Friday, November 7

The journey's beginning....

I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. Psalm 139:14 (NASB)

I don't know how I came to be at this place, this time, in my life.

At least, on the surface of it all. In retrospect, the choices and actions that I adapted throughout my life up to this particular point, this moment, were a step by step progression into the very depths of despair, isolation, and depression. But, here I stood; over the objections that I could create for my reasoning not to be or my reluctance even to perform the various 'rituals' common to such an 'event'. Polite and formally dressed, it came down to one reason and one was for my children that I came to be sitting in a metal folding chair at the back of the congregation of believers that called themselves Orchard Grove Community Church, facing a question that would define my path from this moment on.

To be honest, I was in a place where the 'enemy' of my life was worshipped and at least given the typical lip service to. Where love and compassion existed within its walls but very seldom made it outside, beyond the typical lukewarm expressions his followers had shown me; early in my life and during the battles which I waged against them as they crossed my path. I was here, for my children, because simply put....if they could hear the expressions of 'right living'...maybe they would be the exception to the obvious example less attitudes of the common believer. It couldn't hurt, I kept telling myself, although I had been by its human manifestations.

Here I was, I thought ironically, a avowed detractor of the "God" of the Christians; a man who stood with his fist shaking towards the sky on bright day when he was sixteen years old and vowed upon his very life to do everything that such a 'God' opposed, to bring the battle of my despair to the lives of those who were foolish and crazed enough to 'follow' him and adopt as the standard of my future the creed "If it is opposite of what the Bible says, DO IT!" Me, here in a 'house of worship', I mused, how ironic!

Of course, I had betted on this being a typical experience of a 'visitor' to a new church --especially since it was meeting in an converted warehouse building and obviously still not in 'completed' condition as was evidenced by the stained carpet, cracked linoleum floor, the exposed ceiling wiring and the metal folding chairs. Either the congregation had just moved in not far in the recent past or they were dirt-poor, not likely by the surrounding community in which the church resided or the evidence sitting side by side outside in the parking lot surrounding the building. It was a new style, definitely not one I was expecting when I woke up that morning to follow my girlfriend to 'go to church,' the pastor and his congregation were dressed in 'casual' clothing....some scandalous enough to make me smile, thinking of my old Elders in the past and how they'd thought of it! Jeans and t-shirts rather than the 'work' suit that I had cleaned and wore this morning, tie a muted red and black. Of course, my selection was based on my last time attending church in that vain attempt to get this "God" to listen to me and show himself to me in a real and deniable way. It hadn't worked then, nor the times before that throughout the various 'guilty' moments of my past when I'd find myself in the walls of some church to see if this "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" would happen to look my way and explain to me why he did what he had chosen to do in the dramatic destruction of my life. He never would answer, I reasoned, because he didn't have an answer. At least one that jelled with his 'awesome love'.

So far, the experience was typical. My being in a suit helped those who were 'designated' to descend upon the visitors of the church and surround them with the 'best' representation of the congregation. After all, new visitors were the 'untapped' source of revenue in any church and it is important that said visitors are made to feel that they are welcomed for more reasons than just that.....of course, all in the context of 'godly love' and 'fellowship.' It looked good on the books too, the bigger the congregation........I guess so that when the pastors met together with 'others in the body' that they could show how good they taught the rubbish....larger numbers meant more were comfortably fooled. I shook the hands of those smiling faces in front of me when I had entered the 'atrium' area of the church some twenty minutes prior, took the proffered bulletin and listened to the mumbled, heartfelt expressions of "Glad to see you" and "How are you" that followed me as they helped propel me forward into the gaping jaw of congregation. It was comforting, in a way, to see that the same meaningless and rote form of 'welcoming' hadn't changed from the familiar ways of my childhood. People were still hypocrites, still putting on their 'best' personality for Sunday service. Half of those who smiled and greeted me with a handshake probably wouldn't remember me after the hour service, let alone if I ever walked through the door again at some future date. I was just another face, no one who mattered much beyond an additional opportunity to fleece some money from or to pretend that they were 'Christians'.

