Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking to the students at Lipscomb University, here in Nashville, for a convocation series called “Stories of Lived Discipleship”. You’ll notice right off the bat that the introduction was inspired in part by a discussion here in the Room from last week. Here’s the manuscript, for your reading pleasure (or displeasure).
The Old and the New
I got in trouble for using a dirty word when I was in the third grade.
I remember being in homeroom, sitting at my desk but still managing to be in a huddle of boys talking about the things that are of utmost importance to third-graders. We talked about things that we boys had in common, things that were assumed to be true, so our conversation was not as much an exchange of ideas as it was a passionate, pretentious blab session of stating (what was to us) the obvious.
It was plain to such a discerning group of young men that girls, for example, were an abomination. Girls were to be avoided at all costs, partly because they failed to see the sublime glory, the near unbelievable and existential beauty of a big-rig Mack truck. I filled my notebook with pictures of these trucks, these sleek works of diesel craftsmanship. If evidence were needed to convict third-grade girls of being uncultured and deeply, deeply broken, one must only point to Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, and note the dull, unresponsive reaction on a girl’s face. To a third-grade boy, however, it was almost unbearably awesome that a big-rig semi (a red one, no less) was conceived that actually transformed into a robot (a cool looking robot, no less) with laser cannons. I might need to take a brief intermission.
I know you’d like me to go on and on about Optimus Prime, but I won’t. The thing we were talking about in the huddle that day, the dirty word that got me into trouble, was Hell. I said Hell in the third grade. The other kids gasped. I’m not exaggerating. And this wasn’t some private Christian school where the moms all wore denim dresses and bonnets. This was a run-of-the-mill Florida public school, where the rebellious kids bandied about all manner of bad words.
A kid leapt from his desk, broke away from our huddle, and ran to tell Mrs. Something-or-other about my transgression. There may have been a parent-teacher conference, and there may have been a public flogging; I can’t remember. I can’t remember anything after that last four-letter-word popped from between my lips and whizzed around the room like an unstoppered balloon.
So after that elaborate setup, here was the subject of the conversation in which my potty mouth flushed, so to speak: Theology.
We were talking about church. After the chorus of praises for Optimus Prime’s awesomeness died down, somehow we segued to talking about church, and sin, and…Hell. I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday. I told them this: If you’re good, you go to Heaven. If you’re bad, you go to (GASP!) Heeeeeelllll. And the word echoed off the walls of Mrs. Something-or-other’s yarny, cray papery, primary colory, alphabetty classroom. That was the Gospel as I understood it, as it was implicitly taught to me by my church, my family, my Sunday School teachers. That is the Gospel as most people today understand it. Bad boys go to Hell, good boys go to Heaven.
Fast forward about two years. I was nine years old. One Sunday morning at church, on the index card in the back of the pew, I checked the box next to the sentence, “I’m not a visitor but I would like to be baptized.” I knew that baptism was Something I was Supposed to Do. I knew that I had sinned, was a sinner, and that that I needed what to my young mind was a free pass out of Hell. I didn’t cry. I didn’t even pray about it. At that age I only really prayed that I wouldn’t get caught when I was up to no good. I just checked the box and dropped the card in the offering plate when it went by. My dad noticed it (my dad was the preacher, and still preaches today), called me into his office later that week to talk to me about it. He asked me, “When you do something wrong, what do you feel inside?” I thought about it for a minute, trying to think of the Right Answer. I thought back to how I felt earlier that day when I had done something rotten to my little sisters and said, “Guilty.”
This was partly true. I usually felt a thrill when I did something wrong, usually a twisted sort of glee, but I had to admit that somewhere in the mix, there it was: Guilt. My dad nodded and said, “Okay. You’re ready.” So that next Sunday during church I sat on my knuckles, tried to keep my back straight, bounced my knees with the toes of my feet firmly attached to the floor so as to keep my fidgeting silent. Then it came. The Invitation. Right on cue, when my dad said, “If anyone here would like to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior…,” the organist glided to her place and played a somber hymn. When everyone stood to sing, I walked down the center aisle and stood next to my dad. I remember the way his belly brushed up against my shoulder, his hand on my neck, as we sang the fourth verse of the hymn just in case someone else, moved by my penitence, had checked the box and would be joining me.
