Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Story, Part One: Lost to Found to Lost Again

A Search for Meaning

One night when I was a teenager, I fell asleep on my bed at home. My dreams took me to a place that was like my backyard. It was nighttime and dark, and I was alone. There I felt the presence of some unknown evil. I heard words being chanted, the same phrase over and over. The exact words escape me now, but I remembered them at the time. They spoke of the nature of the darkness and its malicious intent. This darkness was pursing me.

I woke up feeling a dreadful, spine-tingling fear, as if the darkness were still present in my room. Instinctively, I reached for a Bible on the bookshelf, which was a gift from my mother, and held it close to my chest like a talisman. I believed in God, though religion was not a large focus of my life. Yet somehow I knew that God could protect me. When I awoke again the next morning, I was still clutching the Bible. I do not normally wake up during the night or remember my dreams, but this one remains in my memory even today, a quarter century later.

A few years after that, during my senior year of high school, I was lying on my bed at night again, only this time not sleeping. Thoughts raced and swirled through my head. They were nothing in particular and everything in general: A math exam. Where I might attend college. A girl I was interested in. The district cross country meet. The girl I used to date but broke up with. The school dance on Friday. My grades. Going out with friends on Saturday…

Then a deeper thought crept into my consciousness: What is the purpose of all this activity and frenzy? What is the meaning of it? This philosophical question haunted me. During the busyness of the day I could ignore it, but at night on my bed as my thoughts raced, it surfaced like a behemoth from the deep and demanded an answer. What is the meaning of your life? I did not know.

In English class we read the poem Ozymandias by the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.
An ambitious classmate jokingly repeated the phrase, “Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” as if to taunt others about his achievements. But those were not the words that stood out to me. It was the end of the poem, the decay and boundless sand, that resonated. Here again was the question, what is the point of it all, if this also is my end?

That winter a friend invited me to attend a Christian youth retreat in the mountains of Idaho. My family was planning a vacation trip to Disney Land at the same time, but I decided to forego the vacation and attend the retreat – so heavily were these spiritual questions weighing on my mind! There I heard about the concept of a God-shaped void in every person’s heart. People try to fill this emptiness with many things – human relationships, achievements, entertainment, chemicals, thrills, denial – but ultimately God only fits because we are created to be in communion with him. We are made to experience, serve and know God above all. That resonated with my heart, and deep down, I believed it to be true.

After that came more questions. Which church or religion has the right God? There are many religions in the world, and even within Christianity, there are numerous denominations and points of view. How can Jesus be both God and man? That Christian doctrine seemed fantastic and hard to accept. I attended a Bible study affiliated with the church that sponsored the retreat. I talked to people about these questions and read spiritual books.

Eventually I concluded that the answer to my search for meaning was not in a religion, but in a person, Jesus Christ. He claimed to be the way and the truth and the life, God in the body of a man and the one who could fill the void I so keenly felt. And I believed. The meaning I craved welled up inside as my heart centered upon God’s Son. A sense of forgiveness and joy also followed. I do not recollect a specific day or moment when this happened, but after a long journey I finally arrived at heaven’s gate.

A Time of Growth and Excitement

Next came a time of exploration, growth and excitement in my new-found faith. After graduating from high school, I went to a state university to study engineering and lived in a dormitory with roommates from my hometown. One afternoon I heard a knock on the door. It was a man with a campus Christian ministry who was surveying students for their spiritual interests. Through this introduction, I joined the group and also attended a local evangelical church.

The campus Christian ministry emphasized Bible study, Scripture memory, prayer, fellowship and evangelism. They adhered to a literal interpretation of the Bible, which I adopted, and stressed the importance of obedience to God’s word.

After participating for a while in a Bible study, the leader said the next meeting would be an evangelism outing where we would go door-to-door in the dormitory. I felt nervous and fearful about it. When the day arrived, I decided to go with my roommate to study at a coffee shop instead. On the way I happened to walk by the ministry leader, and he asked where I was headed. I told him and he looked a little disappointed, but said, “Alright.” The guilt set in as I sat at the coffee shop. I decided the right thing was to go on the evangelism outing after all, so I left the coffee shop. Mostly I stood by as he did the talking, but it was my first experience in stepping out in a bold way to share my faith.

A spiritual practice I learned that remains with me even now is a “quiet time,” which is spending some time alone with God in meditation, reading and prayer. More than anything else, quiet times help me to settle down, tune out life’s distractions and reconnect with what is important. I remember reading through the Old Testament book of Isaiah in a series of quiet times, sitting in an easy chair with a yellow coffee mug in hand.

I dated a girl during my first summer break, and after returning to school in the fall, the ministry leader and his wife discouraged me from continuing this relationship. They felt dating would be a distraction to my spiritual growth and certainly discouraged any sort of physical intimacy. He also recommended I wait for at least a couple years after college before concerning myself with marriage. I conceded and broke off the dating relationship.

