Awakening Part 2
. . . I lay weeping in the hot sun on a filthy New York barrio street, my face buried in my hands. The message of the play that we had just performed for a group of street children had finally burrowed its way into and struck home in my 14 year old heart – God, the King of the Universe, without sin or guilt, had come to Earth to die for me. He would have come if it were only me, suffered unimaginable torture and rejection, and gladly met His fate; His love for me was so great. I would have happily, with my head held high, died for Him or His message – any deprivation, pain, or act of sacrifice on my part could never even to begin to repay the debt that I owed Him or His cause. It was so real to me – His love and His sacrifice were so present to me in that moment that I could practically feel His great hands comforting me. While the rest of the drama troupe packed up to head back to the New York School of Urban Ministry, I just sat and quietly talked to Him, telling Him of my love.
I had known this when I accepted Christ at 13 while reading C.S. Lewis’s classic Perelandra, but the reality of it fell out of the sky like an anvil that day.
I arrived in the world in the year of 1970, the product of the improbable union of two unlikely parents – a 17 year old enforcer for the Pagan motorcycle gang and a 15 year old runaway. Although my parents loved me as best they could, their marriage dissolved rapidly and violently culminated in a particularly messy divorce in about 1975. My mother, who became a Christian, retained my custody and remarried a few years later into a relationship that was in some ways a repeat of her marriage with my father. My stepfather was a good man in his own way, but their marriage was marred by spectacular violence and upheaval that eventually led to its dissolution in about 1983 – when I was 13.
I was a quiet, and dare I say intelligent, child whose greatest love was reading. During summer recess, I would often be waiting in the morning at the library for the doors to open and, much to the annoyance of the librarian, have to be bodily thrown out at closing time. The library was my escape from a world gone completely mad – my doorway onto an island of peace and rationality in a sea of insanity. In some ways due to my perceptive mind and in other ways due to the instability of my early life, I had a difficult time making friends and maintaining relationships with children my age. I felt that I spent most of my childhood alone, wrapped in a world of imagination and thought.
At 13, during the most difficult time of my mother and stepfather’s divorce, I was introduced to a man who was to become both a mentor and a second father to me – the youth pastor of the church that my mother had began to attend. He introduced me to a group of youth and young adults that was to form the nucleus of almost every meaningful relationship that I had up until I left for college.
These people were Christians – believers in the power of the death and resurrection of Christ. As an Assemblies of God church, but relatively non-denominational, we were a small ripple that grew into the evangelical tidal wave that is now so socially dominant in the United States. Socially conservative, openly charismatic, and both socially and theologically evangelical they pulled me into their group when I was in the midst of one of the most difficult times of my young life. Hungry for human contact and desperately needing any kind of acceptance, I quickly found myself accepting their beliefs.
Accepting Christ made me part of a diverse group of youth bound together by a common set of beliefs that we learned were accepted and vindicated through faith. Looking back, I can still see the unconditional acceptance of the others within that group – kindness and love that I am still grateful for even in light of the disillusionments to come. On my own as a child, I had come to believe in a very naturalistic universe, without a god of any sort, ruled by the blind chance of evolution. The system that these people professed required that I reject that and instead accept a mostly literal and inerrant view of the Christian scriptures. I happily shrugged off my beliefs – I had found a place to belong and I would have moved heaven and earth to maintain my place there.
I’m not sure if any of you, my gentle readers, have or are possibly still enmeshed in a system of unconditional faith. If not let me attempt to describe it to you, to let you live for a moment in my young adult shoes. We truly believed. We were joined together in a belief that was so strong and real that we actually sat and planned together our Heavenly mansions that we would win after the drudgery of this life was over, casting our crowns of glory at His feet. We would always say at parting “See you there – or in the air” – a reference to the imminent Rapture of the Saints that we expected literally at any moment. As a band of brothers and sisters following the ways of our Lord, we were led by our earthly leader who we respected above all men. Doubts would always gnaw around the edges of my faith, but by immersing myself in Christian culture and reading I found a safe haven from the “world” that I was taught to despise and distrust.
