Thursday, November 10, 2011

Am I a Jesus Freak?

"Always be prepared to give an answer 
to everyone who asks you to give 
the reason for the hope that you have." (1 Peter 3:15)

Remember that blog entry I had about my appendicitis? Part of my week-long convalescence was sitting or lying around reading...a LOT. What is interesting to note is WHAT I was reading. The answer to that is the Bible and other religion-related books.

One day while I was reading in my hammock, my best friend came over and saw the Bible and another book "The Bible for Dummies" (trust me, I need it) sitting on the small table I had set up next to the hammock.

He asked me, "Are you turning into a Jesus Freak?"

At the time, my answer was "I decided that the way I was doing things wasn't working, so I thought I'd try this." Six months later, I will amend my answer to "yes, if that's what you want to call it."

Perhaps I should explain myself.

I grew up Catholic. I was baptized, took first communion, begrudgingly did the confession thing, said my Hail Mary's, Our Fathers and Acts of Contrition. Here's the problem: I went through the motions, but I didn't care. There was no connection, no sense of responsibility, no reflection. It was just a bunch of rituals built around a random concept that was WAY to big for me to understand, let alone embrace and live on a daily basis.

I am a Star Wars fan. Most males my age are. The Catholic rituals are so engrained (and so automatic) in me that when someone tells me during a Star Wars-related discussion "May the Force be with you," my natural reaction is to respond "and also with you."

My wife Jenn and I have had some issues with the Catholic church in recent years. She was raised Lutheran and won't convert (and I don't blame her) and we are both divorced and re-married. Without getting into the gory details, this is a HUGE no-no for the Catholic religion. So in order for me to get back in good graces with the Catholic church, I have to attend meetings, get counseling, write to my wife's ex-husband and jump through a bunch of other hoops. I also have to pay something like $300 to the Catholic church before they will accept me back and stop treating my wife poorly...but only if she converts.

So let me lay this out for you: Just before communion, we pray "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." That's all it takes. I am forgiven and can accept communion free of guilt. But not in the Catholic Church. There, it is "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word (and take my $300) and I shall be healed."

I'm sorry. If it's good enough for God, it should be good enough for Rome.

So in short, I changed my religious affiliation on my Facebook page from "disgruntled Catholic" to Christian. I'm done with organized religion.

Jenn had also taken issue with some things going on at her home church. So we went church shopping for something we could call "our home". For about a month, we attended services at different denominations and non-denominations.

One weekend in May, we were preparing to try out the Nazarene church in our home town. But then my wife went online and visited www.cedarcreek.tv. We watched one of their messages online, and we got curious. So we decided to attend Cedar Creek that weekend, and check out the Nazarene church the next weekend. We still haven't made it there.

(NEW) 60SEC. COMMERCIAL from cedarcreek.tv production on Vimeo.

Jenn was the one who pushed to go to Cedar Creek that weekend. I was skeptical. I had issues about the size. I questioned their intentions (with no real reason for doing so). And above all, I viewed Cedar Creek as a cult. Looking back, I can see how stupid that was. The point of a church is to educate and bring others into belief. The natural effect is growth. There is no other option. The bigger a church is, the healthier it is. We were part of that growth. How dare I presume to cut off membership after I join. How self-centered is that?

I believe that one of the biggest problems facing christianity today is that people do what I had done. They jump to conclusions without any basis for their opinion. Ask them why they believe that the church is a fraud, and they answer "it just is," or "it has to be," or regard the question as foolish to begin with and therefore avoid answering the question altogether. They have no proof except "look at all of the money pouring through there," or "look at the pastor's salary."

I challenge non-believers, to request an annual financial statement. They don't hide it. Just ask for it. Look at where the money goes. Did you know Cedar Creek just gave away $5,000 in turkey dinners? Did you know there is someone constantly going to Honduras to build houses using church money? Did you know that they give cars to single moms for free? Yes, there is a lot of money going through a church that size. But there is a lot of money going out of it.

Jenn and I are taking a class there called the Truth Project. Do you know how much that cost us to attend? We paid less than $5 for that 13-week class, and that was only so we could get the optional workbook. The church easily could have charged us $100 or more to attend this class, but didn't. Everything we spend or give is completely at our discretion. Before they take the free-will offering during the service, they tell visitors not to feel obligated. How awesome is that?!

