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Surprises 7: The Education of a Disciple

I’ve been telling you about a number of things that surprised me after I became a disciple of Jesus. There were lots of other surprises along the way, but I’m going to stop this particular series with this seventh surprise.

I was now nineteen years old (almost twenty), and a lot had happened since my conversion to Christ six years earlier. I was a lay minister in my church, preaching at my home congregation and elsewhere every chance I got. I had already studied for two years at Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Michigan (it would become Grand Valley State University shortly after my graduation), but I didn’t enjoy college very much. I wanted to be out serving God. I did speak up in all my discussion-oriented classes, telling my teachers and peers that I was a Christian and a lay minister, but I wanted to do more. I was majoring in Social Work, and I had even spent a semester as a Teacher’s Assistant in the “Intro to Social Work” course. I didn’t feel particularly led in that direction, but it was the only field I could think of that would allow me to “serve.” Most of all, I felt called to be a minister, but the church our family was affiliated with was comprised mostly of home-grown lay ministers just like me. We took turns preaching, and we all pitched in to visit the congregation’s shut-ins, people in the hospital, and so on. Our church did have full-time paid ministers, but they were employed by headquarters, assigned to particular regions where they were most needed, and tended to be bureaucrats, not preachers of the gospel. And I had no interest in becoming a bureaucrat. So I had to find something else to do with my life.

On one of the last days of my sophomore year, I decided to launch a prayer campaign, asking for direction for my life. I was halfway through my college career, and I was very concerned about what I would do after graduation. I prayed to understand what God was calling me to do with my life.

I spent the summer praying, and I felt very strongly that the answer would become clear to me if I read a novel by the American author Lloyd C. Douglas. The novel was Magnificent Obsession. I chafed at the thought; all I knew about the book was that it had been made into a movie starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, and it was a schmaltzy chick flick. I had read Douglas’s novel The Robe a few years earlier and had loved it, but I had no interest in Magnificent Obsession. Nevertheless, I kept feeling the prompting throughout the summer, so I finally bought a copy of the book from a second-hand bookstore in September and sat down to read it in the last couple of weeks before my junior year began.

I was not at all impressed by the premise of the book. It was about a young medical student who experiments with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:1-2 and has his potential unleashed by “doing alms in secret.” I felt that Douglas’s thesis stretched the meaning and purpose of that biblical passage far beyond Christ’s original meaning. But as I prayed to understand why this book had been brought to my attention, I realized that it was the author, and not the book itself, that was important. Although Douglas was a Congregationalist minister, his novel was filled with insightful observations about everyday life, and those observations were not merely used to drive home his religious point. It was clear that he was a broadly-educated man. He wrote convincingly about the medical profession, sculptures, music, the automotive industry, banking and finance, literature, live theater, European travel, and a few other subjects. The farther I read into the novel, the more impressed I became with his awareness of the world around him. I myself had spent most of the last six years studying the Bible and listening to religious radio broadcasts and nothing more. Education was a means to an end for me, and not at all something I enjoyed. But Douglas reawakened within me – or perhaps awakened fully for the first time – a desire to learn as much as I could about everything.

This thought was in the back of my mind as I was reading, but on one particular afternoon – a day so important that I consider it one of my personal holy days – I put down the novel and prayed again for guidance. In that moment I was given a glimpse of what my life could be like. I realized that I was called to a life of learning, and that Jesus Christ would continue to be my Teacher. On that day, a vast interdisciplinary path stretched out before me, and it extended far beyond graduation day. I came to understand that I was called to more than a religious life; I was called to Life. On that day, I committed myself to the Life that Christ was showing me.

When fall semester started a couple of weeks later, lots of coincidental conversations and events reinforced this revelation. I began to love going to school again, just as I had loved it in my freshman year of high school. I loved learning about anything and everything, and I recognized God’s guidance at work in each new lesson. I continued to preach and teach and to share my witness publicly at the college, but I was now on a new and exciting adventure. Jesus Christ was teaching me not only about the Bible but also about secular subjects. And although this brought me full circle, back to my very first experiences as a new Christian, it also opened whole new vistas that I could not have envisioned at the age of 13.

There were many detours along the way, but through the intervening years God has led me to earn a masters degree in the field of Education and a doctorate in the field of Philosophy. I have a den crammed with books on a wide variety of subjects, and God has taught me so many things about the world around me that I don’t even know how to share them all. I changed my church affiliation over thirty-five years ago, but I continue to preach and teach even now. I still can’t keep quiet about what God has done in my life.

