Monday, September 29, 2014

My Early Encounters on the Way to God's Calling

Preached on Sunday, September 28, 2014

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 1:4-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Wild Horses Monument;
Across from Vantage, WA: Fall of 2014
When I was four years old, my family took a trip to visit relatives in Iowa, and Ohio, and Michigan. We took the train. Ever since those travels time, when I smell diesel fumes, it reminds me of being on the railroad. White linen tablecloths and napkins remind me of the dining car.
We took the Santa Fe Super Chief out of Los Angeles. We didn’t stay in a “sleeper” because it was too expensive. One of my memories is that when we were riding through New Mexico an Indian came into our car dressed up in full regalia. (“Indian” was a word he used: remember the year was 1956.)
He walked down the aisle, and talked with each of the kids. I think he was Navaho or Pueblo. He wore feathers, but especially he wore a lot of turquoise and silver.
When he got to me, I was very excited. I had watched all the westerns on TV and read stories about Indians. He asked me my name and then he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a cowboy. He asked me why, and I said, “Because cowboys get to shoot Indians!”
He eyes got wide with fear. He ran out of the car. Then he came back. He poked me and said, “You know, Indians can shoot cowboys, too.”
When I was young, I had a lot of ideas of what I wanted to do when I grew up. Cowboys held my attention for a while; then being a fireman, then a scientist. Then I wanted to do what my dad did (which was to work as an electrician on the state highways).
Geology was very interesting, and I had a rock collection and charts of some mountain ranges and the Grand Canyon. Then I wanted to be an astronomer, then an architect, then an archeologist.
Then I wanted to work in the Foreign Service, for the State Department. That was why I started studying Polish from my “Babcia”, so that I could go to the University of Lodz, in Poland. At Lodz there was a free program for foreign students who were of at least one fourth Polish descent. I was in high school at that time: in my freshman through junior years. Baci would come and spend each summer with us and I would learn Polish from her. I still have the book.
When I was a senior I thought seriously about being a Forest Ranger. Then, in my first year in college, I went back to the State Department idea, or the idea of being a college history professor. In high school I had been known as “the little professor”.
When I was eighteen, during my sophomore year of college, I made one of the most important of my many commitments of my life to Christ. By the end of that same year, I began to tell people that I was going into the ministry.
I was not happy about this. It was something I had tried to avoid since I was twelve.
I loved God (I loved Jesus) for as long as I could remember. But I wanted to enjoy them in quiet and privacy, in my own way, on my own terms.
I grew up in a family where we knew how to pray, but we didn’t pray together, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas and maybe Easter; and that was a prayer that my dad and my Uncle Don would recite by heart. That was their job. My dad never taught me that prayer.
We knew that God was real. Jesus was real. We knew what Jesus had done, and that things like Christmas and Easter were all about him.
One of my problems with preparing for the ministry was that I was timid and shy. And I had almost no idea of what a minister did, except for preaching and leading worship. And I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to talk or even to stand up in front of others.
I also grew up in a family that didn’t quite approve of doing church. Oh, we went sometimes. There were times when we kids were taken to Sunday school every Sunday for weeks at a time, and then not go again until next Christmas.
About the time I was twelve we got really involved in a church for about two or three years. My parents taught Sunday school together, and my dad was a deacon for about a year: until he quit and took us all with him.
Being part of the Sunday school and (much, much more) being a deacon confirmed my dad’s worst suspicions about church. Church was about doing church, getting members, raising money, plugging people into programs and filling vacancies. It was about leaders building up little territories and constituencies, and sniping at the other people’s constituencies, and keeping them from getting their way.
Well, some churches are much better than that. I know this very well (now). I know (now) that the Presbyterian Church in Live Oak was simply not a very good church. They talked about helping people, but I don’t think they did much of helping outside of Christmas. They talked about love, but an awful lot of them didn’t love each other. They were very much like the whole town. Live Oak is an awfully feisty place.
There were very good people in that church; but there weren’t enough of them to outweigh the others. The rest were fine too. They were strangely nice, and good, and friendly people, just as long as you didn’t take someone else’s side in a disagreement.
When I was four years old and in a different church, I knew nothing about all that, and neither did my parents. That was still in the future. At the age of four, I sat on the floor of the Sunday school room while the teacher played “Jesus Loves Me” on the piano, and I simply knew that it was the truth. Jesus loved me, and he was right there loving me, wherever I was. And he was strong.
We know that children have very powerful imaginations, but we also believe that God gives certain abilities to children that grownups lack; or have forgotten or lost. There are times when children know what is right, when the grownups around them are doing something wrong. And so Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
When I was very small and, later, in elementary school I had some strong experiences of realizing that God made me and loved me, and that I was responsible to God (to Jesus).
I am an oldest child, so I grew up knowing that I was the helper and protector of my sisters. I also learned that I was supposed to be of help to anyone who needed my help. And that was how I learned about my own pride, and laziness, and selfishness.
In order to get along with others I was taught two things. One was: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31) The other was: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The first is a Bible paraphrase. The second is an English proverb.
Because of these, it was easy for me to understand, even as a seven or eight year old, what it meant to be a sinner, but I also knew that grownups weren’t much better. More than once, as a little kid, I would tell my parents, “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” If the world lived by the golden rule and by that old English proverb, the world would be a completely different place. A child knows that.
Even though my mom certainly agreed with this, the parent who was the most vocal about this was my dad, and it came to him from my grandma Evans, who was a good Methodist. She would tell me the same thing. She represented the church side of the family.
When I was eight years old my family was in church. There was a huge black cross hanging from the ceiling. We were singing the hymn “Holy! Holy! Holy!” and I was looking at that cross, and I felt as if that cross were going right  into me: inside me.
One night, when I was about ten years old, Billy Graham was on TV. I committed my life to Christ. I was alone in the room. That was a year when my family wasn’t doing much church, so my commitment had nothing to do with church. Billy Graham was church for me that night.
When I was twelve years old, my family moved up to my home town of Live Oak, California. We got invited to the Presbyterian Church, the church that became responsible for my formative, negative view of the church, which I have already told you about.
