 26, 2007

Jesus Christ -- Superstar?

I try not to write too much about religion or politics on this blog. I like to keep everybody feeling all comfy and undisturbed when they come here to read, so I don't want to stir up controversy. But my last post touched on religious issues, and one reader's comment reminded me of something else to write about before I move on to more neutral topics.

Last Saturday's post about my encounter with piped-in Christian music at the grocery store prompted The Rev. Dr. Kate to comment, in part: "I agree with your take on the whole thing - it is not appropriate to force others into a conversion experience in the dairy aisle - and I would be leery of the conversion if this is all it took!"

It was the "leery of conversion" part that grabbed me, because I've long had questions about the authenticity of my own accepting-Christ-as-my-savior experience, which happened when I was nine.

To give you an idea of my thought processes around that time, it was at the age of eight that I began to question what I heard in church. I remember sitting with my grandmother and listening to the minister say we needed to give more money to the missionaries so they could go to Africa and tell all the children there about Jesus. So far, so good; I thought the children in Africa deserved to know about Jesus. But then he said that if the missionaries didn't teach the children about Jesus, those poor children would be condemned to hell. Huh-uh, I thought, he's wrong about that. God wouldn't do that to kids who never even knew that they had to believe in Jesus.

I should also mention that I believed in Santa Claus until I was eight and refused to accept the word of other children in my class who'd told me for two years that Santa was a myth. I finally asked my mother, who admitted that the other kids were right. I still wasn't convinced. She had to do quite a bit of talking to explain why I should believe she was being truthful this time and not all those other times when she'd told me Santa was real.

These anecdotes indicate two things to me: (1) I was capable of forming my own opinions, and (2) I could be convinced to believe--and stand up for--things that were not true.

Now, fast forward to one Sunday when I was nine and an evangelist visited my Sunday School class. I don't remember one word of what he said, but I do recall that he was young and very, very handsome. He moved about as he spoke, delivering his message with fire and passion that grabbed my attention and held it. As the hour passed, my excitement rose to a level that was almost overwhelming. I experienced feelings that were powerful and exquisite, feelings I'd never had before--feelings I couldn't even begin to name. This must be it, I thought. These are the feelings that let you know it's time to give your life to Jesus.

Sunday School ended and I went to meet my mother, who worked in the church nursery. We didn't always stay for church, but I told her I needed to stay that day, and I explained why. I'd been taught in Sunday School and church that there was only one way to get into Heaven, and I wanted to lock it in.

We sat through a sermon I don't remember. At the end of it, when the preacher gave the invitation to accept Jesus and the choir sang "Just as I Am," I walked to the front of the church with a half-dozen adults. When it was my turn, the preacher asked me if I understood what it meant to accept Jesus as my savior, and I assured him I knew exactly what I was doing. The next Sunday I was baptized--the full dunking. According to the philosophy espoused at that time at the First Baptist Church, my eternal salvation was a done deal, regardless of how I lived my life from then on.

Let me mention one more time--because it's important to the whole point of this entry--that the powerful feelings I'd had as I listened to the young evangelist were new to me. I'd never felt them before...and I never felt them again, until I was 13 years old and went to my first Elvis Presley concert.

It was the fall of 1956, and my mother let me go with a friend to the Shrine Mosque to see this relatively new entertainer I'd been listening to on the radio. We sat in the second row, and, as I watched and listened to Elvis (backed up by The Jordonaires), I experienced the overpowering excitement again. This time I was in an arena where I could express what I was feeling. I worked up a sweat that plastered my hair into limp strings. I fanned myself with my program, and I laughed and cried and screamed with all the other girls. It was amazing!

It wasn't too long after the Elvis concert that I began to wonder if my soul was really safe. I knew my intentions were pure on that day when I walked to the front of the church, but how could I feel the same way about Elvis that I did about Jesus? To make matters worse, I felt that way every time I saw Elvis, and I hadn't felt that way in church again. That couldn't be right, could it?

It was several years later, after I'd learned the concept of charisma, that I realized it was the handsome young evangelist--and the passion he had for Jesus--that moved my feet down that aisle. Along with that realization came questions about the whole experience. As Dr. Kate might put it, I'm "leery of the conversion." Yes, I know some people would say that Jesus was working through that young evangelist, and those people might be right. But what if it was a case of a really good "commercial" making me want to run out and buy "the product"? There's no doubt in my mind that the charismatic young evangelist could have sold me a Happy Meal.

Today, I respect the rights of others to draw their own conclusions and follow their own beliefs, and I'd like for others to respect my rights similarly. Obviously, none of us can know for sure.

At this point in my life, I believe there's a power in the universe that's much greater than I (or any of us earthly creatures), and I choose to call that power God. I've also grown to believe that other people, in other lands, are responding to that same higher power, although they may call it/him by another name. I believe the uninformed children in Africa have just as much chance of recognizing that higher power as I do--and just as much chance of securing a place in the afterlife that many of us seek and some of us refer to as Heaven.

I hope I'm right about this. The public pronouncement I made when I was nine may have been too insubstantial to serve as a backup plan.

11 comments:

  1. we agree with you, the higher power is a force to be aware of but not the judgmental powerful God we were taught would damn us for eternity if we weren't perfect! Now we realize God is , and that we are and can be a part of God, and that God will take care of us and ours. How we are not sure, but we do know we believe.

    thanks for sharing. That must have been so cool to see Elvis in person!!!

    keepers

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  2. Great post, Velvet. I almost felt like I was 13 again! And I am in agreement with your beliefs, totally.

