Perhaps like many of you, I grew up in a white, middle-class, suburban American family. We were not really typical, but we did fit some of the mold. We attended a conservative, evangelical church, and I was shaped by that environment, as was our entire home life.
At our church, I learned "Christianity" as a set of truisms and principles to which I was expected to give mental assent. And as a result, I would, of course, live according to a certain standard of conduct: I would not drink, smoke, cuss or chew. Neither would I play cards or attend most movies. You perhaps know the routine. It was more a cultural than a spiritual thing.
As one immersed in this way of life and teaching, I claimed to be a Christian, and could give all the "by-the-book" explanations for what I believed. However, none of it made the slightest impact on my life. I had a "two-story" approach to the world: The lower story was about "true knowledge" - facts, science, math and the like. "Real" stuff, things you could "prove" by "objective" scientific methods. The upper story was about the rest, the intangibles, things that were not subject to verification. Opinions, feelings, non-scientific beliefs. Anything about God was there.
I continued on in this pattern for some years into adulthood, but I became increasingly unhappy with the growing tension in my life, between what I claimed to believe and what my life said I believed. My life was, putting it gently, unworthy of respect. I finally came to the point of desperation, where I felt that I had to make a decision. I could not stand claiming to be something that I really was not.
Part of the problem was that I had bought into some propositions in an emotional moment, or to fill an emotional need, or from peer or elder pressure, while my mind was nowhere near convinced and ready to cooperate. I was looking for acceptance, or a sense of self-worth. It's a pretty common situation, but there's a huge problem: When the emotion fades, the mind wins. Permanent or important decisions should never be made on this basis. But they are.
I came increasingly desperate, needing to be free of the terrible tearing within, and I finally told God I was out of the game. No more. I quit. "God, I can't be what I'm taught you want me to be, and I won't be what I can be. Good bye."
God's response, I think, was amusement. I had finally come to the place where I quit trying, and was willing to admit I knew little to nothing about what following God was about.
At that point, different people came into my life who began telling me of a way that I had never heard. They showed me in my Bible exactly what they were telling me. And so, being a curious and somewhat analytical young lad, I began reading, studying, and asking questions.
It was a long and sometimes painful process. But in the end, I came to believe I had been ripped off. I had been taught something that was simply unsupportable.
I began to see a God who longed to be known, who acted tangibly in intimate parts of my life. Who deeply cared for me and, indeed, delighted in me. I began to see myself as he sees me, which was not the screwed up, arrogant loser I presented to the world and my mirror.
Since the initial turning point, it's now been 35 years. I have accumulated a respectable theological library and three college degrees. I have searched far, seeking to know something that I could believe was truth, and could accept with some historical and logical support. I am somewhat conservative in my theology, I suppose, and I am also conservative in my thinking: I want to see the evidence, and I'm not so easy to convince.
In the end, I have more or less stopped calling myself a Christian, though I am not offended when others use the term. I consider myself a follower of Jesus, because, as I have studied, I have come to believe that the real Jesus - not the middle-class American one - is supremely worthy of my trust and allegiance.
What is some of the evidence that has convinced me? There is far too much for a short blog piece like this. But one of my favorites, one what lifts me up in times of doubt, has to do with my daughter.
When she was about 3, we lived in a village in rural Germany. One evening, we had another couple over for dinner, and expected about a dozen more people later for a group that met at our home. After dinner, as the men were in the front room talking and the women were cleaning the kitchen, my daughter, seated in a high chair in the kitchen, decided to escape.
As kids will, she twisted herself around until she was face down and sliding out of the chair over the footrest, a wire one. As she slid, she lost her grip and fell, raking her face over the wire footrest, which ripped her upper lip, leaving the central lobe of the lip dangling by a small piece of skin, and blood gushing everywhere.
My wife grabbed her and took her to the bathroom. I followed, and showed my command of the situation by asking, "Do we have any aspirin?" There was no option to go to the emergency room or to any other medical facility.
Finally, in desperation, I placed my hand on my daughter's shoulder and asked God to heal her, in the name of Jesus. It was a very simple prayer, with no formula.
Immediately, she stopped crying, the bleeding stopped, and an examination of her lip, conducted repeatedly by all the now-arriving guests, showed nothing more than a small, lint-like red line on her lip. Before the evening was out, that, too, was gone.
There was no trace of her injury. This all happened very rapidly, and I have no way to explain it, except that she was supernaturally healed, touched by the power of a loving God.
That was the first of several similar events that convinced me that this God was real, that he was what the Bible claimed he was - and the ancient church believed he was - and that my task now was to learn the truth about him and to know and serve him.
A God who healed children like that, I thought, was both real and not to be ignored.
So, I think I was among many who were sold a bill of goods, a false Christianity. It was not done out of maliciousness, but out of ignorance, and out of living in a culture that claimed a faith that had been twisted from its original truth, to the point that the early Christians would no longer recognize it.
But God is gracious, and God seeks above all to be known in truth. And he can be known to anyone who seeks the truth with integrity, truly seeking and not merely parroting someone else, and refusing to hear the evidence.