(with a small "r")
As mentioned before, the last job I had before leaving New Mexico behind was as an underground laborer in the Johnny Mack uranium mine about twenty miles north of Grants, New Mexico. I could write an entire book about my six months underground, but must limit myself to a few notes relating to my spiritual quest.
I took the job initially because the lowest paid pick-and-shovel man started at over five dollars an hour, good pay in New Mexico in the early seventies. As an "adventure" it was a radical departure from any previous job. I had been bored out of my mind trying to drive a desk eight hours a day in Santa Fe. From there I had worked one semester as a teacher at a private school in the mountains near the headwaters of the Pecos River, but pay was low. Then I heard at the State Employment Office that some of the "miners," the guys actually doing the drilling and blasting, were making over $2000 per week. That got my attention.
So I hired on as a simple laborer, but soon progressed to more responsible duties. Also I was allowed to park my camper on company land about two miles from the mineshaft, on a dry mesa scattered with petrified wood – a hermit’s paradise.
Working conditions were so bizarre I can’t neglect to briefly sketch them. The shaft elevator took you vertically down 1500 feet, where all the water not seen on the desert above lived, moved, and had its being. We wore tall red rubber boots and tough yellow rainsuits, topped by broad-brimmed hardhats with headlamps, the latter powered by a heavy battery worn on a webbed army-belt around the waist. It rained constantly from the roofs of the tunnels. (In miner’s lingo, "from the backs of the drifts." Miners had their own vocabulary. A sledgehammer was a "double-jack." The end of a "drift" was the "face." "Dynamite" was "powder," diesel train engines were "motors," and so on.) The ground under our feet was constantly running with water, sometimes diverted to one side in a ditch so the ever-present railway rails were not completely submerged.
In winter it was freezing cold at the base of the shaft but August-hot at the ends of the several tunnels, so that a thick fog bank always lay between the two zones.
The ceilings and walls of all the tunnels were held in place with a mesh of overlapping chain-link fence material, sucked up against the gray sandy shale rock with four- or six-foot long "rock-bolts" pulling an eight-inch square plate tight against the mesh. This type of soil was prone to cave-ins, so that, often, along the top or sides of the tunnel a great hunk of loose shale would be causing the fence barrier to sag and distort under the strain.
Naturally, if you stepped off a main tunnel, where the rail-cars ran, into a side drift and turned off your headlamp, the darkness was truly total, only the trickling gurgle of water all about as a link to the familiar. I actually found this aspect of the environment extremely peaceful, even friendly – as if the unthinkable tonnage above was insulating us from the "bad vibes" irradiating the planet’s surface.
This serenity was probably an illusion, however, as we workers brought bad vibes enough of our own. Tempers were short underground. For one thing, the miners made their real money through "contract pay," based on how many times one could drill and blast or how much track he and his two helpers could lay in one shift. Many of the miners were Spanish, a small minority Anglo. I started out as a helper for an Anglo named Buckmeister. (The Spanish miners perceptively called him "bucking horse.") He was making more than anyone else, up to $2500 a week, and no green shovel-jockey was going to slow him down. His pace was forever frantic and his rage white hot. I got hurt several times trying to keep up, acquiring a nice hernia under his tutelage. Then once while we were using a second diesel train-engine to force a fully loaded rail car back onto the poorly laid tracks with an eight-foot long 10 X 10 timber, the heavy "pushing-stick" fell, smashing the end of my left ring finger between it and the steel train rail. When the digit quit throbbing two weeks later, I found the modification made it easier to cover two strings with that finger making a D-chord on my guitar! One of the helper’s jobs was to steady the six-foot long inch-thick hexagonal drill shaft as it first started cutting into the rock. Gloves were out for this task because they simply wound up on the spinning shaft; hence many nights I rode the elevator up with the water-shriveled skin on my palms hanging loose from a dozen blisters.
Having passed these entrance exams, a couple of miners took me under their wing hoping to clone me in their image, but I bombed out when I tried to drill overhead in preparation for inserting the aforementioned roofmesh anchorbolts. Sandy mud and water would invariably come pouring out of the hole being drilled and instantly brown-over my eyeglasses, blinding me. (My vision wasn’t good enough to work without glasses -- gracias a Dios.)
So next I became a mucker-driver. A mucker was basically a narrow little front-end loader that ran on rails and lived its life at the end of the tunnel where all the action was, heaving loose dirt and rock backwards over itself into a waiting rail car. You stood on the machine’s left side and had levers for forward-reverse, left-right, and bucket. It could hurl a boulder the size of a small bathtub up, over, and behind itself, though such maximum effort would cause its 12-inch diameter rail-car wheels to dance a tooth-jarring jig. Like most of the tools underground, the mucker was air-driven by a three-inch diameter "bull hose" pressurized at 150 pounds per square inch. A genuine hazard everyone took pains to avoid was a bull hose flailing loose from some tool and beating all within range to death before its supply valve could be shut.
Like all the other air-driven machines operating in that enclosed space, the mucker was LOUD. But the $2000 LeRoi drills were even more intense, louder than a machine-gun fired inside a small tiled room. Many of the miners were three-quarters deaf. The chief underground foreman was deafer still; I also seem to recall he was missing some body parts. Everyone called him "Bam."
I’d better clarify that term "blast." In preparation for this climactic event, the miner would drill perhaps thirty holes, each six feet deep, in the face of the tunnel being extended. Each miner had his own preferred pattern or strategy for these holes. (I spent several shifts helping a portly Roman Catholic of Spanish descent who always drilled his central holes in the form of a cross.) Some strategy was necessary because the dynamite, once it had been electrically fused and tightly packed to the brim of every hole, was not set off all at once. The self-timing fuses came in an assortment of closely graduated durations, allowing control over which went off first, second, and so on – usually up to six or seven detonations. The goal of the time-patterning, coupled with the careful angling of the lower holes, was to first break up the rock with the earlier charges, then kick the shattered earth out of the new cavity with the final set. The resultant sound with its multiple shock wave was dramatic. You could be over a mile away in another part of the mine and not only hear the rapid-fire booming but feel the air shifting back and forth around you with each individual explosion.
Fortunately I was working in a new mine where the tunnels were still being extended out horizontally from the shaft like fingers on a hand. The actual uranium deposit was primarily a huge untapped mass above these, to be eventually captured by tunneling upwards so it could be dragged down for collection in the horizontal fingers and hauled thence to the surface. This approach meant that, in an older mine, there might at last be created an underground cavern "the size of a mountain" where ore used to be – a situation ripe for catastrophic cave-in. We occasionally had workers hiring on from old mines with multiple-fatality stories of these awesome events. One such self-transferred motor-driver said he quit after stopping his train because he felt the rails quiver abnormally – only to investigate ahead and find the tracks extending out over a bottomless empty space of unknown width.
The contract-pay system created huge anger between shifts. If a miner were actually fast enough to "cycle" – that is, drill, blast, muck out, put up wire, lay rail – two or even three times in one shift, it meant that he usually had just enough time at the end of eight hours for one final blast before an exhausted walk back to the elevator. Each blast (as with each length of track or each advance of wire mesh) meant an extra hundred dollars in his pocket for that shift. It also meant that he often didn’t have time to remove the assortment of drills, shovels, and pry-bars lined up along the wall near the working-face before thunderously burying them in tons of loose earth and rock. Consequently, the next shift would have to borrow tools just to dig out their own, not an endearing activity.
When I started as a mucker-operator, my personal nemesis became the 20-something Chicano driving the diesel "train" which hauled the gunpowder-pungent earth it was my job to pitch into his waiting rail-cars. These he brought one at a time, positioning the yellow microbus-sized dump-bucket-on-wheels just behind my mucker for easy toss-in. At least that’s what he was supposed to do. Recently returned from Viet Nam, he found entertainment in aggravating me. My ideals of teamwork and efficiency collided with his need to be the controlling factor over this upstart Anglo, whom he addressed somewhat contemptuously as Ese. When he wasn't sleeping, that is. Usually about half-way through loading a car – having abandoned the wish that he might simply pay enough attention to keep even with me – I’d have to stop the mucker and walk back to shake him awake so he could move his rig forward fifteen feet, in order for me to continue digging into the dirt-pile from the most recent blast. A couple of times I watched myself with some amazement – this formerly mild-mannered English prof, who now found himself cursing murderously and hurling stones at a fellow man. I was getting into the spirit of the mine.
Our hard-as-nails shift boss (not Bam) had been underground for twenty-five years. Easy-going and soft-spoken, he was an anomaly in this environment – an unabashed Christian. He asked me once where I stood with Jesus. Fighting embarrassment, I replied, "I’m working on that one." He invited me to a Bible study. However, that was still too far "beneath me." (I hadn’t yet learned that those who exalt themselves are humbled – and vice versa.)
Which reminds me of a dream one of the quasi-hippie women in our circle related to me. She herself was on a spiritual search, so that, during the period I was parking my camper at the unsold mansion, I bumped into her at a Sufi gathering. Then some months later she said she had dreamed she saw me fishing in deep water and realized I had hooked into a gigantic ocean-going fish. (This was after all the era of the first Jaws movie.) As she reported this dream, I immediately related the fish to Christ, but came back in a tone of false humility: "I’ll take that under advisement." I already knew the early Christians used the sign of the fish to identify each other but didn’t in those days know that the Greek word for fish, ichthus, was an acrostic in that language for "Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior." Of course in one all-important respect the dream had it backwards: the hook was really on my end of the line! Looking back now, I can see how He was drawing me towards Him.
I’ll come back to my incubation underground, but allow me to emphasize that this "drawing" took many forms. For one example, the previous Christmas Noreen and I had had one of our heart-wounding blow-ups. So, in spite of the fact that hard ice and snow crusted all twelve hundred miles from New Mexico to Memphis – not to mention that our VW Bug lacked a heater hose – I borrowed a set of mudwheels, bundled myself in five or six layers and (once more alone) flogged the trusty flat-four the whole distance non-stop, arriving at my cousin’s home on the "sane" side of the Mississippi with the patchwork Beetle wearing a full beard of frozen slush. After a night’s rest I roared on to my parent’s home in Nashville, where an old Vandy professor (by then head of the English Department) finagled me a two-week stint at the University steam plant, on the graveyard shift, operating a big scoop-loader to recharge the coal-fired furnaces every three hours. So I had returned to become a termite inside the threshold of the very "Gate to Paradise" seen a decade earlier courtesy of morning-glory slime. While there I happened to buy a copy of C. S. Lewis’ little dream-fantasy, The Great Divorce. I devoured this jewel several times during downtimes on my frigid holiday job, inspired by the audacious literary conceit of a tour-bus from hell gadding along the fringes of heaven. When I got back to Enchilada-ville after this three-week respite, I again found welcome in Noreen’s rustic bed. Eager to share the glory of an ineffable touch from on high, I read Lewis’ entire book to her in one night, in certain passages with unquenchable tears on my part. I knew somehow I was experiencing God’s wooing, but still didn’t grasp the goal – a narrow sheep gate beneath a cross.
Once again I must beg your indulgence for an extended tangent, but in fact a year and a half earlier I had built a cross-topped gate at the entrance to Noreen’s paddock down where her muddy drive veered away from the river. Nearly all the Anglo newcomers to our valley had been hit by robberies which concentrated mainly on cameras and marijuana. Noreen had even been confronted in her home by a spooky-eyed Latino who asked if she had any "properties," meaning drugs. His glance having swept her walls spotted with generic "spiritual" prints, he had said, "I know you walk in the desert and talk with Jesus; I respect you for that." A short time later this desperado murdered his wife and children, then himself. But the robberies continued sporadically. On a silly whim I posted a sign at the top of our drive in wry self-reference: "BEWARE OF MADMAN – by Order of Base C.O." Then I had what may well have been a genuinely holy inspiration: I built a stout gate down near the river that could be locked with a chain – though it rarely was. But over this gate I raised a high wooden arch topped by a nicely weathered and mortised cross with arms I fashioned from handles off a discarded wheelbarrow. The effect was precisely of an entrance to a monastic retreat. When one of our elderly Spanish neighbors saw it, he asked with genuine surprise, "You likee Christo?" I had to laugh as I answered, "Yes, I likee Christo." For whatever reason, we were never robbed after that.
O.K. So back to the Johnny Mack Mine tucked among the treeless mesas in the shadow of Mount Taylor. We had two old yellow mini diesel locomotives underground. After just a few weeks on the mucker I was assigned to drive the second "motor," a job with more status, perhaps, but ten times the headaches.
The most exasperating aspect of my new duties was the abominable condition of the tracks themselves, especially in the two or three places where they rounded a gentle curve. Remember these tracks had been "slapped down" by miners eager to cop as much contract pay per shift as the letter of the law allowed. Given the "lipped" design of narrow railway wheels, maintaining an accurate distance between the two rails when spiking them down was critical. The straightaways, especially the older ones near the main shaft – which had been adjusted numerous times – usually caused no problem; but you had to literally creep slower than a walk around the curves – every nerve alert to detect the first hint of that dreaded rising motion when the heavy machine "climbs the rail." Once that larger-circumference lip gets on top of the slick rail, eight times out of ten at least one of your four wheels is going to slide off into mud or water. When that happens, you’re looking at an exhausting two or three hours wrestling with heavy jacks, water-soaked timbers, and often a second engine – if you can locate it – to hop your motor back onto the rails. When I first started as a motor-driver I managed to get all four wheels off the track more than once.
The motor-operator had only two responsibilities: keep the miners supplied with materials on "outbound" runs, then haul the blasted earth back toward the main shaft, where it was dumped by an overhead hook into a long concrete pit. This pit featured giant drag-buckets hauled along by a system of one-inch steel cables. The loose earth and ore got shuffled from the pit into a separate lift system rising parallel to the elevator-cage, to be eventually hauled by truck to a refining facility 15 miles down the highway toward Grants.
So in the supply dock after dumping the ore I would load my cars with rolls of chain-link fencing, a nice assortment of rock bolts, topped off with five or six cases of powder, a few rolls of firing-wire and, last of all, the ever-present attaché-case-sized wooden box holding the assortment of blasting caps or "fuses." (Occasionally also a brand new drill, since the used ones were seldom repaired but simply left rotting in the mud. [Government subsidy is a wonderful thing.]) I got used to carrying a 50-pound cardboard box of dynamite against my chest. What a way to go, I couldn’t help but think. These explosives were not the old-fashioned red "sticks" of popular imagination. Rather, the units of "powder" were actually flexible transparent plastic bags about a foot long containing a white substance the consistency of thick breakfast grits. Relatively inert apart from a blasting cap, I was told one "might" be able to set one off by placing it on a track rail and giving it a hefty blow with a "double-jack." I took their word on this.
More real care was required in handling the blasting caps, which were light metal cylinders about the size of a cigarette, attached to a length of fine wire, color-coded for duration. When a miner prepared a single finished hole for blasting, he would use some stiff wire to punch an opening in the end of the first "donkey turd," shove the appropriate fuse into the white mush, then feed this fused packet all the way to the bottom of the hole, pushing it down with an eight foot wooden tamping stick – being sure to keep the electrical wire coming all the way back out for later union with its brethren from the other holes. He would then simply insert however many white packets on top of the first – tamping each vigorously with the wood – until the drilling was brimming with explosive.
I worked in the mine from June through December. When winter arrived, freezing air came pouring down the main shaft. But out at the extremities where ventilation was poor – unloading supplies or collecting two or three carloads of muck – I’d get all hot and sweaty along with everyone else; it stayed steamy there. Then, soaking wet, rattling back on that smoky old diesel, I’d hit that fog bank and instantly be shivering in December again until I could dump and reload for another outbound run. By Christmas the water usually cascading behind the steel ladder next to the elevator cage had become a pipe organ of oily ice.
In any weather, at the end of a day on that motor, I’d be pretty "spaced" from breathing diesel exhaust for eight hours. Occasionally technicians in unsoiled yellow rain suits would show up for a few minutes underground to test air quality or uranium radiation levels; as to the latter, a little-discussed record was kept of every miner’s cumulative exposure. (Later, when I got back to Nashville, my Dad liked to joke that I glowed in the dark. I did get a melanoma on my ear that had to be surgically removed – but that could have come from three years working hatless in pure New Mexican sunshine.)
Chewing-tobacco was the on-the-job drug of choice among the miners. (I missed a day of work and lost ten pounds in ten hours as a result of trying to appreciate this manly buzz.) We did have one ruddy-faced young acidhead with long blond hair and pimples who emerged grinning from the darkness one day, shovel in hand. He was a good worker and quickly took me into his confidence. I remember his reporting one of his acid trips, saying, "Hey Jim, I shook hands with my Self last night! It was far out! The dude looked exactly like me – strode right up and shook my hand – said I was doing great!" I accepted his statement uncritically because from a New Age (i.e., Hindu) perspective, it made perfect sense. The individual spark was one with universal electricity; apparently LSD simply made this formerly hard-to-attain "realization" self-evident.
Alone at night in my camper under the star-canopied high-country sky, the sharp fragrance of desert sage streaming through the 6-inch gap under the leading edge of my roof-hood – which I kept cracked at night with a short 2 X 2 – I was having esoteric experiences of my own. I remember one dream that the occultist Jung would have loved to boil in his alchemical retort:
A huge brownish serpent is twisting its way along the sand, leaving a wavy track like the ones I could see nearly every morning walking to the mine in pre-dawn moonlight. Except in the dream it is broad daylight. Suddenly the serpent begins to rise from the earth, twists its way higher and higher – until it passes directly through a small blindingly bright cloud, radiant with solar glory. Then out the other side of the eye-searing effulgence the creature emerges – but it is not the same creature. It has been transformed into a powerful white stallion that now returns to earth in purposeful relentless gallop, potent and unstoppable, to go racing in mane-flailing, hoof-pounding closeup across the plain.
