There is nothing more anxiety-inducing about growing up Southern Baptist than the obsession with having a “sincere” salvation experience. You can’t be saved by your works, but if you “ask Jesus into your heart” emphatically enough, then your life will change so drastically that it will be clear and obvious to everyone. Which means if your life doesn’t change drastically, then you weren’t really sincere when you asked Jesus the first time, so you need to try again. See, it’s tricky. Because if you get it wrong, you will spend eternity being tortured in hell forever after you die.
On the one hand, it’s really easy. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to surrender to Jesus absolutely. If you really hold nothing back, then Jesus will take the wheel and you’ll start singing hallelujah louder than everybody else, you’ll be the first to volunteer to serve, you’ll spend at least several hours a day in prayer, and you’ll do all of this with perfect, enthusiastic joy. But none of this is your effort. It’s all Jesus. If it feels hard, that means you’re “trying to do it on your own” which means you probably didn’t really ask Jesus into your heart with perfect sincerity.
Hopefully that’s enough to see how toxic this understanding of salvation can be. What I’ve discovered over time is that I’ve needed multiple salvations — seven so far. I stopped thinking I was at risk of being tortured in hell a long time ago. But every time I receive a new salvation, I gain a deeper communion with God that seems like a whole different level of eternal life than what I had experienced before. My most recent salvation happened a couple of months ago and I haven’t taken the time to write about it partly because I’m being stubborn about accepting the word that God gave to me.
My first salvation happened in second grade, when I asked Jesus into my heart with all the sincerity I could muster in 1985. I quoted enough scripture at our Baptist preacher that he agreed to baptize me. All I remember about the experience was the amazing chocolate cake my mom made for me when we celebrated with a party afterwards. I was a “good kid” for several years after that, basically until I started getting bullied and thought that I needed to rebel to be cool and fit in.
In my early adolescence, I tried to rebel against my parents as hard as I could. Which included smoking cigarettes and dipping Kodiak tobacco. I went to Young Life because the pretty girls were there and they would talk to me sometimes. At Windy Gap, the Young Life camp, they had a smoker’s pit where you could sit and smoke without any questions asked so the staff didn’t have to wander around picking up cigarette butts in the woods. So I spent most of my time in the smoker’s pit during our week at Windy Gap in 1994.
But I went inside for the big talk and they showed Michael W Smith’s “Secret Ambition” video. I cried kind of but without anybody seeing it. I grabbed my Young Life leader Phil Weeber and asked Jesus back into my heart. That time, I was sure in was all-in. But I smoked more weed the year after I did that then the year before. I did go straight edge for two years my senior year of high school and first year of college. I became a hard-core evangelical handing out homemade tracts to people on the Lawn at the University of Virginia. Then I had a falling out with my evangelical student group and I started a season of wandering.
My third salvation happened in Mexico in August of 1998. I had gone backpacking down there for three weeks with my friend Kevin. We went to the state of Chiapas because we wanted to meet the Zapatista revolutionaries who rose up in arms in 1994. We soon discovered that the town of San Cristobal de las Casas was filled with twenty-year old white guys who were there for the same reason. The local shopkeepers called it Zapaturismo. They sold us t-shirts and ski masks so we could make bro poses with imaginary AK-47’s.
But then two little girls approached me and wrecked my life forever. They had Zapatista dolls that they were selling for a peso apiece. They each grabbed several of my fingers with their small hands and they wouldn’t let go. They said, “Compralo, señor, por favor, compralo” (Buy it sir, please buy it), and God told me you can never be a tourist again. That was the first crack in my oblivious white privilege. My heart was pierced with the desperate need to create a world where little girls aren’t on the streets selling dolls for a peso apiece.
But what saved me the most was the humiliation of not being able to do anything meaningful to fix it. If I had gone down on a mission trip designed to give me a meaningful service experience with some good brown kid selfies, I might not have been cut as deeply, because I could have said well their life is hard but I helped the best I could. No, I was a tourist exploiting them, and nothing I could do would make it better.
My fourth salvation came in Toledo, Ohio during a season of deep depression. I was dating a suicidal alcoholic who had lived through severe childhood trauma and working a high-stress union job at the same time. I went to the closest church in our neighborhood and it happened to be a mostly queer United Methodist church. I joined a small group with a bunch of sixty-year old lesbians who nurtured me, and we read Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved together.
I learned from Nouwen that it’s no small thing to believe God loves me. Believing it on a cognitive level is easy, but actually living within God’s warm gaze as his beloved requires a life’s journey. Whenever I sin, it’s because of the shame and fear at my core. Life of the Beloved’s chapters are organized around what Jesus does with the bread at the last supper: taken, blessed, broken, and given. When I read the chapter called “Broken,” God said to me your brokenness is your chosenness, which was what made my depression the source of my vocation and gave me a reason to fight to live.
