Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Faith Story

This is my faith story as delivered tonight at a Lenten service. I wish my skin were as thick as my skull, but ... well, you’ll see. I'm just glad I got through it without crying like a baby.

I don’t have a finished faith story and I’m thankful for that. If it were finished then I would be somehow complacent in my faith, satisfied with where I had gotten in my understanding of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. If it were finished I wouldn’t need to study the Bible anymore, finding yet another amazing dot to connect with the others that add up to my understanding. So I can’t give a faith story that is finished. But I’ll tell you my story up to today.

Through my 4th grade year my family were members in a great church. For me, the youngest of the family, St. Luke's, in Gladstone, NJ, was a place FULL of people. Everyone in my family had a role on Sundays beyond attendance. My dad taught Sunday school, my mom, sisters and I in the choir. I was an acolyte for a year or so. And I gave it almost no attention.

It seemed to me that everything I heard was like Aesop’s fables. Of so long ago, spoken in such an odd cadence, of incredible things that while they were lessons to be learned I had no interest. My mind was elsewhere, far from what anyone was saying.

The summer of 1966 found my family moving from NJ to Wisconsin. We tried two churches there without finding a fit. At the second church, during my confirmation, I found myself reciting creeds and proclaiming faith and wondering why. Very shortly thereafter we stopped going to church altogether.

My first comprehension of a greater power came after we had moved to Wisconsin. I was reading a short story about a kid holding a glass jar full of fireflies, feeling that this might be what a universe looked like from afar, and that he, the kid, had the power to save or destroy that universe, the universe of fireflies. A couple of summers before I had held a similar jar and none of those thoughts had occurred to me, but now they did. I understood omniscient power and, another night, looking up at the stars of Wisconsin, I accepted that a higher power had to exist.

But I barely equated that with the God I had heard about at church. By that time I was spiritual. Peace, love & karma, the idea of whatever you did would come back to you, were my keys. I always tried to be a good person, but I was without a real sense of God.

In high school I was a “B” student but “hanging with the wrong kids” as parents like to say. For a couple of good reasons I was sent away to boarding school. The evening before I left, my mother and I had a heart to heart in which she said one thing that did stick with me, it comes back to me often. She said, and I can hear her still, “Rich, remember this, Jesus is always there for you.” I think she repeated it to be sure I got it.

Mom always was and is one to keep things simple. I took her advice in my own way, which is the way of many, I think. For the next 20 years or so I called on that higher power whenever in need and didn’t considered it much otherwise. In retrospect, I am amazed and thankful to consider that God did watch over me.

Fast forward to 1992 or so and my wife, Debbie, and I have two young daughters, Erin & Courtney. Some friends asked us to come to their church down in the valley and we did. We thought first of the good moral lessons that might be learned by our girls there, and probably secondarily about faith. I’ll say now I see that as entirely backwards, wrong in fact. The church was small but trying to grow. We joined, too quickly perhaps. Erin and Courtney were baptized there but for whatever reason, it wasn’t a fit. Living in Canyon Country with the bridge down after the earthquake of ‘94 we took that as enough of an excuse to no longer attend and we went on for several years without a church.

A week before Christmas of ‘97 we moved into our current house not far from this campus. Debbie suggested we go to Christmas services here and we found a church FULL of people with lots going on. We took our time getting a feel of this place, not wanting to make the same mistake again. It was at least a year before we did the Basics of Faith classes and became members.

The big change began for me with the first Arizona mission trip. Signing up for that I had no idea what I was getting into, but if my daughters were to go, then so was I, and that was the beginning of my adult faith walk. Thanks to my wife Debbie for nudging me onto the path.

One Sunday after signing up for the Arizona mission I was accosted in the parking lot after services being told that if I wanted to go on the mission trip I would have to get involved with the youth NOW, so that they would be comfortable with me months down the road. I accepted and began learning to be an adult leader while at the same time learning the lessons myself.

That first year I was hearing much in a new light. We went through “The Case for Christ,” a book I highly recommend, and a host of other lessons. I learned so that I could teach and in Michelle Chaudry I had a great teacher. Pastor Joe and Pastor Dan were always there, too, with sound thinking when I called on them for the big stuff like that whole “in, with and under” thing, but Mish was a weekly or more often event, she could proclaim faith a dozen ways to Sunday, she sensed questions before they were spoken, and she rarely left any stone unturned.

There are two highlights of the Arizona trip. One was a worship service we had inside a large replica of a hogan on a Catholic church’s campus. A hogan is a round structure built by the Navajo Indians for their spiritual services. We did a foot washing there, with adults washing kids feet as well as each others, and it turned into a tear-fest with most of us, adults and kids alike, crying for unspoken reasons. I like to think that we were reacting in amazement, shame, sorrow and thrilled happiness as we accepted that we were indeed, brothers and sisters in Christ. And that may well be. I’ve since been told that footwashings often elicit such a response. Good to know. We aren’t alone.

On the return trip from Arizona we stopped at a church in Blythe or somewhere for the night and I came upon one of our girls crying in the parking lot. She was standing there alone, her back to me, arms straight down and taught with fists all balled up, looking at the sky where the sun had just gone down, shaking in her tears. Again I had no idea what I was getting into when I walked over and asked what was the matter. From the mouths of children comes wisdom sometimes? I think she summed it up better than I’ve heard it when she cried/shouted/sobbed “I don’t know how I can go back there, to that, when I’ve been here and felt this.” We spoke for a while and I’ll admit I shed some tears too. Many of us have our own “there,” and our own “that.” The “here” and “this” I pray we all might know.