I followed the signs to the children's ministries, where I deposited my children (the three of two and my girlfriend's one). As I filled out the 'oh, welcome to our program' form that the person sitting behind the temporary desk area near the door handed me with a smile, lapsing into a prepared and well-rehearsed explanation of what the purpose and focus of the ministry was and how glad she was that we chose to attend today. Smiling back, my mind tuned her out, nodding at the appropriate moments and throwing the rubbish to the back of my mind where it would be disposed of at the end of the didn't matter what I though of the junk this congregation espoused. It looked like it would be easy to just come on a Sunday and listen to an hour of 'god's love' and so on. For the sake of the children, I could give us an hour like that. I wanted my children, all three, to get some good instilled in them..............and, no matter how many arguments I had against the falseness of the church doctrines, I could at least remember with some happiness a few good qualities that I had adopted through the emulation of some teachers in the Sunday School program that I attended when I was my kids ages.

I followed my girlfriend into the main 'sanctuary' with its ratty carpet and exposed beams, smiling as I took the proffered hand of the 'door' greeter. I deliberately chose a place at the back of the church, barely visible from the stage, in case I fell asleep during the next hour. My girlfriend and I discussed the dress code of this church and the atmosphere. As this was my girlfriend's desire, that we 'take the children to church', I grunted my short, encouraging answers while my mind though of the day in the future when I could 'gracefully' bow out and stop wasting my time in the halls of the hypocrites. Oh, the kids would go until they were old enough to decide not to, and my girlfriend would be appeased.

The sermon was nice, the speaker a gifted and entertaining individual who would make the coming visits bearable. I half-listened, knowing that once I reached the brightness of sunshine once again, I'd forget everything he had said. My girlfriend, about three-quarters of the way through the sermon, excused herself and headed for the door. She worked on Sundays and had to leave. I assured her of my 'appreciation' of the church once more as she left and resettled myself for the conclusion and ultimate escape. I'd whisk the kids out of here and go home to continue the rest of the day, my 'duty' fulfilled like the countless others who gathered within the walls of this converted warehouse.

"Don't you think it's about time that you stopped running?" a voice broke through my daydreaming of what I'd do afterwards, when I got home. I turned my head towards the speaker, on my left, and my eyebrows rose as my eyes fell upon the empty row. I quickly looked around, spotting the nearest person to me who was a young woman about three rows up and well beyond the range of conversational tones. I looked at the stage, where the pastor was engaged in wrapping up his service, electing some laughter from the congregation as he had throughout his talk. I shook my head, believing I apparently was hearing things.

"Don't you think its time you came home?" The gentle, masculine voice said, again coming from my left side. I turned again, eyebrows raised at what I knew I wouldn't see. This was crazy, I thought, as I whispered...."uh, what?"

Suddenly, I wasn't in the main area of the church. Suddenly there was no sensation of the chair beneath my butt or even the noise of the pastor in the background. I started to cry, without any realization, as comprehension came to my mind and I knew who spoke.

God was finally answering my questioning with one of His own.

"My dear child, don't you think it is time that you stopped running from Me? Stop denying My voice? Don't you think that it is time for you to come back home?"

As I said, I don't know how I came to this moment.....face to face with God. But I knew I was there. And I knew that the answer I would give would be my final answer. Face to face with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; nothing less would do.

Bitter were the tears that fell. Heartbroken was my heart, beating rapidly and forcefully in my chest. And in crumbled heaps were the defenses I had built for such a day, such a confrontation, with this God. Naked was my broken, sinful spirit.

I don't recall if the conversation was a long one; a hearty list of sins and evil deeds performed in my quest to be free of the foolishness of religion. It may have been hours or days, listing each specific and decisive sinful act that had highlighted my path to this moment in time; or it may have been seconds.

But it ended, for this moment, in my sincere and heartfelt sob, "Oh, yes! God in Heaven, please!" Before me wasn't the God I had been introduced to as a child; the authoritarian god to whom I would never be pleasing to. The caring and thoughtful voice that spoke couldn't contain such rigidousity. And yet, that God was there too. A more complete God spoke on that day. One of love and compassion coupled with an authority and judgment that could not be denied. The voice spoke with the authority of justice, laced with a compassion I had never known. I knew that I would follow that voice, and the God to which ownership belonged, no matter what the costs and no matter the hardships. I could do no less.

That moment, on February 14th, 2004 I gained the death I had sought in the desperation of my life and realized a life that I had never known. On the cultural day of love, I was offered a love that defied any I had ever known.

Reflecting back, some five years since that moment…..laced with many more as changes were brought into a life rejected and a heart transformed, I realize that the sincerity of the surrender was true and real, for the costs have been high and the hardships plentiful. But, the rewards and peace have stood those tests and transformed a sinner into a saint, broken and human, still journeying the path in his quest to know his God.

The old has died and the new begun.

And that has only been the beginning.

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