As a young boy in the early ‘90s, one of my favorite songs was “The Best Things In Life Are Free”. It’s a duet by two legendary pop and soul singers: Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson. The lyrics go something like “the best things in life are free, now that I’ve discovered what you mean to me. The best things in life are free, now that we’ve got each other, the best things in life are free”. The phrase became a pretty popular thing to say, at least around where I’m from. Growing up, I honestly believed it to be true. Think about it: air, sunlight, sight, hearing, water; all free. The greatest free thing in life is love, especially God’s love. We tell people all the time that God’s love comes at no price to us. That Jesus paid it all for us and all we have to do is simply believe. Now I agree, but is that the end of the story? Is the extent of God’s love narrowed down to only salvation,? We know salvation is free, but what about the call to follow Jesus? Isn’t that a privilege for us brought about by the love of God? Isn’t that a separate thing from salvation? Salvation is something God does without our participation, but following Jesus requires our full participation and cooperation. Salvation comes free of charge, but following Jesus, aka “discipleship” comes at a price.
I remember later being nineteen or twenty-ish sitting in front of my yard with a man named Reverend Moore (who became a mentor to me).I Had just made an open confession of belief in Jesus at the church he co-pastored at the time. We had just pulled up to my house and saw about 6 of my homeboys standing in my yard smoking weed, drinking, and shooting dice - a typical Sunday afternoon.I Rode in the car silently all the way home trying to process what just happened to me, and now I sat staring out of the window at my friends thinking, “What do I do now?” The initial joy I felt after knowing I get to live forever with Jesus had been met with the reality that I still lived in the hood. It served as a reminder that I have two lives to sort out now. When I left home that morning I was a rolling 90s neighborhood Crip, and so were all my friends. I Came back a Christian, a recipient of God’s Holy Spirit, and my friends were still Crips.
I got out of the car and walked through the yard to greet everybody, and as we proceeded to do our ritual Crip handshake, something felt different. For the first time in my life, this felt wrong. I didn't fully understand why this simple handshake I’ve been doing since I was twelve years old suddenly felt forbidden, but I figured it had something to do with my confession. In that moment, I knew things weren’t going to be the same, but I ignored it and thought “I can follow Jesus and still be a Crip, I could be a Christian Crip. I just won’t hurt anybody.”
A few weeks passed and I seemed to have found a rhythm. Everyday I woke up around 5am, got dressed for work, ate breakfast, did a devotional reading until my ride to work arrived and worked from 7-5:30. I’d get home around 7:30, take a shower, eat dinner, read the bible, kiss my grandma goodnight, and go to bed. Homeboys would occasionally stop by and catch me up on what was happening in the hood. During this time, I hadn’t told any of the other Crips that I had become a Christian in fear that they wouldn’t understand, or label me as a sell out. I couldn’t find an easy way to say “hey, you know that God that we sometimes believe in? The One who stuck us in this ghetto and made us poor? The One we’ve never seen, and believed if He did really exist He couldn’t possibly love us? Yeah Him, well, I’ve found him….sorta. I still haven’t seen Him, but I’ve decided to follow Him” I would’ve been the biggest sell out of all time! I’ve known these guys my whole life, we leaned on one another for everything. When we needed money, God didn’t bless us, we sold drugs and stole to get it. When I had a problem with somebody, I didn’t call on God, I called on the set. And where was God when my uncle was killed? Where was He when we had absolutely nothing? As far as we were all concerned, our lives were the way they were because of God. He was the biggest gangsta of all time, and He wasn’t “riding” for us. He was our enemy, and now I’m following Him like those weirdos who despised and judged us? How was I supposed to explain that?
I was growing, and God was becoming more and more real to me each day. Life was beginning to make sense. I would read a proverb that I couldn’t understand in the moment, then go somewhere, watch a moment happen and think, “so that’s what it means when the bible says...”. The scriptures were redefining everything I’d ever learned. I was truly being “transformed by the renewing of my mind”. But beneath the excitement of this new-found love I had for God lurked an unshakable guilt for being pulled in two separate directions. I had read where Jesus told His disciples that it was impossible to serve two masters, you would either “hate one and love the other”. I was learning enough about God to know that He wasn’t interested in sharing a space in my life with any other master besides Himself, and the Crip gang set was definitely a master. I felt like I was a sell out to my gang for making an allegiance to a way of life that was in opposition to their principles. I felt like I was an even bigger a sell out to God because I was concealing His presence in my life. I was a new Christian trying to figure out what to do about the two most important things I loved; my God, and my gang.
One morning, during my daily devotional reading, I came across Luke 14: 26-35. In that passage of scripture, Jesus challenged anyone who wanted to follow Him to “count the cost” for discipleship. In that moment I realized salvation was indeed free, but this new life was gonna cost me something. The gift was free, but I had to pay for the accessories. The gift was eternal life in heaven, but the accessory was a new life on earth, and I had to give up my old one in order to experience the fullness of this new one. The two couldn’t possibly co-exist. I couldn’t be a new person and an old person at the same time. I knew that being a gang member meant I was serving an entity that stood for everything God was (and still is) against. I loved my homeboys to the point of being willing to lay my life down for them, but I knew I had to love God more. I had to become the thing I feared being most, a “sell out. I was being convicted by things I would read Jesus say such as “if you are ashamed of me, I will be ashamed of you…” and “ whoever does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple” and countless other scriptures like these. I knew I had to make a decision. I understood the cost, and I knew I had to pay it.