I wasn’t brought up to believe anything in particular. My parents dropped me off at Sunday School. My guess is that they wanted me to be nice, to share, not steal things, and generally be a good kid, but they didn’t like any of the churches we visited, so they stayed home.
I remember having this old King James Bible with a wooden cover that was carved with an ornate cross. It had cool pictures in it that I perused at times, but I don't remember ever reading it.
I don’t remember my parents ever talking about their faith with us. But, I remember one time I said, “Jesus Christ!” as a curse word and my Dad got upset. I was shocked and really confused.
"What did he care?"
I loved my family and always knew my role. I belonged. I was the cute one, the pest, the energetic one, the one who always wanted to play something, climb something, go somewhere. I wanted to be around people who were enjoying themselves.
After I started a relationship with Christ, I felt confused. I felt that I shouldn’t really fit in with my family any more. I was different.
Now I was a part of this group of Christians. I was one of them. I belonged there.
My Dad used to crack jokes and be sarcastic about my faith. So, I often felt on the defensive.
The church I was going to was evangelistic and I felt pressure to get my family saved. I was on a mission to introduce them to Jesus.
So I tried hard to change them, to fix them. I tried to bring up salvation whenever I could.
It became a weird dance between my Dad and me. I would try to steer the conversations toward Christ and Christianity and he would make wise cracks about not becoming a brainwashed Jesus freak. I don't think he ever said that, but that's what I heard. He was skeptical.
This went on from when I was 16 until I was in my second year of college.
I struggled with my identity. I knew that I didn’t fit in with my family, but they were my family.
And, I knew I fit in at church, so I poured myself more and more into being a part of that group. I prayed during prayer meetings, I played during youth group, I sang during worship services, and I listened when speakers spoke. I went to retreats. I hung out with my new friends. I read my Bible. I made commitments to do more, be more, and say more.
Then, I had this talk with my Dad that changed everything.
I wanted to get him “saved” really bad. I had been going to these Evangelism Explosion classes. I knew all the tricks. I knew what to say and when. I had learned how to steer the conversation to spiritual things. I was ready.
But, I was still my Dad’s son. I still wanted his approval. I still loved him.
As I remember it, I came home from college and stayed up until he got home from work at about 1:30am or so.
Every nerve in my body was on edge. I had prayed and prayed that I would say the right thing, that it would go well. But there looking at my Dad, it became so hard to speak at all.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I told him that I loved him and that I knew he loved me. I told him that I wanted to share my faith with him and not have it be a point of contention between us.
He agreed. He told me that he wanted to help guide my faith but didn't really know how. We cried and we made a decision. We would meet every Monday night during the summer to discuss our faith. We would read Matthew together just to get things rolling but just let the conversation go wherever it would.
I don’t remember much from those talks, but I remember how they changed me.
After that summer, I was different.
My Dad and I did share our faith. And, we had a relationship built on mutual love and acceptance. We trusted one another.
And, I lost trust in my churches.
The First Lie
And, I was really shaken. I would say shaken in my faith, but it was deeper than that. I was shaken to my core. I didn't know who I was.
So much of what I had believed from what I had been taught at church was wrong. I had been told that Christians believe that the Bible was all true. I was told that Christians believe that Creation happened in seven days. I was told that Christians have a conservative political and social agenda. I was told a lot of things that just weren't true.
Evangelism Explosion helped me. It taught me that being a Christian, getting “saved”, was about Jesus dying on the cross for us, not about our views on abortion, the Pope, or politics.
After our summer together, I was sure about two things. I knew that my Dad was a Christian and I knew that I was a Christian.
I also knew that I had been believing lots of lies. I wasn’t sure what to do about that. I wasn’t sure how to move forward. I wasn't sure if I should stop believing, stop going to church, stop it all.
I have a vivid memory from my first days back at college.
It was late August, and I remember walking around the “brain” (the main drive on the Binghamton University campus which was appropriately shaped like a brain) desperately searching for God, for answers, for something that could make sense of my new reality.
What I really wanted to know, was...
“Who am I?”
I started singing a song that I had learned in youth group years earlier. It wasn’t my favorite song. And I am certainly not a good singer, but it was the only one I could think of and it brought me comfort. So, I kept singing the only line of that song that I could remember. It was the cry of my heart.
“Oh, Lord, You’re beautiful. Your face is all I seek.” (Here’s the full song if you are interested.)
I only remembered that one line, so I sang it over and over again.
I longed for some kind of settling in my soul.
Then, I began to feel it. I knew that Christ was real and that I was really His child. And, I knew that He would lead me and guide me.
I knew that He was near and had not forgotten about me. I was not lost. I was just following a new road, so I had no way of knowing where it would lead. I would have to trust.
So, I stripped down (spiritually speaking, of course) and I walked back to my dorm. I left all those extra things that I had believed in a pile on the ground. I abandoned them. I left those and decided to build a new faith. The foundation of my faith shrunk considerably.
Here is the bottom line of what I realized:
I am a follower of Christ, a Christian, a child of God. I am not a follower of my church. I can disagree with them on any number of things and still decide to live together with them and grow spiritually with them.
I went back to the same churches that I felt had misled me.
I engaged with them more fully because I knew that they were doing their best to describe what they believed. And, I was responsible to do the same. I later became a pastor at one of those churches for 18 years.
The Second Lie
After 18 years of being a part of one church community, as their pastor, it has been strange, to say the least, to be apart from them.
For years, I was reminded what it meant to be a Christian. I was told about forgiveness and grace. I was told about walking with people through difficult times. I was told by numerous people how much they loved me and my family.
When my family was the one that needed support, I felt abandoned.
I felt lied to, again.
Half truths were told, gossip spread, and I was shunned. I was given no opportunity to speak to the church. No explanation was offered as to why, but my voice was silenced.
Again I asked myself, "Who am I? Am I defined by my weakness and sin or am I something more? Who am I?"
I struggled to find my bearings.
I went back to where it all started. Not the brain in Binghamton but to God. I went back to that place where I knew I belonged. I went to Christ.
Rachel and I went there together, day after day. Some days, it was all we could do. We sat at the feet of Jesus and asked him what was real. What lies had we believed this time?
Stripped again, spiritually speaking, I set aside the empty words of friendship and love. I set aside the meaningless promises and commitments. I set aside my own anger and frustration at not being heard. I left those false beliefs in a pile on the ground and began to walk home unburdened.
The first lie, I could chalk up to ignorance. The second lie, I realized was much darker. At times, people can choose ignorance. They can choose to reject truth. They can choose to believe what they want.
I chose forgiveness.
My identity has not changed.
The foundation of my faith hasn't even changed.
My identity is in Christ. I am His and He is mine.
(This time we didn't go back to the same church that lied to us. We started a new church, one that is defined by relationships rather than structures or programs or finances. It only exists as an extension of the relationships between those who attend. There is no building, no committees, no programs. We are the church.)