I was raised in a strict Missouri-Synod Lutheran environment. From the time I was old enough to sit on the church pews with my little legs dangling down, I listened to our Pastor bellowing from his pulpit in thunderous tones that terrified me. Because I was so small, I couldn’t see the Pastor; and I didn’t realize it was his voice blaring from the loudspeakers the church had installed so all of the congregants could hear the Word of God.
It was a huge church – at the time, the largest church in the Missouri Synod. My grandparents had been charter members, and the church actually started in a tent in their backyard some twenty years before I was born. And all I could imagine was how that booming voice I heard was Almighty God Himself.
I would tremble. After church, my grandparents would often come to our house for Sunday dinner. I remember not being allowed to play with the Catholic kids down the block whenever my grand- parents were visiting. Whether at church, or in Sunday School, I constantly had the fear of God pounded into my innocent little brain. Those Catholics, after all, were all going to Hell….
As I grew, I was, of course, sent to the Lutheran grade school that was attached to the massive stone church I’d known since I was three years old. My kind and gentle teachers instilled in me how God was watching, and – if I did something wrong – I would go to Hell. Apparently, I could even go to Hell just for thinking unclean thoughts.
My ‘usual’ bedtime prayer caused me many sleepless nights as I recited, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” For a 7-year-old child, the thought of dying only made me more scared of the God who supposedly loved me.
The older I got, the more confused – and scared – I became. How was I lucky enough to be born into the only religion that would guarantee eternal life? In 1955, when I was 12, my aunt passed away. She was a Catholic. From everything I’d been taught over the past nine or ten years, my aunt was now in Hell…..!
Two years before that, I’d rammed my arm through my aunt’s storm door and cut my main artery. Blood gushed. A neighbor loaded me in his brand new 1953 pink-and-cream Ford hardtop and rushed me to the nearest hospital…..a ‘Catholic’ hospital. The ER was filled with nuns in intimidating black habits. I was terrified. What if God knew I was in this den of iniquity? Would He cast me into the depths of Hell….?
Of course, I was sent to a Lutheran high school. As a teen-ager, I drifted away from the church, still afraid of God and what He could do to me. After all, I knew I was far from perfect; I had impure thoughts, did ‘bad’ things, and some of my best friends were Catholics; my cousins were Methodists; my best neighbor- hood ‘buddy’ was Presbyterian, and I played with him almost every day.
When I started “going out into the world”, and abandoning my sheltered childhood, it still scared the beJesus out of me that I was working and socializing with people who – if I were to believe my teachers, clergy and grandparents – were all doomed to eternal damnation because they weren’t Missouri Synod Lutherans.
I was afraid of God. If I knew all about my imperfections, He certainly did! I wrestled with everything I’d been told over the first twenty years of my life. If He’s such a loving God, how could He possibly want to send me to Hell….?
It’s been a lifetime of confusion, doubts, insecurities, fears, rebellions, soul-searching and pensive introspection, but I’m finally able to look back on all those well-intentioned people who put the fear of God in me, and confirm to them that – while they were just trying to keep me on the straight-and- narrow path – they did so with sanctimonious hearts and narrow minds.
It’s been a rough and rocky road, but I can finally say with
absolute conviction: I’m no longer afraid of God.