I kept the dream to myself, but wondered – Is this me? Am I approaching some radical transformation? Will I be lifted to heaven? What the meaning of this magnificent white stallion? Is it an ego-trap to receive this as divine promise?
Not all my visitations were so encouraging. Apparently I was still a candidate for total demonic possession. First this aside:
If the foregoing dream was a promise to me, I couldn’t help but misinterpret it – being still ignorant of God’s free gift. In that universal unconscious pride of man, I reasoned that if the "snake" of my present earthy nature was to "rise," it must necessarily be through self-effort. (All the eastern systems especially harp on this theme, and even supposedly Bible-based teachings are not immune to the salvation-by-performance disease.) Consequently I redoubled my efforts to transcend this lower nature through disciplined subjection of the body . The higher self would ride this donkey, not be controlled by it. So in spite of the often cruelly exhausting labors in the mine (and discounting a weekly trip to booming Grants to buy food, do laundry – and consume an entire Sara Lee German Chocolate Cake in seven gulps) almost daily strenuous yoga, followed by attempts at serene meditation, became my lonely regimen throughout summer and fall. After all, parked far enough from the mine that no sight or sound of civilization reached me, I had landed in a classic hermit's hideaway.
My favorite spot in the late afternoons became the brow of a south-facing stone mesa where dozens of curve-winged swallows cavorted overhead for two or three hours prior to sunset. There, stark naked on a narrow throw-rug, after forty-five minutes of intensely stretching every joint and tendon, I would lock my legs in full lotus on the flat rock, hands upturned on knees in a Boy-Scout-salute mudra, vibrate my skull with the most resonant "Aum" I could muster, and – eyes closed – visualize energy flowing to the "third eye" center in my forehead. If you had told me that these activities constituted a proven procedure for cranking a tall antenna into the spirit realm that broadcasted "Come and abuse this fool," I would have thought the delusion all on your side.
Jesus, in accusing the crowd that followed Him of simply wanting another miracle-picnic, said in John 6: 27-29:
"Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you, for on Him the Father, even God, has set His seal. They said therefore to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them. "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent."
In the Bible’s frame of reference, my cranking up that yogic antenna falls under the nearly all-inclusive category of work for that which perishes. The Lord’s answer was a thinly veiled reference to the fact that God’s narrow way of salvation cannot be earned by common-sense efforts at self-purification, but comes only by His free "grace" through the (to us) odd requirement of faith in His unique Son’s "work" on our behalf. (That work being His sinless life and debt-covering death as a human being; therefore, for us to count any "good work" of our own on a par with His ultimate self-sacrifice, is in reality a subtle insult to God’s demonstrated love. As a gateway into eternal life, such effort is unacceptable.)
But back during my years in New Mexico, I "knew" I was a uniquely gifted individual of (what Jung called) "the higher type," probably approaching genius in a couple of areas. All my study of "spiritual" writings outside the Bible had led me to understand that such men strap on their spiked boots, grab ice ax and rigging to strike fiercely out for that peak on which all religious roads surely converge. (Oh yes, with that one puzzling exception, that single dissenting way – "grace through faith" – which, granted, might serve as a stopgap escalator for under-age children or the well-meaning retarded herd; but the self-competent, the proud proto-superman feeling Evolution’s lofty call in his [hopefully Arian] bloodstream, could not stoop to this much-advertised indignity of a "free gift.")
So God was allowing me to try it "my way." And with my way, the consequences. Twice in California I had had to fight off the sudden nocturnal attack of a man-sized spirit-being trying to force its way inside my body as I fell asleep. (I detailed the first of these events in reality – Part 1.) Now in my isolated camper on the dry mesa, my peaceful drift into unconsciousness was again sliced open by instantaneous life-and-death combat. I clearly remember dreaming I was in Noreen’s ascetic home and heard a scratching at the door. When I opened it I got a brief glimpse of a shorthaired coal-black dog – then the invisible but hideous entity was on me, pressing full length, backed by that same terrifyingly precipitous void, absolutely intent to steal my identity. Shocked to be teetering again on that palpable brink of hopelessness, the desperate battle to regain waking consciousness was rejoined; but I was, within myself, defenseless in my ignorance of the towering Name of the Lord Whom I had not yet recognized as Ruler over even this merciless entity now lusting to displace me and ride the physical world ensconced in my thoroughbred ass. (Had I known and trusted in that Name above every name – "Yeshua," Savior, Jesus – the hideous struggle would have ended at once.)
As it was, this third encounter – seemingly an even "closer shave" than the previous two – left me deeply shaken, wondering what I had done to invite such devilish aliens springing out of nowhere, supernaturally potent with an un-namable threat worse than death itself. Strangely, I never really considered that my childhood’s taken-for-granted hedge of protection might be being breached by the very yoga I considered an antidote. I had read warnings about mixing yoga with drugs. Was my path being compromised by the super-weed I smoked whenever I saw my compatriots in Albuquerque? Still flying blind in the Land of Enchantment, I couldn’t guess I had penetrated enemy airspace. Nevertheless, an uneasy suspicion began to nag that I might be "barking for God up the wrong tree." Nah, impossible – the Devil is a moth-eaten myth.
Through all this I still clung to my sense of "mission," some special role which I reasoned must be implied in having been allowed at age 18 a heart-peek at the absolutely good God of all creation. Nor could I abandon a vague sense of being led, for a larger purpose, to the center of a maelstrom. I had to trust the process. Alone in my camper – practicing my guitar or listening to Eric Clapton or stirring up a skillet of cheese-onion-and-garlic eggs – speculations about the future took deeper root. Apocalyptic rumors a la Edgar Cayce had been percolating through the counter-culture for years. Phil Collins’ plaintive refrain, "I can feel it coming in the air at night – Oh Lord" spoke cryptically to all the tripped-out trailblazers of the Woodstock Nation. California was going to crack like piecrust and bubble into the ocean. UFO’s had been seen landing above 7500 feet in the Sangre de Christo Mountains. The Book of Revelation haunted every dope-smoking seeker like a code to crack. Maybe I was being prepared to lead survivors of social collapse to a place of spiritual power in the wilderness. Maybe it was no accident that my path had taken me to this desolate wasteland conveniently off the beaten track of Interstate 40. In my off-time I began to seriously explore the jumbled canyons and deserted plateaus of the area. Lack of water might be an insurmountable barrier to habitation. There were one or two small ranches nestled in the rare valleys where moisture persisted, but no water at all ever collected in these higher, orange-and-yellow-boulder-strewn canyons. (I did accidentally discover one wide field of soft earth below the mine where my truck bogged wheel-deep in slick shovel-gumming clay and had to be dragged out backwards with a caterpillar from the mine.) But, hey, if ol' Cayce had it right, I could be standing on the new Pacific Coast!
I must say I found some romantically evocative "places of refuge" in the steep winding clefts of the region. One temple-like complex of rounded blonde stone punctuated by cave-like depressions became immediately populated in my imagination with dozens of serious seekers detaching from the karmic wheel as we left the world of paychecks and rent behind. But talk about going off on a tangent: with my delusion stealthily deepening, I actually began lugging heavy bags of cement and jerry-cans of water along a narrow trail up the side of a well-hidden escarpment, to a spot where I fantasized building an invisible hideout among the rocks – there being an abundance of dry timbers on top of the mesa, left by some long-abandoned drilling project. Wondering how well I could hide the smoke of a fire in winter, I spent several weekends industriously chipping rock to make a flat wall on one side of my projected "holy-man’s" lodge, which would be hidden between the main rock face and a seven-foot tall outcropping where the trail widened and passed between. Looking back now, the whole endeavor seems embarrassingly loco. But I loved the peace, if not always the solitude, of unspoiled nature, and recoiled at the thought of becoming a city-dweller again. I longed for a return to the days when a man could claim a spot on the broad earth without obligation to other men for a seemingly harmless privilege.
But I was too tied to the human world to abandon it for long. I got a pointed nudge when checking my post-office-box in Santa Fe on the way back from a visit with Noreen. Incredibly, the tiny box contained two letters from my two ex-wives, neither of whom I had heard from in months. (I knew these two weren’t in cahoots.) Both detailed needs for child-support and/or school expenses. Ouch. Reality and responsibility came crashing back with a devastating sense of conviction from beyond myself. I guess it was then I realized that my five-year "retirement" from the world was over and – however depressing the prospect – that my road now pointed again toward Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida.
I could always get great reception of Albuquerque rock FM. The next afternoon I carried my stereo from the camper to the brow of the mesa where the swallows played. I vividly recall – after my yoga session when the cloud-puffed sky had become a soft palette of magically glowing pastels – being ecstatically swept up in a shoulder-snapping dance to Steely Dan’s Do It Again:
…Then you love a little wild one
And she brings you only sorrow
All the time you know she’s smilin’
You’ll be on your knees tomorrow
You go back, Jack, do it again
Wheel turnin’ ‘round and ‘round…
Circumstances at the mine helped give the additional shove I needed to hit the road. The miner’s union was threatening a walkout. The top manager at Johnny Mack, a slender clean-cut young man I’d only seen once when I hired on, showed up unexpectedly outside my camper one Saturday morning to ask if he could depend on me to continue working if there was a strike. Completely clueless as to the ramifications of his question, I said I’d certainly think about it. So Monday underground I ran his offer by one of my co-workers. That’s when an alternate definition of "scab" entered my elitist vocabulary. I was also informed that powder and fuses occasionally walk out of the mine in lunchboxes, and that vehicles belonging to "scabs" have been known to explode without warning. Far out. I waited one more paycheck before pointing my angular Conestoga one stage eastward, where I spent a week or two tying up loose ends. My buddy with the primer-brown ambulance helped me tow Big Blue’s engineless skeleton to a junkyard near Albuquerque, where it brought $200. Also about six months earlier I had bought Noreen a nice-looking Chevy Vega, our VW having passed to its Teutonic reward. As with most Vegas, it had a terminal oil leak, so after numerous abortive fixes I helped her sell it for $600 – enough to get more dependable transportation. We parted friends, promising to keep in touch.
"On the road again!" Make those mud tires sing, Bubba. Leaving Albuquerque I picked up a longhaired hitchhiker on his way home to Kentucky. He immediately produced a baggie of not-so-great weed, which we shared, along with the driving, all the way to Nashville, arriving a scant 24 hours later. After dropping him off at the I-65 junction, I rested a few days at my parents’, then drove on to Knoxville to visit my two oldest daughters, now ages 13 and 11. Their mother had married the industrious fellow from the Berkeley communal experiment. This couple was now in the process of restoring a sturdy two-story farmhouse on seventeen wooded acres in the hills east of town. I always found a welcome there, though a definite coolness was to ensue after I had been born again.
From Knoxville I took Highway 11 south and west to my old stomping grounds amid the cottonfields of north Alabama, where my former student (the one who helped me celebrate my other daughter’s birth in California) now owned a motorcycle shop in the river-city of Decatur, twenty-five miles west of Huntsville. He and his wife offered a job as an apprentice bike-mechanic and a place to park beside their home, complete with an orange utility-cord hookup through their window.
After the initial joy of reuniting with my hosts wore off, and in spite of the interest I found in acquiring new skills, I soon grew depressed by the surrounding provincial culture, unchanged from a decade earlier. My emotional low was not enhanced by the nearly constant pain of the mining hernia in my left lower abdomen, for which I now had to wear an aggravating pressure belt. My yoga practice declined but never ceased. Often at night I would go back to the shop alone, smoke a killer joint, plug in my heavy twin-reverb amp, then make loud guitar for an hour or two. This frequent marijuana usage began making it hard for me to do simple mental tasks like count change for customers in the daytime. Nor was it doing much for my moral sense. Feeling threatened with regression to juvenile sexual habits – my friend/boss subscribed to Playboy – I "took up with" an older widowed nurse working in the local hospital. We were both grateful for a temporary ease to loneliness.
I recall my younger friends and I made a special occasion out of getting stoned to watch the initial airing of the first dramatized version of the Charles Manson episode. We knew deep questions about reality were being raised, but, disappointingly, no answers were forthcoming. I knew enough to think it incredible that "Charlie" had actually become a hero to a certain stratum of the counterculture . For one personally-encountered sample of that stratum, I had worked a construction job in New Mexico with a pair of lesbians from California who constantly dropped hints betraying an obsession with cannibalism. Though they were raising a young daughter, one of them couldn’t resist commenting that the flesh of an infant was reputed to be the ultimate culinary treat. I found such alien inclinations deeply disturbing – and confusing. The rosy face of flowerchild idealism had somehow, seemingly overnight, waxed vampire green.
Then two things happened almost simultaneously that renewed my hope in – at least my personal – future. The first was I got an incredible letter from my second wife, now living in upscale Altamonte Springs among the mini-lakes on the north edge of Orlando, Florida. Unmistakably penned in her graceful feminine hand, the letter nevertheless seemed radically out of character. It spoke glowingly of a "big church beside Interstate 4" she’d been attending and made enthusiastic reference to her new circle of "spirit-filled" friends – whatever that signified. Such gushing religiosity sounded strange coming from the brazen girl who one day had taken it into her head while I was at work in Atlanta, to drive herself and our composer-friend Shirley to the grocery on my new BMW R69S, having had maybe an hour’s instruction on two-wheeled vehicles – but, hey, no problem! (I also carried a fond image of her in the shelter of a twilit willow, stretched out on her side, quite naked, along the shiny black tank and seat of said Beemer in our friend’s back yard at our going-away barbecue before starting the long trek to San Francisco.) Now this church talk! The letter thanked me graciously for the meager money I had been sending the past few months, gave me news of my daughter – five years old already – then ended shockingly with several Bible verses flowingly written in that tenderly familiar cursive!
These, even more than the syrupy quality of the rest, produced a strange mix of feelings. Of course I was happy my ex was moving toward some kind of spirituality, but I preserved my condescending attitude regarding the rather painfully "retro" form it was taking. Like I’m supposed to accept the authority of these scriptures over all the sacred writings I’ve been absorbing for a decade! I both smiled and frowned that she actually seemed concerned for my soul. Well, I probably needed to go down and give the young thing a first-hand assessment of whatever she was into. And if she could forgive me – maybe we could start over… The letter, after all, included a postscripted invitation to come see my daughter whenever I was able.
The second hope-kindling event came within a day or two of receiving this intriguing letter. Once again, to me, it was self-evidently some kind of "touch" or "message" from a higher realm – and again arriving deep in the night while I slept in my camper. Of negligible duration but dramatically vivid, I am not sure to this day how to interpret it, though at the time its effect was encouraging. It was simply this: a bolt of heavenly lightning, a soundless band of sheerest white fire indistinguishable in appearance from an actual strike, descended in ragged incandescence out of the black sky, penetrating right through my camper’s metal car-hood roof, blasting the inside of my chest with one blinding painless flash. And that was all. Except this was no dream – rather, a unique and inexplicable life happening, never since repeated.
Was this blazing bolt telling me ("the air-borne snake") that I was approaching the "shining cloud" of transformation – to therefore make myself ready? This unforgettably strange "zapping" colored all my expectations as I fulfilled my immediate obligations in Decatur in excited preparation for a flight south.
As it turned out, that trip south was not a pleasant one. I had never yet heard the term "spiritual warfare," but I was beginning to suspect something of the sort. I couldn’t help but be amazed at how assaulted my mind had suddenly become with graphically vivid temptations to turn aside and – almost like a whisper in my head – just find a willing female. My reason knew what a waste that would prove, a fool’s errand sure to end in frustration. But I felt pursued by every sexual demon I’d ever entertained, as though my streamlined metallic quilt of a motorcabin were overshadowed by a determined squadron of batwinged frogs. Could that really be what’s happening? For the whole trip until the outer edge of Altamonte Springs all I knew for sure was that my mind was most unnaturally obsessed with images of unbridled lust. I inwardly screamed, This repetitive game is getting wearisome! Where’s the damn exit? Struggling to concentrate on the goal of seeing loved-ones again, I clung to that prospect as a slender thread of rationality enabling me somehow to will a firmer grip on the steering wheel and keep my three-quarter ton monstrosity barreling down the long highway south.
My ex-wife Cherry and daughter Cerese were living in a modest white-plastered apartment complex boasting a small swimming pool. Late Friday afternoon when I pulled in and found the building number, my outlandish camper with yellow New Mexican plate seemed as out-of place as my head of curls and cheek-fuzzing beard. I was still affecting the high-country uniform of blue jeans, denim jacket, and vibram-soled insulated boots, topped off by a pair of aviator-style eyeglasses with a blue tint that looked hip enough but made night driving difficult. Cherry looked different too; she had colored her slightly bobbed hair a plain brown and wore a modest dress with thin vertical stripes of muted colors. She smiled and shook my hand calmly. I greeted my long-separated ones with a grin of overwhelming joy. Little tanned Cerese with her blond close-cropped head beamed up at me gamely. Thank you, God.
I soon discovered Cherry’s parents were in town for the weekend, and we were all expected to go to church with her Sunday morning. Fine. Whatever. I can swing with that. Cherry looked me over, inquired about my on-board wardrobe, and decided that tomorrow she was going to treat me to a new suit of clothes.
She did exactly that. By noon the next day I had a fashionable beige sports jacket with a fake belt in back and lots of pockets, and a pair of coordinated slacks. I felt embarrassed to have her buying me clothes, but she insisted on it as an expression of her genuine gladness I had arrived. I don’t remember what I did for shoes, but I’m sure I was supplied with something besides my Redwings laced with 40 inches of rawhide.
