A Spiritual Journey

Wrote this as part of a little personal exercise a while back. Hope you enjoy. 

What a dork. I guess some things don’t change.

I started following Jesus when I was 7. I saw the Easter play at my church and I wanted to know Jesus. My dad helped lead me through it. Afterwords I really didn’t think much of it all. I didn’t really comprehend exactly what it was I had bought in to, but I knew it was something big, something fulfilling. There were times where I wished I had been saved after getting 3 girls pregnant or becoming addicted to eating paste. Those types of conversation stories are so much more dramatic and life-changing. Being saved at 7 is boring, mostly because the worst kind of trouble you can get into is lying, staying up too late, or biting your sister.

God didn’t seem real to me for many parts of my younger life. My experiences with God were few and far between growing up. I’d have moments where I really felt him, and others where it felt like I was talking to an empty sky, much like the time my mother had breast cancer, but thankfully he brought her through. As a younger kid I never really thought about it much, I just enjoyed the stories and making crafts. When I reached my teenage years, I tended to get caught up in the game of going to church. The church I attend is a large Southern Baptist church in Memphis. You could probably guess which one. The pastor there when I was growing up was a towering giant of the faith. To this day people still talk about him with awe and respect. He was a kind man, a skilled orator and a wonderful leader. I got to meet him a couple of times, once when I was in 5th grade and another when I was a sophomore in high school. It was how I imagined meeting the president would feel. I remember shaking his giant hands and listening to his soft voice. He seemed like the kind of guy you’d want to sit down and listen to his stories. I guess that’s why he was such a good pastor. He always told the best stories. He was also extremely good at setting up his sermons around acronyms. It’s a skill I’m still envious of. When he passed away the acronym quota in sermons dropped dramatically. The transition between pastors is often when a members of a church show their true colors. There was a small group that was really against the new pastor that was chosen, so much that they were willing to try to get the guy forced out. They picked him apart and tried to find ways to trap him. A blog was formed, creating of forum for the dissatisfied party to post their complaints, gossip, and damaging hate. It was very trying to the whole church body. A portion of the church left. As a senior in high school it made me wonder about the whole church thing in general. It was like all the negative parts of church suddenly sprung out of the dumpster and into my lap. I saw the cliques, the bickering, the gossip, and the hypocrisy. This was also when I realized I was part of the problem.

I wasn’t living the way I should have been. I was going through the motions. While I had seasons of growth and obedience, it was often overshadowed by my failures. I didn’t like a lot of people. I complained about things. I was bitter and dissatisfied with a lot going on in my life. I was struggling with lust and impure thoughts. It was exhausting. I wanted to do the right things but I couldn’t discipline myself, not realizing I could never fully do it under my own power. My cynical nature towards the church had made me cynical towards God. Most of my high school years were like this. Then one day I let a crack in the wall form, and the floodgates opened. God showed me what a mockery I was making of him. If I was supposed to be the image of Christ to people on this earth, I was doing a horrible job at it. It crushed me. I felt like my stomach was ripping apart and my body was exploding from the inside. The conviction and guilt was overwhelming. I asked God to renew me. I asked to be challenged. I wanted to be pushed to my limits and to be forced to rely on him. I was tired of cookie-cutter faith. I wanted authenticity.

The answer came with the opportunity to work for my church in the youth ministry for the summer. They paid decently well, but the experiences I had really showed me how faith is put into action. It’s true that suddenly being asked to lead forces you to get serious about what you practice, and working for a church is no different. I really felt God working through me. I felt compassion. I wanted to help those kids as much as I could. Seeing the lightbulbs suddenly go off in their minds when they learned about the things of God was a joyful experience. It was also enjoyable to watch how a kid could grow over the course of a few months. I see some of those junior high guys now as seniors and they blow me away with their leadership. That summer I felt more challenged and used than I had in my whole life. It was also a lot of fun. But, like any job, you learn some things that don’t exactly thrill you. These are some of the more interesting things I learned working for a church:

  • There will always be parents that complain about EVERY SINGLE THING. This cannot be avoided. I heard parents complain about everything from pirate flag being up in the intern office to the music we played on Wednesday nights. My boss basically said just nod, smile, and go back to what you were doing originally. We didn’t have to answer to them. 
  • Adults can be just as crazy as the kids. Pranks, jokes, playful teasing, and sarcasm were an every day thing. The head youth pastor accidentally said “Let’s make this the breast camp ever!” Naturally we occasionally would replace the word “best” with “breast” in every email for the rest of the summer. 
  • Expectations for the kids are low sometimes, and that is frustrating. We felt we had success if half of the students participated. Our hope was that whatever ideas or programs we had, a few would really catch on and influence the others. Student’s don’t realize how important leadership is within their own ranks. Sometimes I think the best thing to do is allow the kids an opportunity to step up. They continue to impress me. 
  • Facial hair is almost a requirement for youth ministers. 

