The Great Debate

In my later high school and early undergrad years, argumentative and theologically minded Christians, mostly male, discovered what they thought to be the greatest debate in Christian apologetics—predestination versus freewill. Some took tremendous pride in labeling themselves strict five-point Calvinists while others stood on the side of freewill.

Each person researched and collected their share of Bible verses to back up their side—reading the Bible to destroy someone in a debate instead of growing closer to Christ. And yes, I was guilty of this myself.

We were young and dumb (immature), but instead of going out and getting plastered on the weekends, we were in Taco Bell or Starbucks studying up for our next debate. So I guess it wasn’t the worse thing in the world. We were friendly in the end, and it was mostly just for fun—something to do.

After many agonizing years of considering the ideas of predestination and freewill, I’ve come to two conclusions.

First, don’t ever create a system or formula for God because he is far too big for that.

Second, somethings in life are a paradox, and that’s okay. A paradox doesn’t mean that two things contradict; it means they only seemingly contradict but are actually both true.

God’s ways are not our ways, and that’s a good thing. We, as humans, are stuck in linear time, only able to move in one direction, but God is the creator of time, so he is not confined to it. He can exist outside of time.

So what are humans doing creating five points of anything to explain God in their limited thinking and lack of any experience existing outside of time itself?

Basic arrogance.

We should study these ideas and see what the Bible says about them. We can come up with humble conclusions, but in the end, we don’t know for sure how or why God does what he does.

Especially salvation.

It would be like a toddler trying to figure out why her dad is investing in a particular company in the stock market, but then multiply that example by a number with too many zeros to count.

We are only human.

Overall, I think it was my choice to accept Christ as my savior, but I don’t exist outside of time, and I’m not a scholarly theologian, but I am a storyteller.

I was about five or six—old enough to play in my fenced in front yard out in Derby Acers—practically in the middle of nowhere. I don’t remember what I was playing, but I was most likely running around in the short, green grass pretending to be Luke Skywalker or a medieval swordsmen. Maybe my Sheltie, Boy, was running around with me. My mom was most likely in the house preparing dinner for my dad after his long day of welding in the oilfields. The sun was falling behind the small foothills under the western sky, leaving behind a painted scene of vibrant orange, red, and pink.

I stopped playing for a moment, taken away by the arrangement of colors. The cooling of the evening. The soft breeze.

“You are my son.”

My first memory of hearing that inaudible voice that came from within—God’s Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t in actual words, but a spiritual language of its own that still clearly conveyed meaning.

I’m not for sure if that moment lasted a few minutes or only seconds, but it happened. I went back to playing until the night sky motioned me to go in for dinner.

Thus, my thoughts on the great debate is concluded in a story of a father calling out his son.

Undercover Sheep

Young, inexperienced, ignorant, immature, and prone to failure. Full of zest, energy, passion, eagerness, and a zeal to do what is right. Add some wild, unexplored hormones, and mix a few street kids with some homeschoolers with overly protective parents. Put a pastor in charge who really is just paying his dues until he can be a senior pastor. Give it a name so cheesy that even Carmen wouldn’t include it in his 90’s lyrics, and what do you have?

High school youth group.

Yes, the best of times and the worst of times.

Biblical messages were often black and white, and if you saw Austin Powers, you were a bad Christian.

Most of us kissed dating goodbye and wore a purity ring or a WWJD bracelet but fooled around just enough to really learn what it meant to push the line, but we still sang on the worship team the next morning.

It’s not that we weren’t authentic. We weren’t faking anything. We knew what was pure, right, and true, but high school is hard. Growing up is challenging.

It’s an everyday bloom.

There’s so much to learn in such a short amount of time, and finding the balance of what you’re supposed to figure out on your own and what you’re just supposed to believe others about is a confusing task.

But there we were, trying our best to love God and serve others. Lifting each other back up after every wicked fall. Maybe that’s what church is all about. Yes, there was drama. People’s feelings got hurt, but we said sorry and got over it.

We were a family.

And like a family, there’s always that cousin who’s a little odd, and you may not really like him all that much, but you still love him.

Because no one should “go it alone”—a phrase I can still hear my youth pastor say in his calm, low voice.

We were also taught about sharing our faith, and it was in Christian vogue to paint “Ask Me” on our Jansport backpacks if we could find an empty space not covered in patches and buttons.

I’m not sure today how I feel about “evangelizing” to strangers. From my many experiences, I don’t feel the Hey, Can I Tell You About Jesus? approach is really that effective today in America. Tracks are a bad idea too; Jesus isn’t a product to sell, and we aren’t salesmen. It’s an honor to follow Christ. If someone can be talked into it, they can be talked out of it.

The best way to evangelize is to build relationships with people and let them see the light that is in you. Yes, it’s a lot easier to just walk up to a stranger and share with them the newest method of street evangelism, but Jesus says in Matthew to make disciples of all nations, not just tell everyone who he is.

It’s teaching versus telling.

I was only in high school, and I was in the telling phase then, so I would find people to tell about Jesus.

