I grew up in a small western Oklahoma rural community with little to no religious convictions. I suppose that’s not the norm for a lad raised smack dab in the middle of the bible belt, but nobody has ever accused me of being normal. Oh, I remember attending a Sunday School class as a 5-year-old at a local Baptist church. I recall lots of coloring – and growing bean sprouts in a cup. I remember nothing else about it at all. After that stimulating experience I did not darken a church door again (weddings and funerals excluded) until I was well into my teenage years.
I’ve always believed in God. I suppose my parents ingrained that in me, though I can’t recall any specific instruction. I conceived Him as the ever watchful eye in the sky, who loved and protected me. The first traumatic moment of my early years came one July 4th evening as we went to a stadium to watch a fireworks display. It was an impressive exhibition of pyrotechnics. The crowd oohed and aaahed at every burst of light and color. However, I wasn’t impressed; I fretted through the entire show. With brow furrowed I tugged at my mother’s hand and whispered, “Are those fireworks hurting God?” My 5-year-old brain couldn’t comprehend an omnipresent God that transcends the material creation. Obviously I didn’t grasp his omnipotence either, else I wouldn’t have been concerned for his well-being in the wake of a few heavenward explosions.
So there you have it, perhaps my one and only childhood contemplation of God. I have no other memory I can recall that invoked God into the forefront of my conscience. I simply assumed God’s love, protection and providence. I had other, more important stuff to think and daydream about – with a heavy emphasis on daydreaming.
Honestly, I can’t think of a single encounter in my youth where the truth of the gospel confronted me. I can’t really say I ever outright rejected Christ and his salvation, I just lived in complete ignorance of it. I had a good friend who hailed from a religious family who would broach the subject on rare occasions. I can vaguely recall conversations where he tried to steer the topic in that direction but I never would have any of it. I simply couldn’t care less about boring ‘churchy’ stuff. I had a ‘Get outta here with that nonsense!’ attitude toward religion. It was a high, lofty philosophical subject that I felt had nothing to do with me or the here and now of life in the contemporary world. I firmly believed that the church had nothing helpful to say to me. Me and God were on good terms, no need to cast doubt on our relationship. My ears always closed up when the keywords of God, Jesus, sin, getting saved, heaven or hell would reach them. The seeds of God’s word bounced off the hard ground, unable to rest on soft purchase. My heart was made of stone.
I did open a bible one time during that hardened period. I went through a dark phase where I obsessed over doomsday prophecies of the end times. I esteemed Nostradamus as an authentic seer; I clung to all of his perplexing quatrains as if they were holy scripture. I had heard through the grapevine that the bible also contained prophecies of the end times – right there at the end of the book in a section called Revelation. Eager to get further insight into what manner of horrible death I might suffer, I picked up the obligatory family copy of the King James Bible, wiped off the thick layer of dust and read through Revelation. I didn’t understand much of what I read that day, but what I thought I understood scared the devil right out of me. I quickly returned the volume back to its musty resting place, apologized for disturbing its long slumber and didn’t give the bible another glance – until I read a fascinating little comic when I was 17. But that’s a story for another day.
This post may disappoint those expecting a sordid tale of rebellion, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. My youth was rated PG. I was sheltered, naive and painfully awkward in social settings, even in those young, restless and bold teenage years. I don’t have any ‘big’ sins to confess. I didn’t drink, party, do drugs or disobey my parents. I did possess a nasty Irish temper, (compliments of my dad) and I could be shockingly self-absorbed at times. And yes, I was sexually active – with my one and only girlfriend in my late teens.
Yeah, I know, pretty boring stuff. I was basically a good kid by all external observations and worldly standards. I boasted in my status as an ‘overall good guy’ and never considered the possibility that God was displeased with me. I had no fear of facing divine judgment. God cared about my well-being; he would bring no harm my way. The world harbored plenty of evil people worse off than me. I suppose I used those evildoers as a protective barrier between me and the ever watchful eye of God. If I pointed out all the misdeeds of the worst of sinners, God wouldn’t take the time to give me a thorough look-over. The sad thing is, I wore the crown of ‘Chief of all Sinners’ and stood condemned before a holy God; I just hadn’t realized it yet. Nevertheless, I asserted God’s beaming approval of my character, assured that my own perceived virtue made me impregnable to Hell fire. I had no trepidation St. Peter would deny my entrance through the pearly gates.
So, though I didn’t live a life of wide-open rebellion, I had a stubborn, obstinate, God-hating heart.
I was self-deceived.
I was self-righteous.
I was Hardened.