I guess I’ve believed in Jesus all my life.
The first time I sat at His table I was but a boy, a ramrod-straight little boy who wore bowties and seersucker pants to church on Sunday mornings where my indoctrination began. I became enthralled at the stories of the Bible, tales of lions and whales and arks, of bearded men who wore multicolored robes and parted seas and stumbled upon burning bushes.
Back then, the Bible was fun and God was big. I didn’t fully understand Jesus, but I knew that for some reason He loved me.
I remember that my favorite song was Go tell it on the Mountain. I sang for the youth choir and we didn’t care whether or not our voices were any good. We yelled—literally yelled—that song at the top of our lungs because by golly, we were going to go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is Lord.
As I grew older, church became more of a burden than a blessing. I guess that’s the natural progression in the life of a distracted boy. “Mom, do we have to go?” I would often ask. There were many days that I would rather have stayed at home. The worst was getting dressed for church, more so than church itself. And it seemed so long, especially the sermons. I would often drown out or whisper something to my equally-bored companion beside me, trying to manufacture a red-faced chuckle in the midst of the silence and solemnity. Even in confirmation class, I didn’t understand fully the nature of the Christian walk; they gave me my marching orders and I “hup two-ed” into the army of Christ. It was something that seemed like the right thing to do, at the time. Heck, I was only thirteen.
I believed in God and I believed in Jesus, but the Christian life just didn’t “take.” Life was easy back then and because I had good parents I didn’t have much trouble doing the right things. I chose to do the right things because of severe repercussions from my father, not because I was choosing to do good for good sake or even Christ’s sake. So when I finally was loosed from those paternal chains, doing the right thing became exceptionally hard for me. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The first time I fully experienced the power of God and the saving power of Christ was when He came and rescued me at age sixteen. I believe it was that night at First Baptist Church in Jasper, Alabama that He reached down and netted me. That it finally took. By then, I was old enough to at least halfway understand who God was and why He sent His son to save us. I had a simple faith, and for the next two years, I tried my best to be the best Christian I could be. Daily, I read the Bible and prayed. I felt the power of the Holy Spirit in my life. I was obedient. God mattered.
That type of life fit nicely within the parameters that my parents had set for me. It affirmed everything they had been teaching me since Day One. But it would be soon that my faith was put to the test. It would be soon that I would be out from under the shadow of my parents’ nightwatch.
My gravitation away from God began when I became a student at Mississippi State University. That titan voice of my father was less effective over the phone. It was away at school that I learned that I could hide my transgressions from my overbearing father and guiltless mother. It wasn’t like one day I decided to start sinning out of spite; indeed, it was never anything personal against God or my parents. It was more like a slow whittling away of my faith, piece by piece, layer by layer, as if peeling back an onion.
My descent began with absence from God. My daily regimen of prayer and Bible study went on hiatus. I stopped going to church, stopped listening to the voice of God. Then the devil was free to work on my sin. He hammered it home, driving that corroded nail into my flesh until he had me pinned in his snares. He used alcohol as a reagent for my wanderlust, the type of potion that would best expedite my sin.
I knew that I was not living the kind of life that was pleasing to God, but I was too much of a coward to stop it. Too weak mentally to drown out all of the demonic voices. Instead of letting God shape me, I let the world. My daily walk with God had become a yearly check-in, as if I were punching a time-clock just so God could see that I was present at work.
During this time, I knew that I needed to come back to Him; I was just too ashamed to face Him with my wayward life. His light was too bright for my darkness. No doubt He would be disappointed in my actions. No doubt He was angry at me. Now I realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong in my thinking or my understanding of who God is.
But God kept knocking at my door and I kept failing to answer Him. But I still heard that knock. Although progressively softer, it was always there. I kept the door shut for a long, long time.
I learned what it was like to live without God. I slipped further and further away into the abyss. Further and further away from the Truth. Fleeing Him. Instead of holding on to His Truth, I began to justify my actions. Bargain with myself. Make excuses. And it seemed that each bargain took me further and further away from what I once knew to be true. Each compromise found me further down into the depths of the valley. Further into the blackness, the night.
But all the while, there was a sense of something powerful that remained palpably close. The voice of God was there after every sin, every mishap. I still sensed that His spirit was with me. As much as I tried to run from IT, IT still chose to cling to me. And I couldn’t escape IT. It was I that had moved. Even when a stranger, IT was still seeking me.
Even in the darkest nights. Even out in that cold lonely wilderness. Even as the piggish demons had their way with me. No amount of alcohol could separate me from the love of Christ. No type of sin or the frequency that I committed it could erase the fact that I knew God loved me. If I ran into the faraway glen or paddled to the veil of a distant shore, I remained forever in the dominion of His love. It was the kind of grace that still cared for a wretch like me. It was the kind of patience that waited for the return of the Prodigal Son.
