Second Thoughts on MLK Day

I wrote a post on Monday about how it feels to see Dr. King’s words, ideas, hopes, and dreams become so trite and meaningless in today’s world.

This isn’t titled “second thoughts” because I’ve changed my mind. That sense of mourning, of lamentation, is still present in my thoughts when I think of Dr. King.

But, something occurred to me after writing the post on Monday. It’s something that Dr. King said, something that’s so powerful, but that tends to get lost in the litany of inspirational quotes.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

After a little bit of research, I found that this quote is not original to Dr. King (nor did he claim authorship.) The context in which he placed the quote bears repeating.

Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

Dr. King wrote those words in an article in 1958. He would be assassinated only 10 years later.

Did he believe those ideas as he struggled on through the next decade? Did he hold onto the hope that all things would eventually resolve into justice? As he and his friends and followers were beaten, imprisoned, defamed, and murdered, did he believe that “truth crushed to earth will rise again?”

I don’t know for certain that he held onto his hope, his faith, his optimism. But, a speech that he delivered shortly before his death suggests it.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

He gave that speech the night before his death.

So, if Dr. King could believe, after a decade of abuse and struggle, that progress would continue, that the arc of the moral universe really would bend towards justice, then a man as privileged as I am can believe the same.

Frustration has its place. Mourning and lamentation have their place. But, after all has passed away, faith, hope and love remain.

We live in such amazing times. Even though our times are sometime dark, there are thousands upon thousands of bright lights. We have groups like Black Lives Matter, who are willing to continue crying in the wilderness, regardless of the voices raised against them. We have ministers, actors, comedians, and all kinds of public figures who use their fame and fortunes as a platform to bring attention to injustice. We have a President who continues to eloquently and boldly speak to our national sins of racism and injustice.

And, we have millions of individuals on social media who are educating, advocating, and demanding that this generation be the last one to see the evils of racism and injustice in our country.

So, I’m more hopeful today than I was on Monday. Because, no matter how complacent we have become in America, we are still the Sleeping Giant that can be awakened to justice. We are still capable of progress.

But, I need to temper my optimism, my hope, with a little bit of a warning. I mentioned that the “arc of the moral universe” quote did not originate with Dr. King. The quote came from a Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker. He was a 19th century Transcendentalist and abolitionist. In 1853, a book was published of 10 of his sermons. The third sermon, titled “Of Justice and the Conscience”, contains this passage:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

We must not be complacent for long. We must remember that God is just.

 

Michael Brian Woywood

Blogging When You Don’t Want To: An MLK Post for 2016

Rachel Held Evans is much cooler than I am.

I don’t say that in jest, or sarcastically, or in any way other than true admiration (and a small bit of jealousy.) RHE has been publishing really stellar posts since she was… in the womb, probably. She’s really the reason that I started in the Christian blogosphere. In fact, if they are talking about early millenial Christian writing 50 years from now – when they’re reading RHE, Benjamin Corey, Sarah Bessey, and John Pavlovitz in churches and seminary classrooms – I just hope to be in the “Also Ran” category of Christian blogging of the decade.

Granted, you don’t get into Internet blogging – especially Christian blogging – for the money, fame, or beautiful women. You start writing a blog because you have always written stuff, and suddenly there’s a gigantic bullhorn called the Internet where you can post the stuff that you write. So, you get a website, you start pounding out posts, maybe you take a six month break and reevaluate your commitment to blogging… but, it’s always about the message, the ideas, not who reads them.

The problem is that you have days like today. Today is MLK Day in the United States.  And, while I personally love this day, and observe it as thoughtfully as I can, every blogger in the known universe has a post today.

And, as usual, RHE has said it better than me.

When I saw that she had posted, and the title of her post, I resisted reading it. I hadn’t decided if I was going to post anything today, and I didn’t want to be swayed by her elegant prose and incisive commentary – as I was pretty sure that my idea for an MLK post would be almost exactly the same as hers.

Which it was. Only she said it better.

Okay, I’ll go ahead and link it.

***************************************************************************************

Last year, at this time, I wrote a post about MLK and Chris Kyle, which was a post that I really wanted to write. It felt like it was really from my heart, because I think I’m at my best when I’m writing about issues relating to war and violence.

