I was raised in a liturgical church where religion was a grim business — a dim, windowless sanctuary, a pipe organ playing haunted house music, robes, candles, chanting. As a small child I honestly believed that God made us go to church to punish us for our sins, and the money my parents dropped in the offering plate was a fine. My conception of God was of a gigantic old man sitting on a throne in the sky and frowning down on sinners. I tried to believe in this unbelievable God because he said he would throw me in hell if I didn’t, but at an early age I began to doubt his existence.
And then one rainy night in Georgia, I visited a tiny Jesus People-type fellowship that gathered in a loft called the Upper Room. The atmosphere was heavenly. The music was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. The preacher spoke of a God who he knew as a Friend, nothing like the distant Thundergod of High Church theology. The people had a glow about them. They had something that was not of this earth, and I knew, without further inquiry, that Jesus was the Answer. So I got baptized and joined the Jesus People. I threw myself headfirst into the Movement — witnessing, leading Bible studies, bringing kids to church and never missing a meeting.
By nature I am about as spiritual as a block of wood, had a hard time getting the hang of this religion business and never got anchored in the faith. I was exposed to Christian pop culture and got a headful of bad teaching from songs, sermons and articles about getting closer to God, becoming more like Jesus, becoming a better witness, dying to self, getting victory over sin, improving my serve, strengthening my grip, starving the old man, feeding the new man, etc. The inevitable result of accepting such teaching was a thundercloud of condemnation from which there seemed to be no escape.
After a few years I could take no more. I ceremoniously put my Bible on a high shelf and said, “I’ve got to take a break from this holy baloney. I’m going to go out there and have some fun.”
I got into the drug scene, which was no fun at all, and ran back to the Lord with my tail between my legs, but the damage was done, and the next 25+ years would be a ferocious battle with addiction, swinging between the church and the barroom with the regularity of a pendulum. The churches I got involved with were of the unhealthy sort, but joining some radical end-time cult was the only way I knew to stay sober.
It was during these wandering years that I discovered the writings of Norman Grubb. It was a dismal February day and I was schlepping around a used bookstore. I pulled a battered little paperback off the shelf. The cover photo was a blazing sun rising from an orange and blue sea, and in blue letters:
I correctly judged the book by its cover, went home and read it avidly but without comprehension—it was such a departure from the gospel of self-improvement I was accustomed to! Yet I reread and reread until the binding fell apart. I collected all of Norman’s union life books, yet even after all that reading, still had no inkling of what was meant by “union” or “the illusion of independent selfhood.”
It was through Norman that I discovered the writings of Jacob Boehme, and by a process of osmosis, gradually, over several years, I absorbed Boehme and picked up on the poetic cadence of his writings. And now I can say, as Norman tells in his own testimony, “In Boehme I found my answer.”
Up till then my spiritual odyssey had been a comedy—a lot of wrong turns, misadventures and big talk without meaning. Picture Don Quixote wandering onto the pages of Pilgrim’s Progress and you’ve got it. I escaped the City of Destruction only to tumble into the Slough of Despond, follow the misdirections of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, had my hair singed off at Mount Legality, got lynched at Vanity Fair, served time in Doubting Castle and wandered into many a By-path Meadow. It was in the writings of Jacob Boehme that I finally, finally found the House of the Interpreter.
I then went back to Norman’s teaching and now found it easy to understand and simple to live. Boehme, William Law and Norman Grubb are my Big Three. Now the Bible is a new book to me. (Though I don’t count the Bible as a book—it is in a category by itself.)
For years I lived under a cloud of alcoholic guilt and shame. Sometimes the cloud was black and intense, sometimes gray and hazy, but shame over my past sins and guilt over my present unholiness were constant. I tried to become more holy, more loving, more prayerful, because I thought that I could get free from guilt by improving my performance, only to find that a clean conscience is a gift from God and cannot be earned.
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22)
Even before discovering Union, I found that when I was trying to be a good religious guy and live a life pleasing to God, I was trapped in Romans chapter seven, with “another law at work in my members, warring against the law of my mind.” But on those occasions when I wasn’t fussing over myself, not even trying to be good, Christ would live his life through me—freely, naturally, spontaneously. Happily, those occasions have become more and more frequent.
I don’t strive against my “sinful nature,” since it isn’t my sinful nature; don’t try to force my will into “living the sermon on the mount”—all these precepts that I once thought were of paramount importance have had to be discarded in light of the “glorious liberty of the sons of God.”
In a word, I have stopped trying to become something I’m not, because as he is, so are we in this world. (1 John 4:17)