I played in the swimming pool with my vivacious young daughter all through that hot afternoon, impressed at what a precocious social animal she was, obviously a favorite and leader among the other children in the complex. She seemed at ease and competent to handle every situation – even the sudden appearance of her long-lost Dad. Her nut-brown slenderness encased in an orange life jacket, she repeatedly flung off the diving board with abandon, to churn toward me in a furiously splashing dog paddle. I was smitten with gratitude and a growing sense of guilt at what I had been neglecting.
Sunday got underway with a flurry of greetings when my former in-laws arrived. I remember we all rode to church in one car. Cherry’s parents were as kind as their daughter, making no mention of the five painful years since seeing me. (I had finished paying off my abandoned Datsun wagon when I got word in New Mexico that these dear people had been shocked with a bill for the $800 outstanding after its sale.) We probably chatted about the headaches and joys of running their small out-of-the-way motel near Silver Springs that catered to repeat patrons who had been wintering with them for decades.
I could tell Cherry was as pumped about showing off her church to Mom and Pop as to me. She yakked excitedly about the piano-playing pastor and the phenomenal attendance that caused a parking crisis in surrounding neighborhoods every Sunday. No doubt this was going to be one more disjunctive head-shift from New Mexico and Alabama!
Nor was I wrong. Calvary Assembly was huge by comparison to churches and chapels I’d known as a kid. Seating 5000, this atypical white structure had gone to three services and still barely accommodated the crowds. I sensed an excitement in the faces and a sincerity in the animated God-talk that could hardly derive from simple cultural habit. We were early enough to get seats together midway down the auditorium’s buzzing lower level.
When the service proper kicked off, I grew more surprised. A big attractive blonde in a scarlet dress on one side of the stage began banging out a fast-paced rabble-rouser on a gloss-black grand piano. To this exciting rhythm a hundred-voice choir came striding in from the left, grinning for all the world like this was the high point of their week and singing:
He has called us
Out of darkness, out of darkness, out of darkness –
Into His marvelous light
Into His marvelous light!
Most of the congregation had joined in, many spontaneously standing or waving hands aloft. Everything was a departure from any church I’d ever known. And I liked it so far. Maybe Cherry had stumbled onto a valid path here.
I don’t remember the tall preacher’s message that morning, though I was impressed with his cultured but approachable fineness as a person, matched by athletic good looks. What struck me most forcefully that first morning and in subsequent conversations with Cherry’s fellow-believers from surrounding apartments who met one evening a week in someone’s home – was the mind-blowing realization that sincerely dedicated BIBLE BELIEVERS still actually EXISTED – in fact were flourishing and multiplying like hot-house flowers an hour’s drive from Disney World! My friends in New Mexico and California had no clue such a world existed. These people were undeniably, unabashedly in love with God in what seemed to be a vibrantly two-way relationship.
Cherry had spoken of getting "zapped" or "baptized in the Holy Spirit." Maybe that was what my lightning-strike had been preparing me for. My family had always scorned such sects as "holy rollers" – definitely a lower class phenomenon. But these people were clearly upper-middle-class and better, yet, amazingly, "spoke in tongues" and "rebuked the devil" seemingly without embarrassment. Jesus and Satan were evidently living characters in daily life. This bore further investigation. Maybe I had short-changed Christianity in my spiritual odyssey.
Cherry’s conventionally Protestant parents were polite but reserved about her newfound enthusiasm for "the Lord." After they left for home that afternoon, Cherry asked about my options. I told her I wanted to stay in the area awhile, both to be closer to her and our daughter and to look into this Jesus thing. She said that sounded great, but obviously – though I had spent Saturday night on her couch – sharing her apartment was out of the question. I probably swore inwardly at this disappointment but said I understood and was sure I could find work in such a huge city to support myself. As to living quarters, "Turtles aren’t particular," referring to my pop-top rumblewagon. Besides, I felt truly drawn to explore this remarkable Christian scene.
So after Cherry left early Monday morning for work, I began scouring the want ads. Even then in 1976, Orlando and environs stretched nearly 100 miles edge to edge. Surely with my multifaceted resume I’d be able to find a good-paying job. (I was still smarting from a letter I had received from Cherry in New Mexico in which she nailed me for "demonstrating plenty of downward mobility." I’d show her I still knew how to land a "real job.") So began a year of faithfully filling out hundreds of applications for permanent employment – but never quite landing that elusive prize. (More on this shortly.) Meantime I was hired as a temporary just two miles from Cherry’s apartments, washing exteriors and cleaning interiors of motor homes at an RV dealership.
Now I was going to Calvary Assembly practically every time the doors were open. I checked out Cherry’s neighborhood "cell group" that met one other weeknight. At these gatherings I heard prayers prayed with sometimes agonizing fervor like Someone was really listening. I heard "glossolalia" and witnessed tears of anguish and joy. I watched people in the pews who really knew the Bible and trusted every nuance of its phraseology. I heard shocking personal testimony of release from satanic bondage.
I had tried all the other paths to re-establish my connection to God. Pragmatically, I had to admit these explorations had left me more desperately oppressed than when I began. Maybe I needed to give this Christian approach one last "college try." But still I wanted to purify myself, get spiritually ready – worthy to withstand that lightning bolt I felt was imminent. Whenever I got the chance before a church meeting I would steal away to an isolated spot in some citrus orchard and, in spite of the humidity and mosquitoes, practice strenuous yoga for an hour.
It couldn’t have been much more than a couple of weeks since arriving in Orlando that Cherry and I went to her church Wednesday night to hear a traveling preacher named C. M. Ward. I had spent my hour of intense stretching and "Om-ing" before sunset, taken a refreshing shower at Cherry’s apartment, and felt "ready to seek the Lord."
This preacher turned out to be a gruff old man, probably in his late sixties, with a booming sardonic eloquence. His message had something to do with "the sons of thunder" and "chariots jostling one another in the broad ways." Cherry helped me follow along in her Bible as he skipped back and forth throughout the obscure book, ignoring the division between Testaments, tying the passages together in a way that suggested a remarkable unity I had never guessed might actually be there. But Brother Ward, being an evangelist of the old school, ended his message with a glorious invitation to surrender to Christ – now! Part of me believed I had done that once already at age 10 at a Billy Graham crusade. Did I need another inoculation at age 36?
Cherry nudged me and motioned toward the aisle. She said she’d walk me down. What the hell, I wasn’t one to leave a stone unturned, so I gathered my courage and headed toward the altar, wondering how I’d handle that shattering bolt of divine electricity in front of all these people. No telling what God had up His sleeve for me now!
All of us penitents prayed the sinner’s prayer – I know I did from my deepest heart. Then Cherry left me in the hands of a long-haired bearded "counselor" with a narrow pock-marked face who told me he got saved out of a drug-dealing outlaw motorcycle gang, where he "used to have to get mad enough to kill somebody" on a daily basis just to keep his adrenaline level up. I could relate.
That night back at Cherry’s apartment I found myself enjoying an unprecedented sense of peace, a qualitatively new assurance that all was finally well with my wandering soul. I actually imagined I could hear angels rejoicing in the distance. (If I couldn’t hear them, I knew I was feeling them celebrate.) Cherry seemed to understand. She went off to bed. Wrapping myself in a sheet, a new disciple, I sat on the couch a long time, listening to praise music on the stereo. What a curious turn – and all without the expected lightning strike!
The next couple of months were packed with discoveries about "the way" on which I had embarked. I was constantly impressed with the immediacy of God’s working in the lives of Christians I was encountering. An older woman at one of the studies came up to me afterwards and said, "God told me to give you this New English Bible I’ve been carrying around." This indeed seemed a Godsend, because in spite of my advanced English-arts degree I was finding King James hard slogging. (As a faithful translation of the preponderant manuscripts, the KJV is much more trustworthy; but at that stage of my "babyhood" the modern version – since I was still struggling to get a sense of overall structure – better suited my needs.) Shortly thereafter I had the luxury of taking an entire week off from gainful employment, during which I went on a "fast" of liquid diet supplements and holed up in my camper under some huge moss-hung pin-oaks in a public park, slowly digesting the New Testament, for which I devised a color-coding system with a set of highlighters to separate main subject areas.
The most dramatic evidence that these "spirit-filled" believers were tied into the supernatural came when I sought counseling from several athletic youth-leaders in their twenties who roomed near the church. I confessed to them that I was still struggling regularly with "lustful thoughts." One of these football-types had received the godly gifting specified in the New Testament as "the discerning of spirits." Within just a moment while I (doubtless not without pride) reviewed my detours through psychedelics and mysticism, this quiet young fellow said the Lord had given him "a word of knowledge" concerning me. He said the Holy Spirit just informed him that I had been plagued for years by a "spirit of exhibitionism." You can bet this dropped my jaw and widened my eyes. I would have been way too ashamed to admit being actively tempted with such a juvenile foible. But under the circumstances I had to confess the "diagnosis" spot-on. My admission consequently allowed the three to pray with appropriate specificity for deliverance from this "demonic influence."
An overshadowing invisible intelligence harassing my mind! What a world-view adjustment! But these supposedly outdated categories of "superstition" were beginning to make perfect sense of a confusing welter of subjective puzzle-pieces. What irony that I should have to adjust to thinking in terms of demonic spirits – when in fact I had three times narrowly escaped total displacement by one.
I admired the courageous audacity of these folk who could operate out of millennia-old truth in the face of armies of pseudo-scientific psychiatric "priests" willing to embrace any theory as long as it promised to eliminate absolutist concepts of sin and divine judgement!
I got a job mopping hot tar on the flat roof of a single-story building the size of a parking lot. The weather was gorgeous, not a cloud anywhere yet not excessively hot. Set free from even the desire for drugs, I was feeling great. Just me and the contractor, who stayed on the ground feeding tacky black cylinders into the smoking tar-cooker and hauling sizzling five-gallon metal buckets up to me on a simple hoist. So I had plenty of time to think as I worked in that glorious sunlight. But in an unprecedented way, I soon recognized the thoughts streaming through me were not my own, but that my mind was being illumined with pure clarifying light more brilliant than this sunshine making sparkles on bubbling tar. As if the top of my skull had turned to crystal, truth after truth came tumbling from a higher plane. Dismiss this next statement if you must. All through that glorious day as I mopped crackling tar over dry-crusted pea-gravel, I knew beyond any possibility of doubt that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the One Who (once only) conceived a second Adam in a virgin’s womb – was delivering succinct revelations by His Spirit.
The central realization hitting me full force was the missing factor that had held me so long on a dead-end path. Eighteen years before, I had been forever shown that God was indeed Ultimate Reality – but simultaneously that He was "Love" in a state of Holiness which words must seem to mock in daring any pretense to convey. Yet even that certain knowledge, for all its power, had not been sufficient to save me from myself. However, now that I had confessed my sin, acknowledged my desperate need of the one Savior uniquely qualified to ransom my soul, now that I had gratefully accepted His miraculous cleansing, and – most of all – now that I was indwelt by His very Spirit, I was being introduced to the key missing element in every worldview I’d been so thirstily imbibing for eighteen years. This single blind spot had kept me locked in a labyrinth without exit. The startling realization was simply this: that the elaborate philosophical and religious frameworks I was so industriously ferreting out had themselves been DESIGNED BY a super intelligence with the perverse GOAL of BLOCKING the human mind FROM DISCOVERING saving truth! No wonder nearly everyone misses it! Given the subtle distortions built into our cultural atmosphere by that same "author of confusion," the reality seems too incredible. My core revelation on the roof that day was that Father God had a SUPERHUMANLY INTELLIGENT adversary, a rebel creature not His equal but nevertheless a formidable spirit-being crazily bent on thwarting its Creator through whatever avenue seemed to remain open. Which meant primarily through "messing with" God’s beloved crowning achievement among material lifeforms – human kind. Satan was not some cartoonish little sadist as he contrives to have himself portrayed. Rather, as the Presumptuous Chessplayer of History, he has carved out an elaborately pervasive empire on his island of exile, Planet Earth, through seduction, deception, and manipulation – fostering a skewed "world system" over which he has been allowed to rule, for a season.
My New Age friends could only scoff at the idea of a personal Devil commanding legions of similarly "fallen" angelic creatures. In fact, to jump briefly one year ahead, my first wife was to withdraw an offer to live on her and her husband’s acreage near Knoxville with these words, "Jimmy, if you believe in the devil, you cannot live on this property!" Apparently belief in "Jesus" as exemplar could be sooner tolerated than the possibility that "evil" might have an existential origin apart from the "All." In other words, if evil were more than a necessary counterweight balancing the cosmic flywheel, God might be Wholly Good after all – from which the uncomfortable possibility of an Absolute Moral Standard logically flows. That, in turn, would imply the reality of sin, judgement, and the unavoidable necessity of a Deliverer, which shunts one’s circuitry back to a Jesus Who is more than a milestone of evolutionary promise – to a Jesus Who might require some radical surrender of Self! No thank you. That devil business – what monstrously counter-productive superstition!
But back to my day of enlightenment on the creosote-pungent roof. The Spirit was also hinting to me of things to come. The Christian community at that time, especially in future-probing places like California and Florida – which were already experiencing some of the darker aspects looming ahead everywhere – was increasingly, especially via radio, calling attention to signs of "Last Days" prophetic fulfillment. (In its own distorted way the secular media was beginning to capitalize on this anticipation – or dread – with movies like The Omen, the first of which opened that summer in Orlando.) Of course the Christian world had gone through "millennial fever" before, but this time things just might be different.
A part of what I "received" on the roof that day a quarter century ago has already begun to evidence itself. To put it in one word – the very word I kept "getting" so clearly, though not audibly – polarization. That is, in conjunction with a generalized cultural "darkening down" – a "twilight of the gods" – fence sitting in matters religious (and consequently in political) would become increasingly difficult. Society would draw apart like a dividing cell into well-defined camps of "dark" and "light," with clueless few left in middle-gray. End-time biblical predictions of the love of many growing cold and of the Devil coming down with excessive wrath fueled by his knowledge that his time was growing short carried new impact. I had been observing embryonic foreshadowings of these very things in Berkeley and Santa Fe.
The other main "revelation" about the future that came that day had to do with, of all things, UFO’s. Nothing defined with specificity, only that these elusive manifestations were not "star people" but an end-time phenomenon of Satanic origin intended to deceive billions as the world plunged toward the season of God’s harvest – with the aim that masses might misapprehend prophetic fulfillments and be steered aside from the Father’s narrow Door, His soon-returning Son. The only concrete clue I was given was that I should re-examine the "landing scene" in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a sci-fi novel I hadn’t read since high school. The theme of this 53-printings classic from 1953 also concerns a "spiritual" harvesting of the earth, only this time, in point-for-point role reversal, the saucer-riding "mid-wives," the "good-guy facilitators," are horned, leather-winged ebony giants that look like – you guessed it – the Devil!
The novel’s middle chapters comprising Part Two, entitled "The Golden Age," chronicle the preparation phase for the book’s climactic paradigm shift into collective oversoul. As this earlier "gestation phase" draws to its close, the barb-tailed "Overlords" have been shepherding humanity for fifty years. We find that under their benevolent guidance "ignorance, disease, poverty, fear" – even crime – have practically ceased to exist. Then the writer betrays his monistic bias by adding:
Profounder things had also passed. It was a completely secular age. Of the faiths that had existed before the coming of the Overlords, only a form of purified Buddhism – perhaps the most austere of all religions – still survived. The creeds that had been based upon miracles and revelations had collapsed utterly…all mankind’s multitudinous messiahs had lost their divinity. Pp.74-75, Ballantine Books, 1987.
It is also interesting to note the author’s attitude toward sexual mores in this Brave New Age. On page 73, in noting the development of a reliable oral contraceptive in combination with (what we now call) DNA testing, he comments that these inventions "had swept away the last remnants of the Puritan aberration." After this, in Part Three – entitled "The Last Generation" – psychic powers begin to manifest in certain infant children, destined to constitute the final earthly "crop" preparing for the ultimate evolutionary leap beyond materiality into impersonal "Overmind." (Teilhard de Chardin would have approved.) Then, finally, who can know the significance of the cryptic note included opposite the title page? "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author." Is this mature embarrassment? Or could it be humble deference to his "muse"?
But my sudden awakening to the off-scene machinations of what the New Testament calls "the god of this world" had an initial effect more than simply sobering. Concerning the satanic in general, my primary curriculum had been offered at the School of the Silver Screen. Hollywood had made it all too clear that mere mortals didn’t stand a chance against the Prince of Darkness. At the least, decapitation by bizarrely "accidental" means could be expected momentarily by anyone foolhardy enough to get in Beelzebub’s way. Now here I was, having been handed "classified" – maybe "top secret" – information dangerous to the nether kingdom’s plans; therefore, I reasoned, I was probably being upgraded to priority enemy target.
As these conclusions sank in over the next few days, I found myself – in a way not previously experienced – "running scared." I could sense the hungry growl of the devouring lion in the eyes of a Hispanic stranger at McDonald’s as they seared my own with implacable hatred. This stuff was way too big for one person to carry. What was I supposed to do with these revelations anyway? "To whom much is given, much will be required" had, almost overnight, become a burdensome truth. Of course I trusted that "God knew what He was doing," but still I felt like no profile could ever be low enough.
I know now I was suffering from a pitiful combination of pride and ignorance of God’s provision in this age-long warfare. For one thing I was still abysmally ignorant of His written Word, which is in itself a weapon in the spirit realm. I didn’t yet know that – as far as those who are abiding securely "in Christ" are concerned – the lion’s frightening roar came from a jaw remarkably deficient in teeth. Nor had I yet discovered, as far as the true nature of "saucer aliens" was concerned, that the Lord was seeding the same insights into dozens, maybe hundreds, of His servants around the globe.