This year? I feel like my heart is full of things to say, and yet so, so weary. I think the reason that I struggled with whether or not to write this post is less because my blogging heroes will say it better, and more because I am really afraid that none of these posts are going to matter one bit. Because in January of 2015, we all wrote about MLK Jr., while in the midst of the ongoing struggle in Ferguson. And, before even six months had passed, we were all writing about Eric Garner. And then the tragedy of Freddie Gray and a neighborhood in Baltimore. Then, a horrific hate crime at Emmanuel AME in Charleston.

Confederate flags. Sandra Bland. Samuel Dubose.

The list was endless.

We wrote. We cried out in the wilderness. And nothing changed.

Today, we’re living in the moment of Donald Trump, a walking joke that has turned into a living nightmare. As Mrs. Evans mentioned in her post, a candidate supported by white supremacist groups – a candidate who has risen to prominence by saying the most heinous, racist, and unjust things imaginable – is speaking at an MLK event at Liberty University, a university founded by a religious leader who rose to prominence by saying the most heinous, racist, and unjust things imaginable.

No irony here, folks. Move along.

We seem to have reached a point in our national history in which our capacity for self-criticism has reached such staggering depths that we are beginning to look like a parody of ourselves. Real news is starting to read like satire. Presidential politics plays like a farce.

And Christian blogging, our so-called “prophetic voice,” feels like an exercise in futility.

I mean, I saw a meme a couple of weeks ago – originating with Ted Nugent – that featured a picture of Rosa Parks with the words, “Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. But, she didn’t tear up the bus.”

We have made such an utter joke of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. – and his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement – that a white kid from Texas writing about him today just seems… insincere? Insulting?

I know that it makes me feel amazingly self-conscious, and ridiculously self-critical. I grew up around family members who advocated “George Wallace Day” every year at this time. I have family members today who spew bile and hatred towards Black Lives Matter, who considered the shooting of Michael Brown to be just, who defended the cops who shot Tamir Rice. I love these people. I respect most of their opinions and insights. But, as I try to write a meaningful post on MLK Day, I can’t help but realize that I am part of that legacy. No matter how fast or how far I try to run from it, I am part of that community. I am part of the culture that beat the living sh*t out of marchers in Selma, who shouted at Ruby Bridges, who killed Dr. King.

So, when I write about Dr. King, when I think about a post that might give meaningful tribute to a man that I have been truly and deeply inspired by, I can’t help but feel a little disingenuous, a little bit like I’m co-opting a hero of the community of People of Color for my own purposes. I admire people like RHE and others who are willing to continue entering this fray, who are determined to be effective and sensitive white allies, who are internalizing the message of Dr. King and trying to preach it to those in the white world who don’t quite get it.

But, I’m having a hard time being one of them today, because all I can think about is how we’re the faces of white moderates who called for unity while Dr. King was in a Birmingham jail. All I can think is that we’re those white faces that abandoned our support of #BlackLivesMatter in droves when two women dared to interrupt a Bernie Sanders rally. We love Dr. King when he presents himself gently, when his oratory calls for unity and peace.

We’re not quite as fond of him when he appears in a disruptive, disorderly manner. We don’t like him when he interrupts us, when he calls us to self-criticism, when he demands that we repent and feel just a little bit of guilt for our sins and the sins of our fathers. We’re not crazy about him when he feels sympathy for rioters, when he speaks against the military-industrial complex, when he becomes what we stereotype as the “angry black man.”

So, I wasn’t sure about posting today, and I’ve now written close to 1200 words. Which, interestingly enough, makes me feel even more self-conscious and self-critical.

Let me end this by getting, finally, to the point. Here’s what I would like to say about Dr. King.

I’m sorry that his dream has yet to be realized, and that injustice and racism still rules the day. I’m sorry that I felt too tired and weary in my soul to write anything meaningful, when the black community is even more tired and weary from being the actual victims of injustice. I’m sorry that I have far too much of the white moderate in me, and that I have a hard time speaking to the legacy of racism and injustice in my own community. I’m sorry that we killed Dr. King, and that we continue to kill and defame black men, women, and children. I’m sorry that we have lost our capacity to understand, to look inward, to criticize and change what we see.

But, as I read what others have to say today, I have a little bit of hope. Maybe this is the year that we actually get it. Maybe this is the year that we’ll really understand every facet of the man that we honor today, that we’ll realize everything that he was trying to teach us. Maybe this is the year that we’ll actually listen to the black voices that are crying out for justice, and the white Christian blogging community can stop our very well-intentioned whitesplaining.

