This is an except from my least-read book, a small treatise on narrative theology called Looking Before and After. Much of the book concerns the question of what it means, if it means anything coherent, to say that I have a “life story.” At one point I tell a bit of my own story, as I understand it, and that’s what follows.
The summer before I was to begin high school, my family moved from one end of Birmingham, Alabama, to another. “Zoning” had begun in Birmingham a few years before, and had we remained in our old neighborhood I would have been one of ten or so white students in a high school with a total population of more than a thousand. My parents didn’t believe that would be such a good thing for their son, so we moved to an all-white neighborhood within the “zone” of a mostly white school. My parents considered that the move encouraged fresh starts in other ways too, so within a few weeks they had picked out a nearby church, 85th Street Baptist, and we became fairly regular attendees — at least on Sunday mornings. (Sunday evening services or Wednesday prayer meetings remained well beyond the scope of our discipline.) This lasted only about a year before we lapsed back into our old habits of rare attendance, but in the meantime I got myself saved. Or so I think.
Southern churches — I have learned that this is a source of amusement to many of my fellow Christians from outside the South — often schedule revivals, bringing in guest evangelists to stir up the faithless and backslidden. But even with a revival a week away, our pastor, Brother McKee, still conducted his usual invitation at the end of the Sunday morning service. (I was an adult living in the Midwest before I ever heard the term “altar call.”) I had sat throughout the service with my friends, giggling and whispering as usual, and in silent moments doodling on the little magazine of devotional articles for teenagers that had been handed out in Sunday school an hour earlier and for which I was always thankful, since it provided fifteen minutes or so of distraction. The sermon eluded my attention, but I stood up with everyone else as the choir sang “Softly and Tenderly” — or perhaps it was “Just As I Am.” I was thirteen years old.
At that moment the Holy Spirit, with overwhelming force, called me to walk down the aisle and make my profession of faith. My will was clearly being commanded by something not me — something I knew could only be God. When, years later, I read John Wesley’s account of how in a meeting his heart was “strangely warmed,” I thought I knew just what he meant: I seemed for those moments to be heated from within. I had never experienced anything remotely like it before; nor, I must say, have I since. It was all I could do not to run down the aisle; but I did not run down the aisle. In fact, I remained fixed in my place. I stood as the choir and congregation sang, gripping the pew in front of me fiercely — I can see even now, in my mind’s eye, my knuckles going white with the effort of restraining myself from flying toward the pastor.
I was ashamed. I knew that I had paid no attention during the service, that I had snickered with my friends, and I feared their mocking judgment and that of any adult observers of my antics. I felt certain that if I walked down the aisle and “made my profession of faith,” everyone would be puzzled — they would wonder if I was joking, or, worse, mocking. So I stayed rooted at my pew.
Nevertheless, the experience shook me. I tried all week to forget it and was able occasionally to put it from my mind; but I could not pretend that I had any other explanation for what had happened to me — I knew that the power that had invaded me was not me, and I knew its real name. The sense of being strangely warmed remained with me through the week.
The following Sunday, as I walked once more with my parents into the church, a large banner outside proclaimed that the revival would begin that evening. Our pastor’s sermon topic, in his last message before the revival, was an interesting one: he said that sometimes God gives you only one chance to repent; we cannot presume upon his grace, we cannot count on His offering endlessly repeated opportunities to turn aside from our evil ways and dark paths. He told a story about a young man who rejected an opportunity to repent and was almost immediately thereafter struck by a car and killed — not as punishment, mind you: it was just that the fellow’s time was up, and he had wasted all of his chances.
The service drew to a close; we sang a final hymn; and Brother McKee did not issue an invitation, but merely dismissed us with a prayer and a reminder of the evening service.
At home, over lunch, I told my parents that I thought I would like to go to the revival that evening. They looked blankly at me. My father shrugged; my mother said, “Well, good for you.” I walked the eight blocks to the church, taking extreme care when crossing streets; I arrived early and took a seat on the right side, in the second row. I heard as little of this sermon as I had of the one preceding my unexpected Call, though for very different reasons. When the preacher began to intone the familiar words of invitation from what I now think of as the Southern Baptist revival liturgy — “with every head bowed and every eye closed” — and asked for a show of hands from those interested in repenting, my arm shot upward. At the first opportunity I bolted for the front. A few Sunday evenings later I was baptized.
And that was all. I had my insurance; if I wandered into the street and got hit by a car, I would be OK. Before long we stopped going to church. I gave God no thought for another six years.