This was the surprise: that discipleship involved more than just studying the Bible, praying, and serving others in Jesus’ name. The path of discipleship that Christ was calling me to, at least, was a detailed education about the Story of Life and a commitment to add something of value to that Story as a speaker and writer. This experience drove home the point that God doesn’t ask us to become religious; He asks us to enter into Life. And although I found that Life right away when I became a Christian, I got sidetracked by religion. It took me years to find my way back. Nor was it I who made the discovery; it was God who finally got me to see the value of learning secular subjects, with Him as my Lord and Teacher as well as my Savior.

There have been many more surprises in my relationship with God, but I’ll talk about them some other time. The main thing I want to emphasize, though, is that God doesn’t fit neatly into our expectations. Anyone following Jesus can expect to be surprised many times along the way, as I have.

Surprises 6: Coming Out Christian

I gave my life to Christ early in the summer before my freshman year of high school, but for the rest of that calendar year I kept my commitment a secret. Most of the other members of my family were heavily involved in our church, but I did not at first think that my commitment to Christ had to find expression through church activities. I have already told you about a number of surprises I experienced after becoming a Christian, and they were all along the same theme: I was surprised by the many ways in which my relationship with Christ found expression in my secular daily life. This was an idea so foreign to me, and so different from what I saw and heard at church, that I kept it to myself for several months, fearing that I might lose what I had found – that my life would be redirected by others in my family and at church when they found out that I was now a Christian.

Today I want to tell you about how I came out publicly as a Christian. And since this is part of a series of things that surprised me when I became a Christian, I’ll tell you what surprised me most about it.

I left off last time telling you that, during my first few months as a high school freshman, I experienced a drastic change in circumstances, having spent the previous year laying low and now becoming a member of the Varsity Club and first chair clarinet (and therefore Concert Master) of the high school concert band. At about this same time (December 1971), I became filled with the desire to tell others about the things I had been experiencing. Over Christmas Break, I decided I would go back to school in January with a message.

Good and bad motives were all wrapped up so tightly together that it’s hard for me to sort them out now. But that’s when I came out as a Christian, not only at church but also at school. I started wearing a cross and carrying a Bible to all my classes. I wrote a series of articles for the school newspaper, trying to prove the existence of God, and when the teacher in charge of the paper politely declined to print them, I was deeply disappointed; but I didn’t let it stop me. I believed that I was called to preach, and since I belonged to a church that was made up of mostly lay preachers, that was not an unrealistic expectation.

I listened to sermons and Christian radio broadcasts at every opportunity and kept sermon ideas on 3 x 5 note cards. It wasn’t long before I had a box filled with cards. Meanwhile, I stood up and gave a testimony (a mini-sermon, actually) at every Wednesday night prayer service and at our Monday night District Youth Fellowship meetings. A very kind woman in our congregation asked me to co-teach a Sunday School class with her for Primary age children (young elementary), and I was invited to be on our congregation’s Worship Committee and Education Committee. Other congregations in the Grand Rapids area invited me to speak.

Here’s what was so surprising: Almost overnight, I went from having a very private, deeply personal, and profoundly secular relationship with Jesus Christ to being a very public, very showy, exclusively religious church person. At the point that I am at now in my life, it’s hard for me to have sympathy for the guy that I became. I suppose I’m probably too hard on myself. There was a lot of good in what I was doing: for example, I studied the Bible hungrily, using a concordance and pursuing themes and key words, and I told everyone who would listen that Jesus Christ was real, that He was accessible, and that He cared about everyday life. But I had forgotten everything He had taught me in those first few months. I was no longer interested in anything secular. School became nothing more than my mission field. I no longer cared about history, literature, science, or anything else but the Bible. I didn’t like school anymore. Where I really wanted to be was at church.

This was the surprise: that I could start out so excited about the goodness of God in my secular life that my enthusiasm could then make me completely forget about experiencing God in secular life. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that it is important for Christ’s followers to step forward and declare themselves publicly. I just regret the fact that, when I finally did it, I ended up in the opposite direction from the one that He had been guiding me in the months leading up to my public profession of faith. This, then, was perhaps the biggest surprise about becoming a Christian: that there is a frighteningly thin line between being an authentic follower of Jesus and being merely a religious person. It is all too easy for followers of Christ to be seduced by religion, and especially by positions of prominence within the church. This is something Jesus warned us about repeatedly, and with good reason. It is precisely because of how amazing He is that we want to read the Bible and tell the world about what He has taught us… but Bible reading and telling others can become ends in themselves and can tempt us away from the very God who inspired us to go in that direction in the first place.

The good news is that Jesus Christ is perfectly capable of wooing us back. And that leads me to the next big surprise…

Surprises 5: Nowhere to Hide

When I was in middle school, we had more than our share of bullies, so I adopted the strategy of laying low. I figured that I was better off flying under the radar. If the bullies didn’t notice me, they would leave me alone.

