Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Jesus, Bastards, and Bad Burritos

When a friend read my story about musician John Davis, he commented, "That doesn't sound like a conversion to me. It sounds like he ate a bad burrito."

I can sympathize. I'm wary of sensational, emotional conversion stories, and my first inclination is to assume that they've been, well, if not fabricated, then at least substantially embellished. As a young Christian, I used to see this weird sort of "top this testimony" dynamic at work all the time. So you were a drug-abusing transvestite before you came to Christ, huh? Well, I was a drug-abusing transvestite in a motorcyle gang of drug abusing transvestites, and Jesus spoke to me when I was on acid and told me to put away the drugs and the bikes and the dresses and to follow Him. Etc. Etc.

The thing is, I really do know people whose lives have been instantly transformed by an encounter with Jesus. That encounter may or may not have been an emotional one. And so, I suspect that what we really struggle with is the radical inbreaking of God into human lives. In some ways we prefer the slow grind of infinitesimal transformation, because that makes more sense to us. It's a lot like going on a diet or studying for another degree. Just keep plugging away at it and eventually you'll see some progress. What doesn't make sense to us is the kind of testimony of John Davis -- one day I was a raging, out-of-control alcoholic, and the next day I had been delivered of the need to drink. That somehow seems unfair -- at least to me. It's the spiritual equivalent of stomach stapling to a perpetual dieter. What! You mean you didn't have to work at it, when my own story involves successes and failures, slipping back into an old way of life, pain and trauma, slowly being changed into someone who, by nature, I am not. It's not fair!

We're also (rightly) suspicious of sensational conversion stories that often turn out, in the long run, to be little more than a temporary reprieve from the usual self-centered life. And so we prefer to wait and see, and that's a reasonable approach in the case of John Davis.

All I know is that human beings are extraordinarily complex creatures. What seems like a legitimate encounter with God may turn out to be a passing fancy, driven by guilt or short-lived willpower, or even a bad burrito, for all I know. But I don't want to rule out the possibility that God still breaks into human lives radically and powerfully. And I want to pray for those situations to occur, because although they may not always be fair, they are always glorious. I know so many people who ought to be dead, and who are not, and who are living reasonably healthy, whole lives, people whose stories of addiction go back generation after generation, and who sincerely believe that the chain of madness can be broken in their generation. I am one of them. This is miraculous, and I don't use that word lightly. For some people the chain has been snapped in two instantaneously. For most people it's been a slow, grinding process where the chain has been weakened little by little. In all cases, though, it's miraculous.

This doesn't happen by willpower. I don't know any addicts who believe that they can will themselves into sobriety. They've all tried it, because that's the easiest solution, and it doesn't work. It happens by the power of God.

I am afflicted with the disease of cynicism, and I can very easily slip into a mindset where I doubt and mock anything and everything. And I suspect that the little bastard on my shoulder who is whispering derogatory things about (melo)dramatic Christian conversions is, in the end, more concerned with my vanity and my feelings of superiority than he is about Christian charity. Lamentably, I often choose to listen to him when I should really be saying, “Get thee behind me, you little bastard."

I think about a friend, or perhaps ex-friend now, I've met recently. He had some issues in his life, as we all do, but I genuinely liked him, wanted to help him. Kate and I personally lent him a fair amount of money so that he could get back on an even footing. Life was improving for him until he split, with our money, for parts unknown.

Now he's gone. Part of me wants to kick myself for being so naive and so stupid. I knew this could happen. But part of me -- the better part of me, I'd like to think -- would do it all over again. He talked a good game. He had me convinced of the legitimacy of his faith and his dedication to following Christ. And maybe he is legitimate on one level. I understand that kind of moral schizophrenia. And maybe he'll be back. But I'm betting against it. In spite of that, I'd still like to silence that smug little bastard on my shoulder who cynically points out that God can't *really* change people easily and that quickly. As usual, I was wrong. But so is the smug little bastard.


John McCollum said...

Very good. Very honest.

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like Andy and Seth are experiencing the "as wise as wolves, innocent as doves" situation that is in the bible. I have found that to be a personal challenge because you never really know until time reveals the position (wolf or dove) in us.

Sometimes I wish that God was exhaustive in his word so that we could be more efficient in our lives. But, as I read the stories of Jesus I realize that outside of crises, Jesus was incredibly inefficient. And in this ineffeciency, I bet he experienced life in its full complexity.


Anonymous said...


Sorry! Mixed my metaphors. Matthew 10:16 reads "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."


John McCollum said...


Strange. Ever since I decided to get a Serpent/Dove tattoo (not designed yet), that metaphor has come up on a regular basis.

Maybe I didn't notice before...

danthress said...

Can't we all just get along? (newly converted, and life-ers)

Seth, thank you for your candor. My conversion at VCC was dramatic enough to warrant being video-taped and shown as part of Rich's sermon. People still ask me about it. I think that's a good thing. I'm happy to be a living billboard for God.

