From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in--we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we're telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us.
We saw it, we heard it, and now we're telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!” - John the Apostle (1 John 1:1-4 – The Message)
My parents were born and raised in England. They were children in London during WWII and witnessed firsthand the V2 rockets, the aerial dogfights over the city, the air raid shelters and evacuation to the countryside (just like “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” except instead of a mansion with a kindly old gentleman, my mother was sent to a woman in Wales who beat her with a broom and locked her in the coal cellar). My parent’s experience with Christianity, via the church, was not positive. To my father, the Anglican Church was stodgy, silly and irrelevant. My mother, as a child attending Catholic school, had her nose broken by a nun who flung a book, Frisbee style, into her face. This left her with a crooked nose and a slanted view of organized religion.
After growing up, meeting and marrying, my parents immigrated to Canada (where my sister and I were born) and then to the U.S. We lived in Maryland but eventually moved out West. The story goes that my parents put a map of the U.S. on the wall of their Maryland apartment and then we each threw a dart at it. One dart landed in California, one in Kansas and two in Colorado. So we packed up and moved to Colorado. I grew up in Lakewood, Colorado, just west of Denver. I was essentially raised in an environment devoid of religion. My father was an affirmed atheist until the day he died. He rarely missed an opportunity to ridicule religion of any type. When I got married my father threatened to not attend the wedding ceremony because it was in a church (I never knew if he was joking or not, but he did show up). My mother kept her feelings about God and church to herself, having decided that if she couldn’t say anything nice, she wouldn’t say anything at all.
I can only think of a handful of encounters I had with Christianity as a child. One was when I spent the night at a friend’s house and went to church with them the next morning. I must have been about eight years old. I remember the church interior being dark with wooden pews and a musty smell. I remember a wheezy organ and the people singing,
Oh do Lord,
Oh do remember me (Oh Lordy!)
Bringin’ in the sheaves,
Bringin’ in the sheaves,
We will come rejoicing,
Bringin’ in the sheaves,
I didn’t know what cheese had to do with anything and I recall being disappointed that they did not, in fact, bring in any cheese.
At that church service someone asked me if I wanted Jesus in my heart and I must have agreed (probably from a childish desire to please) because I can recall repeating the “Sinner’s Prayer”, though I had no idea what I was saying. I recited back the words with no understanding of their meaning. That was the first time I had ever been to church and it would be the last time for many years.
As I grew up, I gave very little thought to God or religion. If someone asked what my beliefs were I would have said I was an atheist--though, like many who claim to be atheist, I was really more of an agnostic. God, to me, was just irrelevant.
I recall when I was a teenager and we got cable TV. I would flip through the channels and occasionally hit upon a televangelist. I would laugh in derision at (what I considered) the hypocrites with their terrible music and bad fashion sense.
As a child I did once have a “religious” experience. I had a dream in which our house was filled with guitars. I woke up and decided that my “calling” was to be a rock star. This became my religion. Through the years I learned to play the bass guitar and eventually became a “professional” musician. I worshipped the lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock & roll. By age 16 I was playing in nightclubs. By age 17 I had dropped out of high school and spent the next few years traveling around the U.S. playing rock music in bar bands.
(Me, 18 years old)
I could recount tales of excess and debauchery, close calls with the law, scary encounters with drug dealers, one night stands with women whose names and faces I can’t remember in towns I’d rather forget. It was an empty, lonely existence, but I was a loyal worshipper of the rock & roll myth. Over the years I lost friends to drugs, suicide, prison, etc. Probably the lowest point was when I traveled through Wyoming, Nebraska and Idaho in a band led by a guitarist who was alcoholic, drug addicted, manic-depressive, and most likely demon possessed. I can still remember him—blind drunk—driving our converted school bus at 4 a.m. through the streets (and on the sidewalks) of Scottsbluff, Nebraska laughing maniacally and shouting at the top of his lungs, “I curse you Jesus! I curse you God!”
It was during this time that I first began to pray.
