Where the Light Fell: A MemoirMy new memoir, Where the Light Fell, includes a few scenes from the childhood church I attended, near Atlanta.  How does this compare to scenes from your childhood experience?

My most memorable Sunday evening service takes place when Dr. M. R. DeHaan, a radio star from Michigan, speaks at a weekend conference. It’s like the World Series of church. Our family arrives early for a parking place, and still we have to walk a long way. So many newcomers show up on Sunday night that my brother and I get permission to join the teenagers in the usually-closed balcony. I feel like I’m in a sports stadium, looking down on all the balding heads and women’s hats, with the choir and preacher way off in the distance.

On the main floor below, hundreds of hand-held fans are rippling, like ragged ocean waves. They’re flat pieces of cardboard stapled to what looks like a Popsicle stick, and you wave the fan in front of your face to create a breeze. The front side of the fan has a picture: Christ at Gethsemane, or the Good Shepherd, or maybe a photo of our church. The opposite side has an ad for a funeral company.

Teenagers sitting nearby decide to edit the funeral ads. To air-conditioned chapel, they add, “Keeps the body from smelling.” Next to ambulance service they print, “Oops, too late,” and by 24-hour oxygen they write in, “Just when you don’t need it.” We spend most of Dr. DeHaan’s sermon vying to come up with the best slogans. My brother, Marshall, suggests an overall motto for the funeral home: “We always let you down.”

After the sermon, our pastor announces that we’ll be collecting a “love offering” for Dr. DeHaan. As the ushers spread throughout the sanctuary, one of the rowdier teenagers drops a couple of M&Ms onto the main floor below us. A few minutes later, he proposes dropping a straight pin on a bald man’s head. Just then, another teenager “accidentally” knocks an overflowing offering basket off the ledge. Paper bills float through the air, swept up and down by ceiling fans, and scores of coins roll around noisily on the slanted wooden floor below. Some coins find the heating grates and dive through with a loud plink! The pastor scowls mightily and deacons rush up the balcony stairs to restore order.

That’s the last time we sit in the balcony.

Church services usually end with an invitation. With every head bowed and every eye closed, we listen to the pastor or evangelist make a plea for the unsaved to accept Christ. “You don’t get to heaven by being good. Or even by going to church. There’s only one way, my friends, and you can do it right now. Maybe someone here today is not sure you’re going to heaven. Dear friend, now is the day of salvation. Raise your hand if you want it. Yes, yes, I see that hand. Bless you. Yes, all over this auditorium…God bless you, yes, yes.”

Like a circling mosquito, the speaker’s words seem to come closer and closer, and my guilt surges up. “Are you sure your sins have been washed away? Maybe you’re thinking, ‘Preacher, I will someday, but not yet. Let me have my fun for a while, let me sow my wild oats.’ Or you young people, ‘Maybe after school’s out this summer…’” Fear closes in around me, squeezing my heart and lungs.

The organ strikes up, and together we sing the invitation hymns, such as “Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!” Just like the Billy Graham crusades on the radio, these invitations end with “Just As I Am.” We sing all seven verses.

Nothing plagues me more than the question of whether I am really saved. I’ve said the sinner’s prayer so many times that I can spell it backwards. I go forward, and get prayed over by church elders while I keep my hands clasped together and my eyes squinched shut. I do it again, several times, afraid salvation is like a vaccination that might not take. Still, I can never silence the nagging questions. Do I really mean it? Is it genuine?

Finally, when I turn ten, Mother decides I am ready for baptism. I gloat around Marshall, who had to wait until his eleventh birthday. First, I have to sit through a nervous meeting with our pastor, Brother Paul Van Gorder, in his book-lined office. He leans back in his leather chair across the desk from me and asks, “What does baptism mean to you, Philip?”

I recite the correct answer that I’ve practiced. “I want to make public the change that happened inside me when I accepted Jesus into my heart.”

“I believe God has great things in store for you, Philip,” he says. “Baptism is sacred. It’s permanent, no turning back. Don’t do it unless you’re ready to commit yourself for life.” I swallow, and it feels like something is stuck in my throat. I pretend strength, nodding that I’m ready.

