Digging In the Past – Part 2

DiggingSo, when I left off last I was 16 years old.  I was a Christian, but I was definitely not living a life of relationship with Christ.  My thoughts about God were that He was in control, but He must not have much interest in my life.

At sixteen my church split.  It was a pretty ugly one, and the result was a lot of people going different directions.  I was one of them.  For the next 4-5 years, I bounced back and forth between two churches.  I knew I needed to be in church, but I didn’t feel at home there anymore.  Too much had changed.  I had seen the ugly underbelly of a legalistic religious system, and I became very skeptical.  Could I trust a Pastor again?  I wasn’t sure.

Over that time frame I saw things that only kept me in turmoil as the leadership in each church turned over.  Things were said, people were hurt, attendance ebbed and flowed, and I was still very confused.  I could not settle into either church and felt like a perpetual visitor.  I still was a member of my little church where I grew up, but I didn’t feel like I belonged there.  I enjoyed the other church more, but felt like I couldn’t trust it.  If I did, what would happen?

After Tammi and I were married we kind of settled into the routine of going to church where she had attended through her teen years.  I said we got into the routine, and that was pretty much what it was.  Just a routine.  We kept hearing much of the same old story of how we needed to do this to gain God’s favor.  Avoid that or we would bring down God’s wrath.  Lots of rules, but not a lot of understanding what being a Christian meant.

As time continued to pass, we were blessed with a couple of kids.  We got into the habit of taking the weekends  for ourselves.  We went to church more when we felt like it, and that became less and less.  Eventually we realized that we were barely attending at all, and that bothered us because we wanted our kids to grow up to know Christ.  I think God started tapping our shoulders around that time and we decided that we needed to look somewhere outside our community for a church.

After talking to some people and looking around we settled on a church in Traverse City that had a Pastor who had been there for many years.  We figured if he had been there a long time that had to say something, so we decided to give it a try.  We were very glad we did.

Over the next few years we were challenged to change much of how we thought about God.  We started to hear a little bit more about how God’s grace is for living, and not just for salvation.  We started to understand that while we should obey God as believers, He is not taken by surprise when we sin, and He is standing there ready to forgive and welcome us back.

It was a great time for healing in our lives as we began to make friends, enjoy church for the teaching as well as the people, and I was finally able to feel like God did want to be a part of my life.  I had a hunger to serve.  I had a hunger to learn!

Our kids were growing, as they are prone to do, and we had them enrolled in the Christian school in Traverse City.  The financial strain of the commute every day for school combined with the time we spent on the road every week brought us to a point where we felt we needed to make a decision again.  We wanted to be more involved in church, but we felt that the distance was making it too difficult.  After a lot of talk, we decided that we needed to go back to our previous church and get involved there.  We were very unhappy to leave, but felt that it was our best opportunity to serve God.  After all, what good is a Christian who is not serving?

Looking back on that decision, I am not sure we made the right one at the time.  I believe God redeemed that decision, but I know that we did not make the decision with Him.  I do not remember ever praying about it.  It was a time and money decision that I made and covered it up by saying that I was going to put myself in a position to serve God better.  That would make Him happy, right?  I still had a very strong performance-based outlook on my standing with God.

When we got back in our old church, we got involved – deeply.  We were there for every service, event, whatever was going on.  We sang, played music, worked in AWANA, and anything else that came along.  We made friends and felt like it was a good place to be.

As time continued to pass, I ended up in leadership at the church.  I still wonder why that happened, but I think that God had a plan to use it down the road.  While I was a deacon, I began to see things in a different light.  I noticed that I was getting very critical of those who were not serving in the church.  I began to resent people who did not step up and “do their part.”  I was not alone in this thinking, and it was never hard to find someone else who felt the same way.

I started to judge people’s spiritual maturity based on how many ministries they worked in.   Seemed like a reasonable yardstick to use. That was how I had been raised, so it felt very normal to use that yardstick for those around me.  Measure with it, and then smack those not performing to standard with it!  “Rod of correction”, right?

