A few weeks ago, I wrote about how important I feel that my small group has become to me. At this week’s gathering, I was asked to share my story. Sharing personal stories has been a running theme at Northstar Church in recent months as we’ve studied the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. No, my small group didn’t spring it on me when I got there. I knew for a week that it was coming. So I wrote something down, which I then planned to read to my friends. This is what they heard…
I love to tell stories. Anyone who has spent any time reading my blog should know this about me. That said, I was incredibly tempted to go back through the plethora of blog posts that I’ve written over the years to come up with the story of myself that I would share with you tonight. But I decided that was the easy way out. Besides, my story is constantly changing and evolving. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a very exciting story.
I’ve decided to put this story together as if it was a blog post. It may not be the way Hollywood will want to see it when they inevitably adapt my life into a major motion picture, but it’ll have to do because it’s what I’m comfortable with at this juncture. And so, without further gilding the lily and with no more ado, we begin.
I was born on a cold morning in early March. My father was proud as he welcomed his firstborn son. My mother was resentful because going into labor forced her to miss her favorite TV show the previous evening. But none of that is important to the story, so we’ll fast forward a few years.
I was raised in an incredibly traditional Southern Baptist church. It was the kind of place that discouraged questions and felt more like a country club than a congregation. Sneezes during the morning worship were met with glares rather than bless yous. Despite the culture of church that I grew up in, I still managed to have loving parents and several knowledgeable teachers and mentors who introduced me to Jesus. By the age of seven, I had walked down the aisle to publicly declare that I was a believer and, within a few months, I was baptized.
For years, whenever I’d been asked to share my testimony and I thought about being saved at a young age, I’ve believed that this was a boring story. It wasn’t until recently that ti occurred to me that the story of a seven year old coming to know Christ is just as exciting as the next person’s. I was destined to spend eternity in Hell. Suddenly, my destiny changed and I was on my way to Heaven.
But I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t missing anything dramatic involving my salvation experience. So I called my mother, whose memory regarding my single digit years is much better than mine. I mean, sure, there are a lot of other things I do remember, but those things have been exaggerated in my mind over the years to the point where they’re basically urban myth. You know, like Washington and the cherry tree incident.
“Was I heavy into drugs or gang activity when I was a kid?” I asked my mother on the phone.
“No, you were a very good kid. You were respectful. You were very protective of your sister. You hardly ever did anything that could be considered wrong because you were very conscious of not wanting to disappoint your dad or me,” she said, beaming with pride. I assume she was beaming with pride. That’s not something I could actually pick up on over the phone.
When she finished singing my praises, I stopped to take a breath. That doesn’t lend to a very exciting salvation experience. I was a good kid who stayed good all the time? So then I asked, “Would you say that Jesus had something to do with that?”
“I think the fact that you were raised the way you were, raised in the church and learning about Jesus, I’m sure that had a lot to do with the kind of kid you were.”
Was I a good kid because I loved Jesus? Or was I a good kid because I was kind of neurotic when it came to certain forms of perfectionism and a determined unwillingness to disappoint my parents or, really, anyone in authority?
I got over the perfectionism while I was in high school. I figured out that my parents wouldn’t love me any less if I brought home less than perfect grades. But all that led to was an apathy toward school work. I never really rebelled against my parents. My worst offense was the time I forged my father’s signature on a permission slip that allowed me to go to the science museum. I had just forgotten to get the thing signed. I later confessed my crime because I felt kind of guilty about it. Stupid perfectionism…
I never really rebelled against God during that time, either. I maintained that good guy persona. I stayed active in church throughout my teenage years and even into college, where I became heavily involved with what the kids are now calling BCM. See, back in the day, it was the BSU. And at a school as small as Bluefield College, it was the only campus ministry available. But that’s okay, because it was through BSU, and the fact that everybody knew everyone at Bluefield College, I met some of the best and most influential Christian friends I’ve ever had.
Bluefield isn’t the kind of town that can boast a lot of churches with strong collegiate ministries. So, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t regularly attend a church during the college years. My thought at the time, and I realize it’s not exactly the right way of thinking, was that if none of those churches were willing to invest in me, why should I invest in them? But, like I said, I was involved with BSU. I don’t think for one second that I lost my connection with God. In fact, I felt that my walk with Christ grew stronger than it had ever been through my experiences in college.
But college doesn’t last forever. There’s only so much prolonging one can do by adding on a second major and picking up an additional bachelor’s degree to ensure that a fifth year will happen. Soon enough, those friends who had pushed and encouraged and challenged me all went their separate ways. I found myself back at home without a campus ministry, without a church, without a fellowship of believers.
