The Rise & Fall of Faith

Excerpt: Chapter One

The Gym-Kitchen Prayer That Changed My Life

Fifteen hours down. Eleven to go. Trying to catch a little sleep on the floor of a crowded bus is a tireless endeavor . . . Somehow my legs were cramping even as they were going numb. My twisted body tightly molded to the cold damp surface; it pressed around a forest of iron posts. The stench of sweat and stale Doritos steeped in the lingering fog from which I fought for breath. I begged the screeching drumbeat in my head to allow me even a couple hours’ sleep, though I realized my slumber’s greater threat was the compounding army of anticipations that raced for the repeated airtime on the big-screen amphitheater of my mind.

I opened my eyes. An epic relay of illuminations formed a dancing glow on the mangled chicken sandwich that lay just a few feet out of reach. I think that’s when the orphaned football tottered down the aisle . . .

I found footing for my hands and pushed my torso one side over the other, pulling my legs from their pinned formation underneath the seat two rows back. Refashioning my folded jacket, I settled my head once more under the seat in front of me as the sheath of stubborn vinyl flooring pressed itself through my makeshift pillow. I closed my eyes and returned to the kaleidoscope of future memories as our youth group’s charter bus churned diligently through twilight acreage. Saint Cloud, Minnesota to Washington, DC.

And here is where my story begins.

On a charter bus stuffed with teenagers and their overly eager chaperones. The year was 1994 and it was only about a month before the freshman portion of my high school experience was set to begin. I was on my way to what had been billed as a “peer evangelism super-conference.” And it was surely going to be a big deal. Organized by an influential group of evangelicals called Youth for Christ, the super-conference was designed to get believing high schoolers so excited about Jesus that their obsession with him would spread through social circles as effortlessly and organically as an American Top 40 radio hit or a must-have pair of Girbaud jeans. References would be made toward contagious Christianity, that when our faith is healthy it spreads like a pro-life God virus that saves instead of harms, rescuing the entire world from the grips of hell. And in this effort, the conference promised to supply the training and tools needed to get teens especially serious about a lifestyle of evangelism—that is to say, about the development of their Jesus excitement and of sharing that excitement with others.

Anyway, I was one of about twenty kids from my home church, located in the small central Minnesota town of Milaca—joined by what felt like about 178 other kids from other Saint Cloud–area churches—all packed together in a stuffy bus on our way to Washington, DC. There, we would attend the conference and get really excited about this evangelism stuff and the sharing of our contagious Christian faith with others.

The name of the super-conference was DC/LA ’94. The event was so named because it took place in two locations, with the other being way on the other side of the country in the City of the Angels, or, as they say in Spanish, Los Angeles.

You could say the real meat of the five-day event was its robust schedule of hundreds of training seminars and workshops. But like so many message-based gatherings, what drew the most attention was its nightly concerts with big-name headliner bands and a barrage of bestselling authors and motivational speakers. Or, at least they were big names within the evangelical community. If you’d spent any time in that world during the mid-1990s, you likely knew their names well, including DC Talk, Petra, and the Newsboys, and Josh McDowell, Tony Campolo, and the family-friendly comic Ken Davis. They were all there, along with more than twenty others. On top of this, a “True Love Waits” rally for sexual abstinence was planned for that Saturday afternoon on the National Mall. DC/ LA ’94—or at least the DC part—promised to be the most epic Jesus event of the year.

But to be perfectly honest, when I first signed up I was much more interested in a parent-free week’s vacation than in a religious-training seminar. This would be the farthest from home that my limited travels had taken me. And I didn’t have much of a social life, even by junior high standards, so the idea of spending a week traveling the country and hanging out with a group of high schoolers who were

all much cooler than I was beyond exhilarating. It was a fantasy-perfect mid-July getaway.

So that night as our bus trekked its way to the capital, my ability to catch a few hours’ sleep didn’t stand a chance against the anticipations churning within my head. The imaginative flow was rather ceaseless as my mind found it more than a little difficult to power down. There were just a few too many expectations burning for fuel. Yet even in the ceaseless flow of vibrant dreams, I really had no idea just how much this conference was about to change my life.

When we arrived at our budget-friendly motel, we discovered that our reservation was one of many lost in the previous week’s power outage. But there was good news. Our would-be motel scrambled to fix the situation by finding accommodations elsewhere for all the lost reservation holders. As a result, our group found lodging at some place named the Stouffer Renaissance Mayflower Hotel.

Turned out that this place where we were about to stay was absolutely legendary. Built in 1792, it was known everywhere simply as The Mayflower and was regarded as the Grande Dame of Washington. A hotel of four stars and four diamonds, it wasn’t merely rated one of the nation’s top ten, but had been declared “The Hotel of Presidents.”

