Long before I knew anything about salvation, reconciliation or the Trinity, I was aware of God's presence in my life. My encounters with God were of the "still, small voice" variety. I remember playing on the green linoleum floor of the Sunday school 4-year-old classroom and feeling surrounded and filled with the love of Jesus-sort of like a holy force-field. When I was a little older, I remember once waking up terribly thirsty but afraid to go down the dark hall to get a drink of water. After I finally summoned up the courage to go to the bathroom and was filling a cup, I heard a child's voice behind me say: "Kathy." At the time, everyone called me "Kathleen" or "KK." I assumed the voice was God's, because once I heard it, I stopped feeling afraid.
My grandmother gave me a glow-in-the-dark figure of a little girl kneeling over the words "Now I lay me down to sleep." For years when I prayed to God, I visualized that night light-and it wasn't a bad symbol for a child who was afraid of the dark. Then one day, I watched a television production of "The Littlest Angel" and saw God depicted an old man with a beard. The image profoundly shocked me, because the actor on the TV show was nothing like the God I had experienced or prayed to. I tried to picture the television God when I prayed. If it was on TV, I reasoned, then that must be who God is. At the very least, he was the God that "normal" people thought of when they prayed. Eventually, I gave up trying to visualize the old guy, because my own idiosyncratic experiences with God seemed more real.
I was to have many other "old bearded guy vs. night light" experiences as I grew and went to Sunday school. I had a keen interest in the Gospels and wanted to talk about what Jesus' teachings meant for our lives. It seemed to me, however, that we spent a lot of time talking about heaven and hell and salvation instead. I asked all my Sunday school teachers why it was okay to kill people in wars, when Jesus said we had to love our enemies. Most of their answers boiled down to "Because it just is." I didn't understand why our main Christian goal was supposed to be getting as many people to say "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior" (which Jesus never commanded us to do), rather than loving our enemies and neighbors (which Jesus clearly commanded us to do).
As an older adolescent, I began to feel more and more alienated by youth rallies and other evangelical events in which my church participated. The techniques I was learning that were designed to win souls for Christ would have made me not want to become a Christian had Christ not already claimed me.
I didn't have the words for it then, but I realize now that I was bothered by what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." I would have been so relieved to hear someone tell me as a teenager that following Jesus was terribly difficult and might mean giving up my life. I know that sounds strange, but that burden would have been easier for me to carry than the burden of trying to believe "Giving your life to Jesus will make you happy, happy, happy." I still loved Jesus and wanted Jesus in my life, but my relationship with Jesus did not mesh with the relationship my peers seemed to be having with Jesus.
When I met Mennonites for the first time at Bluffton (Ohio) College, I finally found people who made following Jesus' teachings in the Gospels a priority. For the first time in my life, I was learning things about God that resonated with my own experiences of the Divine. And I began encountering God again in ways I hadn't since I was a child.
Probably the most significant of these encounters happened when I was 19 and alone in my dorm room. I had been reading a book of essays by C.S. Lewis and suddenly was flooded with the acute realization that God was good and Jesus was who he said he was. On the heels of this epiphany came the understanding that what I believed or didn't believe about salvation, heaven or hell would not change objective reality. These things belonged to God. They were not a burden that God expected me to carry.
As I have gotten older and worked with Christians from a variety of backgrounds (including charismatic and evangelical), I have become more broad-minded. I have met people who, as Augsburger describes, hold in high regard salvation through Christ and imitation of Jesus' mission and spirit. Several conservative evangelicals have ministered to me during difficult periods of my life and taught me truths I had not understood before. My experience with Colombian Mennonites has shown me that Liberation Theology and evangelical fervor are not mutually exclusive. One really can focus both on salvation and meeting the physical needs of others.
But I must admit that when I am around large groups of people in the throes of ecstasy as they contemplate their salvation, I still feel a little alienated. Such worship times are yet another "old bearded guy" that is foreign to my own experience of God.
However, I know that God is not a night light, either. God is the Creator who gifts each of us with a special way of knowing him. We all see through a glass darkly. One day we will see the Same Thing.