Sunday, September 6, 2009

Saying I Do

I've never joined a church before. Somehow I've managed these twenty-six (near twenty-seven) years without committing myself to a local community.

But I've had a change of heart. After three years' stubborn denial, I'm tying the knot, tying myself into this community, for richer or (usually) for poorer, for holiness and harmony and arguments and hurt feelings. I'm in the whole nine yards.

As part of the membership process at LWCC, I needed to write a "membership paper." I'm still not exactly sure what this is supposed to be, but below I've included one take on how I met Jesus and the route I've traveled to get from there to here.

Local church-communities are good. I've written a number of times that I think they are our witness to God's coming kingdom, the way we meet God now. Committing to one seems to be part and parcel of committing to follow Jesus. I'm glad to do that.

Living Water Community Church
Josh Wallace - Membership Paper

My earliest memories of church occur in a storefront Baptist church the east edge of Main Street just before you leave the town of Bozeman. I remember singing a song about David with his sling and the giant Goliath; I remember the thundering pastor up front and his wife who had grown up as a missionary in Chile; I remember a potluck where I got sick from eating too much pineapple.

When I was three my parents decided to leave the hard 1980s economy in Bozeman for a job in Bangor, Maine. I don’t remember a church or anything to do with faith, but I do remember watching reruns of Mr. Ed while we lived in a motel for three months and my parents couldn’t find a house to rent. My parents probably prayed, asking God for help and wondering if the move from the mountains and Montana had been a mistake. My mom might not have had time to pray while taking care of my four-year-old self and my barely-walking one-year-old brother.

These memories are all mental snapshots. I first began to put the story of church together after my parents had retreated to Michigan for a year (Detroit then Gaylord up in the woods) and then moved on to Spokane, Washington. I was five by that point, just old enough to go to the AWANA children’s ministry at the church across town. Already the Sunday School lessons were beginning to stick--I knew that church had something to do with my soul, the Bible, and a lot about Jesus dying on a cross. But it wasn’t until a cold winter night that the story really began to line up.

My mom was driving me back from AWANA . I was in the passenger seat of the old Chevy Cavalier (an exciting thing for a five year old). I don’t remember what the AWANA lesson had been about, but I timidly asked my mom how I could know that I would go to heaven if I died. She explained about sin and how it separates us from God, how Jesus took our punishment on the cross so that we could go to heaven and be with God, and how Jesus rose from the dead three days later. She asked if I wanted to pray to ask Jesus to come into my heart. I nodded and concentrated on saying the words of the prayer exactly the way she said them. When we got home, she told my dad and excitedly called my Lutheran grandparents. When she asked me to tell Grandma and Grandpa what happened, I hid my face from the phone.

For most of my life, I’ve labeled this as the place where I decided to follow Jesus. I’m not entirely sure why. For years after this I was wracked with anxiety over whether I was really was saved or not--had I said the prayer right? did I mean it enough? My parents were great--staying up late to talk to me about my fears, taking me to talk through them with a wise pastor--but my faith remained a studious faith, an intellectual faith. By the time I started elementary school (now back in the same house that refused to sell in our two year sojourn away from Montana), I could answer every Sunday School question. I prided myself on being the Bible trivia king in fifth grade. But every night I fell asleep praying over and over that Jesus would save me. I knew all the facts, but I couldn’t see how the story fit together.

This is the way things stayed up through junior high. I loved to sing praise songs, to underline interesting verses in my NIV, to talk about Jesus; but while the words fit in my head, they felt like information I’d memorized or a position I took in a political debate.

I began to change in high school.

Up until high school, my parents had sacrificed to put me (along with my younger brother and two younger sisters) through Christian school. Christian schools can be really good (mine was), but Christian schools are also incredible breeding grounds for wild stories about what life in public school--“in the world”--is like. Horrible things happen there--everyone tries to make you take drugs, all the kids do is have sex, there’s probably even gangs (in Bozeman, Montana!), Christian kids don’t stand a chance. I was terrified when I stepped off the bus on my first day as a freshman. I knew I would be persecuted--first the other kids would mock me, then they would beat me up, and the principal would probably look the other way on the grounds of the separation of church and state. I walked to my locker with my eyes glued to the floor.

