To tell a story many times we reference other stories so that the common and well-known story will help others relate to what we are saying. Stories have a way of telling us something about ourselves and teaching us truths in a way that pure factual dictation never could. So, as I thought about telling my story I found that it was inextricably linked to stories that have meant a lot to me. From a very early age I was captured by the power of story and its ability to affect me deeply and as I look over my life I can see how God has been using these stories to teach me something about myself that I could not seem to learn any other way. He allowed them to come into my life and build a foundation that would make his gospel make more sense to me.
You might laugh, but the overarching story that resonates in my life is Titanic. I am not talking about Kate and Leo on the front of a ship shouting at the wind, I am talking about the tragedy of an ocean liner that was supposed to be unsinkable and yet sunk anyway. My life is a lot like this, I had everything going for me, I was raised in a Christian home, became a believer at the age of 5, I was sheltered from the world through home-schooling (insert any jokes here about awkwardness you want) and I never struggled with drugs or alcohol. Yet in all of this seeming goodness, I was lost; I did not know how to grow in my faith (I believe that God saved me at this age, the gift to believe was given to me by the Holy Spirit and even though there were times as I grew up, where I wanted to leave the faith, I never could. In the end nothing else could explain or makes sense of the world for me, I believe that this was the Holy Spirit’s protecting me), I never was tutored or mentored in the gospel. For me, being a Christian amounted to moralistic Deism; God was there and he saved me, but after that I needed to perform to keep and earn his love. This is what Sunday-school learning and church teaching seemed to be telling me.
On my 8th birthday, a life-changing event occurred; my friends and I watched all three Original Trilogy Star Wars movies in one night. Yes the geek in me was born very early. What is interesting is that to this point I was in love with non-fiction stories, Titanic, The Alamo, WWII and many others were my main source of enjoyment, but Star Wars changed all of that. With its epic, galactic story about good and evil, I was hooked. The spiritual elements of the story influenced me as well. Now, I am not saying that I was won over to eastern philosophy, but the fact that there was a spiritual side to the story left an indelible mark on me. As look back now I can see how God was showing me that story can teach powerful truths; in fact, most of Scripture is the story of humanity told through the lives of individuals and nations and each of them speak mightily into the shared experience of all of us. Stories make things personal and God desperately wants us to know that the gospel is about our being personally connected with him.
Star Wars had a direct impact on my picking up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was longing for more grand and heroic stories. Picking up this book changed my life, I became an avid reader of fiction from that point on and it is still my favorite book. The mark that this story left on me was the way in which Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund. He has done nothing to earn this “salvation”, Aslan’s love for Edmund causes Edmond to turn from evil and love Aslan back. This dimly reflected the gospel for me, and it laid the foundation for what was to come.
There is a big gap for me in my story education. I moved into my teenage years and drifted further from the faith. Oh I was trying hard, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. Familial issues of trying to earn love had poisoned my understanding of God. I was lost trying to prove myself worthy and devastated by the falls. The disillusionment grew to the point of me becoming two people, one for the church crowd and the other for world. I pretended to be the good little church boy, all the while diving into the pit of lust and the desperate need to be loved accepted and known. I looked to women and sex to fill this desire and when it didn’t depression set. I was driven to the point of suicide. I did not want to live anymore because nothing in the world could seem to fill the void. Realizing I needed help I looked back to God and medication(prescription anti-depressants). A friend gave me a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel and for the first time an author spoke my language. He spoke of brokenness and failure and the reality of never feeling good enough for God. Manning showed me that God did love me, even when I was a complete screw-up. My understanding of the pure gospel was refined at this point but not fully.
I was still dealing heavily the idols that I had set up in my life. I truly worshiped the idea of relationships and romantic love, I believed as so many movies and stories tell us that I would not be complete until I had “the one”. There was also still this idea of pleasing God and making him love me more. I believed there was no better way to do this than go into ministry. So I set out to make these things happen. I got married, not long after my own parents had divorced and a couple of years later left Dallas for seminary in Minnesota. I had everything that I believed that I wanted. All of my idols were on the shelf and gleaming in the light of newly being fulfilled. Then it all fell apart. What I was worshiping could not sustain me or truly give me what I need. So I began desperately searching for something better to replace the obviously deficient idols. I tried to find the better woman and the more fulfilling career, but searching for things left me empty. A friend gave me the book The Sparrow and I immediately identified with it. It is the story of a priest and his friends who go on a mission to another planet to discover the source of the music SETI has picked up. It brings up the question, what do you do when you follow the calling you believe God has given you and then everything goes horribly wrong? How do you cope? What becomes of your faith? Was it God you were following or an idol? The story left me with the hope that I was not alone; others had asked these questions and it was ok for me to do so. I just didn’t know how God would answer.
