Guest Blog Post: How I Became a Christian Again, Part 1

Thanks again to my wonderful wife for telling more of her story!

I didn’t go to church for 14 months – not a single Sunday, not even Easter or Christmas Eve. I was living in South Korea at the time, so it was easy to let the barrier of a foreign language justify my perpetual absence. But the truth was that I liked the convenience of that excuse; it could not explain the fact that I  never read the Bible or earnestly prayed to God in those 14 months. I had stopped doing all those Christian things two years before I moved to Korea, when I graduated college.
If I had to pinpoint a single thing that sparked my path away from faith, it would be my grandpa’s sudden death at the end of my sophomore year of college. But to that tragic experience was quickly added my parents’ separation and eventual divorce, and a rich and challenging semester abroad. Upon my return to the idyllic, meticulously-landscaped, brick-building filled campus of my Christian college, I felt as if everything about me had changed, other than the shared faith of my roommates, classmates, and professors.
I had tough, complex questions about God and faith that I wanted to ask, to see if others shared my doubts. Had they faced similar challenges to their beliefs, could they relate with my spiritual pain? But I felt I never got real answers back. Instead, I quickly grew frustrated at the cliched, nicely packaged, quip-py Christian answers to the tough, complex questions I had about God and faith. A few years later, when I watched the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie, I found I identified with Harry. There is a scene where he returns to Hogwarts and is now able to see thestrals, magical creatures only visible to those who have witnessed death. Harry is surprised to see the thestrals, especially after learning that the creatures had always been a part of Hogwarts. He was also saddened to realize that his friends were blind to them because they have not seen death yet. I too had felt that same sense of isolation; that the ugliness of life was still unknown to many of my friends in college, and therefore they couldn’t grasp the damage it was doing to my faith.
And so I started to distance myself from other Christians. I stopped asking questions because I was never satisfied with the answers I received. I began noticing other things as well – how Christians treated each other in ways they were supposed to as Christians, not because they were motivated out of love. The safety of a Christian environment led to a complacency of faith. I wanted to slap my fellow students in the face and scream, “This isn’t real. Just because you believe in God does not mean everything is okay.” The charm of my Christian college and its inviting, warm, and holy Christian atmosphere was quickly disappearing, and the strength of my faith with it.
Despite my disillusionment with the Christians and the churches around me, I never stopped believing in God. I became somewhat proud of this development of my faith. Sure, there was a God, but He wasn’t active in my life and that was alright. This kind of faith was more rational and less emotional, and I liked it that way. Besides, it was the emotional people, the ones who would cry while singing in church or the ones who would gush about all the wonderful things God was doing in their lives that irritated me the most. Why did I never hear God calling to me? Why did God not answer my prayers? Clearly, God did call to other people and did answer the prayers of other people. It must be me, I concluded. Those people have a different kind of faith than me. That’s okay, I thought. I tried to have that kind of faith, but it just didn’t work out for me.
And so I lived with that faith – the bare bones, fully stripped down to almost nothing kind of faith – for over three years. I’ll be honest, for good chunks of that time, life was good. My world didn’t come crashing down on me when I stopped going to church. I didn’t start taking drugs or drinking all day when I stopped reading the Bible and praying. The non-Christians I worked with and became friends with after college were great people. I felt accepted by them in ways I hadn’t by my Christian peers. Even more importantly, these people acted real, without the pretense of “I should/should not do this just because I’m a Christian.”
Yet there were times when I’d find myself thinking about my Christian friends, especially the one’s whose faith I had once admired. How could they believe in God so strongly? Why couldn’t I? Was there something different about them or something special they did? And I would wonder about God and His involvement in my life and if He still personally cared about me or not. Because there had been times in my life when I had reveled in my intimacy with God and I had wanted to keep singing praises long past the last guitar chord had faded into the walls. Why were things so different now? Had I been playing a game with my faith way back then? Had I been fooled by God into naively believing in Him or had I fooled myself into believing that what I had experienced was really God?
But life wasn’t always perfect and occasionally during the more vexing moments, I would try to pray, but quickly halt in the confusion of whether God was listening or concerned about my desperate pleas. And I would debate whether I could ever have a strong faith again because, if my previous faith had been true, what did I do to lose it? And if I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, then how could I ever try to build a true and strong faith again?
See, I was confident of one thing – if I was going to turn back to God and faith, I needed to have a faith that would last the rest of my life. There was a tumultuous unsettling in my soul that knew my sliver of faith wasn’t sustainable, especially when I returned to the US. The decision was looming as I crossed off the days on my desktop calendar – either abandon all belief and faith in God or commit to a new faith, no matter what had happened in the past and what would happen in the future.
Looking back, it was probably a decision I should have prayed about. Instead as I packed my suitcases and cleaned my square box of an apartment, I listened to my gut. My gut was urging me towards God, one small step at a time, no matter how many steps or how slow my heart moved.

