Archive for March, 2016

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


Chapter 3:  What the Devil’s Wrong with These Kids Today?


I’d rather fight You for something I don’t really want

Than take what You give that I need . . .

Rich Mullins


After the ecstasy and trauma of my first year in faith and high school, I entered tenth grade harboring a superstition:  striving too hard to get close to God can only backfire.  Better the day-to-day attempt to live a normal teenage life, curbed by traditional mores, but growing, if at all, slowly.  In pursuit of my normal, I went on a couple dates with the girl I liked, reprised my role in The Nutcracker and, as my sixteenth birthday approached, started dreaming about getting a car—Dad willing, maybe a classic Jaguar or a new Miata.  I was thrilled to be granted the eventual use of a used Buick.

Life as it was, was, for a while, kind of fun.  But sometime between playing comedy in the spring production of Bye, Bye, Birdie and avoiding tragedy in summer driver’s ed, I was, again, hatching plans to get God quick.  In addition to Sunday mornings and evenings at The Fellowship, I expanded my churchgoing routine to include Wednesdays and Fridays at a would-be megachurch in the next town over.  There, on the bi-weekly youth nights, the jocks played ball while the rest of us watched, until—the best part of the night—ballers and skate punks and preppies and geeks all convened to hear a message from our rock star of a youth pastor.

He was a barrel-chested, burly guy who seemed, to us, mature.  He was probably twenty-four.  Old enough to command respect, young enough to attract our attention as he delivered, with escalating volume, energetic sermonettes designed to motivate holiness; which may include, he demonstrated, yelling at the devil. After youth group, official meetings would sometimes spin off into feed-fests at the pizza shop, games at someone’s house, or a movie about the Second Coming.  Good clean fun, I think they called it.  But also, it was, all of it, an opportunity to identify kindred spirits in the faith; a workshop where I hoped to forge deep friendships with a select subset of the particularly devout, be they longtime church kids, the newly dedicated, or the re-recommitted—anyone who was “sold out” for Christ.  Prospects arose.  We were lucky to find each other.

Like every gang of like-minded youths, we banded together to enjoy each other’s company.  More importantly, our tight connections would serve to hold us accountable—through encouragement, positive peer pressure or guilt and, if necessary, shunning—till we who remained arrived at perfection.  To that end we covenanted, my special Christian friends and I, to transform faster and shine brighter than your average Christian teenagers, who proved their faithfulness by merely not drinking, not watching R-rated movies, and not going past first base.  We would do better.  Transcending prosaic abstention from worldliness, we would surpass our lukewarm peers and lazy elders to reach unprecedented heights of heavenliness on earth.

Among the ranks of the local God squad, I was beginning to develop a reputation for potential leadership.  I hadn’t yet figured out that church people were apt to identify their sensitive, relatively articulate young men as wunderkind jewels in their crown.  So, when adults at either church referred to me and my peers as “on fire for God,” I was flattered.  I liked the attention and soon detected how easily I could elicit the praise of the sanctified by saying certain things and not doing others.  If they thought I was a strong believer, because I brought friends to church and didn’t date non-Christian girls; because I never swore, refused to bet on the football pool, and rarely watched TV; or because I was good at praying in public and knew that St. Paul spent his three-day prayer vigil on “the street that is called Straight”; then, must be, whatever uncertainties I was suppressing, I really was a Christian.

And I was about to discover another scheme for proving my spiritual status.  Through some intriguing visitors to the youth group that had now become my second church, I was introduced to the prophetic movement, the latest wave of the shape-shifting charismatic revival.  Like few people I had ever met, these prophets demonstrated a single-minded devotion to their mission.  Also, they were kind and cool and really funny.  Along with a few others, I followed these post-college spiritual giants to yet another church, hoping, there, to finally find the ultimate short cut to God:  a prophetic revelation that I was an extraordinary Christian exactly where God wanted me, crowned by the miraculous confirmation of speaking in tongues.  I settled in, expecting my blessing.

