Monday, December 10, 2012

Early to Christ, late to faith, on time in the process

I’m not a sports fan so was not that familiar with Joe Gibbs. I know, there are some readers who are at this moment aghast. Others, still, are not surprised.

But I did read an article about Gibbs posted, oddly it seemed, in the Belief section of CNN.com.

I guess Gibbs has coached and now owns a NASCAR racing team. The article described him as an “NFL legend.”


Okay. That’s cool.

His sports accomplishments were not particularly intriguing to me. What was interesting, however, was his description of coming to Christ.

You see, Gibbs is a Christian. Like me.

With Christ sidelined

He’s apparently experienced some rough times in his life and hasn’t always been faithful to his faith.

But now, he’s renewed his relationship with God and is taking his faith much more seriously.

The article puts it like this:
“Gibbs says he found comfort amid the turmoil in a renewal of his faith. A life-long Baptist, Gibbs says he’s not fond of denominational distinctions and says he and his wife have always gravitated toward, ‘Bible-believing churches.’”

“He became a Christian at a young age, ‘I made that decision when I was 9 but I spent a part of my life drifting, you know, I was on God’s team but I wasn’t playing for him.’”

“He says spiritual mentors like a Sunday school teacher in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and some of his Redskins players helped him get back on track with a deeper, more meaningful Christian faith even while the struggles were at their worst.”

“‘Part of playing the game of life is you’re going to have some losses,’ he is fond of saying.”
I can’t recall where, but I also recently read another article about someone else who had a similar childhood conversion experience.

They grew up in a Christian home, were always at church, accepted Christ, and then went on their merry way, more or less ignoring the responsibilities of their commitment.

I can relate.

Playing for real in the game of life

This was akin to my experience growing up in church. On one hand, growing up in a godly home had real positive benefits. But, accepting Christ as a kid in such a situation can be problematic.

I know many of my friends and relatives who grew up in similar situations will agree.

The issue is that it is widely accepted in evangelical churches, particularly those that lean more conservative, that one who comes to Christ has a clearly defined before/after reality.

Before Christ, whatever sinning you did, at conversion, becomes washed in the blood and that’s that. It’s done and it’s not generally counted against you.

Even in situations where divorce is a huge no-no and can exclude you from many church offices and ministries, if the divorce occurred before, then no harm, no foul.

However, if after you have accepted Christ you go through a divorce – even if it wasn’t your idea – you are marked as anathema. No exceptions.

Divorce is only one issue. There are many “sin situations” that can be thrown into this before/after conundrum.

It’s a tad disheartening.

From shifting sand to solid ground

The thing is, when a person accepts Christ as a young kid, or even a teenager, how the heck can you really understand what you’ve gotten yourself into? Especially if “the decision” was all anyone was after and no real discipleship followed?

For me, I felt pretty much on my own. But I was determined to understand the implications of my faith and did the best I could to learn. I read my Bible, usually. Read lots of books. Listened to the sermon every Sunday. And so forth.

But taking all of that and figuring out how to apply it within the demands of real life didn’t come naturally. After all, our natural inclination is away from God, not toward him.

Needless to say, there was trial and error – a lot of error – before I really began to get a handle on what living in faith meant and how to walk it out. I’m still working out a lot of the details.

One truth I’ve learned is that it is not about a single moment of magical transformation; rather, it is about a lifetime long process.

Holiness doesn’t happen in an instant. It takes time to get imparted holiness ingrained into one’s being.

Frankly, I’ve been around a lot of Christians and I’ve never met one yet who has managed to life a perfect “after” life.

Seeds, soil, and seeing things differently

Jesus tells a parable that’s recorded in Matthew 13:3-13:
"Then he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop--a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.’ The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'"
As explained in most sermons, the seed is supposed to be the Word of God. The landing place of the seed is supposed to represent us. In these sermons our lives are characterized as either receptive “good soil” or resistant “rocky places.”

I’m not sure such a simplistic interpretation hits the true heart of the story.

I don’t think that our lives are always one kind of soil or another, but varies over time.

There have been days where I’ve been so dazed and wounded by life that, as much as I love God’s Word, I wanted nothing to do with it or him.

And there are others when I gladly wanted to be over-planted!

And then there was me as kid who didn’t always get it but kept at it as I’ve aged.

Rejuvenating fallow ground

Soil often starts as stone that gets worn and broken down over time. Sod that has been packed down from being a path can be tilled and broken up. Thorny ground can be cleared of weeds that choke good growth. Shallow patches can become deep, fertile areas as leaves and other natural debris accumulates and decomposes into rich soil.

In such a living process, there is no clear demarcation between “before” and “after,” but rather a long timeline of change and growth marked by periods of drought, storms, and other temporary setbacks.

Even ground devastated by a raging fire recovers over time. The more care it receives, the faster it is restored.

Given the rich grace of God and his persistence in conforming us to his image, we who have lives besotted with sin that happened “after” our initial commitment are able to recover all the more quickly with each sincere repentance.

If this is your experience, don’t give up on yourself even if others have. They are like the legalistic Pharisees that Jesus rebuked.

To you and me, after each screw-up coupled with repentance, Christ always says, “I forgive you. Let’s keep walking together.”

God doesn’t discard the wounded; he restores us, re-seeds us, and allows us to produce “a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

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Hang in there. And let me know about your experience as "soil."

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