My journey to faith

I will share some very personal and intimate spiritual encounters in how I came to faith and into vocational ministry. I did not think I would ever do this so publicly on my blog and I don’t know why I’m doing this now… but here it goes.

As a teenager, I was raised an evangelical and attended a small Asian church in Vancouver. I remember wondering to myself in Sunday school class if God was real. The teacher was speaking like God was personal and real; she sounded authentic.  I had not yet experienced God for myself in a personal way.  I said to myself that if God was real, I needed to know God more.

Was it a fate or calling?  That day came.  It was at a Pentecostal summer teen camp somewhere between Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. I was about 15 years old.  I remember distinctly being filled with the Holy Spirit.  This was my coming to faith in Christ.  This cannot be fully explained or understood using words.  It was a spiritual experience–an existential moment that I will never forget.  God poured his Spirit into this teenage boy.

At summer camp, I saw teenagers on their knees.  I hadn’t seen that before.  They were praying.   Seriously praying.  There was no kidding around with them.  They weren’t looking down at their hand-held games and pretending to pray; no, they were praying like serious business, like God was real to them.  This caught my attention and interest.  In church, adults were the ones who did the praying, so it was my first time seeing young people praying this–and praying together in a large group.  A totally new thing to me.

It caused me to wonder and ponder if I was missing something in my life.  I remember telling God:

“God, if you are real, please make yourself real to me.  I want to know that you are real…that you really exist…and that you care about me.”

I looked up to see if anyone stopped praying; nobody stopped praying.  So I continued to pray and asked God to show me if He was real.  Give me sign that you want to make yourself known to me in a personal way.

Then I began to feel a tingling sensation come over my body. It was like 10,000 volts of electricity. This sensation started in my hands.  It spread to my arms, then covered my entire body.  I was covered with God’s presence and filled to the brim.  It was an electrifying experience–literally.  How can I describe this?  It felt like a warm sensation, like as if I was set on fire.  I now knew that Acts 2 was real. (similar initial experience like this priest)

The summer camp speaker, a pastor, spoke prophetically and authoritatively–spiritually speaking.  He told us, “God is here in this place and is making himself real to you.  He can make himself known to you in a variety of ways.”  That was God’s way of making himself known to me that left me without any doubt about his existence in this universe, and in my life.

I realized then, on the spot, that God was real.  No more doubts.  The Holy Spirit filled me with his love and presence.  I was caught by surprise and started weeping and sobbing with tears of joy.  I don’t cry easily but it was the Spirit moving within in a very powerful way that was “out of this world.”  I was oblivious to everything around me and didn’t care if anyone saw me weeping.  In that moment in time, it was a holy moment; it was God and me together.  I told God with a new found love that I would serve him forever.

God gifted me with a real presence that day.  He poured faith into me.  Where I once questioned God’s existence, I no longer had doubts concerning His existence. God became very personal and tangible to me.   I also realized the severity of my own sins, and experienced God’s love and kindness toward me, and of his mercy and forgiveness.

I had learned all this stuff in church and Sunday school but it had never really sunk in until that day.  God became real to me through a real revelation of God, in that holy moment at church teen camp.

1984 Vancouver CrusadeAnother experience. I was 16 years old when evangelist Rev. Billy Graham came to BC Place Stadium in Vancouver for a series of evangelistic meetings. Each night, he would give an invitation to come down to the front–an old-fashioned evangelical altar call.  I still remember Rev Graham quoting from Matt 10:33, “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.”

That was enough to motivate me to want to acknowledge Jesus in front of thousands in the stadium.  I decided to publicly acknowledge Christ. Upon mustering some courage, I walked down to the front.  It was both a ‘confession of faith’ and a personal commitment to walk with Christ.

Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Ottawa, I attended a Christian & Missionary Alliance church and made a personal decision to get baptized.   I remained engaged in Christian student clubs on campus (e.g., IVCF, Power to Change, etc.).  As a young adult, I continued worshiping at various denominational or non-denominational community churches.

After finishing a Master of Arts at Regent University (Virginia Beach, VA), I packed my things and moved to Toronto. I lived there for a number of years and found work in the financial field.

During this time, God led me into lay ministry by using my spare time to serve as a lay-pastoral leader in a small local ethnic Pentecostal church (English-speaking congregation). I did this for almost one year and did not have any expectation of ever being called to ministry.  This experience gave me a taste of what pastoral ministry was going to be like.

While in Toronto, I began attending a large charismatic church for a few years (Catch the Fire).  It expanded my experience of worship and my understanding of how the Holy Spirit worked in people, in the church and in the world.  Worship became more intimate for me. In that church, I felt I could almost touch the presence of God. Years later, my experience of worship would be shaped by structured worship with liturgy and comprehensive theology.  This charismatic experience played a huge part in shaping my theology of the Holy Spirit.

