Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"How Did You Meet Jesus?"

How did I meet Jesus? I have asked myself that a lot. Theologians ask that all the time. How much was my seeking Him? How much was His calling to me? Honestly, I only can answer that I met Him, and getting to know Him has filled my life and thoughts these past 30 years since. I sure didn’t call my friend Mike that night, to get religion! And Jesus did say, “No one may come to Me, unless the Father draws them.” So I guess God was drawing me, though I didn’t know it at the time. I actually had gone to this particular party, to buy me some pot.

I was sport’s counselor and athletic director for a boy’s camp, on Cape Cod, MA, for three summers, during my college years. The boys and staff at the camp were predominantly Jewish, and without knowing it, they most definitely impacted my idea of God, as being Someone close and not distant; Someone to be recognized, and not taken for granted. I was drawn enough by this amazing community, that even though most there may not have considered themselves at all devout, their lives let me know, that without a reverence for God, I was missing something in life.

I played soccer in high school and then in college, and I played a lot of tennis, and had been a competitive swimmer. I just loved to compete! My motto jokingly was: "It isn't all about winning! I get just as much pleasure in seeing other people lose!" I really enjoyed coaching kids, and seeing them enjoy sports as well. During my final summer at camp, one of my best friends was a post-hippie guy named Michael, about 5 years older than me, and he seemed to be going nowhere. He was camp’s music director and wanted his music to sell. He sang, and played guitar, and wrote his own songs. He was excellent too; but so far he kept making the kinds of decisions in life, that were postponing or derailing his dreams. We used to get high on pot together, which is something I had just started doing in college.

After camp that summer I went back out to Southern Illinois University, for my Junior year. Mike got odd jobs in the Worcester area of Massachusetts, and one of these jobs was roofing. One day Mike fell off of a roof and broke his back. While he was in the hospital, he cried out to God, and was shocked to find that Jesus was the answer God was giving him. He wrote me a couple letters and I told him I was “Happy for him,” with no intention of getting Jesus-like myself.

Summer came and I wasn’t going back to camp. I had to make more money for school and so my brother got me a job soldering cables for computers in Boston at his company. Well, leaving school for home, I thought I had brought enough pot to last the summer, but you know how that goes. I had two weeks left and ran out. So I called Mike, cause he was my only connection. I was staying with my parents and since I didn’t smoke pot in high school, I had no connections there. I called Mike, not realizing that pot was something that a Jesus person might repent of. Mike listened and said, “Well Tom, I actually don’t get high anymore. I’m high on Jesus (whatever THAT meant), but I’m going to a party tonight where I think you can get some.” So, desperate for pot, I went to the party.

All the way there, I was really eager to finally see Mike too. I remember saying to my co-workers that day, “I’m going to a Christian pot party.” Well, when Mike and I arrived to the small farm house where the party was, there were about 20 people sitting and chatting by candlelight. They all seemed really nice, but the only one I knew was Mike. I had parked my car at Mike's place and we drove over together in his car. I didn’t know it but everyone at this party attended the same church, which was called "Calvary." I remember wondering what Jesus had to do with horses. I don't remember a cavalry sung about in "Jesus Christ Superstar." One group sat around Mike’s guitar while he led them in singing. I saw another group over by a table. There was wine and a few joints on the table and so that was the place for me. Mike began to play and I settled as close to the joints as I could. Mike began playing tunes that I recognized from the previous summer; songs he had written. But he'd since changed the words to them; now singing about God and Jesus and the “Trinity." (Whatever that was!)

Okay, I had to admit too, that Mike was different. He had a good job; was paying his wife child support, and he really was not getting high, which if you knew Mike and I, that was big. And he was the happiest really, that I ever knew him to be. In just about 45 minutes of visiting him, and catching up before the party, I could see he was really excited about life now. He was always fun to be around. But now he was happy.

But I was there to get high and so there I sat at a table with a bunch of strangers. They were just lighting up a joint and one of them was reading aloud from a book about "the end times," and Bible prophecy. The book was called, “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsay. There were even some at the table who were not getting high, which was really strange to me. After all, people getting high, don’t want to be around someone who is sober. A downer. And if you are sober, you sure don’t want to be around someone who is high. You try and tell them about your day, and they answer you by telling you that "the Universe is really bent," or simply, "man! Did you see that?" No fun! But here they all were, at this "Christian Pot Party," enjoying each other and eager to hear what the Bible has to say.

