Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 26: The Starting Line

There I sat as the preacher asked any wanting to follow Jesus to raise their hands. It was only recently that these alter calls had been tempting me. After a year of thinking about it, I had concluded that the Jesus I had read about in the Bible was not a con artist, a lying schemer out for money or manipulation of some sort. I eventually, later, also came to the conclusion that the Jesus portrayed in the gospels was not insane. He was not suffering from religious delusions and thinking he was God when he was, in fact, not divine, but merely another flawed human being like everyone else. The elimination of those possibilities had left the third alternative, which was that Jesus was all the Bible claimed him to be: God come to earth in human form to give his life for a fallen and rebellious world--a world he loved so much that he was willing to become one of us and suffer an agonizing death in order to save us. From reading and thinking about the whole of what he taught, and how he lived and loved, and died, and the life-changing effect he had on his disciples and millions of others through the centuries--from all that I had come, little by little, to believe that he was indeed the way, the truth and the life--the unique Savior through whom sinful humans can come to a holy God.

But still--even assenting to all this in my mind, still--I was not yet a follower of Christ. For although I had come to believe a number of things about Jesus, I still had yet to commit my heart and life to him and begin to follow him as a disciple. I was very close to becoming a Christian, but there was one final step to be taken. I had been reluctant to take it. It was a decision which would have deep and profound implications for every aspect of my life and my future. If I were to take this final step, there would be no turning back. It had to be a complete and unreserved commitment.

As the preacher continued to invite people wanting to follow Jesus to raise a hand, I had a sensation which was like the feeling one might have watching the last train for some destination leaving the station with a loved one on board. You should have gone with them but for some reason had procrastinated. Now, in a few moments time the train would pick up speed and you would be left behind for good. I saw that train as standing for spiritual progress and growth and those on it were headed for a real and meaningful destination. I however had been clinging to the platform, frozen in indecision and moral cowardice. Now was my time. I had to make a choice and act upon it while the opportunity was open. My creator was knocking--had been knocking for some time, patiently, persistently--waiting for me to respond. He had been calling me. The next move was mine. Would I make it? I would. I wanted to be part of God's unfolding work in the world. I needed the forgiveness and new birth he offered. "Yes," I said in my heart and mind, "Yes, count me in. I will follow you--beginning here and now. Come into my heart and life and do whatever rebuilding is necessary. I submit to your will. Just lead me and show me the way.I will give it my best, but I will need your help and guidance. I am yours. Amen."

I am not a very outwardly emotional person. I did not have tears of joy or jump up and down with shouts of praise. I did not experience and rapturous spiritual sensations. I just quietly walked out at the conclusion of the service with a profound inner peace and sense of freedom. There was also a feeling that I was on the right track--a totally new, but at the same time very ancient track. It was the Way. Jesus was the guide. Our journey would now begin. The first step had been taken. Many more would follow.

-------------------- * --------------------

I walked out of that church building that June evening a changed young man. That change awakened me to seeing things--even things in the physical world--as if with new eyes. I remember being struck by beauty of the tree just outside the door to the church, and the flowers on the church grounds. The greens of the leaves and the colors of the flowers were so much more vivid than I'd ever seen them before; the colors more saturated, more deeply tinted. This seems to me now an unusual and in some ways trivial experience. I only relate it to show that, though my conversion was accompanied by no overtly spiritual sensations, sill I was profoundly effected--even in the way things appeared to me. It was as if I had never really seen the richness of God's creation around me every day. This changed way of seeing things was only one small advance indicator of how I would need to learn to see everything through new eyes and with a new God-enhanced understanding. That change continues to this day. Happy Father's Day!

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 25: Welcome Home, Son

By Father's Day, 1972, I had attended almost fifty or so Sunday evening gatherings with the Jesus people who met at All Saints Episcopal Church in Riverside. It hadn't taken long for me to figure out that these were not meetings of the local Episcopal church youth group or of Young Life, but that instead, the hundreds of converted hippies there were simply borrowing the building for their weekly services. The previous summer Lonnie Frisbee had been the preacher. Chuck smith Jr had taken over from him after a few months and now, a year later, Greg Laurie, another young evangelist was preaching there.

