I want to tell you about Jesus. I’m not a great story teller – I tend to be a bit too detailed, but not in the way that makes you feel as if you’re in the story. But the best way I can tell you about Jesus is to first tell you about me. Because maybe you know something about me. Maybe you have an idea of what my life has looked like. Chances are, though, you don’t really have a clear picture. What most people have seen would probably lead them to conclude that I was raised with good Christian values, with a strict presentation of right and wrong, in the safety and security of a godly home with no idea of what “real life” looks like. And while I know for sure that there are people whose upbringing was much further from those things than mine was, mine was still far from ideal.
In our home, my mom always worked full-time (usually at decently paying jobs), while my dad stayed at home and looked after whichever of us ten kids were not in school. Neither of my parents were raised as Christians. While I don’t know all the details of their childhoods, I know that for my dad there were a number of things that made life hard for him growing up, things that carried over into the rest of life. Not that I want to make excuses for him, but I want to say up front that I love my father and I am thankful for him. He was there for me and my siblings in a lot of ways throughout our lives. I know he loves me. But he made mistakes, some hundreds of times over.
He was/is an alcoholic. I guess that means different things to different people. For us, it meant that, for nearly my entire childhood, hundreds of dollars every month was spent at the bar. It meant often not having money to buy food or pay bills, and relying on food pantries, or bottle collecting (walking along the road, looking for bottles and cans that we could return for the five cent deposit), or searching through couch cushions to try to find enough change for a loaf of bread. It meant hiding in my room as often as I could when I knew my dad was on his way home from the bar, because he was loud and violent and I was terrified of him when he had been drinking. It meant switching homes and schools every year for the first ten years of my life because my parents could never stay caught up with rent. It meant rarely having new clothes or shoes, not having milk money in kindergarten, sometimes missing school field trips because we couldn’t afford a couple dollars. It meant feeling ashamed of myself and my circumstances and my family. It meant learning to never trust authority. It meant exposure to people in some of the lowest of circumstances, who were caught in oppression, running hard after physical pleasure and ending up very obviously dissatisfied in the pursuit. Without a doubt, this particular failing of my dad’s affected a lot in my life.
Even beyond the drinking, though, there was a general lack of moral integrity displayed in our home. Verbal communication was full of cursing, degrading, yelling, crude remarks and more. There were almost no restrictions on movie and tv viewing which means rated-R movies and all the things that make them inappropriate for children were watched with regularity from as far back as I can remember. Discipline was always accompanied by yelling and anger. There was very little routine, almost no tradition, constantly disappointed expectations. My mother worked hard and managed just about every aspect of our home and family and lives on her own, but was also often interested in just doing whatever would bring peace in the moment, which usually meant appeasing my dad’s whims.
There were good points, too, though. We went for hikes and bike rides as a family. My mom was loving and patient and encouraging. My dad would take us to the beach, and play catch, and sometimes come to my track meets and school concerts and plays. He’d randomly stop to get ice cream, and was so excited for us kids to see what we got on Christmas morning that he would often wake us up at midnight to open gifts. I guess hindsight is closer to 20/20 than a moment’s perspective, but I think even as I was growing up, I recognized in my dad a desperate desire to do right, but an almost anguish of soul that his best efforts somehow always ended in what he considered failure.
Outside the home, I pretty much always struggled with feeling inferior, rejected, and invisible. I found worth primarily in getting good grades, because it was the only thing that I was reliably good at, and it was the only thing that ever garnered me any sort of positive attention from anyone in life…or, at least, that’s how I remember feeling. I was generally very good at doing what I was supposed to do. I was, in fact, mortified of being seen as less than perfect, which was then, obviously, in direct opposition to my belief that nobody ever saw any good in me In many ways, I was desperate for attention and affection. I wanted to be known and loved. I think it’s only fear of my father, and a deep conviction that nobody would actually ever want me…both of which perhaps turned out to be the grace of God…that kept me from trying to find acceptance in unhealthy relationships. But my heart was always yearning, always breaking, always wandering. I was never taught to be discerning in the emotional attachments I formed. I was never taught to guard my heart. It wasn’t stated blatantly, but in a thousand different ways, I was taught – at home and everywhere else – that my value depended on being loved by other people. This meant I almost always felt worthless.
