My grandmother (third from left in back row) and her daily prayers played a vital role in my faith journey.
Rather than starting the New Year off whining about the weather, or the Wildcats, or the ‘Rona, I thought I’d begin 2022 by doing something many of you may have already done.
I had the distinct pleasure the other day of sharing my personal Christian testimony with a Saturday morning men’s group. Sure, I’ve shared bits and pieces of my personal faith journey with others many times before. But I finally realized I had never presented it as a complete story from beginning to end.
I’d certainly never written it out for all the world to see. So, here it is—the story of my spiritual walk, preserved in writing (and possibly in perpetuity) for anyone who might be curious or bored enough to take a peek.
For those of you looking for a “Saul on the road to Damascus” type transformation, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Because for me, there was no childhood abuse, teenage drug addiction, or young adult promiscuity to overcome. I didn’t rob banks or commit serial murders before coming to know Christ. In fact, for the first thirty-five years of my life, I was just your average Joe, living a mundane worldly existence, with nary a thought for spiritual matters.
Although devoid of much drama, my journey was certainly unique in terms of my family heritage. Faith, as you might agree, is often a function of geography. The reality is that if you were born in India, you’ll most likely be Hindu. If you were born in Thailand, chances are you’ll be Buddhist. Based on those odds, I should have been a godless heathen laboring away in an obscure Nike shoe factory in China. Instead, I’m freely and comfortably living out my Christian faith in glorious retirement in the greatest country on the face of the earth.
How does that happen? You’re about to find out.
My entire spiritual journey can be summed up in two words: PREVENIENT GRACE…that God loved me even before I came into existence. He was saying to me exactly what he said to the prophet Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart.”
My personal story of being “set apart” begins four generations earlier in southern China. Before my dad was even a speck in my grandparents’ eye, some missionaries snuck into my great-grandfather’s village and shared with him the love of Christ. He accepted Jesus into his heart, and subsequently became—of all things—a pastor in the Chinese Christian Church.
His daughter, my grandmother, was extremely devout. I’ve since heard stories of how she was the ultimate prayer warrior, rising early every single day to pray for God’s blessing and for the salvation of her family for generations to come. I’m firmly convinced that the power of her fervent daily prayers undoubtedly shaped how this unlikely story would play out.
One of her sons—my dad—fled the mainland in 1949 (right before the Communists took over) to the island nation of Taiwan. While there, he studied Civil Engineering and married my mom who, believe it or not, also came from a Chinese Christian background. My older sister, Mary, was born a year later. I came along three years after that.
In 1963, my parents took a leap of faith by pursuing the American dream. They left the comfort of their native homeland and immigrated to the United States in hopes of making a better life for their children. My dad completed his graduate studies at the University of Virginia before taking a job as an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Kentucky. Shortly after arriving in Lexington, my younger brother, Michael, was born.
Growing up, our family wasn’t exactly religious. We knew about Christ but didn’t really know Christ—if you know what I mean. My mom and dad were way too busy assimilating into American culture, raising a family, and paying the bills. We didn’t have the time nor the interest in going to church. Other than an occasional cursory prayer at night, I don’t really remember having any specific spiritual regimens at all.
Then, when I was 13 years old, my dad got severely ill and nearly died. My mom made a pact with God saying that if my dad recovered, we would all reconnect with our long, lost spiritual roots. Sure enough, my dad miraculously recovered, and our whole family got baptized together several Sundays later.
To say I committed my life to Jesus at that point would be a bit of an overstatement. To be honest, it felt a bit forced. I didn’t really know what I was committing too. If truth be told, I hated going to church—getting up early, wearing itchy pants, sitting through boring sermons, and being ridiculed in youth group for my lack of biblical acumen. I went simply because my mom made me go.
How liberating it was for me, then—several years later—to finally leave home and never have to step foot in church on Sunday mornings again. I could sleep in, wear sweats, and watch football all day long to my heart’s content. I wasn’t rebelling against God by any means. I just didn’t see the necessity of giving him any of my precious free time.
It wasn’t until our daughter Katie was born that those long forgotten spiritual pangs (or pains) began to resurface. Like many of you parents reading this, both my wife, Kanisa, and I wanted our children to grow up in a Christ-centered home. So, we joined Centenary United Methodist Church and proceeded to pour ourselves into every available church-related activity. Sunday School, Wednesday night dinners, volunteer activities, children’s choirs, social events—you name it, we were there.
