In Old Testament Scripture, Joshua 24:15 states, "But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
These words are the conclusion of Joshua's speech at Shechem where he renewed the Covenant between the people of Israel and the Lord, shortly before his death at the age of 110. These events occurred in and around the year 1245 BC. The people of Israel chose to serve the Lord over any other god they'd ever known. Around 3253 years later, in the little village of Zurich, Ontario, I made the same choice. That was only 4 months ago. And it was only 5 months ago that I even began to consider that God was real. How did that happen? Perhaps you would like to hear the tale? OK, go get a coffee and get comfy. I'll wait...
OK, we're back. The story begins when I was a child. Although occasionally I went to Sunday school (which I have no memory of except for one day waiting outside Grantham United Church in St. Catharines for my mom to pick me up.), and once to Vacation Bible School, I never really caught the message. The Bible was just a collection of stories to me. My parents didn't reinforce anything, really. And who can blame them? After all, I have rarely heard the story of a memorable sermon given by a pastor in the childhood of my parents' generation. Most church stories I've heard are of the trouble they got into as kids, or of the many naps brought on by long, lifeless sermons.
And God waited and watched as His people dwindled in number. Everyone I knew in my generation around the age of ten said he or she was a Christian, because they believed in God. But that was the way to be normal those days. I certainly didn't really believe in God. No one had impressed me enough to get me to really believe it in my heart. But I said I did, because everyone else said they did. Those days, there were very few kids at my school in St. Catharines of different ethnicities, and none of them of a different world religion. Everyone said they believed in God, and we all said the Lord's Prayer after the National Anthem at school. None of us really knew what that meant, and the thought of praying any other time than at church on Sunday (if you went to church at all) was ludicrous.
So, we grew up. High school brought on a few changes. By this time I had come into the belief that God probably didn't really exist, because I became aware of other world religions and decided there were too many to choose from. How could one possibly pick the right one? It was a crap shoot. The Christians and the Muslims continued their epic battle in Lebanon and Palestine. In history and social studies classes we learned a bit about Native Spirituality, obviously Greek mythology and some African and Indian belief systems. One of our teachers was a Buddhist and another was a Hindu. It was during this period that the Lord's Prayer disappeared from schools. We all know why. Christianity had become offensive to the public. Because of a few diverse ethnicities due to heavy immigration and new schools of theological thought, belief in Jesus Christ was confined, shackled, if you will, to our homes and churches, mostly on Sunday. Most families I knew didn't say grace at meals (except perhaps at Christmas and Thanksgiving), never spoke of God, and tried in vain to beset their children with pale, quasi-Christian values even though they didn't know Jesus as Lord. As a result, I took a stand as an Atheist, rebelling against the right-wing conservative machine that threatened to turn us all into tie-wearing, short-haired, Bible-toting zombies who didn't know how to think for themselves.
And God waited and watched as His people splintered off into denominations, whether they went to church or not. United, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Anglican, Catholic, or Presbyterian all joined the droning masses of the fight to keep God on life support, even though His people privately warred one against the other. Especially against the extreme factions like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and gasp, Born-again Christians! While everyone had their judgmental eyes on those crackpots, Islam, Atheism, and Neo-Paganism moved into the neighbourhood and cried loudly for an equal share of the right to freedom of religion. And while no one I knew paid them much attention, their movements grew. In my twenties, I became a Neo-Pagan myself, believing in the divinity of Nature and the spiritual power of the self to effect change in my life. Many of the Christians I knew at this point believed in God, but didn't understand Jesus Christ, and didn't really attend church anyway. I hadn't read any Scripture in years, and any Scripture I knew was rhetorical proverb or basic stories. With no idea of the meaning of any of it, I began to develop a seething hatred for organized religion as a whole, and Christianity fueled my ire on its own. I was entrenched in the idea that Christian religious leaders would take your money with one hand and condemn you to Hell with the other. Anyone not a Christian was frowned upon by most of the public, but so were real Christians who tried to bring the gospel back into the light. The nineties were a trying time for everyone. War was everywhere.
And God pinched the bridge of His nose and sighed as His people began to give up. Indifference set in in a big way, and day-to-day drudgery took the place of vibrant faith-driven pursuits. Work, work, work. Get ahead any way you can. Make money: you're going to need it. Alcoholism and drug-abuse soared. Divorce rates jumped. Suicide rates spiked. Crime statistics became ridiculous. Violence was everywhere. And the wars and terror raged out of control. After 9/11, hatred and tolerance for other cultures run a dead heat. With hatred in our hearts, we cannot find God because we're too busy hating to seek Him. With tolerance comes acceptance and some of us tend to gravitate toward the new, incorporating attractive parts of other cultures into our own lives, often at God's expense. Sometimes we don't even know what it is we hate, or are tolerant of. We just know that's what we need to do in this world or we'll be consumed.
Whoa! Back up a second! Are you saying the non-Christians are just existing for the sake of existing? Not at all. It's that they often don't know what it is they're existing for and as a result are waiting for a revelation. Either that or they accept that life has no big meaning and just ride it out trying to squeeze as much pleasure out of it as they can. Or worse yet, they become mentally or even spiritually ill and rely on secular therapists or bogus spiritual guides to fix them. There is a plethora of reasons non-Christians stay non-Christians, and so I'll say that if you want to know why, ask a few! A lot of them may tell you they believe in God or some higher power, but they don't want to hear about Jesus. People who talk about Jesus in public are pushy, crazy people who want you to give up your time and come to their church and donate to their church's collection plate, right? They raise their hands and cry and jump up and down as the pastor heals a cripple with one good right cross and speaks in odd languages. They whip out their chequebooks on command and the church makes enough money to buy the pastor another BMW. Or, they want you to come and shave your head and drink the Kool-Aid before the mother ship descends to take us to Heaven. Better to just avoid the topic altogether, right?
