Wilderness Baptism

In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college I volunteered at a missionary training camp in northeast Alabama. If I mentioned the nearest town, people would ask, “Where is that?” And I would have to say, “In the middle of nowhere.”

My main job was to work with the various youth groups who would come on mission trips for a week. Most of that work took place in the Third World garden, where we practiced growing food in a Third World setting, without pesticides, machinery or store-bought fertilizer. We made a lot of fertilizer through composting, mixing dung with soy leaves and letting it cook. Weeding was also at the top of our list. Sometimes we rounded up chickens, picked plums, or dodged geese determined to drive us off. It was hard work but it only lasted for a couple hours between breakfast and lunch.

The highlight of the week was Thursday evenings when we brought youth groups down to the model Third World village. It had no electricity and no running water. The only sleeping accommodations were hammocks. We cooked rice and beans over an open fire and rewarmed it for breakfast.

I never figured out how to sleep in a hammock. After dinner I would stake out one of the wooden benches, put my sleeping bag on it and doze on and off until morning. It was a stark lesson on how most of the world lives, and we taught it every Thursday night.

The camp was never short of interesting people. Former communist revolutionaries from Bolivia, couples who’d spent their lives as missionaries in Nepal, French-speaking missionaries from Mali and, of course, Ken and Sarah Carson, the directors, who spent more than ten years as missionaries in the Bolivian jungles. One of their most vivid stories was of how they’d been living on mildewed rice for so long that their children started eating cockroaches in protest. Every week there would be someone else from a different part of the world with a different story.

During the week I had little free time. The other volunteer and I got up before five to help cook breakfast. Then we would work in the garden until lunchtime. Then there was a bit of program after lunch, and we’d be back for dinner. Sometimes, maybe a lot of times, we’d be with the youth group in the evenings for Bible Studies or whatever they were doing.

From what I understand, we had it easy. Every previous summer they’d worked the kids and the volunteers in the afternoon as well. The problem was that it was so hot that they needed to buy Gatorade so the kids wouldn’t get sick. In the end they decided that the work the kids did in the afternoon wasn’t worth the cost of Gatorade.

Once the kids left on Saturday mornings the camp became a ghost town. The kitchen was closed, and the fulltime staff was gone until Sunday night. I lived in what we called the glass bottle house made of mortar with glass bottles stuck in the walls so light could get into it during the day. It had no electricity, no running water, and was closer to the Third World village than the main buildings. But watching a lightning storm through those bottles was worth whatever inconvenience. On the rare occasions when I did drive my car out to the ridge above the house, I could literally roll down my window and pick blackberries without getting out of my car.

That summer was a time of incredible spiritual growth for me. I experienced the Holy Spirit on a regular basis. During the week I was surrounded by mature Christians who had given, were giving, or were expected to give their lives for Christ. During the weekends I took up the disciplines of prayer, Bible study and fasting. The fasting was more a matter of convenience. To get food I would have had to walk out of the woods, get in my car and drive for half an hour to get the food and another half-hour to get back. I usually made a foray on Saturdays, but I would fast from sundown on Saturday nights until the evening meal on Sunday when the next youth group came in.

One Sunday morning I woke up absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit was telling me to be baptized again. In human terms that was a somewhat difficult proposition. I couldn’t remember my home church ever baptizing an adult and certainly not baptizing someone who’d already been baptized as an infant. But I made my way to the side of the river and started upstream. I was praying the whole way, seeking an inspiration on how I could baptize myself. After a twenty-five minute walk I was sure that I couldn’t do it alone. I started back.

Five minutes later I found myself in the middle of the river with no idea how I’d gotten there.

I guess I could have slipped, or “accidently on purpose” slipped, and forgotten the moment. But that day I felt that God said, “So you want to be baptized?” and shoved me into the middle of the river.

Since then, I’ve never worried about being baptized. If I am willing to trust my Christian community and accept the urging of the Holy Spirit, I am born again. Every day, God shoves me into the river.

God in our Fear


Having cancer is fear: like having a gun put to one’s head. The day before the diagnosis, one could go where he or she wanted. When the diagnosis comes down, the patient’s autonomy boils down to a single question. Will I accept or refuse treatment?

As they were prepping me for surgery they screwed metal bolts into my skull. It was like something out of a horror movie, and I just lay there acting like it was normal while they tightened the metal halo, and my head felt like a grape being squeezed. A few minutes later they had me lie down on the gurney. I was encased in a metal cubic framework screwed into my skull.

