In light of my recent post about exorcising demons at Burger King, and the hailstorm of comments that ensued, I think the timing is right to dig deeper into my spiritual backstory. Fortunately for me, last year I was asked to participate in a series of sermons at my church for this very same thing. Here is a snippet of an email I sent to my family and friends at the time.
As some of you know, I was contacted by North Point Community Church concerning an upcoming sermon series. Andy is using personal stories to lead into each sermon, and he requested to use my story as I described it during my baptism for one of the Sundays. If you could throw excitement, anxiety, and humility into a blender and set it to puree... this is pretty much how I am feeling right now.
If you skipped out on witnessing Chris via jumbotrons the first time, this is your distinct opportunity to make it up. I'm told my portion will last ~4 minutes. Listening to the preacher directly following is optional :-).
So I wrote my story down. It was sent to an editor. I had a photo shoot. I narrated it at a sound studio. Then, the production team went to work on bringing it all together. And boy did they ever.
That is the short version but I wrote so much more. The editor, Jon from Stuff Christians Like, did terrific and helped me summarize a few areas where I was wordy, redundant, or extraneous. I was given the opportunity to change, approve, or deny anything I wanted. I remember sitting in the studio and asking if I could make changes during recording and Brad saying, "Change whatever you like." The truth is, though, I didn't want to change anything.
Actually, here. See for yourself. This was my initial rough draft. Think of it as an extended version of the video.
I grew up as the oldest of 3 in a patriotic Air Force family. We traveled the U.S. and the world. In the years leading up to High School we were stationed in the United Kingdom where we did not attend church. When my family was finally stationed back states-side, I found myself a High School sophomore in deep south Georgia.
I had moved from one foreign country to another.
Within a week of moving into our new home it seemed we had been invited to a different church by every family in the neighborhood. We came from northern roots where, culturally, you didn't invite someone to church until after you had developed a relationship with them, and not the other way around. Consequently, my parents were completely turned off to even exploring the area for a church home.
I went to school where I met many, many Christians. I attended a few churches with friends. I was "witnessed at" frequently, but I had questions and they were not answered to my satisfaction. By the time I was 17, I'd had enough! I'd had enough of all of these self-professed God followers, with messy, imperfect lives, telling me that I needed God! So what... my life could be an imperfect mess, too? Thanks but no thanks. Or else I'd go to Hell when I died? Nice theory. Prove it. I remember hearing about a scandal in one church where the youth pastor had an affair with one of my classmates. The man did the noblest thing he knew how, I guess. He confessed to his wife, and the girl's parents, and the entire congregation... all on Sunday morning.
If Jesus was real, and He was present in the lives of these pushy, dysfunctional people, then I wanted no part of it.
Apart from the observable behavior of Christians in my life, another thing stood as a barrier to believing in God and/or Jesus. Reason. This all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God had never given me the time of day. I reasoned that if such a being existed, and He was keen to send me to Hell for not believing in His invisible son, then He should at least have the courtesy of warning me in advance, and to my face thank-you-very-much. If "God" had given me 5 senses, surely He could appeal to one of them on His own behalf and clear this misunderstanding up about His existing and what-not. Not only that, but every time I asked one of his followers to prove to me God exists, they would refer to the Bible. THAT's your proof? Puh-lease. That translation is like what... a copy of a copy of a copy or something? Hello... haven't you ever heard of the telephone game? NEWSFLASH: The message always changes! God just didn’t make sense. Why would God allow 4 year old little girls to be run over by school buses? Or millions of children to die of starvation? If I were God I would do so many things differently.
Anyone with half a heart would.
But as I look back now, I see evidence of something I didn't see then. In spite of all those feelings I did have a tension in my heart about the question of God. It was mostly negative, and I credited it to the pushy Christians, but a tension was there. You might call it a bit of a turmoil. And eventually this turmoil, and the pushy people, wore me down. So I did it. I guess you could call it a prayer. I was alone in my room and I had a conversation with “God”. I told Him that I did not believe He existed and that this was His chance to prove to me, once and for all, that He did.
I listened hard.
And when the silence was over I had the proof that I needed, that I had been right all along, and I became an Atheist with a clean conscience.
