How it all began for me:
When I was around fourteen my dad — who was a born-again Christian, which led to tension with the rest of the family who remained Dutch-immigrant Calvinists — took me to a revival service.
I had no experience of revivals. I didn’t know about altar calls.
Some of my readers may not have encountered that expression before. An “altar call” is when the choir sings Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling, while the revival preacher suggests that while everyone’s eyes are closed you can surrender yourself to Jesus and come up the aisle and kneel to signal your repentance.
Well, that revival service ended with an altar-call. I surrendered to it — and walked up the aisle — with tears in my eyes.
My family worshipped every week at a Christian Reformed church; prayed at every meal and read a bible passage at dinnertime every day, attended Sunday School half of the year and catechism the other half. I had no complaint to make about any of this at the time, and — in general — still don’t.
But the religion we practiced every day of our lives was not the sentimental evangelicalism of that revival service. It was Dutch Calvinism, for farmers. It did not consist of altar calls, but of doing good for your neighbors and for your family and for people in need.
The call I surrendered to that night came from far outside my ordinary experience of what might be involved in the worship of God. It’s no surprise that I was so bowled over by the sentiments and the emotion of the altar call. Especially by Softly and Tenderly.
It was a powerfully spiritual moment for me, at fourteen. Such moments do not generally deserve the mockery they get in some public discourse.
But spiritual moments, inevitably, must subside, and become less exalted, more mundane ones; by the time we got home that night, I was wondering what was supposed to happen next.
To be continued… .