After I became a Christian, however, I found God nudging me out onto the stage of activity where I could not hide. That night in early summer when I began reading the New Testament and gave Him my life, Jesus had said (through the scripture reading) that “a city set on a hill cannot be hid” and had warned me that I could no longer fly under the radar. I did not realize, however, that a complete reversal of things was about to happen.

In my recent posts I’ve been telling you about some of the things that surprised me after I became a Christian. Here’s a fifth surprise: in the first semester of my freshman year of high school, I found myself thrust into the limelight to such an extent that I simply could not hide.

It began with summer band camp. I told you in the last post that I found marching difficult at first and prayed for help overcoming the technical difficulties. Acting on the idea that came to me, I memorized all my music and then was free to learn the steps. Our marching band attended summer band camp at Michigan State University for one week every August, and that was my first experience with the high school marching band. Before the week was over, everybody was talking about the new kid who had all the music memorized and could march with the best of them. My older brother started being drum major that year, and late in the week the band director called my brother and me out onto the field and had us demonstrate one of the dance numbers for the rest of the band, to show them how it was done. For a freshman who had never marched before (and was having difficulty in the beginning), that was an exhilarating experience. And to have all those older kids treat me with such respect, not only during band camp but all throughout the football season, was tremendously humbling.

Then came cross country. I joined the cross country team because my 8th grade track coach said he thought I’d be good at it. I wasn’t sure he was right, but I decided to give it a try. I ended up doing all right, but here’s the real surprise: our cross-country team ended up being Class C State Champions that year. This was the first time for us (although we did it again the next year), and it was a very big deal. They held a special high school assembly to celebrate our achievement, and every single one of us was given a Varsity Letter. In other words, just because I decided to try cross-country, I happened to become a member of the Varsity Club. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. But it was an especially surprising turn of events to be on a par with older, tougher, cooler “letter men,” when I had just recently tried to fly under the radar.

Then marching band ended and we started the concert band season. I played clarinet, and there were lots of us (probably about 15), all of them girls except me. A senior named Cassie was first chair – or at least she was during the prior concert season. But we had to do chair trials, and on the day when the results were posted, I couldn’t find my name on the list. Everybody was kind of jockeying for position so they could read the posting, and I kept going up there and looking, then walking away and coming back and looking again… but I couldn’t find my name. It was very embarrassing to think that the band director may have forgotten about me.

I don’t remember what happened next. Either I told someone my dilemma or I finally just realized, but the reason I couldn’t find my name was that I wasn’t looking high enough. I had won first place. Instead of being thrilled, I was horrified. How could I (a freshman) look Cassie (a senior) in the eye and say, “Move over”? As it turned out, I walked over to first chair in a daze, and Cassie was already sitting in second chair. I told her I was sorry, and she told me not to be. She was a very nice person and was very supportive of me throughout that whole year. I considered her my friend.

But as you can see, this was all quite surprising to me. The first night of Bible reading, I had been warned that I would not be able to hide from the public eye anymore, now that I was going to follow Jesus; but I didn’t realize how true that would be, nor could I have predicted how it would come about. All these things just happened to me, and they had no apparent connection to my becoming a Christian. But once they did happen, I began to think very seriously about my responsibilities as “a city set on a hill.” And that led to more surprises…

Surprises 4: Prayer in the Schools

I’ve been telling you about specific things that surprised me when I became a disciple of Christ the summer before I began high school. Here’s something else: after spending the summer reading the New Testament gospels and learning to pray, I found God to be a very real presence in the classroom when I went back to school in the fall. I say this is surprising because I thought my new commitment would change my thinking and behavior; I didn’t expect it to change the way I experienced school. I had gone to school for nine years now (counting kindergarten) and thought I knew what it was like. As for starting high school, even that in itself wasn’t a change from the previous school year because, in our little school system, 8th grade classes were held in the same facility as high school classes. So even though I expected to approach the new school year with a brand-new attitude, I didn’t really expect to experience school in an all-new way.

But I did. When I entered the doors of that school, I sensed the presence of God with me. And that was especially interesting because, so far, I had only been experiencing it in the peace and quiet of home; this was the first time I became aware of God’s presence in public. And since prayer had become a natural part of my everyday life, that meant that I was praying in school. This was the very thing that people remarked about so much in the early 1970s because of a recent Supreme Court ruling against compulsory prayer in the public schools. My praying wasn’t compulsory, of course, nor was it public. But everybody kept saying what a disgrace it was that our poor children couldn’t pray in school – and here I was, not only praying but also sensing God’s presence with me. And the experience was so vivid, I couldn’t help but be surprised.

