How I Came to Faith: Tough Days

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Gentle Reader,

The late afternoon sun poured through the kitchen window, setting the bright orange and harvest gold appliances ablaze. I could see the dust hanging in the air. Seemed like I could never get things clean enough.

Chris sank to the curling, pock-marked linoleum, his face caving in to grief.

My husband, my dear, funny, strong husband wanted to kill himself.

The world stopped spinning. I heard nothing but the beating of my heart. The pounding filled my ears, my soul. How was I supposed to respond?

Being the “put your head down and plow through” sort of person that I am, I called my parents. Mincing no words, I demanded that they come over. We had to take Chris to the hospital. Hanging up, I turned to face him again. He was crying. Holding his head. I was too afraid to touch him. I called his men’s group leader. Called our best friends. Anything to fill the time until my parents arrived.

My mom came in and asked me what happened. I can’t remember what I said. My dad helped Chris stand up and pack a bag in case he was admitted. Chris didn’t need convincing. He climbed into the car. I wedged myself between him and my brother. Nobody said anything.

Why is it that hospital waiting rooms are so uncomfortable? The five of us sat in a row, pleather (or whatever that material is) sticking to our sweaty skin. I filled out forms as best I could. Chris calmed down some. Several tissues were balled in his hand. An occasional tear dripped off the end of his nose. We listened to a young boy scream, three of his bloody fingers wrapped in an old towel. Someone vomited. The automatic doors swished open and swished shut with each admittance.

Chris reached for my hand. He gripped it with an force I didn’t expect. I looked into his eyes and saw the desperate fear. I excused myself.

The bathroom became my own private sanctuary. It didn’t matter if anyone else heard my words. “God,” I began, wavering somewhere between rage and sick fear, “if You are real, then You had better show Yourself.” (I don’t recommend this kind of demand, but, thankfully, the Lord knows all of our weaknesses and shows great mercy).

There was no burning bush. No booming voice. I faced the same questions, grappled with the same fears. What if Chris was admitted? How would we pay for it? Would I have to come and see him every day? (I hate hospitals.) Would he lose his job? Would i have to start working more hours? What did it mean to live with someone who was depressed?

By the time I walked back into the waiting room, Chris was called back. The nurses quickly took his vitals and asked him a few questions. We were ushered into a consultation room to await the psychiatric nurse. My heart kept crying out to God. I loved this man. I had pledged to spend my life with him. Did the “for worse” part have to come so soon?

The psychiatric nurse came in and did an evaluation. After determining that Chris was clinically depressed, she asked him if he genuinely felt that he was a danger to himself or to anyone else. If he did, then she would admit him, but she didn’t think that he needed that. Chris thought he would be okay. I assured her that he wouldn’t be alone. Under orders to see our doctor as early as possible the next morning, we reconnected with my family. My mom told us that we’d be sleeping at their house. Under any other circumstances, I might have bridled at being ordered about.

Looking back, I see my desperation as the real turning point. I could not fix my husband. I could not solve this problem. I had known more than a few people who dealt with depression. I’d even had one friend kill himself at the tender age of 18. This was bigger than me. This was beyond me.

Perhaps we begin to see God when we actively look for Him. The questions didn’t go away – but answers came. Mysterious checks arrived in the mail, one from the cell phone company, one from the power company. Just the right amount to cover the hospital bill and the initial counseling sessions. Chris had little difficulty adjusting to the antidepressants and only missed a couple days of work. I watched him cling to the hope that God was good and that He had a plan. This fueled my own thirst.

I knew what the Psalmist meant when he had described himself as a parched deer. My soul ached for God. This was the step of faith (for both of us), the decision to move from head knowledge to heart devotion. That one, honest, “Please, Jesus!” That one small movement forward. I, the stereotypical prodigal, found myself embraced by the Father who had long been watching for my return home. He ran toward me when I had not the strength or the sense to be the one doing the running.