Our church schedules baptisms during the Sunday evening service. Behind the platform, curtains hide a baptistry inset in the center wall, and on baptism nights the curtains open to reveal a step-in tub with a painting of the Jordan River in the background.

Four of us get baptized the same night. After the sermon, the choir starts singing a hymn, and we four make our way to the dressing room. We are all barefoot, and the pastor gives us each a white robe. Though the room is not cold, I shiver as I pull the robe over my t-shirt and white pants.

Brother Paul reviews the instructions. “Grab hold of my hand and don’t let go. Don’t worry, I’ve got you. I’ll pull you up. Just relax.” I tell myself to relax, but I don’t know how.

The solemn ceremony begins. I watch from the side as two women disappear under water and come up with dripping hair and the thin robes plastered against their white clothes underneath. It’s strange to see grown women go limp in the pastor’s arms. One woman is crying, with black marks streaking down from her eyes.

I smell mold from the baptistry, and hear a buzzing in my ears. My heart is sliding around in my chest. What if people can see through my clothes? What if I lose my grip, and slip and drown? I keep thinking I have to go to the bathroom, even though I just went. I concentrate on holy thoughts instead.

Brother Paul nods to me, and I step into water that’s cold enough to make me suck in sharply. I try to hold my breath and control my chattering teeth. “In obedience to the command of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and upon the profession of your faith in him, Philip, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Suddenly I am under water, my eyes shut tight, feeling a strong hand against my back and another pinching my nose, my own arms crossed in front of me. Then I break through the water and gulp in air. It’s over, just like that. I move toward the steps on legs that feel jointless.

“Now walk in newness of life,” the pastor says, and half-pushes me up the steps…

 

 

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26 responses to “Kids in Church”

  1. Philip, just so grateful for your gracious life-giving response to all you experienced growing up and even as an adult. We all experience some significant disappointments in life with family or friends or teachers- and as you write about- or God. Yet- you have allowed your pain and questions to turn us toward hope and help and the ultimate Good that is in the person of Jesus- not us broken followers.
    Thank you for writing your latest books – I have read the Memoir and Vanishing Grace…they are the perfect bookends.

  2. Brent Mangus says:

    Dear Philip,
    I am on chapter 16 of your memoir, and I am both wrecked and grateful for you writing this down and sharing it with the world. I grew up IFB, but in the 80s and 90s. My Grandfather was my pastor, and he was very good friends with many of the men you mentioned that would come and speak at your church. Every year Peter Ruckman would come preach at my church and then would come to my grandfather’s house and have dinner with my family. He was like a god in our circles. So many of the things that you shared and that you struggled with internally, I too struggled with. I have since forgiven the IFB culture that I grew up in. In one way I am most thankful for it is that I have never doubted the authenticity and power of the Word of God (though not just the KJV). Eight years ago after a 14 year addiction the one thing I turned to was the Bible and I started reading it and began a true relationship with Jesus.
    Thank you again for sharing your story so far. Because it rings so close to home for me, I can only listen to a little bit at time or else I might get overwhelmed with emotions.
    God bless,
    Brent

  3. Tony Beard says:

    Philip,

    I’ve just finished listening to your narration of “Where the Light Fell” and I can’t begin to tell you just how helpful it has been for me. I married into a family with a history and conditions astoundingly similar to the home you were brought up in. Listening to your unfailing devotion to your mother and your brother was so enlightening to me. I’ve heard similar stories from my wife about her childhood, and have watched her offer that same love and grace to her older brother, who incredibly has been on the same track that your older brother has taken. Her father, who was in the ministry, has since passed away due to suicide, which brings about a tragic, complicated journey that we’ve been on for the majority of our marriage. Your words have helped me understand why I must give space for her to continue her ministry to her brother.

    At about halfway through your book, I looked your brother up on LinkedIn, and wrote him directly. I doubt he sees those things, but I wanted him to know that he is loved by me, and that his story matters to me. I’m sure he’s getting a lot of that now with your memoir going public, which is great! But if not, would you tell him for me? I love, admire, and appreciate the Philip and Marshall Yancey’s of the world.

    I look forward to continuing my journey through your writings, now with the background of your story to give me additional context. I love you, brother.