There was this custodian on my high school campus. Everyone saw him, but no one would ever talk to him. He was about 45 to 50. He had short, fading hair and a dirty looking mustache. He walked fast in short steps from side to side and kind of hunched over as if he had a minor back injury. The custodial grey uniforms didn’t help his style in any way. Wearing dusty grey on grey with tennis shoes from the early 90s that showed little evidence that they were ever white added to his overall appearance.

But he was the one I felt God told me to share Jesus with, so as he was changing the bag in one of the hallway trash cans, I went up to him and said hi and went on to tell him about Jesus.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking how my youth pastor would be proud of me.

The custodian said very kindly, “I know who Jesus is. He’s my savior and heavenly father. Everyone here may think I’m just cleaning up the campus, but I’m really silently praying for every one of you all day long.”

I responded, “That’s so awesome!”

He smiled and continued, “Thanks. I guess in a way, I’m an undercover sheep.”

From that moment on, I always made sure to say hi to him, and the band I was in at the time even wrote a song after him titled “Undercover Sheep.” It was really just a simple cord progression, punk rock song where the whole band yelled the words “undercover sheep” every so often, but it was fun.

That day I learned more from a custodian than from a pastor. I learned something that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

I learned that you don’t have to be in what some people call “fulltime ministry” to be in fulltime ministry.

Picking up the Crap

I had been teaching high school for about a year and was finishing jumping through the final hoops of California’s teaching credential program when I felt lead to start a Bible study. I wanted it to be something different—something authentic, even something revolutionary; I had high hopes.

I got permission from my parents to hold the Bible study in their nice backyard. My friends were excited about the idea. Chris, one of my best friends even decided to co-lead it with me. We settled upon the name Shepherds of the Lost with the goal in mind to build up disciples who would go back into the world and shepherd people who were lost. The Bible study took place on Friday nights. Since there wasn’t a lot to do in Bakersfield on Friday nights, we hoped that people might actually show up to the Bible study.

They did.

We eventually moved it into Chris’s house, and people from different churches and from all over town filled his living room once a week. I remember my Fridays always being chaotic as I would rush home after work for a quick shower to wake up a little from the exhausting week and then hurry to whatever place currently had the cheapest pizza specials to feed the group. After a few years of this full routine, Chris and I both felt the season of Shepherds of the Lost was over.

Looking back at those times now, I can recall mistakes I made as a leader. I never had any luck finding an older mentor to help guide me. And I looked for one too. It was just Chris and me figuring out what worked and what didn’t work through trial and error. After a while, I think we figured it out.

I’m thankful for that season, and I’m thankful for all those who had grace on the Bible study’s young leadership. Chris and I both learned invaluable lessons, and I believe some people were really encouraged during those Friday night moments of sitting on the carpet with open Bibles in laps and pizza in their stomachs.

Every now and then I’ll come across someone in town who wants to reminisce about the old Shepherds of the Lost days. I understand why. We had fun. After the actual study would be done, we found ways to entertain ourselves by watching hilarious YouTube videos, having spontaneous dance parties, prank calling our friends who didn’t show up, and snaking the cake, which is a term we came up with for eating an entire slice of cake in one bite.

There was a lot of special moments during those Friday nights—a lot of tearful conversations and togetherness as we shared our cheers and fears as the world slowly changed outside around us in those often confusing early twenties. We discussed and meditated on scripture. When in doubt in leading a Bible study, always study scripture; it will never return void.

The first lesson began even before the first Bible study began though. It was summer, and I remember nervously hashing out with anticipation a final list of all I needed to get completed before people would start arriving for that first night of Shepherds of the Lost.

I hurried home from one of my final credential classes to begin cleaning the bathroom, living room, and kitchen of my parent’s house to make it spotless. I then moved onto the backyard.

Bakersfield’s summer heat was not kind to me that day, and neither was my parent’s dog.

I took a shovel and started picking up dog crap.

I felt like in that moment the Holy Spirit showed me what leadership looks like. In my optimistic mind, leadership was a picture of me up on stage speaking into a microphone with everyone nodding in agreement, interested and encouraged.

Not really the case.

Ministry is messy because it always involves people, and people are messy.

If you’re involved in ministry long enough, you will be criticized on the most petty issues. People will blame you when things don’t go the way they want. You will put countless chunks of your life into work that will never be seen by those you serve. You will have to be a teacher, friend, problem-solver, counselor, coach, and Bible scholar all in the same hour. And you will make mistakes because you’re an imperfect sinner like everyone else.

But unlike everyone else, you pick up the crap.

And that’s okay because although it doesn’t seem to logically make sense, there is a special blessing that comes with ministry; there is a special blessing that comes with serving.

I think it’s because when we minister and serve we are the most like Jesus. We are truly Christians then.

Jesus was mistreated for leading, ministering, and serving us, but he did it anyways.

Because of his love.

He picked up our crap.

The Healer

I was in the first or second grade when I first remember going to the eye doctor. I don’t remember the details, but the optometrist told my mom that my light blue eyes were so sensitive to sunlight that I needed to wear sunglasses whenever I go outside.

