How I Became a Christian – Part 4

The Road to Emmaus
Image by jimforest via Flickr

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. I’ve taken the pains of doing four posts (Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3)  and not condensing it down to one because this was very much a process. There are some who just hear the gospel once and believe it, but I don’t think that’s the way it works for most.  I also didn’t have anyone to answer my questions. I didn’t darken the doors of a church and Al Gore’s internet hadn’t made its way into my house yet. It was just me reading the bible.

One weekend afternoon, some church people handed me a tract written by Billy Graham while I was working the drive-thru at Taco Bell. It came in a plastic baggy with some Reese’s peanut butter cups, for which I was thankful, because I just was about to go on break. I read the tract, put it in the pocket my refried bean-stained Dickeys and went on my way. This was probably the first time I had a clear presentation of the gospel. It didn’t convince me, but I kept it.

Here I was, a stoner kid who had finally come to grips with theism, and I had now come to terms with the fact that Jesus very well could have risen from the dead. I couldn’t just explain away such an odd movement that had it’s start in a such a tumultuous, monotheistic nation and survive, let alone thrive. Nor could I understand how it spread across the Roman empire like wildfire in the midst of such opposition. The Christian message was an offense to both Jew and Gentile. It was especially hard to conceive its success considering that it came through the lives of a few backwater hicks and a skeptical terrorist-turned-evangelist named Paul. I tried to explain it away, but my explanations would be more convoluted than the actual story itself.

My problem was that though such beliefs seemed plausible, I didn’t like where they led. I prized my autonomy.  And my idea who Christians were came from Ned Flanders,  the church-going hypocrites across the street (whose kids had all kinds of problems), wild-eyed televangelists, and the dorks in my school that wore Jesus t-shirts. I did not want to be like any of them. I also did not want to be ostracized from my friends.

On the other hand, for some reason I became increasingly dissatisfied with the things I once considered to be important. Life didn’t look better when I considered what else the world around me offered – education, security, family, success. Those things are not wrong in themselves, but what was the point, really? I had begun to read Ecclesiastes, and the Preacher’s words resonated with me.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity….All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing

The writer later describes the meaningless of self-indulgence, seeking wisdom, wealth and honor. In the end, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

I honestly could hardly believe these words were in the bible! Solomon’s conclusion was to “fear God and keep his commandments” because we are going to have to give an account of our lives to God. But how could I account for my life, when it was altogether wrong? It seemed like I couldn’t keep God’s commandments for over 30 minutes at a time.  I didn’t find the Preacher’s conclusion very reassuring.

Around this time, I also began to ponder the question of death and if there was a life after. You see, my mother had just survived breast cancer, two kids in my school were killed by fallen power lines while working on a farm, and one person committed suicide. We also had a student take a class hostage at gunpoint (no one was hurt, thankfully). It was a weird school-year.

I was really into 2Pac back then  (like any good white, suburban gangsta) and I kept coming back to “So Many Tears“. The lyrics were profoundly meaningful compared to most of the stuff I listened to, and proved tragically to be prophetic in his own life:

There was no mercy on the streets, I couldn’t rest
I’m barely standin, bout to go to pieces, screamin peace
And though my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it
I had my mind full of demons tryin to break free
They planted seeds and they hatched, sparkin the flame
inside my brain like a match, such a dirty game
No memories, just a misery
Paintin a picture of my enemies killin me, in my sleep
Will I survive til the mo’nin, to see the sun
Please Lord forgive me for my sins, cause here I come

Before I ever heard of C.S. Lewis, his ideas were popping in my head. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Maybe there was another world beyond our own world of tragedy and pain.

In my bible reading I had become frustrated with Paul. He spoke over my head. Even Peter acknowledged that Paul wrote things that hard to understand, and I could relate. I decided to give 1st John a try.  First I read him describing himself seeing and handling Jesus, which challenged my idea of him being some sort of Casper the Friendly Ghost.  Then I got to the 2nd chapter and read that Jesus died for the sins of the world. And then I stopped when these words seemingly leaped off the page:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever…No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

It’s really hard to put into words my experience from reading this passage. It was almost like someone was in the room with me reading these passages, there was such an unmistakable presence in the room.  The words carried a weight, with strong conviction I finally saw there was a dichotomy to the whole game of life – the world, and the kingdom of God; and that it was the person who lived for the Father God would be the one who gained, not the person who lived for self-gratification of any sort. And for me to live for the Father, I had to stop playing games and acknowledge His Son.