God will not meet our expectations. He will blow past them. He will take every stubborn demand for evidence or proof and reveal Himself in a way that we cannot, or perhaps should not, deny. We wonder why our lives are marked by pain if God is so good. How many of us are too stubborn, too prideful, to bend the knee to God without the very pain that He allows?

My own head has been far too thick and my heart too hard.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here.

How I Came to Faith: Married Days

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Gentle Reader,

Arriving at an intellectual acquiescence to Christianity left me stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I knew that I could not travel down the roads of other religions or atheism, but I had very little toleration for those who called themselves God’s people. Scripture makes much of the family of God, and I knew that I couldn’t call myself a Christian and not be an active part of that community. How could I reconcile this with the awful experiences I’d had? I’d seen revivals crushed, pastors forced from their pulpits, the Bible used for personal gain. How could I possibly be part of that group?

This was to be a stumbling block for quite some time, but I had other problems. I’d done enough reading about historiography and the bibliographic test in particular to accept that the Bible, and the New Testament especially, had been accurately preserved. (If you are skeptical, do some research yourself – using unbiased sources. They do exist.) I was not hung up on the finer points of inerrancy; it did not matter to me if numbers of soldiers had been rounded up or down. The Bible is not explicitly a history book. Nor is it a science book, so I took no issue with a non-literal reading of the Genesis account. It seemed readily apparent to me that the Bible contained things from the mouth of God and things inspired by the author’s relationship to God. What mattered is that this is what we needed to know.

(An important note here: Not everything recorded in the Bible has God’s seal of approval. I grow weary of people pointing to episodes of, say, incest and claiming that God is fine with it. Anything in those pages that goes against His commands is clearly wrong, even if a consequence is not mentioned).

My problem came in a clash between what my mind accepted as true and what my beliefs pushed me to live out. This dissonance showed itself in my hunger to know more about God while I lived apart from Him. I could read a passage and think, “Yes, this makes sense,” and then go out and do the exact opposite. Don’t sleep around, God says. You’ll get hurt and tangled up if you do. I knew in my gut that was true, yet I was so obsessed with keeping my then-boyfriend (now husband) that I rationalized that, somehow, it wouldn’t happen to me.

Again, I was blind to my own hypocrisy and quick to see it in others.

A mental acceptance of the Gospel does nothing. Even the demons believe (James 1:19). I had enough firepower in my arsenal to engage in intelligent, spirited debate – but my heart was empty. My life was hollow. I didn’t look any different. I didn’t feel any different. And I knew, somehow, that this didn’t make sense. I read of encounters that Jesus had with people and how they came away completely changed. Why was I the same?

Why did I resemble those who opposed Him?

The boyfriend and I got engaged on a beautiful summer’s day in his Alaskan hometown. After at least 5 years away from the church, I suddenly felt that we needed to make it part of our routine. Was this God drawing me to Himself or me making a connection between marriage and going to church? I don’t know how the will of God and the will of man works together. I didn’t want to actually be involved with a church. I didn’t want to get to know people or be part of a ministry. I just thought we should go and listen. Put in an appearance, so to speak.

Chris just shrugged his shoulders and went along.

We decided to go to a service at a large, non-denominational church in our area. I can’t tell you what the sermon was about. I can’t even tell you one song we sang that day. What sticks out to me is the realization that I had to either get on the boat or turn away completely, no matter how little sense the turning away made. As we drove home, I looked at Chris. We can’t sleep together on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday, I said.

He was quiet for a long moment. You’re right, he replied.

This was the first, tentative, adult step I made in the faith. I would love to tell you that it’s been nothing but success ever since, but this is not the shape my journey has taken.

I was still consumed with being accepted. Before long I discovered that a gal I’d met in college also went to this church. We renewed our friendship and it wasn’t long before she and her fiancee were the closest friends that Chris and I had. At the time, she had no discomfort with the difference in her professed beliefs and her party lifestyle. Sadly, we went along for the ride. Even now the smell of stale cigarette smoke makes me think of one too many hours spent in one too many bars.

