As big as the God of the universe is, I suppose there are no two humans on the face of the planet who have the same exact outlook and perception of their Creator. This week’s theme is “how we got into the whole Jesus thing.” So let me share my story with you.
I grew up in the First Baptist Church (Southern Baptist) in the town of Palestine, TX. I was literally there every time the doors were open. Sunday School, Royal Ambassadors (a Baptist version of Boy Scouts), Children’s Choir, plus just hanging out at the church while my Mom was at any number of choir rehearsals or committee meetings. At the age of ten, I realized that while I was in church and I knew right from wrong, that God had a plan for my life to put my faith in him and follow him. So I made my profession of faith and was baptized the following Sunday. As I grew into my teenage years, I had a hard time feeling comfortable in my home church. You see, Palestine (pronounced PAL uh steen) had two school districts. All of my church friends went to one middle school while I went to another. Whether it was intentional or not, I began to feel isolated and even ostracized by kids I considered my friends whom I had grown up with. After being abandoned by my “friends” in a concession stand line at Six Flags while waiting for my food and then spending the rest of the day riding rides with my mother, I decided I needed some new friends and a new church. So I convinced my family to look at other churches. We then joined a church a couple of miles from my house which didn’t have as much of a youth program, but I had friends there and that was important to me. Eventually, the church would hire a youth director who would be a great mentor and friend to me and at age seventeen I would surrender my life to vocational ministry.
Life was good. I was attending a Christian college, playing drums in a worship band for an on-campus Bible study. I was happy in my faith-based eutopia isolated from the terrible evils of the world. And somewhere along the way, I began to formulate the notion in my head that if all I did was continue to serve God faithfully, my life would be free of heartache, pain, and suffering. That notion came to a screeching halt three years after graduation. After graduation, I had married my college sweetheart and took a job as youth minister at a Baptist church in a small central Texas town. After two years of serving there, my wife decided to leave me for the rat race of corporate America. This would be the beginning of a three-year downward spiral in my life. Her leaving was nothing I could stop. I had never felt so hopeless in my life. And I was convinced that this kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to people who were faithfully serving God (as I believed I was). During this time, I was attending seminary at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX. My seminary education kept me focused on ministry in the midst of a lot of personal hardship. And while I was tempted to throw myself into blatant sin and rebellion, my ministry was my source of income. It sounds shallow, but I didn’t want to jeopardize my paycheck by doing something really dumb. So, I tried to keep doing my job and iron out the kinks of my miserable personal life. I quickly met another woman and after nearly ten months of dating we were married and I was back in another miserable relationship. Thirteen months after we married she had filed for divorce. I had been serving in the church as youth and music minister, we had recently hired a new pastor after having been without a pastor for fifteen months (I was doing all the hospital visits and pastoral ministry), and I was finishing up my seminary education. Wife #2 moved out on a Friday night. I had my last semester finals on Monday morning. Somehow I mustered the strength to complete my finals and walk across the stage the following Saturday. My life was a wreck. There was no way I could ask our church to keep me on, and quite frankly I was burnt out. I had exhausted everything I had to keep my ministry going, my grades up, and my family together. In February of 2004, I moved back home to Palestine. I had a Master’s degree and no job and the outlook of doing ministry was not promising. To be honest, I had no desire to do church work because I didn’t think I had the emotional energy to commit to it.
After two years as a multi-line insurance agent, I was sick of the job as a salesman. A wonderful church had asked me to teach their Wednesday night Bible studies for the youth group, and while that was a great affirmation to me, they would soon hire a youth minister who would take over from there. Ironically, I would give him a bunch of my seminary books and help him get started in the program since this was his first church staff position. I longed to be back in ministry, but who would have me? With two failed marriages, applying for a ministry position would have been like a pedophile applying to work at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Almost two years after starting at the insurance office, I went by First United Methodist Church whose pastor had hit me up two years prior. At that previous meeting, I had told him it just wasn’t a good time, but now things were different. I walked into his office and said, “I don’t really even know why I’m here. I’m tired of selling insurance and just want to be back in ministry.” His face lit up. They had recently fired a youth worker and had been through six different applicants trying to fill the spot. A week later I had a job.
I didn’t know a whole lot about the United Methodist Church except all the things I learned growing up like they had dances at church camp and they don’t baptize the “right way”. But I soon learned that while some of those things were true, these were people who loved God and had a huge grasp on things like grace, mercy, and forgiveness. I could get used to that. As another Baptist “refugee” told me, “Methodists seem a lot more concerned with where you’re going than where you’ve been.”
A couple of years after I started working, I met the woman who is now my wife. If all goes as planned, I will be adopting my nine-year old step daughter six days from now. In spite of a difficult journey, God has blessed me tremendously. And while I still hold on to some of the doctrine I learned in the Baptist church, I’ve learned there are a lot of things more important than how people are baptized or even a person’s one-time commitment to Christ. The journey of following Christ is a process and while we make a commitment to him for our salvation, we still choose to serve him each day of our lives.
So was I saved as a ten-year old boy? I’m pretty sure I was. But my faith didn’t get real to me until I went through the dark period when it seemed nothing could go right. I grew beyond the notion that following God was some sort of shelter from heartache. I also learned that following God is not immunity from hardship, but rather the relationship we have with God is what sustains us in our hardships.