Thursday, October 13, 2005

Putting an end to being Born Again, again

Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." John 3:3

For years, my friends and I have wrestled uncomfortably with the concept of being Born Again, again. You know the experience. It’s usually brought on by a small subtle doubt, a nagging question of assurance, or a creeping guilt regarding a sin of omission or commission.

Admittedly, it is easy -- far too easy -- to question the Born Again experience. The older we get, the more scripture we read or the more we listen to various Christian speakers, the more we find ourselves wondering -- Did I really do it right? Have I since fallen away? Am I truly Born Again? As a result, with very little prompting from the Spirit or otherwise, we bow our head, raise our hand or head to a church altar to offer up another prayer, hoping for more staying power this time around.

And we are Born Again, again.

Many Christians experience repeated conversions, regardless of their denomination, their age or the length of their personal journey with God. In fact, I know a 45-year-old Pastor, who has told his congregation many times of his lifelong pursuit of God, who was recently re-baptized, undoubtedly a first cousin to those repeated steps of assurance we find ourselves taking.

I have met many Born Again-again Catholics, Born Again-again Protestants, Born Again-again Baptists, Born Again-again Methodists, and Born Again-again Pentecostals. All tell heart-moving testimonies of prodigal wanderings from what they believe is that Born Again commitment to the Lord. A particular scripture delivered during an unsuspecting sermon might activate an otherwise dormant doubt. A single reference to being “lukewarm” can push many believers into gauging their spiritual temp against the admonishment of being either hot or cold. More times than not, their condition pales in comparison and we ultimately wonder if we have turned our backs, if not our hearts, away from Him.

An old high school friend recently was reflecting on her own experience of being Born Again. She was a bright and bubbly seven-year-old when she first responded to an impassioned plea for salvation at church camp. An otherwise forgettable fundamentalist Preacher implored the congregation of elementary school kids to become “Born Again,” to be a part of God’s Kingdom rather than the Kingdom of Darkness, to earn heaven and escape hell as a reward for a right decision to follow Jesus that day. According to my friend, the plea included the Preacher pounding nails with a hammer while describing an innocent, gentle Jesus Christ being hammered to a cross by mean, angry soldiers. Between the rhythmic banging with the hammer, he told the crowd of attentive children that the soldiers likely used nails similar to those he was using that day.

Thirty-three years later, my high school chum is now the mother of two daughters. Somewhat bitter about her dramatic “introduction” to Christ, she recalls how the Preacher spoke with a “sanctified” urgency of the possible Final Hour before Christ returned for a spotless church. It was, to my friend, an indelicate emotional swing at delivering very adult concepts in the most elementary way. He told her and the room full of youngsters that Jesus suffered the torture so they wouldn’t have to, that it was their disobedience that ultimately caused Jesus to die on the cross so traumatically.

Pam was among a throng of shaken elementary age children that responded to the “invitation” that day. She recalled her confusion and fear about causing Jesus to die so tragically. Away from the security of her parents for that unforgettable occasion, she was willing to do whatever the Preacher said to avoid God’s further disappointment with her. She simply wanted God to love her again and to feel “saved” from His anger and disappointment. She and maybe a hundred others bowed their heads, and repeated the words of the Preacher, hoping God would forgive them. In unison, the children asked Jesus to come into their hearts and be the Lord of their lives.

My friend, to many still an innocent and vulnerable child, was Born Again.

Not knowing the hindsight ramifications of Pam’s experience, I remember her moving testimony from high school. As one who converted to Christianity during my junior year, I had found Pam’s early experience inspirational. It had taken me the better part of 16 years to understand that God sent His Son to die for my sins. I dismissed any doubts about her conceptual understanding as my still carnal mind -- God obviously had bigger plans for Pam, likely some kind of far-reaching ministry that would impact the lives of many. No doubt, true spiritual leaders reported such early conversions as well.

As we sipped honest coffee just a few weeks ago, Pam surprised me with a confession of sorts; she had her own share of doubts about that original conversion, so much so that she found herself responding to similar invitations “maybe 20 times” throughout the years. Born Again, again, and again and again. Our other middle-aged friends sipping the same fresh ground that morning laughed nervously before sharing their own experiences with countless conversions and rededications to Christ.

So when did our prayers of repentance take? When could we be confident that God heard and responded to our heartfelt invitations for Him to be the Lord of our lives? When were we able to ignore the nudges, the doubts, the stirring messages and find assurance in knowing that we were undeniably Born Again?

