Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Journey

The following is an autobiography I wrote to submit with seminary applications. You might recognize a few lines from some of my previous blog entries, but most of it is new.

It took me forever to write this. It certainly is hard to condense 28 years into 2-pages, but I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out. 

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A friend once told me about a child who announced to his father, “Daddy, I invited Jesus into my heart.” The father was pleased. “That's wonderful, son,” he replied. Yes,” the son said, “and I also invited Batman into my heart!

Was that the moment of the child's conversion? Only God knows, and the same is true for me. I prayed a prayer when I was four or five. My parents had told me about Jesus, so one day I took a break from playing with my toys to invite him into my life. When they found out what I had done, they were very excited, and I was happy because they were happy. “Jesus loves you,” my parents said. I knew they loved me, so I figured Jesus really must, too.

 I grew up a Christian. I went to church, Sunday School, and VBS. My faith may not have been very personal, but I certainly believed it was true. I was confident the Bible was God's Word and I wanted others to think the same. I didn't actually read it, of course, but that wasn't important because other people did that for me. When my best friend in grade school tried to tell me about multiple paths to God and the teachings of Indian guru Satya Sai Baba, I wouldn't have it. Sai Baba!? I yelled, and blew raspberries. I told my parents later, thinking they'd be proud. “It isn't good to make fun of other peoples' religion,” my Dad said. I couldn't understand why not. After all, they were wrong.

In Junior High I went through the kids' confirmation class at my Evangelical Covenant church. This was a two-year program, but the only thing I distinctly remember from the curriculum are creepy videos from the 80s illuminating the dangers of Halloween, cults, and heavy metal music. My final project for the class was a research paper on the Second Coming that would have done Hal Lindsey proud, plus an accompanying wooden sign my Dad helped me carve in the workshop. The sign still sits, dusty, on the top of the window frame in my room.
Maranatha! it says. Come, O Lord. 

Around this same time I attended a class on Genesis 1 and 2 led by our church's self-appointed expert on the matter. He insisted on a literal, seven days interpretation, and I soaked up his creationist arguments like a dry sponge. By the time the class was over I felt fully equipped to persuade anyone – or at least anyone who would listen objectively – of the follies of modern science. Not only equipped, but mandated. To be a Christian, I thought, was to believe the Bible, and to believe the Bible, I was convinced, required rejection of evolution, old-earth science, and any view of history that didn't include a worldwide flood. Modern science had created a thick wall of deception in the world, and it was my job to knock it down. Unfortunately, the Henry Morris articles I gave to my Biology teacher failed to succeed in cracking it. He told me they were poorly written. I assumed he was suppressing the truth.

I spent most of my first year of High School a shy, quiet kid. My freshman English teacher described my face as
stoic to help with the vocabulary lesson. I don't think this was my natural disposition, but as I moved further into adolescence it seemed my only option. I wasn't supposed to swear, experiment with drugs, talk about sex, listen to secular music, or watch most movies, so I felt like I had to choose between compromising my convictions or being a loner. I ended up choosing the latter, and although my social life was unimpressive my academics flourished. By the end of freshman year, I was number one in my class.

Also significant was that by the end of that same year, I started to attend an after-school Bible Study led by several junior girls. I had always felt uncomfortable with the kids in my church's youth group because they never seemed any different from the kids in my school, but not so with these girls. They actually liked going to church, and I decided I liked going to
their church, too. This was my first experience with charismatic Christianity, and I was fascinated. These girls went to the kind of church that would bus people up to Toronto to experience “the blessing,” which was either a great move of God or a terrible infiltration of demonic spirits, depending who you asked. I can't say I experienced it myself, but I did approach the prayer altar willing to collapse under the power of God. Despite having to tiptoe around the fallen, I never found myself in their company.

I may not have been drunk on the Spirit, but I was a little tipsy. This was a time in my life when, perhaps more than any other, thinking about God was like thinking about a crush. One night I came back from a mid-week revival service and couldn't sleep. I lay in bed, looking at the ceiling, and I wanted to sing to God even though I was all by myself. Later, I stumbled on the verse, “
Let the saints be joyful in glory; let them sing aloud on their beds” (Ps 149:5) and I knew it was talking about me.