This was serving to do one thing.  I started becoming bitter.  There really wasn’t any benefit in what I was doing.  I was just getting more and more bitter toward people, the church, and even toward God.  I kept a lot of that inside, but I know that it was leaking out as the number of friends we had began to decline, and I take the blame for that.

Right around this time I was asked to take on another ministry.  Of course, I did it.  I didn’t want to do it, but I was asked by my Pastor, and I was raised to do what the Pastor says.  I think back now and I don’t think he was actually trying to force me to do this.  I think that this was God at work.  I was not doing a very good job in coming around to where God wanted me, so God used my ingrained training to get to me.  Kind of like He was saying, “Well, Tom isn’t talking to me or reading his Bible.  I guess if I can get the Pastor to ask him to do this, He might pay attention.”

So, I began to teach an adult Sunday School class.  I was terrified for two reasons.  The first was that I was afraid to get up in front of people and talk.  The second was that I had been told through the years that the role of teaching God’s Word brought a level of responsibility on the teacher that was very heavy.  It was nothing to take lightly.

I didn’t.  I attacked it.  For the first time in my life I was in my Bible regularly.  I began to learn more than I ever had before.  I know I was learning  more than the people I was teaching!  The books that I used for my class material started to make me look at things differently, and I started to experience something that I had never really felt before.  Spiritual conflict.

I’d like to say it was growth, but it was conflict.  I was a believer, but I was not serving God.  I was a Christian, but my desires took precedence over God’s.  My comfort, my standing, my glory, my opinions – these were my gods.  The time I was spending in study was putting me in a position that brought me face to face with the facts.  The facts being that I needed to make some changes.  The changes that I needed to make started causing some conflict with people as I became hungry for change that others were not looking for.

I wish I could say that I handled that conflict well.  I didn’t.  I hurt people with my words and my attitude.  I kept trying to do more in hopes that I could get people to see what I was seeing, but all it did was take me to a breaking point.

Until this point in my life I had never put a ton of thought into spiritual warfare – the demonic realm that works on our hearts in hopes of stalling our growth.  I had read Peretti’s books and thought they were great stories.  I believed in angels and demons, but I never thought they were really interested in me.  Well, about this time I started having dreams that made me wake up sweating and scared, but I could not remember them.  I was not sleeping much because I actually reached the point where I was afraid to sleep.

One night I had a particularly bad dream.  I was in a dark place and was being chased by a horde of demons.  I had my family with me and I was trying to keep the demons from them.  I did everything I could do to fight them off and keep them from my family.  Then I realized that the demons wanted me.  The only way I could keep them from my family would be to give up.  My hope was that if I just gave in, my family could get away and I would be the only one to fall.  What a lie that would have been!

Well, in my dream I told them to run, and I stopped and turned around.  I remember vividly how I curled into a ball as they began to bite, scratch and claw at me; tearing me to shreds.  I was about to give up entirely when Tammi woke me up.  She said I had been moaning, crying, and shaking in my sleep and I woke her up.  Needless to say, we were pretty shaken up about it.

The next night a good friend of ours on the mission field “just happened” to call me.  Amazing how God’s timing is always so perfect.  He asked me how I was, and I just spilled it.  Everything.  He listened to me, asked a couple of questions, and then gave me the strangest piece of advice I had ever heard.  “You need to back out of everything.  Take one ministry and stay in that, but give up everything else.”  I thought he was crazy!

How can I stop doing all these things for God?  What will He think of me?  What will the church think of me?  Does he know what I am doing?  Well, I sat down and counted up the different ministries I worked in on a regular basis, and the count was 18.  I looked at them all and decided that I would drop half.  That seemed to be a reasonable thing to do.  I was afraid that God would be very upset if I did less than that.

Well, He was not upset.  I know I felt better. I started to see some balance in my life again.  I started to enjoy more of the things that I did do even if I didn’t enjoy all of them.  I wish I could say that it was received well by others, but the most important thing was that I was sleeping at night, and I was still learning.  I was learning to understand a truth that my friend told me the night of that “coincidental” phone call.  “God is much more interested in people doing things with Him than for Him.”