It was also surprising for me to find God apparently so interested in my activities, both curricular and extra-curricular. I mentioned in an earlier post that God gave me creative ideas; now I found Him showing me how to study more effectively, how to participate more proactively in class, and even how to do better in marching band. On this last point, I found it impossible to both play the music and perform all the marching steps at the same time. For me, this was harder than rubbing my belly and patting my head simultaneously. So I prayed about it and decided to memorize all my music. This may seem like a drastic solution, but I found that I was able to memorize the music very quickly, and that freed me to perform the steps without the distraction of having to read the sheet music.

Homework became an entirely new experience for me. Walking home after school (or rather, after cross-country practice), I would talk with God about the things I had learned that day and I’d say, “What did you think about such-and-such?” or “What’s your take on X?” Theologically, I suppose I was very naïve, talking with God as if He were my companion and asking Him for His “opinion.” But I knew He was God and I didn’t rank His point of view on an even plane with mine or anyone else’s. This was just my amateurish way of opening myself up to Him in every avenue of my life. I knew that the teachers and the writers of the textbooks were limited in their understanding, and I wanted God to fill me in on some of what they were missing. I believe that happened sometimes. No, I didn’t get direct answers to my questions, but I did find that something like this would happen: I would tell God what I thought, and then questions would come to my mind, challenging me to go deeper or to rethink what I had said. I didn’t experience it as the Voice of God saying things to me, but it was mind-expanding. And that, for me, was something new.

I also found myself speaking up in class. In some cases this was due to the exciting new insights I had gained in my prayers about my homework: I couldn’t wait to share what I had learned. But it was also due to the fact that, as I said a moment ago, I sensed God’s presence with me in my classes. And since His presence was very real to me and I was praying under my breath (so to speak) even while the lecture or discussion was going on, there were times when I felt prompted to ask a question or make a comment, and it felt like the prompting was coming from God. Bear in mind that these were not religious topics, nor did I feel prompted to veer them off into a religious direction. I felt God inviting me to enter more deeply into lectures and discussions about the world – about history, literature, and even mathematics.

All of this was surprising because, quite frankly, I had never heard a Christian talk about these kinds of things, nor had anyone ever told me that these things ought to happen in the life of a Christian. Christianity had always seemed like a Sunday affair, not something that would make a difference Monday-Friday and even Saturday. This also gave me a whole new outlook on what it meant to be Christ’s disciple. A “disciple,” after all, is a student, and I knew that Jesus had been teaching me about His way of life all summer; I just hadn’t realized that He would oversee my high school education as well.

All of this came as a great surprise and incredibly good news. But there were more surprises to come…

Surprises 3: Creative Ideas

I’ve been telling you about the things that surprised me when I became a Christian. Here’s a third surprise: creative ideas (not of a religious nature) came to me more than ever before.

From early in elementary school, I had drawn comic strips and then moved on to writing juvenile novels. Some of my teachers encouraged me, and one of them even asked me to write a play for our sixth-grade puppet show. A short story that I wrote was serialized in our seventh-grade newsletter.

I expected that to stop when I became a Christian. Or at least I thought God would only want me to write religious stories. Instead, my mind became alive with creative ideas that had no religious content. I would read the New Testament gospels and ponder them seriously, and at the same time would dream up stories.

It was during this time, I believe, that I started wanting to write scripts for a soap opera aimed at guys. There was a daytime show on at the time called The Edge of Night, about detectives trying to fight “the Mob,” and I had ideas for a soap opera of my own. Since it would be in the form of scripts, I became obsessed with learning to type.  I went through my mom’s mail-order catalogues for Sears and other stores and cut out pictures of typewriters. (We did not have a typewriter in our house.) I used to place my fingers on the keys and try to teach myself to type. At one point I asked my older sister to teach me, since she had taken typing class in school, but we found it really wasn’t possible to teach someone to type on a picture of a typewriter. So I started trying to make hand-written scripts for my soap opera, but I didn’t get very far.

The story ideas came anyway, and in lots of different forms. Here is just one example: I had an idea for a cartoon entitled, “Beware of Dog.” I thought I might be able to film it using our family’s Super 8 movie camera, even though that device was not ideal for doing animation. I drew up a story board in pencil on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, and I created some of the background art using felt-tipped markers. I even went to a local craft store to buy cellophane in sheets, and an assortment of Artex paints. (I should mention, by the way, that I always hated art class in school and did poorly in it.) Bringing these home, I painted a series of images of the main character (a mailman) on the cellophane sheets. I now had my opening shot: the cellophane mailman was going to walk down the street, which was one of the pieces of background art I had already completed on a long roll of paper.

