The Prologue: When my mother was pregnant with me, she experienced the anxiety of some mothers as they awaited the coming of their first child. Whether it was a physical fear or an emotional one isn’t clear to me, but what is clear to me is that my mother had a very real experience of God speaking to her, telling her that God had a plan for me. It’s a story I didn’t hear until I was in my twenties, but it begs the question, what is it that God had in mind for me to accomplish, and have I accomplished it yet?
The Purpose: If you’ve been reading the blog, you probably know that I’m a sinner saved by grace, a son, a husband, a father, a friend, a minister, a movie critic, and a sports fan. But how I got here is possibly more interesting than where I am, and too often, I’ve failed to tell that story. Call it my testimony, or my life story, or a boring blog post by someone with too much time. [I actually think it gets “good” in seminary, in the next section, but that’s besides the point.]
Recently, I found myself in one of those “aha” (and “of course”) conversations. It revolved around the disinterest by many people toward organized religion, coupled with the fact that most people are interested in the stories behind why a person chooses faith, with the startling caveat that people of faith are not inclined to tell their story. I resolved to tell my story of faith more… and shelved the idea for several months. But I’m not putting it off any longer…
The Story: I was raised in a conservative, evangelical, Protestant Christian home in Rhode Island (and no, that’s not a New York borough). Those aren’t “tags” I understood as a child, sitting around the living room, reading appropriate Bible stories before breakfast every day. But they’re the descriptors that defined my understanding of faith in a loving environment where right and wrong were black and white, where church was an all-day Sunday and Wednesday night thing, where prayer, Scripture, and “what would Jesus do?” were integrated in every aspect of life. There was no Sunday faith versus rest-of-the-week: it was all unified in “this is how to live.”
Looking back, I wonder how I might have met God if I been raised in Pakistan, or Siberia. It’s pretty shocking to have been raised Protestant in the Roman Catholic center of the universe (what, you thought it was the Vatican??) But for me, I met Yahweh God through my parents and the loving community of Portsmouth Evangelical Friends Church. My parents were still members of the Church of the Brethren, and the PEFC met in a Quaker Meeting House (and I wouldn’t join a church until I was in my late twenties), but denominationalism wasn’t as important as having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Being a member didn’t matter as much as worshipping God in community did to my parents, and the importance of that wasn’t lost on me.
My parents placed a heavy emphasis on reading the Bible, and we prayed every morning and every night. Sunday School was a fun place, full of learning and community, and its importance still shows up in the way I prioritize discipleship and small groups in my ministry today. I can see the people who led classes or youth group through my early years, and they’re “a cloud of witnesses” that helped nurture my early understanding of faith.
I also met God through the men who had devoted themselves to God through the monastery at Portsmouth Abbey School as Benedictine monks, and the community around them. Growing up as a teacher’s kid at a private Catholic school, there was an insulated bubble on one hand and a wide-open world of new people, traditions, and nationalities to meet. As I grew older, I received my faithful education at home, at school, and at church. You could call me a Christian “mutt,” or just say I was ecumenical! There’s a cool picture my parents have of my baptism in the ocean by our pastor when I was seven, with a group of monks in the crowd on the shore.
It was just one more example of how I was always swimming in a different direction than my peers. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I was the oldest “kid” in the youth group, but I saw that as my responsibility to set a good example; throughout high school, I was one of a few Protestants I knew at the Abbey, while the majority of my peers were either Catholic by choice or Catholic by their parents’ decision. But that distinction, the fact that I went willingly to church with my family every Sunday while many of my peers either didn’t attend or went because they were forced to wasn’t lost on me. That begs another question: when can we decide for ourselves that we believe? When can we experience justifying grace, moving past prevenient grace? (For my non-Methodist readers, I’ll briefly cover those types in the next installment: “Why I Am A Methodist.”)
High school was a time of being sharpened, not by forces outside the church, but in terms of why I didn’t pray to Mary or believe in transubstantiation. I learned much about the Catholic faith that I didn’t appreciate then but that I appreciate now, studying under Dom Caedmon, Dom Edmund, and Dom Paschal. Their faith wasn’t casual but completely immersed: they lived life, and work, and faith, day-by-day and side-by-side with their peers and those entrusted to their care.
When the time came, I left home to explore a path aimed at a law degree through the University of Richmond. Then, it was a school associated with the Baptist church, I like to say that I’d read too many John Grisham novels, and that all of the pro bono work looked mighty attractive. But my experience at Richmond forced me to consider what I believed for myself and what I believed because my parents had taught it to me. I was surrounded by secular pessimism, and in particular, a core requirement class teacher who proposed that everything I knew as truth was “only” story. (Later, I would come to understand the Bible as truth and story, but she challenged that it was only the second, daring any Christians to enter into verbal combat, not dialogue.)
During my freshman year, I recognized that there were issues and situations I would not approach the same way as my parents’ faith dictated, but I found that what I had held at the core since I can remember was still what I believed. Things like:
-That God had intentionally created the world, and all people, out of God’s absolute love that had to be shared with sentient beings who could choose to love God or not.
-That God recognized that we could not save ourselves, and so chose to send the one and only Son to live with us incarnationally, and to die on the cross as a one-and-only sacrifice for my sins (and everyone else’s).
-That God will come again to fulfill the promise of our world, that God is working in our world right now, and that those two pieces work together to make God’s kingdom a now and not yet.
These fundamental statements continued to drive my sense of myself in college, and later seminary, but set the stage for who I have become and am becoming. It’s been a nuanced journey, not a sudden or greatly contrasted one, but it’s mine. What’s your story? Why do you believe what you believe? I fundamentally believe that everyone believes something, even if they don’t have a name for it!
Next week: “Why I Am A Pastor” or “How Seminary Ruined My Life, and Made Me A Better Person“