The next thing I know, I found myself on my knees, praying. It was awkward because this wasn’t something I had done in a very long time. I don’t remember what I said, but I know I accepted Jesus for who He really was and is, and I came from that place like the weight of the world had just rolled off of my shoulders. I felt unbelievably clean, a feeling of acceptance and almost oddly hilarious assurance of my existence after this life. The peace I felt was so thick you could cut it with a knife, it was beyond my own understanding.

The next day when I went to school, and it was like the world was made new. I remember stepping outside in the early morning and looking at the clouds, hearing the birds and smelling the air and just feeling a sense of wonder. My Father God had created all of this, and He loves me!  I also felt a new sense of mercy and love towards people that used to annoy me or even those who disliked me. The bible says that His Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God. (Romans 8:16) This Spirit was now opening the words of the Bible to me. It’s words were not as difficult to understand, as it was before.  There was clarity and understanding. The bible was telling me who I was and how to live, and now there was a power to live it in a way I didn’t think was possible. And there was an assurance of forgiveness when I failed.

It wasn’t about me trying to change or me becoming someone who I wasn’t. It was God changing me from the inside out. My hatred, envy, bad habits and selfishness started to shed off of me. My whole worldview was changing as well. I didn’t at all mind being ostracized by my friends, even though it came at the expense of much ridicule and even threats of physical violence.

Being born-again isn’t just some catch-phrase, it’s a spiritual reality. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

So there was a rational side and an existential side, and both have anchored me over the years. I find it silly when atheists get frustrated when they can’t talk a Christian out of their faith, even when that Christian is less than adept at explaining the rational side. It’s because Christianity is an experience with a Person, the Holy Spirit, who reveals truth, helps us overcome our weakness and comforts us when we fail, amongst other things.

It’s the whole “a person with an experience is never at the mercy of the person with an argument” adage. It’s hard to tell the man swimming in the pool that there’s no such thing as water. It’s especially clear when you meet hundreds of others who have had extremely similar experiences which have led to extraordinary transformations. Even in the absence of having good arguments for my beliefs earlier in life, it was virtually impossible to doubt the witness I had inside my heart.

So therefore I encourage everyone reading this to let go of your presuppositions of Christianity and if you are willing, approach it with an open mind and heart. You might just find that the truth you seek has been expecting you with outstretched arms.

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How I Became a Christian – Part 3

Icon of saint womens who went to Tomb of Christ
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In my last post I talked about my conversion from atheism to theism. My lifestyle didn’t change; I was still acting pretty wild, but I also started to get more serious about getting passing grades under the threat of failing to graduate high school.

I didn’t know who God really was, and I wasn’t sure anyone did. In our pluralistic world, there are countless different religions, denominations, sects making exclusive truth claims. How could I tell who was telling the truth? My gut told me that the truth about God had to be objective, not subjective. The truth about God couldn’t be reduced to something like picking what baseball team to root for, or what kind of soda you prefer. The relativistic, politically correct attitude of “whatever works for you” seemed like a patronizing way of saying “I don’t believe anything you’re saying, but whatever floats your boat, just so long as you leave me alone”.

For a short while, I tinkered with the idea of deism, but that view presents God as some sort of deadbeat dad. A god who does not have anything to do with people has no real purpose for existing in to being with. God by necessity would have to care about his creation, or he is not a god worth our time, so I quickly ditched that idea.

From there, perhaps strangely enough, I moved my attention to Islam. Why exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the inclusive portrayal of Islam  towards the end of the movie Malcolm X. I liked the idea that he was willing to die for what he thought was right, and the 5 Pillars of Islam seemed noble enough. Then I started reading up on Islam. I didn’t get far. I just had a hard time of making sense of its claims.

I was now coming full-circle back to my childhood. I dug up the Bible that was given me when I was confirmed as a catholic and started to go through it. It was partly illustrated, and I got a good chuckle from the different pictures of lions laying with lambs and apostate Jews singing to pieces of wood. What was I getting myself into?

I didn’t accept the bible as God’s word, but I was giving the Bible its day in court. Like most people, I got started in Genesis but I didn’t make it very far. I’m probably opening a can of worms, but talking serpents, forbidden fruit, the mystery of Cain’s wife and giant flood made my head swim, if I’m being honest. I now feel I have a better understanding of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, but then it was just confusing and didn’t seem credible.

