My prayer of as much commitment as I could humanly muster on the front porch steps of an Assembly of God pastor in Manchester, Connecticut, back in 1977 when I was just twenty years old that caused “my possibly imaginary Friend,” Jesus Christ, to invade my soul with His and to set His Eternal Throne right smack dab in the middle of my heart was what I later came to learn is called being “born again.”
Jesus Christ setting up His Throne in the middle of my heart is, of course, human metaphor, and it’s one that frightens small children, by the way, who think literally and don’t know how to handle metaphor. So don’t say things like that around small children, please, because the real live Jesus loves the little children and He wants them to come to Him.
Jesus Christ invading my soul with His is also metaphor, and it, and the Throne thing, and the idea of a God who so loves us all that He sent His Only Begotten Son to live the one and only perfectly holy human life and then die in our place as a substitutionary blood sacrifice so that He could save our sorry souls from hell frightens grown adults who are determined to be damned. But I WILL say and write about things like this because my possibly imaginary Friend loves damned souls too and He doesn’t want them to be so . . . and when I write this stuff I can feel His Pleasure.
Soon after me praying that prayer with my new pastor friend, I quit selling books door to door which caused my colleagues Darrell and Sergio some sorrow. The night I told Darrel that I was quitting and he knew he couldn’t talk me out of it, he said to me, “Mark, you’re really NOT a ‘pussy.’ I was just saying that a couple of weeks ago because I was trying to keep you and Sergio on the team.”
I’ve always respected the decency of the man that Darrell was for saying this to me.
Sergio wasn’t there when I told Darrell that I was quitting, and Sergio didn’t know what I was planning unlike the last time when we had both tried to tell Darrell that we wanted out. I’d already cleverly helped Darrell and Sergio move to the new boarding house that I’d found for us in a rough section of nearby Hartford, Connecticut, out of Alma’s house when we were all supposed to move on to a new bookselling territory after we’d already knocked on every single door in Manchester, a relatively small suburb of the large city of Hartford.
We couldn’t all fit in Darrell’s small car with all of our luggage and book selling stuff so I let Darrell drive Sergio first to the new inner city boarding house that I’d found a couple of days before and when Darrell came back to get me, that’s when I told him that I was staying. Darrell left sad, I know, and he later told me when we saw one another again at the end of the summer when he and Sergio were going back home to Arizona and they came by Alma’s house to tell her goodbye and to check on me that Sergio had cried himself to sleep that night.
I loved those two guys, and although I haven’t seen them in forty five years as I write this now, I hope that life was good for them.
I stayed on at Alma’s boarding house past that summer and into the fall, and Alma was so glad that I did, because she knew the real reason why I was staying in Connecticut.
I had taken a new job selling carpet cleaning door to door with a man who had given me a ride in his dilapidated old pick up truck one night when he saw me on the side of the road walking home in the dark and in the rain and he pulled alongside to ask me, “What the hell are you doing out in the rain?” And then after I got in his truck and let him drive me to Alma’a house he offered me a job that would make me a lot more money selling his carpet cleaning service than the few bucks a week that I was barely making selling our crappy books. But this wasn’t the reason that I quit selling books and stayed at Alma’s house.
The reason that I quit the book business and stayed at Alma’s house was so I could learn more about this new thing I’d found called “Born Again Christianity.”
The name “born again” comes from a truly bizarre passage in the New Testament’s “Gospel of John” wherein a man named Nicodemus comes under cover of darkness to see the itinerant preacher and miracle worker known as Jesus of Nazareth, probably to ask him “What more must I do than what I’ve already done in my long and rigorously righteous life to know that I will be welcomed into Paradise after I die?”
The passage found in the third chapter of John’s Gospel reads as follows:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
I had not yet read this passage of the Bible when I prayed my prayer that made me “born again.” When I did later read it in the New Testament’s Gospel of John which was the first of the Bible’s “books” that I read, I’m sure I didn’t understand it. I probably thought something like, “Whoa! That’s HEAVY, Man!”
