I don’t remember the day I was saved. Not specifically, anyway. I hear a lot of Christians, especially men, speak proudly and openly about the day of their salvation, and they can name a specific date and sometimes time of day. I can’t do that. But I do remember where, and I sort of remember when.
Twin City Bible Church in Nitro, WV was the church of my childhood. A Baptist church with a decent-sized congregation of people from all demographics, but looking back I remember that most of them were white, upper-middle class and above the age of 40. I went mostly because my grandparents attended, and as I child I followed my Papaw everywhere, including church. But there were some really nice people there who were welcoming and friendly and had a lasting impact on my childhood.
The church was just across the railroad tracks from my grandparents’ house. You could see it from their back porch. I remember that my grandfather was an usher and drove a van for the church. I was thrilled every Sunday morning to get up early with him, sip just a little bit of coffee, walk across the tracks to the church and enter the building before anyone else arrived to collect the van keys. He drove the same route for the first few years, picking up people in Nitro, some whose names and faces I can remember vividly and others I can’t. Most of his passengers fit the aforementioned demographic, but sometimes there were a few kids riding with their parents or grandparents, and my grandpa always had a pocket full of candy ready for the children. I rode shotgun, of course.
Some days my grandpa helped with maintenance of the church building. On these days, I roamed around like an adventurer and discovered every “secret” passageway, stairway, and doorway of the church. In retrospect it wasn’t a huge church (especially before the remodel, which came in my teenage years), but as I child it might as well have been a castle or a temple. I remember Sunday School classes as fun, but I don’t really recall retaining much about the Bible other than the stories all church kids are told (Noah, baby Jesus, David and Goliath, Samson). I didn’t go home and read my Bible and pray like a good little boy. I just really liked going to church with my Papaw, riding the van, seeing my friends, playing games and singing songs, and then going back to Papaw’s to eat a big lunch.
As a teenager, though, I had questions. Lots of them. I heard the sermons and lessons and they were making a bit more sense as I was maturing. I read my Bible, not attempting to read the whole thing or anything but finding verses I had heard about in church. As I read the Bible and heard sermons, learning more about how people are “supposed” to live but seeing that juxtaposed with my first year of junior high and how young people at school were actually living, I was confused. I tried to be a good Christian boy and pray every day, talk to my friends about Jesus, sing songs of praise. But at home and in school my struggles continued to grow (getting bullied, arguing with my mom and stepdad, failing classes). Eventually, I was stuck in a rut, focusing too much on peers who were just complete jerks, but they were more more popular, more attractive, and their parents were still married and had a lot more money than my own parents. How could this be?
At most Baptist churches, including Twin City, there is a program called AWANAs. It stands for Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed. Held every Wednesday night, it combined Bible study time with game time and works kind of like the Boy/Girl Scouts. There were different troops and you completed activities, memorized Bible verses, and received things like badges, pins, and ribbons. As a kid, I enjoyed AWANAs. As a teenager, I rebelled against it. How was memorizing Bible verses going to help me navigate the dangerous and confusing world of junior high?
But mostly, I rebelled against my AWANAs teacher. He was wealthy, had a gorgeous wife, and his son was an athlete. Even when teaching us our Bible lesson, he spoke with a bravado that at the time reminded me of some of those jerk popular kids I had to deal with at school. His son was no different. He barely spoke to me, in fact. His wife was wonderful, though, making sure to greet all of us with a hug and a smile that was genuine and needed. She seemed out of place amongst her husband and son. I learned years later that the two divorced because he had an affair; at the risk of sounding judgemental, it did not come as a surprise to me.
On one Wednesday night, though, when I was about 12 years old, something seemed different about our teacher. He seemed more serious and less arrogant than usual. I remember that the lesson focused on the Bible verse that gave the AWANAs program its name, 2 Timothy 2:15: “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” He talked about how we go through life focused on what the world is doing (the cool kids in school, celebrities on TV and in the movies) instead of what God is doing. We see what the world is doing and we want to be part of it, and we become ashamed of our Christian walk. We get ashamed of our Bible, ashamed to pray, ashamed to go to church because that’s not what the world is doing or because it seems boring compared to all that other stuff. So we walk away from God. (Looking back now, my heart breaks for him because I wonder what he was ashamed of that led him to walk away from God and break his marriage vows).
But, he continued, approved workmen, Christians who had given their hearts to Jesus and were all-in for Jesus should not be ashamed. He quoted Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth…” He continued with an example that seemed right out of my life: stop focusing on the popular kids and focus on Jesus. Then he shared the story of Peter and how he saw Jesus walking on the water and wanted to join him. Jesus said “Come” and Peter was okay until he took his eyes off Jesus and focused on the waves; then he fell in. Our teacher said that some of us were drowning (again, my heart hurts for him; was he drowning even then and we didn’t know it?) either because our eyes were off Jesus and were instead focused on the world or they had never seen Jesus at all. “Turn your eyes back to Jesus,” I remember him saying. “Come back to Jesus.”
I was only 12, but there was something familiar and powerful in that message, which wasn’t typical to his lessons. Even at 12, I remember thinking He’s not the one talking to me right now. At the end of the lesson, as is typical, our teacher asked for anyone who wanted to pray or be prayed for to come to the front of the room. On most days, I hated that idea. But today, a voice in my head said Go and I didn’t even hesitate. I went down front where his wife was waiting, stood next to her and started crying. I did my best to blubber out that I was having problems at school and at home and I didn’t think I really knew who Jesus was or what he wanted from me, that I had read the Bible and I knew “about” Jesus, but I didn’t think I really knew Him and I wanted to know more. Some other kids came down and met with other adults who sat with them, as well. She asked me some questions about what I knew and what I believed, then talked to me about Jesus’ death and what that means for us as believers. I knew the story, but I had never thought about what it mean to me and how it impacted me. I prayed that day that Jesus would change my life and my heart to follow Him forever, that I would keep my eyes fixed on Him (easier said than done, but I meant it that day). When I finished praying, she stood me up and gave me a hug.
But when I turned around and saw my AWANAs classmates looking at me, I felt the shame creeping back in. I really wish I could say I didn’t, but I did. But I closed my eyes and tried to picture Jesus (back then, my images of Jesus were also mostly white) standing on the water, his hand stretched out to me, saying “Come.” I opened my eyes and looked down at the floor. Our teacher made a speech about how proud he was of all of us for coming forward (there were about five of us), and then he prayed that God would mold our hearts as a potter molds clay and that we would no longer be ashamed to live for Jesus.
The following Sunday, I was baptized. My mom came to church (unusual for her at that point in her life) and the congregation clapped when I was pulled out of the water. I tried to see if I felt different somehow, like cleaner or more pure. Honestly, at that point I just felt wet. And once I dried off and changed clothes, I remember thinking I have school tomorrow. But that night I did take out my Bible and work on memorizing some of the Bible verses we were given at AWANAs. And I prayed. I prayed for courage, that Jesus would follow me to school and walk with me all day. I prayed as often as I remembered, read my Bible when I remembered, and tried to be good to people even when they weren’t so good to me.
That’s what I remember about my salvation, at least the ritual “church” salvation. Honestly, I don’t think this is when I really gave my life and heart to Jesus. It was just the day I decided to believe that Jesus was who He said he was, son of God, God-in-the-flesh, and the only way to Heaven. But it wasn’t until college that I really decided to take His hand and walk out onto the water.
More on that later.