We were Methodist the way some are Cubs or Packers fans. By the age of ten I could retell all of the stories of the great ones: John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke. And I could explain the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to any passerby before I had my ears pierced or could stay home without adult supervision. I even recall writing in my diary once that when I grew up I’d name all my children after Susanna Wesley’s offspring. And to this day, my heart is strangely warmed every time I hear the hymn “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”.
I was so absorbed in our pot-lucking, summer-revivaling Methodism it didn’t occur to me that there were good people in the world who were not Methodists. I’d heard that there were people who did not believe in Jesus, or any God for that matter, but from what I could tell they all belonged to tribes out in the furthest reaches of Africa and had never even heard the Gospel message. For that they couldn’t be blamed! And I figured it was only a matter of time before the missionaries arrived and told them all about Christ. Then they too would be Methodists.
In second grade there was a boy at school who I noticed only ever wore blue jeans, even in the sweltering Texas heat. I found this very curious. I remember sitting on the sidelines of my brother’s soccer game with my friend, Mary Ellen. We were sucking on orange slices and watching the boys sprint up and down the field when the boy ran by in his thick jeans, his brown, stringy hair in wet chords that stuck to his face.
“Why does that boy only ever wear pants?” I asked. There was a Texan twang in my voice then. It grows thinner with every year I’m away.
“It’s because of his religion.” She said. “He can’t wear nothin’ else.”
I accepted this for what it was and figured he must be a Baptist simply because I had just noticed a Baptist church down the road and it was the only other church I’d seen in town besides the Methodist.
As I grew older, I weaved my way through the vast diversity of Christian traditions. There are not many that I did not try on for size. I’d say I never came in contact with snake handlers, but truth be told had I stuck around long enough with a couple of groups I would not have been surprised had they brought out a bag of snakes towards the end of the service. But it is within the Methodist church that I first encountered Christ.
The earliest incident I can remember occurred one late Sunday afternoon as I was walking through the church with my father. He was going about the place making certain the doors to the Sunday school rooms were shut and that the Bibles were put back in place. It took a while, but we eventually came to the sanctuary. My father went up to the pulpit and began digging around for something. I don’t remember what. I crawled under the pews. I often liked to pretend I was a spy and under the pews I was crawling through dark underground tunnels towards an uncertain freedom.
Now you must remember that children are more adept than adults at feeling the mysteriousness of a sacred space. Stained glass windows and lofty ceilings were meant to draw our eyes heavenward, and they do so quite naturally for a child. An empty sanctuary filled with such wonder and awe can be a terribly frightening place.
At some point, I looked up and my father was gone. The sanctuary was so big and empty and filled with the Holy Ghost that I panicked and started to cry. A moment later I looked up in the top right corner of the balcony and saw a bright glow. It was most likely the warm, afternoon sun coming through the windows (it really doesn’t matter what it was), but with the eyes of a child I thought it was a flame and I took it to be Jesus. I felt immediately He was there watching over me, caring for me. I knew I was safe, and as long as He was there nothing could harm me. I stopped crying and sat down to wait…for my father to realize he’d left me alone in the church sanctuary (Yes, Dad. I’m still a little bitter about this one).
I often forget this memory, but it has the habit of reappearing at times when I am in the depths of despair. It comes to mind and I am then gently reminded that I am not alone, that I am cared for, and that as long as I remain in His presence nothing can truly harm me.