That initial shot taught me how hard it was to do animation using a home movie camera. It takes thousands of frames of artwork to make a ten-minute cartoon, and I had already done an enormous amount of work on the opening scene. I also discovered that I had a major lighting problem. Professionally-made cartoons were (in those days) done entirely on cellophane (including the background), and each frame was placed on a recording device that was back-lit, allowing the entire frame to be uniformly illuminated. Lacking that technology, I had created opaque backgrounds and intended to place my moving pieces (painted on cellophane) on top of the backgrounds, then light them from over my shoulder. That didn’t work, however, because the light source reflected off my cellophane. I tried moving it, but it didn’t matter where I put the light; it reflected so brightly that it obscured my art work. I kept trying diffuse light sources (outside in the shade, for example), but nothing worked very well.

The real show-stopper, though, was money. I needed a tripod to hold the camera still, and I needed an endless supply of cellophane and paints – all of which cost money. I never made a firm decision to give up on the project, but it also never quite got off the ground.

Anyway, the very fact that this kind of idea came to me while I was learning to be a Christian was a very pleasant surprise. I didn’t think God would care about these kinds of projects, and yet I found myself getting these ideas more and more after giving my life to Christ.

Let me show you a couple of excerpts from “Beware of Dog.”

Once upon a time in a quiet residential neighborhood…

…a mailman is making his rounds.

(In the frame below, pay attention to the neighbor sitting on his porch, watering his bush. He’s going to figure prominently in this story.)


This mailman has a bad habit. He likes to read people’s mail before he delivers it. Here he is looking both ways to make sure he’s not detected…

 

… and what he finds inside the envelope is a draft notice. (This was during the Vietnam Conflict.) As you may have noticed, I couldn’t find just the right Artex pigment for skin color, so the mailman’s face and hands are purple.)

 

(That was as far as I got with the full-color artwork. From this point on, I’ll have to take the pictures from the storyboard.)

The mailman puts the letter back into the envelope and tries to deliver it, but the owner of the house has a ferocious dog…

 

The dog chases the mailman and there’s a scuffle…



 

The mailman gets out of the yard and hides on the other side of the gate…

 


…but the dog reaches over the top of the gate and reveals a set of claws.

 

The neighbor I pointed out to you earlier comes to clean up the resulting mess…

 

 



This sets up the premise for the rest of the cartoon. The mailman has to deliver that draft notice in time for the recipient to appear for service on September 22nd, but the dog will punish him every time he tries. And there’s plenty of punishment to go around, as the unfortunate neighbor keeps getting drawn into the conflict.

For example, in the scene below the mailman has finally succeeded in reaching the house (although he’s lost his hat in the process), only to discover that the dog is hiding in the mailbox…



The dog’s so mad, he punches the mailman, sending him flying over the fence…


…and he lands in the lap of the poor unfortunate neighbor, who’s relaxing on a cot with a glass of lemonade…

The cot folds up with both of them inside, and the neighbor waddles away…

 

The seasons change from spring to summer and summer to fall. Aware of the deadline, the mailman takes ever-greater risks, and things go from bad to worse. The hapless neighbor keeps getting dragged into the action despite his efforts to stay out of it.

Winter comes and there’s a huge snowfall. (Although we sometimes have snow in October here in Michigan, it’s rare to have a big snowfall like this. I don’t know what I was thinking.)

 

The unfortunate neighbor is out shoveling, and his eyes bug out when he sees the mailman coming. He boards up the front door of his house, crawls in through the window, and barricades himself in.

But the mailman is busy looking at the next house, and he can’t believe what he sees. The owner of the house (and the dog) is out in front of his house, shoveling snow.

The guy turns out to be a hippy. Just as the mailman delivers the draft notice (which is now weeks overdue)…

 

…the police arrive and arrest the hippy for draft evasion…


As the mailman stands there knowing he’s responsible, the puzzled dog reads the letter and realizes his master isn’t coming back anytime soon.


 

The dog decides he’d better be nice to the mailman…


But his lick is worse than his bite, and he accidentally swallows his nemesis.





The point of all this is that I never expected a life with Christ to be so much fun. I thought I’d just have to read the scriptures and go to church all the time. It never occurred to me that God would not only condone the kinds of things I liked doing (creating stories) but would actually give me ideas.

I gave my life to Christ the summer before my freshman year of high school, and in the fall of that year my creative writing teacher wrote something interesting in the margin of one of my papers: “How on earth did you ever think of this?” We were supposed to write an ending to the story “The Lady or the Tiger,” and as the title suggests, there were two alternative endings. I prayed about it and came up with a third alternative. (If you’re interested in that story, I told about it in detail on a YouTube video some time ago.)

