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.