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The Shadow of the Past

April 6, 2010

So I guess I will keep with the Hobbit/Lord Of The Rings theme for my blogs. I think  this one is appropriate for the next part of my history. As some of you may know, this chapter brings together the events of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings into sync by showing how one event (Bilbo finding the Ring) is connected to a far greater and more ancient history. I always find this chapter to be a bit chilling. When I first read about Bilbo finding the Ring, it all seemed so innocent, such good fortune. But reading Gandalf’s discovery during the 17 years since Bilbo left Bag End to Frodo, you see how sinister the Ring really is, and all the things going on outside the Shire becoming more bleak. Frodo becomes aware of a greater world than the one he has known, and that it’s far more dangerous that he imagines. I think this somewhat relates to what I am trying to do. Like Frodo and Bilbo I never knew how the “little” events of my life were shaping up to be a part of something bigger than I ever imagined. Plus, I think the word “Shadow” describes what I feel when I think back on the “roller coaster” I mentioned at the end of the last blog.

I am going to backtrack a bit. I failed to mention that even though I have believed in Christ my whole life, I “accepted Jesus” at age 12, during a Ralph Bell Crusade. I was mentored by a loving older couple who were elders at my church (I think the husband was an associate pastor). When I was 15 I decided I wanted to be baptized. In my Evangelical tradition infants are not baptized. I approached the older couple who had mentored me and asked the husband if he would baptize me. The weird thing I remember is him asking me why I wanted to get baptized. Just to be clear, this was not a, “Do you understand what baptism is, and how significant of an event it is in the life of a believer?” It was, “Why do you think you need it? You are born again by faith, and don’t really need it.” I had to talk him into baptizing me! I had to be quite firm that this is what I wanted, and finally convinced him to baptize me.

It was a cool November day in Green Valley Lake, CA when I was baptized. The town sits at approximately 7500 ft above sea-level, so you can guess what the water felt like. Although I knew I wasn’t going to see the heavens part, I was hoping for something that I could feel that would let me know I was saved, and could follow God with endurance, no matter what. I felt something alright… 45 degree lake water. I was disappointed, but happy I had done it. I was enthusiastic, and thought I might actually enjoy teaching the Word of God some day. The enthusiasm would only last a couple of years though. I really was like the rocky soil…

My senior year found my dad back to abusing pain meds. Somehow he managed to fool a lot of people, because he ran the soundboard at our church, and worked for a SDA broadcasting station in Loma Linda, CA. My family and I got to see his dark side. I think he wanted to be the person he acted like at work and at church, but he became a slave to his addiction. I came home one day to find him comatose. I called 911, and in return for saving his life, I got scolded. By the end of that year my dad committed suicide while experiencing the effects of suddenly cutting himself off from drugs and alcohol after a multi-day binge. I was home at the time with my mom, trying to ignore him The worst thing about that night for me, was the knowledge that had I gone down to his room about 30 minutes or so before he had done it and gotten the gun like my mom had asked, he might still be alive. Having said that, I know there is no way to be sure he would have repented had he lived, but the knowledge of my negligence is still with me. After seeing the body (I went to check since my mom would have freaked out) I knelt before the picture I mentioned last blog and asked, “Why?” I immediately sensed that God was telling me all would work for my good, and not to fear. Strange moment. I felt kinda foolish, but comforted at the same time.

To be totally honest, I was relieved that the roller coaster that was my dad’s addiction was over. It’s how you imagine the people in a thriller movie feel after at the end of the movie when the horror is over. I miss my dad very much, and wish he could be around to know his grandkids, my wife and many other things, but I am glad the darkness of those years didn’t continue any farther. To be sure, they have left their mark: My sister is an atheist, my mom fell into sin for a time. Eventually my mom found her way back to her nominal Christian life, but my sister has never returned to Christ. Another lasting mark is our distance from one another.  We live near each other, and see each other frequently, but the topic of my dad almost never comes up. To talk about it with people who ask brings a vague sadness, but to mention my dad around my mom or sister feels like being stabbed in the gut. I imagine the Church Fathers have something to say about that… but not yet.

