A Warrior’s Lament

I am a warrior. I have been in many battles––small battles, fierce battles, long campaigns. I have been wounded and knocked down, given up for dead, but once again I am on my feet, holding shield and sword. I am tired, bone-weary, a bit disillusioned at the enormity of the battle, at the casualties. How long, O Lord? I gaze over the battlefield littered with the bodies of fallen heroes. They were mighty with sword and shield and finished well. And then I see the discarded weapons of once stout warriors who have fled.

I am tempted to join them.

But I won’t. I can’t. Though the battle continues to rage I still have my eyes on the prize. I can’t take my eyes off the prize. I won’t. Even so, I am pressed to head home and lay my sword beside my chair at the hearth, and stare into the flames.

Again I look around at the battlefield, can’t see anything through the fingering smoke. The gloom. I am alone, the last warrior standing. It seems that way. The battle smoke obscures vision, obfuscates direction, purpose, creates doubt and fear. Where am I? Who am I? Why am I?

Once again I am tempted to flee. But I stand.

Suddenly the smoky pall begins to lift. I see now that there are others who have not fled the battle. Fellow warriors. Their forms are hazy at first, their faces wan, their swords held in clenched fists. Even so, they stand. And then I see fingers of light breaking through the smoke, touching each of their heads, their faces lifting to the light––expectant, believing faces.

A profound joy floods my downcast soul.

Make your face to shine upon me, Lord. Be Thou my vision. Show me the next hill to take, the next fortification to breach, “for by You I can run upon a troop; and by my God I can leap over a wall.” For we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and King.

Onward and Upward!

Angels Among Us

This post is retrieved from the archives of the unexplainable, a Twilight Zone episode from my past.  I tend to stay away from angel stories.  I imagine that most angel stories are the result of bad theology, fanciful thinking, bad pizza, or willful deception.  Let the discerning mind consider.

The Bible clearly teaches that there are two realities in the created order: the reality of the material universe that we can see, touch and smell.  And the reality of the invisible realm of the spirit, where supernatural beings dwell.  Angels, mostly, holy and fallen.

Angels are created beings, superior to man until we are glorified (Heb 2:7).  They are always referred to in the masculine gender in Scripture, never in the feminine.  We are not to worship them (Col 2:18).  John the apostle bowed down to worship one and was told, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book; worship God” (Rev 22:9).  Neither are we to talk with “them”, unless, like Mary and Joseph, or Peter in prison, or John on Patmos, they are on a specific mission from God with a specific message from God to one of His children.  If an angel from heaven appears with a message, it had better line up with recorded Scripture (see Gal 1:8).

Angels, among other duties, are “ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14).  They watch over believers (Matt 18:10).  The noun “angel” comes from the Greek angelos.  Basically it means “messenger,” one sent with a message.  The sender can be God, Satan, or man.

Angels sent by God are holy; they do not have “material bodies as men have.  They are either human in form, or can assume human form when necessary, cp. Luke 24:4, with verse 23, Acts 10:3 with verse 30” (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vine).  NOTE: Angels are NOT departed humans who get their wings when someone rings a bell (sorry, Frank Capra).  Pure fiction.  Hollywood and greeting cards are loaded with bogus angelology.

Angels that are sent by Satan are demonic, or fallen angels.  Devils can pose as angels of light, so when it comes to angels be wise (2 Cor 11:14).

Those “angels” sent by man are messengers.  They are sent by a church or organization with a message to another church or organization.  In the case of the seven angels in the opening chapters of Revelation, they may be angelic, or more likely refer to the human representative of the church—its elder, or overseer (Rev 2-3).

Scripture reveals that there are different classes of angels: seraphim (six-winged beings guarding the throne of God Is 6:2, 6); cherubim (multi-winged creatures involved in various redemptive processes of man); at least one archangel, Michael, the “great prince who stands guard over the sons of Israel” (Dan 12:1).  There may be other orders of angels or beings that are not revealed in Scripture, so we will not speculate about such things at this point.  This blog has to do with regular angels, the working class bunch.

All of this said, the following is a true story.  However, be discerning as you read.

When I was a young Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC, my friend, fellow Marine and believer Gary, took a bus trip to Parris Island, SC, where my dad and family were stationed.  During the trip, Gary and I discussed Hebrews 13:2.  You know the verse, the one about angels among us.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it (NASB).

What does it mean? we wondered.  We knew that it may primarily refer to itinerant ministers who need food and shelter, but could it also refer to the supernatural kind?  Are there really angels walking about looking like humans?  We knew that there were angels in spirit form all around us, but what about visible ones?  We turned to the passage in Genesis (18), where Abraham entertained three angels, One of whom was the Angel of the LORD, likely the pre-incarnate Christ.

We pondered this for awhile until we came into the station at Columbus, SC, where we were to transfer buses.

I need to set the stage here.  The station platform was large and crowed with people getting on and off buses.  Much hustle and bustle.  There were six-inch metal bumper rails (think hitching posts) separating the platform area from where the buses drove into their spaces and parked.  I was standing next to the rail on the platform side; Gary was standing on the bus side (don’t ask me why).  Our bus had not yet arrived.

