[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 10 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Beginning Again.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
The evangelical subculture of middle America is known for its quirks, not the least of which is the ubiquitous testimony time. The most thrilling testimony, as everyone knows, is the downward spiraling life that whacked rock bottom where Jesus was found by the hapless addict or anorexic (apparently Jesus is always getting lost and in need of finding).
Talk about perfect fuel for the fires of our insatiable Revivalism. The testimony teller becomes a sort of shaman, slowly dancing around the details of a Christian upbringing gone wrong, hypnotizing the listeners with lascivious accounts of evil pleasures once drunk down like water. There are usually a few in any church who are able to wow and woo with tales of sleazy, drug-soaked nights and suicide attempts, which, inevitably, Jesus swooped in to stop just in time—usually with a let-out-your-breath “and now I’ve led 713 people to Christ and feed homeless folks almost every night LOL awesome” sort of ending. Cue the pinched-eye rededication prayers and low-light romance worship to Jesus (especially during youth group).
I had not given God permission to give me my first birth, and while I was busy railing against Him for it, He gave me my second.Despite its Revivalistic usefulness, the war-story conversion tale always seems to miss the punchline. Not only did Jesus swoop into my broken life and rescue me then, He has been doing so ever since. Our piety runs deep in evangelical circles. The person once sin-saturated and train-wrecked often moves by an undercurrent of expectation in church life—that the past is the past, that now you’re saved, and that Jesus already did His part now you do yours.
But the shattered life without Christ so often feels only slightly less shattered with Him.
Let the redeemed of Yahweh tell about it—those he redeemed from the hand of the enemy. (Ps. 107:2)
My parents were both hobbled by the colorful maelstrom of 1960s America. I find myself a little jealous of Dad for having lived around West Hollywood at the same time that Goldie Hawn (with whom he often shared a flirtatious chat) or Joni Mitchell (to whom he personally sold a new pair of Frye boots) walked those golden streets. Mom got to be a model in the ’70s and to pal around with the fashion crowds in NYC and beyond. The overthrow of the social order unbaptized them of old American Christendom and settled them into the mighty post-modern age of self-determinism. Both began following Christ in the early ’80s, long after the culture’s catechesis of agitation had gripped them.
As I grew into my own identity in the ’80s and ’90s, my first-generation-Christian parents passed along the bits of our ancient faith that could be found in evangelicalism, but its primeval power was obscured by a garment of flamboyant pop culture.
Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your decrees. (Ps. 119:83)
Keith Green’s blessed jangling filled our living room, while across the street other fathers left skin magazines around the house for us 8- or 10-year-old lads to handle. I heard the music of Zion sound out from both Pentecostal and Wesleyan houses of worship, and I heard the gangster rap of South-Central L.A. on local Top-40 radio (and the occasional smuggled cassette tape hidden under the bed—explicit lyrics and all!). I knew the tension between two worlds existing in one; I knew the call of each before I could explain their language.
Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. (Ps. 107:4)
The reality of the spiritual world was near in my conscience—I suppose as near as to anyone else—yet my ears seemed made with a slightly clearer tuning to its certainty and closeness. When demonic terrors would fill my dreams, my cries for Jesus’ help were actually met with angelic support within those dreams; and when my friends broke out a Ouija board, I wouldn’t so much as touch it. I spent summer nights in my top bunk reading C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia by a dim streetlamp through my window. I liked Aslan (not safe, but good), yet I departed from Lewis and identified with the plight of treacherous Edmund Pevensie.
They were hungry… (Ps. 107:5a)
Why was Edmund villainized for taking the Turkish Delight from the White Witch? Was it his fault that he had been pulled into the world of Narnia—and then directly confronted with a choice to either enjoy or else deny himself? Hadn’t Aslan ultimately created the witch and also her Turkish Delight? And why had God created me without my permission? What trick was this? Here I was, an otherwise average suburban schoolboy with well-meaning evangelical parents: one a Vietnam vet recovering from alcoholism, the other an ex-model who had accidentally become pregnant with me and had considered abortion as birth control… but who was to say I hadn’t wanted the saline solution in the womb?
