I remember the smell of the sanctuary. It was a sort of musky, wooden smell. It was the sort of smell you’d find in antique shops, lurking around the ancient wooden chairs and threadbare curtains.
I remember the v-arched ceiling rising to the heavens and the pews lined up in attention towards the center. Every kid in the First Nazarene VBS was in the room, watching the puppet show. They were watching as the puppets worked out moral plays to teach us important lessons from the Bible.
After the puppets were put away, my attention immediately wandered. I was practically falling out of the seat. Then, a balding man with a soft voice came up on stage. He held in his had a sort of play “contract”. It was made out of red construction paper. There was black marker on it that said “YOUR SOUL.”
The balding man said, “Kids, this piece of paper is a contract for your soul. Does anyone know what a soul is?”
All the kids started to chime in at once “It’s your spirit!” “Your life!” “Your heart!”
The balding man said, “Close! It’s actually the inner part of you that keeps going on and on forever, even after you die.” He then furrowed his brow and said, “Kids, did you know you’re going to die someday?”
Vicki shouted out with a bit of a stutter in her five-year old voice, “Uh…my gwamma died wast year! My mom said she went to heaven.”
The balding man perked up, seeing that this would further his object lesson and said, “And before she died, did your grandma give her life to Christ?”
Vicki shouted enthusiastically, “Yes!”
“Excellent! That definitely means she is in heaven with Jesus!”
Vicki was happy as a clam. I was picking pebbles out of the bottom of my tennis shoes out of boredom.
“You see kids,” the balding evangelist began, “this deed to your soul once belonged only to God. And God took very good care of it, because He made it Himself! But then Adam and Eve ate of the bad fruit from the tree God told them to stay away from. They disobeyed God. And then this here deed became the property of Satan. “
Baldy continued, “That means, your soul belonged to Satan. And God made a deal with His People, the Jews, that if they kept His laws, sacrifices and commandments, they’d be with Him forever. The problem is, they couldn’t keep the law. The Bible said NONE of us can! So, He sent Jesus to be the perfect lawkeeper and the perfect sacrifice.”
Still bored, I had now slithered down in my seat until no one could see me, still careful to keep my legs on the seat while my head, arms and shoulders dangling off the edge.
I was looking up at the white, expansive ceiling when Mrs. Fowler tapped my leg furiously. I looked at her scowling face with a dumbfounded confusion as she mouthed the words “Sit up!” I sat up and breathed a giant sigh of exasperation.
“…now we’re able to go to heaven with God, instead of to hell. Kids, the most important decision you will ever make is right now. Will you join God in His heavenly kingdom, or will you choose the pain of fire in hell? I know I don’t want you to go to hell. So, now…right now…you must choose to follow Him,” his voice started to rise as he pointed furiously upward, then he crescendoed, pointing downward in a power motion, as he declared, “or face eternal suffering with Satan and his demons!” Billy Sunday would have been proud.
He quieted down to a pregnant pause. Mrs. Fowler took her place at the organ to the right of the stage and started playing “Oh What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. All I could think was “Is hell any worse than this? I want to go outside and play with those beautiful, colorful, squishy water balloons waiting outside. One of them is just waiting for me to throw it at Vicki’s puffy face…”
“COME! COME, KIDS! COME TO THE FRONT!”, Baldy cried. “Jesus is waiting for you at the altar! Eternal life! Heaven! Come down!”
A force suddenly came over me and my body trembled. It started in my fingers and toes. I felt something in my head telling me to go, but it had nothing to do with heaven or a fear of flames licking my heels for all eternity. It was something bigger. It felt like a hand had wrapped around my heart and squeezed it.
Other children started to get up out of the pews and ran to the front. One girl was weeping profusely, like her favorite Barbie had been burned in a fire. I watched with a blank expression as they started to kneel before the altar, clasp their hands together and whisper prayers. Some were the faint prayers of a first grader, pleading for his/her life. “Father God, Jesus…I am so, so sorry…” I remember little Vicki was praying rather louder than the rest because she was freaking out. “I don’t wanna go to hell, God! I don’t wanna go to hell!”
I slowly got up out of my pew and started to walk to the front. The trembling continued but now it had reached my eyes. I didn’t cry, but I felt things glaze over, like the world was saturated in color and the light was flaring bright.
I reached the altar, knelt down, clasped my hands and prayed. As I prayed, a familiar, rough hand grabbed my shoulder. I knew exactly which big, callused hand it was without even having to look up from the altar.
Starting a rough prayer, I whispered, “Jesus, I don’t know what I’m doing. Can you just forgive me and teach me how to be good?”
I was probably only sitting there staring at the black space in the cave of my hands for about five minutes, but it felt like eternity.
When I got up, I saw my grandfather’s weathered face looking back at me. We embraced with the smell of Brut and wood chips filling my nostrils.
I felt like there was something different in me after that. It felt like sailing on an endless sea under a blue sky and a light breeze on the face. It felt like home.