Spirituality

What I Believe And Why

I believe in our freedom of choice, meaning, I love and respect everyone’s right to believe or not believe whatever we want, to worship our sense of God or spirit, or not, in the lawful way of our choice. For that reason alone, though there are many, I love the United States, our Constitution and our freedom of religion (not freedom from religion mind you… but that’s a whole other subject). If you’ve read this far I’m assuming that you genuinely, open-mindedly want to know what I believe, so I’m going to share it.

Also, as you read this I suggest opening yourself to revelation from something beyond the realm of the empirical, whatever that might mean. It is my experience that God loves a good challenge.

My Story…

I have always believed in God but grew up hating going to church (I was raised United Methodist, which is a fine church, but I preferred sleeping in). I have also always felt in some way that there is a reason I am here, that there’s a purpose for my life. That point was made clear to me when I was 15 years old and on the first day of a three day bicycle trip with my best friend, Toby. We were both hit by a car going 60MPH. Toby literally died in my arms, while I was thrown clear with only minor injuries. Later that day the state trooper, knowing the details of the crash, said to me “Son, there is no reason you should be alive.” Paradoxically, to me that meant just the opposite.

About five years later I took a semester off of college and worked for Fairfax Lumber and Millwork in Springfield, VA, making windows and driving a forklift. Two of the guys I worked with were serious “born agains.” One, Keith Ratcliff, was an ordained minister and he and I would debate the great questions of Christianity to no end: creation vs evolution, abortion, Jesus the prophet vs Jesus the Savior, premarital sex, homosexuality, everything. We ended up debating to a draw but one thing always stuck with me: Once I understood his point, I knew how he could beat my argument had he simply chosen the right words. In the interest of winning I dared not tell him how, but in the spirit of intellectual honesty, I never forgot that his was the stronger side, the winning argument.

One day during our break Keith got to preaching about the greatness of God versus man, and he was so convincing I actually got scared – something got to me. I feared God might just take me right there on the drive home (silly, God doesn’t work that way, I know… but that’s what I was feeling). So I prayed a prayer that let me off the hook. I said, “God, if any of this stuff is real I’m obviously not ready to accept it… take me to where I can believe it (or refute it and move on).” That let me off the hook and I drove home just fine. I wouldn’t remember that prayer again for more than five years.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do…

Four years later, during my last year of college, I was deeply in the process of breaking up with the only girl I’d ever been serious about. We’d been together for 1 1/2 years. Without getting too specific, one night some things happened which sent me into an emotional tailspin. I was lost, I was distraught, and there was no way out, no changing the things that had happened. Needless to say, though I desperately needed to, I could not sleep.

Just before sunrise, about to explode emotionally and still needing sleep, I remembered people saying “Give your problems to God, let him hold them.” This had seemed intellectually like a nice idea but I never thought of it as a real, tangible, immediate resource. When you’re desperate you’ll try anything, right? So I prayed to God (just God in general, no specific religion), saying that I couldn’t handle this and I asked him to hold it for me so I could sleep. Oddly enough it worked… and I got six hours of sleep and though it’s hard to explain exactly why, I sensed deep inside, undoubtedly, unshakably, this really was God’s doing. It made a surprisingly strong impression on me and I decided to meet with the only “cool” pastor I had known, a guy named Ed Rawls. Ed is an honest, down-to-earth, jovial man who grew up the childhood buddy of Sam Kinison… so he even knew comedy and we had something in common.

Selling Jesus…

I told Ed what had happened and that what I had experienced was real. However, I also told him about my reservations… how I see all these totally bogus, greedy, self-righteous preachers on TV selling Jesus like a used car and I couldn’t buy into any of that. He heard me, even agreed with me and understood. He had a positive response about it which I’ll share if you email me. He gave me a few things to read and a lot of spiritual food for thought. Ed was very encouraging, didn’t preach at me, and I came away liking him that much more.

A few months later, Valentines day, 1986, much closer to our relationship being over, this girlfriend and I got together and saw the movie “The Color Purple.” Afterward we talked in her car and not only did she explain that she had begun seeing someone that “I just really need right now”- what a girlfriend line- she also told me that I was totally screwing up politically at this ski lodge where I played and she worked. She talked about how everyone was down on me and thought I was being a jerk. It may not seem like much here, but she basically cut everything I depended on in life right out from under me. I had nothing, no where to turn, no friends, no her… nothing. I have never felt so lost. For the first time ever, after she finished telling me something critical, though I’m usually not short on words, defenses and explanations, I had no reply. I sat there silently, stoic. From this I later learned that she knew something was wrong with me. I had nothing, and said nothing. I left.