When I read the Gospel of John when I was twenty years old, it was the first time that I had read anything in the Bible since I had tried to do so in my mid teens soon after I’d read a horror book entitled “The Exorcist.” Back then I had just casually opened our never-read, dusty old family Bible to the passage wherein Jesus exorcises a legion of devils out of man possessed by them and cast the demons out of the man into a herd of pigs that rush headlong over a nearby cliff and all drown themselves in the sea, whereupon I slammed the Bible shut and said something like “HOLY SHIT! that’s just like in The Exorcist!”
But THIS time my experience was decidedly different. This time when I read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” it literally felt like cool, clear water splashing me in the face washing away the filth and cleansing my eyes so that I could now see! I’m not saying that this experience of mine says anything about the Bible. I’m saying that it says everything about me and the man that I had become on my own “doing my own thing,” as we used to say . . . and it meant everything to me too that God let me have a physical sensation like this when I was now reading His Word with faith in Him.
Anyway, I quit selling books and stayed at Alma’s house that summer so that I could start what became a lifelong habit of my reading and trying to understand just one Book, the Bible, starting with the one that Alma bought for me. To this end, I was already going to the church where Blossom and Phil Woodrow went, Trinity Covenant Church, just down the street from Alma’s house. In addition, I met once a week to “study the Bible” with Blossom’s husband, Phil, who had once quit a good secular job with the American Lung Association to lead a small Christian ministry that existed to tell and teach people like me the so-called Gospel of Jesus Christ. And I also started attending the Friday night coffee house in the basement of the Assembly of God church whose pastor had prayed with me that day and which was led by the pastor’s adult son.
But a few weeks later, an odd thing occurred. A former door-to-door book salesman who had sold books in Manchester, Connecticut, a few years before for the same company that I’d been trying to sell books for and who had also once rented a room from Alma like I was doing came to Manchester to visit Alma. The former book salesman had kept in touch with Alma because she was such a sweet soul, basically a fun-loving teenaged spirit wrapped in an old woman’s body. This former book salesman, who I’ll call “Bob” because I don’t remember his name, was in town on business and he wanted to meet me because Alma had told Bob all about me.
Bob came over to Alma’s house on a Sunday afternoon, we met, and hit if off, swapping stories of how fun and loving Alma was and my adventures in unsuccessfully trying to sell the crappy books that Bob had successfully sold every summer while he was in college. Bob then invited me to go to a Sunday evening service at a Southern Baptist church where he used to go when he spent his summers in Manchester, and I agreed to go with him. Alma stayed behind because of her frail health. She had very severe osteoporosis and lived her every waking moment in great pain.
At Bob’s old church just down the freeway from Alma’s house, all the Southern Baptists there were very friendly to me and they loved seeing Bob who they hadn’t seen in a couple of years. I remember enjoying meeting all of Bob’s friends and singing hymns like Janet, Blossom’s friend, had advised me over at Trinity Covenant Church, “Just open your mouth and sing, Mark, it doesn’t matter to God what you sound like; the more you sing, the better you sound!” Forty-five years later with a lot of church singing now under my belt, I think that Janet is right.
The Southern Baptist pastor preached that night what they call “a real hellfire and brimstone sermon,” all about the wages of sin is death and the “death” the Bible is talking about is burning forever in a lake of fire originally made for our great adversary, Satan, and all his demonic hosts but with room to spare for all the souls who insist on going there too because they don’t want to accept the One Way Jesus Christ whom God sent to be the propitiation for our sins. “Propitiation!” That’s one hell of a word. Go ahead and take the time to look it up. I had to.
But every soul present, the pastor preached, and throughout the entire world also could escape the Wrath of God against sin if they will just trust Jesus as their own personal Savior and commit to following Him as Lord of their life!
