I was one month shy of my twentieth birthday when, on a Thursday night in my little fraternity-house bedroom at Lehigh University, I knelt next to the stale-beer-smelling bed and surrendered to Jesus Christ.
It wasn’t as if I were making a cool, rational decision. And clearly, neither was it a heat-of-the-moment emotional experience that motivated me. I would say the best description is that I was overshadowed, or overwhelmed, by the truth as my friend Jerry had presented it to me two days earlier. One of my cardinal rules of life is “Never let the salesman close the deal,” and I had resisted Jerry’s attempts to get a decision out of me that afternoon. I needed time and space to think about it. But the intervening days merely confirmed to my conscience what Jerry had said: I was alienated from God. I didn’t know him in the way that the New Testament describes.
I had been going to church my whole life. In retrospect, my whole church experience was centered on self-aggrandizement. The church provided a convenient context for a bright and musically-inclined individual to promote himself and gratify his ego. I sang in the choir, I composed pieces for the organist to play during Offertory, I was the president of the youth group.
Through all those years of going to church no one ever hinted at the idea that a person ought to, or even could, be “born again.”
Once at college, I immediately met a new social group, the “Christians,” who seemed to offer the same sort of opportunities for ego-gratification as I enjoyed in my high-school days at the church. However, I quickly spotted the difference. These were REAL Christians. These were people who not only read the Bible regularly (and not just the Book of Revelation), but quoted it and worried about things like how to “apply” it.
I fled that group as quickly as I could. But God (through both Jerry and a wonderful Christian girl who had a crush on me) pursued me. Eventually I came around. How did I know it had worked, you ask? Well, I wondered that myself. My little room at the fraternity house didn’t fill with angels and light. It still smelled like stale beer. But there was a magical moment the next day, when I picked up one of those little paperback New Testaments that the campus groups are always handing out (like “Good News For Modern Man” or something). I remember looking at 1 Corinthians, and feeling something I had never felt befoire when reading the Bible: This is speaking to me. It was no abstract text any longer. This is a letter to me. Definitely I had changed overnight. I was “born again.”
Plus, I got to marry the girl. All part of the plan.
I have undergone two “faith crises” since then. The first one I call my “Grace Awakening.” I was ten years into my Christian life when I found myself in the office of a counselor, lamenting my depressed state and wondering what happened to the “joy of my salvation.” Patiently my interlocutor listened to my lament, and offered me two verses to meditate on:
If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. Psalm 130:3-4
I know that everything God has done will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken away from it. God does this so that men will fear him. Ecclesiastes 3:14
I dutifully did my homework and meditated away. After a few days, a light went on. The fear of the Lord (“the beginning of wisdom”) begins with my understanding of his absolute forgiveness — on His terms, not mine — and his absolute sovereignty. This was such a freeing discovery that I immediately snapped out of my doldrums and started writing songs again. I still believe that these two considerations are the key to mental health as a Christian.
My second faith-crisis was a dalliance with atheism. I had, through the wonder of the Internet, re-discovered an old, dear high-school friend and begun an e-mail correspondence. He offered that he had fully embraced atheism (and announced it to his strong Catholic family) about the time of his 28th birthday. I have always found myself at the mercy of a strong, persuasive personality, and Mark is certainly that. Without missing a Sunday of church, I operated effectively as an atheist in my thinking for at least a full year. I was alarmed at how easily my convictions vanished, once their foundation had given way. In the end I was rescued by one mental problem that I could not reconcile — imagine, atheism falling victim to reasoned objections, right? — that a world without deities must necessarily also lack reason. There was no longer any basis, as an atheist, for me to believe that my thoughts were rational. They might as well be the product of chemical impulses over which I have no control. Therefore I cannot trust them, and therefore all my conclusions based on reason — including atheism — were invalidated.
I suddenly found myself back on the side of the chasm where I had started.
The after-effects of that experience have resulted in a much more humble and less judgmental Christian. I am much more sympathetic to people of no faith, or who adhere to a more liturgical or visual/sensory approach. The point is to trust in Jesus for salvation (which for some people, young children, say, or people with diminished mental / communication capacity, may not even be a conscious thing, as the rest of us understand it) . Everything else is window-dressing.
I still write songs, and books. I always feel as though I am just scraping the surface of the infinite wisdom of God, though, and it inspires me to get a bigger trowel and dig deeper. But looking at it another way, my objective in life is to snuggle up to God (“like a weaned child” – not clamoring for provision, but just contented and peaceful) and bask in his goodness and comforting presence.
My heart is not proud, O Lord; my eyes are not haughty.
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, both now and forevermore.