Chris and I began working with the youth group at the church. This had far more to do with my longing to be part of a special group of friends than anything else. I rationalized this crossing of boundaries into the realm of “them.” I told myself that I wouldn’t be anything like the Christians I had seen abuse their authority. While I didn’t use the position I had to hurt anyone, it didn’t take much time for me to see that the partying I was doing didn’t line up with the message I was sharing with the girls in my group. How could I possibly be arrogant enough to tell them that it was wrong to party, silly to be obsessed with shallow things and that their drama would hurt all their relationships when I was engaged in those very things?

One overcast day a little over a year after we got engaged, I walked past a motorcycle accident and a crying flower girl through the doors of a wedding chapel, on my way to become Mrs. I was scared to death. The church had insisted upon premarital counseling if we wanted one of the pastors to serve as our officiant, and that counseling had been disastrous. Some ill-worded advice had resulted in crashing waves of confession that neither of us knew how to deal with. Who could we talk to? Who would help us? Some of these confessions impacted portions of our families, so that was out.

Still, I took as deep a breath as my corseted dress would allow, squeezed all the blood out of my father’s forearm and made those serious vows.

Marriage was HARD. I was living away from home for the first time, in a 450-square foot apartment that reeked of cigarettes, with a man I wasn’t entirely sure I liked sometimes. The tasks of housekeeping itself weren’t difficult; I’d been taught to keep things clean and comfortable. I could work out a system for laundry and make a grocery list. But how in the world was I supposed to live with this person, day in and day out? He liked his showers way too hot (still does), had a loud voice and a big presence. All the little things that had seemed charming while were dating began to drive me nuts.

Worse yet, he was starting to act funny. Chris never got sick, so when he started to complain of an upset stomach and began to lose weight, I worried. He was tired and snappy a lot of the time. He came home from his church men’s group anxious instead of encouraged. Normally a gregarious, stereotypically outgoing person, he withdrew. He didn’t want to go anywhere. Didn’t want to do anything.

Shortly after our first anniversary, we agreed to go on a camping trip. I was surprised, but happy that Chris seemed more like his old self. Perhaps the long winter and the first difficult days of marriage had taken a toll on him as they had on me. Maybe we’d get into a better routine.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here

How I Came to Faith: Questioning Days

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Gentle Reader,

It was either Christianity or atheism.

I studied the other major religions of the world while in college. Polytheism (the belief in multiple gods, as in Hinduism, Shintoism and Mormonism) made no sense. How can one ever know which god to appease? What if appeasing that god angers another god? I was already an anxious person. I didn’t need that kind of pressure. Plus, these gods seemed far too human in their whims and warring. If I was going to believe, then I needed to believe in something wholly Other, something that transcended all flaws.

Islam was out, too. The extreme predestinationism of the religion made me wonder how Allah could hold anyone responsible for anything. I also hated how women were treated.  Judaism had some appealing aspects, but I couldn’t ignore Old Testament passages that quite explicitly pointed to Jesus fulfillment of the Messiah role.

I either had to fully embrace what I had been taught in my youth or reject it altogether.

After that logic and critical thinking class, I began to examine some of the statements my non-believing friends made. I wanted to know if their worldviews were internally consistent. Immediately I was confronted with a kind of moral relativism; you do what’s right for you, I’ll do what’s right for me and we’ll all get along.

What if, I asked my friends, it was right for someone to walk into the student union building where we all sat and start shooting people?

The quick consensus was that such an action would be wrong.

How could it be wrong?, I asked.

Because it hurts other people, and that’s wrong.

But why is it wrong?

My friends made a shift toward appealing to a higher, outside authority. It is wrong because the majority says it is wrong. But why is the majority right?, I pressed. What if the majority is wrong and this person who wants to kill people is right? Furthermore, who defines “right” and “wrong” in the first place? How do you have morality or ethics without using some religious code, usually a Judeo-Christian one? I really wanted to understand their position. I really wanted to see if this worked.