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Speak Clearly So I Can Understand, Part 4

Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a memorial for a friend’s grandmother. It was the first memorial service that either of us had been to in years; they are far less common when you are in your late twenties and early thirties. I always get contemplative around the time of a funeral, like I have reached the end of a long trail and need to look back over where I’ve come from. Albeit a rare experience, and often a difficult one, we gladly went to show support for our friend.

In the sunny upstairs meeting room of the retirement home, lined with gold damask wallpaper and littered with a life’s worth of pictures, we met our friend. She was smiling and friendly, though the loss showed in the lines on her face as if years of experience had suddenly come into her life. We gathered with a potpourri of people; most, it seemed, did not know her grandmother well. It was somewhat expected, I guess, being that our friend’s family is scattered across the country. Her friends from the retirement home, for the most part, also did not show up – they were not eager to face their own mortality in the death of a friend. Despite the small group, there was a poetry about the service, a quiet beauty and hidden strength, and, somehow, a hope-filled security.

I have heard my Dad say on a number of occasions, “live in such a way that many people will come and celebrate your life at your funeral.” If the size of the crowd at this memorial were an indication of this grandmother’s life, it would seem like she affected few people in her many years. But I intrinsically knew that wasn’t true. Her life of humble servitude, living alongside a pastor and church leader, touched so many. Yet she didn’t leave behind fame and popularity. If, at the end of my life, all I have to show for it is that people liked me, I am not certain I would be satisfied. From afar the idea seems great – I mean, who doesn’t want to be liked – but there is a hollow ring to it. Where is the concept of legacy or intentionality, of positive effect on the world, of a greater purpose beyond changing the way other people perceive you?

I was reminded by the gentle and loving words shared, however few, that there is much more to the Christian life than is popularly sold. The best thing that this woman had to show for her life of faith was a room of people at peace, unashamed to cry, but not living in the hopeful somedays and mystical visions of a greater beyond. I have been to many funerals where nice things are said and we are comforted with pastoral images of clouds and angels. Despite the beautiful language, no one really knows for sure what happened. Instead, they imagine and hope for an answer to their despair. Suddenly a person who had no interest in God is going to be in heaven, and they are waiting for the rest of us in the place beyond imagination called someday. But this memorial was different. This room of people did not talk about the somedays, the places beyond our understanding. They simply said that she is with God, and that that place is where she wanted to be.

So what was it that assured all of us, from her closest relatives to those that hardly even met her? I don’t think it was the charisma of the pastor, or the pleasant warmness of the room, or even the stories. She, like all of us, could rest in security and peace. Nothing more could be said. We were experiencing the presence of God.

I can hear a few of you. You just said, “what?”

All of this time I have been talking about the life story of Job, tip-toeing around the destination, hoping to warm you all to the answer at the end of suffering: God. The book of Job does not allow for any warm-and-fuzzy formulas or any pat answers. There are not clouds and halos. For months, Job was left destitute. His wealth is gone, his children are dead, his wife despises him, and his friends turn on him. He sits in a dump, covered in sores, left to make a defense for his great suffering.

That is why I started my story out on the pontoon boat, waiting for resolution, waiting for my Dad to give an answer, an explanation, something – I relate with Job. One lesson that I have had to repeatedly learn in my life is to wait, expecting an answer that may never come. Out on that little pontoon boat in the midst of a big and scary ocean, I let my fear get the best of me. I approached the situation colored by the little life experience I had – limited and debilitated by a lack of information to work with. And in the thirty minutes it took us to roll out to sea, I lost track of the most important fact of all; my Dad was controlling the boat. Would he ever intentionally hurt me or put me in grave danger just for his own pleasure? Doesn’t he love me? Isn’t that in his very nature?