A few years later, as editor of the high school newspaper, I would create a list of stories I thought we should cover for each issue, over and above any that the staff came up with. I wanted it to be an interesting paper that both students and faculty would look forward to reading. At one of our meetings, a girl on the staff said, “How do you come up with all these ideas?”

“I pray about it,” I told her.

“What did you say?” she asked, and the girl beside her said, “He prays about it,” then shot her a look as if to say, Don’t encourage him.

I realized as soon as I did it that the answer was so unexpected, it was kind of like a splash of cold water in the face. But it was as big a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. Who knew that God would care about a high school newspaper and help the editor make it more interesting?

Over the years, I’ve heard the same thing again and again. Recently I finished writing another novel entitled Eminent Domain and asked my family and a few friends to read it. (I’ve been making inquiries to agents for the past several months and will continue to do so until I find representation for it.) Almost everybody had the same response, in one form or another: “How do you come up with these things!”

I’m not saying you have to be a Christian to get creative ideas. I’m just saying I never thought those two things were related… until I became a Christian.

Surprises 2: Laughter

In my last post I said that I was surprised in a number of ways after I gave my life to Christ, and I told you about one of those surprises. Here’s another one: I was surprised at the role that laughter began to play in my life.

Sure, there was an initial giddiness – a light-heartedness – that came along with my decision. The sky seemed bluer at first, colors seemed more vivid, and the world just took on a brighter aspect. And as part of all that, I did laugh a lot that summer. But that’s not what I mean.

After I became a Christian, I was surprised to discover that I had a gift for making others laugh. This surprised me because I thought I would become more serious as a follower of Jesus. In the months leading up to my decision, I saw the 1959 version of the movie Ben-Hur on television and was deeply impressed by it. “If that’s what it means to be a Christian,” I thought, “then that would be really cool.” In other words, it would be really cool to walk and talk like Charlton Heston, standing tall and speaking in a commanding voice. And later on, when I saw him playing Moses in The Ten Commandments, I was sure that that was just how I wanted to be. (Although I have to confess I liked him better before he saw the burning bush than afterwards.) I wanted to be a tower of strength like that.

Instead, I found myself making people laugh. I had never done that before, except with some of my friends. After I became a Christian, I began speaking up more around others, including adults (see the previous post) and found that I could not only make them laugh, but they seemed to have that expectation the more they got to know me. It wasn’t that I told jokes with punchlines; I just started making funny comments that were prompted by whatever was happening at the moment. I noticed this happening, but it became even more obvious one day when my older brother told me that his friends had been talking about me and they all mentioned how entertaining I was.

Instead of being flattered, I was disappointed. I wanted to be dynamic like Charlton Heston, and instead I was perceived as a comedian.

It took me a while to realize what a blessing it is for people to be able to laugh, especially in groups, without the conversation turning raunchy or mean-spirited. I learned over time that comedy could even be a form of team-building. I was disappointed at first because I wanted to be a leader; I didn’t understand that my comedic abilities could disarm people, help them feel more comfortable with each other, and encourage them to work together.

Starting with the Gospel of Matthew, I read through all the synoptic gospels that summer. I can’t remember whether I got as far as the Gospel of John before school started. I do remember that I was fascinated, and that I read the scriptures prayerfully, asking God questions all along the way and recognizing that I was being addressed by God through the text. Nothing was more important to me than learning about Jesus and becoming his kind of man (13-year-old man, that is). That’s why I was so surprised to find myself making people laugh. It didn’t seem biblical. Jesus didn’t make people laugh (as far as I could tell), and he seemed so serious. In retrospect, though, I realize that the message was getting down deep into my life – so deep that the Lord of Life was bubbling up into my conscious experience in ways I couldn’t repress. And it was coming out as laughter.

Only years later did I realize how natural this was: the progression from a deeply-earnest stance of faith to a sense of mirth that can’t stay bottled up. I was taking a college course on Ancient Greek Theater (the plays of Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles), and one day the professor was explaining that tragedy and comedy, in the ancient Greek world, grew out of very different views of life. Tragic theater was based on a deeply-felt belief in the utter meaningless of life – the sense that nothing anybody does can make a difference. Comedy, on the other hand, was nurtured by the insight that life is fundamentally sound, and that goodness is ultimate. The professor explained that that was why the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, centuries later, called his great masterpiece The Divine COMEDY – not because it was funny but because it was based on the belief that Goodness (in this case, the goodness of God) was ultimate, and would have the last word. Then the professor said something I had never considered. “The New Testament gospels,” he said, “are comedies.”

