By 1990, I was 26 years old and I was thoroughly immersed in the world of Fundamentalist Christianity. I was convinced that I had a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”, that is I could talk to Jesus every day, at any time I wanted, and that Jesus was listening intently to every word that I said. Jesus was concerned when I brought my troubles and worries at the foot of the altar. Jesus was pleased when I witnessed his Gospel to my friends and family. Jesus showered me with his blessings when it was his good pleasure to do so. Jesus was scolding and correcting when I fell into Sin (“Correcting” was the term that my church used. We never actually used the Biblical terms of a “jealous” or “angry” god unless we were actually reading it from Scripture).
I talked to Jesus constantly. Of course, he never talked back. I never expected him to, because nobody I knew ever actually expected to have Jesus audibly speak to them. So it was a constant struggle for me to discover what the Will of God was for me. Apparently, from the way Pastor Skip used to preach, Jesus had a special and unique plan for me and my life. I would talk to Jesus, and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk some more. He never said anything back, so instead I had to try and decipher seemingly random events in my life as if they were clues that he was sending to me. In other words, my relationship with Jesus was essentially a game of charades.
I found special and insightful meaning in that Psalm I read this morning. I wonder what God is trying to tell me with that?
My friends at work were especially receptive to that Chuck Missler cassette I played in the prep room today. God must want me to play some more of that tomorrow.
That checkout girl at the grocery store sure is cute. I wonder if God placed her in my life so that I could ask her out on a lunch date, and share the Gospel?
Jesus, when I bought this bicycle, I dedicated it to you for your glory. As I ride it today, lead me to a place where I can be an effective witness for your Kingdom.
Yes. I said all these things to myself – and much, much more. I went to the sermon cassette library and checked out all the messages I could find on the topic of God’s Will for the Christians’ life. “Discovering God’s Will for Your Life”. For the life of me, I don’t remember what any of them specifically said, but they all boiled down to, pray, be patient, live in the Spirit, and God will guide you to where He wishes you.
I took my Christian Faith very, very seriously. I figured I was not a powerful Bible pastor like Pastor Skip or Chuck Missler, but I could do my tiny part for the Kingdom working and spreading His message in the restaurant kitchen where I worked. I was happy with my small part in God’s giant plan.
But was I happy at that time? Looking back on that time over 20 years later, I don’t really know. I was certainly well liked at church and at work. My workmates put up with my constant witnessing and proselytizing, but while they loved spirited debate their constant pounding of my Faith really wore me down and tired me out. But I gained satisfaction from that by knowing that I was doing the will of God in spreading Gospel seeds among receptive unbelievers. Those seeds would surely germinate when they hit the ready and responsive ears of a willing heathen. I felt, probably for the first time in my life, that I was on a correct and constructive path. I felt like I had finally found my moral bearing. I had quit smoking and drinking, and abandoned almost every secular activity and pleasure from my life. I also felt like I was a tiny part of something much bigger, and that I had exciting, secret inside information concerning the spiritual realm of God and His coming Kingdom, that only those few of us who had genuine relationships with Jesus were privileged to. Those were exciting times for me.
But on the other hand, Christian beliefs could fill me with terror, uncertainty, anguish and moral disappointments. I sometimes felt as if I was constantly struggling to maintain Faith, fighting off guilt for not witnessing to a person I met in the streets, or keeping too much money when I knew I could always give more to Calvary Chapel’s coffers. I struggled to find the balance of being pious enough to be a good Christian witness for my friends, and not pious enough that I was making a disgusting show of myself. I struggled not to privately judge those who did not take their Faith as seriously as I did. I once gave a sermon to the singles youth group about how much Satan hated us, and wanted to take all of us down with him. I shuddered when I spoke, and I know I had the attention of everybody in that room, and several commented favorably on my powerful message. But it was a message that pulled from deep in my heart. I was convinced that Satan hated me, and that he hated everybody that I loved, and that my entire family was going straight to Hell. When I contemplated on that fact, I was terrified.
