I am not an adherent to, nor a member of a religion, I am a child of God and he calls me son.
A religion is a set of disciplines that are supposed to bring us closer to godliness by earning his favor. A relationship is becoming disciplined because we have his favor, and he walks with us and directs our steps, one step at a time, and helps us up when we stumble, because that’s what a Father does.
I Am Here
November 15th, 1978. I am 17 years old and sitting on a Greyhound bus looking out the window at the Montana winter landscape as I head west to the far away mountains near Anaconda. I am scared to death, leaving behind my family, my school, my dog, my childhood. I am headed to Job Corps to learn a trade and I will spend the next 18 months with two hundred other guys from all over the country and a handful of crotchety old guys who are trying to mold me into a productive member of society.
But on this bus trip I don’t have any idea what I am getting into, all I know is that I am going far from home to learn how to run heavy equipment in a place that will force me to figure out who I am real quickly as I am no longer the big brother to my two sisters and a son to my mother, I am now just ‘Swaningson from Billings’, a place most in the Anaconda Job Corps have never been.
I remember clearly the thought that consoled me and gave me courage as I watched the landscape fly by taking me farther and farther from home. I thought, ‘I am not alone, I have Jesus in my heart and I know he is watching over me.’ I knew that, but still I could not help but feel very alone.
I was a Christian. I had found Jesus, by reading about him in the Bible when I was 14. It just clicked one day as I was reading the through the gospels that Jesus was real, and somehow I just knew that I was going to heaven when I died. But though I knew that Jesus knew me, I didn’t really know him, I didn’t have a relationship with him, and certainly not with the Father. Then, a year or so after that November bus ride, lying in bed in the middle of a cold dark Montana night surrounded by a dorm room full of sleeping guys, I was having a meltdown. I had survived these last many months here in this place, establishing and discovering myself and I had the respect of my peers. I was now ‘Swany’; I was doing well in the welding and Heavy Equipment programs and had set a record high score on my GED test— but I was melting down.
I had never felt so alone, so anxious, so out of sorts and desperate, feelings I know now were a full frontal assault of the clinical depression I had inherited from my mother, at the time I didn’t know what it was, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered if I did, naming a feeling or a malady doesn’t make it go away.
So I laid there in bed on the cold dark winter night unable to sleep and desperately praying in my mind to the God whom just a few weeks earlier I had asked to baptize me with the Holy Spirit after I had heard about that in a bible study group I had latched on to, I wasn’t really sure what that was about but I had received a prayer language and that proved to me that God really was with me. But I still didn’t really know him.
So I prayed, no doubt in my new tongue as well, I was praying for something to change, something to give, I didn’t know what it was or what I needed but I knew I needed something and I needed it now or I was going to explode, just little pieces of me all over the walls that hemmed me in in this frozen wasteland.
Then I heard, in my mind, a voice, a gentle voice that sounded like my own thoughts but I knew didn’t come from me: “I am your Father, and I am here with you.” Let me tell you, at that point my life changed forever. I grew up mostly removed from my dad by divorce and distance, and I had always sought out the attention of any man who would give me any as I longed for a father, as any child does, especially a boy.
But not only did I realize at that moment that I had a father who was with me, at that very moment, he was God, and he cared enough about me to speak to me, and because he had baptized me with his Spirit, I was able to hear him. I don’t know how or why it works that way but it does and thank you Jesus for that.
At that point I no longer had a religion, I was not just a Christian, I was a son, I now had a relationship with the Father though his Son Jesus Christ facilitated by his Spirit. Now you can spend the rest of your life trying to understand all the theology behind that or you can just realize as I did at that instant in my darkest hour— I am not alone, I am truly not alone, nor will I ever be.
I do not have a religion, I have a relationship.
I slept the sleep of the righteous that night and woke up with a peace like I had never known. The Lord saved me from my own mind that night, overriding whatever had short circuited, tweaking whatever chemical imbalance or deceptions of the enemy were messing with me and gave me a peace that passes all understanding. Nothing changed in my circumstance, I was still stuck in this institution that was run like a cross between a prison and boot camp, but I was free and full of joy.
I wish I could say that I continued walking in the freedom and the joy he gave me that night for the rest of my life but I used my freedom to get ensnared by drugs and alcohol, eventually falling back into despair. But this time there was something different, all the time the Lord was talking to me, ‘come back, this is not the way to live, I have something so much better.’ I didn’t believe him, what could be better than partying and being the cool guy, he just wants to ruin my fun.
At 23 I found out, when I cried out again to my Father on another desperate winter night and he ran to me, embraced me, and set me free, this time asking me to not only know him, but to also trust him. I did and I do. I am far from perfect but I am never far from my God and he has never left me nor forsaken me.
I am Christian. I am home.
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. Luke 15:20