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Saturday, April 16, 2022

Lenten Blogging 2022: Day 46

Last night I was on the phone with a friend and, as has happened with a lot of our conversations lately, it turned to spiritual matters.  And that led to me sharing a little (I say "little" because the entire story runs WAY too long for a phone or blog post) about how I came to follow Christ, now a little over twenty-five years ago.

I haven't said very much about that, either here or elsewhere.  I guess as with so much else it got washed away in the flotsam and jetsam that comes in the wake of persistent mental illness.  So much that has been forgotten about while flailing my arms, trying my hardest to keep my head above the dark water.

But, I am a Christian.  Deeper than that, I am a follower of Christ.  It's not enough for me to simply go to church on Sunday.  For me, it has to be more "real" than that.  To follow Christ is a seven day, round the clock exercise.  And I suppose that whatever has happened to me in the past, warts and all, is part of my testimony.  I'm not particularly proud of it, but... there it is.

Maybe it's time that I shared a little of what happened to me, now a quarter century ago, that led to me giving up life for myself and starting to live for the One who gave all, so that we might have life abundant.  I will try, at least, to convey some of what happened.

It all started during my senior year of high school.  I had long wrestled with notions of God.  Wondering if He was really "out there" somewhere.  But in a startling flash of enlightenment - and I remember exactly where I was at Rockingham County High School when this happened - it hit me that the universe is too PERFECT than for it to have been a random fluke stemming from the Big Bang.  It came over me that no matter how He did it, there must have been a master Architect who designed the cosmos and everything within it.

And that is how I came to believe in God.

But it is yet a far thing between that, and having a relationship with God.

I had thought that God didn't want anything to do with me.  I had spent ten years being bitter at God, for things that I see now where not His fault at all.  This is a fallen world still, and for as long as it persists there will be evil people within it.

I spent the next several years in tenuous comfort with the idea of God.  Knowing He must be there, but feeling too damaged to approach any closer.  I became like one who is "outside looking in" at the communion that others had with Him.  Always at the window but never at the door to come inside.  And I was like that, up until I came to what is now Elon University.

It began to happen my first week at Elon.  It was a late Thursday afternoon, and I was on the way back to my room in what was the old Jordan Center dorms.  I went inside the commons building to get drink from the machine, and there were people inside.  Quite a few people.  One of them greeted me.  I said hi.  "What are you guys doing?"  She replied: "we're the Baptist Student Union.  Want to join us for dinner?"

It turned out to have been a meal provided by one of the churches in the area.  Real home cooked food... including mashed potatoes and green beans... offered to me for free.  After a week of eating cafeteria food.  Of course I was going to take them up on that!

I met some really good people that night.  Including the faculty advisor and a local pastor who was the mentor of the group.  Following dinner there was a time of fellowship and devotion, some time spent in the Bible.  I thought it was amazing, and they accepted me though I was still far from being a Christian as they were.  The following week after that first meeting I came with my own Bible: a student edition that had been a graduation gift (I had been at a community college prior to transferring to Elon) from the United Methodist congregation in my parents' neighborhood.  And I began studying with my new friends.  One of those friends, a few months after we met, ended up asking me if I'd like to be his roommate at his apartment, since his current roomie was about to leave.  I took him up on that offer, and in January of 1996 I moved into my first real place as a young adult.  But I digress...

I kept coming to Baptist Student Union, and Drew (my roommate) often told me that I should also check out Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which met every Tuesday night at the student center.  I didn't go anytime during my first year at Elon.  But when my "sophomore" year began (keep in mind that when I finally graduated I was a seven year senior) I finally went to what was known as "IV".  And there I met even more people, who were followers of Christ just like my friends in Baptist Student Union were.

Between Baptist Student Union and Intervarsity, for the first time in my life I felt surrounded by people who accepted me.  Who I felt I could associate with, without feeling judged by others for my weaknesses.  It was an AMAZING thing, to find that sense of close community.  To this day I haven't found anything like that, and I miss it terribly.

But again, I digress...

I came to IV again the following week.  And that night the group's president announced that there was going to be a retreat on the first weekend of October, at Sunset Beach on the North Carolina coast.  Drew told me that he was going.  "You should come along too, its going to be a lot of fun," he told me.  I wasn't sure about it but he kept encouraging me to come along.  And finally I did.

Because the Elon Intervarsity beach retreat became one of the most pivotal events in my life.  It still is.

IV had rented four beach houses in close proximity to one another.  One of them was deemed the "main house" and that's where most of our activity was at.  That Friday night when we (Drew, our friend Calvin and I) arrived, the festivities were already underway.  We went into the main house and joined the fellowship.  And I sang the songs, and I enjoyed singing the songs with the others.  And that was as close to God as I thought I would ever be.  No one would ever know my secret: that I was not a Christian.  That I could never be a Christian.

It was the next day, on Saturday, that the time of real retreat began.  There was a group of guys - and I still have our picture somewhere - that went out to the sand dunes near the beach, to... I don't know what the right word is, "commune" with God?  There was Brent, and Geoff, and Heang, and Scott, and Thomas, and Kendall, and me.  And I listened to them as they talked about God and drawing closer to Him.