In the various meetings where sundry people humbly sought to be the mouthpiece of God, there may have been, in some of the oracles, a motif of health and wealth, though much less than critics might think.  Actually, most prophecies weren’t related to the concrete future.  Much of what I witnessed were special messages to individuals about how best to move forward in their personal faith and ministry.  Many of the words of knowledge or wisdom or whatever you call them—if you changed their tone, if you took away the first person authoritative point of view, the bold declarations from “Father God”—would sound a lot like a Wesleyan sermon.  And so I adjusted accordingly, flipped a switch to get what I could from a new tradition.  I didn’t care about differences in style as long as I could hear my divine Daddy calling me closer.

Before long my ears were tickled by another option—utterances suggesting that, soon and very soon, my unordinary friends and I would gain local church-circle fame by becoming preacher-teacher-apostle-prophet-evangelists ourselves; or at least that’s what I thought I heard.  The actual words were, perhaps, more about God.  At any rate, I became what I wanted to hear.  Because maybe, if I could get the river to flow through me on its way to bless others, I might catch a drink myself.  Clinging to the prospect of near-future spiritual leadership to mask my current spiritual immaturity, I tried to walk in audacious affirmations of my own authority—sharing impressions with acquaintances, writing cheesy songs I hoped were inspired by the Spirit, and, once, in a church gym, and to no effect, laying hands on a basketball player’s injured knees and praying for a miracle.

After the initial promise of a thrill, the results of my foray into the prophetic began to disappoint.  The blessings didn’t come fast enough.  I heard “thus sayeth the Lord” this and that, but didn’t ever receive what I thought I needed, which, I guess, now that I think about it, would have been an audible voice declaring me His beloved son in whom He was well pleased, accompanied by writing on the wall and, for good measure, a blast of Holy Ghost dynamite in my heart.  That, it was starting to become clear, was exactly what the prophets could not deliver.  But, in fairness to them, they never claimed to.

Occasionally there would come forth from their lips a “heavy revvy” that really registered; some previously unspoken truth that could only have been revealed by an outside force—depictions of both private events and interior monologues so accurate in their detail it would give you the willies.  But since what it didn’t do was result in my instantaneous transformation, I couldn’t figure out why God would disclose such extraneous matters; so I soon conjectured, perhaps prematurely, that He hadn’t; and I began to worry that some of those flashy disclosures might be dispatches from the dark side.  I didn’t initially say so, because I feared suggesting such to prophets—that they may be, sometimes, empowered by the opposing team—would probably have been met with protestations of blasphemy, and insistence that the Spirit-filled servant of God could not be possessed by a lying agent.  And maybe that’s true, for “God doesn’t make mistakes.”  But we do.

When I started down this latest road, whatever were my motives, they weren’t all wrong.  I wanted the total encounter-with-God package, replete with adventures in the Kingdom and intimacy with the King.  And I knew such an existence was possible; the Word and experience had taught me the supernatural world was real.  There is an animated chiaroscuro being painted in the heavenlies, and people, all people, are called to be involved in—and, on one side or another, are already engaged in—spiritual warfare.  There are demons and angels that are not us.  And there was, weeks after my turning-point prayer back in the basement of eighth grade, an afternoon when I “saw” the unseen darkness behind someone’s private problem and felt led of the Spirit to rebuke a specific something that was His unequal opposite.  I did, and observed an immediate and lasting change in the situation.

Over the years there would be other moments when a fellow believer would share a dream or vision with me, about me; and I must say, some of these proved to be something from beyond him or her.  Fewer still have been the moments when, borne out of raw prayer sessions, alone or with close friends, or simply in a burst of knowing, I have “heard” something definite to share with others; something, I believed, and still believe, from the Lord; specific to the recipient, expressed subjectively and interpreted fallibly, but, nevertheless, above the natural realm, though not out of nowhere.

