Thursday, February 9, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Ye shall know them by their fruits

Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
- Galatians 5:20-23

Ye shall know them by their fruits.
- Matthew 7:16

The dream of every Evangelical Christian is to lead the lost heathen to a relationship with Jesus and the gift of hope for an everlasting paradise. I was no exception. My former drinking buddies at work, who were surely baffled by my mysterious and sudden pious behavior, were my new mission field. I spent most every day on the prep line in the restaurant I worked in, talking about Jesus to them. When I was not talking about Jesus to them, I was playing recorded Pastor Skip sermons on the cassette player. If I was not doing that, I considered myself as ‘living a witness’, that is, behaving so that they would surely know that I was a new creature in Christ. I wanted them to find my behavior and personality as Godly and attractive, so that they too would want to come to know Jesus. I was called to be the Salt of the Earth, so just as salt places a thirst on the tongue and gives food its savor, I was to live in such a way that they would want to imitate. I tried to live with the Fruits of the Spirit in full view of everybody. Sorry, I was not allowed to try – that would have been forcing the fruits of the Spirit with my own sinful and weak flesh, and that was not allowed. The Spirit was not under my command. Rather, I prayed to Jesus fill me with His Holy Spirit, and fill me with dunamis, power, to shine forth with the Fruits of love, joy and peace. My friends could not see me get angry. They could not see me get impatient. They could not see me drink, smoke or cuss like I used to. They had to see a new creature in Christ, and a miraculously transformed life.

The problems that I faced with this lifestyle started almost immediately. How does one live with the love of the Holy Spirit, that is, love which is greater than the love of my heathen friends? How could I attain that selfless, divine, agape love that I always heard about from Pastor Skip? How could I have joy that was greater than theirs, or patience, or goodness? After all, my workmates and friends were not criminals and reprobates. They were mostly college students and single parents. They treated each other, from what I could tell, with as much love and compassion as I could reasonably expect from any civilized human. They were not the caricatures of villains or sinners like I read about in Chick tracts. They were not out murdering, slandering and backbiting. They were just… normal people. But the fact remained that I had to be better than them because I was filled with the Holy Spirit. If I could not live my witness as a New Creature of Jesus Christ, then they would not be able to tell the difference between the Sinner and the Saint. So I had to pray to Jesus give me the power to make my hyper-moral life stand above the background noise of worldly morality. I was bought with the Blood of Jesus after all.

The cassette player was always on, entertaining us in the food prep room. We usually swapped turns with cassettes. A former drinking buddy of mine had an old AC/DC cassette playing:

I’ve got big balls
I’ve got big balls
They’re such big balls
And they’re dirty big balls
And he’s got big balls
And she’s got big balls
But we’ve got the biggest balls of them all!

I looked at my friend with the same expression I used to see on Brother Ed’s face when he conveyed disgust at my rock music. “Can you turn that stuff down? I cannot believe I used to listen to that kind of music!”

“What happened to you? You used to be cool! Why don’t you pull that stick out of your ass!”

And with that little exchange, I learned that moral purity was not the same as being a sanctimonious jerk. So just what was I supposed to do? I did not for a second think that I was morally superior to anybody simply because I no longer cussed, but how else was I to be distinguished from the unwashed heathen? And how was I to do it without trying to do it? What did it mean to live for Jesus and express myself by the Fruits of the Spirit?

Needless to say, I took my new Christian beliefs very, very seriously. I was somehow supposed to be morally superior, to exhibit Spiritual Fruits, yet do it in such a way that it was not me who was striving, but the Spirit working through me. What it boiled down to was prayer. When a prayer like “Jesus give me strength, work through me with the power of the Holy Spirit - I ask that you mold me more into Your image” was repeated over and over, constantly throughout the day, every day of the week, it becomes a mantra. It was the same problem that I faced when trying to find the Will of God for my life. How many sermons, taped messages and pamphlets did I run across with titles like, “How to Discover God’s Will for Your Life”? It boiled down to Bible Study and prayer. So I prayed, “Please God, show me Your special purpose for me”, over and over, countless times, hoping somehow to discover God’s divine message. Little did I know at the time that prayer does work, but the power is in the act of prayer itself. The act of repetitious prayers and chants is what brings about the change. The power was in me the whole time. Sometimes it worked. Mostly it failed.