Michael Brian Woywood

 

PS – Here’s a fantastic article that I saw first thing this morning. It really set the tone for me today.

 

Discipleship is not a math problem

I have been reading through The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was given to me about a year and a half ago by my best friend, as a gift after joining him in youth ministry. He swears by the book, and I have heard much about it. Thus, I accepted the gift with excitement and anticipation.

I dove in almost immediately, pouring through the first two chapters in a single night. I had never seen this kind of message. Costly grace? Those two words redefined my theology. I had asked that question for a long time, but Bonhoeffer really clarified it for me. While we celebrate the free gift of grace, do we remember how costly it was? While we know that we can never repay the cost, do we voluntarily attempt to share in that cost as disciples?

I read those first two chapters, and my life was changed. And, then, I put the book down, and didn’t pick it up again until about a week ago.

It wasn’t any conscious decision. Like with so many other books, I just got absorbed in something else, and never came back to it. But, I felt like I had the essence of the book down: costly grace. Grace that was freely given, but still had a price. Armed with my first two chapters, I went out and formulated my own theology. So many messages that I preached and wrote were based off that little bit of Bonhoeffer: The Dangerous Gospel of Good Friday was probably the sermon most closely related to my experience with Bonhoeffer.

But, after reading a little more over the past week, I realized that I have only skimmed the surface. The more I dug in, the more I realized that there was so much more to this theology of discipleship than I had initially realized. The acceptance of costly grace is only the beginning. You have to dig deeper, into what Bonhoeffer has to say about the everyday path of following Jesus, in order to really appreciate the impact this man has had on so many different people.

There were times when I felt encouraged while reading, because I thought, I’m already on this path. But, there were also times when my spirit was sorely convicted, because I realize how far off the path I am in some areas. And, the more I read, the more I thought, Nobody can do this. This is too heavy a burden.

It really hit me yesterday. I had an opportunity to put a conviction into action, and I sat there arguing myself. What was the most Christian thing to do? How far did I have to go in order to prove myself worthy of the mantle of true discipleship?

That’s when it hit me. I was reading Bonhoeffer the wrong way. I was reading Jesus the wrong way. I was looking at discipleship like a math problem.

We have this problem in progressive Christianity, where we tend to reduce our faith down to a kinder, gentler legalism.  We don’t want to put rules on people when it comes to sex, or drinking, or any of the other traditional legalist rules. But, when it comes to social morality, public justice, we definitely have some rules for each other.

You can only consider yourself a progressive Christian in some circles if you believe and do x, y, and z. God help you if you consider yourself any kind of Christian without following the formula.

I’m not criticizing the deeds of progressive Christians (or Christians who do good works, regardless of what kind of Christian they consider themselves.) It’s the spirit of the thing that gets me, because it’s a spirit that I’ve found myself infected by. We’ve reduced discipleship to the sum of its parts, into something that we can measure up to, something that we can rate on a sliding scale of moral goodness. And, ultimately, we’ll never get there, and so we’ll have to fall back on the cheap grace that allows us to be “imperfect, but forgiven.”

When I help the poor, I can’t do it in order to be a disciple. I do it because I am already a disciple. When I stand up for racial justice, or for gender equality, or for religious tolerance, I can’t do it so that Jesus will save me. I do it because Jesus has saved me. When I claim to love and forgive my enemies, I can’t do it because it’s what Jesus told me to do (and thus, the “right thing”). I must do it because I was His enemy, and He forgave me.

The difference might seem minute, or a matter of semantics, but I swear that it’s the difference between the easy yoke and light burden of discipleship, and the unbearable mantle of legalism.

I love and forgive my enemies, because He has loved and forgiven me.

I feed the hungry, because He feeds me.

I clothe the naked, because He has clothed me.

I serve, because He has served me.

I kneel down and wash my neighbors feet, because He has washed me clean.

In the end, discipleship isn’t about action, but reaction. I can only do the things that I do, because He has shown me how. He has enabled me. I can pantomime on my own. I can do things that look like good works and righteousness, but at the end of the day, I’m doing them to add to my own moral scorecard. I’m only doing x+y=z.

Thank God that we have so many people in the world who are willing to do these things, regardless of their reasons. This is a work that needs to be done, and I believe that people do the work of Christ in the name of Allah, of enlightenment, of simple compassion, and they should be praised for, and encouraged in, that work. But, for the disciple, for the follower of Jesus, we do these things because we know Him, because He has done these things for us.

