The last few months have become a time of personal introspection. Not quite sure why. Perhaps it is that for the first time in years I don’t feel the pressure of having an overwhelming schedule. Having “officially” retired from Pastoral ministry has been an incentive. A lingering bronchial and sinus infection have often kept me inside when the weather had been appealing to walk on those few sun lite days.
Some of it may derive that last week I shared my personal story of coming to faith with a group of friends. Since then I’ve taken the opportunity to look at the last five decades of my life and reflect. Looking back has not been an introspection of how bad it was, but that the grace of God was so evident, even in the hurting and lost times. What is called prevenient grace.
This past September it has been 48 years since Jesus Christ came into my life. Not that I didn’t know about God, or was ignorant of the Bible or the story of Jesus. Church was central in our lives: Sunday morning worship, Sunday night youth group, Cherub choir as a child then adult choir when I turned fourteen. I remember Della Turner and Rachel Watson teaching us the books of the Bible when we were only six years old. But Church was just something everyone did in the 1950’s. It was ritual and tradition.
Without going in to details I have always considered growing up as a deeply lonely time. Typical for a middle child. My parents worked six and seven days and we were often left to our own resources. Sports had never been of any interest. The only sport I ever tried out for was a washout, being dropped from the team as there were not enough uniforms to go around. Didn’t even get a participation trophy. High School wasn’t much better. I worked evenings from the time I turned sixteen and never even made it to football games. The only group of friends I had were a table of us who had nothing in common except we ate lunch together in the cafeteria. None of us fit into the “social groups” common for the teenage years. I called us the lost boys.
Thought at best a mediocre student in High School I had been accepted in the Architectural School of Design at N.C. State. But they only took 35 students a year and I was number 37. Their advice was go to a Junior college, get my liberal arts classes behind me, and come in the third year after others dropped out. At the time, it was a disappointment. But it turned out to be one of the best things to happen in my life. Infrequently I wonder what life would have been like if that had been the course taken.
Not wanting to speak ill of those who have gone before, but growing up I don’t remember a lot of love. Not that my parents didn’t try. But it wasn’t something expressed with emotion. In some ways, it was a great life. We traveled, spent Sunday afternoon skiing and picnicking at my Uncle’s place at the lake, had a great yard and neighborhood with the usual dogs, cats, and even a crocodile. When other kids were going to Myrtle Beach, we went to the World’s Fair.
Today my father would be diagnosed with sever P.T.S.D. His World War II medical records show he was described as having Combat Fatigue. Mother had grown up a hard scrabble life as the next to last in a large family. By the time she was five her older brothers and sisters had already moved out of the house. Later I recognized she was a typical co-dependent to my father’s aberrant behavior.
So, going to college was as much an escape as an education. In a sense, I was running away from home. Did not know I would be running straight into the arms of Jesus. The summer before was probably the most I have felt lost in my life. Graduation night was filled with too much celebration. Not being a believer I had no deterrent to indulge in alcoholic endeavors. It wasn’t until the blue lights flashed in the rearview mirror that I was aware of having crossed a line. So, for the summer I had no license, no car, no friends. That week I went from the grocery store to the cotton mill. Early morning starts gave little incentive for late night ramblings. Even if I had someone with whom I could ramble. So, hanging out was replaced by long walks in the evening, feeling even more friendless and lost. In all honesty, I had not one close friend in High School.
For college I had chosen a small church school in the mountains. My roommate was a jerk, so, after beating everyone on the floor in chess I moved to another dorm. Yes, I was a nerd. It was there I met a new kind of person, Christians. These guys and gals weren’t just your Sunday morning vanilla church goers. They went Sunday night to a Bible Study in town, Tuesday night a prayer meeting at another home, Wednesday night study with the Church Pastor, and weekends, going to Shoney’s in Asheville for Strawberry pie and talk about Jesus. They carried these big huge Bibles with crosses engraved in the leather. The pages were marked with underlined words and notes in the margin. I didn’t understand, but for the first time in life I felt loved by a group of people who did not judge me.
Only four weeks into the first semester some visitors from England came to campus. It was on no one schedule. The mother of another student had heard them and arranged for them to spend their last day in the States at Montreat. That night a group of about 35 students and five or six faculty came together to hear them speak and sing. Andrew and his wife sang some songs none of us knew. Then Terry, a bank teller who played a tambourine, spoke about his journey of faith. At the end people were invited to raise their hands and show they wanted to know Jesus Christ. Nearly all the students responded. I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t understand.
After the meeting, everyone went down to Pastor Thielman’s house for refreshments. There was laughter, happiness, and joy that night. I didn’t feel such exuberance. My mind was confused, disorganized, and isolated. Soon everyone jumped up and went into the dining area. I remained, sitting there in front of the fireplace on a braided hook rug (ah, the details we remember for significant events.)
Not knowing how, I cried out to God. No one sat down and prayed with me. There was no Roman Road or Four Spiritual Laws. Surround by a crowd I was essentially alone. But in those moments, I felt a love I’d never before experienced. This wasn’t church, it wasn’t even religion. But, as John Wesley described in his encounter, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” But in this case, it wasn’t a knowledge of salvation, but of love. A love which flooded heart and soul.
No one in that room knew what was going on as I continued to sit there. But when I finally stood up, I was a different person, forever changed. Jesus had entered the wounds of my heart, healing the hurt and loss. Giving me a joy and relief. Taking my darkness and giving light.
I’ve never looked back.
Robert C. Peurifoy