Monday, February 17, 2014

My Religion is Kindness

One of my most vivid early childhood memories took place when I was six years old. As I sat in the backseat of my parents car, riding home from church one Sunday, I asked them a question pertaining to something I had just witnessed during the service that morning.

 Mom and Dad were Southern Baptists; staunch Southern Baptists, and because of that, we were in church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. My parents both sang in the choir and I was active in Sunday School, GAs (girl's mission group), and our church's graded children's choir program. I liked going to church and I especially liked the music and following along in the hymnal while the lady I sat with every Sunday pointed to the words in each hymn as we sang. I credit my earliest musical education to our graded choir program, and between that and the private piano lessons that started when I was in the first grade, I was reading and singing along with the alto line of the hymns by the time I was in the second grade.

 On this particular Sunday morning, however, I was puzzled by something I witnessed that took place towards the end of the service. At the end of every Southern Baptist worship service is what they call an "invitation" or alter call. An "invitation hymn" is sung and during that time, people in the congregation are invited to come forward and make public declarations of faith, or renewal of their declarations of faith, or share decisions to go into mission service, etc. The people who went forward would register their decisions on a white card that they would hand to the pastor who was standing there to greet and counsel with them. Most of the time they had counseled with him previously, but sometimes the decision was spontaneous. After the invitation hymn was concluded, the pastor would invite the congregation to be seated while he shared the decisions that were made by the people who walked up front. Then, after the service was concluded, everyone in the congregation would file up front and hug and congratulate those who came forward during the invitation. It was all very warm and very welcoming. Sometimes people would cry, but they almost always smiled at the same time. Everyone seemed very happy when people went forward.

 That particular Sunday morning, we were beginning a revival service. The preacher that morning wasn't our pastor. I loved our pastor who had a gentle, soft-spoken, and kind way about him. Because I grew up in a college town, our church was filled with university professors who were educated and generally didn't prefer the country style fire-and-brimstone preacher that was found in the more rural churches and in smaller towns. Our pastor had a PhD in theology and he smiled a lot and spoke of Jesus' love. I thought Dr. Peterson was next to Jesus himself. This preacher, however, wasn't like Dr. Peterson. This preacher yelled from the pulpit.
He pointed his finger at people in the congregation and paced back-and-forth and shouted angry words like "hell" and "wrath" and called people "sinners". After he was done preaching, we stood to sing the invitation hymn and suddenly a man (I actually think he was a teenager, but to a six-year-old, he looked like a man), went running down the aisle weeping. He went up to the preacher (not Dr. Peterson) and leaned into his ear and spoke to him. I couldn't see what went on after that, because I was too small to see over all of the adults standing in front of me. After the hymn, Dr. Peterson stood in front of the congregation and introduced the young man and said that he had just asked Jesus into his heart. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I was more concerned that he had been crying so hard that his eyes were swollen and he didn't look happy at all. He looked sad. He looked very sad.

So I asked my parents about it. Why was that man crying? Did that angry preacher make him cry? And if so, why did he make him cry? Dr. Peterson never made people cry. Mom and Dad explained to me that the young man had just asked Jesus into his heart and that's why he cried.

"But I thought Jesus made people happy", I protested.

 "He was sad because of his sins and that Jesus had to die on the cross because of those sins," Mom replied.

I thought for a moment and then persisted in my line of questioning. "Do I sin?"

 "Yes, you do," she answered.

 More thought.

"But I don't have to go up the aisle, do I?"

"No," mother answered quietly. "You don't have to go up there."


"Will Jesus be angry like that preacher and send me to hell if I don't?"

I don't remember my mother's reply. I only remember that on that very same Sunday night, I walked up the aisle and as I did, the angry preacher started moving towards me. But when I shied from him, Dr. Peterson, moved around in front of him and took me by the hand. He sat me down and spoke to me softly and asked me why I came. I told him that I wanted to ask Jesus into my heart and that I was sorry for my sins. What sins a six-year-old girl could commit, I wasn't sure, but they must have been very bad for Jesus to have to die on the cross so that I could be forgiven for them.

 I'm nearly 54 now and I am no longer a believer in that Jesus. Too many angry preacher-men and too many angry followers of Jesus have convinced me that love isn't something that is exclusive to Christianity, and that
having religion and "correct" doctrine is no guarantee that you know anything about love. I've met many loving and kind people who weren't Christians and many angry and unkind people who were. I still look back at that little six-year-old girl and believe in the Jesus that she believed in, and the Jesus that Dr. Peterson believed in, and I can be thankful that the Jesus we know loves everyone, no matter who they are or what they believe.

 My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness. --The Dalai Lama

No comments :

Post a Comment