At first, I liked it a lot. Lucy Witherow was my teacher, and she was a good one. She eventually wrote curriculum for the Gospel Light publishing house. In that class, when I was twelve, we were studying about the Old Testament and how God called people to serve him. It seemed as if an important part of each story was the way that each person who was called by God to serve didn’t want to do it, and made excuses.
This is me just before my 13th birthday.
I began to have the same feeling. I felt as if I was being held in a vise or had a heavy weight pressing down on me. I prayed about it like this. I told God, “God I feel like you want me to do something that I don’t want to do. If you want me to do it, then tell me in a way that I will know for sure.”
I prayed this every night for about a month. Then, about the time of my thirteenth birthday, I prayed this prayer once more and went to sleep.
In my dream I was awakened by an angel. He had wings, and hair like some kind of curly lion’s mane. I would say that it seemed that he was all one color, and he gleamed and shown, as if he were made from some kind of living metal, like bronze. I knew what bronze was because I had metal shop in the seventh grade. He didn’t speak with words but with sound. It was like music, and the roaring of lions, and the ringing of bells. I can still see it and hear it.
He picked me up. We flew over an ocean, but the ocean was not an ocean. It was the world of people; and it seemed ill, and dirty, and dim. We came to a place where there was a field and a road. The sky above was partly bright, but there was a terrible storm and darkness coming over everything. It was starting to rain, and silent lighting was flashing.
People were in the open place. Some were running from the storm and the darkness. Some were trying to build shelters to protect themselves. Some were shaking their fist at the storm. Some were hunched up in the road with their arms around their heads, just giving up.
A voice came from the light in the sky, and said, “People are growing afraid, and confused, and angry, and doubting, and despairing, and you will speak to them for me.”
Then I was back by the shore of the ocean, with the angel, and he told me that I was called to be a missionary and a minister. He told me to tell my parents. In the dream, that is what I did.
In the morning I told my mom. I didn’t tell her the dream, but I told her that I thought that God wanted me to do something like be in the ministry, and she said, very wisely, “You know, you wouldn’t like doing that. You would have to stand up and talk in front of people. You’d have to do funerals.” I just said something like, “Yeah, I guess.” And I said nothing more about it for years. I never told my dad, because I figured my mom would tell him. They were a team, after all.
We went to church for a few years. That was our big church-going phase.
I started to get interested in eastern religions, and in reincarnation, and in spiritualism. I tried to combine it with Jesus. My trick was to say that people got reincarnated until they found Jesus.
Eventually God would pry me away from all my strange spiritual interests (about which I became very serious). I wanted the protection of my own way. I wanted to be in charge of my own spiritual life. And it was all very experimental, and I treated it like a field of study and a science, and I was very much a scientist at that time. Duke University had a famous department of parapsychology that studied all those things. Eventually God would drag me out of all that. By the time I was eighteen, I had nothing left but Jesus, and his cross, and this calling I tried to ignore and couldn’t escape.
But, back to being thirteen, I became a member of the church for a while. (We called it becoming a “communicant”; which meant being able to take communion. It was like confirmation, but Presbyterians didn’t believe in confirmation in those days.)
In the process of becoming a member, I was in classes taught by the pastor. He said some odd things that I picked up on. Over the next couple years I asked him a lot of questions. It turned out that he didn’t personally believe a lot of traditional Christian things; like the teaching that Jesus is God in the flesh, and that his mother Mary was a virgin, and that Jesus died for our sins on the cross, and that Jesus rose from the dead.
I decided that if he didn’t think he had to believe certain things then I could develop my own religion and have Jesus along with reincarnation, and spiritualism, and a little bit of Buddhism thrown in. But, like I said, Jesus later put a stop to that. He made that way of escape impossible for me. But that is another story.
By the time I was eighteen, I had nothing left but a Jesus to whom I had promised to listen and follow. I loved him but I hadn’t listened.
One of my best friends, Danny Robertson, had a conversion experience. This made me feel ashamed. I asked God what to do. God told me to go back to where I left off; to that stupid church.
What was God thinking? Anyone who claims to be a Bible-believing Christian knows that that was the wrong advice.
I went back. I got there as everyone was coming out because they had changed the time for summer. They hadn’t put the change on their sign, or in the paper. I was ashamed again.
Still, I went back again, because God told me to. There was a really good youth group leader named Larry Jenkins. It was a small town and Larry was the older brother of a classmate of mine. Larry really believed the gospel. He understood the Bible. He helped me to have an honest conversation with the Bible as the word of God. He took the youth group to an evangelistic youth rally at the fair grounds.
The preacher there described the cross and called on those who wanted to make a commitment to Christ to come forward. I had always managed to be a Christian without losing my privacy and without being demonstrative in any way. The church had found ways, in the past, of manipulating me, and making me do things I didn’t want to do. I wanted to set my own terms. I didn’t want to change that now.
The preacher didn’t have to talk about Jesus on the cross any more. It was as if Jesus was speaking to me from the cross. It was as if Jesus said: “I have done all of this for you. Are you willing to be someone who says no to me?”
I couldn’t take it any more. I couldn’t stand to face myself as a person who was willing to say no to Jesus; not even if I might have other chances to say yes, because he had already given me chances. I knew I had to stop being a person who could say no to Jesus and all that he is and all that he has done. I went forward.
It made a huge difference. I became very happy to be a different kind of Christian: a Christian who could not say no to Jesus. Then Jesus started to remind me of that call that I had avoided for so long. I began to tell my parents and my pastor, and go through the long process of preparing for the ministry.
I would also tell you that I am a missionary as well. I have been one ever since that time of long ago. I am here in Desert Aire because I am a missionary, and I must tell you that you and your church have to start being missionaries. You can’t be normal Christians any more. You can’t be a normal church any more. That has to stop. Jesus is calling you, and you dare not say no to him.
I wanted to tell you a lot of other things. I wanted to tell you about the time I drowned and breathed my last, and left my body and went somewhere and came back. I remember the struggle and I remember the return trip very well.
I wanted to tell you the story of why I cannot leave the denomination. The short version is this. Jesus said, “I have been faithful to you in this church, and you will be faithful to me in this church.” There is a story to this for another time.
But I do have to tell you that Jesus was faithful to me in a very strange way. I must tell you that when I said yes to Jesus about the ministry, almost no one believed me: at least no one whose opinion counted. Those who were in charge of people preparing for the ministry didn’t believe that I was meant for the ministry, and they wanted me to go away. They advised me, if I was determined to go into the ministry, to please go and do it in another denomination. Even after they had a change of heart and decided to support me, all kinds of misfortunes and road blocks made it look impossible. Most people would have quit. But that’s another story.

