During my childhood, church and family heritage were so intertwined that they seemed to be one and the same. My great-grandparents on the Anderson side had given the land on which Central Methodist Church stood and they had provided the lumber for the construction. It was a fact we were not allowed to forget. Also, my grandfather on the Long side was the Sunday School superintendent for many years and the one who “hoisted the tunes” (led the singing).
A portrait of Great-grandpa and Great-grandma, Nelson and Rachel Anderson, hung on the wall. When I sat in church I felt that I was under their critical eye, as they glared, unsmiling, down at me. The portrait formed for me my first impression of God. I pictured Him as being like Grandpa Nelson—a stern, bearded old man sitting in Heaven watching for me to get out of line. Maybe Grandpa and Grandma were beside Him, pointing out things He might happen to miss! Without meaning to, my Sunday school teacher reinforced my fears, as she often reminded me that God sees and knows all we ever do.
On the other hand, we were taught to sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” So very early in life I figured out that something didn’t add up right. Either God doesn’t know everything, or He doesn’t love me, because if He really knew me He couldn’t love me and still be the holy, righteous One I had been taught about!
As I grew older, I struggled more and more with this contradiction. I tried to be good. I was careful to obey my parents and teachers (usually), and I did my best in school (most of the time). But even when I was trying to do all the right things I was painfully aware of the times I failed, and I knew that even at my best, I was not “good” as God sees good.
I tried rethinking my concept of God. Maybe He was of a gentle sort, like my sweet Aunt Ella. She would excuse my misbehavior with, “She didn’t mean any harm!” But I could not escape Grandpa Nelson and Grandma Rachel glaring down at me from their portrait on the wall!
One year when I was ten or eleven I asked for a Bible for Christmas and I got it. At last, I had the answer in my hands, right there in plain King James English! I began reading it at once, and naturally, I started at the beginning. I enjoyed Genesis and Exodus, but I got bogged down in the ceremonial regulations in Leviticus and I gave up, more discouraged than ever. There must be something wrong with me if I couldn’t even find God in the Bible!
At age twelve I began my years at Oak Hill Academy, a school operated by Virginia Baptists in our remote area of southwest Virginia. It was a boarding school, but students from the surrounding communities were brought in by bus.
Every day at Oak Hill began with chapel in the auditorium. In October of my first year, a minister who was conducting a revival in a nearby church was invited to be our chapel speaker for the week. As he spoke to us each morning, I began to understand about sin, forgiveness, and salvation. I learned that the sinfulness I felt was indeed real, and that, just as I thought, all the good I might attempt to do could not take away my guilt. But there was good news for me! What I could never do by my own effort God did for me in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness and salvation were God’s gifts to me. I could have them by accepting Jesus as Lord of my life.
I thought about what I was hearing all week, and by Friday I was convinced that it was true. Yes, God does see and know all that I think and do, and yes, Jesus really does love me! He loves me so much that He died for me. That morning I joined several of my schoolmates in the auditorium to make my public commitment to God. It was a golden fall day, the sun reflecting on the oak leaves turning red and orange outside the window. Never had the sun seemed so bright, or a day so beautiful!
Oak Hill provided the environment and encouragement for my Christian growth. And I finally did read the Bible through, under the careful guidance of my Bible teacher, Mr. Ussery.
Central Methodist Church closed in the 1950’s. The portrait of Grandpa and Grandma Anderson was removed from the building by a relative. The annual Anderson-Cornett Reunion was held at the church for a few years after it was closed, until the property was sold by the Methodist Conference. At one such reunion, the portrait was returned and placed in its original location. I was surprised when I saw it again after so many years. Grandpa and Grandma did not look at all like my childhood impression of them. They did not appear judgmental or critical. In fact, they looked like kind, gentle people! Did the portrait change, or did I?