Hang with me on this one, as I try to shoehorn the story into a little bit of an analogy. The post should feel a bit meandering to you, and that fits it well by the subject matter. Thanks for reading. Part 1 here. Part 2 here.
A young man awoke, blinking at the bright morning sky above. Wh..where am I? he wondered, opening his eyes a bit wider. There was ocean on both sides, a small boat shifting around in the gentle waters, and a glorious blue expanse above, and the man, waking alone in the boat.
He tried to recall who he was, and why he was waking alone in a boat with no land in sight. “Where am I? Where was I going in this boat?” Sitting up, he noticed the ache of hunger in his guts, and the dryness of his mouth. Looking out at the waters, he began to notice other small boats like his, no bigger than two-man fishing vessels, some near, most further out.
“Now this is weird!” he thought, and tried to spot any other people in the boats. About a half mile away, he saw what looked to be another person sitting up in their boat. He raised a cry, “HELLoooOoo!” But his voice faded, throat too dry to do more. The sun’s energy was already blasting away any morning cool that had clung to the bottom of the boat where he had slept.
A voice called from the other way “HEY! Who are you?!” The young man looked, and another man was waving from a couple hundred yards away. “Come this way!” he shouted to the young man. He looked around the boat, but there was no oar. There was no engine, no rudder, nothing but the slight current in the water pushing all the boats in the same direction.
“At least I’m not alone, I guess,” he mumbled, confused and quite thirsty.
American Evangelical Christianity: Little Boats at Sea
This was me in 2004. I had been born again in jail in December 2002, but didn’t get out into the community until 2004. I had moved away from my home city in order to start anew, and so alone in Rochester I began working, while attending AA meetings (as I had been taught to do in my year of recovery from addiction).
I read my Bible every day, along with the Our Daily Bread devotional guide, I prayed a regular list of prayers, and I sought to walk in Christian piety; but the Church wasn’t central to my life. I couldn’t even tell you what I thought of the local church at the time–what its purpose is, why we gather, or which one to choose. I was waking in the boat, adrift and hungry, vaguely aware of other boats with adrift individuals in my general vicinity.
Christianity was, in my understanding, a personal, individual journey of believing in God and walking with Him. The corporate nature of the Church catholic, the sacraments, the worship, the doctrine, the mission–all these things were mysteries to me. I had been radically saved reading the Psalms in between games of Spades while at the Erie County jail, and the mighty Holy Spirit had sealed me, but my whole Christian life was being lived alone, without guidance or ministry.
And yet, the Lord was gently guiding my boat toward His people. The drifting would take years, but now looking back, I see I’ve been rescued from being lost at sea. And what is that sea, in my analogy? It’s our American culture: our squinty-eyed James Dean culture, our John Wayne cowboy milieu in which we live and move and have our separate, rugged being. You see, American history is the history of private religion, and of individual spirituality. We love to make our own way, to have our own beliefs, and to get out from under other people’s authority.
We have a Burger King nation, where every man, woman, and child has to “have it your way.” The churches are all tailored to individual tastes, and we choose a church according to how well it suits our individuality. If Local Church A gets a little too stuffy for us, there’s always churches B, C, and D down the road where all the cool kids are going.
“Nobody else’s interpretation of religion is going to bind me.” That’s our creed.
And so I entered the Christian life drifting, hungry, and thirsty for the water of fellowship life. I began in early 2004 attending the closest church to my house, which had a peppy charismatic feel, and a multi-ethnic congregation. I really liked it, but when joining as a member, they had me use finger paints to make a colored hand print on a paper as a reminder that I’m a unique, special member. When I heard the pastor and his wife address the young adult group with big, goofy grins because we were gonna talk about SEEEEXXXXX, I knew it was time to move on. I had already experienced goofy, grinning youth group sex talks in my old family church, and I just wanted to learn the Bible.
Onward I drifted, alone in the boat still. I tried a liberal Presbyterian church, but the estrogen coming off the male pastor turned me away after one Sunday. By that I don’t mean effeminate men are less capable of being wonderful gospel ministers, but rather, for a tough fighter guy fresh out of jail and rehab culture, I needed to see and feel a fatherly leader at the pulpit. I ended up going to some of the churches where the AA meetings were held, but nothing seemed to hold much life. My belly growled each night as my boat rocked on the waves.
The Redemption Center
While living in Brockport for a few months in a new apartment, one day I overheard a conversation at a coffee shop where two people were talking about Christ. I was too shy to introduce myself, but I remembered the Jamaican accent coming from the man who was doing the speaking.
My only friends in Brockport were an unmarried couple who smoked pot in the house, and who met a tragic end shortly after the season I hung around them. I had met George at work, and being that he was an amicable fellow, I enjoyed going over to play Spades with him, his girlfriend, and their cousin. I didn’t touch the drugs, and by some miracle I remember actually bringing the gospel to them on a repeated basis, which they didn’t mind. One night while playing cards I somehow mentioned that I didn’t have enough money to drive my car home to see my parents, and so George graciously gave me about a year’s worth of beer bottles to cash in.
So I went to the Brockport can and bottle Redemption Center the next day. Now who do you suppose was the redeemer behind the counter? There was the Jamaican bloke I had heard talking Scripture at the coffee shop! As he began taking my bottles, he remarked at how much I must be drinking to have so many returns. Spotting my opportunity, I replied that of course I didn’t myself drink.
“Why not?” he asked, a twinkle in his eye. His joy came pouring out when I told him of my Christian faith. “That’s wonderful brother! I’m a Christian too!!” He beamed while introducing himself (Phillip), and chuckled at the irony of the Redemption Center being a place for depressed drunks to come with their empties.
Philip became my mentor and closest friend for several years. I had contacted another drifting boat, and the first strong gulps of fellowship water began to wash away the salty burn of my parched tongue.
The Lord was at work, praise to His Name. I didn’t have more than a handful of disconnected theological beads at this point, but Christ had me.
Next time we’ll follow me as I began to integrate with Phillip in local church life at a Calvary Chapel.