    Lives of great men all remind us
    We can make our lives sublime,
    And, departing, leave behind us
    Footprints on the sands of time;

    Footprints, that perhaps another,
    Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
    A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
    Seeing, shall take heart again.

    Let us, then, be up and doing,
    With a heart for any fate;
    Still achieving, still pursuing,
    Learn to labor and to wait.

    Thank you for walking the path, I see your prints and I’ll keep going in the same direction.

  4. Rachel Rim says:

    Dear Philip,

    I just finished “Where the Light Fell,” and was truly astounded to learn your full story after reading so many of your books. I came away feeling both honored and humbled by your invitation into the deep wounds of your life. I will have to re-read your books now with this new lens of what you suffered to attain your wisdom. Thank you for writing this memoir and allowing us to glean a harvest of grace from your deep grief. I am reminded of a line from “A River Runs Through it”: “All good things come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.” Thank you for wrestling with what does not come easy.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      What a beautiful “grace note” you have sent me, Rachel. I’ve waited years–no, decades–to tell my story, and the affirmation I’m getting from you and others eases my anxiety immeasurably.

  5. Dani Stelle says:

    I am very much looking forward to your book and will be ordering it from Germany – thank you for writing it!
    The evangelical church I grew up in has American roots, so my experiences were very similar. Now I belong to the protestant church and get to experience baptism as an act of love, of God saying yes to us. Very healing every time 🙂

  6. Berwyn says:

    I am very excited to read your memoir, Philip. Your books have become very important to my faith journey.

  7. Samuel Prem Chandar J says:

    Dear Sir,
    Eagerly waiting for the release of the book. Now I start to read the book a companion on crisis. It gave the great insight about life. This book too will provide facts about the Church on Scriptural basis. Thank you for your efforts to release the book at right time. All the best

  8. Nila Haug says:

    Since I was sprinkled as an infant, I never realized how traumatic the baptism custom might be for a young person. I have known of young persons who were “pushed”/encouraged by parents to be baptized even when they didn’t want to and I have known a young boy, age 9, who wanted to be baptized but was told he was too young. He is now 16, and refuses to go to church. So sad. I believe parents, not only pastors, ought to discuss at length what baptism really means, and not just talk about the process.

  9. Ann Morrison says:

    I am looking forward to your book. Though the years my memories of church going and ritual are similar. My views have changed and I have grown thank God. I love how your stories bring on conversation and touch on eternal truths. You truly care for our culture as Makoto Fujimura states in his books on faith and culture.
    Thank you,
    Ann Morrison

  10. Jean Coombs says:

    If C.S. Lewis said “We read to know we’re not alone” that is certainly the case when I read your books. Thank you so much, dear Philip, for articulating much of what some of us went through as teens and are, even now, experiencing from time to time. I can’t remember all the times I accepted Christ as my savior in case I didn’t “do it right” the other times. You are such an encouragement to me. Thank you. I can’t wait to read the book!!!

  11. Martin Hoffmann says:

    Sprinkled into the body of believers as an infant and confirmed at 15 by a pastor who professed atheistic thoughts I became a believer at age 17 in one of those altar-call churches and was rebaptized at age 30 by immersion because I wanted to profess my faith in Jesus Christ publicly. My parents did not attend any church during my childhood so I missed out on such memories but also on some good biblical teaching. Praise the Lord for that congregation and the Holy Spirit pursuing me into adulthood!

  12. Jeanette Kibler says:

    I was dunked at the age of 14, and did not have a clue of what it meant. My clearest memory of that event is that I forgot to take dry underwear. I currently belong to a PC USA church where we are frequently urged to remember our baptism. Guess what comes to mind.

  13. Amy says:

    Hi, I enjoyed reading this post. I just want to say this is the book I’ve been waiting for you to write. In all your books, the little slithers of information of your childhood church have been absolutely fascinating…this is because I have been completely traumatized by fundamental Christianity, particularly the IFB. I feel really sorry for the children that have been raised in these homes and churches. The sad thing is I got caught up in these churches in my 30s. I wasn’t even raised in it. I was somehow sucked in by well-meaning lovely and good intentioned people who had a desire to serve the Lord and share the gospel. Sadly after sucking me in with their niceness they started mutating into a group of intolerant and judgmental people that perverted the gospel of grace by their legalism and ignorance. If you didn’t eventually fit their mould they would start to turn on you and shun you. It was very painful. Friendships were based on obedience. Many times I felt spiritually inadequate. Then I started to view God as this tyrant that eternally disappointed and angry with me. Thank God I saw the light and ran away. Thank God I didn’t lose my faith in God…I nearly did. However I did lose my faith in other Christians. They are absolutely crazy. This pandemic has shown it. I’ve never seen a bunch of people with more hang ups than I did in a fundamental church. I find secular people much more easier, tolerant, and encouraging to be around right now. They show more grace than the fundamentalist.

