You know how you might go into an old-fashioned evangelical or pentecostal church and they would have “testimony night”? You’d listen to a bunch of people stand up and tell how they “received the Lord” and after you’ve listened to about three of them you discover that the story is pretty much the same, and you still have ten more to listen to before the night is through, along with a number of loud “praise the Lords” and clap offerings. You know the story: “I was lost in (place heinous sin here), and I was suffering with (place terrible consequence of sin here), and then I met (place saintly Christian here) who led me to the Lord and then I was SAVED and after that I have been (place positive effect of being a Christian here).” Punctuate this story with tears and amens and you’ve pretty much got it.
How I became a Christian was pretty much like that.
Except that I didn’t know I was lost until I had made my first step toward Jesus. I didn’t really have anything to be lost from. Frankly, I was pretty ignorant about anything that resembled spirituality until I was twelve. I remember two of my ten year old friends—Mark and Danny—were walking home from the store with me when the subject turned to deep theological matters. Mark was a part of a strong Catholic family who held a weekly Bible study in their house. Danny often joined them. As we were walking, they were discussing the differences between Catholics and Protestants. Then they turned to me and asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” I didn’t have a clue what those terms even meant, and I certainly didn’t know why I should care. I responded honestly, “I don’t know.” “Oh,” said Danny, the Arbiter of Ultimate Judgment, “then you must be a Protestant. If you were a Catholic, you’d know.”
As ignorant as they were about comparative religions, I was even more ignorant. As far back as I could remember, my Sunday morning worship consisted of watching cartoons on television, especially Popeye, the best moral teaching of which consisted of a warning to not try this at home, kids. I do remember vaguely going to a Methodist church once, being forced to wear uncomfortable clothing and sitting so close to my grandmother that I couldn’t escape that almost musty smell grandmothers used to have. I remember the stained glass windows and someone just droning on and on about something I didn’t really get.
I was pretty familiar with the word “Jesus” and “God”. Grown men were often chanting their names every time they were the slightest bit irritated. Of course they were some kind of spiritual beings. But they didn’t have anything to do with real life. They didn’t have anything to do with the school, or my siblings, or convincing my parents that I needed a copy of Destroyer by Kiss.
My earliest hearing of the gospel (that I understood) was the recording of the rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” My mother took me to a neighbor’s house and had me listen to it. This was long before Tim Rice was bought out by Disney and Andrew Lloyd Webber was permanently scarred by Phantom of the Opera. It was haunting, direct and, in parts, frightening. The crucifixion scene sounded like birds and spaceships in a symphony of blood and murder. It had Judas as a twentieth century doubter and Annas and Ciaphas as murderous schemers, but much of the rest of the gospel story they had right. The cluelessness of the disciples, the almost self-martyrdom of Jesus, and God as the ever-present background figure, moving all the pawns to establish Christianity. And Jesus’ death was the climax of it all—the end of Jesus as human, and the beginning of Jesus as exalted superhuman—it was both sad and exhilarating at the same time. As soon as I received my own record player on my birthday* (*ouch—showing my age, aren’t I?), it was the first album I stole from my parents and I played it so often as to deepen the grooves of the record and I could soon sing the falsetto with the actor playing Jesus* (*no mean feat! I don’t think I could do it now like I could in my 20s).
So I guess I was a little prepared when I discovered the Jack Chick tract in the doctor’s office. Don’t you know Jack Chick? He wrote the comic-book style conservative Protestant diatribes in a 2” x 3” book format. Some of his titles are, “Somebody Loves Me”, “This is Your Life” and “How to Placate God By Supporting Zionism and Hating Catholics” (not really). His popularity, especially on the West Coast, led to many to directly attack his pro-evangelical, pro-Israel, anti-Catholic stance. The tract I came across was one of his pro-Israel ones, offering his argument that the United States had better be nice to Israel, or God would zap them. Fascinating reading for a twelve year old, actually. And the comic-style illustrations made the text all that more interesting (maybe I should have some for this book?). Although the argument wasn’t all that clear to me, it did impress me with two things—the Bible is important as a source of Truth and Jesus will Save us. So, in accordance with the booklet, I prayed the prayer to receive Jesus, and then I was convinced I was Saved. At least that’s what the book said the Bible said.
I tried to read the Bible, made it through Genesis (the first book out of sixty-six) and part of Exodus and gave up. What a tough book! Why couldn’t those guys write in a way people could understand? You know, like Dr. Seuss or J.D. Rollings? Well, they lived two to four thousand years ago, so I guess they have an excuse, but it seems to me that with all the versions out there, someone could really update this book, give it more characterizations, more psychology, highlight the drama. It sure doesn’t need any more sex or violence, except perhaps the New Testament. Sure, you’ve got a crucifixion and some stonings, but it’s just not packed with over the top melodrama like the Old Testament. Anyway, I gave it up after a couple months of trying. And prayer? I just didn’t get it. Besides, it’s boring. Who wants to talk to someone who never talks back? I can’t even tell if he’s listening.