When I came for the first time in June of the previous year, I'd gotten into a bit of a debate with a former high school acquaintance who had been converted and was now one of the Jesus people. He had challenged me to read the gospel accounts--which I had to concede I had never read--and to decide whether I thought Jesus was a con man, a deluded fanatic or was, instead, all he claimed to be. With this challenge in mind I had read through the four Gospels and after continued on to read the Epistles as well. As supplementary "research" to my reading, I had attended the Jesus people gatherings nearly every Sunday evening. Those gatherings followed a by now familiar format: a band or singer would do a set of Christian rock or folk music; that was followed by everyone singing songs--some old gospel songs, some lively new clap-along ones, and yet others slow and worshipful. During these last type, quite a few in the audience would raise one or both hands and perhaps close their eyes as well and tilt their heads upward.

After that, the preacher would get up and give a twenty to thirty minute evangelistic Bible lesson. At the end of his talk, he would always give the alter call. I had sat through so many of them the pattern was quite familiar to me now: He would begin to pray at the conclusion of his preaching and, as toward the end of the prayer, he would shift to addressing the audience and say something like,
..and now, while all heads are bowed and eyes closed, I'd like to invite you--if you have never opened your heart to Jesus and invited him in as your Lord and Savior--to do that now. God has a plan for your life. He wants to change your life and forgive your sins and show you a whole new way to live. It all can start tonight. You can be born again--born from above, and have a fresh start in life. You may be a drug addict or have done lots of bad stuff in your life. You can come to God just as you are. He loves you more than you can imagine. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for every single sin you have ever committed. He paid it all--even for the whole world. You may be thinking you have to get cleaned up before coming to Jesus. You can't do it. You don't have to cleaned up. He'll receive you just as you are. Just come to him and he will change you from the inside out. If you want to know him tonight, I'd like you to just raise your hand and let me know that. While every head is still bowed, will anyone say yes to Jesus? I see that hand in the back. Yes sister, over to my left, I see your hand. And you, yes and in the middle there--I see your hand too. He's calling, he's calling the lost sheep. Over on the side, I see your hand. The Bible says there is rejoicing over one sinner who comes to repentance. Is there anyone else who would like to give your life to Christ tonight? Yes, both of you up front here. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. His Spirit is calling the lost sheep and the prodigal sons home tonight.
Toward the end of the alter call, the band would slip back up on stage and begin to softly play an instrumental. The preacher would invite everyone to stand. Then he would tell those who had raised their hands, " While the band plays this next song I want those of you who raised your hands to come forward here so I can pray for you. Jesus said, 'If you confess me before men, I will confess you before my father in Heaven, but if you deny me before men, I will deny you also. So you need to be bold and publicly stand up for Jesus. He went to the cross and suffered for you, you can take a stand for him."

The band would begin to play more loudly now and many people would flock to the front of the church and stand there, most of them with their heads bowed. It seemed that each week, ten or twenty young people would go forward to profess their faith and be born again. When the music concluded, the preacher would lead those standing there in the Sinner's Prayer. The preacher would instruct them, "The prayer I am about to say, I want you to say out loud after me. Repeat after me, "Dear Jesus / I know I am a sinner / I know you died on the cross for me / I thank you for dying for me / And rising again from the dead / And I believe that all my sins are washed away / I give my life to you / Show me what you want me to do / Give me power over sin and help me to follow you / I receive you now as my Lord and Savior / I thank you for giving me eternal life / Thank you Lord Jesus, Amen."

With that, the preacher would ask those who had just prayed to go to a back room where they would be given a Bible and instructed in the basics of living for Jesus. The band would play one last song and then then everyone would leave the pews, mill about and there would be a lot of hugging and exchanges of, "Praise the Lord!" among the crowd.

I knew this routine by heart. In previous recent alter calls I had sometimes felt some inner stirring or a softening of my heart and a longing to perhaps know what it was like to be a follower of Jesus. At other occasions I'd felt an oppressive psychological heaviness, a burdensome mental weight which felt also at times like real lead weights on my shoulders. Sometimes I felt nothing, or just an inner emptiness and weariness. Tonight, Father's Day, was different however. Tonight...

Father's Day Revisited, Part 24: The Paradise Fire Escape

The sun was setting as I drove the final fifty mile climb from Yuba City to Paradise. All the way the redwoods and pines got thicker and taller by the mile. It was one of those sunsets which paints the sky and clouds with a full palette of vibrant hues, from deep deep purple to the faintest pink and everything in between. Shafts of yellow-orange sunlight burst from under a low floating huddle of clouds to the west. Different vistas came into my view, but only for brief moments as as I'd come to a rise or the road turned. As I drove I ventured glances, drinking in the fiery sky as often and for as long as I dared before having to turn my eyes back to the black road and yellow line. Although the thought did not cross my mind at the time, looking back now it was almost as if God were saying to that young questioning skeptic, "Watch this!"