That's who I was. A non-believer with a chip on my shoulder. My Neo-Pagan practice of witchcraft was, after a few years, more of a dabbling than a faith, and as much as I tried to hide it, a rebellion against the mainstream. Being a Christian in the 21st century is less than popular, I know, but when those who deny Jesus won't listen, even when they don't know what they aren't listening to, that's what happens. Rebellion, denial, and hatred. So the latest leg of my journey begins a couple of years ago...
I was head of the Security department at the Greater Niagara General Hospital. I was a Wiccan, and didn't care who knew. I had no need for redemption, because for me the afterlife was a trip through a transitive plane called Underworld, where the soul is cleansed of all negativity and learns forgiveness for itself. Then it's off to Summerland, which is what I knew to be Heaven, a joining with the divine and either eternal happiness or reincarnation, your choice. Sounds great, right? Except that there's a catch. What you send out in this life comes back times three, and somehow even when you think you're doing good, you're harming someone and you spend your life second-guessing yourself, which harms you and what comes back is seen as your own fault. Not to mention that so many "denominations" of Paganism exist and Pagans can pick and choose what aspects to incorporate into their magical life. Neo-Paganism is different for most Neo-Pagans. And many are solitary practitioners, with no training, slapping potions and charm bags together and casting all manner of spell energy into the air in the name of elemental gods without a moment's hesitation. Some witchly traditions stay pure, however, and the tolerant Pagan in one of these covens may find their tolerance giving way to jealous finger-pointing and self-righteousness. "My tradition is the right way. Yours is just silly...," "My gods will kick your gods' butts all over Valhalla..." That sort of thing. I was absolutely tolerant of other religions and expected the same of others, so the whole Christian commission to "make disciples of all nations" bit didn't sit so well with me. My tolerance only went so far, and even the mention of Jesus was enough to provoke an eye-rolling from me and an invitation not to darken my doorstep any longer.
Living in Niagara Falls, Ontario is not what I would recommend to a family man trying to raise healthy kids. Oh, yeah, the health system is OK and the education system is all regulated and such, but it's a dangerous place, and not one for kids to live in. Sorry to all you Niagara people, but being at the hospital every day, wrestling with the violent mentally ill, substance abusing and downright ornery people who think the world had better stay out of their way will get to you after a seven years or so. So, one day I was in Zurich for my cousin's wedding, and was lamenting the state of the world and big-city life, and it was suggested I move my family to Zurich and start a safer, quieter lifestyle. It meant a MAJOR life-change, and giving up a career I thought was my calling. But thirty minutes or so later, it was decided. We'd become country folk.
We moved here in October 2005. My common-law wife Candice and three kids (Raven, Duncan, and Gabriel) didn't make as quick an adjustment as I did, but we're still here. We got married for real last June, by the way, in a Wiccan ceremony in the city park in Exeter. Over two years in the country, where life was supposed to be less stressful and more serene, I still held a lot of the seething anger I had as a city slicker. Once, my wife even left me for a weekend because I was angry all the time. I took a secular anger management course which even helped a bit, for a while, but I still struggled on with a raving beast inside.
Then last October, I just remember thinking about God, and whether He was real. I even asked, "God, are you there? Are you real? Do you see me? Do you love me?" Of course I didn't share this with Candice for fear she'd think I was a nut. She'd been attending church for a month or so so the kids would have Sunday school to interact with other kids and Candice could meet new people in town because she'd been isolated in our little farmhouse and needed to make some friends. So one day a few weeks later I shared and got the expected reaction I had feared, but then Candice suggested I come to church. I was skeptical at first, but decided to give it a try.
WELL! A guest speaker was giving a sermon that Sunday at the Mennonite church, and he said exactly what I needed to hear. He spoke from the Book of Romans, and I can't remember what moved me the most, but I knew Jesus as Lord from that day. A couple of weeks later, we had a meeting with the senior pastor to discuss the Mennonite doctrine, and determine from there whether this was the church for us, or if we wanted to switch to United or Lutheran, or some other denomination. The pastor, who is a very faithful and humble man, led us into a two hour discussion about the nature of faith, heaven and hell, God's will for all of us, and who Jesus really is. WOW! I'd had no idea what I'd been missing, and I knew that the Lord was speaking through His servant that day. I still, however, was not yet ready to make the final commitment.
That's when I received a phone call from an elder of the church, a few days later. Another faithful and humble man, he invited me to join him and a few other men from the church in attending a Promise Keepers conference over a weekend in November. I said, "sure," and the ladies in Candice's study group said, "Oh, he's going to come home SAVED!" No doubt. The conference was incredible. The Lord called out to all His people as soon as I arrived and I had absolutely no choice but to obey. With tears in my eyes and a heart brimming with joy, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, and was saved by His eternal Grace. AMEN!!
Joy. A small word. But yet it was something I had not felt for real since I was a small child. Maybe a bit when my children were born. But my heart never sang with such overwhelming and powerful joy as when I took Lord Jesus' hand and began to walk with Him. His love swept me away to places in my heart I'd never known. His majesty filled me with an awe I'd never felt. His power showed me the way to salvation. He is my king!! Nothing has been the same ever since that weekend. Upon returning home, Candice thought I'd been swapped by aliens for a big ol' loving, happy clone of myself. And I found a new family, God's family, right here in a little village church.
This is the part of the blog where I turn the keyboard over to the Lord and let Him write it. Next issue, we'll talk about God's place in my life, and the struggle I've had to keep Him there. Stay tuned, and maybe dust off the New Testament and check out the Gospel of John if you haven't read it. It's definitely worth the read. We'll talk again soon.