Monday, June 18, 2012

Jesus Freak

Yesterday morning I received God's grace publicly and, as Pastor John put it, chose the story by which I will live. I had read a great deal about baptism and, of course, was wondering if I would "feel different" after the ceremony was complete. However, just a couple of days before, a colleague of mine--a wise English teacher with a great soul for compassion--told me baptism was a lot like marriage or divorce. All three are just the making public of something, a transition, that has already occurred. I had already made the choice, and God had already shed his grace on me. If it weren't so, I wouldn't have been there in the first place.

What led me to this great change in course, to being saved, was God's work and stemmed from several events--most deeply personal--spurned on by a couple of heaven-sent angels. I may never share the entire story publicly, though you'll probably see glimpses of it in fictions I create for as long as God grants me the creative spirit to keep creating them. But the angels will always be with me, no matter where they move to or, more accurately, where ever God sends them to do good work.

The most remarkable thing about me, a devout atheist, finding God--about a man who once read Anton LeVay and cheered on Bill Maher's rants against Christianity turning coat and taking on the armor of Christ in the battle against Satan, about a devout fan of Marilyn Manson becoming a devout follower of the Christ Jesus--was also finding out just how wrong I was about Christianity. Actually, I would never say I "found God." To find God would imply I was looking for him. The reality was He was searching for me, trying to find a way into my heart. Part of what made me such a good atheist was my ability to hide.

While you can probably imagine what my miscalculations about Christ were, since many of you--even those of you who are believers--currently hold these beliefs, I won't recount them all here. I want to focus on what I have learned Christianity is, what it truly means to be a Disciple of Christ.

I found, quite surprisingly, that I did not have to throw out any of my professed beliefs to also believe in God. I simply had to start truly believing them and realizing that they were justified by God and Jesus and, therefore, playing lip-service to them alone would no longer do. The best way I can completely describe this is through the first piece of scripture that struck me as quotable, a passage which has become my mantra.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love; And the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV)
I learned that love is the fulfillment of the law and that love thy neighbor as thyself is the greatest of The Father's Commandments. All I thought about sin and guilt and having to be perfect to be Christian was fallacy. Christians realize we're all sinners. In the end, coincidentally, the man who imagined there's no religion, also had Christianity down cold. "All you need is love. Love is all you need." Now, it's not that simple, of course, nothing is, but it's a great place to start.

In fact, the biggest surprise about studying scripture and Christianity and going to church every Sunday was that, at least in the research I was doing and at the church I was attending (a church that sanctifies gay marriage and seems more leftist than the Democratic National Convention), was the absence of Satan. The media and historians tell us that church is all about fire and brimstone, warning us to conform or be sent to Hell, yet when I began attending church, I was shocked to see the services completely devoid of Satan. On my first day of church as a Christian, I assumed I wasn't hearing the words "Satan" and "Hell" for fear of their power. By my baptism, however, I was already fully aware that those words weren't being spoken not because of their power, but because they were powerless in the house of God--evil rendered negligible by the awe-inspiring love of God.

This love of God, along with the sheer bliss and utter peace His love was able to bring to my soul, was key to my conversion. I saw no fear of Hell or the punishment of God in any of it; in fact, trying to live life God's perfect way rather than my own flawed way was a reward in itself, not something to be feared or cause guilt. The term "God-fearing" is probably the most misunderstood term by non-Christians. I chose a Christian life not because I feared the wrath of God, but because I felt a love so strong that I feared facing life without it.

Now, the media has done a great job of portraying Christians in a hateful light. Sure, there are fringe members of Jesus' church that do a great job of feeding that image, but what I've seen of Christianity, and what I've felt of Christ's love, has been nothing like the media image I had bought into. It was, also ironically, Bill Maher who said that Jesus needs less fans and more followers. Living Jesus' way means not judging anyone, loving everyone, and being held accountable to that standard. Hearing about a website called alone is enough to make me pray for their souls, not the souls of homosexuals, the souls of those who practice hatred and erroneously attempt to use God's Word, found in the old, pre-Jesus covenant, to justify their hatred. This is not love.

Bottom line: God doesn't hate. Any time the Bible is being cited to support a claim of hatred, you can dismiss the claim altogether. God's name and God's Word can only be used to support claims of love.  Judging others only serves to prove our own laziness, for it takes a concerted effort to understand them. And sloth is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins. Practicing slothful judgment is not love. The Bible is a story, after all, and it's moral is love.

So now I come to the atheist's favorite target of Christianity--faith. How can you simply believe something of which you have no proof? Without going into detail, I can honestly say I believe I have, in fact, seen proof of God moving in our secular world. The more open I become to it, the more I see it. Once you've let God into your heart and soul, it's hard to doubt Him. The second a doubt creeps in, He finds a way to show you exactly where He is and how He's working.