There were these two girls across the table from me. I actually forget their names, but let’s call them Susan and Ellen. Ellen took a hit of the joint and passed it to Susan, who did not take a hit, but passed it on to whoever was sitting next to her. Ellen says, “Aren’t you getting high tonight?” And Susan says, “No. I think I’m going to quit.” That got me thinking. Hearing about the end times and Armageddon, and having to take the mark in order not to be killed, etc., wasn’t doing much for my paranoia either!

I was thinking, as the joint went around, “Why is she quitting?” I really wanted to know, but didn’t know her to ask. I started thinking of how I couldn’t quit, even if I had wanted to. I didn’t want to. But then I had this picture of me one day at age 35, telling my kids, “Don’t do drugs!” and then when they’d go to bed, there I’d be, pulling out my secret stash and getting high while they all slept. I felt at 22, that I was destined to be a sneak with addictions at 35 and then for the rest of my life. I didn’t like me very much at that moment.

Well, the joint went around again and came to Ellen, and she took another hit, and passed it to Susan. I was sure Susan would cave and take a hit, but she passed it on. This girl was sticking to her words. I felt so weak and spineless. This was getting depressing. I bought some pot, from this guy who had gone out to get some for me, and then I heard Ellen ask Susan, “Why are you quitting?” And that was the million dollar question that changed my life.

Susan answered, “I’ve noticed lately that when I pray, if I’m high, I can’t hear God’s voice. But if I’m not high, I can hear Him just fine.

That was what I needed to hear! You see, for me at age 22, despite living the college life and getting ready to finish that and move on, life was boring, depressing, and I didn’t see the point of most of what I or anyone else was doing. Smoking pot and hash made life interesting, funny, and adventurous, if at least in my mind, and even if just temporarily so. Now here was someone I knew well, Mike, and someone who I didn’t know at all, Susan, saying the same thing; that though life with pot was better than life without it, life with Jesus was better than life with pot. I guess from that point on, I wanted to know more. They had found an answer that, if true, I not only wanted, but knew I had not the power or character to obtain.

At the end of the night, everyone stood in a circle and prayed. High or not, each prayed if they wanted to. I was clueless, and so when the girl next to me prayed and then squeezed my hand, I thought she was just being emotional or affectionate, and so I squeezed her hand back. Ha! Her squeezing my hand was to let me know she was done and apparently it was my turn to pray. I didn’t realize that till a year later when I was in another group that did that. God is so patient! He is so wonderful! After the party, Mike and I were driving home, and I asked Mike. “Mike, how can I hear God’s voice?” I think I also asked, having heard this from one of the party goers, "And what is "the sinner's prayer?" Mike hid his excitement, but he had been praying for me all that day. He knew my stand on religion and figured I would be a tough nut to crack. But here I was asking him basically, how I could be saved.

So Mike asks me, “Tom, do you know you are a sinner?” Well, I had to think about that one. I knew that there were three things in particular that I had done, and that if people knew about them, I’d be quite ashamed. I knew God must know of these things. And so I said, “Yes, I guess I do.”

Then Mike asked me, “Tom, do you know why Jesus died on the cross?” And to be honest, I didn’t know. I had listened to the record album “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a young teen, hundreds of times. But I didn’t know why Jesus died on the cross. The rock opera never answers that question. I never went to church growing up; and in my neighborhood, people just didn’t talk about stuff like this. So I just guessed, “To be a good example to us?” (Wrong answer.)

Mike explained that Jesus came in order specifically to die, because our sin made it impossible for us to ever enter back into a right relationship with God. (A relationship mankind lost in the Garden of Eden). God is holy, and man is now sinful. So there had to be a sacrifice of blood to pay for our sins. Jesus never sinned, and because He was born of God’s Spirit, and not man’s seed, He did not carry man's sinful nature. His Father being God Himself, He is both God and man. Having lived a sinless life, He chose to be the sacrifice for us, so that we can enter that relationship with Him now. He did this because God loves us so much! Trusting in Him will mean a new life in Christ, and when our bodies die, eternal life with God in Heaven. “Tom, do you believe that God loves you?

Well, I guess I did. I mean, if He hates sin so much, and didn’t kill me for those three “sins” that I was thinking about, then I guess He must love me. And I just did believe that He loved me. So I said, “yes.

Then Mike said, “Well, if God loves you, and wants to spend forever with you, then isn’t it okay for Him to do the one thing that He has to do, in order to make that possible? Jesus died on the cross, so that you could live with Him forever.