Going forward, I just opened the bible to a random spot and started to read. The Psalms poetry was beautiful, and as a “suburban gangsta-ite” I liked the psalmists’ fearlessness. Take for instance the 56th Psalm:

In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me?

I found the transparency of the wide range of emotions of the psalmist refreshing, and I enjoyed the quick-hits of morality and wisdom found in the proverbs, but I struggled to get into the new testament. At the time I think I would have really been happy if I had a copy of the Jefferson Bible. Like Jefferson, I found the teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man”, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, but the miracles were a tough sell. Like Jefferson, I felt like tearing them out of my bible. The other side of Jesus, the “magician side” of turning water to wine, healing the sick, casting out demons and his grand finale – rising from the dead – fell on deaf ears.

But then I had a hard time dealing with the simple fact that the church grew out of the basis of Jesus’ alleged miracles and resurrection. And historically, these men who were spreading this message believed what they preached so much they were willing to be chased halfway across the world, and many of them died some of the most gruesome sorts of deaths without recanting this belief. Why would they do this? In the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul, a former persecutor of the church declares that a little over 500 people had testified to seeing a risen Jesus. In other words Paul was saying “if you don’t believe my testimony, ask around. There are plenty of others who saw him.”

Jesus’ own brother James disbelieved and thought that Jesus was nuts (John 7:5, Mark 3:21), but then later he became a pastor, apostle and martyr. The disciples went from cowering in fear to boldly accusing the Sanhedrin for the death of Christ, and the Jews didn’t even dispute that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Instead they came up with a cockamamie  story about the disciples stealing Jesus’ body, but again, that doesn’t explain the conversion of skeptics – James, Paul, or again, the willingness of the early church to be persecuted, imprisoned, whipped, tortured, exiled, crucified, beheaded, eaten by lions, and cut to pieces by gladiators. Usually a good hoax leads to some sort of gain, this certainly wasn’t the case with the early church.

The astonishing personality and moral teachings of Jesus convinced me that he was an exceptional human being. But that his followers were willing to die before revoking their claim as eyewitnesses of his resurrection was something that made me think there was more to this Jesus person besides being a good, moral teacher. The other question that being begged to be asked – “what did Jesus gain by dying in such a horrible way?” If it was as the bible teaches, that his death was to reconcile me to God,  that would more sense than him dying as some sort of martyr. It would also give proof that God was not some deadbeat dad in the sky, or some lawgiver standing completely aloof from his creation. It would demonstrate that He is a God of amazing love.

I hadn’t made the leap quite yet, but as it turned out, Christianity looked more reasonable than I had imagined it could have.

to be continued

How I became a Christian – Part 2

Hell on Earth (album)
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I spoke of my “Fall” in the convenience store. Now we’ll look at the ramifications. As a kid, I never questioned the existence of God, even though it wasn’t something that was necessarily preached to me. I would not have classified myself as a “born-again” person as a child in any sense of the term.  As I grew, I became less apt to follow my conscience and more inclined to do whatever I felt like doing, just so long that I could get away with it.

My parents unfortunately became addicted to alcohol as I got older.  I took the streets with my friends, playing wiffle-ball, basketball and doing goofy stuff that kids do, mostly to keep away from my house as much as possible.

We moved to another neighborhood around the time I turned 13, and that was about the time I became an atheist. I began to ask questions about life’s meaning. In my observation, life seemed so utterly meaningless. Because my family situation was becoming increasingly chaotic with all the drinking, and because of what I learned in school about Darwinian evolution (primordial-soup-to-people through an unguided process of chance and necessity with no end in view) and psychology (God is just wish-fulfillment) I came around to the sentiment that there was no sense in having faith. No one really provided me with any alternatives at the time.

My trouble with God as that my life seemed so unfair, but I oddly enough I never questioned of where this sense of justice within me arose. Not only was my life an injustice, but others’ lives also seemed so unfair, the world that God was supposedly sovereignty controlling was a mess, and I had been given what I believed were scientific and rational reasons to reject God.

The funny thing about it was that I presupposing infinite knowledge was possible by claiming there is no god. Despite my claims, I couldn’t prove that there was no god, as if I had comprehensive knowledge of the entire universe.  So in one sense I was positing omniscience while denying the Omniscient one at the same time.

