Something resembling a testimony

From the Moveable Type blog, June 10, 2009.

Originally written for a new friend of mine, Josh Roberts, who pastors a little thing called Connect Rome that I’ve been enchanted by for the past couple of months. It’s a church that meets in a bar. And I’ve been attending it. I’ll sit back and allow the shock to subside before I continue.

A couple of weeks ago he threw some questions at me that were part of a project called “You Asked For It” – Josh is getting six messages for six Sundays out of questions he was asked by people who’ve been attending. He e-mailed me the rejects…ahem, the “leftovers”…and asked if I could handle any of them.

Apropos of nothing, I’d been bothered more and more by how horribly people around me had been acting and how this had nothing to do with how people at a Christian college should act – and how easily I could throw myself into that mix. I got mad and frustrated enough that I sat down at computer keyboard and just typed furiously. I then looked at the list of questions again, and realized I’d mostly answered one of them.

Later, I reconnected with an old friend on Facebook (surprise, surprise) and started catching up, and as part of the catching up she gave me the very standard here’s-where-Jesus-changed-my-life schpiel. I think I moaned back that I didn’t have anything resembling a testimony that wouldn’t put people to sleep or bore them out of their skull, since it wasn’t a dramatic event or a single life-changing moment I could point to.

But the more I go back over this, the more that this really feels like that very type of testimony. I don’t know if it qualifies as dramatic or not. Regardless, it’s mine.

Why is it easier for some people to accept the story of Christ than others?

I have really found myself, over the past several weeks, taking a lot of stock in what has led me to this point. I’m careening now towards 20 years of my life knowing Jesus Christ as a personal Lord and Savior, and while I’ve resisted using that particular language for a large swath of my life because I know the baggage it carries, this relationship with Jesus is very real and very tangible, and it has informed an awful lot of decisions I’ve made in my life that have brought me here.

Why do I believe in Jesus? Why did I give my life over to Him in the first place, and what has kept me believing that this crazy story about a man who also just happened to be totally God, and who got executed for crimes he didn’t do and then turned around and came back to life? I mean, what makes that real?

Thinking about this has led me to a really stunning revelation for me. I’m frequently frustrated talking to students of mine here, and people in this community broadly, about Jesus. Rome is a church-laden town. I work with Christians of many fairly conservative stripes, as do many of you. Christianity is all around us. And it really seems, day in and day out, that if you don’t buy in to Jesus and you want evidence that Jesus isn’t terribly real, all you have to do is look at the the pastors and church leaders in Rome, the Christians you work with, the very state of Christianity in northwest Georgia, and you’ve got all the evidence you need. Gossip spread everywhere, people at one another’s throats, churches that are cold and unwelcoming, lives that show no evidence at all of a sovereign and powerful God, just stories and legends that may have had weight 2000 years ago – or even 100 years ago – but are worthless and useless in our modern time.

My job has me working for a Christian institution, under a mission that’s all about the Lordship of Jesus Christ even over education, engaged day in and day out with Southern Baptists who have the same basic insight into the Gospel that I do. (Honestly? Best job I’ve ever had, and it’s not even close. There aren’t too many places in the United States where I could do the things I do, teach the way I teach, and still have the opportunities to advance that I’ve had. It fits me to a tee. But…) Day in and day out, I see people, in the name of Jesus Christ, treat other people like absolute garbage. Student vs. student, student vs. faculty, faculty vs. faculty, and administration vs. … well, everybody. I see the command to love one another trashed. I see the bitterness and the resentment and the raw, unadulterated inability to just get over it.

And if I’m not careful, I see it in myself, in how I treat others, and if I start pointing that finger at others, fingers would come pointing right back at me.

And – again, if I’m honest – I see friends at other institutions, and stories from other outposts of Christian higher education, that are a thousand times worse and uglier than any story I could tell about my experience. This problem isn’t a problem with any one workplace, or any one city. It’s a problem with all of us.