I still don’t know why this sermon made me start to sweat a little bit, squirm in my seat a bit, and get a little warm in my face. I’d done everything the preacher was saying, hadn’t I? I was now going to church. I was reading my Bible that Alma bought me. I was even studying it with Phil Woodrow, Blossom’s husband. I was going on Friday nights not out to bars but to the coffee house in the basement of the Assembly of God church that was led by the pastor’s son who was home from seminary for the summer where I was “fellowshipping” with other young people like myself there where we sang our worship songs and gave our testimonies about how Jesus had saved our souls.
So why was I starting to sweat under this fire and brimstone message.
I still don’t know why I did . . . but I did. And when they sang the invitational hymn “Just As I Am” during what the pastor said was “the alter call,” I felt like my possibly imaginary Friend wanted me to get out of my pew and walk down the aisle up to where the Southern Baptist preacher was waiting with his hands outstretched to the congregation, one of them holding a big old fat Bible.
“I’ll be DAMNED if I’m gonna do that!” I said to Jesus in that moment in the privacy of my own thoughts.
“You’ll be DAMNED if you don’t!” retorted a suddenly smartaleck Jesus Christ back at me.
“WAIT! WHAT?” I thought. “Didn’t YOU tell me in the Bible that NOTHING can now separate me from the LOVE of God in Christ Jesus my Lord?”
“Yeah. I did say that,” Jesus chuckled, “I’m just messin’ with you, of course. On the other hand, what kind of “Lord” am I to you if you won’t do what I ask you to do?”
“Oh yeah . . . huh?” was all I could think.
By now the church had sung through every verse of “Just As I Am” and still not a soul had stirred from the pews.
“Folks, I know that there are some here who are resisting the call of God’s Holy Spirit to come to Jesus,” said the preacher. “So were going to sing this hymn through just one last time to give anyone here tonight who God is calling one more chance to answer His Holy Call upon your life.”
As the congregation started singing again, I thought, “HOW THE HELL does he know that?”
“Quit cussing, Mark! You’re in church,.” Jesus said to me with a knowing smile.
“Jesus! I can’t go forward. People will think that I’m an awful sinner. I’ll be embarrassed. WHY do I have to do this toooooniiiiiiiiiiight?” I whined.
“Because I said to,” Jesus answered me.
It was now the very last line of the very last stanza of the hymn that the pastor had said that they were only going to sing one last time when I finally and very publicly surrendered my soul to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
I got out of my pew and stepped into the aisle. At that same moment, a young woman right across the aisle who looked to be the same age as me stepped into the aisle also a second or so after I did. She was very pretty, but I didn’t lust after her like I might have done under different circumstances. Instead my heart simply overflowed with gratitude and love that she was trusting Jesus just like me.
We walked up the church aisle together almost like we were getting married. I can’t remember, but I think that we might have even held one another’s hand. When we finally stood before the pastor, he was beaming a great big smile, and you could hear the sound of some people sniffling back tears of joy. Some more hearty souls said, “Hallelujah!” and some cried out, “Praise the Lord!”
The pastor just prayed over us and then called up a deaconess to take the young woman to another room for some personal counseling and a deacon to take me to another room for the same thing.
I thought to myself, “OH GREAT! Now I’m gonna be locked in a room with a Southern Baptist deacon until God knows what!”
However, inside the unlocked room the deacon simply somberly asked me if I wanted to receive Jesus Christ as my own personal Lord and Savior, and I burst out laughing, very much relieved to know that this was all that the deacon wanted to ask me.
“I ALREADY DID THAT!” I happily told the surprised old man and then quickly told him about Blossom and Janet, and “The Four Spiritual Laws,” and the Assembly of God pastor and my prayer with him on the front porch steps of his church’s parsonage, and my current Bible reading and studying.
“Well OK then,” the deacon stammered, recovering his composure from my surprising laugh. “Let’s just pray together that you continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
“Right ON!” I said. And so we did.
When I got to Bob’s car in the parking lot with him still waiting there for me, Bob asked, “What was that all about?”
“Damned if I know,” I blurted out all filled with the Holy Spirit like I felt just then.
“What did you say?” Bob asked even more puzzled.
“Um . . . er . . . I’m not sure,” I then said . . .
and sometimes I’m still not.
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