I want you to think back to either the very first or the most memorable spiritual experience you had as a young child.
When were you most aware that there was a God? That there is something more than yourself? The sense that God existed and maybe even that He cared for you, whoever or whatever this is going to be like, have you got it? Really try and think back. Sort of, that first “God experience,” awareness that there’s more than just the material world.
For me, I was eight years old. I still remember it vividly. I’m eight years old and I was the altar boy and I’m carrying this cross and the pastor is behind me and a bunch of other people. Our church was a big A frame, about forty feet high and it was all stained glass with a cross in the middle.
And I put the little cross over here and he’d go this way and I would go this way. And I sat and that particular day, light was coming through the stained glass, and it hit just the base of the cross. You know, I’m just a squirrely eight-year-old, I don’t have any theological training and I don’t know anything.
But I had thoughts go through my mind that I never had in my whole life. It was like, “Wow, I wonder what God is like. If He made everything, I wonder what He wants me to do. I wonder how you know Him.”
And all I can tell you is I had this warm feeling of love and acceptance that vaguely said it has something to do with that cross. And all I can, you know, you’re an eight-year-old kid, so I get done and I don’t know what the pastor said, I was just a kid. But I told my mom and dad, “I want to be the altar boy every week from now on at eight o’clock.”
There was this drawing, there was this sense of warmth and love and what it was was God’s presence. I had never experienced it before. Looking back, I was being wooed by the Holy Spirit and I experienced God’s presence and so I wanted it again. That’s what happens when you really experience God.
And the bad part was my spiritual experience only lasted less than seven days because I remember the next week I told my parents that I didn’t want to get up; it was kind of early, you know, eight o’clock. Like, it was really cool last week but, you know…
And so I continued to go to church and the denomination I came out of has some very good Bible teaching, wonderful people. Mine wasn’t one of those. And so as I grew up, that was my experience, and then I grew up at a place where people, it was filled with being irrelevant, hypocritical, everyone saying certain things, acting certain ways, but their walk and their talk told a completely different message.
And then I guess I was naïve that when they said stuff, I thought, at least someone meant it. But there was zero expectation that anything that anyone said on Sunday would have anything to do with how you lived.
And so I watched this and I am a fairly logical guy so by about sixteen, I came to this conclusion: I think church and the whole “God” stuff is about adults creating religion to keep your kids in line morally for a few years so you don’t get totally whacked out. And then when you get to be an adult like the rest of us, you learn that there is no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny, and no God. But it’s just sort of this sociological thing to keep them from doing terrible, bad things growing up and control them.
And so I just, at sixteen, said, “I don’t know where life and purpose is coming from but it certainly isn’t God, it’s certainly not the Church, and maybe somebody created all this, I don’t know, I don’t have time for it.” You know, you’re sixteen, what do you think about?
And so I went through, “Okay, so, where is meaning and purpose in life going to come from?” And I grew up in the sixties, and then early seventies was hitting adulthood and my dad was a very focused guy. He was a Marine. I used to say he was an ex-Marine. And after I said that in a talk, a guy came up to me and said, “Excuse me, young man? There is no such thing as an ex-Marine.” I said, “Yes, sir.”
And, honestly, I learned that when my father went home to be with the Lord about two or three years ago, the Marines came and they were a part of that service and folded a flag and gave it to me. He was a Guam, Iwo Jima, Purple Heart guy.
But my dad had this very strong, if he said it, you just didn’t mess with him. And so it was like, “Look, son, here’s how life works. You want to be happy?” “Yeah.” “Then you need to be successful.” “Okay.” “You want to be successful? You set clear goals, you develop a strategy, and you work harder than anyone else. You got that?” “Yes, sir.”
And so I was, like, “Okay.” So I was that kid who was shoveling snow off of the driveway in the middle of winter because I was going to shoot while other people were watching games. So eight or nine hours a day I’m playing basketball.
And then I figure, it probably has something to do with money and academics so I worked hard in school and if you can become a workaholic at twelve or thirteen, I figured it out. I had my own lawn business, six or seven regular jobs. One all day job, two paper routes, lent my parents three thousand dollars at six percent interest, so they could buy a little piece of land.
