Monday, March 16, 2009

Sharing Faith

I originally wrote this post in response to Aaron on his Honest Uncertainty blog asking people to share how they came to faith. I was going to post my response as a comment to his blog post, but, as you can see, my commentary is way too long. Decided to post it in my own blog and insert a summary and link in Aaron's blog. Here we go. First, a disclaimer. Faith experiences are highly subjective. After all, even if other people are involved in the process of a person coming to faith, ultimately it's between that person and God. There are just a ton of "marital" metaphors in the Bible, where God characterizes himself as the husband to His "bride", the Children of Israel, and Christ is cast as the groom to his "bride", the believers in Messiah. The reasoning as I understand it, involves a description of a special type of intimacy; the intimacy between the believer and God. In other words, it's personal and a unique relationship between two individuals. Of course, at some point, the "bride and groom" metaphor begins to break down (for one thing, God is perfect, so only one half of the partnership can fail to live up to his or her end of the bargain), but the important point is that the relationship between a person and God is very specific to those two individuals. There is only one God (Adonai Echad or "God is One") but there are many believers. That means each "pairing" or each relationship, while having many things in common with the other like relationships, are also very different from each other. My relationship with God is going to be different than Leah's relationship with God, than Ken's relationship with God, than Darlene's relationship with...but you get the idea. I say all this as a preface to my "witness" to explain that each person experiences his or her coming to faith and remaining in faith (it's in a state of constant renewal and adjustment and hopefully growth, just like any other "marriage") differently than any other believing person. Your mileage may vary. I was raised in a family of faith, sort of. Actually, my parents didn't really talk about God or Jesus. I guess my mother believed more than my father, at least when I was a child (that changed after I became an adult and my father's faith blossomed), but I don't recall anything being said about it. I was baptized as an infant, so there must have been some expectation that this was required. When I was in Junior High, we went to a Lutheran church. I remember two rather painful years in Catechism school culminating with me being "confirmed" in the church. Unfortunately, no one asked me about my beliefs or if I had a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ". I didn't. I went through all these experiences, including church every Sunday, because my parents took me. When I got old enough to stop going, I stopped. For all of my adult life up until my 40s, I lived a secular existence. Well, let me take that back. I had a brief "flirtation" with the Unification Church (yeah, the "Moonies"), but I participated only because I was looking for some sort of meaning in my life. I didn't particularly believe what was going on around me and, out of a lack of personal commitment to them or anything else, I dropped out of their influence. As I started to say before, I lived a liberal, humanistic, "agnostic-leaning-towards-atheist" existence for most of my adult life. Periodically, someone would enter my "bubble" and try to share his or her faith in Christ with me, but I immediately shut them down, not wanting to have that encounter with a vengeance. I eventually got married and had children and proceeded with my life as I thought I was supposed to, trying to build an education and a career. My wife was (well, she still is) Jewish, but wasn't raised as such and in fact, didn't even know she was Jewish until her early 20s (long story). When we were planning on having children, she expressed some thoughts of joining a synagogue, but her lack of experience and a sense of intimidation prevented this. For my part, I didn't object at all, but I wasn't going to take the lead in the effort either. The idea cooled and nothing was done. My wife's younger brother became a Christian when my kids were very young (and to this day, denies that his mother was Jewish at all, as if the idea is offensive to him). My kids adored him as many kids do an uncle. Whenever he came down for a visit (he lived in the Bay Area and we were in Orange County at the time), he'd worship at a local church on Sunday. He'd always ask if anyone wanted to go with him and usually my son David did. We had one very uncomfortable moment during one of my brother-in-law's visits when David, singing the praises of the Jesus he learned in Sunday school, asked why we all didn't go to church and learn about Jesus. Gee, how do you answer a question like that in front of your Christian brother-in-law, your very excited son while being completely turned off to the idea? Time continued to pass and, after the nearest drive by shooting to our home was a mile and a quarter away, we decided to move the family out of California and to a safer environment. Another very long story later, we moved to Boise, Idaho. The kids were still on the younger side of Elementary school. We started to re-establish our lives in Boise. Then things began to happen all at