Editor's note:

What hap­pens when a boy who loves adven­ture dis­cov­ers he’s been invit­ed into the very life of God? Renovaré’s board chair, Jonathan Bai­ley, reveals some of his faith jour­ney in this month’s issue of Chris­tian­i­ty Today.

—Carolyn Arends
Director of Education, Renovaré

I grew up as a pastor’s kid, the third of four chil­dren. Or was it fourth? For years I believed I was born 30 sec­onds before my iden­ti­cal twin, Josh. But he recent­ly chal­lenged this 33-year-old fact, turn­ing the Bai­ley fam­i­ly world order upside-down.

Josh and I were adven­tur­ous and inde­pen­dent twins who made the sub­urbs of North Dal­las our play­ground. The flame of our adven­tur­ous spir­it was fanned by our old­er broth­er, Jere­my. Togeth­er we want­ed to take risks and expe­ri­ence them first­hand. I wasn’t con­tent to just watch Indi­ana Jones and the Tem­ple of Doom. I had to be Indi­ana Jones. I need­ed to wade through the creeks behind my house, build rope swings, and explore sew­ers. And not with a flash­light, but by tying my shirt to a stick, dip­ping it in gaso­line, and light­ing it on fire.

As a boy, I lis­tened intent­ly to my dad recount some of the great­est adven­ture sto­ries ever told: Noah and his ark, David defeat­ing a giant, and Joshua shout­ing down walls. These men expe­ri­enced wild adven­ture, and God, first­hand. My long­ing for inti­ma­cy with God was born from sto­ry time with my dad.

Dad pas­tored a non­de­nom­i­na­tion­al, charis­mat­ic — or, as he liked to say, Hap­py-Bap­tist — church. It was our family’s sec­ond home. BB gun shootouts com­mon­ly took place in the vacant sanc­tu­ary. Josh and I raced the pet­ting-zoo minia­ture ponies around the park­ing lot after the fall car­ni­val and learned how to do donuts in our youth pastor’s car before we could legal­ly drive.

When I got a lit­tle old­er, I threw myself into the behind-the-scenes work of our youth group. My broth­er and I made announce­ment videos and hooked up light­ing and fog machines for our Wednes­day night ser­vices. I insist­ed on work­ing the sound booth, because it allowed me to avoid wor­ship­ing and watch oth­ers wor­ship instead.

As a teenag­er, I was pret­ty sure I believed God exist­ed, but with­out first­hand expe­ri­ence of him, Chris­tian­i­ty,” what­ev­er that meant, went in one ear and out the oth­er. I knew facts and Bible vers­es and how to say, Thank you, ma’am” to the old ladies who said they were pray­ing for me.

Then there was my arch neme­sis: the altar call. I had nev­er expe­ri­enced any mean­ing­ful or long-last­ing change after rais­ing my hand and repeat­ing a prayer, so over time, I came to loathe phras­es such as walk the aisle,” come for­ward,” raise your hand,” and repeat after me.” Each attempt at get­ting saved seemed to take life rather than give it. By high school, my belief sys­tem was that I didn’t want to go to hell but wasn’t too psy­ched about heav­en, either.

As my con­tempt for all things Chris­t­ian hard­ened, my church involve­ment actu­al­ly ramped up. At age 22, I became a sum­mer camp coun­selor along­side one of my best friends. We played sand vol­ley­ball, slung frogs into the lake, and pranked our youth pastor.

The final night of sum­mer camp, the guest pas­tor end­ed his ser­mon with an emo­tion­al altar call. Here we go again, I thought. I start­ed to zone out, until out of the cor­ner of my eye I saw my friend walk for­ward. More shock­ing than him walk­ing the aisle was the lat­er evi­dence that some­thing had hap­pened to him that night. He stopped drink­ing and par­ty­ing. He start­ed study­ing the Bible, vora­cious­ly read­ing Chris­t­ian books, and attend­ing church. Fur­ther, his behav­ior seemed to come not from oblig­a­tion but from love. He seemed to want to know God and learn from him and be like him. His coun­te­nance said it all. He had joy.

This was the oppo­site of what I had expe­ri­enced grow­ing up. The cycle usu­al­ly went some­thing like this: get saved in a burst of emo­tion, com­mit to Jesus for a few days or weeks, then let the devo­tion fade away. Every­one in our church seemed to sput­ter out, digress­ing into their old way of life until the next camp or spe­cial church event.