…and thirsty… (Ps. 107:5b)
Not a single generation of teens has much resisted Jim Morrison’s zesty, convincing cries for existential liberation ever since Nietzsche’s monster ate him in a Paris bathtub one morning in July 1971. I joined his non-crusade alone in my basement bedroom, bobbing my head as Ray Manzarek deployed his organ through my outdated speakers, drowning out Keith Green’s calls for revival coming from upstairs in the distant living room. The inertia of the ’60s, now thirty years ago and fading, still drew me down toward that liberation, away from the calls of parents and pastors.
At first flash of Eden, we raced down to the sea / standing there on freedom’s shore…” (J. Morrison, “Waiting for the Sun”)
I knew better—they had had their chance to break off the chains of a sovereign, willful God. They had been the kids who had had their window in time by which to escape the spinning wheel of the conformed, sucker’s life. Here was normalcy; here was suburban life in America in 1997, working for security and material comforts, a.k.a. Francis Schaeffer’s “two horrible values.” I looked at the whole set up, angry as hell that a God above me had put me here below, inescapably bound to the rest of humanity as a slave of His will and power. Of course, my complaints were not so hoity-toity at the time; I was just ready to torch the whole thing over homework and house rules for the dinner table. Obligation to any but self was the curse as far as I could see. In my guts—in the place of the “hidden man”—I knew I had not asked to be born, and I wanted out.
…and their lives ebbed away… (Ps. 107:5b)
But not out to heaven, where He was… or to hell, where I would face the penalty for my sins, but to a middle-place. I wanted out of His system all together and sought to break my way through to it, whatever it would be—maybe plum insanity, or perhaps absolute non-existence—but God wouldn’t see me swallowing the whole box of Turkish Delight.
Then they cried out to Yahweh in their trouble… (Ps. 107:6a, author’s translation)
Jail wasn’t bad compared to outside life. It’s a place of complete boredom most days: a place of endless games of Spades, pushups, and trading snacks for hooch (or whatever else is going around), but it’s a place a man could get used to. Sitting in Erie County jail accused of four separate felonies, I received a gift: The woman who had pondered offing her child in the womb dropped a Bible for her inmate son. By force of seemingly endless time and boredom, I found my way by accident into the most digestible portion of Scripture and without having planned it in any way, began a daily habit of reading Psalms of repentance and rescue.
…and He delivered them from their distress. (Ps. 107:6b)
How that judge eventually allowed me to go to rehab instead of prison, I still don’t know. Yet before I left, and sometime right after my 21st birthday, I had been caught on Psalm 143 like a trout on a fly hook:
I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah (Ps. 143:6)
The Christian life is not so much triumph and a fairy-tale ending during testimony time, but rather a triumph already accomplished for me, being applied slowly, sometimes painfully… in me.I had never thirsted for God before; I had sometimes hoped He would rescue me, often I had prayed for some sort of deliverance for others, but never had my soul cracked open in its utter dryness, driving me to Him for water. This was some new trick of His, or something of His “deep magic,” for I had not given God permission to give me my first birth, and while I was busy railing against Him for it, He gave me my second.
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love… (Ps. 143:8a)
“Why are we serious about this program?” asked the little social worker wearing thick, round glasses. “Only three of you—statistically”—she paused on the effect—“will still be clean and sober by a year from now.” I looked around the smallish cafeteria at the other sixty-four patients, at my fellow addicts: I quickly swept across the sad, confused faces. I saw the smug try not to flinch as she locked eyes with them, I noticed the worried (many of whom had children somewhere waiting for them), I noted the numerous unshaved faces around me. I imagined that nearly every one of them would be locked into a crack pipe or a fifth of inexpensive vodka very soon—and I counted myself into the minority.
It wasn’t for some superpower within me that I knew I would fall on the side of the angels; I was perhaps among the most helpless of our little cadre of rehabbers.