I actually understood what Mike was saying! Even as I write it now, it sounds fantastic. What a story! But in my heart, I believed it then, and of course 30 years later, I am today more sure of it than ever. Mike and I prayed in the car that night, and I thanked God for loving me; I admitted to Him that I was a sinner, and I needed someone to pay the penalty for my sin. I thanked Him for sending Jesus, and for Him dying on the cross for me. And knowing that Jesus rose from the dead, because He Himself was not a sinner; I thanked God that I would one day see Jesus, now my Lord. And I asked God to help me walk with Him always, listening to what He has to say, and to please help me to love Him back. And that was it. Apparently, that was "the sinner's prayer" that I had heard mentioned at the party. And then nothing happened? No lightening. Still kind of high. Still glad I had my new bag of pot. And I got ready for the drive home, while listening to the oldies station. Still just Tom.

Well, before parting, Mike also had given me a Bible that was easy to read, and a bookmark that had a picture of Jesus on it. Ha! I remember getting it and seeing the artist’s scribble, said, “Cool! You even got it autographed!” Like Jesus, Mike can be very patient.

Well, next morning, I did start reading my Bible on the subway to work. And within a week, God had done three things to convince me that I was in His life and He was in mine. I remember reading how His followers could call on his name at anytime and that He would answer. And one day I was walking this girl from work, to the subway station, after our shift. She was from Haiti, and was afraid of that area, because there was more crime there. I was thinking, “Girl, you are black and I’m white, and this is a black neighborhood. You really think you are safe with me?” But she was scared and from Haiti and probably didn’t realize the situation, and I was young, idealistic, and trying to be liberal minded. So I walked with her. Along the way, this man came up to us and started frisking us for money. I literally had no money on me, and told him to back off. I love Boston in some ways. But sometimes people just don't think ahead. Back in the 70s and early 80s in Boston, the YMCA did this wonderful thing. They took angry youth from the streets and neighborhoods and TAUGHT THEM KARATE!!!

So this angry action hero takes two steps back, and then leaps up to kick me in the head. I lifted my arm to protect my face, and yelled, “Jesus!” Actually, I don’t know if I was calling out to Him, or just cussing. But if it was a cuss, it was one of my very last ones. Because when I put my arm down, this man was on the ground, and bleeding. Apparently he barely hit my armpit, but the next thing he knew, he was on his back on the street. He got up to run away, and when he crossed the street yelled to me, “That is what you get for walking with that black bitch!” This to me was absurd, as the man himself was black, but I was more thinking that I was safe. Gabriel, my Haitian workmate, it turns out, was a follower of Jesus too. She didn’t know about my believing this week because I hadn’t told anyone about my praying to become a Christian. But she was saying how my calling out to Jesus was the right thing to do. I didn't expound, because I still didn't know if I had called Him. I more think He was just showing me that my new Lord takes His name very seriously.

Other, less dramatic things happened that week, but God started dealing with my heart. Within two months, I had hurt some close buddies, by things I said behind their backs, while drunk. God didn’t let me get away with it either! This is something that was common for me to do, but this time I was found out, and it caused lots of pain; not only to my friends, but to me, who actually really did love them very much.

That night in my trailer, back in Illinois, where I was starting my Senior year of college, the weight of my utter selfishness came over me. I felt so bad that my friends were so hurt! The funny thing is, is that I had done that my whole life, and never noticed who I hurt. Now God was showing me my whole life at a glance. I was crying in pain, and seeing in my head, things I had done, and words I had said publicly, that seemed good; but seeing too that even these things I'd done and said that were considered “good deeds,” I'd now obviously only done so that others would call me good, or think of me as a good person. I never really ever did anything for anyone else. All I'd ever done; I'd done for my personal benefit.

That night, I did not like what I saw in me, and I really knew that I was a sinner, utterly. I was not a sinner simply because I had done those three shameful things. No! I was utterly and completely a sinner, and had been so all my life. Then I really cried out to God, asking, “God, can you really love me? Can you really forgive me?” And that was the very first night that I heard His voice. He told me that He had, and reminded me of the prayer that I had prayed a couple months earlier, with my friend Mike, after the Christian pot party. I just sat there amazed. I heard His voice. It was awesome. He was awesome!

This was just the start of my new life, and I’ve never been in doubt about His goodness and ability to get through to anyone, anytime, whenever He and they both want. And in 30 years now, I have found Jesus to be true. His adventure for me has been all about freedom and life. He creates new life, where before was only death. I've seen it these years, over and over again. And someday I'll even tell you the zany way Jesus got me to stop smoking pot.