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.