Renewal of Faith
I was born at the time of the split in the Disciples, so my upbringing in the Stone-Campbell churches reflected the difficult feelings resultant from the split. My understanding of the Church was staunchly anti-denominational, and, to a degree, anti-intellectual, both reactions to theological liberalism and to the denominationalism that forced out most of the former Disciples churches.
As is often the case with young believers, my teen years proved a difficult time, especially concerning faith and morals. Although I would not have denied the central Christian doctrines I had been taught–such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinitarian understanding of God–in terms of moral behavior, I succumbed to those fairly typical temptations of teen years: lust, drunkenness, lying, and mistreatment of other “weaker” teens. Being a year-round sport letterman, I fit in with the “macho athletic” crowd, got into some fights, and picked on other kids. At the same time, being in the accelerated study program, I was held to higher expectations, and was fairly frequently in outright rebellion with my teachers and other authority figures. Although drugs made inroads among my peers, by my own parents’ involvement in my life, as well as the mercy of God, I was kept free from drug use. Too, I’d seen the effects drugs had had among my own family members, losing an uncle to the downward spiral drugs inflict, and so had a strong influence against using drugs.
During my sophomore year of high school, my dad was transferred by his employer from Augusta, Kansas, to northwestern Washington state. We settled in Bellingham, Washington, and for the first several months, I hated it. More than once I woke up amidst dreams that I was back home with my friends, only to realize as full consciousness came that I was some two thousand miles away. But as summer approached, the anticipation of the football season hit me. I had made friends through working out in the high school weight room with some of the upper classmen who would be leading the football team in the autumn. In June there was a football camp near where I lived, to which many of my fellow teammates were going. It was a Christian camp put on by former NFL professional football players. I went, had a good time, and met some professional athletes, Christians, whom I quickly grew to admire.
But after the camp was over, I continued the “nominal” Christian life I’d been living for most of the time following my baptism. On 1 August 1985, that all changed.
One of the professional football players at the camp, a former linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, was giving a talk at the local Assembly of God church in town, Calvary Temple. I was familiar with the church, having gone to it several times with some of the high school acquaintances I’d gained after arriving in Washington. On the morning of 1 August, I received a call from the former NFL linebacker. He told me about the talk, and invited me to come. He said that it might work out afterwards if I had any questions or wanted to talk that perhaps I could go with him and the youth pastor for a soda. I told him I’d go, and hung up the phone.
Despite being called by a man who’d played in the pros, and anticipating going to the talk, I nonetheless almost didn’t go. I went to the gym in the late afternoon for a good workout prior to the talk, and wrestled with myself while in the shower afterwards as to whether or not I’d really rather go to the talk or go home and enjoy a nice summer evening watching TV. As you may already guess, I went to the talk.
He gave his testimony as to how he became a Christian. I didn’t quite relate exactly to all that he had to say. He’d lived a wild life prior to becoming a Christian. In some ways, my relatively “wild” days happend post baptism. But what he said about living the Christian life in the power of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God through faith hit a chord with me. I went home and lay in bed praying. I told God that I’d messed up a lot, but though I’d at times repented and tried to get my life right, I just could never live the way he wanted me to. I just didn’t have the strength to do it. I finally told him, in terms that are probably best not used when addressing Deity, that if he wanted me to live the Christian life, I would do it, but I couldn’t do it on my own strength. He’d have to do it through me. But if he would do it through me, I’d sure let him. I’d do my best not to let him down.
I had discovered, at fifteen years old, the biblical understanding of grace as synergy. Or as Paul puts in in the letter to the Philippians, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that God works in you both to will and to do his God pleasure.” And so, not surprisingly, by the mercy and grace of God, I have not turned away from that decision even nearly twenty years later. I surely have sinned since then. And I have had some brief periods of rebellion. But they have always been followed by heartfelt repentance as I continue to grow in the faith.
Shortly after this renewal of faith, my parents went through a difficult time in their marriage. As a high-school aged kid, I was both aware of things my parents tried to shield me from and also blinded by my loyalty to my parents to some of the issues around which their marital struggles revolved. This was a very dark time for me, especially having just begun to take seriously the faith in which I’d been baptized. But two things helped me bear up under these challenges.
I’m not sure how or why, but shortly after I’d been renewed in my faith, I began praying and reading the Scriptures every morning. It was immediately a habit. I never experienced the struggles most people go through in making a time of daily worship and Bible reading part of their faith practice. Of course, I’ve often missed days. And indeed, for most of the time I was in the Episcopal seminary, I didn’t keep this habit (though I returned to it soon after I left the seminary). But it has nonetheless been a life-long habit all the years since.
By the providence of God, I had also made friends with a classmate, a year ahead of me in school, who went to an independent Bible church there in Bellingham. Through my going to church with him, and through our friendship with his family, my family (except for my father who was separated from us) also began to attend, though what the church taught about baptism and the Lord’s Supper differed markedly from the teachings with which we’d been raised. But it was a church home, and one other very important factor marked my earliest months of rededication to Christ.
One of the most important aspects of the church life there at the parish was a strong discipling ministry that the high school youth group had. Young college age men, young fathers, as well as a few older men, all ensured that we young men (the girls and women were similarly matched up) were taught the basics of the faith and how to defend our beliefs in a world antagonistic to belief in the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection from the dead. It was an important time. I saw people older than me but near enough to my own age who I could both respect and admire living out the faith fearlessly and boldly. These were adults who took their faith seriously and gave of their time to ground us young men and women in the faith.
My mother, of course, was quite concerned that I might be persuaded to accept doctrines foreign to what I’d been taught, or to reject them for other beliefs. But she need not have worried. Though there were clearly influences toward premillennial dispensational eschatology, and salvation without baptism, I was largely immune to these things because I was mostly indifferent to them. I was more taken with the fact of these leaders living the faith day in and day out, and that I could give a rational defense of my faith.