How I Came to Faith: These Days

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Gentle Reader,

That dark season when Chris and I both found a new level of intimacy with the Lord led directly to a season of testing. It seems as though the moment our hearts were stolen by Him, He determined to test our devotion. When a non-believer hears something like that, strange visions must arise. Again, there were no burning bushes, no audible voices. The question we were asked is the one that believers have been asked time and again, whatever their era.

Will you follow Me?

For awhile this question made sense in the context of getting our lives on track. We stopped partying. I dove into Bible study and found that it thrilled me. Chris took his medication and went to his therapy sessions. We just kept doing “the next thing,” whatever it was. When your life is mostly about surviving one day at a time, that’s all you can do.

As we both grew more confident in our faith, ourselves and our relationship, the implications of the question changed. Obeying God began to cost something. Friendships began to deteriorate as we no longer fit into a neat little mold. The worst came when it grew clear that we could no longer remain at the church we’d been part of for nearly four years. We both had serious misgivings about the direction the leadership was moving the people toward. Things began to feel uncomfortable. Theological questions began to arise – questions that we could not get satisfactory answers to.

Breaking up is hard to do. By the time we left, the damaged relationships and the spiritual abuse we experienced were intertwined in ways that shouldn’t have been. I was done. Though quite decided in following the Lord, I wanted nothing more to do with the church. Frankly, I thought most of His people sucked.

He kept on me. Will you follow Me? A friend of mine from high school moved back to the area. He and his wife invited us to attend their church one Sunday. I was skeptical, to say the least, but Chris seemed eager to go and I didn’t feel like arguing (again) about church. We went, heard a sermon, met some people, ate some food. Nothing earth-shattering.

Except, it was. The difference between the two churches was staggering. The one didn’t claim to be perfect. In fact, a certain level of dysfunction seemed to be expected. The very imperfect human journey with a perfect Lord was embraced. The occasional spat was tolerated as long as it led to growth amongst the parties involved. The pastor didn’t claim to have all the answers. Instead, he admitted to his own struggles. His preaching came from a place of brokenness, rather than superiority.

I came to the realization that no dichotomy of perfect vs. fallen churches exists. There is rather a continuum from healthy to unhealthy. The place we left had begun well but had slid into unhealthy territory. Too much power was given to too few people with too little accountability. It became about processes and rears in seats rather than the work of discipleship. This new church, while certainly home to some unhealthy people, strove to be healthy. Christ was at the center.

I have hope for the church today because of the people I know in this little congregation. They are beautiful. The building isn’t. The coffers aren’t overflowing. The singing is sometimes off-key. The pastor gets distracted in his preaching. But there is warmth. There is heart.

There is Jesus.

I am a Christian because of Jesus. There is no more compelling figure in all of history. He steps into the midst of our pain, our sorrow, our confusion, our despair and provides the answer. That answer isn’t us. We can’t save ourselves. There is no golden utopia waiting to spring from the minds and hands of perfect people. Such a people do not exist. Look out your window. Look in the mirror. You know it to be true.

Jesus, God-Man, came into this world to rescue and heal it. Believers exist in the “already” aspect of His Kingdom while history looks forward to the “not yet.” It is only by living in light of His Lordship that life takes on purpose and meaning. Joy – the ability to look beyond the now and into something better – flows as a result of knowing Him. He grants grace, mercy, peace. He changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

I am a Christian because of Jesus. He kept my husband alive. He stopped me from killing myself just a little less than a year ago. I have seen Him work in time and space to such a degree that my father-in-law, after breaking both of his knees, was brought from Europe to the United States by a missionary who “just happened” to be in the area. The only missionary in the area that our church had any kind of contact with. I have seen babies who should have died thrive. I have seen marriages restored. I have seen prodigals return. I have had bills paid and needs met. I have witnessed testimonies of those who tumors have disappeared.

Above all, I have seen love. Real, selfless, lasting love. I have watched people spend money they can’t spare to help others in need. I have known some whose wretched tempers used to control them who are now gentle as lambs. I have seen big men rock children to sleep. I have seen women with nothing in common embrace each other as sisters. I have siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents all across this area because of Jesus.

I could not see Him until my eyes were opened. Again, I don’t understand the mystery of His will and ours. All I know is that I reached a point where I wanted to see. I no longer desired to suppress the truth. And there is truth, my friend.

His name is Jesus.

My journey to faith. (15)

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

How I Came to Faith: School Days

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Gentle Reader,

Kermit T. Frog famously sings that it ain’t easy bein’ green.

It ain’t easy bein’ a teen, either.

When I entered seventh grade, not only did I enter junior high but I left behind all the friends I’d made over six years. While the bulk of them moved up the rung of the public system, my parents decided to put me into a private school. Over the course of four years or so, the population in our town had exploded, but the schools hadn’t kept up. The one small junior high was forced to have double shifts that year, and my parents didn’t want me to have to deal with that.

The night before I entered the academy, I was a nervous wreck. Would anyone like me? Was the outfit I had picked out good enough? What about my crooked teeth; would people make fun of me? Would I make any friends? Would I be able to find my locker and work the combination? Would I get hungry before lunch?

I lay in my bed, tears pooling on the pillow. Entering this new school was going to take an act of supreme bravery. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to do it.

