I sat spellbound and immensely entertained as the balding preacher spasmed and spat the Gospel at us for over an hour. Most weeks I sat comfortably in church like any other carefree six year-old, playing with crayons or folding bulletins into paper airplanes. Our regular pastor lulled me to sleep under the canopy of my father’s arm stretched over and behind my head and laid across the top of the pew. But this was not our regular happy pastor. This was his friend, angry pastor, the heavy artillery brought in for a week’s worth of revival services.
And he blasted away.
He wore a light blue three-piece suit that showed his white socks underneath if he stomped out from behind the pulpit, which he did often while his balding head shone like a spotlight into our souls. In his right hand he waved a black brick of a bible the size of my six year-old body. I could feel the breeze from the thing from my seat half way back in the crowd. His right fist he balled up like a gavel and struck against the pulpit again and again like a judge, punctuating every sentence with canon-blast booms of flesh against oak.
After wearing himself out he finally hollered an invitation like none other I’d heard before. “WHEN YOU LEAVE CHURCH THIS MORNING! YOU! COULD GET HIT! BY A TRUCK! A TRUCK!!” he spewed. “AND IF YOU DON’T KNOW JEEEEESUS THAT TRUCK’S GONNA SEND YOU STRAIGHT TO HELL! STRAIGHT! TO! HELL! WHO WANTS JESUS?!”
I had no idea church parking lots could be so perilous. I leapt from my seat and ran down the aisle, filled out a three by five card with one of those tiny pencils made for golfers and six year-olds, and I wrote alI I could think to write, “I NEED JESUS!” And for the next fifty-seven stanzas of Just As I Am and I Surrender All I just kept adding exclamation marks as if to make the point clearer, “I’M NOT JOKING, I’M SCARED OF TRUCKS, I”M SCARED OF HELL, PLEASE HELP ME!”
And when the music finally stopped the sweaty revival preacher took my card from me and read it to the crowd saying, “This young man has joined the family of God today.” And Amens and MmmHmms washed over me, soothing away my fear of trucks and hell. He invited everyone to come meet me afterwards and welcome me into the family. Eighty and ninety year-old grandmothers, about fifty of them it seemed, stroked my hands and squeezed my cheeks and kissed me, which scared me almost as much as trucks and Hell. And then my family took me to Western Sizzler.
I had a steak.
I got “saved.”
I got saved the way so many of us in America do. I came to Jesus to get out of Hell, to avoid being squashed by a truck and sent to Hell where I’d be forced to wear drab clothing and chains for all of eternity. I repeated a prayer after a pastor, “invited Jesus into my heart” and asked him to be my “personal Lord and savior” – my personal bodyguard saving me from harm.
I had no idea that what I should fear the most, what Jesus saved me from first, was neither trucks nor hell but me.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus announced.
When that naked couple back in Eden ate the forbidden fruit they messed us all up; they bent the human core’s DNA so badly that every one of their offspring since has been born defective (Ecclesiastes 7:20, Psalm 53:1-3).
We can’t heal ourselves. We’re drunks fumbling with our keys trying to open the gates to utopia again.
And on and on we try. Generation after generation. We toil on an earth capable of growing enough food to fill every stomach, yet starvation continues. We hold enough wealth in the West to clothe and educate the entire globe, yet children beg naked and unable to write or read. There are enough adults in the world to put orphanages out of business, yet millions grow up with no one to call Daddy. We have enough spy satellites, schools of political science, ethicists, diplomats, and armaments to bring peace to the nations, yet in four thousand years of recorded history only four hundred have been remotely warless.
Much of our intellect, good intentions, talent, money, fame and strategy have been spent trying to rebuild Eden. And nothing we’ve tried has been entirely effective. Because the defect is us.
And so only Jesus saves. From the thing that should frighten us more than trucks and even hell: ourselves. He saves us from ourselves! His death brings life to our insides – our thoughts, emotions, desires. (Romans 5:12-15).