The next couple of years found me making more foolish decisions, most of them of the immoral kind. I had stopped reading my Bible, because of the conviction I felt every time I did. When I came back to myself, I stumbled upon the passage in Hebrews that speaks of those who willfully sin crucify Christ to themselves are incapable of renewal of repentance. I was gripped with a fear that tormented me for a long time. Could I have sinned to the point that I couldn’t repent? I read the story of King Saul and thought maybe I was like him. Changed by the Spirit of God, but because of willful sin, he became tormented by an evil spirit. It took me a long time to realize that God had forgiven me. He was gracious and merciful.

Not only was I back in church every Sunday, but I was going to a local JC, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I met a girl that was a dedicated Christian, not only talking the talk, but walking the walk. I was challenged by her holiness and love for God. She had something that I was still missing. Before I met her, I never sang in church. Never wanted to. I was taken aback by her adoration for God during the worship portion of the service. So I tried it. It was life changing (for a while at least). She challenged me on another level. Up to that point, I could talk about faith, but never actually stepped out in faith. She gave me a phone number to a Christian summer camp in Etna, California. They were hiring people to help with their ranch camp. That was summer of 1993.

My job was to be responsible for half a dozen kids, ride a horse and give a daily Bible Study.  It took a few weeks, but pretty soon I felt like I had found my niche in life. I would read a passage about an hour before I was supposed to teach, pray over it, then talk to the kids for about 15 minutes or so. I seemed to have a knack for it. The kids didn’t seem to be totally disinterested and I was learning something at the same time. I loved it. The only thing I was disappointed about was that nobody  “came to Christ” during the invitation at the end of the study (which I was told I was supposed to do). The last week of camp I got my wish though, when two boys “received Christ” after a study I did on Revelation. I really knew nothing about the book other than what I had heard a few times. At the part when I was supposed to give the invitation, one boy asked if he could “receive Jesus”, and told his friend he should do the same. He wasn’t waiting to be invited, he was knocking. Years later he would send me a letter stating he was still following Jesus. From that summer I knew I wanted to teach the Word. The artist was out

The end of that summer found me trying to find a way back home so I could go to Bible College in a town just a few miles from my hometown. Calvary Chapel Bible College (CCBC as we like to refer to it). I was amazed by all the things I learned. In all my years as a Christian, I never knew all the things contained in the Bible.

Let me point out a few positives, before I get to the negatives. I finally read the entire Bible from cover to cover, in one year. I would read huge chunks, and get a better picture of what they were saying, in context. I saw Jesus in the Old Testament. I had a greater appreciation for the New Testament. I learned how the things in the Bible applied to my life. I developed a thirst and hunger for the Word, for God Himself. I learned how to communicate my faith to others. I even confirmed my new choice for a career path that I had sensed at the Youth Camp: “ministry”. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do, but I knew I wanted to teach the Word of God. My zeal for all these new things I was learning and experiencing overshadowed my lack of wisdom. I so zealous that I actually knew less than nothing. If I’d have realized I knew nothing, that would have been something, but I didn’t. I assumed that zeal was “being on fire for the Lord”, and so I didn’t worry about the “small stuff”.

All the knowledge I was taking in had a price, that being having to interact with people. That’s where some of the problems came in. Like myself, a lot of the people in Bible College with me were either recent converts, or “rededicating backsliders” which were now “on fire for the LORD”. Couple this with “Calvary Distinctives” (basically why Calvary Chapel is not only right, but better than other churches) and teachers with no formal seminary training (with the exception of one professor) who are willing to be parrots of Chuck Smith’s teachings (I’ve even heard some tell his stories as if they were theirs) and cheerleaders of the (non) denomination. This makes for a pretty interesting environment. Some things were annoying right away, but for the most part I was caught up in the spirit of things.

Each class was actually more like a Sunday School class with assignments and grades. From the pulpit of each class we were told about the merits of “God’s calling” vs the “fleshly” pursuit of knowledge at a cemetery – I mean, seminary (I am using Calvary Speak). We learned that the Bible was not only infallible, but inerrant. This Bible was reliable, despite the slowly apostatizing Church that compiled it. Even though we were taught to read the Bible in context, it was common practice to read it with the intent that it would speak to each person like a personal oracle. The same way Paul and the other Apostles found Christ in the Old Testament, we found ourselves in those stories. This led to a lot of us “hearing God speak” and telling us what to do with our lives, who we were going to marry, etc. It wasn’t uncommon to have someone tell you they had “a word from the Lord for you, bro.” We had a few groups get formed that were like a mini cult within the college, as they were being “led by the Spirit”.

