This is Part 6 in a multi-part blog post. If you've stumbled across the page without reading Part 1, click the link below to go to Part 1.
Act One, Scene One
The events of July 21, 1996 will be forever etched into my memory. It was a Sunday morning. I had slept at the house that Max and I were housesitting at the night before. This was the first time that I would be attending a morning service at New Promise. It would also be the first time that I heard Max’s father preach. I was excited and nervous. Based on my experiences at church so far, my experiences with the people of the church, and my discussions with Mark, I had pretty much made up my mind. Today was the day. When Max’s dad gave the altar call, I was going to go forward. Thinking about that cause some other kinds of anxiety to enter my mind. This was a huge decision. I needed to make sure that this was what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to play games with God or with this new community of people among whom I’d found a place to belong. I was also afraid that I’d go forward and no one would see me. Even if they did see me, what if no one came to pray with me. I’d read enough and had enough conversations to know pretty much what needed to be said, but what if I said it wrong? What if I messed it up? I pushed these questions to the side of my mind and reminded myself that, if it didn’t feel right, I didn’t even have to do it. I’d not mentioned my intentions to anyone else because I didn’t want anyone pressuring me when that time came.
I drove to Max’s house before going to church. I was nervous enough. I wanted to at least have a friend with me. I knew that there were typically more people there on Sundays, and I was worried about not getting a seat with him. I, at least, wanted someone beside me, someone to see and understand what I was doing if I did decide to go forward that morning during the altar call.
When I pulled into the driveway at Max’s family’s house, the only vehicle in the driveway was Max’s truck. As I entered the house, I heard the shower going in the bathroom; so, I made my way upstairs and found a seat in the living room. Since, Max was the only one there, I figured it had to be him in the shower. I thought I would just wait there until he came out. Then, he could get dressed, and we could go. Eventually, the bathroom door began to open. I was startled by a scream. The occupant of the bathroom had been Max’s mother, Anne. She darted back into the bathroom and called out, asking me to step into the kitchen where I would be out of line-of-sight of the bathroom. Embarrassed, I quickly complied, and she exited the bathroom and went to her bedroom. Once there, she called out to me that Max was in his room downstairs.
Max, hearing the commotion upstairs, was just rolling out of bed when I walked down to his room which was just off the family room in the basement. He told me to give him a few minutes while he got ready. He quickly showered and got dressed. Then, we drove the mile or so to the church.
We were a little late walking in; so, the band was already playing opening worship when we walked in. The room was packed. There were far more people there than I had experienced on my times there on Sunday nights. The combination of walking into that packed room and the upbeat music was exhilarating. Even today, while I appreciate the inclusive, deep, thought-provoking language that comes with attending a more progressive church, I sometimes still miss the emotion and energy of the more contemporary worship that takes place in more conservative evangelical churches. It can be very freeing to lift your gaze off of the pages of a hymnal and free your eyes, your mind, and your emotions to focus upward towards God.
The title of Pastor Rob’s message that morning was ‘If this is as good as it gets…’ The premise was that, if this earthly existence is all there is, then there isn’t much to make this life worth it. Because of things in my personal life at that moment and being frustrated with the expense and stress of Max and the party at the house we were housesitting at as well as just the expense of drinking and smoking cigarettes in general, I connected with that message that morning. Thoughts of my car accident from when I was 17 came back into my mind, too. I believed that God had spared my life for a reason, and I wanted to know what that was. There had to be more to this life that just going to school, getting a job, maybe getting married, and working until I died.
When the time came for the altar call, almost everyone around me, including Max, went forward to pray at the altar. The altar call went on for what seemed like a long time that morning. I would later learn that this was intentional. There was a man there that morning that the pastor had been praying would return to church, and he was hoping that the man would come forward. Of course, in my mind, God was drawing out this moment for me to make good on the decision that I had already made.
Finally, I decided that I had to go. My heart was raciing. I didn’t know what would happen when I got down front. Max’s friend, Bryce, was seated between where I was sitting and the outside isle. The path between me and the inside isle was clear, but that would put me out in front of everyone. That was too much exposure for me. I stood and slowly moved past Bryce. He turned, sliding his legs to the side, to allow me to pass, I approached the altar and knelt in front of a set of stairs that led up onto the stage. Above my head, I could hear the pastor saying from the stage, “Chris, pray with Josh. Pray with Josh.”
Chris was the church’s youth pastor at the time. Christ led me through the sinner’s prayer. As we prayed, I felt heads on my back. I didn’t know who was back there, but it felt good to know that someone was. After all of my fears of not being noticed when I went up or messing up the process, it was nice to know that I had support all around me. I still can feel Chris’ hair pressing against my forehead as he prayed with me.
As we finished the prayer, Chris returned to his seat. I stayed at the altar to pray. The hands remained on my back. As the service concluded and I stood up, I turned to see Max, his sister Michele, and Angela there behind me. It was touched to see them there. I knew that I still didn’t fully comprehend what I had just committed to, but I was determined to learn as much as I could. Just then, Chris’s oldest son, Eric, approached me. He told me that a bunch of people were going to an Italian restaurant for lunch. He asked me if I wanted to go. It took me a second to process. Moving from such a monumental personal experience to something as mundane as lunch was a bit of a rough transition for me. I had to remind myself that, even though this was a huge moment for me, it was just an ordinary Sunday for most of the other people in the room. I checked the time. I did have to work at the gas station that afternoon, but I had time to grab lunch before that. I told him that I would go. I stood there for a few moments after that, taking in the moment. I smiled to myself and thought, “Well, let’s do this,” and headed out of the room to move on to the rest of my day.
© Joshua Culbertson 2014