June 30, 2012
Over the past year, I have been blessed to work at an
incredible Christian ministry called Urban Promise. One
of my co-workers had a remarkable personal testimony at
camp when he described the three phrases of a person’s life
in faith: Christ cares, Christ changes, and Christ calls.
This simple timeline struck me as I realized in over a year
that these three events had occurred. These three pivotal
moments are the ones I wish to address. Plenty other
theists and Christians can present some clear moral and
intellectual arguments for the existence of God, challenge
the secular worldview, and engage in dueling on gay
marriage, abortion, or a host of culture war issues. While those discussions are worth having, I would like to address my personal testimony, how my relationship with God has helped me grow and become a new creation. In this article, I will address the first leg of this journey.
While I had been Christian during my four years of high school and had several meaningful experiences, my faith was not extremely substantial looking back. It was primarily intellectual, a set of beliefs about morality, politics, creation, or philosophy. It was filled with reason but lacked faith, more of a set of Platonic principles than a definitive encounter with God. I rarely prayed, read the Bible, and lacked any youth group community in which to grow. Although my faith did (and continues) to provide me a passion for the poor, youth, and social justice, on a daily basis the way I treated people was not substantially different than others with or without faith. I don’t regret those years; there are many things I learned and understand about myself, particularly after some major trials and mistakes on my part. But on a whole, I don’t think I fully understand the gift, plan, and love that God had for me.
After graduating from high school, I struggled many months with my faith, bordering on agnosticism and even Eastern philosophy in Hinduism and Buddhism. In August, I came back to at least a basic mental acceptance of my faith. But my first experience of Christ cares occurred during my first months at Urban Promise. Due to my interest in urban education and outreach, I committed a year of service to Urban Promise, a program for urban teenagers and young children in the city of Camden, one of America’s poorest cities. While I expected to become somewhat a leader and savior among interns and the kids we worked with, in reality God used these people to show me the person I could become with faith. In our program, we work with high school students who serve as teaching assistants and mentors like us to middle school students. Their personal stories and testimonies of struggle, broken families, and resilience really touched me. I had grown up in a community that was full of love and parental support, but I now actually was building friendships and connections with people close in age that lacked guidance, support, and encouragement at home. I was living in a world beyond Pittsburgh’s East End and Shady Side Academy in a city of deep personal hardship. In spite of these large mountains given to them by their families or friends, many of these teenagers had a strong faith in God and were now achieving great things like going to college and graduating from high school.
My intern director is an amazing woman of God and her personal story, preaching, and love for others really touched me. My fellow interns really humbled me because I saw how far I needed to go as a leader and person. My roommate Danneck from Malawi modeled Christ so deeply in the way he treated other people and how much he prayed and had complete trust in him. Every night we would pray together and I could see how much a genuine love, connection, and relationship he had with God that allowed him to not only transform himself but the person around him. While Danneck was the most powerful example of this, other interns demonstrated their faith in their love, prayer, friendliness, and concern for others. I started to attend an African-American Baptist and encountered the passionate fire of the pastor, congregation, and fantastic choir. After four years of high school drowned so much in cynicism, doubt, gossip, and apathy towards other, I truly encountered a community that, while not perfect, had a deep treasure in their hearts I never saw before. I looked at their love, leadership, compassion, courage, integrity, and passion, and I wanted to know the source of that being. In all cases, it came back to God, to the love that Christ had for them both in his Word and in their daily lives. Their testimonies of how God called them from struggles, failure, addictions, and complacency to live extraordinary walks of discipleship opened me to my own history of sin and brokenness and the promise of change. What I also saw was that none of these people had deep intellectual “reasons” for their faith.. While they were not stupid or irrational, they didn’t come to God through Dr. Sutula’s philosophy class or a Sunday school lesson. There was a relationship deep inside of them that I wanted to discover. It was not something I could grasp in a book or blog post; it was something much, much more powerful.
