I know the power of the Word of God. I have experienced its ability to reach and transform. One single word in the Bible effected the salvation of my eternal soul. Allow me to share my testimony.
I am a harvested Christian. I was not raised in church. That makes me a member of a rather small minority. By my survey, most churches are comprised of 95 to 98 per cent homegrown Christians. As best I can tell, the harvest fields were abandoned about two generations ago. Thank God, at least a few people still share the gospel outside their own family. Otherwise, I would still be enroute to an eternity in Hell.
At the tender young age of 42, I was given a copy of the New Testament. A man named Ben offered it to me as “free” gift. Attached to the offer was the stipulation that I read about a dozen verses that he had written on a piece of paper and inserted as a bookmark. I agreed and took the book, though I did not consider it the great treasure that he represented it to be. My interest was in stifling his attempts to witness to me. Frankly, he was starting to grate on my nerves.
I learned a long time ago that there are certain people in life that just rub me the wrong way. I also learned how to deal with them. I found that those people tend to rub pussy cats, a lot more often than they rub porcupines. If it is unpleasant for both parties, there is usually a lot less rubbing. So I took the book and announced that I would read the whole thing, if and only if, he would agree to read the Koran. Now that staggered him, but he recovered and agreed to those terms so obviously distasteful to him.
I had also learned a long time ago how to circumvent predictable procrastination. That afternoon, I went to the library and checked out a copy of the Koran to deliver to him. He then had two weeks to hold up his end of the bargain. Let the games begin, I thought.
I speedily read the New Testament in about eight hours or so, over a two day period. There was no attempt to comprehend or seriously consider what I read. That wasn’t part of the bargain. There was no intent on my part to retain anything. I was merely fulfilling my part of a contest of sorts. In essence, I read God’s Word on a dare.
I attended Ben’s church a few times, and considered the speed reading and a few sermons, more than adequate consideration to be given to “religion”. Apparently Ben didn’t think it sufficient, because he kept trying to witness to me. He kept trying, and I kept warding off his efforts.
But then it happened. He gave up. He came to my home one Thursday evening, visited for a while, and then made the announcement. He was giving up on me because he had taken his best shot, and obviously wasn’t making any progress. I tried to calculate if this was some sort of reverse psychology, or if he was actually conceding. After twenty years as a street cop, I was skilled at detecting lies and bluffs. He wasn’t lying or bluffing. He was giving up.
I gloated inwardly all the way to the door, as I saw him out. I had beaten him at his own game. But something he had said when he was rationalizing his failure, stuck in my mind after he departed. He had described something about our interaction as being a mystery to him. He said that he found it very puzzling that while having no interest in spiritual matters, that I was a good person. In fact he said, should I have responded and been saved, that most people wouldn’t even notice. There was no obvious character flaw, unpleasant disposition, obnoxious habits, substance abuse, or other “lost” quality that would be noted by the casual observer. And while conceding that he didn’t know me real well, he thought he knew me as well as most people. That was probably true. I am outgoing, but not particularly transparent. And then he described, what to him, was a mystery.
He said that my life as a good lost person would exhibit little observable change, if I were to get saved. It was like two parallel lines. They go the same direction, but they never intersect. The mystery was the unknown factor preventing the intersection. What kept the two lines from merging?
I didn’t know, and didn’t really care. But, I do hate a mystery. The analogy of the parallel lines, unable to intersect, kind of hung in the back of my mind the rest of the evening. When my wife and I went to bed that night, it was still there nagging at me. Long after I should have drifted off to sleep, it was there. It was a bit of unfinished business to be dealt with before I could close out the day. I hate, literally hate, a mystery.
Sometimes I can just blow off something that piques my curiosity. But sometimes a matter will completely obsess me, and I’ll consider it from every possible angle trying to grasp it. Eleven p.m. soon became two a.m., as I contemplated what might be wrong with me…. or more likely, what was wrong with them. I decided to compare and contrast. What did I believe versus what did “they” believe?
