That 29 year old kid in the picture, holding that precious baby, is about to get his world rocked. It already has been rocked. But it's about to get rocked far more. He already met the woman of his dreams, got married, became a father and has hopes of bringing this sweet boy home. We will bring him home. But he will have to go back into the hospital many times. He will eventually die. This kid is also not a Christian. He looks nice. In fact, he is a pretty nice guy. But he's lost. He's months away from giving up this life you see in his eyes, in exchange for whatever Jesus has for him. I can still remember asking Him, "I am yours. What ever you want me to do or wherever you want me to go, I will. Just tell me." My first words as an apprentice of Jesus. That was 20 years ago. There's more to this story and if you want to read it, I wrote my testimony here. But, what I want to do, at the 20 year mark, is sort of describe the anatomy of what this change in my life was like...as much as what it wasn't like.
I didn't accept Christ because I was afraid of hell
Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near! - Matthew 4:17
I wasn't concerned with hell before I became an apprentice of Jesus. I am not concerned about it after. I do not have a "Hey, look what I almost stepped in" sort of testimony. I was broken down to nothing and had no where else to turn. I wanted relief and didn't see anything in sight. When I heard His voice, I surrendered to Him. What I mean by that is I gave up resisting what I have heard most of my life. I put down the walls of resistance to a God I hated because there was evil in the world, because there's hypocrites in the church, because of just about anything else I found wrong in the cosmos. I realized I was blaming Someone I also thought didn't exist. I always knew God existed. I just hated Him. I remember telling my cousins that even if Jesus is Lord, I couldn't associate with any God that would allow people to go to hell or permit so much pain and suffering in the world. Had I not changed, I would have gotten my wish. That's what hell is all about. It's having your way, and all the consequences that go with that. How would a loving God send people to hell? Flip that question. How would a loving God force people who hate Him with a seething passion to spend eternity with Him? When you go to heaven, you'll be with Him. And it will be for eternity. Hard to flip that question when you so desire the outcome to go your way.
Which brings me to my disdain for witnessing to people about Jesus with the threat of hell. This was not my experience. Oh, I believe in hell and also believe, looking back, that could have been my destiny. But it would have been my destiny because I willfully chose it, not because I got torched by an angry Deity. I didn't care about hell before. I am not concerned about hell after. So, hell was not what brought me to the cross. Jesus did. I wanted to know more of Him. It wasn't avoiding cosmic justice, but to get more of the Person I finally decided not to spit on, metaphorically speaking. But, the other reason I am not a fan of the 'turn or burn' gospel is because it is essentially a gospel about selfishly saving your own butt. When I read the Bible, I see our concern about ourselves as part of the problem. We are self-interested animals who tend to take care of ourselves before we do anyone else, with very few exceptions. Then I see Jesus, turning that paradigm inside out. He who is God, didn't think deity as something to covet and decided to take on human flesh, become a nobody and take on the sins of the world. There's nothing turn or burn about that. And, although I do believe in the existence of hell, I think it's pointless to appeal to it for those who are not Christians. It's like appealing to an insulin resistant guy with a far more superior kind of ice cream. It appeals to our sinful nature, rather than freeing us from it. That could explain why so many Christians are mean, hateful, controlling, abusive and...well, look pretty much like everyone else once you take away the parlance and rituals.
I knew the Gospel very well. Not ever knowing or hearing wasn't my problem
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? - Romans 10:14
I grew up in Oklahoma. It's technically not really the south, but it is definitely a brass part of the buckle, known as the Bible Belt. I heard the Gospel preached from the time I was old enough to walk until a manage to wall myself away from it in my college apartment...or at least as best I could. I knew about John 3:16 and could quote it. I knew about sin, the cross, resurrection, new life, heaven, etc. Knowledge wasn't my problem. I just wanted no part of it. And, looking back and sort of psychoanalyzing what I can remember about myself, I would say that the reason I wanted no part of it is because I hated God. The idea of a Being that was in control, meaning I really wasn't, pissed me off. I was an emancipated, liberated individual. My choices were mine and I answer to no one. I also wanted no part of it because of His people. There were lots of good Christians I would meet. But I couldn't focus on them because of all of the dingbat Christians that used to get on my last nerve. I never believed the ones that pretended that their life was perfect and everything was rosy. And the fact I knew they were probably lying about what they were selling angered me. Still does. I just don't hate them anymore. In fact, I pray they can land without crashing. That's an impossible sort of life to maintain. I don't wish that stress on my worst enemy.