And so when I got to high school it was just like lock and load. Okay, you want to academically be here? You have to date a cute cheerleader, get a scholarship to college, be all this and all that. I didn’t get it all done but basically, when I got to be a senior, I had all those little check marks and high school is not a really big fish pond but when you’re in it, you think it’s pretty big stuff.
And so I got my scholarship and did well and had the cute, little cheerleader and I’ll never forget the graduation night. I don’t know why, I can never remember why, but we were in this apartment and it was completely empty. It didn’t have any furniture. And there were thirty or forty of us sitting in a circle, this is the seventies, okay, passing a joint around and reminiscing. And I didn’t inhale. Not only actually, that’s a joke for some of you that remember years back.
Actually, I not only didn’t inhale, when you’re on a basketball scholarship and you are my size and as skinny as I am, you can’t put anything in your body that is going to hurt you. So, I just pass it on.
And so it wasn’t any religious conviction, I just thought, You know what? Everyone is bigger, stronger, and can jump higher than me. I better not mess myself up.
And so this gal turns to me that was a good friend. She goes, “Chip, you must be really happy tonight.” And I said, “Why?” And then she started to peel off, this, Cute little girlfriend and you did well in school and you got the scholarship. And I had this emotion of the most empty feeling, at eighteen, I have ever experienced in my life.
And I really, someone just shattered my little box. It was, Wait a second. Happiness is by success. Success is you do this, this, this, this. I followed the plan. And I just felt this, So this is it? And what’s bad is I didn’t even celebrate, I mean, I didn’t even recognize that I had, sort of, hit the goals.
I had already, like some of us do, gone to the next one. I had already decided, I’m going to go to college, I’m majoring in political science, I will be a lawyer, I will marry a beautiful wife, we will have three beautiful kids, we will have an Irish Setter, I will have a luxury car, I will wear, back then, a two or three hundred dollar Armani or Brooks Brothers suit, was pretty cool. I’ll live in the suburbs and I’ll be a leader in the community by the age thirty-two to thirty-four. And it was just like, lock and load. Go do it!
And then I had this moment like, Now, wait a second. I did this once. I could go do that and spend the next fifteen years, what if I feel even more empty? And I’ll never forget driving home and then later that night, having, I’d say, sort of a “God talk,” and my prayer was, “God, if You exist, reveal Yourself to me. I don’t know if You do or not, but if You do and You’re powerful enough and can reveal Yourself to me, I want to know You. And if there is a purpose in life, I’d like to know what it is.”
A week later a coach paid my way to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp and it was actually a scary experience. I walked in, I got a t-shirt, this little, easy-to-read Bible, and I just thought I had landed in Jesus Freak land. I mean, people would say the word “Jesus” out loud, they would talk about God and they were professional athletes and college athletes and about seven hundred high school athletes. And Tom Landry came so I thought, Well, it can’t be that bad. He’s the coach of the Cowboys.
But, it was like, “Ooooh.” - this is 1972 and the Jesus movement. And I just thought, Get me out of here. I can’t take this for a week. And every morning, they’d given you this little Bible and for twenty minutes you’re supposed to read the Bible before you do calisthenics and then eat breakfast. Now, all day was fun. You played sports and got to talk with some guys. And so I just thought, They are not going to indoctrinate me. And so I wouldn’t open it up. And after about the third day, there was such an authenticity and a reality and a love of these men that I thought, You know, maybe there’s something to this.
And the fast-forward of the story is I realized that I had confused religion and Christianity with Jesus and a relationship with God. And I had rejected one and rejected the other, not knowing that they are very different.
And that night, for the first time, I understood that God cared about me, that He sent His son, Jesus, who was fully God and fully man to die upon a cross to pay for my sin and that I could turn from my sin and receive a free gift and, literally, the Spirit of God would enter my human body and begin a transformation that is called eternal life that sets you on a new course and brings peace and fills that emptiness in your heart and life.
And I prayed a very untheological, you know, Dear God, whatever it means for You to come into my life and I’m sorry for stuff I have done. It wasn’t a pretty prayer but I really meant it. And I knew that I couldn’t play games with God and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.
And so there were a couple of things, I remember that night, just thinking, Boy, if I go down this road, I can’t play around. And I remember asking Christ to come into my life and forgive me. And I’d like to say that then someone followed me up and taught me all these things and everything went great. All I can tell you is I went home and I took that little Bible and I stuck it under my pillow because I thought my parents might think I freaked out.