It took me a long time to understand what he meant, but once I finally got the point, I realized that I had already experienced it for myself. During the summer of 1971, I began to internalize Christ’s amazing claims about the goodness of God. The more I let his teachings work on me, the more confident I became that life was fundamentally good (something I wasn’t too sure of as an eighth-grader). As a result I felt playful, and sometimes I just couldn’t help like laughing for joy. And I’ve been doing that – or at least chuckling – ever since.

Surprises 1: Things Happened

I mentioned recently that I became a disciple of Jesus Christ the summer before my freshman year of high school. After I committed my life to Christ, however, I was surprised about a number of things. Over the next several posts, I’ll share some of those surprises.

I don’t know how to put the first surprise into words other than to say that “things happened” after I became a Christian. I don’t just mean that I started seeing my prayers answered, although I did, and I’ll tell you more about that in another post. What I mean instead is something more mundane.

One of the motivating factors in my coming to Christ was the feeling that nothing of any great importance ever happened to me. I was a budding young writer, and I had written a number of book-length stories which I called novels, but all the excitement in my life up to that time had happened in my head. In fact, that was one of the main reasons why I started writing novels: to bring to full expression my rich inner life which seemed so much more exciting than real life.

In a very basic way, that changed the summer I became a Christian.

Interesting things started happening to me. Grownups started noticing me and talking to me, and they didn’t talk down to me. It was like I had been invisible before, and now I wasn’t. I should mention here that more than 6 months passed before I told anyone about my commitment to Christ. It was so deeply personal that I didn’t want it cheapened by conversation with others. My family was very religious, and I wasn’t ready at first to have my Christian commitment rejoiced over, analyzed, criticized, and everything else that I knew would go along with a public declaration. So when I say that grownups suddenly started noticing me and talking to me, I’m not referring to church people who approved of my becoming a Christian. I mean that people on the street – complete strangers – started saying hello to me, conversing with me, and treating me like I existed. Who knows… maybe I carried myself differently now that I was a Christian. Maybe I looked at them differently. I suppose I did. All I can say is that the dynamic changed. I became a vital part of my environment in a way that I had never been before.

But there’s more. When I say “things happened,” I also mean that I started having experiences of my own: funny, interesting, out-of-the-ordinary things started happening to me as I went out on my paper route or rode my bike or went with my family to the beach. Just a few short months before, I had embarrassed myself setting an after-school appointment with one of my eighth-grade teachers, asking him if we could please do something (I don’t even remember what it was) that he had done with students the previous year. One of my brothers, who was a year older than me, had spoken in glowing terms of whatever-it-was, and I felt cheated that the teacher wasn’t going to do that same activity with us. I say it was embarrassing because this particular teacher wasn’t very sympathetic and couldn’t figure out why I was meddling in his business. What I was unable to express to him at that time was my deep disappointment that nothing interesting ever happened to me, and I was simply trying to orchestrate something that had happened the year before, in my brother’s experience in that class.

But now, after I gave my life to Christ, I no longer found it necessary to re-enact experiences that my older brothers or older sister had had, because I started having my own interesting experiences. In fact, from that time onward my life started along an entirely different trajectory from the paths that my older siblings took. Again, I don’t mean that my life was more religious than theirs; I just mean that I started following my own path. I also don’t mean that I started having earth-shattering experiences; I just started having experiences that were my own and that were worth coming home and talking about. And I had never had that before. But in the months and years ahead, it happened more and more. In fact, some of my friends said, on random occasions over the years, “Things happen to you!” Meaning, you don’t just go door-to-door collecting newspapers for the high school band’s paper drive; you have funny, charming, or even absurd encounters with the people at the homes you visit.

And there’s one more thing I’m trying to convey. Just days or weeks after I gave my life to Christ, I was in the mall with my mom and my older siblings and one of my older sister’s teachers happened to cross my mind. This was not someone I would be taking a class from soon, or perhaps ever, because he only taught upper-level students and I didn’t like the subject he taught. I really can’t tell you why I thought about him. There was absolutely no connection between him and me. And yet, I had no sooner seen his face in my mind than he rounded the corner at the mall and we stopped to converse with him. I don’t mean to say that becoming a Christian made me see the future or anything like that; I just mean that coincidences started happening at that time in my life, and they’ve been happening with greater regularity ever since. Some of them seem significant and many of them don’t, but it just struck me as odd that “things happened” like that once I gave my life to Christ.

I hope you can see why this was all a surprise to me. There’s nothing religious about what I’ve told you, and yet there is something very meaningful about it. I felt like I had come alive, more alive than I had ever been before. And that, I soon learned, was the reason Christ had come into the world, that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). I just never would have predicted that it would play out in such a mundane way.

