I grew up in a very agnostic home although I’m not sure we would have called it that. If asked, we were christian, but not the every-sunday kind of christian or even the easter/christmas kind of christian. We were the your-aunt-is-singing-in-a-christmas-special-at-her-church-and-you-have-to-go kind of christians. In our home, the closest thing we had to a religious experience was our weekly mass around the TV Thursday nights for Survivor and Friday nights for Boy Meets World. To us, we seemed to fair pretty well without God.
I said we were agnostic, but really we were just ignorant. We had no knowledge of God. The closest encounter with religion my mom had was when she attended a catholic intermediate school. That was, before a priest blamed my grandmother for the death of my grandfather, and my grandmother gave up her faith entirely. My real father was mostly out of the picture and seemed to be fairly unreligious and my step-dad seemed to been burned by religious people at some point. Religion, and christianity in particular, seemed to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. I didn’t care. I didn’t know any different.
As a kid, I remember asking my mom where God came from. She told me in the purest conscience, “That’s easy. God’s mother.” As sweet and innocent as she was, she had no idea that she was committing a logical fallacy called infinite regression, where her explanation was just as much in need of an explanation. But, that was my environment. We felt fine on our own, we were satisfied with our own answers and we were generally uninterested in losing an hour on Sundays to listen to a southern pastor talk about life lessons we already knew.
After all, religion was for people who needed it. It was great to hear about how drug dealers and murderers turned their lives around after putting their faith in Christ, but we were good people. We didn’t need something like that. Plus, religious people were kind of weird and would do things we considered to be unnecessary. Like, selling all that they owned to live in some third-world country and praying for people at the most inopportune times – and in public. It all seemed very extreme.
When I entered high school, I expected it to be like American Pie (which, by that point, I had probably watched a thousand times). I was going to have what I considered to be the normal american high school experience that included kissing girls, drinking flat beer, buying a fast car, listening to loud music (preferably the kind my parents hated) and hanging out with my friends. What I didn’t realize was that I would meet Jesus at a hip-hop concert and my world would be completely changed.
Before I get to that, I need to give a little more background. I love hip-hop. I’ve always rapped. When I was in 6th grade I bought my first Tribe Called Quest tape from a Goodwill and I heard Eminem on the radio for the first time. After that, I was hooked. I wrote my own songs on top of other artists beats and secretly recorded in my closet after my parents fell asleep on weekends. I even had this horrible rap name that no one could pronounce. MCPeZZYD. But, as a freshman in high school, I didn’t shy away from sharing my crappy music with my friends and posting it on myspace.
I met Michael in my freshman IPC class. While I was into hip-hop, he was into sucky alternative rock bands and was also in a band that had a funny name. Rin Fletcher. We were friends and we bonded over a lot of things, but we always had a weird competition with each other. If I wrote a song, he wrote two. If I recorded a demo, he recorded a studio track. If I promoted my music in any form, he put on a concert. If I wore blue, he wore red. That kind of thing.
Looking back, I’m not sure why he asked me to open a concert at the park for him.
It was a windy day in late march. We had set this huge sound system up under a gazebo. I was set to perform with my friend Ryan in our hip-hop group accurately named Lyrics from the Gutter. To accommodate our ambitious name, we wore bright orange jump suits. The kind they give you in prison. On the arms and legs of these outfits, we used stencils to spray paint various words like MCPeZZYD and Squeaky Clean (which was Ryan’s alter ego). Of course, we filled the negative space with symbols of dollar signs. It was cringeworthy at least.
Mind you, this was my first time to ever perform on a stage. Like I (probably) am as I speak these words in front of you today, I was shaking, nervous, and on the edge of collapse. As I stood there, frozen, barely mouthing off lyrics to some half-memorized mumbo-jumbo, I counted every second until my set was over. When it was, I was relieved, but I was also ashamed of myself. I remember thinking I would never rap again.
I walked off that stage like a beaten dog. I felt so stupid for forgetting my lyrics and wearing this ugly orange jump suit. I tried to console myself by talking with another rapper but he blew me off pretty quickly and the 15 people in the audience wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Defeated, I sat on a park bench and sulked. But, almost immediately, a guy came up to me and said, “I heard you mentioned God in some of your lyrics.”
“Yeah,” I said. “What about it?”
“Do you know who God is?”
“How do you know that?”
“I know God probably as much as you do. I think religion is something we have to decide in our own heart.”
At this point, he pulled out a small KJV from his back pocket and turned to Jeremiah 17. He read, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
“You see that?” He said. “The bible says that your heart is deceitful and wicked. You can’t trust your heart to lead you to truth, so how do you know your heart will lead you to God?”
As straightforward as he was, he had a point. But, for me, all religions basically had the same moral implications. Do good, don’t do bad. Do more good than bad. So, it didn’t really matter to me what name you called God.
“I think God is everywhere,” I said. “It doesn’t make much of a difference to me whether someone believes what you believe.”