once. At the time, the events were innocent enough. My employer sent me to a conference and I ended up sitting next to a very nice woman named "Nancy" (not her real name). She was easy to talk to and it was nice to have someone to relate to, since I really don't like going to conferences. End of event one. The next event was that I volunteered to referee my daughter's soccer team. Understand that at the tender age of 6, kids don't display a lot of skill in playing soccer and the ref's job is mainly to make sure that the kids are kept safe on the field. The fellow who was my co-ref was named "Joe" (not his real name, either). He was a really nice guy and easy to get along with. End of event two. My brother-in-law invited us to his wedding in the Bay Area. We got to stay at his place, sleeping on the living room floor in sleeping bags. The youth pastor from his church, Matt (yeah, fake name) and his family were staying there, too (the place was pretty big) while they were having their house built. My brother-in-law and his wife-to-be were both Christian so naturally, they had a Christian wedding. I'm not hugely comfortable at weddings or any event involving lots of people, so I sat through the service at least internally squirming. Wedding and reception came and went. Lots of family related events that aren't relevant to the story, so I won't mention them. Bride and Groom dashed off to their honeymoon and my family and Matt's family spent one more night together in my brother-in-law's house before we left for Idaho the next morning. That evening "it" happened. Matt asked us "the" question. Here it is. "If you died tonight, do you know where your soul would go?" I cringed internally but was determined to try to be polite. My wife wasn't polite. I was a little embarrassed about how pointed her responses were to Matt. She had nothing nice to say about Christianity at all. The conversation went on. We reached the point where we agreed to let Mark send us a Bible and some other supportive material. The next morning came and we were on our way back home and away from our experiences of the night before. I recall though, during the drive, I remarked to my wife that the previous night's conversation made me want to take a class in comparative religion. An odd thing for me to say. Weeks passed and then months and no Bible or other packages from Matt in the Bay Area. I figured that was that. End of Story. Except it wasn't. My wife, ever the joiner and organizer, ended up being the treasurer at the local PTA. She met a couple there named Ethel and Fred (definitely fake names). They were a very nice couple. Ethel was very talkative and not shy about anything. Fred was an Idaho native, quieter than his wife, but still outgoing. They invited us to a Christmas play at their church. To my horror, my wife accepted and there I was, in a church, watching a Christmas play. The play was set in the days right before Pearl Harbor, which is an interesting historical period for me, so I was fairly engaged. I don't recall much about the play now, but one thing does stand out. Who should be in the play but "Joe", my co-ref on my daughter's soccer team. What an incredible “coincidence”. Matt's package arrived as a Christmas present. Along with the Bible, there were some books by C.S. Lewis including "Mere Christianity". The moment had passed, so our interest in these texts remained dormant...but not for long. I don't remember how it happened, but we started going to the church where we saw that Christmas play with Ethel and Fred. You know, the one where Joe was playing a character? At some point, as I was scanning the other people during the Sunday worship service, I recognized one woman, but couldn't figure out where I'd met her before. I was afraid she'd think I was a "masher" (archaic term) if I just walked up to her and said "Have we met before?" but I had to know who she was. I knew I'd seen her before, but couldn't figure out where. Oh duh, it was "Nancy". I'd only met her once months ago over a two-day conference, so I couldn't place her. Naturally, she remembered me right away. Another coincidence? In fact, I started meeting people in that church all over the place. It seemed like they were everywhere. Sure, Boise isn't as big as L.A., but c'mon, it's not that small, either. My wife, kids, and I became what they call "seekers". Actually, I'm pretty sure my kids became believers almost right away, but let me explain. "Seekers" are those group of people in churches that are there looking for something that they don't believe in yet. We are orbiting faith the way a moth orbits a light; attracted, but not sure of the risks involved. We circled closer, then farther away, then a little closer, trying to understand why we were even there and if this was right for us. Please understand, if someone had suggested, even six months prior, that I'd be going to church on a regular basis, I would have thought they were out of their minds. Yet there we were. Going to church, going to Sunday school, going to Bible studies. It was weird. Like a bit of high energy plasma inexorably being pulled towards a black hole's event horizon (I know the imagery sounds grim, but it was that kind of pull), I knew that I was going to fall past the point of no return and really soon. I was afraid of two things: 1. I was afraid of getting into something that would end up being a horrible mistake. 