I moved home after seminary with a masters and a divorce. Much of me had been crushed and yet I was still fighting for my idols. I know, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, but I continued to plug away. Working at Barnes & Noble I was surrounded by books full of stories. I came across a book that peaked my interest it was called Christian Atheist. The book opened my eyes to the way that I was living. I said that I believed in God but that belief did not have much impact on my daily life. I was still working to be a more moral person, not necessarily someone who was moving into deeper relationship with Christ. The gospel was being opened to me in a way that I had not heard before.
Home and Prodigal God both furthered my gospel education. Home is all about the black sheep in a family and his question of whether or not he is destined to always be the screw-up or if he can come home again. This drove straight to one of my most painful wounds; how could God love me and accept me after all that I had done and was there any hope of change?
Tim Keller helped me see the prodigal son parable in a whole new way. I had been hurt by the self-righteous “older brother” types in the church many times They had driven deep arrows into my heart, underscoring my feelings of inadequacy before God and the impossibility of ever truly making God happy with me. I was never going to live up to God’s standards and many “older brothers” had made sure I knew it. Yet Keller shows how this parable is about the sons, not just the son. Each one of these boys has left the father and gone their own way, one tries to live life his way and the other tries to earn salvation in his power; each missing the free gift that is being offer to them.
Gospel, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, The Explicit Gospel are the culmination of my story so far. God had primed me through the subtle spirituality of Star Wars, the sacrifice of Aslan, the love God has for ragamuffins, the truth that God cares even for the sparrow, the futility of saying I believe in God yet not having that belief impact my life and the hope for a black sheep to run back into the arms of grace. Its grace stupid; God grace. It’s not about what I can do because in and of myself I can do nothing (and I have tried so hard), I can never live up, all that moralism is filthy rags to God and leads ultimately to self-righteousness (which is utterly useless) or depression or and early death. Each of these books opened up the gospel for me in a way I could finally understand and hear. Each one had laid a foundation that allowed it to click and make sense more fully and deeply when the Holy Spirit opened my heart to the explicit, crazy/love of the gospel.
There is nothing that I can do to make God love any more or any less. It is through Christ and his work that I am made new and whole (Romans 5:1-11). This is the last story that has had a major impact lately, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In this story Eustace, a very self-righteous and disagreeable lad is turned into a dragon because of his greed. He literally becomes the embodiment of his self-righteousness and it is ugly. He tries desperately to undo it, to scrape off the skin he now lives in, but to no avail, he cannot dig deep enough. It is only when Aslan comes and “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.” God showed me that it is though Jesus and his work only that I am made new
Christ has not just saved me from something but to something, freedom. Freedom to be the fullest and best version of me, the version he created me to be not the perversion that I had been trying to create (Galatians 5:1-6). I am called to abide in Christ, to be rooted in him and his love and his love are his commands. You see, I thought of commands as something that hindered me from doing something I wanted or would be fun. I never fully trusted that God would give me what I wanted. I held so tightly and I trusted only myself to provide for the deepest longings of my heart. Again and again I tried to get what I want, all the time trying to earn God’s love through “moral living”, yet my pursuit of idols led to immoral living and therefore never living up to the standard that I believed God had for me. Jesus lays it out in John 15. He calls me to abide in his love and obey his commands; and as I look closely, his love and his commands are one in the same. For loves sake he has given me the way to navigate life that will lead to ultimate joy, fulfillment, peace and identity if I let go of myself and my desire to chase after the cheap thrills of fast-food dreams and one-night let downs. That doesn’t sound like someone who wants to hinder my life and existence but someone who truly wants my best. This is why David can say that he delights in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night; he’s not some kind of sadist, he realizes that God’s commands are his love they are love itself. His love will be our joy and fulfillment if we will abide in and follow his love, since he knows what it best for us; being the creator of the universe and all.
So God is calling me to rest in his gospel and to dive deeper into his love by abiding in a way of life that will bring me closer into relationship with him, those he brings into my life and the world at large. I will never move beyond the gospel, but as Jewel the unicorn says in The Last Battle, “Come further up, come further in!”