But at least my unwarranted fear kept me diligent to pray! Every night after I parked my ugly sleeping coach in some new part of the metropolis – sometimes in an apartment complex, often in a mall or superstore parking lot – I would kneel beside my four-inch foam-cushion to pray fervently for God’s protection. Then I’d check the tie-down knots to make sure my roof-lid and rear hatch were secure. As I slid under the blanket, my ears would remain pricked, alert to every outside activity. I was sincerely beginning to empathize with Jonah’s heart as he set sail in the opposite direction from the place of God’s assignment. Some thundering white stallion! Guess I’d better re-interpret THAT dream!
I tried to take an objective look at my life and talents to discern what peculiar instrument for His hand God might have intended me. My gratitude for His salvation was growing as, having been restored to my "right mind," I realized that His grace alone had allowed me to survive an extended reconnaissance mission along the borders of insanity. (A couple of years later my mother confided that for years she had felt powerful impulses to pray for my safety, though she had no real idea what I was "into.") As far as a practical avenue of "service," I was certainly in no position to use my knowledge of electronic media. I knew I had a huge investment of time, at least, in the electric guitar. "Christian rock’n’roll" was a brand new concept. Maybe I should be writing songs that could reach those kindred souls trapped in pseudo-sophistication. Inspired or not, this I began to do. The first of these efforts was produced one night, guitar across my lap, in the front seat of my truck watching incoming traffic at the Orlando airport. This 12-bar ditty was dubbed the "Third Eye Blues," a tongue-in-cheek exposure of yoga as unwitting submission to demonic control.
I didn’t know it, but I was acting just like a puppy over-eager to please its master. Sure, I was praying the Lord would "direct my steps" and "open the door He wanted me to walk through," but from present perspective I know I was trying too hard in my own strength to bring "His will" to pass. (This is known in Christian shorthand as "getting out in front of God.") I could picture myself as a Christian rock star, alright – never mind that I was still in biblical nursery school and full of corrupt notions gleaned from occult philosophy.
God did send a dream that helped me over the coming years to "chill out" and wait more patiently on Him. In the dream I was struggling at the controls of a B-52 strategic bomber being tossed like a leaf inside a dark night thunderstorm. My strenuous efforts at the yoke seemed to have no appreciable effect on the craft’s behavior. Then I became aware that my calm father (get it?) – who in real life was in fact a master multi-engine pilot – was standing behind my seat. He spoke two words only: "Let go." This seemed the height of foolishness, but I obeyed, taking hands and feet away from the controls. Immediately the huge craft’s wings ceased their flailing as the no-nonsense war machine smoothed itself out straight and level through the unabated storm.
One of Jesus’ more difficult sayings – sure to be misunderstood by the unregenerate but so close to the heart of our truest context – was: "He who finds his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for My sake will find it." Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote, "When I am weak, then I am strong." What nonsense is this?
My problem as a young believer in Yeshua was that I hadn’t begun to grasp the fact that the Christian life isn’t simply difficult, it is impossible – if we try to live it. My load was so heavy because I figured I was supposed to carry it myself. But the Teacher also said, "My yoke is easy and My burden is light." Of course the "yoke" referenced there wasn’t the control column of an 8-jet bomber; it was the double wooden yoke for oxen – the point being that He is the mighty other "ox" of that team! Jesus was making the same point in His "branch and vine" analogy in saying we can do no good thing "of ourselves," but only as we "abide in" Him. Humble admission of inability is prerequisite to God’s lending us the needed portion of His ability. I thought I had to direct the B-52 – as if this battle were my own.
But recall, as the dream ended, the storm had not abated. That was only the first of four significant dreams of an approaching storm which I believe the Lord has given me since becoming a Christian. Nor am I alone. I could cite several born-again folk, prominent and otherwise, who have received dream-warnings of a coming worldwide tempest. This prophesied "storm" is the whirlwind of divine judgement which the Old Testament sometimes refers to as The Day of the Lord and the New Testament as the "great tribulation." Note the treatment of this image in Jeremiah 30: 23-24:
Behold, THE TEMPEST OF THE LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a sweeping tempest; it will burst on the head of the wicked. The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back, until He has accomplished the intent of His heart; IN THE LATTER DAYS you will understand this.
In 1979 or ’80, before becoming aware of these and similar verses, I had a dream in which a huge approaching storm was still some distance away, piling up over one segment of the horizon. Meanwhile the gently swelling hills of the foreground were seen to be overflowing with multitudes carrying banners emblazoned with the single word "JESUS." ( This was a full decade before the worldwide "Jesus Marches" began to catch on.) However, strangely enough, these masses were dressed in robes as brown as the trampled earth on which they stood. Also, passing slowly overhead from right to left, as if wafted on a gentle breeze, was a swept metallic wing upon which a half dozen Roman soldiers stood impassively in full battle gear, eyes straight ahead. As if to emphasize the spiritual symbolism, a long narrow banner on one of their spear-tips fluttered out ahead of this flying wing.
Then in 1990 or ’91 I had the following remarkable dream. I was alone, driving a large white truck in brilliant sunlight down an arrow-straight 2-lane through Kansas-flat countryside. However, dead ahead at a distance of ten or fifteen miles, an incredibly dark storm-front towered across my path like a blue-black wall, horizon to horizon. My sense in the dream was that there would be no avoiding this darkly roiling barrier. In its extreme contrasts, the most outstanding impression left by this image was of the inevitably awful suddenness of the approaching transition from intense sunlight to buffeting torrent.
Jeremiah Chapter 23 is a scathing denunciation of self-inflated prophets who, as verse 25 puts it, "prophesy falsely in My name, saying, 'I had a dream, I had a dream!'" Therefore, it is not with frivolous lightness of mind that I publicly record these dreams. Yet I am encouraged by verses 17-20 in that same chapter:
[These prophets] keep saying to those who despise Me, "The Lord has said, ‘You will have peace’"; and as for everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, "Calamity will not come upon you." But who has stood in the council of the Lord, that he should see and hear His word? Who has given heed to His word and listened? Behold, THE STORM OF THE LORD has gone forth in wrath, even a whirling tempest; it will swirl down on the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lord will not turn back until He has performed and carried out the purposes of His heart; IN THE LAST DAYS you will clearly understand it.
So certain am I of the nearness of this monumental global storm, toward which – through a variety of metaphors – so much of the Bible points, that I have chosen to label my ongoing communications "Stormwatch" This moniker appeared first, briefly, in 1987 as the title of a weekly 15-minute radio broadcast aimed at awaking a sleeping Church to "new age" counterfeit spiritualities. Funding for that effort was withdrawn by the supporting flagship church when it was discovered that my end-times vision did not mesh with their less literalistic scenario! (As an aside to fellow Bible-believers – who will understand the shorthand – my "eschatology" is obviously pre-millennial. As to the "rapture" controversies, let me say that the "snatching away" will certainly be a real event – no matter that the "r-word" does not appear in English translations of God’s record! Beyond that, I would be delighted if the popular pre-trib analysis turns out to be correct – though a pre-wrath position may prove more realistic. In any case the Enemy – who I believe is equally uncertain about timing – seems to be "covering his bases" for the disappearance of the Bride at some point well before the Groom’s foot touches the Mount of Olives.)
But back to my year in Orlando, Florida. My Spirit-illumined study of the New Testament convinced me early of the importance of believer’s baptism as a visible declaration of an invisible burial of the old life and resurrection into "new creaturehood." The obvious symbolism of complete burial in the "water-grave," from which one then "rises," so vividly taught in Romans Chapter 6, was never mentioned, as far as I can recall, in the churches of my youth. Maybe getting my head sprinkled as an infant helped preserve me to the point of conversion; but as a believing adult, it became obvious the Lord prefers, when possible, that the entire body, soul, and spirit of every sheep in His flock be thus identified with God’s transformation of the Son of Man from Nazareth.
As it turned out, Cherry and Cerese were also baptized at Calvary Assembly within the very week as my obedience in this significant response. For all she lacked in years, my little daughter seemed to have a genuine understanding of the gospel and radiated the light of true conversion. (This is not to say she "spoke in tongues" – Calvary Assembly was not narrowly sectarian on this divisive issue.) The night of their baptism, after Cerese and her mother’s streaming emergence from the elevated pool, I remember going with a crowd of their friends to a restaurant to celebrate. I clearly recall slender blond Cerese seated at the place of honor at the table’s head, as maturely in command of the situation as if she were surrounded by age-mates instead of adults. Again I felt humbled to be allowed to witness this scene. Earlier in the week I had mailed my own "certificate of baptism" to my two older daughters in Knoxville, now in junior high, hoping to jog their hearts concerning the claims of Christ.
That same evening while we ate, someone passed around a clipping from the Orlando Sentinel detailing a self-styled "Christian motorcycle gang" calling themselves Joel’s Horsemen. This sounded interesting! The group – which included women – wore red military-style uniforms and rode "full dress Harleys." Supplemented by donations from community organizations, they mainly supported themselves through their own health-food restaurant called the Genesis II, featuring live "contemporary gospel" music. As their name intended to suggest, they billed themselves as a Last Days Ministry. One weekend a month they would ride the highways as a group, ostensibly seeking opportunities to perform good deeds for stranded motorists, to whom they would throw in a cheery witness for the Lord. A great excuse to roll some chromed-Hog thunder, anyway.
So I began hanging out evenings at this Genesis II endeavor, as did an amazing assortment of saints, seekers, and spiritual crazies. I even volunteered as dishwasher in their kitchen two or three nights a week, a job that allowed me to wolf down remnants of some pretty exotic desserts. They showcased quality original music. These "Horsemen" all lived across the busy thoroughfare in the slightly seedy Flamingo Motel. Their taciturn leader was a stocky dark-bearded cat in his late forties who spent much of his time away in the ministry’s single-engine Cessna. Although I was allowed to sit in on a few of his teachings, I was still too ignorant of the Bible to appraise their quality – let’s just say his harangues didn’t turn me on. I did have my eye on one of the female members, however, a shapely divorcee with two small children who, I observed with some dismay, always slept by the flicker of a black and white TV. Fortunately circumstances intervened in the form of a more aggressive suitor to thwart this potential disaster. Now and then I caught the scent of marijuana from a couple of their motel rooms. Oh well, "sanctification" (I was learning) is a process. Especially for biker-types.
Anyway, God had already made arrangements for a solidly balanced Bible teacher whom I could trust with endless questions and objections. One evening at the Genesis II over raspberry smoothies, I met this humble saint from rural North Carolina, whose moderate physical stature quickly evaporated behind a competent self-assurance. No freaky dude this: rather, even in the sanitized "Christian night spot" he stood out for his 50’s-short hair and neatly pressed sportshirt. But there was a deep seriousness underneath his relaxed chuckle and southern-coastal drawl that drew me in. Tommy Bryan was also living in the Flamingo with his generous wife Nancy and three polite young daughters. A long-time Baptist of the most conservative stripe, he was a genuinely Spirit-taught lover of God’s Word with insatiable curiosity for things of the Lord. Moreover, his steel-trap logic insisted that every new insight be fitted in proper relation to an ever-elaborating understanding of the Christian scriptures. Unable to endure more than a semester of dry-as-dust seminary exposition, he had been "told by the Lord" to move to Florida, where God promised to bless his family. His quiet partner Nancy quickly found work as room-cleaning help at the Flamingo, while Tommy took odd carpentry jobs, often for the Aloma Baptist Church, which I began attending with them most Sundays.
Of course I was still living in my camper, but the Bryans were always gracious to share their meager meals and shower-facilities with me, especially prior to church on Sunday. Soon enough, almost nightly in their tiny apartment, after a simple supper and the children put to bed, Nancy would sweep the day’s debris of three active daughters out the door. Then, fueled by pitchers of iced tea, Tommy would conduct an inspiring Bible study – usually including several other newborn believers. Up to fifteen minutes of serious prayer would always close out the evening. These wide-ranging forays into holy writ became my engrossing routine for the next seven or eight months. Tommy had been "led" into a deep study of "Last Things," which had caused him to question the prevailing "pre-trib rapture" bias among fellow pre-millennialists. Also in his more general theological investigations – usually conducted one-on-one with representative preachers – of what was being taught across the larger Bible-believing spectrum, he had meticulously checked out every pet doctrine from Charismatic to Seventh-day Adventist. Accepting the absolute authority of the original texts, he gauged any interpretation against a plumbline of intensive Hebrew and Greek word studies. Like many old time Baptists, he had serious reservations about the "charismatic shenanigans" going on at places like Calvary Assembly. But at least he was struggling to stay objective; when we took his visiting mother to observe a Sunday-evening service there, not ten minutes had elapsed before she got up in a red-faced huff and walked out. Meanwhile Tommy was also becoming an expert on the cultic beliefs of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, one of whose runaway disciples, a former bodyguard to Moon, landed practically in his lap at the Genesis II watering hole. The Joel’s Horsemen made some fun of this, saying Tommy Bryan was drilling his troops with wooden swords to get ready for a Last Day’s march against the Korean messiah. I had truly stepped into a different world.
Regardless of these tangents, Tommy Bryan had a rock-ribbed understanding of the essential gospel. He saw right away I had no clue about the all-important distinction between "law" and "grace," not to mention their parallel correspondence to "works" and "faith." Coming from a New Age perspective where self-effort won the prize, these distinctions seemed particularly opaque to me. But in his inimitable homespun style – "Great Granny!" being his favorite expletive – he patiently clarified these and other basic concepts. Like the Trinity, for one. I remember him saying, "Suppose you had a piece of paper and that was God. Then suppose you cut a little man-shape out of one corner of that paper and that is Jesus. Jesus is God in the form of man – but He’s still God, His nature is still paper, get it?"
Meanwhile I was continuing my struggle to find permanent work in Orlando. During these months Cherry found herself going through a crisis with a brain tumor, which apparently was healed – totally disappeared actually – after an extended concert of prayer. She meanwhile had found a semi-serious male friend; but I had my biblical pursuits, as well as Cerese, to keep me in the area. The jobs I did land were so short-term they provided just enough, after sporadic child support, to cover running expenses.
I bought a Skil-saw at a pawnshop for $15.00 and worked several weeks installing rough shelving in a warehouse. I enjoyed this kind of work, but many weeks I wound up with $10.00 to buy an entire week’s gasoline and about the same for food. Still I never suffered serious want, even in basic comforts. For example – daily bathing in humid Orlando being a necessity – I found a unique spot to bathe for free. One of the public parks near the Flamingo boasted a large, nearly windowless art museum. Behind this pebbled-concrete building stood an L-shaped wooden fence screening off the air-conditioning units. Inside the fence I found a short garden hose conveniently attached to a spigot. On days when I wasn’t employed or job-hunting, after jogging my requisite two miles, I would retire behind this screen, where I kept a bar of soap hidden under a beam supporting the heat pump. I performed these outdoor baths super-quick, as you might imagine, but no maintenance or security types ever showed up to cause a problem. Also, there were a couple of swimming pools nearby usually abandoned by swimmers after sunset. With the addition of a towel over my shoulder, my jogging shorts easily passed for swim trunks. Truly, to look at the new me, neatly shorn and shaved, no one could guess I was living in my truck on $20.00 a week.
You may doubt this, coming from one so recently bound in flagrant immorality, but my conscience did smart a bit over these stolen baths. On the other hand, I didn’t feel particular "conviction of sin" worth agonizing over. I guess the Lord knew how far I had come from shoplifting economy-size bags of M & M’s in California or pilfering used tongue-in-groove from someone’s lumber-pile in New Mexico. He was probably cutting some temporary slack on the bath deal. I was, however, inwardly convicted over a couple of items the Spirit prompted I should make restitution for. During my year in Orlando I sent money to one of my fellow-pioneers in New Mexico for a half sheet of marine plywood that (he didn’t previously know) had become the floor of my camper’s cab-over section. I also sent the replacement-value-amount for the Army Surplus sleeping bag that had somehow ended up in my possession, to the private school on the Pecos where I taught one semester.
Please understand that these new ethical scruples were the fruit and not the root of my salvation. The New Testament makes it clear enough that, while Christians aren’t saved by "keeping the Law," once they have become children of Light – out of gratitude and for the honor of their Master’s reputation – they are to aim at becoming models of good behavior, as broadly defined in the Ten Commandments. Martin Luther called this post-conversion ethical patterning "the second use of the Law" – the first being to drive home the hopeless unworthiness of every human in the face of the Creator’s impossibly perfect standard. In other words, initially, the harshness of a Law no one can perfectly keep drives us to see our desperate need of a Savior. (And don’t blame God for "demanding" an infinitely exalted standard. In a real sense, "He can’t help it." The only impossibility for Omnipotence is to deny His own Character – which happens to be thrice Holy. The Bible expresses this when Habakkuk prays, "Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity.")
So God had a "problem." How can the absolutely "Just" pardon even one of the "unjust" without becoming thereby "unjust"? An infinite (God-level) debt was owed by every man that no mere man could pay. The inclination to sin had become ingrained when the first man forfeited his sonship under God in the garden. Therefore, in mercy, a second "Adam" had to be conceived by the Father in a "set apart" human womb; this unique resulting God-man must then live a human life perfect in the sight of the Law. His "ethical perfection" or "righteousness" as a real human being, coupled with His awesome significance as begotten Deity, qualified Him – in acting out a Love beyond human comprehension – to pay humanity’s incalculable sin-debt by a tortuous punishment unto death via crucifixion. Jesus became God’s spotless sacrificial Lamb, now raised into glory. That accomplished, God’s "deal" (i.e. Covenant) is that, if we recognize and trust in the Fact that the Lamb took our rightful place on that cross, believing also that God confirmed this Truth by raising Him from the dead – then, miracle of miracles, His perfection is "credited" as our personal standing before God! As baptism portrays, we have become identified with God’s Son. Likewise, through our faith, His sinless blood in effect cleanses our former "fallings short of perfection" – and will continue cleansing as long as we acknowledge subsequent failings. This is the Good News.
