Maybe the title of this article should be, “The confessions of a combat veteran of life, and following Jesus, and some of his failures”. Or perhaps something like, “Why would a slightly Pentecostal, mostly Reformed, staunchly independent person with a Baptist background continue to worship in a Church of Christ? Why do I stay you ask? First, how I got here.
I was born a poor white kid in the mountains of Western North Carolina to a small time tobacco farmer and his wife in the summer of 1945. My dad was one of 13 children raised mostly in the wilderness areas in Yancey County, N.C. There was no talk of God or of faith or church from his branch of the family. They were not bad people as people go, but not people of faith. My father had been attending church some (maybe just to see his future wife…) My mother on the other hand had a solid ancestry of believers for generations. Mom came to faith at the age of 8 and was immersed at the age of 12 and was not happy she had to wait four years.
In my youth we had only attended church perhaps less than a dozen times by the time I was a teenager. I rode a bus to vacation Bible school some, built a bird house or two, but all I knew about God was what I had learned from observing my mother’s life and my father’s strict morality that I subconsciously attributed to God.
At the age of 15 I was drafted into God’s Army. I was not looking for God or a better life, I was looking for longer cigarette butts, fast cars, a free beer, and average and up girls. A cousin’s husband invited me to sit at his kitchen table and for the first time I remember hearing it, he told me the very good news. I can remember like it was yesterday how convicted and convinced I was that I must turn to Christ. The next day, on a Sunday, I went to church and when the invitation was given I made the long walk from the back of the church to the altar area and there I prayed begging God to forgive me and stood before those people and pledged my life to Jesus Christ. A few months later, at the very first opportunity, I was baptized in the chilly waters of the North Fork River in Buncombe County, N.C.
I took liberty time on the outskirts of Sodom and Gomorrah a few times and when I was eighteen I battled for my very life in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. God was there! At about 21 I reenlisted and volunteered for infantry duty. I received my basic training at Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute and started preaching every place I could find ears.
I disagreed with my Bible professors, my pastors, and my closest friends about what, in my tender years I presumed to be legalism, and rejected it outright. I thought differently than almost all of my peers and said so. The pattern has not changed much. I am a combat vet of the darkness of rejection and divorce, and of the ugly hand of death. I have navigated through the storms and tangles of the jungles of life when at times my only companion was the Holy Spirit even when some of the messes I found myself in were of my own making. I did a short stint as a mindless Christian robot whose only job was to find fault with others in the same Army, and by doing so, to try to elevate my rank.
Finally, in the providence of God, the One who is Patience helped my to see Jesus Christ with the goggles of error, sin, and self righteousness off, and it seemed for the very first time I knew what the rest of the righteous meant. I believe my hunger for truth was a gift from God so for many years as I have followed sometimes well and sometimes not so well, at almost 66 years I am striving to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus.
Over a decade ago two widowers met and I was one of them. In 1999 I married Carol whose daddy was a church of Christ preacher. His family and her mother’s back to Adam were all church of Christ. I loved Carol and she loved me and we both were convinced that God had brought us together. The problem was that she disliked my little Baptist church and I didn’t appreciate her progressive church of Christ. So, God solved the problem by having us move from the DFW area to Monroe, LA where we would devote much of the next decade to fairly new twin grandsons and their big brother.
At the invitation of my new next door neighbor the first church we visited was Whites Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, Louisiana. I had already decided that our new church home would not be a church of Christ but, the Commander in Chief had other plans. Within the first 3 or 4 minutes after I walked into the building at WFR I had my answer from God that I was home. I have not been disappointed. Do I agree with everything taught there? No. So what? These are a few reasons why I stay.
Changed lives! This morning I witnessed a man, perhaps in his late 20’s or early 30’s, declare his faith in Jesus in the waters of baptism to the applause, whistles, and cheers of the family of God. And, for the past several weeks, adults are coming to faith, being baptized, getting acclimated to a new life, and being loved just like they are. We probably have more ex-felons, former junkies, and other social misfits as members in our forever family than any place in Louisiana. I stay because I love transformed lives.
Unconditional love! I have seen on display in this most unlikely setting the most unworldly love and forgiveness I could ever have imagined. People come regularly who have fallen in some way, they confess their sin, and they are literally swarmed with loving hugs, words of encouragement, and tears of joy. I stay because I’m a lover and like to be around people who love people where they are, like they are, without regard to any pay off in the future.(I must insert here that never have I had people love and accept me more than here. And, even with all my doctrinal warts and theological bumps, I have many, many dear friends in the coc brotherhood who have decided for whatever reason to love me anyhow. I am deeply touched by the expressions of love given by so many to this square peg in a sea of round holes.)
Grace! In the past decade and more now, I have seen a people who were dipping their toes in the waters of the grace of God then, who are now happily immersed in the matchless grace of God and splashing it on everyone in sight. I stay because I love people who are grace-filled and are not quiet about it.
Gospel centered! I live with and love with people who understand what Christ has accomplished for sinners and make much about Him! I doubt that you could find a phone booth full of folks out of our forever family who think they will be saved because they are good enough. On the side of the pulpit facing the preacher this is carved into the wood. “It’s not about me”. I stay because I like being with people who keep the main thing the main thing.
Global vision! Our troops go into the highways and hedges after sinners and to the ends of the earth with the good news that Jesus has made a way out of sin and a way to “get out alive” as one of our elders says. Recovery ministry, counseling, men’s groups, women’s groups, global relief ministry, world-wide radio ministry, church planting, missions to dozens of foreign countries, etc. are the norm. And as men get old and retire or relocate to glory, young men cut from the cloth of their predecessors are visionaries who see no limit to what God can do through the power of the Holy Spirit and the people of WFR Church. I stay because I approve of this sort of missional outlook.
It’s Home! It’s my family! Why would I even consider leaving? I have been invited by a few online zealots to leave, called a Satanist, and a few other things because I sometimes too loudly reject their fire-breathing self-righteous legalism and sectarianism. I’m light years away from being all I’d like to be but I am a sibling with a seat at the table. I feel welcome here, I enjoy the company of this totally odd bunch I’m on my way to heaven with. It might surprise you to know that to the last one, all of our leaders readily admit that they too are about like me. Just sinners saved by grace who still mess up but never give up. I am led and mentored by people who are still hungry to grow, to learn, and to love Christ and our fellow-men even more. I’m staying, count on it!
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Come visit me sometime. We will love you with the love of Jesus and feed you spicy food.
(This article was also published at http:www.wineskins.org recently)