I was six. We attended a little country church that probably had 30 in attendance on a good day. We had youth service on Saturday night, Sunday morning Sunday school and worship, and then a Sunday night service as well. My family lived about 30 minutes away, so it was quite a bit of driving on the weekends.
The church was very low key. It was a white wood building which sat on visible cement blocks. There was a sanctuary, a bathroom, and two small rooms used for children and youth Sunday school classes; the adults just had Sunday school in the sanctuary.
The preacher had a day job, and I remember watching him read the Bible and make notes while we were singing. I know now that he often had not written the sermon until he got there on Sunday morning.
When it was time to sing, anyone who wanted to went up on stage to be in the choir. People called out the next song they wanted to sing, and we sang until the piano player got tired. I always went up to sing. And I always requested #131, O How I Love Jesus. It was my favorite, and Heavenly Highway Hymns is still one of my favorite hymnals.
It was a Pentecostal church, and while the older women wore only long sleeve dresses and didn’t cut their hair, it was okay that the younger women wore pants and makeup when they weren’t at church. That being said, no female would EVER come to church in pants!
I don’t remember much about the sermons, except that most of them were about how much I sinned and what I had to do to avoid going to hell. Mostly I remember that Mom always had gum in her purse, and if I was really good, she might pull out Lifesavers.
One Sunday, we had a big picnic at the park after church. We played softball and ate mountains of good southern cooking. We left the park just in time to change clothes and make it back to Sunday night service.
At some point in the service, I fell asleep. When I woke up, several people were making their way to the front of the room, so I just thought it was time to go sing. I wiped off my eyes and headed that way. When I reached the front of the room, people were kneeling at the altar rather than going up to sing. I was confused, but knelt anyway because I saw my Dad was already there and kneeling.
Then someone came over and put their hands on me and began to pray. At first I didn’t understand, but then I realized that something was happening around me. It felt electric, and sacred. I asked the man praying for me, his name was Jim, if he would show me how to ask Jesus to come into my heart, and so Jim and I prayed. To be honest, I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember that I meant it with all my heart.
13 Some people brought children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded them. 14 “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” 15 Then he blessed the children and went away from there.
The next Sunday, we had our after-church potluck at Jim and Betty’s, mainly because there was a pond in the field behind their house. That afternoon, ten people were baptized, including my Dad and me.
I remember being afraid. I was wearing my best blue dress and I didn’t know how to swim. The water looked so deep, and I was afraid of snakes. But I walked out into the cold, brown water anyway. And as Jim and the preacher dunked me completely under, I knew that something about me had changed. I came up different. I didn’t really understand what it was or what it meant then, but I knew that something had happened.
As Christians, we fight over so many things. Do the bread and grape juice BECOME the body and blood of Jesus, or just symbolize it? Is baptism necessary for salvation, or just the symbol which acknowledges salvation happens? Are there certain words which have to be said at a certain time in a certain way or else you are not really saved? Can women be preachers? At what age can someone be baptized? Can homosexuals be clergy members within the church organization? Is there an age one must reach before you can consent to membership in the church?
There were those who said I was too young and didn’t know what I was doing. I have never admitted to anyone before today that I actually thought I was going up to sing. Does that mean that I am not “saved”? Did my baptism not “count”?
This is what I know: I have gone through many dark places in my life. I have been in and out of church, and to be honest, sometimes in and out of faith. But through it all, I was never alone. There was always the feeling of something bigger than myself, something stronger than me, something pulling me back toward an altar in a little wooden church, and the memory of the cold, muddy water from a pond.
I know now what I didn’t know then, that what I was experiencing that day was grace. And I have no doubt that I stumbled into it, half asleep and unaware, immature and lost. Maybe it was grace which woke me up; maybe it was the preacher yelling the altar call. Whatever it was that woke me up that night, for whatever reason that I stumbled up to that altar, no matter my age or maturity, I began a journey of faith, and I was covered in the sacred grace which I found in the muddy water of a pond.
25 When his disciples heard this, they were stunned. “Then who can be saved?” they asked.
26 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.”