The dreaded ‘Just as I Am’

Photo: Marek Piwnicki, Unsplash.

As a kid, no melody made my stomach churn more than “Just as I Am.” We sang it mostly at tent revivals during the summer. The heat and the smell of canvas seemed like salt added to beads of perspiration, a reminder of the eternal consequence of failing to answer the preacher’s invitation to walk down the aisle. 

We routinely gathered to hear George R. Brunk II, a traveling -Mennonite revivalist and divine mercenary of sorts, sent to remind us that we were not yet right with God and that this was surely our last chance to set things straight. 

At least that’s how it felt to my childlike heart. 

George Brunk was every bit the guy for the job — a large man with a deep voice, a heap of a soul — and exactly the kind I imagined God would commission to lay layers of gold thicker than tar on me “just as I was,” since I was not yet right with the Almighty. 

It always felt like the altar call was orchestrated especially for me. I suppose the invitation was generic enough to snag just about any hearer with a conscience. It went like this: 

“If you are aware that you have fallen short . . .” (I was well aware.) 

“If you have already asked Christ into your heart but need to re-dedicate your life . . .” (How would I know?) 

“If you harbor sin that you are not sure you have confessed . . .” (I was always unsure.) 

“If you came tonight uncertain about where you would go if you died tonight . . .” (I was nightly, weekly, monthly and forever uncertain, despite my many pleas for Christ to enter my heart.)

“If you are unsure whether all of your sins are forgiven . . .” (Has God overlooked some?)

“If you are holding a grudge or harboring bitterness toward another person . . .” (Are there any souls in this tent not sweating the recitation of their names on Judgment Day?)

Then came the dreaded -finale: “I’m going to wait just five more minutes, for I sense there’s one more person . . .” 

(How come he always looked in my direction?) 

“. . . resisting God’s Spirit, for whom this might be the last chance to escape hell’s clutches. I’ll wait just five more minutes!” 

I could never figure out why so few folks joined me at the altar. I mean, if you didn’t fall into one of those “If you . . .” categories that Brunk set forth like Moses at Sinai, then what in the world were you doing at a revival meeting?  

What was true, for sure, was that I was no saint worthy of heaven. Up the aisle I went.

I’m glad the tent revivals are far behind me. They were not helpful to my life with God. Probably they were helpful to some. I suspect there were folks who found their way to Jesus through Bunk’s altar calls. 

It’s just that, in the long haul, terror and guilt are not great motivators. Oh, those threats can get your child to do whatever you want for a while. But they usually cause resentment and shame, both of which are more likely to convey a person to the dingy precincts of hell than the gilded streets of heaven. 

The shame of it all (as my childlike soul framed such events) is that I don’t remember much of Jesus from them. To me, the revivals were a source of trauma rather than grace. That is unfortunate, because it is the invitation of God’s grace through Christ, not our fear of damnation, that will save us. 

In retrospect, it seems ironic that we sang a song celebrating God’s love “just as I am” when the sermon had been about how God doesn’t accept me as I am. Which is it?  

I always had the feeling that I had to do something to make myself right with God before I could sing that song — which made no sense, since the lyrics said I didn’t need to do any such thing. Was I the only one confused? I don’t think so.

Today, I love that old hymn, “Just as I Am.” I see now that it reflects Christ’s approach to the worst of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation — the one so far removed from its memory of Christ that it was threatened with expulsion from the kingdom (Rev. 3:14-22). 

And yet it was to that same church that Christ said: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”  

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