Church history consisted of a “remnant” of people who dared to stand up against the Church’s “heresies”, until Martin Luther managed to get enough people on “God’s side” to make a change. Lucky for the Church “revivals” happened every so often, because the Church always seemed to go apostate after a period of time. Calvary Chapel sees itself as a kind of modern revival that has been lucky enough to not go “luke warm”.

Of greatest interest to me was, of course, prophecy. I learned what the book of Revelation (not Revelationsssssssss) “really” meant, and how it was “properly” interpreted. Like most non-denominational churches, CCBC taught the Pre-Tribulation Rapture, which goes along with the Pre-millennial view. The most important thing I learned was why everyone else is wrong, and why, if you believe, “them” you have “gone astray”.  Of course, I am being sarcastic.

We had a mandatory class called M-100 – Servanthood. This was basically free labor. We were put in groups assigned to a staff member responsible for a particular area of the college. We did everything from clerical duties, housekeeping, bookstore, audio-visual to grounds maintenance. I was a grounds maintenance kind of guy. So few people ever did their assigned task as unto the Lord (me included). Most of the time we stood around talking about the Bible, or something of that sort, instead of working. We told ourselves we were being like Mary instead of Martha (real spiritual, I know). I became irritated with the bad attitudes around me (never mind that I had a bad attitude as well). Why, if we were filled with the Spirit, did we have such bad attitudes? That was just the accepted norm.

Every week we had a class that was essentially a guest speaker from some Calvary Chapel, somewhere in the country. Every once in a while we had someone from outside of Calvary Chapel. Most of the time it was a chance to catch up on sleep. If the speaker was particularly “Spirit-filled” the entire class was enthralled. We would be exhorted, convicted, invited to let Jesus “really” change our lives, and sometimes even “baptized in the Spirit”. This usually involved people crying, coming down to the foot of the stage for prayer and asking for God to “baptize them anew”, to “fill them up”.  Some speakers would tell us how we could receive our spiritual gift. One guy claimed he spoke in tongues, and even had his own interpretation. With the exception of some of these speakers, there was the usual, “Calvary Chapel is awesome, Chuck is the greatest pastor since Jesus (OK, maybe Paul was pretty good too), and watch out for those other churches, because they might not only be wrong, they might not even really be saved.” Back then, I bought it, hook, line and sinker.

I experienced my first “afterglow” at Bible College. The guy leading worship told us, some time around 10 or 11 pm, that we were Gideon’s Army because we had stayed to really worship God, longer than the other “carnal” Christians, who left shortly after the service was over. From that point I started teaching kids, youth, etc. I took a job at the Christian Camp that Calvary Chapel owns in Green Valley Lake, CA. This was only a few miles from where I lived. Interestingly, the property was formerly owned by the Boy Scouts of America, and my family and I had lived on that property back in the late 70’s.

The experience at the camp was exactly like Bible College (Duh. We were all CCBC students that worked there), only I got paid, instead of having to pay. I felt honored to be a part of God touching the lives of young people. This Camp would eventually send me to lifeguard training, and then EMT-Basic. Those classes were the launching point for my current career in the fire service. Not only did the Camp get me set up for a career, but brought me my wife.

I was working the ropes course one August day, when down came a short, pretty hispanic girl that I thought was a kid, at first. My very first words to my wife were straight out of Heaven itself: “You’re not a Jr Higher.” Before you ask if I have written a book about how to woo a girl, I will tell you that I have not. I found out she was 26! Me being just shy of 21, I thought she was too old for me.  We flirted, talked and whatnot for the rest of the week. She left me her phone number, so I called her a couple weeks after camp. We had a phone relationship, from 40 miles apart, for the first few months. After our first few dates I started driving down to her church in Brea. Before too long I got roped into helping with their Jr High youth group. There really wasn’t much arm twisting, because I loved to interact with kids.