By the way, the Scripture above from Romans 10 seems to contradict what I just told you. But, keep reading. Chapters 9-11 are about Israel and the gentile church. Israel's problem wasn't a lack of knowing.
But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. 18 But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did... - Romans 10:16-18
There was no evangelist or preacher or missionary involved::
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. - Matthew 8:8-10
Ever wondered how characters like this Roman centurion seemed to have a faith in Jesus without any narrative describing some preliminary ritual? That's because God chooses to use other people to be agents in someone's conversion, but it's only one way He does that. He can do it just fine on His own. Perhaps the Roman centurion had met a follower of Jesus and was given the "Romans Road". Perhaps, Jesus did Himself. I doubt it, based on the text. The truth is, He chooses to use us, rather than needs us. Too many times I have heard ministers anxiously try to manipulate people to support and engage in their ministry under the guise that if we don't, people who could know God may never know God. That's crappy theology and isn't scriptural. It's pure manipulation. God doesn't need you. He has done fine long before you came along and will do fine long after you go. If He uses you, it's because He chooses you to participate in what He's doing. And if you don't, He'll find someone else or do it Himself.
If you don't believe this, I encourage you to read the testimonies of people in nations hostile to Christianity coming to follow Jesus through dreams and visions. No missionaries. If there were, they came along after the fact. In my case, I was in Children's PICU, at 3:45 am. There was no pastor or chaplain or anyone...at least that I can remember. He spoke to me directly. That may make some of you, even Christians, slightly uncomfortable. But He did. And it wasn't His voice that changed me. I was already there. I just didn't have any idea what to do or where to go. That's when He spoke. That's what He's like. He never leaves you abandoned and without a clue.
There was no alter call, no raising of my hand, going forward or even celebratory baptism (for those leaning towards baptismal regeneration). He just was there and He turned me around. But it wasn't an assault on my will. It was just the opposite. It was like He was patiently waiting for me to run out of rope, which I did. He was faithful. I wasn't. He was there the whole time. I wasn't. That parable about the prodigal son's father running to meet him halfway was what it felt like to me. But it wasn't in denial of the pain and heartbreak I was going through. He embraced me in it. More on that in a minute.
There was no happy ending after my decision
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” - John 16:33
I accepted Christ at the moment my only son died in our arms. I kept my conversion to myself. The next days and weeks would be full of mourning, preparing for a funeral, receiving family and friends. It involved the dead silence and loneliness after the guests left. Most testimonies you hear fit well with the rules for any good short story. There is background, conflict, rising action, climax and resolution. The resolution part usually is a changed life. No doubt my life was changed. But it was impossible to delineate what part of that change was associated with the death of my son and what part was the acceptance of Jesus. I was a closet apprentice of Jesus for quite a while. My wife, who was Christian, distanced herself from Christ and the church, while I was inching towards it more and more. Statistically, we should have divorced. There were couples in NICU we made friends with who had separated by the time their child had passed away. Counselors told us to prepare for that. I have no way of knowing why we didn't. I had moved my wife half way across the country to a strange place, only to get her pregnant, culminating in a premature delivery of our son and about 9 months of intense health care giving.
There's no silver lining in this story. No balloons or loud blasting of Celebration. And I have a sneaky suspicion my story isn't the only one like that. Yet, in an evangelical culture where testimonies must follow the rules for a great short story, ours do not fit the rules. They do not give the tidy resolution that is required to sufficiently manage the group of listeners. Is there any good news in this? Yes, but it is in and through this pain, suffering and heartache that I found new life. My circumstances sucked. But He was there in it with me. I can remember being alone in my house, naked, drunk, cussing God and crying till my head ached. He was there with me. He was crying with me. I didn't get answers as to the 'why?' but I did feel His presence through all of this. And it is that presence that still holds me today. By the way, the Lord preserved our marriage and gave us two precious children to raise. He's been good. It has been on His timeline and done entirely His way. And, on this side of it all, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Don't ever feel like there's something wrong with you or that it didn't really take if your story doesn't neatly fit the rules for great short stories. Relax. You are His. If you can think back, He was there with you in the pain, not taking it away. He saw you through it and is here on the other side of it. We need to stop trying to manipulate people to do things they otherwise wouldn't do, at the expense of these poor people trying to satisfy that request with their own story. I'm not saying that happens all the time. But it does happen a lot. And for those of you who have a similar story, ours is no less powerful or important. I am sure of it.