God is patient. Only don’t make his patience an excuse for your own convenience, or an excuse for following your own personal comfort. Don’t be someone who says no to Jesus.


  1. Just wondering, did anyone cry at this sermon? I did when I read it. That dream when you were only ...13, was it? That was incredible. And that is how kids didn't really give your Mom details of that dream, I wonder what she would have said?
    Have I told you of one of my favorite cartoons?
    They find a man who was castaway on a deserted island for many years. He is found alone with their are THREE huts on the island. When asked what they are for, he answers, "Oh, one is my house and that one is my church".
    What about the third one he was asked. "Oh, that was the church I USED to belong to!"
    Hope you find this as funny as I do.

    I spent some time looking for an eraser when I was in London recently. Someone had written a statement of unbelief at the very front of the Gideon's Bible. Since it was written in pencil, I thought maybe that they did that to see if anyone cared enough to erase it. Funny, after I erased it, there was only one word left on the page...Jesus. Wow, I just left it. After all, "In The Beginning was the Word"...
    I really would like to post about this, but find it almost impossible to write of things like this without it sounding trivial or silly. What do you think?

    1. Kay, I just figured out how to activate the "reply" mode. I almost cried a couple times. I probably got the best and most vocal reaction that I have ever gotten to a "sermon". It wasn't quite a real sermon. the joke is one I tell to make a point. I think I had the dream just after I turned 13. I didn't tell my parents about the dream because it scared me. God has a way of answering our prayers that doesn't necessarily make things easier. I am going to try to insert a picture of me that would have been taken around that time.