I searched hard for God. Very hard. I pushed myself in incredible ways to try to find him. I traveled far only to find him at a coffee-shop not far from the hospital where I was born. You have been fortunate to get it earlier. Rejoice in that!

Your feeling are valid, and yes, not uncommon I think. Please keep in mind that there is an intensity with a delayed conversion that creates a passion for God that is often unmatched. Think of it this way: I didn't know who my father was for 40 years, and when I find out who he is, I find out that he is amazing, he is God, he's rich, he's got all the answers, and he loves me like crazy. It's overwhelming in the most beautiful way. I feel very close to others in my situation. Do you know Dave Webster? He was a pub owner in the brewery district. Now he's working at VCC doing amazing work for Fruit of the Vine.

Transformation. This is such a hot-issue. Used to be "Get Jesus or you are going to HELL!" We should say, "Get Jesus, Get a Life"

One of my closest friends from my NYC daze is in town this week playing drums/percussion in Riverdance. I picked him up and Annie and I had him over for dinner at my house on Monday. Ask him about the transformative power of Jesus in my life. He's so happy for me. I'm praying the same for him. His name is Steve.

The more people have been through, the more intense the conversion. Believe it.

Self-hate is the new cancer. I still battle my self-hate issues which are of course sin. I'm learning how much God loves me. I'm still learning how much Annie loves me. I'm still learning how much my friends love me. A delayed conversion doesn't make any of this easier. It's easy to sit around hating yourself for all the lost years. But how stupid is that when God has given me a new life, one that is more amazing then I could have imagined.

Anonymous said...

John: I really enjoy your ability to mix humor and serious contemplation. you make me smile and enjoy serving side by side with you and your family...

Dan: I know what you mean about a later in life salvation experience. i was an arrogant-hedonist grad student when i chose the lord. when i hear dramatic stories, i smile and thank God regardless. if someone is pulling my leg, then it will be on their part to expain that to the lord.

by the way, if steve goes to skambo with you, i hope that your selections and the other readings will give you a chance to know him better than you did before.


danthress said...

Where's Jeff!!!! Get on this thread right now!


danthress said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
danthress said...

Are you guys cynical of Paul as well?

Andy Whitman said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

Dan, I certainly believe that dramatic, life-changing conversions can be legitimate. And Seth, I certainly believe that slow, non-dramatic life changes can be legitimate. God uses any of it and all of it.

Part of what may be going on here is a reaction to the evangelical culture (most of which you've thankfully been spared, Dan :-)) that places more value on "celebrity" conversions and on big, melodramatic testimonies.

Unfortunately, that has gone on in the past. It probably still goes on to some extent. And quite honestly, I struggled with those ideas when I was writing my story about John Davis. My story came out more "CCM-like" (see the paragraph above for a translation) than I would have wanted, but that's because of the direction John Davis took our conversation. I was more interested in talking about his music. He was more interested in talking about his newfound faith, and about his dramatic conversion. And because I can't make up quotes, and I have to go with what I heard, that's what I wrote.

But there were parts of the conversatino that rested uneasily with me. I asked him, for instance, how he would explain the fact that some people (like himself) were miraclously delivered from devastating addictions, while others continued to struggle with those addictions as Christians. His answer: Who knows? Who can explain that? And really, what else could he say?

I don't think cynicism is the answer. It's an easy trap, and I can fall into it readily. But it doesn't help. Life will happen for John Davis, just as it happens for all of us. He'll encounter trials and setbacks. People he loves will die. And in those situations, I hope that I would have the same attitude toward John Davis as I would like to think that other Christians would have toward me when I encounter trials and setbacks. I won't judge him. I'll pray for him. I'll try to encourage him to persevere in the faith.

Life is hard enough. Those aren't paper chains that bind us. They're made of iron. And if God takes his divine chaincutters and snaps the chains in two for some people, then thank God that He has spared some people the pain and the struggle. And thank God that the rest of us see slow, steady (or unsteady, as the case may be) progress. Any way you cut it, quite literally, the chains come off. That's cause for rejoicing.

teddy dellesky said...

my "conversion story" is along the lines of being somewhat radical...

i was a college kid wrapped up in counter-culture ideals (love, peace, etc.), doing copious amounts of drugs (mostly of the psychedelic variety), and serching for god EVERYWHERE except for christianity, thinking that jesus just had a bunch of rules for me to follow tinged with a heathy fear of hell. there came a night during all of this confusion that i lie awake with fever sweats, feeling as if i were dying( but not in a physical sense). i cried out to the unknown creator asking for some sort of revelation. What i got in a few weeks after some not-so-cooincidental experiences w/ christians was a deep sense that jesus was waiting at the end of this quest. after standing on the precipice for a few more months, he wore me out.

the timing that god had was merely different than that of others.

danthress said...