They were religious but we didn’t talk about God and we didn’t pray. And, I mean, they were good, moral people. And all I can tell you is my desires started changing. And there was joy and I found myself singing and it was like, whoa! And this is great! You know? And just desires changed and so I went away to college and it was really neat. Like, some of the really big sins were, bam! They’re out of here! And it was like, Whoa! This is awesome!
But then I found some other sins that were like, Whoa, these don’t go away so quickly. And then I started reading and I couldn’t get enough of the Bible. I would read it at night, read it in the morning. And as I was reading it and I’m in this college and I’m playing on the basketball team and there are four girls to every guy and there was sort of a way to live that looks really fun.
And I’m reading this New Testament that’s saying, This is not God’s way. And I didn’t mind Him forgiving my sins but this running my life stuff was, I didn’t really sign up for that. You know? See, how I was living and how God wanted me to live was like this. And this bricklayer came down who was trained by a group called The Navigators and he helped me actually start to read the Bible so I could understand it and talk to God.
And I was having these little God experiences like when I was a little kid, like, every day! And then on Thursday nights, all these kids would get together, remember, this is the seventies. And sitting on the floor and playing the guitars and singing.
And the presence of God, I got it again, it was like, Whoa, whoa, this is really cool! But I grew up thinking, like, seven out of ten commands is seventy percent. Isn’t that passing? I mean, that’s a C, right?
And I kept reading and it was like, You know, no. And so I developed this schizophrenic Christianity. Read the Bible maybe two or three times a week in the morning and meet with God and Thursday nights were fun. And then I got in the car with four or five basketball players every Friday and Saturday night and we hit every bar in Wheeling.
And then I felt really bad, God, I’m really sorry. Oh, gosh, I know I shouldn’t have said this, shouldn’t have done this, God, really sorry. Will You please forgive me? He would forgive me. And I’m going to get up read my Bible tomorrow, in fact, it’s three o’clock in the morning, but I’ll even try and get up and go to church. I’m really, I’m really sorry. You know? And then, Oh, thank you so much.
And then, I mean, I was nuts! You know something? Maybe not to that degree but all the research says nine out of every ten Christians in America is living a Christian schizophrenic life.
They intellectually adhere to, I love Jesus, I’ve asked Him to come into my life and my heart, I think these things are really important. Of course, my finances, my future, my relationships, my mouth, my priorities don’t show it but He grades on the curve, right? And I have never really met anyone who is really actually and so I think I’m kind of, and…
And so there’s this life and it’s usually filled with lots of guilt and lots of duty and you’re supposed to do more of this and less of that and then, so what happens is you try hard and you fail. And you really want to be authentic so you try really, really harder and you fail again. And then you realize, You know, forget it. You start just trying hard or not trying so hard and then you fake it.
And you learn a few verses and you smile and let a “Praise the Lord,” come out in some groups and let something else come out of your mouth in a different group. That’s Christianity in America.
See, what I experienced is, I couldn’t enjoy God’s presence because I had all this guilt and then I knew I was really a part of His family because I couldn’t enjoy the sin anymore because I had all this shame and conviction.
Here’s the question: what is true spirituality? How do we move beyond religion, church programs, legalism, performance orientation, or in my case, a compartmentalized life? I had basketball, girls, and academics over here and God and a few other things over here.
How do we move beyond that to grace-filled, authentic relationship with God? That’s what this whole series is about. What is true spirituality?
There are three things you’re going to have to understand if you are going to experience it. And here’s what I want to tell you: that moment, as an eight-year-old, or that moment that came to your mind when you had a God awareness, when there was a sense of warmth and acceptance and love and there was something outside yourself that maybe there is meaning to life – God wants you to experience that twenty-four/seven.
But it starts, are you ready? True spirituality begins with an accurate picture of God. You have to have an accurate picture of God. If you have a warped picture of God, it will send you down bad pathways. If you think God is an angry deity that you’re afraid of, that He is always looking to punish you, it will send you into ritual. So you do so many things a day and you have to do this and you have to do that and you have to do that and you hope someday, someway that you can appease His anger.
