Note: This is the first in a series.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, with a family that had been Southern Baptist for generations. My grandmother used to say, “You are Southern Baptist born, Southern Baptist bred and when you die you’ll be Southern Baptist Dead.” Yes, this was serious stuff. One did not just change their religion in our family.
So for the first 20-some odd years of my life, with very few exceptions, I attended a Southern Baptist Church. Since I grew up in the Bible Belt, they were plentiful. At the end of the Service we had the altar call. This was the time set aside in the service for a song of Invitation like “Softly and Tenderly” where you could come up to the front and pray with the Preacher or some delegate and say the sinner’s prayer and get saved and then make plans for Baptism. While the song is playing, the Preacher continues at the front to urge you to invite Jesus into your heart and come up and make a public profession of faith. This was so scary to me. But he’s repeating “Come, leave your burdens at the cross.” “Jesus is calling you today, will you answer the call?”
I remember being a teenager and standing there in the pew singing, my heart in my throat. My palms are sweaty but my hands are freezing cold. He’s calling (Jesus , not the Preacher) “Come, Come Lisa and Follow Me.” And I stood there frozen in Time. It’s just me, Jesus and the Preacher. And I would say to myself, “Am I going up there this week?” The walk to the front looks like the longest walk of all. And I stood there half singing this song I knew by heart and I’m wondering “is this the week I go down front?” And I’m standing there bargaining with God – because that’s what we do. “If I do this, then you’ll do that – Right God?” But God doesn’t want deals. He wants faith and trust. No bargains.
And I come back to the service and the last verse is playing and I’m standing there. And my knees start wobbling and my hands are shaking and I’m thinking this is it, this is the week I’m going to take the Longest walk down to the front and say yes to God. And just as I almost get the courage to step out into the aisle to answer Jesus calling softly and tenderly, and surrender my life and my will to Him. I realize the last verse is playing I do the math in my head, calculating how long the process takes and I know if I go down this week I’ll cause service to run long and then the Methodists across town will get out before the Baptists and then there will be a line at the restaurant and the whole church will be angry with me having to wait for lunch. And so I decide, not today. Not this week. Maybe next time.
When the next week comes I go through the same thing all over again to “Just As I am” this time. I get the sweaty palms, heart palpitations, freezing hands. Same thoughts, same bargaining, same everything. Right down to not making the walk. And again and again. But one Sunday, the right Sunday, the one Sunday God knew I was going to walk down, that Sunday I do it. This time I walk to the front and surrender my life to God. And the feeling of surrender is like no other. My heart is soaring with the Angels. I’m on top of the world. And the view is beautiful. I am a new creation and like a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis I am ready to flutter from flower to flower spreading the nectar of the Good News to help the flowers grow. And I can feel God there with me all the time and I’m not alone anymore.
Ah the beauty of young love. There’s nothing like it. And then I return to the world and it begins to wane. My attention goes to other things. And I relegate God to church. And I backslide and slip and the next thing I know I feel much more like a sinner than a saved one and I don’t feel God with me anymore and I don’t make time for my first love and I forget the feeling. And I tell God no time and again.
I did it all. Walked the walk to the front, Publicly professed my very private faith. Came up from the water. And then slowly slinked away from God. His light was harsh and it showed me my imperfections, highlighted them, even. And I was sure I wasn’t worthy of his love. And I had made a terrible mistake.
And then I went on about life and I could talk a really good talk about God and the Bible and I could slay people in their sin and tell them all the things they were doing wrong. And I spoke from my own guilt and shame, which was separating me from God.
But even in those dark decades, I still had moments where I would do what God asked. And I would feel electric and so alive. I would be on top of the world again. And then the guilt and shame would set in again and I’d go back into hiding.
And then I heard the still small voice. He was calling to me again. He was calling me to let go of the guilt and shame. He was calling me to trust in him. He was calling me to live in his love and his joy. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t find my way out. There was too much. Too many things I had done. I was useless. I was broken.
Then he sent me one of his Angels in the form of a Pastor. She was the most beautiful example of Jesus I had ever seen. I could literally see Jesus in her eyes. And I trusted her. And I shared my deep, dark secrets with her. And I cried. And she cried. And God was there. And he told me I was forgiven, He told me I was loved, He told me he had been there with me the whole time, and He loved me still.
And then He told me something I wasn’t ready to believe and so I ran again. I didn’t run far, and I didn’t hide well and even though I was telling Him “No.” firmly and forcefully he continued to love me. He continued to guide me and protect me. And even though I couldn't even say it outloud, I knew one day I'd say "Yes" to God again.