Because of my odd working hours, it was not unusual for me to stay up all night and sleep during the day. The Calvary Connection, a recording of a recent Skip Heitzig sermon, was broadcast on the radio every morning at 2AM. I remember that I was preparing to do laundry but I needed quarters for the coin operated machines. If I could hurry my walk of three blocks to the nearest all-night diner and get change, I could make it back in time to catch Pastor Skip on the radio. So I quickly walked to the diner and got my change. On the way back, I cut a corner through the parking lot of a Howard Johnsons hotel. There was no traffic at that hour of the evening. The night was dark and quiet until a van raced from behind and swerved in front of me, cutting off my path. The driver jumped out of the van and ran towards me, yelling at me not to move. I stood frozen, more out of the sudden shock than a need to obey his orders. Just half a second before, it was a peaceful walk. The next thing I knew I was being tackled on the pavement of the parking lot.

“I got you, fucker! Where are the others?”
“Where are the others!” He was sitting on me and grappling my legs into some kind of lock.
“I am here alone. There are no others”
He punched me in my lower rib area. “Where are the others, you piece of shit?” I saw you with those other people. I saw you messing with the cars! Where are they?”

Then I understood. He was either plain clothes hotel security or else the night hotel desk attendant. He thought I was a vandal out causing trouble with some kids. The situation did not look good. I was out alone, walking through a hotel parking lot at 2AM. I had very long hair, a beard, and was admittedly more than a little shady looking. There were probably some troublesome kids on the other side of the parking lot, and he thought I was one of them. That’s it. Simple enough. He must have me confused with one of them. Despite how bad it looked for me, I figured I could get out of it. I knew I was innocent. I inwardly prayed. I stayed calm. God was placing me in this situation for a reason. This unhinged renta-cop was my new witness field.

He was a short, muscular man, maybe in his mid-40s. He got behind me, bent my arm into a chicken wing, and led me into the hotel lobby. There was nobody around. I do not even remember hotel staff being present, just him. With my arm twisted behind my back, he led me into a small room behind the back office, forced me in and threw me to the floor.

“What were you doing out there, mother fucker!?” I calmly tried to explain what I was doing. I lived in the apartments next door. I needed to do laundry. I went to the diner opposite from the hotel for some change. I was headed back to my apartment. You tackled me. You can call the waitress at the diner to confirm the story if you want.

“LIAR! I ought to kick your fucking teeth in!” He reared his leg back to kick me, and his pointed-toe cowboy boot stopping just inches from my nose. I did not budge. I prayed intensely inside. I did not move, I did not resist, and I was not even afraid. I knew Jesus was on my side protecting me. I just sat on the floor and watched that book swing to strike my face. He did stop himself, probably because he imagined the lawsuits that would come his way if he did injure me. But I am fully confident that I was prepared to take a full blow to my face with that wild kick.

“FUCK!!” He yelled in frustration. He told me that he was calling the police and that I was in a lot of trouble. He left me in the room and locked the door behind him.

I remained on the floor in that locked office room until the police came. I prayed intensely. “Dear Jesus, give me strength to turn the other cheek. Give me the courage to forgive. Give me the power of the Holy Spirit, give me the power to show them your Christian Love!”

The police finally came. The guard told his story to them, then they unlocked the door and let me speak. One police officer questioned me, and the other surveyed the area. I was overly polite. I was extremely courteous and cooperative. I answered all his questions fully and honestly, without a shred of hostility in my tone or my voice. They questioned the guard again, compared notes and then finally reached their verdict. Both policemen and the guard stood in front of me, and the lead officer said to me,

“I have to let you go. We have no evidence that you did anything wrong. But I will tell you my honest opinion. I think you are up to no good. I think you did vandalize some cars out in the parking lot. It is late, you are out here all alone in the streets, and besides if you were really innocent you would be screaming bloody murder and demanding to press charges. You are too cooperative. I don’t trust you. Understand, that is just my opinion, and I cannot prove anything. But I am telling you so you know to watch yourself next time you go for a stroll in the middle of the night.”

All three men were silent. I was being excused. But I felt that God was opening a door of opportunity that I could not pass up. I jumped at it.

“Thank you officer, but I need to let you know something. I am a born again Christian, and Jesus has given me the power to love you all, and I believe that I should not seek vengeance. That is why I did not strike out. I did it for the sake of Jesus Christ. God Bless you all.”

