The following is the 4th installment in a series of posts where I am seeking to tell the story of the start of my Christian life. If interested in getting caught up, here is Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
At the beginning of my 4th year at the University of Tennessee God radically changed my heart and immediately made it clear that this change would now be surfacing in my life whether I wanted it to or not. During those early days I waffled between pure joy and an embarrassing amount of timidity. The Lord was near and my heart was full. He had taken my burdens, forgiven my sins, and granted me peace overflowing. But at the same time I had to live the Christian life out in the open among my peers, which was frankly terrifying. It seems relatively small now, but it is hard to properly emphasize the difficulty of this transition for me at the time. For a 21 year old college student who had been deeply entrenched in all that can go wrong in the fraternity and sorority scene, I knew that my scene had to change. Again, it’s not that I necessarily wanted to get away from these friends, but I knew I had to. I knew that I did not possess the strength to continue in the same circles and at the same time live a life of obedience to God. I was too sinful, too weak. And in the short term this left me pretty much alone. Granted, I still had friends and family, and as previously mentioned I connected with some of the Christian guys in my fraternity the night after God changed me, but they were connected to the fraternity and the fraternity was my kryptonite. This left me meaningfully connected with almost no-one who was all-in on living as a Christian. I had been to church very little over the previous 5+ years (one time that I can recall in Knoxville to that point), and as a result was almost completely disconnected from the Christian community, especially in Knoxville. Some of my earliest phone calls were to people like my parents and my youth pastor from years prior back in Memphis, who while they provided encouragement were living 375 miles away. What I wanted and needed more than anything was a people to worship and pray with. I needed a Christian family to live the Christian life with, but I didn’t really know where to start. Thankfully, the Lord was going to slowly introduce me to a segment of His family that would make it all possible.
No one was more important in my first year as a Christian than my dear friend Wes. Within days of my conversion I remembered having seen something Wes had posted about Jesus on Facebook. He had made the post months prior and at the time it was posted I didn’t think much about it (other than the fact that he was probably high… if I was the 2nd to last guy someone expected to start following Jesus, Wes would have been the last). But when the Lord reminded me of it, I wrote Wes a Facebook message to let him know what God had done in my life and that I would love to meet up. He responded that he would pick me up for church on Wednesday night (guess he wasn’t high after all).
That Wednesday Wes took me to the Eternal Life Harvest Center, a predominantly black church around the corner from the UT campus pastored by a former drug dealer. A year prior, soon after God radically changed Wes’ heart in an empty church on the Katrina ravaged MS Gulf Coast, he had seen Pastor James Davis on a Knoxville TV station. Wes was likewise removed from any Christian community at the time, so he showed up for church and they took him in as their own. I had never been in a black church before, but I am regularly thankful that ELHC is where I spent my first couple months as a Christian. For one, I was bursting with gratitude and passion for the Lord and the black church provided an opportunity to express that passion in a way that was unlike anything I had ever known. From where I sit now, I would differ with these brothers and sisters on some theological issues, but for many reasons I thank God that is where he started me.
A few days later Wes introduced me to Paul (for those who have been reading the whole story, this is the same mountaineering nature photographer who would later almost kill me white water kayaking). I still remember the day I met Paul – where I was standing and the way he embraced me as a brother in Christ. I had never met anyone like him – had never seen anyone as full of Christian joy – and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t. That night I went with Wes and Paul and Will and Mark and Tomi to Crossroad, an enormous Monday night college ministry that met at Fellowship Church on the other side of town. At that time there were probably 750 18-25 year olds meeting together every Monday night for 45 minutes of singing + 45 minutes of teaching from a pastor at the church named Greg. Crossroad is where God really began to heal me and grow me. I still don’t think I have ever enjoyed worshiping in song as much as I did those Monday nights. And Greg’s Bible teaching provided ice water for my parched soul and a foundation for my life and ministry that I will forever be grateful for.
Then there was Rick. Rick is a retired Air Force Colonel who has invested his life for years in the high school and college students of Knoxville. He is one of the most able and persistent connector of people I have ever known. After God saved me, Rick was instrumental in further connecting me with the body of Christ in Knoxville, and especially in giving me my first ministry opportunities with The Cross Ministry (which we will save for another post).
One of the people Rick connected me with was a different Paul, another former Rush Chairman of a rival fraternity that had a similar conversion experience as I did. Paul and his brother Daniel became close friends, along with Daniel’s now wife, Kendel. And most importantly, it was through my relationship with Paul and Daniel and Kendel, and through my connection with The Cross, that I reconnected with Tiffany, who I had known before coming to Christ. The development of our relationship will likewise need to be saved for a further post, but for now let’s just say that 10 years of marriage and 4 kids later, other than salvation in Christ Tiffany is the greatest gift God has given to me.
What’s more, I reconnected with friends like Sam and Hunter and Michael, guys that I grew up in church with – guys that I had walked away from in high school – who were so gracious in inviting me back into the fold. Then there was Steve and Forest, Tim, Drew, David, Chandler, Teddy. The list could go on and on. It is amazing to look back at those early days of the Christian life, to remember how scared I was – how unsure of God’s provision I was – but how faithful and how over-the-top He was in providing a Christian family.
Two things I will leave you with here:
First, in those early days I was a bit like Abraham when God called him to leave his pagan family and homeland in order to travel to a new land and begin God’s new family. Granted, Abraham’s role in the history of redemption is far greater than mine, but the Father of Faith believed God and followed him, as did I. And while I didn’t have to leave town, I did have to leave my old life and walk into the new one that God had prepared for me, which was incredibly difficult. So it is for every Christian who is saved as an adult out of an unbelieving context. Of course, everyone is an unbeliever before they truly believe, but for many they are raised in the church and/or a Christian home and come to true faith in Christ without ever having traveled to a “faraway land” like I did. I hope and pray and labor toward the goal that this is my children’s and grandchildren’s story – that they believe young and live their whole lives in God’s pasture. But for someone like me who does venture far away, or for someone who was born outside of the community of God’s people and finds their way in for the first time in adulthood, leaving the faraway land and coming home to the Lord and his people, though it is glorious it is no cakewalk.
Second, the body of Christ is absolutely necessary for growth in Christ. In other words, it is impossible for someone to grow as a Christian while being disconnected from the church. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, I think of Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned for years for his faith, tortured in a Romanian Communist prison during the middle of the 20th century. He was disconnected from the rest of the body of Christ, but God sustained him. Yet the normative path for growth in the Christian life is to be meaningfully connected with God’s people in the local church and the broader Christian community. The church is the body of Christ and to be disconnected from the church is to be disconnected from Christ himself. Not that they are one in the same, but you cannot have Jesus without his body any more than I can be married to my wife without her body (which would be horrible by the way, but I digress). Christ’s body has many members. Let’s say you are a hand. How does a hand do when it is cut off from the body? It dies. Or it is preserved until it can be reconnected. But for many Christians in our nation, where spirituality is cool and individuality is king, we have bought the lie that as long as I have a personal relationship with Jesus I am A OK. That is simply not a Biblical position and the health of the average Christian in our nation reflects it. I understand that not all churches are good churches and it can be hard to find a faithful place (especially in our day when much of the Christian church in our nation is unhealthy, and perhaps even more of it is desperately sick). But for the Christian it has to be at the top of the priority list. God has reserved grace upon grace for his people that he intends to distribute through his people.
“… when (God) raised (Jesus) from the dead he seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”Ephesians 1:20-23
photo by Scott MacInnis Photography