I wonder – was Job in the same situation I was on that pontoon boat? After many rounds of discussion with his friends, his soul is nearly worn away to nothing. He sees no point in being alive – all that is his existence bleeds torment, and he is the reproach of all living people. Desperate to be free of scrutiny, Job pleads for some answer, some reason, some security that shows his life was meant for more than his current situation. I think he is afraid – not for his own reputation, or for the possibility of death, but afraid that no one was going to understand. If God did not speak up then Job would be condemned by theology, by the worldview of those closest to him. There was no security for him; the world and everything in it was controlled by the dictates of man, the cruelty of nature, the majority understanding at the moment. The greatness of God would be hidden by injustice and slander. Job doesn’t plead; he demands that God answer, not for healing or restoration, but that God would bear witness to his innocence and admit He allowed this suffering for apparently no reason.

I suppose you could say that Job became proud at that moment, in the end, when he stood up to his friends. I give him credit for at least keeping his integrity and human dignity. And He never made a negative statement about God, whether or not He allowed suffering. In the end, Job had to endure one more round of questioning before God appeared. But when He did, everything changed.

There was a moment while talking to my wife this weekend that I had a mini-freak out. I noticed inflation in the form of higher prices at the grocery store. That was to be expected since gas prices had risen recently. But I was afraid. There was a theory tossed around by several political figures and hopefuls during the last year, people I didn’t like and didn’t want to believe- and I hoped that what they were saying never came true. They pronounced doom at the hands of inflation, the mechanism they believed our current government was relying on to lower the national debt. It sounded absurd when I first heard it. And yet I felt like here we were, on the cusp of their fear-mongering becoming a reality, and it started getting to me.

If life gets more expensive, how am I going to afford to live? If inflation starts to limit people’s spending, then does that mean no one will need new buildings? And if there aren’t any new building projects, I am at risk for losing my job. If I don’t have a job, then I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t take care of my wife, and I become, well, a failure. How could I raise kids? Would my wife and I stay together or would the pain of failure break us apart? If I lose it all, what do I fall back on? The questions began to spiral out of control as I raised my voice.

My wife, the voice of reason said, “we don’t know what is going to happen. We will deal with whatever happens when it happens.” And I apologized for my irrational fear, for my expectation of future doom in the present. Whether or not it was a stupid prediction, it highlighted how I would react to losing everything, or at least everything I perceived to be anything. I became that little kid on the pontoon boat, overwhelmed and under-informed. What is the remedy for that? How could I receive a verbal answer that would satisfy my overwhelming fear, pain, and ignorance all at once?

Let’s go back to Job, sitting in a trash heap, at the lowest place he could ever be. Then a storm starts to gather around him. In fact, in many translations, it is a whirlwind or tornado. By his recent, seemingly suicidal, monologue, I am pretty sure he was hoping this great storm would just put him out of his misery. Perhaps God heard that request, because he was about to answer it.

God speaks out of this storm, and it is clearly an awesome display of power. He says to Job,

“Who is this who seeks my counsel with words without knowledge? Now brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me!”

God proceeds to ask Job question after question, rhetorically pounding into Job’s mind how relatively little he knows. He asks him about the foundations of the world, the great systems of the oceans and the skies, the stars and the universe, and the created beings. God wants Job to explain how all the world works together, the mechanisms that control it, and the rules it runs by. For our contemporary worldview’s great knowledge of science, I think we could hardly even answer God’s questions – they are far beyond the scope of human understanding. They illustrate that we human beings know and understand so little, and that God, God is so much greater.

Some might say that God never answers Job’s question; He neither vindicates him or gives a reason for suffering. He doesn’t explain out the complexities that led to Job’s suffering, nor does God point a finger at the devil. Nope, none of that. But God reveals himself, His very nature, and the vast expanse of how far above humanity He is. And I realized; that is the answer to it all.