All three of them looked away from me as I gave my short speech – which I took to be a sure sign that they were convicted of their internal sins! The Holy Ghost had surely worked through me that glorious evening. I uttered not one angry word. I did not seek revenge or threaten lawsuits. I did not insist on my innocence. Instead, I was a witness for my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Someday, these three men may look back on that young man that they were certain was a criminal, and who instead showed them the divine love of Christ. I walked the short distance back to my apartment room, singing worship songs the whole way. My God is an awesome God!

I considered this event to be my most significant act of piety and faith, and the greatest and most selfless demonstration of my Spiritual Fruits that I would ever exhibit as a Christian. Simple encounters and incidents like this confirmed to me that prayer worked. I was never foolish enough to pray to God for what I considered trivial things. Prayer was a direct hotline to God, and I should never use it frivolously. I don’t think I ever prayed to satisfy selfish desires. I never prayed for extra money, or a better job, or good health. My life was given to me by God to be a mission field and an opportunity for Him, and I thanked God for the life that He had given me. I had seen the worst of life, and now that I had given my life to Jesus, I was seeing the best of it. Thank you Jesus!

I did my best to be a good witness for Jesus Christ at work. I sometimes put Bible quotes attributed to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ on the kitchen bulletin board. I always introduced myself by saying ‘Praise the Lord’ instead of merely using my name. I witnessed constantly, trying to convince others of the loving and forgiving grace of Jesus. I invited many people to attend Calvary Chapel with me, and even had some success at that. I was spent most of the day looking for any opportunity that I could to witness to a friend in the restaurant. I would try to subtly guide any trivial conversation into a conversation that contained eternal consequences. The terrible gravity of my purpose in life made me preoccupied with evangelism. Guilt and evangelistic fervor drove me, and I must have been a terrible nuisance to my friends. I moved every few months from one wretched apartment to another, so I was always alternating between walking, riding my bike, or taking the bus to work. Usually I rode my bike. Every day as I prepared for work I prayed that Jesus would open some witnessing opportunity for me, and that the Holy Sprit would soften the hearts of those who would hear His message. The stress that I felt was sometimes terrible. I was young and single, with a relatively simple job and few responsibilities, yet I would have grinding headaches that would pierce my temples. The thought of my friends suffering eternal damnation had become an unbearable burden. The unfathomable joy that I was supposed to feel was overwhelmed with the guilt I felt for not effectively witnessing my Faith. As I peddled to work on my bike, I continued to pray, asking Jesus to give me strength and to help put wisdom into my mouth as I spoke to others about His loving grace. Which makes the day I stopped myself mid-prayer seem so striking to me now. I was fully hypnotized by the need to evangelize, and sold out to Jesus. Then one day, peddling to work, as I was praying,

“Dear Jesus, give me strength. Give me strength. Show me what to say. Give me wisdom. Send your Holy Spirit…”

I stopped my bike. I sat up and I told myself, out loud,

“You are just repeating the same thing over and over. You are not talking to God. You are just psyching yourself up.”

I suddenly realized that I was just chanting a mantra. It was no different than the athlete who cheers his team on before the big game, or when our old sales crew had sung songs to motivate us to sell door-to-door vacuum cleaners. I was pressuring Faith and Strength into my body just by repeating a chant and forcing belief. I suddenly had the thought cross my mind that there was nothing supernatural in any of this. All the power was generated in my will. It was all from me. That simple, short and blasphemous thought was shocking enough to me that I remember that very moment to this day, some 22 years later.

My mind was struggling with the divergent and conflicting ideas about where my moral and spiritual strength came from. I was fully convinced that Jesus was my Savior, the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, and held the rest of the Evangelical party line. I was convinced because I had witnessed for myself how Jesus had turned my life around. As the song goes, “I was blind, but now I see”, and when you are held under the power of such beliefs, it really does feel as if your former, faithless beliefs were like unto being blind – even dead. I believed that my true life had only started on the evening I walked forward to the church stage at Calvary Chapel, and had voluntarily given my life to Jesus by my own freewill. I knew firsthand how miserable I was without Jesus, and how joyful I was with Him in my life. How could any of that change in my life possibly happen without His miraculous power? But the other side of the dichotomy came when I fully surveyed my feelings. I could secretly feel that my prayers to Jesus were becoming indistinguishable from just talking to myself. The joy that I felt was mostly a result of Pastor Skip telling me that I had to feel joy, and my new Christian friends telling me how joyous they always felt. If I dared search deep enough, I often felt just as miserable as I felt before I met Jesus. My thoughts were centered on Evangelizing to my lost and dying friends and family, and the guilt I felt if I dared think of my own needs over those of the Heathen. How dare I watch secular television or go to the movies when there were lost people who needed to meet Jesus? When I think back to those years, I do not actually remember much joy. I remember guilt and stress.

