After I ‘gave my life to the Lord’, I felt like I my life had a clean slate. I felt light and pure, and I glowed with a joyfulness that I had not known in years. One of the first things that I did after my religious conversion was to look for a suitable church. I was attracted to Calvary Chapel, but I did not want to commit to the first church I visited in six years. I quickly discovered that the clubhouse in my apartment hosted a prayer meeting every week, so I decided to sit in. I arrived a little late, and walked in to about 10 young men and women chanting in tongues very loudly. ‘Loud’ meaning full throttle from the diaphragm. It was not ecstatic as worshippers in Grandpa Wagner’s church though, and when I walked in, a young man abruptly stopped his chanting and warmly welcomed me, then just as abruptly started belting out the glossolalia again. I had seen plenty of Tongue Speaking over the years, but this level of intensity was different from anything I had experienced. There was no interpretation with the Tongues, and no worship involved. It was simply these ten people, pacing back and forth in the clubhouse, and very loudly chanting in an Angelic Language. They told me that they were blessing the clubhouse and casting out demons, and I could just sit and wait while they continued. So I sat and waited, and watched.
OK, this is your new belief. You are back in the religious world. You know this is the kind of stuff to expect from now on. Better learn to accept it.
After they stopped yelling and pacing, they gathered for a Bible Study. Since I was the newcomer, the study was quickly geared to evangelize to me. At one point, they even read John 14:6, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man cometh to the Father but by me’, and everybody suddenly stopped speaking and looked at me waiting for me to make a decision for Jesus. It was a very tense moment. The secret desire of every Evangelical Christian is to lead sinners to Jesus, despite their awkward reluctance to include them in a worship service. “Don’t worry everybody. I’m a Christian”. There were audible gasps of relief.
The only person there in the clubhouse who actually lived in the apartment complex with me was a hulk of a man nicknamed ‘Atlas’ because of his size. After the Bible Study he took a couple sniffs of my clothes and told me that if I was to be a Christian I had to stop smoking. “You are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. You don’t want to pollute God’s Temple”. That logic made a strange kind of sense to me at the time, so I promised him that I would do my best to quit. “You cannot do it on your own. You need the strength of the Holy Spirit to give you power! You can do all things through Jesus! Without Jesus, you are powerless!”
From then on, I took a commitment to pray to Jesus for strength in my new life of Faith. I vowed never again to forsake Jesus, and to always seek God in prayer. I vowed not to simply play religion. I went back to my apartment room and flushed all my remaining cigarettes down the toilet, continually praying for strength the whole time. In my newfound conviction, I felt I had to finally be serious for Jesus, to finally get real about living my life for him. That meant I had to purge all worldly influence out of my life, and dedicate my life solely and exclusively to Him. I looked at my huge stereo system, and the several hundred music LPs that I had collected since high school. I remembered all the debates about secular music with Brother Ed back in Cape Baptist Christian School, and repented of how rebellious I had been.
So that evening, I sacrificed my one and only true passion and joy in my simple and empty life – I gave up my secular music. It must have taken a few dozen trips to the dumpster to unload the heavy stacks of music LPs that I had collected since high school. I remember looking down in the dumpster at several hundred LPs of all different genres, wondering if I should have given them to somebody who could enjoy them instead of giving them a trip to the landfill. NO! I do not give away garbage. Garbage goes where it belongs! And with that certainty of conviction, I marched back upstairs to my apartment to grab another armload of LPs. I had to sacrifice what I could to Jesus, to show Him that I was truly Faithful to Him, and that I sincerely meant to commit my life to His cause and accept His purpose.