Then, a month later I could actually smell my skin burning during radiation therapy.

During cancer treatment there dozens of atrocities visited upon a patient’s body. I had to have my blood drawn every week. My veins weren’t so good so it took a lot of sticks. I can remember telling myself that if I got better I would never let anyone stick me again.

Then there was morning when I came in for a CT scan. They gave me a “Big Gulp” sized cup of contrast. I drank a little less than half and couldn’t get any more down. My mom urged me to keep drinking; I did my best. Then I started throwing up.

I feared not only dying or discomfort. I also feared of my utter lack of autonomy. They could have told me that they were going to have to cut off my leg or my nose or blind me and I would have had to say yes. In this way being a cancer patient is like being in a concentration camp, except that a concentration camp seeks to kill while cancer treatment seeks to give a long, arduous road to life.

Where is God in the midst of this journey? He carried me when I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to walk. I wasn’t particularly pious or spiritual. I just had a feeling, a spiritual feeling, that I was going to be ok.

During my cancer treatment I suppressed my fears and thoughts of trauma. Later, when God put me down I had to deal with them. God carried me through a horrific wasteland, like a battlefield inundated with explosions, shrapnel, barbed wire and terror. When he put me down I had to look back over that wasteland and examine the scars on my body, my spirit and my soul.


“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nations they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions”(Gen 15: 12-14).


The Israelites did not come out of Egypt without scars. There were the literal scars from the whips of the Egyptians and the overseers. There were the memories of the babies killed by the soldiers or eaten by crocodiles in the Nile. Bodies were broken by decades of slave labor. More than all of these, they lived with constant anxiety. They had lived for four hundred years in a setting where one simple change, like not gathering enough straw, could bring utter ruin.

My biggest anxiety was the MRI machine. To me, going into an MRI was like being buried alive. Less than six inches separated my eyes from the top of the tunnel. The sides of the tunnel pressed my arms to my side, and it was always cold, around sixty degrees. The mechanical voice on the intercom told me time after time not to move. Even swallowing my saliva worried me. A typical MRI takes about 50 minutes. Of course, in the machine I had no way of sensing of time. All I had was my thin, cotton gown. About halfway through the scan they would move me partially out of the tunnel, stick me, and add contrast to my veins.

Above all the unpleasantness hovered the fact that one MRI in August of 1991 had changed my life forever. One bad MRI took me into the wasteland of cancer. Any MRI after that could return me to the same wasteland.

It was the summer of 1992. I was going for my first annual MRI scan. By that time I’d started to rebuild my life. I was driving again, taking tennis lessons. I had enough hair to brush, and I looked forward to my senior year of high school. I walked into the imaging center determined to put on an optimistic face.

In reality, I was absolutely terrified.

God must have laughed at my phoniness.

When I registered, a new Christian manned the desk. We talked about the cancer and my fear that it would come back, and I received the gift of peace. God knows and ministers to our fears, even the ones we are afraid to admit to ourselves.

When God Lays Us Down


When astronauts and cosmonauts return from the space station there is a rush to get them out of the return vehicle. They are then plopped into lawn chairs so their bodies can have some time to adjust to full gravity. It is the first step of restoring their bodies from the atrophy they experience without gravity.

Like space vehicles that carry astronauts through the freezing vacuum of space and the fiery tempest of reentry, God carries us through the hell of cancer and other crises. Then the survivors often go into a deep depression even as their bodies start getting better. During the crisis, patients and their families pour every bit of their physical, spiritual and emotional assets into the eclipsing task of survival. When the question of survival is no longer central, they are in deep emotional and spiritual deficit. That deficit has to be paid back.

It was February of 1992. I was going to live. Eventually, I would grow my hair back. The muscles, though never as toned and defined as they had been when I was a gymnast, would return so that when I jumped my toes might leave the ground.

But my spiritual self was lost and confused. I’d just had a very intense experience with God. I’d felt the Holy Spirit inside of me. It made me hungry for more. I didn’t know anyone who had the same experiences. When God stopped carrying me, I felt like he’d dumped me in a wasteland. In reality he was teaching me to exercise my spiritual muscles. Just as my leg and arm muscles needed to be rebuilt my spiritual muscles needed to be rebuilt.