I longed to evangelize to the lost, and wished I could be granted the privilege of actually leading somebody to Salvation through Jesus. I loved hearing stories from Pastor Skip in which he led somebody in prayer to meet Jesus at the park, in the airport, at the beach, in a restaurant – it seemed he had a salvation story for every occasion! How I longed for experience like that! What better way for me to demonstrate my Spiritual Fruits, and demonstrate to myself and everybody else the miracle of salvation and a regenerated life? What a glorious feeling it would be if I could lead somebody to Jesus! If I could feel the joy of leading somebody to Jesus, what could possibly go wrong?

With a lead-in like that, you know what’s coming, right?

Restaurant work is often difficult, fast-paced and frantic. The place I worked at was extremely busy during the lunch hours, and catered to businessmen and women on tight schedules. They had to order anything off the extensive menu, and get it quick with a smile. As calm and pleasant as a restaurant dining room is, always remember that it is often barely controlled chaos behind the kitchen doors. The kitchen manager always scheduled the most valuable cooks during the peak hours, and their duties were crucial. Off hours were more calm, but the lunch rush could be exhausting. Everybody in the kitchen had their assigned positions, and if one person was missing, the whole kitchen staff would suffer. I was often scheduled to work on the pantry station during the afternoon peak hours. My role was crucial, and without me there the kitchen would quickly be buried in untended salad tickets.

I waited at the bus stop for my ride across Albuquerque to the restaurant. I remember waiting at the bus stop for quite a very long time before the bus came. I don’t remember why I arrived early to the bus stop on that particular day, but if I were still a Christian I would have said that the Spirit called me there early that day. I had a divine appointment and purpose to fulfill. I looked around and saw an obviously homeless man sitting by the side of a building near the bus stop. I went over to talk to him. I can still see his face. He was perhaps mid-40s, with long, graying scraggly hair under a stocking cap. He was tall, with very thick hornrimmed glasses. I sat near him and we had a conversation. As I always did, I attempted to turn our conversation towards spiritual matters, and on this day I was successful. As the conversation turned my way, he started to get flustered – not with me, but at something personal within himself, perhaps some painful experience from his past. He told me that he was Jewish, and asked why he should accept Jesus as his Messiah. I knew absolutely nothing about Judaism, except that Jesus was a Jew, so I figured that we were already halfway home. I looked at the time. The bus was running on schedule, in fact, I could see it coming up the road to pick me up and take me to work.

I had to make a fast decision. On the one hand, everybody at work knew that I was a Christian, and I viewed myself as a representative for the Faith and for Jesus Christ. If I missed work during the frantic lunch rush, I would never hear the end of it, not just from the kitchen manager, but also from my friends. They might think that I was a selfish and irresponsible Christian for not making it to work on time. I doubted that I would get fired since my work record was excellent, but that possibility did exist. On the other hand, there was a homeless man here with me, who was obviously hurting. He had a story to tell, and I was there to listen. But more importantly, I saw that he was willing to talk about matters of eternal gravity and was halfway to accepting Jesus as his Savior. He just needed a friend to push him over the edge. He was a transient with no home, and I was afraid that if I got on the bus I would never see him again. There were no coincidences in God’s Plan, and I believed that both of us were there near the bus stop on this particular day by His divine appointment. It was a stressful moment of decision, and I saw no way out of a bad situation.

Should I disappoint my friends and put my Christian reputation and witness at risk, or should I leave this man who was willing to talk about Jesus to continue to wander the streets without an opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus? I had no choice. I knew what I had to do. I watched the bus drive past the stop as I offered him something to eat at a nearby diner.