To do them for other reasons is good and proper. But, it’s not discipleship.

I could still be reading it wrong. I could have come to the entirely wrong conclusion. But, let us pause, calmly, and think on this.

Grace and peace to you.

Called Out Of/Called Into (Part 2)

This is the second part of a post that I began a few days ago. In the last post, I told the story of my moment of faith/obedience in the desert of Iraq in 2009, and ended with my vision and specific call in my living room.

It took me a few days to complete this post. I was pretty close to deleting the first post, and scrapping this idea completely. A big part of the reason is the sheer hubris of declaring yourself a prophet, especially in today’s world. It’s the sort of thing a hyper-religious fanatic might say, and it doesn’t feel or sound right coming from the mouth of a guy who has yearly experiences of atheism.

But, after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that all of my concerns were kind of reasons supporting the blog post. Yeah, it’s ballsy to call yourself a prophet – that’s kind of the point. Prophets, historically, don’t rise up in times of peace and prosperity. They exist for times of conflict, injustice, oppression, apostasy – apocalyptic times. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and apocalyptic times call for apocalyptic people: people willing and ready to call for complete and total undoing and change.

And, it might sound like hyper-religiosity and fanaticism, but let’s be honest: I’ve already demonstrated both on the blog. My religiosity might look a little different than the Fundamentalist Christian, but there should be no doubt that I am absolutely in love with the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. And, I’ll take the charges of fanaticism that go along with that love, that commitment. I am absolutely fanatical about non-vi0lence, justice, freedom from fear, and freedom from sin.

And, I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. After the vision and spiritual experience that I described in my last post, I was utterly convinced that I had finally had my long-awaited complete psychotic break. But, other than the fact that I was having religious visions, I didn’t show any signs of psychosis (that’s a huge qualifier to anyone who isn’t religious.) So, once I was at least relatively sure that I still had a grip on reality, I decided to research what it might mean to be a prophet.

I turned to Google, which is like the Bible for Millenials. And, I found a great deal of stuff to read, most of which was from – you guessed it – my old stomping grounds, the Charismatic movement.

First, “Prophet” is not a title, it’s a specific office within the church. You don’t get to be Prophet So-and-So, unless you’re part of the LDS Church. So, as much as I’d enjoy being “Prophet Michael”, I’m going to have to stick with “Mike”.

Prophets don’t have an easy time of it. It was stressed, in every description that I read, that the office of prophet was typically reserved for those whose lives have been a veritable sh*tstorm of adversity. The reason should be obvious: as the most contentious of the five ministries, a prophet is going to face a lot of adversity after their Calling. The adversity before is just a preparation for the adversity after.

(Authorial note: At this point, it would be easy for a lot of skeptical people to throw their hands up in the air and say, “Well, of course you want to be a prophet. It’s the best way to explain how difficult your life has been, to give meaning to otherwise meaningless pain.” I’m not going to debate that point, because you’re absolutely right. It does bring meaning to pain that had, up to that point, seemed meaningless. I’ll counter that a lot of people, regardless of religious belief, find ways to make their pain meaningful – we just have a specific justification in our belief system.)

Prophets don’t have the option of being silent. Man, this one sucks. As much as I love to talk and give opinions, there are some things that I just don’t want to get into. I don’t really want to get into arguments about guns. While I feel strongly about racism, I’d rather avoid the topic, because I have family and friends who think that the whole thing is a sham. There are actually loads of topics that I’d like to avoid. But… I’m not given a choice. The office, the Call, demands my voice. Now, there are definitely some things that I just don’t talk about. I’ve come to believe that prophets get called to speak to very specific issues, or to very specific groups of people. For me, that issue is violence, and any issues relating to violence. Unfortunately, that one issue covers a great deal of other issues, as violence isn’t confined to the physical. So, something happens that touches that issue, I can’t be silent. My Call, my office, compels me to speak or write. To not speak or write would be to deny and repudiate what God has called me to do. I can’t do that.

Prophets wrestle with God. This point, when I read it, brought about some vigorous head nodding. I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t wrestling with God. I’ve always had this strong desire, almost a compulsion, to believe… but, I’ve always had trouble with the details of believing. I jokingly spoke about my yearly atheism experience. It really does seem like, every year, I reach a point where I’m not even sure if I can believe in God. This is normally due to an event that is so earth-shattering in its awfulness that I can’t just shake it off. I have to shake my fist at Heaven and shout, “Where are you?!”