During my second summer break I traveled to Ivory Coast, West Africa, for a six-week service project with another fellow from the U.S. We participated in a variety of Christian ministries. It was arranged on the other end by a missionary affiliated with the same campus Christian ministry. Afterward I wrote a summary of the trip afterward entitled “My Summer Vacation.” Here is an excerpt:

We left to go to a Bakwé village (a tribe of about 7,000 to 10,000 people spread out in south-western Ivory Coast) with a Wycliffe missionary named Csaba. He and his wife were in the process of learning the Bakwé language in order to translate the Scriptures into that dialect. They had recently come back from furlough and were preparing to go back to the village called Touadji Deux. We spent a week there helping him make repairs on his “bush house” while his wife and children waited at the headquarters in Abidjan.

The morning after we arrived, we walked around the village of about 200-250 people in order to greet the villagers. Csaba had taught us the Bakwé salutations, which we were expected to use. The villagers gave my partner Dave the name Yaowa and me the name Digbi, which means “strong.” (Who are they kidding?) A group of about ten children followed us as we walked from house to house. Often, one or two of them would hold our hands as we walked along. They were cute.

Dave built a table and some shelves. I helped Csaba with some electrical wiring (he had two solar panels on his roof) and with building a screen door. I had a cold that week, which brought my energy level down. We had a fun time, though, and were able to accomplish quite a bit.

I learned so much from Csaba’s house boy Janvier. He is a Christian from Burkina Faso, the country to the north of Ivory Coast, whose love for God was contagious and whose effervescent joy brought tears to my eyes. He was so excited to see Csaba when we arrived that he was jumping up and down and saying, “Le Seigneur est bon!” (“The Lord is good!”) He ran and gave Csaba a hug.

That man’s faith was so simple and childlike that it made me feel ashamed. Csaba was told by two European missionaries who lived in his house while he and his family were gone that they were having a problem with mice. They set a trap, but did not catch any mice. Janvier said that he would pray about where to put the traps. Who would think to pray about where to put a mouse trap? To us, that might seem almost silly, but it was not to Janvier. Janvier reported back and said that God had shown him in a dream to put the mouse trap in a certain spot on top of a wall in the house, as the house had no ceiling. In three days they caught twenty mice! Janvier reminded me that God cares so much about even the small things (see Luke 12:28). Also, his enthusiasm and love for all people and his desire for them to know the Lord warmed my heart.
Honeymoon Fades

As my heart for God and people grew, I steadily lost my passion for studying engineering. It seemed abstract, esoteric and uninspiring. So I thought about changing to a more relational major like counseling or teaching. In fact, three times I nearly made the switch, but after discussing it with numerous people including a college dean as well as another leader in the campus Christian ministry, I decided to stick with engineering and finish my degree.

Early on in Bible study I learned about a Christian doctrine called eternal security. It claims that once a person believes in Christ and becomes a child of God, he cannot lose his salvation. It gave me great comfort knowing that I belonged to God and nothing could snatch me out of his hand. One day ministry leader told me he doubted eternal security and said it might be possible for a person to lose his salvation. This surprised me because earlier he had advocated for eternal security, so I asked him what he would tell a new Christian about this issue. He said he would reassure them with eternal security and wait until later to bring up this thornier issue. The duplicity angered me, but the idea itself made me fearful and anxious. Was he right? Was my salvation necessarily secure?

I felt a great burden, a compulsion, to always obey God. I constantly studied the Bible to understand God’s precepts and learn how I should live. I was reluctant even to jaywalk, copy music or drive faster than the speed limit because the Bible said we should follow governmental laws. I felt compelled to share my faith with people. My knowledge of the Bible was strong, but it led to a kind of “analysis paralysis.” I could argue from Scripture both ways on eternal security. Life became tedious and exacting, and my faith was a source of continuous anxiety. It occurred to me that I was happier and freer and a more enjoyable person in my pre-Christian days. How could that be? Christianity was supposed to be a religion of peace, goodness and joy.

While still in college, I fell in love with a Christian woman and considered asking her to marry me. More to the point, I really thought God was leading me in that direction. When I brought this up with the ministry leader, he did not like it and strongly discouraged pursuing it. Who was he to say that? I felt very upset. This issue precipitated a break with the campus Christian ministry. I later asked the woman to marry me and sent the leader a postcard informing him after the fact.

Faith on the Back Burner

The spiritual conflict and discouragement continued, though I was still involved at church. I became ill with mononucleosis, which evolved into chronic fatigue syndrome. I was tired and slept all the time, except when I pulled myself out of bed to go to work. The only spiritual activity that comforted me was prayer.

One morning, as I walked across the lawn, the psychological and emotional turmoil reached such a degree that I was afraid I might snap or somehow come apart. I made a decision, then and there, to let go and put my faith on the back burner. I had to.

I turned my attention to things I enjoyed. I went back to school for a master’s degree in business administration. I studied, worked and traveled in Europe. Life was happier and freer and I felt more alive. God blessed me with some good times during those years. While I distanced myself from matters of religion, God did not distance himself from me. He would later renew my faith. Because it is true: The Father gives eternal life, and no one can snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28).

For part two, see Lost to Found Again!