As a child, I always made it to the car first after church. At the end of every service, Dad would call on someone to say the final prayer and then walk to the lobby in the back of the church to shake hands with everyone as they left the building. As I walked to the car, mom stayed near the front of the sanctuary to visit with anyone who lingered up there, and my little brother would run outside to play in the churchyard. I don’t know where my older sister got off to, but I probably didn’t care.
A lot of times my dad told stories to illustrate some point or other in his sermon. A lot of those stories came from our family. Whenever Dad mentioned me in a story, I was embarrassed and happy at the same time. It felt good that Dad paid attention to my little life, but weird that people I didn’t know got to hear all about it. Lots of times after the service, people would ask me questions or make some comment about whatever my part was in the story. Most of them were probably just being curious, but I never knew what to say. It always felt like they were teasing me.
I preferred the stillness of our parked car on a hot day, when the fake leather seats burned to the touch. I opened the door, climbed inside, and let the quiet heat envelop me until I felt relief. No one bothered me. No one shook my hand or said how pretty my dress was. No one asked any embarrassing details about whatever family story Dad had shared as an illustration that day, and best of all, no one told me to smile.
My sister was much better at playing the role of small town preacher’s kid, AKA the center of attention. She had a pretty singing voice and was often complimented for it. My brother craved the spotlight and was known for silly antics and making everyone laugh. I never caused any trouble, but I also never got noticed for doing anything out of the ordinary, except for being extra quiet. “That girl’s always off on some other planet,” Mom used to say about me.
Believing What I Had Always Known
Despite my quick exit, I enjoyed the church services. I liked singing the hymns. I had them all memorized and felt proud that I didn’t need to hold a hymnal to read the words. My Dad was a good preacher too. He told great stories and although he got loud from time to time, he was never the kind of preacher you see in the movies, always screaming about “hellfire and damnation.”
When I was five years old I wanted to become a Christian, and I was always asking Mom and Dad when it would be my turn to walk down the aisle, pray the prayer, and accept Jesus into my heart. They gave me short answers like “soon” and “whenever you’re ready,” but they weren’t sure if I really was ready, so they waited and watched, hoping for me to do something special that showed I understood what it meant to make such a big decision.
But for me it never felt like a decision because I never chose to believe in something. I don’t remember not knowing that Jesus had died for me. I don’t remember not knowing that I was a sinner who needed saving. I don’t remember not knowing about heaven and hell. I only remember believing what I had always known, what I’d been taught from infancy: that death was real and hell was imminent, unless I placed my faith in Jesus Christ, the one God sent to set us all free because he loves us.
One night when we were living in Winter Haven, Florida, my sister and I were fighting with each other instead of going to sleep at bedtime. We shared a room as well as a full-size canopy bed, and I don’t know what the fight was about, but I remember the lights had already been turned off and we had already been warned to get to sleep. The crack of light from the hallway grew bigger as Dad opened the door, got me out of bed and carried me to the bathroom for what I assumed would be a spanking. But after he walked me over to the toilet, he told me to sit down instead of bend over. Then he crouched down beside me and started asking me questions about what had happened. Finally, he asked if I understood that staying up and fighting was a sin. I told him yes. Then Dad asked me if I wanted Jesus to forgive me for that sin and to come into my heart and save me from all the sins I’d ever committed and all the sin I would continue to commit as long as I was alive.
“Yes,” I told him. “I do.” So Dad led me in a simple prayer of salvation, hugged my neck, and told me he was proud of me. Then he put me back to bed.
The next morning Dad and I were walking out to the car so he could take me to school. And there in the parking lot, with the parsonage beside us and the church behind us, Dad asked me if I remembered what had happened the night before. “Yes, sir, I do,” I said. Then he asked me if it still felt real to me. I said, “Yes, sir, it does.” That’s as much as I can recall about the momentous event. I can’t even tell you what day of the week it was, though I’m pretty sure it was November, just a few weeks before I turned six.
There are many awe-inducing stories of salvation out there, from those who came to faith as adults. There’s nothing so incredible to me as hearing how one day a man didn’t know Jesus and the next day he did. Hearing someone describe his life before and after Christ sometimes makes my heart beat a little faster. I love hearing the stories of adults coming to faith because they remind me that conversion is a fact, not just something I made up as a child. Yet, if I’m being completely honest, I also feel a little cheated that I don’t have an experience like that for myself. It feels like it would be hard to forget that your life suddenly took a sharp turn in the opposite direction. It’s strange to have always had faith because it seems more like it’s just a part of who I am, rather than a gift I was given. Like my green eyes or my brown hair, faith has always been there. And that’s made me wonder over the years if it’s something I would choose again if I had the choice.
Holding On For Dear Life
Mom and Dad made me wait a few more months to get baptized. They wanted to make sure I was serious first, and when they finally let me, Dad, of course, did the dunking. Every preacher has his own style of baptizing and Dad’s custom has always been to put his hand out in front of the person he is about to baptize just before he takes them under. The person getting baptized is supposed to grab his arm with both their hands as he plugs the man or woman’s nose with his thumb and knuckled forefinger to plunge him or her “beneath the cleansing flood.” Some ministers like to put a white cloth in the hand they extend, so the baptizee can expect a certain degree of separation between the minister’s hand and his or her nose. Not my Dad though. My Dad is a nose-grabber.
I’m sure we practiced the arm-hold-nose-grab at home before my official baptism ceremony but when it came time for me to grab Dad’s forearm that day in the water, I panicked. I reached up for the back of his neck instead of his arm and hung on for dear life. Dad didn’t see that coming. Still, he only paused for half a second before deciding he’d just go down with me. This would never have worked on another grown-up, but since I was a child and he was a former quarterback, he was able to get me covered without completely dousing his own head. I’m sure there was applause when we both resurfaced, but I don’t remember it. I’m sure people told me how proud they were afterwards, and I’m sure Mom took pictures and I was embarrassed. I don’t remember any of that though. What I remember is grabbing my Dad’s ample neck and lacing my fingers behind it. I remember not letting go.
Cover image by Kelly Sikkema.