It was unlike anything I had ever taken part in.  It was certainly a far cry from the stentorian legalism of the church-run school that I had attended over ten years earlier.  That was a place where we worshiped God because we had to.  But this was different.  Here were people, not much different than me, who were worshiping God because they wanted to.  And that was a very startling thing to behold.

There were other things that happened that weekend.  And I began to notice something: there were others who were asking questions about God in general and about Christianity in particular.  Other students were answering their questions.  They were question that I had heard asked a hundred times and more over the years.  But again, this time it was different.  There was a real sense of love and joy behind the answers given.  One person in particular, I was watching him and listening to him asking the questions that I wanted to ask.  He became a proxy for me, and my curiosity about... well, about what all of this was really all about.

I remember walking the beach that afternoon with a new friend, also named Drew.  We spoke of things and it remains one of the deeper conversations that I have had in my life.  In his own way, Drew nudged me to consider God a little deeper than I had before.  And I'm going to forever be thankful that we had that time together.

Well, we all spent the rest of the afternoon and evening having fun.  Making hot dogs and hamburgers for dinner.  More fellowship and singing.  Playing on the beach.  And I noticed my "proxy" was still asking questions.

I will never forget it as long as I live.  I had gone back to the house I was staying in for something, and then came back to the main house.  It was about 9 on Saturday night.  I went into the front door and saw my "proxy" in the living room.  But there was something new about him.  He was radiating.  He was aglow with a light I had never seen before.

Clearly, something had overcome my friend.  I asked Scott "what just happened?"

"He accepted Christ," Scott replied.

"He did?"  I had never seen someone become a Christian before.  Not really become a Christian anyway.  There had been "being saved" that I had seen at Community Baptist School a number of times, but even as a child I thought those were cold and superficial.

What happened to our friend was different though.  He was smiling, in a way that was practically alien to me.

It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

And I knew then that whatever he had, I wanted too.

But I still felt too damaged, too imperfect, too flawed than to be able to have something like that in my own life.

Later that evening, and again I will never forget this, I found two friends - who happened to have been in the very first class I attended at Elon - who were talking.  Their names were Brent and Cindy.  And I asked them if I could talk to them.  And they said sure.  And we went into an empty room in the main house.

I ended up telling them everything.

I told them about the abuse.  About the doubts I had in my heart and mind about God.  About so much, that just came pouring out of me.  I told them that I wanted what our friend had, but I didn't know how to do that.

They didn't judge me.  They didn't think any less of me.  Instead they prayed with me.  A prayer that was the first step on the long road that lay ahead of me for the rest of my life.

It wasn't a prayer of salvation that I spoke that night.  But it was a prayer, asking God to show me something.  To heal my heart.  To answer the questions I had.  To guide me toward however this was going to end up.

I went to sleep that night feeling more fulfilled than I ever had felt before.

Well, the retreat ended the next day around noon.  We all got in our cars and headed back to campus.  I left the retreat, but the retreat couldn't leave me.  I came back to Elon a different person.  Someone who had begun to question his heart as never before.

I spent the next few weeks going to every Intervarsity meeting, including a small group every Monday night.  I listened, I asked questions.  I shared the thoughts in my head about all of this.  I couldn't quench my spirit now thirsty for a sense of peace and serenity.  I wanted what my friends had.  I still felt unworthy.  Again, too damaged.

There was a nearby church that had worship times on campus, every Sunday afternoon.  It was called Elon Celebration.  I had been going every week.  A lot of the IV people went too.

It was the first Sunday of November, 1996.  After worship some of us went to nearby Harden cafeteria to have lunch.  And it was while I was eating spaghetti that one of my friends, also named Chris, unexpectedly, gave me his Bible.

It had originally been his grandmother's Bible, he said.  I couldn't accept this, I told him.

What happened after that, I am really not sure about.  Chris and Brent and another friend, Dalerie, were at my table.  They began to pray.  I felt something inside yanking at me, hard.  It was something terrible, that was trying to stay alive.  I felt like I was being torn apart.  At one point I think I lost consciousness.  Chris asked me if I was all right.

"I want it to stop. I want it to stop.  I want it to STOP!"

I couldn't tell you the words that I spoke, but in that moment of desperation and darkness, at long last I was able to overcome the hurt and destruction that had been in my life, and turned for the first time to God.

Dalerie was weeping.

I felt... different.  Relieved.  Like the heaviest weight that could possibly be upon a person, had been lifted. I felt new.  Regenerated.  I felt alive as I had never felt alive before.

And that is how, for the first time in my life, I turned to Christ.  And it remains the most significant thing that I have ever done.

Of course, there were some... difficulties... that came with becoming a Christian, at long last.  A number of things happened in the wake of that, which I am still trying to figure out.  And years later when the shadow of bipolar disorder fell upon me, my faith was jostled and shaken and too many times felt utterly shattered.

Yet, here I am still, twenty five years later.  I turned to Christ on that day, and there hasn't been a day since that has been like what came before.  Even in the darkest moments, I think there has been a sliver of my being that has held out in faith, that there was Someone bigger than me sustaining me through the tumult.

Twenty five years later, and I am still a new person.  Still growing.  Still becoming what God would have me to be, despite all my human frailties and failings.

I know of no other way to put it: "The thing WORKS."

And that is my testimony (absent some minor details).