As we chatted I looked across the length of the platform and saw an interesting sight at the far end.  Like I said, it was crowded.  I’m a tall guy, so I could see over the heads of most of the people.  Making a beeline toward me through the crowd (and I mean beeline), was a little white-haired old man.  His eyes were riveted on mine.  Even at the distance I could see in his eyes that he was on a mission.  I was his target.

People moved out of his way, he did not deviate from his path.  He came straight up to me, put out his hand and shook mine.  There was no hesitation or uncertainty in his voice: No, “may I have a moment of your time, sir?”  He just smiled broadly and pronounced, declaratively, “Isn’t the Lord wonderful!”  The way he’d said it was as though he knew that I was a believer.  I know that sounds kooky, but that’s how it seemed to me.

“Y-yes, He is,” I replied, taken aback.

And then it happened.  With the speed and agility of a wide receiver the little old man reached around me, took hold of Gary’s arm, and yanked him onto the platform, just as our bus barreled up to and stopped six inches from the parking rail!  I don’t know how he did it.  Gary would have been seriously hurt, if not crushed, had it not been for the intervention of the little man.  Then, before we could catch our breath, a second elderly man drew up next to the first one, and the two of them, wishing us Godspeed, walked away into the crowd.

Gary and I were stunned.  What just happened? we wondered.  Cue up the Twilight Zone theme.

You can be sure that Gary and I pondered this as we continued on our way south.  Were this little old man and his friend human messengers, one of whom was at the right place at the right time?  Or were they angelic beings sent by God to protect Gary from premature doom?  I don’t know.  One day I will.  What I do know is that God’s eye is on the sparrow, and He watches over His children day and night, and that He sends His ministering spirits to protect us, even when we might not be aware of it.

Thoughts?

Onward and Upward!

 

Out of Season

Years ago I flew from LAX to New York on one of my many business trips for Marvel Productions.  This particular trip I had a window seat.  Sitting next to me in the aisle seat was a young medical doctor of the Baha’i faith.  I know this, because as we flew over Chicago he asked if he could lean over and look out the window to see the Baha’i temple located in WiImette, Illinois (one of nine Baha’i temples in the world).  I don’t know how he expected to see anything at 35,000 feet, but I told him to be my guest.  He thanked me, sat back in his seat after viewing whatever, and then told me a little about himself and his beliefs.  I told him about Jesus.

Briefly, for those who do not know, the Baha’i faith teaches that there have been several divine messengers over the millennia, each one addressing the need of a particular group of people at a particular time.  Included in the list of messengers are Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha, and Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith.    

The Baha’i faith posits three unities at its core: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of humanity.  Concerning the unity of God, God is One (there is no Trinity), He is all powerful, omniscient, omnipresent, and Creator.  Sadly, He is inaccessible.  That is, He is transcendent over creation, mindful of what goes on here, but there is no direct access to Him.   

With the unity of religion there is the belief that all religions come from God.  Each one is a divine manifestation for a time and place and purpose, and each one, in its own way, points to and leads back to God.  Each religion has validity and merit.   

Finally, the unity of humanity holds that there is a universal brotherhood of Man.  All men are equal in God’s sight, regardless of race, creed or religion.  Anything such as nationalism, race-, gender-, political-, social-, financial-, or caste-based hierarchies, are seen as impediments to the unity of man. 

There is much merit in these three unities, and they may sound good to many in today’s pluralistic and relativistic world.  It all sounded good to the young doctor sitting beside me, but, concerning Baha’is views on the unity of religion, I told him gently that all roads do not lead to God.  Only one does.  That piqued his interest.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).

One might ask how a carpenter from Nazareth could have the audacity to say such a thing.  How exclusionary can you get!  Unless it is true.

According to Scripture, Jesus is the only begotten (not made) Son of God.  It was through Jesus that God spoke the galaxies and worlds into existence, and they are held together by the word of His power (Heb 1:2-3, Col 1:17).  All the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Him (Col 1:19).  Through Jesus God has spoken to us in these last days (Heb 1:2)).  In short: Jesus can say anything He wants, and whatever He says is truth!

I told the young doctor that Jesus came to earth to give His life as a ransom for many.  Through the death and resurrection of His Son, God has made the way for sinful man to be reconciled to Him.  He has opened the veil that once separated us.  Through Jesus God is not only approachable but He brings us into glorious sonship, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father!”

Nothing that man can conceive; no religion, no matter how reasonable or egalitarian it may sound, can save from everlasting hell.  No religion can reconcile sinful man to holy God.  To believe otherwise is foolish.

For the remainder of my flight I shared the gospel with the doctor.  I told him that Jesus loved him, had died, was buried, and was resurrected for him.  He listened.  The Holy Spirit was clearly at work in this man’s life, for by the end of the flight he had decided to follow Jesus, the only way of salvation.  At 35,000 feet he saw the Way into the holy of holies in a temple not made by human hands, where he could worship the one true God in spirit and in truth.

