I have a weakness for altar calls. I hear that call and the pastor wanting to make sure all gathered are sure that they would I indeed enjoy the glory of paradise if they left there that night, walked outside and was struck by a bus. I need to be sure. I need that washed in the Blood certainty that I will escape the fires of hell if I was to be struck by that bus.
Even today I get all itchy and sweat when I hear an altar call. I no longer believe in hell and on most days I am not too sure about heaven but I still sweat. I get uncomfortable and wonder, “Is this the time when God sticks with me?”
I have spent almost ten years in the reformed tradition. This October will be ten years since I joined the Presbyterian Church (USA). In those past ten years I have chased truths that would set me free from the guilt, damnation, and judgment of my evangelical, fundamentalist God.
I have spent countless nights begging, pleading, and bargaining with God to love me or to deliver good things in to my life. I begged for mercy in the form of God preventing bad things from happening to me. I have spent ten years fighting that itchy feeling I get when I hear that call to the mantel of Heaven, the call of saving grace in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior.
I am fixated on the idea of saving grace and God preventing harm to befall me. In fact my faith is centered around the idea that “if God is pleased with me that good things will follow.” Right? How many of us hold on to this in the shadows of liberal, mainline reformed theology?
I know that in the back of my mind is the thought, “What if I am wrong and that altar calling preacher is right? What if all the progressive rigamaru that I have discovered, taught, and preached is in fact, false. What if the calls of me being apostate and heretical are true?”
If all of these accusations are right and I was brought up on charges of being a Christians in the court of law there would not be enough evidence to convict me. I would be banished to the hell I deny and that saving grace I hunger for would be at arms length for eternity. I would be drowning in a sea of sorrow and gnash my teeth with all the other sinners basking out of sight from God grand eternal glory with echoes of the eternal chorus touching our ears but not our hearts.
The self-righteous banter of “I’d rather spend an eternity in hell with the idea of a loving God than worship a spiteful vengeful God of narrow righteousness and exclusion of some many I hold dear” bringing me no comfort. Death where is thy sting? Where is thy victory?
That altar call beckons me to examine the principles of my heart. Who am I? What do I say Jesus is? Where do I invest my life? My strength? My will? Who do I wrestle and to what end? Sitting there sweating I wonder alone in my thoughts. It is ultimately me that must answer to God for the hash mark between my birth and death. I do not get to carry with me the student loan debt, the love for my wife, the admiration of friends and colleagues. I cannot depart with my liberal glibness or my self-satisfaction of doing the right thing or do I?
I remember when I was in my early 20’s and that altar call went out and those gathered were called to search there hearts and call on God to save them we would bow our heads. We would pray with a fever and passion like no other. We would call on the Spirit to bath us in Gods glory and heal the sin-sick soul.
Our eyes closed and heads bowed we would beg, barter, and plead with God to deliver us to wealth, health, and Gods grand glory. Tears would fill our eyes. Weeping and gnashing of teeth would fill that converted bowling alley sanctuary. The sweet, sweet language of God would fill the air and the pastor would direct us in concert. Calls to be sure you were right with God would be made. We would be invited to stand, to come to the front of the sanctuary to receive Gods grace, Gods forgiveness.
On some occasions a stampede would come to the front and beg, barter, and plead with God for whatever ails the heart and soul. This could last an hour or so sometimes. Especially, if there were a lot of people coming to the mercy seat. Sometimes it took multiple calls. The pastor would smoke out the damned among us with repeated calls and blessed assurances. The guilt would rack the hearts of a few and they would come up to receive that grace covered in sweat and tears.
Then there were the moments in which the stampede did not arrive. The guilt and smoke tactics did not produce the faithful. Then the pastor would invite us to raise our hands from our seats to receive Gods grace. This was Christian boy’s goldmine!
I would sit in the back of the sanctuary. I liked to be able to escape and I loved to people watch during church. It also allowed me to not have the shouting of tongues vomited in to my ears from right behind me. When the call to raise our hands to receive that loving feeling I perked up and would raise my hands in praise eagles and sort of close, squint my eyes and survey the sinful landscape.
I would look out on the gathered to see would was sinning. I would wonder what their sin was and if they we remorseful. Perhaps, if their sin was good enough they might share that sin with me. It was a savage form of window-shopping. I would hope to not see that woman I had my eye on raise her hand. Dare she sully her prize that she might offer me one day.
I filled in the blanks of others need and woes in Christ with my distorted needs and malignances. I transferred my dysfunction upon them and their faith. I saw a hand raised I forgot about my woes and I praised God in body as I judged them in heart.
It was a dangerous game to play. Ten years of reformed theology and a communal heart have distanced me from this game on most days. On the other days I doubt myself and this progressive, love-borne faith I now hold. What if I am wrong? What if the righteous bent, holy, holies are right.? What if I am indeed going to suffer an eternal damnation for the sin of teaching an all-loving, grace filled, and mercy abundant Jesus Christ that does not exclude these gifts from anyone and shall not withhold peace from this war torn, hate filled world. Eternal hell fire is enough to instill doubt, even if it is fleeting, in to the heart of the most ardent of progressive, Bible thumpers.
This is why I have a weakness, still, for altar calls. I still stir inside wondering if I’ll be ok if that faithful bus shall come calling. I still ponder how I might “get right” with the Lord. I still pray every night that “if I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
I am not certain that there is a heaven or a hell. I imagine that if there is a heaven whatever I fill its understanding with here on earth will pale in comparison. If there is a hell I imagine the same shall apply. I cannot waste energy and time worrying about either. If I am predestined to enter heaven than I can do nothing to change that. If I am fixin to go to hell, as so many folks in my past have claimed, then I can do nothing to sort that one out either.
In the end my weakness for altar calls is hope. It is my hope that my life is indeed pleasing to God. It is my hope that I leave this earth having done more good than bad and that whatever follows this existence will be at least as good as this one has been.
I answer the altar call wither it is in tears, crawling towards the chancel and that sweaty, red-faced preacher beckoning us to “prepare for that bus” or it is silently doubting in those pews that God exists at all. I answer that altar call when I break bread with the Other. I answer that call when I listen to your story. My weakness is not the altar call as much as my weakness is you.