By John W. Burgeson
(minor cosmetic changes January, 2003 and updated February, 2008)
I Peter 3:15 reads:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, …
In this essay. I set forth the reason I am a Christian, and what that means to me.
I begin with where I am today on my spiritual journey. I am a member of the Rico Community (PCUSA) Church in Rico, Colorado, but have moved recently to Houston, Texas and have not yet found a church home. Previous church affiliations were with Montview Presbyterian in Denver, and First Presbyterian in Durango. My beloved brother, Paul, is a long time Lutheran (ELCA) pastor in Ohio, my esteemed second son Samuel is a Southern Baptist minister in Texas and Carol, my cherished wife of 49 years, is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA, She graduated with the Mdiv degree at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver in 2003 and served as the mission pastor at the Rico Community Church from November 2004 to December 2006..
I was reading the PCUSA Book of Order (the husband of a PCUSA minister sometimes has unconventional reading material) and came on the section where nine questions are put to candidates for ordination. I address below questions 1, 2 and 6.
Q1. Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledging him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Q2. Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?
Q6. Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?
I became a Christian in 1962, in one of six epiphanies I can identify in my life. I have enthusiastically said “yes” to question #1 ever since that time. It is my stance today; it is my intent that it be my stance for the rest of my life. I regard my relationship with Jesus Christ to be at all times and in all places the most important priority in my life.
When I became a Christian, I knew little about scripture, so my answer to #2 is necessarily derivative. My answer is, today, “yes,” and I see no reasons that should ever change. I would probably add the terms “applicable for faith and practice” were I to reword it. Carol and I hold scripture in reverence, reading aloud from it each morning.
My answer to #6 is also “yes.” But I need to say more.
When I became a Christian, three things seemed to be paramount in accepting this new worldview. The first two were self-related, being in worship every Sunday and observing the biblical notion of the tithe. The third, inspired probably by the book of James, was to be involved in service (servanthood) to others. Observing the first two is, of course, just being supportive to the faith community in which I am involved; the third one requires more thought. Over the years there have been many servanthood opportunities; some I have taken, some I have not. Besides serving in the church and being youth leaders, SS teachers, occasional fill-ins for the preacher, etc. we were together active in the Civil Rights movement of the early to mid 60s. We wanted to “change the world,” and so we did that, not the whole world for everybody, of course, but the whole world for three persons, as we adopted and raised to adulthood three orphans from Korea along with our other five children. That phase of our life being over, we have looked for other ways to serve, mission trips to Haiti, Panama and Mexico, serving as foster parents, serving meals in a soup kitchen, political posts, etc. In Denver, my own outlet was Habitat for Humanity, working in construction with them twice weekly. In Durango, I served on the board and volunteered at the Food Bank. Now, in Houston, my intent is to follow with both these ministries.. Why Habitat for Humanity? Frederick Buechner once wrote: “The place God calls you to be is the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need.“ (A SEEKER’ ABC, 1993, page 119). For me, H4H is that place.
I spoke of “six epiphanies.” For those who do not accept the concept of “previenient grace,” perhaps there were only three, for the first three happened to me long before I became a Christian and had to do with (1) my intellectual directions, (2) my career choice and (3) my life mate. I will pass over these.
Raised in the Lutheran (ELCA) church, and confirmed at age 12, by the time I left High School I was an atheist. I know I broke my mother’s heart when I was a college student. She asked if I were reading the church magazine she was faithfully sending; I replied that I was not and that she might as well save her money. In all my college years I remember darkening the church doorway exactly twice. When my dad was very ill and thought to be about gone, I remember a conversation with the minister at the hospital. It was not my finest hour.
At age 26, after a two-year career as a physicist making war machines for the government, my childhood sweetheart and I were married. I was then well on my way to a successful career in computers with IBM. Son #1 came along in the second year and suddenly Carol was leaving me on Sunday mornings (with our son) for worship. This bugged me, but no more than that. Then one night she confided in me that I was not the #1 love of her life – Jesus Christ was. This hit me between the eyes. But I could live with that; after all she was just in love with an ideal.