Sometime in the midst of my years of Christian fanaticism, my dad converted to Mormonism. My hard-scrabble lumberjack father finally put the booze down and devoted himself to the teachings of Joseph Smith. To this day I don’t know why he converted, but I am certain that it gave him a community, and allowed him to clean up his life a bit. But at the time, all I knew was that he was following heresy – a heretical temptation placed before him by Satan, the Father of Lies, and that the deception would land my dad into an unquenchable lake of fire. As I mentioned in a previous entry to this series, I have never been close to my dad. Especially during this time of my life, the blows of his fists were still fresh in my memory, and even though he lived several hundred miles from me, he still intimidated me. But he was my dad. He was the only dad that I would ever have, and I forced myself to love him because Jesus commanded it. I still remember the night where I, along with some other Christian friends, prayed for the salvation of Dad’s soul. I presented a photo of my bearded and smiling dad to my Christian friends, and told them about his damnable state as a Mormon convert. I asked my friends to pray with me. So we put the photo on the floor, and we sat on our knees, and out of habit, formed a circle around dad’s photo. I still remember that prayer. Everyone chanted and prayed all at once, while I cried. I cried and cried. I cried until my eyes swelled and my sinuses hurt. I distinctly remember staring at dad’s smiling face while imagining that smile burning in the flames of Hell. I remember that photo becoming wet with the tears that dripped from my face.
Mom was more difficult for me to figure out. She had long since moved back to my childhood home in San Ysidro. I knew she no longer attended any kind of church, but she did not appear to me to have joined any heretical cult, like dad did. She had clearly backslidden though. At best, she was the type of Christian that Pastor Skip warned us about. He called the type of Christian who had lost the passion and fire of their First Love, and now wandered about in Christian apathy, as a Carnal Christian. I did not know if mom had lost her Faith or her Salvation, but I saw enough disturbing signs from her, that I had become concerned. First, she did not attend any church that I could tell. I remember her mentioning that she believed that God does not care what you believe, but he does care if you are sincere in your beliefs. I felt that was a sure sign the mom rejected the belief in the exclusive salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and just not a very smart position to hold. My concern for her had nothing to do with her actions or morals. It had only to do with her beliefs.
I once got her to accept an invitation to attend Calvary Chapel with me. It was a Sunday evening service, which was the night that Pastor Skip typically did his expositional studies. I was very excited. I could not wait to get mom into the sanctuary of that church, and let her listen to the magic words of Pastor Skip as he presented the Gospel to her. I wanted her to see for herself how attractive my kind of Christianity was! It was not the half-crazed Pentecostalism of my youth that I knew that she was familiar with. No! This was the contemporary, modern and reasonable faith – a true, non-judgmental and genuine relationship with Jesus Christ, without all the baggage of religion!
When she accepted my invitation to attend Calvary Chapel, I decided to do a little early prep work. I had no doubt that mom was once a born again Christian but had abandoned her faith sometime after her divorce from my step-dad Michael. So I spent the afternoon praying. “Dear Jesus, I ask that you open mom’s heart to your message, and that the Holy Spirit gently, lovingly but ably convicts her of her Sin. I ask that you put power into the Pastor Skip’s sermon, so that he will say those words which will affect mom. Dear Jesus, I want mom to join me in having a loving relationship with you”.
I rode my bike to Calvary Chapel about an hour or so before mom was to meet me there for the evening service. I went to the back room behind the stage, which was the prayer chamber where I had given my life to Jesus a couple of years before. I told the assistant there that my mom was attending Calvary Chapel for the first time, that she was a Christian but had fallen away, and that I would like them to pray with me.
Out of habit, we joined hands in a circle and prayed. As we blessed Pastor Skip’s upcoming sermon, one of the assistants thought that maybe we could go into Pastor Skip’s office and ask him to personally pray with us. My heart leapt! Surely, this was going to be an anointed message from Pastor Skip!
We walked down the hall towards the pastor’s office and one of the assistants gently knocked, walked inside and told the pastor that he had a visitor. Pastor Skip was busy preparing for the evening’s message, but he graciously invited us all in. I told Pastor Skip that my mom was coming in for the evening’s service, and that she was a Christian in the early 1970’s, but had fallen away.
“Is your mom saved?”
“I don’t know. But I want her to meet Jesus”
Pastor Skip stood and joined us in front of his desk. Out of habit, we joined hands in a circle and he prayed. “Dear Jesus, I bring Joe’s mom before your throne of grace….”
After his prayer, he beamed a broad smile as he always did, and I thanked him and the pastoral assistants for their time. I sat in the lobby and waited for mom. When she entered the building, she was amazed at the size and beauty of the sanctuary. “Such a big, beautiful church! I can tell wonderful things are happening here!”