I’ve always been ashamed of these times, but I’ve come to realize that they are really vital times in a prophet’s life. Accepting the Call to prophetic office means accepting a tremendous burden: to carry the weight of the world’s dysfunction on your shoulders. You’ve got to feel it to speak it. And, carrying that much weight is going to lead you to question the purpose of it, and question the One that you think put that weight on you in the first place. It’s going to eventually make you wonder why you couldn’t have gotten the Call to be a pastor, or a teacher, or an evangelist, why you have to do the ministry equivalent of cleaning the bathrooms with a toothbrush. Pretty soon, you just drop the load and tackle The Man. You wrestle around, The Man leaves you with some bruises, you catch your breath… and you pick the load back up again.

That last part is what keeps me encouraged when I feel ashamed. You pick the load back up again. I might experience these times in my spiritual life where I Can’t Even… but, if it weren’t for social media, no one would know that I was in those times. I just go MIA for a month or two to have my Cage Match with the Almighty. Then, I get right back to it. Every freaking time.

Prophets are without honor in their homes. That’s kind of a direct rip-off from Jesus, who said, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his home.” Thankfully, this doesn’t include my actual home, as in the house that I live in. My wife shows me pretty great honor. (In fact, she made coffee for me this morning, thus enabling me to Even.) My second son has a hard time showing me honor, but that’s because he’s 5.

But, sometimes the honor escapes me in other arenas that are close to home. I have a few “home towns” in this modern and hyper-connected age: I have the “home town” of the veteran community, the “home town” of the Interwebz, the “home town” of my church… lots of places to live without honor. It’s not a hard and fast rule: there are several people in all of these “home towns” that do me plenty of honor, at least on a personal level. But, that doesn’t mean that they want to hear what I have to say. That doesn’t mean that they won’t mock what I believe, even if it’s not “to my face”.

This just comes with the territory . You go outside your sphere, people will love what you have to say. But, inside the bubble that you’ve always lived, they just want you to be the guy that they remember you being. They want you to stay in your place. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” Trying to speak a stern message to people in your “home town” will bring about that kind of talk. “Who the hell does this guy think he is? I remember him as a wild kid, an arrogant teenager, etc, etc.” If you’re looking to make your family and friends proud, go be a pastor. (That’s not a dig on pastors, BTW.) The office of prophet is reserved for those who can stand being thought of as an idiot.

You work amongst the people, but you live in the wilderness. This was the inspiration for the title, “Called Out Of, Called Into.” I was called out of the wilderness of a combat zone (a literal desert), and called into a different wilderness. I’m a man who prefers solitude, who is called to speak to multitudes. (Thank God for the Internet, where you can speak to multitudes while in solitude.)

But, I have been given opportunities to exercise my office “incognito”. This could be a point all its own, but prophets won’t have a lot of luck being professional clergy. So, if you want to work in the church, you’re going to have to take on roles that are not your “specialization.” That doesn’t mean that you can’t still work within your Call. This prophet is a youth pastor, and on most Sunday evenings, I take the opportunity to exercise my Call in a public setting.

Any exercise of the office is exhausting for me, but especially public exercise. So, I often wander back into the wilderness of my own home, my personal cave. I’m married to the bird that feeds me… alright, this metaphor just got exhausted. The point is, I have to let God minister to my spirit. I have to allow myself time to recharge. This is true of any minister, no matter the office. But, the stories of prophets in the Bible almost always include times of reflection and rest. Jesus Himself had to go away from the crowds, even sailing out into the middle of a sea, just to recharge His batteries. If the Son of God needs it, then I definitely need it. And, I probably need longer or more frequent periods than Him.

This is tough in a hyper-scheduled culture, because we’re always expected to be doing something. Another area in which I’m fortunate is my financial situation: I’m a medically retired, disabled Army veteran. So, I can devote my time to mission and ministry. But, for people who don’t have the luxury of being me, it can be crushing. You’re at work, you’re with the family, you’re taking care of the house. When do you have time to recharge? I don’t have the answer to that. I just know that it’s absolutely necessary for anyone who has accepted the Call. Live in the wilderness, work among the people.

 

**************************************************************

That’s the story of my Call, and my thoughts on what it all means. If I’m any kind of an expert, it’s only by moderate experience.

