(September 4, 2006)
A few years ago, while in my early forties, I finally surrendered to Christ. I gotta say that I had put up a pretty good fight, throughout my Catholic childhood and then for the next 20 or so years outside of the church. The last person I would have identified with would have been Jesus. If anyone would have asked, I would have described myself as a politically conservative Republican, a pantheistic/agnostic nature worshipper and sometime Zen atheist. A rather muddy brew.
I let my guard drop just once and Jesus sucker punched me. Down on the mat for the first time, my life changed. As they say, I was ‘born again’, a new creation in Christ. Unfortunately this new creation hung on to quite a few of his old worldly ways.
I am not talking about what some people might refer to as my sinful nature. There is still that to deal with, of course. Every day I make choices that I am later ashamed of, an ongoing project for me and Jesus to work on together. What I am referring to here was the almost inevitable (for me) turning into what is commonly referred to as a religous fundamentalist (although these days I am not too comfortable with labels)
A new Christian, I was blown away by the lightness of spirit that I now enjoyed. I was exultant, exuberant, ecstatic and excited. ‘Witnessing’ to whoever would stand still long enough, I wanted the world to know about this awesome new experience. I stopped swearing overnight and my vocabulary took on new dimensions. My conversation was now peppered with words and phrases like ‘born again’, ‘redeemed’, ‘holy’, ‘righteous’ and ‘godly’. It seemed that every discussion I joined soon turned towards whether or not we felt someone, based upon his or her behavior, was ‘saved’ or ‘not saved’.
I plastered my car with fish and bumper stickers (the slogans of which were often a bit combative). Christian tee- shirts and ball caps became my preferred sartorial choice. I stopped listening to rock, blues and my beloved jazz (though most of my jazz albums had no lyrics at all, much less of the satanic sort). My CD collection became dominated by Christian artists, many of them quite good. Christian fiction tried to find a larger place in my library but I found little of it to be palatable. I socialized almost exclusively with fellow Christians [some wonderful people, a few becoming my closest friends]. Spending more time with my church family than I did with my own, I loved to tell everyone of how my little church had now become my life. My family and old friends now found themselves, as the Newsboys sing it, ‘on the outside looking in’.
To many people it looked as if I had become ‘born again’ primarily to be a bore, again.
Even worse than that, I had become a poor example to my family, friends and community of what a follower of Christ should look like. I began to identify sinners with their sin, promoting church exclusion and railing against those who failed to agree with my version of the Gospel. Other faiths became heretical sects and cults, including the faith of my family, Roman Catholicism. (Ironically I was extremely offended when I saw protestant fundamentalists listed in a book [written by a Catholic priest] on religious cults!.)
Thirsty for more, I read the Bible ‘religiously’, taking it as an owner’s manual for life and missing the story enveloped within. Listening to every evangelical radio preacher out there I consumed as many of their books as I could find. Some of what I learned from them was this: the Bible is the inerrant Word of God (and maybe a science book too) and should be taken literally whenever possible, people who did not agree with the prior statement were usually members of the ‘unsaved’ majority and we should pray for them, tolerance and acceptance were bad words, homosexuality was threatening our nation, tithing was not an option, we were living in the ‘End Times’ and if God wasn’t a Republican (like me!) he certainly was on their mailing list! (To be fair I did learn a lot of good stuff about God and the Bible as well) And I was fortunate to join a group of sober, mature Christian men who helped guide me through the rough waters of my young faith. I learned quite a bit about discernment from these guys, thank you Lord!
But some things were not quite right. More than a few of the religous credal statements did not settle well with me. There were some church doctrines that I attempted to take on faith, trying to sweep my objections under the intellectual rug, but like buried splinters they continued to prick at me. Why did women need to submit to men? Why were some of the Old Testament laws still followed so religiously when Christ had come to fulfill the law and set all mankind (not just the ‘saved’) free? Were some of Jesus’ commands more important than others? And most pressing to me, how could Jesus permit so many of his children to suffer eternal agony, perhaps their only crime being that of ignorance of the Gospel?
Fortunately, I became bored with the standard fare found on the shelves of evangelical bookstores and decided to check out the religious section of Barnes and Nobles. There, I was exposed to the more challenging material of writers like Francis Schaeffer, RC Sproul, John Piper and others. I found them to be interesting and they also tended to prop up my fundamentalist leanings. I felt,though, that they had a way of making the Scriptures seem even more arcane and convoluted. Then I stumbled across the paths of Messrs. Screwtape & Wormwood!
CS Lewis enabled me to see more clearly the mission and message of Jesus, helping me to find the answers to my questions, rather than telling me what I should believe (as the Evangelical authors and preachers would tend to do). Lewis led me to Chesterton, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (I never knew that these famous Russians wrote primarily of the Gospel!) I discovered modern writers like Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, Dallas Willard, Phil Yancey, Jim Wallis, Richard Foster, Tony Compolo and Brian McLaren. These men pointed me towards the spiritual and lyrical prose of Frederick Buechner, Donald Miller and the Annies Dillard and LaMott. (God bless their irreverence!) Returning to my Roman Catholic roots I learned of Christian mysticism along with the comfort and joy of contemplative prayer from Thomas Merton, Theresa of Avilla and Brother Lawrence. They all helped me to overcome my prejudices and allow Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi to show me what the Sermon on the Mount really looked like in action.
I began to realize that the transformation that took place at my conversion was merely the beginning, that God was not through changing me into what he wants. As Jim Wallis so simply explains, God is always calling us to conversion, to renewal and we need to be open enough to heed the call. Not only have I come to embrace a more liberal orthodoxy but in the process I’ve revisited old friendships, relationships and hang outs. I am listening ro my favorite musicians again, but now I hearing the Holy Spirit on percussion. (My family was only mildly happy at my return to the fold because in some of their eyes I had become a ‘crazy liberal’! Jesus will do that to you.)
It was kind of tough leaving my first church’s congregation, where I had come to know Jesus. I briefly considered trying to bring some of them along on my journey but thought better of it. Who was I, after all? Still, I wish they could see the great opportunities that lie outside of the church, to serve and enjoy the Kingdom, as it exists Here and Now on this planet. There is a whole world out there made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Evangelicals, Liberals, Conservatives, Catholics, Protestants, Pentacostalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Wiccans, Pantheists, Agnostics and Atheists and yes, Fundamentalists. Because Jesus is The Way, he is speaking, sometimes whispering, to everyone on this planet, especially those that seem the least likely. Maybe some lambs will find it hard to hear the shepherd’s voice above all of our clamor.
I wonder where I’ll be next year.