by Celia Hales
I was five years old when I became an exile from grace. I thought that I had done things unforgivable before God.
“Tell me everything!” Madge had screamed at me. Madge was my babysitter. She was 16.
I nodded from just above the covers. Madge had put me to bed in the middle of the day for foolish childhood play. I was terrified by my babysitter.
Then came the worst blow. “God will never forgive you if you haven’t told me everything!” she shrilled.
I nodded again. This was serious. I hadn’t told her everything. Moreover, I had lied about what I had done. I guess she realized this.
God had always loved me. Now He wouldn’t anymore. I remember a profound sinking feeling.
I had lost God.
I had stumbled, and I never forgot this. Yet I remained a child intent on being good, as God would want me to be–as my family wanted me to be.
After my grandmother’s death in 1988, I would find a scrap of paper in her Bible in my childhood scrawl. It said, “I am determined to go God’s way.” I misspelled “determined.”
Why had my grandmother left it there all those years?
Things got serious the summer that I was 11. I was well aware that Jesus had been about his Father’s business in the temple when he was 12. I figured that time was running out. Repeatedly I crept away to my bedroom, to the far side of the bed from the door, hiding, and sat on the floor, my Bible in my hands. I read lots.
“I want to be saved!” I implored heaven. My prayers did not seem to be answered.
The spring that I was 12 our minister talked to me about joining the church. He only succeeded in reducing me to tears. I was doing what I could. He didn’t know about the hours spent sitting on my bedroom floor the previous year, reading the Bible and imploring heaven.
The pressure mounted as school started. I had turned 13. I could feel it coming from my mother. One morning during Christmas vacation I sat at a card table in our den, adjacent to our kitchen. I was pretending to read magazines. But I was really thinking about my dilemma. My mother was preparing lunch.
“I want to join the church,” I finally intoned solemnly.
“All right, Celia,” she replied. “I will talk to Mr. Quick.” Mr. Quick was our new minister. I thought he was a nice man.
So the date was set. As it turned out, the date of my baptism was January 17, my mother’s birthday. That seems appropriate to me now, because I was going through the ritual to please my family. I still did not feel ready.
Despite my best efforts, I hadn’t felt a special grace from God.
At the close of the church service, at the appointed time, I found my way down to altar. Mr. Quick was resplendent in a black robe with velvet bands. I was wearing my favorite Sunday outfit, a dress of purple print with a velveteen jacket, also of purple.
The litany began. Then my tears started. I could not stop weeping as the litany had me repeating words that I was guilty of sin:.
“On behalf of the whole church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
I had to respond, “I do.”
“Will you faithfully put away from you every known sin, of thought, word, or deed, and accept and confess Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord?
I responded, “God helping me, I will.”
Was Jesus my Saviour? I didn’t know. I was lying. I was still guilty of sin.
The baptismal service seemed to last a very, very long time. My tears flowed. Then suddenly it was over, and I was a baptized Christian, a member of the United Methodist Church.
The congregation filed past me and shook my hand. Still I could not stop bawling. My granddaddy got in line, and when he reached me, I hugged him desperately. He had never asked anything of me other than I “be sweet.”
Once the crowd had dispersed, Mr. Quick approached my mother and me.
“A little child shall lead them,” he concluded.
I did not feel “little.”
For years ahead of me I would look upon this day as the worst day of my life.
I continued to seek. When I was 16 and the incoming president of my church’s youth group, I attended the annual conference session of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Duke University. This was a week-long gathering of teenagers from all over the state.
Every evening there were breakout groups geared to special interests. I chose Dr. Richey’s presentations. Here was a learned man. Surely he would give me the answers that I had not previously found in church or even in the Bible. I didn’t believe a lot in the Bible since I had studied science in school.
“Tell it like it is,” I thought toward him–as if to will remarks from him that would make my faith secure.
He seemed, though, to be curiously reluctant to tell it like it was. He seemed more intent on finding out where we were in our faith.
The third evening of his presentations had the topic, “Life After Death.” Suddenly the classroom filled with people. I actually sat on the floor, so crowded was the room.
Dr. Richey remarked, “I didn’t know that you young people would be so interested in this topic.”
I remember one other comment from Dr Richey: “I haven’t been too impressed by these accounts of life after death that some people have written.”
I had been impressed by these reports, and I thought he was missing something.
Then the miracle happened. Just as John Wesley, founder of Methodism, had written, I too “felt my heart strangely warmed.”
“I have been saved,” I thought to myself. “Yes, I have been saved.”
I told nobody.
Years of further seeking would follow, but the foundation was laid that evening. The punishment that my indiscretions as a child of five had wrought had been traumatic, but I had now, in some respects, moved beyond.
I was warmed by God’s love for the first time since a young child.