Monday, April 20, 2015

The Paradox of Victory through Surrender: Rise Above

We tend to go through a lot of weighty material, exploring truth claims, philosophy, and apologetics.  But the Christian faith is also a heart issue, found in the depths of the struggles of this life.  To that end, I'd like share a short speech I gave recently.  I was asked to share my testimony of how I became a Christian at a Salvation Army conference called "Rise Above."  It was part of a nation wide conference called "Youth Councils" where the youth of Salvation Army and young adult leaders come together to learn, grow, and worship together.  I gave this testimony, my testimony, on April 18th 2015 in front of several hundred listeners.  It went really well, though I was terrified.  Several people came up and gave me hugs afterward and wished me well.  It was a wonderful experience!  

What is your testimony?  How can you share it with those around you?  It means more than you think.  Our first hand encounters with God are often much more powerful than dry statistics and scientific examples.  People are hurting, and they want to see and learn how hurting people can break free of confusion and apathy.   

The idea is simple... victory from surrender.  Confusing?  A bit.  Contradictory?  Not at all.  Paradoxical?  Certainly.  But God often works in such ways.  Anyway...

Here is the testimony I gave at the conference in Green Bay:

Hello. Its an honor to be in your presence. I told a friend after the last Salvation Army conference I attended, that I'd found a home in the Salvation Army. And she asked why? And I said because they're as nerdy as I am.

I've worked at a salvation army homeless shelter for the last year, and let me tell you, it's been a struggle. To be honest there were several times that I felt like I wanted to throw in the towel. But praise God I didn't.

So when I say its an honor to be in your presence. I mean that. What we do is not easy.

I'd like to share some of my story with you, how I came to this point.

William Booth said:"The greatness of a man's power is the measure of his surrender." That statement is what you call a paradox. How can power flow from surrender? Keep that statement in the back of your mind as I share my story.

One of my first memories, was as a child, around age 4 or 5, looking up into the sky and wondering.. why do I exist? At the moment I felt the joy and discovery of new life. Yet the question remained: Why am I here?

Jump forward 10 years, and the first of a long journey downward began, with the destruction of my family, in a bitter, cold divorce. Suffering, strain, and sorrow have a way of refining the search for truth and meaning.

From right around that age, I began to increasingly see the evil and suffering in the world around me. I never knew what I wanted to do with my life. Never could quite place it. But I knew one thing.. I wanted to save the world. Can anyone else relate to wanting to see a better world? (raise your hand)

And yet pain, and sorrow, and confusion. My family crumbling. What was the solution? As the family problems grew worse and worse, I had been given anti-depressants, and then anti-anxiety meds, and sleep meds. So I started taking pills. Pills led to alcohol. Alcohol, to cigarettes, cigarettes, to marijuana. Marijuana to other drugs. Depression grew. 
Charges eventually began to accumulate. I was in jail several times. Placed on probation. Drunk driving charges. Drug charges.

Yet the search continued. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is the solution to all the problems of the world? I read books, Henry Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, HG Wells, George Orwell, Lewis Carroll, and eventually began to study a great deal regarding politics, philosophy, and spirituality. I began attending college, and found an increasing interest in writing and journalism.

Yet the agony of life in those days was profound. It seemed like I went from blunder to blunder. I wept bitterly in a jail cell reading the book of Job over and over. I did drugs daily, and one night found myself laying on the road, in the middle of the night outside my house calling out "just do it, run me over." Incident after incident, new low after new low.

The darkness of those days I would fondly recall as the "year of no light" in my many pages of writing. Yet that year seemed to repeat over and over and over again. Eventually I gave my life the grim title "the repeating disaster." Because the same cycle seemed to repeat over and over.

I would write endless pages pondering the meaning of life. I would take walks in the middle of the night, sometimes every night, yearning for an answer, staring up at the stars, wondering how things might change.

How could I rise above? How could I escape the repeating disaster?

