When I was on retreat last week I had a moment of wonder as my memory wandered back to my twenties. Some days I remember myself as the world’s dumbest 21-year old! So many of my present twentysomething friends seem so much better off than I was! As far as my soul is concerned I think it was like I was a spiritual refugee in my twenties who was dumped onto the shores of Christianity. I made some big mistakes as I haltingly made my way into the strange new land of Jesus. But the good thing is that I also did not know that I shouldn’t adopt what appeared to be the best things about the culture. I just kind of did things without a lot of insight or direction as I settled in. I “somehow” happened upon things that proved to be astoundingly important. Here are six things I did that have shaped my life for the better ever since.
I learned to live simply on purpose.
I was very poor. But I decided to stay that way on purpose. My cause was world hunger, apart from the mission of the church. Every extra penny I could get was designed to go to people who were starving. I became committed to not eating up other people’s resources in general. I ended up learning about the historic Christian discipline and even spiritual gift of voluntary poverty. It seemed strange then and it does now. But I managed to miss ever being tempted to live off fast food or to waste money on things that were meaningless. My resources have been purposefully used and that feels good.
I received the Spirit
I was also poor in Spirit. “Receiving the Spirit” is what Pentecostals tell you to do to have a REALLY personal relationship with Jesus. I kept shooting for that no matter how uncool it seemed (and it did). A lot of Pentecostals are weird. But the best of them are radicals. If the Apostle Paul says “Be filled with the Spirit,” they are going to go for that. As I look back on it, some of their theology is so wrong that I’m glad I wasn’t paying very good attention! What I got was that I could and should have some experience of God’s Spirit in my life. I opened up to that and I met God personally. I thought it was thrilling then. I did not realize just how much more experience there was.
I conformed my lifestyle to the Bible
“My lifestyle” is a pernicious phrase, it is so egocentric. But I was very egocentric in my twenties. I was forming my “lifestyle.” I was determined to be the best Christian possible and my teachers were all about the Bible. Thank God for my teachers who got me to study the Bible! I’m not sure how they did it, but I sure thought knowing the Bible was crucial. I spent something like seven years doing 2PROAPT (which I still recommend to people) as my daily act of devotion. I got the basic material down. I must have pondered almost every line in the New Testament and tried to “apply” each of them “to my life,” as we said. I did not understand everything I should do about the Bible. But I filled my mind with the raw material of transformation that I have been using ever since. What’s more, I had a life-forming dialogue with the Bible writers about what is important and how I should live that formed my ability to keep having that dialogue.
I got married and had children, in that order.
These days, people are either wiser or more controlling, I can’t tell for sure. They wait a lot longer to get married. I did not wait. At age twenty, if I was dumb or dumbstruck about anything, it was the blessing of Gwen. And, I must admit, I became her very dumb husband at twenty-one. I knew very little about sex, myself, relationships, intimacy – name anything that would make me a decent partner. But being married improved me when I was available to be improved. Love shaped me instead of my career or my personal desires. Add the children on to that (I had four by the time I was 29) and that just deepened the requirement for me to learn how to love someone and to be responsible for something other than what moved me or pleased me. I don’t think I was too conscious of the benefits of my choice, but, as it turns out, it was nice to get a head start on being a grown up.
I lived communally
In my late twenties we formed an intentional community that lasted for eight years and often had upwards to twenty people in it. Within that group of dear people I did some of my deepest formation and some of my stupidest things. It was a wonderful, irreplaceable experience. Even the people I lived with who are now distant still feel like relatives. I think that is how the church should be. We took Acts 2 (see “I conformed my lifestyle to the Bible,” above) and decided to do it. Our “household” was a great environment in which to practice simplicity, too. Looking back, I think it was best for doing theology. We sat with each others for hours figuring out what God wanted us to do. Each year we would re-write our “statement of formation;” they are one-page works of theological art. When I was getting my first license with the BIC, I sat down with my household and asked them, “Here are the questions they are asking. What do I believe?” They could tell me. Christians don’t do much that is more countercultural than submitting themselves to love. Doing that with intention in my twenties shaped me.
I protested things
It might be that if you never get over the edge to become a protester in your twenties, you lose the capability. Living simply in community was something of a protest in itself. Being Pentecostal was a statement, too. But I am talking about coming up against political philosophies and government actions that steer people toward destruction. I wanted to do something about hunger. I got (symbolically) arrested for trespassing on the weapons testing site in Nevada a few times. We picketed a new abortion clinic. We complained about Ronald Reagan. I evangelized, which, in itself, is a direct confrontation with the powers that be. I am glad I “got over the edge.” Getting over my fear of being vocal about my faith needed to get an early start. I think it helped to develop the habit of pushing against my fears before my brain hardened into the habit of not doing faith that way.
There are probably more things that could be noted, of course. You are probably doing other things that you will note later. These are just the things that came to mind last week. I offer them as encouragement to my many 20something friends, many of whom are so much more mature than I was. I hope you don’t give up. If you are doing something that seems crazy for Jesus, now, it might be the very thing that will have made all the difference in thirty years. Do the best, most spiritual, most Christ-following thing you can think of doing with the capacity you have. You are equipping yourself to develop as a believer for the rest of your life. If you’re not twentysomething anymore, at least we’re not dead yet – neither is Jesus. Maybe some wild of difficult thing we are doing for love or truth right now will be very memorable in a few years!