What is conversion? In Evangelical Protestant faith, conversion is an active step that one takes to commit to a life of following the will of God by accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior and Lord of their life. It requires repentance of the life of sin that one is born into, i.e. if a person has broken even one of the ten commandments, they are a sinner. All sinners are doomed to an eternal life in hell. No one can go to heaven unless they take this step. Conversion is only the first step of a life-long commitment of dedication to following Jesus Christ.
By the age of seven, I had probably broken every one of the ten commandments. No I hadn’t murdered anyone, or committed adultery. But I had hated enough that under the standards of Jesus Christ, I would be considered guilty of murder.
Is it really possible for a child to hate? Absolutely. I hated my brothers when they got privileges that I couldn’t have. I hated my friends when they hurt me. When someone hurt me, I hurt back. When my parents restricted my activities, I would hate them. I was disrespectful and disobedient to the core.
My parents took me to Sunday School every Sunday. Church followed Sunday School, as well as evening services on Sunday night. Wednesday night was Bible study. It may have been geared to adults, but my parents were determined that even if their children didn’t understand the adult bible study, they would still learn something by osmosis. In the mornings at the breakfast table, mom or dad would read scripture and pray for all of us before we started our day. At least once a week, my parents would gather the family together and we would get on our knees in the living room in front of couches and chairs, for a family prayer time. I had all the religious education my parents could possibly manage to provide. If my parents would have had the financial resources, we would all have been sent to private Christian school. But they were poor. So they did the best that they could with what they had.
Despite all their good intentions, the seed of rebellion was well entrenched in my soul. It wasn’t that I wanted to be bad, I just wanted my own way. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. It didn’t help that I was the only girl in the family. My dad worked six days a week, often late into the evenings. When he was home, he was exhausted, and just needed to relax. Mom was also exhausted. Exhausted with looking after my disabled brother, from dealing with her chronic health problems, exhausted from looking after the four of us. She was also looking for a break. But even when Dad was home, she still needed to cook and clean after all of us. She was anxious for me to grow up and help with the household chores. I really wasn’t too interested in learning what she wanted to teach me. Besides mom was always home. Her demands got in the way of my free time. I learned to avoid and ignore her, and often deliberately disobeyed her.
I did, however, wait impatiently for the day when my daddy would be home so that I could get attention from him. Although Dad doted on me when he had the time, most of his quality time was spent with his sons, teaching them the skills that men need to learn. Skills like hunting, fishing, taking care of the horses, the dogs, the cars, and the house. I felt left out. Once again, I felt hurt, angry, and jealous of my brothers. I craved attention from my dad.
When I didn’t get the attention that I needed, I acted out. Crying, stamping my feet, lying, stealing and flirting were all good ways to get dad’s attention. It didn’t matter if the attention was negative to the extent that my behavior would culminate in a punishment. Only the attention mattered. When mom would complain to my dad about my behavior during the week, he would lovingly take me in his arms and tell her that she must be wrong. After all, I was so sweet around him most of the time. I had learned to manipulate. To me, it was a competition between my mother and me for dad’s attention. Usually I won.
The sin personality was well entrenched in me by the time I was seven. Yep, seven. I had learned to manipulate, lie, cheat, steal, fight, argue, flirt. All to get my own way. I made an idol of my own satisfaction. My happiness was my god. To me, there was no other reason for living.
That all began to change one summer day in 1961. A big name evangelist was coming to our town. Barry Moore wasn’t Billy Graham (I got to hear him in later years, too), but he definitely had a way of preaching that won a lot of souls for Christ. Mom and Dad, being dedicated church people, volunteered as counsellors and guides for the evangelistic meetings. Since I wasn’t old enough to be left alone at home, I got dragged to every meeting. It wasn’t so bad. I got to sit near the front with some other girls my age and we would giggle and make fun of people. Usually mom or some other adult looking after the children’s section would give us one of “those looks” that would tell us to stop talking and start listening.
I got bits and pieces of the first service. By the second service, Barry Moore had my full attention. Suddenly, without understanding it, I became very aware of the fact that I was a sinner. I knew in my heart that I needed to make a decision to follow Christ. When the altar call happened, I went forward. I cried tears of guilt and shame as a very nice lady helped me to pray the sinner’s prayer. I felt different that night, although I did not understand what had just happened.
Mom and Dad were so excited. Finally their religious education was paying off. I now understood that I needed a saviour. I thought they might back off at this point, let me grow at my own pace, discover my own relationship with the Lord. But that wasn’t to happen. My parents were determined to control my religious knowledge and feelings. The education continued to pour in, and increased in volume. I was supposed to understand the Bible the way they did, and believe in the things that they believed in. Some of the ideas in the Mennonite faith did not make sense to me. Some did. Some were more culturally specific. My parents kept telling me to go to the Bible for my answers. But the King James Bible was very confusing. I didn’t understand all the thee’s and thou’s and the old English phrasing. I found very little that spoke to my young soul. I discovered the rephrasing and telling of stories in Sunday School easier to understand, and so my religious understanding was based more on what I heard in Sunday School than in what I could read in the Bible.
In the next few years, I discovered Christian programs on radio that spoke to me. One of the first times I wrote away for a book, I was quite worried. The preacher, a Reverend Don Gossett, had offered a book. I didn’t have the amount of money to buy the book, but I decided to write him anyway, telling him how much I enjoyed his program, and asking him if he could send me the book even though I couldn’t pay for it. I was quite overwhelmed when I received the book, together with a nice letter from the preacher. I couldn’t believe that someone would actually give away a book to someone that they had never met. That one charitable act made a lasting impression on my life. For several years after that, I was a faithful listener of Reverend Gossett and eventually donated some of my meager savings to his radio program.
At some point in my young life, the Good News Bible was introduced. I was so happy to get a copy of it. Finally, there was a version of the Bible that I could completely understand. My parents warned me that although it was easier to read, I was to remember that it wasn’t an actual translation, it was a version that had been translated from the King James Bible into modern language. Therefore, I should always compare it to the original Bible and not take everything that I read verbatim. I didn’t understand their obsession with the KJ, and was quite happy to study God’s word based on what I could understand in the GNV.
Although my faith was growing, Satan was hard at work determined to make a mess of my life and destroy it. Confusing things had already happened to me. Satan was telling me these things were my fault, and somehow I thought that if I prayed hard enough, these bad things would stop. They didn’t. They got worse. My parents and the church preached the law, repentance and forgiveness. But nobody was teaching wisdom and discernment.