A Faith That Matters Monday-Friday

I’ve worked in call centers for over 20 years. I started as an operator for Western Union in the early 1990s and was promoted to operations manager. After 4 years there, I left to get my doctorate in Philosophy from Saint Louis University. Unable to obtain a tenure track position, I went back to work as a customer service representative (CSR) in the fall of 2000, and I taught college courses at night. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

Call centers have high turnover, and for good reason. Our life is regimented. Our supervisors know when we go to the restroom and ask us about it if we go too often. We’re given scripts and are not supposed to deviate from them. We’re told to use the customer’s name X number of times during the call and to avoid words like “no” and “unfortunately” even when the answer truly is “no… unfortunately.”

And yet it is within this environment that I have experienced God again and again. Despite all the negative aspects of the job, I have sensed God calling me to help the people on the other end of the phone, and I have had my prayers answered repeatedly as I have asked for God’s assistance. I know firsthand what the Apostle Paul means when he says, “For it is God who works within you, both to work for his purpose and to want to” (Philippians 2:13, my translation from the Greek).

As I said in my book, Customer Service and the Imitation of Christ:

“If we’re serious about imitating Christ then we shouldn’t be satisfied thinking of ourselves as CSRs or computer programmers, attorneys or copy editors, realtors or police officers. We know that we’re infinitely more than the individual roles we play in society. All together, we’re the body of Christ. Through us – through all of us who profess him as Teacher, Savior, and Lord – Christ wants to bless and redeem the world. We must all do our part in every way we can, even on the job. Those of us who are CSRs are especially fortunate, for customer service work provides us with unique opportunities… Every phone call is a fresh chance for Christ to serve someone through us. And as we let that happen, the Kingdom of God advances.

“Maybe that sounds grandiose, but that’s the good news: that Christ knows us and has redeemed each of us individually and is calling all of us collectively to be agents of change in this world by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we take that mandate seriously, it will affect everything we do. Everything. Even our jobs. Even the job of customer service.”

 

A Dynamic Personality

I gave my life to Christ because of a sermon. The preacher had a dynamic personality, and he explained in a clear and forthright manner what my life could be like if I became a Christian. What he said excited my imagination. I wanted the life he described. Except the sermon wasn’t live: I read about it in a book… the Gospel of Matthew, to be exact. And the preacher was Jesus of Nazareth.

I read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in a children’s illustrated version of the King James Bible one summer’s evening when I was thirteen years old, and it spoke directly to me in a deeply personal way.  I couldn’t sleep that night. I just sat up in bed talking to the Preacher about His sermon. Although I had never had much interest in religion and had not, until that night, made a serious effort at reading the Bible, I wanted more than anything to know Him. I felt like He knew me very well, and that’s what made it so exciting. That night, I committed my life to Him and told Him I’d spend the rest of my life serving Him and getting to know Him better.

What was it about the Sermon on the Mount – and the Preacher – that so captured my imagination? It was His vision of how my life could be. I had spent the 8th grade trying to stay under the radar. We had a few bullies at our school, and I prided myself on staying out of their line of vision. But Jesus said those days were over for me. “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid,” He said. From now on, He wanted me in plain view, “so that others may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.”

He described a life in which I would stand up to the bullies, not out of anger but out of compassion – a life in which I would voluntarily travel with them two miles instead of letting them compel me to walk a mile with them – a life in which I would be so concerned about their welfare that I would pray for them and bless them even while they were persecuting and cursing me.

But He talked about many more subjects than just bullies. He said I could know God intimately and could have my prayers answered routinely, so much so that I could have peace of mind even in the bleakest financial circumstances. He told me that He didn’t want me to become overtly religious, displaying my piety for others to see. Instead of focusing attention on myself and on my own goodness, He charted out a way of life in which I would always strive to see the best in others, to understand them and care about them and, most of all, not judge them.

This didn’t sound like religion to me. It seemed to me like this dynamic personality – Jesus – had inserted himself into the story of my life just before I was about to begin my freshman year of high school and was offering me an alternative future. I felt like it was a new beginning for me.

It was indeed. And my life has never been the same since.

On this warm summer’s evening, it almost seems like yesterday…

Peace and Quiet

There aren’t too many churches going in this direction these days, but 100 years ago the Congregationalist minister Lloyd C. Douglas thought that the church’s great gift to the larger community ought to be “one solid hour” of peace and quiet.

I’ve quoted him on this subject in the two most recent entries on my new Lloyd C. Douglas page. Click on the link to go there.

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