Home by Nightfall

By Kersley Fitzgerald

[Warning: the following is metaphor and conversation. Not to be taken as hard-core theology. Just something to think about.]

I was writing an article on the various ways different religions regard salvation. When I researched Orthodox Catholic, the words seemed to swim in front of my eyes. With a foreign culture you never know if the vocabulary is the same. But I'm e-quaintances with an Orthodox Bishop on LiveJournal, so I asked him. On the topic of "can you lose your salvation," he said, "You will not lose your salvation...we will arrive home by nightfall."

I thought that was the most beautiful and imagery-filled way of saying "once saved-always saved" I'd ever heard. It instantly brought to mind two different scenarios.

Ashley is a Christian. That is, she has a very good fire insurance policy. She was a "good girl" in high school, and, if she didn't walk the "straight-and-narrow" in college, it was at least the "gently-curved-and-not-too-wide." Real life got her in trouble, though. She couldn't find a decent job, and she couldn't seem to keep the jobs that paid the bills. She moved in with her boyfriend — temporarily, and to her own room — to save money. But he needed a home office for his new venture, and she wound up in his bed permanently. Her boyfriend's business slowed down, and she wanted to help with the bills. A friend got her a job as a cocktail waitress at a posh hotel. It wasn't the best situation, but she took it because it paid well. But she never got drunk and never, ever touched the drugs her co-workers got into on their days off.

Like the Waterdeep song says, "Almost no one slides on purpose." The downward spiral starts with long, lazy loops. So wide you can't even tell you're dropping down. Like a coin in a funnel. It looks like it's going in circles.

Ashley found a good church and resolved to follow Jesus more closely. But the looks she got whenever she had to say "I live with my boyfriend" made it hard to concentrate. And the late Saturday nights at work didn't help. It was easier to just stay home.

The tension between who she knew she was and how she was living sent cramps through her shoulders and pounded her head. She pushed through the intense headaches, but they progressed into migraines. She slogged through her shifts and came home exhausted. Her boyfriend hated to see her in so much pain. Like any good man, he wanted to fix it. Wiped out by the headaches and worn down by her boyfriend's loving attention, one day she finally took the joint he offered. Within minutes the ache dulled. She felt horribly guilty the next day, and she put up with three more weeks of headaches. But the morning of a job interview (a real job), she woke up almost blinded. She found a joint in his nightstand, and soon the headache disappeared. She even got the job as the assistant manager of an art gallery. Drinking wine was practically a requirement for the job, but wine was in the Bible, so it must be okay.

Life got a little easier. They were able to move into a house. The relief of the stress meant she only had to smoke about once every two months — although sometimes she'd take a hit if they had friends over; she wanted to be sociable. She always woke up the next morning feeling guilty. And a message at her new church convicted her to steer clear for a good ten months. But her mom got sick, her sister totaled her car, and "one time just to relax" brought her back to her old habits.

Ashley loved her boyfriend. Still, she wouldn't marry him because he wasn't a Christian and she didn't want to be unequally yoked. She even tried to move out once, but she couldn't afford a decent place on her salary. She found a bigger church with fewer questions and went at least once a month. She even downloaded a Bible on her Nook (King James, of course).

How far does Ashley's life have to spiral before you can say she's not a Christian? Truth is, we can't tell. We can make an educated guess about the state of someone's soul, but we never know for sure. What if they're addicted? What if they're addicted, but they're absolutely miserable? What if they fight the addiction, hopping back and forth between despair and something closer to hope?

"We will arrive home by nightfall."

1 John 5:16 says, "...there is a sin leading to death..." and then goes on to say we should not pray for those caught up in it. It sounds scary, but it's such a grace. There is a point in the spiral funnel where the coin is circling fast. But God will not let it drop into the dark abyss. He'll reach down and snatch it; bring it home. We cannot sin our way out of His hand. We will arrive home by nightfall.

The other story that came to mind was that of Nate. Nate was born in a middle-class family with middle-class distractions and consumeristic values. A soccer buddy in high school invited him to youth group. He liked it. The girls were cute and not as guarded as most of the girls he knew from school. Plus they had ski trips. And he liked building houses in Mexico.

He thought about joining the Navs in college, but between the business classes and soccer, he just couldn't swing it — and soccer was paying for school. He did join a frat, though, to help with connections in his future career. The girls who came to the parties were unguarded in different ways, and he took advantage. By his second semester, everyone called him Romeo.

The fall of his junior year, he prepared for the annual barn dance with a six-pack of beer, then stashed a flask in his jacket. After the dance, he toured the campus bars and got back to the house in time to sample the Italian Valiums a friend was passing around. Nate woke up six hours later in the ER. The nurses shook their heads. The doc said she had no idea why Nate was still alive. He promised to sign up for the campus AA, and they released him. His mom found out and sent his old high school friend to look in on him. He even took Nate to church their last morning together. Nate liked it and went for a while, but Saturday games meant travel on Sunday mornings. Once he was finished with school, things would be easier.

A summer internship introduced Nate to the lucrative field of business law. He liked law school, and he liked his paralegal girlfriend nearly as much. But she left him three days before he took the bar. His score was the lowest in the state. He had six months before he could re-take the test, and an awful lot of school loans to pay.

This time, the booze saved his life. He had downed the Scotch to build his courage, but when he reached the roof of his apartment building, he was too blitzed to find a low-enough wall to jump from. He woke in the cold light of day, gravel stuck to his face, resolved to not ever lose control again.

Fifty years, four divorces, and a new liver later, Nate was the senior partner of his own firm. He had done everything in his power to never lose control. Not when the market crashed, not when his infant son lay dying — not even when his brother had found religion and organized that intervention.

He never found out how his old high school friend had found out about his 75th birthday party, but Nate was glad he did. They fell into conversation as if the previous sixty years had never happened. The party turned into breakfast, and then a weekend stay at Nate's beach house. Decades of separation fell away. Nate soaked up his old friend's openness and sincerity. He felt tired. Like he'd been climbing too high with a pack filled with rocks. He wished he could have his friend's easy grace.

"We will arrive home by nightfall."

What Nate didn't realize was that he had been chosen since before his birth. Chosen to be reconciled with God. No amount of sin or dangerous living or selfishness could keep God's hand away from him. All the distractions, all the efforts to maintain control, only served to make his earthly life miserable. Needlessly miserable.

I believe in predestination — that God chooses who He will save — but I've come to think that He doesn't necessarily dictate when and how His chosen become His. If a heart is soft and circumstances are such that belief in a loving God is easy, someone could be saved at a very young age. If a heart is hard, it may take a while. The opportunity to reach others, to share in community, and to live a life filled with God's love may be accepted or squandered. But God chooses the ultimate outcome. His chosen will arrive home by nightfall. No matter how circuitous the trail, or if they don't realize where they're headed until the very end. They will get there.

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Published 5-24-11