Necessary change was taking place, and there would be  more to come…

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Digging In The Past – Part 1

image“Be careful digging in the past. You’ll find yourself face to face with things that will force you to make a choice. You will either have to cover it up again or deal with what you find.”

I would like to say that the quote above was from some wise, well-known, smart guy who has been afforded the respect of many who heed his words and wait expectantly for his next nugget of wisdom to help them guide their lives. Alas, the words are my own, and they are not said with the encouragement that they should being to my life, but as a warning to myself that the past is a place where it is not always sunny. As the old saying goes, “Here, there be monsters.”

This post is going to be the first of a couple that will take us on a journey through my spiritual journey from a small, country church to where I find myself today. I am not sure how detailed it will get as I have some boundaries in writing it that will put some constraints on what I share. The goal is to speak truth in love by sharing a journey. It is not about slinging mud.

Let me start by saying that one of the fundamental issues I will be discussing in this series of posts is the topic of spiritual abuse. I had never heard of the concept until a couple of years ago, and it really made me think about years gone by, and I had to deal with some stuff that it brought up. Spiritual abuse is basically defined as using religion to force people to do things by pouring out guilt and shame and creating a performance-based value of a person through the twisting of Scripture to meet the desires of the abuser.

Many people would call that a cult, and they would be right. The problem is that in many churches it is something that happens behind the scenes every day. It is covered up with words that are good and necessary in the life of a believer, but the meanings have been twisted subtly. It might not be a big deal if you look at the little individual differences, but it can be like radiation poisoning. It builds up in the body until you finally get sick. Once you get sick, it is hard to get better. Very hard.

So, here we go. My testimony. A testimony is just my story. Warts and all. This is not about other people, but about where I was and where I am now. If I offend someone, I apologize in advance, but please know that I am not trying to hurt, just hoping that in telling my story someone else might be able to helped or encouraged to know they were not alone.

I was born into a Christian family and from the start I was in church. Most of my earliest memories of church are of doing a task or saying some words and then I would get a treat. I liked treats, and was smart enough to realize that the more good things I did and said, the more treats I got. I liked it! I heard a lot of Bible stories and since I like stories I thought church was great.

When I was four years old I got a burn on my arm. It wasn’t anything significant, but I remember that it hurt a lot. (I was four!) That following Sunday our lesson was about Hell. As the teacher talked about eternal fire and suffering, you can bet she had my attention! By the end of the class when she asked if anyone wanted Jesus to come into their hearts to save them from an eternal fire, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember a lot of people being very happy for me, but not much else.

Over the next five years I grew up in church and attended a church school. We were there every time the doors were open, and I continued to learn a lot about the Bible – especially the parts that focused on obedience. We had a pastor at that time that I remember very fondly for his smile, his love of laughter and fun, and for his booming voice when he sang or preached. I was very sad when he moved on to a new church.

Up to this time in my life I do not believe that I had experienced any real spiritual abuse. My obedience to God was stressed heavily in church and school, but I have no memories of guilt, shame, or manipulation coming from my church, school, or spiritual leaders in my life. I have a lot of respect for the people that had been at work in my life up to that point, and I appreciate the groundwork they did of putting a healthy even if a little heavy focus on obedience to God while still telling me about the love that God has for us. That would soon change.

I have been praying about it, and I have decided not to go into a lot of detail regarding the next 7 years. There are stories that are not mine to tell.
Over the next seven years church and school changed for me and a lot of other people too. I am not going to say that it was no fun at all, but it became intense, and by the end of that time, the times of fun were fewer and farther apart.
Here are a few things that I remember:

1. The law was still alive and well. – While I was a Christian and secure in my Salvation, there was an unhealthy focus on works. I heard so often how my best was worthless in God’s eyes. I heard that in order to please God I had to always do what was right,and that every time something went wrong in my life it was because God was punishing me for a sin that I had not confessed.

2. Grace was a gift given at salvation. – God’s grace was a wonderful gift, and it allowed us to have eternal life.

3. The pastor’s words were equal to Scripture. – you were never allowed to question what he said, even for clarification. There were times I asked questions about how he had presented things from a passage of Scripture, and I was told that I should just trust him. After all, he was the pastor. Obedience to him was the same as obedience to God.