What I learned was faith. “Faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen” according to the author of Hebrews. It was only through faith that God could be known, that his goodness could be expressed, that his salvation could save you. It was by setting your eyes upon Jesus and turning away from the world that truth could be found. To believe in his salvation in the face of the absence of any empirical evidence was not only the norm, but it was considered to be the highest virtue.
What I am painting a picture of in these words is the almost absolute belief that I held in my faith. I totally and absolutely had accepted and integrated the Christian worldview as my own. The reality of sin, the atoning work of Christ, His indwelling presence, and His imminent revelation were as real to me as the sun and air. As an older teen I partied a bit and experimented with drugs (much to my guilt), but my base belief system was not effected. These beliefs bent my worldview in ways that I am only now discovering. The ideas that all men are innately and unrecoverably evil, that Jesus came to die to save those who would accept his message, that there was a definite end that was soon to come, that God was a loving yet stern judge who would condemn the wicked to eternal torment were an integral part of my worldview. It shaped my every thought, my view of politics, my view of history, and most of all my view of myself.
How do you convince people to believe with this kind of faith? Let me propose a method. Take children, as young as humanly possible, and convince them using emotionally driven, simplistic arguments that the earth is flat. This should be simple – children and youth are idealistic creatures and easily led through emotion, especially those who are already physically or spiritually hungry. Introduce them to and have them memorize the writings of men that believed in the blessed flatness of the earth thousands of years ago, telling them authoritatively that the words of these documents are directly inspired by the hand of God and without error. If a contradiction, an error of fact, is found then certainly the translation or the context is in error for the true text is inerrant. Surround them with a cadre of well meaning and loving people who have the same beliefs. Let them go on “mission’s trips” where they publicly pronounce their belief in the flat earth and the godlessness of the present Copernican system and attempt to convert others to their worldview.
As they grow a bit older, teach complex apologetics that support their beliefs and present them with simplistic arguments for use against any opposing system. Tell them that to be good and moral the truth of the flat earth must be held absolutely. Take it all a step farther and tell them that to deviate from this belief is to court eternal damnation in a real and literal hell that was constructed originally for the arch-Copernicans, but because of the false belief in a round earth has become the final resting place for the majority of mankind.
When you are done, have an outsider try to convince them of the error of their beliefs. No fact, no evidence, no NASA photographs will dissuade them from their belief – they have been safely inoculated against the hellishly deceptive round earth. Replace the flat earth with belief in Allah and you have just reinvented the madrasah – replace it with Jesus and you will find a perfect picture of the state of religious education within the Western evangelical church.
“Let me ask you a question” I said to a friend of mine. We sat in his living room in downtown Richmond, bare feet on well-worn hardwood floors.
“If you saw a man with a gun walking into a building to shoot a child, what would you do?”
“I would try to stop him” my friend replied.
“How? If you had a gun would you shoot him?” I asked.
“Of course . . . who wouldn’t” he answered rhetorically.
“How is an abortionist’s execution of unborn children any different from murdering newborn children with a gun? Why shouldn’t we try to stop them . . . just because something is illegal doesn’t mean that it’s wrong Johnny. Why don’t we do something?”
Johnny just looked at me. After a minutes thought he said “If you ever want to do something – really do something, give me a call”
Thankfully, we never did anything.
I remember another specific time that I found a short article in the newspaper that sent me scrambling for my Bible – Turkey was planning a series of dams on the Euphrates – a river that was mentioned in Revelations 16:22. I remembered from reading Hal Lindsay’s The Late, Great Planet Earth that the hordes of the Antichrist were supposed to come across land from the East and I saw this dam as the mechanism that would allow the “Kings of the East” to cross on dry land when the Sixth Angel poured out his Vial of judgment upon the Earth during the Tribulation. I remember trembling with excitement – I had found one more proof of the veracity of the eschatology that so shaped my youth. Hands sweating, I read the passage from the pulpit of my church and exulted with my fellow believers in the coming of the end. Every news clipping, every story of turmoil and pain was one more sign of the apocalypse that we so fervently hoped for. Our faith demanded it.
