Note: I warn my many non-Christian friends that this paper contains a testimony to my faith and my passion for it. If you prefer to stay with the technical aspects, this is not the thing to read!
I grew up as the son of Seventh-day Adventist missionary parents. I don’t intend to tell the entire story of my life, but I want to lay a foundation for what happens later. My parents have great faith, and they demonstrated that faith in their daily lives and in the way they conducted mission work. My father was a medical doctor and my mother a registered nurse. My father prayed with every patient he treated.
Some missionaries felt it was alright to smuggle things through borders in order to carry out their work (and in some cases I believe they are right), but my parents did not work that way. They would load medical supplies for which they had no import license right in the open. Before approaching the border control point we would stop and pray, and then proceed through. Inevitably the inspector would notice the material we were carrying and would ask what it was. My father would always say, “Medical supplies” or whatever it was we were transporting for our work. The inspector would then ask for the import license, and my father would indicate he didn’t have one. Every time this happened we were simply waved on through the border. We were never detained nor were any of the supplies confiscated.
In 1971 we traveled to Guyana, South America, where my father underwent emergency soon after our arrival. We were told that he was unlikely to work again or to live more than 25 years. My parents called for the elders of the church, as indicated in James 5, who anointed him and prayed for his healing. Within two weeks he had taken over as the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital. (This story is available in the booklet Directed Paths soon to be available from Pacesetters Bible School.)
I was very firm about my faith and about its Biblical base. I felt the call of God to teaching ministry during registration for my second year of college. I was enrolled in the pre-Law program of the college, and had collected all the computer cards for the classes in that program. I went back, cancelled them all, and started the Biblical languages program.
I pursued the program in Biblical languages with enthusiasm. I thought that if the Bible was my guide to life, it would be best to know as much as possible about it. Looking back at it, I believe some try for righteousness by works, some by faith, but that I pursued righteousness by Biblical languages. After completing my Bachelor of Arts degree, I went on to graduate school and took a Master of Arts in Religion, still concentrating in Biblical languages. I was learning more and more about the Bible, but my spiritual life was deteriorating at the same time. During four quarters of graduate school I attended church three times. My prayer life was practically non-existent.
Shortly after completing my MA program I decided not to enter teaching ministry and instead went into the U. S. Air Force. Within another year, I broke officially from the Seventh-day Adventist Church and from any church. My problems were not with specific Seventh-day Adventist doctrines, though I would now dispute some of those. I regard Seventh-day Adventists as fellow-Christians despite any doctrinal disagreements. My rejection of the church and the faith was for reasons that applied equally well to most varieties of Christianity. In particular I could not find an anchor for my faith in an understanding of scripture alone, and I couldn’t accept the idea of a total surrender to God without such an anchor. I was unwilling to make Christianity a total surrender, which seemed to me a one-way street. Some Christians argued with me that such a total surrender as I described was not required, but I could not see a partial surrender to God at the time, and I still can’t do so. (Since I will only briefly discuss my views of the Bible in this essay, I refer you to my paper on Biblical inspiration, Inspiration and Sources of Authority for the Christian.)
I stayed out of the church entirely for approximately 12 years. I emphasize the totality of my rejection of the faith. I did not pray, even in some instances when I felt I was about to lose my life. I read the Bible only to keep up my language skills. I refused to attend any church services, except for a brief time at a Unitarian-Universalist congregation. While I did not write anything against the church, I was quite vocal in conversations with friends, and generally less tolerant of Christianity and Christians than those who had grown up with little religion.
In 1993, I was a partner in a small corporation working on developing game software. I was working 15 or 16 hours daily seven days a week. My work was my life at the time. My business partner was concerned that I was going to burn out, and as I was the sole developer for our small company, this was a matter of serious concern to him. He began to suggest various forms of diversion. I would shoot down each idea as he brought it up. Finally, in desperation, he suggested that since I had “all those Bible degrees” I should try attending church. As a matter of entertainment, I thought that would be interesting. I had grown up in church, but had attended Seventh-day Adventist churches almost exclusively. I had very little knowledge of how any other denominations conducted church services or what they believed.
With a true software engineering approach I made a list of denominations I wanted to check out, then went to the phone book and looked for churches of that denomination to attend. I programmed my search, and knew where I would be going some time in advance.
After a few weeks of this I came to “United Methodist” on my list of denominations. I already had a church selected for that, but the Sunday morning I had planned to attend it found me with a software delivery for the Monday morning following, and the work incomplete. I decided that I had better work Sunday morning until it was finished rather than attend church and count on being able to complete the work in the afternoon. It was probably a good decision, because it was 4:00 PM before the work was done and ready for delivery. I then decided that perhaps I should try an evening service at the church of my choice, but the United Methodist church I had selected did not have an evening service. I went back to the yellow pages and found one that both listed an evening service and had directions I could understand. That church was Pine Forest United Methodist Church.
I truly hated that first evening service. The contemporary style of music annoyed me. Three youth gave testimonies that got on my nerves, about things I would never do. I left pretty much assuming that I would never return there again. Then I got an attack of fairness. I had planned to attend morning services in the various churches I had on my list, but I had given this church only an evening service. (I had done this with one other church and it didn’t bother me at all!) I decided I should attend Pine Forest UMC once more for a day time service. I did this the following Sunday.
This started an interesting pattern. I determined each Sunday that I would not continue attending the services, and then each Sunday would find me back. There was a fine group of people in my Sunday School class who took me in immediately and made me feel welcome. They also conducted some interesting free-wheeling discussions which were very enjoyable.