The Bad News is that, apart from fulfilling our end of the "deal" by appropriating Jesus’ substitution in our deserved place of punishment, just one lifted bag of M & M’s creates a soul-stain sufficient to banish us forever from intimacy with the Holy One. Moreover, as insurance that no one with integrity could be so self-deceived as to think he was "keeping" the first nine commandments – which might seem on the surface only external – God threw in the tenth about "coveting" to emphasize that these standards apply on every level of our being. If you have the nerve to see how really bad this bad news is, check out that section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – Matthew Chapter 5:17-48 – which forever ripped the rug of self-righteousness from under the merely religious person.
I continued to use nearly all my extra time for serious study. On days I wasn’t employed, excellent health allowed me to absorb several hundred pages a day, all of it from the Christian perspective. As my understanding of end-times scenarios grew, I wanted to share this vital knowledge with my friends in the Far West. I developed a thumbnail summary of probable last-days sequences and Xeroxed copies to all my closest friends in California and New Mexico – who already considered me half cracked anyway. A quarter century later, having gained more respect for what a daunting maze Bible prophecy can be for the serious student, I recognize that these outlines naively followed popular schools of prophetic interpretation. Some of these have great merit; but humility, not dogmatic inflexibility, is called for. Some of the best minds of fifty generations since Christ rose from the tomb have devoted lifetimes to these puzzles.
I also began a cassette tape correspondence with Noreen. Neither of us found pleasure in the thought of giving up a relationship in which we had so much life invested. In addition to the usual day-to-day news, these tapes inevitably became a dialogue and struggle in the spirit. My eyes had been opened to the role evil spirit-beings had played in our lives, and I longed for her to discover the freedom from bondage I now knew was possible only through Jesus Christ.
At the same time I knew this was a delicate area not easily broached with someone whose mind had become murky with layered deception – not to mention actively guarded by direct spiritual oppression, or worse.
Noreen confided to me that year that, upon moving into a slightly larger adobe house in our familiar rural community, she heard a male voice in her head clearly speaking her first name. She resolutely refused to respond directly to this rather unnerving manifestation. Instead she called a close female friend well versed in the occult, and together they climbed a ladder into the attic of her recently rented place, in order to "exorcise" the disturbing entity, which apparently also had been thumping overhead at night. They each in turn spoke into the cool darkness under the pitched roof-beams, telling the "occupant" that it was no longer welcome there and must find other quarters. Whatever the reality of the case, this tactic seemed to work, and Noreen did not hear the voice again, so far as I know. Score one more point for deception.
Several of the taped dialogues grew convoluted with issues of forgiveness. My immersion in the gospels had impressed me with the crucial importance of horizontal, person-to-person forgiveness for those who sought right relation to God, precisely because of the awesome cost to Him for our forgiveness. The billionaire who sprung us from jail looks unkindly when we are harsh with our own penny-ante debtors. In my communications to Noreen I assured her that I did not in any way wish to "hang her up" in unforgiveness for any of my trespasses against her. I tried to make it equally clear I retained no acrimony toward her. I’m not sure she grasped the issue. Her bottom line seemed to be that she was "releasing me" from obligation as a former lover.
I did get one rather remarkable epistle from her during that time. The letter ran to eight or ten handwritten pages, but midway through – after rising to an emotional crescendo – one particular page became an indecipherable scrawl, except part-way down, the barely discernable word "schizophrenia" emerged from the scrawl in raggedly elongated cursive. This struck me with peculiar poignancy because I had just finished reading a grass-roots "deliverance" primer entitled Pigs in the Parlor that addressed schizophrenia as a spiritual infestation.
Remember the 1960 movie The Three Faces of Eve with Joanne Woodward and Raymond Burr? While at UT-Knoxville that impactful film had been my introduction to the concept of "split" or "multiple personality." The theoretical puzzles raised by this true story so intrigued me that I immediately considered setting my academic sights on physiological psychology. (That sophomoric ambition expired after extra-curricular reading exposed science reluctantly confessing near-total ignorance how "mind" and brain were even related.) As to "split-personality," Jesus and his disciples regularly confronted the same symptoms – but did not respond with drugs, electro-shock, or frontal lobotomy. In their "benighted backwardness" they proceeded authoritatively by direct spoken confrontation to "cast out" indwelling alien "persons." Pigs in the Parlor was published in 1973 by Frank Hammond, a Spirit-filled Baptist minister who had been thrust into what Roman Catholics prefer to call "exorcism" and Protestants term "deliverance." Hammond’s wife, Ida Mae, wrote most of Chapter 21, "Schizophrenia," based upon a revelation concerning a woman to whom they had been attempting, with little success, to minister. Mrs. Hammond writes:
I was still in bed – still had sleep in my eyes – as the Lord continued giving the revelation. He instructed me to put my hands together, palms facing and with fingers laced together tightly. He said this represented what the schizophrenic nature was like. Each hand represented one of the dual personalities within the schizophrenic, neither of which was the real self. They were tightly interlocked. The Lord said, "Your hands represent the nest of demon spirits that make up schizophrenia. I want you to know that it is demonic. It is a nest of demon spirits, and they came into this person’s life when she was very, very young. I will show you how it operates.
Next, the Lord instructed me to take my hands apart VERY SLOWLY. As my fingers were slowly disengaged the Lord showed me that these demonic spirits in the schizophrenic must be separated, cast out and given up. The process requires time. It is a shock to the person to discover what his true personality is. He needs time to adjust and to fall out of agreement with the false demon personalities, point by point. He must come to loathe the schizophrenic personality, and fall out of agreement with it. The Lord recalled to my memory Amos 3:3, "How can two walk together except they be agreed?"
One by one my fingers were disengaged, illustrating the pulling apart of the demonic personalities. (Later, each finger was given a demonic designation.) The last two fingers to come apart were the middle fingers on each hand. The Lord showed that these fingers represent the core of the schizophrenic – Rejection and Rebellion. When these are finally separated the person can consider himself healed – delivered and knowing who the real self is. Pp. 124-125, Impact Books, 1973.
Today I’m considerably more cautious about extra-biblical "revelations," but so much in this chapter seemed to fit Noreen, and so much of the rest of the book presented basic Bible truth concerning "spiritual warfare," that I took the risk and mailed a copy to Noreen as a "Christmas present" in December 1976. I never learned her precise reactions to it, except that she eventually returned it with the comment, "That was not a holy book."
I responded, "I didn’t say it was holy – but it might be true."
All through the 70’s and ‘80’s the Holy Spirit seemed to be preparing His church for a new level of spiritual warfare. The reality of demons and the opposing power of Christians united in prayer were made vivid through the novels of Frank Peretti, which spread like brush-fire through the rank-and-file believing world – much like the "Left Behind" prophecy series is spreading today on an even wider front. Long before teenagers began murdering fellow students, teachers, and parents, the Spirit was preparing those who would listen to face the deepening twilight with effective answers.
I certainly knew in my spirit even as a baby Christian that here was an area of practical knowledge not to be neglected. I began to understand the believer’s authority through the power of Jesus’ blood to speak or "command" in His "Name which is above every name." My earlier fear of Satan began to subside as I realized what spiritual resources God had placed in His twice-born children’s hands. There was real security in Christ! I had been declared legally off-limits to those horrendous sleep-time assailants trying to take over the wheel of my "vehicle." The Sixth Chapter of Ephesians detailed our specific defensive armor and that powerful weapon of offense: God’s word, the sword of Truth that could free sin’s captives.
Gradually I began to relax about the future, whether it was the next minute or the next decade. Increasingly, as I realized what it meant that I had "entered into God’s rest," an inner peace deepened. With amazement I was learning my newfound security extended beyond even the spiritual. Adherence to God’s plan guaranteed God’s provision, often in the tiniest details. For one example, my camper-truck seemed to have become immune to flat tires, which formerly occurred bi-weekly!
None of this should be construed to say that I did not still have to struggle against sin. My battle with garden-variety lust was far from over. In fact, on the deepest level of my will, it is possible it had only just begun, as I hope to explain shortly. But during this period I was encouraged by a dream of being tortured by devils while tied to a hot metal grate – an agony that would have been quite intolerable except that some other power periodically lowered the grate into cooling waters that simultaneously refreshed my strength.
In the Bible, the closest thing to a self-contained theological treatise is the book of Romans. This steep trek into high country is, for the first eight chapters, an orderly argument following the chronology of individual salvation. Chapters 1 through 3 show all mankind shut up in the prison of sin. Chapters 4 and 5 unveil the stunning possibility of justification in God’s sight through faith. Chapter 6, as we saw earlier, begins with the symbolic rite of baptism, then plunges into a terrible struggle between opposing aspects of our three-fold being that some contend continues through Chapter 7. The resolution of victory for the overcoming saint is expounded at last in Chapter 8.
To clarify what I was to go through intensely that year in Orlando, but in lessening degrees for many years to come, we must look at Chapters 6 through 8 more closely. I include this study because I believe it is key to what an abundant harvest of souls – who are now or who soon will be reborn out of sexual enslavements – must prepare themselves to face.
Remember that Romans 6 begins by specifically paralleling the believer’s "burial" in the waters of baptism with Christ’s burial in a sealed tomb. The text simultaneously balances this "death" aspect with the opposite "life" aspect of Christ’s triumphant resurrection, symbolized, again, by the believer rising out of the waters of baptism into "newness of life." This ultimate life/death contrast is carried right on through to its victorious resolution in Chapter 8.
Moreover, along with this polarity goes a master/slave sub-theme. (Incidentally, I checked Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, where slave translates the Greek word used better than the King James’ choice, servant.) The close tie between these two pairs – life/death and master/slave – is clearly stated in Hebrews Chapter 2, which says that Jesus came to "deliver those who THROUGH FEAR OF DEATH were SUBJECT TO SLAVERY all their lives." Slavery to what or whom? Romans 6 makes it clear that the "death-master" is sin and that this sin-master has ruled us through the lusts of our (death-fearing) mortal bodies (V.12). Jesus is already by definition the sovereign "Lord" of the universe, but to the believer he offers to be our new "master." Moving from death to life thus involves a switching of masters. Again, the "burial phase" of baptism pictures this sin-enslaved "old man" being killed – crucified actually – with Christ, as in Romans 6: 6, which says, "our old self was crucified with Him that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should NO LONGER BE SLAVES TO SIN." Then, coming up from the "water-grave," the "resurrection phase" signifies the goal that "we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4).
But notice the choice of the word might, which, frankly to me, carries the suggestion of potential.
I emphasize potential because I believe it is at this point that the great inner struggle between what the New Testament calls "the flesh" and our newly-born spirit gets underway – in which our own will seems somehow crucially called to participate. Up to this point we were literally slaves – or in a parallel metaphor, absolutely dead to the possibility of godliness. (Using that alternate metaphor, Ephesians 2:1-6 says:
You WERE DEAD in your trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience, among whom we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, INDULGING THE DESIRES OF THE FLESH AND OF THE MIND, and were BY NATURE children of wrath, even as the rest. But God…made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with Him.
Note next how the following passage in Romans seems to imply that now, perhaps literally for the first time, we have a viable choice of masters to whom we can willingly "present ourselves":
Even so CONSIDER YOURSELVES to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore DO NOT LET sin REIGN in your mortal body that you should OBEY its lusts, and DO NOT GO ON PRESENTING the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but PRESENT YOURSELVES to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For SIN SHALL NOT BE MASTER OVER YOU, for you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that WHEN YOU PRESENT YOURSELVES AS SLAVES FOR OBEDIENCE, YOU ARE SLAVES OF THE ONE WHOM YOU OBEY, EITHER OF SIN RESULTING IN DEATH, OR OF OBEDIENCE RESULTING IN RIGHTEOUSNESS? But thanks be to God that THOUGH YOU WERE SLAVES OF SIN, YOU BECAME OBEDIENT FROM THE HEART to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became SLAVES OF RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Rom. 6: 11-18)
This language strongly implies that our wills must be energetically involved in "working out" our post-new-birth walk, if not precisely our "salvation." John 1:12 in the King James reads: "But as many as received Him, to them gave He POWER TO BECOME the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name." Why doesn't this verse simply say, "He made them sons of God"? This verse in the stratospheric first chapter of John carries an awesome sense of contingency. To me it says, "you now have the power to choose the GOOD as well as the evil, but – though I will help you – you must rise to this costly challenge." The real "fight of faith" is mostly internal. When Christians talk about "getting the victory," they mean they have succeeded in obeying the spirit rather than "the flesh." "For the mind SET on the flesh is death, but the mind SET on the Spirit is life and peace." (Rom. 8:6)
Verse 22 of Romans 6 puts it in the most dramatic possible terms: "But now having been freed from sin and ENSLAVED TO GOD, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life." Or as the King James Version renders it: "But now being made free from sin, and become SERVANTS TO GOD, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life."
Romans Chapter 7, sandwiched between the clear progression of Chapters 6 and 8, has proven an interpretive challenge for generations of Christians. Portions of 7 have been used to bolster pet doctrines or foster denominational division. Some believers have understood the latter half of the chapter, where Paul says, "I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am!" as being a portrait of one’s state before the new birth. Others contend that it is a vivid snapshot of an immature believer who has not learned to exercise this unfamiliar power to say "no" to the flesh. Still others see in Paul’s anguished cry not Christian immaturity but the heightened sensitivity of the mature saint of how far short of true holiness even the most spiritual Christians fall in their inescapable fleshly "humanness." In other words, by his sharpened appreciation for the moral perfection embodied in the law, the mature saint becomes all the more conscious that his completed sanctification must await final release from this mortal body.
Bound up in these controversies are even thornier issues of "free-will" versus "election" which are, at last, beyond the scope even of this eccentrically orbiting opus. While some Christians argue that Jesus cannot truly be Savior unless we have also "made Him Lord," others say that a person’s spirit is "saved" and therefore secure in Christ even though at this "unsanctified" stage of life he lives on a "carnal" or fleshly level much of the time – for which he will, as a "son" and not a "bastard," suffer chastisements or even an early death. Proof-texts can be marshaled for either view.
These are profound issues with, obviously, manifold – even eternal – ramifications. I personally see both sides as grasping pieces of a complex truth that no doubt transcends human comprehension. I, for one, am not qualified to sort out positive answers. But I am laying groundwork to faithfully report my own experience.
Romans Chapter 8 is far less ambiguous. The KJV renders verse 1 of that chapter in particularly strong terms:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
The KJV sharpens the scope of this statement by insisting on the qualifying clause – repeated in Verse 4 – "who WALK NOT after the flesh but after the Spirit." The fact that some modern versions omit this important qualifier betrays, I suspect, the tendency of theologically biased translation committees to "mix and match" among ancient manuscripts on the basis of sectarian doctrine – even when the numerical majority of such manuscripts leans the other way. (The great redeeming value of the KJV is that, where there are variations, it usually favors the more ancient "majority" texts.)
Without the qualifier "who walk not after the flesh" – or without the context of the remainder of Chapter 8 – verse 1 could become an invitation to complacency about one’s standing before God, depending on how one interprets being "in Christ Jesus." If one focuses only on the "legal" aspect of "justification by faith" – in which one has been "declared righteous" by the Supreme Judge – then the temptation to "coast" through life on "Christ’s imputed merits," real though these are, might produce a flaccid mockery of true godliness. (Why "bust one’s butt for the new boss" if all one’s barnyard sins – past, present, and future – are covered under such a lovely blanket of snow? This narrowly theological approach has earned the apt term "greasy grace.")
In contrast, however, the apostle James says, "Faith, if it HAS NO WORKS, is dead." Of course he was not thereby saying our sins are "covered" by our own good works, as if we could "merit" salvation. But he was saying that living faith will be manifested, authenticated – vindicated – by a "walk" directed by the spirit rather than the flesh. This is the theme of the first 17 verses of Romans 8.
Again, it is a root (salvation) versus fruit (good works) issue, with the concept of perseverance added. If one has truly been, not just made initially "alive in Jesus" (the root), but is continuing to "abide in the Vine," then the fruit of a righteous lifestyle as well as the "fruit of the spirit" should make that root evident. After all, Jesus Himself said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." This is not "legalism" for those who have been born from above by the Spirit of God. Not in the least! This call to "works" does not nullify grace; indeed in reality it requires subsequent and ongoing enabling grace – enduements of "power from on high." The "humanly impossible" life is lived by ongoing infillings of the Spirit. As one shepherd exclaimed, "Pull in the oars and hoist the sail!"
Romans 8, then, is the chapter of victory for those who submit to the mastery of the Spirit. This is where, on the human level, the "fear and trembling" of Philippians 2:12 should kick in, because this victory relates directly, I suspect, to Jesus’ words to the churches in Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 where eternal rewards are promised to those who "overcome." It is clear that not everyone in these seven churches has a secure reward in eternity. The risen Lord even calls those in one of the churches (Rev. 3:1) "dead." Moreover, the very promises made to the "overcomers" call into serious question the fate of those not in this category. For example, "He who overcomes WILL NOT BE HURT BY THE SECOND DEATH." (Rev. 2:11b) Or again, "He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; AND I WILL NOT ERASE HIS NAME FROM THE BOOK OF LIFE, and I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels." (Rev. 3:5) Such statements from the Lord Himself ought to give pause to those who preach safety for an underclass of "carnal believers." How does "carnal saints" sound? How wide is the narrow gate?
