A Long Draught of Truth
Here's a bit I wrote before my last trip to Scotland. Many thanks to Ted for graciously asking me to write it, even though I didn't seem a very good sport at the time. I beg your indulgence, as it's rather long as blog posts go, but I feel that it unearths many things that might help you understand whence I come where my faith is concerned. Come, let us open the bottle. 'Twas a good year.
I usually wake up every day feeling like I’m walking with all certainty toward the gates of Hell. This does not bode well for a life of faith, some would say. Others, deeply concerned for me and my pathological need to be validated, would tell me to abandon Christianity and find something that affirms me more effectively. The problem with that is that I can’t cling to Christianity. I can try, but all things around which I can wrap my mind will eventually crumble. I’ve been asked to write my testimony, my story, as a Christian. That is, what Christ has done for me. I consider myself a writer, sort of. I’ve written pieces which have been published, if only in a small collegiate anthology. I’ve written songs that people have identified with and recorded an album which has sold a few copies, but my mind balks at the task of narrating what Christ has done for me.
This is not, let us be assured, because he has done nothing for me. He has rescued me, does rescue me, and continues to rescue me from myself, from “this body of death.” (Ro. 7:24) He has changed me from a lustful, fearful, narcissistic, prideful wretch into a wretch who is still all those things, but doesn’t desire them as much anymore. The change, you might say, is negligible. But you would be wrong. I don’t really know if I’m as lustful or fearful as I used to be, but my desiring to be other than that is cataclysmic. There are other things as well that I don’t know, such as if I’m going to heaven or hell. I have many characteristic idiosyncrasies, but certainty is not among them. The irony is that, the more time I spend in the company of Christ, the less certain I am. I heard a program on the radio today that trumpeted assurance as one of only a few qualities that defines Christians against the milieu of worldly doubt. I assume that the man who preached this is a studied apprentice of Scripture and has had more education than I care to imagine, but somehow, I disagree with him. If doubt were not so human, faith would not beguile us so. I do know followers of Christ by sight sometimes. It’s a light in the eyes, a lift of the tone of voice, a choice of words, a holy silence that often gives them away. These things are only the outworking of love. Still, I couldn’t tell you who is “getting in,” myself included. My friend Doug and I laughed together about our inability to go around looking up people’s Calvinist skirts. In the midst of all my religious insecurities though, in the empty shrine of certainty, there resides a brilliant seed of hope.
Of that, I only know that God, in Christ, desires me. My company. And he desires that I should desire him. And how I am desirous of him, and how I long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share in your master’s happiness.” In this I hope. And how I fear the quick and tasteless dismissal, “Away from me, I never knew you.” Like all loving fathers, his wrath is far better than his absence.
But, I don’t remember ever getting saved. That’s a term that church-goers use to describe those who will be in the presence of Christ at either death or ascension, whichever comes first. All others, according to the Scriptures, will experience death a second time, which doesn’t sound so bad at first, except that the second time around, death is possessed of a little more longevity. Jesus, in order to describe it, quoted Isaiah, saying that:“… ‘their worm does not die,
And the fire is not quenched.’”
In the same breath, he called the second death by a name: Hell. The New Testament records it as Geenna or Gehenna (Γέεννα), which is a transliteration of what Jesus was actually referencing: the Valley of Ben Hinnom. It’s remembered as the place where Canaanites sacrificed their children by burning them alive to appease the god Molech.
That’s the sort of thing we need saving from. But I grew up in a church-soaked society where getting “saved” was about praying what folks commonly call “The Sinner’s Prayer.” It usually goes something like this:Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. I am helpless to do anything right on my own. I need you. Please forgive me of my sins. Please come into my heart and life and be my Lord and Savior.
It honestly sounds a little bit silly when you say it like that. We in the church derive this odd practice from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. He says that “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) Imagine that you had a friend you had known for a couple of years. This person has taken it upon himself or herself to befriend you and listen to you and stand by you and serve you in your needs. All of a sudden, you wake up one day and decide that it’s a good time for it, so you call your friend up and ask, “Will you be my friend, from this day forth?” I would honestly be a bit hurt by that phone call. Haven’t we been friends all this time? We could say that “The Sinner’s Prayer” is a bit like a marriage vow, for our relationship with God in Christ is compared to marriage often enough in the Scriptures. But even then we must admit that the marriage vow itself is not love, which is learned over a lifetime of practice both before and after the wedding ceremony. And not all marriage vows are “[believed] with [the] heart.” But the vow is important.
