Previously, I doubted that God existed. I’m now a convinced Christian.
How does that happen?
I suppose I have what people call “one of those dramatic conversion stories.” A physical encounter with spiritual warfare brought me out of my atheistic doubts. And during my teen years, I took a stand for Jesus that solicited a helicopter chase and inspired a federal law from the United States Congress. I would definitely understand somebody deeming this journey “dramatic.”
At the same time, all Christians are ongoing converts and I believe that each individual’s encounter with God is dramatic — because it’s an encounter with God. The unusual aspects of my own conversion are probably attributable to my stubbornness. Had I been more cooperative, the Lord wouldn’t have needed to let my journey become so intense.
I grew up with strong Christian parents who avoided church. To provide clarity to this puzzle, let me explain — my parents were hippies.
My parents weren’t flag-burning revolutionaries. However, they did participate in peace communes, clad in tie-dyed tee-shirts and the Beatles’ latest hairstyles. The second oldest of their five children, I watched as the responsibilities of child-rearing brought an end to the commune camping circuit. Yet something remained deeply instilled within them from the hippie culture: a characteristic suspicion of organizations, including institutionalized religion.
While staying distanced from church membership, they taught us about Jesus and stressed the importance of the Bible.
I remain grateful for their perspective. However, by not growing up with church, there was a lot I didn’t know. When I was three years old, I thought that the Bible was the Quaker Oat Man. I didn’t believe that the Quaker Oat Man wrote the Bible. Rather, I thought that the man on the container, mysteriously at one with the oats therein, was himself “the Bible.” I have no idea what advertising strategy planted into my little-boy brain a connection between the Word of God and oats. Sometime following my fourth birthday, I learned the truth at the grocery store — the Bible was a nourishing book, not breakfast.
As I read the ten volumes of my Children’s Bible during the next four years, the Gospels sounded too good to be true. I wanted to believe, but I wondered if I’d spent four years reading a fable. In the second grade I asked myself the scariest questions: “What if there’s no God? What if I’m just an accident? When I die, will I simply blink out of existence with no awareness that I was ever here?” These doubts and questions haunted me across the next six years.
At 14 years old, I cried out the following prayer: “God, if you exist, then I need to touch the spiritual realm for myself to have faith.” As people sometimes say, “Be careful what you pray for because you might just get it.”
One night, God allowed me to have an experience of actual spiritual warfare, from which the Lord quickly delivered me. The specific details of this unique occurrence are not what’s important. Suffice it to say that the experience constituted a tangible contact with the spiritual realm, one that left this agnostic intellectual both astounded and cured of agnosticism from that point forward. Now I knew there was something on the other side of the veil. There is a bigger picture! That night, I asked Jesus into my heart.
Under my newfound assurance of spiritual reality, my heart broke for other skeptics as I used to be. Thus when I was named valedictorian, there was no hesitation what I wanted to give my commencement speech about. I wanted to tell my classmates about Jesus. However, after reading my proposal, the graduation advisor told me that I was not allowed to say Jesus’ name at commencement. I explained respectfully that we live in a free country, where the Bill of Rights protects my freedoms of religion and speech. I explained that I am free to say what I believe, as the audience is free to disagree with me; and that these costly liberties make our nation great. The advisor replied that I was forbidden to give my speech and that she would pull the plug on the microphone herself if I said the name of Jesus at graduation.
Following intense prayer, I decided to ask the local newspaper if they would be willing to print my valedictorian speech so that my community would have it available.
With my parents’ approval, I picked up the phone and called the newspaper. They quickly escalated my call, transferring me to the larger tristate-area newspaper.
“All right kid, what’s your story?”
“My high school won’t let me give my valedictorian speech at graduation because I talk about Jesus.”
At that point, the journalist tried to muffle the phone and yelled, “Weeeee’ve gotta a hot one!”
His news van arrived in 15 minutes. He interviewed me for over an hour, taping everything on his recording equipment.
When I arrived at school the following morning, a group of people was marching around the school parking lot with signs.
“That’s weird,” I thought.
When I went to my locker, several of my classmates complimented me for how good I sounded on various radio stations that morning.
That’s when my girlfriend walked up to me holding the tristate paper. On the front page was a gigantic color picture of me beneath the headline “Commencement Speech about Religion Rejected.” At that point it started to occur to me what was happening.
Through the Associated Press, my interview the day before not only made the front page, but was picked up by popular radio stations.
Within hours, my life was thrust into a bona fide three-ring media circus. If you have ever seen footage of the paparazzi thronging some Hollywood actor, it was just like that. A frenzy of flashing bulbs, reporters, television cameras and microphones in my face became a common phenomenon at school, at my house and even on the streets. As I would soon find out, not even the men’s locker room in the high school gymnasium was a safe hideout.
Media organizations from across the country picked up the story. People mailed me copies of newspapers from Texas, New Hampshire, Colorado, Maine, California and New York that all reported the event. I was a guest on television and radio news programs. When my family drove from Pennsylvania out to Michigan for my uncle’s wedding, Channel Four News dispatched a helicopter news crew to follow us in hopes of securing the first live interview. From veterans’ organizations to churches, I was praised for being “the free speech kid.”
Under ensuing media and legal pressure, the school administration reversed their decision and allowed me to give my speech at graduation, now televised before a throng of TV cameras. According to God’s paradoxical handiwork, multitudes got to hear the Gospel because people had attempted to silence the name of Jesus. And one of my classmates gave her heart to Christ after hearing my commencement address. Maybe the whole thing was for her.
The news coverage solicited the attention of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania who, inspired by my stand for freedom of speech, drafted a bill to the U.S. Congress. Later ratified, the law explicitly protects graduating seniors from unconstitutional attempts at censorship. I suppose I gave new meaning to the term “Murphy’s Law.” As Dabo Swinney says so well, “Only God can write a story like this.”
As my spiritual journey continued, I became a Baptist preacher and eventually entered the Catholic Church. This Christian journey has showed me that it’s just not about any pomp and flare from the kingdom of this world. The real adventure is found in the interior life, in a personal relationship with the Lord, as he shows us how much we mean to him, shares our crosses with us and uses all of life’s ups and downs for our ultimate good.
No one can explain Jesus away. Cutting through all agendas that attempt to tame him and through all the futile efforts across history to discredit him, there he is. Not doctrines about him, but he himself, with love, power and life for whoever wants it.
Ian Murphy received a doctoral degree in systematic theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa. He currently resides in Goose Creek, S.C. with his wife, Rachel, and works as a full-time Catholic writer and speaker. The autobiography of his Christian conversion entitled “Dying to Live” is an Ignatius Press offering that was just released in May; available at drianmurphy.com.