I agreed with pretty much all the general moral stances of Christians. Thou shall not steal was a given. I put people in jail for that. Thou shall not kill was likewise something I had arrested people for. But my position was a bit more pragmatic. In less civilized times, if I needed something desperately, I would have no qualms about relieving someone else of that item. I could also imagine circumstances where it might be necessary to inflict lethal force. I had, in fact, been trained to do so.
I had always considered it better to die on one’s feet, than to live on one’s knees. In contrast, Christians spend a great deal of time on their knees. Turning the other cheek wasn’t my first inclination. I leaned more toward an eye for an eye, plus the head. If someone were to take my cloak, I’d probably be inclined to retrieve it and dissuade them from ever doing so again. I darn sure wouldn’t give them my shirt to go with the stolen cloak.
There were a number of elements of the “church view” that I could live with, but several that I deemed unrealistic and naïve. But, the comparison list didn’t deal with the mystery. What was the deal with those parallel lines?
It was well after three when I remembered something that seemed to shed some light on the question. I remembered my “motto”; my “creed”. You’ve probable got one, if you think about it. Most people do. Sometimes it’s simple and short like “do unto others…”, “he who dies with the most toys wins”, “honesty is the best policy”, etc. Sometimes it is a simple thought, expressed in a complex way. Mine fell into the second category.
I had not so much formed it, as I had found it. In my early teens, a piece of literature crossed my path that had a hauntingly familiar ring to it. It resonated so deeply, that I speculated that perhaps I had written it in an earlier life. As a fatherless child (my father died when I was an infant), my search for how to be a man was undirected. This looked like a roadmap. Of all things, it was a poem. I burned it into my memory, just in case it popped up in the next life. I wanted to be absolutely sure next time, that it was mine and that it was following me. And then I lived it. Every opinion, precept, and perspective that I developed as I grew up and older, had at its core, this foundation. Consider the following, as it might appeal to an ungrounded adolescent seeking a standard or a stance.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit, from pole to pole.
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced, nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloodied, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
Looms but the horror of the shade.
And yet the menace of the years,
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not, how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the captain of my fate,
I am the master of my soul.
More than a quarter of a century later, I still had it tucked in the back of my mind. I recited it a couple more times, and took an unusual comfort in having retained it so firmly. At three in the morning, with all asleep around me, this was the essence of me. This was my motto. This was my creed. Complete and total autonomy; my way or die trying. The mark of my life would be that I did it my way.
Relishing it, I recited it to myself yet again. I took pride in remembering it so well. But then, there had been reminders along the way. Nearly twenty years before, I remembered having found it in a poetry book that somehow found its way into my considerable collection of books. Neither I, nor my wife, have any recollection of having bought such a book. The last two lines popped up frequently in the public arena. They appeared on a very readable poster, in the background of a Cosby show episode, some years later. Frequently I would note some line from it being inserted into newspaper or magazine articles. At least a portion of it would seemingly surface every few years just to refresh my memory. And I would recite it in full, just as I could then. It had not been difficult to stay attached.
But this time, something kind of snagged in that last stanza. There was something about that word “strait”. I doubt that I even knew its meaning when first I memorized the poem. But at 42, my vocabulary had broadened considerably. I knew that strait meant narrow or constricted. And it occurred to me that there was something else that I had seen recently that used that archaic adjective. I searched my memory for several minutes before I made the connection. I remembered strait being used to describe a gate. And a few seconds later, I remembered where.
There was something in that Bible I had raced through so carelessly, just a few weeks before. Amazingly enough, I had captured and retained the main idea of that random sentence. There was a strait gate that led to salvation, while a wide gate led to destruction. (Matt. 7:13) The poem read : “It matters not how strait the gate”. But what the Bible had said was that this is the only thing that really does matter. What was this thing that I had grafted onto my soul? As I went over the lines yet again, ever so slowly, I saw it for what it was. It was a devil worshipper’s chant!
