Friday, October 30, 2009

Jesus Saves, and That's Not All!

If you read the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, a couple of things should be very clear. 1) Jesus is not only a miracle worker and teacher, but His ministry transformed lives.

2) The supernatural Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lord, the great I Am – the God of all, has a personal side which anyone can touch with faith.

Even the vilest of men, the brightest and the dumbest -- those caught in terrible situations and those that create them. Yes, those that suffer in their minds and bodies, they too can have a personal and real relationship to this living God whose name is Jesus.

An encounter with Jesus transformed the woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus and of course the twelve. Reading the Bible tends to put some sort of separation between us and Jesus. After all, if these folks knew Him personally, there must be something different about them, right? The answer is resounding no! And well a little bit of a yes. We are no different than those who knew Jesus in the flesh. Truthfully, we have an advantage they didn't have. That is a relationship through the Holy Spirit which has been available to us since the day of Pentecost.

So, what does it take to be transformed? Here’s my story.

Romans 10:13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

I grew up in a small town not far from the Yale Campus in New Haven. My mother was an educator and my father a foundry worker – and alcoholic. I had little in the way of meaningful church upbringing. As young children my brothers and sister attended the little stone Congregational church in town. We had the traditional Christmas Pageant as well as some Sunday school lessons on the major Bible stories. We learned that Moses crossed the Red Sea while the tide went out, and Stephen was stoned to death – well, originally I thought on drugs – after all I was a child growing up in the psychedelic 60’s.

The Vietnam War raged on, and I was sure that I would die in the jungles of Southeast Asia —well if the Russians didn't drop the “bomb” on us first. For me, there was no safe place, not at home, not in the world, no where. Without faith, I “wished” things would change – but they got worse. There were so many things that I didn't understand. I lay awake – fearful of almost everything. I longed for a relationship with my dad, and the comforting embrace of my mother. They never came.

Between sixth and seventh grade I started sneaking beer and smoking pot. Each chance I had to indulge, I did. By ninth grade, even though I had aspirations of being a professional hockey player, or motocross racer, I was drinking and/or getting high on an almost daily basis. Sports trophies and good grades paled in light of my new found friend.

Sure, I could slow down for hockey season, or long enough to practice a hundred laps in the sand lot near my house. But I was dependent on escaping from reality -- the very chemical that made me laugh, also made me fearless. It replaced my desire to be with family and friends - it was the god of my life.

My theme song was Sex, and Drugs and Rock and Roll. Even though I worked hard shooting hundreds of pucks a day and staying on the pond until it was dark, I only manged to be an adequate hockey player -- I knew that I was was no Bobby Orr. As fast as I could ride, I couldn't catch the #1 plate at the track-- I'd settle for #128. So, one day I gave up trying-- opting for parties and concerts.

I had a few run ins with the law-- but never a conviction.

Things of course, went from bad to worse, and though I graduated High school, I couldn't get into school -- well I was 222 out of 224 in my class. The other two guys died of overdoses. I tried working for two years, and became unemployable spending lunches at the bar and oversleeping on Mondays.

Bars, work, booze, parties, sleep, depression - it was an endless cycle.

I tried to get my act together. I quit drinking, bought a guitar and got accepted to college - but I chose the one with the most beer bottles in the parking lot.

A few months before college I went off to a 12 Step conference and was hanging out with guys that were younger than me. We talked about God and how I was an atheist. They shared their sense of spirituality with me and told me they loved me and that God did too.

Something happened. I just broke down for the first time in my life, and cried out - God if you are out there, come show yourself to me. My heart was flooded with an amazing presence which I didn't even understand. What I do know is that God saved me, right then and there, that hot July day - way back in 1978 on the Skidmore College campus - some place in New York state.

It took me two years to finally quit drinking for good. It took another couple for me to get going to church on a regular basis. God? He was patient and faithful. In 1982 I was radically filled with the Holy Spirit and passion for Jesus and a heart to serve Him were made alive in my heart like never before.

The rest is history - or should I say His Story.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jesus Ain't A Quitter

Like no other time in my Faith, I was intensely focused on the Kingdom. I was digging into the Word with passion. Instead of watching Sportscenter first thing in the morning, I was reading my Bible. Instead of watching cartoon network after work, I was marking up the margins of my bible with new insights. I dusted off the concordance and was "discovering" answers to questions I had noted in the columns years before. I was memorizing Scripture and singing Praise and Worship as I was banging around the house, even at work. I would even break out a song of my own while on the job or in the grocery store. Sometimes His love would be so great I would sing in Tongues. (I imagine this might have been odd to those who didn't know me, maybe even to those who did?) I was sharing Jesus with people, I was even praying for co workers right the spot. I was soaring! I was strong!

Man, it is easy to praise Him when things are going great.

During this time of strength, I made a few choices that would impact my life. I did not enter into these decisions lightly. I prayed about each one, I sought the advice of friends who knew me well enough to speak honestly with me. I confirmed my decisions with Scripture. I was confidant that I was in "God's will."
And right now, I can strongly say that some of those decisions that I had made were my will!
It sucks having to admit that. I hurts even more as I am still digging out from some of the decisions I made. Periodically, I have had to stop myself from thinking about "what if", "I coulda" or "I shoulda".