During my struggle, I know that God wept for me. That He missed me greatly. I know it. A father always misses a son that won’t speak to him. That won’t have much to do with him.
Why I strayed I may never fully understand. For much of my life, I blamed it on my own father. But now I think I was just a selfish, stupid kid. A kid that was lonely, wounded, insecure, needy. I take full responsibility for that now.
What that life produced is not something that I am proud of today. That life was a life of instant gratification. It was an empty life. A life that spoiled and rotted quickly. A life that was constantly searching, constantly wanting. A life that was mired in fear. A life that was constantly against a cliff that could collapse any moment beneath my feet. And it nearly did.
I have nothing to show for it now.
I don’t know how I ever got through it. There are nights that I look back upon and wonder how I didn’t get killed or why God allowed me to live through it. I don’t understand why God gave me so many chances, and why He stopped me at just the right moment.
Why just in time I won.
I was staring down the road to perdition when my journey back to God began. I decided I didn’t want to go any further down that road. My life meant too much to me. My career meant too much to me. And I hope my parents meant too much to me. God.
I had spent nine years away from the Truth. After I turned around, for a year, I lived in tremendous guilt and shame for all of the horrible decisions I had made in my life. I wondered if God even had the willingness to forgive me. I wondered if my choices would preclude me from heaven.
I sank into a low depression. My soul was black with tar. The hope in my heart evacuated.
I began to work my way out of the mire by writing poetry. It was the only thing I knew to do. I had to make some sense of my life. Sense of myself.
I slowly found the courage to go back to church, and there were many days that those hymns and the sight of that Cross made me weep bitterly. I knew the Truth. I just hadn’t had the courage to follow it. The life of a Christian was just too hard. Too demanding. Too selfless. I had wanted to do what I wanted to do, and God had gotten in the way. I knew God was demanding something out of me, but I was too focused on self-gratification to choose His way.
I was lost. But God began to slowly bring me back. I began to slowly find the road. Walk it.
I pleaded for forgiveness. I cried many nights and asked God to not forget about me. I knew that He would forgive me, but it took a very long time for me to forgive myself. Once I did, the burden was lifted. I was able to start again.
God was gracious enough to give me another chance even though I had done nothing to deserve it. The saddest part of it all is that there are some people who don’t know this side of me. The good side anyway. They know me as the playboy, the guy who was the best at having a good time. The last to leave the bar. The drunk.
I am ashamed of this. Embarrassed. I am ashamed of the things I did, the things I said, and the decisions I made while soaked with bourbon. I am ashamed of my reputation in some circles of Alabama and Mississippi. Is this the person I am? Yes. But only partly. There is a much, much better side that I hope that people will one day get the opportunity to see. I am a Christian, and although I haven’t always acted like one, God is working on me this very moment. Here and there, the nights still come. I never enjoy them.
God’s got a tough job; He has to work harder on me than most people, but I know He can handle it. I have tried to change myself through my own effort, through my own might. Do God’s job for Him. But this method always fails. It just doesn’t work. I get tired. Weary. I’ll have to rely on God to do it. He’s the only one that has the ability to stay alert. On watch.
I hope that my good days will continue to bury my bad ones. When I do have a bad day, I go straight back to God. I’ve learned to confess my sins quickly. This helps me to get back to center quickly. Returning to Him helps me not to slip further. I don’t think He minds if I ask for forgiveness. And I don’t think He’s always angry at me. I think He understands.
For those of you that really know me, you know that I am a very complex human being. And I don’t say that to sound haughty or arrogant. My life, in many ways, is a dichotomy. And I have struggled mightily with my own identity. I live life to the extremes. I can be extremely Christian but at the same time extremely sinful. I have a hard time living in the middle. I am hot and cold. I have bouts of extreme devotion to God and months of extreme transgression. But I have learned to embrace the man I am. I have learned to be OK with the person I am entire. I believe this is the first step to healing.
So, what can I say? What have I learned on this long hard journey?
I have experimented with both the world and with Jesus Christ. And I have found that Jesus is better every single time. I like who I am when I act like Jesus. I don’t like who I am when I choose the other road.
I have learned that if I simply apply the teachings of the Bible to my life, that my life will be more abundant. That I will experience the joy of living. That my life will be better. That I will be more at peace. ALWAYS.
The decision to get on that road is the difficult part. Once on it, it is a smoother road. Not nearly as treacherous.
That I know.
And that is the Truth.
So I sit here this morning. I begin again. I have another day. Another chance. Thank God for it.
And I know that in the end that everything is going to be alright.
God is with me. He is my shepherd. And I have nothing to fear as I plod one foot in front of the other, up the mountaintop, looking ever forward, as the valley of the shadow of death moves further and further away.
Somewhere up there, in the warm grey misty mountain, I can see Him. And that’s where I intend to go.
It’s where I’ve wanted to all my life.