At what point the worries turned into a prayer, I don’t know. This was the first moment in which I can recall reaching out to God with any kind of intense longing. I’m certain that my prayer didn’t make any sense. I probably asked Him to make sure I didn’t have any zits the next morning. (What girl wouldn’t?)

To my astonishment, He spoke to me. I didn’t hear an audible voice. I didn’t see a burning bush. There was no angel bearing a scroll of instruction. My mind simply rang with His precious whispers of assurance. My heart swelled with His love. I was comforted. I knew He was with me and that, somehow, He would provide me with the courage I needed to begin the awkward transition from child to adult. I slept peacefully that night, clutching the two stuffed dogs I’d had since babyhood. It would be all right.

And, it was, in many ways.

I did make friends, but, of course, those relationships were not without the attendant drama of the teen years. Braces were eventually slapped on my teeth. I played basketball and wrote outlandish stories. Slowly (very, very slowly) I developed a sense of style – if flannel shirts and baggy jeans can be called style. This was the “grunge” period, after all. In the beginning, I had excellent teachers and good, weekly chapel services. I was being challenged to learn and loved it.

That first year at the academy, two highly significant events took place, events that continue to impact me today. First, I was not invited to a party. I was the only one in the entire grade not invited to a party. Only my locker was empty of the invitation that had been taped to all the others. The knowledge of being publicly excluded instilled a deep sense of shame. I had not had any real issues with identity until then. Why was I not good enough?

Second, I got very sick with what seemed to be a bad flu and missed a week of school. One morning I even fainted – twice. This was the start of 15 years (and counting) of brain scans, heart monitors, blood tests and countless rounds of antibiotics. If not being invited to the party didn’t confirm that I was an outcast, being the “freak” who started to feel sick all the time did.

I wanted desperately to fit in. Jesus had been my lifeline during those first difficult months of adjustment, but I began to notice that most of the kids in my class weren’t particularly interested in the things of God. I didn’t want to walk away from what I knew to be true, but I also didn’t want to walk alone. It never occurred to me at that time that I never was alone. Never underestimate the power of peers.

The other thing I began to notice was the hypocrisy of those who ran the school. During my freshman year a revival swept through the student population. This truly was a move of the Spirit, as waves of people would come forward for prayer during chapel services. Kids in my class, kids I knew had wanted nothing to do with God, felt the pull on their hearts and cried out to Him. There was no dancing in the aisles, no swinging from chandeliers. Just simple, heartfelt repentance.

Since the academy was sponsored by the church, it was natural for the weekly evening youth group meeting to explode at this time. Everyone was hungry. I was hungry. One evening the youth pastor began to lead the worship team and we ended up singing song after song for close to three hours. It was beautiful.

Then, the school crushed the movement. Teachers demanded that chapel remain within a half-hour format. Anyone who showed up late to class, even if he or she had been praying with another teacher, was punished. The youth pastor who led the chapel services was asked to do his job for free. Since he obviously couldn’t with a family to take care of, he left. The music that had drawn us to give glory to God was replaced with tunes from the kids’ chapel service. We were told not to hold hands with the opposite sex in prayer or praise.

I don’t know what their motives were. I don’t know if someone had complained. What I do know is that I and many others were crushed. Our enthusiasm seemed to be offensive to the older generation. What if God didn’t like us, either?

It was all too easy to become cynical. I watched as the academy deteriorated, one principal after another unable to provide the kind of leadership needed. I also watched as the congregation we had at last settled in as a family forced the pastor out of the pulpit. My heart grew bitter. Adults seemed so stupid. So petty.

After I turned 14 I suddenly lost all the “baby fat” of childhood. Halfway through my freshman year almost all of my clothes were too big. I got compliments. People started to tell me that I was pretty. Oh, did I want to be pretty. I wanted SO MUCH to be pretty – and to have a boyfriend. I was at the top of my class. My family, though not perfect, loved me. I had lots of friends. I knew the truth about God. I should have felt fulfilled and excited about life. Instead, I began flirting with anorexia my sophomore year.

The more weight I lost, the more compliments I got. Talking on the phone discussing who liked who became far more important than reading that Bible I had loved for so long. I didn’t want to pray because I knew that, if I did, the uncomfortable feelings of conviction that surfaced from time to time would get stronger. I saw how so many people around me twisted those beautiful words to get what the wanted. I saw how they “loved” Jesus. I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Still, I could not quite let go. On one occasion, I even wrote a letter to the principal, detailing verse by verse how a certain passage did not mean what he claimed it meant. That landed me in his office, threatened with suspension. The article I wrote for the school newspaper about how it wasn’t following Jesus’ example to expel pregnant girls but allow their boyfriends to remain landed me in his office, threatened with suspension.  Senior year I engaged in a nasty tangle with a woman over the way the student council was being run – and was nearly expelled.

Injustice and manipulation were all around me. I believed in God. I rejected His people.

Aching for the love of Christ but unable to express it, I plowed headlong into the first of bad dating relationships – with a pastor’s kid. Unfortunately, he was the stereotypical pastor’s kid. I wanted “romance.” I wanted to fit in. I was naive and walked right into a pit. He wasn’t nice to me; never seemed to have a compliment. Didn’t mind telling me about the pornography he was addicted to. Flirted with other girls incessantly. Pushed me physically. But I deserved this, didn’t I?

After all, I wasn’t good enough.

My journey to faith. (15)

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