…for I have put my trust in you. (Ps. 143:8b)
Even though the taste for intoxication was eradicated from every cell in my body through that new birth, an unfinished rant against God’s sovereignty festered in some sleeping corner of me. As John Piper points out, even the most sanctified are like a glass of water whose filth and sediment lies dormant on bottom until a good enough knock or swirl brings it up into the light again…
Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities. (Ps. 107:17)
I had been set on the countertop to settle and to calm. I had experienced a radical conversion—where’s the nearest youth group meeting so I can give my testimony?! I worked normal jobs, got a bachelor’s degree, and even led a college student ministry. Heck, I went on short-term mission trips, even helping clean up New Orleans after Katrina. After almost a decade of honeymooning in Christ(ianity), and as one whose soul was well-watered, my piety ran deep and impressive. Though I was the belle of every Sunday morning’s ball, the would-be autonomous creature within me realized a sort of resurrection. I asked my darling Danielle to marry me, but this was to be the occasion of introducing her to one of those “inner child” brutes we always hear about—one who would either get his way or break something in protest. By whatever shred of wisdom I possessed at the time, I didn’t know the depth of self-serving determination within myself; I who had empathized with Edmund Pevensie, who had wished away my existence along with Jim Morrison.
Try to run, try to hide, break on through to the other side…” (J. Morrison, “Break on through to the Other Side”)
Perhaps the idea of marriage had been something of a panacea in my mind and in my prayers. It wasn’t my thick, shining devoutness that drew God’s granting of a wife, but rather His intense parental love and covenant faithfulness.
He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. (Ps. 107:9)
I had become a respectable, upstanding citizen out from the dregs of society. College was behind me, I had traveled to see some of the world, and people generally liked me. I was blending into the nice pastel background of American evangelicalism, voting conservative, praying for the troops, and making mother proud. Never mind that I had been in the protective sphere of Christian bubbledom, filled by lovely, yet conveniently two-dimensional Christian friendships. Since I had left my last of three rehab centers years before, most of my talk of Christlike love and service to others had been in the sweet, sweet realm of theory.
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground. (Ps. 143:10)
And so God gave me a would-be wife. He gave me another real human being; she was not to be an aspect of my intensely personal, existential Christianity, she wasn’t even to be a helpmate in getting my personal platform to broaden, my brand to sweeten, my success to dilate on the lucrative evangelical scene. Danielle was to be a real person, standing before me as one for whom Christ bled and died, an actual, infinitely valuable human person for whom I would be called into self-sacrifice. It was a perfect time and occasion to have control wrenched from my hands, and by means of the simplest, most natural needs of a woman who is being asked to invest all of her trust and life into the hands of a man, out came the old wretch, screaming and gnashing teeth.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. (Ps. 51:5–6)
In those dark days and nights when I hit the brick wall of dying to self for another—when we broke off the engagement, when I wondered aloud in prayers of anger if God was just tricking me as revenge for my former fist-shaking invectives—He was actually digging down below the surface(s) of what American evangelicalism tends to build. He was pulling back my fingers from holding down the deeper places of depravity I had never actually fathomed.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps. 51:7)
One Edmund Pevensie at a time, Christ is building His Church, yet He will not be content with a fine flock of Republican do-gooders with spaceship church buildings. He will not let a man wander among the wasteland of the American Dream© after the war story is over and the Christian life has begun. And in that deep magic of His—in that terribly wise and sovereign way He has of getting what He wants—He showed how little control I really have over even my temper-tantrum rebellions. After a scorching season of embarrassing childishness and counseling, He did give me Danielle back, this time for good as my wife and best friend—but even better, He made me love Him, that old sovereign rascal—yet He may even do it all over again. If there were depths of depravity yet unseen in 2010, perhaps there is an even greater pocket of selfishness He wants dead in me this year, or in 2025. The Christian life is not so much triumph and a fairy-tale ending during testimony time, but rather a triumph already accomplished for me, being applied slowly, sometimes painfully… in me. There’s hope even for the best of us.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Ps. 51:8–10)