Confessions of a former, former Christian

The 4 phases of my Christianity – Pt. 4

Phase 4:

I’m finding it’s much easier to write about the past than the present. The past has context, perspective, distance, closure. What’s going on right now has none of that. I’m also finding it’s very hard to put the resolution of every struggle I’ve had with Christianity, all the ways my questions and fears were answered, into a single, all-encompassing post. The phase I’m entering right now is where I hope to be the rest of my life, and it will take the rest of my life to figure out what it means and how to do it. And the best part is, I’m really ok with that now. So rather than trying to wrap it all up here, I will continue to spell it out, piece by piece as I move forward. I reserve the right to change my opinions as I go. Hopefully they will get better with time.

I haven’t cared about much for a long time.

My life, for the most part, has been about nothing. I could cheat and say it was about my family, but that’s mostly a cop out. It certainly hasn’t been about work (and all my co-workers scream, “You got that right!”). I’ve had some small goals, some worked out and some didn’t, but no big vision. At one point I thought it was about God, but that was more just role play (see Phases 1 & 3). I don’t know how to explain this, but I don’t really need to because I think most people live here. With the absence of a meaningful story to live, I have filled it with distraction and recreation.

Spiritually speaking, I was at least willing to call myself a Christian for the last few years, but I was fully aware of the fact that it didn’t really mean anything. I thought about God, but only in a casual “I’m sure I’ll be a better Christian in 5 years”, much the way you say, “I’ll weigh less and be in better shape in 5 years, I’m sure of it”. I wanted to get started, but the second I would think about it, all these visions of what I was going to have to do, what I was going to have give up, the perceived loss of being honest, the faking I would have to start doing, the guilt for screwing up….it effectively ended those aspirations.

My “big moment” is going to sound very anti-climactic. Don’t get too excited. I don’t want to get your hopes up. It was a strangely simple thing that made me change everything. There’s nothing new about the grand revelation I had. There was no special knowledge or profound discovery involved. It’s just an old cheesy concept, that for no good reason, finally sunk in.

Some friends told us about a presentation of Handel’s Messiah put on by the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra and the SW Baptist Theological Seminary choir. They said it was performed at the seminary on Thursday for free, and then Friday and Saturday it moved to Bass Hall downtown and cost a bunch of money. I, of course, attended Thursday night. It seemed like a very Christmasy thing to do.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Handel’s Messiah before, I never had, but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I really don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever it was, this wasn’t it. The whole thing is basically telling the story through song about the promise of the Messiah, the arrival of the Messiah, the death of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the Messiah. But the way they do it is to break the story down to about 40 sentences, and then they just sing each line like a thousand times each. It really has the potential to be kind of irritating, to be honest (at least to the un-cultured like myself). I even looked over at my wife early on when the guy sang, “He is like a refiner’s fire!” 57 times in a row and said, “Ok, jeez, we get it already….”

But as it went on, something about the story, and the repetition of the lines, really began to get me. For no real good reason, I’m actually starting to get a little emotional sitting here watching this thing. A good thing to remember when you’re sitting with your family and you start to tear up for no apparent reason is to keep your face forward at all times, avoiding eye contact at all costs, and for god’s sake, don’t sniff….it’s a dead give away.

Although I couldn’t really explain what I was reacting to, something about this very basic story was really starting to have some meaning for me. In the Old Testament, Israel was waiting for the Messiah to come, and once he gets here, he will be the answer that the people need. There was so much expectation, so much longing for the one who will change everything. And two thoughts occurred to me.

First, they were waiting and waiting and longing and aching for this one they didn’t know about, and I’ve known about him my whole life and never really cared. I had a total lack of appreciation for it because it had been thrust into my face since childhood.

And second, the verse, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them the light has shined” I heard as though I’d never heard it before. There’s no way I can explain this in a way to make it as meaningful to you as it was to me, but it suddenly meant something deep to me. I was living in darkness. And by that, I don’t mean I was living in wickedness and evil and sin (although I do my fair share of that, don’t get me wrong). I was living in the dark, lost, bored, going nowhere, living for no reason, just totally dead inside place. And this image of a light breaking through into that kind of darkness just really did something to me. The one that they were waiting on to come shine the light into their hopeless situation was standing there ready to be the same light to me.