It didn’t. This moral relativism was just a thin cover for self-centeredness. I watched as one ran through a string of boyfriends and multiple abortions. She justified her cheating and the refusal to take responsibility for her actions – and then railed when she, in turn, was cheated on. My friends wanted to do what they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it, but they did not actually want others to have that same kind of freedom. This drew me back to the definitions of sin and selfishness.

In my science classes, I learned that we humans are, in a nutshell, nothing but a random collection of atoms. We are the result of chance mutations that happened to work. (Yet, in those same classes, we looked at case after case where mutations didn’t work. There wasn’t one positive example). There was nothing noble or unique about our existence. If this were true, I wondered, why then did humanity persist in trying to make our existence noble and unique? Why were we pressed to create art, to understand creation, to express our thoughts and feelings? Were we not at war with our own evolutionary makeup?

If we humans were nothing special, then why did school shootings matter? Why did anyone grieve at another’s passing? Moreover, if life really were about the survival of the fittest, why did we put forth so much effort in saving premature babies, to getting children with learning disabilities into special classes or providing care for the aging? Shouldn’t we let the process take its course?

Most interesting to me was the anger I saw in the atheists and agnostics I knew. I loved these people. We had great times together. Mention Jesus or God, however, and the fur flew. I wondered how they could be so mad at someone they didn’t believe existed.

Christianity is a force for evil, they said. Look at all the wars it has caused.

This got an incredulous look from me. I had been an avid lover of history for as long as I could remember and I could think of no war that was mandated by Christianity. Was God used as an excuse or as a rallying point in some wars? Yes. Did that mean that faith in God led directly to war? No.

There was a deeper consideration. If one does not believe that God exists, then faith is a moot point. Faith means nothing, for the Deity in which the faith has been placed is nothing. Therefore, the cause of war lay directly within humanity itself. Somehow, my friends did not agree with me. They wanted to blame some external “force,” mostly religion, sometimes politics. But was there anything actually external to humanity? Weren’t humans the ones behind, the ones making up, religion and politics?

I asked my friends if they thought that all the world’s problems would cease if nobody had faith in God. Many answered in the affirmative. Some were strangely quiet. You really think that nobody would ever be selfish, that no government would declare war on another, that everyone would be loving?, I asked.

Yes, the loud ones said. The others stayed quiet.

This was far too simplistic a view for me. Everything I knew of history, politics and psychology bore out the fundamentally flawed nature of man. Over and over again, I saw stories, myths, legends, even comic book themes of redemption. I saw humanity repeatedly crying out for something greater than itself to set the world to rights. The idea that we were progressing to some golden era where all evil would be eradicated seemed incredibly naive.

I noticed a fundamental arrogance in these interactions. Those who believed in God, particularly the God of Christianity, were stupid. If they would just open their eyes to reality, they would recant. They would stop being so weak. I wondered if my friends understood that they saw people they claimed to love as stupid. As idiots. As any number of insults.

I could not get past the lack of consistency. I began to interact with people online to see if, perhaps, I could find someone more “mature” in their atheism. The same level of anger and illogical circling became quickly apparent. One, however, surprised me in his honesty.

Politically, he was an anarchist, because his atheism led him to conclude that extreme individualism was correct. Nobody could define “right” and “wrong,” because “right” and “wrong” did not exist.

Philosophically, he was a nihilist, because his atheism had no room for giving life meaning. Meaning, he said, had to come from an outside source.

Most impressively, he told me that he did not want to believe in God. He told me that he would not worship God even if He were to appear in his room.

In one of our conversations, he asked me to provide evidence for God’s existence. I asked him to define what he meant by evidence. He couldn’t. Tentatively, I offered my thoughts on humanity’s consistent longing for meaning and redemption as fingerprints of the Divine upon our lives; perhaps we had these longings built into us as a way for God to call us back to Himself? He rejected that.