What makes this so stunning is that, nearly 20 years ago, I went to college in Terre Haute, Indiana, absolutely desperate to break any ties with Christianity and make myself a brilliant and logical scientist and engineer, free of any superstitions or any fake god to limit the possibilities in my world. College was going to be my ultimate freedom – not to party hearty and pick up women and live the college life (although if I could get over my geek nature and live that life, that would be a nice side benefit) but to free my thinking. I could follow new heroes of mine like Kurt Vonnegut and e.e. cummings into a mindset where all the stupid traditional lessons from mom and dad and sunday school teacher were broken and I could truly be open-minded – where I could truly figure out what open-minded actually MEANT.

And what completely blindsided me was actually living out that first year trying to figure out what way of living life would actually work, and finding the brainiacs and free-thinkers at Rose-Hulman, and figuring out very quickly that I hated all of them. Just hated them. They were jerks, and not only did they want nothing to do with me, they didn’t want anything to do with anyone who didn’t fit in their own, neat circle. And there were the guys who pledged fraternities (and I have to clarify “social fraternities” for reasons that will become clear shortly), who were perfectly willing to be your friend over beers and parties. But I tried one dorm party and had a perfectly miserable experience with alcohol, and the moment I started saying “no, thanks” to the booze I found pretty uniform rejection from that crew.

The people who reached out to me and who showed me compassion were the people that ultimately informed my way of thinking. The people who actually treated me with kindness were the people I listened to.

I found myself lining up pretty effectively with a service fraternity called Alpha Phi Omega, figured out that a lot of the old Scouting ideals in that group lined up with my own idealistic nature, and it was very straightforward to pledge what turned out to be a very different sort of fraternity, and find a great deal of fulfillment learning to “be a leader, be a friend, be of service”. That was the type of thing I went to college to do.

One of the guys in APhiO decided that I was worth a great deal of time and investment, for whatever reason. I mean, REALLY decided. (I wonder after the fact if he wasn’t in need of a friend himself, and if I had listened to him at one point and he decided that I was going to be faithful. The friendship has lasted, that’s for sure.) There was a Bible study that met in this guy’s room, and halfway through my freshman year he decided that I needed to be in that Bible study. Through forcible dragging out of my dorm room, if necessary.

What stunned me then – and, 20 years on, what stuns me even more – is how RIGHT the relationships were between the people in that Bible study. How much they cared for me, and not just because “hey he doesn’t believe this Jesus stuff”, but because I was a person and I was worth something because of my humanity. Honestly, at that point I’d called everything into question all over again, because there was so much I had counted on that hadn’t gone right. I wasn’t tearing up my classes like I thought I would, I had already changed my major once and I was needing a serious GPA win in Winter ’91 if I was going to avoid changing majors again, and we’ve already established that all the free-thinkers I was going to hook up with free-think with were complete jerks who wanted nothing to do with anybody who wasn’t already them.

And these Christians were nothing like the Christians I had encountered growing up…which, now that I think about it, remind me a bit of the Christians that I get complaints about around here, the Christians who don’t act the slightest bit the way that Jesus did and who don’t show any evidence in their lives that God is real and can change their lives. These Christians lived it, day-in and day-out, and they shared Jesus with me without mentioning any four spiritual laws or any need for a relationship or any sort of hard sell. They believed what Jesus said, and even if they didn’t do everything perfect all the time (and several didn’t even come close), they were honest about it and still welcomed me in with all my flaws.

This is long before I actually began to seriously consider all of the deep theological issues in the Bible, or before I began to work towards reconciling the science I had loved all my life (and that I began to realize was beyond mere love, it was a real and holy calling) with the faith that so many said it wouldn’t reconcile with, or before I really made it an intellectual faith. This was me figuring out what unconditional love looked like, and being completely blindsided by it.

So: “Why is it easier for some people to accept the story of Christ than others?” Because those people have actually seen what the love of Christ looks like, and have had to respond to it. If the church around those people is dead, if it’s full of gossip, if the people tear one another down instead of sacrificing themselves for one another, then somebody watching that group will say “there’s nothing real to that Jesus they claim.” When we act like the words of Jesus mean something, and being perfect as our Father is perfect is something that can actually be done, and we show that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength by loving our neighbor as ourselves, we should never be surprised when God breaks through and people are changed.

Postscript in 2013:  Connect Rome is now Connect City Church, and has their campus on U.S. 27 between Rome and Summerville, GA.  If you are ever in Northwest Georgia, go see them some Sunday morning.  They’re great people, and I miss them.