Once this concept had cracked the ice, so to speak, I sat there and listened to the rest of the story as though for the first time. The very basic story that God came down here, put himself through all sorts of crap he didn’t have to go through, and died, for me, hit me hard.

The message that was being repeated a thousand times over and over in my head, just like the lines from this performance, was, “God loves me”.

There’s something about the phrase, “God loves you” which has always seemed so completely cheesy to me. In fact, I sort of feel cheesy having just written it. But what was echoing in my mind was that God loves me, and it was dawning on me that I’ve never really felt that before.

It was very much like the climactic scene from Good Will Hunting. The one where Robin Williams is telling Matt Damon that his abuse was not his fault (“It’s not your fault” “Yeah, I know” “It’s not your fault” “Yes, I heard you” “No, it’s not your fault” “Hey stop screwing with me” “It’s not your fault” “sob, sob, sniff, hug” “It’s not your fault”). That’s exactly how the conversation was going in my head:

“God loves me”

“Ok”

“God loves me”

“Yeah, I know, I get it”

“No, God loves me”

“Yes, I know, that’s not a new idea”

“God loves me”

“Thank you, now shut up”

“God loves me”

“Why are you doing this?”

“God loves me”

“So, wait, what are you saying?”

“God loves me”

And then it was like the dam just broke. God loved me. He’s always loved me. He loved me when he made me. He came here because he loved me. He died because he loved me. He wants me to come to heaven to hang out with him because he loves me. He’s interested in what happens in my life because he loves me.

That realization changes everything. I’d never really felt that before in my entire life. I understood the concept, like I said, there’s no new information here. But for the first time ever, God showed up and looked me in the eye and said, “I love you”, and I believed it, and it was real to me.

My perception of my and God’s relationship up to then had been like a friendly boss and a former employee. The boss says, “Hey, I’ve got your job waiting if you ever want it back”, and you say “Great, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” But your boss isn’t exactly sitting around crying that you’re not there. He doesn’t love me.

But when I thought about my relationship with my kids, it was totally different. If one of them was suddenly gone, I would be totally distraught. And if I they called me for help, all I need to know is, “Where are you? I’m on my way.” I don’t care why they left, I don’t care what they did, I don’t care who they’re with, I don’t care who I have to hurt to get to them, I’m leaving immediately and going to go get them because I love them. And it suddenly occurred to me, that’s exactly how God feels about me, only a whole lot more.

Like previous times when I’d thought about starting up a relationship with God again, immediate questions jumped into my head. Questions about what to do next. What was I going to have to start doing? What was I going to have to stop doing? How was I going to have to start acting? And this time I had to pointedly tell myself, I’m not going to worry about that. I’m not going to go to the “So what do I have to do now?” place. I’m just going to stay here in this place for a while. If I rush ahead and don’t get this, I lose it all, and none of the rest of the pieces will fit if this piece is not there first.

I’d decided if I ever got back with God that I wasn’t going to subject myself to this big “sinful living purge” out of duty and the feeling that, “well, I guess I shouldn’t do that anymore”. But many of things I really didn’t want to give up, I don’t even really have any interest in anymore. I know I’ll still fight with sin and temptation, I’m not an idiot, but I’m not going to beat myself up over it, and getting rid of the sin in my life is not going to be the number one goal. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even going to be on the list anymore.

God loves me and that’s it. I love my kids and their behavior doesn’t change that. God loves me, and there’s nothing I have to do to keep it that way.

It’s only been a few weeks, but so far the genuine feeling of this little spark of awareness hasn’t gone away. It hasn’t diminished at all. And it’s changed everything. It’s already had an impact on my relationship with my wife, and that’s something I’d thought would never change. I know I don’t have to do anything to keep God happy with me, but suddenly there are all sorts of things I want to do because he loves me.

For the first time, what I need to do, how I need to live as a Christian suddenly makes sense, and will have to be the topic for another post. But none of it is out of duty, none of it is because I have to, none of it is forced, and none of it is false. I want to live like I’ve never lived before because I have a whole new perspective of who I am. I am someone that God loves.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 4 Comments

The 4 phases of my Christianity – Pt. 3

Phase 3:

After about 5 years of happily living in phase 2, wondering if I would ever have any interest in calling myself a Christian again (but never for very long), my brother Todd, (whose life and impact on mine will be a blog entry unto itself) told me about how he had begun talking with men he’d meet around his neighborhood and kids’ schools, and getting them to meet together at his house where they would talk about life, and faith and God and what to do with them all. And they would come….voluntarily….repeatedly….