While I totally ascribe to the concept put forth by the Apostle Paul, that Gentiles have the sense of right and wrong written on their hearts, my brain needs to reach a reasoned conclusion, too. Sometimes I wish I could kept things simpler, I know it works well for some, but that isn’t the way God wired me. At the installation of adult leaders the fall after that Arizona trip I stood at the altar and promised, among other things, to join a Bible study group.

I’ll go to the greatest lengths to say that a Christian faith can be found in many ways, looking very different from one denomination to another and felt by each person differently, but my sense is that Bible study with others of differing opinions and knowledge is key to spiritual growth. The Monday night men’s Bible study guys, Russ and Andy who are incredibly well learned and patient, Bill who taught me mission by example, Jim and Bob quiet but worth listening to when they speak, Wayne who has a great sense of the spirit, Steve & Floyd whom I miss and Dale who almost always speaks the words on my mind, have all been a huge part of my realization of the power of God. Know that if you join a Bible study here you’ll find a group of people that accept you at whatever level of knowledge you have, they will be kind and caring, and about the worst thing you can do is NOT ask a question, whatever it is.

By the time of my first Mexico mission trip I thought I had a pretty good faith going. I had reached a rational conclusion that the Bible was real and to be trusted, that God was active in the world, and I was praying daily. Working with the youth of this church was and continues to be a big part of my life, my faith. The youth are an inspiration, inquisitive when interested, and almost always fun. The adult leaders I have worked with – each of them are wonderful faithful people all trying to do the right thing.

And that is where I got hung up – no matter how hard I tried, no matter my prayers, my weaknesses were stronger than my faith. I wasn’t leading the life for God that I felt I should. I still don’t. Once, challenged by a friend here who asked, “Don’t you lead a righteous life?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him, no, in my angst over the whole thing I feel I fall horribly short. So I hugged him and told him I loved him, which I do. But I have to ask, is anyone here righteous on their own?

Being on mission is about as close as I will come to perfection on earth. That “This” the girl spoke of on the way back from Arizona is an amazing thing. Waking in the morning knowing that your entire purpose, the whole day, is to serve God makes everything clear. Any action done, any word said, and truly most of your thoughts pass the “What Would Jesus Do” test. Being surrounded by Christians of similar mind makes it almost easy. Is this possible in the secular world? Yes, we try. Sadly, we fall short. I ask myself as I write this, “Am I just young in faith? Is perfection possible?” I see others here at church and they absolutely glow with that joy Pastor Fil spoke of and it seems so close, so attainable. I remain content more in the peace of the Lord than the joy of the Lord. Again, I think that is just the way God wired me.

One communion Sunday about a year ago I finally had what I consider my “A Ha!” moment thus far. I was sitting in the pews back there offering my confession to God privately, apologizing and asking forgiveness for that which I had done wrong knowingly and that which I was in denial or forgetful of, and I’ll admit I was struggling with the concept of grace when I heard these words come from my own mind – “I’m not worthy, God, but you forgive me anyway.” For me, that was it, accepting God’s grace, accepting His acceptance of me. And for that I am thankful beyond words.

Now I still get hung up in the whole concept of accepting forgiveness. Paul wrote quite a bit about how just because God can forgive sin doesn’t mean we should sin more, or at all, to show God’s greatness, and I hold that close. What I have realized, for me, is that accepting God’s grace does drive me to lead a better life in the here and now. Going back to the reasons children are often brought to church being backwards I’ll say that Paul had it right - we Gentiles have right and wrong written on our hearts - but discipleship, having a relationship with and following the Lord, THAT provides the morals that are but one fruit of the faith.

My mantra, if a Christian faith can have one, is to keep Jesus in every moment. With Christ at your side you have an incredible friend to guide you, protect you, and love you. It is my greatest desire to ride with Jesus in every moment.

We have a great church here at Christ Lutheran! We are a church of people that fills this campus and pours out from it. Each of you is part of this church, part of the living body of Christ on planet Earth right now. He is alive in each of us, here extending his hand by your reaching out, his voice heard by your proclamation, his kindness felt by your actions, right now all of this through us as a church. When one does it, we all do it. We are the body of Christ, alive, today.

We are beautifully and gently nudged every Sunday to grow in faith. That growth comes from the Word, but also from the brotherhood and sisterhood we have in Christ. Getting together for whatever – Bible study, group meals, Hands & Hearts, Mothers of Little Ones, mission or any of the ministries of music, prayer, care giving, outreach, worship assistance and more - getting together as Christians helps us grow as Christians.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but if I reach one person it’s worth it. I am calling on each of you to consider getting more involved with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Join a group, any group, any activity. Do it for a night or two and see how it feels. If the first try doesn’t fit, try another until one does. You won’t know the outcome, if or how you will be changed, and you may be a little uncomfortable at first not knowing who you’ll be with or what the right words are, but the opportunity is too great to let pass. The reward too amazing not to reach for. And while yes, I’m speaking about being saved and that is first, I am also speaking about your life on this planet now.

I thank all the saints of Christ Lutheran Church. Pastors Joe and Dan, of course, and thrilled to have Mike here now, too. The adults I’ve learned from & led with, Teri, Brad and Dave, you rock. My Bible study guys and those I’ve been on mission with, those that pray for us while here and on mission, and the youth, all the youth especially, you inspire me more than you know. Beyond all here, my wife and daughters, dearly, for putting up with a guy that may be a little obsessive. I love you three blindly. And all of you as brothers and sisters in Christ, I thank. Each of you saved me.

Oh, remember this – Jesus is always there for you.



Blogger Unknown said...

is it bad that I'm crying like a baby? It's so beautiful. Your story is so unique and simple... but so complex, like a fine scotch, where you can taste the peat and the grasses of the Islay and know in one whiff where you come from. It's tremedous and humbling. You're a fantastic writer, Rich, but this takes the cupcake.

2/29/2008 10:32 AM  

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