The multiple times that this obscure poem had surfaced over the years began replay in my mind. I began to see just how sinister the “coincidences” were. And I began to seethe with rage. I was pumping enough adrenalin to bench press a Buick. There was a voice in my head that screeched at me: “Sucker !!!” I don’t know if it was my own or Satan’s, for I was furious to the point of insanity.
But then I remembered something else that turned my rage into the kind of terror, that makes you sick to your stomach. I remembered my son, my only child, coming to me once when he was a middle school student. He handed me a piece of paper to read. Something had so intrigued him, that he had copied it out of a book at school. It was the poem Invictus. I glanced at it and immediately handed it back to him. I recited it flawlessly. Then I told him that he had just discovered “my” poem. I told him it was important to me, and could be to him as well. I suggested he memorize it. What if he had? What had I done?
The Friday sunrise, a couple of hours later, found me composed enough to get up and go to work. I don’t know how strongly I believed in God at that point, but I knew that Satan had been proven to me beyond the shadow of any doubt. I was trying to sort out what to do, but I was paralyzed by one thought. If my son had been entranced as I had been, I had to reach him on that side of any spiritual decision of my own. It was a stupid thought, but I decided to risk Hell for a day, until my son came home from college on Saturday afternoon.
I drove to work at 15 miles per hour. After roll call, I took my squad car and parked it in an open area with full visibility. As the sector sergeant, I was supposed to make all the “hot” calls with the dispatched officers. I made zero calls. My guys were on their own, that day. I knew where I was going, if I got killed. I was taking no chances. Friday passed, and another sleepless night before I had to pull another shift on Saturday. I was even more cautious, watching the clock all day, waiting to get home to speak to my son. Finally, it was over and I was still alive. I carefully made my way home.
My son arrived home shortly after I did. As soon as I could get him alone, I broached the subject. I asked him if he remembered bringing home a poem nearly a decade before. He did. There was a copy of it hanging on the wall in his dorm room, he said. He had memorized it, just as I had foolishly suggested. The poison had been passed.
But he held it even more tightly than I had. When I began to try to explain how I had made a terrible mistake and then involved him, the mood turned ugly. He wouldn’t turn loose of it. For the first time in his life, he crossed me. I was crazy, he said. And then he left the house.
I considered my circumstance all Saturday night, and by morning my options had come down to one. I loved that boy with all my heart, and would gladly have died for him. But, I wasn’t going to Hell for anybody. I got up and went to work that Sunday morning. After roll call, I took my squad car to the highest point in the division, an old reservoir park overlooking the Missouri River, and prayed my first prayer. I pled for forgiveness and salvation, because I knew what I truly deserved. After nearly 72 hours without sleep, I was vibrating like I had been on a two week motorcycle trip. But, immediately after praying, I had a tremendous peace and infusion of strength. I didn’t even take a nap when I got home that afternoon. I told my wife that we needed to go to evening church services. It was there that I told the church, and the world, that I had been saved and needed to be baptized.
I shared that testimony a few weeks later with the whole church. I’ve shared it with many groups and churches over the last 15 years. But, it took on a whole new perspective about six years ago. Something happened in May of 2001.
Just before his execution, the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh issued his last statement. It was written, not oral. He hand wrote from memory, and boldly signed, the poem Invictus. There, but for the grace of God, go I. Not many people feel any pity for Timothy McVeigh, but I do. Eternity is a very, very long time.
We are all guilty of being evil. The depth of our depravity, and the amount of pain we inflict, is irrelevant to a holy God. Any, and all of it, are deserving of Hell. But, grace and mercy are freely extended. By His grace, we receive something incredibly wonderful…eternity in Heaven in a loving family relationship with our Creator. By His mercy, we are spared from the horrors of Hell, which is what we truly deserve in our rebellion against our Creator. But, by His justice, judgment day approaches. Perhaps there is greater suffering for murderers than most of us who have only hated our brother. But, there are no “good” accommodations in Hell. We serve one of two masters: either God or Satan. There are no “free agents”, despite what the world tells you. Through which gate do you pass?