The Journey

“It was on a Monday somebody touched me…”

On a Sunday night sometime between my tenth and eleventh birthdays, in a hymn sing-a-long service at a small Baptist church in Buda, Texas, I summoned enough courage to profess a faith I was not even sure I possessed. I participated in this congregation for the majority of my youth, but my activity was usually limited to playing with the empty communion cups or snoring on my mother’s shoulder. On this night, however, the music minister led the congregation in “Somebody Touched Me,” a chorus that I always felt depicted Almighty God as no more affectionate than a golf buddy giving someone an encouraging slap on the back. Still, to stand up during this song was to announce the day of the week in which one accepted Christ as Savior, and to me this was the equivalent of Peter stepping out onto the waves. As the simple chorus bounced around the little sanctuary, and as members of the congregation stood to declare which day they had prayed for Jesus Christ to save them, I also prepared myself to respond. I was not immune to the childish, narcissistic fear that all eyes would immediately focus on me when I stood up, but something inside – call it conscience, call it the Holy Spirit – had me committed to following through with this public declaration, such as it was. The chorus rolled on, “It was on a Thursday somebody touched me… It was on a Friday somebody touched me…” and all the while various church members stood up, some clapping, most beaming. To me they all seemed so pure and confident, not a doubt in their minds. I, on the other hand, felt no such assurance. As the final day of the song was sung, I gripped the pew in front of me and pulled myself up, knees knocking, legs trembling. My face contorted into the most joyous grin I could fake. “It was on a Sunday somebody touched me.” Looking over my shoulder, I caught the eye of my mother. She had recently sat back down after her day’s verse ended, and she was looking up at me with an indiscernible expression, something between surprised happiness or startled confusion. It was in that moment I realized the decision I had made was not only a personal one; rather, it affirmed a connection to all these other people, whether I knew them or not. It would be a long while, though, before I found myself comfortable with such a radical understanding of community.

Mine was not the most convincing of spiritual rebirths. Roughly three years earlier, it was another Sunday night service at First Baptist of Buda – a choir concert followed by a simple presentation of the “plan of the Gospel” – that carried me to the brink of the decision to pray for salvation, as I understood it. Only a few months earlier, my only sibling, Katy, had died suddenly in a freak accident during a Christmas-caroling hayride with the church’s youth group. My parents were still struggling under the weight of this devastation, but I was still a child, and in my innocence I no longer suffered the terrible shock of separation. Shuffling into its place was a morbid fixation on the inevitability of death. If Katy’s death had taught me anything, it was that life could end at any moment, and tragically. This new concern raised my interest in corporeality versus immortality, and the only place I figured held answers on this subject was the Church. My ears were now piqued for any time the church pastor would mention heaven or salvation. On the night of the choir concert, I listened as “Brother” Mark spoke of the grave importance of making a decision for Christ so that we might one day be with him in Heaven rather than separated from him, not to mention our loved ones, in Hell. Later that night, I lay huddled beneath my covers, a nervous eight-year old usually frightened of whatever shadowy –but still completely physical – horror my imagination could conjure. On this night, however, it was the thought of Hell that struck the greatest chord of fear inside me. That dank, cavernous wasteland where red-eyed and razor-toothed demons are sent out, on orders from their dark master, to prowl our world like blood-drunk soldiers. I was terrified of ending up in the dungeons of their headquarters. Even at such an early age, I had already grown weary of dreading death and fearing that my end might come without warning like Katy’s. Praying to Jesus meant I could avoid an infernal destination upon my imminent death (which is certainly a plausible possibility to an eight-year old already afraid of the dark). There was no debate and no time to waste. Under the covers, I whispered to Jesus that I was a sinner and I needed him to take my sins away. Thus, my early theological formation was concerned with little more than a Get Out of Hell Free-card.