To review, then. Before surrendering to Christ I was in that "universal default mode" where I could not help but choose for sin and death, an unwitting slave. My illusory "freedom" consisted primarily in choosing among my "fleshly wants." The problem was that these wants were by nature – as a member of fallen humanity – twisted away in opposition to "God’s wants" for me.
God’s agenda is that we be conformed to the likeness of His Son. None of us are born from our mothers ("born of the flesh") wanting that image because this first birth, spiritually, is a stillbirth. This subtle slavery to self or imprisonment in sin taints our total style, which is drawn inexorably toward death, further and further from God. "The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God." (Rom.8: 7-8)
Somehow the Spirit of God intervened in my hopeless condition. Initially at His touch I simply became aware of my slavery. Self-extrication had proven impossible. Then I heard the good news and saw the open Door of escape. I recognized my Rescuer, somebody made a choice (whether it was me or God is fairly irrelevant in my opinion), my sins were forgiven, and a miraculous new birth occurred. Being thus quickened to a new dimension of life through faith in Christ’s work on my behalf, I could learn to choose in favor of a new Master. Here at last is real freedom – BUT, I must insist, with an awesome edge to it. Never overlook the "IF’s" in the Bible:
So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for IF you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but IF by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but YOU HAVE RECEIVED A SPIRIT OF ADOPTION AS SONS BY WHICH WE CRY OUT, "ABBA! FATHER!" The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, IF indeed we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. Rom. 8: 12-17
Provisionally, at least, the first half of Romans 8 has seen the outcome of the agonizing struggle between the newborn spirit and the "old man." But note the underlying condition of perseverance denoted by those "if’s." Will we stand steadfast till the end?
In conclusion, then, I personally find the very phrase "carnal Christian" seductive terminology – to be avoided as such. Yes, believers can fall into carnality for a time. (As you will soon see, I have done so time and again.) But if this becomes their habitual "practice," their predominant lifestyle – if this "backslide" threatens to become their "perseverance" – then their eternal destiny is, and should be, radically in question. The overall course of our lives may indeed look like that of a sailing vessel which tacks against the wind to maintain its general course; but though our momentary direction may change radically, what is the overarching tendency of our lives since professing Christ as Savior? That is the crucial question.
Taking up my story in Orlando once more, the New Testament states flatly that fornicators and adulterers (along with liars and murderers) will not inherit the Kingdom of God. If there were no provision for post-conversion lapses in this area, I wouldn’t be recording my journey now. I almost succeeded in going "cold turkey" in the lovemaking department during that year in gatorland. But I started working for a fellow needing help marketing a long-handled claw for picking citrus fruit off the tree. As "fate" would have it, he was also employing his vivacious young daughter, a single mom recently saved out of the drug scene.
My new boss, a heavy smoking Brillcreme fanatic in a starched white shirt who mixed two or three stout whiskeys on ice every evening before the sun touched the horizon, was divorced from his wife, whom I soon discovered to be a kindhearted secretary living in nearby Winter Park. This employer, Frank, a somewhat swaggering wheeler-dealer type, explained that his daughter Melissa and four-year old grandson were staying at the Mom’s place, but that Melissa would be "coming on board" shortly. He encouraged me to park my camper outside his apartment or at the warehouse where we worked during the day building display racks. We fixed and ate our evening meal together. He kept saying, "You’re gonna love my little girl." Not likely, I thought.
A few days later when she finally showed up at the warehouse around 10:00 AM after dropping her boy at daycare, I was surprised to see a slender attractive girl of twenty, energetically ready in blue jeans to pitch in and actually work. Melissa was a curly-haired brunette with a quick mind and a seldom-absent acoustic guitar. We took one look at each other and started talking non-stop the rest of the day. She had been into LSD and wild sex parties before making a serious commitment to Jesus Christ. I could discern this wasn’t a pose; she fairly shone with a genuine love for the Lord. Interesting!
Later my new friend described having seen, while tripping on acid in a roomful of drunken, naked humanity, a large ghoulishly-gray demon in the shape of a toad triumphantly surveying the scene and saying directly to her, "They are all mine."
Worldly patterns of thought and feeling die hard. Either that same evening or the next, I was cleaning up dinner dishes at Frank’s apartment, when Melissa showed up, still wearing jeans but looking like the proverbial million bucks, having washed her hair and put on makeup at her Mom’s, after dropping her son there. She had her guitar along and shared a few of her songs. I clearly remember Frank saying he was tired and going off to bed early, leaving us alone on the couch. Two lonesome people were soon swept up in a mad make-out-fest till two in the morning. For me, months of abstinence made these hours of barely restrained passion a physically painful experience, but at least I had the "decency" not to nail her on Frank’s couch – though later he never believed us on that score! Instead, the next day Melissa and I took a work-break from the warehouse into my camper, where "nature" took its unrestrained course in no more than ten minutes.
Now what? Well, when Frank found out his pious little helpers had been thumping more than Bibles, our "witness" with him was blown, that’s for sure. This was especially ironic, since it turned out that that one interlude at the warehouse was the only time his daughter and I ever "had sex," by whatever Clintonian definition. I think I continued to work for Frank, but my sleeping arrangements changed overnight to the living room floor at Melissa’s Mom’s house. The longsuffering Mom had given her bed to Melissa and the youngster; consequently she was also sleeping in the living room, on the couch. So I got to watch Johnny Carson every night, meanwhile resisting the obvious temptation to essay a pass at my new hostess, who was not unattractive. They were certainly generous to share their home with a wayfaring stranger, but I think at the same time they appreciated having a moderately trustworthy man around. We actually had some spirit-nourishing Bible studies together. But seeing the situation at close range – especially Melissa’s previously ignored but nevertheless glaring immaturities (never mind my own) – I quickly realized I wasn’t in love after all.
But the Lord did show me a remarkable thing about the power of a simple prayer while staying in that home.
At the close range of daily life I couldn't help but notice that Melissa's handsome blonde son, whom I will call Cliff, was manifesting signs of "deep personality disorder." I have frankly forgotten details of his outbursts except for one shocking occasion when I observed this four-year-old blatantly mimicking a relatively "kinky" form of sexual intercourse. Recall also that my ongoing study of "deliverance" literature had sensitized me to possible demonic activity via transference to successive generations as a consequence of "the sins of the fathers." In any case, I became sincerely convinced that Cliff was in some fashion the helpless victim of his mother's formerly orgiastic lifestyle.
What happened next seemed to confirm that I was not incorrect in these admittedly exotic assumptions. God's mercy on a beautiful child became simultaneously an object lesson for me as a new believer.
It was mid-afternoon in sultry "sink-hole-city," Winter Park. Melissa's Mom was at work and her daughter out running errands in the beat-up compact. I was in the living room strumming Melissa's acoustic guitar and watching after Cliff, who right then wandered sleepily into the room. The usually boisterous child climbed into a straight-backed easy chair with dark blue upholstery and simply sat quietly. I continued strumming chords in this remarkably peaceful atmosphere, all the while wondering if I might be sensing the Holy Spirit's prompting to take this opportunity to pray aloud for this disturbed little soul who had crossed my path. Laying the guitar aside, I turned down on my knees across the room from Cliff, elbows against the cushion on which I had been sitting. The lad may have been dozing at this point, I'm not sure.
Never underestimate the quality of faith that inheres in a recently reborn child of God. I can't recall exactly how I prayed for Cliff, but I know I spoke fervently to God for his plight from a pure heart of compassion. Total deliverance from enemy oppression or from actual infestation was the theme.
While I was yet thus speaking to the Lord, two miraculous things happened in quick succession. First, the child -- who certainly had no headcold -- began violently sneezing and coughing so that great streams of silvery-looking mucus instantly covered his clothes and portions of the chair itself. Second, at that very moment -- with me still on my knees stunned at what was transpiring -- Cliff's young Mom burst through the front door, surveyed the whole scene, and immediately snatched up an old baby blanket to begin mopping the wretched mess from her son. Her initial distress quickly turned to happiness and gratitude to Jesus Christ as I excitedly explained the entire sequence of events. Then later, as confirmation that we had been allowed to witness an act of God, Cliff's theretofore-bizarre episodes simply ceased from that hour.
Such victories were doubtless disturbing to elements of the unseen world, who seemed continually hatching ploys to steer me onto a sidetrack. The most blatant of these efforts (unless I have totally "missed God" in my interpretation) raises esoteric questions about how far fallen angels may be able to anticipate what, from our perspective, is yet future:
Recall, I was still hoping the Lord would "open a door" of rewarding employment in central Florida enabling me to establish a life close to Cherry and Cerese. So it was, in the wee hours of the morning before I was to make application at yet another series of businesses, I had a peculiar dream. In this dream I was making ecstatic love to a woman with a slightly pockmarked face who physically reminded me of Noreen. Somehow also the dream included a southwestern style serape with red and black diamond points.
A few hours later, walking through the dusty gravel lot of some kind of agricultural service, my first place of application, I notice the identical design in a serape thrown across the shelf beneath the rear window of an older cream-colored Volvo parked in front of the office door. I am suddenly on alert. Noreen loved to decorate with colorful woven shawls just like that. What are You doing, God? Proceeding beneath a corrugated metal awning, then through a screen door, I am now beyond dumbfounded to discover that the dark-haired fortyish woman behind the plywood counter bears the very face I had been making love to in my dream a few hours before! What is going on, Lord? Are my lonely nights really about to come to an end? Is this barren plot of earth the spot You would have me invest my life? If so, strengthen me to meet the challenge!
After meticulously completing my application, I dawdled while turning it in, studying her for any tiniest sign that she might "recognize" me too. But she remained distracted and curt, hardly noticing me. What to do now? I probably said something awkwardly cute, like, "Adios, Mamacita," and walked out.
Moving slowly toward my truck, I turned to stare at what must surely be her automobile; there were no others about. In want of manly maintenance, the car definitely had that unkempt aura suggestive of roach clips in the ashtray. I felt momentarily transported back to the sensory intensity of New Mexico, so pregnant with allurements. Must I abandon so much? Could this woman's arid soul be my "next project"? I stood as if hesitating between two pathways, seriously rehearsing in my mind how one might best succeed with so unusual an opener as: "I had a dream about you last night."
On the other hand, I remembered how just a few evenings before, Melissa had been given, vividly in her mind, both audibly and as if inscribed inside an orange sun-like orb, a specific Bible reference -- book, chapter, verse -- in a book neither of us remotely knew. Immediately looking up the text, Joshua 24:22, we found this: "You are witnesses against yourselves, that you have chosen for yourselves the Lord, to serve Him." The words seemed odd, and remained obscure until we explored the context. Then their real import began to sink in: was our "commitment" to God to prove no more than lip service? More ominous still, would not our own words of commitment return to condemn us if we turned back to serve former gods?
But today's pre-dawn dream had to have a supernatural origin! Then was God pointing me toward my long-sought door of provision? Job and honey in one gracious package? Instantly, however, a contrary thought hit me. What if this was a test of my true allegiance? Was it possible the Evil One had been permitted to peek around the corner of the coming day in order to try my heart? This thought gave me fearsome pause. Was I ready to risk running back into the arms of Egypt from which I had been purchased by the very blood of God's Lamb? I turned again toward my truck and drove away, head and heart tumbling in a Laundromat of confusion.
The Bible makes it crystal clear that "God Himself tempts no man." Yet it was surely not for nothing that God's Son instructed us to include in our prayers to the Father, "Lead us not into temptation." (The word translated temptation here connotes "testing" or "proving.") First Peter Chapter 1 sheds more light: "…though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." I have since concluded that through this strange episode God was allowing me to be tested, but equally that His grace enabled me, barely, to pass the test.
So finally in May of 1977, frustrated in every attempt to land permanent employment in central Florida, I determined to return to Nashville, if only temporarily, to my parents' home, where I hoped to begin reversing a season of economic slippage.
Though truly a prodigal son, my welcome home surprised even me by warmth rivaling its scriptural prototype. Not that my father's military self-restraint could allow him to "throw himself on my neck," but I was enthusiastically offered "free room and board while you get back on your feet." In fact, the very Monday after my weekend arrival, Dad took me to nearby Moscovitz's clothing store and outfitted me with two sturdy sets of work clothes, plus socks, belt, and -- at his insistence -- several casual shirts. This gesture moved me deeply.
That same afternoon, using my mother's venerable '65 Fairlane, I turned in applications to three businesses running classified ads. The following morning all three called and offered immediate hire! After a solid year of fruitless search in Orlando, I took this as a clear endorsement of my relocation with family.
The offer I accepted was as a frame and paneling carpenter in a fiberglass houseboat factory in Goodlettsville, just north of Nashville. My minimal starting skill was just adequate to fake it. I little knew the Lord was mercifully launching me on a new career path of woodworking and re-modeling, with emphasis on finish carpentry and cabinet making. Over the next five years He opened job after job that took me through graduated stages in acquisition of marketable skills, with always a willing teacher at every step. Most of this time I lived at home in my parents' spare bedroom, thankful for their generous support. My new job provided medical coverage that allowed surgeries for hernia repair and removal of a skin cancer from my right ear lobe. I did spend one summer in Atlanta, helping an artist friend in his house- and sign-painting business. More on this remarkable episode shortly.
I never really expected to stay in Nashville. However, at this writing I have been there 26 years. When I first arrived from Florida my pride was balking at the prospect of such dependence on Mom and Dad at age 37. For two weeks I insisted on sleeping in my camper with the fresh night air wafting under the broad roof-hatch.
The houseboat factory proved a cultural shock. Tobacco farmers, hair-trigger scrappers, a goofy foreman everybody called "Top Cat," authorities all on pocket-knives, deer-stands, Jeeps, hot green peppers, and home-made liquor -- these good ol' boys took their kids to R-rated drive-ins "so the rug-rats can learn what it's all about." Fully a quarter of them resorted to alcohol at work, the plant manager once quipping that if there was an earthquake the majority of deaths would result from whisky bottles dislodged from overhead roof girders. Our workday began at 6-AM (4-AM Saturdays) summer and winter and ran nine hours minimum (four on Saturdays). The finishing barn where I worked usually contained four to six of these so-called "luxury" houseboats, ranging from 35 to 80 feet in length, in various stages of completion. As one of three in my crew, we received the gleaming white-glassed hull already topped by outer walls and roof structure, within which we installed the interior deck and inner walls before stapling dark walnut paneling to the same. In the below-decks "stateroom," shooting 16-penny T-nails through 2 X 2 studs with an air-driven nailer, I tried to hold my breath inside the resultant clouds of fiberglass dust. A couple of the older workers had lost their voices to decades of glass inhalation. The itchy fibers permeated one's clothing and could scarcely be scrubbed from arms, waist and back in the hottest shower. But meanwhile I was gaining skill with power tools and, more importantly, being baptized into the real "fight of faith."
Word soon got around that I had somehow caught a bad case of religion. (As near as I could tell, there was only one other actual Christian in the plant, a rosy-cheeked man in his sixties named Philip Angel.) A couple of the "motormen," or engine installers, always one or two boats down the line from our crew, couldn't resist mocking me at every opportunity with obscene body gestures in that strange love-hate attitude believers encounter in "only recently post-Christian" environments. Even Terry, the kindly old trim carpenter who taught me how to use the power miter saw, couldn't resist calling me "Pussyface," on account of my hippie whiskers.
In those early months I mistakenly tried to portray myself as still a "man's man" by peppering my work conversation with the same foul expletives flavoring their speech. Then I had a pointed dream in which a clear spring of water was bubbling out of the earth right beside the outlet of a sewage pipe, so that the sparkling waters were immediately fouled. At the same time the Spirit directed me to the 11-verse passage in James Chapter 3 concerning the tongue, which includes the line, "Does a fountain send forth from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?"
I worked in the houseboat factory two years. During that time my dear Mom packed a lunch of tuna sandwiches five days a week and insisted I drive her Ford when the weather was too wet or cold to venture the 17-mile commute on my Suzuki 380 three-cylinder bike. God's mercy was flowing mightily through my parents.
My Dad had instilled in me the high seriousness of contractual agreements, at least in the realm of employment. But at work I was daily confronted with worldly values long stagnant in a Civil War backwater. Way before the end of the first year I lost my temper at my immediate supervisor, John Hardy, a rotund Burley Tobacco farmer in baggy overalls from Cheatham County, when I overheard him grumbling that my gung-ho work style was making him and the rest of the frame crew "look bad." I guess my less-than-saintly demeanor had made it obvious I considered him a lazy hog for laying around in the miserably cramped "stateroom" area under the floor for a solid hour as soon as the latter was nailed down. When the plant manager got involved in our dispute, John complained, "Jim just wants to get his ass in the wind."
Well said (and truer than he knew) but I couldn't help but be idealistically focused on the fact that we were getting paid by the hour and therefore owed "the man" an honest hour's work -- never mind that my own wage was still where it had started, $5.75. To me the obvious solution would be to deliver steady work for better rates but fewer wasted hours catching up on the latest gossip. Nevertheless the pragmatic manager knew long-timer John Hardy had the "loyalty" to stick around. Meanwhile, if my impeccable performance wasn't being appreciated, I was praying God would release me from this purgatory. I believe He gave me an answer in another dream in which I was handed a tin plate of fiberglass dust, an image most puzzling until translated into biblical terminology -- "my portion." I was embarrassingly impure silver that needed more time in this early stage of refining.
Meanwhile I was not neglecting to search for a church home. There were plenty to choose from, I thought. Nashville has a reputation of being a city of 800 churches -- often clichéd as the "buckle on the Bible Belt." First I tried a large traditional-looking structure in upscale Brentwood, where, incredibly, the chubby-faced pastor spent his entire sermon demonstrating different ways to restate the sentence, "Sin is bad." Well, I had hardly expected to strike gold on the first try! Probably I would have better hunting among the grass-roots faithful in the conservative countryside. Not far, there had to be "a little brown church in the vale" where men and women of God feasted on sound doctrine.