When I prayed, I would always see in my mind’s eye a winding trail leading up a mountain. This is not an image that I intentionally conjured; it just always appeared. I knew somehow that the trail led to God. My prayers mainly consisted of asking God to keep me on that trail. For the first time I was thinking about God. I would look at a sunset or cloud formation and think, “Thank you God.” I had no idea who God was, but I had come to accept the general concept. All I knew of Jesus at this point was that he was some guy who died on a cross and I was supposed to feel guilty about it for some reason.
I managed to escape from the crazed demoniac bipolar guitarist and ended up joining a band in Denver which was led by my best friend Mikey. I had known Mikey since junior high school. We met in guitar class and formed our first garage band together. We had played at backyard parties in high school, then graduated to seedy bars in small Colorado prairie towns, then moved up to nightclubs in Denver and eventually traveled together playing in nightclubs throughout the Western U.S. Eventually we had gone separate ways, but now we reunited.
Mikey and I had been through a lot together over the years. Our different personalities balanced each other out. I tended to be shy and introspective, while Mikey was often loud and obnoxious. He was the quintessential party animal (think Belushi in Animal House), but he was also a deep thinker. We spent many a night sitting beneath the stars, drinking beer and discussing the mysteries of life. Mikey had been raised Methodist and had been forced to attend church every Sunday. When he finished high school he rebelled in a big way.
Now that I had reconnected with Mikey, we put a new band together, rehearsed for several weeks and began traveling the nightclub circuit again. I was in my early twenties by now. The endless hours of driving across the Western states from gig to gig gave us plenty of time to have long talks and think deep thoughts. Mikey and I had both become acutely aware of a sense of gnawing pointlessness in our lives. Our repertoire of cover songs consisted of titles like “Sin City”, “Highway to Hell” and “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me”. There was a new band called Triumph that had a hit entitled “Fight the Good Fight” and the song got us thinking about the concept of trying to play some tunes that had a positive message for a change.
(That's Mikey on the left and me on the right, "back in the day.")
We took a break from the road at Thanksgiving and went home to Denver to visit our families. While we had been away, Mikey’s sister had begun attending a church called the Vineyard. Mikey’s parents were convinced it was a cult and went to check out the Vineyard for themselves. They ended up staying and became charismatic Christians. The whole family had since been praying for Mikey; the wayward son.
After Thanksgiving I went to Mikey’s house to pick him up in order to head back out on the road and he told me he had become a Christian. He asked if I wanted to become a Christian too. I declined.
We left for our multi-month road trip; this time performing at nightclubs all across the vast state of Texas. We began a new ritual before each show: We would stand in a circle backstage, hold hands and ask God to bless the evening’s performance. Beyond this, Mikey’s Christianity didn’t seem to have any effect on his behavior – he was more of a party animal than ever before. He used to carry a shaving case with him that was stuffed with an assortment of drugs – Quaaludes, speed, meth, cocaine, LSD, etc. My drug of choice was speed (in its various forms) and cocaine, but Mikey seemed to like just about everything.
Somewhere along the way I had been given a Bible. It was The Living Bible. I still remember the dark green cover. I carried it in my suitcase like a good luck charm. I had tried to read it a few times, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it. This is probably because I tried to read it like any other book, where you start at page 1 and read it to the end. I never made it past Leviticus. I certainly didn't see anything about Jesus in there.
When we traveled, I would do a lot of the driving. For some reason I’ve never been able to sleep in cars. This, coupled with my taste for amphetamines, made me the de facto designated driver. I once drove all night from Wichita Falls, TX down to Harlingen, TX non-stop, with a bag of speed on the dashboard. Whenever I started to feel groggy I’d reach up, grab another capsule and pop it in my mouth like candy. On occasions that I didn’t drive, I stayed awake and kept whoever was driving company.
The band members traveled in an old Pontiac station wagon (which was filled to overflowing with junk food wrappers and other bits of trash) while our roadies followed in a truck carrying our equipment. Many weeks earlier, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, our drummer at affixed a corn dog to the front of the vehicle—an ersatz hood ornament. It had miraculously remained in place, though it had become shriveled and hardened.