I'm not saying that people shouldn't have questions. I did. But instead of jumping to baseless conclusions, I did some research, just to see what I found. My biggest question was "is the Bible real?" I mean let's face it: It has some pretty off-the-wall stuff in there: Burning bushes that talk, a woman who had a baby while not being involved in making the baby, a husband who didn't flip out and kill his wife for having a baby that wasn't his. I mean, this is some pretty unheard-of stuff.

My thought process was this: For years, I thought the Bible was just a tool for kings to control the populace. But even if I did have questions, I decided that the overall message of "love thy neighbor" and "dont' sin," (read by me as "don't be stupid") could only help my life, regardless of if it was true or not. So I jumped in, for the second time.

I had originally started reading Bible in 1995. I read Acts, Romans, Genesis and Exodus, and then I just quit reading. I picked it up again this past May, resolving to read at least one chapter per day. I have read about 1/3 of it so far. I read the gospels, and started back at Leviticus and have worked my way forward from there. I will finish the book of Esther before I finish the final draft of this blog.

But as I got farther and farther into it, and got more and more frustrated and bored (yes, bored with the Bible) with all of the "begats" and the laws that are spelled out repeatedly in Numbers, those questions began to nag me more and more. So I went searching for the truth.

I found it in the book "The Case for Christ," by Lee Strobel. In that book, Strobel takes many of the objections to Christianity, including the perceived contradictions found within the Bible itself. He carefully explains those perceived inconsistencies, and uses the support of professors, theologists, forensic scientists, and researchers. Atheists would read a book that claims the Bible is a huge lie and not read anything else. Atheists would point out the contradictions they think they find in the Bible (which actually someone else told them about, but they haven't looked into themselves), and close their argument. Atheists are lazy. They won't take the time to look at the other side of the coin, to see if there is an explanation for the perceived inconsistencies and contradictions. They apply today's standards and today's way of life to what happened 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. They have already decided that the Bible is fake, so they put on their blinders and choose to pretend that no other possibility exists.

Even Christian music has had a major impact on my daily life since May. It started when one of my co-workers gave me a CD by the band MercyMe while I was off for my appendectomy. I liked the music, so I got some more CDs from the library.

Cedar Creek Church has a rock band. Several of them, actually. There is a live band on all three campuses (soon to be four campuses in December) on Saturdays and Sundays. And they play way more than just Christian music. When was the last time you heard Aerosmith's "Dream On" at church? For me, that was a week ago.

One weekend, they played a song called "Mess of Me" by Switchfoot.

Here is the Cedar Creek Band version.


Here is the Switchfoot version.

That got a lot of looks and comments because musically, is a very aggressive and raw song. It's loud, it's fast, and the guitar is crunchy. In a word, it's AWESOME. It fits everything I like about music, and to top it all off, it doesn't use all of the contrived phrases and words that most Christian music uses.

In mid-October, I purchased two CDs: The new Evanescence self-titled CD, and the new Switchfoot CD, Vice Verses. The Evanescence CD is good, but the Switchfoot CD blew my mind.

Now, I listen to mostly Christian music, including Skillet, Kristian Stanfill, Todd Agnew, and Chris Tomlin. I even like Sanctus Real (a band from right up the road in Toledo), even though I can't pronounce their name. There are others, but those are my favorites. Sanctus Real and Switchfoot recently performed in my hometown on different nights, but alas, I didn't get to see them. I wish I had.

I have buried myself in Christian-themed books. If Max Lucado wrote it, I either have read it, or it's on my shelf to be read. His stories are a little elementary, but the spirit and the messages they bring are valid nonetheless.

Some of the books I have read recently that have had the most impact on me were:

Stepping Up: Courageous Manhood
by Dennis Rainey
Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman
The Resolution for Men
by Stephen Kendrick.
The Resolution for Men is a companion book for the movie Courageous. Jenn and I saw that movie about two weeks ago. I have never felt so called out on the carpet before. This is a blatantly religious movie that doesn't masquerade as anything else, and it makes no apologies for what it is. It was made by the creators of Facing the Giants and Fireproof (also a really good movie for strengthening marriages).