By age 27, I had lost all of my friends. My family had given up on me. I had been hospitalized in the emergency room twice for drug overdose. I recall one night in the emergency room ICU, the doctor came in and told me, we're not sure if you're going to make it through the night. Then he slammed the door. As if my life didn't matter. I burst out crying. My mother next to me, burst out crying. I felt an emptiness like I'd never experienced before. It was really over. I'm going to die.

I had been such a kind young man at one time. So full of life. So full of hope. So full of drive to change the world. But the problem was not just outside me. It was within me. 
And I was a slave to addictions, and compulsions, and sins, chains that were not breakable. I had tried, the steel was too thick. I couldn't rise above. I could tread water for a while, but I always dipped under again.

During that last year I began carrying a Bible around with me as I wandered the city in constant despair and sadness. I read from Genesis again and again the story of Jacob. How he ran from his brother, ran from God, fled him out the days and nights in fear. Yet despite Jacob's failings, God pursued him, and showed him the stairway to heaven. Jacob wrestled with God, and admitted who he truly was before God. And God made a great man of him as a result.

And I read the gospel of John, over and over. It said..

"In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind." John 1:4  

"the Word became flesh & dwelt among us & we have seen his glory" John1:14

"You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

I had seen my foundation shattered. I had lost all hope. I lost my family. I lost my friends. I'd become enslaved to addictions so powerful they had engulfed me. I had been sent to jail. Judged, prescribed to, diagnosed, and declared a danger to myself and others. I had been condemned before my fellow man. I had become a vagabond. I despised my own life. I had failed in my desire to help the world. I had done terrible things. I had become terrible things. I had let everyone down. And my body now, was physically crumbling.

At that moment, at rock bottom, for some odd reason, I crawled onto the floor in my living room, in the dark.. now this is something I would never do. And I'm still not sure exactly what happened.. but I got down on the carpet, on the floor, and I realized who to call out to. Call out to Jesus. And I cried out, loudly in the room, I cried, JESUS SAVE ME. I remember at that moment it was like the words echoed, the call rumbled through my being. I felt the ground shaking around me. I was terrified. Am I going crazy?

Yet after that day, November 1st, 2012, I never had to drink or drug again. And everything in my life changed as a result of a call for help.. to one man: Jesus Christ. 
Reaching out across the years, I had asked...

Where do I go from here? How can I rise above? Jesus said, "I am the way."

I asked: What is the truth? Jesus said, "I am the truth."

I asked: How do I live? Jesus said, "I am the life."

Here were the answers to all those ancient questions.

I began attending a church, and support groups. I was baptized into the body of Christ. I learned to follow Jesus, and see the world through the eyes of the Christian worldview. I began studying religion at Liberty University. I wrote a blog on my journey. And I was hired at a Salvation Army homeless shelter. 2 years later I asked God, what next? Where do you want me? And it began to seem clear, I should pursue officership... among you fine people.

I've become a new man. Not by my strength. Not by my cunning, no. But through surrender, as William Booth said. I've become a new man because the Great Physician, Jesus, has given me new life, in his grace. Not metaphorically, but literally, he has saved me.

So many want us to try and drag ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But thats impossible. Victory is only possible, paradoxically, by surrender at the cross of Jesus Christ. I tossed aside my approach to life, and gave in to his. I admitted God was in fact, God. There is only one way to rise above this world, the temptations, the sins, the addictions, and the lies.. and it's by radical submission to the way, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is not just a story.. This is not just a tradition. It's real. I know it for a fact. Jesus is alive. God is real. What we have here in our midst is the truth. All my questions, all my searching, all my hopes to be a hero, to be a man of honor.. were impossible before. Now, anything is possible. All of those yearnings are "yes" in Christ. Believe in him. Dare to really follow him. Experience the victory found in surrender, as I did.

Let's pray. Lord, give us hearts to serve you, and hearts to serve others. Thank you for saving us from ourselves. Amen. Thank you.

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