The solution seemed obvious. All my co-workers were country folk. For all their coarse bravado, one could detect hints that their families had been exposed to the old time gospel of grace. One of these rough but honest characters would surely know where faithful shepherds were dug in against modernism, steely-eyed behind battle-scarred breastworks.
Top Cat had two brothers working at the factory. One of them could have been the model for the original Tennessee volunteer -- tall, lanky, homespun-handsome in flat-combed hair, full of good humor, quietly friendly to all. He would know, I thought, if anyone would, where to find that sweet fellowship enjoyed by the flock of God somewhere in the rich pastures toward the Kentucky line. So I approached him in just that spirit, confident if I treated him as though he were already a brother in the Lord, he would rise to respond in kind.
When I approached him Friday afternoon, I was gratified by his calm willingness to recommend a church such as "few city-folk have the luck to experience," set deep in piney woods about 25 miles north. Using a block of scrap, he took the time to draw an intricate map, assuring me what a place of blessing it had been in his life. Grateful, I promised I'd check it out that very Sunday.
Lord's Day morning raised lofty opposition in the form of a threateningly gloomy sky northwards. All the more reason to press on, I thought. Strapping my Bible with its thick after-market sheath brazenly embossed with the Sword of the Spirit onto the back of my dependable Suzuki, I fired up and headed out with a copy of the map crammed in my left jeans pocket. I figured if these Christians were really as down-to-earth as I had been told, they could adjust to a motorbike and blue jeans on a first encounter.
Forty minutes later found me exploring a maze of two-lane country roads in light drizzle. I had found the right highway running between run-down homesteads but was having trouble locating the turnoff indicated on the map. Running about 25 miles per hour down a slight incline where the gleaming asphalt shone with ripples left by years of shuddering dumptrucks, I decided I'd better backtrack. At that point I must have applied a wee too much rear brake because the bike suddenly spit me onto the palms of my hands as it spun itself and my Bible into the gravel on the road's left shoulder.
My hands were pink and smarting from wet embedded grit, but I wasn't bleeding, much. Only my right pantleg next to the knee was torn open over a nice raspberry that made me limp while I was righting the bike and collecting my scuffed-up Bible. Standing in the somber rain I re-inventoried both body and machine, concluding no serious damage was done to either. Alright, then, Satan, it's going to take more than this to keep me away from that sweet sanctuary in the wildwood!
Remounting, I headed back the way I had come, this time after less than a mile finding a previously unnoticed road-marker on a vine-encrusted fencepost. Turning in, I was now motoring slowly on a sandy double-track that curved into a scraggly grove of stunted pines. It looked more like a pickup trail to a junkyard than the way to a church house, but I was determined to find this place. The trees would have been pitiful enough on a sunny day, but the woods looked mournfully dark under the gentle rain, my motor seemingly the only sound for miles. After a bit the "road" simply stopped in front of what appeared to be a single-story doublewide shack of blackened barn wood, all shuttered and bolted against the gloom. I must have misread the directions. Still, with a strange sense of uneasiness I deployed the sidestand and decided to walk around this hodgepodge of rusty tin roofing and carelessly assembled lumber. I noted some corroded beer cans scattered among the vines on one side. This certainly wasn't the church. A half-formed suspicion had been nagging since arrival, but this disturbance was torn aside like a thread of cigarette smoke entering a fan, by the revelation washing over my soul as I rounded the second corner and beheld the pine-shrouded heap behind the hideous hovel. There in a wet stinking pyramid taller than a man was undoubtedly the most disgusting collection of beer cans and brown bottles in three states -- obviously tossed haphazardly from the back door of what I suddenly realized was nothing but a makeshift country bar! The light of comprehension crept over me in an ironic mix of anger, pity, and shame. I was the well-primed butt of a diabolically nasty joke.
I did some serious praying that afternoon and early the following morning about what should be my response to the trickery that could presume to insult so much weightier objects than one mere man, least of all a naïve Jesus Freak from Florida. As the workers assembled on Monday it was apparent others had been let in on the joke, because many eyes were on me when the mapmaker arrived a few minutes late. He couldn't help looking my way with sheepish anticipation, wanting to smile but doubtless wondering if he should expect a fight. I believe the Lord had already given me my response. In my cheeriest voice I said, loud enough for the whole assembly to hear, "Good morning, Brother Snake."
That pretty much brought the house down.
Meanwhile near Belmont College I had discovered the Koinonia Coffee House, which on Saturday nights featured contemporary Christian recording artists and youth-oriented messages. Groups like Brethren and Dogwood became an inspiring source of encouragement that I was not alone in my faith. One of the young pastors recommended a charismatic fellowship meeting in a small church-building barely a mile from my home base.
I met with this congregation of about a hundred and fifty believers for a full year. I got my mother to go with me to a few of their meetings, but, as they aspired to "stay in the flow" of what the Holy Spirit might have in mind, she found their services unsettling. To my untaught rawness as a believer, the intense teachings seemed appropriately deep, with militant inner preparedness for last days' onslaughts being a recurrent theme. Interspersed there might be dancing in the aisles or lying hushed, face down on the carpet toward the podium. However, I soon picked up on the fact that unless one had "the Baptism in the Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues" he must remain shut out from the inner circle of the hypersensitive. My former mentor Tommy Bryan in Florida had warned me about this elitist emphasis, but the phenomenon was too widespread not to check out for myself. If it took me further into God, I wanted it.
In a local hotel this group mounted a weekend seminar designed, first, to prove from scripture that a "prayer language" was a more or less indispensable element in the Christian walk and, second, to help the participants discover how to receive this gift of unknown speech. As I later observed with similar groups, at the seminar's Sunday afternoon climax participants were encouraged to begin making simple babbling sounds while the leaders placed their hands lightly, palms down, on our heads. (I once attended a meeting where the preacher actually began rapidly slapping both my cheeks at once in an effort to crank the vocal motor to life.) This procedure would hopefully jump-start genuine glossolalia. But my wellspring wouldn't so much as bubble. Although one member of this church later admitted to me privately that he had faked "the gift" in order to be accepted by the others, I was not interested in counterfeiting anything that claimed to be truly an empowerment from God. That seemed not just stupid, but dangerous. Nevertheless, having been told the importance of showing the Lord how earnestly I craved this blessing, on the recommendation of the elders I did spend the better part of one starlit summer night wandering alone over a nearby golf course trying to "free up" my tongue to speak in a language my mind could not comprehend. I found I could string some convincing-sounding syllables together, but I well knew the mighty Creator was no way involved in the process.
I don't mean to knock "tongues" per se, seeing that the New Testament validates this gift as one among a handful of spiritual tools given by God to specific redeemed individuals according to their needed functions for the common good as ministers in or through the church. On the other hand, as apparently the least of such spiritual bestowals, it is by no means a universal mark of salvation, as some teach, or even of particularly high status in the church. Indeed, as a gift remarkably vulnerable to counterfeit by "the enemy," it deserves special caution in public exercise, with appropriate checks as specified in 1 Corinthians Chapter 14. Movements within Christendom obsessed with this one gift, elevating it beyond its rightful place, portray a caricature of what it means to be a Christian.
Early in my new life in God's Son I had discovered Keith and Melody Green's hip and pithy publication, the Last Day's Newsletter. Each issue focused on a basic concept or controversy in the faith, in a style that appealed to people 15 to 40. These lovingly produced Bible-based magazines were free for the asking, so I became a distributor, receiving bundles of 25 every new issue. One Sunday morning I thought I sensed the Spirit prompting me to bring samples of this anointed little resource to pass to acquaintances at the above charismatic fellowship. After the service I was in the process of sharing these with a couple of 20-somethings a few pews back from where I always sat, when the chief elder suddenly intervened and escorted me smartly out the church door. Once outside, he proceeded to rebuke me with great heat for passing literature to his sheep without first checking its content with him.
This was a new kind of church experience for me, to say the least. Abstractly I could see value in his perspective, but in light of our yearlong relationship the sharpness of his manner shocked me. Did he know me so little as to totally distrust my motives? It was as if he thought I was trying to undermine his ministry. Later I learned that the leadership of this group had been strongly influenced by what had become known as the Shepherding Movement, where rank-and-file members were expected, in addition to adherence within standard romantic parameters, to submit personal decisions such as choice of dating partners to the authority of wiser elders in the faith. That type of structure might be beneficial for some; but for myself, I figured if my wings needed clipping, God Himself would show me where and how. I somewhat reluctantly began searching for another church.
I must here interrupt the chronological flow in order to tell you about my aforementioned friend in Atlanta, who died of cancer in 1990. Forever known to all as simply Toby Tate, he was in fact half-brother to actress Sharon Tate. A man of rare artistic gifts, Toby remains the most remarkable acquaintance of my life, nor would any sketching of my pilgrimage be complete without him. I first encountered his magnetic genius in 1964 while suffering through graduate school in Nashville. At that time Toby was probably 35, having returned from a tour as a Marine in Japan (he became fluent in Japanese), from a minor speaking role as a Roman soldier in the movie Spartacus, and also from a stint absorbing militant atheism in Greenwich Village. Five-foot-seven in height but deep chested and muscular, in those early sixties he cut a dashing figure with black curly locks, prominent golden earring, piercing gray-green eyes, and ever-present motorcycle boots -- arguably Nashville's premier bohemian. (I later learned the boots were an affectation; he never drove a motorcycle.) I met him because he hung around with mutual writer, musician, and out-loud-poet friends. An omnivorous reader and frequent actor in local plays, he was a chain-smoking conversationalist and bongo-poseur at a rebel pub called The Orchid is Black.
Toby's other salient feature was that he was certifiably insane. Not merely "wild and crazy" but a diagnosed manic-depressive prone to severe psychotic episodes. I didn't know this when I met him; I just sensed a fearsome aura in his presence that both repelled and fascinated. His speech carried the convincing swagger of a Village ex-patriate. (My latent prudishness was aroused when he made knowing reference to licentious "daisy-chains.") Much later I learned he had been institutionalized numerous times in mental wards in Tennessee and California, where he was subjected to intense electroshock therapy. One of his California psychiatrists actually dedicated a book to this same "Toby Tate," titled If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. My friend later confided to me that in early stages of his manic phase he would feel invincible, sometimes prowling nocturnal streets barefoot, stealthy and powerful as a two-legged leopard. (If you have seen the demeanor portrayed on the face of the lead saber-tooth tiger in the animated movie Ice Age, you have the essence of the old Toby.) Once in this mode he tricked the male attendants at a Nashville psychiatric facility, scaled a high moonlit fence, and swam the same night across the strong current of the Cumberland to hide out at his mother's house in East Nashville.
His father had apparently deserted that lady when Toby was a pre-teen. Although his mother in later years became a sincere churchwoman, while carrying Toby she had been told in a dream she should name him "Zoid." He also recalled having sat as a young child under a card table while his dad conducted séances. Once when his father caught him reading a Bible in bed, the man had hurled the heavy book against the wall with such demonic rage it exploded all over the room.
An unusually gifted artist with a subtle grasp of color, Toby painted mostly in oils. His early works were psychedelic before that term was coined -- intricate paeans to a cosmic torment. The clear-etched outline of a female nude would be filled, vinelike, with snakes, scorpions, and faces. He knocked off hundreds of thorn-torn heads of Christ, selling them on the boardwalk in New Orleans while slashed-on paint was still wet, then, perhaps in hope of purchasing peace, anonymously dropping thousands in fresh cash into velvet bags on the ends of pews in a nearby cathedral. One of his later paintings, of a gargantuan Yeti-like earth mother, entitled "One Foot in the Garden," won first place at the Atlanta Arts Festival circa 1979. Even his housepainting occasionally could not suppress this volcanic talent, as he played subtle tricks on the eye by precise changes in shade and color on parallel angled surfaces. Like inspired music, a housefront or mantelpiece would become under his hand a wonder for perpetual study.
In his late twenties in California, when he was "up" he wouldn't be able to sleep for three weeks at a stretch, getting further and further out, so full of supernatural energy he felt he could mow golf courses at a sprint with an old-fashioned push-mower. He recalled how his head-doctors in LA used to restrain him in a chair and gather round to observe a human nuclear reactor in meltdown, amazed by answers spewing from a mind apparently speaking with authority beyond itself. Then, strait-jacketed in a padded room he would quiver in desperation to obey, on penalty of death, an unending series of inner mandates to, for example, count the holes in the ceiling panels without losing track. At other times, the very fate of humanity itself seemed to hinge on the solution to complex numerical riddles.
He confessed to me that he had worn biker garb in the old Nashville days as a kind of "spiritual public service," because his delusion caused him to believe this aura of evil drew people's hatred out of them like deadly poison. He said he could even sense wads of that hatred striking his leather jacket, adhering like cotton until he was a self-determined scapegoat. He had penetrated deeply enough into the geography bearing the catchall legend "insanity" to be able to "read" people who were natives there. Much later, after he had truly come to know the Lord, he affirmed that among those relegated to the loony bin are genuine saints who, in light of a too-intense perception of the eternal, are ill equipped to play conventional games. Toby said there were times as a mental patient that he would become aware of another inmate staring as in awe at a cross-shaped shadow cast from a bright window onto the floor, and would know beyond doubt the person was intimately focused on the Cross of Christ.
But to take things in their proper order, I first became actual friends with Toby not long after leaving New Mexico but before going to work at my former student's dirt-bike shop in Decatur, Alabama. A year before, Toby had received news that a teenage daughter from a former liaison had been murdered in California. Now by this time, around 1975, Toby's ocean-surf hair had grown long and yellow-gray, which, combined with a whitening beard, was already beginning to render that Moses-like appearance that intensified dramatically throughout his remaining years. I found him living in the avant-garde Little-Five-Points area of Atlanta with a wife and three small children. I recognized his still-pretty wife Ginny as having been a student of chamber music in Nashville ten years earlier. By now Toby was "coping," mentally, with the help of daily lithium, though he grumbled a bit at the "dullness" the drug seemed to cast over his life. Consequently, although he worked hard to provide for his family, about once a year he would take a vacation from his medicine and disappear for weeks on end. He had also since Nashville days been forced by quasi-religious encounters during such flip-outs to lay aside atheism in favor of serious quest for spiritual truth. Thus at last we were somewhat on the same page. I lived in the curtained dimness of his 1920's era two-story home for several months, helping in his housepainting and sign-making businesses. Every November and December he had already begun to carve out a lucrative holiday-season career painting holly, snowmen, and Peanuts cartoon characters on storefronts throughout the greater Atlanta area. His ability to rapidly render calligraphy with a paintbrush, coupled with a gregarious good humor enabled him to net $12,000 in the six weeks prior to Christmas. Employees were always thrilled to see their names in gold script inside a furiously slapped-on acrylic wreath on the establishment door. (As his rippling hair grew whiter over the years, adults would confide in a whisper that he looked "exactly like God," whereas children often mistook him for Saint Nick; for the latter, he usually asked, with kind but perfectly serious interest, if they had been good.)
But even before I got saved I suspected there were times when a relatively high echelon evil spirit would speak through Toby. I happened to catch him once just as he was "taking another break" from his lithium and right before he disappeared for about a week. We were sitting in an all-night drugstore on Ponce de Leon Avenue near Emory University, facing each other over coffee. Gradually I became aware that a strangely seamless transition had taken place, the emergence of a different personality than theretofore seen in my friend. The eyes had waxed utterly remote, with more than a hint of cruelty. In austere but quietly seductive tones ("There's some things I've never told you, Jimmy.") this alien presence lectured through my friend's lips, carefully spinning a web of occult wisdom as though vouchsafing treasure to a highly favored initiate. I had not surrendered to Jesus Christ at that time, but I wasn't buying what the opportunistic spirit was selling. I simply bore with it, hoping to disguise the fact that I was rather unnerved by the unexpected shift of persons.
When his oldest son Shelby was about seven, Toby would occasionally don a dress coat and take the musically precocious boy along to check out a gamut of new-agey religious services from Christian Science to Theosophy. He and I were both still seeking. I went with him one evening to meet some spiritists he had found. I got them to ask their familiar entities if they knew a single "heavenly word" I had managed to "carry back" from that California mescaline bummer. So sorry, they didn't. He also made fast friends with a genuinely Christian lady who ran a used bookstore that he loved to explore. Certain books seemed to call out to him, even from a stack of hidden titles; these invariably turned out to be about this enigmatic character Jesus. I also went with his whole family to a big Unitarian outlet where we were bemused when the children's choir sang, "I'm gonna let my little liberal light shine." Neither of us was hitting serious pay dirt.
Years later, when Toby heard that I had gone to Florida, he went off his medicine and drove from Atlanta to look for me. Landing on the beach near St. Augustine, he became an overnight guru with a following of young freaks, using a Bible to make up stuff that even he knew was bogus -- which, however, they accepted as gospel. No longer able to flee the Hound of Heaven in atheism, he longed to be somehow used of God, to hear and do His bidding; but he had not yet come to trust Jesus as the sole valid entry into the Father's kingdom, let alone the Bible as authoritative. Somewhere relatively early in this Florida adventure, wearing a sweaty T-shirt (which simply made the test of obedience that much more severe) he "knew" God was ordering him to overcome all appearances, push to the front of some big politico's press conference, and there ask permission to pray for the man -- senator or governor, I forget which. His request, incredibly, being granted, Toby rested a sunburned hand on the dignitary's pinstriped shoulder and prayed eloquently in front of the gawking assemblage for his "protection and courage" in the face of opposition. Then, no doubt inwardly comparing the scene to Jesus passing safely through the midst of a hostile crowd, Toby withdrew, thanking God for strengthening him to such painful obedience. Later, slipping still further from reality, having lost track of where he parked his car, he retreated, again barefoot, into a coastal swamp. There, under a silvery moon, eaten alive by mosquitoes, he pleaded all night with God to make a deal whereby he might trade these and all future penances in return for his sons never having to suffer this quality of torment. Next day he got hauled to jail as a vagrant, where with fiendish relish the police beat him bloody, breaking a couple of teeth. Given a pair of flip-flops and thrown out of town, shamed and defeated, he was somehow able to get through to his wife, who drove down with Shelby to rescue him.
