Before city council decided to build the bypass, a multi-mile loop around my hometown, much of the outskirts were still blanketed by the pine forest of East Texas. The little Bible church we attended was a metal building at the end of a dead-end road, surrounded by tall pines. The church attracted an enlightened lot, as could be seen by the highly educated congregation who faithfully attended. We had multiple doctors that taught Sunday school; a dentist did the announcements, college professors led the songs and ran the youth group. There were an unusual amount of Ph.D.'s for the size of the church.
My perception of church was synonymous with high education. We were as likely to learn how to parse Greek verbs as we were to get a lesson on the basics of the gospel. The Jr. High Sunday school class had a fat packet of homework weekly. Me and my friend Ashley, the daughter of a Lawyer and a Doctor, were the only ones in our Sunday class who even attempted the workload. By the time I was in 6th grade, the small youth group allowed Jr. High kids to participate. The curriculum for the youth group was a video series from the '60s by Francis August Schaeffer, a famous knicker-wearing philosopher who also had a Ph.D., of course.
We had bought into the allure of complexity. We considered ourselves to be a church that went ‘deep.’ This left the impression that other churches in town were shallow and didn’t understand the Bible.
"Will Brian go to Hell?" I asked Dad one summer afternoon. Brian was a friend from school who attended another more 'shallow' denomination. The subject of other churches was not brought up often at our church, but anytime it did arise, it was in hushed condescending tones. I had surmised that most churches were filled with people who were headed toward the lake of fire. After all, if everyone in every church was saved, then shouldn't we all meet together? I don't know if I was concerned for Brian's soul, or if I was just wondering if I ought to look down on him as well.
“Why don’t you have a conversation with Brian about that?” Dad suggested. What a novel idea? Talk to Brian, instead of about Brian. I could just ask him… I could say… uh… or maybe I could tell him… well… what? What was I supposed to say? I never talked to Brian about his eternal destiny. I avoided having that soul-saving conversation because I wasn't sure how to verify whether Brian had done what was required. I don't know if it was due to my church experience or not, but despite the heavy emphasis on academic study of the Scripture, I was really confused.
It's funny how certain daydreams from childhood stand out. One such mental meandering happened on an otherwise unmemorable evening that same summer. I would often spend the last few minutes before bedtime next to Mom, who ended her day reading in bed. I'd love to say I sat there and read, but my plan was much more sinister. I knew that if I were to lay in just the right place where her arm was not too strained, she would give me a back scratch. For me, a back scratch was the closest thing I ever got to hard drugs. I was hooked, and Mom was my dubious dealer. If her hand slowed, I would give a mild spasm to remind her that I was awake and expectant. She never complained or protested; what an enabler.
One evening as I was lying there having my back flesh filleted from the bone, I was considering what I knew about the gospel. Proudly, I thought I knew quite a lot. Certainly more than Brian, maybe even as much as Ashley, though she was better than me at spelling and punctuation. Despite all, I knew there was still something disjointed. There was something that didn't make sense to me. I had not yet wrestled my uncertainty about forgiveness into submission, and that left me open to a host of other doubts.
"If I could come up with a better way to explain the gospel, it would make me famous," I said to myself, glad that my mom couldn't hear my inner monologue. It was a fleeting thought, a passing whisper in my mind, though it illustrates how confused and frustrated I had become. I was unsatisfied with my understanding of the gospel. Even at that young age, I dreamed of having a different and clearer mindset, although my motivation for fame and recognition was certainly a sin, and I'm embarrassed even to record it here. The reason I do is that it was evidence of a growing chasm between my understanding and assurance. I wanted certainty and assurance, but I wasn't finding it in the academia of the Bible teaching church I attended.
“How do I know I’m saved?” I asked Dad a few days later. The out-of-the-blue questions were something Dad looked forward to. Being a college professor and a father of three bright-eyed boys, he lit up anytime a question was asked. He knew just where to turn in his well-worn Bible.
"Look here," he said as he pointed. "Read that." I was a little reluctant and didn't enjoy being put on the spot. I complied though, knowing he had some wisdom to impart.
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” I got through it shakily. My remedial reading class paid off.
"What do you see there?" Dad asked. I scanned it again, trying to understand why he had brought me to this particular sentence. When I didn't get it right away, he dropped his finger to the verb, which was begging for my attention. "What's that word?"
“Know,” I said tentatively.
“That’s right. John is explaining that it’s possible to know that you have eternal life.” He let that sink in for a moment. I thought about my nightly prayer ritual. I thought about my doubt while lying on Mom’s bed. I thought about my frustration with the complexity of the Bible teaching I was receiving. He waited for it all to process.
"I don't feel like I know," I shuffled. "I mean, how do I know for sure?" He talked me through it once more. The discussion was not so different from the night he introduced me to John 3:16. Words like believe, and faith swirled in the air like an aromatic plume from an extinguished candle. He could tell I was still struggling even as we talked. As the discussion came to a close, he gave a suggestion.
“Why don’t you talk to your Bible study leader about it?” Dad said. No doubt, he thought my small group facilitator would support and enhance the presentation he had given. I took his advice.
The week was slow in rolling. I continued to beg for forgiveness nightly just in case I died in my sleep. Our groups met on Sunday nights which might as well have been a decade away. My memory is hazy, but I bet we were studying Leviticus in original Hebrew, like every other youth group in town. I waited until Bible study was over, and all of my friends had left. I didn't want Ashley or any of the other smart kids to hear the dumb question I was about to lay on our leader. With a tremble in my voice and a knot in my stomach, I spoke.
"How do I know that I'm saved?" I said, clearly embarrassed to be asking fundamental questions. This was the church of the Ph.D., and I felt like the lone dummy. My leader closed his Bible and gave me his full attention. He had recently graduated from high school and was soon to enter his Ph.D. program, no doubt. Clearly, he must have had the wisdom I sought. I could sense that the wait was over. He would give a concise and profound answer whose pithy truth would end my journey.
"The fact that you are asking these types of questions is probably a good sign," he said as he gathered some papers and glanced at the door.
“Yes, and?” I wanted to say but waited silently for more. He tucked his oversized Bible under his arm and gave me a look that said, are there any other questions? I was still waiting for his wisdom when I realized he had just provided it. His insight was about as useful as wet Kleenex. His answer to the eternal security question was, “Asking these questions is probably a good sign.”
"Oh, OK," I said sheepishly, pretending as if his words were something other than a slap in the face. What a dangling carrot— I might be saved simply because I wanted to know how to be saved. A desire not to go to the lake of fire was a good sign and might mean I won't. That's very reassuring. I was so embarrassed and dissatisfied by the whole thing that I stopped asking that question altogether. I folded it in on itself and buried it deep. It smoldered there, sending up blackened acrid smoke signals in the years that followed.