There has never been a time in my life when I have not identified as a Christian. I understand, no one is born as a Christian. It's a decision we make when we are old enough to understand the decision we are making ... even though most of us don't, and we spend most of our lives trying to figure out exactly what it entails. I am still figuring it out, and I have a lot to learn. Since I have always believed in God (and still do ... this is not one of those renouncing-the-faith type of posts), I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and acting upon, what God wants me to do with my life. In other words, what does my faith in God actually look like when lived out in my life? Here is a brief history ...
"Go where I tell you to go"
The first time I really thought about what it meant to devote your life to serving God, I was about 8 years old. The fact my dad was in full-time ministry since I was born and I had never thought about the concept of "ministry" is a mystery I never thought about until recently. He never referred to that thing he did all day as ministry, never really talked about his calling until much later in my life, and I didn't think about my life that much. I just lived it. Anyway, our church was hosting a missionary from a country in Africa for a week, and he stayed at our house. He had a wife and children back where he was serving, and he was in the States for this revival and some meetings, I assume. Each meal turned into this magical story time, where he recounted in vivid detail stories from his life in Africa. Stories about encounters with deadly snakes and predators, witch doctors, and an unimaginably simple lifestyle. He had an album full of pictures his family had experienced while serving in Africa, and he talked a lot about being called by God to live over there and give up a comfortable American lifestyle. Even in the early 80's, it seemed like a major sacrifice. For the first time, I began thinking, "Boy, this guy must really love God." You give up TV and McDonald's and shopping malls to live in a small house with no running water or electricity. Your only job is to talk about Jesus, and your kids are taught at home by your wife. Their only friends are other missionaries or children from the village, and there are no sports teams or Cub Scouts or fun activities through the school. From my perspective, this type of service to God pretty much guaranteed a person a place in Heaven, and even though I knew God loves us all the same, missionaries must be a little more special than us American Christians who just drive to church on Wednesday and Sunday in a Buick.
"Do what I tell you to do"
As I grew up and began to develop a more complex view of the world, I realized there is a mix of unspoken and (for those of us in the youth group) often spoken set of rules permeating almost every aspect of life in the church. I grew up Southern Baptist, and I eventually learned all the rules that define a person's holiness. No drinking, no cussing, no Devil music, no sex, no movies with sex or cussing, no TV shows with suggested sex or other content lingering a little too close to FCC regulations. I would hear older kids in the youth group piously announce how they walked out in the middle of a filthy movie, or how they went to a kegger to be a light in the darkness and had to drink water from a clear glass so no one thought it was beer. I was also a spectator to the dark underbelly of sin: girls getting pregnant, people spending time in rehab or jail, rumors of kids partying on Friday and Saturday then acting like a Christian on Sunday. As I got older, I saw a lot of this firsthand. Then I started doing some of it. Once I got past the guilt, I figured out how to do a little drinking and drop a few F-bombs now and then in order to fit in with the cool crowd, then turn right around and give all the right answers in bible study. I would go to youth camp for a week or two in the summer, just for good measure (and to meet girls). This continued through college, and as I was about to start my final year I realized that playing Christian charades was probably not what God had in mind. I reverted back to my previous mindset of Go Ye Therefore, and I spent a summer in Lake Tahoe with Campus Crusade for Christ (not exactly the same as selling everything and moving to China, but a step in the right direction). This led me to the next stage of my walk with the Lord.
"Be who I tell you to be"
Once I arrived in Lake Tahoe, I was blown away. I knew some folks through Crusade in college who really lived out their faith in Jesus. I did my best to match their behavior, but I knew there was something at a deeper level I was missing. This was confirmed when I got to Lake Tahoe. I may have taken a wrong turn in Reno, accidentally driven off a cliff, and arrived directly in Heaven because these people meant business. Their relationship with Christ was not a part of their identity, or an activity they greatly valued, or even a cultural thing like I had seen in Utah the past 4 years. For these people, their relationship with Christ influenced absolutely every single decision they made. Where they went to school, how they spent their time, where they put their hands during worship songs (which for most of them was UP). My house had definitely been built on the sand of behavior modification, and in comparison to these new friends, as well those I met after I graduated and moved to Texas, the foundation was starting to wash away. The next 4 years involved a lot of reflection and introspection and soul searching (and any other synonyms I can't think of to make this more redundant in order to prove my point). When Jesus talked about transforming us into new creations, He wasn't kidding. He really wants to do that, and I was surrounded my living examples -- testaments of flesh and blood -- every minute of every day. For the first time ever, I really wanted to be transformed into a living testament of the life-changing relationship with Jesus. The process was, of course, complicated by the collateral damage of trying to be both the wayward and loyal son for so many years. I had sinful attitudes and thoughts and behaviors, and they seemed to always crop up like weeds. No amount of pruning and pulling seemed to result in a pristine garden ... the truth that defines the flower bed right outside my front door is equally true for me. There is always something popping up unexpectedly, and this probably always be the case. I'm not perfect and neither were those people I knew in college and Lake Tahoe and Texas. We all love Jesus enough to know when something is getting in the way of doing what He wants us to do, and to do something about it. This leads me to my current state ...
"Love who I say to love"
A book I am reading by Bob Goff would tell you Jesus wants us to love everybody, always, and I agree with them on this. Does God want me to move to Burundi or Beijing? I don't think so, but I don't know for sure. Does He care if I drink or watch a movie with cussing? Probably not, but I know he wants me to love Him more than any of those things. Does He keep some sort of user history like Google, where my Christian profile is defined by every single thought, action, inaction, belief, or attitude throughout my entire life? He has the capability, but I don't believe He does. We can debate all the dos and don'ts of the Christian life until we meet Jesus in person and ask Him ourselves, but there are some commands not in need of debate. Jesus told us the greatest commandment is to love God with everything we have (heart, mind, strength), and second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. You don't have to try to figure out what Jesus meant by this (even though some people did apparently request clarification, and have continued to do so ever since). Is that organic matter standing in front of you a person? Yes? Love him. What about the obnoxious parent on my kid's team? Yes, love him. The nosy neighbor? Love her. The student who argues tirelessly over points which will not even change the overall grade? Love her. The person whose choices or lifestyle or identity or beliefs or doctrines or values I really (really, really, really) disagree with? Love. This is our mission. Love may lead you to another country. It may lead to some changes in your behavior. It will most certainly transform you into a different person, and it will always lead you to new friends. Take the hard road to this simple command, and love.