The worship band rocked as usual. Mom really got into it, and clapped along. She no doubt remembered the guitar-based music from her Jesus Freak days. Following their usual pattern of two up-tempo songs, the band slowed down and performed a more contemplative and praise-worthy song. The hands started to rise in worship. What would mom do? I watched her nervously. She kept her hands clasped in front of her, her mouth stopped singing and she watched.
Pastor Skip began to preach. I remember nothing about the message in particular, but I do remember when he began to wrap it up for the evening. Pastor Skip rarely gave altar calls. It was just not his style. But this particular evening, with my mom in the back of his mind, he got as close as he ever got to giving one. The piano played a few quiet chords under Pastor Skip’s exhortation:
“Perhaps you are not a Christian. Perhaps you do not know God. Maybe you have a lot of questions and doubts, but Jesus will meet you where your doubts are. Maybe you think you are not good enough to be saved by Jesus and that you can never be forgiven, but Jesus will take you just as you are. Perhaps you were once a Christian but have fallen away…
He looked immediately, with laser precision, directly at my mother.
“…but somebody who loves you very much dragged you here kicking and screaming. Jesus loves you. He wants to save you. Will you accept his invitation?”
The service ended. As people filed out the door towards the foyer, mom silently rose and slowly walked to the front of the auditorium. She stood at the foot of the stage, all alone, head bowed. I did not follow her. I just stayed at my seat and prayed fervently. What was she thinking? Was she giving her life to Jesus? Was she crying? Was she repenting of her sins? To tell you the truth, I will never know. She stood up there for at least 10 minutes, and refused all offers of help from the assistant pastors. She just needed time alone with Jesus.
She finally walked back to collect her things, told me she enjoyed the service, and without a word of explanation, she left.
I never spoke to her again of that evening. The next week she came again to Calvary Chapel to watch special guest musician Darrell Mansfield perform some Gospel blues. And that was it. She never returned. As far as I am aware, that was the last time mom ever attended church.
I was afraid to talk to mom about that evening. Watching her at the stage, deep in contemplation with her head bowed seemed like such a private and intimate moment for her, that I did not want to spoil it. She asked the assistant pastors for privacy, so I thought I would give her the same privacy by not intruding on her thoughts. But I finally figured that she was up there deciding if she wanted to return to Jesus or not, and in that tense moment of decision, with all her memories of religious belief to reflect on in that moment, she made the crucial choice to reject her religious beliefs.
Mom was teetering over the edge. She nearly gave her life to Jesus. We had circles of prayer warriors asking God for his salvation upon her! But in that crucial moment of decision she walked away. My heart sank.
One evening, several months later, I was visiting her in her home. My heart was sick knowing that she had known a taste of Christianity, but had decided to ultimately reject Jesus. She was deceived, lost and damned. For several months, I was very uncomfortable when visiting mom. How could I convince her? How could I tell her what she did not already know? How could I make her accept Jesus again?
She asked me what was wrong. I mumbled something about her not being a Christian, and that I could not get over it. I still remember her forcefully asking me:
“Joe! Do you think I am going to Hell!?”
“Yes!” I remember crying again. I remember that familiar feeling of snot clogging my nose, and tears running down my flushed hot cheeks. I cried out of terror and fear of my god. I cried because nobody seemed to understand the damnable fate that awaited them! I cried in frustration that nobody that I talked to, not even my own family, not even my parents, would accept Jesus as their Savior and accept a home in paradise. Nobody listened to me but a lousy street bum!
I cried and cried and cried. My god I cried so much when I was a Christian. I cried until I could not see from tears. I cried until my face hurt. I cried until I hiccupped from interrupted breathing. I had no time for God’s promised Peace that passeth understanding. I was too busy crying over the miserable survivor’s guilt that I felt. I was saved. Everybody that I loved was damned.
Mom, as usual, told me that there was a lot that I did not understand. But she asked me what kind of Heaven I could expect if everybody I knew was burning in Hell. How could Heaven be joyful, she asked, when everyone you know and love is burning forever? How much will you enjoy heaven with that in the back of your mind?
I never witnessed to my mom again. I never once witnessed to dad. The burden of guilt was unbearable. I could not hold myself responsible for their rejection of God, but I could not help feeling guilt whenever I was with them. So I just left them alone. I loved my Jesus, but I was terrified of the awesome power he held over us mortals. He held us from a thread that hovered over the fires of Hell. Why couldn’t anybody understand this obvious truth?
I was happy as a Christian. Sometimes. But I remember mostly the fear, the guilt and the tears.
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