There were a lot of ups and downs over the next couple of years, but on June 7th of 1997 we were married. We had an apartment in Chino, and drove to Brea for church. Only a few months into our marriage I wanted to check out a church that was pastored by a guy that taught a prophecy class at CCBC. Within a few Sundays we had made the decision to switch churches. Gia was very emotional about the move. She had “grown up” spiritually in that church. Turns out it was a good thing we left when we did. Just a few months after we left a schism happened within that church in Brea.

Several of my former CCBC classmates attended our new church in Chino, and before we knew it, we were involved with their youth group. This group was very active. Not only did the kids participate in many activities, but many of them were involved in teaching, worship and evangelism. I was blown away. I was very scared of evangelizing. I could tell a group of kids what I thought the Bible said, but walking up to a stranger and telling them about Jesus was another matter. We went to other church’s youth groups on, what we called “Root-teen Missions”, where our kids would put on classes for their kids, instructing them in things like Bible Reading, worship, evangelism, purity, etc. It was pretty innovative (in a positive sense). It was a time of spiritual growth for me (or what I thought was growth). I was teaching the Word to kids who loved it (the Word, not my teaching), I enjoyed my job, and had a loving wife. I went on a missionary trip to Germany in December of 1998. We went to help a local church build up and evangelize. Even though I was terrified of evangelizing, I found I could make some pretty strong arguments for Christianity. Unfortunately none of these arguments ever convinced anyone into the Kingdom. That trip though, would start to bring some things into question for me.

I started to question the seemingly self-centered behavior of my pastor. I wondered why we were always changing worship leaders every year or so. I wondered why there was always a sense of tension just under the surface. I would tell myself it was just “spiritual attack”, or me “being carnal”. Several people, including the youth pastor I worked with, left the church for other ventures. Let me clarify. They did not apostatize, they went to other churches. They usually left with a sense that they were no longer welcome by our pastor. It was several years before my wife and I would decide to leave. We were active in ministry, had a lot of friends, had both our first two daughter dedicated to the Lord by the pastor, and were generally comfortable, even with a growing sense of unease within myself.

During those several years I pursued my goal of becoming a Firefighter/Paramedic. I struggled quite a bit. I did not fit in with the people I worked with, the stress of which made performing my job difficult. Even though I thought I was a strong, spirit-filled believer in Jesus Christ, I found failure. Failure at my job, which I earnestly prayed I would be better at (on top of trying to overcome the anxiety factor), failure to have the peace of God in my life. I found myself becoming more like the world around me, than the Lord I thought I followed. I hated the fact that I had one behavior at work, and one at home and Church. I began to feel like all my so-called Christianity was for nothing. I began to see myself in the story of King Saul of Israel, and became terrified that I would suffer his spiritual fate. I stepped in and out of ministry a couple times. It was hard to be incognito when you know a good percentage of the people in your church.

I tried, several times, to speak with my pastor about the growing unease within me. This was an exercise in futility. He would cut me off before I could complete my sentence and say, “I know what you’re gonna say…”, and then proceed to get it totally wrong. I wish I was joking or embellishing, but this was a painful reality. I had to yell, “Stop! You’re not listening! That’s not what I am saying…” and then try to share the problem. What came out of that was typical for our church. I was told to pray more, read the Bible, and find someone to be accountable to. That’s it?!?!?! I could have told myself that. As problems began to grow in my personal spirituality, so problems grew in my marriage. Again, the solution was pray, read, pray some more. Oh ya, we did go to several classes, and have some unqualified individuals do a clumsy job of trying to counsel us. After a while I would just stay home from church, and only go occasionally. Besides, I was sick of the rock concert/ cinematic light show/ sermon of Calvary Chapel. The worship team was now a rock band, and the pastors sermons seemed to contain points that were clutching at straws to find something new to say.

Change came when I noticed a Vacation Bible School going on at the Presbyterian Church across the street from our apartment. I thought it would be nice to bring my oldest daughter there. The people were friendly, and the VBS was cheap. Things had come to head in my marriage, and my wife begged for us to go to counseling. I refused to seek it at the Calvary we attended. We went to the associate pastor of the Presbyterian Church. I found love, acceptance, a listening ear and genuine counsel that didn’t involve a “try harder” approach. We began to attend on occasion, but found the services a near-painful bore at first (I say that, only in comparison with the kind of hype you find at a typical mega-church). Pretty soon we got to know several people and started to help with various ministry events within the church. We would go to Calvary periodically when we missed “good worship” (by “good worship” I mean music like a contemporary Christian Music station that gets you amped like emotional Redbull), but found it uncomfortable after a while. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when my oldest daughter told me her old friends at church ignored her now, because she wasn’t around that often. We started to get weird looks when we said that we were going to a Presbyterian Church. After all, they were amillennial, were Calvinists, and were going liberal, theologically. I haven’t been back to a service in 5 years or more.

