I'm always faced with the dilemma of how far back to start when asked to share my story. I'm pretty sure "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" is going back a little too far, so I'll spare you that starting point. I grew up with our family moving between southern California and northern Arizona. My dad was an airplane and helicopter pilot and he must have been looking for steady work because we kept leaving Arizona, only to return. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. My dad was a non-practicing Jack-Mormon and my mom was an irreligious Methodist. In other words, I grew up in a pagan home. My dad was a strict disciplinarian and most of my early memories of him were of him being mad about something and uninvolved in my life unless I was in some sort of trouble. If my two older half-brothers or I did something bad during the week (which was pretty much every week), going to church the following Sunday was part of our punishment. We were eventually told that we had to pick a church to go to every week and since we lived in northern Arizona at the time, we chose the local Mormon Church because that’s where most of our friends went. Looking back, I can see that I associated my ideas about God and what he was like with punishment and harshness.
At sixteen, I was kicked out of my house after my dad came home drunk and tried to pin me down and cut my hair (welcome to the early 70s). During the struggle, I pulled a loaded rifle on him, which he quickly removed from my hands and I was told to leave. I moved back in for a short time about a year or year and a half later, but from sixteen on, I was pretty much on my own. To support myself, I played music when I could (drums) and worked a couple of part-time jobs. I lived in a small trailer for a short time and then moved into a makeshift apartment (that used to be a beauty salon) attached to a Laundromat where I eventually landed a full-time job, living rent-free. That place was a real chick magnet. What industrial Laundromat isn’t?
There were certain advantages to being one of the only drummers in a small town. I was always in demand even though I was a minor and I played in a rock and roll band as well as a country-western band (it didn’t start being called country until much later). A lot of people looked the other way and let me indulge in alcohol at an early age and I liked it that way. This was especially true of the country-western band I was in. Bartenders slipping me drinks during songs was the norm. Among other places, the rock and roll band I was in played every Tuesday night in a makeshift dancehall across from the Bright Angle Lodge at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It was during this time that I began using and smoking different drugs in addition to the alcohol.
Because of all of the above, I wasn’t in school much for the last part of my sophomore year and most of my junior year. I became a Christian in what would have been the middle of my senior year of high school (January 1973), had I not dropped out in September of 1972, after being told I didn’t have enough credits to graduate and getting into an altercation with a teacher. A few weeks or months later, my oldest half-brother returned from the navy and invited me to a free concert in southern California. I soon found myself inside a large circus tent at a Saturday night concert put on by a tiny church called Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa California. It was there, on that night in January 1973, that Jesus saved me. I don’t know what this does to your theology, but I wasn’t looking for Jesus or interested in becoming a believer when he saved me. The thought of becoming a Christian was nowhere on my radar. I had some high school friends who were Christians and they used to tell me things about Jesus and the Bible, but I don’t think any of it stuck until later. I went to the Saturday night concert because my brother had invited me, it was free, I liked concerts, and any chance to get out of Page Arizona and go back to southern California for a weekend was gold.
So I went. And after the concert, I heard the gospel either for the first time, or for the first time with my heart having been opened and ready to receive it. Either way, I heard it, repented, and believed it. Again, I wasn’t searching for God, but He came looking for me and found me. I went from being a long-haired hippie to being a long-haired Jesus freak. I remember feeling so burdened by my sin and then feeling that burden lifted. Removed. I remember the joy of knowing Jesus and how free I felt of any condemnation. I knew he loved me.
Let’s fast-forward a little bit. We grow up. We get married. We start careers. We settle down. We have children. Some of us become pastors. Life beats us up. The church beats us up. Our marriage beats us up. We beat ourselves up with our own expectations. The radical message of grace and our freedom in Jesus gets lost in the messiness of living and we start to replace it with some form of moralism, legalism, and/or performancism so we can feel better about ourselves or at least feel like we’re making progress. Our hearts become hard over time because life both inside and outside the church can be unrelenting. People inside the church expect more from us than we can possibly give and are disappointed in us when we can’t deliver. So we walk away or if we stay, we hit a wall of empty and meaningless performance and throw our hands up in despair because there’s no more good news being preached and all we see is hopelessness.
That’s what happened to me in one paragraph. The normal course of life and the normal events of living, coupled with the pressure from inside the church to be a certain way, can bring us to an end of ourselves where we crash and burn. My crash and burn happened in the early months of 2009. I use “crash and burn” and “hitting a wall” synonymously to refer to the same event. For me, hitting a wall, or crashing and burning both refer to the time in my life in early 2009 when I was so burdened and overwhelmed by my own expectations and the constant expectations of others to look a certain way, act a certain way, and say all the right things the right way, that I completely unraveled and I couldn’t keep faking it and pretending to be something I knew I wasn’t: a super-Christian. I stopped pretending and when I stopped pretending, my only other choice was to start being real instead. Not by the amazing power of my own intellect or will or because I made an incredible decision to do so, but because the Holy Spirit started to show me what was going on inside of me and the masks I had been wearing started to be stripped away by Him. I didn’t know I was wearing masks until He started to show them to me. All I knew is that I was exhausted and had lost all my joy. Somehow, I had come to believe this was the normal Christian life.
Hitting a wall of performance caused me to stop pretending and instead, to embrace my messy brokenness, maybe for the first time in 40+ years in the faith. It’s in my weakness and brokenness that Jesus met me, not in my pretend have-it-togetherness. And I found that when you start being honest about your weakness and brokenness, some people get mad at you. That’s because the way we often view Christianity is fixated on the life of the Christian instead of on the Christ. Viewing Christianity in such a man-centered way, took a heavy toll on me after decades of hearing and believing it was true.
We’ve all heard Christian testimonies that go something like this: I used to be “A” but now I’m “Z.” “I used to be a real mess, but now I’m not a mess.” “I used to be weak and feeble, but now I’m strong and competent.” Or, “My finances were a mess, but now I’m a financial genius.” I’m not discrediting those stories; I’m just saying that isn’t my story. Life gets pretty hard, even with Jesus. We were Jesus freaks, out to change the world. But that never happened. Instead, over many, many years, we’ve learned that we can’t even change ourselves, let alone each other or the world. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job, not ours. So instead, we get to rest and enjoy this walk with Jesus, which, if we’re honest, is more of a stumbling along than a walk. But He loves us in our stumbling, so we press on, knowing that. My life as a Christian hasn’t been one of growing strong and independent of Jesus (although for a while, I thought it was), but one of an increased awareness of how weak and incompetent I truly am. The gospel reminds me that even when my faith is weak and feeble, I’m held firmly by a strong Savior. That gives me hope and it fills me with joy knowing that none of this depends on me. Because Jesus is strong for me, I’m free to be real and remove the masks I once wore when I pretended to be strong. Jesus loves me as I am, not some future version of me.