We had traveled to Harlingen, TX (near Brownsville) to play for the week at a popular nightclub. The standard operating procedure was to play from 10pm until around 2am, then party until sunrise, then sleep until the afternoon, then start the cycle again. One day we decided to go across the border to Matamoros, Mexico. Our soundman, Don, came with us. I had known Don for three years yet had never seen him in a state other than stoned. Don was a pothead. The first thing he would do when he woke up was take a bong hit and the last thing he would do before falling asleep was take a bong hit. All through the day he would smoke pot.
After spending the day in Matamoros, we headed back towards the U.S. border. As we approached the border crossing we were waved over by the Mexican border guards into one of the bays where they inspect automobiles. Apparently, something about a beat up Pontiac station wagon filled with long-haired gringos made them suspicious. As we pulled over, Don extracted a rolled up bag of marijuana from his pocket and began looking for a place to hide it. We couldn’t believe he had been stupid enough to carry pot across the border! He stuffed the bag into an empty boot and pushed the boot down into the pile of trash and junk food wrappers that filled the inside of the car. The border guards had us get out of the car and empty our pockets. Next they began searching through the Pontiac but were obviously disgusted by the trash. One of them discovered a marijuana seed, which caused them to renew their search with increased vigor. Suddenly I saw one of the guards pull Mikey’s shaving case from the back of the car. I looked at Mikey and saw the color drain from his face.
This was it. We were about to go to a Mexican jail. Mikey’s shaving case was where he kept his assortment of drugs. As the guard unzipped the bag, I prepared for what would come next. I imagined yelling, drawn guns, handcuffs… The guard opened the shaving kit… and it was empty. He tossed it aside and continued digging through the trash. I glanced sideways at Mikey and he gave me a look that said “I don’t know”.
The border guards were getting disgusted at the garbage and decided to bring over a drug-sniffing dog. The dog came over, stuck its head into the open door and promptly turned around and pulled it’s handler in the opposite direction, away from the car. I can only think that the poor dog experienced sensory overload from all the junk food wrappers! Sometimes I wonder if his career was ruined by the experience. Maybe he ended up in doggie therapy.
The guards gave up their search and told us we could go. They never did find the boot with Don’s bag of weed inside. We drove back to Harlingen in silence, knowing that we had just had a very close call. Back at the hotel, we walked into Mikey’s room to discover a pile of drugs on the table - the contents of his shaving case. He had no recollection of emptying it.
On our final night performing at the nightclub in Harlingen we finished our last set at 2 a.m., loaded up the truck and hit the road at 4 a.m., bound for our next gig in Beaumont. This was a seven hour drive and we had not had any sleep, but we had scored a large bag of speed earlier in the week, which we set on the dashboard. Mikey got behind the wheel, I rode shotgun next to him, the rest of the band piled in the back of the wagon and the roadies got into the truck to follow. Mikey and I both took some of the speed. The guys in the back of the wagon almost immediately fell asleep.
As we drove, I very quickly began to feel groggy. This didn’t make any sense since I was on speed. I remember thinking that maybe I had accidentally taken a Quaalude or some other form of sedative. That was how I felt – not just drowsy, but sedated. It didn’t make sense though because I knew I had taken speed (having previously sampled the bag’s contents). The drowsiness overcame my concern and I fell into a deep sleep. At one point I remember waking up. I smoked a cigarette, tossed the butt out the vent window and promptly fell back asleep.
At this point I have to shift the story to Mikey’s perspective. The events that occurred next are what were later told to me by him. He found himself the only person awake in the car. Suddenly a voice in his head said, “Michael”. It wasn’t his own inner voice. “Who is this?” he asked incredulously. “This is Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. Remember me?” said the voice. “Riiighttt” was Mikey’s response. The voice continued, “Do you know how hard it is walking with you when I have to keep kicking trash out of your path?” Mikey remembers the thought occurred to him that he had done just about every drug under the sun but had never done one that made him think he was the Son of God conversing with himself. For quite some time the voice continued speaking and he continued resisting. When it came time to refuel the car, the voice claiming to be Jesus Christ said, “Go about your business, I’ll be back.” It was only then that people in the car would speak to him, “Hey Mikey, where are we?” or “Do you want something to eat from the gas station?” Mikey was relieved and dismissed the whole strange experience. “Must be bad speed or something.” he thought to himself. But as soon as the car and truck merged back onto the highway, the voice returned, just as it said it would. Although the other passengers were now awake, the voice said that no one would speak to him…and no one did. Soon they all fell asleep again. According to Mikey, this pattern happened each time we stopped for gas.