Or for others, you think God is a cosmic scorekeeper and He’s got this great board, you know, a chalkboard in the sky and there’s a chalk line in the middle: good deeds and bad deeds and your whole life is about good deed, good deed, good deed, I’m a good boy, don’t You love me today? Bad, You don’t really seriously…Good girl, good girl, bad boy…
And it’s a performance orientation. And you never pray long enough or hard enough or good enough. You never give enough, you never measure up. And somehow then you start grading on the curve and you just hope somehow, some way that the cosmic scorekeeper, that maybe your good deeds will outweigh your bad deeds, realizing that you totally missed relationship.
For others, you think, or have been taught, or at least the worldview is out there is that He is not an angry deity, He’s not even a cosmic scorekeeper.
He is an impersonal force. God is an invisible, impersonal force. He is in all things and even inside of you in some ways. And you need to become one with the universe.
And so there’s a formula. I’m serious! So the formula is an altered state of consciousness, the formula is techniques and ways to develop oneness with the cosmos. I’m going to tell you, God is not an angry deity, He is not a cosmic scorekeeper, and He is far from an impersonal force. He is your heavenly Father. He loves you. But He is a father.
You matter. He wants a relationship. He wants to, in ways that are very visceral and real, He wants to hug you and hold you and love you and direct you and guide you and like any parent, give you the very best.
The apostle John would write I John 3:1, “How great is the love of the Father that He has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it does not know Him.” Jesus’ life was a complete contradiction to all the religion of His day. His harshest words came to people that kept all the rules, that were squeaky clean, that did all the religious activities.
And He, in their minds, broke through all those rules because He was about a relationship with the Father. And they watched, and the thing that showed the intimacy more than anything else is His disciples. They would listen to Him pray and they would watch Him pray and it wasn’t duty and it wasn’t going through lists and it wasn’t to impress people like they saw growing up.
And so they said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” What does He say? “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. This, then, is how you should pray, ‘Our Father,’” a foreign concept.
Judaism of the day had this sense of God’s majesty and His glory and His transcendence but they had missed the truth of Scripture of His Fatherhood, of His intimacy, of His approachability. And since God is your Father, He has a dream, He’s got a plan for your life.
How many people, by the way, are parents in here? You’ve got a kid? Wow. An awful lot of us. If you don’t know this yet, it’s only because they are real small, but your kids have a powerful, powerful role to play in your life. They will be the source of greatest joy you will ever experience on this planet and they will be the source of the greatest heartache you will ever have.
Far more than any conflict with your mate, this person that is a part of each of you can break your heart, can break down communication, can say things and do things and live in ways that will bring you the deepest, deepest sorrow you will ever experience.
And, by contrast, man, when your kids want to be around you, when they are little and they say, “Daddy, can I crawl up in your lap?” “Yeah.” “Daddy?” “What?” “I love you.” “Oh, gosh, yeah.” I mean, right? And I will tell you that even as they grow up and get older and have kids of their own, there are few things sweeter in all of life.
And you have a dream for your kids and I have a dream for my kids. And when you’re young, like, they are one or two years old and you’re a young parent and it’s like, “I want them to be an astronaut, a nuclear physicist. I want my son to cure cancer! Or I want him to be the CEO of…” and you have all these lofty, what they do.
And then they get to be, little kids and eight, nine, ten-years-old and you’re thinking, You know, I’d like him to be a nice boy, a nice girl. Then they get to be teenagers, I don’t care what they do! They can deliver trash! But if they love God, if they were a person of integrity, if they had character, if we had a great relationship, I couldn’t care less where they work. Oh, God, give them a good vocation, help them to put food on the table, put them in their gifts. But oh, God, what I really want…
See, what you’re really concerned about, the older you get, is not what they do but who they become. God’s dream for you is about who you become. When you understand that He is Father, God’s dream for His children is to make you like His Son.
He is not a force. See, we have this idea that there are these invisible rules or principles or duties and when I violate those, Oh, sorry, I messed up. No, no, no, no. You broke your Father’s heart. You stepped away from relationship. You pulled away from His hug. He loves you, He cares for you.
For reasons I don’t understand, the One that created all that there is has given you the opportunity to either bring Him joy or bring Him sorrow. You can grieve the Holy Spirit, that’s a personal word.
When I live in ways that are not good for me, it hurts God’s heart because He is my Father. You miss that if you fall into religious activity, external rules.