My mom, of course, took me directly to the glasses store and bought me a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. I wore them for about a week, and that was the end of those glasses.

In the 5th grade, I went to the eye doctor again. After having me read countless letters, the optometrist blurred the screen and said to my mom, “You see this right here?” He pointed to the screen. “This is how your son sees.”

My mom started crying at the realization of my horrible vision. Once again, she went directly to buy me a pair of glasses, and I wore them for about a week at school, maybe less.

I could get by sitting close to the board in most classrooms at school, and I found ways of just getting by at lunch and during recess. But I would wear my glasses at home.

A few weeks ago, I got a quick giggle when I came across an old photo of me behind my drum set with those golden clunkers weighing heavily on my face.

I just hated wearing glasses. They felt wrong to me. I knew many people wore them and even liked them, but I never accepted them as part of myself. When I had the chance, I would remove them for photos, and if I drew myself, there would be no sign of glasses.

One average day in the 7th grade, I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and I overheard my mom talking on the cordless phone to a friend from our old charismatic church about a healer coming in from out of town for a special Wednesday night service.

I liked the people at my old church; they were kind and loving. You got hugs from everyone. The sermons might not have always been biblically strong, but you could always count on the hugs.

I’m not for sure why, but I asked my dad privately if he would take me to the Wednesday night service to see the healer. Maybe it’s because I had previously expressed to my mom how I never wanted to be the kind of boys at church who sat in the front pews and seemed to cry in some dramatic worship performance every Sunday morning. As a young pre-teen, I wanted to be many things in life, but not one of them.

My father agreed to take me when he got home from work, and we drove across town together. I pretended to only be curious about hearing what the speaker had to say.

But that wasn’t the case. I read, heard, and even believed that God could heal. If there was any chance to have my vision restored, I was going to give this healing stuff everything I had.

We walked into an embrace of hugs and authentic smiling faces. People there were really so kind. Then the worship service started with the healer up on the stage.

I’m not really the singing type of guy in church, but I sang that Wednesday night. I sang every song, making sure I didn’t miss a word. I might have even lifted my hands–I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize any chance of my eyes being healed. I cleared my mind and believed with all my might that I would be healed.

No one was going to be able to tell me that I didn’t have enough faith or didn’t worship God sincerely enough.

After a good 40 minutes of worship songs, the healer began his routine. He told us that God had given him the gift of healing. He explained that we could be healed if we had enough faith and truly believed. He quoted memorized scripture. Then he invited us to come down if we wanted healing.

A crowded line down the center isle appeared instantly, and I watched with my dad from a pew as people began to be healed.

People were healed from headaches, anxiety, back pains, bad dreams, tumors that they didn’t know they had, and many other things that were all really unfalsifiable.

My situation was clear. If I could see without my glasses, I was healed. If I still needed my glasses to see, then I wasn’t.

I reminded myself of everything that the healer said. I pushed out every ounce of doubt in my mind. I felt the rim of my glasses on my face and told myself this would be the last time I would ever need to wear them, and then I stood up to go stand in line.

A faithful and hopeful boy.

Doing his best to believe with all his heart.

When my turn in line came, the healer asked me what I wanted healing for. I told him about my horrible eye vision and how I wanted God to heal my eyes. The worship music continued as the healer spoke in tongues as he placed his hands on my temples and began to pray. After reciting a few Bible verses and praying some more, he finally declared that I was healed.

The people in the congregation hollered out praises that were mixed with the sound of a tambourine and music. I turned to walk back down that center isle believing with all my might that what the healer said was true.

After a few steps, I finally began to try to focus on something far away, but all I saw was a blur. But I didn’t put on my glasses because I didn’t want to doubt.

I sat during the remainder of the worship service pushing myself to believe I could see, but the fact that the healer appeared as nothing more than a blur on the stage was beginning to wear on me.

When the friendly congregation finally started gathering their purses and Bibles to begin their exiting round of hugs, I was forced to come to the truthful conclusion that I had not been healed.

Service was now over.

Disappointment.

“Are you ready to go?” my patient father asked.

“One moment,” I responded and boldly walked back up that center isle and asked the healer why my eyes weren’t healed?

He replied, “Well son, sometimes it takes God a few days to complete a healing.”

He might as well said, “Well son, I’m a complete fake,” or “Well son, I’m really spiritually confused.”

Riding home with my understanding father, I felt a little like a fool, but I was fine. I wanted to, at least once in my life, give the whole charismatic healing thing one sincere chance. And I did.

Now let me clarify, I do believe God can heal, but his ways aren’t our ways. He can’t be placed in a box or be assigned to some specific formula for miracles. He’s far too big for that.

In my life I’ve seen some cases of church show business, but I’ve also seen a good handful of undeniable miracles. Even as I’m typing this, I have 20/20 vision, unaided by any glasses or contacts. So God did have a plan for my eyes to be healed, but it was different than what I had planned.