In those transitional years in which I slowly shed childhood and put on the awkwardness of adolescence, Christianity and the Church always went hand in hand by default. I never considered the possibility of their separation, mainly because one did not make sense without the other. This is the one theological ideal that has remained constant throughout my life; the definitions of both have shifted and broadened but never split from each other. As a young teenager, though, the thrust of Christianity boiled down to a matter of moral obedience. Was I obeying my parents? Was I respecting my teachers? Was I treating my friends hospitably? Was I a good person? Consequently, the church was not a center for worship or, as it has been famously described, “a hospital for sinners;” it was a command post for the enforcement of morals, and it sat upon the frontier of a sinful land. To call oneself a Christian by way of this mindset was to have shallow roots – to maintain concerns mostly with the cosmetic rather than the mystical. Nowhere was this thin belief inculcated more than at my church. In that quaint, small-town gathering, I grew up within a community of people who considered themselves genuinely loving to one another but were still chiefly concerned with keeping up appearances and offering allegiance to conventional moral standards. This is not to say that I did not learn love, hope and compassion at First Baptist of Buda; however, the curriculum was appended to include detailed stipulations on moral behavior, and sometimes this overwhelmed the lessons on mercy and grace. The small-minded faith I developed became the plumb line for determining not only whether or not I was being “good,” but also whether or not I was even worthy of God’s love. Though it was preached with good intentions, the message of the church was a gospel of moralism, not freedom. The salvation that I sought years before under the covers was akin to a loan that must be paid back by daily deposits of moral obedience. And I did my best. We all did our best.

Life is a story and faith is a journey, and eventually my road wound away from that little Baptist church. It was not necessarily a fickle church-hop; the church split. At age seventeen, I did not seek nor did I care to know the real reason for the ailment that resulted in the eviction of my pastor and youth minister. I was content instead to complain about the injustice of it all. Years later, I found out what had so significantly divided the congregation was a parishioner’s entrepreneurial business deal in which he had sought investors from within the church, and those whom I followed out from First Baptist – the pastor, youth minister, and a small group of families – were the ones mistakenly mixed up in the sour boondoggle. Nevertheless, my parents, who had become less than satisfied with the church and, having lost money in the investment, decided to move their membership to another Baptist church across town. I finished my last year as a “youth” at our new church. On one of the first Sundays I attended there, the youth minister resigned for personal reasons and left within the week. This rapid succession of change – potholes in my road – cloaked me in uneasiness. I was certain of nothing. Just as, at age eight, I lost all confidence in the certainty of a long life, so also did the cozy church environment I had enjoyed begin to crumble. I left for college in search of a new spiritual home.

The only thing left to disintegrate would be my self-confidence, and the wrecking ball came midway through my first year of college in the form of a Bible study. One particular week, the study guide expounded upon Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I had always been taught that the word “hope” denoted certainty rather than unsure expectation. It was tight-fisted assurance rather than a hope that left room for the wringing of hands. Therefore, the verse could be read, “Now faith is being certain of what we are certain for and certain of what we do not see.” I was taught that this was the essence of being a Christian – to know you were saved and to completely rest in that fact. Ironically, despite this interpretation, nothing in my life was certain, especially my own salvation which I agonized over silently year after year. Sins of dishonesty, laziness, and adolescent lust jackhammered my mind with doubt. I feared I did not possess true faith. In those years, full of confused prayers and dozens of “rededications,” I continually wrestled with a heavy-as-brick statement by Rick, a speaker at one of the many high school youth camps I attended. With piercing eyes and an arresting glare, Rick looked us all over and said concerning salvation, “If you’re 95% sure you’re saved, you’re 100% wrong!” It took years for the damage of this statement to be undone.

I knew I could never live up to Rick’s statement or to Hebrews 11:1 if indeed it commanded me to be certain of my salvation. There is always room for doubt – without it, what then is faith? But youth group was about confidence, and so I buried this truth and entered into a season of rededication. Simply put, something that had been utterly terrifying when I was eleven became the only thing I cared about at each and every youth rally and worship service. I was no stranger to the aisle or the alter – instead, I visited them regularly to pray for salvation all over again, hoping this time I would get it right and experience the epiphanal change that must certainly occur once someone became truly saved. Eventually, I prayed the sinner’s prayer enough times to save a small country.

This cycle only grew more intense in college. I figured I was too young that night under the covers that there was no way I could have gotten such an important prayer right. After all, I hadn’t fully understood the weight of sin or the weight of glory at that age. Obviously my cry to Jesus was of dubious validity. Thus, there was no joy in my journey of my faith. Was I even traveling the right road? With each passing year I came face to face with the euangelion, and each year the situation became more dire and the need for salvation gained more weight. So, kneeling again, I would grapple for grace and beg for eternal safety. And still, spiritual confidence eluded me.

Eventually, my struggle grew to include more than a spiritual uncertainty. My daily behavior while in college was influenced by this search and I developed a pervading sense that I could never be anyone of importance. With my friends I would welcome, sometimes even instigate, humorously deprecating jabs in my direction. I did not feel worthy of nobler words. For a time, I had a girlfriend, and a criticism she often voiced dealt with my lack of confidence. She found it disconcerting that I saw myself as a person of complete non-influence. Wanting to counter this attitude, I took on leadership roles within campus ministries and church groups, but I was still plagued by an ever-present doubt that I was doing no lasting good. Once I perfected a daily practice of reading the Bible and praying – the proverbial “quiet time – and, as a result, ceased falling victim to temptation, then I would feel the love of Christ that so many other Christians gushed about. God would no longer be silent to someone who had finally put on true faithfulness, the “helmet of salvation.”