Now, I’m not writing this to denounce “The Sinner’s Prayer” (which will ultimately be either denounced, or affirmed, or both by the Scriptures) or to say that my understanding of Romans is above and beyond yours. The point is that I’ve been saved countless times. That doesn’t mean I’ve prayed a certain way or that I’m holier than the next man. I couldn’t tell you, though, the day that Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit upon me and I became a new creation in Christ. Did it happen on one of the two or three times I walked the aisle at church to become a Christian and be baptized – my “public profession(s) of faith”? Maybe, but I doubt it. It is more likely that I was pursued by God long before those days and that I did not begin to fall in love with him until much, much later. I was, and am, the hard-to-get bride.
I suppose that a few people were blessed by my baptisms and altar-call responses. If so, that is the redemption of Christ, not the holiness of those symbolic actions. After those days, I was a little hellion. I spent a great deal of time getting into relationships that ended in terribly broken hearts and inflicting wounds on other people as well as myself. I was egotistical. I didn’t think much of the church, and I was cynical and bitter. I was interested mostly in myself.
I can’t say that God has set me free like he’s set some people free from alcohol addictions or drug addictions. This story isn’t very dramatic. It’s not movie material. Thank God, because I don’t think I’m strong enough not to become unhealthily interested in its darker chapters. What I do know is that, today, whatever day you are reading or hearing this, there have been small graces and unnoticeable instances in which God has set me free from the slow, chilly bonds of iniquity that I bring upon myself. There have been small raindrops in this desert that I am. Tiny blossoms blink from the fringes of my landscape like the faces of faeries glimmering through the grey foggy curtain of this rusty, wishful, and staggering world. I don’t know if I’m going to heaven or hell. Most days, my desire for good theology coupled with my incredible self-possession sits like a February stratus cloud upon the understanding of my soul. In the end, though, I do know a few things.
He loves me. Jesus, the Father, the Holy Ghost, loves me. They love me. Three-in-one, the Godhead, the mystery of the Trinity, loves me. And it’s too much of a blessing for my intellect to bear. My mind can’t take it in, and my heart longs for it so. Second thing, when I was saved doesn’t matter. No one’s going to buy me a bland white sheet cake with my name in salvation bracelet colored icing for my “Salvation Day.” Salvation is hardly about us. The fact that God loves us more than we can guess or measure is only secondary in matters of salvation. The primary issue is that he is able and he is Love. And though my salvation is secure in Christ, who sees this grand prism of time as merely a picture painted, it is also a daily wrestling – a daily “work[ing] out… with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13) As my friend Kenny said it, “I was saved; I am being saved; I will be saved.” I must meet the angel daily at the ford of Jabbok, strive against him, and receive the crippling and humbling blow that becomes a blessing. (Genesis 32:22-31)
Every prayer is a sinner’s prayer. God still uses me, addicted in my own right to the feeding and numbing of myself in many ways, in his unfathomably rich and loving plan. He has used me to write music that has brought people hope and, somehow, freedom. I have connected with strangers through music. I have prayed with people and there have been cracks mended in broken spirits in some small measure (and also cracks made in my own hubris). All of this is by the working of the Holy Ghost. It is the keeping of “treasure in earthen vessels, so that we know that this all-surpassing power is from God, and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) I am still egotistical. I still want to serve only myself. All appearances to the contrary are usually self-serving in that they increase people’s view of me as a righteous person. But somehow, the work of the Spirit is deeper.
There are geothermal vents on the ocean floor, radiating heat into the frigid darkness of the deepest ocean trenches. Life explodes around them, existing in the warm afterglow of the earth’s molten flesh. That is the work of God in my life. Against all the odds, warmth and light exist in the deepest blackness. Life flourishes. Blessing is given and received. And so, I must arise and pray for grace to escape the cocoon of self that forms around my soul like a second skin in the night. And there is boundless grace. I must say with Paul, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)