Close to Home:
Looking back, I am sure it had more to do with grammar than with an overall lack of interest and believability, but at the time I was perplexed about how in the world one could manage to receive a “just average” C grade on their written testimony. I was eighteen-years-old, a freshman in a conservative Bible college and the assignment had seemed odd to me from the start. Within seven to ten pages we were to document the details of our personal conversion, to narrate the story of our salvation. Not being a recovering drug addict, formally promiscuous or atheistic, I was clearly at a disadvantage from the start. It would be tricky, I knew, to contrive some sort of compelling chronicle out of, “Once when I was four, I invited Jesus into my heart. The end.” The truth of the matter was, I had no “before” and “after” just a perpetually seamless habit of belief. So I went on and on about countless rededications at Church camp and emotionally charged altar calls. I did my best to convince myself, and the intimidating professor who would evaluate my ability to articulate just when exactly I had crossed that line from “hell- bound” into “saved,” that I was chosen by God for eternal security, for guaranteed citizenship in His Kingdom.
By the time I was my kids’ age I was convicted most wholeheartedly that the process of my salvation was complete. Parents looked on adoringly as my fellow Sunday school classmates and I recited with the stutters and stammers our scriptural promise:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.: John 3:16
Our roles now were that of “evangelizers,” telling others how to obtain what we, the believers, had already secured: a “get out of hell free” pass thanks to the sacrificial mercy of God and His only son. “My sins were pardoned and yours can be too, just repeat this simple prayer after me.” One’s testimony, I learned, became paramount, a most vital tool for witnessing. It stunk that mine was lame and poorly drafted. The dirty little secret that I carried into adulthood was that I had never lead someone to Christ. I used to feel a lot of pressure to, upon every new introduction at school, at work, and at play. I could hardly absorb what a lost sinner was saying, so utterly and devotedly one tracked was my mind. How could I coolly, blithely, slip in a compelling reference to my savior? At first I was just nervous, eventually I became embarrassed, and finally I lost a taste for it completely. During that last phase a girl at the park struck up a conversation with me. Five minutes into it she pulled out this technique:
“If you died tonight, are you positive you’d go to Heaven?”
Good grief, was I? I felt sick to my stomach, turned off by the notion that she had approached me on a mission, just as I had unskillfully zeroed in upon others to fulfill my own Christian duty. What does one do when they are aching for more of Christ, yet their soul has been saved for good and now all they feel that is left is to procure the most relevant and effective means for outreach? What if you suspected that your “once saved, always saved” confidence was keeping you at arms length from the fullness of His presence?
Every once in awhile it will suddenly strike me as significant that my children are quite clueless about pinpointed conversions. Their ignorance of what once defined my faith is very telling. I traveled centuries back in time to find the richness I’d hoped existed; I traded certainty for awe and perseverance. Salvation became as beginningless as God, Himself, as endless as infinity, as unlimited as His glory and as unknowable as the firmament; I went from being finished to starting over.
If I did have a chance to redeem myself, to re-write my paper only this time using spell check and a totally revamped definition of what exactly it means to be saved, according to the ancient Traditions of my current home, the Orthodox Christian Church, I believe it would go something like this:
I was originally saved over two thousand years ago when God the Son took on human flesh and offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for all of mankind, defeating the power of sin by suffering on the Cross and destroying death through His miraculous Resurrection. I am being saved daily through my intentional decisions to follow Jesus’ example within each situation that I find myself, viewing paradise not as just a someday destination but as the everyday experience of self-denial, of being filled, through the Eucharist, obedience, and love for others, with Christ.
I will, (Lord have mercy), be saved at the Great and final Judgment when I give an account for a lifetime of actions, when it becomes clear whether or not I cooperated with the grace so generously bestowed upon me. Who of us, having been blessed beyond all comprehension, should feel the need to insure that regardless of our choices a reward will be ours free and clear? Who of us dare to sit idle with our assurances, interpreting the conditions of the Bridegroom’s invitation while our lamps for illumining the darkness run out of oil?
My individual salvation is being worked out with fear and trembling through the unique responsibilities God deemed best to set before me. Based upon the model of the publican who beat his breast and begged for leniency, I am careful to not assume I have a handle on the spiritual state of others. I would do best, rather, to stay focused on my own flagrant shortcomings, reverencing both friends and enemies, all of whom were created in God’s image, as living icons of Christ Jesus. I share my faith, yes, but not out of obligation; a soul that’s found its meaning cannot help but be a witness to such joy. My ongoing testimony is presented through acts of service, in accordance with Christ’s commandment to love God by loving your neighbor. I pray ceaselessly for the courage to fight the good fight, staying faithful until my very last breath upon this earth.
I’m not sure how I’d fare with that version. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea to have to allow for a bit of mystery within theology. But since my transcripts won’t be affected I’ll go ahead and bend the rules, bucking a neat and tidy ending for the vigorous endorsement of a “get your hands dirty” type of absolute participation in the sacramental plan God compassionately engineered to continuously draw us closer to Himself throughout eternity.
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