This bizarre event continued for hours. At a certain point, according to Mikey, I woke up. Mikey was quite relieved. At last he wasn’t alone with the voice. He had known me since junior high school and he knew how unusual it was for me to sleep in a car. He knew that I would ask him if he was doing okay and if he wanted me to drive for a while. The weird voice hallucination was over. Or perhaps not. “He’s not going to speak to you”, the voice said. “He’s going to push in the car lighter, grab a cigarette, light the cigarette, open the side vent window, smoke the cigarette, throw the butt out the side vent window and fall back asleep before the butt even hits the pavement. And he will not say a word to you. I caused him (Danny) to sleep. He knows I’m here. I caused them all to sleep so we could talk.” Mikey was sure that I would speak to him. In fact, he was so sure he decided not to initiate conversation but to wait for me to say something. When I did just as the voice had predicted, Mikey was really shaken. I had not said a word and had fallen back asleep before the cigarette butt hit the pavement…At this point he gave up.
“YOU ARE WHO YOU SAY YOU ARE!!!” said Mikey. “What do you want?” “I want you”, replied the voice, “but I want you completely. You must choose today whether you’re going to follow me or not. You must decide before you leave Houston.” (We would be passing through Houston, on our way to Beaumont, TX) Apparently the conversation continued for some time. Mikey later described a point at which although he was behind the wheel of the Pontiac station wagon traveling down a highway in Texas, he was also somewhere else, in the presence of God. Jesus was holding him and saying over and over “I love you, Michael”.
I and the rest of the band woke up as the car came into the outskirts of Houston. In fact, as Michael tells it, right at the “Houston City Limits” sign the voice left and, at the same time, people in the car awoke and began speaking to him. It was daylight now.
Michael pulled the car into a Wendy’s restaurant somewhere in Houston. We all crawled out of the Pontiac, shook off the sleepiness and went in to eat. Michael said he needed to take care of something and would be in momentarily. While we got seated in our booth, Michael sat in the Pontiac and surrendered his life to Jesus for the final time.
From that day on he referred to himself as Michael, not Mikey.
After eating, when we returned to the car, someone yelled “Hey, Mikey, turn on the radio, man!” The song that was playing was “Fight the Good Fight” by Triumph.
We arrived in Beaumont, checked into our hotel, contacted the nightclub where we were scheduled to play for the week and were given the bad news that our gig had been cancelled. The club had double-booked us with another band that week. The other band apparently had more of an “in” with the club manager so we got bumped. There we were, in Beaumont, Texas, with no work.
We shared hotel rooms, usually three to a room. I was in a separate room from Michael. That evening Michael’s roommates came to my room to talk to me. They were concerned about his behavior. They said that all day long he had been walking around the room in his underwear, reading a Bible and muttering to himself. They were worried that the pressures of the road, or the drugs, had finally caused him to have a breakdown. Or worse, maybe he had gotten religion. As his best friend, it was my job to find out what was going on.
I went to Michael’s room and knocked on the door. He answered and, before I could speak, said, “We need to talk.” He had a strange look in his eyes. We got into the Pontiac and drove around Beaumont, not speaking. He pulled into a church parking lot, stopped the car, then muttered, “No, this isn’t right” and pulled out. We drove a little more and finally found another empty church parking lot that he seemed to feel was “right”. He parked the car, turned to face me and said in an almost manic tone,
“Do you believe in God?”
“Well, yes, I suppose.”
“Do you believe in Satan?”
