I was almost 19 years old when I first accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It happened at a summer camp for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the summer after my freshman year in college.
At the time, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. I believed there was a God who had created this world, and that this God was somehow made known to us in the person of Jesus. Beyond this I wasn’t sure what I believed. But I had been told that knowing Jesus would make my life better, both on earth and in heaven; and feeling I had nowhere else to turn, I decided to give Jesus a try.
It had been a very difficult year for me. I had made a few friends, done pretty well academically, and even kissed a girl or two; but in spite of this my depression was getting worse, and I found being a music major at Western Michigan University quite stressful.
By the end of my first year the combination of depression and anxiety was so bad that I would sometimes sleep for two or three days in a row, regardless of class or other activities I had scheduled. I was also starting to consider suicide.
When my friend Ryan invited me to come to the summer camp with him, I figured I had nothing to lose. And so it was that I “gave my life to Christ,” as evangelicals say.
I continued going to Intervarsity events for a couple years after this. It was there that I learned the basic theological framework for evangelical Protestants (God created a good world, humans fell into sin and suffering through their own free will, everyone deserved death and hell because of their sins, Jesus came and died to take the punishment we deserved, and those who believed this and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior would go to heaven when they died).
While I was disturbed by some of the implications of this theology (such as the idea that hell is everlasting or that those who never heard of Jesus would end up there, and what I saw as an over-emphasis on “getting to heaven” to the exclusion of this world), I nevertheless continued to hold this basic framework for many years. It wasn’t until after I had studied at seminary that I would begin to question the framework itself.
The year I turned 21 proved to be a major turning point in my life. It was then that I had my first sexual experience with a woman.
This was also my first out-of-body experience; it was as if I was watching myself and the girl from above. I had a strange sense of de ja vu. I remember saying to myself, “This is exactly how it happened, isn’t it?”
Sadly, this encounter didn’t lead to any sort of long-term relationship, which is what I really wanted. But I did learn something important – that there is no such thing as “casual sex.” Every sexual encounter has the potential to affect at least one of the people involved on a deep emotional and/or spiritual level. This was certainly the case for me – and I had not expected that it would be that way. It took me a while to heal from this experience.
I ended up leaving Intervarsity the same year, concluding that their narrow theology and strict morality were not a good fit for me.
I took issue with their view that gay and lesbian relationships were “unnatural” and sinful, and that certain sins (particularly those of a sexual nature) were worse than all others. I still wanted to be a Christian, but could not thrive in such a restricting environment.
I tried a number of other church groups, including the United Methodist and Roman Catholic student groups, both of which seemed a lot more open-minded than IVCF. I also began attending a local United Church of Christ congregation, and was astounded at how liberal they were, both theologically and socially.
I graduated from WMU in June of 2001, with a bachelor’s degree in English (creative writing) and a minor in music. It had been a very interesting time in my life; I made a fair number of new friends, went out with a few girls, partied a bit, and learned a lot about myself spiritually.
My depression, however, had not gotten much better; and I still hadn’t figured out what my purpose in life was.
About a year after I graduated from college, I met my first serious girlfriend. We met on a dating site for college students, a website that no longer exists.
When we met in person we seemed to get along quite easily, right from the very beginning. We really liked each other. Within a couple weeks we were dating seriously.
The truth of the matter is that we weren’t really a good match romantically; we probably got together out of loneliness as much as for any other reason.
Nevertheless, we got quite close, and ended up staying together for three years – mostly because we valued each other’s friendship, and because I couldn’t bear the thought of breaking her heart (which happened eventually anyways).
While I doubt either of us would date the other if we had it to do over again, I don’t regret this experience. I learned a lot from dating this young woman, and it helped me become the person I am today.
I was 24 years old when I first realized I was being called to a life of ministry.
At first, I tried to reject this calling. Who was I to minister to others, I thought, when I barely had my own stuff together? I was deeply aware of my own sins and flaws, and didn’t feel equipped to help others in their spiritual lives.
But the Spirit would not let me go. I became more involved in the life of my local church (St. John’s United Church of Christ in Jackson, Michigan). I started leading a Bible study class for adults and preaching sermons on occasion.
By now I realized that my degree in creative writing was not going to help me get a better job. I needed to do something different with my life, and soon. I decided to investigate seminary training, with the goal of becoming a pastor in the United Church of Christ.
In August 2004, at the age of 25, I began studies at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. What I learned and experienced there took me in a very different direction than I thought it would – and this would forever change the way I viewed God, Jesus, the Bible, and just about everything else.