Still an inspiration long after high school, Pam’s resolution to the struggle impressed me once again. Recognizing that her two bright, bubbly daughters were fast approaching the impressionable possibility of Christian conversion, she found herself grappling with her repeated Born Again-again experiences. She anxiously wondered if her young daughters were destined to navigate the same waters of repeated conversions. What would she do if suddenly she found her offspring grappling time and again with their faith?

What’s more, Pam found herself wondering about her own foundational beliefs about Christianity and the church. Growing up in a fundamental church, she had dutifully responded to the teachings of Christ in her own life. She had too often failed to be completely honest about her own misgivings, however, and her reoccurring struggles with faith. She had lived much of her life as a happily entitled citizen of God’s Kingdom, yet at times secretly wondered in her heart about her true worthiness and her still sinful condition.

Not surprisingly, the unbridled fears and uncertainty once again sprung up in her heart. The questions alone, even as a 35-year-old wife, mother and regular church attender, caused her to wonder if after all these years, she still wasn’t Born Again? Was she destined to grapple with these same issues even after a lifetime of serving Jesus Christ? Were her daughters to face the same conflict? She then determined in her heart to put an end to the nagging uncertainties once and for all.

Pam sought out a respected co-worker with whom she had frequently spoken regarding various spiritual issues. She had always appreciated his insight on various controversies associated with modern Christianity. She asked the would-be Pastor to guide her through the many questions and doubts she had long harbored regarding her own Christian experience.

They set aside an evening, free from distractions. A tentative yet eager seeker, Pam provided the factual backdrop for her lifelong struggle: raised in a Christian home, Christian parents, Christian sister, mostly Christian friends. For as far back as she could remember, she attended church every Sunday morning and every Sunday night. She was widely respected by young and old as a leader in her youth group. As expected, Pam attended a respectable Christian college and, eventually, married a successful Christian man.

Truth be told, she was unable to recall a time when when God, Jesus and/or the church was not a large part of her daily living. In fact, it was her inability to recall her first true conversion that caused much of her inward conflict.

Her emotion changed as she painfully asked her co-worker – Am I truly Born Again? She became agitated as she considered the uncertainty once again; how could she ever really know?
Pam’s co-worker proved to be a trustworthy Spiritual Guide, a knowledgeable sounding board for each and every concern. His unshakeable responses were void of any judgment or condemnation often encountered over the years when Pam pressed the same issues with others. In many ways, his reaction to her search was quite the opposite; he provided a boundless grace and freedom for Pam to question everything she had ever been taught about God, the person of Jesus Christ and the role of the Holy Spirit. He was neither dismayed nor troubled by the haunting fear of losing her salvation through a misdeed, misstep or even a misunderstanding of scripture.

His ease with the questions gave way to even more depth. She became tearful and more animated as she continued describing her countless, painful struggles as a child and, later, as an adolescent. She recalled anxiety-filled days, weeks, if not months, when the summer camp assurance began to wane, and the creeping, sinking doubts would return, once again stoking her fears that perhaps she wasn’t really saved after all. She too often wondered if God had rejected her as her affections for Him slipped from a mountaintop hot to a Biblically-forbidden lukewarm.

It was such moments that ultimately led Pam to a long line of Born Again, again experiences. Not able to dismiss her gnawing fears, she would eventually, privately or publicly, repeat an oh-so-familiar prayer of salvation, hoping that this time it would stick and she would again feel God and truly know He had saved her from her sins and her clearly deficient sinful nature.

Could a Christian truly lose her salvation because she didn't feel as excited about God as she did last summer, she asked her co-worker, now unmasking her fear? Can one really “lose” right standing with God? Where is the line one crosses when God suddenly spews you from His mouth and dooms you to an eternity in a fiery Hell? Reverting to a childlike innocence and vulnerability, she wondered aloud if perhaps she had crossed it already.

Pam’s voice rose as she became more strident in her need for clarity and once-and-for-all assurance. What if she had sinned but had not asked for forgiveness and the rapture occurred? Better yet, she challenged her patient Guide, what if she was actually sinning when Jesus returned – Would she still go to heaven?

And what of that hazily defined "unpardonable sin?” Had Pam committed the hellbound trespass by simply being angry with God? Would she go to heaven regardless of her anger? Had she "grieved the Holy Spirit" by ignoring Him?

Her self-appointed Pastor was now, too, a co-worker in Pam’s faith pursuit. He was unshaken by her honesty. Her questions were not alarming to his Biblical knowledge or personal faith. As a seasoned traveler in the search for truth, he unflinchingly shared scripture to address her fears and uncertainty. So, too, he gently and compassionately infused some of his own unshakeable faith into the heart of my old high school friend, filling in her own gaps of assurance.