The point of this anecdote is not that we badger everyone we come in contact with the gospel, but that we should be ready when the Spirit opens an opportunity.  We should “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2).  God used me that day not because I was a super saint, but because I was willing to be used, out of season. 

This world, particularly our young people, desperately needs to hear the truth of the gospel spoken in love, lived out in daily activity.  All roads do not lead to heaven.  As Jesus said, “the broad way leads to destruction” (Matt 7:13).  Only as we enter through the narrow gate of Jesus Christ do we find life.  We find true Light. 

As Christ followers, we are bearers of that Light.  I confess that I was bolder in my earlier days.  The command to make disciples of all nations burned brightly in me.  I pray that the fire that once compelled me to share the gospel with people like the young doctor, would be fanned into flame by the breath of the Holy Spirit.  I pray this on behalf of anyone reading this, as well.

Onward and Upward!

Christian Marines Under Fire

Washington-Praying-Etching-e1413464034612“All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Tim 3:12).

Paul wrote this to Timothy from the Mamertine prison in Rome not long before he was martyred for his faith.  Paul never condemned the Roman government, though it was the Romans who ended his life.  Jesus never condemned the Romans, either.  He stated that it’s the world that hates Him, and therefore it will hate His followers.

Nothing has changed since then.  The world still hates Jesus and it hates Christians.  It doesn’t matter what cultural context we are in––the workplace, ministry, neighborhood, beauty salon––if we are salt and light we will be persecuted to some degree, whether snubbed mildly, ridiculed loudly, beaten or even martyred for our faith.  Persecution is inevitable.  How should we then live?  Jesus, Paul, and Peter tell us that we are to love our enemies, and to pray for them.  Difficult to do, granted.  But love them we must. 

My first encounter with persecution took place while I was serving in the Marine Corps.  Again, it could just as well have been at the local shoe store or Jack in the Box.  As I mentioned in my last blog (Honeymoon) some of the men in the barracks ridiculed those of us who had become Christ followers.  This went on for weeks.  It didn’t bother us; in fact, we were emboldened by it.  And then one morning I was ordered to report to one of the officers.  He said:      

“Joens, I want you to keep Jesus Christ behind doors on Sunday mornings, where He belongs.  Is that understood?”

The way he’d said Jesus Christ, was like a curse.  

I was raised in a Marine Corps family.  Growing up, I loved the Marines.  I was always proud of my dad’s thirty-three year service––World War 2, Korea, Vietnam.  To build upon his legacy I enlisted in the Marines to prove to myself that I, too, could be one of the Few, the Proud.  I graduated Boot Camp as the platoon honor man, and recipient of the dress blues award.  I am still proud of the Marines.  I thank God for the sacrifices they make to preserve freedom in our nation.  But on that morning it was foremost on my mind that the laws of God take precedent over the orders of 1st Lieutenants.  I answered respectfully:

“No sir.  I serve God, Country, and Corps in that order, not the reverse.”

I was dismissed.

I don’t believe that this was typical of the Marines.  When I was in boot camp I was given a New Testament, though I was not a believer at the time.  Clearly the idea of religion coexisting with the military was accepted.  The establishment of the military chaplaincy, dating back to 1791 by act of congress, was the basis for it.

No, this was not a Marine issue, this was a man issue.

From the morning of that interchange with my superior officer hostility grew against the tiny knot of Christian Marines.  The ridicule and ostracizing was now more virulent.  Handing out Gospel tracts to the men was forbidden.  And added to these there was now a clear double standard when it came to barracks inspection.  Non-Christians were left to decorate their rooms with contraband, pornographic and otherwise, whereas Christians were told to remove anything of a religious nature.  Tension in the barracks mounted.     

Matters came to a head one morning on the quarterdeck.  Two other Marines and myself were waiting to be posted on guard duty, one of whom had come to Christ a few weeks earlier.  He was nicknamed Lurch because of his enormous size.  Another of the Marines on deck (whom I will call Tom) picked a verbal fight with him.  Tom, no doubt emboldened by the recent tone in the barracks, told Lurch that he couldn’t be a Christian and a Marine at the same time.  Lurch disagreed.    

Tom pressed his point.  He said that if Lurch was a genuine believer he would take off his gun belt and serve Christ.  It was a challenge.  A gauntlet thrown.

To everyone’s astonishment, Lurch removed his gun belt and set it down on the desk before the Sergeant of the Guard.  Then he went upstairs to tell the CO what he had done.  Tom looked at me.        

WIthout giving it a thought, I took off my gun belt and set it before the Sergeant of the Guard.  I am not a conscientious objector, nor were any of the other Christian Marines.  We had all enlisted.  Five of us put down our gun belts that day in a united stand against the anti-Christian opposition in the barracks.  What we did was out of conviction for our new faith in Christ.  If we could not be Marines and Christians at the same time then we would be Christians.

We would soon pay for that decision.