Until then, my most thrilling hotel experiences had been Holiday Inn swimming pools. But here at The Mayflower we discovered rooms with imported Italian marble countertops and one of those cool minibars that up until then I had only seen in the movies. There was a closet filled with embroidered white robes made of the softest material I had ever previously touched, and one of the three telephones was located in the bathroom so you could order room service while sitting on a great porcelain throne. Here we were, with our week just getting started, and it was already the most exciting of my life.

Then we discovered an Israeli ambassador was staying in our building to work on the peace treaty with Jordan. An ambassador and a peace treaty. In our building. I’m not sure I really knew what any of that meant, but it sounded fascinating and certainly larger than anything my daily routine was fit to encounter.

So that first morning we roamed the hotel in search of the Grand Ballroom used for presidential inauguration parties. But along the way, our original agenda fell victim to the wonder of gilded ceilings and fine sculpture. Determined to take in every inch of millwork, our expedition eventually teased us up every button on the elevator.

But as doors opened to the tenth-story penthouse, a flood of Secret Service– looking agents lunged toward our elevator—with two of them then joining us inside. They talked into their wrists as they escorted us all the way down to the basement, where our departure was insisted upon. When we asked how we were to get back up to the lobby, they pointed toward the staircase to the side as the elevator doors closed between us and them. Wide-eyed as we were, we didn’t mind the extra walk in the least. Each moment opened another fold in the map of an uncharted world.

Later that week, our elevator ride would be trumped by the glorious pomp of our Israeli friend’s departing motorcade, a spectacle of power that burned a fantastic image in my mind that has remained ever since. This was not farmland Minnesota. And we were certainly not on this trip for the religious education alone.

But none of this stuff about Middle Eastern ambassadors or our stay at The Mayflower really had anything to do with what changed my life forever. Neither did our growing collection of Dream Team commemorative basketball cups picked up at every McDonald’s along our trip. Though I do believe I had seventeen of them by the end . . .

No, to get to the part of the trip “that changed my life forever” we actually have to rewind our story a bit and back up to a few days before we even left for DC. I was sitting alone in the gymnasium kitchen of our small-town central Minnesota church reading through some of the conference’s promotional materials—specifically, about all the techniques the conference promised to teach us as we won the world for Christ.

But what DC/LA ’94 promised above all else was to light an inner fire within us.

It would infuse within our souls the desire and motivation needed to utilize these new tools, overcome our fears, and actively convince our friends to trust in Jesus. The conference would be nothing less than transformational. And the brochure glistened with its every word.

It all sounded great, I guess. The only problem was that as I read over all that was promised me, I didn’t believe any of it.

Did I accept the theological need for evangelism, that it was up to us to get people saved by telling them about Christ? Yes. Did I believe that many of my friends and family were otherwise bound for hell? Yes. Did I want them to accept Jesus and go to heaven? Yes! I was an evangelical Bible-believing Christian, so of course I did!

But at the same time, the idea of talking to others about my faith seemed absolutely terrifying, and I didn’t believe for a moment that there was anything a prepackaged program could do to change it.

See, I was kind of a nerd in junior high.

No, actually there’s no kind-of about it. I was a total nerd, and I was the worst kind of a nerd. I was something of a wannabe. And honestly, I really truly deserved the moniker.

You know what a wannabe is. Someone who’s “wanting to be” cool and trying way too hard to fit in with the popular crowd. Emphasize the words “trying way too hard.” Well, that was me. And I was reminded of it every day of junior high.

As everyone gathered in the halls before school, I would go stand next to the cool kids. I would just stand there and silently search for something to say, something to contribute to the conversation. But not wanting to say something stupid, I usually just stood there without a word, looking dumb and feeling awkward. On occasion, I would make a brave move and stumble out something profound like “Yeah” or “Exactly.” And it usually received a response of “Hey, who asked you!! In fact, who gave this wannabe permission to even stand over here!? Get the hell outta here and go join the other dorks and losers!”

But if nothing else, I was resilient. I didn’t leave. Even when physically pushed to the side, I just stood there. Ignoring their request for permission papers, I looked to the floor and just hoped they would forget I was still there. Day after day and week after week. Year after year. I just couldn’t go over to the other nerds and dorks. I honestly figured they’d just reject me as well, so if there was risk either way, I reasoned I might as well stay put. I didn’t want to be known as a wannabe, but I did wannabe cool, and well, this kind of got me stuck in a rut that I couldn’t quite figure my way out of.

Not that I didn’t have any friends at all. I spent a bit of time with a couple kids from my church youth group. One of them, Bruce, would become a very close friend over the next couple years. We’d hang out regularly, pull pranks, make these comedic videos. Bruce had tons of friends and would one day be crowned homecoming king. But I wasn’t good enough for them. Even my only friend’s other friends blocked me from the rest of their circle.

