My junior year of high school marked a significant milestone in my transition from hopeless daydreamer to somewhat functional member of society. I began obsessing less with the fantasy realms I entered in through books, movies, D&D and other vehicles that would transport me away from the dreary existence of my everyday life. I shifted my focus to more worldly concerns: What would I be when I grew up? Who would I date and someday marry? Am I making the grades I need to pursue a higher education? How much money did I need to put away to help upgrade my girl-repellant vehicle? The nebulous lands of my vivid imagination dissipated under the relentless rays of reality.
I had a close-knit group of friends I hung out with. I had a car, a job and a measure of independence I had never felt before. Times were good. I felt content – aside from the occasional pangs of teen angst over my considerable lack of ability to charm the ladies.
These were alien words in my high school vocabulary. I never heard them – I never spoke of them. Most importantly I never pondered their significance. However, this all changed sometime during the fall semester of 1988.
It began with a friend of mine who began inviting me to church. Now, this seemingly came out of nowhere because in all our years of friendship he had never talked about God or church to me in any significant way. I’m not sure what changed, maybe he became inspired by some traveling evangelist, or had attended a rousing tent revival, or perhaps his parents told him to get me churched before I corrupted his good character. I don’t know, but his insistence startled and disturbed me. It seemed so out of character for him to talk like this. If memory serves me correctly he never truly evangelized me with a gospel message, he just encouraged me aggressively to start going to church with him.
Despite my initial reaction, I was unmoved by his pleas to get religion in my life. I wasn’t interested – not even remotely. I brushed him off repeatedly. Eventually he grew discouraged and became less persistent on the matter. My stoney heart felt no pang of conscience, no fear of divine reprisal, no hunger or thirst for righteousness. Me and God were buds. He knew I got not thrill from religious presumption. He gave me a pass from participation in any ritual formalism. God knew my heart was pure as the driven snow. A good guy like me had no real need of attending church.
My stubborn will didn’t concede to my friend’s insistent pleas – for a time. A paradigm shift in my religious thinking came abruptly one unassuming afternoon at our local Wal-Mart . My venture had no true motivation other than sheer boredom. I didn’t go to buy anything, I just wanted to have a look-see around. I remember hanging out in the toy section looking with mild curiosity at the latest Transformer toys. I never had much interest in the toyline but the latest releases had caught my eye. As I picked up a figure laying on the store shelf my eye caught an odd out-of-place item sitting beneath it. It was a small booklet with a drawing of the Grim Reaper holding a sickle. The title simply read “Hi There.” Intrigued I quickly flipped through the pages and discovered it to be some sort of short comic. It didn’t have a price tag so I assumed someone must have set it down and forgot it. I pocketed the booklet and headed for home.
After dinner I retired to my reclusive little hole of a bedroom, turned on the tube and collapsed on my considerably wavy waterbed. Once the ripples had settled I reached out for the comic I had put on my nightstand and read it through. I immediately regretted the decision. It told the story of a loud-mouthed construction worker who laughed at his co-workers’ crude jokes and scoffed at the idea of God and religion. Unfortunately for him, he had a mishap and fell to his death. He awoke to find himself in hell with a lone angel for company. The angel calmly and in a matter-of-fact manner informed him why he had been placed in the fiery realm. He was an unrepentant sinner who mocked the Living God and refused the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Many years of torment passed until the time of judgment came and he stood before the splendor of the Almighty Himself. God judged him according to his works, finding him guilty of high treason against the Creator of the universe. The poor construction worker was then thrown into a worse place than before – the Lake of Fire, to suffer God’s perpetual wrath. The booklet ended with a short gospel presentation and scripture references.
I imagine now that my eyes widened with every passing page until they looked like a pair of headlights. I simultaneously felt shock, revulsion and abject fear coursing through my body all at once. I remember closing the comic and placing it back on my nightstand, burying it beneath a pile of books. I had no intention of reading that ever again.
But I did.
Over and over for several weeks I slipped the booklet out of it’s hiding place and pored over its contents. Maybe I secretly hoped that it would magically have a happier ending or perhaps I missed a subtle foreshadowing element that gave hint the poor construction worker would somehow eventually escape his terrible fate.
It ended horribly every single time I reached the final page. However, when I re-read it I no longer saw the story through the eyes of the ill-fated construction worker but through my own eyes. I inserted myself into the role of the condemned sinner. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would suffer the same exact fate he had. My conscience had been pricked for the first time in my young life. I squirmed beneath God’s beaming gaze as I came to realize his brow was furrowed. Guilt flooded my soul, increasing exponentially whenever I realized anew that I had repeatedly broken God’s holy commandments. The comic sketched me as a sinner and God’s wrath burned hot against me. I had to pay a high price for my crimes. Yet I could not accept this fate.
For the first dozen or so times I read the comic I focused squarely on the story. However, as I began to read myself into the main character role I looked for ways to change the script and rewrite the ending. It’s then that I took note of the last page where the gospel of Christ was presented. It instructed me to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ, repent of sin, get baptized and attend church. At least, that’s what I got out of the reading.
I looked at this presentation of the gospel message as nothing more than a to-do list, to be checked off one item at a time until I fulfilled all the requisite duties. I didn’t behold the beauty and awe of the person and work of Christ. I had no true grasp of it. I only saw a means to an end. I needed a secure fire insurance policy.
Believe upon Christ. OK. I could do that, though I didn’t have any idea what that meant.
Repent of sin? Uh, if by repent you mean I feel guilty and don’t want to be sentenced to hell, then yes I repent of sin.
I groaned inwardly at the remaining requirements. It meant that I’d have to get off my lazy butt and actually do something. I wasn’t looking forward to attending church. I liked to sleep til noon on the weekends. I had no idea what attending church was like, I had never been. I didn’t know anything about baptism or becoming a member of the church.
I decided at that point to finally take up my friend’s offer and attend his little baptist church. My acceptance took him aback after so many less-than-gracious refusals. I never opened up about my little black booklet – not to anybody. I kept it a secret from everyone.
My memory’s a little hazy on the finer points but I recall attending a couple of services before I expressed a desire to cement my membership (and my salvation) once and for all. I made an appointment with the pastor and met him one day in his study. The minister was a kindly older gentleman whose primary employment was farming. He always wore a pair of worn overalls and a warm smile. I liked him immediately.
The content of the meeting is dim in my memory. He asked me a few questions concerning my relationship with Christ. Apparently satisfied with my answers he instructed me upon the procedure for becoming an official member of the church. I had only to do two things: Make a public confession of Christ in front of the church and get dunked in the baptismal tank. I was more than happy to oblige. It surprised me that I only had to accomplish these two simple acts and I was “saved” and in the club. Wow! If salvation was so easy why didn’t more people do it? The construction worker from the comic could’ve avoided his everlasting punishment by simply saying a few words and getting a little wet. What a moron! I felt pity for people like him, too thick and stubborn to yield to a couple of simple religious duties.
The day of my confession and baptism came and went with little fanfare. I didn’t tell anybody about it, not even my parents. I can’t recall the event hardly at all. It didn’t qualify as a significant milestone event in my life. But the deed was done, my guilty conscience found relief. My intense anxiety had been alleviated in two easy steps.
I made a profession of faith.
I got baptized into Christ.
The pastor declared me forgiven and “saved”.
But I was Shallow.