God and Me – The Teenage Years

Around Easter 1959, the Billy Graham Crusades alighted upon Australia and New Zealand. Over half a million people attended across both countries. In Auckland, there were seven meetings, all held at Carlaw Park, which was then a stadium for Rugby League. On the first five nights the preacher was the Associate Evangelist Rev. Grady Wilson. Billy Graham preached only on the last two, the 3rd and 4th of April. According to the Billy Graham Center, 48,000 attended the first of his meeting and 60,000 the second. A total of 6,280 people ‘answered [his] invitation to record their commitment to Christ’. I was one of them.

The message was simple – if you said ‘Yes’ to Jesus, you would be born again and enter into Eternal Life – and it was delivered in a rich, baritone, through a powerful sound system to the equally amplified strains of the Hammond organ. As we went forward, bright lights shone directly in our faces. These no doubt served to show the waverers still in the stand how many of us there were but to us, shuffling forward across the playing field, they gave the impression that we moving inexorably forward into an intense, undifferentiated whiteness – God’s Glory, I suppose.

Eventually we reached a group of tents, where helpers with clipboards processed us as if we were newly arrived immigrants. They were calm, efficient, unemotional, noting down our names and the congregations, if any, we belonged to. They gave each of us a leaflet before ushering us gently out into the night. Walking away towards Beach Road, I already knew I was a hypocrite.

Religious experience has three dimensions: custom, belief and faith. Custom consists of religious practices learnt through family and community. People go to church and they pray because those activities are an accepted part of life. Belief provides a set of principles or precepts that can be used to explain the way life is and what should be done about it. Beliefs are the result and the subject of thinking. Faith, to my mind, is an unquestioning acceptance of religious doctrine based in emotional experience, a feeling that one is directly in touch with God.

Many religious people find a balance within this framework that emphasises one dimension rather than the others. Some value the comfort and support of the religious community and its observance. Others need their beliefs to give meaning to their lives and to help them steer a moral course. For others still, nothing is more important than the feeling of being close to God. Their faith is the basis of their confidence and their self esteem.

Billy Graham dealt in faith and it was faith that I wanted on that April night. Belief alone seemed powerless to ease my teenage angst because all thinking did was undermine what the bible said and what the Rev Bowden told me in his sermons whenever I happened to go church on a Sunday morning. The hand of God, the eye of God, the love of God – what did these things mean? They made no sense if you thought about them literally and yet, if they were metaphors, what were they metaphors for? Better to abandon such questioning. Better to take the plunge, the dive into faith and be born again.

I knew what faith meant. I had been in my uncle’s congregation and felt the emotional charge of his preaching. I didn’t think I would ever be moved to leap to my feet and cry out ‘Praise the Lord!’ in response but something of that transformative power would surely help me. Billy Graham might be my last chance.

It didn’t work. I felt the lift all right. I felt that Jesus Christ was calling me and that all I had to do was say yes and really mean it and I would tip, in that orgasmic moment, into a new self. The Hammond organ was blasting out a familiar hymn and, when Billy asked all those who truly believed to come forward, I went because I wanted to be one of those who felt compelled to go.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

The problem was that all the time I was shuffling forward towards God’s Grace a part of me was resisting, as if a small voice were saying ‘No, no, no, no, no. This is terrible. This is corny. This is completely insincere. And useless. Isn’t it useless?’

It was a crisis of sorts. It didn’t end my struggle to make religion meaningful in the context of my own experience. I kept going to bible class and arguing with the guy who took it. I went to church sometimes too. Billy Graham was the last time I flirted with emotional religion, though. From then on, it was belief that interested me, not faith.

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