Ever just look at the clouds? I mean, really look at them. I'll just leave it like that. He's everywhere if you choose to look. Just try this--eliminate the concept of coincidence from your life for just a day. Imagine, if you have to, that everything that happens is scripted. And once you embrace that concept, ask yourself "why?" with each thing that happens, with each person that has entered your life.  This is a truly intellectual endeavor. You'll be analyzing your entire life as if it were a classic work of fiction, trying to discern the author's intentions in creating his characters and his plots. The author, however, is God, and when you can figure out, intellectually, what the grandest of authors' intentions are, it's a moment of insight that cannot be matched by any other intellectual pursuit. That's faith.

Furthermore, faith doesn't only mean blind belief. It also means trust. And once you put faith in God and Jesus--not just belief but trust--many of the things that plague your daily life start to dissipate like the clouds after a storm. I used to be the worst of worry-warts. It was brutal. Social gatherings, safety of friends, family, and students--all a merciless quagmire of fear. Through prayer and true faith, I've come so far. My daily life is nearly free of this paranoia, this insane desire to control the uncontrollable. Let go and let God, they say, and boy are they brilliant. Whatever happens, I know God is in my corner, and even when the worst of times come, there is so much to be thankful for, which leads to the third component--hope.

Emily Dickinson found, I think, the perfect way to show us the connection between faith and hope:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
We don't consciously ask for hope; it's just there. God-given hope through the faith we have that things will be better sustains us. We all have it if we would only admit it. Sometimes the world seems hopeless, but we keep on going, and we have God to thank for that.

We can also have hope that the world can be great, absolutely divine. Once I felt the Holy Spirit and saw It at work in my life, once I had that faith, my life became about putting myself in position to feel it again and again. I had hope. At one point in my life I would ask "How can anyone want to spend Sunday in a boring, stuffy church." Now I wonder how anyone wouldn't want to be part of something so breathtaking. Every Sunday I see humanity at its best, if for only an hour. Christianity can make this a better world, if only we could replicate that one hour on Sunday every hour of our lives. If only we all lived like Jesus every day, if only we tried to be the man or woman He wants us to be, he knows we can be, every day. God and Jesus have faith in us and hope for us. If only we returned the favor.

In the end, or the beginning I suppose I should say, I find that all that held me back, all my depression, all my fear, all my anger, all my hatred, everything that made daily life uncomfortable, unhappy, and sometimes unbearable, wasn't a result of chemicals in my brain; it was the absence of God in my heart.

Faith brings us alive, in tune with things we used to ignore. There are things in this world you just can't see, you can only feel. The greatest literary minds have agreed on this throughout time. There are more things in heaven and on Earth than we dream of in any of our philosophies--logic can't explain it all. Somehow we all think that to believe instead of beg for proof, to simply wonder instead of looking for evidence, makes us somehow less intelligent, less wise. It's hard to imagine why we fear to speak the words that most confirm our own wisdom--"I don't know."

Furthermore, hope gives us reason to live. If we truly thought life was hopeless, we would just curl up in the fetal position and starve to death waiting for our souls to be fed. We all have hope, but we could all use more. He gives us that hope. "You only live once" has become a slogan for young people to do crazy things in the name of carpe diem. However, this life is temporal. God has promised us eternal life through belief in Christ. What more hope can you ask for. A daily, on-going relationship with God through the generosity and sacrifice of Jesus has given me all the hope I need.

And most importantly, there's love, the true elixir of life. Bathe in love. Eat, drink, and breathe love. Pour love out upon everyone and you shall receive it back ten fold. God loves us all. I can feel it each time I pray. I can feel it each time I love others. I can feel it each time I am able to see his intentions while writing my story. He crafts my life like an author, a true labor of love, and the love He has given me has given me faith in him, which in turn gives me immeasurable hope. It all just fits.

I used to look at people smiling on Facebook, those with more money, bigger houses, and better cars--cars that actually run--and wonder how they did it. How did they achieve this mysterious thing they call happiness? I've found that happiness comes from redefining what makes you happy. Living life God's way, not mine, trusting in God's plan, not mine, and tapping into God's unlimited love, not relying simply on my own human limitations for the emotion, have changed everything.

How will it turn out? I don't know. At least not how it will turn out on Earth. I've just begun this wonderful journey and have only just started to learn. But that's the beauty of it. God does. So loving Him, having faith in Him, and having hope will get me there--to the promised land. This change has meant I can know at least that. In the end, there's a place for me in His kingdom, no matter what, because Jesus died on the cross for me. For all my flaws, He still made the ultimate sacrifice for me. And that has made all the difference.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NIV)

"Jesus Freak" performed by Newsboys

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