Last week, Devona and I chaperoned our church’s youth group to the Higher Things conference in Scranton, Pennsylvania (I hope to write more about this in a few other posts, too). The conference was such a blessing, and it’s very possible that we got more out of it than even the kids did.
Specifically, though, the conference gave me the chance to recollect some of my most formative experiences growing up heavily involved in a modern evangelical church: Summer camps and conferences were a huge part of my Christian identity when I was young. I have fierce memories of crowding together into a darkened, sweaty gymnasium with hundreds of other teenagers, a stage washed in concert lights, the roar of electric guitars, raised hands, tearful repentance, the ultimate conviction that this was where we belonged.
It’s hard to shake off moments like that, and years of them piled up to convince me that I was called to be a minister–after all, that fire in my heart had to be a calling from God, right? Night after night, with the echo of those drums ringing in my ears, I’d lay awake with my certain future in ministry spreading out in front of me.
When it came time to pick a college, I was sure I needed to attend one of our loose denomination’s Bible colleges (later shot down by my parents). I wanted to join up with a good worship band. Maybe become a missionary. I hardly gave a future in the secular world a thought–I was certain I would be doing something in the church.
But then real life woke me up. As I finished high school and began college, leading worship services, mentoring newer Christians, and guiding Bible studies, I began to have real questions. Struggles with sin. Doubts. It just wasn’t always easy to stay on the mountaintop. I began to loathe the fire in my heart. I was angry about it, ashamed. How could someone called by God feel so conflicted?
it only got worse, and my wife (at that time, my fiance) and I came to a spiritual crisis. We were burnt out. We needed the Gospel, and we needed it desperately. And though it was being preached in some form all around us, we were deaf to it. The message was too mixed. Grace didn’t seem free, and we felt like we were in chains.
By the time we ended up in the small LCMS church we still attend, I’d walled off my heart from any hope of becoming a pastor. I was bitter with my Christian experience, certain that I’d fallen prey to my own emotions at a vulnerable age. I convinced myself that work in the church was something I could never do, someone else’s job, someone else’s problem. The ache to serve, though, never left. And over the last five years I continued to struggle with anger and sorrow at its persistence. Time and again, the desire would well up inside me. And in all that bitterness I had only one answer: “No.” Considering a life in ministry, after the emotional wringing I’d felt I’d been through, was impossible. But why couldn’t I get rid of this burden? Get on with clocking in and out of my nine-to-six job, living in my vocation as father to my kids, husband to my wife, and hard-working employee at my job?
At some point during the conference last week, though, something changed. There were no sweaty gymnasiums, no flood-lighted stages, no roaring electric guitars. No calls for tearful emotional repentance, and no emotional revelations. I laid awake in my bunk in the University of Scranton dorms, listening to the sound of teenagers talking outside–teenagers so much like I must have been years ago–and laying my spiritual past alongside these similar, but so tremendously different experiences at Higher Things. Day after day I heard the preaching of Christ, Christ, and Christ again. I received Christ, again, again, and again. I went to confession and absolution, I laid down my pride and heard that I was forgiven. And somehow, all that anger started to disipate. The six-foot thick concrete walls I’d built between myself and the possibility of a life serving the church started to crumble.
It’s so hard to put into words, but I guess I just started feeling alive again. And when I asked myself why I felt so alive, the obvious answer was because I’d just stopped saying “No. Not that. Anything but that.” Somehow, I found myself open again. Open to possibilities. And no longer afraid that caring about the truth of the Gospel would lead me over a cliff. Not certain of anything, to be sure, but I find myself with a heart that is more tender, rather than bitter. And a temperament that is more patient, not angry.
And the burden is gone. The weight I felt every morning when I woke up, and every night when I came home weary from the office has lifted. And for now, that’s good enough. I don’t know if I’ll ever pursue the ministry, but wondering, thinking, talking, and most of all praying about it does not seem so hard any longer. And if that means I can be a little more at peace, then that’s good enough for me.