Yesterday, while doing some reading, I came to a passage of Scripture that reminded me of how God is continually with us…loving us…and being “for us”, whether we realize it or not.
There are moments when I’m totally baffled at how I’ve ended up where I am on this spiritual journey.
I’ve been a Christ-follower for as long as I can remember. I may not have realized it at the time, but in hindsight, I see how much influence the Church has had on my life. Many of my childhood memories center around the Church.
I remember the old First Church of the Nazarene in Muncie. I say “old” because my memories of this church are from its days near the downtown Concannon’s Bakery. In fact, Concannon’s is pretty much the focus of this memory. I can specifically recall the pastor sharing a donut with me…it was a yeast donut with white icing. I really liked that pastor!
I remember attending services at Park Place Church of God in Anderson, IN. Both of my parents families have long associations with that church. It’s a beautiful facility. The sanctuary is huge. The pipe organ is incredible…and loud (in a good way). I remember the wonderful music the Coolidge family brought to that church. I can remember Aunt Lee’s singing voice. What she lacked in pitch and tone she definitely made up for in passion and enthusiasm. And, I’m pretty sure she never picked up the hymnal and yet knew every word.
I have numerous memories of growing up at Center Chapel UMC. I recall various pastors and people who have played a major role in shaping my faith. Pastors like Mark Gough, Mike Anderson, Chris McPherson, Ken Puent, Bud Probasco, and, of course, Rusty Clements (who has been and continues to be a great friend and mentor). Youth leaders like Robin and Tim Criswell, Ron Wilson, and Dave Ring. And, then there are the people who are more like family than church folk.
I have fond memories of Young Life. YL was tons of fun…surrounded by great friends…awesome leaders…and, to be honest, girls were a major motivational factor in my involvement. I remember the incredible leaders who helped me realize that following Christ could be exciting! People like Tom Davis, Mark Moore, Chris Theule, and Mrs. Baron. Real people who love Jesus and love others.
All of these experiences with the Christian faith helped build a solid foundation that would prove to withstand moments of doubt and questioning.
During my late high school and early college years, organized religion definitely took a backseat to my rock star pursuits. While I still held on to my faith in Christ, I had a growing distaste for the Church.
In times of doubt and questioning, I encountered Christian leaders who made it clear that doubts and questions had no place in the church…well, at least in their church.
During my freshman year at Ball State, I found myself at a bit of a crossroads. I was having an inner struggle with my pursuits of rock stardom, the party lifestyle, and my faith. It wasn’t that I believed I was doing anything wrong. I just desired to be plugged into a Christian community that would accept me as I was.
You see, I knew that Jesus desired to have a larger role in my life. And, I desired that too. At that time, I began to search for a connection with a group of Christians. To be honest, that’s exactly where things went wrong!
I had heard about a number of Christian ministries on campus and decided to check one out.
On the surface, it seemed fun. It was reminiscent of YL, but much more “in your face” and fundamental in their approach to the Gospel. It was very black and white…cut and dry…this is the truth. That sort of turned me off, but I continued to give it a try.
I sought out a leader with whom I could discuss life and faith. We grabbed coffee at the mtCup. Within 15 minutes, I began to find myself desiring something stronger than coffee. He came down hard on all kinds of issues. If I had a question, he had a very clearly defined answer…no wiggle room. Drinking? No. Partying? No. Music? Christian only. Friends? Same as music, Christians only. At the end of the conversation, I was pretty turned off. But, I figured the guy was just one person and maybe didn’t set the tone for the whole organization.
So, I went to a mid-week gathering that was a bit better…a bit more like what I was looking for…prayer, study, conversation, fellowship. The only problem was that it was only guys. I guess the organization believed that discipleship best occurred in same-sex groups.
At the end of the evening, I received an invitation to a party. Now, I had just been told that parties were a major “no-no”. I thought the dude seemed a bit risqué for the group…and he seemed pretty cool. So, on Friday night, I grabbed a friend and we stopped by the shindig. “Party” is obviously a term that has numerous interpretations. Let me tell you about this party:
1. The evening started with prayer.
2. We played board games.
3. We drank diet caffeine free soda.
4. We ate pretzels.
5. We listened to lame and quiet music.
6. People continually talked about “all of those sinners out there”. One guy seriously referred to all the “loose ladies out there whoring it up” during the prayer time.
I began searching for a quick out. I needed to stay long enough in order to be polite. But, I desired to get the heck out of there because:
1. I’m all about prayer – but I came to party! (“I like to picture my Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party!” Thanks Talladega Nights!)
2. Board games are for bored people. And, I was bored…at a party!
3. Diet caffeine free soda? Give me a break. This is BSU, people! And, I’m pretty sure Jesus’ first and most amazing miracle was turning water into wine!
4. I don’t like pretzels. My non-church-going friends always put out a much more appetizing spread than pretzels!
5. Pump up the jams! It’s a party for crying out loud!
6. “Those sinners” – well, I was one of “those sinners”…my friends were “those sinners”…and my understanding of the Gospel told me that Jesus loves “those sinners”…and we’re all “those sinners”.
I found myself thinking that, if this is what the Christian community is like, I’m pretty sure I don’t want anything to do with it.
I made up a lame excuse (something along the lines of, “I don’t think these pretzels are agreeing with me”) and hit the road. After we left, I apologized to my friend over and over for dragging him there. I had promised a party and I delivered something very different from a party. We immediately proceeded to find a real party.
The following Monday, I ran into someone from the “party”. Here’s the conversation (as I remember it):
“So, I hear you went to Nick’s party after you left our place.”, he stated.
I replied, “Um, yep. Did you guys follow me or something?”
“No, I just heard. You know, Jesus doesn’t approve of that kind of thing.”, he answered.
I asked, “He doesn’t approve of what?”
He replied, “The kinds of things that take place at Nick’s party. Oh, and lying about your stomach being upset.”
I said, “I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t approve of your judgmental attitude.”
The person continued to talk as I walked away…blah, blah, blah. And I never associated with a campus ministry from that point on.
You see, I had grown up in Christian communities that encouraged, loved, and cared for one another. I grew up in Christian communities that accepted people with open hearts and open minds. I grew up in Christian communities that wanted people to know that God loved them. At a time of questions and doubts, I sought out this kind of community and instead encountered one that judged, demeaned, and discouraged me.
I continued to have faith, but I wanted nothing to do with the Church.
But, I know this sounds cliché, God works in mysterious ways. Mostly, he worked through two dudes (Scott Greene and Shane Hartman) who were honest, real, and transparent. They accepted me and loved me for who I was…warts and all. And, they invited me to join them on the journey…along with other honest and real folks who played a major role in reaffirming my faith in Christ and my love for His Church!
And, somehow I ended up in full-time ministry! I’ve even learned from that experience.
In my ministry, I desire to offer hope, peace, love, joy, patience, compassion, tolerance, and grace…to all! I don’t want to come off as judgmental or as if I have it all together. I don’t want to turn people off from Jesus or the Church. I don’t want to be the kind of Christian that focuses on others flaws, ignoring my own, and puffing myself full of pride. Rather than pointing out what Jesus doesn’t like, I’d prefer to point out how much He loves each and every one of us.
Here’s the passage that stirred up these memories:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” ~Jeremiah 29:11-13