Then it happened… In the fall of 2006, Dad died. In my head, I was able to convince myself that he was better off. After years of medical problems, he was no longer suffering. I told myself that I could rest in the knowledge that he knew Jesus and that he was, without a doubt, in a much better place. In my heart, I just missed my Dad.
I didn’t know how to grieve. A part of me is pretty sure I still don’t. My knee jerk reaction was to run away from home. It’s kind of what I did when things became difficult. During college, when my parents divorced, I refused to move back home during the summer and the holidays. When Dad died, I decided I should go to seminary in North Carolina. Was God really calling me to full time ministry in such a way that an advanced degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was necessary? Nope. But I sure convinced myself that that’s what needed to happen in order for me to get over losing Dad.
I learned the hard way that seminary, for me, was not the right choice. But it amazes me to look back and see just how God was able to use it. I shouldn’t be amazed, because God knows what He’s doing. But I look back on my time in North Carolina and mostly see misery. Sure, there were good times. But I had a lot of bad experiences while I was there. Those bad experiences included becoming involved with two separate churches with hypocritical leadership and some pretty nasty false doctrine. I have friends from those days who insist that, despite my negative experiences there, I was able to minister to them in ways that I couldn’t, and still don’t really, see. I didn’t see it then, but I think this is the part where I finally decided to rebel.
It’s not that I was actively attempting to rebel against God. To me, the logical thing was to rebel against the church. I continually told myself that I hadn’t lost my faith in God. I told myself that I still loved Jesus. I just didn’t like people so much. I wanted nothing to do with the Church. I was tired of being disappointed by the people in leadership roles who viewed themselves as above their congregations. I was tired of being around people who claimed to love Jesus but clearly had no love for anyone who was struggling with sin. I convinced myself that I didn’t need a church to follow Christ. Part of me still feels that way.
Years passed. I skipped out on church for more Sundays than I care to admit. I didn’t even go for Christmas or Easter. My thinking was that, if I’m not willing to go any of the other 50 Sundays of the year, why make time for those holidays? Wouldn’t that have made me just as hypocritical as the people I was trying to avoid?
Eventually, I began to realize that something crucial was missing in my life. In convincing myself that I didn’t need a church to follow Christ, I was really just fooling myself into believing that I could still maintain that relationship without the encouragement and challenge presented by other believers. I could tell myself all day long that I didn’t need to sit in a pew on Sunday morning to have a satisfying relationship with God. I could maintain that relationship through prayer and quiet times, right? That’s great in theory. In practice, not so much. In practice, I was a lazy human being who walked around with the label of “Christian.” But I wasn’t being a Christian. I wasn’t even trying to be a Christian.
I toyed with the idea of returning to church. But it was really just a thought. Not sure how that seed got planted, but it was there. It took a while to take root and grow, but I knew it was there. I went to church while visiting a friend in Richmond during the first week of 2013. It occurred to me that this was what I had been missing. I saw how involved he was with ministry and how he was pouring into others and I realized that I wanted to be a part of that so badly. So I decided that, once I returned home, I would find a church.
But I had criteria. I didn’t want a church that offered a flowery Sunday morning with no substance. I wanted to be convicted when I listened to the preacher. I wanted a church where I could get involved. I wanted a church where I could serve. I’d done church before where I just showed up and listened and walked away giving no thought to church for the following six days. I was no longer interested in that kind of Christianity.
Thankfully, I found Northstar Church. On my first Sunday, I heard a sermon that dealt with one of the early genealogies found in Chronicles. Most people would probably hear that as an introductory sermon and not come back. But I found it fascinating that this was a church that was willing to dive deep into any given part of scripture and come away with a meaningful sermon. I was intrigued enough to come back. It was that year’s State of the Church that convinced me that Northstar would be my church home.
Jeff talked about how important it is that people not only show up on Sunday morning but take it upon themselves to get to work. He went so far as to say that, if you’re just looking for a pew to sit in, there are plenty of other churches in the NRV that would be happy to have you. This is when I first heard the slogan, “Don’t go to church. Be the church.” I knew then that this is where God wanted me to be. I knew that I could not be content to just show up at church week after week. I knew that God wouldn’t be content with that either.
My story isn’t about how I came to know Christ. It’s about how Christ kept pursuing me throughout my life. When I tried to run away from Him, He stayed with me. When I tried to do things on my own, He used the people that He had placed in my life to remind me of what I was missing in relationship with Him. I’m thankful that He allowed me to fall away and make the mistakes I’ve made. Without those mistakes, I may not have understood just how faithful He remained. Without those mistakes, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Without those mistakes, I wouldn’t understand that I am blessed beyond measure.