Back and forth we went. I offered him something. He rejected it. I noticed this pattern in other conversations and had to conclude that no evidence, not even God Himself appearing, would be good enough for anyone who had already determined not to believe. This didn’t make atheism intellectually superior, as many pronounced. This made  it an emotionally based viewpoint.

Again, I loved these people. I had great relationships with them.

But I could not get on board.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here

How I Came to Faith: Early Days

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Gentle Reader,

We are going to dive into some deep doctrinal waters in weeks to come. I am planning to write a series on the Five Solas – their historical background, what they are, if they stand up to questioning. A project like this takes a great deal of research and careful planning, however, and I don’t want to leave the blog completely inactive while wading through piles of books and stacks of articles. So, as a lover of both story and debate, I thought it would be worthwhile to answer a question I have been asked on multiple occasions:

Why are you a Christian? 

The short answer is that it makes sense on psychological, social and historical grounds. (Please hold your objections to the end of the post). The short answer is always the end point of a long journey, though. It is that journey I wish to tell you about.

I was raised in a Christian home. Some of my earliest memories involve being at church, giggling with other little girls as we twirled in our fancy Sunday dresses. I was taught to pray, very simply, at a young age. My brother and I had cassette tapes that contained Bible stories and worship songs. My parents prayed and I knew that they read the Bible.

My understanding of life began with God. It was a given that He was real.

The thing I don’t remember is the day that I decided to ask Jesus to forgive me and be the Lord of my life. My mom tells me that I was 4 or 5. I came out of the bedroom I shared with my brother and told her, quite matter-of-factly, that I had asked Jesus into my heart. That was that.

I had a simple, innocent understanding of God. When I hit first grade, I told my parents that I was always the first one to finish my lunch and go outside to play. My mom asked me if I was lonely, being all by myself. I told her that I was fine; I would sit on the swings and talk to Jesus. He was my friend.

When I was 7, I received a Bible in my Easter basket. It was a New King James Version done up with Precious Moments illustrations and little devotions for kids. I loved that Bible. (I still have it). I loved that I could read the stories by myself, that I could highlight things I liked (I have a deep, abiding passion for highlighters) and that I could write in it. Never once did it occur to me that I couldn’t write in my Bible. I had questions. I read things that made me cry. Or made me laugh. Or made me think, “God is just SO COOL!” Why not make notes?

I was encouraged to read my Bible – and I was encouraged to ask questions. Faith in God was never presented to me as something requiring a closing of the mind. I was a kid who needed to understand things, and that need splashed across every area of life. Why did the American Revolution happen? Why does 2+2=4? How come dogs don’t like cats? Why can I float in the water? Why was David the only one willing to fight Goliath? How did God make the world? Why don’t some people believe in God?

My parents didn’t always have answers for me, but that never stopped me from asking.

Right about the time I got that Bible, we left the church we’d been involved in for as long as I could remember. That made me sad, but I understood that my parents thought it was the right decision for our family. For awhile we didn’t go anywhere, but eventually my parents began the process of finding a new church for us. This was when I became consciously aware of different ways to order a congregational worship service (of course, I didn’t know that’s what I was aware of). This fascinated me. Could various churches do things differently and still be worshiping God?

We settled into a new congregation, but never quite became part of it. My brother and I were very shy, so the large numbers of children in the Sunday School classes scared us to death. Mom and Dad, being shy themselves, never forced us to join in. I was glad for that, much preferring to sit in the adult service and listen to the pastor’s beautiful preaching. (It didn’t hurt that he had a British accent, and I was already a confirmed Anglophile). I took my Bible with me and, with help, found the passages that he preached from. I was learning.

Things continued in much the same way for a few years. Like most people, it wasn’t until junior high school that my questions about life and all I had been taught reached a deeper level. The ages of 12-14 are so hard; you’re beginning to shed childhood, responsibilities increase, hormones rage. Suddenly, everything I had known to be true was shadowed by a gigantic question mark. It didn’t help that I had started attending a private school, away from all my childhood friends – and that we had been going to a new church.

This is where we’ll stop for today. I encourage you to reflect on your own story.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here