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: 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: Changing Days

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Gentle Reader,

That first boyfriend of mine dumped me shortly after my 17th birthday. Looking back, I can laugh about how it all went down, but at the time it was devastating. I was naive enough to think that we’d get married one day. I believed him when he said we would.

I also believed him when he told me I was slutty and placed all the blame on me for our physical transgressions. Already an over-responsible person, I took that as truth.

Truth. It’s always been important to me. If only I had understood then that truth comes from God alone and anything that doesn’t square with what He says is to be rejected.

My friends were exceptionally supportive. I remember two or three of the guys (I had far more guy friends than girl friends) taking me out on the town frequently for the rest of that summer. We had no money, and so mostly drove around or ate incredibly cheap and disgusting food, but I appreciated them. I appreciated my family rallying around me. But the ache didn’t go away.

I made a crucial decision at that moment, though I wouldn’t have articulated it as such. I would be accepted. I would be loved. No matter what I had to endure or what it took.

Enter boyfriend two, the abuser. I wrote about him already, so won’t waste anymore space on an unworthy topic. I had to deal with the nastiness to get what I thought I wanted, and that was it. I wasn’t worth a good relationship, anyway. My school was disintegrating, I was down to 104 pounds on a 5’7″ frame, college loomed. As the stress mounted, I noticed handfuls of hair falling out each morning in the shower. I was cold all the time.

The worst part of it was the self-imposed silence. Having never been emotionally demonstrative, I had no tools in my belt to express what I was feeling. All I knew to do was soldier on. I grew increasingly cynical about people who called themselves Christians, never realizing that my own claimed beliefs clashed wildly with the life I was living. If you were to ask, I would have given you all the right answers about Christianity. If you were to watch, I would have shown you that I was, in fact, among the biggest of the hypocrites.

My family had moved away from church. I didn’t blame them. I embraced it. On rare Sundays I would feel compelled to go, only to be disappointed at what I regarded as intellectually shallow and emotionally manipulative. Occasionally that disappointment would be eclipsed by a growing unease. What did I really think, really believe? As my interest in social justice grew, this question became increasingly important. Why was justice important to me? Why was I fixated on truth and angered by those who would twist it?

Graduation came. I made my speech, threw my cap, gave lots of hugs. I couldn’t wait to be done with the academy. I wanted away from those people and their platitudes. I was eager to enter college, excited about academic challenges and meeting new people.

Securing a reporter’s slot on the college paper, I roamed the little campus in my baggy green pants, Converse All Stars and sweatshirts, waist-length hair billowing behind me. I loved covering stories that were important to the students; things like rising tuition and the parking situation were sure to raise my righteous indignation. I dove into art history, political science, journalism and literature.

Busy with classes, new friendships and work at the library, I was surprised when the nagging questions remained. They intensified during the required logic and critical thinking course, a few weeks into which I finally gathered up the courage to dump the abuser, thanks to the encouragement of a good friend. I wish that it hadn’t taken me over a year to realize that A+B did not equal C when it came to him and me. I also wish I could tell you that I emerged from the experience confident and able to make better relationship decisions, but I was still desperate to silence the “not good enough” reverberating in my soul.

It was those relationships, with friends and significant others, that would lead me to finally tackle the questions.

My journey to faith. (15)

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