Saved: Longing, Belonging, and Fear of Hell

Today I am taking a break from The Eyes of a Child series to participate in a Synchroblog with Addie Zierman whose memoir released today (the first time I have ever bought a book on release day!). I discovered Addie’s blog earlier this summer and then read through the whole thing in a matter of days. Finally I had found someone I could relate to–someone who had experienced so much of the same Christian culture I had experienced, someone who had burned out and had to start over. I am writing my story in parts. As I have been thinking about it over the last weeks, I realize that I can’t do it justice in a short post. I hope you enjoy. After this, we will resume The Eyes of a Child.

Oh, and if you haven’t heard of this book, head over to Addie’s blog and then order the book! I am having a hard time putting it down even to finish this post! 

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All of a sudden, cars are pulling into our usually quiet apartment parking lot. I walk to the window, initially concerned. But my concern turns to nostalgia as I watch from my kitchen window while teenage girls climb out of cars. I know why they are here. It is Wednesday night, and for years of my life, I either attended or led a high school small group on Wednesday nights at 7:00. Those Wednesday night small groups run deep, as much a part of me as my blood.

But this story starts earlier–in a third grade Sunday School classroom at a big stone church.

The light filters through frosted glass windows and plays on the cool, white stone blocks that form the wall. The fluorescent lights are on, and we are sitting in rows of wooden chairs while a woman plays the piano.

She has a big easel set up with a giant pad of paper. She uses this to turn to the songs we are going to sing. Many of these she has written herself; others are found in giant books with pictures of smiling children on the front. We began singing “The Countdown Song.”

10 and 9, 8 and 7, 6 and 5 and 4. Call upon the Savior while you may…

While you may. I knew enough of theology to realize that meant that one day I would not have a chance.

3 and 2 coming through the clouds in bright array; the countdown’s getting lower every day. 

One day I would die. And if I did not have salvation, I was going to Hell. I felt cold and shaky all of a sudden.

A few weeks prior, I had gone to Wednesday night clubs at the church. My class seemed to know each other from birth–to be part of an elusive club, but my family was somewhat new to this whole church thing. One evening, our teachers had us write an acrostic for the word “saved.” While two girls vied for the attention of the cutest boy in the class, I diligently sat and began to fill our my acrostic. “S–Sister.” Perfect! I could use words that described my sister, Emily. “A–Amazing, V–Very.”

At some point, I was interrupted. The other kids had figured out that they were supposed to write words that had to do with their salvation. I didn’t know what that meant; I had never heard the word “saved” in this context. I felt awkward and ashamed when the teacher told me I was doing it wrong–that I was supposed to use words describing salvation. How could a shy third grader tell him that she didn’t even know what that word meant?

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All dressed up with my little sister for a Christmas pageant.

So weeks later, as we sang “The Countdown Song,” fear gripped me. After Sunday School class, I lingered, clutching the little Precious Moments purse/Bible my grandmother gave me. I went up to my teachers and asked, “Can you save me?”

I remember how they both sat down and looked at me gently. “We can’t save you,” one said, “but Jesus can. Do you want us to pray with you?”

I did. They prayed, and I went home elated. I was safe–saved! I went home and called my grandmother. “Guess what? I got saved!”

I did not radically change my life that day. This lack of change made me later question my salvation. In addition, I still did not put together that only Jesus could save me, and I didn’t connect that I had been saved from the Hell I feared so much.

I kept going to church without complaint. I didn’t know the lingo–that much was obvious from the beginning. I didn’t go to the small Christian school that most of the kids attended. My parents were not consistent church-goers, and we were out of town at our farm and the nearby Baptist church a lot. I hadn’t been baptized. Maybe I couldn’t belong to this group. But I was a fairly happy third grader and then fourth grader. So I kept going and kept wondering.

*******

In fifth grade, our Sunday school teacher was an older woman. She pushed us to take our faith seriously. She encouraged us to take notes during the sermon instead of thinking about our week. I was good at this stuff. I memorized verses. I knew how to find any book of the Bible by singing the song we had learned during Bible Bowl (which the boys won, as usual). People started to notice me and choose me for activities in Sunday school and on Wednesday nights. I began to feel included.

Around this time, I remember two girls talking to my sister and explaining that people were really bad who were not baptized as infants. And again, I realized that I wasn’t part of this club. And would I even go to Heaven?

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As a fifth grader with my best friend from kindergarten (who did not go to my church). I wore that purple velour shirt to many a church activity!

*******

Not too much later in the small, country Baptist church we attended occasionally, there was an altar call. A woman played “Just as I Am” over and over on the piano and a deep-voiced man led the congregation to know which verses to re-sing.

“And that Thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come. I come.”

Fear gripped me again as I wondered if I had truly found salvation. Then the pastor said, “If you are really saved, you will share it with everyone.” I certainly wasn’t doing that. I wasn’t even sure my family knew. With shaky knees, I walked to the front in front of family and friends. A deacon prayed with me. I watched other people come and go. I felt joy and relief.

I knew that to make my salvation real, I would have to share it. So I went back and told my fifth grade Sunday School teacher, “I got saved.”

“I thought you were already saved,” she said.

“No, I don’t think I was.”

But I still couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing. I went to church. I played handbells. I sang in the choir. I did my devotions in my purple Bible with Jonah and the whale on the front (and even protected that Bible with a navy cover when covers were in fashion). I earned stickers. I called my prayer partner even though I didn’t like her and wrote her requests in my little red spiral-bound notebook. And I prayed for her.

I had heard that I was a sinner, and somewhere along the way, I had either heard or interpreted that I sinned every second of every day. I went through the Ten Commandments, praying for my sin to be revealed in each of them, but I couldn’t see it (especially in the seventh, which was still an utter mystery to me). I wanted to reconcile these competing ideas–that God loved me and I was his child but that I was a terrible, terrible sinner deserving Hell.

To me salvation was still mystical and complex–I had understood none of it simply. But this much I knew: it had to do with getting rid of fear. With belonging.

Part 2 will follow tomorrow 

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12 thoughts on “Saved: Longing, Belonging, and Fear of Hell

  1. The Countdown Song! Oh my goodness, I feel a little better knowing that I was not the only child who bore emotional scars from that song.

    I am loving all the stories linked from Addie’s blog; thank you for sharing this one.

    • I am so glad to know that I am not the only one who sang that song. It is kind of a strange song, especially when compared to songs like “Who Built the Ark?” or “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man.”

      Thanks for your comment and for reading!

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  4. So sad how the supposed Good News of salvation and eternal security was communicated with such confusion for so many of us. I don’t know a former SEJF (Super-Evangelical-Jesus-Freak) who didn’t go forward multiple times…JUST TO BE SURE.

    Certainly this idea of “living faith” translated into beautiful good work is a hard tension to hold. But there has to be a way to do it that doesn’t result in so much fear and uncertainty…especially for children.

    Thanks so much for sharing Heather. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

    • I know! I was always wondering when I was actually saved–when I got old enough, I looked to the old theologians to help. But I came to terms with the fact that faith and salvation are so much more complicated than just a moment. I, too, wish it wasn’t so messy. In many ways, I wish there was an easy, fool-proof, painless way for children to learn. But I know, for me, pain and confusion were part of the learning. I am up in the air about the role “the fear of Hell” should play in sharing the Gospel. I certainly did enough of the “Where will you go when you die?” evangelism with my youth group! But I really wonder about it.

      Thanks for your comment! I have loved reading your book and so many wonderful blog entries from others. Thanks for setting this up!

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