Friday, September 01, 2006

My Road Back

When the attack of 9/11 occurred I was still working as a foreman in the shop of the steel fabrication business with which I am employed. I had a small fabrication project of my own, so I was listening to Mark and Brian on KGON while I worked, having come in at 5:30 that morning as we were on an overtime schedule. Mark and Brian made the announcement on their show after the first plane struck one of the twin towers. At first I thought it was a joke, one of their twisted little comedy routines, but when they announced that the second plane had struck I knew instantly that it was the work of terrorists. When they announced the third plane had struck the Pentagon I knew we were at war.

I turned the radio to a news station and listened as often as I could for the rest of the day. When I got home I stayed glued to the TV, switching back and forth from station to station, desperate to learn the slightest bit of new information, and over and over again I saw the video of the planes striking the buildings and then the towers collapsing. Over the days and weeks that followed I abandoned any interest in entertainment and from the moment I would get home from work until I went to bed at night I would either watch cable news (I quickly gave up on network stations) or poured over internet sites in a search to find out who had done this horrible thing, and why.

The weekend after the attack I was driving around town on errands when it dawned on me that all the flags were flying at half-mast. It was like a moment of epiphany. My father was a World War II naval veteran, but I, one of the "baby boomer" generation, had looked on the reverence with which my father's generation held the American flag with a kind of self-congratulatory aloofness, even disdain, as though they were acting somewhat childish. I had a more sophisticated and nuanced view of America and its place in the world that put me above such simplistic sentimentality. But now, seeing all those flags flying at half-staff, a symbol of so many of my fellow countrymen dead, my country attacked with no other goal than death and horror, with no other motive than to create that horror, my eyes filled with tears, and I at last understood. My world was shifting beneath me. But this was only the beginning.

Before I continue with my story it might be helpful if I recount some of my past and how I came to be so cynical, sardonic--and at the brink of apostasy.

My father was an evangelist and pastor, so I grew up around the ministry. A very early memory of mine, from perhaps four years of age, is lying prone on the platform of a revival tent, coloring in a coloring book, and periodically looking out at the audience as my father preached. Dad came from the deep South (born in Georgia and grew up in Florida), was steeped in the Bible-belt culture, and began traveling as a very young man with his older sister in the evangelistic field. Soon after I was born, he stopped traveling, and started the Full Gospel Baptist Church in Yuma, Arizona (my home town). But when I was 12 Dad gave the church over to someone else and went back out on the evangelistic field. My adolescence was spent traveling the country from small church to church, holding revival meetings. Under the umbrella of my father's ministry, I began to preach as well. When I was 16, during a very long revival meeting we had in the Medford, Oregon Church of God, I began preaching every weekday on live radio from the Christian station in Ashland.

I had just finish sixth grade when we began to travel. There was no home school movement at that time, so I finished my education through a correspondence course designed for adult high school drop-outs called American School out of Drexel, Illinois. Many people began to encourage me to prepare for Bible College and seminary, but my father actually discouraged me from this idea. I realize in our present cultural climate this seems unthinkable, but my father was born in 1916 in the deep South and was a product of his time and region. In his time and socio-economic class in the South formal education was suspect, and natural--or "God-given"--abilities valued.

I was from another time and region, though. As I entered young adulthood and tried to establish a ministry of my own, separate from my father's shadow of authority, I found my lack of Bible college credentials an insurmountable obstacle. My arrogance and argumentativeness didn't help matters. I began to bridle at what I considered the small-mindedness of other preachers who were my seniors, and grew increasingly frustrated at my lack of opportunity to preach. In my early twenties I was married with two children, working a dead-end job, and doing nothing in the ministry but playing the organ in a small Open Bible church in Newberg, Oregon.

At the same time I was struggling with my place in the church and my frustrations and failure to establish a ministry as an adult, I was working with men who were attending George Fox college, a Quaker college in Newberg, Oregon. A couple of these men, coming from a different theological heritage than the fundamentalism I grew up with, were challenging my interpretation of Scripture--and my faith, at least certain tenants that I had taken for granted. Yet one of the greatest challenges to my faith came not from other believers, but from my first intimate acquaintance with true atheists.

