I've tried a number of times to write out my story, but I never seem to finish it. This is will, I hope, be a real attempt to write something about my story. I realize this is on the internet, so you won't find personal addresses or personal names or person details -no weirdo's or stalkers, please.
I also thought about why I want to write my story. Really... is it so amazing? Am I so wise that I have so much to share with the world? No. But I realized that the desire to share our experiences does not necessarily come out of a desire to condescend to people. Equals can look each other in the eye and share about their lives and learn from each other. All of us, though different, share themes and trials and hardships and victories that touch upon the experiences of others in some way. God built us that way. God built reality that way. Nobody is meant to go it alone.
Many thinkers and authors have noted similar things. There seems to be a gigantic meta-narrative that all of our lives fit into. We all have themes of beginnings, failures, and destruction, and we all have a yearning for redemption and restoration and resolution and a time or a place where things are made right and darkness is swallowed up in victory. Even when we watch a movie or read a book, we always hold out hope for the hero to come through and turn danger on its head.
My story began in a small New England town. I was very little, but I can still remember the infamous "Blizzard of '78." I remember walking down the front walkway down a carved-out path with walls of snow on either side. I remember standing inside the garage and watching my dad open the garage door -no electronic garage door openers back then. The snow was straight across, about level with his chest.
I grew up in a fairly nominal Roman Catholic family. There was a sense that the spiritual was important, just like exercise is important and being kind to people. We did not attend mass on a regular basis. We would go through periods where we would attend in the "off-season," as I call it -you know, aside from the big events like Christmas and Easter. My sisters and I didn't seem all that thrilled about going, so I remember my dad having us watch Jimmy Swaggart on television. It was almost like when a kid doesn't want to eat his meal, so the parent compromises and makes them eat at least "something." Jimmy Swaggart was the "something." It counted for something.
I do remember my experiences at the Catholic church, however. I remember being nervous going to mass. There were lots of people, and I would bump into people sometimes that I knew from elementary school. It was awkward, like, "What are you doing here?" It was like bumping into your teacher at the supermarket. I remember sitting on the floor and using the pews like a desk while I traced pennies with a pencil and the yellow lined paper my dad would get from work. There was some semblance of spirituality, but I could not place what it was. Things seemed very formal.
I went through CCD. I remember the neighborhood parents carpooling to take us. All of the kids hated it. I don't remember a single one of the teachers. I just remember one of the other kids, a kid I knew from little-league, pushing his stomach in with his hands to make himself fart. Brilliant, huh?
CCD was required in order for kids to go through the sacraments. I remember my First Holy Communion. I mostly remember going to Hilltop Steakhouse and eating an 11oz filet mignon, or a lot of it anyway. My grampy was there. I wore a little suit with a clip-on tie. It was a big deal. Later was Penance and our first stab at confession. The coolest thing I remember is that the kids got to be in the sanctuary at the church without there being a mass going on. I remember thinking, "Wow, this is just a regular building." It almost felt bad, like we were sneaking in where we weren't supposed to go. That made it even more fun!
So, there I sat in the confessional booth. I tried to remember the shpeel you are supposed to say, "... it has been X-many days since I have been to confession..." Oh wait -I had never been. Now what? I remember the priest asking me about my "sins." I knew that sin meant "doing bad things" -that was my remedial definition. I felt put on the spot. "Hmm... I know I've done something bad," I thought. My mind immediately raced to my older sister. "I confess that I fight with my sister..." I muttered. The priest asked me some about it, and then that was it. He told me to say a number of Hail Mary's and Our Fathers. I was supposed to recite the "Act of Contrition," but I didn't get it all, I don't think. But he let me off the hook. Phew -that was tense. Then I left and I thought to myself, "That's it?" I said my prayers the prescribed number of times and then sat down and giggled with other kids who had already finished. It felt like we were lining up for vaccinations and the kids sitting in the pews with me were the kids with the bandaids and lolipops.
As I grew older, I began to think more critically about things. I'm not sure where it came from. I went to a Catholic private school from middle-school throughout high-school. We went to mass there, too. But I began to become more and more critical of things. I remember sitting in one of the school assembly/mass things and looking at the sunlight coming through the stained glass. I felt a moment where I was in touch with something, but at the same time I was frustrated inside. I saw this as a lot of dead formalism. I remember one kid getting in trouble for taking the "host" you get during communion (the little bread wafer) and pocketing it. But it wasn't just things like that. It was the robes and the incense and the fancy this and that and so on and so forth.