Speaking for myself, with forty-three years of spiritual maturity behind me, I may have done things differently.  We were young.  The majority of us were less than two months old in our faith and sanctification.  Had I to do it over, I hope that with God’s grace and power I would have endured unto blood, that I would have borne up (Grk hupomone) under the mounting persecution.  But right or wrong I did what I thought was right at the time.  God is my judge.  And as we shall see in future blogs, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Next blog: Special Court Martial

Honeymoon

lacco-ameno-ischia-conde-nast-traveller-2may14-stefano-scataHoneymoons are typically filled with joy, intimacy, and discovery between a husband and wife as they begin their new life together.  Likewise, the weeks immediately following my Christian conversion were like a honeymoon.

In those early days of my spiritual journey, I experienced a joy that I never thought existed.  As I devoted myself to the daily study of His Word and to prayer, the discoveries I made concerning the Person and Work of Christ, served to deepen my relationship with Him.  I enjoyed an intimacy with the Father that was like a well of living water.  Life was good!

Every day the Spirit spoke powerfully to me from the pages of His living Word.  Justification, redemption, sanctification were but a few biblical concepts that impassioned my hunger and thirst to know more about my salvation.  I could not get enough of the Bible.  Further, I could not get enough fellowship with believers, either in our rooms or off-barracks meeting places.      

TIMES OF REFRESHING

On liberty weekends we would head over to Carney Park, a park outside Naples that had been developed for use by military personnel.  There we barbecued hamburgers and played softball or tag football, played guitars and shared the Gospel with military personnel that frequented the park.  Sometimes we went over to Ischia, an island at the northern edge of the Gulf of Naples, which at the time was gloriously bereft of American tourists (they mostly went to Capri).  We camped on the beach, sang Christian songs around a bonfire, hiked and generally exulted in our youth and newfound faith. 

But mostly we spent our liberties downtown at the Serviceman’s Center, home of Jesse and Nettie Miller who were missionaries to servicemen.  There we met fellow believers off the Fleet or permanent personnel, played ping pong or chess or shared testimonies while waiting for a good home cooked meal provided by Nettie and her helpers.  Afterward we would gather in a circle and listen to Jesse teach.  Before heading back to the barracks we would go into the little in-house book store and purchase the latest Bible or music tapes or learning materials.  In those early days I added a Thompson Chain study Bible and a Scofield to my burgeoning library, along with the then popular Late Great Planet Earth and other books on end-time prophecy.  They were truly times of refreshing. 

CONVERSIONS

Those early weeks were also heady days of evangelism.  What began with Terry and Mike leading me to Christ in Mike’s room, soon became a handful of committed Christians, with many others in the barracks dropping by our rooms to ask questions, listen to our Bible studies and songs of praise.  The Holy Spirit revival that began on the beaches of California then sweeping across the United States was now blowing through the Marine Barracks, Naples, Italy. 

I think the devil was caught napping. 

We handed out Chick tracts (This Was Your Life, and Holy Joe) on the streets of Naples, to servicemen, prostitutes, cab drivers, as well as the carabinieri (Italian police) with whom we stood guard, employing our pigeon Italian as best we could.  We left tracts on post for the next guard cycle of Marines to read.  By the way, this latter activity was not allowed, but Marines left all manner of contraband on post, so we did the same.  Our witness was known all over the barracks.   

DARK CLOUDS LOOM

It was truly a season of joy.  However, whenever God does a work in a person, persons, or region in the world, the devil may be counted on to mount a counter-offensive.  A counter-offensive that is usually designed to shut up witnesses, intimidate them, or to lock them up.  Such an offensive was mounting in the barracks. 

Persecution may take many forms: ostracizing, verbal abuse, physical abuse, loss of job, and of course martyrdom.  With that handful of young believers it began with mild persecution––mostly name-calling from fellow Marines.  We were told by a couple of men who later became believers the kinds of things that were spoken about us behind our backs.  It’s to be expected.  A verse has always given me pause to think, as well as to evaluate my walk with Christ.  It was written by the Apostle Paul to his young protege, Timothy, before he was executed.

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).

It seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it?  Godliness produces persecution.  We don’t have to search for it, it will find us.  Because the world hates Jesus it will hate His followers too.  If Christians hide their faith under a basket, or keep their salt in shakers, there is little danger of persecution.  However, as young and somewhat radical and naive followers of Christ, who were not ashamed of Gospel, we were about to be tested in ways that would change the course of our lives.  We had become targets.

Next Blog: THE COUNTER OFFENSIVE

TWO VOICES

66c5c-praying_hands_bible_070509The night I became a Christian I looked out the window of the Marine barracks, and there on a Naples, Italy, hill in the distance was a huge blue neon cross.  It was lit up like the 4th of July!  I took it as a sign from heaven.  We had weekend liberty, so I said to the guys, “Hey, why don’t we camp out beneath that giant cross?”

Everyone agreed, so we rolled up some blankets, Bibles and guitars, and were on our way.  Before we left the barracks, however, I opened a window and dumped out a pack of cigarettes.  “I quit!” I said, proud of my accomplishment. 