Suic… (I can hardly type the word)

The drive back to my one-room apartment was about twenty minutes on a winding Shenandoah Valley road and in that horrible time I cried, I screamed, I have never hurt so badly. Then, like an angel of light, I saw a way out (though it frightens me now to even remember this). I considered and planned my suicide. I knew exactly how to do it, too… A shotgun. Leave nothing to chance.

By the end of the drive I was cried out and hoarse and while I had mostly talked myself out of suicide, I had no idea what to do. I had so much crap… intensity, pain, frustration and utter rage built up inside of me that instead of going inside and doing something really bad, I got out of my truck and just began running. It was 2AM on a brittle, clear, February night. I ran down my hill and up the next hill and stood in the middle of the road. It was then, truly at my wits’ end, that I prayed. I had nothing to lose. I said, “God or Jesus or whoever, if you’re real and ‘all this stuff’ (meaning Christianity and the bible) is real, that’s it… I’m here, come into my heart. I give up, I’m open to it. I’m broken, I have no where to turn, and if you’re real, I invite you in. Show me and I’ll live and believe in you 100%, I’m all in if you’ll show me.” It was such a real prayer, I meant it so seriously that I actually wondered if I would hear thunder or a voice or if a bush would start burning. Silly, but I didn’t know.

Nothing happened. Not a thing. So I walked back to my apartment. Cold, emotionally numb and having dismissed the idea of suicide I just went inside. My girlfriend called briefly and later I found out that she was calling to make sure I hadn’t killed myself. She knew how bad I was. Sooner or later I fell asleep.

Unfathomable…

The next morning I got up, showered, got dressed, and began driving to school. For the first time that morning I began remembering and considering all that had happened between this nearly ex-girlfriend and me. But something in me felt strange, or missing. Though nothing had physically changed, something was emotionally different. All the problems were still there and painfully real, but they, I don’t know, they seemed not to matter as much or in the same way. They almost didn’t matter at all, which got me really wondering. Thinking more about it I realized, “Wow, I actually feel good… well, not exactly good, more like… peace.” That was it, I felt a strange and unfathomable sense of peace. A peace I had never known, unbelievable peace, even in my storm of problems and pain. So I began testing it… I thought about all the things that ever bothered me, about dying, about anything bad; and while the problems were all still there, I still had this wonderful feeling of peace I really can’t describe. It was just wonderful and weird. Not a giddy, passing feeling of release, something profound and extra-worldly. It was like no matter what was wrong, in the long run it was alright, it was taken care of.

Uh oh…

Then… only THEN, did I remember the later part of that night… my drive, my nearly really bad decision, my run up the hill and… oh yeah, that prayer. And it hit me… I believe my first words as a Christ Follower were, “Oh shit, it worked!” (I had a mouth back then). I then remembered the last sermon I had heard Ed Rawls deliver where he talked about Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus appeared many times to the disciples, to over 500 different pagans and believers alike and one thing he said to them over and over again was, “Peace be to you. Peace be to you.” Not peace on earth, but God’s peace. That was it. I knew without the shadow of a doubt that was exactly what I now had.

Nothing about this experience or the knowing, understanding and life-change that came with it is even remotely provable in a laboratory. It is certainly not “reasonable.” Nor should it be, as I understand now, because that would preclude one of the most powerful forces on this planet: Faith. It is something that was shown and proven to me, personally, in my heart. Like it or not it was irrefutable. Over time it has proven itself again and again in countless and different ways. It really is the experience of a rebirth – re-birth of the spirit.

It comes around…

A while later, remembering years back to my prayer on that drive home from the millwork place – you know when I told God I wasn’t ready to accept any of this and asked him to take me to where I could? – I can now see step by step over the following four years, all the different events that happened to bring me to that place, the heart and mindset where I could accept Christ. Being a hardhead that meant ultimately me being on my knees. Many of the things that happened were not “good” but they worked together for an ultimate good in my life. I certainly realized none of it as they were happening. It is only in hindsight that I can see the significance and connection of these events separated by months and years.