But here’s why I’m telling you all this: as I read the conference materials that afternoon, I knew within my soul that I could never jeopardize even the slightest chance at popularity, even if it was for the noble pursuit of saving souls. I just didn’t have it in me. Being a religious nut would certainly add one more strike against my already lousy social reputation. I knew in my head that salvation was infinitely more important than a popularity contest, but I also knew that my heart and its ambitions were twisted out of alignment. As important as eternal things were, I couldn’t escape how condemned my reputation would be if I started proselytizing to everybody. And yet I did genuinely want my family members and classmates to be in heaven with me. I just couldn’t fathom having the inner strength to risk my own popularity to get them there.

So standing there that afternoon in the church’s gym kitchen, I did it.

I stood there and prayed.

I prayed to God, and I dared him.

I laid out before God my dilemma, reminding him of what I understood to be his instructions and confessing my heart’s simple unwillingness to follow orders. And then I dared him to change it. I literally prayed:

God, I dare you to use this conference to change this about me. I want the strength to tell people about Jesus, but I just don’t think I ever could. I care too much about what they think of me, and the idea of sacrificing that is terrifying. But I also want it to change. If you are God, I dare you to show yourself in this way. I dare you to change me.

I really did pray all of this. I also told him that I wasn’t sure he could do it. That though I didn’t necessarily think it impossible for him to spark such a change in my psyche, I also didn’t expect it to happen. Yet nonetheless, I wanted it and challenged him to make it happen.

But I honestly didn’t think he would. I moved on from that gymnasium kitchen and forgot about the prayer. I really did forget all about it. I went to the conference and never gave that gym-kitchen prayer a second thought. It wasn’t until afterward that I saw connected dots.

In the years to follow I would view this as one of the most transformative prayers of my life. This experience would provide the foundation by which I would encourage others of faith to dare God to do big things. To look at the obstacles they faced, especially those they thought God unlikely to remove, and to challenge him to get up and do something. Don’t be scared to dare God, I would say. He’s a Big Boy. He can handle it.

As it turned out, I received everything promised by the super-conference on student evangelism. All the resources. And, more notably, all the motivation. Without even realizing it, throughout the week, day by day, all my fears were replaced with an impenetrable trust in God’s bigger plan. I was placed “on mission” for Jesus. I tapped into an inner ravine of bold spiritual courage. And I discovered a greater thrill in striving as an ambassador of Christ than in striving to be cool enough for a beloved social circle. It didn’t all materialize quite so literally overnight, but the building blocks fell into place just that quickly. The journey of discipleship had begun.

And all that I dared of God in that gym-kitchen prayer, he erupted upon my soul. Just two weeks after I came home from Washington, DC, I sat down with a guy from football practice to tell him he had to accept Jesus into his life. I was determined in my presentation, and I refused to take no for an answer. However, the interaction didn’t go quite as I had planned. He didn’t accept my invitation to faith right away. So I tried another angle. He refused again. Undeterred, I kept going. I railed and railed and railed until he gave in. But he never did. He instead ran from the meeting, cursing me as some sort of cult member. From then on, he maintained a physical distance from me throughout high school. But none of that mattered. Yes, his rejection was disappointing, but I felt invigorated by the fact that the rejection didn’t suffocate me. I had become strong enough to care more about someone’s eternity than about my own acceptance. And it felt transcendent. I felt invincible. The transformation of my life had begun.

Questions for the Dialogue

We’re just beginning the story here and there’s a lot more to come, but let’s begin with a basic self-assessment.

For Everyone

  • Take a moment to consider: Are you entering into this book with an open mind that is truly willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to the other side? Or are you simply here to justify your own preconclusions and looking for evidence to discredit your opponent? (Confidence in your perspective isn’t necessarily bad, so be honest about your current state of mind.)
  • Do you find yourself able to take the story at face value, trusting that events really happened as they are presented, or do you suspect the story has been adulterated in some way for the benefit of some ulterior motive? If the later, why?

For Believing Christians

  • We already know that the young teen in this story is eventually going to become an atheist. In your opinion, does this discredit his faith as a teenager? If so, how?
  • What is the best explanation for this teenager’s prayer of confession and his “dare” to God? Do you feel it was genuine? And what is the best explanation for his sudden growth of boldness to tell his friends about Jesus? Was it answered prayer or possibly something else? What similarities might you find between his story and your own?
  • Do you have preconceived notions about atheists? If so, are they positive or negative? What would it take to not automatically stereotype or assume the worst in an atheist?

For Atheists and Skeptics

  • Do you have preconceived notions about atheists? If so, are they positive or negative? What would it take to not automatically stereotype or assume the worst in an atheist?
  • We already know that the young teen in this story is eventually going to become an atheist. How do you process his prayer “dare” to God and its apparent fulfillment? If God didn’t answer that prayer, how could it appear as if he did?
  • Do you feel the need to automatically assume the worst in the actions of all religious people, such as those who organized the conference? Do you find yourself looking for ulterior motives? If so, why?
  • If you believed you knew the absolute truth about something, a truth that you believed could literally save lives, would you or would you not choose to share it? If so, why or why not?
  • Do you have preconceived notions about Christians? If so, are they positive or negative? What would it take to not automatically stereotype or assume the worst in a Christian?