Posts Tagged ‘testimony-time’

A Long and Winding Road, part 2

2012-10-22 by Bruce Alderman. 1 comments

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Scene 3: On a Mission

It wasn’t just my bad experiences that soured me on church. The whole premise of Christianity was starting to bother me, especially in the way it was portrayed by its most vocal practitioners.

On one side were fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, preaching an amalgamation of legalistic theology and free-market capitalism. On the other side were groups like the Jesus Seminar, scholars who spent their time debating which of the words of Jesus were actually spoken by Jesus. Then there was Bishop John Shelby Spong, who advocated something he called non-theistic Christianity.

If I could point to one thing that bothered me about all these versions of Christianity, it was that they all seemed to agree that the most important element of the Christian faith was to talk about Christianity. I had a need for a faith that was more than just talk.

I remembered reading in the gospels how Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, lifted up the lowly and humbled the proud, and I wanted to find Christians who lived like that. Due to my previous experiences I doubted I would ever find that type of faith community. But in the spring of 1994, the thought entered my head that I should join a church and go serve in a foreign country. At first I dismissed it as unrealistic, but the more I tried to ignore it the more persistent the thought became.

So I made myself start visiting churches again. This time I limited myself to mainline denominations, in the hope of avoiding the authoritarian traps I had previously fallen into.

In August I visited East Heights United Methodist Church. One of the things I would grow to love about East Heights was that every week before taking the offering, they highlighted one of their ministries that the offering helps fund. The first week I visited the ministry focus was the annual February mission trip to Costa Rica. The pastor added that there was still time to sign up for the trip. I knew instantly that this was the church I was looking for.

The only problem was the cost. United Methodist missionaries are expected to pay their own way, and I would need $800 to cover my expenses. My night job covered my rent and bills, but I didn’t know if I could spare $800. So I told God, with less humility than the situation probably called for, that if he would provide the funds I would go.

That night my boss called me into his office and said that he appreciated my work, and he gave me a 75 cent per hour raise. I mentally calculated 75 cents times 40 hours times the 27 weeks remaining until the trip: $810. Despite the fact that my take-home pay would be less than that after taxes, I managed to save enough for the trip.

When February came I went with the team to Ciudad Quesada, Costa Rica, to help build an additional wing to a rural hospital. The locals, despite their poverty, displayed a strong faith and a trust that God would take care of them through hardships. Back in the U.S., a lot of people I knew worried constantly about whether their paychecks would cover their credit card bills.

In Costa Rica I saw the type of faith community that I wanted Christianity to be. I flirted with the idea of dropping everything and moving to Central America, but in the end I didn’t have the nerve.

I would later make two more short-term mission trips to Latin America. I’d like to believe that I did some good, but the truth is that I got far more out of the experiences than I could ever have given.

Scene 4: Faith in Crisis

On my return home from Costa Rica I was still uncomfortable with most of what I saw in American Christianity, but at East Heights I at least found a refuge from the extremes.

But about that time, my faith took a hit from a completely different direction. The recently repaired Hubble Space Telescope was producing incredibly detailed photos of the far reaches of the galaxy. At the same time, astronomers discovered the first clear evidence of planets outside our solar system. It was an exciting time for astronomy, and my old love of the night sky led me to seek as much information as I could about the origins of the universe. I saw how the Big Bang made more sense than any other explanation.

And that wasn’t all. New fossil discoveries in Africa, combined with the human genome project, gave scientists an ever-increasing understanding of our relation to extinct hominid species, and the more they learned the muddier the picture became. For the first time, I grasped the role of evolution in how we got to where we are.

This new knowledge appealed to the rational side of me, but I couldn’t see a way to reconcile it with the spiritual side of me. The more I learned about scientific discoveries and the scientific process, the more uncomfortable I felt professing a faith rooted in miracles–even though I’d experienced miracles in my own life.

I mentioned these struggles in a BBS forum where I was active, and received a reply from someone by the handle of Shaolin, who opined that this was a weakness of Western religion. He suggested I look into Taoism as an alternative.

I was so confused about my faith that I was willing to give it a try. I bought a copy of the Tao Te Ching and started reading. From the very first words, this book challenged and confronted my rational side.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the true name.

In Western society it is comforting to have an explanation for everything. Life, however, is messy and doesn’t always lend itself to answers. No matter how well we think we understand this world, some things remain beyond our grasp. This theme of not being able to grasp the ultimate is repeated throughout the Tao Te Ching.

The Taoist concept of wei-wu-wei (literally “action without action”, meaning something along the lines of going with the flow of the way things ought to be rather than trying to bend things to our desires) also struck a chord with me.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Christian faith is like this as well. We will never accomplish God’s will by interfering and doing things our own way. Only by yielding to God can we accomplish anything. The more I read of Taoism, the more I realized it had nothing for me that I couldn’t already find in Christianity.

Look, it cannot be seen–it is beyond form. Listen, it cannot be heard–it is beyond sound. Grasp, it cannot be held–it is intangible. These three are indefinable; Therefore they are joined in one.

I never expected to see support for the Trinity in the Tao Te Ching. Granted, this passage is talking about something else. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity does indeed hold that three are joined in one, and that ultimately they are beyond our ability to define. The Tao Te Ching had given me a way of viewing the world without the need to rationalize everything. And with that in place, I was finally ready to accept Christianity on its own terms.