We trekked over several vineyards and fields and finally came to our destination.  Beneath the neon cross was a World War 2 era pill box, which made an ideal weekend camp.  We made a fire and sang songs, read the Bible by firelight, prayed and shared our testimonies of how wonderful Jesus was.  I had never been so happy or full of joy.

It was truly a “mountaintop experience.”

THE VOICE OF KAA

Monday morning found me standing guard at Post 14, in one of the NATO buildings, the one in which there was a PX with lots of foot traffic.  I was about to experience my first spiritual test as a new believer.

Watching the people go past my guard booth, many who were smoking, I had a sudden craving for a cigarette.  When I was with the guys over the weekend there were plenty of distractions to keep the urge at bay.  But on that first day of duty I was by myself, alone.  Only I wasn’t alone.  I soon heard an oily, voice-like-Kaa-the-snake hiss in my ear.  It wasn’t an audible voice, but I heard it nonetheless.  The voice said:

“What are you doing?  You’re making a fool of yourself with all this Jesus nonsense.  Come back to your senses.”

I listened to the voice bummed a cigarette off the first enlisted man that passed by my booth, intending to smoke it as soon as I got off duty.  I stood in smug defiance, reveling in my fleshy rebellion. 

THE VOICE OF THE SPIRIT

No sooner did this rebellion occur when I felt a stinging rebuke, like a lash through my spirit.  The second Voice. 

“Don’t you dare!” 

It was the Holy Spirit, of course.  The Voice was inaudible but I felt the holy glare of God upon me.  It was the first time as a new believer that I actually felt the discipline of the Lord, for which I am eternally grateful.  I repented, crumpled the cigarette, and once again felt the joy of the Lord in my soul.

THREE WEAPONS

The devil––that serpent of old––has three weapons in his arsenal.  Only three.  But he uses them with great success.  They are:

The lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). 

Satan used each of these weapons in the Garden of Eden when tempting Eve, and he’s been using them ever since.  In my case it was the craving of a cigarette (lust of the flesh), the spotting of a cigarette dangling from a man’s lips (lust of the eyes), and my rebellious sense of autonomy (the pride of life) that he employed against me that particular day.

I failed my first test miserably.  Thankfully, I have a Heavenly Father who loved me enough to discipline me, and quickly got me back onto the path of righteousness.

WHAT’S THE POINT?

When the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness (Matt 4), the devil tried each of his weapons on Him too but without success.  Jesus defeated each attack with prayer-backed Scripture.  We must do the same.  Here’s what Jesus said:

Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt 26:41)

WATCH 

I think most believers succumb to temptation because they fail to watch.  They’re too busy looking at worldly distractions (fill in the blank), making them easy prey for the enemy who, like a roaring lion, is seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  He’s seeking believers.  Constantly.  We must be on the alert at all times, watching for the enemy as though from our guard posts (wherever God has placed us).  If we aren’t alert then we are vulnerable to attack. 

PRAY 

If we have a particular weakness in our flesh (“a chink in the armor,” as we used to say) then we ought to be praying for God’s help to overcome temptation in that area.  “The spirit is willing,” Jesus said, “but the flesh is weak.”  We are engaged in a spiritual battle and must use spiritual weapons to overcome.  All of our spiritual armor is powerful, but prayer puts us in direct contact with our Commander in Chief.  It is prayerful and watchful study of God’s Word that will send the enemy packing.

That was my first test as a new believer, but it wouldn’t be the last.  In the days and weeks to come the enemy would seek to devour not only myself, but also a handful of Christian Marines that were making an impact in the barracks.

Next blog: Heady Days 

  

Out of Darkness

imgresThe biblical writers referred to darkness in each the gospels, as did Peter, Paul and John in their epistles.  We tend to think of darkness as a metaphor for wickedness.  For evil.  The metaphor is certainly apt.  But darkness is more than a metaphor; it is also a palpable reality.  You can feel it, smell it.  It clings to you.  Living in it, you don’t think about it.  You figure it’s the norm.  It’s everyone’s reality, or perspective, right?  It’s not until a light hits you that you realize how dark the darkness is that you’ve been living in.

I was introduced to the Light the night of February 10, 1972 by two fellow Marines, Terry and Mike.  They shared the Gospel with me as I’d never heard it, and from then on I was no longer comfortable living in darkness.

The following morning after drill and calisthenics (gotta love the Marines), Terry and Mike asked if I’d like to go with them to the Serviceman’s Center in downtown Naples for Liberty.  They described it as a Christian USO.  I said I would.

INTO THE LIGHT

That night as I entered the Center I entered a world of Light.  Just as darkness is a palpable thing, so is light.  Like darkness, you can sense it.  You can see it.  Remember Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light?”

I saw the light, I saw the light, no more darkness no more night.  Now Im so happy no sorrow in sight, Praise the Lord, I saw the light.