“Well, I suppose as some sort of personification of e…”
“IN THE NAME OF JESUS I BIND SATAN FROM THIS CAR!”
“Oh, crap,” I thought, “he’s gotten religion.”
Michael proceeded to tell me the story of the drive from Harlingen to Houston. Initially, as he spoke I was thinking, “He really believes this occurred. He’s not joking.” I was being objective, like an investigator listening to someone who was claiming to have been abducted by aliens. But when he got to the part about me falling asleep (despite having taken the same speed that Michael had taken) and then later waking up, smoking the cigarette and falling back asleep; I lost my objectivity. Suddenly I was in the story and something that had previously not made sense now had an explanation, albeit a supernatural one.
Michael continued to tell me the rest of the story about his encounter. He wept as he described Jesus holding him, and then, reverently patting the bench seat of the Pontiac, said, “Jesus was sitting right here between us!” The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I felt cornered. I was being presented with eye-witness testimony from a source that I trusted completely and I had corroborating evidence that included my own involvement.
Michael looked at me and said, “It’s time.” I knew what he meant. I said something like, “Yeah, I guess so.” I was a reluctant convert. He led me in some form of the “Sinner’s Prayer”. It was probably very similar to the one I had once recited as a child.
I saw no angels, heard no trumpets, and wasn’t overcome with joy. The best word to describe what I felt is gravitas. We went back to the hotel.
I recall my first morning as a Christian. I woke up, sat on the side of the bed and then remembered, “Oh, I’m a Christian.” The thought made me feel happy – a kind of quiet, bubbly feeling inside that I’d not felt before. Maybe it was hope.
Now we had to deal with the more earthly matter of finding work. We were stuck in Beaumont, Texas and didn’t have a lot of cash to get by on. We needed work. Our best bet was to get to a large city where there were lots of nightclubs. Houston was the logical choice, since we had more friends there than Dallas. Like sailors, we often had “girlfriends” in our various “ports of call”. Michael had a girlfriend in Houston who was a cocaine dealer. He called her and explained our predicament. Her reaction was strange: “You can stay with me, but you’ll have to sleep on the couch because I’m involved with someone else now. Also, I’m completely out of coke.” Michael was overjoyed that two major temptations had been removed.
Some of the guys in the band stayed with Michael and his now platonic girlfriend. Some stayed with their own contacts. I stayed with my own girlfriend in Houston. Her name was Candi. She was an exotic dancer (in other words, a stripper). Candi was a dark-haired petite beauty with an intelligent, forthright manner and a large tattoo of the Grim Reaper on her back. Whereas Michael’s conversion was dramatic, mine was very gradual. Michael immediately stopped taking drugs and sleeping around. I didn’t yet quite grasp why Christians weren’t supposed to engage in those activities. I figured, if you’re not hurting anyone, it ought to be ok.
I told Candi about what had happened. She decided to be a Christian too. Neither of us had a clue about what it meant to be Christians. We were babes in the woods. I can remember, she and I sitting in her apartment with the phone book, calling churches at random and asking whoever answered questions like, “So what’s the deal with the cross and all that.” We had no idea what type of churches we were phoning. More often than not, the answers we received to our questions left us even more baffled. At a flea market, we found a book called "The Sermon On The Mount" by Emmet Fox. We figured he must be really smart because it said he was a "Christian Scientist". We tried reading Mr. Fox's book but couldn't understand it (it was a few years later that I discovered that Christian Science has little to do with either Christianity or science).
A strange thing began to happen to me during my first week as a Christian, while I stayed at Candi’s apartment. I began to hear the voice of God. It would happen late at night while I lay in bed awake. Candi would be sleeping and I would have conversations with God in my head. Later I found out that it was called “prayer”, but I didn’t think of it as that since I wasn’t kneeling and folding my hands like I’d seen in movies. The weirdest thing about these conversations was that God often initiated them. He would speak to me, not in a booming “God” voice, but in a quiet, gentle, fatherly voice. Like a father patiently showing a child how to work through a problem, he would explain things to me. I would ask questions like, “What’s wrong with the whole sex thing?” and He would explain that it had to do with honor, with giving instead of taking, with enjoying what He had created in the way He had intended. I had done my share of using women for sex and I began to understand why that had been wrong. I had had a good friend who, a couple of years earlier, had gotten drunk and committed suicide and I wondered how God could have let that happen. He explained to me about free-will and about his own pain at the destructive choices that people make. He walked me through a grieving process for my friend, in the still of the night, as I lay in Candi’s bed.