    Really looking forward to your memoir. All your books have been a great read. ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ and ‘Soul survivor’ hugely impacted me, and are my favourites.

    P.s I have no desire to sing ‘Just as I am’ ever again 🙂

  14. Darcy Noskovic says:

    It’s so comforting to know it wasn’t just me who experienced the constant doubt as to whether I am really saved. I also answered countless altar calls and lived with terrible fear as a small child. I came to believe there must be something very wrong with me. Can’t wait to read your book! Thank you for all of your books, your honesty is like a hug of acceptance to the small child still inside of me.

  15. I remember our pastor, a quiet, non-confrontational man, holding up a mason jar of used chewing gum. It had been collected from under the pews by Saturday’s crew of women who had done a thorough cleaning of the sanctuary. I don’t remember the pastor’s words of reprimand, presumably something about treating the House of the Lord with more respect than sticking you used gum under the pew. All I remember is that jar of used gum!

  16. Joyce James says:

    So many memories your story brings back. I laughed when reading of the very natural kids antics. It helps to remember the good that we did somehow imbibe despite the fear programming. I am eagerly awaiting your book. When will it be available in New Zealand?

  17. Kathy K. says:

    Thank you Philip. I didn’t grow up in a Baptist church, but I can relate to so many things that you mention. I became a Christian as a 13 year old, but it was not until 16 that He became more real to me, starting with heartbreak from a teenage romance. God walked with me during those following years, lonely and miserable, but transformational. I took great solace in the Psalms and in the words of Jesus. My faith was built on role models from church as well as from my college Christian group. My true friends also came forth and are friends even now. God has been so good. I worry about my kids, they have made choices that I would not have made, and even now as their mother, I want to physically pull them away. But I realize I cannot do that, but I can pray for them on their journey and encourage them, and love them. All is not lost. Seeds of faith were planted and now God must be at work. Thank you again!

  18. Carrol J Grady says:

    I was baptized at ten, and was sure I would never sin again. For a few weeks, I read my Bible constantly and managed to avoid sinning, but before long I was fighting with my brother again, and trying to look beautiful in the mirror – what a disappointment! It took me 50 years, until I learned my youngest son is gay and began to examine all I had been taught growing up, to discover a God of love, grace, and mercy.

  19. Andy N says:

    Philip, thank you for this walk down memory lane. My experience was similar in so many ways. One incident in particular comes to mind. A group of us teenagers regularly sat in the back of the sanctuary talking and goofing off during the worship. One Sunday, the pastor called us down and asked to see us following the service. After reprimanding us, he told us he wanted us to meet him before worship the next week. When that day came, the pastor reminded us of our misdeeds and then asked us to sit as quietly as possible until he started preaching. At that time, he wanted us to just start talking and carrying on like no one else was in the room. He would then call us down and use our behavior as an illustration of why it’s important to pay attention in church. I’m not sure what he said that Sunday, but I’ll never forget how he used our behavior to make a point, and I’ve never forgotten the importance of paying attention in church since.

  20. Carol Benson says:

    I am looking forward to reading your new book! You describe scenes so well as well as the tremendous feelings that go with spiritual steps.

  21. BOB LUPTON says:

    Oh what powerful, indelible memories seared into our young evangelical hearts. I laugh out loud and Peggy asks me what I’m reading. Catholic Peggy couldn’t begin to understand.

  22. Anne Wenger says:

    Thankfully my childhood experience was not like this. Baptized by sprinkling at age 9 and sure I was saved from age 6. Grew in knowledge of what it all meant for those years growing up. Surrounded by teachers who demonstrated God’s love while teaching me His truth.

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