Something that obviously meant a lot to Carol, however, had to be taken seriously. I had been career-oriented for so many years, I had never thought much about ultimate questions. So I determined to do what I always did (and still do) in such circumstances, study the issues. And study of the spiritual can be a dangerous thing to a brash young atheist. By 1960 I had become a deist. I did not know it then, but I was following the same path CS Lewis had followed 32 years earlier.
Having determined that the God-concept was more rational than atheism, I was not altogether pleased, for I thought the world could have been made a lot nicer! But, of course, I had not been asked about this! < G >
The person of Jesus Christ was the next hurdle. Like Lewis, I began attending worship (and even SS classes). At one time Carol and I attended a series of classes at a nearby Lutheran church (Missouri Synod). I’m a good student; I aced the classes. The pastor assumed I’d then join the church; I told him that understanding the material was in no way the same as thinking it true. He urged me to join anyway, and nearly lost me to the faith altogether, for if I joined I’d have to assent to that in which I did not believe. If this was Christianity (assenting to something one did not believe in), a pox upon it.
About that time I began to have discussions with the God I doubted could (would) hear me. Usually, these took place when I drove my treasured 1946 Jaguar drophead coupe to work. I remember telling him that I did not believe in this Jesus, and that I saw no rational way in which I might believe, and that if he was as powerful as the preachers told me, he’d have to do the job. I was at that point willing to believe, but still an unbeliever.
Telling God you are willing is a risky business for a young deist. The epiphany came to me one evening as I sat on our sofa, conversing with a visiting pastor. It was so unexpected that to this day it amazes me. At one point in the conversation he asked me what I thought of Jesus Christ. Much to my amazement, my mind and mouth both assented to the classical Christian proposition that he was the very Son of God, and was, indeed, my savior. It has been over 45 years since that event; I can still hold it in my mind clearly. It parallels in almost every respect CS Lewis’s epiphany on September 28, 1931, while riding in his brother's motorcycle sidecar to Whipsnade zoo. When Lewis set out, he writes, he was not a Christian. When he arrived, he was. When I sat down that evening, I was not a Christian. When I arose, I was.
Since 1962, we have been blessed, because of frequent career moves, to be part of many faith communities. Each of these has taught us new facets of the Christian life. We began as members of a rural Evangelical United Brethren (now merged with the Methodists) congregation. It was there I discovered the truth of I John 3:14, which reads (Berkeley):
We know that we have passed from death into life, because we love the brothers.”
I looked around that small sanctuary one Sunday morning and was suddenly struck by the undeniable fact that I LOVED these country folks, where heretofore I did not do so. Where did this “unnatural” care for their well-being and happiness come from? Not an epiphany, but certainly (to me) a confirmation that my embracing Christianity had to be on the right track.
In our travels, we were always attending “The church of Holy Proximity,” for whatever denomination we were at the time was never available to us at the new location. We have been with the Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers), two independent churches, Orthodox Presbyterian, Evangelical Covenant (Swedish), Church of God Anderson, Southern Baptist, Nazarene and five different PCUSA fellowships. We have learned much from each of these. Each has their specific strengths and weaknesses. In my view, while there are obvious differences of ritual, worship, culture and tradition, there is not a dime’s worth of difference between any of them when it comes to faith essentials. I find the Presbyterian Church (USA) to be well suited to my understanding of God as it encourages intellectual questioning, accepts diversity and governs itself in a way that promotes the responsibilities of the membership. The local UCC church here in Houston, being an “open and affirming fellowship,” is also appealing.
While I John 3:14 has always been “my” verse, there is a second one that appeals very much; one I have spoken on many times. This is John 14:21; in the Berkeley version it reads
He who has my orders, and observes them, loves me.
And he who loves me, will be loved by my father,
I, too, shall love him, and show [manifestation] myself to him.
On my web site, www.burgy.50megs.com, there is a story about one of these manifestations, one of my epiphanies. I have never written about the last epiphany; someday, perhaps, I will. But it is very personal. And very very real. I can compare it only to that of Blaise Pascal, and his experience during the evening of Nov 23, 1654. He was able to write about his, but seems never to have shared it with anyone else until his writing was found, sewn in his jacket, after his passing from this life into glory.
To God be the glory.
Thank you for reading this.
John Burgeson (Burgy)