How’d I Get Here?

Confused“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”. [1] quoted Clarence Darrow, the famous barrister and atheist. He asserted that this was wrong.  Doubt, he insisted, leads to wisdom, because doubt leads to investigation and investigation leads to wisdom.  I first heard these words not from Clarence Darrow, but from Henry Fonda who recited them in a one- man show in which he portrayed Clarence Darrow.  The line was seared into my mind and it has guided my decision making process nearly my whole life.  Thus Clarence Darrow, via Henry Fonda, had a greater impact on my spiritual growth then did Jesus or the church.

Because of this one line I have endeavored not to make any important decisions or develop any fundamental philosophies without careful study, fact checking and detailed analysis of information upon which decisions are based.  Thus, when I was eighteen, I decided I needed to establish what my religious beliefs were.

We were a typical middle class American family.  My mom was a housewife, my dad sold insurance.  Both were Republicans.  We lived in a modest ranch style home located in a housing development in a small town surrounded by other families who were identical to us. My parents steadily attended the Methodist church and made sure I and my two older brothers attended as well.  For a young, not-so-innocent boy, church was the last place I wanted to be on Sunday morning.  As I grew older and looked at the world through the political and social lenses of the late 60’s, the services seemed to lack spirituality and sincerity.  I sensed an underlying hypocrisy and felt our church was more of a social club that gave its members a status in the local community.

Remembering the words of Clarence Darrow, I decided I did not want my religious beliefs shaped by such a cynical view so I began to study all the world’s religions including atheism and agnosticism.  Among the authors I read were Clarence Darrow, C.S. Lewis, Gandhi, Tolstoy, numerous other apologists and theologians and bits and pieces of the Bible, Torah and Koran.

My conclusion was that religion was fine for some folks but I didn’t require it.  I suppose the best way to categorize myself was as an agnostic.  I was neither for nor against religion, I simply didn’t need it in my life.  So for nearly 30 years I was blissfully free of the burden of faith.  I didn’t have to worry about forgiveness or salvation.  My own moral compass kept me from doing harmful things and I didn’t feel guilty about having some fun.

Things began to change when my daughter turned 14.  Becky is our only child and she is adopted.  Debbie and I spent nearly 10 years trying to have a family.  Three of those were spent in the adoption process.  Like all parents I wanted to guide my little girl through life’s challenges.  I felt the way to do this was to help her learn to make decisions on her own, rather than make decisions for her.  She would have to make important judgments about her life and those choices should be based on objective and clear thinking.  So the same principles I applied in my analysis of faith, I wanted Becky to apply to hers.  The first step was that she attend confirmation class.  It would be up to her to decide if she would join the church.  My intent was that she should make that decision based on impartial study.  For me, actually joining was insignificant compared to acquiring knowledge of Christian beliefs.  I did not want her accepting or denying religion based on limited knowledge or awareness.  And confirmation was only the first step.

During the next two years Becky attended youth rallies, Methodist Youth Fellowship, Sunday school and a program called Chrysalis.  When she was fifteen she approached me and declared she wanted to be minster.  I was stunned.  It was not what I was expecting and I wondered if she had been brainwashed and wanted to go sell flowers at an airport.  She explained her reasons and what led her to consider such a vocation and when I was assured that she didn’t want to go on a pilgrimage to Korea, I allowed her to pursue this vocation.  After all she had also wanted to be a dancer, architect, singer and fashion designer.  I was sure this would pass in a few months.

But it did not pass.  God began to work in our daughter’s life and we began to experience the presence of God.  Having made up my mind about my religious beliefs nearly 30 years earlier, I had closed the book and gave it little thought for all those years.  Seeing the Holy Spirit working in my daughter’s life I felt the need to reevaluate my own beliefs, to challenge them again in a new light and from a new perspective.

Over the next 5 years, God began a work in my life that led me to the ministry.  I went back to church and actually listened to the pastor.  I attended Bible studies and even did some teaching.  God had me take a basic lay speaking course and then an advanced course.  I began to preach in church and help start a contemporary service.  He sent me on a mission to tornado-ravaged Missouri, and through my pastor, dragged me to a “Walk to Emmaus”. My wife went through a similar transformation and from one epiphany to another God revealed His plans for my life.

During this period there were three transforming events that pulled me from my agnostic philosophy and into God’s grace.  At one of my daughter’s youth rallies, a speaker had talked about his “personal relationship” with God.  I was dumbstruck.  God was always a distant iconic figure and Jesus was an historical persona.  You could not have a personal relationship with someone from the past or who existed in a distant nirvana!  During that talk, I suddenly felt God’s presence as if he had physically entered into me, and knew that he was here with me and not on some far away mountain top.

I experienced two things during my Walk to Emmaus.  First that Jesus died for my sins, the sins I have committed.  And I truly wondered why anyone would be willing to die for me.  It was an overwhelming feeling of remorse and relief in which I deeply felt thankfulness and an obligation toward Christ.  I was infused with the desire to show my gratitude by sharing with others what Christ did for me.  I remembered what one of my favorite songwriters, Kris Kristofferson wrote:

“Tell me Lord, if you think there’s a way, That I can repay, all I’ve taken from you. Maybe Lord, I can show someone else, What I’ve been through myself, on my way back to you.”[2]

And this led me to understand how deeply God loves me and how much He wants to give me that love.  I also realized how simple it is to receive it.

Thirdly, during my mission to Missouri I recognized how God could use me to share that grace with others.  It is through me and all of us that the gift of the cross is made known and people can receive God’s Grace.  I learned also on that trip to turn my life over to him and let God be in control.  This was the most difficult thing for me to do.  And still is!

When I felt the desire to become a minister I wondered how I could accomplish this without a college degree.  Because I’m hearing impaired and hearing aids only partially help, classrooms have never been a good learning environment for me.  Thus I didn’t go to college. My philosophy has been: rather than acquire vast knowledge and try to figure out what to do with it, I would find things which needed to be done and obtain the resources I needed to accomplish it.  The results are that I’ve done just about everything.  I’ve been a business owner and a hired hand, a high paid livestock consultant and low paid manure scooper.  I’ve sold car parts, raw steel, hardware, livestock feed, and Adirondack chairs.  I’ve poured concrete, put up drywall, wired buildings, fixed appliances, delivered gas, repaired toilets and wrote children’s stories.  I sometimes feel like the character in another Kris Kristofferson’s song –

“He’s a poet, he’s a picker– He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher– He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned– He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.” [3]

Fortunately my minister at the time had gone through a minster training course called “course of study” and led me in that direction.  It was a long journey filled with personal and financial problems, slowed down by obstacles and nearly derailed at one point.  But God was persistent and when I finally made up my mind to serve in a church.

And that’s where I’m at today, serving in two small congregations in NE.  Like my childhood home, the description of my churches is the same as any small town church.  Both congregations are small with even smaller attendance.  Both are elderly and both are traditional.  They engage in similar activities: Soup Suppers, women’s groups, small Bible studies and rotating officers on the committees.  There is a jumbled sense of futility and hope, a pragmatic acceptance of the inevitable and a resolute desire to endure.

The challenge in both churches is not to provide leadership, but to renew leadership in the congregation.  This requires a clear understanding of the servant leadership which Jesus taught his disciples.  And that requires reshaping the work of the church from a prevailing social format to an enriching spiritual power, one in which the presence of God is felt, seen and experienced.

[1] Psalms 111:10 NRSVP

[2] Why Me Lord lyrics © Resaca Music Publishing Co

[3] “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” © RESACA MUSIC PUBLISHING CO