I became a Christian at age 9. It was a fairly easy choice. I saw what Christians were and I wanted to be one of them. It was a good start. I joined the Southern Baptist Church that my family attended. I participated and was active.
The Baptist Church is often characterized by emotion-charged religious experience, tearful episodes of repentance and the like. I didn’t have those and here self-doubt set in. It seemed that following Jesus just wasn’t enough. You could be “saved” but you also had to “know that you were saved” and you hadn’t arrived unless “Jesus sat on the throne of your heart” (pamphlet and diagram supplied). And if you managed that, you still had to have the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”. It seemed that there was this endless stream of obligations, experiences, commitments and achievements that were required in order to follow Jesus. The Christian seemed in a state of perpetual shortcoming (the word is “sin”, by the way.)
I kept things under uneasy control for years, but I found myself struggling against what my church was doing. I cringed with fear every time I took the Lord’s supper and heard the story of people who had died for taking it unworthily (1 Cor. 11:29-31). I was emotionally at war with the church, the Bible and God — even though I was working to support them all.
[In the small town where I grew up, there were no liberal Christians and no scholarly Christian books in the library, and no book store. In short, there were no role models.]
A rather peculiar thing started me on the way to salvation (which I’ll explain later). I was reading the Lord’s Prayer in the only version I had, the King James, where Matthew 6:13b says “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
Now in the Baptist Church, extemporaneous prayer is quite common and I had heard a lot of it. These prayers consisted largely of few dozen “stock phrases” strung together with some variety to fit the occasion. I realized that the text I was reading didn’t fit the rest of the prayer; it didn’t sound like Jesus; it sounded like a stock phrase that somebody would use in church. It was obvious that somebody had tampered with the text! [This text is omitted or footnoted in many modern translations because it does not appear in the best Greek manuscripts. I knew none of this at the time.]
Knowing that the Bible could be tampered with made it much simpler to deal with the issues of Evolution vs Creation, the Great Flood, and Jonah being swallowed by the whale. I couldn’t tell anybody what I thought, but it helped me.
Another great help was a copy of the Bible in the Moffatt translation. Remember, I had no access to real Bible scholarship at this time. But I bought a Moffatt on impulse at a bookstore at the Ridgecrest Southern Baptist assembly near Asheville, NC. Moffatt has a brief introduction to the documentary hypothesis in its introduction. Moffatt actually marks the sources (italics and braces) in the Pentateuch. He also re-orders the text when he thinks it has been edited in the wrong order.
I reached age 21 (college Junior). I was painfully obvious that I didn’t fit with my old church. I didn’t have the experience that the others had. I didn’t have a certainty of belief that any of the things that the church taught was true.
So one night I went somewhere that I wouldn’t be disturbed and I poured out all my pain and doubt to God.
Bargain with God
At the conclusion of this “prayer” I offered God a bargain:
“If you will accept me as I am with doubts and uncertainty, then I will try to understand you and to follow as well as I can. If I had my choice, you would exist.”
[The part about the sea gulls omitted in deference to the sensibilities of the reader.]
Somehow, after all those years, I’d found the Gospel. From my present perspective I see how what happened to me fit the words of a hymn I had sung a hundred times,
Just as I am, tho’ tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings within and fears without.
Oh Lamb of God, I come.
I understand from the experience of others that a profound religious experience, which is what I had (supernatural nor not), often takes years to sort itself out. This was the case with me. While I had a more easy peace with God, I was going nowhere.
Finally, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, I ended up in a Lutheran Church with an understanding Pastor and some good friends. I got some good books and started learning. But there were too many wasted years in there. It pains me to think of all the things I should have read and known by now.
The first time I participated in Lutheran worship the pastor said:
In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for his sake God forgives you all your sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ he gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.
In my whole life as a Christian, no one had ever looked at me and told me my sins were forgiven. I had only been given promises starting with “if”. It was quite an experience, having your sins forgiven!
What I have found, as a Liberal Christian, is that I can hear the Word of God and thrill at the words (rather than gritting my teeth). I found that instead of finding guilt and obligation in a church, I find help and opportunity. It’s a GOOD feeling.
So now I experience the risen Christ as a real force in my life. I need not worry whether any word in the Bible is literally true because faith alone provides the reality. Christ’s way of seeing the world and relating other people is as true as anything that there is. I finally understand what it is to have faith.
I write a lot of articles which have a spiritual tone and discuss Christian doctrine. It would be quite distracting if I explained every term I use in relation to it’s personal significance and meaning to me. I apologize if I mislead anyone and lead them to think that I am spiritual IN THEIR TERMS when my spirituality is experienced IN MY TERMS. I hope that the reader will trust that I am sincere.