I'm not perfect. When I was in college, I hung out with the party crowd. I knew how to play the game, and did all (well....most) of the things college kids are infamous for doing. I attended and graduated from Bluffton College (now Bluffton University), a Mennonite college that was deeply rooted in the Bible. I had friends who were members of Bible studies and a group called B.A.S.I.C. (Brothers and Sisters in Christ). I felt judged because I didn't attend chapel on campus every Sunday (usually because I was too hung over). But all the way through college, I felt I was missing something. I'm not sure if I am made for the "kumbaya sit-around-the-campfire and praise Jesus" scene. Somehow it feels contrived to me. One of these days I'll just have to suck it up and try it. I've been wrong before. That's how I got here!

Ask my wife if I'm perfect. She will collapse with laughter. I'm not. I don't curse like a sailor anymore, but I still drop an F-bomb from time-to-time. I'm still working on (and still failing at) that paying attention to the needs of others piece. I'm a pretty in-your-face kind of guy. Unless you tell me something is wrong, I assume you have everything under control. Are you sick? You had better tell me, because my crystal ball broke and I don't read minds. I need to change that and be more attentive to others. This is one area where I really struggle.

One of my concerns about attending Cedar Creek was that it was so big that it would be hard to make connections and have any sort of meaningful relationships. In hindsight, that was a really absurd concern, since we had no connections or meaningful relationships at our home churches.

So far at Cedar Creek, I:
  • Volunteer at the book store on a regular basis.
  • Am part of a Life Group Bible study for couples that meets weekly.
  • Am currently half-way through The Truth Project, a philosophy class that looks at the truth of the Bible and the lies that society tries to sell us. This is a truly amazing (and free) class.
  • Recently attended a men's retreat with 200 other men. That was a spirit-lifting, exciting day. I wasn't ready to end, and I look forward to attending more.
  • Attended some Life Support classes (I plan to return, but I taught a parenting class on the same night during the bulk of the sessions, so I had to stop going).

My point in this list is not to brag. Others are much more involved than I, and I don't tithe. We give what we can. My point is that church is what you make of it. If you don't participate, if you don't plug in, if you don't take the initiative to make the connections with others, nobody else will. But even that is probably not completely true. It is hard to walk past somebody at Cedar Creek who won't at least say hi or smile at you.

I am a Christian. I'm not afraid to say it, and I'm not afraid to answer your questions. Am I a Jesus Freak? Maybe. But the word "freak" is so condescending. Simply asking the question passes judgment on another before they even get a chance to answer. If you want to call me a freak, that's your problem. I am not a fan. I am a follower.

Jenn and I agreed about a month after we began attending that if we were still happy after the holiday season, that we would become Missional Members of Cedar Creek Church. I am ready to do it now.

As I said at the beginning, I began studying the Bible and renewing my faith because the way I was living life wasn't working. Since then, life has gotten a little easier. There is still struggle, and there are days that I just want to walk away and ignore the problem until it goes away (it never does). There are still days that "the other shoe" drops over and over and over again. I used to face those challenges alone. I don't know how I did it. Not well, for sure. Now, I have the support of my Life Group, my wife, and God. I don't have to do anything alone anymore.

Even my 3-year-old is excited to go to church. He asks us to go. While we attend the message, he is in the day-care, playing and receiving an age-appropriate message through stories, singing, and puppet shows. Our 8-year-old also studies a message and does projects. Then he climbs the rock wall and plays on the Wii . . . all in church.

I didn't intend to write this to be a sales pitch for Cedar Creek Church. This was supposed to be my statement of faith. But since I ended up writing it during their big advertising campaign and their "big push" to invite others to attend, consider this a formal invite. Come on out. Try it. If I'm a Jesus Freak, so be it. Join me. Join us. If you think I'm just a freak, that is okay too. I'm strong enough to not let that bother me. But at least come out and see for yourself before you pass that judgment.

If you are still not convinced, check out one of their past messages online (I strongly recommend one of the messages from the "Broken" or "Not a Fan" series), or watch a live service from the comfort of your own home. Find service times and locations here. 

And if you have any questions of me, please feel free to contact me or post the question here. If you are respectful, I will answer.

"As for me and my house, we'll serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15)