At the end of a church service I went to recently, things got messy in the best kind of way. The woman leading worship stopped the whole production, sent the other musicians off of the stage, and demanded that the puppet-masters of the sound booth leave in order to join the congregation. She said that she was convicted; why do we all approach God with the statement: “I worship God when…”? The dot-dot-dot tormented her, it convicted her and how she chose to lead. So she told us all to do whatever, that there wasn’t going to be a screen or words. The songs were going to be up in the air, and the style was not going to be the same. So we dove into it. And the Holy Spirit started to talk to me.

God told me to lay down. I protested that the chairs at our church were not made to lay down on. He told me to get on the ground. I hesitated, then obeyed. ‘Whatever,’ I thought, ‘if this is what the Holy Spirit wants, then I can’t argue.’ But I sat on the ground for a while (because I am stubborn, and it looked weird). Then I stopped my petty argument, and lay flat, my eyes to the ceiling. And God spoke to me.

He reminded me of a time back in college, when I used to pray for a worship band. They would be practicing, and I would lay back on a pew, and pray, and look into the ceiling. I would ponder the greatness of God. I would see through that ceiling to the universe beyond, the planets and stars, the dust and emptiness. I would contemplate our planet, and all the people, and the great love of God. One time I even asked God to show what he meant by the greatness of his love. And He did. And I cried.

There I was on a gym floor, looking at the ceiling, and God was telling me to remember how great He is, like a vision out of a storm. He told me that I cannot fathom what He is going to do with me, and that there are far greater things ahead than I can ask for or imagine. And then something else came up again – security.

I predicted my future earlier that day, and I was afraid. My future was insecure, uneven, filled with loss. And God wanted my idea of security to come up against His character. If I lost everything, all sense of value that the world could bestow on me, would I really be lost? Would I really have nothing? What if I lost it all and was in the middle of a storm? My soul would find no rest in cute answers, a pat on the back, or a human explanation. The only answer would be the very God I had almost forgotten – and I would be on the ground, staring up in wonder, silenced and convicted that I ever doubted, ever feared, or ever spoke.

Speak Clearly So I Can Understand, Pt 1

When I was growing up, my sister, mother, and I all had a problem communicating with one person – my Dad. Although it wasn’t so much an issue communicating to him, it was more trying to get a response. It seemed that though, try as we might, there were times when nothing was getting through. A little bizarre, right? How can you be talking directly to someone and not get a response? Unfortunately for us, it is just the way that my Dad is wired.

Over time this has played out in very different and often frustrating scenarios. But when I think about them, I laugh. I love my Dad despite his quirks.

The majority of memories have to do with traveling. My family liked to travel within the United States, so, by the time I was twelve, I had seen much of the West, and even made it to Florida and Hawaii. My Dad’s silence always equated adventure, and many, many opportunities to not have questions answered.

One particular spring we traveled to Florida. We did the typical family things to do in Florida; Disney World, a cruise from Miami to the Bahamas, and eventually the Florida Keys. My parents both love to snorkel, and have made many trips to Hawaii to prove it. While in the keys, my Dad decided that it was a perfect opportunity to take the entire family out for snorkeling. I don’t remember paying much attention to that detail of our trip (Disney World trumped all other thoughts) until we arrived and I was reminded of what we were doing.

We turned into the Coral Reef State park for a trip out to see the beautiful fish and coral. As an inquisitive youngster, I was excited to see fantastical things in the water, like clown fish. To match that curiosity, I was equally fearful of jumping into any water that contained a threatening sea monster. And by that I mean sharks, squid, jellyfish, and any other slimy, ugly, violent, or poisonous thing that would want to touch me.

After we parked at a little hut with a dock, I drifted down to the water’s edge as my parent’s negotiated renting a boat. Peering into the clear water, I noticed many small brown plants growing all over its sandy bottom. It was an exciting enough discovery that I called my sister over. As she came to the water’s edge, a leaf from the tree cover above fell onto the water’s surface. And I freaked out.

What I thought were little plants were not plants at all. As the leaf hit the water, three or four small jellyfish popped up from the bottom, fluttering in the water before they fell back to their places. I did not like jellyfish. And this place had a shore covered in them. I quickly found my parents.