It was in that period of time in Toronto that I began to sense and contemplate God’s calling into full-time ministry.  My experience as a volunteer lay minister gave me an idea of what pastoral ministry could be like.  I began to reassess my life and pondered the idea that if I could do anything for the rest of my life, and money wasn’t a factor, what would I want to do?  My answer: pastoral ministry.

I began to explore the idea of pursuing some theological education in order to prepare myself for the challenges of vocational ministry.  I returned home to Saskatchewan and began inquiring with various seminaries.

My parents were attending a small bible study started by a local Lutheran seminarian and I visited the open house at Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTS).  This intern-seminarian also recommended this place.

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I began praying that God would show me the way.  One night, I had a dream.  In this dream, a white dove was perched on top of the letters ‘LTS’. This bird flew off, swirled around a few times, then very quickly, landed under my left arm. It jarred me awake. Both my legs shot up and I fully awoke.

I pondered: “Was this a nightmare or a sign from God? If this was just a nightmare, I have nothing to worry about.  But if this was a sign from God, I had better pay attention.”

That very next morning, I decided to visit the seminary a second time.  I had some questions to ask. I spoke with one fine professor who cared about ministry (who has now returned to parish ministry).  After our conversation, he encouraged me to apply and see where it would take me.

Throughout seminary and my discernment process, I had some enlightened ‘aha’ moments and also countless moments of doubt. I asked myself, “Do I belong here? Why don’t I just leave? I don’t know anything about liturgy or theology.”

I was not a born and bred Lutheran.  Most Lutherans are just born into the church and cannot recall a specific point in time when they had an existential spiritual experience in coming to faith.

I believe that God still gives people signs. God works in different ways in different people.  Some receive subtle signs.  Some are lightening-struck.  God’s calling comes to each of us in different ways and will be different for you.

For me personally, this sign of a white dove became a constant reminder of God’s calling to me. It kept me from veering off the path whenever I had doubts about whether to stay in seminary.

The rest is now history.  I thank the Lord for his direction, and for the guidance I received from God’s servants. Later, I would serve in several Lutheran congregations and Baptist congregations.  Today, I continue in my vocation serving as a chaplain. My experience, theology, and approach to ministry has expanded and grown in ways I never expected.

God’s calling is really about God

jesusfishermenMany church-going Christians seem disengaged today… disengaged in the sense that we are not living out an engaged relationship with Christ within the church.  Most Christians never move from the pew to service; but God calls each Christian to move into some form of service to Christ within, and outside, the church.  God gives us an internal “spiritual” calling to love and serve the Lord.

Many Christians become wrapped up in fear and a sense of inadequacy, and put up a wall between God and his calling. We feel more comfortable keeping God and His calling a safe distance from ourselves.  Why? Because we’ve been deceived  into thinking that it ought to begin with ourselves.  Today’s popular theology unwittingly teaches that this calling is about us… but it’s really NOT about us.  We are only participants but we act like we are the “star players in the game” of service and ministry.

One reason for our fears of inadequacy is that we think we have to measure up to God’s standards of holiness.  God’s calling is a holy calling.  We haven’t seriously considered God’s holy calling for what it really is because we think we have to first measure up to God’s standard of holiness.  The truth is: we don’t measure up, and no one ever will.  But God has already taken that into consideration and given us enough grace to walk into this calling and see it to completion. Jesus called some rough and simple fishermen like Peter, James, John and Andrew into the ministry, didn’t he?

God’s salvation was given to us and made possible when he cleansed us of our sins. So the holiness that God expects is not due to our own conduct or actions.  It is not due to our good works or good deeds.  God’s work of sanctification is not the same thing as our life of walking in God’s holy and righteous laws.  Our human acts of love, mercy, kindness, etc. are already expected of all followers of Jesus. It’s a given.  It was expected when we first came into a love relationship with God in Christ. We should be compelled to obey because He has been so gracious and loves us so much.  We can never repay God for his gift of forgiveness.

So how can we, as sinful human beings, possibly match up to God’s standards of holiness? We can’t.  First and foremost, it is really about God’s work of cleansing of our sins.  Only God can make us holy.  That’s what Paul is talking about when he talks about the gift of forgiveness by grace through faith.  It starts from God. It is ONLY God who makes it possible.  It’s all about God—and it is NOT about us.

Paul said in Ephesians 2:9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”  If God’s call to salvation began with God, then he will also complete the calling to serve Him.  Paul said: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

If God calls each of us to be engaged with the Lord’s kingdom work and service, then we can ask the Lord to help cast our fears aside to have faith that God will empower us for service in His love.  God wants us to simply obey and follow him, and when we fail or fall, we get up and start again. God enables us to serve in His God-given holiness; then, God enables and empowers us through his Spirit and gifts.