I believe…

So, I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and in the Bible as the word of God, not because it makes sense to believe it – though I think it does – but because God reached through my pain into my heart and showed me; he redeemed me. He put a beautiful stranglehold on my heart that I cannot deny. Believe me, I am so tempted by and often guilty of so many different sins, most of which the world accepts as normal life practices, that if there were any way at all I could reason this away, if I could justify non-belief, or “a la carte” belief (meaning selective belief in just that which suits us), trust me, I would do it. I’m not that strong. However I tell you with all my heart, I cannot, with any intellectual, spiritual, or personal honesty, deny it. God has made that perfectly clear to me. He is real.

I am saddened to watch most TV preachers butcher and alter the bible for their own pocketbooks, and some of them are certifiable heretics. I am saddened further to see these misguided, sometimes evil goofballs running around with “God Hates Fags” signs and the like. Nothing could be further from God’s heart. Those people are voicing their own bigotry and anger, certainly not God’s love. How many souls are they saving like that? And how many are they driving farther away? I’ll tell you this definitively: God loves and delights in you, me, every one of us without exception. That’s a fact. There’s nothing you’ve done, and nothing you can do to make God love you less, or more.

So friends, I’ve never shared any of that in public, but I am now. That is my conversion experience. It is all true.

A Case For Christ…

Here’s something to consider. All of Christianity hinges completely on the person of Jesus. So, who is or was he? There are only four possibilities as to who Jesus was or is. He was either…

  1. A myth– like Zeus and other Greek Gods- conjured up by the writers of the Bible
  2. A prophet– like Mohammed or John the Baptist- a wise teacher, foreteller of the future concerning the divine.
  3. A megalomaniac– a crazy, self-obsessed lunatic; a psychotic, lying or delusional nutcase.
  4. God – exactly who he said he was. The Way, the Truth and the Life.

We can eliminate two of these…

  1. A myth. Jesus is definitely not a myth or a fictional character. In addition to the plentiful biblical references there are many non-Christian, Hebrew and Pagan accounts of him, so a guy named Jesus definitely did live in the Roman-occupied Israel.
  2. A prophet and great teacher. This is the most popular non-Christian belief about Jesus shared not only by many people but by some entire religions, such as Islam. OK, there is no way Jesus was a prophet or just “a good teacher.” A prophet is a soothsayer, an oracle, a person who is somehow chosen as a messenger with some kind of divine revelation, foretelling the future, often as it relates to something Godly. A prophet is not the divinity that he or she is revealing, just the messenger. This does not work because Jesus literally, over and over, and in no uncertain terms claimed to be God: “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” “The Messiah you seek, I am he.” So he could not have been a prophet. Think about it… how often do we hear someone claim to be God, or Jesus or the Savior, and then we say, “Well he’s a prophet and a great teacher with some great ideas… oh yeah, except for that part about claiming to be God?” No. If someone claims to be God anything else they ever say is suspect, as well it should be.

Jesus Is…

That leaves two choices: Jesus was either a meglomaniacal liar/delusional nutcase; or he is exactly who he said he is- God, the Saviour. In this there is no middle ground.

So, what does this mean? Absolutely everything. All the future of the world, all your future and mine, ultimately rests on each of our respective decisions as to whom we believe Jesus is or was. What do you think? Is he God or was he a liar/lunatic? Like it or not, those are the only choices. I invite you right now to simply take that question to God in prayer. “God, are you real? Are you who you said you are? If so show me, I’m listening.” Something like that. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

While there is plenty of evidence one can lump on the side of Jesus’ being God there doesn’t seem to be a “smoking gun.” There is far less evidence, though, of his being a megalomaniac; but this is where the intellectual and empirical side stops and prayer and openness of the heart to revelation from beyond begins. No honest seeker of the truth is turned away by God and I totally believe that if you – you who are reading this right now with whatever is happening in your life and whatever you currently believe – if you ask, you’ll receive an answer as to whether Jesus was a nutcase or is God. One of the greatest promises of the bible is the simple yet profound, “Seek and you will find.”

Christ Follower…

Though I have no personal problem with referring to myself as a Christian, I do have a cultural problem with it. That is, by both it’s own hand and by some discriminations of the world, Christianity has a stigma, a bad reputation. If you ask people what comes to mind when they think of the word “Christian” the top three answers are anti-gay, anti-abortion, and judgmental. How’s that for a brand? Christians are known more for what they’re against than what they’re for! That sucks, and it’s certainly not indicative of the real Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t go around condemning anyone, he went around loving people, all people, often the most judged and outcast in society. But honestly, as Christians we’ve screwed that up, and I don’t think God is particularly pleased about it. I believe our job – our charge as followers of Christ – is to share the good news about God, and to love the world by serving it. It’s interesting that very few people have a problem with the message of Jesus. It’s all the baggage attached and the wrongful application of supposed followers that causes the problems.