When the tears and questions began to subside, the Co-worker urged Pam to set aside the lifelong battle that raged within her heart and to consider only those characteristics she knew to be true of Jesus, of God, if not the church. He suggested she instead determine, perhaps for the first time, her own definitions and beliefs associated with a faith she has spent a lifetime creating.

She found at that mustard-seed core, the One who had promised salvation to those who simply believe in Him. He would never leave her nor forsake her. She could draw near to God with a sincere heart, now more than ever, in full assurance of faith; her heart was sprinkled clean from a guilty conscience. Pam would hold unswervingly to the hope she professed, knowing He who promised is faithful.

Pam’s Guide then quietly read from a children’s book to illustrate such an authentic and honest faith in God’s only Son. He finished with a simple prayer, asking the now palpable God to forgive Pam for all her sins. The moment seemed crisp with the wonder of a childlike faith and a quieted, seasoned maturity of an enlightened adult. The lifelong struggle gave way to an indescribable peace as Pam invited Jesus Christ to come into her heart, to be the Lord of her life -- as though it were the first time -- the only time.

Pam was truly -- and finally -- Born Again.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Romance of Alcohol: One Woman's Fight to Save Her Life

I had dinner with an old friend recently and was moved by her struggles, her pain and her hope. While I have known many who drink socially, she is the first to describe the pull of the addiction, the havoc, the affair of her heart in such detail. I know she is not alone.

Like far too many others in Genesee County and across this country, her romance with alcohol began as a casual flirt, a sly wink from an attractive Stranger who promised her a bit of pleasure in a world that had become so full of pain. As a committed, Born Again Christian, she knew well the verses admonishing the soul to avoid drunkeness in favor of His Spirit. The details of her life simply became too overwhelming to maintain that focus, too unpredictable, too frightening to trust the omnipresence of One too distant to help with her growing pain. In those moments of desperation, a new Suitor promised her more.

Not that her life had ever been easy. It became even more difficult nearly 20 years ago when her six-year-old daughter slipped and told her of her last visit with her Grandfather, a troubled man who had been sexually abused himself as a young child. The resulting confrontation with her Father went nowhere and all ties were severed between the two who, truth be told, never had much familial warmth between them anyway.

Now more alone than ever, my friend Meg – not her real name - redoubled her efforts to make her already troubled marriage work, to nurture her impressionable daughter who had experienced the unthinkable, and try to salvage some kind of normalcy in the nightmare of her unraveling life.

In the long shadows of those days, Meg first glimpsed that lingering Stranger, beckoning her in the darkness. She and her husband, once called by God to preach the Gospel, soon caught the Suitor’s wink and invited him into their lives. When the kids were safely tucked into bed, they would unlock the doors to their pain and draw the Suitor even closer. They found immediate relief and comfort in his embrace.

The comfort of the casual embrace soon left them, however. More time was needed to meet the demand of the continued dalliances. With little money between them, the couple searched for other numbing alternatives, hoping for peace, for instant relief, for hope that would sustain them through the storm of layered betrayals and uncertainties in a world that had always promised them so much more.

Her husband eventually turned to other women. Meg found notes in his pockets, and billfolds, and in the words he refused to speak in the growing silence between them. Her now adolescent daughter retreated into the unknown, behind fastened doors of her room, with her music and her art, which sometimes frightened Meg as she searched her latest piece for hidden meaning.

When it was painfully clear her husband could no longer find comfort in her arms, she severed that abuse as well, setting them both adrift in the pounding waves of pain of life’s unrelenting disappointments. She was then so very alone with her daughter and son, one she feared would never recover from a tragedy that played out again and again when she simply closed her eyes, or opened her heart to trust another soul who promised never to betray her. Her youngest simply struggled to understand the sense of grief that enveloped the lives of truly everyone he loved.

Meg turned again to another Stranger to help ease the pain, the only relief she could find, this time in the form of a doctor-prescribed pill, with clear warnings Meg soon ignored in her passion for peace in her turbulent world. It wasn't long before she found herself driven by thoughts of her new Suitor and her hunger for more as she rose to greet her day and the yet unknowns that could hurt her. She could no longer bear the day without the peace and calm and quiet of her newfound Love.

Her growing dependency frightened her, and she once again turned to church as a sanctuary for her troubled soul. She begged God to draw near, to restore what the devastating months and years had ripped from her life, to provide peace, to once again provide everlasting hope. As though God answered the very cries of her heart, she met a gentle Soul who took her into his quiet life and loved her completely. The raging fears died down, drunk with love, and they married, blending lives of sons and daughters of vastly different backgrounds of devastation and plenty. Perhaps they would, they could, finally lead meaningful lives of laughter and love.