One of the first moments of illumination through the dusty murk of this crisis came halfway through my time in college. While working a part-time job at a Christian bookstore, on a whim I picked up a book entitled The Ragamuffin Gospel, a work by Brennan Manning, a former Catholic priest. The odd title inspired me to look inside, and once I did, I was captivated. Manning not only communicated the unconditional, endless nature of God’s love, but how his grace, impossible to earn, should revolutionize our entire life rather than merely prompt our moral obedience. Recognizing God as Lord over only my spiritual activities was erroneous, because every activity is a spiritual activity. The principal concern of salvation is not establishing an eternal destiny or aligning oneself to a moral standard; it is about entering into a holistic freedom in which the wonder of God’s kingdom – his beauty, his truth – infuses the world around us in everything from the mundane to the magnificent. In one chapter, Manning expounds on Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s famous prayer, and these words have stayed with me since the day I first read them:

Dear Lord, grant me the grace of wonder. Surprise me, amaze me, awe me in every crevice of your universe. Delight me to see how your Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men’s faces. Each day enrapture me with your marvelous things without number. I do not ask to see the reason for it all; I ask only to share the wonder of it all.

These words were a salve for the spiritual soreness I had born for so long. It wasn’t easy at first, but I began to take delight in a life of religious simplicity. God was no longer furrowing his eyebrows as he monitored by every thought or studied my every act. He was the author of my life and the supplier of my breath, which meant he looked upon me with joy and celebration, the way a father cherishes his son whether the child obeys or misbehaves. Most importantly, my self-centered view of God began to fade. God grew too large for the canvas on which I had repainted him (with all good intentions, of course), and it turned out I only had the basic colors while he was vividly intimate and vibrantly transcendent. He was the God of the Universe, the God of mighty deeds among his people as well as devoted relationships with them.

This shift in my theological understanding was not an immediate one. While I recognized the chains of my formulaic legalism, I still found it difficult to accept that the locks had been picked and I was free to step into a life of freedom and leave them behind me in a heap. As I slowly learned to embrace the grace of God – that he loves me as I am and not as I should be, for, as Manning writes, “we will never be as we should be” – even so I found it hard to reconcile God’s justice and forgiveness. How could a forgiven Christian avoid taking advantage of the grace given him? While my Christology was central – the death and resurrection of Jesus was the source of the salvation I claimed – I could not shake the feeling that I was treating God like a weakling who cannot help but continually forgive his fair-weather pals no matter how many times they reject his friendship. This persistent lack of confidence metamorphosed into a burden of guilt as heavy as a millstone. Day after day, I recognized a desperate need for God’s grace mainly because I believed I was treating it as a license to lie, or to explode in anger, or to indulge in lust, or to put off praying. Surely, if I truly understood the gift of grace, I would not need it to the extent that I did. At the time, the irony that I was re-shackling myself to the heavy chains of sin was lost on me. Once again, I doubted my salvation experience. Surely a real Christian in my situation would have come to an understanding about how to live both obediently and effectively, growing beyond a need for so much grace. My journey’s road was as spastically up and down as an EKG, where from each mountaintop experience of grace I would plummet into valleys of guilt.

After I graduated from college, I began a term of service as a missionary in New England to the large number of international college students. This was the most unlikely choice of work for a guy who had become a neurotic mess in all things “Christian.” However, I was learning to internalize these misgivings. What I feared most was not the judgment of God so much as that, sooner or later, people would discover my hypocrisy – a kid with no stability to his faith choosing to serve as a missionary to college kids only a year or two his junior. I feared I was still years away from figuring out the structure of my life, from being pure and confident like those members of my childhood church standing up and singing out their days with certainty. Inside me, the questions raged. How could I preach salvation if I was not even confident of my own? How could I ever expect to disciple other students or shepherd anyone when I could not even attend to my own doubts? I was conflicted about the wisdom of the mobilization board sending me out, but it was either serve or get a real job, something for which I felt equally unqualified. I did not feel like a capable missionary. I wondered if my sponsors suspected this self-doubt, but they never said anything, leaving me to go about the lonely business of my ministry, leading Bible studies and relating to students while stifling my own skepticism.

