I can see myself as a child of four, kneeling before the glow of a large, faux cherrywood, console television. My hands are held before me in prayer and I have tears running down my cheeks, I am alone in the room. I remember being drawn to that spot, into that position, by an ardent baritone.
I can see the others who joined me that night in accepting Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal savior, filing down the aisles of an enormous sanctuary. I can feel the electric sensation I had, a sensation I believed was the Holy Spirit entering my body. My memory transports me to that place on the floor, where I felt united with hundreds of supplicants, as Billy Graham’s tender assurances washed over us. I was saved. I was forgiven. I was a child of God, and I would always be.
The image of my child self, rapt in front of a television, and the knowledge that this was the first significant spiritual moment of my life, is bizarre and sentimental to me as an adult. Even more curious is the anxiety I developed over the household debate about the validity of the once saved always saved doctrine.
My mother and I lived with her friend Miriam, her three children and Miriam’s mother who had some form of dementia rendering her terrifying to me. Miriam was a devout Christian. My mother was not at the time, thought I think it had more to do with being too busy going to school, working two jobs and raising a toddler, more a lack of time than lack of faith.
Miriam, my mother, and a girlfriend of theirs used to play cards on weekend nights. I recall them having a discussion about whether or not it was true that you only need to accept Jesus into your heart once and you would automatically go to heaven. That was my understanding of the discourse, and it was also my understanding of the deal that Billy and I had made.
Miriam stridently asserted that such a thing was ludicrous. “What if you killed someone, is God just going to let you into heaven anyway?”
I looked up over my bowl of stewed tomatoes and white bread, a favorite of Miriam’s that she was just as likely to apply to an infected hangnail as a poultice, she also believed fervently in poultices.
“If you say you’re sorry,” I peeped.
“Yes Abby, if you say you’re sorry and mean it, but not if you do it thinking you can just say you’re sorry, and be accepted back into the grace of God and rewards of the righteous”, Mariam preached.
I could tell her answer was not directed at me, but at her girlfriends. They were all divorced, including Miriam, but I sensed she felt her girlfriends were less righteous than she because she had not wanted a divorce; her husband had left her for another woman.
I liked the way that Miriam said things even when it had a scary sound to it, she reminded me of Billy Graham when she talked that way, it made me feel safe.
What she said that night crept into my mind when I was alone. What if I committed a sin, and I did sin I assure you, I lied, I coveted, and I had sexual thoughts and actions. What if I did these things repeatedly, knowing they were wrong? Was I like a killer that thinks they can get in to heaven just by saying their sorry?
I reran Mariam’s words obsessively. If you say you’re sorry and mean it– which seemed to be the important thing. Mostly I meant it, I was sorry when I lied to my Mom and hurt her feelings, but I didn’t really feel sorry when I confessed in my prayers that I imagined kissing Mariam’s son with my tongue. I felt bad, but I didn’t feel sorry and I didn’t stop. I just kept lying to God even though I knew that he knew me even before I was in the womb! Surely this was breach of contract in Billy’s eye’s as well as the Holy Trinity’s.
My juvenile mind really didn’t know how to deal with this kind of angst, but I knew I had to come up with something. What I did is a triumph to my adult self.
While the woman played cards on Fridays I would watch the Billy Graham Crusades and reaccept Jesus into my heart, my feelings of rapture increasing with each new commitment, and communion with each new batch of believers I joined up with. I was certain the tingling sensations I felt were the Holy Spirit valiantly battling with the devil for my soul each week, (apparently he didn’t have the omnipotence it required to see me give it up to the devil during a bad acid trip in my early twenties, I imagine he’d of spared himself the trouble).
I would then go into the bathroom to consider my tear streaked, beatific face, while trying to avoid any horribleness that Nana, Miriam’s mother had left on her last visit. After basking in my newly purified countenance I washed my face, I didn’t want Miriam to notice I had been crying, she was uncannily observant. Her children, who I idolized for being the most devious of all people, were constantly fouled by her vigilance. I knew she would wrestle my plot to deceive God out of me if she had any notion at all.
Eventually we moved out of Mariam’s house. My mother made new friends and they didn’t talk about sin or hell. I liked them, but they weren’t as interesting as Miriam. I remember being awed by the knowledge that Miriam had written a song. She taught me to sing it, as she pressed out chords on her organ, the living room vibrating under her foot pedals and the weight of her devotion.
He rides on the wind and he speaks in the thunder
He rides on the wind to talk to you and me
He rides on the wind and speaks in the thunder
The god of all ages, all ages is he
Now listen to the wind, while it’s calling you
I’m off to see my friend, death will save you too
He rides on the wind and he speaks in the thunder
The God of all ages, all ages is he
Miriam had a fine alto and an unusual way of making me feel safe and vulnerable at the same time. She was the embodiment of her religion.
After we had lived away from Miriam for a while I quit worrying so much about my salvation. I was in kindergarten now, and there were more important things to think about.