I finally gave it a name: "organized religion." I was no longer a fan of organized religion. It seemed fake. All the complicated ceremonies and liturgy and what-not. Nobody really wanted to be there. You went there because you felt like you had to, like God would be pleased by you going, like it was something "nice" you to do play by the rules and keep up a good appearance. If there was anybody really there for God, who really knew what they believed and why they were there, I wondered if they could really relate to God through all of the ceremonial nonsense. I wondered if it was all show, just some "religion" to make us feel like we're doing right and will make it to heaven some day, unlike "bad people" like drug dealers and Hitler. Yet there were some times where I looked at the "stations of the cross" on the wall in the school chapel and was puzzled, as if to say, "What is that really all about? Is it all about this (mentally thinking about all the formalism and organized chanting and this and that)?" Whatever it was about, nobody told me until later.
At that point, I believed -and I remember telling this to people during my late high-school years- that if there was a God, He was not impressed by formal, organized religion. He was not like the "God" talked about there or in religion class. Maybe He was just a "force." Maybe He was something else. It just seemed that He was anything but that. There was something missing, and I knew it. When it came to the whole heaven-or-hell thing, my attitude was simple: "If there is a God and there is a heaven and a hell, then I would be shocked if He would not let me into heaven. I'm just as good as anyone else. I try to live a good life, to be nice to people. I don't drink. I don't do drugs. I don't have sex before marriage. I'm generally a good person, so sure He will let me in." Hell, if it exists... and I knew it must somewhere... is for people like Hitler. I intuitively knew that if God was just, there is no way that people like Hitler get off scott-free. So... to summarize... God, yes in some form; afterlife, yes; organized religion, no; me a "good person," but of course.
It was time for the sacrament of Confirmation. The "Catholic School" kids were put into a special CCD class -there were only three of us. We weren't thrown in with the mongrels. We had special experience and training, so our class was special. It was, actually, sort of fun, but I don't remember a single thing that we talked about that pertained to "religion." I remember watching some movie in the rectory one evening, and one of the other kids turned the thermostat all the way up in the room before we left. We giggled and laughed about it for a while.
I didn't want to do Confirmation. My parents knew how I felt about "organized religion" (groan). They tried to talk me into it. Right about that time, maybe a year before, I started to teach myself to play guitar. I had a crappy guitar I bought from a friend for $50. I wanted to get something more serious. I remember talking to the man at the local music shop with my dad. What's the connection? Yeah, I was bribed. My mom wanted me to be Confirmed badly. It was "nice" to do... something you should do. I'm sure she had other reasons for it. So, they bought me the 1991 red Fender Stratocaster, and I went through the Confirmation process. I still have the strat -love that thing.
Part of the Confirmation process was that I had to meet with the priest for a private interview. I'm sure he probably wanted to see if I was serious about being "confirmed." The idea with Confirmation is that now that we are older, almost adults, we may want to "confirm" our faith. Looking back, that is sort of funny -because I really had no faith. I didn't go to church, I didn't like church, I didn't like organized religion, I didn't know what I believed about God, and I was there partly to please my mom and partly because my parents bought me an awesome guitar. The priest was a younger guy. That made me feel somewhat more comfortable. But then started the questions.
"Do you come to mass often?" "No," I replied. "Why not? What are you doing instead?" He asked. I didn't know how to answer. I'd rather do just about anything than go to mass. Usually, while people were listening to the rining bell and sniffing incense, I was sleeping. I said, "I'm usually sleeping." He went right for the jugular. He pointed out that the first commandment of the Ten Commandments commands that I put nothing and no one above God. I was putting sleep above God, thus making sleep my "god" for all intents and purposes. I awkwardly squirmed in my seat and conceded his point. I don't remember how we left the conversation, but I remember a vague promise to try to come to mass more often... a promise I, of course, didn't keep, nor did I intend to once the guilt-trip wore off. Still, I was "confirmed," I went through with it.
In college, my disdain for "organized religion" grew. It helped that I befriended some people with some far-out views, and they certainly had no love for the "religious hypocrites" that called themselves "Christians." Now that I was away from any need to be near a church, I went my own way even further. But I was extremely lonely inside. It was around this time that I really started to sense something wrong in my life. It was like there was a wall around me. Later, I would realize that all of my "goodness" and morality was actually a way to distinguish myself while keeping everyone from getting close to me. I was almost always the only person who never drank at the college parties, so that gave me a name. I was also kind of weird. That helped give me an identity, too. But I was alone. The "high" won by my facade quickly wore off when I returned to my room at night.
Fast-forward a bit to the summer after I graduated with my undergraduate degree and before I began my graduate studies. I was back at home, and to say that I was bored is an understatement. I worked a regulary 9-to-5 job in the city, but all of my friends in the area worked like the 11pm to 7am shift at IHOP. Because of traffic, I would have to get up pretty early, and then I would not get home until after 6 sometimes. Then, I would unwind for a few minutes and have dinner. Pretty soon, it was almost 7 o'clock. If any of my friends were around, and they weren't, I was usually too tired to hang out. So I went on my computer, on the internet. I got into pornography -though it isn't like I never had seen it before. I would say that I "fell" into it, but that would almost imply resistance. I also got into chatting online. I downloaded mIRC, and I went into online chat rooms. It is funny... I remember in college making fun of a kid who would chat online all the time. He had an internet girlfriend. Yet, here I am talking to people I've never seen and might never meet.