“Can I show you something else?” He said.
He turned to John 14 and read Jesus’ words “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“Jesus said that there is only one way, one truth, and one life. No one can come to God unless they go through him. A loving God wouldn’t just put us on this earth without a way of knowing him. Jesus makes God known.”
Have you ever had one of those awkward spiritual conversations where every inch of your body just wants to run away? Every second I stood there, I felt more uncomfortable than the last. But, at the same time, I had never seen someone my age talk with such certainty about God. It was like he knew him and had this knowledge that I’ve never heard.
“Can I show you something else?”
He turned to John 15 and read Jesus’ words again. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
Bad exegesis or not, I remember he looked at me with this very serious face. He had real concern that I was hearing him right. He told me, “Because of your sin, you will be cast into the fire and burned. Because of God’s love, he sent Jesus to rescue sinners and pay their sin-debt. If you trust in Jesus today, and believe that he died for your sins and was raised from the dead, you can have eternal life.”
I left that conversation and that concert feeling kind of strange. It was a mix of shame and guilt and curiosity all at the same time. Instead of driving home, I went to my girlfriends house but, oddly enough, she was at the church across the street. I’m not sure if she knew I was there when I sat down in the back pew. All of the lights were off and her youth group was watching the Passion of the Christ. I came in just before Christ was lifted up.
All at once, I had heard the Gospel in the park and saw it in front of me from this back pew. As someone who had lived until this point with virtually no understanding of God and no interaction with his people, this night had felt like a weight had been dropped on my back. To me, it felt intentional. Almost as if God was forcing his hand and all of these factors that had always been in my life were suddenly lining up. I drove home late that night without talking to anyone. It was a weird feeling and I remember this very real weight that seemed to be in my stomach. There was even lightening in the clouds.
On March 23, 2008 at one in the morning I sat in my bedroom and told God, “if you’re real, show me yourself. I’ll believe.” That was my only prayer. I remember having no other words I could say without crying, so I kept repeating that same line. And, although that was all I could say, I had already decided in my heart that he was real and that he was after me. Through those tears, I prayed that night that Jesus would come into my life.
If you’re searching for God, you will find him. When you come to a place in your life where you recognize that you’re a sinner and you’ve been lost much longer than you’ve thought, that’s when the Gospel becomes good news. Jesus says that he came to seek and save the lost, but on the other side of that, the lost must recognize that they are lost. I was lost. At this point in my life, I understood that there was something wrong. It wasn’t even about happiness, it was something much deeper and core to the human experience. Something that was once there, but gone, and we were all trying to find a remedy for it. My quaint life that seemed to all make sense started to fall apart around me. All of the walls my family and I had created and called normal now seemed to me to be built on a borrowed foundation and lacking of any true substance. I realized that my relationship with God was broken. Any attempt on my end to fix it had only left it more broken. There was no girl, no substance, no charity and no education that could heal me. It was only the reality of the Gospel.
But, the Gospel is this: we have each, in our own way, violated what we have known to be good. Instead of pursuing justice and righteousness, we have turned aside and succumb to sin in varying degrees. In truth, we have all lived in rebellion against the standards of God. And God, who is himself the standard for righteousness and justice, cannot be just and let our crimes go unpunished.
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:4-9
Growing Up Into Maturity
God has continually answered that prayer I made when I was 16. I asked him to show me himself, and he has abundantly. Most likely, my testimony will resemble some of yours. When I came to faith, it was my like a light switch flipped on. Good or bad, everything was in black and white, christian and nonchristian. Despite the consequences it had on my popularity and friendships, my understanding of the world immediately flipped and I began reading the Scriptures as often as I could. Mike, who remains my best friend today, ended up bringing me to his youth group where I met David Boone.
David has been the single biggest influence on my life. Although we immediately connected over a love for hip-hop, I respected David more for his commitment to the Gospel and to the people around him. He is the same man today as he was then. He has been both a father and a brother to me, and the only consistent example of a selfless leader. In high school, I followed David around as much as he would let me, and I begged him to disciple me, which he did. I reflect on those many long nights of conversation saturated in Scripture with fondness.
Of course, David has not been the only person who poured in my life. I’ve been very blessed to be surrounded by many intelligent, godly men including Dustin Curlee, Jesse Gutierrez and James Bowman.
At some point, all of us must decide what we believe for ourselves. I received amazing instruction from the godly men in my life, but when I went to college I was placed in a microcosm of the world. If college is good for anything, it’s good for this: to meet and understand people with different backgrounds. I was challenged by new intelligent and godly men to think differently about God’s election, his coming and his gifts. In many ways, I had to unlearn everything I learnt from my teachers in order to decide for myself what was true.
