I became a Christian at the age of 18. Life before that was a hodge-podge of classes in New Age ideas, transcendental meditation, dabbles into demonology, and a few brief but dull bursts into the Anglican church.
I recall being about 8 years old and asking my dad to take me to church. He was obliging, even gave me my first bible and had me baptised. But after teaching myself how to spell more compicated words by using the hymnal, I decided that, well, maybe church wasn't for me. I was bored. And at the ripe age of 8, I declined further attendence.
At 12, I started reading the bible again during times when my dad was away at college. Kept me somewhat comforted from the strange goings-on of the house I was then living in. Allegedly it was haunted. And at 12, I had no experience to measure against the weird things that were happening in that house, and the creepy feelings I had whenever I was alone. So reading about Jesus and God was small but welcoming comfort when I was alone for hours on end in a house that didn't just go bump in the night, but also through the day.
A well-meaning friend, seeing the chaos of my life circumstances, brought me to a bible study when I was 16. There, a self-taught and self-professed "teacher of the Word" spun a sweet and sympathetic story of a man who, as Douglas Adams put it, "had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change" (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Chp. 1, 1979).
I was moved by the story. I had read it a number of times by that point in my life, but there was a very definite passion to the story that I had never encountered before until that man -- let's call him 'Dave' -- recounted it without all the surrounding details. I remember feeling very sad that Jesus would've been treated so unfairly, so cruelly, and my expression must've said as much because no sooner had I sympathized with the story, Dave was asking to lay hands on me to pray for me, inviting me to repeat after him and accept Jesus into my heart. Taken aback somewhat, I did as I was asked and was promptly welcomed into the kingdom of believers. Dave beamed with pride!
But the occasion didn't stick. I carried on with my life as if nothing had really happened. Everything was just as chaotic as ever, I had no real focus beyond playing guitar, avoiding school, and hoping to lose my virginity. And though the latter didn't happen until much later on in my life, I broke a lot of ground learning guitar and skipping out on school.
Those times that I was at school, however, I had made a close friend: Tony. He came from a happy, stable Pentecostal family, and was just as unimpressed with school as I was. Add to that, that he was quite a brilliant mind, and we spent many hours discussing topics such as religion, philosophy, history, social issues, etc. Tony was my introduction into the world of religious philosophy.
By 18, I had lost all of my debates with Tony and was convinced that there must be something to Christianity that I really didn't have a handle on; that maybe experiencing life as a Christian was really the only way to make Christianity make sense beyond mere intellectualisms. But how does a person take that first step into the Christian religion, and not make it a matter of academic practice?
Well, the answer, for me, as it was and is for millions of others, was to invite Jesus into my heart, to say the sinner's prayer and ask forgiveness for my sins. So on January 3rd, 1993, after a fairly intense bout of depression (a condition I didn't know I was suffering from until I was 26), I knelt down on the living room floor of my dad's apartment, and I cried. I wept like a baby. And while I soaked the floor and the front of my shirt, I choked-out words mimicking the prayer that had been prayed over me two years before with Dave.
I considered that occasion my conversion. And after having had that emotional release -- a release that I'd been holding back, as I now realise, since I was 6 years old -- I felt suddenly lighter, freer. I chocked that up to a first-class religious experience and was thoroughly convinced that God must've been with me, must've done something to me to invigorate such a response to the Christian message.
One of the first things typical of new converts is that they simply must go out and tell everyone about their experience. By 'must', I don't mean any kind of imposed moral obligation ("do it, or else!"). I simply mean that there is an irresistable energy, an unremitting compulsion to run out the door and share with anyone you care about that you've experienced this incredible happening in your life. The underlying motivation is entirely laudable: you want them to experience it, too!
So that's what I did. People's responses to my news that I'd been "born again," that I was now a Christian ranged from a milquetoast "that's nice" (note the weak smile on their face...) to outright hostility: "don't tell me about your Christianity. I don't want to hear anything about it," and "if you even so much as speak about it around me, I will deny knowing you."
Needless to say, my enthusiasm quickly felt the shaming effects those comments had. Not to be undone, however, I immediately set about reading basic level theology books, listenting to audio cassettes (anyone remember those?), taking notes during sermons, and attending every possible occasion I could at church. I tossed out my "secular" music, gave away all my guitar instructional books, and concentrated my mind wholly on Christian music, Christian literature, and learning the peculiar jargon of church-going people.
It was, at first, a blissful time. I had stability in my life instead of chaos; and it was a stability that I had chosen, so there was a tinge of pride to that fact for me. I was learning, and enjoying the fringe benefits of a ready-made group of people who were more than willing to parent me in all the ways I had never been parented in my life previously. There was compassion, forgiveness, teaching, role-modeling, fun outings, feasts and celebrations, and just plain unbridled silly occasions. I felt as if a massive knot of tension was uncoiling. I was finally free to just be.
Some would call what I experienced in my initial church-going days a 'honeymoon period.' I agree with that assessment because, as my story goes, I started thinking through issues to do with my faith shortly after being grafted into the believing community. I started asking questions of my pastor, and he quickly came to a point where he didn't have time for my concerns. And by "quickly", I mean after one 10-15 minute meeting.
Seeing there was nothing forthcoming from the leadership of my community church, I turned to Tony. His father was a pastor, and if Tony couldn't answer my questions, surely his father could. But it didn't need to go as far as Tony's father because Tony was intellectually engaged. He wanted answers to things, too, and had already asked some of the questions I was attempting to get answers to.
For example, one question that really stood out to my 18 year-old mind was, "what does the word 'heart' mean when someone says you have to believe with all of your heart?" My interactions with the church pastor yielded nothing when I asked that question. And while it is that the question seems simple to me now, back then, I was really troubled by this notion of a believing heart. Was it a feeling I was supposed to have that let me know my beliefs were sincere? Was it a way of being that I just had to learn and grow into?
Tony was quick to answer my concerns, however. He explained that 'heart' was a Hebrew idiom that meant you believe with everything of who you are: your emotions, your intellect, your daily life. When you believe with all of your heart, you believe in such a way that there is no room for anything to be other than what you believe.
As abstract as that notion seemed to me then, and still is to me now, it appealed to my budding philosophical disposition, and I accepted it.
Nevertheless, I think that first realisation that the jargon of the church is somewhat undefinable, that it is vague and appreciable only if you can accept connotations as precise definitions dented my believing confidence a little. It's hard to really appreciate what you say you believe if the language used to describe it is imprecise, hazy, overloaded and overlayered with so many possible meanings that it stops making sense to the person saying they believe it.
To be continued in part 2.