My fifth salvation happened during a prayer meeting in September, 2012. That fall was an intense time in my ministry. I was the associate pastor of a moderately conservative congregation in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign. We did a sermon series called “Jesus is my candidate” to try to promote church unity in the midst of a divisive society. In the meantime, I was suffering from a severe flare-up of ulcerative colitis with throbbing intestinal pain and very bloody trips to the toilet. I was haunted by the chart notes I had read as a hospital chaplain in the oncology ward and sure that I had pancreatic cancer. In my scripture readings that fall, I had been encountering references to the “fear of the Lord” everywhere so I was wondering what in the world to make of it.
During the prayer meeting, I broke down sobbing. Several women came and laid hands on me. And I started speaking in tongues. I had done it before, but this was the first time I owned it openly as a spiritual gift. After the prayer meeting that week, I had a series of powerful spiritual encounters which included wrestling with the devil in my bathtub and experiencing a giant “thorn” being plucked from my abdomen.
The next day, when I went to walk around a nearby lake, everything was like a burning bush, pregnant with the glory of God. I really believe it was my first taste of heaven. I’ve had only a few tastes since then. So I call my fifth salvation the time I discovered the fear of the Lord. I still don’t know how to explain it, except to say that the world is way more wonderful and terrifying than we’re usually able to see. And living in the real world of burning bushes is way better than anything in our normal shadow world where we think we’re completely in control through our science and our markets.
My sixth salvation happened on March 16th of this year. For the first six years of my pastoral ministry, I had the basic idea that I’m a messy, broken person whose main vocation was to create vulnerable space for other messy, broken people to heal. I didn’t think I needed to “address” my own brokenness per se other than being “authentic” and “open” about it. Part of my brokenness is pretty acute anxiety that got tangled up in self-medication with alcohol. I’ve always thought of myself as a very disorganized, irrresponsible person and I thought it was okay to be that way as long as I was “open” about it so other people could “relate.”
For the past seven years, I’ve been working on the book I released in April called How Jesus Saves the World From Us. It was originally supposed to be about how Jesus saves the world from conservative evangelicals, but God showed me how I exhibited every toxic quality I found in them. Nothing brought out my toxicity more intensely than the nail-biting buildup to my book’s release this April. I was drinking quite heavily during Mardi Gras season.
In any case, God reached out to me through a men’s small group that has been working through books on 12 step spirituality together on Tuesday mornings. In March of this year, we were reading the Spirituality of Imperfection together. After a particularly poignant reading on the morning of March 16th, I dropped off my kids at school and returned to my house when God said you really don’t have to drink anymore.
At first, I said what are you talking about God, I’m not an alcoholic. I fasted from alcohol every Lent to prove it. Whenever I felt out of control, I told my wife to hide our liquor. But the voice that gave me that invitation was so lovely I couldn’t resist it. So I wrote the guy who has become my sponsor to tell him I didn’t want to drink anymore, since I was afraid I would back out otherwise. And I began my journey of recovering from being a dysfunctional, inconsiderate asshole whose toxicity has manifested itself in self-medication among other behaviors. I’ve still got a super-long way to go on that journey!
My most recent salvation happened this summer on July 9th at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. My friend Pastor Nar held a ceremony based on Revelation 2:17, “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” The ceremony was simple. We invited the Holy Spirit to speak to us. We wrote on a piece of paper whatever we needed to let go of and put it in a fire. Then we went to a pile of white stones and asked God to give us a new name.
As we were preparing our hearts for this, the word healer came into my head. On the paper that I burned, I wrote that I needed to let go of the success of my book. Then God told me you’re not a hero, you’re a healer. And I experienced incredible freedom for several days. But then it got away from me and I went back into obsessive book marketing mode. Somehow I knew that I needed to declare in some kind of public way that God invited me to stop trying to be a messiah for the salvation to be official. I uploaded the photo I took of my white stone in July. But it’s taken me this long to accept the word that God spoke over me.
I’ve watched over the past week as two of my friends, both named Mike, are releasing books that have sold exponentially more copies in one week than my book will sell throughout its entire lifespan. Both of their books are excellent sources of great healing: Finding God in the Waves and Divine Dance. The three of us are part of the same spiritual movement by which God is detoxifying American Christianity. And it has to be okay that I’m not the most prominent voice in the conversation. I have to make peace with that if I’m going to be of any use to God. I think I’m getting there.
If my book had been the bestseller I desperately wanted it to be, I might continue to be a wannabe messiah. My inner messiah needs to be crucified for the sake of my rebirth as a healer. I’m still letting go, and it may take a lot longer. I’ve realized with each of my life’s salvations that nothing happens instantaneously. God touches me in a powerful event, and the healing happens over the next several years as I reflect on that event. The little girls in San Cristobal saved me by haunting my thoughts for the next decade. It took me years after reading Life of the Beloved to learn how to love myself.
So the journey continues. Who knows how many savings I’ll need before it’s all through? Maybe 15? 20? Each time it gets sweeter. And each time I get a little bit closer to surrendering to Jesus completely and asking him into my heart with complete sincerity.