Archive for January, 2016

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Confessions of a Christian Sinner.  Copyright 2016 by L. Scott Ekstrom.  


Chapter 2:  Drakkar Noir of the Soul

I want the presence of God Himself, or I don’t want anything at all to do with religion.  –A.W. Tozer

That fall, high school began, happily, with all the verve of new beginnings.  I dropped the last of my baby weight, gained some fresh threads, and told a girl I liked her.  Underneath it all was the happy fact of God’s presence:  what had begun the previous winter, with a televangelist’s repeat-after-me prayer, was now reaching its peak.  Though I didn’t know it at the time.

I had assumed the incomparable awareness of God with me would grow and remain, along with the answers to prayer and words of divine guidance that accompanied my initial year in the Spirit.  During that spell of excitement, my bedroom served as prayer closet, and many were the moments I would head upstairs to pray—usually for wisdom or the allaying of worry—when, before I even had a chance to kneel and speak the need, the answer came, in the Word I was learning to read or from the Spirit I was learning to hear.  Almost-prayer would turn to praise as I fell on my face in thanksgiving.  With all these easy-come answers, there seemed, in fact, no need to actually develop a prayer life.  I pledged to pray fifteen minutes a day for a week.  But I found the boredom of intercession too hard to endure and gave up thirty seconds into the first night.

What I loved about being a Christian was the joy, which I hoped to speak of to anyone who would listen.  I didn’t necessarily lead by telling them the joy’s source, figuring that if I boasted long enough about how happy I was, people’s curiosity would be sufficiently piqued.  They would ask for the secret to my hilarity, and I would tell them about my Jesus.  Unless, at the time, I felt that doing something else would give me more joy.  I guess that was the case on the white-water rafting trip, when the youth group got back to our digs, casual conversation turned to the subject of beliefs, and a younger kid said he wanted to hear more about mine.  Not wanting to miss the older guys’ ribald discussion in the next room or the girls’ dirty dancing in the commons, I told the boy I didn’t really feel like talking.

One thing I definitely hadn’t discussed with anyone was the afternoon in June when God left me.  It was a few months after receiving the Spirit.  School was not quite out for the summer, but I was home alone, recovering from a stomach virus while putting the finishing touches on a Fred Astaire number.  Sometime between kick-ball-change and pas de bourree, I felt God leave.  Spiritual oxygen evacuated with a breath.  One second I felt God and the next I didn’t.  And in that second second, the despair, accompanied by temporary insanity, was instantaneous.  He who had become my life was gone.  I wanted to die.

Switching off my bootleg cassette of “Shine on Your Shoes,” I bolted around the upstairs in hysterics, pausing briefly to study the look of my tear-stained face in the mirror over Mom’s dresser.  Running back to my room to prostrate myself on the rust-colored carpet, I cried out for God’s return.  And it came.  The Cloud of Unknowing re-descended, and I felt the Shekhinah once more—a glory familiar, but more concentrated, and, this time, accompanied by a unique visitation.  Through closed eyes I saw pure white light, and in silence I heard, from His mind to mine, You really are my child.  Not exact words written on a wall, but an unmistakable guarantee from the Spirit:  His presence roared the truth I already knew.  I was His.

It was heaven.  But inseparable from this direct contact with Christ came an unobstructed view of what He was asking of me.  Not that He dictated a laundry list of personal revelations superseding scripture.  Rather, it was the juxtaposition of dust and glory—the me being me, bowing before I Am Who I Am—that revealed, instantly, everything I wasn’t.  The specifics of His demands are less important than their sum, which was, suffice it to say, everything.

The extremity of Mercy caught me off guard.  While I was relieved to have the Joy back, I resisted His invitation to draw closer.  Which was horrible of me, of course, but also stupid–thinking I could ignore the law of divine gravity.  For there He was, flooding me with thoughts about His absolute acceptance, which, you would think, would have made every part of me instantly melt in submission; or rise up and shout “Yes, Lord, Yes!”  And maybe there was some of that.  But, also, I indulged an aside:  Surely He doesn’t expect me to live like this; nobody gives that much.  And, determined I couldn’t either, I balked.

I know there are streams of Christendom that emphasize God’s penchant to bless those who seek Him first.  I have many a friend whose own story includes just such a sacrifice-cum-outpouring.  And I love those friends and believe their stories, because God is good, and faithful to reward those who want Him; and because, arguably, my original 700 Club prayer may qualify as just such a “second blessing.”  There was, after all, my turning from sin and committing myself to God, and then, a shower of Love.

But my experience upstairs, months later, was the opposite.  It was not the laying down of a fired up heart, awaiting latter rain.  Rather, God was the fire that came first, knowing full well that I was mostly after spiritual endorphins and the assurance of an eternity without pain.  And then, even after a spark of Truth emphasized what was required of me—and I said No—He stayed.  Who could dream up such a deity?

