When I was born into the world on May 18, 1986, it was a huge struggle. For my mother, I was not only the result of her negligence concerning birth control pills but also a prolonged pain in the rear end on export. Last summer at the Governor’s School of South Carolina, I wrote this short piece, which, in my opinion, summarizes the event quite nicely:
“This Piece is More Effective Without A Title”
Relaxation. The land flowing with milk and honey. It was like sitting comfortably in a La-Z-Boy chair under water, yet being able to breathe. My mom ate a lot of food while I was in there. One time, she ate five pizzas in one seating – wow, I felt smashed against her uterus like an obnoxious kid pressing his nose and mouth against a car window. Those were the days. When that dreaded day came, my birthday, I hanged on for dear life. My mother told me later it was for 22 hours 36 minutes. Looking back on birth now, I like to imagine that death will be a lot like birth. While in my mother’s womb, I could not imagine any other place. I assumed that I would live my life in that La-Z-Boy chair, and then I would die. That would be it. Yet when I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, um…vagina, I stopped struggling against the pulling; I was drawn to the light. Somehow, I knew it held something more fantastic for me than I had ever experienced before. At 22 hours 35 minutes I let go and embarked on the adventure that has enabled me to be here today. This life has been wonderful so far, and will no doubt get better as the years go by, but I don’t dread its end the way I dreaded its beginning. Whatever the next light at the end of the tunnel brings, I won’t struggle against it, but will welcome it with open arms, or with suffocating arms wrapped around my upper body if it’s anything like the last time.
Besides the absurd philosophical jargon I threw in there, I’m sure my birth experience is very much analogous to the struggles I’ve encountered with my faith in the last year. Before I dive headfirst into the empty yet overflowing pool of my doubts and questions, I’d like to briefly describe my faith and circumstances before serious questioning and crisis of faith began.
Throughout my life, I have intermittently had minor questions and insignificant intellectual problems with the validity of my Christian faith. As I suppose is common, however, I did not seriously question my faith for the majority of my childhood and adolescence. The following essay, which I wrote for admission to Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school for which Christian faith is a requirement for admission, provides a self-evaluation of my faith in early October 2003.
Cold, dry wintry air provided a palette for red, blue, and white lights that mixed together through the tear-filled eyes of a horrified little boy. He could not understand why the paramedics were taking his mommy away in the ambulance; he could only remember what she told him the last time she left, “Mommy’s sick, honey…mommy’s really sick…” In truth, his mom had attempted suicide for the second time, leaving herself to be found half-dead in the family living room by an innocent child and his unknowing father. I was that little boy, and although I did not know it then, my mother’s drug abuse problem was critical and would soon become fatal if Someone did not do something about it. Just when my family hit bottom, Someone finally did.
I liked the new way my parents decided we should spend our Sunday mornings. Besides, hearing gripping stories in Sunday School about giant man-eating sea monsters, talking donkeys, and a dude named David who beat up a really huge guy certainly won out over my usual fare of Mario Brothers video games. And even during the part of church when we were made to listen to “Early,” (the name I assumed all preachers went by) my mom’s right leg was there just in case I needed a mid-sermon nap. What could be better than that? On one Sunday in particular, however, I was wide awake.
As I wriggled uneasily in the third pew back on the right side of the church’s small quaint sanctuary, I listened to Preacher Early speak about when he began having two birthdays per year. The skeptical four-year-old with a blonde mullet that I was, I listened on to see how this could possibly be. After all, up until that point in my life, I had celebrated four birthdays, probably the happiest four days I could remember; if I could have had eight, why hadn’t anyone told me before? He went on to present two choices that everyone must choose between in life: “accept” Jesus Christ and live forever in heaven (while picking up a second yearly birthday!) or be forced to burn in flames for all time. It seemed like an easy enough choice for me. After my parents explained to me exactly what Salvation was all about and how it had changed their lives and broken the grip of drug abuse, I knew, even at the early age of four, that Jesus was the One for me. If He could alter the course of my family from one of destruction to one of true joy, I would not want to put my trust in anyone or anything else.
But, that trust has taken time to build and strengthen. If my life and the unique experiences that God has placed in my life were not different from the lives of my “yet to become a Christian” friends, I am sure that my faith would have faltered by now. But it hasn’t. There is not enough room here to relate all the awesome things that God has done to strengthen my faith in Him, but let it suffice to write of one example.
In the beginning of my sophomore year, honestly on a whim, I whipped open my big, yellow and slightly disheveled phone book to search for anyone in Anderson, South Carolina who was naďve and could be charmed into hiring a fifteen year old to do a decent job. I soon found a victim in Farr Music House and convinced them that even though they had never hired anyone my age in their decades of business, they should most definitely hire me. And so they did. A month or two after I began working at the store, an elderly lady came in and asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested in playing piano for a church; I replied quickly that I was interested. To say the least, she looked a bit surprised, but she gave me a phone number to call and tromped out the door. I called, and they hired me.