Doctrinally, I was completely clueless. I was still actively engaging in a “sinful” lifestyle, yet I was experiencing a real relationship with the living God.
We found work the following week at a club up in Dallas. Candi traveled with me and we shared a room. We all stayed at the cheapest hotel we could find, which turned out to be a haven for prostitutes and drug dealers.
Michael began to feel convicted about the type of music we were playing. At the nightclub, between sets, he would sit in the dressing room backstage and read his Bible. Then we would go onstage and sing lyrics like “I’m on a highway to Hell”. One night some girls hit on Michael at the bar and offered to take him to a party. He agreed. As they drove to the party, Michael blurted out that he was a Christian and began witnessing to them. The car screeched to a halt, the door was flung open and he was ordered out of the car.
We concluded that we couldn’t be Christians and continue in our lifestyle as nightclub musicians, so we broke up the band and returned home to Denver.
Once home, I had my first church experience as an adult. I accompanied Michael and his family to the Vineyard for a mid-week service. I was rail-thin from drug use, still a chain smoker, had hair down to the small of my back, multiple piercings in my ears and a wardrobe consisting mostly of torn jeans and t-shirts. I was expecting the Vineyard to be like the musty old church I had once visited as a child. To my surprise, instead it was in a space that had formerly been a liquor store in the corner of a strip-mall. It was light, with windows all around. People weren’t dressed up. I almost blended in. Instead of the wheezy organ that I had expected, there was a band. The bass player looked like a burned-out hippie, with long hair and torn up over-alls. The band leader obviously had a blues background, based on his singing and guitar playing style. I could relate to these people. Between the worship music set and the sermon, while announcements were being made, I walked outside and smoked a cigarette. I wasn’t the only one out there smoking. I don’t remember that first sermon, but I do remember the pastor, Tom Stipe, saying at one point, “I don’t care if you come to church drunk or high, as long as you come to church.” The sermon was followed by more worship music and then the next thing I knew people were standing around me, with their hands on my shoulders praying for me. One of them was Frank, the burned-out hippie bass player. They had love and acceptance in their eyes. I felt warm and safe and loved. The Vineyard became my church.
Candi came to Denver and I hoped she would stay and begin a new life with me, but she left after a couple of weeks. She had had a pretty rough life, including a childhood filled with abuse, and I think she had a hard time accepting that she could be loved by me, by God, by a church. I still sometimes wonder what became of her.
I struggled with my newfound faith. Michael would often have to coerce me to come to church; sometimes practically dragging me kicking and screaming. I had a hard time letting go of our old circle of friends and still sometimes ended up at parties. I can remember one such occasion when I sat snorting lines of cocaine with some friends and telling them, in all seriousness, “Yeah man, Jesus has really changed my life.” I suddenly realized what a hypocrite I was and asked God to help me stop doing cocaine because I wasn’t able to stop it on my own. Amazingly, the next time I went to a party with these same friends, instead of setting out the cocaine in the living room like they usually did, they were clustered in a backroom snorting. I sat alone in the living room and prayed, “Lord, if they invite me into the backroom, I’ll go”. No invitation came. I never did cocaine again. The last drug to go was cigarettes. One day, the Holy Spirit simply said to me, “It’s time.” I knew what He meant and agreed. I never smoked again.
What followed was slow, steady growth and discipleship. I was gradually transformed as Christ worked in me. That ongoing transformation continues to this day.