Of those possibly-prophetic insights, the ones in which God was apparently speaking to me through another, I would learn to hold on to words that passed a few tests:  they did not contradict the written Word, they confirmed something I already knew in my spirit, and they suppressed ego for the glory of God.  They could do that, I’m pretty sure, whether or not they were preceded by the potentially manipulative imprimatur of “God told me.”

What I would also learn was that, broadly speaking, any prophetic speaker, myself included, could be sometimes right and sometimes wrong; which, I understand, if you’re talking about foretelling, seems a silly thing to say.  I mean, you could say, as I have sometimes, that certain fulfilled predictions merely found themselves on the fortunate side of the law of averages; or were self-fulfilled.  Even more cynically, one could surmise that some so-called forthtellings, the messages that don’t say, This is gonna happen, but, rather, This is who you are, and here’s how you should respond, might just come from a perception so keen it seems super but is really natural.  Still, I must concede, decades later can’t deny, sometimes that is not the case; there can be more at play.  Like when a prophetess veers so far off the rails you’re tempted to ignore her forever, until she re-centers and totally nails it:  a word comes forth, and there is a rightness about those words that you will think of sweetly for eons to come.  Man that I am, I do believe.

In the boyish beginnings of my prophetic experiment, however, I did not know any of these things, did not know to manage my expectations accordingly, did not understand, about others or myself, that gifts are gifts, and do not guarantee anything about character; so we should cut each other some slack.  Neither the gifts nor the gifted are God.  Failing to discern the difference, I asked too much of my fellows, for no one but Jesus can be God with skin on.  They were more patient with me, my friends and leaders were, though I was about as wise as a dove, and could be, behind my silent smile, as surly as a snake.

Lacking the basic decency to tell my truth—that I was not comfortable with the game—neurosis kept me going, betting on I knew not what, even after I had admitted to myself that my sophomoric grab for glory felt wrong from the start.  I kept up the façade and joined the festal throng in what was to be our big moment—when we gathered at the altar, and everyone began to pray, first in English, and then in unlearned languages of earth or elsewhere.  Beginning with Spanish, I transitioned to gibberish, and finally arrived at one of the most confusing experiences of my life.  They called it “God in the bosom,” and that sounds beautiful.  But what I felt was more like stage fright.

I tried to tell myself my expectations for the prophetic high life had been unreasonable.  But I could not shake the memory of perfect peace I had enjoyed two years before.  That was real and really good; these other exercises were, I was starting to think, possibly neither, at least for me.  It was recommended that one practice your prayer language for hours at a time—to prime the pump, as it were, until the Spirit flowed without interruption.  But I couldn’t work out how, if I weren’t sure an activity was right, doing more of it would help convince me of its legitimacy.  So I disobeyed prophets’ orders and, a week after I started, stopped trying to speak in tongues altogether.   Not because I didn’t believe in the gift, but because I didn’t believe it had been given to me, at least not yet.  Hungry for God and eager to please his representatives, I had faked it.  And, soon thereafter, I knew it; knew, also, that if I had to choose between what felt counterfeit and feeling nothing, I would take the latter.

My slightly less stoic feeling now, a quarter century later, is that, whatever all that was, it was probably too much too soon; and, possibly, as good as any of it may have been for someone else some other time, it was not right for me.  Or maybe it was, but not meant to last.  Lots of people come to faith in a Pentecostal milieu.  Their Christian life begins with an explosion of power—a certainty that all things are possible for those who believe, and a belief that the Holy Spirit can do whatever He wants.  And that is as great as it is true.  But such high-octane spirituality, many people eventually find, is not sustainable.  So they double down and claim even more miracles.  But not everyone is healed, and those who are, of course, will eventually die of something else.  No one but God gets everything he wants.  At least not yet.  In the meantime, Jesus is no show pony.  He is Aslan, the roaring lion, and He won’t be tamed.