I found at Shiloh through this unlikely chain of events that there is much responsibility in Christian leadership. The taste of accountability I received at Shiloh prompted me to hunger for more opportunities to grow in Christ. I began to lead a Christian club at my school and started to really explore the Christian faith in depth as I never had before. I found much satisfaction in knowing that I had good reason to believe as I did. I no longer believed in Christ because I had been exposed to church or because my parents told me it was right thing to do; I believed for myself.
I remember standing in my living room during Christmastime after I started playing at Shiloh. I stared up humbly at our glimmering Christmas tree as my reflection bounced off of the innumerable hanging balls. The atmosphere in the room reminded me of a time long before when I had also seen a mixture of red, blue, and white lights flashing. This time, however, the lights merged together with a greenish glow as I heard the voices of loved ones laughing on the other side of the house. God had truly blessed my life, and the blessing had only begun.
I remember writing this essay partly in the back of a big 15-passenger van when the air was just beginning to cool and the leaves starting to change color. At that point, I was marginally secure in my beliefs. Writing this essay gave me the opportunity to examine and bask in the personal effects Christianity had bestowed upon my family. I thought my personal experience to be just another bit of evidence working to strengthen my faith in the fundamentalist Christianity of my roots and childhood. Looking back and reading the essay now, I believe I sound trite and naďve, and even a bit simplistic at times. Life sucked, parents were on drugs, walked in Baptist church, God saved us, so Christianity must be right. And I’m pretty sure I lied, or maybe it was the truth then, but I definitely exaggerated when I noted that I “started to really explore the Christian faith in depth as I never had before. I found much satisfaction in knowing that I had good reason to believe as I did. I no longer believed in Christ because I had been exposed to church or because my parents told me it was right thing to do; I believed for myself.” I talked to other Christians and searched for snappy Christian apologetics and revalidation, but nothing more. I should have seen it coming, but soon after writing the essay, I suddenly became enveloped in the crisis of faith I’d been trying to avoid for months.
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
A Change of Pace
One spring Sunday evening while returning home from playing the piano at Shiloh Church, I had, if there is such a thing, a truly spiritual experience. Up until that point in time, since the beginning of my memory, I had been sure my future would be spent professionally as a meteorologist. I was always a little weather nut growing up. I would even call our local television meteorologist John Cessarich on a regular basis; somehow I found his the direct-line number into the weather studio. Later on, in my junior year of high school, I even tried (and failed miserably) to start a “Weather Club.” But, that night, everything changed suddenly.
It was a complete change in my aspirations. I felt that God was “calling” me away from a professional life of meteorology or science. I not only felt it; I was certain. This shocked me, to say the least. I’d never felt anything like it before. After driving home that evening from church, I sat in my ’92 Jeep Cherokee and really felt a sense of happiness and certainty flow over my body while at the same time feeling apprehensive. At that moment, sitting in my car, I recalled the anecdote my Uncle Ronnie had recounted to my family.
Years ago, a few years out of college, my uncle was engrossed in business and doing very well. At some point in his job, however, he began to be plagued with an unexplainable misery in his work. Somehow, he knew that God was calling him to ministry, but Ronnie fought it. He was quite comfortable with his position in life; he majored in Business in college, he had a great job that paid a lot of money, and he wasn’t going to let some spiritual “feeling” screw all that up. Unfortunately, as time passed, he became more and more miserable. One night, all of his internal turmoil came to a breaking point. Outside, looking up at a crystal clear night sky, he challenged God, “If you are calling me, show me a sign!” Immediately, across the sky, streaked a shooting star. He’s now a fulfilled and happy minister, and a great one at that.
Recalling this story while reclined in my driveway, I figured I would give my uncle’s method a try. I opened the door to my Jeep, put my elbows against my knees, and said in a low voice, “God, if what I’m feeling is true, make those crickets stop their noise.” And, it happened…right then. It was easily the freakiest thing that had ever happened to me, coincidence or not. I walked back inside that night, and my parents thought something was wrong by the look on my face. “What’s wrong, honey?” my mom asked with a concerned look on her face. “Nothing’s wrong,” I replied with a grin. “But I know one thing. I’m not going to be a meteorologist!”
My parents, mom especially, immediately concluded, “You’ve been called to preach!” I denied it, saying that I only knew for sure that meteorology was no longer a possibility, although it does make sense that I would be called to ministry through an experience like the one I had. I thought they might be right, but I wasn’t convinced. Even though I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, I remember my faith in God being strong and growing stronger every day.