These connections opened myself to God, and through encounters of prayer, service, and silence, I became aware of that deep love that God has for me. I realized that I was like the tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, and the fallen who Jesus did not condemn or judge, but transformed into saints through his grace, friendship, and mercy. God no longer became a concept I could debate with friends during College Counseling but a person who cared about and who called me to new life. I could now prayer with confidence and trust and the awareness that there really was someone listening to me. This was my first point in my faith timeline: Christ cares, the simple awareness that Christ loved me deeply and unconditionally, both in his life and death on Earth as well as everyday moments in my life. I looked at the people around me, young and old, and I asked God to make me into a similar being of love and discipleship. Slowly, God is answering that prayer, and I know he has an incredible plan for my future, as he does for all of you.
I invite any of you to open yourself to this experience and watch how it gives you a purpose, love, and meaning that no one or no circumstance can take away from you. This will obviously not happen to you overnight and it might be very different from my own or anyone else’s story. However, I would recommend three ways for this experience to become a possibility.
1. Build relationships with people that actually understand and live out their faith – As I read through this website, I encounter many people who have unfortunately never seemed to encounter genuine people of God. They have been surrounded by families or communities that were full of intolerance, judgment, and hypocrisy. As a result of these difficult experiences, many people project on to a whole religion what certain individuals have done or believed. Christianity is bigger than your own individual life experience, good or bad. Even if you’re struggling, join a Youth Group, talk to a member of your Church who is very wise and compassionate, or have a conversation with a pastor or teacher that are deeply Christian in what they believe and how they treat others. God can use these individuals to speak into your life and will show you that there is more to life with God than arguments over Hell, gay marriage, and evolution. They are true models of Christ and can guide you to them. Don’t let your personal history cloud your from seeing the bigger picture.
2. Humble Yourself – Recognize that you don’t have all the answers. Know that your mind alone can’t fully answer such difficult, challenging questions. Even if you aren’t sure, ask God to give you some answers. God hears the cries of those who suffer and struggle, and he answers them in many different ways. This comes from Peter Kreeft, a brilliant Catholic philosopher from Boston College in which he invites sceptics to begin communion with God:
"God, I don't know whether you exist or not. Maybe I'm praying to nobody, but maybe I'm praying to you. So if you are really there, please let me know somehow, because I do want to know. I want only the Truth, whatever it is. If you are the Truth, here I am, ready and willing to follow you wherever you lead." If our faith is not a pack of lies, then whoever sincerely prays that prayer will find God in his own life, no matter how hard, how long, or how complex the road, as Augustine's was in the Confessions. "All roads lead to Rome" if only we follow them.
In order for this prayer to fully be effective, you must actually be willing to hear the answer. So I invite you to open yourself to this gift simply through a calm mind, through silence, through just going to a church service, through observing a real Christian community, through serving and helping others. God became a person in Christ; his greatest gift was a human being who lived and walked among us. In a similar way, know that God will reveal himself to you through experiences, relationships, your mentors, and moments of joy and struggle as well as intellectual reasoning.
3. Back to the Basics – When I look around this website, I find that many of the discussions are not relevant to the basic question of who Jesus is and who God is. Discussions about gay marriage, church and state, politics, or Hell are important and substantial, but these really have nothing to do with the essential truths and values of Christianity. If you would like to really recognize the true message that Christ offers, I recommend some of these readings:
Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis
Confessions – Saint Augustine
What’s So Amazing About Grace – Phillip Yancey
The Reason for God – Timothy Keller
Read the personal biographies of great Christian figures like Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, or John Perkins. Study their testimonies and see how these individuals reflect who Christ was and is. Focus on the knowledge that really matters, and remember you can become a Christian without having answers to every question.
What I admire from all Young Humanist is your willingness and courage to discover the truth. This is a decision that few people in life, religious or atheist, ever take. I hope you will, in your own unique way, find the truth and faith that I found, not through my own merit or wisdom, but the love of God and his people.