September 6th, 2021

saxon cross

Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision

Fifty years ago this month (September 1971), I went off to college. I was 17 years old, and going to be living in a dorm in the wild and wooly town of Terre Haute (Sin City, Indiana). Life was going to throw a lot of new experiences at me, very fast, and I was looking forward to many of them. There was one I was not expecting, however, and it turned out to be the most important of my life.

One of the first new friends I made at ISU was a boy a year older than me named Dan Clark. Dan had been kind of a rough boy, but the previous year he had come into contact with someone who shared Jesus with him and he had experienced a momentous salvation experience. He now lived for Jesus. He prayed and read his Bible. And on behalf of Campus Crusade or somebody, he was trying to start a little dorm Bible study to share his faith.

Two or three of us took him up on it. Youth is the time when you talk about everything, at length. Religion was as intriguing as politics, or sex, or sports, or music, and we were as ready to consider Jesus as anything else. For that matter, this was 1971, and all kinds of interesting religious movements were in flower: the Jesus People out in California was one, but there were people interested in Eastern religions of all sorts, Carlos Castaneda was offering his occult reflections, there was Eckankar and Spiritualism and whatnot.

I was particularly intrigued because I was a church orphan. My parents stomped out of the Spencer Methodist Church (literally) in 1964. Thereafter, we attended the local Baptist church semi-regularly, where my Scoutmaster was the pastor. But as I got into high school, I attended church less and less. I talked religion with my fellow Arrowmen at OA weekends; Scout vesper services were as much religion as I participated in. Yet I had a hunger to believe and belong; I just didn’t know what to believe and whom to belong to. I felt kind of like lost luggage in some cosmic baggage area, waiting to be claimed.

I was conversant with lots of religious ideas, and I’d been to lots of events (including seances of the Spiritualist Church), but I didn’t really get what Christianity was about. I knew some big words and phrases – key theological definitions – that were in the best religion available: Christmas hymns from our old hymnal. But my parents were of the GI generation, and didn’t talk about their interior life easily. Methodist preachers were mostly well-intentioned gasbags who talked around the faith, I thought (this impression of mine widened to include other types of preachers as I met them). And I lacked any sort of spiritual formation: no one ever taught me how to pray (but I did pray), no one introduced me to the Bible or encouraged the habit of reading it (though I had been given one by the church in 5th grade), no one ever told me exactly who Jesus was in relation to God nor gave me any tips on how to follow him. I was on my own.

Dan was the first person to ever explain to me what Christianity was about. He told me who Jesus was, and how he reconciled us to God. He explained that all of us were sinners (which I knew from experience) and that our sin separated us from God – but that Jesus died for our sins to remove the sin that prevented us from coming to God. (Note: sin doesn’t prevent God from coming to us; sin damages us so that we can’t effectively come to God.) We were all rebels, but God had offered pardon to us. If I would repent of my sin and ask for pardon, God would receive me for Jesus’ sake, and I would be his forever – and he would be mine.

I don’t know what anybody else in our little group did with what we talked about, but all this made very good sense to me. So one night, alone in my dorm room, I submitted myself to Jesus Christ and asked him to be my Savior and promised to follow him all the days of my life thereafter. And from that point on, I knew that I wasn’t lost any more. I had been found. I set out to live for Jesus. I started to read my old Bible from church, I prayed (including saying grace in the cafeteria, though not in a showy manner), and I started reading everything I could find about Christ and Christianity. This led me to some of the faddish writers of the day (Hal Lindsey and Harold Criswell) whom I don’t think much of today, but it also led me to Josh McDowell, whose apologetics I admired, and – above all, above everyone else – C.S. Lewis, and from him to G.K. Chesterton. Mine was a bookish faith. I didn’t go to church yet, nor did anyone think to invite me to one. But this was college, and everyone was kind of dislocated from the props from back home. I put off thinking about it, and just tried to follow Jesus. The result has been that I have always been both bookish and disorganized in my spiritual life, and this has been both a hindrance and a help in my ministry. It has been a hindrance because I was trying to form others as disciples when no one had ever formed me; but it has been a help because, without a church subculture to call home, I have been extraordinarily self-assured in my thinking, and I am willing to sacrifice all rather than follow the herd. (I’d really, really like a herd – er, flock – to belong to, but I am never one to go along just to get along. That way lies danger.)

Did I ever think it was all just a phase? Almost immediately. The next day or so, after my conversion, I was sitting in my dorm room – alone, again – and wondered if I could sustain this commitment. Would I come to think it all kind of silly, someday? Was it really real? How would I experience this new reality I said I was going to live in? As I was thinking this, a bird flew by, just below my window, and for a moment, I saw the street outside my dorm, between Sandison Hall and the Science Building, as the bird did: not as a two-dimensional map grid (which is how we experience it when we’re walking between one and the other), but as a three-dimensional ocean of air, through which the bird was flying (swimming?). It clicked with me immediately. I had entered a larger world. No doubt, most of the time I would experience things the same old way, but any time God wanted to get my attention, he could shift my focus and show me the larger realities that I was navigating. So I shouldn’t let my human perceptions deny the reality my mind had grasped – not without evidence. And, of course, as with any conversion experience, in the first flush of claiming a new identity, evidence seems clear and convincing. I have revisited the question many times as I have grown older and more world-weary, but I still think – even when I am tempted to think otherwise – that the evidence is clear; I was convinced beyond doubt once and will be again. It’s the doubts that come and go, and you shouldn’t follow them.

The story of my call to ministry and my eventual finding of a church to belong to are stories for another time. I just want to put down here the story of that fall evening toward the end of September 1971. I have said many times over the years in sermons that the best decision you will ever make in your life is to give yourself to Jesus Christ. It was certainly the best decision I ever made, and I hope by God’s grace to continue to follow him through all the days of my life.

I have decided to follow Jesus.
No turning back.