I had been interested in writing from an early age, and several years prior to my crisis of faith, I had started writing Science Fiction short stories (virtually the only paying short story market left in the United States), trying to break into the field as a published author. Through contacts I made in a community college fiction writing class I found out about a Science Fiction writer's workshop conducted by husband and wife writers Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm who lived in Eugene, Oregon. I submitted a story, was accepted, and for the next ten years attended their monthly workshop which they held in their home. They did this for many years for no charge, out of pure kindness and generosity. It's difficult for me to express what a profound cultural shock my relationship with Kate, Damon, and the other participants of the workshop was. Many aspects of my unusual childhood had matured me far beyond my age group, but only in certain regards; in others I had remained naive, sheltered as I was from certain types of people--such as atheist intellectuals and artists. It was cognitively dissonant, jarring to find these people, with whom I disagreed on so many of the most important issues of life--politically as well as philosophically (for they were extremely liberal politically)--so loving and kind and giving of themselves, so different from what I would have expected them to be; they were atheists!

Things finally came to a head several years later--the final straw, you might say--when the pastor of the Open Bible church I was attending, after having participated in one of Bill Gother's Basic Youth Conflicts seminars, announced that no one would have any leadership or ministry capacity in that church unless they went to and completed a Basic Youth Conflicts seminar course, I quit the church in a pique of anger. Basic Youth Conflicts had always impressed me as something of a commercial scam. Gother requested participants to keep the material secret from anyone who did not take the course directly from him (and therefore pay him) which gave it the odor of Gnosticism to me. I left the church that instant, only coming back once to get my Hammond organ and Leslie speaker. I never entered a church again for many years. Perhaps a year after I quit that Open Bible church I ran into a man whom I considered a friend from a different church I had attended a year or so prior, a church I had quit out of frustration when I was never allowed to preach or minister in any way other than music (and that not much). When he asked me where I was ministering, and I told him that I was no longer ministering or even attending church anywhere, he became sad, shook his head, and said he would pray for me. I remember becoming enraged at what I perceived as his condemnation. How dare he judge me for leaving the ministry when he and his church had never given me an opportunity, nor lifted a finger to help me? And the ultimate irony was I had found more acceptance, more help, more love from my atheistic teachers and friends than I had from those who were supposed to be my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I told myself at first that it was church that was the problem. They were all a bunch of small-minded hypocrites. They were charlatans, out for themselves, manipulative and petty. It was them I was mad at, not God. But little by little, as I isolated myself from other Christians, I began to question all my beliefs. Not with any sort of real intellectual honesty, of course; I just let it all go, quit reading the Bible, began to speculate that perhaps my upbringing and prior experiences were nothing more than the product of a "belief system". If I had been intellectually honest about my questions of faith I would have delved into it, studied, put it all to the test of genuine inquiry, but instead I tucked it all away and refused to think about it. It was easier to simply stew in my resentment of the church and finally forget about it all and focus on other things. I started out trying to punish the church for whatever real or imagined offenses they had inflicted on me, but I ended up excluding God from my life.

But this is not yet the worst of it. My greatest shame is that my falling away happened when my sons were mere toddlers, and as I abandoned first the church, and then God, I also abandoned their instruction in Christian faith.

The intervening years were devoted to my trade in the steel fabrication industry, and raising my sons. Oddly enough (and thank God!) my desertion of God didn't express itself in drug or alcohol abuse or any other number of self and marriage-destructive behaviors: I prospered at my trade; my marriage stayed intact (though I must give most of the credit for that to my wife); and I raised two fine sons of whom I am abundantly proud. My dreams of being a fiction writer eventually disintegrated. For sixteen years I studied the Korean martial art TaeKwondo, rose to the rank of 4th degree black belt, until a back injury at work ended that pursuit. But through it all I remained emotionally and culturally-or perhaps philosophically-isolated from my working and hobby acquaintances. I still believed in the existence of God and in the rightness of the Christian moral truth I had been raised with and this always seemed to distance me from my non-believing friends and co-workers. At the same time my disengagement from God distanced me from Christian friends and co-workers. I was, in many respects, a man without a country, a miserable state largely induced by my absurd attempt to cling to the moral truth of Christianity while ignoring and detaching myself from its source.

