It starts very young. You’re in pre-k, maybe, and it’s the last day of VBS. You’re wearing a bright blue shirt with a cartoon whale on it, and they’re up at the front of the choir room talking about Hell. They’re talking about forever. When you’re twenty two years old, you will still remember this moment as the first time you encountered the idea of forever. It’s absolutely and petrifyingly scary. And now the lady who does everything for the children in the church is up there as the good cop. She’s telling you that if you say this prayer, if you mean it, you don’t have to go to hell forever. She’s singing a song about how it’s as easy as ABC. She’s handing out cards with the prayer on it, and telling you to make sure you tell your friends. You’re afraid, and you just know you’ve gotta say it. You’ve gotta make sure this hell thing doesn’t happen to you. You say the words, and you cry a little. The lady believes you because you’re crying and she thinks you really mean it. You think you really mean it. You’ll keep maybe two memories of that year you were three, almost four (a week before you were four).
The next thing you’ll start stressing about is baptism. You’ll hear them saying it at the altar call every Sunday. You’ll think to yourself, I think I already did that prayer thing, I must need to be baptized. Your parents will (wisely) put you off it as long as possible. Your memories will start to blur, and you’ll never be for sure when the prayer ‘took’. You won’t have a number or a story with lights and voices. They’ll tell you every so often about your testimony. They’ll tell you that you need a moment. A point in time that you crossed into the light. You will begin to panic.
The first Sunday at a new church, when you’re eleven, you’ll hear a sermon from someone willing to admit he doesn’t have a number or a moment. You will exhale and listen as he talks about how he knows there must have been a moment, because he finds himself eagerly pursuing Jesus. Whatever he meant to say, you hear this: if I live well enough, then I won’t have to question this anymore. I’ll know because I’m so good.
You’re chasing that for so long. You’re going to all the youth group events and doing all the camps and mission trips. You’re superChristian, and no one would dare to question your ‘moment’. Privately you question it. Privately you despair because you know what a mess you are. You know that a true Christian wouldn’t feel these things. So you pray that prayer every day. Every day. While you’re doing everything all day, you’ll write in your journal. In a few years these entries will make you cry with sympathy for the broken heart who wrote them.
You’ll get cynical and angry, because you’ll start to realize that the prayer was a lie and the works were a lie. That it was at once too easy and too hard. You’ll meet Jesus in the pages of an essay by Yoder, and you’ll know in that instant that He never wanted you to doubt or try to prove yourself. The frustration will linger, because you’ll want so badly to tell the church that they’re doing it so wrong. At one point, at a church Halloween carnival, you will throw away a thick stack of tracts you’re supposed to be giving out to families and children as they leave. You’ll keep the light up necklaces to give them, but you’ll destroy the tracts because you have to do something.
And then you’ll read Francis Schaeffer. A friend will recommend The God Who is There and you’ll scoff even as you’re realizing that the title has settled onto your soul. You’ll feel compelled to read it, and there on page 18 you’ll read about Jaspers and how he talked about ‘final experiences’ as the ultimate good, but believed them to be inexplicable. Schaeffer will say of his followers
“in their struggles there is a horror of great darkness. Though they may be people of great sincerity, this does not of itself make them able to communicate to others their experience. Nor can the individual verbalize to himself what has happened. Tomorrow morning they may say, ‘Yesterday I had an experience.’ The day after they still say, ‘I had and experience.’ A month and a year later they are hanging on grimly to their only hope of significance and certainty of being by repeating ‘I know I had and experience.’ The horror of this situation is due to their putting their hope in a nonrational, nonlogical, noncommunicable experience”
You’ll wonder when he visited the churches you went to. You’ll wonder where he found your journal. He will say “but then I go on to say to them, ‘Yes I have had a final experience, but it can be verbalized, and it is of a nature than can be rationally discussed.’ Then I talk of my personal relationship with the personal God who is there.” The ‘moment’? That was never you. It was Jesus, and it’s over. It is finished. And it’s real. You won’t be angry anymore, you’ll just be sad. You’ll want to hug the people who are trying so hard. To tell them that their relationship with God is real because God is powerful, not because they are. You’ll feel free.