First Exposure to Evolutionary Biology
Right around the time of my “change of pace,” for the first time (actually the second, but my first biology teacher discounted evolution and taught it from her fundamentalist Christian Sunday School teacher perspective), I learned evolutionary biology in an academic setting. Darwin made and makes perfect sense to me. This rattled me at first, but I soon dismissed my agitation as unwarranted. At least for the moment then, I viewed the evolution vs. creationism issue as insignificant. I thought, “I know something or someone had to either create things the way they are or had to start the process of evolution. Either way, God participates, so what’s the problem? 6000 years or 6000 million years I don’t care!” I was proud of myself. I thought that if I could resolve my questions with regard to evolution, any other doubts would be child’s play.
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
In April 2003, I became part of the beginnings of an amazing ministry, called The CHILL (Christ Has Infinitely Lasting Love), although it did not have a name just yet. In my junior year of high school, there were two Christian clubs/organizations on campus that met before classes: the first was FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), which functioned for the most part as a place for mostly churchgoing students to hang out and have fun; the other was First Priority, which undeniably went deeper into the Christian faith, but was much smaller and undoubtedly less fun to attend than FCA. By April of junior year, it became obvious, first to a graduating senior Austin Campbell, who had been an integral part of FCA at one time, that T.L. Hanna High’s Christian ministry needed revamping. And unity. We needed unity. Austin approached Robert Boyd, one of my best friends in high school, and me one day in Calculus class with a dynamic new idea: combining FCA and First Priority into one big organization and effort. It was radical, but both Robert and I could sense the passion Austin had for this idea, the depth with which he had explored this possible undertaking spiritually, and the surety he had that this was, in fact, what God wanted for the Christian ministry at our high school. From my personal perspective, I began to feel passionate about this opportunity and excited that it might confirm and make lucid, or deny, the “calling” I’d felt recently away from the dreams of my childhood and adolescence and toward something else, possibly ministry. That was April.
When school ended and final exams were finished in May, Austin, Robert and I threw ourselves entirely into the creation of this new ministry, which really only existed in our minds at that point. Concrete challenges were directly in front of us. First, we had to figure out what to do with the two existing clubs, FCA and First Priority. Robert and I had been Co-Presidents of First Priority, so ending it to make way for the new organization was no problem. FCA, on the other hand, had existed for thirty plus years. Between the three of us, we decided it would be best for the new organization to start fresh without the preconceived notions FCA and First Priority both would bring with them.
So, we began meeting multiple times per week at Jittery Joe’s, a peaceful and quaint coffee shop on Main Street in Anderson. In our planning and prayers, I began to feel “closer” to God. An experience I remember clearly is when we first thought of what to name the new club. We’d considered a few names already: Plan B, which we discarded after discovering a morning-after pill by the same name (!); The Rock; and Christian Campus Ministry. One afternoon at Jittery Joe’s, we formed our very first prayer list. We wrote down our last request – “Help us to think of a cool name.” Seconds after writing that request down, Austin said, “The CHILL…The CHILL!” Robert and I looked at each other, then looked at him with a look of incredulity on our faces and chuckled. “Well, that’s a ‘cool’ name!” “It’s just ‘chillin’!” “Man, that’s ‘chill’!” We had fun with word puns for a minute, then somehow we came up with the acronym within a couple of seconds: Christ Has Infinitely Lasting Love. Robert still says that it had to be inspired by God.
I remember another time when we met for a prayer meeting in a back room of First Baptist Church, Anderson, having a distinct assurance that God was there with us and cared about what we were doing. We put our hands together in a circle, praying over the latest revision of the CHILL prayer list. That prayer circle stands out in my mind as one of the few times in my life I felt I was aware of God’s presence. I knew that The CHILL would be unlike anything our high school had ever encountered before. I also began to realize how ignorant I was at this point. This was a trend that would continue for the duration of my time serving in The CHILL.
The planning for The CHILL was constant and productive. We laid out the foundation for The CHILL, deciding on certain positions that needed to be filled and set ourselves working to find people to fulfill those responsibilities. One thing in particular that set The CHILL apart from the previous years’ organizations was the implementation of the one student speaker who would do most of the Bible teaching during the school year. In short, the person would be responsible for the responsibilities similar to those of a church minister. The thought crossed my mind initially that I might be the person for this job. With a little hesitation, I let Austin and Robert know this. They penciled me in, and I decided to pray about it and seek direction to make sure this was where God would have me leading. At this point, I headed off for a month to the Governor’s School of South Carolina. There, I began actively, in every way I knew how, seeking direction for my place in The CHILL. I spent many hours of my free time at “Guvie School” planning out the topics for each week, planning guest speaker weeks, etc. (to be continued)