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Monday, February 14, 2011

How I Became a Christian

How I Became a Christian

My Grandmother was born in 1884 in a log cabin in Decatur, Illinois. Shortly after her birth her mother died of tuberculosis and her bereaved father took the children and moved to Texas to start over again. The year was 1887 and they settled in on a farm near Fort Worth, Texas with a Step-Mother soon joining the family. My Grandmother thrived in Texas and by the time she grew to be a young lady she found herself in love with the young man who lived on the farm next door.

When the young couple began planning their marriage, my Grandfather’s parents were disapproving. My Grandmother was a Yankee, a Northerner, wasn’t she? Hadn’t she come from Illinois? My Grandfathers’ parents were proud church going Southerners who were still angry that they had lost the Civil War along with losing all of their slaves. Couldn’t their son find a good Southern girl to marry?

But my Grandfather went ahead and married my Grandmother in 1904 without his parents’ blessings and the young couple bought a farm of their own. Their farm prospered and two children were born to the couple. But then quite suddenly my Grandfather contracted Meningitis and within a week he was dead. The year was 1911, a time when welfare didn’t exist and few opportunities were available for women to work outside the home. My Grandmother, now a young widow, worried that she might not be able to keep the farm going by herself and provide for her two little children. Fortunately my Grandfather had left her a life insurance policy and hopefully that would save the day.

After the funeral my Grandmother received a visit from a lawyer informing her that her in-laws were going to take the money from her husbands’ life insurance policy. My Grandfather had purchased the life insurance policy just before he married my Grandmother. At that time the lawyer had instructed him to temporarily write his parents’ names in as the beneficiary until his wife’s name could be added after his marriage. My Grandfather later added my Grandmothers’ name in place of his parents but he accidentally signed his name in the wrong space. The in laws were told they could take the funds because my Grandfather had signed in the wrong space.

The lawyer was a leader in his church and had a sterling Christian reputation in the farming community. He quoted Scripture as he explained to my Grandmother how her in laws could legally take what belonged to her. He assured my Grandmother that she would waste time going to court since the local judge was a member of her in law’s church. The judge would agree with the in laws that since my Grandmother was a Yankee (hadn’t been born in the South) she wouldn’t be entitled to her husbands’ insurance.

My Mother and her brother grew up on their farm watching my Grandmother struggle endlessly to put food on the table and keep the farm going. Down the road on the next farm their proud Grandparents went to church and quoted Scripture. My Mother can’t remember her Grandparents ever paying any attention to her. She remembers that they loved God and hated anyone who hadn’t been a part of the Southern Confederacy. And she also remembers that they always talked about “Jesus”. But in the same breath they criticized my Grandmother. After all she was a Yankee, wasn’t she? She came from Illinois, so she hadn’t deserved the money from the insurance policy her husband had left her!

My Mother grew up hating church. She and her brother went to church with my Grandmother during their childhood, but as soon as she became an adult, Mother quit attending church. She would use the excuse that Christians were hypocrites. But had she been turned off by her own Grandparents’ bad example of what a Christian should be? When she married my Dad in 1940, she insisted that they not go to church and my Dad agreed.

My childhood had a magical quality about it. I was an only child and was very close to my Mother. She allowed me to do almost anything I wanted to do. A few things were off limits however and church was one of those things, but I didn’t mind. My Dad worked six days a week as office manager of a local newspaper and my Mother drove me wherever I wanted to go and cleaned up after me. Life was stable and good and I didn’t know that anything was missing!

But then when I was almost eight years old, a friend from school named Kay asked me to go to church with her. I told her I didn’t want to go to church but she kept asking me again and again. Finally just to get her off my back I agreed to go just once. I didn’t want to make my Mother upset by going to church so I approached her cautiously. Mother agreed that I could go to church just once with Kay but she warned me not to believe what was being taught there. She told me that she didn’t want me to become a “goodie goodie”! I didn’t know what a “goodie goodie” was but I promised my Mother that I wouldn’t become one. And I agreed not to believe anything that was being preached.

Kay was overjoyed that I could go to church with her and her parents drove by and picked me up. When we arrived at church a large smiling lady greeted me and welcomed me into her Sunday School class. Friendly faces were everywhere. We memorized Scripture, did handwork and sang in a youth choir. I had fun at church and my Mother was irritated when I asked if I could go back a second time. I promised again not to believe anything they taught and she relented and let me go back, but I knew I was disappointing her.

For almost two years Kay’s parents drove me to and from church and I continued promising my Mother that I would just have fun and not believe the message that was being taught there. I was a good daughter and I actually kept my promise and didn’t listen to the Bible stories. “We’re praying for you,” Kay told me worriedly. I laughed at her and told her it wouldn’t do any good.

