“...Our spiritual journey is not our setting out to find God, as an object "out there" to be grasped and controlled by us. It is a journey of learning to yield ourselves to God and discovering where God will take us.”
M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.
Our lives, at their most basic level, are a Journey and a story.
If they are nothing else, they are living storylines of risk and reward, joy and pain, good and evil, glorious victory, and agonizing defeat that change us. Our small stories are - though we often forget - all part of the truly epic story God is telling of his love for humanity.
From the dawn of creation, he has invited us to participate in it through an intimate, living relationship with him. It’s an adventure and a journey that spans eternity. And his invitation to us is to turn the moments and experiences of our lives into a day-by-day process of participating with him in His work of transforming us from who we are in our natural state, into the image and character of Christ. For that is His ultimate, overarching goal for every human life. (Romans 8:29)
21st Century Disciple is the result of my own experience of living in God’s Big Story, and a Journey of faith that spans three and a half decades. It was a life found through unlikely circumstances and that has traversed many mountain peaks, deep valleys, and dreadfully long treks through deserts of the soul.
It’s a Journey that has taught me and irrevocably changed me. And through every season and experience I’ve only become more convinced that no matter the circumstances, the pursuit of Jesus and of becoming more like him is life’s greatest and most consequential endeavor.
My Journey (and why it matters)
I didn’t grow up in a Christian home; other than going to a Vacation Bible School once as a kid, I didn’t go to church. I was introduced to the gospel and to Jesus by a band member as a Senior in high school.
A year and a half later I met my beautiful wife, and through her, I was introduced to church culture and the relational dynamics of a faith community. As an independent Baptist congregation in the South, it had a rigid and narrow definition of what a Christian was. It was taken as a given that this “way” WAS Christianity and that anything that didn’t align with it was simply wrong. Whether it was a question of doctrine, church practice, morals, or habits there was no room for variability if one wanted to please God and walk with him.
And I wanted that more than anything.
So, being ignorant of the Bible and the Way of Jesus, I jumped headlong into the extremely conservative Christian church culture and drank deeply. Some gulps were pure Living Water. Many others were toxic draughts of man’s religion, and there was no realistic way for me to discern between the two, so I absorbed them together. And that molded my worldview, my perspective of Jesus, and what it meant to live for him.
One of the true gifts I received from that religious context was a love for the Bible and a passion for studying it. In great measure, I owe that passion to my pastor and father-in-law. He also loved the Bible, reflected the heart of Jesus, and preached in an expository style that moved verse by verse through every book of the Bible he taught.
And I learned.
Later I completed the Liberty Bible Institute self-study program which took students:
through the entire Bible verse-by-verse
through a complete series of systematic theology
and through electives that delved even more deeply into individual books of the Bible, archeology, biblical languages, and more.
The study was so thorough, and I absorbed the content so well that I was able to test out of the Bible requirements for my Youth Ministry degree from Liberty University (Jerry Falwell), graduate with an additional minor in Bible, and still have 30+ credit hours of Bible I couldn’t use.
The love for the Bible and for the person of Christ that developed during those years helped make me who I am. And in a delicious irony, it also laid the groundwork for a painful 15+ year process of dismantling the faith I’d been educated in as I sought to disentangle the truth of the Bible from the religion of man.
I was a pastor, a missionary, and a Bible teacher. Kim and I started a ministry to students that grew into a hub of ministry for an entire county. I’d preached to thousands and led 100’s to faith in Christ. I was a good conservative Republican. And quibbles aside, I was certain I was on the right track with what it meant to love and serve God as a Christian in America.
But in 2004, I began navigating the heart rending, world-up-ending experience that is now called Deconstruction. At that time, that term didn’t exist. People didn’t have a context for this debilitating experience that rudely barges into one’s life to shake them to their foundation. So, I had no context for understanding what was happening. I had always been so certain. And now I wasn’t. I thought I was losing my mind and I’ve never felt so utterly alone.
My brothers and sisters in Christ thought I was backsliding or walking away from God. Very few of them plucked up the courage to say as much to my face, of course. But most of them thought it. I could read it in their expressions and in the questions in their eyes.