Thus began the most miserable year of my life. In my ignorance, I was fine. I would insult my comrades, get into fights, avoid shame, have trouble with grades sometimes, but all was well. No guilt, no remorse, and, frankly, little memory of what did happen. After I entered eighth grade, all that changed.
One thing that changed is a foreign student from Iran that moved into our house. While the drama of our house probably should have revolved around the fact that it was 1978-9, revolution was in full force in Iran and the student was a relative (albeit distant) of the Shah, that didn’t matter to a twelve or thirteen year old. That’s the kind of stuff you’d see on TV news, which was one of the few programs I wouldn’t watch. Bijan’s importance to me rested more in his stack of pornography and disco albums*. Visual and audio sex filled my life, suddenly, and it was a force that flooded my mind like a tsunami over a small island. Not that Bijan’s influence began my thinking about sex—hormones took care of that, like it or not. But the fleeting thoughts were chiseled into my brain as if it were granite. (For those deeply concerned, I repented of disco music by the time I was out of high school.)
At the same time, in school, I was having my first real taste of oppression. Joe at school was in my English class and he seemed to have no end of pleasure and creativity in tormenting me. It wasn’t anything serious—hitting me behind a wall, mocking when the teacher wasn’t looking. But it was physical and shaming and persistent. When I wasn’t thinking about sex, I spent time thinking about how I could finally get even with Joe. But I didn’t see any real results without a direct confrontation. I did, at one point, ask him why he was tormenting me, and he gave me some nonsensical mocking answer. Looking back, I guess he considered me nerdish. Typical eighth grader stuff. But he wouldn’t stop, although I asked. And I hated him. I didn’t want to kill him. But if I could ship him to Siberia in the nude, that would be great.
On my thirteenth birthday, Bijan thought it right and proper to give me a gift. There was no ceremony behind it, he just called me into his room and handed it to me. It was a pocketknife. It only had two blades, but one was perhaps four inches. To my thinking at the time, that was huge. It could barely fit it into my pocket. And it was sharp. I discovered this by closing the blade on my thumb and it bled so much it was difficult to hide it from my mom. I immediately realized that this was the solution to my problem with Joe. Once he realized that I was a Threat, he’d back off, and I’d never be bothered again.
As soon as my nerve was built up, I took the knife to school, and I constantly fingered it in my pocket anytime I stood. It was there, it was sharp and hidden, I was a danger to others, I was safe, no one would bother me again. As English came near, I became more nervous, as the reality of actually using the blade came nigh. How would I show it to him? What if Joe attacked me? Would I actually have to use it? What if I stabbed him? What if an ambulance came to the school and everyone would know that I had attacked him? Well, I figured, then people would know how serious I was. I didn’t want to be bullied anymore. I wasn’t going to take it.
I shivered a bit entering the English room. Maybe he just won’t bug me today. That would be best. He didn’t actually torment me every day. Perhaps he’ll take a day off. This would be a good day. No such luck, of course. He met me in the back of the room and whispered the tortures he had imagined against me that day, that he intended to subject me to after school. Anger flushed my face. This was it. No more. I thrust my hand in my pocket and took out the knife. I slowly unsheathed it (attempting to be threatening, like in the movies, but I suspect it just highlighted my inexperience with knives) and pointed it at him. “I… I don’t want you to talk to me again. Just don’t bother me.” Joe really was intelligent. Yes, I had him in a corner, no where to go, with a knife pointed at him and a frightened, desperate enemy holding to it with dear life. His solution to the danger to his life and limb was simple, but brilliant. At least I hadn’t thought of it, in all the planning I had made of this moment. “Mrs. Holly!” he cried. “Mrs. Holly! Steve’s pulled a knife on me!” Yes, there are drawbacks to making seriously threatening actions in a supervised classroom. Not exactly a school shooting.
I broke down and cried. What I thought would be the solution to my shame, only poured greater shame on me than I had experienced before. Now I am Steve—knife-puller and cry-baby, and so I would be known for the rest of my life. If I could face the world without a paper bag, I would be lucky. Of course, my parents were called. Of course, I was given a “serious talking to”. But my direct remorse and the story I poured out afterwards garnered me a bit of sympathy. School shootings were not yet common, so I was not suspended. Joe and I were kept from each other in the classroom, and we avoided each other out of the classroom.