Finding this out can be quite a shock for some.  At a certain point, maybe the tenth or hundredth time that God does not deliver the spectacle they summon, disillusionment sets in; they leave the faith.  Or, as I would eventually, they find an expression of it that is less dramatic in its carryings on, more moderate in its daily carrying out.  When they do, they are sometimes called backsliders, as I was to be called.  And maybe they are.  Maybe I was.

Offering the benefit of doubt, so to speak, I bet if I had simply said to my new friends, “I love you, I don’t want to interfere with your journey, but I’m just not sure about [so many things],” they would have respected my forthrightness and given me space to process this latest turn in my tale.  We could have engaged in a thoughtful chat revealing that I placed more hope in prophecy and the glossolalia than they ever intended.  What I needed, we might have affirmed together, more than the gifts of the Spirit, was the fruit of the Spirit; and what I should be focusing on, more than the miracles, was the Love of Jesus—the truly irrevocable gift of God, forever and ever, amen.  And, about the other stuff, we would have agreed to disagree, parted with a hug, and stayed in friendly contact as brothers and sisters in Christ.

But that is not what I did.  And that is not what happened.

Midsummer, on my way to choral camp, a question penetrated my psyche:  What if God had tricked me, and Satan was actually the good guy?  This wasn’t the first time I had entertained the same.  Back in May, it was on a Saturday that I received my first personal prophecy in the name of the Lord; and it was on the Lord’s Day, less than twenty-four hours later, that I began to wonder who my rightful lord really was—God or the devil?  A ridiculous deconstruction out of nowhere.  I dismissed it, until, weeks later, on the way to the university, as we drove by a spiritualist retreat center, the insidious thought resurfaced and latched on tighter—What if evil was good and good was evil?

At camp I was mostly busy with all-day classes and evening rehearsals.  But back in the dorm, during the rare moments off and alone, the quiet amplified the questions—How do you know God is good?  And if He is not; if, in fact, He is the opposite of good, how can you entrust your soul to His untrustworthy care?  I froze.  I kept my bible close but didn’t dare read it, for fear it was filled with lies.

My solo piece that week was from Mendelssohn.  “O, Rest in the Lord,” I sang and did not do.  The performance garnered mixed reviews.  One instructor called the vocals solid; another described my interpretation as emotional vomit.  But afterwards, a girl from a loving atheist home, where bible reading was strictly forbidden, said that when I was singing, I looked like an angel.  I knew I was no cherub, but maybe there was one with me.

The next week I was back home and, though telling no one, still anguished by the ugly probing—How can you be sure that God is God, and not the other?  At spring festival I had sat at the piano and joined the Baptist minister’s daughter in a pop anthem about the loving arms of God.  Now I couldn’t even bring myself to stand up and pray, since doing so would bring me closer to the One who might not be the friend I thought.  It was like I suddenly knew nothing, except that this tension of indecision was unsustainable.  Roman Catholics, old-time holy rollers, and modern-day prophetics all report extraordinary manifestations of the enemy exorcised—ectoplasm on the platform, demons swirling above, parishioners puking.  Hearing these stories, once upon a time, I could almost imagine the excitement of getting so far forward in faith, right to the cutting edge of the holy war, that I could actually see the battle.  But I found out early on that the spirit world was too much for me.  Hit with my first whammy, I reeled.  I couldn’t tell up from down.

So I turned aside, to a friend in the flesh and in the faith, someone just outside the prophetic fold but tolerant toward those within, and understanding of my urgent need to borrow another’s belief, to grasp the Body visible.  The friend in word and deed gave me a tape; I popped it in the deck and stopped thinking for myself.  And as I listened to a folky guy sing his soft-rock prayers to an awesome God, heard his musical request for help to stand on the promise, identified with his plea for grace even as he fell from it, the sword of the Spirit, wielded acoustically, did its work.  The darkness returned to hell without me, and I was back in the light, free to pray and read and trust again.