2. I was afraid of becoming a believer and my wife not becoming a believer. I wasn't excited about being part of a "mixed marriage" and worse, that I would be the cause of the "mix". But what could I do? I made an appointment with the Pastor. I don't recall when it happened, but I realized I was a believer. I'd crossed the event horizon and was swirling towards my ultimate destination, I knew not what it was at the time. The pastor was a really nice guy. Through my "transition" we spent quite a few lunches together. He seemed to really understand my predicament on the various levels I was experiencing it. I remember specifically that when I told him something like "I'm a believer but..." he finished my sentence "...but what happens now?” Yeah, that's exactly how I felt. He also said that he'd prayed about my wife and "felt" that I had nothing to worry about. I had no idea what this “feeling” thing was all about, but he was right. When I finally worked up my nerve to tell my wife that I was a believer, she told me she had made the same decision. She didn't want to tell me for fear of "influencing" my own decision towards faith. I know, I know. It seems as if I'm glossing over the entire point of how I came to faith. It's funny. I know of believers who can tell you the exact date they came to faith and the specific circumstances, but I'm not one of them. I can't even really tell you the exact year and I don't know the circumstances. It was just a large number of tiny events that, step-by-step, led me to my faith in Christ (the "Messiah" part is another story). Having no experience with the Bible, I read it cover to cover in a year and did that for three years straight, just to get the "source material" in my head. I'd like to say that once I became a believer, everything in my life worked out fine and I ended up growing closer to the Lord day by day in stair step fashion, but that's not the truth. 40 plus years of secular living had made its mark and I had a lot of house cleaning to do. Nothing was linear (much to my chagrin). My life became a huge mess at one point and my early journey of faith was a roller coaster ride of events and emotions that was sometimes horrible to experience. It's taken me years to get to the point to where I'm not just trying integrate faith into the rest of my life but actually experiencing faith as my life. I know this isn't what you were looking for. My experience isn't very likely to help you or anyone else understand why I came to faith or to guide anyone else into a life of faith in Christ. I also have another revelation. While becoming "saved" is certainly a critical first step in a life of faith, it's just a first step. I've met believers that seem to feel like once you're "saved", that's all there is to it. You just sit in church as if it were a bus station, waiting for your ride to Heaven so you can be with Jesus. To me, that's a terrific mistake. Faith isn't something you keep hidden in your head or your heart (like a lamp under a bowl, so to speak), it's something you live out day by day in everything you say and do. Yes, there's a goal. You can read about it in Revelation (among other places), but you aren't supposed to sit on your thumbs waiting around for it. There are all kinds of parables (bridesmaids and oil lamps, for instance) that talk about getting and staying ready. John talked about faith and action. Coming to faith is an act of...well, faith. It's a shot in the dark. It's a leap over a cliff. It's letting yourself be swept over the event horizon and into the maw of a black hole. It's scary to let go of all the assumptions, beliefs, and practices of a lifetime and begin committing to something and someone you don't understand. It's like getting married. At the time, you're sure you love the person, but you also have no idea of what's about to happen to you and what it's going to be like in the long haul. There's a quote from the film “The Matrix” that applies, believe it or not. It's when the Oracle talks to Neo about being “the One”. Here it is: “I wanna tell you a little secret, being the one is just like being in love. No one can tell you you are in love, you just know it, through and through...” That's what faith is like. No one can tell you. You can't explain it. It just “is”. Through and through. I've been married to my wife for over 20 years and it's exactly like that. At the time, I was sure of what I was doing through and through, but I didn't have a clue of what the long haul was going to be like. If someone had told me for sure some of what I'd experience in married life, I'm not sure I'd have gone through with it...not because I don't love my wife, but when love is young, it's not ready for the curve balls married life tosses at you when you're more mature. When I first came to faith, it was all new and shiny and exciting...just like a honeymoon. I was very excited to be a part of something bigger than I was and to really be loved and accepted by God. I had no clue what was about to happen to me and, if I did, I'm not sure how it would have affected my decision. No way to tell now...especially from the perspective of being a believer for over 10 years at this point. Faith is a journey. Coming to faith is just the first step. The real story is what happens afterwards. I hope some of this helps.