This, I suppose, is a testimony. I have to say up front that I am not overall particularly comfortable with testimonies. Please allow me to explain. I think that, honestly, sometimes testimonies become more about the person telling it than what it is really about. Sometimes they become about the saved rather than the Savior. On the other hand, I have seen some wonderful, compelling, and moving testimonies in the blog world; additionally, I have never seen what I just described above. It has also been pointed out that a person’s testimony can provide a good way for non believers to see and understand the path a person took to come to faith. In that light, I will do my absolute best to keep the focus here where it belongs, and that is on the great God who saved me and the faithful witnesses who told me about Him. This may be somewhat longish and meandering, but my journey to faith was longish(45 years long) and meandering as well, so perhaps that fits.
I grew up in a Godless home in a supposedly very God filled geography. I grew up in Arkansas, dead center of the Bible belt. There are literally almost churches on every corner. My father fancied himself an agnostic and an intellectual. He never spoke in a hostile way towards religion; he simply never spoke of it at all. I only gleaned his belief system by reading journals of his after he died. My mother, on the other hand, was actually raised in a conservative, evangelical church. Despite that, she never talked about God in our home other than to say she would not make me attend church, but would allow me to make my own way in that area. As far as I know, we didn’t even have a Bible in our home for all the years I lived there. God was simply a non entity in my home growing up. On the other hand, my extended family was quite Christian. However, since we lived fairly far away, their influence on me was very minimal. In fact, for whatever reason, none of them ever really shared their faith with me as a youth. We lived mostly in the inner city during my youth, and for a very brief time I actually attended church down the street. I was wandering around doing nothing and the pastor there was working on his car in the parking lot and invited me to come. I had nothing better to do on a Sunday morning, so I did. I was actually confirmed and was an acolyte for a while. Then, as was everything doing in those years, that church fled the city for the suburbs and left me behind. I was around 13 when that happened and my church going days ended for the next 30 some odd years.
My neutrality towards religion came to a halt during my first year of university. We all fancied ourselves budding young intellectuals, and religion was very uncool. It was there I learned all of the standard non believing arguments about the stupidity of faith and took them as my own. My big memory concerning religion is how we would sit and heckle and mock the Christians who preached in the Quad and witnessed to people. That was really when I crossed over from neutrality to hostility towards religion. Nothing really changed for many years. I was doing fine without any stupid god in my life, thank you very much. Now and then people would try to tell me about Jesus, but generally my reaction ranged from disinterest to disdain. If fact, one of my favorite sports with the missionary door knockers was to take a big swig from my beer and blow smoke in their faces. I was not particularly nice to people of faith. I do remember one period though, when I lived in Utah. Readers probably know that Utah is predominantly Mormon in faith. In the small town I lived in there was also a Baptist mission. It seemed for 18 months the two factions were at odds to see who would win my soul. The funny thing is, neither really told me their message, but sure told me a lot about the evils of the other. Since many of these were people I supervised, I was not overtly hostile, but simply refused to engage much on the issue.
This may be a good spot to discuss how Christianity and religion was handled in my own home with my own family. Although my environment regarding religion was fairly neutral, the environment I fostered and developed in my home was decidedly not. My wife and daughter made some attempts over the years to get me to take them to church, but I simply never allowed it to happen. I did manage to actually set foot in churches a couple of times, but quickly found reasons to never return. A couple of instances come to mind even now. One had to do with a local Assembly of God church my daughter had gone to some, as they had a band and she liked to play music. All I really remember was some fellow speaking in tongues during the service. I justified never returning by saying, “Those people are nuts!” Another time or two, I attended a couple of Baptist churches where the message inevitably included the topics of sin and punishment. Obviously, a loving God would never judge me or punish me, so again, I never went back. But my attitude toward Christianity and religion was much more than just a personal choice to not participate; I was very vocal and outspoken about just what I thought of this god and his conduct, and the conduct and attitudes of those who professed to follow him. I did a pretty fair job of indoctrinating my children to become people of no faith. Note that word, indoctrination. I didn’t teach them to think critically about religion, I taught them that religion and its followers were stupid.
Here, fast forward some 25 years. After living in various places in this country and the world I found myself back home. By this time, my constant focus on my career and getting ahead had resulted in the sad fact that my marriage was failing rapidly. It was about then that I met the first of several people who had influences on me that changed my life, although none of us knew this at the time of our interactions.
The first came when I was still with Wal Mart serving in management. At this time I was the overnight manager for a very large, brand new Supercenter. One of the folks on my crew was a man named Bob. Bob was a devout Christian man with quite a story. Bob’s daughter had been the center of a rather prominent court case concerning her right to pray over the intercom during school football games. It was quite a notable case at the time. At any rate, Bob became my friend. I was loud; I was profane; I was heathen to the very core of my being. Nonetheless, Bob became my friend. He told me all about Jesus, never judged me, and stayed my friend even when I told him to stop talking about all that God stuff. I left Wal Mart later, and Bob and I lost contact. Stay tuned, however, as Bob reappears later in this story in a really cool way.