I still struggle with questions most people will never ask, and I still have problems with authoritarians. I’ve still got a long road ahead of me, but I trust that God knows better than I do. And at this stage of the journey, that’s all I need.

A Long and Winding Road, part 1

2012-10-21 by Bruce Alderman. 2 comments

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Scene 1: The Night I Met God

To say I was not one of the popular kids would be a major understatement. I was a typical 1980s-era nerd, a loner who spent much of my free time learning how to get the most out of my TRS-80 microcomputer or exploring the night skies with my telescope. Living in a sports-crazed rural community but lacking athletic ability, the closest I could get to fitting in was competing on the cross country team.

The fall of 1985, my junior year of high school, I could see things starting to turn around. My running had improved enough that I was occasionally getting medals, and people were starting to see me as less of a nerd, and more of an athlete. In October I managed to get a date to the homecoming dance, and afterwards somehow found myself in my first relationship. But by early November, both the relationship and the cross country season had ended; by Thanksgiving weekend I was alone again, and this time I didn’t enjoy it.

On Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend, I was sitting in my room reading The Scarlet Letter for my English class when I started to feel dizzy and short of breath. My best guess is it was an allergic reaction. I’ve had severe allergies most of my life, but this was the strongest reaction I’ve ever had.

I don’t remember the next few minutes. The next thing I recall, I was on the other side of the room, lying in my bed, breathing slowly to catch my breath. In my confused state I remember thinking, my life is worthless, and I whispered a prayer, “God, if you can hear me, just let me die.”

What happened instead is hard to explain. I slowly became aware of a presence in my room. I couldn’t see anyone, but I had a sense of being watched. The intensity of this presence began to grow, until it was so overwhelming that I was aware of nothing else. The bed, the room, even my own self seemed to be swallowed up by the intensity of–whatever it was.

Years later I was struck by a scene from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis, imagining a bus trip to heaven, says:

At first, of course my attention was caught by my fellow passengers, who were still grouped about in the neighborhood of the omnibus, though beginning, some of them, to walk forward into the landscape with hesitating steps. I gasped when I saw them. Now that they were in the light, they were transparent–fully transparent when they stood between me and it, smudgy and imperfectly opaque when they stood in the shadow of some tree. They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air. One could attend to them or ignore them at will as you do with the dirt on a window pane. I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were not disturbed. Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focussing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.

The presence I experienced in my room that night was like what Lewis described–so intense that all the ordinary things of life paled by comparison. But at the time, the only way I could describe it was that I was in the presence of God.

A few days later an acquaintance stopped me in the hallway at school and said, “I was reading the Bible last night, and God told me to share this message with you: ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.’” I asked him what that was supposed to mean, and he said he didn’t know, just that God wanted him to deliver that message to me.

I’ve spent many years trying to figure out what it means.

Scene 2: Problems with Authority

In college I fell in with the Pentecostal crowd. I started attending the Church of the Foursquare Gospel with some friends. The way they spoke about God, as someone who was palpably present in the world, seemed to match my own experience. But I soon ran into difficulties. First was their insistence that the gift of speaking in tongues was intended for every Christian. My own experience suggested otherwise. Second was a pervasive paranoia, an us-against-the-world attitude that left them distrustful of everyone outside their circle.

In my sophomore year, the associate pastor led a college Bible study centered around Edgar Whisenant’s “88 Reasons Why The Rapture will be in 1988”. When I raised some doubts one week in the Bible study, the pastor spoke to me afterward, asked me if I was harboring some secret sin, and accused me of being arrogant and having a problem with authority. I knew something wasn’t right, but at the time I wasn’t sure if the problem was with me or them.

I prayed about this, but didn’t get an answer from God one way or the other.

After a number of talks with my friends, they concluded the problem was that I had done my baptism all wrong. My parents had had me baptized as an infant; it wasn’t a choice I had made myself. So we talked to the pastor about getting me rebaptized, and I was scheduled to get dunked a few weeks later at a Wednesday night service.

I was one of three people getting baptized that night. My friends sat in the front row to support me. But I still wasn’t fully convinced that this was the answer to the questions that were bothering me. I was beginning to suspect that my “problem with authority” was a warning sign that something wasn’t right with this church.

Finally my time came to go under the water, and when I did I heard God’s voice as clearly as if he was standing between me and the pastor. In the brief moment before I came up again, God told me, “Get away from here. These people are hindering your spiritual growth.”

My friends told me that when I came up out of the water I had a look of peace like no one they had seen before. If they had known the reason for that peace, they might not have been so quick to congratulate me.

I tried a number of other churches during the rest of my college years, but never committed to another one. I didn’t want a repeat of that experience.

After college I enrolled in graduate school at Wichita State University. To pay the bills I took a night job in a warehouse. I kept busy enough between school and work that I convinced myself I didn’t have time for church.

But one day on campus I happened to run into a friend from college who was also now at WSU. She told me about a great church she had found, and she invited me to attend. I was reluctant but I agreed to give it a shot. The next Sunday morning found me in downtown Wichita in the Century II Convention Hall, worshipping with the Church of Christ Jesus. After the service I was introduced to some guy that told me he would become my mentor. Something about this struck me as not right. Nevertheless I ageed to meet with him a few times, but it soon became clear that we had irreconcilable differences. I still had a problem with authority–or more accurately, with authoritarianism. Within less than a month I left that church and never looked back.

Through it all I somehow maintained my trust in God, but I was through with church. Or so I thought.