The preacher said the phrase again. Cold fear shot down my spine from my temple to my toes.
“Beyond a shadow of a doubt”, he droned. “You must know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Heaven is yours, that Jesus is your Savior, that you have repented and turned from your sin to God.”
Here’s the thing: I knew Jesus was my Savior. It was the doubt part that troubled me. Well, the doubt and the sin. I certainly hadn’t committed any Christian-deemed sins in my young life. No drugs, no alcohol, no promiscuity (didn’t even know what that really was), no premarital sex, no cursing. As my grandma loved to say, “I don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t run with those that do.”
So what exactly did I need to be saved from? I wasn’t sure but I knew I desperately wanted in. I wanted Jesus. I didn’t think my “conversion story” was much of a story, so I longed for a better one. Here’s what happened to me one afternoon in my memory. It was a Sunday. My mom was settling me in for a nap. I asked about Jesus. We prayed together. Something happened in my soul that my young mind couldn’t describe yet with words. I knew a peace and a satisfaction at that moment. Some might say it was the Holy Spirit.
This little memory has caused me much turmoil, even though it is an event that has been confirmed by my mother. She even wrote a little piece in the front flap of her Bible, “October 9, 1989, Kathleen prayed to accept Jesus as her Savior.”
I can’t tell you the relief that flooded me when my mom gave me that scrap of paper during my late teenage years.
As if salvation and Divine encounters can be summed up in one prayer and one moment.
Because I was consistently worried if “I had done it right”, and because I was terrified I hadn’t truly “repented”, during my childhood years I would repeatedly pray the sinner’s prayer, desperate for confirmation of Jesus’ grace and a peace in my spirit.
I would then wonder, “Was it that time?” or “Was it the time before?” Which prayer was the most real?
These questions were not the only ones that ran around my mind. Other doubts plagued me, but I kept them to myself. There was no room for questions in my denomination of Independent Fundamental Baptists. The firm voices around me admonished me to hold faith in the doctrines they taught. They quashed my questions. Misunderstood my heart. Diverted the doubts as misguided. Don’t question the stance that only one Bible translation (The King James Version 1611) is accurate. Don’t ask, “Why are women not supposed to wear pants or work outside the home?” Don’t dare speak out when the pastor from the pulpit demeans women who work outside the home.
Do not dare wonder if God loves everybody, then why does He hate gay people? Don’t even think about the fact that the majority of the leaders in the church are men, and when a woman speaks, she is mocked secretly behind closed doors.
Don’t speak about your terror in experiencing a spanking with a wooden paddle across your legs by your Christian schoolteacher. Don’t even give voice to the waiver of doubt about pledging allegiance to your church and to your pastor. Learn the words verbatim and recite them with the rest of your Christian school classmates. “I pledge allegiance to my church and to my pastor who preaches the Word of God. I will faithfully support my church with my tithes and offerings.” Don’t even allow yourself to entertain the thought of, “Is this actually the way that Jesus taught us?”
Most of all, don’t question the salvation experience itself. You must have said the Sinner’s Prayer, shown actual repentant tears, and turned your whole body away from any worldly inclination. Otherwise, you likely were not saved from hell.
As all of these questions tormented my young heart, it is no wonder I experienced nightmares, cold sweats, and severe anxiety. There was no security to be found….unless I built my life around the doctrines drilled into me by the church. My mom even had this little book she would open up after dinner each night with our family. “The Little Book of Catechisms” was the name of it. The book systematically listed out questions, like “who made me” and “who was Jesus?” There in black and white were the solid answers for my questioning soul. I loved it. Even more so than my older brothers. I devoured the information, memorizing each answer so I would just know.
My experience of Divine peace in the moment with my mom fell away as I developed the muscles of knowledge and answers.
It worked for me for a long time.
I was a loyal daughter of the church. I willed myself beyond feelings and rested inside my church’s beliefs. I became sold out for Jesus. The Jesus of the Independent Fundamental Bible-believing Baptist Church. I learned the rules and the ropes – bought into all of them heart and soul as I buried all my doubts and insecurities.
I was fine. Richard Rohr, in his book “Falling Upward”, coined the term “the Loyal Soldier”. That was me. I was the good girl, the believer, the one with a testimony. I remember a visiting preacher telling me once that he wished he had my story. His was full of drinking and smoking and girls and fistfights, but mine, well, I was a missionary’s daughter with nothing on my record. Pristine and shiny. “I’d give anything for your story,” he told me.
