Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Christian Conversion and Faith

John Loftus in his book Why I Became and Atheist recommends that every Christian apologist write a book about how he got to where he is in his faith. I would extend that to every atheist apologist, as well. John's story sets a good pattern for us all of the examined life. So here's my story.

   I grew up in a home where religion was never mentioned. It was not that my mother and family were irreligious. Religion was just not important. My grandmother attended the little Methodist church in our town on a rare Easter Sunday - actually I remember that only once. I was a kid seven or eight years old, and I found her attendance, all dressed up as she was, interesting but not enough to ask her about it. My mother and father never went to church or talked about it while I was in the home.

     I do not remember ever reading the Bible as a kid. There was one in our home. It was a thin gold-leaf-page Bible that had gone through a flood in 1948 and was all wrinkled, as books that get wet are wont to be. I found it tucked away in some box down in the basement. The type was tiny and the translation was almost assuredly King James and incomprehensible to me. I did not  read more than a few sentences.

     Christianity was in the distant background but so distant that it had no influence on me. I was happy to roam the hills and fish the river behind my grandfather's house. And do what kids do.

     However, as a very young teen I was looking for a job. I wanted to eventually buy a car - every boy in my generation did. My mother connected me with a man whom she had known for a long time who had an apple orchard. He hired me to thin apples for several summers.

     I made enough to buy the car, a 51' Chevy, before I was old enough to have a license.

     I also began to go to Sunday school. My employer was the boys Sunday school teacher and had invited me. It was a little strange. The old church building interested me, but the stories were, well, odd. In the several summers when I attended Sunday school I do not remember ever hearing about a personal faith. I don't remember ever hearing what I came later to understand as the gospel. I hardly heard about God, at least, in my memory.

     The gospel is the story of Jesus and the fact that he came into the world as God's Son to provide salvation for all who trusted in him. I simply never hear that. I don't think I ever heard about salvation. The stories I heard were all Old Testament stories.

     I was thinking about my future. I wanted to be a forest ranger. I loved the outdoors, and I wanted to spend as much of my life there as I could. But things changed.

     My mother and father were divorced, and my mother struggled to make a living for herself and three kids as a waitress and bar maid. So when she had the opportunity to go to school to learn flower arranging, she did. I and my siblings were sent to live for a few months with an aunt and uncle.

My Conversion
My aunt and uncle had recently become Christians, and they had decided to send their sons to a Christian school. I and my siblings were enrolled with them. It was there that I was first introduced to the Bible and to the gospel. I was fourteen.

     In a chapel service in  September of that year I listened to a man tell the gospel story. It was the first time it really clicked. It made sense, and it made sense out of my life. I wouldn't have been able to express it at the time, but I was having an existential crisis. I was puzzled about who I was, what life was about, and where it all was going. The message I heard convinced me that I could find that in a relationship with God.

     I raised my hand at the invitation.

     Nothing radical happened. I did not have an emotional experience. I did not find my conversion experience exciting. But then I am not a guy who gets excited much. I did find it satisfying. It was as if I had finally found answers to the questions that were running around in my head. I, of course, didn't know all the answers yet. I didn't even know the questions. That would come in time. But I was satisfied that this was the right way.

     It was really several years before I felt any great emotion about my becoming a Christian. But I had become a Christian. I had made a radical change and had committed myself to follow Jesus wherever that led.

     So, I determined to find out where it would lead. I bought a Bible I could read, a Philips New Testament in Modern English, and I began to read. It made sense. I underlined and wrote short notes in the margin. I still have that Bible, though the covers are long gone and the pages brittle with age.

     And I began to grow in my faith and in my relationship with God. I found my happiness in him. I began to pray, though somewhat haphazardly. And I began to sense a direction for my life.

     By the time I was a senior, I felt God was calling me to be a pastor. Really, I hardly knew what that meant. But I loved the Bible and wanted to share what I was discovering. My spiritual gift for teaching was beginning to poke through the soil of my life.

I enrolled in a Christian college after high school and attended part time for three years. I couldn't afford full time. I had no financial help from my family and no reserves myself. I had to work.

     During those years I studied the Bible, of course, but also Greek. That was tough because I was not a great student in high school and had learned little about English. In order to understand Greek, I found I needed to understand English first. So the first few years were hard. But I loved it.

     In 1964 I married my wife. We had gone to high school together and had both gone on to Portland to study, she in a school of nursing and I in college. We struggled financially. So I finally transferred to Portland State University where tuition was manageable.

I was still headed toward seminary, but that was a few years off.

I choose to study English literature, and that was one of the more important decisions I have made. Understanding how to read literature has been invaluable in reading and understanding the Bible.

Crisis of Faith
Along with English I took various courses as we all have to do. One was a beginning philosophy course that turned into more of a philosophy of religion course. My professor was John Whitehead. (I have no idea if he was related to A. N. Whitehead.) His objective, it seemed to me, was to identify the Christians in his class and building doubt in our minds about their faith.