It was during that very long, very painful leg of my Journey that I took everything about my life and faith apart. In the spiritual equivalent of a tornado going through a trailer park, every piece of me; God, faith, the Bible, church, politics, friends, marriage, parenthood, pleasure, pain, my body, my mind, my country, and what the balance of my life was to look like was scattered across the devastated internal landscape of my soul.
And, not knowing what else to do, I just started picking up the pieces and looking closely at each one.
I took it all, and I compared it to Jesus’ life and words and the rest of the New Testament. And I placed it into two piles in the center of my soul:
Pile 1: What I know is true
Pile 2: Man’s religious BS (MRB for short)
Of course, it wasn’t that orderly or methodical. It was chaotic and disorienting. Like each day getting gut-punched with some new doubt about something I’d always taken as a given.
It was a living hell and there were times that I was very, very afraid that my faith wouldn’t survive. At times Pile 2 was stacked so high that I couldn’t see the face of God, and I often despaired.
But, Pile 1 held a single, tattered scrap of paper to which my spirit stubbornly clung. It read “…I suffer also these things: yet I am not ashamed; for I know him whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to guard that which I have committed unto him against that day.” (II Tim 1:12)
This devastating process forced me to go back; back to the very beginning, to that night lying in my bed as a teenager, where I simply trusted God, took Jesus at his word, and accepted the gift of Life he offered. The night where I knew he was real, and that he loved me, because I’d met him myself.
By God’s grace and patience in the following years, I continued to sift the piles. And slowly but surely, Pile 1 started to grow again. And this time, I knew that the things that ended up in Pile 1 belonged there because God had reaffirmed their place.
Pile 2 shrank. To some degree because things got moved back to Pile 1. But also, because I created a new, third pile called “I Don’t Know, and it’s Ok”. That’s a big pile now. And I’m at peace with it.
Because, let’s be honest, if someone as limited as I am can fully understand God and all his ways, he can’t be much of a God.
These days I hold many, many details very lightly and loosely. Not because I’m wishy-washy or lack conviction, but because I’ve come to believe that the path is much simpler than we make it out to be. I don’t mean to say it’s easy. It is not. But it is simple in the sense that when we allow God’s purpose to serve as our center, it creates a great filter for what really matters and “everything else”.
In John 22, An expert in the Jewish Law asked Jesus a penetrating question. In that day, as in ours, humanity had taken the commandments of God and added layers of human interpretations and requirements for people to follow. Over time, the commandments of men came to be equated with the commands of God. They had developed 613 specific, detailed laws and the religious leadership lorded these commandments over the general population, creating a slavish focus on religious minutia. And souls who wanted to know and walk with God were left trying to figure out what was the most important things to God, because, well, one just couldn’t pay attention to it all. They had their own version of MRB. It is in that context that this expert in the Jewish Law asks Jesus,
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
This is, of course, the exact kind of life Jesus demonstrated to his disciples and taught them to pursue by becoming like their Rabbi. It’s the same purpose that’s reiterated time and time again throughout the New Testament; to be changed at a heart level into the kind of person with the kind of values, priorities, and character that Jesus had.
Pursuing this purpose automatically clarifies and sifts a lot of things.
And though the determination to pursue Transformation is simple, the process of that Transformation - given all the forces at work within the human heart, mind, and body – is intimately complex. And it requires wisdom, discernment, and community to navigate well.
Having a guide on the Journey can make all the difference.
In some small way, I hope that I can walk beside those who yearn to be free from the toxic entanglements of man’s religion and the wilderness of this world’s values and priorities, to find the path that leads to life in the Kingdom of God and immersion in the Way of Jesus.
To that end, the blog series, “I Changed My Mind About…” chronicles my Journey of sifting all I’d been taught about God, faith, and “Christianity” in conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist circles. It describes my process of Deconstruction, how my understanding and perspectives have changed, and why. It also shows how this process has cleared the way for me to focus more fully on what really matters; to love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind, and to love my neighbor as myself.
It will be an uncomfortable read for some. It will make others deeply angry because it will challenge their own sense of certainty and security in how they view their faith. They will probably be vindictive and unkind. And I accept that. I also hope that, so their own soul's sake, they make the effort to listen.
But for others, I trust it will be like a glass of ice-cold water on a summer day and bring the sense of rescue that comes from realizing you’re not alone.
So, I hope you’ll join me as we seek the Kingdom together and learn, more and more, how to be Jesus With Skin On for a hurting world.