Finding God’s purpose for my life was an obsession. There was a constant undercurrent of internal pressure to discover precisely what we were created to accomplish – our great work to press forward the mission of the Kingdom of God. The idea of a “normal life” was not included in this – our models were the Apostle Paul, Russian Bible smugglers, and of course the characters of C.S. Lewis. We were looking for an adventure that would connect us back to the great events of the Bible; we wanted to win the world for Christ. Our youth leader studied the bible with us and purchased books for us to read that would increase our faith – garbage in/garbage out was our motto, so we tried to avoid “worldly” knowledge and filled ourselves with the knowledge of Christ and His teachings.
I remember one book that we read especially clearly. Like a Mighty Wind by Mel Tari chronicled the miraculous events that were taking place in the revivals of Indonesia – the dead were being raised, the sick were being healed, the lame were leaping with joy. We so desperately wanted to experience a “revival” of God’s power. As Evangelicals and Pentecostals, we fervently believed in miracles and the miraculous. After all, didn’t God create the entire Universe in six literal days by His word alone? If He could do that, anything was possible.
I especially wanted to see the miraculous, but for a different reason than most. Unfortunately for my developing spiritual life, I was cursed with a relentlessly empirical mind. My greatest (and guiltiest) earthy love was science – I had chemistry sets, microscopes, telescopes, and electronic parts always scattered about my lab bench at home. I was always fascinated by the Universe around me, especially by astronomy. Many cold winter nights were spent lying on my back in the yard, looking at the stars through an old pair of binoculars or my little refractor. The sheer magnificence of the Orion Nebula or the awesome wonder of the Andromeda galaxy would captivate me for hours; I loved to read astronomy books to learn more about what I saw in the sky.
Unfortunately, most of what I read there directly contradicted my religious worldview so I desperately wanted some empirical evidence for my beliefs. I felt the Lord’s indwelling power, but my weak human nature demanded physical proof of my Creators existence. I wanted to see the lame walk, the blind to see – the dead to rise – to prove that my beliefs were correct and that science was misguided by turning its eyes away from its maker. I was taught that “blessed are those who do not see, yet believe”, but I always secretly wanted to see. I wanted a miracle – but never received one. I had rejected evolution as part of my faith, so instead I turned to Young Earth Creationist authors, especially Henry Morris and AE Wilder-Smith. No one in public school or outside of it ever attempted to challenge my understanding of the Universe in a meaningful way, so I moved forward comfortable in my beliefs. The fact that the vast majority of scientists whose works I read disagreed with me on almost every point was a source of irritation but not challenge. I willingly closed my eyes – in the name of faith.
Carl Sagan especially frustrated me – his beautiful prose and amazing knowledge of the inner workings of the Universe were squandered in a vain attempt to construct a Universe without a Creator. I had, in some ways, almost worshipped him before my acceptance of Christ which made it an even bitterer pill to swallow when I felt that I had to disagree with him on theological grounds. I specifically remember praying for him often, that God would show him the error of his ways and save him. When he died in 1996 I spent an hour praying for his soul, that God would have mercy on him. I was convinced that Sagan was being tortured for his unbelief in a literal hell of fire and brimstone – a place so horrible that it could not even be described in the English language. These torments would continue for eternity – if only he had turned to Christ in his life! Unfortunately, his vain human arrogance had silenced the call of God in his heart. He was condemned to an eternity of hideous, vile, and unspeakable anguish because of the unregenerated state of his soul at death. Through faith, I was a believer in the original sin of man and the efficacious work of Christ – to die without it was to be doomed. I remember that I was particularly bothered by this at Sagan’s death; the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime in my mind.
When I graduated from high school in 1988, I still didn’t have a firm grasp on what I felt God’s call was for my life. I never had any visions or dreams like some of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to lead them, so I decided to study Chemistry in college. In some ways, I think that I chose this subconsciously as a “safe” science that would not bring me into conflict with my faith. So, I spent a year each at the Virginia Military Institute and the Virginia Commonwealth University working on my BS in chemistry. But all along, I just didn’t feel in my heart that this was God’s call for my life. Chemistry was far too pedestrian and unimportant in the larger scheme of the Universe for a “real” Christian – who cares about Markonikov’s Rule when there are billions of souls at stake? I decided, with regret, to quit science and go into the ministry.
. . . and it was in Bible school that my faith was first ever truly challenged, in a way that almost inevitably led to a certain warm fall afternoon that was related in the beginning of this n