So, how does Jesus come into all of this? As it turns out, often and randomly and sometimes unexpectedly. Though my parents were not raised as Christians, they both became Christians early on in their marriage. I’m not going to speculate on the sincerity of their conversion. As I already described, ours was far from a godly home, but whatever else was said and done, Jesus was always presented as a standard and as a Savior. Our church attendance was irregular for most of my life, usually just my mom and us kids, but we did have a regular church home through my high school years. There were occasional periods of a month or two here and there when my dad would get us up early on Sundays to watch a preacher on tv, and I would sometimes see him reading his Bible, but for much of my life the evidence of his professed faith was quite limited. The exception to this – really to a lot of what was “normal” in my childhood – came during those high school years when he did attend church and when (as a result, I think, of church attendance and a DUI which resulted in mandatory attendance at AA meetings) he rarely drank. During this time, life was almost pleasant. I don’t know that I can pinpoint all of the particulars, but I do think many of my “positive” notes that I mentioned earlier are memories that were formed during this time. The difference that pursuing the Lord made in my dad’s life was significant, and it was not lost on me.
For my part, I remember praying to receive Jesus as my Savior when I was somewhere around five. I had listened to a tape of Christian comedian Mike Warnke and cried my eyes out during the gospel presentation at the end. I don’t remember anyone else being there, but my memory isn’t super clear. I know I didn’t really understand what sins were, but what I do remember is realizing that a part of me was broken and that I needed Jesus to fix me. It sounds simplistic, maybe not entirely theologically sound, but I am completely convinced that God saw my heart in that moment and came into my life and stayed with me through every moment since. I was ignorant about much of what the Bible says – and about what it really meant to need and receive Jesus – for a very long time, but when I asked Jesus to be my Savior, I was entirely sincere and have never once doubted my need for Him. That might seem strange – that my belief in Jesus which was initially founded on so little could grow and mature and deepen without some crisis of faith, some moment of wondering whether maybe I’d bought into a lie – but at every turn, it seemed there were answers before I realized there was a question, there were truths that affirmed my faith before that faith was ever attacked, there was just a knowing that God was with me. He was faithful, when there were so many opportunities for me to go down the wrong path, to keep me following Him. He protected my life. He gave me hope and a future when I was often surrounded by what seemed like futility and despair. He carried me through every storm - I knew it then, I know it more now.
Not that there has never been struggle. Far from it. There were a lot of things that my childhood ingrained in me – and a lot of things that I just come by naturally – that strain against the truth of the Word of God. There is a part of me that has always had a hard time understanding how God could see all of my worthlessness and think there was something about me worth the sacrifice of His Son. This condition of my soul, the condition of every human soul – of having been born into sin, of having been separated from God’s presence, of being incapable of being good enough on my own no matter how hard I tried, of recognizing a deep longing in my soul for a love and a relationship that no person could satisfy – this condition has rarely been at the forefront of my conscious thought, but it has persistently made itself known throughout my life. I’ve seen it in the ugliness – the selfishness, the jealousy, the hypocrisy, the cruelty, the heartlessness – that is always arising in me, even when it doesn’t manage to come to the surface . I’ve seen it in how hard I can try and try and try to do what’s right, and still end up doing wrong. I’ve seen it in how every.single.person that I’ve ever thought could fill that void in my heart has somehow, sometime…and often many times…failed me, and left me unfulfilled and longing for more…more, such that enough couldn’t ever be found even if I had a million someones to try to fill this one greatest desire of my heart.
There is no question in my mind that I was made for relationship with God, because God wanted relationship with me. And because God is only holy, and only good, and only righteous – and because all the sinfulness that I am can have no part in His glory – He traded with me. The perfect life of His Son, laid down as a sacrifice – a substitute. My sin that should have earned me eternal separation from God was laid on Him. His righteousness that allowed intimacy with the King of kings, was given to me. In truth, I can’t explain it all. But I know what it is to feel the nearness of God, and, to some degree, I know what it is to be far from Him. And I know, more certainly than I have known anything in life, that nearness with God is what I was made for. In His presence is fulness of joy, and pleasures forevermore. It’s true. It’s the answer to the paradox that my heart was always faced with growing up – knowing my unloveliness, but wanting more than anything to be loved anyway; knowing that I could never be good enough, but wanting to be seen as perfect anyway; knowing that I didn’t deserve anything good, but always wishing that someday I might have better. It doesn’t make sense, apart from Him. It can’t make sense apart from Him.
He’s the answer. The only answer. Ever.