From Ritual into Relationship

Joe sat before me with a glint in his eye and an eagerness to share his story – really God’s story of what God was doing. Joe’s demeanor was pleasant and unassuming, and so was his story -- refreshingly so.

Joe shared how he had grown up in a traditional mainline denominational church, and how his family attended based on a Sunday ritual. “Going to church was just a ritual – like going to school,” he admitted. “We just went to church to hear talk about God.” This was a mentality that began in Joe’s youth and continued with him into his teens and adulthood.

Joe paused to collect his thoughts. “Looking back, I would say my grandfather was the first real influence in understanding who God was. At first I didn’t appreciate him – I didn’t appreciate a lot of things at the time. I just sensed his godliness planted that seed although I didn’t know it at the time. There was just something different about my grandfather in the way he carried himself, and how he lived life.”

He continued, sharing that although he was churched, he didn’t have a Bible. He would simply open up the pew Bible, turn to where the minister told everyone to turn to, and then return the Bible to the pew until the next time. For Joe and his family, the next time was when it was convenient, when you knew it was Sunday and you hadn’t been in a while, or when there was a big event. “We weren’t regular church-goers – and this story probably isn’t unique.”

As he grew older, stress and strife characterized his home life culminating in his parents divorcing when he was in High School. “That didn’t effect me spiritually at first-- it was just more of a lifestyle change, but things spun off of that.”

One spin off was Joe’s mom deciding to go to a Catholic church and Joe attending with her. “My mom had no connections with a church growing up, and for some reason decided to join the Catholic church. I thought, If it’s good enough for her, then it’s good enough for me. I attended with her and went through the catechism and talked to the priests.”

“I thought if I did all that, I would finally arrive. But I didn’t have a relationship with God; I was just going through the motions. I had a God-in-a-box mentality, where I would pull Him out when needed, and would call on Him for the emergency type prayers,” he explained. Through college, nothing changed.

Although he wasn’t sure where he wanted to go with life, Joe knew he wanted to be in the military and enrolled in the Air Force officer’s training school. Upon graduation, he married his college sweetheart and they set off for his first assignment. “At this time, I didn’t have any particular faith—and certainly no relationship with the Lord.”

Through the courtesy of military life, Joe and his family moved around to different assignments. One, however, would forever leave its mark on them: a surprise assignment to Georgia, rather than the planned overseas assignment.

“While in Georgia, our daughter struck up a friendship with the little girl next door, who invited her to come to AWANA at her church,” Joe informed me. He then explained how loving and different that family seemed. “They didn’t push their beliefs, but just lived Christ before us. There was something about them that drew our family – especially our daughter—into their lifestyle and what they were doing.”

Their daughter began attending church with their neighbors, while Joe and his wife and their toddler son continued to ritually attend the church they were going to. But Joe noticed a difference. His daughter was really beginning to grow and change.

Joe’s final assignment came, and they had to leave Georgia to come to Dayton. “That was the emotionally hardest move we’ve ever had to make,” he stated. His daughter, now in middle school, went through a mild depression. Not long after, Joe and his wife began drifting apart and having marital problems.  Although they made it through those tough years, they felt there was no glue to hold them together. Their daughter graduated high school and went off to college.

One day their daughter presented them with a 12-page letter. She had decided to give her life to Christ and wanted to explain what that meant, lest her parents think she had joined a cult. Joe read part of it, found it to be “heady,” and put it down. His wife read it, but only cognitively. It didn’t reach her heart.

When their daughter came home on break, she began attending Apex. Joe and his wife and son were going to a different church, but never felt connected. One evening, they decided to attend with their daughter to check out Apex. “Something about Apex made me want to come back and listen to what was being said,” Joe explained. It wasn’t long until they switched and began coming to Apex. “One particular Sunday, Jason Wing was giving the message and said, ‘If you want to know what a relationship with Jesus is all about, you can fill out the bottom of the bulletin or come talk and with me.’ I decided to go up and talk with him.”

That began several meetings over coffee and Joe being presented with his first Bible. Joe’s heart was opening, and his hunger grew. One day Joe asked his daughter’s opinion on where he should begin reading in the Bible and she pointed him to the book of John. It resonated deep within his heart, and God began opening his eyes. Joe responded by yielding his life to the Lord.

Joe looked up at me and smiled. “Looking back, I’d have to say my biggest sin in my life was me--My self-absorbed, self-centered, self-glorifying view of myself. I had won a lot of accolades and trophies through the things I’d done and how great I was at work, how great I was at school, how great I was at this, and this, and this,” Joe stated, gesturing.  “It became so totally ‘look what I did’ that I had no room for God.” Joe shook his head, clearly glad God had grabbed hold of him and redeemed him from the prison of his own self-focused world.

When I asked what his favorite verse was, he didn’t even hesitate: John 14:6. “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.’ I love that one because it’s so foundational; everything else builds upon it.”

I had to smile. Truly God had rescued Joe from ritual and brought him into relationship and refreshment with Himself.


Author: Jackie Perseghetti

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