For a while I continued to have long conversations with God as I lay awake in bed at night. I noticed though that when I told other people about my conversations with God, they were uncomfortable. I started to learn that having conversations with God was not “normal” (except maybe in the Bible). One night, in the midst of a conversation, I told God, “This is kind of freaking me out. Can we stop doing this?” “Okay.” he said. I stopped hearing His voice and was happy to be normal. I was learning the Bible and it began to make sense. I learned who Jesus is and what he has done and I love Him for it. I learned doctrine and theology and hermeneutics and all the rest. I learned to hear the voice of God through means other than direct conversation.
Years later I came to regret my request to stop conversing with God, and I repented. Over time, I began to occasionally hear the voice of God again, particularly when I made time to sit in silence and listen. It is easy to allow life to become so cluttered with worries and deadlines and distractions that the voice of God is drowned out. I also find that when I read scripture I hear in it His voice – the same loving, patient, fatherly voice that spoke to me as a baby Christian.
Michael is still following Jesus. He has a career in Information Technology, is married and has two daughters. He still attends that same church, although it has changed location and is no longer a Vineyard (it is now more closely aligned with Calvary Chapel). Michael and I had a succession of Christian bands over the years. One included a beautiful and sensitive keyboard player named Carla, who became my wife.
(Carla and I in a Christian rock band called Chosen)
Carla and I eventually moved from Denver to Seattle and Michael and I only communicate sporadically now. Every couple of years we get together and it’s just like no time has passed at all. Carla and I had one child; a son. He is in his 20's and is working on his doctorate in Physics. More importantly, he is a decent, honest young man who respects himself and cares about others. Sometimes I look at him and think about how utterly lost I was at his age and I’m overcome with gratitude to God for His mercy and loving-kindness.
Theology ought to have practical implications for how we live our lives; how we understand ourselves and God; how we interact with others. If the word theology can be defined, at its most basic, as how we think about the Divine, then everyone—including the atheist—possesses theology in some form; though perhaps not in any intentional or examined or systematized way. But I believe that theology—in whatever form it exists—will have an effect on one’s outlook on life.
For the first twenty years of my life, I did not possess any conscious form of theology. I was not in any sense religious, and God was an abstract concept to me. I vacillated between agnosticism and atheism. I knew almost nothing about who Jesus Christ was or why Christians worshiped him. My parents emigrated from England to the U.S. (by way of Canada, where I was born). Their experience of religion had been the Anglican Church—an unobtrusive and irrelevant backdrop to their lives in Britain. I was baptized into the Church of England as an infant, because that’s what was done in the U.K., but after we moved to the U.S., my parents did not practice or pay attention to any form of faith beyond the newspaper horoscopes.
I grew up in a materialistic, middle-class, suburban world which left me existentially empty and craving for some kind of transcendent meaning. I attempted to escape that ennui through drugs and rebellion and promiscuity. I became a musician and dropped out of high school with the vague notion of becoming a rock star.
It was while traveling through Texas as a member of a heavy metal band that I had a spiritual encounter and became a Christian. I had not read the Bible or attended church and still knew almost nothing about who Jesus was. But God became very real and personal to me. Had I been in India I might have become a Hindu; in Turkey, a Sufi perhaps; but in Texas, one becomes a Christian. My conversion experience was followed by an ongoing series of intimate encounters with God. I would lie awake in the quiet of the night and have deep conversations with a voice in my head that was not my own and that spoke with tenderness and patience and wisdom. I was, at the time, still enmeshed in a lifestyle of debauchery and dissipation, but I was also experiencing a very real relationship with God. The loving-kindness of God ignited in me a process of transformation which is ongoing to this day. This is a most significant point about my theology: The way I think about God was irrevocably shaped by those initial encounters with the Living Presence. Those experiences of God reaching out to me with love and acceptance while I was in a state of deep ignorance and profound sinfulness have formed the bedrock of my faith. Throughout all of the years since, God’s quiet presence remains—just below the surface. If all else is stripped away, it is the ground upon which I stand.