Instead, Meg’s daughter took on more extreme expressions of her trouble and pain. She announced her affections for other women, perhaps, or not, Meg’s ultimate fear from the childhood trauma. There was no escaping that it had changed all of their lives forever.

The lure of her former Suitors reappeared to Meg that day, in the midst of the all-consuming pain. They winked and smiled and tried to lure her away. And Meg accepted the offer to dance once again with alcohol. She greedily drank of its pleasure as she twirled, and turned and embraced the strength and delight of her long-lost love.

Their romance continued, at first only on occasion, when her new husband worked late, or she needed help expressing the drunk love she soon found tightly bottled up inside. The Suitor proved a reliable aide for facing life, for laughter, for making life seem so much more bearable under the weight of uncertainty. Meg had learned to trust his influence on her moods, took confidence in his deepening provision for the everydayness of her mornings, noons, and nights.

Her younger son had noticed her growing attachment to that which now stood between them. In that moment of the discovery, Meg quickly turned away, hiding her forbidden romance from his cold glare. She recognized the fear in his eyes as her own as she pleaded her case to the only judge who could ultimately condemn her to an otherwise meaningless life of pain.

“You, too, my son, would do the same if you had a Father who sexually abused your daughter, if you had a daughter who was gay, if you had a husband who cheated on you, if you married another man who refused to accept your children as his own.”

The words streamed out with her tears and her sobs as the truth of her soul poured from a defeated heart now finally, wholly broken.

“Then we should just go ahead and do it together, because I have a Grandfather who sexually abused my sister,” he mirrored with undaunted intensity. “I have a sister who is gay. I have a father who cheated on my mother. I live with a man who refuses to accept me as his own. Why not just do it together if this is truly the answer you believe it to be?”

At that moment of sobriety, Meg found her peace. Her romance with the Suitor ended as she suddenly found herself in the hope-hungry eyes of her teenage son. From her ultimate defeat she found ultimate hope. In coming to the end of herself, she found the beginning, for her, for her life, for them.

And the Suitor went in search of his next romance.

National Symposium on Women's Health
Patterns and Trends of Alcohol and other Drug Abuse Among Women
* About 4.6 million American women are alcoholics. One in every three alcoholics is a woman, according to The New York Times.
* Women aged 26 to 34 have the highest usage rates compared to other women who use alcohol.
* Never married, divorced and separated women generally have the highest rates of heavy drinking and drug related problems; widowed women, the lowest rates; and married women, intermediate rates.
* Almost half of all women aged 15 to 44 have used drugs at least once in their life. Of these women, nearly 2 million have used cocaine and more than 6 million have used marijuana within the past year, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
* Compared with men, women with drinking or drug problems are also at increased risk for depression, low self-esteem, marital discord or divorce, history of sexual abuse and drinking in response to life crises.
* The National Institute on Drug Abuse claims more than 4 million women need treatment for alcohol and drug problems.
* Among drug-using women, 70 percent report having been abused sexually before the age 16 and more than 80 percent had at least one parent addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Women and Alcohol
Alcohol Use
* 77.6% of women age 12 and older reported ever using alcohol, while 60% reported past year use and 45.1% reported using alcohol in the past month. (1)
* 82.5% of white women reported ever using alcohol, while 65% reported past year use and 49.7% reported using alcohol in the past month. (1)
* 67.9% of black women reported ever using alcohol, while 45.1% reported past year use and 32.3% reported using alcohol in the past month. (1)
* 60.8% of Hispanic women reported ever using alcohol, while 48.4% reported past year use and 33.6% reported using alcohol in the past month. (1)
* Among current female drinkers, 7.16% of whites, 10.22% of blacks, 22.16% of American Indians/Alaska Native, and 9.03% of Hispanics reported alcohol dependence. (2)
* Men and women reported different levels of alcohol involvement. 58.7% of men age 12 and older reported past month alcohol use compared to 45.1% of women, while 23.2% of men age 12 and older reported binge drinking in the past month compared to 8.6% of women.3

Moderate Drinking (4)
* Moderation is defined as no more than one drink per day for women.
* One drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (1999). National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1998. DHHS Publication No. (SMA) 99-3327. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
2. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1998). Drinking in the United States: Main findings from the 1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. NIH Publication No. 99-35198. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (1999). Summary of Findings from the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. DHHS Publication No. (SMA) 99-3328. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
4. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2000. United States Department(s) of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.