God's Sense of Humor 3 – Immortal worms?
We moved from California to Colorado in October, right after school had started for my seventh grade year, and the weather had turned just cold enough that kids were staying inside most of the time. I was lonely. I met a kid named Dave who mostly wanted me to come to church with him. I resisted, explaining that I only spoke English, but, starved for friendship, I finally buckled.
I just remember sitting in the back row, drawing on the offering envelopes that were stacked, free for the taking, in wooden racks on the back of the next pew. I used to draw a little, so I drew hot cars and motocross bikes while the other boys huddled around in awe. I got home and couldn’t wait to tell my mom how great church was. I announced that I was going back the following Sunday. For a few weeks I sat in the back row of that big church like Michelangelo, taking requests for offering envelope masterpieces. I even brought my own pencils. Fifteen minutes of fame.
I arrived at church one week oblivious to the fact that there was a special service that required kids to sit up front. We sidled into our row in the back, as always, but just as the organ music began; an usher approached our row and signaled for us to follow him. All the other kids were already vibrating in the first three rows and the only seats available were right in front. I felt exposed, as if I’d done something wrong, which, I probably had.
From our seats everything was magnified, like sitting in the front of a movie theater where you have to turn your head to see the whole screen. It was old and ornate with a dark, imposing stage, and large grey organ pipes stretching to the ceiling along the back wall like oversized prison bars. Centered on the wall, surrounded by pipes hung a wooden cross that was large enough to have dispatched King Kong. It was the kind of cross you could stand on a hill and then see from twenty miles away. The scariest element on the stage was the pulpit. It was a massive mahogany tower that loomed over the congregation. The preacher didn’t step up to this pulpit, instead, he sort of appeared from behind it, rose from its midst like Moses upon Mount Sinai, standing over the children of Israel while the mountain shook and quaked. It was eerie.
The preacher in this church was a big man who wore a large, dark robe with a wide, golden sash that hung from either shoulder. After he appeared from behind the pulpit and sized up his prey, he read from a Bible that was as large as our kitchen table. When he looked back over the congregation, peering over the top of little frameless spectacles, he looked serious, angry, intent. I was afraid of him from the word go.
I was paralyzed. I sat helpless, pinned to the back of the pew, trying to divert my eyes but unable to escape his gaze as he preached hell and damnation.
He said there is no guarantee of tomorrow and each of us must realize that today might be the day we enter eternity. The question, he posed rhetorically, was whether we wanted to spend eternity in the pit of hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where the fire is never quenched and the worm dieth not. Or, did we want to spend eternity in heavenly glory, where there is no more sickness and no more pain, and the streets are paved with gold, and you can eat ice cream and Cheetos all day long.
“Tomorrow may never come,” he said, pointing a bulbous finger at my trembling row. “You might not even make it home this afternoon, may not even make it out to the car before your name is called and you receive your eternal reward.”
I was thinking how I wished I’d slept in that morning.
The only pathway of escape, he explained graciously for all the ignorant seventh graders, was to be saved. If we would come forward and stand under the shadow of the cross, when he gave the word, we could be saved and elude the consequences of our grievous sin. Our row emptied the second he gave the altar call—eight or nine little sinners standing right up front, first in line to avoid hellfire and immortal worms.
He led us all in a prayer, and as serious as I was, and as scared as I was, I said amen and still felt a little queazy. I was hoping for more. A ticket, or something, that I could show any angelic bouncer, stationed at the Pearly Gates to keep out the riffraff. There was nothing.
The organ started to play and people started filing out of the room and back to their cars. I was afraid to go outside. The other boys and I cautiously stepped into the sunlight and felt a wave of relief when our feet landed on solid ground and we weren’t zapped straight to hell as feared. I made it all the way home and ran into the safety of the house, still, somehow avoiding damnation.
My mom was in the kitchen when I burst in declaring, “I’m saved! I’m saved!”
She said, “You’re what?”
“I’m saved, Mom, I got saved!”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but I’m not in hell!”
Back in the day, scaring the beans out of people was one of the ways to get them to repent. It sure worked on me. For a few weeks anyway. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the thing that makes knowing God really attractive, His unfailing love. Maybe you’re a screw-up like me. For me, knowing Jesus loves me unconditionally is far superior to just avoiding immortal worms.
“God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” 1 John 4:9-10 NLT
ps- this photo isn't that old church somewhere in Colorado. This is the beautiful Duke Chapel (used by permission). But the darkness, depth, and slight distortion captured in the image kind of matches the picture engrained in my memory.