Arriving too late in the day to do the repair job I'd come to do, I sized up the little town as the first buildings began to appear, hoping there was a movie theater or bowling alley or bookstore or somewhere to spend a couple of hours after I'd found a motel in which to spend the night. The town was not looking promising in the nightlife department as I drove the main road. Looked like they rolled up the sidewalk early here--and, after all it was a Monday night. I had about resigned myself to watching the game on the motel TV when, off to my right I caught sight of a small lit sign that said, The Fire Escape Coffee House. "Well," I thought, "if nothing else, I could hang out and have a couple of cups of coffee there if it turns out there's nothing else to do in town."

I found a motel, checked in, put my gear in the room and watched a little of the early newscast on the TV. I was antsy and so switched it off at the first commercial and went out to the truck. I'd go back and see if that little coffee shop I'd seen was open. As I parked the truck I saw someone open the door to the coffee house and go in. As I entered I smelled the brewing coffee and noticed the business was one of those which used to be a home. In the big sunken living room off to my left was a scattering of couches and overstuffed chairs. Six or eight people were there and I could hear the low sound of their mingled conversations. Something wasn't right though. There should be a register near the entry. There was not. Instead I saw a tall sofa table near where I stood and on it were some books and several little stacks of literature. I stepped over to look and saw that the books were really paperback Bibles and the stacks of literature were fliers for various Christian concerts and things. "What kind of business was this?" I wondered. A little yellow flag went up in my mind.

As a woman approached me another flag was quickly raised. "Hi, c'mon in," she said, noticing I'd hesitated in the entry by the literature table. Extending her hand, and taking a step closer, she offered, "I'm Sarah--and you are?" I'd have to decide quickly if and how to make a fast exit if I determined I'd stumbled upon the hangout of some cult or something. Perhaps I could say I just stopped by to get directions to somewhere. "Um, I'm Denny. Is this a coffee shop?" I asked. "Yes, we've got a fresh pot," she said, sensing my alarm. "Would you like some?" "Maybe, um, I don't know, well, you see I thought..." "Oh, we're a coffee house, just not a business. The coffee's free. Everyone is welcome to come by and hang out any time. We're mostly Christians and we meet here a few times a week to fellowship in the Lord, sing, study the Word and talk--things like that. Can I get you some coffee?" One year ago and I'd have been out the door before she knew what had happened. I still felt somewhat threatened by Christians, but being around them so much more in the past year had mellowed my antagonism. In addition, I was wanting to find knowledgeable, reasonable Christians I could probe and question of to see what a "normal" Christian believed and how they came to believe it.

"OK," I said, "I'll have a cup, but I can't really stay for long though," I added as insurance just in case these people turned out to be weird or Pentecostal or who-knew-what. Sarah though seemed very calm and warm--not weird or high-strung like some religious fanatics. She appeared to be in her late thirties or early forties. She was a little tall--at least she was a couple of inches above my five-eight--and had very long dark brown hair. It was the length one saw only occasionally. It went down, in loosely tied bundles, to just below her waist. She was casually dressed, wearing a very plain looking and modest corduroy dress with a long row of big wood buttons which ran from bottom to top. Most of the others, who I could see in my peripheral vision and were seated in the big sunken room off to my left, looked to be younger than Sarah, perhaps in their mid to late twenties.

Sarah showed me to the big coffee urn and I filled a large styrofoam cup from it and looked around for a place to sit. I wound up at one end of a very long and low couch, a good distance from the only others on it, a young couple sitting together with a big Bible open between them atop their two knees. At first I thought we'd just sit around and talk, but it seemed a meeting was about to start. A skinny young man with a neatly trimmed beard reached down and lifted a guitar out of its case and began to tune it. The guy on the other end of the couch who looked like a college student extended his hand to me and said, "Hey man, glad to have you, praise the Lord, how'd you hear about this place?" "Um, I just got in to town and saw it as I drove in," I replied, wondering if everyone else here knew one another or whether I was the only "independent" soul in the place. Sarah, who had met me at the door, now joined the group who were turning their chairs and circling up around a big old well-worn coffee table. The young guy with the guitar began a song and the others tentatively began to follow along. "We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord..." I recognized the songs and knew the words to most of the half-dozen they sang. I didn't sing along. I didn't want to give the impression the I was a fellow Christian.