Coulda? Shoulda? DIDN'T!

If I am honest with myself and with Jesus, during a period of great strength I made poor choices. But it was a season of pain and suffering that has strengthened my Faith and character the most. It is this time in my Faith that I want to testify to His Victory.

I went to church on one Sunday morning with my son Logan. That actually was a huge first step for me, because I was so upset with God that I didn't want to waste my time at another Sunday "dis-service". Then I got lost looking for the church I wanted to visit. Like a majority of churches, 10:00 a.m. is the required start time, so with time running out, I gave up searching for that church. Instead, I pulled into a church that I had attended previously, many years ago when they held Saturday night services but no longer did. (yeah, that was pretty cool and convenient being able to fellowship on a Saturday night).

By this time I was irritable and I imagine it showed on my face because, the greeters and ushers let me walk by without the usual questions of "Is this your first time here?" "What's your name?" "Do you have our visitors packet?"

When worship began, I was tossing around all sorts of criticisms in my mind. As usual the sound was at concert level and the worship team wasn't leading the body in worship, but more so they were performing for the congregation. Then, after one song, the band stopped playing and announcements were given and the beggar's pots, errrr, collection baskets were passed around. It's interesting to me how often Worship of Jesus will get interrupted for announcements, collections, introductions and such, but I have yet to see a sermon interrupted for the same tasks.

By this time I was wanting to split! But I felt like Holy Spirit was keeping me there. So as I am singing through a clenched jaw, I become overwhelmed with all the mistakes I had made that led me to this time of darkness. I wanted to bolt out of there so bad, but I stayed. I would like to say that is was me that made the decision to stick it out, but I know that it was His strength that enabled me to "endure". And then the song Blessed Be Your Name appeared on the overhead screen. It could only be His Spirit deep inside that led me to I say to myself, "He is worthy of my praise! I am gonna praise God!"

It aint easy blessing Jesus when life sucks!

But it is so much easier to bless Him in difficult times,
than trying to slug through the slop and slime of life without Him!

I had lived almost a decade in my Faith being selfish, inconsiderate and angry with God in tough times. I spewed horrible things to a loving Dad that still bring shame to me when I recall those moments. More than once, I told Jesus "I Quit" when things weren't going my way. During one of my 'tantrums' I went so far as to call my friend and Spiritual Dad and tell him I wanted nothing more to do with being a Christian.

Now, I didn't doubt the confession of my mouth unto Salvation. I am not saying that my walk was a waste of my time. What I am saying is that this lesson took way too long for me to learn. On that Sunday, I finally declared Jesus is Lord, no matter how I felt about my situation, my life or my relationship with Him. I made up my heart to Praise God because He is God, not because I was happy. I also learned the difference between being happy and having Joy. Happiness is based upon my surroundings; whereas Joy comes from within. A Joy that can overcome my emotions and my negativity can only come from an Eternal, loving God, that gave His Son to pay the price for all my selfishness. I know it was Jesus who never gave up on me even when I wanted nothing to do with Him. Even when I quit on Jesus, He didnt quit on me!
Thank God Jesus aint a quitter!

If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.
2 Timothy 2:13

Monday, October 26, 2009

Just as far as the East is from the West...

Not too many Sundays ago, our church service was interrupted by something quite extraordinary..well at least for us. During the praise music, the Praise Leader said he felt drawn to ask if anyone would like to give a testimony. Almost an hour later, the last person stood up and publicly thanked God for what he was doing in their life. Some of the testimonies would be hard pressed to meet the definition by some standards, but then, very few actually realize God is good always...even when things are good and bad for us.

I listened and thought...actually envied...some of the people who spoke that morning knowing they had likely always lived Godly lives. 'God must really show favor to them for being committed for so long, never testing or doubting Him. I wish I could have been like that for God all my life,' I thought to myself. How foolish that sounds to me looking back.

Romans 8:28 (New International Version)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

I was raised in a Christian home and attended church through my entire youth. When I was a a junior in high school, I accepted and rejoiced that Jesus had died for my sins and followed through that acceptance with baptism. Those of you who have done the same understand the peace and joy associated with asking for forgiveness and giving your life to God. I was on fire for God the better part of a year...

My senior year of high school brought the typical popularity of finally being at the top of the totem pole. I was an athlete, entertainer, and go-to guy. My click ran the show at our 1200 plus student school. I could do no wrong...or at least any wrong that wasn't shortly forgiven. Life was good...but it wasn't very pious. God had given me a stage, and I used it. But I used it for me and not Him.

I was awarded a full scholarship by the U.S. Marine Corps to attend any one of fifty-five university with an NROTC program at the time. The Navy and Marines were very selective about where they put commissioning programs, so I left my small town and headed to Nashville. Vanderbilt was one of the fifty-five. I didn't know a single person in Nashville, but that fact didn't bother me in the slightest. I had the world by the tail and was to make the very most of that fact.

