A long time being born: Part two

Before coming to Christ, there were moments when I’d get wind of that greater something, a passing awareness about God when I’d see a sunset behind long rows in a field, or sit in the candlelit darkness of a Christmas Eve service, or stand beneath a star-strewn sky far from city lights. All those times were but fleeting instances that left me wanting more of what I now know to be God.

Back in the trenches of my routines, I found less than godly ways of dealing with what writer Walker Percy called “the malaise of everydayness.” Sex, drugs, and rock and roll gave me that way out, especially the drugs, which for me were mostly marijuana and alcohol, and the parts of my soul that longed for God became muted, like a radio turned down low. It’s amazing to consider that in the very air around us radio waves, phone transmissions, satellite TV signals, and who knows what else are flying around unnoticed.

God is also mostly ignored, though the Bible declares, “He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27-28). With God so close, it’s easy to assume we know Him, and in a way we all at least know about Him. Some of our ideas are correct, and some are completely bogus. Most of the time we make up our own ideas about our Creator rather than hearing what He has to say for Himself. In other words, we turn off our spiritual radios and sing our own hideously off-key songs.

Like most people, I was a legalist at heart and figured God was keeping score, but graded on a curve like the more benevolent teachers I encountered in school. After all, I assumed I had never really hurt anyone and was better than all those murderers and thieves, so most of the time I felt quite righteous.

My comfort level was challenged when I encountered Christians at my job and the community college I started attending. They were an odd group, generally what I would have considered to be nerds, except they were unique nerds. Confident they were heaven-bound, those “Jesus Freaks” talked about God directing their lives as if they actually heard from Him on a regular basis.

I had started reading the Bible on my own, so God was working on me through other avenues besides experiences with peculiar people.  In addition to my study of Scripture, I read religious books and tracts, which seemed to be everywhere on that college campus: on tables in the cafeteria, on urinals in the restroom, even down in the tray of the cigarette vending machines where my Marlboros were dispensed. I ate and read those pamphlets. I peed and read them. I smoked and read them.

They usually ended with the “plan of salvation” and a “sinner’s prayer.” The plan was basically admitting I was a sinner and acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God and risen Lord. I was pretty sure I’d always believed Jesus was the Son of God, but I didn’t comprehend what that really meant. Assuming we were all sons of God, I never realized He alone is uniquely divine, and His claims of Lordship required me to acknowledge Him as absolute ruler of my life.

Blissfully unaware of the deep implications of the “plan,” I prayed the accompanying “sinner’s prayer” numerous times, just to keep my bases covered.

Eventually, I fell in with some non-denominational Christians who used drums and guitars in their church services. I even started playing in a Christian rock band and was having a good time of it, going around to churches, coffeehouses, and outdoor revival meetings. Sometimes we drove out of state and spent nights away from home. Once, we even flew in a big airliner to a city hundreds of miles away and stayed in a hotel, just like rock stars, except we didn’t throw our television out the window or entertain groupies in our room.

Even though life was good, I began to feel like something was missing, so I asked one of my pastors for prayer, but he wanted to discuss my spiritual life first.

Maybe that was just the way he did things, or perhaps God tipped him off that something was amiss. I did have long hair, and much later he told me that when we had first met, he thought I was one of the meanest-looking guys he’d ever seen, so perhaps that’s what motivated his inquisition.  After a few minutes prodding me for various details, he said, “You need to get saved.”

Immediately, I began to defend myself because I was in a Christian band, had been baptized, quit smoking pot, and was living a more decent life than I had previously. Somewhere in the midst of my words, though, it seemed as if a door opened deep in my soul, beneath all the mental assents and verbal defenses I was giving.

On a much deeper and more genuine level, I knew I was lost. In Acts 2:37 Peter had preached, and the Scriptures convey that those who listened were “pierced to the heart,” and asked, ‘What shall we do?’” That’s pretty much what happened to me, and I actually felt almost impaled, like I couldn’t move until things were set right between God and me.

Jesus said that many who had called Him Lord would come before Him on the Day of Judgment and declare they had done many great deeds in His name, but Jesus will say He never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). This section of the Bible sobers many Christians because they think a person can do many good works and still not measure up, but the truly telling fact about those condemned people is not that they did great works.

Jesus never addresses their claims directly, and we don’t know for sure if they performed those wonderful deeds or not. What we know for certain is that they were using their works as their justification. No true Christian would do this, but that’s I attempted when talking with my pastor that night.

Rather than declaring Jesus as my Savior, I was actually trusting in my religious acts. Instead of seeing His sacrifice on the cross as my redemption, I was looking to my paltry acts of self-improvement. Never before had I truly seen myself as a sinner in need of salvation.

For the first time in my life, I cried out to God as a man in desperate need. Sure, I’d confessed some wrong actions before, but I had never acknowledged that I myself was horribly wrong and separated from Him because of my sin.

On that night, I was finally drawn from my dark womb of self-centered religion and birthed into the light of a relationship with Christ Himself. Prior to that time, I had known about God, but that night I came to know Him. A neglected region within my soul was vacant, but then the Spirit of the risen Christ took up residence there.

Like a newborn baby, I cried, but all my tears were not ones of joy. I left that night with a peculiar peace within me, one that when I became still enough was not a mere feeling, but the very presence of Christ Himself. In my mind, there were doubts and questions, but there was a bottom line of peace in my heart, and within that peace God spoke to me about making some changes.

In those early days after my conversion, I realized the need to cut off relationships, quit vices, and make a new life. I literally threw out bag after bag of junk I deemed unholy: books, magazines, music, old photographs, cases of tobacco, and souvenirs of my sinful ways— the assortment of items was staggering. I quit going certain places and began to frequent others. Some people I gave a cold shoulder, at least for a while, and others I sought out.

During that period of my life, a peculiar image about my situation formed in my mind. It was something like the tricks performed where a tablecloth is pulled from beneath elaborate place settings of china and silverware and even centerpieces and candelabras, but all the items remain where they are, undisturbed on a bare table.

I felt as though nearly everything that I had once known and valued had been yanked from beneath me, but I wasn’t falling over or crashing down. I was a man with an invisible means of support, and God was holding my life together.