While I cried for some reason I couldn’t figure, my dad had me repeat the Good Confession: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord and My Savior.” Then I went upstairs and changed into a white robe, descended the steps into the lukewarm baptistery water, and partook of the ancient sacrament of baptism. When I came up out of the water, I remember trying to sense, to really sense the Gift of the Holy Spirit, but nothing really felt any different. I did feel happy. Though my short life so far had been one of vast disobedience, yet I had obeyed in at least this thing. Later I stood at the church doors beside my dad, wearing my normal clothes again, my hair still wet, and shook hands with everyone who walked by. I was a Christian. A follower of Christ. A disciple.
Fast forward two days. Word got around that a kid at school had torn a page out of his dad’s Playboy magazine and was passing it around between classes. I relished the thought of seeing it. And later, when I finally had my turn to look, I relished the image on the wrinkled, glossy magazine paper. I carried that image around in my third-grade heart, right next to where the Holy Spirit, I assumed, resided. Christ hated me, I figured. He had cleaned up the neighborhood and moved in, just me and Jesus and the manicured lawns of my temple-of-the-Holy-Spirit heart, and for two whole days things were great. With one good, long, wide-eyed look at that piece of paper, some trashy people moved in to my heart and the whole place went south. At night, in my bed, wrapped up in my Empire Strikes Back sheets, I laid there coming to terms with the fact that I was going to go to Hell after all. I was doomed. The Holy Spirit, in my young boy’s imagination, was nothing more than a weak old man in his pajamas, standing in his tiny front lawn waving a rolled-up newspaper around and cursing the hoodlums that were populating and multiplying in the temple area at an alarming rate.
For the next ten years of my life my sense of obedience to God, my belief in God, and my desire for God fought a losing battle with my hormones, my rebellion, my spiteful tongue, my greed. I would’ve told you that I was a Christian. I would’ve told you that I was a disciple of Christ. But ten minutes later I would be lustful or angry or deceitful, and I would’ve seen no problem with that. It was fun, and besides, Christ hated me anyway. And I figured that if he didn’t hate me, he probably should. Either way, he wasn’t someone I wanted to think about, or to be near, or to obey.
I wanted to taste of the forbidden fruit in a way that would have shocked Eve herself. (I’m not saying that I did, but that I wanted to. This isn’t a bragging session but a confession.) My sin was not a slip of the tongue, or a lapse in judgment. Mine was a calculated, passionate, boisterous rebellion of the heart. My hypocrisy drove my sense of righteousness in one direction and my sense of wild, unadulterated selfishness in another so that they diverged in a wood like two roads. Instead of turning right or left, I chose the barren rot of the wasteland between. I went to church and smiled at the sweet old people. I told funny stories at family dinner. I was like a caricature of Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver, all smiles for Mrs. Cleaver but up to no good whatsoever. It occurs to me that I was less than a caricature. I was a phantom, or was becoming more like one every time I said “Hallelujah!” with my mouth but in my heart growled “Give me something or someone I can use.” A phantom floating through the halls of my high school without a care in the world but for myself and my vile devices.
I don’t picture the Holy Spirit in my life at this time as that angry old man. I see him now as Aslan, bound to the Stone Table of my heart. Anything to keep him quiet and out of my way. The carousing, wicked, mocking beasts I put there are gathered around him, shaving his mane, heckling and spitting. But if you look into his sad eyes you can see the fountain of strength that waits for its moment to burst forth and cleanse the temple. I see the Holy Spirit as a formidable, shining Being laid low not because anyone bent his back but because he is stooping to level the gray city that spread in my heart like mould. He is descending into the fray to rescue what is left of his lost servant, his missing sheep, his prodigal son. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross.
And suddenly, the light breaks through.
I was sitting at a piano in an empty church building. I had sensed for a while the spring returning, the rivers thawing. The snow that covered the wide fields of my heart began to melt and water the seeds so long frozen. A change was coming. I sensed the change coming, and I ached for it as if my life depended on it. And it did.
It was a Rich Mullins song. “If I Stand.” Then a few months later, “Sometimes By Step.”