“You’re doing what?”, I would ask, “With who? … why? Are you ok?”. If my life had been nothing more than fantastic display of Christian facade, I have to say, at least it was still 10x better than Todd’s.  I wouldn’t exactly call him the black sheep of the family… ok, yeah I would. So what was he doing? What was he doing having something that sounded suspiciously like a home bible study (although it did include beer and a campfire, thank God) and talking with guys about Jesus?

He told me in his own search for figuring out what to do with God, he had been introduced to a writer named John Eldredge who had written some books called The Sacred Romance and Wild at Heart. He said this guy was talking about Christianity like he’d never heard it talked about, and it was resonating with him, and he was trying to figure out how to do it. He also said I needed to get these books and read them.

Because I respect my brother, I immediately proceeded to totally ignore this advice and continue living in my happy debauchery.

Then he insisted that he, myself, our other brother, and dad take a little road trip to Colorado to attend a 3 day retreat with John Eldredge. Said it would be great. I said I was busy. Said we should really go. I said I was broke. Someone suggested we drive out there together and stop and play golf at multiple courses along the way. I said I was in.

It’s impossible to concisely sum up what Eldredge was teaching, but it was like hearing about Jesus for the first time. It was about a story that started before the bible did, ran through the scriptures and continued right to today, and extended on past us to a great final ending to happen in the future. It was a story that was bigger than I had known, and I was being invited to play a part. I was realizing that Jesus was a) interested in setting me free and b) calling me to join him to free others. It was so simple, but for some reason struck me as so powerful and real. How had I missed this? How had I spent so long in the church world and never seen this? How had I been so firmly convinced that it was all about recognizing and avoiding sin, and if I could do this well enough for long enough, that eventually I would attain some level of higher existence, where peace and purpose and holiness radiated from my glowing face, and I would say things like “…and God bless you too, brother” with a straight face? Who had taught me this crap!?

Now you would think that an experience like this would have sent me running back to God saying, “I’m back! Let’s get this train rolling! We got things to do!” And it did….for maybe a month. Maybe two. Yeah, at least two.

Instead of pursuing God, instead of letting the fact that he loved me sink in, instead of looking to make ties with people, like I had in phase 2, in a total non-judgmental, “let’s talk about life” kind of way, I used my new found knowledge to totally turn on the church and appoint myself, “Head BS Detector”.

Because (I believed with full conviction) I knew so much more about the bible and truth and faith than these idiots in the pulpits or authors writing these crap Christian books, and these people in the church that contribute to the creation of these mindless Christian automatons, I would make it my mission to show them how far off they were, how much they’d screwed it all up.

I started teaching an adult Sunday School class, and my favorite line of thought always went something like, “You’ve always heard it this way….. BUT I TELL YOU IT’S LIKE THIS!!”, and nothing warmed my heart more than someone saying, “Wow, no one’s ever said it like that before”, “I never heard that story told like that when I was growing up”, “You are the greatest teacher I’ve ever heard. Here is all my money” (Ok, I made that last one up, no one ever said that).

Although I was as genial as I could be about it on the outside, inside I was sneering at everything the church was doing. I was walking around thinking, “Well that’s just wrong”, “This isn’t right”, “That makes no sense”, “What a load of crap”, “What did that guy just say? Holy cow…”

Now, just to be clear, this was all only aimed at church types. I was still in my phase 2 man-crush with all the people who didn’t claim to be Christians. They could do no wrong. They were super great people just trying to get through life. Of course, there was never a thought of trying to tell them about God and how much he loved them (maybe because I still didn’t understand all that myself), but I was eager to talk with anyone about how Dave Ramsey helped me with money, or how Body for Life helped me lose 15 pounds… but I digress.

No, my anger was focused only on the church who had lied to me and been dragging all of us into a Phase 1 bull crap existence for so many years. I especially had (have? Is it totally over?) a special thing against pastors (see my Facebook 25 random facts page, #19). They were idiots who knew nothing of the real world and real people and were the chief salesmen of product Jesus, and kept the hamsters running on that wheel week after week thinking this week they’d get the cheese.