As a pharisaical Christian I tried the things that I’d tried before: Bible studies, my church’s youth group, service projects, and even making plans to become a minister. Talk about the blind seeking to lead the blind! I was in a desperate search for the love that God showered upon me during my sickness. I felt that I had something special to share because God had saved me during the darkest part of my life. It took me years and years of seeking, searching and stumbling to get connected to mature Christian communities.

After more than twenty years I’m still working on being a good servant. By now I’ve identified some of the reasons why my journey was so long, arduous and frustrating. First of all, I wasn’t ready for a community of mature Christians. I could no more survive in and tolerate such a community than I could wake up one day and run a marathon without any training. I needed a steady diet of prayer and Christian fellowship.

The second biggest hurdle in my Christian journey was that I completely misunderstood the nature of being a servant of God. I thought that I was going to do great things for God, and He was going to reward me with money, power and prestige. It took me years and years and years to understand that what I did was not important. Only what God did was important. The best feeling in the universe is to be a tool in God’s hand when He is working. Too often I’ve been the hammer thinking I had a better idea than hitting the nail. A true servant of God is forged over years and decades to perfectly welcome and facilitate His will. I still have a long way to go.

My most challenging hurdle was that I didn’t start with fellow travelers, guides or mentors to lead me through the process. This was 80 to 90% my fault. I’d always taken myself too seriously. I’d was obsessively independent. That’s how I ended up with such an atrocious plan for salvation. As one of my former professors was fond of saying, “When you get singled out, you get picked off.” The Christian journey is not meant to be walked alone. It is meant to be walked with Christian brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers.

If I could go back 25 years to being the skeletal, baldheaded, traumatized boy that I was, these are the things that I very much wish that I’d done sooner:

  1. I would actively solicit a prayer partner, someone that I could meet with weekly. We would talk, share our challenges and pray for each other during the week.
  2. I would seek a mentor, an older, mature Christian who could build between my independent, egotistical self and a more selfless Christian community.
  3. I would find an area of service that would remind me of God’s work, and my humble place in that work.

When God lays us down, and stops carrying us through our crises, He is priming us to actively seek Him and learn to serve Him. It isn’t an easy process. It’s a long journey during which we build our spiritual muscles and become disciplined in our journey toward being at the heart of his will.

The Hard Place

It was a Sunday of August 1991. I was lying/sitting in the hospital bed. The doctors had come and explained what they were going to do. My parents had gone to the hotel. I was sixteen, looking at the prospect of brain surgery. Earlier that day my mother tearfully told me that she didn’t know if I would live two days, two weeks, two months or twenty years. She did say that God had something for me to do and that he would give me the time to do it. There was a lot riding on the next morning’s procedure. If the biopsy came back badly, I would likely be dead by Christmas. If they didn’t put the shunt in I wouldn’t live long enough to care about the biopsy.

At sixteen I had a plan for salvation. I was going to become more and more holy and eventually become perfect as my father in heaven is perfect.

How could I have come up with such a doomed plan?

Hurt, pride and determination–they were what moved me from being a failing dyslexic in the 4th Grade to a thriving dyslexic at one of the best schools in the state by the10th grade. The lesson I had learned was that any problem could be overcome with hard work and uncompromising determination. Why should salvation be any different?

The problem I had lying in that hospital bed was that I’d run out of time. I could no more become spiritually perfect than I could write a book in a single night. I didn’t know if I would wake up from the surgery with brain damage. I didn’t know if the biopsy would come out malignant. I was in a hard place. I didn’t have any more wiggle room. I was scared and I needed a savior.

Dear Lord, I always planned to become more holy and a better Christian. I’ve run out of time. Could you please just take me as I am?

As far as salvation prayers go it was pretty pathetic. I didn’t even mention Jesus or even ask for my sins to be forgiven, but the Lord reckoned even my pathetic prayer as righteousness and I could feel the warmth of the Holy Spirit flowing into me. It hadn’t taken surgery or brain damage to change me. The Holy Spirit made me a new person. Since that day I’ve worried about many things: pain, incapacitation, isolation, and what would happen to my wife and children if I died. But I’ve never worried about death.

Everyone comes to hard places. Sometimes they are dramatic, like the night before brain surgery. Sometimes they are in the middle of sustained challenges, like depression or addiction. Other times they are awakenings to the fact that our salvation plans, like most human plans, are wholly insufficient. What are the hard places you have experienced in your life? What spiritual fruit has grown out of those experiences?