I did not call the restaurant from a phone booth to let them know I would not make it in. If I did, they might have been able to call another cook in for relief. But I did not call. To put it bluntly, I did not call work because I was a coward. I could not think of a suitable excuse for not coming to work that would satisfy the kitchen manager. “I cannot make it to work because I have to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a homeless man” did not strike me as an excuse anybody was likely to accept. Lying was anathema to my Christian beliefs – I could not be ashamed that I was spreading the Gospel by lying and telling my boss that I had come down with a sudden, nasty cold. Excuse or no excuse, there was no way I was going to avoid getting in a lot of trouble.

We sat in the diner for a few hours and he spoke to me about his life and experiences. He ate soup with bread and told me why he was so disappointed with religion. I told him Jesus was not a religion but a relationship. He asked me if that was what the button I had clipped on my ball cap meant. “Know Jesus Know Peace. No Jesus No Peace”. The lunch crowd in the diner finally dispersed and I could speak more openly and freely. I told him about how wonderful and joyous my life with Jesus was. I told him how he had changed my life from a life as a reprobate sinner, to one of godly hope for eternal life. I told him how rich life was with Jesus, the True Messiah! I brought him to tears. The homeless man cried and stuttered and choked on his snot the same way I did when I gave my life to Jesus. I asked him if he wanted to meet Jesus. He said yes. Please pray this prayer with me: “Dear Jesus, I confess I am a sinner before you, and I want you to forgive me of my sins. I accept you as my Personal….”

With that triumphant victory, I told him I had to get to work. I prayed with him. I sat with him at the bus stop until the next bus came for me. I boarded the bus, looked from the window at him sitting on the bench, and the bus pulled away. I never saw him again. I reeled him in and bagged him, so my duties were over. I get a star on my heavenly crown. See you on the streets of gold, buddy.

I did not feel the overwhelming joy that I expected to feel after leading him to Jesus. I did not feel relief from guilt after successfully evangelizing. Frankly, I felt sick. I don’t know if it was because I was bracing for the consequences of showing up to work several hours late, or if it was because I felt like a parasite after leading an obviously hurting human being to Jesus, then once I converted him, suddenly releasing him to flail away on his own. I scored my touchdown, but felt sick about celebrating.

I walked into the kitchen and the cooks were busy preparing for the evening clientele. They glared at me. I tried my best to sneak onto the line unnoticed and start working with them. I kept quiet but felt foolish and embarrassed.

The kitchen manager stormed up to me. “Nice of you to finally come to work! Where were you?”
“Sorry, I could not make it.”
“What do you mean you ‘could not make it’? Where where you!?”
“I am sorry. It is terribly personal. I cannot really tell you. But I promise you that it will never happen again.” As foolish and cowardly as that sounded, I knew that it was more acceptable than, “I was busy converting a stranger to my religion”. I felt as speechless and inept as I did when I was ten years old, when I sat in a broom closet terrified of explaining to Mrs Cristola that I was crying because I had blasphemed the Holy Ghost. How could I possibly explain these Spiritual concerns to unbelieving heathens?

From that day on, I viewed all Evangelism with particular suspicion. Something in my brain just clicked. I don’t think I ever again evangelized with such fervor, and I was always wary of those around me who did. I remember joining my friends as they evangelized around apartment clubhouses, and we lured the apartment kids with pizza. We would not give them pizza until they listened to our 5-minute sermon. I could see then what a disgusting bait and switch job we were pulling on children. I remember joining my friends as we surrounded strip clubs in ‘circles of prayer’ as some others went inside to evangelize. I remember the pride my friends felt when they dared the owner to call the cops to chase them away – and I kept my cowardly mouth shut. I remember attending a Greg Laurie ‘Harvest Crusade' at the UNM basketball arena. The place was packed to the rafters and I could only find room to sit on an aisle stair. In the middle of Greg Laurie’s preaching, I was told by an usher who worked for Greg Laurie to get off the stair, since there would soon be a flood of people on the stairs responding to the upcoming altar call. I remember wondering how the usher knew that so many people would be responding to an altar call, unless the whole thing was somehow orchestrated in advance. I obediently got up and stood behind the back row, and sure enough, on cue, the floor of the stadium was covered with converts. I was beginning to view evangelism as similar to a stud in a single bar, driven by raging hormones and looking for a one-night stand. Just like the single male stud scouting a young girl, the Evangelist and the Sinner have a ritual complete with body language, a courtship, intimacy, orgasm and eventual abandonment. I spent time with that homeless man, I gave him my Gospel message, I was kind to him, bought him food, then when the right moment came I laid the emotions on thick, made him cry, and prayed a prayer of conversion with him. Then I abandoned him. It was all part of the script, and I recognized it immediately. Similarly, the ‘Harvest Crusade’ usher knew that Greg Laurie would haul in a stadium full of converts, because he always drew in a stadium full of converts. It was part of the script.