To some extent, the rest of my Christian walk, in so far as it has been forward moving, has been an attempt to do what He asked of me all those years ago in my own upper room—to offer up the days and goals and loves of my life for His name instead of mine.  A reasonable exchange, I understand, when I am in my right mind.  For I know, and I knew, that this living for an Other is the very least I could do, the rightful reciprocation for a substitutionary Life.  But in our life, in mine, there is always this need to wrestle for remembrance.

Upstairs, that late spring in the late eighties, the intense manifestation of Jesus dissipated after a minute or less.  Or maybe it was longer or shorter, that time out of time.  I’m not sure; it doesn’t matter.  What does, is that I continued to walk with Him through the heat of summer, sensing Him as I had before, though even more strongly.  I tried not to think about why He wanted to leave, and I had no theological framework to process that perception.  My theology, such as it was, was based primarily on subjective experience.  I couldn’t explain why the soundtrack of the Spirit had been put on pause.  The point was He was back to stay.  Or so I believed.

The Spirit of Christ hovered over me in the fall, as I inscribed my algebra textbook with the sign of a dove.  He stood by me when I told my director I couldn’t participate in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because its fantastical worldview opposed scripture.  The Spirit sat with me at my first Homecoming dance, which I spent half of in the coatroom swapping Jesus stories with the Methodist kids.  And He knelt beside me on the floor of the family rec room, as I leaned against the carpeted wall and contemplated my continuing struggle with imagined passion and its predictably frequent result—the self-inflicted release, the immediate shame of another battle lost—until, as I pondered my pattern, Grace interrupted my guilt and caused me to understand, quite simply, that I did what I did because I wanted to do it; I agreed with God, and the bondage to Eros lifted.

And when, also that fall, I felt the Spirit leading me to leave Family Lutheran for a non-denominational church with charismatic tendencies, I hung up my choir robe and carried my confirmation bible across the cornfield to join The Fellowship.  Maybe I hadn’t obeyed God’s radical call to give Him everything at once, but I wasn’t exactly wandering in the desert either.  I was growing, following Him as best I understood.  And loving it.

Then, in October, the sense of Him began, again, to fade; this time slowly but surely until, by November, there was nothing of His presence left to feel.  And with the perceived loss of anointing came the apparent loss of so many promises:  lust returned, answers evaded, guidance stopped.

I didn’t immediately freak out, the memory of His touch being fresh enough to sustain me into December, as I searched the Word and sought the counsel of new friends, looking for proof texts, formulae, spiritual exercises . . . anything to coax the Nearness back.  I dreamt about a magic potion I could drink to invoke the Spirit.  But when I awoke, my soul was dry.

In the New Year, I tried one last trick.  The day after my fifteenth birthday, the teen Sunday School lesson at The Fellowship was about how Saul became Paul by spending three days in fasting and prayer.  The teacher suggested this as biblical pattern—Jonah in the whale, Jesus in the tomb, Saul blinded by God—three days of darkness between crucifixion and resurrection.  Though she might not have intended any of us to actually apply the principle, I latched onto it as the ticket out of my slough:  attempt three days without eating or drinking (or showering or talking to people or applying myself at school or in the dance studio).  Spend the time crying for the light until darkness subsided.  Asceticism would move the hand of God.

That afternoon I absented myself from a football-watching party, making some excuse about homework.  Once I’d retired to a room far away from the sports-mad crowd, I shut the door to the Buffalo Bills, threw my assigned paperback aside, and got on my knees to lob complaints at God, coaching Him on how to rescue me from spiritual dryness.

On Monday I continued my embattled prayers by pretending to sleep in any class I could.  With head down and eyes squeezed tight, I got to the inner work of hobbling together my interior castle, inverting a passage from Jesus’s brother into my own requirement of God:  “I draw near to You,” I silently chanted; “You draw near to me!”  My mental droning didn’t last long.  When the Global Studies teacher disturbed my ashram by asking what was up with me—normally a decent student, now neglecting to hand in an assignment, bombing a quiz—I knew there would be trouble.  By the time I got to English, Mom, another English teacher across the hall, had gotten word that I was acting strange; she ducked into my class before the bell and assured me she was going to get to the bottom of this.

So I lied—said I was exhausted—and ditched school the next two days.  Staying mostly in my room, again feigning sleep, I tried to pray and, with decreasing faith that anything would happen, continued my secret fast.  My parents were very present, so I couldn’t get away with skipping many meals.  But for a few days, when nobody was looking, I would sneak my plate to the kitchen and hide my food in the compacter.  They took me to the doctor to find out if I was depressed, he said I wasn’t, and, when blood work yielded no abnormalities, I returned to school.  By lunch on Thursday, the three days having passed without a miracle, I was sick of being hungry and sullen.   I bought a strawberry crunch bar, told a joke to my Spanish teacher, and gave up, if not on this elusive God, then, at least, on my latest method for apprehending Him.