Every week the pastor seemed to preach the same sermon. He would pound the pulpit and insist that each of us there needed to accept Jesus as our Savior and Lord. He made the same point over and over again. Jesus was the only Way. We needed to be “saved”. After his impassioned sermons, as the lights were lowered and the organ played softly; he would stand in front of the altar as everyone prayed; and he would plead and beg for those in the congregation who hadn’t accepted Jesus to walk down the aisle and “Make a decision for Christ”. I had been going to the church for two years before these emotional calls to accept Jesus began to bother me.

“Mother, the Pastor says that a person needs to believe in Jesus to have their sins taken away. Is that true?” I asked her one day. My Mother was quick to assure me that people didn’t need Jesus. She told me that good people went to heaven and all one needed to do to please God was to be good. They didn’t need Jesus. She added that “fanatics” believed in Jesus and that was one of the reasons she hadn’t wanted me to go to church in the first place. She didn’t want me to be one of those “fanatics”. I wasn’t sure what a “fanatic” was but I was sure it wasn’t good!

Several Sundays later I was listening to another one of the pastor’s impassioned sermons about the need to accept Jesus into our lives. As I was sitting there the thought flitted across my mind: “What if my Mother is wrong about Jesus?” She is always right about everything. I had always trusted Mother to tell me what to do. But could she be wrong about this? “If the pastor is right and Jesus is the Way, then I should accept Him, shouldn’t I?” It all seemed so confusing to my nine year old mind.

Right there in church I bowed my head and prayed, “God, I’m so confused. The pastor says I need to accept Jesus but my Mother says that that is wrong. Please show me whether Jesus is the Way or not.” Then in my nine year old mind I even figured out how God could show me if Jesus is the Way. “If you want me to accept Jesus, then on the way out the door after service, please have the pastor pull me aside and ask me to accept Jesus. And then if Jesus isn’t the Way please have the pastor say nothing.” I know now that a person isn’t supposed to test God in their prayers. But at nine years old I didn’t know that.

When the service was over I followed Kay and her family out of church. Maybe a hundred church people were crowded in the back foyer waiting to shake hands with the pastor, who was standing next to one of the stairways leading outside. A second stairway opposite the pastor led outside too and people who didn’t want to greet him were streaming out that exit. “Let’s go,” Kay whispered to me and I realized that my prayer had been silly. The pastor was way too busy with this huge line of adults after church to pull me aside and ask me a question. I followed Kay down the exit stairs opposite from the stairs the pastor was standing in.

I was nearly halfway down the opposite stairway and almost outside when I heard my name being called above the crowd. “Jane!” “Could someone get Jane.?” My heart stood still! “The pastor wants to talk to you child” someone said. I ran back up the stairs and stood in the long crowd of grownups waiting to greet the pastor. “Jane, I wish you would think about accepting Jesus as your Savior,” the pastor questioned me as I stood there among the after church crowd. “Have you thought about it, Dear?” “Not until now, but I know now that I need to,” I answered shakily.

And so I found myself trying to explain why I had to accept Jesus to my irritated Mother. I had no other choice I told her. I had asked God if Jesus was the Way and He had answered. Since Jesus was the Way then I obviously had to follow Him. The next Sunday I walked down the aisle at the end of the service. The organ was playing quietly and the lights were turned down low. People were praying and shouting “Amen” and “Praise the Lord”. I was baptized that evening and things in my life began to change. I had passed from death into life!

The Scriptures that I memorized began to mean something to me. And the hymns I sang had meaning too. The Bible stories began to come alive when I heard them and I wanted to learn more. When we moved to California three years later the Lord led me to another good church. And my faith kept growing.

I am glad that Kay loved Jesus so much that she wanted her friend (me) to know Him too. And I am thankful for the pastor who kept on sharing the gospel message and holding up Jesus as the only Way again and again. I’m grateful for Kay’s parents who drove me back and forth to church for years never complaining. And for the humble people at the church who put up with me and loved me into the kingdom when I had nothing to give them in return and my family didn’t attend or give an offering.

I am sorry that there were Christians like my Great Grandparents who professed Jesus proudly while criticizing and cheating others. When I hear of Christian organizations today that have cut retirement funds that their older long term employees had been promised, it reminds me of my cheating Great Grandparents. If Christians don’t act honestly with one another, or cut out the poor, how will people outside the faith be drawn to Christ?

There are so many people today who don’t know that Jesus is the Way. I hope these folks won’t be scared away from Christ by people who talk about Jesus in one breath and criticize in the next. I hope there will be Christians out there that will share the gospel with these folks and love them into the kingdom, like the people who were there for me so long ago.


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