Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Story (Part 1) - Saved By the Grace of God

I would like to tell my story, as it is up to now.  I am doing this for several reasons.  But one reason is that God has been drawing me back more and more to my first love.  In that, I have been reflecting on the work of God in my life in the past 24 years, celebrating what He has done in me, but also with an awareness of how I have hindered that work.  I also want to be able to one day ensure that my children know what God has done in me, so this will work to that end, as well.  I pray that if you would so decide to read along, that your heart would be stirred and blessed.

In telling this story, please know that my aim is not to bash anyone or to take a stab at any group on any way.  These will simply be reflections of the longing of my heart to refocus on Jesus alone.

St. John's Cathedral (Parma, OH)
My spiritual autobiography begins probably around age 11 or 12.  I cannot really explain how or why things happened, other than to say it had to be the Spirit of God working in me and drawing me to Christ.  I was born and raised in a Byzantine Catholic Church.  In all honesty, we were somewhat nominal.  We attended Mass more out of a duty or ritual than anything else.  And to be honest, I hated it.  I couldn't wait until I was old enough to stop going altogether.

However, even though I paid as little attention as I could to what was happening in the Mass, I realized enough to know that I was not the person God expected me to be.  I can't say that it was something the priest said.  I just don't know.  I just knew I was a sinner, even if I didn't even know to use that title to describe myself.  I didn't know that God's Law condemned things like lying, anger, idolatry, and lust.  I just knew I was guilty.  I knew I needed to be forgiven.  I knew I was not in a "right relationship with God."  In fact, in trying to describe what I was going through I realize how many theological issues were going on in me, but I had no clue what they were.  I couldn't articulate it then.  I just longed to be right with God.

I wasn't what anyone would call a "bad kid."  I had a great home with loving parents.  I had never gotten drunk or tried drugs or had premarital sex.  I wasn't known for my profanity.  But, I somehow knew that it didn't matter how I was compared to other kids.  What mattered was a perfect God's assessment of me.

Around the age of 11 or 12, I can remember my first exposure with "born again Christians."  The title they used sounded fanatical.  All I knew is that is what Jim and Tammy Faye Baker were called.  I really didn't want to associate myself with that bunch.  But it did strike me as odd that there were people who knew that they were forgiven and who claimed to have a personal relationship with God.

I found myself developing a "spiritual thirst."  It consumed me.  I remember looking into the night sky overwhelmed by the reality of the bigness of God and the eternality of eternity.  I had to get right with God, but I didn't know how.  So, I began by trying to become the best Catholic I could.  I gave myself fully to every practice and every ritual.  Yet, the need within me only intensified.

John Jacobs
When I was in 7th grade, I began thinking about playing football in 8th grade.  So, throughout 1987, as a 13 year-old, I began exercising and lifting weights to get in shape for summer camp.  It was during this time that I found myself every Saturday night watching John Jacobs and the Power Team.  To be honest, I don't remember a lot of what they said every Saturday night.  I have heard people say that they preach a false Gospel.  All I know is that in 1987, I found that to be the first time I heard someone explain that Jesus died on the cross for my sins so that I could be forgiven by God and have a right relationship with God.  Of course, there was all the weightlifting and power stunts along the way.  But I never heard that the promise of forgiveness has been provided for me in Jesus.  I glued myself to the TV every Saturday night to watch.  It was my secret thing, as I was afraid of what my parents would think if they caught me watching fanatical religious TV.

I had relatives who lived in Florida who were born again Christians.  I started telling my cousins about what I was watching.  Now they started encouraging me to listen to Christian music, knowing that music was one of my biggest loves.  Now there was music that was all about Jesus!  It is as if my heart was beginning to race.  I was like a hungry man who finally found where to find a meal.  I couldn't get enough of hearing about Jesus and what He had done for me.  There must have been something missing at least in what I was picking up on in my Saturday nights with John Jacobs.  Every week, I began praying the "sinner's prayer," but still had the aching need in my heart to be right with God.  So, I figured it didn't "take" and I would try again the next week.

Canton Palace Theater
This went on for a while.  That is, until my out of town family convinced my parents to let me go to a Christian "rock" concert on May 6, 1988.  I was now 14 years old and coming to the end of my 8th grade year.  The problem with the concert was, I lived in Cleveland and the concert was in Canton - about a one hour drive.  However, my parents agreed to take me!  The concert was at the Canton Palace Theater and featured the band Petra, with Geoff Moore and the Distance as the opening act.  For me, that one hour drive to the concert was more than a drive to a concert.  I can remember sitting in the back seat, heart aching with every passing mile.  I guess I saw this as my "last chance."  If God wouldn't save me now, perhaps He never would.  I was desperate for Him.  The concert was wonderful and every song was as if it was speaking directly to me.  But as it went on, with everything that was said all night, I still hadn't heard what I needed to hear.

Just before the concert was over, the guitar playing began to talk.  He again told the story of Jesus and what He did on the cross for our sins.  He talked about the need to confess our sins and trust in Jesus to save us.  He talked about what it meant to follow Jesus.  He closed by inviting anyone who wanted to surrender and follow Jesus to head to the back of the theater where counselors were waiting to speak to us.  Well, I bolted out of my seat!  I had a friend with me, who followed me out, but I wasn't even thinking about him in the moment.  I had to resolve things with God once and for all.  The counselor didn't have to say much.  I just wanted to cry out to Jesus to save me.  By the time my parents had come back to pick me up, I knew that I had been forgiven and saved by a gracious God!

It didn't matter to me if I exercised free will in the process or if it was the sovereign working of God.  He made it clear to me that I needed to be saved and I ran to Him to save me and He did.  That's all I know.  It wouldn't be until about 5 years later that I would even find out that people were debating how the process worked.  I didn't care.  At last, I knew my sins had been forgiven.  I knew I belonged to Him.  I knew His Spirit was in me.  It was unlike anything I had every felt before.   

Continue to Part 2

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