It was during a cold winter in Northborough, Massachusetts when I experienced the most poignant of revelations[1] that finally succeeded in rescuing me from the lingering despair of my childhood. The answer to all my agonizing questions settled before my eyes in the simplest of ways. A mild snowstorm had blown into the area, leaving me stuck at home for the day with nothing to do but watch T.V. and browse the Internet. I was bored, and carrying around that same back-of-my-mind despondency as always, when I came across a webpage that contained all the concert transcripts by one of my favorite musicians, the late Rich Mullins, a songwriter who also worked as a missionary and was hailed as a poet. I began lazily reading through some of the stories and statements from his concerts, knowing that Mullins was notorious for being controversially honest no matter the fallout. At one of the last concerts he played before his untimely death, I read an anecdote Mullins shared about the time a producer from a Christian cable television station called to investigate him because her show was considering inviting him as a guest. The woman proceeded to question him about when he “accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior.” Mullins replied that he was around three years of age, and the woman incredulously asked how this could have taken place. “Well,” said Rich, “I was in Sunday School and we prayed, ‘Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today. Come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.’” The woman told him that wasn’t what she meant, and asked him to clarify when he knowingly accepted Christ. When he told her he was probably a third-grader, she once again questioned him in disbelief, arguing that he couldn’t have possibly known what he was praying at that age. Mullin’s answer shook the very foundations of the world I had struggled to fashion for myself. “Lady,” he said to the producer, “we never understand what we’re praying, and God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our understanding, but according to his wisdom.” Outside, the snow fell white and pure and new.

Over the next few months, my moralistic and decisionistic view of God and his salvation began to melt away like an ice sculpture set out beneath the blazing sun. Never have God’s movements or his emotional qualities hinged on my actions or my prayers. In the reality of God, no one on earth has complete understanding, and no one can truly know all the ramifications of their prayerful requests. If God is vibrantly transcendent, then nothing can deter him from his chosen purposes, even the sheer tonnage of human sin and ignorance. And if God is vividly immanent, then he knows me better than I know myself, as St. Augustine would agree. Therefore, I should not fear that prayers derailed by a misguided emotion or desire could dupe God.

I found confidence in finally letting go rather than desperately trying to keep hold of every loose end of my life. Realizing that God communes with me solely according to his love and wisdom, rather than my vain strivings, I live in freedom. The stress of maintaining a well-checked gauge of moral compliance has vanished. I believe mercy is an integral characteristic of God, and is daily shown to me. To honor him, I resist temptation and sin, but even in my constant failure I have faith that my behavior does not alter his love for me. This faith is not false because it is grounded in God and not myself. It is certain, yes, but certain like a man who, though walking in the dark, whistles all the while. Frederick Buechner writes in his book Wishful Thinking, “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. … Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.”

Journeying the road of life in grace-filled freedom rather than fear means that I have breathing space, the latitude to explore just how vast is this tradition of faith. While not rejecting certain doctrinal or denominational belief, any legalistic hindrance to godly freedom created by either is cast aside. Several years after discovering the truth within the snowstorm, I was ordained a minister in the Baptist tradition, but this does not stop me from exploring various other forms of Christian worship and expression that are not usually associated with the Baptist tradition, including the Book of Common Prayer, liturgical worship, the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, the Rule of St. Benedict, and Christian mysticism. My faith must be about inclusion rather than exclusion, or I will have once again placed myself in its center. This center is a throne, and it belongs to a God who is much bigger than I will never know. As Mullins writes in his essay “Invisible Things,”

He came from that beyond that no human mind has visited. When we try to squeeze Him into our systems of thought, He vanishes – He slips through our grasp and then reappears and (in so many words) says, ‘No man takes My life from Me. No man forces his will on Me. I am not yours to handle and cheapen. You are Mine to love and make holy.

I have first hand experience that this life is marked by as much confusion, doubt and separation as it is clarity, certainty and joy. What matters is recognizing the wonder that is woven into it all. It is the wonder of God and his kingdom. I know I am not finished with struggle, but I do not despair of my life. I believe that even through the difficult times, God sows laughter and plants joy, and if we tend to them they will grow up strong and stand tall and encourage us to do the same. I do not find my legs trembling to stand anymore, and no longer do I have to fake a smile.

[1] I’ve never been comfortable describing any moments like these as “revelations” because the connotation begs the image of a ray of light from the clouds of Heaven coupled with the audible Voice I once desperately desired. Rather, the divine revelation of which I write comes only as subtle nudges – what I refer to these days as a holy unnerving – of a God who does not adhere to our daily planners and formulaic self-help schedules.


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