     He was good at it, though a little deceptive. He posed questions for us that he must have known were fairly easily answered but which we as young students had no idea how to answer. I don't know how the other Christians fared. I was troubled. I had in the back of my mind always committed to know the truth no matter what. Now, what I thought was true was being seriously challenged.

     But that was good. It made me think and study.

     About the same time I picked up a book called The Passover Plot. It was an additional challenge. I was beginning to doubt. A year later I was sure that I should not go on into seminary and the pastorate. I was not strong in my faith, and my relationship with the Lord was suffering. So I added a year of study to my B.A. degree and took up teaching.

Out of college I took a teaching position in a small school in the mountains of eastern Oregon. I loved it. And the two years there in that tiny town were the turning point for me.

     I had not stopped attending church. And in the tiny mountain town I continued to go to a small community church in this mountain town. I continued to think and pray,. and I continued to read the Bible. Sometime in those two years I came to a passage in the book of Lamentations that God used to change my life again.

     No one who knows Lamentations would imagine that there would be anything there so powerful. But there was for me.

The passage was Lamentations 3. If you take the time to read it you will see why it seemed written especially for me.

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
    by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
2 He has driven me away and made me walk
    in darkness rather than light;
3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
    again and again, all day long.
4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
    and has broken my bones.
5 He has besieged me and surrounded me
    with bitterness and hardship.
6 He has made me dwell in darkness
    like those long dead.
7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
    he has weighed me down with chains.
8 Even when I call out or cry for help,
    he shuts out my prayer.
9 He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
    he has made my paths crooked.
10 Like a bear lying in wait,
    like a lion in hiding,
11 he dragged me from the path and mangled me
    and left me without help.
12 He drew his bow
    and made me the target for his arrows.
13 He pierced my heart
    with arrows from his quiver.
14 I became the laughingstock of all my people;
    they mock me in song all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitter herbs
    and given me gall to drink.
16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
    he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
    I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
    and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

31 For no one is cast off
    by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
    so great is his unfailing love.

It was a true word from the Lord for me. Tears came to my eyes when I realized that God was still pursuing me even in my doubt.

The Road Back
I left the job in eastern Oregon and found my way into a job in photography. That eventually led to my buying a studio and diving into the business of photography. I also was getting more involved in my church. I led studies and led worship at times. And I was growing, but I still had a struggle.

     That struggle was with a temptation that had plagued me for years and over which I had not gotten victory. I was confused and troubled. Did God not provide salvation from those things? 

     Then I picked up a book that changed my life again, Sit, Walk, Stand  by Chinese Christian Watchman Nee. Reading that book, which is a discussion of Ephesians, I discovered how to sit with Christ in heavenly places and how to walk in him in the practical everyday of life, and how to stand against the forces of spiritual darkness. From that point God began calling me back to the path leading to ministry.

     I knew, however, that I still lacked something. God led me to recognize that something that was missing was prayer. I prayed, as most Christians do, but I knew that my prayer life was not what I read of others. And because of that, my experience of God was not what it could be. I committed my self to explore prayer and began with a book by another author who has become a favorite, Andrew Murray. The first book I read of his, With Christ in the School of Prayer, revolutionized my praying. And it was the final step.

     My wife and I closed our photography  business and I headed to seminary at Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

More Doubt
Three years later I was serving a small church in a mountain and cow town in eastern Oregon. But I was still not done with doubt. I had been by default a card carrying Young Earth Creationist - by default because I had never really explored the topic of creation versus evolution. But I  picked up a book by Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watch Maker, and I found myself troubled again. I had made the commitment to follow truth wherever it led, and this seemed to be leading away from some pretty core things I had believed.

     So I argued with Dawkins. The Internet was new in town, so I argued with various people on Internet forums. I read books on both sides of the debate, the Christian side and the scientific side. I bought more books. I argued. I read scientific papers. I argued.  I read text books in molecular biology. And I read Dawkins' conclusion of the matter in The God Delusion

     I finally came to the place where I saw that evolution did not really impact my faith. It was interesting, and some like Dawkins spin it to mean for them that God is absent or unimportant. For me it was evolution that was unimportant. If God created by fiat in six days or over a period of 14 billion years, it did not matter. He created. That seemed adequately demonstrated. I was now an Old Earth Creationist.

   And that is where I am now. I continue to read. That takes me to several blogs that argue skepticism and atheism. I read books, the latest being Why I Became an Atheist. I continue to test the things I believe. And I continue to adjust when the evidence is compelling. But I find less and less that is compelling.

   I am satisfied that I am in the truth as much as I can be. I am satisfied with my personal life with the Lord, and I am finding that is deepening and changing as I age. But I am concerned about those who are on the path but back a ways. That is what leads me to teach and write. I want to help young people through the doubt if that is possible.

   Now on in the next installment to what will be the Insider's Test of Faith. 

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