I don’t regret my acceptance of this office. I might call myself “The Unlikely Evangelist”, but it’s more accurate to call myself “The Penitent Prophet.” If anything, this weighty office has made an arrogant, wild kid into a humble, introspective man. I used to think that I was the sh*t; now I struggle with thinking that I am sh*t.

I used to think that it was all about me. Now, I’m constantly reminded that it is about everyone except me. I’m a messenger, but the message isn’t mine. And, other people can give it – are giving it – if I decide to go False Prophet/Cult Leader.

I used to think that people should listen to me, no matter if I was right or wrong. Now, I pray that people won’t listen to me if I’m wrong, that any incorrect statements or messages will fall on deaf ears. I feel privileged and responsible at the same time. If I’m charged with bring God’s Word boldly to people, it’s going to be bad for me if I bring it the wrong way.

But, ultimately, you’ve got to take the chance. While I worry constantly that the way I interpret the message is wrong, I can’t allow it to paralyze me into inaction or silence. That’s part of the office: accepting the consequences of getting it wrong.

Alright, I’m going back to my cave. I’ll see you all in a week or so.

 

 

 

Called Out Of/Called Into (Part 1 of 2)

Today’s blog is on a little bit of a contentious issue within the Christian church, and it’s a very personal story. I have hesitated for a long time to put these words to type, because to do so commits me in a way that other blogs or sermons have not.

But, I feel that perhaps the time has come, in the year 2016, for me to “announce myself.” I’ve touched on it before, but I feel that it’s time to make a clear statement on the issue.

In my blog about joy, I mentioned that I feel called to the mission and ministry of the Prophet. For those not familiar with the idea of the “five-fold ministry”, it’s a concept that the Apostle Paul laid out in the Epistle to the Ephesians, and that he mentions in other places in his writings. Many Christian denominations don’t acknowledge the five-fold ministry as spiritual offices, and more as spiritual gifts that belong to all believers. I acknowledge this as a very valid view. But, I spent my teenage years in the Charismatic Movement, a sect of Christianity that believes fully (and sometimes excessively) in the “gifts of the Spirit”: speaking in tongues, prophesying, etc.

I have many issues with the Charismatic Movement in general: the exuberance in worship too often becomes showmanship, the “gifts of the Spirit” become a litmus test for the “true believer”, and there is a strong streak of legalism that permeates much of Charismatic theology. That said, there is much of that background that still resonates deeply in my spiritual life. One of those concepts is that of the Five-Fold Ministry, the idea that everyone who serves in the Church has a specific role to fulfill.

I could probably make an entire blog series on what I believe on the roles in the Five-Fold Ministry. (In fact, I might just do that.) But, today, I feel compelled to tell my own story. It’s a story of my own Call: not just a story of a general Call, which has followed me for my entire life. No, this is a story of a very specific Call, one that was humbling, awe-inspiring, and absolutely, positively terrifying.

************************************************************

It’s probably accurate, in both a literal and a spiritual sense, to say that God called me out of the desert. As I have mentioned many times, I have spent my life in the Christian Church. I have been in several denominations, as well as several “traditions” which cover both denominational and non-denominational churches. And, while most of those traditions have led me to confessions of faith and baptism, I never really had a “heart change”in my young life. Church was part of my life, much like a sports team or an after-school club. I knew all the right words to say, I even had some legitimate spiritual experiences, but it never lasted beyond the experience or went beyond the words. I suspect that many people who grew up in church can recognize that experience, and could even call it their own.

In my adult life, I have been very wary of “spiritual experiences.” Throughout my life, but especially during my time in the Charismatic Movement, I have had an excessive number of “spiritual experiences.” Every Sunday, every revival, every summer youth camp brought spiritual experiences: emotional professions of renewed faith, confession of grievous sins (normally having to do with cussing or kissing), and commitments to be a better Christian. Each one of these experiences felt authentic and real to me as a teenager, but my adult mind reeled at the thought, feeling embarrassment and even disgust at the excess of emotion, the manipulation of youth pastors and speakers, the guilt and shame that were appealed to in order to produce the desired result. As an adult, I didn’t feel that I had ever chosen be a Christian as a young person. Instead, I had been pressured and coerced to be a Christian, had it presented it to me as the only good option.