These lyrics are true.  You really can see the light; which is why, if you’re walking well with the Lord, people will take notice that there is something different about you.  They’ll see it in your eyes, on your face.

THE SERVICEMAN’S CENTER

The Serviceman’s Center was the home of missionaries Jesse and Nettie Miller, Jesse a onetime prisoner of the Japanese army and survivor of the infamous Bataan death march (his testimony is found in the book, Nine Must Die).  The home was crowded with servicemen––Navy, Army, Air Force and a few Marines from the Fleet, harbored in the Bay of Naples.  The men were playing guitars, and ping pong, some were reading Bibles, some chatting or playing chess.  No one was cussing, or crudely joking.  The room was filled with light, it was also filled with Life.

Men came up and introduced themselves to me, making me feel at home.  No one pressured me to do anything.  I’m sure they could discern that I was not a Christian at this point, that I was a searcher; still, they just treated me like one of their own.  Amazing.

Nettie fed us all a wonderful home-cooked meal, after which we gathered around Jesse for an informal Bible study.  He asked us to turn to the book of Ephesians.  I had no idea what an Ephesians was, so Terry helped me find it.  As Jesse taught, all I could think about as I looked around the circle of men, at their glowing faces, the sincerity in their voices as they asked and answered questions, was that these men had something very special.  Love.  Joy.  Peace.  A sense of belonging, of family.

By contrast, these guys truly had something that I didn’t have.  Just sitting in their presence, in their light, I knew that I was living in darkness and headed for hell.  It was a very, very sobering thought.  It put the fear of God in me.

SAVED

Later that night, as we went back to the barracks, feeling the deep conviction of the Holy Spirit in my soul, I told Terry and Mike that I wanted to become a Christian.  So we knelt in Terry’s room, and I prayed the sinner’s prayer.  It was simple, childlike.  I told Jesus that I believed in Him, in His perfect sinless life, that I believed in His death and resurrection for my sins.  I confessed that I was sorry for my sins, and that I wanted to be saved.

That Friday night at 11:00pm, the Light of Christ flooded my darkened soul, and I was washed in the blood of the Lamb.  I was born again.  Jesus was now my Lord and Savior.  I was His child.  He had found me in the darkness of the San Fran bar and called me into His Light.  I’ll admit that it might be considered by some to be a cliche, but words truly cannot express the “joy unspeakable and full of glory” that I received that night!

 

A Lost Marine is Found

Mike Pic“Mike, Jesus loves you.” 

Those four words forever changed my life.  I’d heard the words before and hated them.  I hated those who believed in them.  Why?  Because I was a Christ-hater, a blasphemer, a thief, an immoral man.  But on that night of February 10, 1972, everything changed.

Before I continue let me say this about conversion stories.  Everyone who is a believer in Jesus Christ has one.  Every one is a miracle, a treasure, a testimony of God’s grace, love and forgiveness, the power of the Holy Spirit to convict and to regenerate the spiritually dead sinner.  To me the most powerful story is that of the young man or woman who was raised in a Christian home, was faithful to Christ throughout high school and college, and continued in the faith into adulthood.  In our culture this is an amazing testimony.  It is so rare.  Would that my story was like that.  It isn’t.

SWEET LIBERTY

I was stationed at the 100 man Marine Barracks in Naples, Italy.  The Marines guarded the NATO base, and the headquarters and security buildings for AFSOUTH (Allied Forces Southern Europe).  I had just finished my guard cycle and was on Liberty.  Sweet Liberty!  Another night to revel in darkness.  I dropped a half tab of LSD in the bar across the street from the Main Gate, washed it down with several hard swallows of whiskey to give it a kickstart, then by 9:00pm was downtown in the San Fran bar draped over the jukebox, listening to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, definitely in an altered state of mind.

Thirty minutes later I felt a strange compulsion to go back to the barracks, something that had never happened before on Liberty.  My plans were to pound the streets hard until just before Roll Call, at 7:00am.  However, “many are the plans of a man’s heart, but God directs his steps” (Prov 19:21).

He was about to redirect mine.

A KALEIDOSCOPIC TRIP

I caught a cab back to the barracks, hallucinating the whole trip, went straight into the room of a Christian Marine with a name like mine––Mike.  He was sitting on the edge of his bunk, like he was waiting for someone.  He was.  Me.  If it had been a scene from a movie it would have looked staged, contrived.

I sat down on the chair beside his bunk and proceeded to tell him what a great “trip” I was having.  I stared at the marble tiles between my feet as I talked.  Mike didn’t say a word for 20 minutes.  It might have been two hours, or two minutes (time is irrelevant when you’re stoned).  Then a thought occurred to me that I might have hallucinated my return to the barracks, that I might still be in the San Fran bar.  When I looked over at him his face wet with tears.  He was sobbing.  Whoa!  A Marine––a jarhead––sobbing.  I asked him what was wrong and he told me.

“Mike, Jesus loves you.”

STONED SOBER!