One of the results was a growing bitterness, a capitulation to the darker, sullen aspects of my nature. My language grew ever more foul and vulgar. I viewed the world through a smoky lens of pessimism and adopted the notion that the best way to endure this tragedy was to ridicule it. That was my state on 9/11: arrogant, misanthropic, and so suspicious of my own government that I was ready to quit voting.

* * * *

I inherited my mother's penchant for reading which has expressed itself in my desire to write, and also my almost obsessive habit of reading about any interest or activity I'm engaged in at any time in my life. My reaction to the 9/11 attack was no different; I began to read, first searching articles on the internet, then books from the library to help me understand the motivations of the jihadists. I read books on Muslim history by noted Middle Eastern scholar, Bernard Lewis, whom I discovered by watching C-Span II, which on the weekends is "Book TV", featuring interviews and lectures by non-fiction writers. This led me to read American history to better understand my own country and the origins of its culture. As I stated before, my immediate emotional response to the attack was an intense patriotism--something I think I shared with many Americans. But this also led to an investigation of conservative politics, as I was disgusted by the America-loathing and terrorist-excusing gist of so much that came from the popular media and especially the intelligentsia of the American political left. In my search for conservative political commentators on websites such as Nation Review Online and, I discovered writers who concerned themselves with the philosophical underpinnings of American conservatism such as Robert Bork in Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, and Thomas Sowell, a writer of enormous influence to me, especially with his triology of books on political science, Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles,and The Quest for Cosmic Justice. In reading books such as these I began to see the influence of Judeo-Christian moral thought on the American system of law, and so began to search out texts that would more clearly explain this to me.

One such book was Princeton professor of jurisprudence Robert P. George's The Clash of Orthodoxies, Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis. In this important work he, "...demonstrates that the great conflicts of our day reflect not mere partisan disagreement, but a fundamental conflict in worldviews...and makes the case for the Christian intellectual tradition..." (as stated by Chuck Colson on the flyleaf). Here I was, for the first time, confronted with the idea of a Christian worldview, not the pejorative "belief system" I had come to see it as so many years ago. This was serious stuff. It demanded my attention.

On another weekend, while checking out Book TV on C-Span II, I saw a lecture by Nancy Pearcey concerning her book, Total Truth; Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. A couple of years prior to this I would have immediately turned the channel on seeing the title of the book, but now I was riveted by what she was saying. Like professor George, she was presenting Christianity as a worldview, a concept of moral truth that speaks with authority to every aspect of our lives and culture, not just the private and purely subjective realm of our "values". Despite her extremely calm demeanor and moderate appearance, I was so energized by her talk that I ordered the book. This book was a major turning point for me. It presented me not just with philosophical arguments for my political views, but with the challenge of God's transforming grace. This was no longer just philosophy; I was now confronted with real Christianity and my responsibility to the real and living God. What had started out as an examination of my country, its history and place in the world, and my political beliefs, had now transformed to a question of my relationship to God.

Upon reading her book I found out that she was a long-time student of Christian philosopher, historian, and theologian Francis Schaeffer, and that her book (and a previous one she did with Chuck Colson called How Now Shall We Live?) was a continuation of Schaeffer's work on the development of a Christian worldview. I sought out and read his seminal work, How Should We Then Live? in which he looks at the historical arc of Western civilization, starting with the fall of the Roman empire and following all the way to our modern age. It traces the beneficial influence of Christian moral thought on culture, philosophy, and law, and then the decline of the same as Western civilization incrementally rejected Christianity.

I pulled from my bookcase and reread a book I had first read in my early twenties, the book that was instrumental in Chuck Colson's conversion, C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. This too had a profound effect on me. Of particular power was Lewis' argument that what he called the Law of Human Nature (but in more modern parlance might be called the human innate sense of right and wrong) is a proof of the existence of God, in that it can't be explained naturally--or in evolutionary terms, if you will--because it is not a law that describes how things actually work, as does the law of gravity for instance, but how we humans believe things ought to work.

Another influence, oddly enough, were two observant jewish radio talk-show host whose programs I had come to listen to on a daily basis. The fact that I do computer-assisted drafting allows me to listen to talk radio as I work, and for two years I had been listening to Michael Medved and Dennis Prager on a Christian talk radio station. Both of these brilliant men deal with cultural, as well as political issues on their shows, and Dennis Prager--especially--deals with moral issues from an unapologetically Biblical reference. Listening to these men day after day, speaking with intellectual integrity and uncompromising faith in their Judaism, and giving honor and respect to their, admittedly, mostly Christian audience had its effect on me. This was a phenomenon that had spiritual implications I could not deny.