But as I began to talk with the kids who sat next to me in band or in earth science, I found that things really weren’t so dire. No one was picking on me for bashfully wearing my Christian t-shirts. In fact, I even had a few friends at the lunch table. Some of them even wore a Christian t-shirt once in a while.

Faith hadn’t fallen into place any further for me at this point; Jesus was still as distant a figure as President Clinton (though my dad didn’t yell about Jesus the way he yelled about the President). But a couple of guys helped to change all that for me. One was named Dan Baber. He was an upperclassmen and president of Youth Alive, the Bible club that met on campus. Somehow during the year, I began to fill a seat in the leadership of the club. I mostly tried not to stick out amid all the very cool juniors and seniors that made up the rest of the leadership.

At the end of the year, Dan asked me to eat lunch with him. “Josh,” he began “you’re going to be the only member of Youth Alive who will be coming back to Belgrade High next year. The rest of us are either graduating or moving away. You’re going to have to be president.” He spent the rest of the lunch hour telling me how much he cared for the campus, how many of the students had lives aching for Jesus, how many Christians needed to be encouraged to live like Jesus. I hadn’t thought of the people at my school this way before. I thought of school as something to get through, not as people God loved and wanted to hear the good news.

That same summer, the youth group at my church went on a short-term trip to Mexico. I didn’t feel comfortable at youth group. None of my friends went, and most of the kids were from another school. But I started going because I wanted to go to Mexico.

The trip in itself was nothing special--we painted a church, camped in the dirt, ate tamales, and bought knock-off sunglasses. But during our ten days away (one week in EnseƱada sandwiched by a two thousand mile drive back and forth from Montana), the youth pastor, Jon Rawson, took a special interest in me. I was a bungly kid, overweight, socially inept. I’m not sure what he saw, but Jon began to push me into leadership roles in the youth group. Particularly, Jon put me in places where I could take care of younger students, the junior highers and the incoming freshmen.

What was happening in high school was a conversion. Jesus was moving from just a name in my head and a shiny guy in heaven to a person who loved people. He wasn’t walking around in dirty streets and healing ugly people yet (I still had a way to go), but he was a person, a person who loved. And this opened me up to loving people. Faith moved from my brain to my gut. No longer was I worrying about who was looking at me from across the lunchroom; now I walked into the cafeteria and looked for a seat next to the person who looked loneliest.

After high school, with its girlfriends and youth group and pep band, I moved two thousand miles across the country to a small Baptist college in the cornfields. My goal was to study youth ministry. I told my parents that I was considering pre-med and I was definitely tempted by music composition; but deep down in my gut I knew that high schools around the world were full of teenagers who hurt just as deeply and needed Jesus just as desperately as my friends at Belgrade High.

Cedarville University, however, was not an easy place for me. The way of trusting Jesus, the way of loving people that I had learned in Montana didn’t seem to fit in southern Ohio. And how was I to tell people about Jesus on a campus where everyone already claimed to know him? Suddenly plunged into Bible-Belt cultural Christianity, I didn’t know how to swim; I didn’t know what the Jesus I loved back in the mountains looked like here.

It is far easier to spend late nights watching pirated DVDs or playing computer games than to search out hurting people who’d rather not be found. It’s far easier to laugh with college roommates or flirt with girls than to wrestle with what Jesus looks like on a campus where his name is printed everywhere. In my first years at Cedarville, I grew jaded. I sank into a lazy apathy like an old couch. If people didn’t want to be loved here, I wouldn’t love. And in the absence of love, my faith faltered.

