I have been wrestling with religion for about ten years now, and every time I think I’ve gotten it down to the mat, it pops back up with renewed vigor. I’m still hoping for a solid K-O, an end to the debate within my heart, but I honestly don’t know if that’s in the cards for me.
I was brought up in a Southern Baptist family. My mom was raised Catholic and converted as an adult, while she was in the military and serving overseas. My dad was raised Southern Baptist (and was probably part of the reason my mom converted, since it happened shortly after they met and shortly before they married.)
We went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. I attended Sunday School and Children’s Church and Training Union and GA’s (Girls In Action) as a kid. When I was a little older, it was Sunday School and Church and Youth Group and Youth Choir and Acteens and Prayer Meeting.
I was brought up to believe in a very real, very personal, God. When we prayed, it was as though we were chatting with a friend sitting nearby. I was taught that there exists only one God – though he (God was always masculine!) is made up of three persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit. All three are God, all three exist simeultaneously, all three are in Heaven and are spirits. I was told that by accepting the sacrifice that Christ made when he died on the cross, and repenting through prayer of my sins, I could have the Holy Spirit in my own heart forever. I would be saved. Then, I could be baptized (by full submersion in water, since sprinkling is a horrible “Catholic” practice that no good Baptist would accept!) and join our local church as a full member.
Once saved, always saved. Baptists believe that once you pray the Sinner’s Prayer, you are guaranteed a spot in Heaven. You can “backslide” – return to your sinful, wanton ways – and for backsliding, you might recieve earthly, temporal punishments; God might withhold His blessings from you; and you will feel terribly, horribly guilty for denying the Holy Spirit and your own conscience. But you’ll definitely, for sure and certain, get into Heaven.
Unless….. in my mind, as a kid and a teenager, I always worried about that. It didn’t seem to make sense. God is this huge, incomprehensible, omniscient being who loves us and watches over us. But sometimes He lets really horrid stuff happen to His people (ie, poor old Job). That’s hard enough to swallow. Then, try to figure this out: if you pray your prayer with a sincere heart, you are Saved and get to go to Heaven. If you’re not sincere enough, or you pray the prayer thinking it’s just a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, then God knows the truth of your heart and you’re not really Saved and then you go to Hell. So, I reasoned, what if I *thought* I was sincere enough when I prayed the prayer at age 6, and was baptized…. but I really *wasn’t* sincere enough, and now I’m living in a delusion that I’m Saved and going to Heaven when I am really Unsaved and doomed to Hell.
Yes, I really did have these thoughts as a kid. I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer hundreds of times. I was re-Saved (though I’d have called it “a rededication of faith” back then) at revivals, at church camps, at retreats, and at lock-ins. I would have highs of faith, when I could feel God’s presence and all was well – and lows of faith, when I felt like my prayers hit the ceiling and it didn’t matter how I lived my life – and crises of faith, when I’d fervently re-repent and try to start all over again.
I remember waking up from a nap one afternoon when I was five or six (I have always been a napper. Still love to nap, actually.) and our house seemed eerily quiet. I wandered down the hall and into the living room – no mom! No dad! No annoying little brother! They weren’t anywhere! Oh my gosh! You know what happened? The Rapture. God must have seen me hit The Squirt last Tuesday, so He knows I’m not a Good Christian, and I’ve been left behind. I was on the verge of a full-fledged panic attack when the screen door slammed and my Mom came in from the backyard.
During my high school years, I had a pretty minor rebellious streak – I think most people have one, to some extent or another, right? Rites of passage and coming of age and all that. Well, what I did would have been minor in most families. In mine, it was an outrage. I experimented in my dating life. Never had sex, never even got close!, never tried alcohol, never tried drugs, never snuck out of my house, never “borrowed” the car without permission. Just dated two individuals my parents couldn’t stand… an African-American guy, and a white girl. (Scandal! Right!?)
It was through the course of these two (very innocent, I have to add) relationships that I realized how much I hated my religion. My parents felt perfectly, Biblically correct, in condemning me in both of those relationships. Both, they attested, put me on a direct course for Hell. (Apparently “once saved, always saved” doesn’t apply to a 17 year old in “open rebellion.”) Both relationships ended rather quickly – under extreme pressure from my parents. They actually threatened to cut me off from the family completely, but that’s another post for another day.
I realized that I knew the Bible pretty well, but I’d never questioned the way my church interpreted the Bible before. I left for college with a determination to figure it out for myself – and never to go to a Southern Baptist church again. I took an Intro to Religion class my freshman year, and through the wonderful assignments in that class I was able to start forming my own Statement of Beliefs. I found that I couldn’t affirm the Baptist Faith & Message (the document that the Southern Baptist Convention votes on every four years, and which Southern Baptist churches – though independent – affirm and uphold). From my own new, wobbly, ideals, I tried to find a church where I’d fit in.