Overall, it was a very positive experience. It helped me be prepared for the outdoor adventure camp I worked at two summers later. Working for an adventure camp in the mountains of East Tennessee was the biggest challenge I’ve probably taken on so far physically, mentally, and spiritually. Being away from my family and my friends for 13 weeks at the exact opposite end of the state was something that pushed me to the limit. My cousin had worked at this camp a couple of summers and convinced me to check it out. The second I arrived on the property I felt God’s presence, and I wanted it. The people were nice, the scenery was beautiful, and I immediately wanted in. I applied for the course that kept me away from whitewater trips, mostly because it terrified me. So of course my boss emailed me two weeks before I was supposed to arrive and told me that I was on the track that contained whitewater. I would be taking whitewater tubing trips one or two times a week for the next 10 weeks. I prepared for the worst.

I enjoyed everything about the camp the first two weeks of training. I learned how to tie knots, belay climbers, apply first aid, the ins and outs of mountain rescue, rappelling, climbing and more. I loved it. I felt like a rugged outdoorsman, capable of scaling a mountain to rescue a helpless baby from the clutches of a rabid grizzly, only later to turn that grizzly into my devoted pet. I daydreamed about having a pet bear sometimes. At night we’d go through gospel training. The camp founder would teach and play devil’s advocate, forcing us to back up our preconcieved notions of what we thought the gospel was. It was intense, but wonderful. It reminded me how gloriously simple the gospel was. God was feeding me and I was eating it up. Then I remembered I hadn’t gone down the river yet.I’ve never felt water so cold in my life. My boss made us swim around in the water for 10 minutes before we ever got in our tubes. It was so cold that I peed involuntarily. No exaggeration. I peed three more times down the river that first trip. One of those may have been out of fear. I think the rest was my body’s way of trying to keep warm.

I was horrible at it at first. I fell out of my tube and went down every rapid without protection, bumping and damaging every single part of my body. I almost drowned too. I went over a rapid, flipped out of my tube, and got caught upside down with hundreds of gallons of freezing water pouring into my face. I panicked and kicked myself free right as I was about to black out. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t want to look like the city boy who was scared of nature. I was determined to prove people wrong, and I did. I conquered the river and ended up loving it. God really pushed me and I trusted him because I had no other choice. My faith felt new and exciting. It was intoxicating.The thing that has stuck with me about working there was the real sense of community and simplicity. It was how I imagined the early church felt. I felt closer to some of those people than people I’d known for years. There was so much love between everyone there. It felt like you couldn’t walk 20 feet without someone pouring into you.“Hey Jarrod, you doing alright today?”“Hey, I’m doing alright, just having a rough week counseling these kids.”“Just keep strong man. Hang on to God. Let me pray for you.”This sort of thing would happen almost every day. I think I received more hugs in that summer than I did in the previous 10 years of my life. I went to bed at night thinking to myself “This is what it really means to follow Christ. This is what it looks like. These people.” I made friends there that I still keep up with, and still desire to see.

When I left that place, a piece of my soul stayed behind. There are days where I still think about it, the cool mountain air, the way fog would rise from the river, or the way you could watch thunderstorms jump over the mountains and careen down the slopes, plummeting towards us while we sat on front porches eagerly anticipating the rain. I remember the faces of the kids, the way they would smile after conquering their fear of heights, water, or discovering the joy that only Christ can bring. Whenever I’m struggling in the faith, I think back to that place, and other places that God has truly shown me his love and character, and it fills me with hope.

When I returned to my home church, the big one, I wasn’t cynical any more. I saw that I had been missing what was in front of me the whole time. There was a community there, a good one, and I had ignored it. The pastor is leading the church with a fire. He is community focused. He desires simplicity and devotion to God. He had the whole church read through the bible together in a year. We have more community outreach than ever before. Dare I say, we even have more African-Americans and young people in the building than I remembered in high school. Times are changing, it may not be perfect, but I believe God brought the right man for the time. Some just didn’t like it, and that’s fine. Everyone has different expectations for how they believe a church should go. I love it. The church has been growing in number and in collaboration with the community. Good leadership really is infectious.

For me, the hardest thing about believing in God is the inability to physically see him. But yet I believe in him because I see the effects of him. I see the evidence of him. There are many days where believing in God feels as natural as breathing. There are some where it feels like I’m struggling for oxygen. There have been times where I’ve told people about my belief in God, and they look at me as if I believed in Bigfoot. They saw my reasons for belief the same way they see those guys on TV looking for Bigfoot, looking for footprints, hair samples, sitting out in the woods late at night hoping to hear a howl: they see it as if I was just picking for scraps of evidence to justify my outrageous beliefs. To them, believing in God is the most backwards thing imaginable, but to me, I don’t know who I would be if I didn’t. The real solution to struggling churches and Christians is not new programs, different music, more modest clothes, or even serving more. The solution is that we as individuals should be striving to live a more authentic faith. To cut out the games and be real. If we really desired to live authentically, we’d love people more, read our bibles, pray more, serve more, and point more people to Christ. That is something that I strive for. I still screw up more often than not, but I can’t ignore it any more. I want authenticity. I want to live it instead of playing the part.

2 Comments

  1. Unknown says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Unknown says:

    Rightly so old chap. You should come to Nashville and we'll go camping in east Tennessee. We'll get you that grizzly bear yet…

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