After the last song and after Sarah had prayed for the Lord to, "touch every heart and speak to everyone here through your Word, Father, and by your Holy Spirit show us your way and show us Jesus so we can follow him and love him and serve him better--in his precious name we pray." Now a man in his fifties, perhaps Sarah's husband, opened a big Bible which looked as it it had seen a great deal of use and had been leafed though for years, and said, "let's take a look at Hebrews, chapter one," and began to read, in a firm voice, but rather slowly, "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son." He then began to go on to explain that passage and in doing so quoted from five or six other places in the Bible, some in the New Testament, some in the Old. The gist of it seemed to be that if you wanted to hear from God, you'd have to read what Jesus said and also that the life of Jesus itself was some sort of way God was speaking to the world in general. "Huh," I thought to myself, "wasn't I just a few hours ago trying to figure out how God, if there is one, communicates? Another weird coincidence I suppose, that I should just stumble across this place and hear this particular thing tonight."

There was some discussion, some more songs were sung, and finally, after the Bible teacher said a prayer, we were apparently dismissed to "fellowship." A couple of people introduced themselves to me but I was feeling kind of awkward as an outsider and I headed for the door. Sarah got there ahead of me and thanked me for coming. Before I could slip past her she asked me, "So, Denny, do you believe in Jesus?" I paused, trying to decide whether to give her a long or short answer. I settled upon short. "No, not really." "Why not?" she replied. This woman was really plain spoken, I thought as I pondered an answer. "Well, I guess I'm just not capable of believing something I can't see or prove or verify," I ventured. "I think I just don't have the capacity to believe and have faith like some people seem to have." "I see," she said, "but would you like to believe?" she asked. I was taken aback by that question. I had never before considered it from that angle before. How was I to answer such a question? I paused for a good while, trying to formulate an honest answer to her simple, but stark question. Finally I said, "Well, if it is true, yes, I do. I mean, I would want to believe it--if it was true. But if it's not, then no, I don't. I don't want to believe in a lie or an fairy tale or even something that just sounds good and makes you feel better when you are troubled. No, I'd rather not believe something like that."

Although we were having a rather intense conversation about God and faith, I didn't feel intimidated or pressured as I sometimes had when talking to Christians. Sarah was soft-spoken, her voice plesant and her demeanor calm. She seemed genuinely concerned for me and was willing to listen to what I had to say. She also seemed wise. I got the impression that she had been a Christian for many years. "OK," she said, "If you want to believe, but are finding it difficult, then you should ask God to help you with that." "Yeah," I said, "but that's the thing, I don't even know if there is a God, so that wouldn't do much good I don't think." She put her hand on my shoulder, like a mother would when giving instructions her boy before he left for school, "Denny," she said, "I'm going to be praying for you. And you can pray too. Even if you don't know if there is a God or not, you can just reach out with your mind and heart and say, 'God, if you are there, if you exist, I want you to help me to believe. If the Bible is true and Jesus is the savior, I want to believe. Show me the way to faith, Lord, and I will follow.'" she concluded. "Just try it. It couldn't hurt. If there is no God, you haven't lost anything. But if there is, I believe he will answer you prayer and help you to believe." She took her hand from my shoulder and continued, "Denny, Jesus said we must 'ask, seek and knock.' He said if you ask, you'll get an answer; if you seek, you will find what you seek; and if you knock, the door will open to you--so go ahead and ask him. You have nothing to lose. I'll be praying for you. God's going to help you find the answer if you seek him." I couldn't really argue with her logic, and I did feel her genuine concern for me. I thanked her, told her I'd give it a try, said goodbye and thanked her for the coffee.

Back in the motel room I watched Johnny Carson and tried to wind down so I could get some sleep. My concentration wandered back and forth from Johnny and Ed McMahon to the coffee house and what Sarah had said to me. After a little while, I turned off the TV, lit a cigarette, lay back in bed, and did as Sarah had suggested.

In the morning I tried calling the customer whose shower unit I had come to repair only to find out they'd moved months ago. Someone back at our office had messed up and had not called the customer in advance to confirm the repair order before I was sent. My services were not needed here in Paradise after all. "How strange," I thought, "that I'd be sent all this way here just to spend a couple of hours with some Christians in a coffee house." Who might have arranged for that to happen?

My experience in Paradise at the coffee house--what I'd heard in the Bible study and what was said to me after--lingered and replayed in my mind the whole way as I drove back down to Riverside. My life was in transition. I was newly married and happier than I'd ever been--than I'd ever known it was possible to be. Cher had married me even though I was not a Christian. I felt no pressure at all from her that I become one. Yet I was restlessness inside about the whole Jesus issue. Inwardly I continued to ask and seek and knock. The following Sunday would be Father's Day.