I feel as though I was a very consistent atheist, as far as that is actually possible. I say that because I was very nihilistic.  Nothing was particularly right or wrong, because morality had no real basis. There was no point in being moral for the sake of convention, I would act in whatever way served my best interests at the moment. It didn’t help that I was re-enforcing my nihilistic views with gangster rap, either. This led to a very grim outlook on life, and because of that I self-medicated myself with drugs, particularly with weed.

My friends were all into the gangster culture, which is sort of funny because we were mostly white kids living in the suburbs. There was a low-income housing project in the county I lived in, and some of the inner-city gangs flocked to the area to sell drugs, and they started making an impression on some of the youngsters in the neighborhood. I befriended these people through an association from high school. While violence between other social groups occasionally broke out, we were hardly gang-bangers. We were really a pack of hooligans looking to get high and have fun.  (Can I use the word hooligan?)

I was very hostile to anyone who tried to preach the gospel to me. I had several people try and talk to me, ironically some of which were among the people I partied with. Because their lifestyle was inconsistent with their message, I told them where they could stick their gospel. To me, it was all an illusion for the weak; fairy tales and myths.

After about two years of this, and seeing my friends lives getting more out of control, I began to re-consider my worldview. There had to be more to life than just satisfying my pride and mental and physical cravings. And it couldn’t be through just finding meaning in work and family, either, as demonstrated by the brokenness that I saw in the lives of the parents of my friends, and in my family.  The knowledge of God was something I was suppressing. I didn’t want to accept that there was a God because I really didn’t want to be accountable for my behavior. But if we were not here by accident, how then should I live and why?

No matter how much I tried to deny morality, I couldn’t make it really compatible with naturalism, (although I know plenty of people try to find a way to squeeze it in).  And were all these people who claimed to find meaning in God really just deluding themselves, or was there something more to it?

to be continued

How I became a Christian Pt. 1

Adam and Eve before God after their sin - mosa...
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In the absence of any brilliant ideas on what to post on here, I thought I may as well talk about my personal experience in becoming a Christian. I think most people think Christians are that way because they grew up with it. It’s a family thing or just a cultural thing that one mindlessly accepts without examining the issue for themselves. Or some people think that one becomes a Christian because they reach some sort of extreme personal crisis and turn to religion for comforts and to find a community within a church.

This wasn’t the case in my life. As a child I went to Catholic school, and my parents were Catholics, although they weren’t really the practicing variety. They were university graduates and quite liberal. My dad actually turned into an agnostic and even showed a certain interest in Native-American folk religions. He taught on a reservation for a time in South Dakota, and when he and my mother lost their jobs, we moved in with my grandparents in Michigan, who were Every Sunday Catholics.

Not only were my grandparents adamant about regular mass attendance, my dad got a teaching job at the Catholic school.  Although I was confirmed, it didn’t really mean anything to me. I remember having to wear uncomfortable shoes, feeling bored while the priest gave his homily, doing a lot of kneeling, and getting a tasty Communion wafer at the end. That was about it. I went to confession once or twice, and tried to do penance with rosary beads and came to think the thing was a quite a chore.

I think in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe God was the works-oriented God that I felt was being presented to me, and if you’re Catholic and you’re reading this, please don’t misunderstand me. I know there are some Catholics who know God in ways I wish I do. I’m just giving you my point of view as a runny-nosed kid. But as a kid I prayed to God and had a sense of love for him in my heart.

When we my mom got a job in St. Louis, we moved away, and from there on, we only attended church on Christmas and Easter (The CEO club – Christmas and Easter Only. Nyuk, nyuk).

I remember becoming really conscious of right and wrong when I was around 9 years old. My friends were regular thieves of the gas station, filling their pockets with Now and Laters and Laffy Taffy. I think the owners of the store almost had to know what was going on. One of our friends would buy something, while the rest of us lined our pockets with candy. I finally gave into temptation, and at that moment, something was noticeably different about me.

Paul explains this tragedy in his letter to the Romans:

Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.

Before this time I felt as if I had a certain peace with God, but I knew better this time.  It as if I was Adam in the garden of my childhood innocence, and the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was very chewy and came in grape and cherry flavor.

The damage had been done. I listened to the serpent’s lie, my innocence was lost, and spiritual death had done it’s work. Really, it was only a matter of time before it happened as a member of the human race. The intrinsic sense of God I had within and my communion with him was gone. This is the sort of childhood horseplay we all look back at as adults, and we all laugh with a bit of nostalgia, but the results of this incident were actually quite tragic, as I’ll outline in my next post.