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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why I Believe: Biographical

Let me tell you why I believe the gospel, biographically speaking.

For as long as I've been alive I have had a deep craving for Truth—truth about everything.  I acquired knowledge voraciously and instinctively believed that all of it—whether about dinosaurs or how airplanes fly or why the sky is blue or why people do what they do or how our country was founded—was all one piece.  That one piece included the truth about God and his relationship to us.

From my earliest Truth-craving days I heard about Jesus.  Some of this came at the church that we attended, Christ United Methodist Church in Lakewood, New Jersey, where some of my earliest memories are set.  As a preschooler I remember going to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School there.  But I got a much bigger dose of the gospel at home, particularly from my mom.  I still remember where I was playing in our house on Manetta Place when I abruptly called mom to come to where I was and told her I wanted to "accept Jesus into my heart."  She prayed with me for me to do just that.

Now it's worth noting that I don't really know now what I thought I was doing then.  "Accept Jesus into your heart" is a really odd phrase, especially to a highly literal 4-year-old mind.  The phrase is highly symbolic and hardly shows up in the Bible.  (The closest we get are a few places that talk about "receiving" Christ like Mark 9:37 and John 1:11 and Paul's prayer that Christ would "dwell in [the] hearts" of already saved people in Eph. 3:17.)  But that's the way that the people I was listening to talked about salvation.  The one thing I know that I knew was that accepting Jesus into my heart was the right thing to do.  It had to do with being close to God and not having to be afraid of hell, and those were things that I wanted.

So, why did I want these things so much, and why did I think they were important?  Because I trusted the people who told me about them.  My mom loved me, and my Sunday School teachers did too.  I had no doubt that they did.  They kept me safe when I got scared, they met my needs, they truly liked me, and they were reliable and consistent.  Though I didn't think it through consciously at the time, I am certain that I trusted what they said about Jesus because they proved their trustworthy love in all other aspects that mattered to a 4-year-old (or was I 3?).  If their love could be relied upon, their message was too.  If they were true, their gospel was true—an essential, even the essential, part of the Truth that I craved.

As I grew older and my ability to grasp things intellectually increased, my knowledge of God and the gospel did too.  All along the way there were people I greatly respected—my parents, adults at Redeemer Evangelical Covenant Church in Liverpool, New York, and later teachers at Faith Heritage School in Syracuse, New York—who continued to tell me the truth.  And I continued to trust them because they continued to love me consistently and reliably.  When they told me that God created the world out of nothing, I believed it.  And I believed them when they told me that I was a sinner along with all humanity and that Christ's death was the substitutionary atonement for my sins that could only be received by repentant faith, not by my religious actions and good deeds.  Again, I trusted the message because I could trust the messengers.

It wasn't until much later that I realized how these people that I trusted themselves believed because trustworthy people told them, and those people believed because trustworthy people told them.  I can actually trace this back some generations in my own family through my maternal grandfather's ancestry of an unbroken line of Mennonite pastors going back at least to 18th-century Switzerland.  But of course, the line actually extends all the way back to the apostles themselves, who believed the message of Jesus that they heard from his own mouth because he and his love were trustworthy.

So that's why I believe the gospel, biographically speaking: I trust the people who told me.  Why do you believe?

The testimony I gave above is actually the result of a much deeper examination of the beginning of my spiritual journey than I had ever done.  Credit goes to "The 3 Whys" exercise employed by Rev. Tom Beers.  You can do it too!

1. Take a piece of paper and write out a paragraph in longhand that starts, "Here is how I became a Christian."  Write what comes to you automatically; don't think about it too much.  Don't cover more than about two thirds of the paper and don't take more than five minutes.

2. Underline every thing you did or reaction you had.  (Hint: Look at the verbs.)

3. Flip the paper over.  Hold it in landscape format (the long sides are the top and bottom).  Divide it into four columns by drawing lines or creasing.

4. List the things you underlined in your paragraph in the right-hand column (the 4th column).  It doesn't hurt to abbreviate.  If you have more than eight, combine some that seem to go together.

5. Look at the first thing you listed in that right-hand column.  Ask yourself, "Why did I do that?"  Write the answer next to it in the column immediately to its left (the 3rd column).

6. Look at what you just wrote in the 3rd column.  Ask yourself, "Why did that happen?"  Write the answer next to it in the 2nd column.

7. Look at what you just wrote in the 2nd column.  Ask yourself, "Why did that happen?"  Write the answer next to it in the 1st (leftmost) column.

8. Repeat steps 5 through 7 for each of the things listed in the 4th column.

9. Now look at what's written in the 1st column and how you got there.  What are the recurring themes?  What matters to you?  How did God work the miracle of salvation in your life?  That is your testimony.  Rewrite your story incorporating your insights into what happened and how it happened.

10. Tell people what God has done in your life!

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