I met my wife in college. She was beautiful. She was intelligent. She was funny. She had but one itty bitty imperfection. She was a Christian. We were too much in love to let our religious differences end our relationship, but she did let me know very early that she expected her future husband, whoever it may be, to attend church with her after marriage. I did the math in my head and two hours on Sunday seemed like pennies to pay in exchange for the rest of our hours together. We dated for 5 years, completed college, got married and moved to Atlanta. On the topic of religion, we agreed to disagree. Neither of us wavered. Following 2 years of marriage my wife was ready for me to make good on my promise to attend church with her.
You don't have to be a Christian to be a man of your word, you know.
I complied. We went church shopping! *groan*. We stopped searching for a church once we found North Point. This place made taking my medicine easy. You mean I'm getting brownie points for this? Sweet! Remove the hocus pocus and some of this stuff is even relevant! Is that really in the bible? I'm not even a Christian and I agree with that. Wait a minute... Jesus hated hypocritical religious leaders too? What a coincidence!
If He were real, I might even like Him.
We rarely missed a Sunday. We joined starting point, and then a married couples small group. You don't have to be a Christian to desire to build a healthy marriage, you know. I could see value in doing stuff together and focusing on our relationship. So we did it. Apparently it's not common to show up the first night to one of those things and declare to everyone that they shouldn't expect you to pray because you don't believe in Jesus. But it was true, and our new-found friends were understanding and respectful. Even when I wasn’t.
I went to church, I heard the bible. I went to small group, I read the bible. Time passed and the knowledge I gained bore fruit in my life and my marriage. Along the way I learned that quite a few of my assumptions about Christianity and the bible were way off.
Inevitably, an old tension returned.
But this time I couldn't pin it on pushy, judgmental Christians. At least I still had logic on my side, right? I mean God wasn't exactly manifesting Himself before me. But old tensions don't always listen to reason.
One of the things I came to appreciate about the Christian God was that people who were suffering, grieving, or hurting would find hope and inspiration in the idea of Him. The concept that God had compassion for them, and forgave them if they had wronged Him, and wanted to bend the world in favor of them, did indeed seem to fill a void that those people needed filling. But this did me no good. I was not downtrodden. I was not desperate for love or attention. I was making more money than I ever had in my life. I was fulfilled by my wife. I had the respect of my peers. I watched baptisms on Sunday morning and I would think, "I'm glad that they were able to break their addictions and find happiness through belief in Jesus." But my needs were more than met. I was happy. I was satisfied. And yet the tension grew.
Everyone knows that once you make your mind up about something significant, you don't just change it. Debating with others only accomplishes a strengthening within you of the side you are already on, and not a winning over to the other side. So I didn't expect what happened next to happen next. I had a disturbing realization. While deep in thought about spiritual matters it occurred to me that I was 27 years old and that I was basically taking spiritual advice from a 17 year old boy.
And not just any 17 year old boy, but the 17 year old version of myself.
This thought bothered me tremendously. It exacerbated the tension. I couldn’t shake it. I had changed my position on a great many things since then. I mean, at 17 you make decisions largely based on theories. At 27 you factor in a little thing called experience. This realization did not make me a Christian. But it played a huge role in moving me from one side of an issue towards the center. Once you've had the opportunity to actually, truly be “open-minded” about an issue, you gain a certain appreciation and respect for the word. And you stop using it so carelessly. I came to a point of humility that cannot be faked or, I believe, even earned on my own. I reasoned that if God did exist, it is possible that He may not follow my exact template for revealing Himself to each of His created creatures. I had this gnawing tension within me in spite of logic and a fulfilled life. I was more than a little frustrated. I just wanted to know the truth, you know? Is God and/or Jesus real or not? I got to a place where I just didn't care if I had been wrong or right. Deep, deep down I just wanted to know the truth. I decided to pray again.
"God, if You actually exist, I recognize that You may do things differently than I would do them, if I were God. I am open to You proving to me that You exist, on Your terms."
This was the best my prideful heart could muster. I prayed it. I believed it. And I didn't care how long it took. That was the turning point for me. I let go of a small piece of my pride that day, and I have never regretted a moment of it. In fact, I wish I could export it and share it with the world.
In spite of all these words, I feel like so much is left unsaid. When I was an Atheist I never once thought of it as a phase I was going through. It was just my life. Now that I am a Christian, I feel the same way. This is me, now.
For those interested in the sermons, or the other stories (which I highly recommend), they are available here on YouTube.