As summer waned, I got my driver’s license, went school-shopping for MC Hammer pants, and was, in a brief phone call, summarily dismissed by the actress friend I’d long liked:  “Scott, No.”  I also followed The Fellowship’s tradition of being baptized in an above-ground pool.  Before getting dipped, I made my public statement of faith:  “I’ve been following the Lord for a few years now, and I’ve decided I’m going to follow Him forever, and I’m never turning back.”  Coming out of the water, I mugged euphoria.  Some ingénues giggled, a football player defended my sincerity.  But the girls were right.  I had hoped that immersion, Jesus-people style, would provide a mystical moment.  When it didn’t, I affected one.  Some of us left the after-baptism party to head off to our second youth group.  There I chatted with the gentle associate pastor who never raised his voice, even when he jokingly referred to me and my ilk as The Charismaniacs.  He told me his believer’s baptism had been a truly spiritual experience and asked if mine was as well.  I didn’t affect my response:  “No.”

In the weeks to come, though I had aborted attempts at tongues, and resolved to avoid the whole prophecy thing, I was less successful at explaining my hesitations to the prophets, miserable as I was, then as now, at answering challenging questions to defend my point.  They cared about me, they said, and did not want me to miss out on whatever God had for me.  I believed them.  And, without lapsing into relativism, believe still that experiences which may, for me, remain mystifying, might be, for others, the manna of God.  Despite all that we can know with great conviction—by the power of the Spirit to illuminate the Word—we still don’t know so much, about the mind of God, or the hearts of others or ourselves.  So it behooves us bible-believers to overcome our quibbles and unite around our common confession, our unique definition of the human condition:  we are sinners in need of a Savior, and Jesus is all there is.  But He’ll do.

Unfortunately, when I first stepped away from that world, my black-and-white thinking offered little grace toward anyone who did not agree with my latest assessment of who spoke for God and how.  (Sixteen-year-old presidents of their public school bible clubs are not known for nuance.)  I told myself I did the best I could, to be true to my beliefs, and unbelief; that I had no other choice but to break off, even if it hurt people.  But I came to regret the way in which, for the sake of self-preservation, I isolated myself from, first my friends, and eventually everyone; I wrote people off simply because I thought their theology was off; and I treated Christian brothers and sisters like enemies because I disagreed with the way they fought the enemy.

I’m glad that, over the years, as I somewhat reconnected with old friends from Jesus freak days, we found that we had all mellowed.  Realizing we may never be as godly as we once thought we were, we’ve been able to laugh at some things, overlook others, and be civil enough to not discuss our non-negotiables.  Perhaps that’s good enough for now and, later, we’ll all be roommates in heaven.

Sophomore year in college, I received a letter from a girl at choral camp four years before, when I was battling to believe in the goodness of God (and the badness of the devil), but still, apparently, going through the motions, which is not always a bad thing.  She wrote about a day I’d nearly put out of my mind, the night when a few of us were hanging out after a relaxation class, which I’d walked out of, decrying it as New Age.  The letter recounted the ensuing events pretty much as I then recalled them—how, back in my room, with a small group of interested parties, I shared my faith and the plan of salvation, quoting scripture from memory and singing the hymn I’d heard in a play:  “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling; Calling for you and for me . . . .”

Knowing nothing of the darker side of my story, she related the impact that evening had on hers.  She had, I did not know, accepted the soft call of our tender Lord, and ended up, a couple years later, at a student bible study on a faraway campus, running into another girl from choral camp and the night in my room.  She, too, had come to believe in the ballad of redemption, in the story of a God who stoops to sing, entrances the intractable, and wins them with a Word; though they doubt His power, spurn His grip, and cause divisions in the Family.  Even when sung by an average baritone whose faith is muted, the news breaks through:  It is finished.  The Giver is the gift.  Know that He is enough.  So God can get the glory, and we can get some rest.


Copyright © 2016 by L. Scott Ekstrom






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