What happened in the next instant is a testimony of God’s love, grace, and power.  I became cold sober!  Not drunk.  Not stoned.  I was completely clear-headed, as though I hadn’t taken any drugs or alcohol.

That scared me.

Mike took me next door and introduced me to a new arrival in the barracks named Terry.  Terry had been in the barracks about a week.  His room was directly across from mine, so I’d seen him before.  I noticed he carried a Bible.

Terry was a Marine Jesus freak!

He was lying on his bunk when Mike and I entered his room and––guess what?––he was reading his Bible.  Liberty night and he’s reading his Scofield.  For the next hour-and-a-half Terry and Mike shared the Gospel (the Good News) with me in a way I’d never heard before.  They talked about God’s love, His holiness, my sin, heaven and hell, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  Strangely, I didn’t hate them.  I didn’t reject what they were saying.  In fact, I hung on every word.

Finally, Mike pressed for a decision but I told him I needed to think about it.  I was still a rebel at heart and didn’t want anyone pushing me into anything that wasn’t my idea first.  I didn’t become a Christian that night.  Instead, I went across the hall into my darkened room, shut the door, looked up at the ceiling and said, “If you’re real, God, then I’d be a fool not to want you.”

THE WINDOW CLOSES

After that I climbed into bed, closed my eyes, and for the remainder of the night the effects of whiskey and LSD once again raged through my mind and body.  The Holy Spirit had held back their effects for a window of time, while two faithful Marines told me about Jesus.  The window closed.  And now, lying on my bunk, the Spirit who had once hovered over the darkness of the unformed earth, was hovering over the darkness of my soul and about to unleash His creative power.

Next blog: Out of Darkness                  

Stones of Remembrance

imagesThis is the first of a three-part series that chronicles my Christian testimony (part 2––A Lost Marine is Found; part 3––Out of Darkness).

The inspiration for the title of this blog comes from Joshua Chapter 4.  Briefly, God had parted the Jordan River so that the children of Israel could cross over into the Promised Land.  Afterward, God commanded Joshua to have one man from each of the twelve tribes carry a stone from the middle of the river and set it up as a memorial on the other side.  Why?  So that when their children and children’s children would ask what the stones meant they would recount the wondrous things that God had done.

STONES OF REMEMBRANCE

Over the years my children have asked to hear stories of my early walk with Jesus, during the revival days of the Jesus Movement.  They have told me that the stories are like those in the Book of Acts, but that those kinds of things aren’t happening nowadays, at least not in the US.  I would disagree.  The Holy Spirit is alive and well.  He is still moving in people’s hearts, still drawing them to Christ.  Travel to Brazil today to see what God is doing there.  I think what my kids mean is a matter of scale, of numbers.  I would agree with that.

JESUS MOVEMENT

During that too-brief decade of the late 1960s and 70s, God’s manifest Presence was everywhere apparent––on school campuses, in coffee houses, on street corners, beauty salons, bus stations, grocery stores, in the military, even military brigs (as you shall see in future posts).  Significant numbers of young people surrendered their lives to Jesus.  They were called “Jesus freaks.”

I became one of them in a Marine Barracks in Naples, Italy, Feb 11, 1972 (part 2 and 3).

I miss those days.  I miss the One Way Jesus stickers, the “Maranatha!” greetings, the Bible tracts that everyone carried along with their Thompson Chain Bibles, Scofields and Living Bibles.  The very air seemed charged with the expectancy of the Second Coming.  We listened to Jack Van Impe tapes, read Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, and a host of other modern day “prophets,” warning everyone of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.  Those that came to Christ were happy that they’d “made it” before the final curtain fell, and were zealous to share the Gospel with everyone before it was too late.

Larry Norman’s I Wish We’d All Been Ready captured the zeitgeist of the age.

“Witnessing” was the ministry of the day––didn’t matter where––on the street, on the beach, in bus stations, in halfway houses and bars (yes, bars), in college dorm rooms, in military barracks and ships.  The locations were irrelevant.  The Spirit was everywhere.  He was relevant, working, drawing sinners to Christ.  So many came!

THE END OF REVIVAL

By the late 1970s, early 80s, the revival wind that fell upon the beaches of Southern California and blew across the continent and over into Europe, was mostly gone.    Only a breeze remained.  A whisper.  The revival fires died down to embers.

What happened?  Did the Holy Spirit run out of gas?  Where did the revival go?  What happened to all the Jesus people, to that great Movement that made the covers of Life and Time and caught the world’s attention?  Ed Underwood (pastor of the Church of the Open Door) addresses this very question in his book Reborn to be Wild.  It’s a compelling history of the Jesus Movement, its rise and demise.  In short, we became gentrified.  Tamed.  Absorbed into the mainstream status quo.

Irrelevant.

I have many stories to tell of God’s work and grace in the lives of young people during that time, and will tell them, Lord willing, over the next several months.  They are my Stones of Remembrance.  My hope is that they will both inspire and encourage believers today to pray, to read their Bibles, to boldly go out onto the dark streets with the blazing fire of the Good News, shouting it from the rooftops!  Jesus changed the world with a handful of committed disciples that boldly went into the streets of Jerusalem with a very powerful message.