Therefore, I choose to call myself a Christ Follower. The spiritual reality is no different, just the name and hopefully it carries less of the stigma. Hopefully, by truly and palpably loving and serving the world, we can begin to change that stigma.

The Difference…

I hear many people lump all major religions into one category saying there is no real difference, for better or worse. I beg to differ. There is a fundamental, foundational difference in Christianity and all other religions. It’s called grace. Every faith in one way or another requires good works in order to “get to heaven” or achieve nirvana, or become enlightened… it’s something you do, to gain favor with God, and hopefully enough favor to be redeemed, get to heaven, whatever. That’s religion.

Christianity is the only faith that says the exact opposite. Christianity says there is no way we can ever be “good enough” for God or “earn” our salvation. We can never do or achieve enough on our own. However, because of God’s incredible love for us, we don’t have to. He sent Jesus to do the work that we couldn’t, and that salvation is free, simply for accepting God’s amazing gift. That’s all. That’s relationship.

Now, once we receive God’s gift of salvation, it’s not that we go on as before. To the contrary we do, indeed put our faith to work, and God very clearly asks us to do that. But the entire motivation is flipped on it’s end. Because of this grace, unlike every other faith, we don’t do God’s work to get into heaven. Instead, we’ve already been given heaven and therefore, we want to do God’s work. We don’t do it out of fear of God’s wrath, we do it out of joy and thankfulness for God’s love and grace. When you’re given the greatest gift of all, yet you deserve no gift at all, how can you not want to show your thankfulness in every way possible? But again, the motivation is the exact opposite of all other major faiths or religions.

The Enemy…

This may sound strange to you, but Christianity is most definitely not a religion, though many have tried to make it that. At it’s core and in it’s entirety, Christianity is a relationship… between you and your creator, through Christ. It is dynamic and interactive. But it is not religious. In fact, any reading of the gospels will show that the only people on the face of this earth for whom Jesus ever had contempt were the hierarchical, hypocritical religious leaders of the time. And he even reached out to them.

You see, Jesus’ message that we each have a direct line to him, to God, through prayer, and that no one need intercede on our behalf; and that ritualistic, legalistic rule-following is not what God wants, did not sit well at all with the religious leaders and big-wigs of his time. It threatened their power and position… so much so that they killed him for it. You see, God cares about who we are on the inside… it’s that thing Dr. Martin Luther King said about “the content of our character.” God knows that if we allow him to change us on the inside – an ongoing, lifelong process – the outside actions will change, but for the right reasons. Religion is about what we do and outward appearances. Christ is about who we are on the inside. Religion is and always has been Jesus enemy.

It is not because of Christ I don’t sin – we all sin; it is because I sin that I need Christ. Yes, there are still many things about my faith that I don’t understand. I have problems I can’t yet rise above. I have huge life questions for which I do not have answers. But I do know, as I said in the beginning, God has a place for me, a plan for me, and there is a reason I’m here. Perhaps one reason is to present Jesus in a way that you don’t hear from TV preachers asking for money… that’s what I’ve tried to do here. Rather than tell you what to believe (in which case you should run, not walk, as fast away from me as possible) I’ll just share what happened to me, what I believe and why, and let you and God work out the rest. But rest assured, God does indeed want you, God loves you and literally delights in you, and God longs for the opportunity to reveal himself to you.

Finally…

Of the many faiths, religions, and spiritual paths out there Christianity is at least one of them. So, I say take it to task (in a positive way). Pray that prayer I mentioned in the beginning. Here’s how I first learned the prayer. “God, if you can hear me and I don’t know that you can, and if you are real and I don’t know that you are, I am an honest seeker of the truth. Come into my heart and show me that you are the truth and I will believe and follow you.” Or in other words, “Ok God, prove it!” Then try reading in the gospels (Mark is a good place to start, but so are Matthew Luke and John).

I only have one caution. This is an all or nothing deal. You can’t pray that prayer and say, “If you show me, I’ll think real hard about it.” Or, “If you show me I’ll try going to church.” It’s putting your soul on the line. It’s the definitive spiritual leap of faith. And it’s SOOOO worth it.

If you have any questions please email me at mike(at)mikerayburn.com.

Blessings,
Mike