Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How many times have you said the sinner’s prayer?

I’m up to at least 100 billion times by now.

You don’t believe me. But it’s true.

Because there’s the first time. When I was about 5. This is the only time I ever talk about. So I can understand if you don’t believe me. I can remember kneeling by the couch in our living room. Saying the magic words. And like that, I was “saved.”

Then there was the time my mom took my probably five-year-old brother and me {so I would have been in the neighborhood of 7} to see some super creepy 80’s-style Left Behind-type movie at our church. {The later Kirk Cameron version is cute and cuddly compared to this scary version}. Husband and wife go to bed together. Wife wakes up alone in a world of chaos. Terrible things happen. Finally, the mean men wrestle with her on a cliff, trying to stamp 666 onto her forehead because then it would be too late to be saved. But in her final moment she decides to jump off the cliff into the rocky waters below. {sharp inhale} She committed suicide?! The unpardonable sin. But somehow, choosing to kill herself rather than take the mark of the beast insinuated that she chose salvation in those last moments. But how would I ever know if she was ever really saved? Because it was unpardonable. Maybe she just chose one hell over another. How was I supposed to know? I was just a kid. Doctrine said God didn't pardon suicide. Was there some red tape? Some gray areas? They always made it seem so black and white. So I said the sinner’s prayer again…just to be sure I wouldn’t have to choose between one of those terrible fates.

Oh, and there were the times when religious instruction would berate my conscience. You know, like the verse {maybe it’s not even a verse…maybe they just made it up to scare me} that says something like if you know what’s right and you don’t do it, it’s sin. So that every time I’d pass even a fleck of lint on the floor, I couldn’t walk past it without picking it up for fear that I’d sin. Because I knew that it was right to help mom clean up. She’d pick up the lint. And then, if I sinned… I’d have to remember that sin so that I could ask forgiveness. But what if I forgot? Or what if I sinned and didn't know it was sin so I never asked forgiveness? I always wondered if God honored the catch-all forgiveness prayer. You know like Please forgive me of all my sins! It’s way easier. But then I would go to take Communion and they’d tell me that to take Communion without a pure heart was despicable to Jesus. So I better examine myself carefully before drinking the grape juice. And I couldn’t remember all those times that I sinned. What if I missed one? Would God forgive me for eating the cardboard wafer with some unconfessed sin in my heart? For failing to pick up a piece of lint on the ground because I was just so damn tired of bending over that day? Well, I better say the sinner’s prayer. Just to be sure. They say that covers everything.

And of course, there were all those times I’d wake up scared to death in the middle of a very dark night. I’d hold my breath so that my ears could detect sounds of life outside my bedroom. I couldn’t hear anything. Now my heart would start pounding. The blood pulsing loudly in my ears. The fear was gripping. But, I’d force myself to climb out of bed and tiptoe to my parents’ bedroom so that I could peek in their door and make sure they were still in their bed. Because my parents were surely going to heaven. Thankfully, I had never been left behind. But just in case, I’d say that prayer again as I tiptoed back to bed willing my heart to settle, too afraid and ashamed to admit my fear of being left behind.

Then there were all of those Sundays growing up. I mean every. single. one. The pastor’s face would slowly return to a normal shade of pale as he came to the end of his alliterative sermon. He’d ask us all to bow our heads and close our eyes. No looking around. Then he’d ask if there was anyone who wasn’t sure where they were going to spend eternity. Show by a raise of hands, please. More often than not there would be an intermittent Thank you. Thank you, you may put your hand down. I see your hand. Thank you. Sometimes I would peek. But I was never quick enough to see the brave soul who raised her hand. I would scan the pews for a new face. {Because if your pew had your backside impressed upon it, then you had to be safe}. But they were all familiar. What if no one raised their hand and he just said that to make us question our salvation even more? Or what if there were others like me? Only they were braver. They could raise their hands, admitting insecurity. Did they raise their hands every week? Because I should have. Instead, I’d just repeat the pastor’s prayer each week. He’d even kindly pause in between phrases, allowing me to get it just right. Not missing a word. Resaving myself. 100 billion times.

Meanwhile, I lived in hell.

The fear of eternal hell became my hell on earth. It was torturous. Terrible. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Living hell on earth for the hope of salvation was no life at all. Because while I was so severely afraid of some eternal hell that may or may not even be real, I was living in a current reality of daily hell. Hell was all I knew. In my hell, I hoped that salvation was real. What I didn't know then was that salvation was meant to rescue me from this hell on earth.

Because salvation has always been about here and now. Sure, God will save you no matter when you ask Him. So if you're inclined to live a torturous, fear-filled life on earth in hope of a future eternal salvation, He’s not going to stop you. But He died to save you now. To save you from hell on earth. And to give you the opportunity to live heaven on earth. Because it's real. It's possible. And I've discovered it.

I haven’t said the sinner’s prayer in years. And it feels so good!

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