CAN IT HAPPEN AGAIN?

Without question.  There are so many more handfuls of disciples today than in those early First Century prayer meetings.  But are we as committed as they were?  Or the Jesus freaks, for that matter.  Do we care as much about our lost neighbors, coworkers, and family members as we once did?  I am a Christian today because a fellow Marine had the courage to say to an outrageous sinner: “Mike, Jesus loves you!”

I still weep at God’s mercy and grace.

O God, fill us anew with Your Holy Spirit!  Fan into flames Your holy fire!  Revive us again, O Lord, so that we will have stones of remembrance to teach our children’s children.

Begin with me.

Next post– A Lost Marine is Found

A Sermon in G-Major

IMG_0166When I was a young Christian, fresh out of the Marine Corps, I was a minstrel with a mission.  I carried my guitar everywhere I went, singing Christian favorites, as well as songs of my own composition.  The size of my audience didn’t matter; there might be one or two, there might be a roomful.  I just loved to sing about Jesus and looked for opportunities to do so.

BUT NOW BRING ME A MINSTREL

One day in September of 1973, during my first semester at a northern California Bible college, I went into the chapel after classes to practice my repertoire.  The chapel appeared empty, so I went onto the platform, got out my guitar and began singing to the Lord.   A few minutes later a girl at the rear of the chapel (she’d been lying on the floor praying), poked her head over a pew and stared across the chapel at me.  It was a funny “peekaboo-I-see-you” moment.  Then she immediately jumped up and rushed out of the door. 

Needless to say, this didn’t encourage my musical self-esteem.  I’d had an audience of one and she bolted like her hair was on fire!

I continued singing.  Five minutes later the girl returned and asked if I would be willing to speak and sing at her church the following Sunday.  I guess she liked my singing after all.  The church in question was a small country fellowship in the hills north of San Francisco.  Not having cell phones in those days, she had just rushed out to phone her pastor to see if inviting me was all right with him.  It was. 

I said sure.

Sunday was two days away, so there was plenty of time to cook up a sermon, right?  It didn’t work out that way.

AND WHEN THE MINSTREL PLAYED…

The next day as I boarded a bus for the trip I still had no sermon prepped, just my guitar and a handful of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  I also had the audacity to trust that God would use me to somehow to bless His people.  I remember praying on the bus that God would give me something to talk about the next morning.  I was apprehensive, to say the least.  Still, no topic came to mind.

I had to change buses in San Francisco, and catch another one that went on to the mountain community.  I had about an hour’s wait, so I pulled out my guitar and began to sing.  That might sound a little strange to people today, but back in the days of the Jesus Movement it wasn’t uncommon at all to see young people singing on street corners, or in parks, or other public places.  It went with the times.

Soon a small crowd gathered around to listen.  I sang Amazing Grace, I sang I Wish We’d All Been Ready, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, interspersed with some of my own songs and personal testimony.

THE HAND OF THE LORD CAME UPON HIM (2 Kings 3:15)     

When my bus arrived I packed up and headed for it.  A moment later a good-looking, well-dressed man about forty-something followed me to the rear of the bus and stepped into the seat in front of me.  But instead of sitting down he leaned over the seat-back and looked at me. 

“I was listening to you singing,” he said, with tears in his eyes.  “I’m a backslidden Assemblies of God pastor.”

He went on to confess that he had wandered from the path of righteousness, and had gotten into a bad way of living.  Even now he was heading to Las Vegas to continue his wayward lifestyle.  He told me that as I was singing, the Holy Spirit convicted him of his sin, and he wanted to repent.  We prayed right there. 

Afterward he thanked me, walked to the front of the bus and got off.  I watched him disappear into the station crowd, stunned and amazed at God’s grace.  Then I thought about what had just happened. 

My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

I had my sermon. 

I told this story to the little church in the mountains.  My sermon didn’t have a three point outline with a joke and a punchline, it wouldn’t have passed a Homiletics class, but the Holy Spirit used it to bless the saints in a little mountain church.  I sang my songs, and we all rejoiced together.

MAKE THE MOST OF EVERY OPPORTUNITY

Obviously, I have never forgotten that story, which occurred over forty years ago.  I don’t know whatever became of the backslidden pastor.  Was his repentance genuine?  It sure seemed so to me.  Did he get back onto the path of righteousness?  I hope so, but I don’t know.  That’s not my business, it’s God’s.  My business is to walk in the Spirit and “make use of every opportunity [to share Christ], because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16).  This is so much more true today than it was back in 1973.

The Apostle Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19).  A Spirit-filled life is a song-filled life.  The child of God who is filled with the Spirit cannot help but sing!  And when we sing unto the Lord, those walking in darkness cannot help but take notice.  They will be drawn to the Source of spiritual music and life.

Have you been making melody in your heart to the Lord lately?

Lord, fill us with the audacity of Your Spirit, that we might minister to a lost and dying world.