Back in December, back on stage, I had spent the second act of The Nutcracker smiling and nodding at Clara and the cast, all the while wondering How could there be a God?  Immersed in His presence for most of that year, the very existence of doubt had seemed silly.  Now, cut off from His aura, faith felt ridiculous.  I scrawled “Jesus is the answer” on a lavatory wall, but I wasn’t so sure.

Even now, the memory of blasphemy stings.  I could shudder to think that, in the space of weeks, I might go from such certain knowing to abject doubting to almost forgetting the reality of being known; and I am forced to admit anew where I would always steer myself, if left to myself—Gehenna at every turn.

Blessedly, those unreasonable pauses from belief in God’s existence, like other such moments before and after, were fleeting.  But by mid-January, after waiting on the Lord for three months and spending the better part of a week storming the brassy heavens with my pathetic prayers, uncertainty took another tack.  I began to wonder, not, if there was a God who saved, but if, in actual fact, He had ever saved me.

The year before, studying the Word and other Christians to try to figure out God’s plan of salvation, I found one trend among evangelicals to be of particular annoyance:  all the talk about “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”  It was the byword of a movement, and it raised a question that must be answered:  have you had your datable, preferably emotional, crisis-conversion?  I had read the entire New Testament, and the innovative phrase about personal acceptance was nowhere to be found.  As a truth it was biblical enough.  A gift, once given, must be received; and, from heaven’s perspective, the receiving must happen in a moment.  The angels could surely see the exact nanosecond when a nonbeliever became a believer.  What annoyed me was the obsession some Christians had with knowing when their moment was.

Evangelicalism, as I’ve understood it, is an emphasis on known truth creating authentic piety spilling over into action.  Anyone can go forward at an altar call; not everyone is changed by the experience.  And we must be changed, must come to believe that Christ has come to us—to earth, to Calvary, and “up from the grave He arose.”  But also He has come, by His Spirit into ours, so we might know Him in truth, and truly know He’ll never leave.

When I joined the evangelical party, I was not endorsing a notion that twentieth century American evangelicalism is the only authentic expression of Christianity that ever was or will be.  I didn’t even call myself an evangelical, preferring its then-popular redundancy, born again Christian.  But in doing so, and saying so, I was not merely aligning myself with the faction I fancied.  I was declaring my allegiance to the divine and historic Jesus, portrayed in scripture, alive in my heart.

But from my admitted position to the right (theologically), I must also admit that—standing guard against encroaching compromises to biblical authority, and seeking a way to enshrine the reality of saving faith in the truly saved—we evangelicals, some of us, have, sometimes, overemphasized a certain kind of entry pattern for all:  Step One-Pray this prayer.  Step Two-Never doubt that everything has instantly changed.

The Fellowship, for all its fervor, did not share in the frenzy.  Teaching emphasized God’s work in present circumstances.  And attempts at discipleship were generally sensitive to the possibility of people making small decisions, in their own way, to start following Jesus as best they could.  It was, I think, an approach as reasonable as it was biblical.  Assurance, for most of us, comes in fits and starts, as the growing-boy soul explores the brave new world of grace.  Coming in to the kingdom—that dramatic instant ordained from above—might, here on earth, very well look like a slow journey.  People could pick up their crosses in lots of different ways; and then, when it pleases Him, the Spirit could give to pilgrims-in-process, somewhere down their own Emmaus road, an experience of Jesus, so that, in the words of a spectacular lady evangelist, they would “know that they know that they know.”

Outside of The Fellowship, in the exotic churchy world of youth groups and Bible clubs and Christian radio, I was hearing other narratives by enviable heroes of the modern faith, who not only knew the moment they were saved but assumed such knowledge to be normative.  And I didn’t know.  Had it happened at camp when I first started seeking?  Or down in the basement when I committed?  Or up in my room when the Spirit reappeared?  My three-year process of coming to faith didn’t fit into the two-minute testimony model that seemed to be the rule.  When He was with me, matters of origin hadn’t mattered.  I was His and He was mine.  But now that I didn’t know where He was, I wasn’t sure where we stood.

I tried re-praying the Sinner’s Prayer and then psyching myself up with scriptures about assurance.  But I knew better than to assume any prayer necessarily guaranteed anything, especially if that prayer was offered with a mix of faith and doubt.  And that’s where I was:  betwixt knowing, on some level, that I had become a Christian, and wondering, then, how I had lost Christ.

Alone in bed or on horseback in the desert or driving with family out to the island, I was always trying to think of the right verse or prayer to lift me out of my spiritual slump.  Nothing worked.  So I worried, to the point of distraction, that I might be separated from God once again.  If I were to die or Christ were to come back, could I, in the end, still wind up in hell?