Shortly after settling into my new surroundings and experiencing my new found freedoms, I just forgot God and the fact that all that I had in life was actually from Him. My fall wasn't sudden by any means. My feelings of self-importance had grown to the point of glowing pride...arrogance. I drank and partied without conscience. I was promiscuous and focused on sex. Soon came an obsession with weight lifting leading to steroid abuse. It was a vicious out of control circle. As my body swelled more and more, so did my pride and my lustful thoughts and actions. I couldn't hold relationships together for being unfaithful at most any opportunity with no regards to consequence. Keeping my grades up became secondary to winning the next power lifting meet or scoring with a new prospect. I was in near constant fear of losing my scholarship and being in a world of trouble. But the fear couldn't overcome my overconfidence. Things seemed to always work out for Tony...

The exact moment when I turned away from my relationship with God is hard to pinpoint, and I'm glad for that fact now. To believe in God became both cliche and a sign of mental weakness to's need to be comforted in the prospect that life and death isn't finite. There's more and we know the secret to unlocking the eternal. I was never so bold as to deny that God existed...oh no...but why would an all-powerful being care about our insignificant, inconsequential lives. We could barely break from our own planet, much less understand the concepts of omnipresence and omnipotence.

After graduation, I was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. An elite group that I pushed to be at the top be the best of the best. I was rewarded with prime assignments and school/training opportunities. I also married for the first time, but my wife, unfortunately, was but an after-thought to feeding the ego maniacal person I had become. She was a good person... just married to the wrong man.

I resigned my commission after five years of active service to try to salvage my marriage. I realize now that effort was more about not failing at marriage than rebuilding my relationship. She had let me escape on too many issues. My promiscuous behavior surely would come back time and time again. Finally, she had enough and my failure as a husband was cast in cement.

Too quickly, I moved on and into a relationship with more loose ties. Perfect for me. God was no where near this relationship (in my mind), but I felt the need to become a father, so I married a second time. Misplaced scruples if ever there was a case. I was also heavily involved in politics, and the image of a family man was invaluable. I drifted back to attending church for the same reason. I had become an actual hypocrite by very definition.

My life continued to spiral out of control from a spiritual perspective. I was openly agnostic and frequently argued with my mother and sister about their unrealistic, dogmatic beliefs. I didn't need God and He sure didn't need me. My second marriage fell apart shortly after the birth of my daughter. Although she quickly became the focus of most of my attention, I was neglecting her in a way that haunts me today. My mother and sister made sure she was taken to church from an early age...not me.

I know this has become a very long post, and I apologize. But to fully understand the reach of God's love in my life, it can't be condensed Reader's Digest style.

I was in a great job that had grown to over 150 employees working for me, thanks in large part to my drive to succeed. I was a local radio personality, by hobby, broadcasting sports for my old high school. I was single and fully enjoying it. I had given up on trying to hold together relationships because it required too much energy, so I would string together shallow associations to ensure the nights my daughter wasn't with me weren't spent alone. It all seemed to be working so well for me....but I was still empty....longing.

It is at this point God put two very important people in my life. One worked for me in middle management. He was driven, compassionate and not afraid to talk about God. The other was much more subtle. She was still in high school, but lived a very openly Christian life.

Many days I found myself wondering into the office of the guy at work to chat philosophy. He was very grounded in what he believed and why he believed it. I began to greatly enjoy our talks and even started reading on my own again in the Bible.

The high school student would always come visit and talk to me at basketball games because she was dating one of the players. Her mom and dad were about four years older than me, and we actually knew each other from earlier days. There came a point when I was looking for someone trustworthy to pick up my daughter from after-school or even watch her on occasion, and this girl was perfect. One of those nights she watched my daughter lead to a life-changing exchange for me.

Looking back on it, I think I was irritated about something and was looking for an argument with just about anyone about anything. When I got home, she was there watching TV and my daughter was in her bed. Out of the gate I made some off-cuff remark about religion to get it started. She never flinch with her rebuttal. I fired again and she returned. The next several hours are actually a little fuzzy, but beyond doubt, I was completely humiliated in a debate about faith, about God by a high school student. Gasp...

I didn't sleep much that night while God really, truly dealt with me. At some point near sunrise..after tossing and turning, crying and even pacing...I ended up on my knees... begging God to forgive my ignorance, arrogance and disobedience. How dare I try to shake the faith, plant doubt in one of God's faithful children? As the sun came up that morning, I was a different man...really transformed.

It actually hurts me to write what I have written here. I am truly ashamed at even trying to recapture the brash, obnoxious person I was back then for the sake of this post. My life would getting harder before it got better, but one thing I was sure... no matter what happened to me from that day forward, I would live for God. I would spend every single day of what life I had left making up for my sins. It was the very least I could do for Him... because He never gave up on me.

As I said, things would get worse before they got better in my life. I would face challenges and consequences as a result of my past sins...but that can be, as Paul Harvey so famously says, the rest of the story...