The next person who came into my life came after I left Wal Mart and launched a career selling real estate. Her name was Barbara and she was a fellow real estate agent, the wife of a pastor, and also a good friend. It’s important to understand that by this time I was single and for sure living the single life. No details necessary, but the single life. Our town was not a huge town, so I imagine my business was pretty public knowledge to tell the truth. Barbara never mentioned any of that. She just became my friend, along with her pastor husband. She told me lots about Jesus, but I mostly nodded and went on. She even invited me to church so much that I finally went a few times just to silence her. I did go to her church a few times, but soon lost interest and moved on.
The next two people who had substantial impact on me are two whose names I can’t even remember now, but I do remember what they did and said. I was working waiting tables at a local Cracker Barrel to supplement my income as I built a real estate business, and this pair worked there also. They were brother and sister, and very devout Christians. Again, they became friends. A truth that needs to be stated here is that we were, overall, not very nice to these young people. No one ever openly mocked them, but we would all say and do things around them simply because we knew it would bother and hurt them. Not one single time did either rise to the bait and act wrongly. In fact, they seemed to go out of their way to single me out and befriend me.
Here is where things began to change. I had the opportunity to deal with a woman who was a banker in the town I now live in as a result of a Real Estate transaction. It turned out that she and my friend Barbara had been acquaintances for years. It came to light that she was single, I was single, and the next thing I knew we were having lunch together. To say I was instantly smitten with this young lady would be an understatement of huge proportions! We arranged for me to come to her town and we would have a real date. I will never forget picking her up and looking in the living room and seeing a piano. When I enquired if she played, her response was, “Yes, I play the piano at my church.” Uh oh, red alert, run for the hills. But, I didn’t.
Fast forward a couple of months to my discovery of an important social thing down south. If you want to hang around the church girl on Sunday, you have to go to church. So, I did. I went over and over in fact. I will never forget how welcome those people made me feel; they treated me like an old friend. Still, nothing really happened. I actually enjoyed the preaching, but honestly I was more concerned with eating dinner and hanging out with the girl and her parents.(Yes, people still do that!)
Then one day, after a couple of months, the thing occurred which would forever change my life. The preacher, as usual, was preaching; I, as usual, was paying only some attention. An important fact in this story is that I had come from my earlier marriage in somewhat a state of financial ruin; not only that, but the way I was planning to handle it all was not particularly responsible. All of the sudden, and for no reason related to the sermon at hand, the preacher went on some strange rabbit trail concerning…you guessed it..financial irresponsibility! And was looking right at me! He didn’t stay long, but by then he had my full attention, to say the least.
What came next was fairly standard salvation message stuff. Sin, holiness, and judgment. I understood pretty clearly in that single instant how I had failed a Holy God, who was also a just God, and that I owed a penalty for the sin in my life. Here is the deal, though; I still didn’t really care! I was still perfectly fine thumbing my nose in the face of God and daring Him to send me to Hell. That pretty much answers the question concerning whether or not God scares people into loving Him, because I still wasn’t going to budge. What happened next sealed this deal and I won’t ever forget the words.
The preacher quoted from Luke 4:18, drawn from Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,’
I found out later that that passage was never intended to be in that message, but that was the moment. There I was, prisoner to my sin, brokenhearted, and bruised. And moreover, there was a God who would not only release me from the penalty I owed for my sin, but would set me free in many, many other ways.
I knew nothing; I knew less than most 10 year olds who lurch their way to an altar in a church. I did know I was lost, and doomed, and broken inside and out. I really slowed things up that day, and caused some dinners to be overcooked, because the preacher had to explain it all to me, and in my mind he was going to do it at that very moment. I wanted change right then! But really, the explanation was not deep and it’s not deep now. Repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ; it’s just that simple.
Here is a wonderful and beautiful epilogue to this story. Often, when we have witnessed to a person we never know how things ended, and that can be discouraging at times. About two years after my salvation, something happened that truly shows that God rewards faithful witnessing. We were all getting settled into our seats for a quick morning devotional before heading out to Sunday School. I looked across the church and locked eyes with……Bob! You have to understand that we are not really in the main traffic flow where I live; people don’t end up here by accident. I was thinking, “What is Bob doing in Palmyra?” and I am pretty sure Bob was thinking,” What is Wally doing in a CHURCH?” Turns out his mother in law was the oldest currently serving member of our church!
Isn’t God great?