I eventually stumbled into church-life and began reading the Bible. In the red letters of the Gospels I recognized that same loving, kind, patient, compassionate voice that had reached out to me. I began to learn about Christian doctrine. I spent several years as a fundamentalist Charismatic Christian, not because I was particularly comfortable with it, but because I was told that it was the true Christianity. But I am by nature a seeker; a digger; a researcher. I became (and remain) insatiably curious about theological matters and gradually amassed a collection of theological books on a range of topics. Over the years I have continued to question and explore. Sometimes this process has been uncomfortable, as it has challenged me to reevaluate my views on various doctrinal matters.
A book that had a significant impact on me many years ago was How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This book ignited in me a passion for understanding scripture—particularly with regards to what scripture meant in its original contexts. Later, the writings of N.T. Wright added fuel to the hermeneutical fire.
I became an associate pastor at a Vineyard church but grew disillusioned and embarked instead on an exploration of applied ecclesiology which culminated in leading an independent house church. This “experiment” was deeply rewarding. The goal was to create an environment in which there was no set agenda and where each person had an opportunity to express the spiritual gifts that God had given them. Often in our gatherings we were amazed at how the presence of God would create a cohesive theme by working through various individuals. I began to really understand what Paul meant when wrote “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (1 Cor. 14:26). The “body of Christ” became a reality to me, not just an abstract metaphor.
My wife and I also conducted chapel services in the county jail. The essence of what I tried to teach the inmates was that, to paraphrase Philip Yancey, there was nothing they could do to make God love them less and nothing they could do to make God love them more, because God’s love is perfect and complete. God is love. I watched broken men and women—people who were used to being reminded of how bad they were—soak up the message of God’s grace like rainfall on seedlings in dry earth. I saw the revelation of God’s loving-kindness change them.
These experiences reinforced my understanding of how God sees people and therefore of how I should see people. I believe—to the core of my being—that God's default orientation towards humankind is not anger, wrath and separation, but rather loving engagement. Men and women are surely alienated from themselves, from one another and from God--but God is not alienated from us. Rather, God is constantly and untiringly reaching out to us all; wooing us home. As the poet Rumi wrote, “What you seek is seeking you.”
As I continued to conduct the house church “experiment” and to research ecclesiology, I sometimes came across writings by Quakers and they resonated with me. I saw a strong affinity between the vision that had been coming to fruition in our house church and what the Quakers had been doing for 350 years. The more I read by and about Quakers the more I felt drawn to them. Quaker theology and praxis seemed to fit so well with what I had come to believe and the direction I had been heading in. I was also struck by how “Quaker-like” my experiences with God had been.
The house church eventually ran its course (which was a good lesson for me that churches have lifecycles) and my wife and I visited a Friends meeting. We immediately felt at home and have been there ever since. After becoming a Friend I continued to voraciously study Quakerism and theology in general. For the last few years I have led an hour-long Bible study on Sunday mornings which goes book-by-book through the New Testament at a very leisurely and intentional pace (it took us 18 months to get through the Gospel of Matthew!). A couple of years ago I felt a desire to look into attending seminary. My wife and my pastor and my friends encouraged me and the doors opened for me to step back into a structured learning environment for the first time in decades. Despite the rigor of academia, I have relished the opportunity. The greatest challenge for me has been to set aside my autodidactic tendencies and focus on what someone else wants me to study. But in doing so I have been exposed to and enriched by things which I otherwise would have missed. When I am able to dictate my own study, I have tended in recent years to gravitate towards exploring Process Theology, Christian mysticism, LGBTQ inclusion, interfaith dialogue, Narrative Christus Victor atonement theory (per J. Denny Weaver) and the New Testament writings as critique of empire (per Ched Myers, Richard Horsley, Wes Howard Brook, John Howard Yoder, Walter Wink, et al.). All of these topics of current interest relate back to my basic thesis that theology ought to have practical implications for how we live our daily lives and how we treat one another and how we view God. It is still often personally challenging to step out of my comfort zone and ask difficult questions; to intentionally deconstruct and examine my beliefs. What has given me the courage to do so is the surety that when I strip everything down to the ground, what remains is God's loving presence. Nothing can threaten that. Nothing can take that from me. That grace allows me the freedom to explore.
For more information about what Quakers believe, click here.