I have experienced a number of “conversions” over the years. I grew up in a Christian home and accepted Jesus as my Savior at a young age. Summers spent as a counselor at the Christian camp for boys that my father directed were especially formative. They provided the opportunity to be discipled and to disciple.
I have continued to have a strong commitment to developing mentoring and discipling relationships. Rather than molding my theological thinking, my time at Wheaton College prepared the way for reflection that would come later. Perhaps most significantly I met and prayed with Christians from other traditions and denominations. This helped me realize that Christian orthodoxy was bigger than my dispensationalist background. During my sophomore year, some upperclassmen I worked with waxing floors invited me to pray with them during our break. Those times of prayer and those new friends had a tremendous impact on my spiritual life. They also brought me to a point of crisis. I knew that my friends, when not at Wheaton under “the pledge,” did things counter to the assumed rules of Christian conduct at my church. A few months earlier I would have found it hard to consider someone who did “X” activity a Christian. Now I found people who did that activity having a more significant impact on my Christian life than anyone at my home church ever had. By necessity I had to either change my definition of Christianity, or separate from these new friends. I read and pondered Romans 14, and concluded that my legalism was the problem. This did not lead to any changes in my behavior, but it did give me a critical attitude toward legalism. A few days before the start of my senior year, I visited a friend who had just graduated from Wheaton. Tim Larkin introduced me to the poverty of the Chicago neighborhood he lived and worked in. The train ride back to Wheaton was a trip from urban poverty to suburban wealth. I could not escape the question; How can Christians here live in comfort, freely spending money on luxuries, when close-by in Chicago, Christians struggled in poverty? The issue of lifestyle and materialism consumed me.
A year later I was living among the poor of Honduras which served to increase my desire to live more simply so that I would have more to share with those around me. Eventually I came to understand that the importance of this issue is not only to aid the poor, but also to help richer Christians with our enslavement to materialism. Living in Central America from 1979-1983, gave me a new sensitivity to the biblical emphasis on justice and led me to understand the gospel as more than just an individualistic message of spiritual salvation. I arrived in Honduras with a simplistic view of the world. Living in Central America, and specifically visiting El Salvador, caused this perspective to crumble. The conflict in El Salvador confused my neat categories. I could not label either side as the “good guys.” Talking with refugees who had experienced the violence of the war persuaded my “guts” that pacifism was the appropriate Christian response. Reading Jacques Ellul’s Violence From a Christian Perspective convinced my head.
Although when I left Honduras in 1983, I had clarity on this issue of violence, I was confused and angry about many other things. Why was God allowing the violence and suffering to continue? Why were evangelicals not doing more to address the root causes of poverty in Central America? I spent a semester at The Oregon Extension of Houghton College. Conversations with the professors and books they pointed me to were tremendously helpful. They recommended more Ellul, and suggested I study Habakkuk. Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly was one of the most important books I read at that time. Although in college I thought I had left behind the legalism of my youth, these professors and authors helped me see my self-righteousness. I had simply replaced one set of rules for another more justice-oriented set of rules. They also spoke continually of God’s grace, which I experienced in a more profound way. Over the next few years I continued to become more attracted to Anabaptism by reading books by Will Campbell and Vernard Eller, and interacting with Mennonites in Central America. The Anabaptist emphasis on community became especially compelling to my wife and I. When we moved to Durham, North Carolina in 1992, we were grateful to have the opportunity to become involved in a Mennonite Church. In the face of the increased suffering I witnessed in Honduras from 1989-1992, clichés about God’s protection and God being in control seemed empty. I observed that such beliefs often lead people to either self-condemnation or to anger with God. Many Hondurans viewed suffering as punishment. I turned more and more to the cross and emphasized God’s suffering with us. In my teaching in the 1980s I had placed significant emphasis on social action and helping the poor.
Recently in Honduras I have been most motivated to bring a message of freedom to both those enslaved by religious legalism and to those weary from trying to achieve their righteousness by helping the poor. Now I believe the best thing I can do for people is help them, in the context of Christian community, experience the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. I still give Bible studies on justice, and I am actively involved in helping the poor. But my words and deeds are now in a different key, and more and more I understand how spirituality and social action, evangelism and doing justice cannot be separated or even seen as distinct activities. Perhaps the most significant event in my Christian life was experiencing God’s grace in a more profound way in the mid 1980s. I have come, however, to see the importance of not just experiencing God’s grace, but of experiencing a gracious God. Parenting, ministry in Honduras, and four years of doctoral study have provided many opportunities to see my short-comings and to suffer pain, confusion and shame. Yet as I have come to have a deeper relationship with the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ, I have found greater freedom and peace and the ability to be more honest and transparent thus permitting me to have more authentic relationships with people around me.