I’m a disciple of Jesus and a part my lifelong church community because I was raised that way. If I were raised in a different faith, nation, or culture, I sense my faith, life, power, and perspectives would be different today. Although I have helped others to do so, I never married into a different denomination or religion…… but I did date one briefly.
I recall sitting on a bus going to a Baptist revival with a girl I recently met. I have no idea how I came to be with her on that bus, but I’m sure it had more to do with hormones than theology. I do remember it was 1973 because we were laughing and singing “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel on WAKY radio. Since then when I hear that song, I’m on that bus.
As we sorta dated and I had several conversations with her and her friends, I became convinced that I knew a lot about God, but I wasn’t sure I ever really felt God’s love. They taught me that in order to feel God’s love in my heart, I would need to recite a certain list of scripture verses, say a particular prayer, and be baptized by immersion. My study Bible still has the list of verses marked in red they recited as the one way to be saved. Like an auto assembly line, I followed their rules, culminating in my putting on a white robe and being dunked in a Pentecostal church on a Friday night.
When I came up out of the water, I felt…. nothing. Even after trying to fake my own speaking in tongues to show I had the Holy Spirit, I felt nothing different. A few years before Morales sang it in “A Chorus Line”…. I felt nothing. I was devastated and frightened. After doing exactly what I was supposed to do, I was afraid I was unworthy of God’s love. If I had no Holy Spirit emotional confirmation that I was saved by Jesus, then my teenage present through my after-life were in dire straits.
Rejected, confused, and frightened, I finally talked to my associate pastor, Bill Arnold. When I told him my recent story, he told me my greater story. “Wallis, you don’t feel any different after asking God to come into your life, because God was already there. Since your birth, God’s love and acceptance have surrounded your life. When you professed your faith and joined the church, confirming your infant baptism, you didn’t feel different, because you were raised in the faith by your parents and this church. You will have times in your life when you feel closer to God, times you’ll feel distant from God, but you will never experience feeling God’s love for the first time; it’s always been with you.”
I can’t promise you those were his exact words, and in a few years when he became my seminary professor he didn’t remember the conversation, but I’ll never forget what it meant for me. That day I began my journey…. not my journey of faith, but my journey of dating only girls from 2nd Presbyterian Church youth group through the rest of high school. Also, the answer to my prayer to feel God in my heart may have been delayed for four decades.
When have you known God’s love and acceptance in your life? Were you raised in a faith community or did you come in from the outside? What is your experience with people who believe differently than you? Do you remember your first experience of God’s love or did it occur before you could remember?