I met a few people, mostly girls, and added them to my instant messenger. Occasionally, I would talk to them on the phone. They told me I had a "hot voice." I can't help but laugh. I met one girl, however, that stuck with me. I remember asking, "Is anyone in here from...?" She privately messaged me and interrogated me on why the person I'm chatting with has to be from there. I responded in a way that struck her, apparently, because I didn't get into an argument. That began a friendship. I added her to my instant messenger.
Over the rest of that summer, which was only a few weeks at that point, I talked with her on instant messenger. Usually, I would multi-task and talk to someone else at the same time, especially when this woman would talk to me about Jesus. See, she was a Christian. I asked, "You mean Catholic?" "No," she replied. "Ok, then Protestant." "No," she replied. I was confused. Weren't those the two "buckets?" Anyway, when she started talking to me about Jesus, I tuned her out. It wasn't until I had moved into my apartment in college when I finally started having discussions with her. She understood that I had some Bible knowledge, and she would ask me what I thought about certain things. I told her what I had believed for a while: God, if He exists, would certainly let me into heaven because I'm a good person.
I distinctly remember one conversation she had with me. She told me that, no, Jesus came and died on the cross because none of us are good enough to be accepted by God. None of us. He had to die to pay for our sins so that we could be forgiven and accepted, and a person is accepted by God simply by trusting in what Jesus did for him as a gift -and no other way. Up until this point, I was willing to admit that Jesus was probably a real person, and I believed that He died on the cross, but nothing had nailed me like this. See, my whole world was going to have to go in one direction or another. I was faced with something that was not a neutral bit of information, like a line from a pretty poem. This was something that was either true or false, and the answer to that meant everything.
If it was true, if Jesus came and died because I'm a sinner and am not acceptable to God (and can never be) by trying to be good, then that meant I'm not good at all. If the Son of God had to die... if the problem was that bad, then that meant that I'm not a good person at all, not in God's eyes. The thing is, it pierced so deeply because I knew it was true. I didn't know the full degree of it, but I knew enough. I knew that underneath the "nice-guy" veneer with all my moral ideals was a young man that lusted after women like they were objects, who didn't give a crap about God at all (unless He was going to be like Santa Claus) and certainly didn't want Him in his life, and who had a rotten mouth. That was only for starters.
But I knew it was true. It hit me. I finally understood what the cross of Christ was about. I'd been living a lie, imagining that I am a good, moral, God-pleasing person as a way to avoid dealing with the ugliness and loneliness inside of me. Suddenly, I felt gross about the pornography and dumped every single bit of it from my computer.
There was a lot riding on this. How could I deny something that I knew to be true? It was like all the tumblers of the lock lined up and finally made sense. If Jesus died for that reason, if that is the only way for anyone to be right with God, then that means my "goodness" and all of my pride was all a sham. And it was. I knew it. At this point, I had only two paths ahead of me: move forward and embrace what Jesus did for me or deny my conscience and make excuses for why Jesus is a sham. Either Jesus, that Jesus, the true Jesus who lived and died on the cross and rose from the dead, was a sham... or I was the sham. It could not be that both were true.
Looking back, I understand what the New Testament makes it so clear that there is no such thing as a "neutral" person toward Jesus. If you really get who He is and why He came, you can't remain neutral. The reality of who He is demands that you either deny it or fall on your knees and admit the truth about yourself. I also understand how, looking back, what this woman told me was something that is so essential, so fundamental, so all-what-the-whole-Bible-is-about, that the New Testament repeats it often.
In Jesus own words, "I am the way an the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." (John 14:6) There is no other way to God. No other way. You can't get to God expect by Him. Period. You can say you don't believe that or don't want to believe it, but it doesn't change it.
In the apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians, it says, "If righteousness [a right standing with God] could be reached by the Law [by our 'being good'], then Christ died in vain." (Galatians 2:21) Do you see what he is saying? If you can be "good" and have that be good enough as to count in God's eyes and win His acceptance of you, then Jesus came and died and went through all of that in vain. The implication is simple: Jesus wasn't an idiot, and He wasn't crazy. He is the Son of God. He came to die, and He came to die with a purpose. If that is true, then it is also true that you nor I nor anyone can reach God by being good. The cross lays everyone flat, not just Hitler. It says that none of us are "good enough."