It seemed that no matter what I did, I could not figure out how to show others my Christian Faith by my Spiritual Fruits. My attempts to demonstrate my Christian love, hope and peace all seemed to backfire in my face or be plainly insincere. The fact that I could not sincerely demonstrate my divine Gifts of the Spirit, despite constant prayer, despite constantly seeking Jesus and fervently desiring to Evangelize, was a huge step that eventually led to my complete abandonment of my Christian Faith. But there were many more steps to come.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - He Is Sailing

After I ‘gave my life to the Lord’, I felt like I my life had a clean slate. I felt light and pure, and I glowed with a joyfulness that I had not known in years. One of the first things that I did after my religious conversion was to look for a suitable church. I was attracted to Calvary Chapel, but I did not want to commit to the first church I visited in six years. I quickly discovered that the clubhouse in my apartment hosted a prayer meeting every week, so I decided to sit in. I arrived a little late, and walked in to about 10 young men and women chanting in tongues very loudly. ‘Loud’ meaning full throttle from the diaphragm. It was not ecstatic as worshippers in Grandpa Wagner’s church though, and when I walked in, a young man abruptly stopped his chanting and warmly welcomed me, then just as abruptly started belting out the glossolalia again. I had seen plenty of Tongue Speaking over the years, but this level of intensity was different from anything I had experienced. There was no interpretation with the Tongues, and no worship involved. It was simply these ten people, pacing back and forth in the clubhouse, and very loudly chanting in an Angelic Language. They told me that they were blessing the clubhouse and casting out demons, and I could just sit and wait while they continued. So I sat and waited, and watched.

OK, this is your new belief. You are back in the religious world. You know this is the kind of stuff to expect from now on. Better learn to accept it.

After they stopped yelling and pacing, they gathered for a Bible Study. Since I was the newcomer, the study was quickly geared to evangelize to me. At one point, they even read John 14:6, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man cometh to the Father but by me’, and everybody suddenly stopped speaking and looked at me waiting for me to make a decision for Jesus. It was a very tense moment. The secret desire of every Evangelical Christian is to lead sinners to Jesus, despite their awkward reluctance to include them in a worship service. “Don’t worry everybody. I’m a Christian”. There were audible gasps of relief.

The only person there in the clubhouse who actually lived in the apartment complex with me was a hulk of a man nicknamed ‘Atlas’ because of his size. After the Bible Study he took a couple sniffs of my clothes and told me that if I was to be a Christian I had to stop smoking. “You are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. You don’t want to pollute God’s Temple”. That logic made a strange kind of sense to me at the time, so I promised him that I would do my best to quit. “You cannot do it on your own. You need the strength of the Holy Spirit to give you power! You can do all things through Jesus! Without Jesus, you are powerless!”

From then on, I took a commitment to pray to Jesus for strength in my new life of Faith. I vowed never again to forsake Jesus, and to always seek God in prayer. I vowed not to simply play religion. I went back to my apartment room and flushed all my remaining cigarettes down the toilet, continually praying for strength the whole time. In my newfound conviction, I felt I had to finally be serious for Jesus, to finally get real about living my life for him. That meant I had to purge all worldly influence out of my life, and dedicate my life solely and exclusively to Him. I looked at my huge stereo system, and the several hundred music LPs that I had collected since high school. I remembered all the debates about secular music with Brother Ed back in Cape Baptist Christian School, and repented of how rebellious I had been.

So that evening, I sacrificed my one and only true passion and joy in my simple and empty life – I gave up my secular music. It must have taken a few dozen trips to the dumpster to unload the heavy stacks of music LPs that I had collected since high school. I remember looking down in the dumpster at several hundred LPs of all different genres, wondering if I should have given them to somebody who could enjoy them instead of giving them a trip to the landfill. NO! I do not give away garbage. Garbage goes where it belongs! And with that certainty of conviction, I marched back upstairs to my apartment to grab another armload of LPs. I had to sacrifice what I could to Jesus, to show Him that I was truly Faithful to Him, and that I sincerely meant to commit my life to His cause and accept His purpose.