4. I was as good as what they could see. – This was what led to some serious struggles in my personal character. It created a culture of deception in the youth in our church and school. We knew we could never be as good as we were told we needed to be, so we gave up trying! Instead a second life was born. A chameleon ability was brought out that allowed me to fit in with who I needed to fit in with when it was needed. If they liked what they saw then I was not given my portion of shame.

By the time I was 16 I still knew I was a Christian, but I didn’t know why anymore. I knew what I believed, and I didn’t get involved with any of the “really bad stuff”, but I was not living the way God wanted me to, nor was I sure that it would do any good anyway. I said I knew Him, but we were pretty much strangers to each other.

(To be continued…)
In HIS Grip,
Tom

Worthy of Your Calling

walking worthy of your calling_t_nvWhat is a “calling”?  I have heard the word “calling” used as a noun for most of my life, and while I understand the verb form as a way of communication (shouting or using a telephone), I have always struggled with the word.  I mean, I understand the dictionary definition, but I have never really understood it as a part of my life.  It has eluded me in practicality.

I know that a common description of it has been to call it a career.  Something that you do for a living is considered to be your calling.  Well, that may be well and good, but I am now going on 25 years in the workforce in three different full-time jobs, and I still don’t feel that I have a “career”.  I have a job that gives me a paycheck so I can support my family.  I really enjoy what I do most days of the week, but I don’t feel that I have a calling for what I do.  My work ethic is part of who I am, and that is what I bring to my job, but career? Nope.  It’s a great job, but not a calling.

In the last couple of year s I have wrestled with this idea a little more, and I think I am finally getting a better understanding of it, but the roots of a calling for me have little to do with the business world.  It has been through reading my Bible that I am starting to figure this out a little better.  As I continue through Ephesians I hit this verse today, and it is clearer to me now than in the past.

Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God

– Ephesians 4:1

The first three chapters of Ephesians have been about telling me who I am in Christ, and now Paul is getting ready to take me on the next part of the journey:

Take your identity and use it in your life!

In a nutshell, that is a calling!  I have an identity in Christ, and the more I read and understand what that means as a child of God, a sinner redeemed, an adopted heir, a person able to call on the power of God, a person able to gain wisdom through God’s teaching in His Word, I realize that I am called to something more than just existing in His presence.  I am called to action!  I am called to share!  I am called not to repay what I have been given, because I never can, but to live a life that says I understand that I am blessed!

I am called to live my life in a way that shows people the power of the Christian life.  It’s not about avoiding troubles or heartaches.  It’s not about getting wealthy.  It’s not about following a bunch of rules I don’t understand.  It’s about a life that is relentlessly growing, thriving, and reproducing!

I’m not sure where this calling is going to take me.  I’m starting to see that all the aspects of my life play a part in this calling, but those parts are not the calling.  I’m a Christian before I am anything else, and that is where I find my calling to influence the various parts of my life and those in my life.

I probably don’t have a complete handle on this thing yet, but the picture is getting clearer by the day, and I have faith that as I stay close to God, study His Word, and interact with His people I will continue to grow in my understanding of it all.

What are you doing in your life that shows people who you are in Christ?

I hope something that I said might have been an encouragement to you, Dear Reader.  That is one of the reasons I do this.  Not because I have all of the answers, but because I want to encourage others to let God have control of your life.  Trust me; He’s better qualified than we are to run things!

In His Grip,

Tom

PS – I have been asked to hit on a topic that I have brushed over in the past in an upcoming blog.  I am in the early stages of it right now, and I would appreciate your prayers as I figure out what God would like me to say.  It will be a look into legalism and what it takes to transition to a life of truth and grace.

It will require me to pull back some curtains and look at some stuff that may be uncomfortable for me and maybe even some of you.  Please pray that God will give me wisdom in what to share, and that it will be something that will help people grow rather than tear people down.

That will be coming sometime by the end of the month.  Thanks again for your prayers.  It is encouraging to me to know that people are praying for me, and that God is using this to encourage others!

TT