(This is the start to a book I am writing about my life. Hope you enjoy this dip into the past.)
“I want you to leave early, on August 20th.”
At 19, I had heard the voice of Jesus since May 23rd the Summer of 1978. So, this time I had no doubt it was Jesus.
Since early May, Joe and Kevin and I had stayed in an apartment in Newton, IA each of us representing Southwestern Publishing Company selling a big family Bible, some educational books and a cookbook door-to-door. My territory was the town of Newton since I was on foot and my roommates took in the surrounding farm country in their cars.
We lived in this basement apartment, with dark brown linoleum flooring and three, single, wire-frame beds with mattresses. After my third week on the job, I was desperate. At every door I knocked on, I was confronted with questions from this buckle-of-the-Bible-belt town: “Are you saved?” “What was the date and time?”
Before I could even introduce myself and name my business, before I could “act enthusiastic so I could be enthusiastic,” they would be talking to me about Jesus.
Of course, I knew Jesus, I grew up in the church, I was Presbyterian. But was I saved? Their questions worked their ways into my heart, and I wondered. One night, on the phone to my mom, I asked her about it. I was in the phone booth outside of the laundromat. I didn’t know then how significant the bench outside the place would become to me. But talking to mom that night, I was distressed. “Did Al ever talk about being saved?” I asked her. Al was the pastor at the home church in California. “I don’t remember hearing about salvation at all.”
“Where were you, Brian?” She asked laughing and then said, “He spoke about it all the time.” We talked more. Mom was a great person with whom to talk theology. She was a feeler and a thinker. She’d gotten a post-college degree in Christian Education from San Anselmo Seminary before she married dad but had never used it professionally. I had a barrage of questions:
“How do people know the time and date of their conversions?”
“Is that even possible?”
“Why hadn’t I ever heard of it before?”
A toll call in a phone booth was spendy back then. Our brief conversation was unsatisfying. After hanging up still the question hung in my mind, “Was I saved?”
In those first three weeks it became clear to survive summer, I needed to know. Elizabeth and Ben, the beefy couple who ran the laundromat listened as I poured out my questions and encouraged me to come to church with them. I couldn’t come often as we had sales meetings on Sundays in a neighboring town. But when off, I went. So, by the time I reached the third week, I was frantic.
First, I wanted to know the answer, “Was I saved?” I had no idea anyone knew a time and date for this. If unsaved, I wanted to be saved. And second, prudently, I needed an answer for the all the people asking the questions.
At 11:30 pm on Tuesday night, May 23, 1978, I knelt by the wire frame bed in the apartment, moonlight shone in through the slit-like windows along the top of the brick wall. And prayed my second prayer. My first had been penned by my mom on a slip of white paper and read by me at the high school Sunrise Service three years before. “Jesus,” I said not knowing where to start, “here’s the scoop. Either I am saved, like mom says, having been raised in the church, baptized and confirmed or I am not. And if not, I want to be, and if I am, then I’m doubting the whole business. So, I kneel here, repent of my sins,” I’d learned what to say hanging around Ben and Elizabeth. “I ask you to forgive me and fill me with your Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Done. I got into bed.
Nothing had happened as far as I could tell. No fireworks. No change in the atmosphere in the room. I was a little disappointed as I fell asleep. But as the week progressed, I began to hear the voice of God in my heart and began to follow what I heard:
“Offer four Bibles, she would like them for her children.”
“Tell them there’s a Bible their family can get at the local bookstore for $12.99.”
My faith was simple – I did what Jesus said. And so, day by day, I sought to listen and obey. At the Sunday sales meeting, at the end of this first week of Jesus directed sales, my sales topped everyone else’s. I was staggered. The following Sunday, the sales meeting was moved to late afternoon. I went to church with Ben and Elizabeth. When, I went forward at the altar call, Elizabeth started crying.