Unfortunately my protests were ignored. The deal was done and we were going out in a pontoon boat. This little pontoon boat felt like an aluminum cage on floaties, hardly enough to protect us from the dangers of the harbor. Rest assured that the beach jellyfish were not going to be in the water once we got away from dock.

Somehow I didn’t believe it, so, like any ten year old, I started asking my Dad questions.

“Where are we going?”

The first few attempts merited the silent treatment, but as we cruised by green banks of mangroves with no coral reef in sight, my Mom chimed in too. Where were we going? Apparently the Florida keys were nothing like Hawaii.

“We are going to go snorkeling,” my Dad finally replied.

Of course we were going snorkeling, but where? We kept going down the inlet for what seemed like a half hour, before we started to see it opening up and the open sea beyond. But we were in a pontoon boat. Floaties were hardly good enough for me in a swimming pool at four; I had no confidence in the ship we set sail in.

My Mom was getting nervous and therefore began to overreact.

“Watch out for that marker. Look out for that buoy. Is it too shallow? Where are we going?” She tended to ask more questions when she was nervous, and coupled them with scowls when she didn’t get a reply. My Dad was calm and attentive as ever, putting forth his best effort to control the boat. While steering, he double checked his maps and charts, which made it appear that he knew where he was going, and frustrated us all the more. Although, I am not sure what answer would have satisfied us.

As we left the muddy swamps of the inlet, the waves started rolling in. At first they were not very large – but they started to grow. And by grow, I mean not more than the height of a small child. Like me. When you are in a small, flat-bottomed pontoon boat being driven by a man who is not currently answering questions, you start to get nervous. My sister and I began to complain.

“We want to go back,” we pleaded. “These waves are going to knock us over. They’re crashing into the boat!”

My Dad chuckled. “Those waves aren’t more than two or three feet. We are fine.”

“Where are we going? I thought you wanted to snorkel?” I asked.

“I do,”  he replied.

The farther that we moved away from the coast, the larger the waves became. They began to splash so far over the bow that my sister and I were soaked. Then we loudly protested. And my parents laughed.

And so we continued on the open sea towards a cluster of boats off in the cloudy distance; large yachts and motor boats, all assumedly anchored at the same location. That must be the reef! In my mind, though, there was no such thing. My Dad was taking us on a mad dash to middle of the ocean, where either we would capsize and get eaten by sharks, or he would give us over to pirates.

Alright, none of that was real. But both my sister and I were crying, and we didn’t get any answers.

Eventually we passed the cluster of boats and my Dad, while scouring the map, seemed to be lost. My Mom was nervous, and my sister and I didn’t need to find a shipwreck to act like one. Even though my Dad was still convinced that great snorkeling lay ahead, the open sea did not hold many opportunities. At that moment, though, we started to notice some bright orange flags scattered about the rolling water’s surface.

My Dad, triumphant, carefully gathered the anchor as the ship bobbed, and dropped it off the front of the boat. The line fell farther than he expected, but he was set on going.

“Anyone coming with me?” He quickly removed his shirt and shoes, and put on the face mask and snorkel. By that time the open sea was knocking us around like bowling pins. Was my Dad leaving us? Was he kidding?

Before we could say much more, he was in the water. I remember being very afraid. I didn’t really know where I was, the water looked ominous and dark, and it all felt, well, out of control.

Then my Dad dove under water.

It seemed too long to be a dive, and again my sister and I got upset. My Mom started fuming.

But he came back up and soon was back in the boat, soaking wet.

“Did you see anything,” we all asked.

There was a short pause as he dried himself off and restarted the boat.

“Kind of rough,” he responded, “and the reef was at least twenty feet down there.”

So we turned back around and went back in.

That little adventure made us all skeptical of riding with my Dad in a boat. His actions didn’t seem to add up for us nautical novices, and his lack of reply made us nervous. Had the boating adventure brought us to new realms of experience, perhaps we would have trusted him in the future. Looking back at it from today, there never really was any danger. My Dad had control over that boat, and the many others he took us out in while I was growing up. Was the flaw his lack of communication or our lack of trust in him? What are you supposed to do when you don’t get answers to your questions?