Sometimes I think of Abraham,
How one star he saw had been lit for me
He was a stranger in this land
And I am that, no less than he
And on this road to righteousness
Sometimes the climb can be so steep
I may falter in my steps
But never beyond your reach
Oh God, you are my God
And I will ever praise you
I will seek you in the morning
And I will learn to walk in your ways
And step by step you lead me
And I will follow you all of my days
That song became my most earnest prayer. I remember playing the piano for a band that sang it at a youth conference fifteen years ago, and that night I walked another aisle, even though I was supposedly a sponsor with the youth group. It seems a little hokey to me now, but that night in East Tennessee I committed my life to service to God and his Kingdom. I had finally come to the end of my strength and could run from him no more. I laid my life down, and said, like the horse to Aslan in the C.S. Lewis story, “I’d rather be eaten by you than be fed by anyone else.” He stooped into the fray and lifted my weary body out. He was Hosea, and I was Gomer. He was David, and I was Mephibosheth. He was Aslan and I was Edmund. Like Peter, I confessed his name, then like Peter I denied him again and again and again. Like Peter, I wept bitter tears. And like Peter, I am forgiven.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and here I stand.
I look at that summer as the time I finally learned to love the person of Jesus, not the idea of him. I think of that as the beginning of my discipleship. Everything up to then was the Old Testament, when things seemed darker, savage and archaic. I was so many of those characters—Eve gobbling up the forbidden fruit, Noah drunk in his birthday suit, Abraham lying to save his own skin, David letting his lust have its way, and the people of Israel and Judah over and over again, loving God then chasing after their idols, then repenting of everything but those mysterious, persistent high places. In my Old Testament days I was plagued by God’s holy Law, in constant fear of him even though he said over and over again that his faithfulness was great, his loving-kindness everlasting.
I really thought that I had to learn to be a good little boy or I would be cast into the outer darkness where I would forever wail and grind my teeth together from the unbearable pain, fear, and rage. I feel chills describing that even now.
But then, he comes. Jesus appears when all seems lost. He suffers, dies, and rises again, then he sets into motion his Church, his Kingdom. A New Testament. Suddenly my baptism makes perfect sense. Suddenly my church camp dedications and re-dedications become a part of this greater story. Christ in his mercy reaches back that far and redeems it, claims it for his own.
People ask me when I became a Christian. I never know quite how to answer that question, which I realize would make my Bible college professors a little annoyed. I was born into a Christian family, was surrounded by and assaulted by the Word of God at every turn. One day I checked a box because I knew I was supposed to, then the next thing I knew I was sopping wet and shaking hands in a receiving line. I sinned, repented, sinned, repented, sinned, repented and sinned some more for ten long years.
Then one day, out of the blue, the Lion roared. I didn’t hear it as that at the time. At the time it was a thousand small graces strewn across my path: a surprising urge to read my Bible one morning; a sudden appreciation of my parents’ steady faith; the catch of my breath at the way light rests on the hill; then one night at the piano I heard coming out of the boom box speakers the broken voice of a broken poet, singing about the unwavering love of God.
I could go on and on about my life with Jesus over the past fifteen years, which is when my discipleship really began, starting with that summer when in my heart Jesus turned over the tables and drove out the moneylenders. The cleansing of the temple. I have found that I still sin, though I know you must find that hard to believe. I still sometimes clench my jaw and drive my fist into the steering wheel, angry at the persistence of certain sins in my life. “Who will save me from this body of death? But thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
The Great Comforter reminds me in a deep, gentle voice that the law has been fulfilled. The temple is clean. He reminds me that I’m not carrying around just the Law and the Prophets, but a New Testament, a promise that hope is not futile, forgiveness is real, that the grace of God banishes my shame and makes the geography of my heart spacious and pristine and inhabited by the very Spirit of God himself.
Discipleship is a long walk with the Light of the World blazing inside you. He may lead you to periods of deep rest, he may lead you into frightening places, but he will always lead you to what is best for you, all so that he may bring you closer to himself. He invites you deeper into his heart, just far enough so that you aren’t burned to a crisp by the holy fire, then he helps you grow that much more into who you’re meant to be. Again, he pulls you deeper in, and again you feel like you might just die. And you realize that you have become that much more like him, and you are grateful, astounded by his mercy. You find that what you once thought was killing you is giving you life.
It is transforming you.
And that word, “transform”, in the weirdest, cheesiest way, brings me back to Optimus Prime. I didn’t mean for that to happen.
But Optimus Prime brings me back to that conversation I was having with my third-grade buddies about how scary Hell must be. And that makes me think of how downright ornery I was in high school, which makes me think with great relief about the way the Great Story of the death and resurrection of Christ sank into my very bones. And that makes me think of how dear a friend Jesus is to me now, how tender and steadfast, how gently he abides and assures me that I am his, how he takes away my many fears. And that makes me think of this verse:
“…those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.