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  3. My mother is so worried about my soul because since the time I had,at nine years old, almost the same experience you had I've questioned things that she just accepts as the truth! The only thing I know for sure is like you said, "none of us can know for sure". Living down here in South Georgia where God will surely strike you dead for doubting, I've learned to keep my beliefs to myself. Thanks for your post Velvet, I agree with all you said.

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  4. O.K., you opened the door. (Pertaining to my last comment on your last post). I too, often wonder about the people in places where they have never heard of Jesus. I do know in Christian bibles, Jesus says, "the only way to my Father is through Me". I take that as our responsibility to spread the word through missionaries, or through acts, or in preaching. IMO, what Jesus had in mind is to work at spreading the Word. For God to send people to hell for not learning of Him, sounds harsh to me also. So, I don't know.( Answers will come at a way later date I hope! ) But it took 36 years of my life to know...and I mean KNOW, that God is love. And I believe He wants all of us to know Him. I personally feel honored to know Him. In my younger years, I looked at "believing" as cheap insurance, "if it's all true, than I'm covered". It's not cheap at all, it DOES require many sacrifices, and I'm cool with that. As far as Elvis goes, seeing him in person didn't give me the same feeling as knowing God, but it was a GREAT feeling, one I'll never forget, same goes for knowing Jesus.
    Curious, are you sorry you wrote these posts?
    Schrems

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  5. I had no idea I'd provide so much food for thought. I am not a big believer in the "conversion" experience in terms of walking down the aisle and making a "one time, for alll time" proclamation. I come from a tradition which practices infant baptism, so this may where my suspicion arises. My own thinking, prayer life and living in relationship with God through Christ seems to me to be about daily conversions. Not those momentous moments of "ah-ha!" feeling, but the conscious choice I make to follow God in the little things each day. The person I let go ahead of me in the grocery aisle, the elderly person I call on and stay far longer than I intended because someone clearly needs to talk to me, when I stand up for a person of color or a gay or lesbian person, etc. My sense is that God works through those daily encounters to shape me into the person whom God intends me to be - and I expect this conversion to be life long process.
    As for others coming to God through their own traditions - I agree with everything you have said. I have always loved the passage in John's Gospel where Jesus talks about "having sheep not of this fold." Folks in other places, with different traditions and life experiences may hear God's voice authentically in a way that does not include professing "Christ as Lord" - and I am sure God honors and respects what is in their hearts and loves them just the same and will bring them to him/her/it exactly as he/she/it will do for us.

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  6. Keepers, it's comforting to me to feel that if I'm doing the best I can do, God has my back. You know what I mean?

    And, yes, everything about that early Elvis concert was wonderful.

    Jackie, I'm glad you enjoyed the time travel. From my vantage point, 13 would be a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there again.

    Robbin, I think questioning leads to learning, which IMO is always a good thing. The South has been slow to accept diversity of any kind, so I guess it shouldn't surprise us that religious tolerance is also challenging for some of us southerners. I also think there are plenty of people who feel the same way we do, but without a venue (such as a church) to discuss our views, it's easy for us to feel isolated in our beliefs.

    Schrems, thanks for sharing your viewpoint. I wonder if one reason your experience has been somewhat different than my own is that you were an adult--with adult reasoning powers--when you made your decision. (I promise you I have more confidence in my adult decisions than in those I made as a child.)

    Another difference might be that even as a child, I felt I knew God's love. I don't remember why I felt that way, but it was the fact I felt it so strongly that convinced me the preacher didn't know what he was talking about. I think I took that relationship with God for granted when I was little. Maybe if I'd been older, as you say you were, before I experienced that, it would have had a stronger impact on me.

    Looking at the big picture, there's no question that the spiritually powerful moments in my life have made the Elvis experience insignificant. On a smaller scale, though, I thought it was interesting to examine my similar responses to two distinctly different childhood events.

    Am I sorry I wrote these posts? Well, not yet, lol! So far, I'm just very impressed with everyone's openness in discussing something so personal.

    (Oh, and one more thing: In 1956, I saw the YOUNG Elvis. Then, in the early '70s, I saw old puffy Elvis. He was still amazing, but I don't think puffy Elvis would have given Jesus as much of a run for his money.;-))

    Dr. Kate, the church experience has always been uncomfortable for me because I've always ended up feeling like a fraud--as if I'd have to pretend to believe things I didn't in order to fit in with the group. Eventually, I just stopped going. Who knew I'd find the "church" that fits me in the words of one woman online? Thank you.

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  7. Velvet, this was an interesting, food-for-thought post. I'm not real comfortable discussing religious beliefs, including my own (such as they are), but I understand what you mean by "a power in the universe".

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  8. Janet, I'm not usually comfortable talking about my religious beliefs either, but I wanted to write about the Jesus and Elvis response, and the short-and-to-the-point version I usually tell seemed too irreverent in written form.

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  9. Velvet,

    THIS is the exact reason I told my Sunday School teacher that we did not have the same God.

    She told us / me that little babies born to non -Christians would burn in hell if they died!!! Their babies!!! What could their sin possibly be??? It's people like her that give Christianity a bad name!

    Great post Velvet!

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  10. Creekhiker, I feel the same way!

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  11. I enjoyed reading this again!

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