Out of the hundreds of LPs that I threw away that evening, there was one that I simply could not part with, and was inwardly able to rationalize keeping. I must mention that LP because it is directly related to this story of my de-conversion. The message of the music on that LP contains a reflection of my Spiritual thinking during those years. The songs were mostly vague, quasi-religious prayers and hymns that were achingly beautiful, and by straining and stretching the meaning of the lyrics, I could re-interpret most of the songs into becoming worship music to Jesus. Sort of. One of my favorite songs off the LP was called He is Sailing, which is a song of hope and expectation for a coming Messiah figure. True it is just a song, but as much as I loved it as a Sinner, I found new hope and meaning in that song as a Christian. I knew the song was not explicitly Christian, and I knew that the singer and lyricist was definitely not a Christian, but the music and message was so beautiful to me, that I simply could not part with it. That song represented both my newborn conviction as a Christian, and my link back to the secular world with my secret hope for universal salvation. Hell, the song even includes glossolalia.
He is Sailing.
Out of the mist into tropical splendor
With garlands of flowers
In majestical fusion we see tonight
On to this sacred reunion of pleasure
They row as a rhythm
Ten thousands of millions to touch the Light
King is sailing they say
King is sailing this Day of days
King is coming we sing
King is coming we know
All the souls He to touch. All the millions of souls He to touch…
Heaven set sail in His ship full of light
He transcends all our love
To caress all our fears in a moment divine
Weakest and strongest will dance in delight
All Illuminous. Our Savior.
They bringing Him forth. We will sing tonight
Our true Kingdom Come
Damn. Just listening to that song again now as I type this, and thinking back many years ago to emotional, yearning love for Jesus brings tears to my eyes. It is the bitter memories of discovering the disappointment of religious Faith, and the failed expectations of loving a Divine Savior. How I longed for Universal Salvation and Universal forgiveness! But as much as I clung to that hope of salvation through that meaningful song which I often played in Christian devotion, I knew my beliefs were of a strictly exclusive nature. I knew that Jesus was a vengeful god, and would strike out against those Sinners who dared rebel against Him in their unbelief. I knew that Jesus demanded humans to walk the narrow path of belief and Faith, and that the highway to Hell was paved with Sin disguised as good intentions. With the knowledge that I was one of the lucky elect of God, there was no way to not feel that I was better than the hordes of unwashed heathen doomed to everlasting torment. It was an ominous feeling knowing that my eternal fate was in the hands of a god who willed us into paradise or torment based on nothing but our deepest thoughts and beliefs. That thought terrified me. I had no outward sign that assured me of my Salvation. Unlike the certain sign of Salvation that Speaking in Tongues gave, and that Grandpa Wagner taught me as a child, Pastor Skip taught me that I could not spend my time looking for outward signs and wonders. I had nothing to rely on but my own failing Faith.
The eternal love expressed in the words to that song described a Divine Love that I had never felt in my life, and a Love that I desperately craved to feel. I do think that, in a strange way, deep down in my psyche, that song also reflected my hidden and unspoken hope that Jesus was in fact not the only Way. That we would all, eventually, find our own salvation, through whatever religious tradition we cared to follow. Not that I would ever admit to such heresy. But the Mind works in mysterious ways. That song carried me through many mental trials during the following years. Now, over twenty years later and after completely shedding religious beliefs from my life, He Is Sailing still carries my hope of universal salvation. Salvation is a mythic symbol of human restoration, and salvation carries whatever vague meaning the myth may hold.
That evening as I dumped armfuls of worldly music and my filthy past into the dumpster, I felt that I had fully repented. My religious conversion on the week previous was just the first step of a long haul, and I prayed to Jesus to give me supernatural power to make me a new creature. That evening I quit cigarettes. I had half-heartedly tried several times before to quit, but that night I was able to commit permanently, without the need for tapering off or support groups. I also quit alcohol. I drank not so much as a drop of beer after that night, without the need for AA. I viewed the nearly complete rejection of my former secular life as nothing short of miraculous! I thought that nothing or nobody but Jesus, the Son of God Himself, was able to transform my life as abruptly as it did. I did not think it possible that I had the power within myself to change my life. As miraculous as I felt my transformation to have been, I still did not have a healthy self-esteem. My Self did not matter. I must decrease as Jesus must increase, and I gave it all up for Him.