I liked our local church, but there were some disturbing developments in the General Assembly that governs the denomination. The thing was, we had a lot of friends rather quickly. They were not judgemental (at least not to my face), and were almost always friendly. The parishioners generally lacked a deep understanding or knowledge of the Bible, with a few notable exceptions, but had a single, wholehearted devotion to Christ, the church and one another. If I had to choose between a knowledgeable   Christian and a loving one (there should be no difference, but sadly there is), I’d choose the latter. The men’s group I joined met to read christian books and discussed them. I noticed a tendency to go with books that had an Emergent Church lean to them. Authors that propagate the idea that doctrine is somehow a thing of the past were the standard fare. Two exceptions were The Cost Of Discipleship by Diedrich Bahnhoffer, and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, both of which books were a bit difficult to grasp. But, what kept me going was the people. I had built a bond with and become very fond of many of them. And so by now they were like family, and we had become official members. Our church had two services on Sunday and over time, I came to appreciate the format of the Traditional Service more than the Contemporary one.

As I stated in my earlier post, I did not have a very open relationship with my family, and church family was really no different. I had begun to lose interest in spiritual things again. Maybe it was the fact that for four months out of the year I was unable to attend church due to my work schedule. Maybe it was the fact that I kept company with those who had no regard for Christ. I’m sure there were a combination of things that I fell into, whatever the circumstances were. The problem was, I could hide in plain sight. Nobody knew and, if anyone cared, I wasn’t really interested in sharing my problems. I had become what I had never wanted to be, a nominal “christian” who only went to church rarely, had no real interest in spiritual things beyond what he could argue and didn’t come to church actually expecting to experience God in any real way. I only half cared that I was in that position, for a while anyway.

I feel horrible now for how I behaved during those days. I had gone from obnoxious zealot, to nominal grump (internally at least). I wasn’t overtly angry, mean or downcast, but I had a sense of emptiness that plagued me. Almost nobody would have known what was going on on the inside, because I had a bright and sunny face for those around my. I wasn’t exactly miserable, because I was too busy taking joy in the sinful. Nothing outlandish, mind you, but I was not seeking out godliness, or godly things. I just stopped caring.

Even though the past, for me, really is like a shadow, I can’t say that it is all bad. Every once in a while, from my childhood, I would ask myself, “Is this how the Apostles did things? Is our church REALLY what they had in mind, and would they recognize it as church? What would Paul say if he stepped into one of our churches today?” Turns out these are some pretty important questions to ask. Everything in my life was preparing me for the most life changing revelation… Orthodoxy.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2010 7:26 am

    Jeremiah, I completely understand your disenchantment with Evangelicalism. Thank you for sharing your journey. I will be reading along. It is courageous to explain your life in such an intimate fashion. I too have found this to be a valuable spiritual discipline. You can read more on my site if you are interested. Blessings to you and to your family. I encourage you to pour into your beautiful wife and daughters. They need you to be a spiritual pillar. It was great to see them at Joey’s B-Day. Maybe our paths will cross in the near future. Until then, peace to you.

    • April 20, 2010 11:06 am

      Thank you Mike. I will definitely be reading your blog. I would love to meet up with you. My contact info is on my profile and Gravatar profile. I am off Tuesday thru Friday. I am finding it hard to find time for finishing the next post of the blog, since family time is higher on the priority list.
      Thanks for the encouragement about the family. I have been making it a point to involve the family in prayer time, and sharing my journey with them.

  2. Gia Nelson permalink
    April 21, 2010 7:38 pm

    Hey there Bomb Daddy,
    Just wanted to thank you for being so open and vulnerable. I pray God will continue to use this tool to draw you even closer to HIM. I love you more than I EVER SHOW YOU. KNOW THIS! TRUST THIS.
    Hebrews 12:1 and 2.
    Love Kat

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