What I needed was a Jesus with real skin. What we all need is a Jesus with real skin. I’ve believed in a Jesus who was an idea, and I’ve believed in Jesus who was a concern for others. But it wasn’t until Jesus became more than a theological doctrine and more than a reason to love others that I really began to follow him.

It was in my junior year of college that I began the conversion that I’m still undergoing, the conversion that leads me to commit to follow Jesus together with all of you, my sisters and brothers here at Living Water Community Church.

In the course of trying to woo my english major future wife, I enrolled in a number of literature courses (enough to get a lit minor). While my primary aim was to get this mysterious girl to go out with me, along the way I learned to read in a new way. When I went back to my dorm room each night, I would open up my Bible, and, instead of trying to pull apart the theological pieces of Philippians or examining it for sound bite commands to share the gospel and comfort the hurting, I began to read the words like a story. I found that the story ended up saying a lot more than just the bits and pieces by themselves.

When I read the story of Jesus, I found that Jesus was much more than an incarnation or a crucifixion followed by a resurrection. His words suddenly sounded more real when I realized he was talking with other characters in the stories. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” takes on an entirely different sense when a few pages later Jesus heals a leper or feeds five thousand hungry people. Jesus wasn’t just a source of salvation and good advice. Instead, he was describing a way of life, a way of following, a way of discipleship.

This is my favorite part of my story. This is where faith move from my head to my gut to my feet. In the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus announces the good news that God’s kingdom is on its way, the first thing he says is “Follow me.” Following is something that it takes skin and feet to do. I cannot follow with just my intellect or just my feelings; I follow with me feet.

And following is something Jesus asks us to do together. In Mark, Jesus does not approach individuals one by one and confront them each with his offer. No, Jesus is walking alongside the lakeshore, and he calls out to Andrew and Simon, “Come along after me,” and then he does says the same thing a little further on to James and John who are sitting in their boat. We follow.

Cindy and I got married the summer before our final year in college (literature is great stuff). We followed Jesus into experiments in community, into deeper friendships and more honest conversations. We followed Jesus to Macedonia, where we saw how unemployment and racism can make it difficult for people to follow Jesus. We followed Jesus to grad school in Chicago. We followed Jesus into Living Water Community Church one Sunday morning a few weeks after moving back to the States in August 2006.

LWCC has been the place more than anywhere else where I have learned what following Jesus looks like. Whether while eating food together or moving one another from apartment to apartment or singing together on Sunday morning, I have witnessed the Jesus way being lived out and have heard the Jesus story over and over again. My picture of where Jesus leads is constantly drawn more clearly and set even more starkly in the real world as I watch each of you follow him. I am excited to continue following Jesus with you.

I started coming to LWCC three years ago; maybe you wonder why I haven’t joined before this point. Here I need to confess sin on my part and ask your forgiveness. You see, faith for me has grown slowly from a collection of facts in my head through my heart to a daily practice of trying to live like Jesus. But I’m still in process, still being converted.

Early on, I had a hard time making LWCC fit with some of the ways I though faith should work--it wouldn’t fit the categories in my head. In the churches I grew up in, nothing was more important than doctrine. Every week at Living Water I saw the gospel coming alive in front of me--whether in the meetinghouse or when I saw folks in the neighborhood, but I continued to hold the community at arms length while I clung to my theological perfectionism. Even as my hardheadedness began to soften, I pridefully told myself that I’d made a decision and I needed to stick to it (what would Cindy think, after all, if I changed my mind!).

Thank God that he did change me--mind, heart, and feet. Around the time that I left to take a church job in the suburbs, I realized that I had everything backwards. We don’t follow Jesus on the basis of some theological geometry. No, Jesus leads us into conversation, into life together, into honestly working through our disagreements. When things fell apart in the suburbs, I was excited to come back to LWCC and set things right.

I commit myself to you and your ways. I commit myself to following Jesus with you, to talking for long hours over potluck food or a good cup of coffee about how we can each be following Jesus more faithfully. I commit myself to learning to walk as you walk, to love as you love, to pray as you pray.

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