Boarding a plane to the West coast, I envisioned a crash, obsessing in silence over the worst; not because I didn’t want this life of psychic misery to end, but because I feared that if it did, my soul would burn.  In ballet class, doing piqué turns from upstage left, I imagined the Second Coming about to come, and me hitting Hades before reaching downstage right.  Had I believed in the mere annihilation of the damned, such heresy would have been a comfort.  But I knew that the Jesus I thought I knew, the One of history and the scriptures, the guy who the spiritual-but-not-religious say they love, was, actually, quite awfully clear about the final destination of those who turn out to have never really known Him:  eternal smoldering in a cosmic dump outside the city of God.

Sharing my horror with other Christians didn’t help much.  They thought I was just down in the dumps and offered inspirational platitudes I rarely found applicable.  Usually that was my fault, because I wasn’t courageous or articulate enough to really share the depth of my struggle with people who knew me.  Instead, I consumed more media and began to learn, when I had canvassed enough bible teachers in radioland, that I was not alone; other believers worried about their salvation, too.  Leaders tried to offset these fears, explaining to self-obsessed followers that changing emotions didn’t change our standing with God.  That made sense but, I thought, did not precisely apply to me.  My worry was not about a flagging of my warm fuzzies; it was the cessation of His good vibes that concerned me.

Various bully pulpits addressed tender consciences with the good news that one sin didn’t automatically reverse God’s favor, virtually all sins were forgivable.  Fine truths to hear, but I wasn’t worried I had sinned myself away from God; I was afraid I had never met Him.  Applying biblical logic, I knew I had believed, knew the Spirit had affirmed faith’s reality and changed my life.  Ergo, I was a Christian.   But, below the logic, where I like to live, this unshakable obsession persisted:  by some anomaly, I, like possibly no one else, and for no explicable reason, had experienced the very definition of conversion—knowing Jesus and the transforming comfort of His love—without technically being converted.

By the summer after ninth grade, I was sick of trying to comprehend what I couldn’t explain.  So I stopped actively trying to do so.  The anxiety generalized and faded from the fore.  There were occasional flare-ups of despair, as insecurities about my spiritual state would resurface, from time to time, until I finished college.  But, overall, there was a tapering of angst; a spiritual healing, for sure, but also, perhaps, a natural one:  emotions steadied as chemicals leveled and gray matter reached maturity.  God only knows.  Whatever it was, as adolescence transitioned to the challenges of adulthood, my thinking—about my salvation, anyway—was soothed.

During my junior year of college, on a walk through the woods, I told a classmate I had not felt the presence of God in six years.  She found that hard to believe.  And she was right to doubt my doubts.  For looking back, over a quarter century now, I can better see that God never left.  He was there, of course, to varying degrees at various times, always; He was my insight in the Word, my peace in prayer, my solace in the church and inspiration in nature and culture.  He was in my thoughts constantly and, even when He wasn’t, He was the thing I wasn’t thinking about.

And, as far as the special touch of transcendent immanence goes, nowhere in scripture or history is there a promise or saintly example of people feeling the warmth of His countenance all the time.  On the contrary, anecdotal assemblage of spiritual stories yields a pattern:  God granting the new believer a unique impression of His love, and then, for a time, taking it away (the feeling, not the love).  Not because we sin, though that’s another problem, but because He wants to teach us to walk by faith instead of sense.  Stability comes as we learn to trust what we’ve felt but do not feel.

I’ve sometimes bemoaned my lack, back in the day, of a contemplative spiritual director, a he or she who could have warned about the classic dark night of the soul, who might have directed me to just keep walking in the Way, blind as I may be.  But maybe, through friends and the church, I did have that care, was given that advice, and would have been proffered more, had I entrusted my confessors with freer access to a heart that gasped, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.”

Had I heeded their prescriptive balm—in particular, the wonderful cliché to keep reading and praying through the bible, systematically, even when it seems pointless—then, maybe, more of the gospel would have sunk in more deeply.  And if it had, if I’d better understood, earlier, the amazing implications of grace, I might have looked less at my present, spent less time analyzing my metaphysical past, and, instead, gazed past my own navel, beyond even my personal encounter with Christ, and beheld Him, one thousand nine hundred fifty-some years earlier, perfect and perfectly naked, wearing nothing but the sin of the world.  Abandoned.  So that I never would be, never could be rejected, because once upon a time, He was.

There, in the darkness of the Father’s absence, He hung like meat, bled out, and gave up the ghost, that I might be haunted by this thought alone:  He loved me like that.  And with hell finished—for Him, for me—only resurrection remains.


Copyright 2016 by L. Scott Ekstrom.  

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