Suddenly, everything began to make sense. Jesus has nothing to do with "religion." Jesus has nothing to do with morality. He didn't come to "teach us," primarily. He came to die as a substitute. He has nothing to do with "being good." I'm not good. God says our goodness, especially when we try to stand on our goodness as being "good enough" for something, is like "filthy rags." He is right. None of it had anything to do with loving him. It was all for me. But Jesus came on a rescue mission for me and everyone. He came to rescue us from God's coming judgment and to restore us to the original relationship we were made to have with God, and that rescue required that He lived the life we do not life and then die a bloody death and experience alienation from God to make peace for our waywardness. We were made to be like Him, to be holy like God, and to be close with Him, to revolve our lives around Him, but we all fell away.
"All of us like sheep have gone astray, but the LORD laid upon Him the iniquity of us all." (from Isaiah 55) Those words were written about 700 years before Jesus was born into this world. It is talking about Jesus. God planned this from long ago, long before Jesus actually came. He planned to send Jesus into the world to rescue us. A few centuries ago, skeptics about Jesus and Christianity would try to say that books like Isaiah were written after Jesus came and made to look like ancient prophetic writings. Modern archaeology has shown how they were wrong. Seven-hundred B.C.
Anyway, that was the beginning of my beginning with Jesus. That was the moment I first believed, and by believing what He did for me became mine. It was not some amazing "eureka" moment, per se, but my life has never been the same since. That was the beginning of the rest of my life and a life that will not end, even when I die. That was when the Jesus of religion died and the Jesus, the real Jesus, who came to seek and save lost people, found me. That was when God become a Person, a Person I can know and be close to, rather than some mystical boss to be placated or Santa Claus in the sky.
Could it really be that simple? If you are accepted by God and forgiven by Him completely as a gift, simply by trusting in that gift, and your "goodness" is not a part of the equation at all, then why not just live however you want? I'll tell you why.
Some years back, I watched a documentary about gangs and gang-violence in southern California. It followed a handful of individuals and families in order to give a personal and up-close look at gangs and how the gang-mentality and the gang's grip on the area destroy lives. A number of these people had lost loved ones to gang violence. One such family involved a single mother who had a remaining son. She gave everything to save her son from that kind of life. She worked a full-time job and yet did everything she could to make sure she was there for him. She helped him with homework. She went to all the parent-teacher conferences. She was there to support him personally and emotionally.
Her son saw how she poured herself out for him in love. He saw it and embraced it with love and gratitude. He saw her sacrifice. He saw her love. And that was what drove him. He was one of the most motivated young men in his entire school. He was determined to not let a single drop of his mother's loving sweat be wasted. He was going to make something of himself and get out of that rat-hole. See... seeing the love and immense sacrifice of another for you is a far, far better motivator than fear or self-interest, than the desire to escape consequences or maintain our image or keep up appearances. In fact, it changes your life. Love and gratitude move mountains in your heart where fear and self-interest just jury-rig the external behavior.
That is how it is with a walk with Jesus. It is never perfect, but someone who really believes in Jesus will not want a single drop of His blood to be wasted. When people point out how Christians do foolish or sinful things, they are right on one hand... it is bad. But Christianity isn't about pretending we are now "all fixed." That shows that people miss the point. Some assume that to know Jesus is to be "religious" and think you are now have everything figured out, even though those are the kind of people Jesus criticized the most. But my walk with Jesus is full of learning more and more, month by month, how much darkness still exists in my heart. And as I see that, I realize how much more I need Him today than I first did. I realize more and more how needed His sacrifice is. And seeing that, and seeing who He is -the Lord and King of all- makes me want to follow Him harder... even when I realize how little I want to follow him at all.
I've known Jesus for twelve years, at the moment I'm writing this. And I know more today the ways that I don't know Him and the ways that I still fall into making Him a religion or an idea rather than a Person who came close to me and whom I can know and be close with in return. But that is the whole point.
"Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief," said the apostle Paul, years after being converted to Jesus on the road to Damascus. When I forget this, it only display how much it is true.
People who know me best know some of my struggles. But this is the story. And this story, my story, fits into that "greater meta-narrative." That greater story is the story of Jesus. He came down into humanity and bled for us. He bled as a criminal, publicly humiliated outside the gates of town while people mocked and spat upon Him. But He did it to save, to rescue us. He is the Hero we all hope will come in at the last moment, just at the right time. God even said, "at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly..." (Romans 5) That desire is built into us, an echo from eternity. This is why I cannot tell my story, anymore, without putting it into His story. And that is why I won't.
There. I've written it. But now that I have, I realize something that I think is pretty important. This is only the beginning of the story. The juicy struggles and battles and trials and failures and victories, the funny and sad and painful and instructive stories, the growth and learning, the changes that have happened in me -those are the story. It is still being written.