After a couple of months looking for a small church to join, I decided that such excitable Pentecostal congregations did not suit my taste any longer. I decided that I would stay with Calvary Chapel in Albuquerque, despite my initial reservations about the size of the congregation. I was raised to think that as a Sinful human I was worthless in the eyes of God, and Calvary Chapel only reinforced that belief. I was born in Sin, corrupt in Sin from the moment of conception, and by default immediately destined for the fires of Hell. No matter what good I tried to do in this life, I was not a good person, in fact no good thing could come from me, and I could do absolutely nothing of any value without the power of the Holy Spirit. My good works were just filthy rags in the eyes of God, in fact Pastor Skip often emphasized that the rags were covered in the filth of menstrual blood. I was taught that our culture was egocentric, and humans in their corrupt perversity were only living to fill themselves up with temporary pleasures and ungodly lusts. I believed that life without Jesus was empty, pointless and vain, but life with Jesus brought true joy and a peace that passes all human understanding. The previous few years of my life, in which I drowned my sorrows in alcohol only confirmed that conviction! Jesus was the only way to achieve true happiness and meaning in life. Without him, we were whitened sepulchers with darkened hearts. Without Jesus, our damned selves stumbled and droned about the world like the walking dead.
I felt worthless before I attended Calvary Chapel. I believed that I was worthless after I started attending Calvary Chapel. The difference was that I was happier knowing that I was worthless, because I believed that God viewed me as perfect because I accepted the sacrifice that His perfect Son made for me. It was a strange dichotomy. I was perfect in God’s eyes, because Jesus Christ was what made me perfect. But without Him, I was worthless. When I talked to unbelievers who accused me of being sanctimonious, I could always just turn and tell them that I was really no better than they in God’s eyes. But when I told people that I was Saved, I could just tell them that the Blood of Jesus made me perfect and Sinless in God’s eyes. The Christian religion, as conceived by Calvary Chapel, is full of slippery dichotomies like that. If a discussion or argument was getting too heated, I could always flip the card, and still be convinced that I was correct in my double speak.
My conversion to Evangalical Christianity was initially joyful, and a wondrous change to my miserable life. I loved Jesus. It was only after several weeks that I learned that I had to fear this Jesus just as much. Jesus was great, powerful, loving – and terrible, jealous and vengeful. It was a dichotomy that I had to learn to live with, but I don’t know if I ever fully and successfully accepted the dreadful implications of worshipping an almighty Deity who demanded sinless perfection from His worshippers. I often wondered to myself if I was truly a Christian, and if I truly had enough Faith to merit salvation. After all, I was told, many people who think they are Christians will be surprised when they are find themselves cast into the Lake of Fire. Did I believe enough in the atoning efficacy of Jesus’ death to meet God’s satisfaction? How could I know for sure? I thought that I manifested my beliefs through my good actions and that the Holy Spirit was evident by my Fruits of love, joy, peace, etc. I knew that my salvation was supposed to be given to me by Jesus through my Faith alone, and that any thought of earning my own salvation through my own good works was heresy. But the only way I could tell that I believed enough was through my own works, and if I stumbled by becoming unduly lustful, angry or impatient, I could not help but wonder if my lack of Faith was evidence of my lack of salvation. So I would strive, knowing that I was not allowed to strive, to do good works, to demonstrate to myself that I did have enough Faith in Jesus to merit His salvation. In this way, even though I dared not admit it, my salvation through Faith was implicitly a salvation through Works, and I knew of no way to avoid it. So I did my best to pray my way out of the dilemma, and hope that my vengeful god would accept me by my Faith anyhow. I became a Christian because my life was miserable, and I wanted to be happy and fulfilled. I remained a Christian because I longed for salvation and became terrified of damnation. Jesus may have been able to transcend all my love, but He could not caress all my fears, even though I had to pretend that He did. I had to ignore troubling dichotomies. So I played He Is Sailing on my record player, and thanked my vengeful and jealous Jesus yet again for His boundless mercy and love.
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