When my heart was “strangely warmed”

When my heart was “strangely warmed” May 24, 2017

strangely warmed

On May 24th, 1738, John Wesley attended a Moravian church gathering on Aldersgate Street in London. While Martin Luther’s preface to Romans was being read, he felt his heart being “strangely warmed” and he received the sense of complete assurance of his salvation. This event has been dubbed Wesley’s “evangelical conversion,” even though he had already been ordained as an Anglican priest. It’s an event that I’ve often felt some ambivalence about as an evangelical in a mainline denomination where many faithful Christian disciples think of themselves as simply growing up Christian rather than having a dramatic conversion experience that evangelicals consider essential to our identity.

Growing up Southern Baptist, I was trained to believe that there were nominal Christians (like Wesley was before Aldersgate) and “born-again” Christians who had been through some sort of dramatic conversion experience (like Aldersgate). But one of the basic problems I started to develop with the concept of a single “conversion” event is that I’ve been having too many of them. Each time, it felt like whatever I was before wasn’t the real thing that I had now become. After I’d gone through this several times, I decided to stop trying to figure out which time I “really” got saved.

At this point, I can identify seven “salvations” so far. There are probably a couple more, but seven is a biblical number. To be clear, the fact that I’ve experienced seven significant “conversions” in my journey doesn’t mean I think I’m extra-saved. It means that it took me seven times to receive what some people only need once. And I’m pretty sure that I’ll need at least seven more salvations before I die. My hope in sharing my story is to help you recognize the moments in your own life where God strangely warmed your heart that you may not have “counted” before.

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 being 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, which began 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, 2016. 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 seven years, I had worked on the book I released in 2016 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.

Several things happened. First, I read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ that the boddhisattva vow includes a commitment to abstaining from alcohol and every intoxicating substance. I had always dabbled in “buddhism” the way many white liberals do, as something that goes well with a self-pampering lifestyle of yoga and mimosas. Thich Nhat Hanh had always seemed like such a gentle teacher that his firmness in promoting bodily holiness and sobriety threw me for a loop. Then I saw my wife reading a book called Codependent No More, which helped me understand that I was the asshole she had to learn how to stand up to. Then my son clogged up the toilet with a monster shit and I screamed at him in a way that made no sense and let me know that I was officially an emotional abuser.

I had been part of a men’s small group that was working through books on 12 step spirituality together on Tuesday mornings. 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 seventh salvation happened later that 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, which hadn’t become the runaway bestseller I was hoping it to be. Then God told me you’re not a hero, you’re a healer. It took a few months for it to sink on. But then a great miracle happened: I was liberated from the anxious need to be a messiah. I can’t express what incredible liberation it is to be set free from self-promotion after being consumed by it for half a decade of your life.

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.

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