But in all this righteous zeal, I was really no closer to knowing God than I had been before. I still didn’t know what to do, I just knew what was wrong with what the church said you should do. I still would (internally) grimace whenever someone would talk about loving Jesus or other similarly cheesy concepts because I was not at all comfortable in those kinds of conversations.

Knowing all the details about a successful diet plan, or knowing what is wrong with a hundred other popular diet plans, doesn’t mean a thing if your are actually still living on a diet of burgers and milkshakes. No one ever lost a pound on knowledge alone.

In a nutshell, that’s what my Phase 3 Christian experience has been for the last 6 or so years. All knowledge, all talk, no love, no action, no relationship. At least I was still not living a lie, as I had done in my youth. But now I wasn’t really living for anything at all. My current life has been pretty much summed up by three words – anger, apathy, and boredom.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

The 4 phases of my Christianity – Pt. 2

Phase 2:

After realizing that my life had been devoted to something that made me a professional faker smothered in guilt looking to get religious experiences that everyone else seemed to get but eluded me, I entered phase 2 – Screw it (Actually, I was feeling rebellious, so it came out a little more like F*%! it).

After spending my entire life getting prepared to go into something ministry related, I proudly announced to my wife and parents that I was done with Christianity. I still admitted there was a God, but that was as far as I was willing to go. I’m not going to live a lie, I’m not going to feel guilty all the time about what I do and say and think and feel, I’m not going to attend church and watch people sell me on BS that they probably haven’t experienced either. I’m not going to chase feelings and experiences from a relationship with God that were never going to happen.

I felt like I’d been that little kid, sitting on the porch till midnight waiting because dad said we’d go fishing, and dad never showed up (‘snif’). If God wanted me, he knows where I am, and when he feels like getting in touch, he better bring a pillar of fire to my living room, because otherwise, I’m not paying attention.

A children’s story that had never made sense to me suddenly became my life story. It was The Emperor’s New Clothes, and everybody was screaming out how great this Christian life had been for them, and I was going to be the brave boy who called the emperor naked.

You want to know the truth? It was wonderful. It was great. I loved that time in my life. I had heard in Christian teaching about freedom, but this was the first time I actually felt free. I was honest about what I was, what I felt, what I wanted. I didn’t pretend to be anything I wasn’t. I didn’t have to act like I was any farther along than I actually was.

I had a group of friends at work, and we were sales people and spent 4 months of the year living together in hotels in small towns across Oklahoma. They weren’t by any means “bad” people, but let’s just say they weren’t they same kinds of guys I sat around with when I was teaching at the Christian school.

I don’t know how to describe it, but if you’ve been a Christian long, you may have some idea of what I’m talking about. Whereas I might have once sat apart from them, trying to place all their actions in the “right” or “wrong” box, wondering how much I should or shouldn’t be associated with them, now I’m jumping into the pool, both feet. I got to know them in a zero judgment atmosphere. And I found out, these were really great guys.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we were shooting crack (do you shoot crack? Snort it? Smoke it? I don’t know…..) and burning down orphanages. We just did what sounded fun, talked about what was interesting, went wherever we wanted to. As far as I could tell, no one ever stopped and said, “Is this what Jesus would do?”, and that was fine with me.

I began to see that people who weren’t overloaded with Christian baggage were concerned less about doing right and wrong, and more by doing right by each other. And they also seemed to be under no illusion that they were supposed to have it all together, that they were supposed to be complete, whole, a finished product (and no pressure to live up to that image if it wasn’t true). There was no concept of a “finished product”. They were just living life as it came, hoping they generally got a little better along the way.

I got a lot more focused on the people, what they did, what they thought, and what they wanted to do with their lives. Everybody wanted to have good marriages and be good with their wives, but they also wanted to pile into the same hotel room together and watch the Victoria Secret Runway show every winter with a case of beer. And nobody saw this as a conflict or felt guilty about it. I know this sounds stupid and simple, especially for someone who came to Christ as an adult, but I’d never really experienced that before with other adults.