While these influences were roiling within me, my wife and I were occasionally attending my father-in-law's Lutheran church. The liturgical services were strange to me, coming as I do from a fundamentalist background, and the sermons seemed anemic compared to the fiery preaching I had grown up with, yet even this was having its effect on me--inducing a hunger for something more substantial, if nothing else. As in Francis Thompson's poem, the "Hound of Heaven" was pursuing me.

* * * *

A little over a year ago my wife and I visited my best friend from childhood, Steve Schmelzer, who is now the pastor of Christian Joy Fellowship in Medford, Oregon. In adolescence and young adulthood (before my falling away) we had been very close, but had lost touch for many years. During the few times we had visited things had seemed odd and a bit strained between us. Now, on this visit, things were different; not quite the way it had been in our youth, but the closeness was returning on many levels. I shared with him much of what I had read, and how my faith in Christ was returning. Yet I still lacked the fellowship of other believers. Though my faith in God was reviving, I was not worshiping God, I was not serving God. As Steve and I talked during that holiday weekend, I finally began to see that until I took that step, until I was ready to worship God, to serve God, and to confess before men that Jesus Christ was my Lord and savior, my faith was nothing more than a private sentiment with no real consequences, a self-soothing exercise of moral cowardice.

Finally, as all these influences began to coalesce, I received a mailing from a local church (Countryside Community Church) announcing a sermon series called "God, the director's cut." It sounded intriguing. I checked the service times, and the services looked to be timed in at just about an hour long; the church was close--I had little to lose. The atmosphere of the church was very casual, the music contemporary, but the sermon was coherent and Biblically-based. The same screen on which the worship song lyrics were projected was used to show short clips from films at intervals during the sermon to illustrate key points. This was innovative, yet effective. Later, when I visited Countryside's website to find out more about their core beliefs and any denominational affiliations they might have, I discovered that they had a system of small groups tailored to any number of categories, i.e., age group, couples, singles, men or women only, etc.. I located a men's only group and contacted the leader by email. Soon I was meeting with this small group on Friday mornings.

The first few times I attended Countryside by myself, but my wife was soon attending with me. We joined a couples group that met on Thursday nights, and soon after that a 10 week class on Monday nights called "Christianity Explored." Inexplicably, in a just a handful of weeks, we both had gone from thinking of church as something we really "ought" to do (as in, "I really ought to floss my teeth every day,") to something to which we looked forward, something we were excited about.

At an earlier point in this journey, when my mother-in-law was still alive, but in failing health, she had requested that all of her family accompany her to a Christmas service at Our Savior's Lutheran church in Lake Oswego, Oregon. It took quite a bit of cajoling on our part to get our sons to agree to join us. Afterward, as we were driving home my oldest son, Nigel, asked me what I saw in Christianity. When I think now about my answer I blush at its insipidness--something about "the whole picture", "Western Civilization" and "moral values". But of course the real answer is, because it's true! Because it answers all of the most profound questions of human existence; because it confirms the deepest longings of human nature: for final justice, for forgiveness, for things to finally be made right as we perpetually yearn for, even as we are certain that they are not now right, for the authentication of the eternal, the transcendent and the sacred. And, perhaps most profound of all is the experience of discipleship in Christ, the empirical knowledge of its reality in the confirmation--the "stamp of approval"--of the Holy Spirit: have been adopted into the very family circle of God and you can say with a full heart, "Father, my Father." The Spirit himself endorses our inward conviction that we really are the children of God. Romans 8:15,16 (Phillips translation).

Looking back now, I can't pinpoint a specific time in which I re-committed my life to Christ. There was no emotional or spiritual moment of epiphany. But slowly, bit by bit, I began to trust in God again, to pray again, to worship again. As I began to read the Bible again on a daily basis the fire of its truth began to burn within me, reawakening a craving I had almost completely forgotten. It was a process, as I believe it will continue to be throughout the rest of my life, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his second letter to them:

And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. 2 Corinthians 3:18 (Eugene Peterson's translation/paraphrase The Message).