But not my friend. Month after month, like a flower in spring, he grew. I spent the next five months close­ly watch­ing him study and pray and seek Jesus. His com­mit­ment and love for God were unwa­ver­ing, and soon, a water­fall of hope washed over me. The thought seized me: Change is pos­si­ble. It’s actu­al­ly pos­si­ble.” It gave me hope that Chris­tian­i­ty could effect some­thing real in my life.

One morn­ing, an hon­est prayer began to spill out of me: God, I don’t love you. But I want to.” I wasn’t minc­ing words any­more. I knew what love felt like because I loved my mom, dad, broth­ers, and sis­ter. I felt noth­ing like that for God but want­ed to. I shared that prayer with my dad, and he prayed with me, nev­er judg­ing, accept­ing me where I was.

I lived with that prayer for weeks, drag­ging it around with me every­where I went, my dry heart soak­ing it in. Then one night every­thing changed.

It was ear­ly and still dark out­side. I was in a deep sleep, when sud­den­ly my eyes opened. I remem­ber feel­ing con­fused about why I was awake at 5 a.m. I lay silent­ly in the dark for a few sec­onds. Then I heard some­thing in my mind, dis­tinct and clear. It was like no oth­er thought I had had. It didn’t shout and it didn’t whis­per. I heard these words:

Get up, pick up your Bible, and sit down at your desk.”

My eyes widened and my pulse sped up. I lay there par­a­lyzed, and after a few moments, the ratio­nal side of my brain con­vinced me I was mak­ing it up. I closed my eyes, try­ing to get back to sleep, but I couldn’t. The silence in the room was deaf­en­ing. The thought came again:

Get up, pick up your Bible, and sit down at your desk.”

I had heard enough Bible sto­ries and lis­tened to enough ser­mons to know it was time to pay atten­tion. I got up, embraced the ear­ly morn­ing chill, and found my Bible, which had been col­lect­ing dust under a lamp on my night­stand. I grabbed it and sat down at my desk. I stared at it for some time. Unsure of what to do next, it seemed clear I need­ed to open it, so I picked a ran­dom spot.

In this instance, Bible roulette seemed to be God’s way of get­ting my atten­tion. I peeled back the pages. There I was, my heart and the Scrip­tures wide open. In this moment every­thing around me blurred, and life seemed to come to a halt. I looked down to see the Gospel of Matthew, chap­ter 22, verse 37. I read:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

Like the destruc­tion of a great dam, the flood waters of God’s love crashed into me. In that moment, my sec­ond­hand spir­i­tu­al­i­ty became first­hand. My know­ing about God was replaced with know­ing God, and like my friend’s expe­ri­ence, the change was permanent.

Short­ly after my ren­dezvous with God, I devel­oped a new rou­tine of wak­ing up ear­ly to drink cof­fee and read. I was thumb­ing through some of my dad’s books when I opened Dal­las Willard’s The Spir­it of the Dis­ci­plines and read a line that pin­point­ed the pain and dis­con­nect I had felt grow­ing up in church: Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty wrong­ly under­stood or pur­sued is a major source of human mis­ery and rebel­lion against God.”

Yes. I had it all wrong. Chris­t­ian faith wasn’t about going to church, being a moral­ly good per­son, believ­ing the right things, or hav­ing some emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence. It was about God’s love fill­ing and free­ing me.

Since that day 13 years ago, I’ve read every­thing writ­ten by Willard (even­tu­al­ly becom­ing board chair of Ren­o­varé, which pro­vides prac­ti­cal resources for cul­ti­vat­ing a life that makes us like Jesus from the inside out) and have ded­i­cat­ed my life to appren­tice­ship with Jesus. That doesn’t mean faith has been easy, but it has been the most thrilling adven­ture of my life. Bat­tling habits of pride, anger, lust, and glut­tony has become an adven­ture, so much so that creeks and sew­ers pale in com­par­i­son. I have start­ed suc­cess­ful busi­ness­es with my twin broth­er, always the risk-tak­ers. I have a beau­ti­ful fam­i­ly; I have also buried a child. Through the joy and the pain, Jesus has shared his eter­nal life with me, fill­ing and free­ing me.

Today I not only feel the fierce and unflinch­ing love of God but in some small mea­sure, I’m mak­ing my own advance into love — becom­ing love, draw­ing ever clos­er to that sweet soci­ety we call the Trin­i­ty. That’s it. That’s what my life is about. That’s the adven­ture I’m on.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Chris­tian­i­ty Today (April 2016) and used with the author’s permission.

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