I think a true student of the bible should hold everything but the Gospel with a loose grip. While there was a certain level of peace that came with believing the 7 points of calvinism were absolute truth, for example, it forced me to glaze over some glaring textual issues. When I look back, I realize that I often majored on the minors and let petty issues distract me from being an effective teacher and evangelist. Through this, God has taught me to trust him even if I don’t know the answers. Moreover, I’ve learned to approach issues less dogmatically and react more slowly when I hear someone with a different opinion.
When I first became a Christian, everything was very black and white. A christian was someone who fit inside my perfect definition and everyone outside was under condemnation. Really, I was a jerk-for-jesus. But, this stems from a closed ecosystem. When you realize that other christians with entirely different traditions and backgrounds are able to bring substance to the table, your demeanor changes. You go from a corrective mentality to a ecumenical one. Instead of tearing down, you learn to build.
But, God puts us in situations that force us to trust him. After I graduated, I married my sweet wife and moved back to Georgetown. That had always been my goal. Georgetown is home to me and I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else. We were fully convinced we were supposed to plant roots, lead the youth group, and raise our family here.
Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.
When I was told I could either move to Dallas or lose my job I was heartbroken. Why did you do that God? I thought this is what you wanted for me? I looked for other jobs, but nothing seemed to open up. We moved to Dallas earlier this year. It was painful for us, and especially Amy.
The problem of pain is that we can either let it swell up inside or we can trust God to take care of us. God uses pain to teach us to stop trying to control our circumstances and rely on him. While we don’t know what the Lord has planned, we do know that we’ve met some amazing people and that doors have opened for our family and our ministry that wouldn’t have been there before.
The Sun is Up
That brings me to today. I wish I could tell you that I’ve helped plant churches across the world and helped save thousands of souls. I haven’t. I have a struggling music ministry and I’m trying to help New Covenant Fellowship grow from my little apartment in Dallas. In so many areas of my life, I feel inadequate and spread thin. Most days, it’s a struggle. Very rarely do I ever see any reward or fruit from the work I’ve done. As much as I want to see more disciples in Georgetown and in Dallas I come home most days thinking about what I could have done better. But, as easy as it is to see myself as a failure, when I sit down and reflect on the cross I recognize that everything has already been given to me. The kingdom of God has been handed to me. I stand as a priest of God regardless of my worldly accolades. All of the riches that are in Christ Jesus are given to his Saints.
When I don’t see Jesus as infinitely more valuable than anything I have or do in this life, I become unsatisfied. When I view my testimony as a story about myself, it feels anti-climatic. But, my story isn’t about me. It’s about a good God who chose the lowly in this world to make him famous. It’s about the Christ who condescended down to our level to become the apex of human history and die on a tree. It’s about the death and resurrection of God.
So, even if I never successfully make another disciple or I fail at evangelism entirely, God does not judge me based on my performance. He judges based on my faithfulness. And, as for my wife and I, we will serve the Lord until we are done. And, if I appear before God on my last day with zero conversions under my belt, he will still say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
So often I discover Christians who have grown up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and they’re jealous of the testimony of their murderer, ex-drug-dealer brothers. Because they don’t have a moment in time they can point to and say, “This is when I made the decision to follow Jesus” they question their testimony altogether.
But, more important than knowing the exact moment the sun rose over the horizon, is knowing that the sun has risen. While some of us had the pleasure of seeing that exact instant when sunlight creeped over the earths surface, knowing the sun is up is what matters.
Really, we all have the same testimony. We were bought with the blood of the lamb. While our neighbor may have lived the life of a perfect sinner, it didn’t take Jesus any more effort to save him than it did you. We were all in sin. We were all deserving of eternal separation, and were by nature objects of wrath. But, whether you saw the sun rise or you see the sun shining, the sun is the focus. Christ is the object of our faith and our testimony is him. Knowing Christ today is more important than the commitment you made way-back-when.
God is Not on the Mountain Top
All of us want our mountain-top experience with God. We feel like, if we could only get away, we might be able to talk with God and maybe even hear back. But, God came down from the mountain. All that’s left up there are billy goats. If we want to experience God, we won’t find him by going away, or seeking some spiritual place outside of ourselves. God is no longer on the mountain; he is in valley walking with the people. He is in our homes and in our families. He is at our job next to that growing stack of to-do. He’s calling you to invite him to do it with you. He doesn’t just want a special space in your heart or a special time reserved for him. He wants all of it. He’s calling us to stop looking at the greener grass up the mountain, and commune with him where we are.
I’ve done everything that was expected of me in life. I got an education, bought a new car, got the corner office with the big salary, married a beautiful and intelligent woman. I can tell you that it’s not what we were made to do. If you believe that, you were sold a lie. Life is not the accumulation of stuff. We are not measured by our accolades. We were not created to buy a car to drive to work, and then work until we die. We were created to know and enjoy God forever.
If my testimony is useful for anything, I hope it would show that if we are not satisfied in Christ, we will not be satisfied at all. In the words of St. Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” May we discover that truth.