Despite it all, my apparent newfound piety was crafted more out of a sense of responsibility, duty, and obligation—rather than a true love for the Lord. I found myself still just going through the motions. It wasn’t until I was “volunteered” for the church adult discipleship team that my journey toward spiritual maturity honestly took off.
In regard to church committees, let me just say that there are far better ways to waste your life (I’ll leave it at that). But this discipleship team was different. Led by Pastor Ellen, I gradually, grudgingly, and painstakingly discovered that a relationship with Jesus Christ was indeed not only important, but it should be the most important thing in one’s life.
Mind you, this was no eureka moment. I didn’t have the scales peeled instantaneously from my eyes. It was more like the germination of a ripe seed that was planted in nutrient-deficient soil. Suddenly—with just enough sunlight and water—my curiosity got the best of me, and I began to explore.
I read through the entire Bible and all the various commentaries. You’d often see me in the public library, choking down everything I could find from the likes of Chuck Swindoll, Max Lucado, C.S. Lewis, or Francis Chan. I listened intently through countless sermons, began memorizing Scripture, teaching classes myself, and leading spiritual retreats. I participated in service projects and joined accountability and prayer groups—anything and everything to draw closer to a God I longed to know more about. I thought I was well on the way to getting the prize.
If you’re still reading up to this point, here’s where the story gets complicated. My goal is to encourage you, but I also don’t want to mislead. This journey of mine has by no means been linear. There have been a ton of ups and downs, highs and lows, forward surges and spiritual backsliding. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been blessed by the comfort and assurance of knowing Christ’s presence. But I’m also ashamed and embarrassed to tell you that I continue to have doubts through it all—sometimes huge, ever-lurking, and crippling doubts.
It didn’t matter how many prayers I’d prayed, how many sermons I’d dissected, how many Scripture verses I’d memorized—it was still hard for me to reconcile my faith with all the death and mourning and crying and pain going on in the world around me. I’m familiar with all the various discourses regarding original sin and free will. I’ve heard all the stories about Moses, and Noah, and Jonah in the belly of a huge fish. I can recite many of the Apostle Paul’s letters by heart.
It’s just when all those trials and tribulations hit so close to home that those crippling doubts started to resurface and take root. A good friend passes away unexpectedly, a business venture fails, a long-lasting relationship disintegrates. A downward spiral began when my mom developed Alzheimer’s. I wobbled a bit more when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. And then, Kanisa’s horrible ongoing bout with mental illness had me precariously balanced on the edge of unbelief. I desperately wanted to shake my fist at God and cry out, “Why?”
I think it was Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote, “Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die.”
During one of Kanisa’s lowest moments, I was sitting with my pastor in our home listening to one of her numerous psychotic rants. I looked over at Pastor Tom with sorrowful, exasperated tears and asked him that burning question… “Why?”
He didn’t quote Tennyson, but his answer to me resonated just as loudly.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “But I do know this. God loves you. He also loves Kanisa. He’s with you right now, and he wants what’s best for both of you. No matter the obstacles, His grace is sufficient.”
There’s that word “grace” again. Prevenient grace—God loved me even before I knew him. Whether through my grandmother’s prayers, or my mom’s persistence, or just through landing on a random church committee, it’s easy to see in hindsight how God was preparing me for the challenges I’m facing today.
Here’s how else God has prepared me. Nope—it’s not through prayer, or Bible study, or worship, or meditation (although all those are certainly important). I’ve saved the best for last. Associating with other fellow brothers and sisters in Christ has done more to encourage and strengthen my faith journey than all the other spiritual disciplines combined.
I still can’t explain to you exactly why bad things happen to good people. But by watching how good people respond to bad things, you can’t help but be inspired by their sense of belief. It’s not their comprehension of God that’s compelling, but rather their connection with Him. Some of my dearest Christian friends have been through hell and back—but they continue to believe, persevere, and even thrive. I want what they’re having.
And you can have what they’re having too. Through God’s grace, a heavenly home for all of eternity is available for all of us. Won’t you accept His invitation? Just the fact that you’re reading these words is validation that He loves you and desires to have a relationship with you.
Here’s what I want to leave you with. Faith and Christian discipleship is a life-long journey. It doesn’t matter if you’re slow out of the blocks or if you’re fading down the stretch. You may feel as if you’re always running against the wind while dodging unexpected detours along the tortuous path. Just be assured that God is with you every step of the way on your way to grabbing the prize.
I don’t think I’m anywhere close to the finish line yet. But I do know that I’m closer now than I’ve ever been before. It’s the journey that matters.
Let’s press on together. It’s time to finish strong.