It was an intense summer. At one door, the scowling man with the unshaven face and the raspy, angry, hate-filled voice did not ask if I was saved. Instead, he said, “I’ve seen you walking the streets around here, and I don’t want what you are selling. I have a gun in here. If I see you around here anymore, I’ll use it.” It was 8:00 pm and I had not yet met my quota. My heart rate elevated instantly. I could feel it beating so loudly against my ribs I thought for certain he could hear it as I responded, “Thank you for your time sir. I hope you have a good evening.”
I walked down his steps to the sidewalk and turned left to walk down the street, shaken to the core. I almost expected him to use the gun as I walked away. Tears brimmed my eyes. I felt awful and afraid. I didn’t want to knock on another door, ever. The words from Scripture echoed instantly within me: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be discouraged.” I took a deep, shaky breath.
I knew if I didn’t “get back on the horse,” as mom told me often as a kid, then, I’d not be able to knock on a door the next day. So, I walked up to the door of his next-door neighbor’s house, knocked on the screen door. The young mom who answered smiled and welcomed me inside. Their three kids and her husband listened to my presentation and bought a set of the educational books. Their joy and compassion were immense. I walked back to the apartment, encouraged.
Even with Jesus living on the inside, there was a ton of housecleaning to do there. Like Martha in the biblical story, I was “worried and bothered about so many things.” Basically, inside, I felt little, like I was just a child not a maturing 19-year-old. When I felt especially bad, this image would flit through my head of a little child, curled up in the corner of a darkened room. Whenever it came, I’d push it aside and berate myself for being full of self-pity.
On the one hand, I was a bright, sunny, laughing, young man who smiled lots, laughed and “acted enthusiastic,” but on the other hand, I held a deep sadness sourced I didn’t know where. I spent lots of energy pushing down the sadness. I struggled to stay motivated. Keeping records, trudging down street after street, hearing a rejection door after door before one word of acceptance, all this weighed on my spirit. Yes, Jesus was there, but he didn’t make this internal struggle go away. I struggled with me. One night, I described my dark soul abyss to Joe, one of my teammates, while he was taking a bath. He was in the tub; I stood leaning against the bathroom door. I cried sliding down the door and sat on the floor. I felt alone, isolated and discouraged.
Joe was unimpressed by my cry for attention but had healthy boundaries. He told me flatly, “Brian, you can quit. If you cannot do this, quit and go home.” Quitting was out of the question but the darkness inside which I could not face and sought to hide, remained.
Another late night, doing my laundry, I was feeling discouraged, it was nearing 10 pm at night. I sat on the bench outside the laundromat in the humid, Iowa heat, when this man walked up the sidewalk and sat down beside me. He was a big guy, wearing an overcoat which seems odd that summer evening. Perhaps Jesus had sought to reach me, already, but I was not hearing him. Sometimes our own thoughts are so loud they drown out the voice of God.
This man sat down and immediately began to speak with me as if he knew me. I got the bubbly, warm sensation that flowed from my head through my body as he spoke. It was what happened for me anytime someone was kind, helped, or took care of me. I sat there riveted by his words. “You’ve got this. You can keep going. God has a plan for your life, son. You matter to Him immensely. Also, don’t let negative thoughts run your actions. Make every thought obey God. Be encouraged, Brian.”
I had not spoken. I had not given him my name. I didn’t know how he knew it. As he spoke, I felt like the very ground had changed, the bench now felt like this extraordinary place, the air around us vibrated. “May I pray for you,” he asked. I nodded, mute.
He laid a huge hand on my small, bony shoulder and prayed. I have no idea what he said, for the sensation of waves of love that flowed through me was too intense to listen to his words. He finished, saying, “Well, I gotta get going, Brian. It was good to spend time with you. Goodbye.” I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. For a moment, I dared not move, so pristine, so beautiful, so holy was the bench where I sat. When I realized, he had stood to leave, I glanced the direction he had walked, but the street was bare. No one was there. It had been just a moment since he had gotten up saying he had to go, but he was gone. It was as if he had disappeared.
(to be continued next week…)