The junior girls became senior girls and then graduated girls, and so the Bolton High Bible Study became my responsibility. I stepped into the role happily, often spending many hours preparing weekly lessons. By the start of my senior year, it was not unusual to find as many as twenty students at the meetings. This was quite impressive for a public, northeast school of less than 300 students, but in spite of the group's success I look back on this time with some embarrassment. I remember arguing with my friends about creationism, politics, and the value of Christian rock music. Sadly, there were times I was more interested in validating my sub-culture than in drawing people to Jesus.

The week I graduated from High School found me with two speaking engagements: the Valedictorian's speech and the main message at our church's first annual Youth Sunday. Both were proud moments, but the latter was more indicative of the path my life would take for the next decade. I prepared a message centered around 1st Timothy 4:12, and it was so well-received that the typically reserved crowd gave a standing ovation. As an 18-year-old poised to enter the next phase of life, I felt blessed, accomplished, and excited for what lay in store.

Unlike many of my classmates, though, I had very little idea what that was. I entered the University of Connecticut an undeclared major and a commuter, hoping a career path would emerge as I worked through my general education requirements. While my high school classmates found their niche in a variety of academic fields, I found mine in a group called
Campus Crusade for Christ. I was excited about CCC's commitment to reaching the campus, but more than that I was just happy to find a place where I fit. My social life had always taken a backseat to my academics, but now I found myself up all-night discussing the mysteries of life and God and girls over buffalo wings. It was wonderful.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest that my involvement in
CCC was purely social. Through the influence of my friends and the humble leadership of our campus minister, John Vampatella, my faith was growing. I was learning how to really pray, study the Bible, and share the Gospel with others. I was also learning how to divide my beliefs into tiers of conviction, with Christ crucified on top and many of the things I emphasized in High School on the bottom. Most of all, I was learning to love God. Meanwhile, I was remaining active in my church, leading worship at a Saturday night service and being mentored by our new youth pastor, Philip Beatty.

At the end of my sophomore year I became a psychology major. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a psychologist, but I had to pick something and I had enjoyed the introductory courses. Besides, it wasn't a very difficult major and that meant plenty of time for friends and ministry. I also decided to minor in religion, which ended up demanding more of my mental energy than my major. These classes were often hostile to my faith and challenged me deeply. The first day of my Philosophy of Religion class, the elderly professor asked if there was anyone in the room who actually believed anything. Two of us sheepishly raised our hands. Later in the semester he casually quipped that Christianity was the greatest myth of the last 2000 years. When I wrote my final paper for the course, I said Jean-Paul Sartre's
Nausea was my favorite assigned reading because it followed the assumption of God's non-existence to its logical—and horrifying—conclusion. I finished the paper with a case for God's existence, and to my surprise the Nietzsche-loving professor granted me the A I thought I had sacrificed.

Much to my dismay, graduation approached. Unsure of my next step, John Vampatella proposed I intern with the ministry. In the absence of any other sense of leading, I accepted the offer. I knew I wanted
to stay at UCONN, and I figured there wasn't any harm in giving a year of my life to ministry even if I didn't end up doing it long-term. I committed to a year. One year turned into two. Two turned into six.

Those six years have been quite a ride. I've talked to hundreds – probably thousands – of strangers about this thing we call the Gospel. I've written and delivered dozens of messages and seminars, prepared numerous Bible Studies, sung and strummed hundreds of worship songs, and made thousands of fund raising phone calls. I've listened to guys confess their hidden sins and secret shame. I've stayed up all night with a young man in agony over a broken relationship. I've walked alongside people in their doubt. I've watched a nihilistic skeptic transform into a committed, liturgical Christian. I've taken a suicidal young woman to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I've led a ministry team to a city in Italy I knew nothing about. I've made friends with Buddhists, homosexuals, drug addicts, self-injurers, occultists, atheists, and agnostics. I've attended the campus Freethinker group – a haven for skeptics – for four years, and I've made the argument for God's existence from morality so many times I'm starting to think I came up it with myself.

Through all this, I've lost much of the certainty and zealousness of my High School self. I don't know how old the earth is, which denomination is best, or the relative populations of Heaven and Hell. But what I've lost in certainty, I've gained in love. I look at people from all walks of life, and I see myself in them and feel empathy for them. I know that all of us are broken, and I realize I am incapable of ascribing meaning to that brokenness – or finding hope for its redemption – apart from God. And so I've held on to this idea that Jesus loves me and died for me just as I first heard from my mother and father, and it is the central idea of my life. The Apostle Paul said that
in him all things hold together, and so it is true of my story. Although my next chapter is uncertain, that fact remains.         

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