And I don’t mean to glorify sinful living, but I totally mean to glorify the notion of honest living.

And the most interesting thing was that after awhile of this, really getting in with this group of people and being yourself, we wound up talking about all sorts of things that seemed really important, and sometimes that even included God and faith and how to live (never brought up by me, mind you). And even though the talks we had would have never occurred in any Sunday School class I’d ever been involved with, they were some of the best and most honest conversations on the subject I’ve ever had.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The 4 phases of my Christianity – Pt. 1

At this point in my 37 year old life, I can see 4 distinct phases in my spiritual life. Here they are about as succinctly as I can put them.

Phase 1:

I was raised in a Christian home, Christian school, preacher’s kid, missionary kid, Christian college grad, MA in theology, first job was youth pastor, second job was high school bible teacher. This phase lasted until I was about 26 years old.

In this phase, I was, to the best of my ability, a model Christian. I was exactly what the church today is trying to produce. I did what I was supposed to do, I lived how I was supposed to live, I acted how I was supposed to act, I (to varying degrees) avoided evil and repented like crazy (eventually) when I messed up. I wasn’t necessarily pro-active in the cause of Christ, but I could certainly volunteer when a ministry vehicle was provided. I did missions work in the Philippines when I lived there, did a summer missions trip to Europe, another summer in India (and for the record, those trips were the only times I really felt any connection with God).

Although I loved much about this period of my life, this is the phase of my spiritual life I hated the most. Absolutely hated it.

Two reasons for this:

1. By the end, I saw Christianity as nothing more than a behavior modification tool. It was only used to control thinking and activity, teach what actions were right and wrong, and for the love of God, scare the hell out of people to keep them away from the wrong. Everything was good or evil and it was your job to find it, label it, and avoid the bad. If you could just not sin, then you were doing ok. Hell is real and the rapture could happen ANY MINUTE! Just make sure you’ve prayed everything you’re supposed to have prayed, and then, whatever you do…. DON’T SIN. Oh, and if you happen to get some joy or sense of purpose along the way, good for you.

I remember very clearly my first job in a secular workplace, an advertising agency. There was an older guy named Jerry who I remember as being one of the happiest and funniest guys I’d ever met, and he’d regale us from time to time with his misadventures of navigating through internet porn. It was actually very funny to listen to him, and I remember thinking, “I can’t believe he’s admitting to this! I would never admit to that, much less make it a funny story”.  I kept thinking this should be his dark secret (like it would have been for me) and feel bad (like I always did). I remember the distinct feeling that he had something I didn’t (besides an experience with a hooker). I had never been as happy, as comfortable with myself, as honest about my life, as content with what I was as sergeant smut over there, and something about that ate away at me. My life was a giant show, a carefully managed charade to hide everything bad inside that I was working to get rid of.

2. The second reason for my eventual disdain of Christianity was that it felt like a giant lie presented in 60 minute infomercials every Sunday. The claims of what would happen to your life if you only applied “Product Jesus” were thrilling, and I never experienced any of them. I don’t know exactly what I was going to experience when I liberally applied the Jesus cream to the wound that was my life, but it was something akin to magic. I was supposed to be complete, I was supposed to be fulfilled. I was supposed to be aware of his will and follow in it. I thought my skin would feel tingly all the time and my face would glow like Moses. I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but there was a promise out there that if I were faithful enough, Jesus would fill that God-shaped hole in my heart and I would, I don’t know… arrive.

But I never “arrived” anywhere. It was like ordering the colored marker that takes scratches out of your car from the TV guy, going out any trying it, realizing you got screwed and thinking “What the hell is this?”, then watching again the next week and seeing the magic powder that will take every stain out of your carpet and getting suckered again.

The analogy that kept coming back to me was seeing the diet plan infomercials with testimonial after testimonial of the person who lost a gazillion pounds by following program X, and you say, “They’ve done it. I’ve followed the same plan. Why haven’t I done it? Why do I not have what they have?”, and at the end of every show saying, “It’s me, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but it’s me….”

And the worst part was that as a teacher, I was one of the salespeople up on stage selling people on the great, great life they could have with Jesus. Of course, I’d never experienced a bit of it, but was sure that if they would just do what I was saying, they would have better luck than me and actually get where I’d always hoped to go.

December 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments