JUST AS I AM
I was probably around ten years old at the time. I was with my grandmother attending a “revival” at her local church. I’m not sure why I was the only one with her that night or how I ended up agreeing to go to this particular service, but there I was sitting on a wooden pew in the middle of an old Southern Baptist church listening to some preacher I’d never seen or heard before in my life.
A “revival” was typically a multi-night event stretched out over the middle of the week. Sometimes they only went on for a few nights, but they could stretch out over an entire week and end up with the visiting preacher speaking on Sunday morning so he could take up an additional “special offering.” They’re similar to the kind of old-timey “tent meetings” you see in movies, but the ones that happened at my grandma’s church always happened inside the church building.
The idea behind a revival was to get everybody “saved.” Grandma’s church would have revivals at least two or three times a year. Church members were expected to invite their unsaved family and friends to come and listen and, hopefully, to get them saved in the process. Nobody really wants their family and friends to burn in hell. Not most of them anyway. So most church members felt obligated and were expected to invite as many people as they could. It was also a good idea to go to these revivals yourself, even if you were already saved, so you could get a spiritual “tune-up” of sorts. Even the best of us can backslide if we’re not careful and since we could die in our sleep or Jesus could come back at any time, you didn’t want to take any chances.
I was already “saved” at the time and had even been baptized a year or two before. I remember my sister and I got baptized at the same time. We had asked the pastor if we could swim out to the middle of the church baptismal since we had just finished taking swimming lessons at the pool the summer before. He smiled at our offer but wouldn’t let us show off our newly-acquired skills in front of the congregation. It was disappointing, but we still had fun getting wet. All that to say, I was already good in terms of needing to get “saved” and had only come to the revival to be with grandma. I wasn’t really all that interested in what was being said since most of what the preacher was talking about didn’t really apply to me. Once you get saved you can usually take it easy when it comes to worrying about whether you’re going to hell or not.
As I sat beside my grandma, I remember being thankful that the longer-than-normal church service would soon be over. Revival sermons are always just a little bit longer than normal sermons and this one was no different. Sometimes salvation takes a while I guess. But after a couple of hours of listening to the good news, just about everybody is either ready to get saved or to go home and get something to eat regardless of how good the good news is. And like just about everybody else sitting there that night, I was starting to get hungry.
The preacher had pretty much wrapped up his message and was transitioning into the altar call, which is something I had already seen and heard dozens of times before. I knew this because the organist started playing the hymn, “Just As I Am” softly in the background. If you’ve ever attended a Southern Baptist church you probably already know that “Just As I Am” is kind of like the national anthem for Southern Baptists. Only in reverse. It comes at the end of the meeting instead of at the beginning.
“Just As I Am” is a hauntingly beautiful hymn that was sung at the end of almost every church service I had ever attended at grandma’s church and it is still one of my favorite hymns of all time. The way it usually works is that several “rounds” of the hymn are sung so that there is enough time for the words and music to have their effect on any sinners who might be trying to resist getting saved. There are usually at least three or four rounds of the hymn, but I’ve seen some preachers keep it going up to five rounds or more before somebody eventually repents and gets saved or the preacher finally gives up and closes down the service.
Sometimes the preacher will have everybody close their eyes and then ask for anybody who wants to get saved to raise their hand while nobody else is looking. This tactic will supposedly allow you to get into heaven without the embarrassment of anybody else in the church knowing about it. But it’s kind of a trick, because if you do happen to raise your hand, the preacher is going to call you out after and ask you to come down to the front of the church to make a “public confession of faith” in front of the entire congregation. You don’t know this at first, of course, but that’s one of the ways they get people into the fold who may be feeling a little shy or too embarrassed to make a scene in front of everybody.
The whole “with-every-head-bowed-and-every-eye-closed” routine has tricked more than a couple of sinners who were reluctant to get saved in public. The catch is that once you’ve raised your hand, you’re on the hook for the whole thing. You know the preacher saw you and then later when he asks “anyone who raised their hand” to come down front, there’s no backing down. Sometimes he will even let you and other people know when he first sees you raise your hand by yelling out, “I see that hand.” I tried to peek and look around one time but was afraid I’d get caught so I just kept my eyes closed most of the time. You learn pretty quick that you don’t raise your hand unless you’re ready to go all in.
As I sat there listening to the words and melody of the hymn, I was a little surprised when all of a sudden something inside me started to shift. To be honest, I am still not sure what happened. I was already saved. I had already accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior and I wasn’t feeling like I was in any immediate danger of burning in hell since my eternal life and fire insurance policy with Jesus had already been paid in full when I signed on the proverbial dotted line a couple of years before.
But as I sat there listening to the hymn, something deep inside my heart began to ache. It was literally a physical pain that started pounding inside my chest. Tears began stinging my eyes as a longing I had never experienced before suddenly exploded inside of me and shot throughout my entire body. My skin started tingling as if some kind of electricity or vibrating energy was sizzling inside my veins. I tried to push down the rising emotion, but it was becoming increasingly difficult, impossible actually, to hold back the feelings that continued to expand and threatened to overwhelm me. As the choir and congregation continued to sing the words of the hymn, the preacher stood at the front of the altar inviting any sinners to come forward, repent of their sins and accept the love and mercy of God by inviting Jesus into their hearts and making him Lord and Savior of their lives.
But I had done all that already. I was saved. I already knew Jesus and had invited him into my heart and made him Lord and Savior of my life and had even been baptized, for Christ’s sake. I wasn’t sure what else I was supposed to do. But I couldn’t just sit there. I hadn’t done anything particularly wrong and wasn’t feeling guilty about anything that I needed to repent for. At least not for anything that I was aware of. But I had to do something. It was impossible to sit there and do nothing. My heart was pounding inside my chest and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. “What is happening to me,” I wondered silently to myself, trying desperately to calm down and not let grandma see what was happening to me. I didn’t want to get up in front of all these people and embarrass myself. I was terrified. But I felt that I was supposed to go. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew deep down inside that if I didn’t go up there … and go up there now… I was somehow disobeying God. So without warning I jumped up out of my seat and rushed down the center aisle of the church toward the preacher.
The preacher was obviously pleased when he saw me walking to the front of the church. He was an older gentleman wearing the typical suit and tie that most preachers were expected to wear. His grayish-white hair was short and slicked straight back on his head. His forehead took up the majority of his face and his toothy smile was just a little too big and forced to seem real. By the time I reached the altar my face was a snotty mess from the deep sobs that had finally exploded to the surface leaving a trail of slimy goo smeared across both cheeks. The preacher put his hand on my shoulder and leaned forward to talk to me.
“Do you want to accept Jesus as your Savior?” he asked expectantly.
“No sir,” I sobbed. “I already did that.”
“Oh. … Do you want to get baptized then?” the preacher asked curiously.
“No sir,” I blubbered, trying to wipe away the river of snot that was now oozing out of my nose onto my upper lip. “I already did that, too.”
“Okay. So why did you come up here then?” the preacher asked, visibly disappointed that I wasn’t going to count as a legitimate convert for his revival numbers.
“I’m not sure,” I said looking down at my feet. “I just … I just …”
My words trailed off and spilled silently onto the floor where I was staring. I really didn’t know why I had come down the aisle to the front. I could still feel the pounding pressure inside my chest and the tingling buzz dancing under my skin. I could also sense a profound longing for something that seemed to be searching for me as desperately as I was searching for it. But I had no idea what that something was. I could sense that it was close, but I couldn’t find it. I already had what I was supposed to be longing for. At least that’s what I had been told and what I believed. Since I was already saved and had been baptized, I was pretty much done and there wasn’t much else to do.
“Maybe you should go sit back down,” the preacher said straightening up and taking a small step backward. He smiled weakly and stepped away, giving me a gentle nudge toward the pew where I had been sitting.
Whatever longing, tingling or subtle hopes for a spiritual encounter which I may have had when I walked up to the altar suddenly disappeared and was instantly replaced with a sinking stab of regret and embarrassment. Hoping to avoid the curious looks from members of the congregation, I slid quietly down the center aisle back to the pew where my grandmother was sitting. She didn’t say anything, but tears were running down her cheeks as she smiled and scooched over slightly so I could sit down beside her. Just thinking about her now brings tears to my eyes. What a sweet and amazing woman she was.
It’s been over 50 years since I attended that revival with my grandma. I may have sat through a few more since, but none that really stood out or had any kind of similar effect on me. It is conceivable that this experience was the catalyst, or at least near the beginning, of my distrust of spiritual authority and my suspicion that there is a lot more to experiencing spiritual reality than just getting “saved,” baptized or becoming a respectable member of a religious community. I’m sure it contributed, at least to some extent, to my distaste for “church,” organized religion as a whole and any kind of inflexible definition of what it means to encounter God.
But as I think about this experience, I keep coming back to the title of the hymn, “Just As I Am.” That’s really the key for me. I can only come to the light being who I am. I don’t think it really matters what name you use for this light as long as it doesn’t totally freak you out and make you want to run away screaming, whether it’s God, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, the Universe, Cosmic Energy, Divinity, Source, Baba, the Big Guy or Fred. But you can only come being whoever and whatever you are. You don’t have to change. You don’t have to get your shit together first. You don’t have to get all holy and put on a suit and tie or a fancy dress. (Although I’ve been told I look absolutely fabulous in a fancy dress.) You just come. Just as you are. Without making excuses. Without making apologies. Just being you. And that’s when the real magic happens.
Because the truth is that whatever or whoever is behind this insatiable longing and is inviting us to “come,” it is really, really, REALLY good. Good in the truest sense of everything that goodness can be. And He/She/It/They really, really, REALLY love us. In the truest, best, most noble and most real sense of what LOVE is and can be. And believing this, I am willing to come just as I am. With all my shit and all my failures and all my hopes and all my pain. I come. And I surrender to goodness and to love and to mercy. And the amazing thing is that I’m healed in the process. At least a little bit.
So I keep coming back. Just as I am. Trusting in God’s faithfulness more than my own. My “walk” with Divinity has always resembled more of a drunken stagger than what most of my Christian family and friends are comfortable with. But I’m not really that worried about it. Stumble as I may, the cosmic game of hide and seek that seems to be happening continues to intrigue and delight me. The occasional glimpses of light that flash and suddenly disappear into shadows keep me searching. And the muffled giggles and shrieks of delight echoing in the background remind me that joy is a big part of all this. He still kisses me sometimes when I sleep. And each morning, I keep coming back to him. Just as I am.