So amidst all that capricious moralism, did I ever hear the Good News? I know I heard it from my parents. I know I felt it from my parents. I know I heard it in church in South Bend. I know I heard it in Tulsa. And I know I heard it in Michigan. Once. Maybe twice.
I was reminiscing yesterday about my high school summer adventures to CYIA — Christian Youth in Action — with Child Evangelism Fellowship. We were at Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music learning how to conduct 5-day Clubs with Barth and Sally Middleton as the lead teachers. If you’re in CEF, you know them. They are legendary.
I was 16. I had been in a Christian school environment in Michigan which was, to put it as mildly as I can, harsh. It was like Little Marcy except without the sprinkle of saccharine. All my peers were going to the fundy WILDs camp wannabe — Co-Be-Ac — to fill up on the sadistic humor of the school’s up-and-coming-to-power assistant pastor, Les Ollila, or one of his proteges.
But my mother and father — my dear, dear parents had a different idea. They strongly encouraged me to be a summer missionary instead. See — mom and dad were on the state board for CEF in Michigan, and they knew that CYIA was a good thing.
So I went — somewhat in defiance of the send-your-kids-to-Co-Be-Ac-or-else preaching we were getting. And yeah, yeah, CEF is full of decision theology and Keswick formulas (when you teach teenagers to teach, that’s gonna happen). I understand that.
But you know what I really learned? Jesus loves me. I remember walking 18″ off the ground back to my room when I realized that. He loves me. Jesus. LOVES me!!
There I was among other high schoolers and college kids who were so unlike me. Most of the kids were from the inner city of Detroit or Flint. Most of them were not suburban white bread like me. Most of them sang Amy Grant songs. Most of them raised their hands when they worshiped.
And Jesus loved all of them. And He loved me too. That’s what I learned. And I got to repeat that over and over to children all over Michigan. And when I did, I heard Him whisper it to me too. Jesus loves me!!
I relished that adventure so much that I went back to CYIA the next year and was a summer missionary again. That was an equally exhilarating experience. Those summers I learned that I loved to teach. I learned that I was a good speaker. I learned that all people — whether 7 or 17 or 87 — need to hear that Jesus loves them. And they need to hear it a lot.
I was so full of non-fundy Jesus-love that the fundies around me were suspicious when I got back home. “You need to go hear Frank Garlock at Co-Be-Ac. Just to get things straightened out.” o_O My parents and I shrugged and said, “Okay. Whatever.” So I dutifully went that week. It was terrible. I hated it. I can now look back on that week as a microcosm of my life in fundyland. You get up early and get all dressed because looking perfect is the key to your righteousness (and because you aren’t actually doing anything actively except sitting and taking notes). Only to be doused by buckets of lake water during a pointless before-breakfast game of Big Ball Water Volleyball. I hated it. I hated the whole week. The preaching was the same way, too: “Be perfect! ::splash:: Now you’re not, see?”
That’s what counts as the Gospel in fundyland. That’s the metanarrative: “You must be perfect! But you can’t be.” Period. That’s the end. “Jesus? Who’s that? Oh yeah, you can’t be like Him. He was perfect. . . . Too bad. So sad. ::splash::”
Outside of my home and family, I can count on the fingers of both hands the times I heard or felt Jesus’ unconditional love in forty years in fundyland: 1) From Pastor Sprunger, when I was baptized. 2) From the CEF director’s wife, Bernie Mason, when I was spending the summer with my mom at the CEF office in Tulsa. 3) From my second grade teacher, Mrs. Stover. 4) From my fifth grade Bible and music teacher, Richard Murray. 5) From Randy Merrill’s sermon on Elijah. 6) From Ed Dunbar, when Elise died. 7) From Dr. Juan Teruel.
The Good News was never part of any formal fundamentalist curriculum I got. Not from 1st grade through graduate school. I only got it in school when my teacher or colleague was moved by God’s love her/himself. You see, fundamentalism is not just Keswick piety because Keswickians, like D. L. Moody and even Billy Graham and every CEF missionary, at least get the Love right.
And fundamentalists never do. They actually think that the Love is “liberal.”
I did have a “material religion” counter-balance to the horror of Little Marcy — the Bill Gaither trio. You can hear It there. You can hear Jesus’ love.