I remember one Sunday afternoon as I studied my Bible at the dining room table, my notebooks open before me, my older brother passed by and saw me. His face lifted in a half smile. “You really are a good kid, aren’t you?” As I reflect back on this memory now, I noticed his voice held almost a hint of sadness.
Yes, I was a good kid. The Preacher’s Daughter. The Missionary Kid. The Baptist Nun. These beliefs kept me safe. These doctrines held me fast. Baptist Jesus was there for me in the readings and the memorizations and rules.
This way held true for me.
Until it didn’t.
I think Jesus was excited when I took the first step away from rigidity.
(Real Jesus, not my church’s version of Jesus, let me be clear.)
When I leaped from the missionary life into a completely different career as a young adult, suddenly the secure answers I held no longer solved the deepest longings of my soul or answered the hard questions I was facing.
Would the older gentleman with the white hair and friendly blue eyes burn in hell forever because he died without saying a certain prayer? I could no longer believe this.
Was the nice guy who worked in the back of the restaurant depraved and evil because he was later arrested for drug possession? I couldn’t believe that.
How was I supposed to console the grief of a co-worker who was a refugee in the United States and was worried constantly about his family still in peril? I didn’t have answers anymore, so I just listened to him.
What kind of person would I be to tell the gay person I met that God disapproved of their lifestyle and they would burn in hell unless they changed? I would be a non-loving person, full of judgment instead of grace and truth.
Was the Catholic family I met really “unchristian”, even as they shared their meals with me, let me sleep on their couch, and spend all the major holidays with them? No, they were more Christlike than others I had known.
Was God enraged at me when I had to work on a Sunday because my manager scheduled me to work? No, He loves unconditionally.
Were the new friends I made out of tune with God because the girls wore slacks, the guys sometimes drank beer, and they all watched R- rated movies? No, they were more in tune with Him because they were teaching me to see the Divine in everything.
Could I read the works of Fredrich Nietzsche and still love the Bible? Oh my word, yes, young one, yes.
I started to hold the doctrines I’d been taught up to the light and examine them one by one. As questions arose, I studied and prayed and opened my heart to a new understanding of the love and grace and compassion of Jesus.
This process has been years in the making and is still ongoing. Jesus never despised questions. So often in Scripture, He answered a question with another question! When approached by religious leaders or lawyers or even the common man with questions during His time as a Rabbi, His most heard response was, “What does the Scripture say? How do you read it?” He hardly confirmed quick and solid answers; rather, he readily encouraged the journey of wrestling with the tough questions.
When I came to Him, holding up all these questions in my heart, I think He smiled and said, “Finally! Now we are getting somewhere with your faith!”
The life I held “before” was full of answers. You name the question, we provided the answer, no problem. If you stick by abiding to these answers, you would be okay. “How do I get to Heaven? Say a prayer. What is sin? Smoking, drinking, gossiping, and watching dirty movies. What does God want? Give your tithes.”
Why have my experiences outside my Baptist upbringing sparked a resolve in me?
Because until I was okay with questions, I wasn’t truly okay.
Every day I spend in searching for the work of Divine Love, I’m learning to become more and more okay with vagueness, with holding things loosely, and with mystery. I’m finding it is more important to ask questions than to know the answers. It’s more valuable to listen than talk.
It means more to step lightly with a person than to pounce on top of them with giant boots.
If my encounter with Jesus had been limited to a “one and done” transaction, how empty my life would be. I believe I met Him that afternoon so long ago with my mom guiding me. I also believe I have met Him many times since then. In the questions. In the darkness. In humanity. In every step I’ve taken away from my list of rules and into the wide field of His grace. He keeps step with me and my doubts.
Life is a dance. One that is full of darkness and light. One that contains Divine experiences with no words, and one that explodes with expressions that need words.
A friend said to me, one night after a discussion about all the questions, “Are we really supposed to have all the answers? I don’t think we ever will.”
I nodded sagely, wordless. Not because I was done with questions, but because sometimes silence is the best answer.
Will I ever stop questioning?
No, no, I don’t think I will.
This much I know:
Beyond a shadow of any doubt, I’m keeping the questions.
That’s where life is found.
And, as it happens, that is where Jesus is too.
*This piece is intended to be a part of my memoir that I am currently writing and someday will finish.