In a few weeks I called the pastor and asked for an official statement of what United Methodists believed. He had some difficulty figuring out what to give me, but finally suggested the United Methodist Discipline. I found the statement of doctrines particularly interesting, especially the section on sources of our faith. This statement is of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, though it doesn’t label it as such. It includes the statement that: “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” (United Methodist Discipline, 1992, ï¿½ 68). This statement owes much to a number of other Christian groups, but it was this particular statement that first struck me and started me on the path back to the church. Many people have asked me why I emphasize this point of doctrine so much. The reason is simple. This is where I began again to bring the living Christ back into my life.
The reality of the experience of Jesus was something I could take hold of. By itself, experience might be too subjective, but there was the experience of others and that of the community, along with the core experience recorded in scripture. (There is always an element of the subjective in experience, else we would not have personalexperience.)
There were two important experiences during the time over the six months while I was working my way slowly back into the church.
First, there came the time when I began to read the Bible again, not as a linguistic or literary exercise, but for enlightenment. I have often wondered since this experience whether the devil can tempt one to read the Bible. One evening I was thinking about religion and the church and remembered how much I used to enjoy reading the Bible. So I decided to read some. I started with Hebrews, one of those books I had enjoyed. (Hebrews isn’t one of the “introductory” sort of books, for those who are not well acquainted with scripture.) I began to read and carried on until I reached chapter 6, where I read the following:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.
I stopped right there. I read it again.
It still said the same thing.
I thought that perhaps this was one of the reasons why I knew Biblical languages. I could check out translations like these and get things straight! So I took out my Greek New Testament and read the verse in Greek.
It said the same thing.
Well, I thought, perhaps my language skills have deteriorated a bit. I have quite a number of Bible versions in my collection.
So I read the verse in several other versions.
They all said the same thing.
I could not think of any interpretation that I wanted to hear, so I even resorted to commentaries. Now several commentaries that I had gave explanations which were pleasant to hear, but all of them sounded to me like they were talking around the plain meaning of the text.
To me, at the time, the plain meaning of the text was, “You’re lost. Period. No hope.”
So there I was on the bed (I often read lying down) surrounded by Bibles and feeling thoroughly depressed. All my scholarship failed me at that moment. Then one text came to mind: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. Yes, I remembered it in the KJV, as I had memorized it. It struck me right then that I didn’t need to figure out how to handle Hebrews 6:4-6 right then because I could simply know that I was confessing my sin, and the promise was there that God would forgive. At that moment I knew and experienced God’s forgiveness.
My other key experience came during a revival at Pine Forest United Methodist Church, preached by Bishop William Morris of the Alabama-West Florida conference of the UMC. I attended because I thought it was likely that listening to a Methodist bishop was one of the better ways to gather what United Methodists believed. (There may be some doubt about this procedure, but I thought it was pretty good at the time!) It was during the simple but beautiful messages presented by the bishop that I made my decision to return to the church.
I didn’t respond immediately, not because I was in doubt about what I was going to do, but because I was in doubt about many theological points and how those would affect my reception by a particular denomination or church congregation. When I finally did return formally to the church, I did so with a promise to the Lord not to allow the views of others to change my relationship to Him. Relationship became first, and theology last. I have found this to be a good plan for living with the church. There will always be points which can be doubted. There will always be doctrines that various members will question one another about. But these don’t need to be the critical issues.
One of the things that kept me at Pine Forest UMC was my Sunday School class, the Wesleyan Adventurers. The members of that class drew me in, included me, and loved me into their church. I appreciate every one of them. That class no longer exists at Pine Forest due to controversies surrounding the revival at Brownsville, a situation I regret deeply. What is important, however, is that the personal touch and the fellowship often will have more to do with attracting someone to a church than the preaching or any of the other formal programs. Many churches would do well to consider these simple things in their outreach programs.
I remained at Pine Forest United Methodist Church, and in late 1994 I was involved in starting the Pacesetters Bible School. Pine Forest UMC launched the school and still hosts it, but members of other congregations and other denominations were invited to participate. I became director of the school. I worked along with the church staff through the interesting period of revival in the local area, but I stood back from many of the active details. I would teach, but I would rarely participate in altar prayer times or other such events.
In August of 1998, the Lord took me on, so to speak, in my office. It was a week during which I expected to be particularly productive. Pastor Perry Dalton was leading a mission trip in Costa Rica and very little was planned here in the way of activities. On Tuesday morning I came late to my time of personal prayer. I had been running around and was frustrated at the number of things which could get in the way even during a light week. In a perfunctory fashion I began to pray for my mental lists of people. I’m fairly good with lists. As I began to pray for some of the college age youth of the church, I was stopped. I did not precisely hear a voice, but the words were as clearï¿½and as clearly not mineï¿½as though it was a voice. I believe the Lord was speaking to me, to interrupt me and get me to take my ministry much deeper.
In four days of argument with the Lord I got nothing doneï¿½the conclusion was simply that I had to be prepared not just to mention names in prayer, but to bear these peoples’ burdens before the Lord. Included was a call to intercession, but also a call to a greater concern for the experience of those I taught. It was not a time of correction for my doctrinal beliefs, but a call to application of those beliefs; a call to live up to what I taught.
Since then I have spent much more of my time in prayer, and much more of my teaching time in teaching about prayer. The key lesson I learned from this August experience was simply that the Lord continuously calls us to move in closer and to become more real in our ministry and in our activity.