I didn't stop sinning, even after 20 years
Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now[h] receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. 32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. - Romans 11:30-32
There are two undeniable truths to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The first is that, because of the Person and work of Christ, there is absolutely nothing you can do to make God love you more than He does right now and nothing to make Him love you any less than He does right now. The second is that once you decide not to believe that, you need to earn His acceptance, meaning you have to reject that Person and work. Whatever was procured for you absent your moral perfection cannot be taken away from you because of your moral imperfection. Either His shed blood is sufficient to cover all sins...or it isn't.
I say this to admit that after 20 years, I still sin. What is sin? It isn't just behavioral. In fact, behavior reflects sin, rather than is identified as it. Your inner life is oriented towards the Kingdom of God or it isn't. If it is oriented to the Kingdom of God, you aren't made perfect. You're deemed righteous before God, but that's through Christ's finished work, not yours. That means there is a long process of not only falling into sin, but even discovering sin you've had all along but didn't really recognize in yourself before. It is a bit humiliating. It's actually a lot humiliating. But it's necessary. There can't be a transformation for the better without it. And it is normal. Every Christian, including the original Apostles continued to sin after their dedication to Christ. We are saved by grace, through faith, in Christ, plus nothing.
But I am better than I was. There's no doubting that. There's a third truth to the Gospel that is just as incredibly important as the first two. You are changed by Jesus. Jesus accepts you just as you are, not as you should be, because you will never be as you should be, this side of heaven. But, nonetheless, Jesus never leaves you where He found you. There's no chance of dedicating your life to being an apprentice of Jesus Christ and not change for the better. It could be that you have changed but can't see it. I tend to be one of those people with the confidence issues. That's why you need a wife, friends, family, to help you get a sober look at where you've come. Otherwise, if you're like me, you probably will have a difficult time taking inventory of all the change.
I am not a fan of the word disciple and prefer apprentice. It's no fault of the biblical writers for using the word. It's just that our idea of discipleship is muddled. Many consider it just simply following Jesus and listening to everything He says. It's actually that plus doing what He says. If you don't ever attempt to try what He teaches, you'll never experience His vindication in your walk. When I discover He is telling me the truth about the sort of life He offers, it excites me and fuels me to do more. The problem is that legalistic Christians want us to focus on the outer cup, necessitating we hide the inner life until it somehow catches up with how we try to appear. And in the meantime hide the inner life as best we can, lest we get discovered. We always do sooner or later. A healthy view of apprenticeship and sanctification gives us what we need to keep going. We press on with hope in the promises He has given us, seeing the truth in those promises manifest as we discover the truth in His teaching how to live now, day by day, as His apprentice. That involves sinning. It also involves repentance. But this can't be done without the reality of sin, even if we want to eliminate all of it from our life. We are no longer slaves to sin. But it is still there.
I could go on and on. In fact, that was my original plan. My point in writing all this is to help describe my experience in going from skeptic to apprentice. I can't speak for others but only myself. Yet, I don't think any story like mine is useless. I wish more people would do this. Go ahead and do it even if, in fact, your story already does. We can all get something out of it. In fact, what we get out of it may be exactly what we needed to know. That's also how He chooses to use us, despite the paradigms that suggest otherwise. I want you to find solace and encouragement in a ragamuffin who's story is a bit outside of the norm. He loves those outside the margins as much as He does the rest.
There's a lot of negative headers to this piece. But you need to know I am still dedicated to being His apprentice. There have been many days I wanted to walk away. But I can't. I have nowhere else to go. He still has the words of life for me. No, I do not have all the answers nor do I always know what He's up to or what He wants. But I do desire to find out. Not only does that count, that's the way to satisfying it. He still defines my life, shaping it and giving me more than enough to live the life He first introduced to me 20 years ago.