Eventually Chronos blessed me with having that miserable year end. Summer was upon us, and a swimming pool was being dug in our backyard. The excitement of my brothers and I were unbounded. I have two younger brothers, and when I was thirteen, I would be running around with them and with other friends, wrestling and joking and playing. Of course they would get hurt. Sometimes. By me. What could be done of that? We were playing.
A neighbor lady came by early that summer and asked our mom if we—my brothers and I— would be interested in going to something called “Vacation Bible School.” Ha, I almost exclaimed. Who would want to go to “school” in the summer? There were too many things to do—tadpoles to find and bring home, football to play, bulldozers to get in front of, my brothers to abuse.… I was shocked when I found that my mother had volunteered us to go, on bended knee, tears in her eyes. How could she? This was our time, our freedom. She had no right.
By the next morning I found that she did have the right to be rid of us and could enforce that right, if necessary. And our lives truly were changed. Sure, it was fun, we played games, we ran around like wild banchees* (*Does anyone know what a banchee looks like? If you do, please write me and let me know). But more than this, I discovered that there was more to this Jesus thing than a half-baked prayer. There was knowledge and lifestyle and commitment that I had never dreamed of! There was grace and power through the Spirit! I could pray and be heard! I could read the Bible and have it be a part of my life! I could enjoy church just because of learning about Jesus! I fully committed myself to the Lord that week.
At one point that week, I prayed to God and Jesus (I wasn’t sure which one I should pray to at that time). I asked for His control over my life because I had certainly messed things up. I asked for him to help me. Then I waited for the Great Revelation. Some Voice to speak. Or lightning perhaps. Something Impressive. Nothing like that happened (at that time). But one thing did change. I was able to release myself to God. Boredom, distraction or my own moral weaknesses were no issue. For God had made me His, and it was His power that allowed me to focus on Him. Until that time, I had no idea what God in my life could be like. I had no idea.
Evidently, neither did my mother. We came back home daily during that week and a half, talking about everything we learned. Her response? Great, I’m glad you’re excited, now leave me to my fried chicken. After more than a week of this, though, some of our enthusiasm rubbed off. And, strangely, there were changes she noticed. My youngest brother was oddly happy, singing “Jesus loves me” of all things. The middle brother, the pyro, was no longer lighting fires. And I? Well, she says that I spent my time evangelizing her. I want you to know that I have no memory of this. But it could be true. I do clearly remember telling my parents that I was going to church every Sunday now and that they were driving me. I also remember giving my mother a commentary on the book of Revelation (which caused me nightmares, but I never spoke about that).
Next thing you know, she also received the Lord, and we’re going to church together, along with my father and two brothers. Years later, we all ended up doing ministry in the church one way or the other.
So I return to school the next year and I’m completely transformed. I am not the nerdy Steve, now I am the religious fanatic Steve. They called me “Jesus Freak” and I laughed. I argued against evolution with my biology teacher in school. And, eventually, I saw Joe again. I ran up to him, saying, “Hey, I need to say something.” “Yeah?” he replied. “What are you going to do? Pull a knife on me again?” “No, I just want to let you know that this last year I committed myself to Jesus. I really apologize for doing that.” There was silence for a moment. He looked at me with wide eyes, “Yeah, whatever.” He never spoke to me again. The fear of a weapon is as nothing compared to fear of religious fanaticism. I have never turned back.
The ways of God were truly revealed to me. Sure, I could pray a prayer and do the religious deed, but God wasn’t in it. Why? Because I didn’t really need Him. God, I have found, is immensely practical. For a God of infinite grace, He is almost Amish in his reserve of resources. He only provides grace to those who need it, and ask for it in desperation. God reserves his salvation to those who actually need salvation. Others need not apply. When I got on my knees and prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at twelve, I didn’t need God. Jesus was great, but he was just going to be a portion of my life, an unsought section of a shelf in the library of my life. I could have been a Christian at that point, but it would have meant nothing. And so I gained nothing.
But at thirteen, after a year of misery, shame, and struggling (and failing) with sin, I knew what I was missing. And I was ready to receive it. I did not become a Jesus Freak because it “fit” in my life or society. I became a Jesus Freak because if I didn’t have Jesus, I would continue in my misery, shame and sin. And that second option wasn’t acceptable. Which is exactly where God wanted me.
God isn’t tugging at the heart of every single one of the billions of the world, pleading, desperately hoping that we would take his salvation. Yes, God wants every person to be delivered from their suffering. But if people look at their suffering and call it joy, then he's willing to let them live with that delusion. He can let them experience that “joy” for years, deceiving themselves that they are living life at it’s fullest, when actually they are slowly but surely destroying themselves. And when they realize the destruction and suffering they are really experiencing, they might, at that point, turn to God. And that’s where God wants us. Miserable. Crying out to him for help. God wants us, not because we have our lives together. Just the opposite. He wants us because we’re helpless.