Seth, I feel like two brothers really took the time to think about your points and then wrote about them in a very meaningful way. Your post that followed seemed like you didn't even read them.

I'm sure your feelings and experience are valid. So are ours. I look forward to hearing something positive about how you will address these issues that trouble you.

One positive thing that stood out in an earlier post of yours was that playing bass gets your motor running. You are also good at it. Think it's a coincidence? I call it part of God's design for your life.

danthress said...

"It really blows me away how our experiences have been so totally different - but it's very much under the same roof.


Thanks Seth, that helps me know you better. I struggled with your posts asking myself, "Is this guy stuck, or is asking God to redefine his life?" Now I know it's the later. Now I feel we're on the same team, let's play ball.

The Christian life is a fluid situation. I never imagined dating Annie, leaving VCC, going to a different church, etc. Now it seems so natural and right.

I have to fight a response from me that wants to kick cynical Christians in the shins. To me unhappy and Christian just don't go together. That's very black and white thinking and it has gotten me into some rhetorical scuffles in the last few years. In three months I'm marring a life-long Christian who has had struggles that may be not unlike your own. I'm sure we will learn and influence each another. I look forward to that.

At small group on Friday we talked a lot about being authentic and how "customized" our relationships are with God. That resonates with me. Church always seemed "cookie-cutter" to me when I grew up so I stopped going and went fishing on the weekends. That felt a lot more spiritual to me. Thanksgiving would roll around once a year, my grandfather would say a blessing and I would stick out my middle-finger underneath the table. Seriously, I was a God-hater, which in retrospect means I must have believed in him. I can relate to the life of Paul.

Now we live in a better time, and in a better place (Central Vineyard) where we can figure this out together without feeling we have to fit any molds. Mold, anyway you think of it, is a bad thing.

Andy Whitman said...

Dan and Seth, I appreciate your comments.

There are many issues here, but I'm just going to pull out one -- the idea of "ministry," and what that looks like.

There is a mindset out there in much of the evangelical world that divides vocation into two big boxes -- "ministry" (pastoring a church, Christian education, Christian parachurch work such as campus staff for Campus Crusade for Christ and Inter-Varsity, missionary work) and "everything else." And those who fall into the "everything else" category tend to be viewed as second-class citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Believe me, that view is still alive and well. When I spoke at Calvin College a few weeks ago a young man came up to me after my presentation and asked, "Do you have a ministry?" Huh? I had just spent an hour and a half discussing music criticism from a Christian perspective. But that wasn't good enough for him. He wanted to know if I was a pastor, a Christian educator (with the right credentials), etc.

But I knew where he was coming from. I spent two years of my life at a seminary studying the New and Old Testaments, Greek and Hebrew, Church history, apologetics, hermeneutics, etc. Why? Because that was the expected thing to do for someone who tried to take his faith seriously and believed that he had some God-given gifts and talents to offer the Church. But it was a huge mistake. I would be a horrible pastor. That simply is not my calling. Nevertheless, I jumped through the hoops because I believed at the time that that was the means by which one got to "minister" within the Church.

What I've since come to realize (and it's something that Jeff thankfully emphasizes freqently at Central Vineyard) is that everyone gets to play. The two-tiered view of vocation actually has a lot more in common with world-denying Gnosticism than it does with Christianity. Christianity embraces all of life. There is no part of life that is not "spiritual." So when I design web sites, or write about rock 'n roll, I am engaged in spiritual activity, and I am engaged in ministry. And that's true for all of us. There isn't a single moment of our day that falls outside the purview of ministry. In each and every situation with which we are confronted, we are offered a choice to bring the Kingdom of God to bear in that situation or to pretend as if the Kingdom of God has no relevance to that part of our lives.

This is a lot easier said than done, I realize. And I fail at it miserably sometimes. But that's the issue that is at the root of this discussion of celebrity conversions and big, splashy testimonies. Much of the evangelical world operates from a Gnostic perspective that profoundly distrusts the physical world. In this view, painting, writing, creating music are not valid vocations in and of themselves, and must be baptized with some sort of super-spirituality before they can be taken seriously. Songs have to be accompanied by a call to repentance. Paintings about Jesus are okay, but paintings of the creation (or God forbid, abstract painting) are not.

I frankly hate this view. Getting back to the original topic, I'm glad that John Davis is now my brother in the Lord. But he doesn't need to convince me of the value of his music by pushing his big, melodramatic conversion story. I was already convinced of his music's value because I listened to his album, and it's pretty good. And I listened to his albums as a non-Christian and thought they were wonderfully valuable as well, because they were good rock 'n roll records.

That's the mindset that is at work here. That's probably part of what Seth is reacting to. That certainly doesn't negate the value of dramatic conversions. I'm thrilled whenever or however people come to know Christ. But it does point to an underylying two-tiered mindset that I wish would go away. It's a scourge on the Church.

danthress said...

Yeah, me too. Andy, that last post was very helpful. Thank you for filling me in.