Out of the hundreds of LPs that I threw away that evening, there was one that I simply could not part with, and was inwardly able to rationalize keeping. I must mention that LP because it is directly related to this story of my de-conversion. The message of the music on that LP contains a reflection of my Spiritual thinking during those years. The songs were mostly vague, quasi-religious prayers and hymns that were achingly beautiful, and by straining and stretching the meaning of the lyrics, I could re-interpret most of the songs into becoming worship music to Jesus. Sort of. One of my favorite songs off the LP was called He is Sailing, which is a song of hope and expectation for a coming Messiah figure. True it is just a song, but as much as I loved it as a Sinner, I found new hope and meaning in that song as a Christian. I knew the song was not explicitly Christian, and I knew that the singer and lyricist was definitely not a Christian, but the music and message was so beautiful to me, that I simply could not part with it. That song represented both my newborn conviction as a Christian, and my link back to the secular world with my secret hope for universal salvation. Hell, the song even includes glossolalia.

He is Sailing.

Out of the mist into tropical splendor
With garlands of flowers
In majestical fusion we see tonight
On to this sacred reunion of pleasure
They row as a rhythm
Ten thousands of millions to touch the Light

King is sailing they say
King is sailing this Day of days
King is coming we sing
King is coming we know

All the souls He to touch. All the millions of souls He to touch…

Heaven set sail in His ship full of light
He transcends all our love
To caress all our fears in a moment divine
Weakest and strongest will dance in delight
All Illuminous. Our Savior.
They bringing Him forth. We will sing tonight

Our true Kingdom Come

Damn. Just listening to that song again now as I type this, and thinking back many years ago to emotional, yearning love for Jesus brings tears to my eyes. It is the bitter memories of discovering the disappointment of religious Faith, and the failed expectations of loving a Divine Savior. How I longed for Universal Salvation and Universal forgiveness! But as much as I clung to that hope of salvation through that meaningful song which I often played in Christian devotion, I knew my beliefs were of a strictly exclusive nature. I knew that Jesus was a vengeful god, and would strike out against those Sinners who dared rebel against Him in their unbelief. I knew that Jesus demanded humans to walk the narrow path of belief and Faith, and that the highway to Hell was paved with Sin disguised as good intentions. With the knowledge that I was one of the lucky elect of God, there was no way to not feel that I was better than the hordes of unwashed heathen doomed to everlasting torment. It was an ominous feeling knowing that my eternal fate was in the hands of a god who willed us into paradise or torment based on nothing but our deepest thoughts and beliefs. That thought terrified me. I had no outward sign that assured me of my Salvation. Unlike the certain sign of Salvation that Speaking in Tongues gave, and that Grandpa Wagner taught me as a child, Pastor Skip taught me that I could not spend my time looking for outward signs and wonders. I had nothing to rely on but my own failing Faith.

The eternal love expressed in the words to that song described a Divine Love that I had never felt in my life, and a Love that I desperately craved to feel. I do think that, in a strange way, deep down in my psyche, that song also reflected my hidden and unspoken hope that Jesus was in fact not the only Way. That we would all, eventually, find our own salvation, through whatever religious tradition we cared to follow. Not that I would ever admit to such heresy. But the Mind works in mysterious ways. That song carried me through many mental trials during the following years. Now, over twenty years later and after completely shedding religious beliefs from my life, He Is Sailing still carries my hope of universal salvation. Salvation is a mythic symbol of human restoration, and salvation carries whatever vague meaning the myth may hold.

That evening as I dumped armfuls of worldly music and my filthy past into the dumpster, I felt that I had fully repented. My religious conversion on the week previous was just the first step of a long haul, and I prayed to Jesus to give me supernatural power to make me a new creature. That evening I quit cigarettes. I had half-heartedly tried several times before to quit, but that night I was able to commit permanently, without the need for tapering off or support groups. I also quit alcohol. I drank not so much as a drop of beer after that night, without the need for AA. I viewed the nearly complete rejection of my former secular life as nothing short of miraculous! I thought that nothing or nobody but Jesus, the Son of God Himself, was able to transform my life as abruptly as it did. I did not think it possible that I had the power within myself to change my life. As miraculous as I felt my transformation to have been, I still did not have a healthy self-esteem. My Self did not matter. I must decrease as Jesus must increase, and I gave it all up for Him.