I don’t write this because I am bitter or angry. I was at one time, but I’ve moved past those feelings. I only write this by way of introduction, a prologue to the main story.

So, by the time I joined the Army, I was quite tired of spiritual experiences, emotionalism in faith, manipulation based on fear. From the age of 22 until about 25, I was faced with the Herculean task of reconciling the faith of my childhood with the experience of being in an intense combat zone for almost a year.

Reality as the adult was so much different than the reality that I had been taught as a child and teenager. In this new reality, God didn’t answer prayers, God didn’t always protect those who believed, and non-Christians weren’t evil or misguided. It was a harsh period for my faith, but I see now that I was being prepared, “set apart”.

In 2009, I was on my second deployment to Iraq. This one wasn’t as violent as my first one: I was working in an Aid Station on a fairly large Forward Operating Base, treating mostly colds and Physical Training injuries. There was a lot of time to sit and think about many, many things. One day, I was sitting out back of our Aid Station, smoking cigarettes, when I had an epiphany about God, the universe, sin, and the human heart. I mulled on it for a little while, and I decided, “I’m going to believe and be baptized.” Again, this wasn’t close to the first time that I had done this: in my years in the Charismatic Movement, there were many “confessions”, “recommitments”, and “re-baptisms”. But, this was something different. This wasn’t something that I had been pressured, guilted, or shamed into. This wasn’t a hyper-emotional “spiritual experience.” This was a moment of true faith, and an act of obedience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, in “The Cost of Discipleship”, that only those who believe can obey, and that only those who obey can believe. Obedience and faith are two steps taken in tandem. That moment in 2009 was the moment where obedience and faith met for the first time in my life.

And, so, on Easter morning in 2009, in the sight of friends who believed in God and friends who just believed in me, I was baptized by a small Nazarene chaplain in a basin that I barely fit into. I believe now that this was the moment that the very specific call on my life began.

**************************************************************

The years following my act of faith/obedience were far, far from perfect years. The Army isn’t a friendly place for a Christian life: not because of any outright hostility (though some would assert so), but because the realities and pressures of the military occupy every moment of your life, leaving very little (if any) room for true Christian discipleship. I didn’t attend a church, because it felt like a wasted effort: I moved every 2-3 years, and Sunday was sometimes the only day that I could count on being a day of rest for me. I didn’t follow the “spiritual disciplines” of prayer or Scripture reading. I tried to live my life the best I could, and I still believed in the strictest sense of the word. But, I began to wonder if that spiritual experience in the desert had been just like all my other “spiritual experiences”: meaningful at the time, but ultimately empty.

In 2012, after a long battle with PTSD, I finally decided to give up. I determined to take my own life. I know that I’ve told this story on the blog before, so I’ll just reiterate that the Church saved my life. I found a church home, after years of being a spiritual nomad, and a community of faith that supported and loved me in ways that I hadn’t experienced before. I found a pastor, and friend, who taught me things that I had never considered, and a best friend that encouraged me to be my full self in all areas.

And, I felt a Call, a very specific one. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt sure that I was meant to be in vocational ministry. I was encouraged to pray about the Call, to read, to study.

One night in 2013, I was in my living room. It was late at night, and I was the only one awake. I had just finished railing against something on Facebook, an injustice that was keeping me awake at nights. And, I felt a strong, powerful urge to pray. So, I “assumed the position” that I had been taught for prayer: kneeling, hands folded, head bowed. But, there was a strong, strong pull to prostrate myself in prayer. I hadn’t done that since I was a teenager, and it was part of the “spiritual experience” that I was so suspicious of. But, after only a few minutes of resisting the urge, I thought, “What the hell. I’m by myself.” So, I laid down on my stomach, and tried to empty my mind.

And I was overwhelmed with images and sensations. I saw myself in the middle of the Cumberland River, with a long line of people coming to be baptized. I saw myself as a kind of modern John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make straight His path!” I saw myself preaching on street corners, in front of courthouses, at the doors of churches. And I heard, in my mind, the still, small voice that the Bible talks about, saying to me, “Proclaim the truth.”

*************************************************************

We’re at just over 1,600 words, and I have kids foaming at the mouth while I’m trying to write. I will finish this testimony tomorrow.

If the story so far seems strange to you, I promise that it feels even stranger to live and write about it. Tomorrow, I will talk about my life after the vision, after the sensation, and what I have learned about being called as a prophet: both the good, and the absolutely horrible.