My Testimony

I have fallen into a deep love.

That’s ironic, because before Jesus Christ came into my life I knew so little about love that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I was astonishingly empty and yet perfectly ignorant of what I was missing. I felt no need of God and perceived no “God-sized hole” in my life.

As a 10th -grader I’d completed confirmation class and mouthed the official words, so technically I was a Christian already. I mean, what is there to being a Christian but going to church and being reasonably moral? But my older brother, who’d accepted Christ a year earlier, told me that wasn’t enough. Faith had to be personal. This made about as much sense to me as describing the scent of lilacs to an Eskimo. But over a period of several months he talked me through The Four Spiritual Laws and patiently countered my knee-jerk objections. To be honest, I found his conviction a bit irritating. So I started reading the bible in order to more knowledgeably shoot down his arguments.

I distinctly remember sitting on my red velvet bedcover at age 15 and reading Romans 3:23: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God… and I felt a slight “ping” as I saw the obvious truth of this. I read on: but they are justified by his grace as a free gift. Another ping. Since we couldn’t earn God’s favor, Jesus had to do it for us. It just seemed logical. So, knowing I was crossing a line, I prayed to God. I admitted my sinfulness and accepted his grace in Jesus Christ.

And nothing happened. No wave of peace; no spiritual connection; no welling up of hope in my life. Seemingly nothing changed.

But everything changed. I just couldn’t see it yet.

My new faith did not improve my moral life. I wrestled briefly with morals, lost, and gave up. I attended worship and even liked it, but I was in that stage of paradox: believing, but still largely unchanged and uncommitted. Now that I’ve been a pastor for 20 years I see how it’s possible to come to Christ as a moral mess, stay a moral mess for a good long time, and not even be really bothered by it. Well, that was me. I was still quite dead inside. I was insensible to the ways I grieved the Holy Spirit and missed out on the blessings he wanted to give me.

Something happened in college to awaken my dead spirit. I began to be aware that I was… unhappy. Me, unhappy? Unthinkable. But it persisted for years. My first real experience of my own heart was the revelation that I was not just unhappy, but desperately unhappy, and lonely. Whereas before I’d been popular and successful, now I felt so awkward all the time, like I was never at home in my body. And I couldn’t connect with anyone – I didn’t know how to be in the room with people. I also slowly became aware that I was furious. I’d always been able to put my family’s alcoholism and abuse in a box on the shelf, but it felt more and more like I was running and something was gaining on me. It was pain. I preferred the old deadness, but I couldn’t go back to it. I was losing my grip.

John Calvin said that we cannot seriously aspire to God without first being seriously displeased with ourselves. I understand that now. I felt the depth of my brokenness for the first time and I was seriously displeased with myself.

It was Jesus who led me to this place of desperation, and I love him for it. Through the church and its pastor, Coleman Brown, Jesus broke into me. Past my oblivious intellect in into me. He unfolded a me I never knew: a me that was broken, lonely, inept – yet more real and alive than I ever knew was possible. Over months and years, he also showed me himself. Savior. Uncompromising Judge. Passionate Lord of a kingdom of crazy love. Jesus became real to me.

It’s the advent of love in a person’s life that brings change. Not morality, not doctrine, but love. And it must come through Jesus, because he is love and he alone can reach inside us.

I began to catch fire. I sold most of what I had and moved into inner-city Rochester to do mission work as a full-time volunteer. I didn’t have the wisdom to understand it then, but I see now Jesus was calling me to poverty and to the poor. Odd, right? But somehow accepting my own inner poverty drew me to others who were suffering. This was a thrilling period of growth for me. I lived in a church that was bursting with grace and innovation, and for the first time I was ready to receive the special gift God gives to serious believers: community. I felt like a Christian radical. One who sought first the kingdom of God – and found it.

My ambition is to never stop being a radical Christian. You don’t just find the kingdom once and stay there; you have to keep following where Jesus leads. He led me into marriage (such a blessing) and four children (more tremendous blessing) and into ministry and love for his Church. I lived in intentional community, started an innercity church, ran a hospice program, led several congregations, and have done many other things. Most were hard, and some were mistakes; but my life verse is Seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) for a reason: because his kingdom is always the next frontier of my life, and that’s where the joy, grace, friendship, and power is.