After a couple of months looking for a small church to join, I decided that such excitable Pentecostal congregations did not suit my taste any longer. I decided that I would stay with Calvary Chapel in Albuquerque, despite my initial reservations about the size of the congregation. I was raised to think that as a Sinful human I was worthless in the eyes of God, and Calvary Chapel only reinforced that belief. I was born in Sin, corrupt in Sin from the moment of conception, and by default immediately destined for the fires of Hell. No matter what good I tried to do in this life, I was not a good person, in fact no good thing could come from me, and I could do absolutely nothing of any value without the power of the Holy Spirit. My good works were just filthy rags in the eyes of God, in fact Pastor Skip often emphasized that the rags were covered in the filth of menstrual blood. I was taught that our culture was egocentric, and humans in their corrupt perversity were only living to fill themselves up with temporary pleasures and ungodly lusts. I believed that life without Jesus was empty, pointless and vain, but life with Jesus brought true joy and a peace that passes all human understanding. The previous few years of my life, in which I drowned my sorrows in alcohol only confirmed that conviction! Jesus was the only way to achieve true happiness and meaning in life. Without him, we were whitened sepulchers with darkened hearts. Without Jesus, our damned selves stumbled and droned about the world like the walking dead.

I felt worthless before I attended Calvary Chapel. I believed that I was worthless after I started attending Calvary Chapel. The difference was that I was happier knowing that I was worthless, because I believed that God viewed me as perfect because I accepted the sacrifice that His perfect Son made for me. It was a strange dichotomy. I was perfect in God’s eyes, because Jesus Christ was what made me perfect. But without Him, I was worthless. When I talked to unbelievers who accused me of being sanctimonious, I could always just turn and tell them that I was really no better than they in God’s eyes. But when I told people that I was Saved, I could just tell them that the Blood of Jesus made me perfect and Sinless in God’s eyes. The Christian religion, as conceived by Calvary Chapel, is full of slippery dichotomies like that. If a discussion or argument was getting too heated, I could always flip the card, and still be convinced that I was correct in my double speak.

My conversion to Evangalical Christianity was initially joyful, and a wondrous change to my miserable life. I loved Jesus. It was only after several weeks that I learned that I had to fear this Jesus just as much. Jesus was great, powerful, loving – and terrible, jealous and vengeful. It was a dichotomy that I had to learn to live with, but I don’t know if I ever fully and successfully accepted the dreadful implications of worshipping an almighty Deity who demanded sinless perfection from His worshippers. I often wondered to myself if I was truly a Christian, and if I truly had enough Faith to merit salvation. After all, I was told, many people who think they are Christians will be surprised when they are find themselves cast into the Lake of Fire. Did I believe enough in the atoning efficacy of Jesus’ death to meet God’s satisfaction? How could I know for sure? I thought that I manifested my beliefs through my good actions and that the Holy Spirit was evident by my Fruits of love, joy, peace, etc. I knew that my salvation was supposed to be given to me by Jesus through my Faith alone, and that any thought of earning my own salvation through my own good works was heresy. But the only way I could tell that I believed enough was through my own works, and if I stumbled by becoming unduly lustful, angry or impatient, I could not help but wonder if my lack of Faith was evidence of my lack of salvation. So I would strive, knowing that I was not allowed to strive, to do good works, to demonstrate to myself that I did have enough Faith in Jesus to merit His salvation. In this way, even though I dared not admit it, my salvation through Faith was implicitly a salvation through Works, and I knew of no way to avoid it. So I did my best to pray my way out of the dilemma, and hope that my vengeful god would accept me by my Faith anyhow. I became a Christian because my life was miserable, and I wanted to be happy and fulfilled. I remained a Christian because I longed for salvation and became terrified of damnation. Jesus may have been able to transcend all my love, but He could not caress all my fears, even though I had to pretend that He did. I had to ignore troubling dichotomies. So I played He Is Sailing on my record player, and thanked my vengeful and jealous Jesus yet again for His boundless mercy and love.

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