With this background, I can resume my story as a struggling toddler Christian living in Nashville with my parents. I had lost touch with Toby and assumed he and his family were still in Atlanta. Then I had a dream of running into his wife in a big discount store. Within a week the dream proved prophetic when that event occurred in the nearby Madison K-Mart. Toby's wife and one of their two sons seemed happy to have stumbled into me as well. She explained that the family had moved back to East Nashville into Toby's childhood home on Eastland Avenue behind the Miller Clinic. For the time being, however, Toby was back in Atlanta working out of a small basement apartment in the old neighborhood "because all his business contacts are there."
All this was transpiring at the same time that I was sensing, at last, an inner release to quit my job at the houseboat factory. Rightly or wrongly, I still didn't think I was being adequately compensated. I had been raised to $6.25 an hour, but had recently been pushing for another 25-cent increase, which was denied. Learning that my long-suffering pal was situated where I might be able to share the liberating truth of Yeshua with him was all it took to bid my folks a temporary adieu and set my truck whining down interstate 24 through Chattanooga, onto I-75 South into teeming "Hotlanta," long since high-rising in steel and glass disdain of General Sherman's torch.
By hiring a couple of part-timers, Toby usually kept several jobs going at once, nor was he niggardly about rewarding helpers. Because I had earlier learned to make myself aggressively useful either in housepainting or as backup for sign artistry, the simple financial aspect of our relationship fell smoothly into place. Spiritually, however, the road proved steep and, at times, seemingly impassible. Although he no longer dismissed the possibility that Jesus Christ might be God's unique avenue to eternal life, he had been indoctrinated with a thousand mental strongholds against recognizing scriptural authority, particularly of the Old Testament.
The root of the problem was that I was having to confront that sophisticated entity nesting in Toby's tree, and this time it was all-out war. Whenever our talk turned to religious matters, for the first one or two hours -- often late at night after an exhausting day -- a barrier of objections to specific biblical issues would rise up in a seemingly impenetrable layer, like sludge, on the surface of Toby's mind. This mean-spirited crust had to be dealt with patiently, as though digging through sticky muck in search of clear water beneath. Toby would raise such questions as, for example, why a loving God would mandate the wiping out of Israel's pagan neighbors to the last pig in their corral. Then there were always the lesser straw men regarding the age of the earth and the fate of peoples who never had a chance to hear the good news of the Savior. But then, if I hung in through these laborious contentions, the Spirit of God would somehow mercifully intervene and the side of Toby that wanted to believe would be able to assert itself. The session usually ended in a glorious trading of insights into the wonders of God's provision in being born in human flesh.
Nor did we work nonstop. Interspersed with sweltering days clinging to ladders wielding fat-handled scrapers and 4-inch latex brushes, we'd check out the latest masterworks tour at the High Museum of Fine Art. There we mostly gravitated to realism of the sort that accurately renders even the faint blueness of veins beneath semi-transparent skin, as seen on the ankle of a beautiful woman, no doubt symbolizing the soul, as she is transported to heaven in the arms of an unabashedly masculine angel. Then we heard that the Shroud of Turin Exhibit had come downtown, on an upper floor of a posh hotel. Not the shroud itself, of course, but a series of half-size backlit color photographs, considerable literature, plus a Catholic priest providing scheduled commentary. Both Toby and I already believed the Shroud was certainly the burial cloth of Christ, so we listened attentively, standing against the wall at the back of a crowd of thirty people. After the priest ran through a dispassionate litany of the types of wounds responsible for the various stains on the cloth, I heard Toby catch a quivering breath beside me. My friend was being strangely moved; on the one hand, mightily angered by the priest's medical coldness, but at the same time literally heart-devastated to be confronted with precise details of what the Crucified One had endured. With coursing tears he whispered gruffly as we hurried out ahead of the crowd, "They beat Him half to death."
God's wooing of a lost sheep was nearing its climax. For Toby, sitting in a Waffle House at 2:00 in the morning, the love lyric of a country ballad would irresistibly become a personal message from the Father of Lights. Similarly, his car radio spoke to him mystically and continuously. How often he would punch it on to have a significant phrase leap out to comfort or encourage. In a thousand ways God's sovereignty was proving boundless on his behalf. I left him to that Providence and returned to my parents' home to begin a year breathing walnut dust in a cabinet shop near the fairgrounds.
Much later, after I had been back from Florida a total of four years, I got a call from Toby that he was in Nashville and wanted to meet me at an eatery on Gallatin Road. When I walked in and saw him facing me from a nearby booth, I was shocked to see his eyeglasses held together with scotch tape and -- much more remarkable, that he had no teeth! Despite evident embarrassment over the latter impediment, he was fairly bursting to tell what had happened.
As I knew, having practice-taught one semester in Tucker, Georgia, just east of Atlanta, Stone Mountain was a gigantic tooth of granite rising vertically 600 feet out of flat red-clay countryside. This spot had always held a huge fascination for Toby, even after it blossomed as a tourist attraction with hotel, antique locomotive, giant Civil War relief carving, and laser show. Yet the rounded spine of the mountain itself had been preserved as a nature trail, winding up through naked pine roots, along which hikers could ascend to its great barren hump. Past the top of that trail, at the edge of the precipice overlooking the giant relief of General Lee, Toby said he had met God -- in broad daylight. I could see an unprecedented lightness and joy in my friend's eyes; I believed him.
He recalled how he had awakened that morning knowing he had to climb Stone Mountain. Then, after he had ascended halfway, an inner voice prompted, "Take off your shoes; this is holy ground." Casting his boots aside into the brush, oblivious to other hikers, he somewhat painfully reached the top under a bright Georgia sun and scattered clouds. But the further he went the more he felt overpowered by a sense of God's immediate presence. Somewhere near the highest rim of that arching stone leviathan he was so overcome by the divine Reality overshadowing him that he crashed helplessly to his knees on the bare rock, head bowed, weeping, raising both hands to heaven in utter surrender. He knew shocked tourists were standing about, but couldn't do otherwise, so powerful was this visitation. In a desperately dramatic gesture to show the holy Presence his utter willingness to give any and everything that might be required of him, he hurled off the mountain first his eyeglasses and, after further parlay, the very dentures out of his mouth.
He never located his boots on the way back down. Teeth and glasses were gone for good. When he got back to his apartment he taped together an old broken pair of the latter. But after that experience on the mountain, he quietly determined never to take his lithium again. Somehow he knew it was no longer needed -- as indeed it wasn't. Toby was a new man.
I immediately went with him back to the mountain to look for his boots, which we never found. All we uncovered, half hidden under a layer of pine needles, was a much weathered carving in the mountain itself, neatly blocked and about two feet across, that read "REUNION 2001." This gave rise to speculation about the time of Christ's return, since, after all, it specified a year and not the prohibited "day or hour." The imagined significance was reinforced for me later while driving my mother home from a luncheon; she happened to use the word "reunion" simultaneously as I was engrossed in a mental reverie over this provocative carving. That could have been only coincidence. I now suspect some bible-believer in years past was deeply enough into the prophetic scriptures to apply the one-day/thousand-years correlation of Psalms 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 to several suggestive biblical texts referencing "the third day," which -- counting the "two days" elapsed since Jesus' time -- would at least dawn, according to our calendar, in 2001. [A cautionary lesson, it seems.]
We spent much time together in the months following, both in Nashville and Atlanta. I helped build a "recording studio" in his Eastland Avenue residence where his son Shelby was able to create some amazing demos with an old eight-track reel-to-reel. I was still writing "Contemporary Christian" lyrics to some of my guitar improvisations, so I hired Shelby to play lead guitar and record some of these. My old out-loud poetry friend Clyde Watkins played bass and Toby joined us on drums and vocals. I called our "group" Thunderwater. People hearing our tapes were kind enough to simply comment that the music wasn't "commercial."
Meanwhile, the fruit now springing forth in my peculiar friend's life bore abundant evidence of a true God-wrought conversion.
Nevertheless, Toby-Tate was still bold to go where angels might "hesi-Tate." I'll never forget one drugstore toast-and-eggs-special morning. I was back in Atlanta helping Toby finish up one last interior painting job, again near Emory, before he was to return to his family in Nashville. We were seated at one of a half dozen tiny marble-top tables close to a plate-glass window looking out onto a side-street at morning rush hour. Suddenly we -- and everyone else seated in the drugstore -- noticed, coming down the sidewalk, a tall well-built college-age fellow in red windbreaker and three-day growth of beard. His short hair suggested a student from a good family. The arresting thing was that he was gesticulating wildly toward the passing cars, cursing at them loudly with every possible obscenity and repeatedly declaring, as if they just weren't getting it, "I'm God! God-dammit! I'm God, motherfucker!"
Several in the drugstore lucky enough to have newspapers raised them higher and slid lower on their seats -- like "no way" were they going to acknowledge this new weirdness. Toby, on the other hand, sat transfixed a moment, watching the dude intently, who had now stopped with his back to us, still preaching to the traffic like a banshee.
Of course I'm thinking: Demonized -- big time demonized. Lord, am I supposed to get involved in this situation? God help me, I certainly hope not!
Meanwhile, my newly birthed buddy pushes away from his egg-smeared plate and walks right out the front door and up to the guy. I'm thinking, I don't want to know what I know, I don't want to be here, I don't even want to be best friends with Toby Tate!
I can see Toby looking up at the guy; now he's talking to him. The dude seems to be responding; in fact, he actually quits his ranting and fumbles in his coat, pulling out a partial pack of cigarettes . Shaking them down he offers one to Toby. Toby stands there cool as a day at the swimming pool and even lets the possessed one light it for him. My friend takes a long appreciative drag, then with a serious look on his face asks the bird something else. This changes everything. Instantly the guy wheels robotlike, ninety degrees, and strides rapidly right past Toby and off down the sidewalk the same direction he was going before -- only this time his mouth clamped and his head locked in the drive position.
I hurriedly leave a tip and move outside to see the red jacket bobbing up and down about a block away, steady as she goes. "What the hell did you say to him?"
Toby was gazing after the guy also, pondering. "Well, first I asked if I could have a cigarette. That brought him partly back from where he was. Then, after I lit up, I asked if he would pray for me."
If he would pray for you! Wow. Talk about creative responses! Asking a demonized man to pray for one! Yet the effect was to move him right on down the line, like maybe whatever was bedeviling him didn't appreciate being around praying folk, no way, no how. Toby Potentate! Unforgettable son.
Although my pal's long-suffering wife Ginny had divorced him subsequent to the St. Augustine adventure, he now was welcomed back into his family for several years while their kids were finishing school. Toby and Ginny resumed their songwriting collaboration, now aided by Shelby on guitar, pitching their efforts to big-name country artists. Toby became a familiar figure at the so-called Cowboy Church where one or two well-known singers were regulars, and at writers' nights at the old Rodeway Inn on I-65. The Spirit was clearly prompting him to give up cigarettes, but in the end Toby's flesh refused to comply. This intransigence may have hastened the lymphoma soon to develop.
In the end he returned to Atlanta permanently, living as a bachelor for a time before marrying a divorcee with two young children. His new wife found a house for them practically at the foot of Stone Mountain. In this new environment with a believing wife, Toby's appetite for Bible study was suddenly that of the starving -- his dining room table groaning under multiple versions, concordances, and teaching cassettes. When some of my motorcycle comrades and I paid him a visit at his new home, he requested and received a baptism in the nearby river. About the same time, as he was finishing up a sign job outside a mini-mall at midnight, a man ran from his car through a vicious downpour to tell him he should go to a certain church. That's how God dealt with Toby, dramatically. Indeed, Providence again seemed to have directed his steps, because soon his little family was being regularly nurtured by scripturally sound teaching.
Perhaps six months before his remarriage, Toby had been diagnosed with terminal cancer at the VA hospital and given two months to live. This diagnosis came after extensive surgery on his groin and one leg to scrape away cancerous lymph nodes clinging around major arteries. Many nerves and muscles having been severed in this operation, he was told not to expect to walk again. Several born-again people in Nashville and Atlanta began regularly praying for his recovery, and he not only began walking but against all medical expectations lived another three years. Those years became the window for the spiritual growth his whole life had anticipated. He died at peace with God and man and is buried in a veteran's plot without a headstone near the railway tracks in a far corner of a downtown Chattanooga cemetery.
Well, guess what. I've been avoiding the painful stuff again. To read the last many pages since my return from Florida, one would think I had been transformed overnight into the Lord's stalwart Special Forces agent.
Hardly. I couldn't guess at the outset when I returned to Nashville that the initial refining process on which I was embarked would involve eleven lonely years before God could entrust me with the sort of life partner I had needed from the beginning. During those years I maintained sporadic contact with Cherry and Cerese in Florida, driving down to visit once a year on average. I knew that divorce was truly my fault. Despite the fact that during this period Cherry got remarried for a short time, I clung doggedly to a hope we might be reconciled -- largely because the Bible seemed to inculcate as much; therefore I was regularly enlisting Christians in Nashville to pray toward that end. In fact, when Cerese was midway through high school and her mom started attending a Methodist church in Ocala, Cherry herself saw remarriage as a possibility. But in view of the divergence of our paths over nearly twenty years, in the end neither of us could muster the will to assume the challenge.
In Ezekiel Chapter 34 the Bible speaks of "a cloudy and gloomy day." Although the context is of an apostate Israel -- and although the church has not "replaced" Israel in the denouement of God's screenplay -- I have strongly felt that this scriptural indictment of the "shepherds" (pastors) applied equally to the bulk of professing Christianity today. We too live in a day when the "sheep" are being scattered to become prey for "the beasts of the field." New Age doctrines have penetrated into many church groups and infected so-called Christian media with appeals to pride and greed in our lowest natures. Not to make excuses for my bad behavior, but I am convinced this overarching spiritual "gloom," which increasingly cloaks the background of our age, pressed extra hard on me, tending at times to discouragement and defeat. Like-minded Christians who even suspected what I could plainly see were few and far between. As one who trips over a mossy legbone and looks about to find himself surrounded by a field of skeletons, I was discovering the unanticipated monstrosity of dead orthodoxy. Even in supposed "Bible churches," the people too often seemed somnambulating in southern Sunday tradition, the fossilized shell of a former generation's faith.
After leaving the charismatic fellowship near my home I went through a disheartening period searching for a congregation in which to drop anchor, meanwhile surviving this solitary voyage among scraggly Protestant isles on a diet of private Bible reading and survey of classic writers like C.S. Lewis.
The demons assigned to me took maximum advantage of this separation from the flock. Saturday nights became a time of particular vulnerability. It's an old story, I know, with which most males are only too familiar. R-rated movies I thought I should be "mature enough" to handle became a snare that nearly always ended in devastating midnight masturbation. Yet the harassing demons one might pick up in a typical movie theatre are mosquitoes compared to the vehicle-hungry kahunas orbiting "adult"-oriented establishments. Three girlie shows in a decade might not seem a damning record, but the inner price for each was astronomical.
If human beings are no more than highly evolved animals, the word "lust" would not exist. William Blake was inspired by the wrong "god" -- the fallen prince of this world -- when he wrote: "The lust of the goat is the bounty of God." (Now there's a subtle lie, because "bounty" is a loaded term that only carries the half-truth of the inordinance of lust.) Properly speaking, a goat on its own cannot "lust" because, as with any animal, there is no moral taint to its sexual functioning. "Lusting" in the true sense is possible only for creatures whose natures are multi-tiered. There is a moral dimension to human life precisely because humanity carries in its "upper stories" the imprint of a Creator Whose very Being defines the Good.
The scripture refers to our body as the "house" in which "we" live. But even beyond this metaphor (speaking strictly to those who have been "born from above") the Bible states flatly: "your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit." In further elaborating this clue to our multi-leveled nature, God gave mankind a symbolically detailed picture of a three-tiered human nature in the pattern of the wilderness tabernacle or "tent of meeting" during the exodus from Egypt, later duplicated in the more permanent design of Solomon's temple. The fenced "outer court" corresponds to our skin-encased physical body, the "holy place" to our "soul" or human spirit (seat of will, intellect and emotion) and the "Holy of Holies," to that empty cavern in the unregenerate heart -- source of despairing restlessness, left vacant since Adam's precipitous tumble from intimacy. But just as God came to dwell in that innermost place behind the tabernacle curtain, the intended harmonious completion of the original architecture is similarly fulfilled in the new birth that miraculously establishes a "new creature." There, in the inmost sanctuary of the temple's heart stood the blood-stained ark containing God's two-fold covenant "deal" with humanity: the tablets of the Law side by side with the "Bread come down from heaven," which Jesus identified as Himself. "You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." (Romans 8:9)
If human beings are no more than highly evolved animals, the word "sacred" as applied to marriage, for example, is embarrassingly absurd. Indeed, words like "rape," "abuse," "perversion," "pornography" become anachronistic. But in spite of the mechanistic pseudo-scientific irons of anthropology and psychology, heated white-hot in the fires of naturalistic philosophy, conscience is not so easily seared. Sex for a three-tiered being is never a simple bio-function. The wise of every culture have ever known it is a violation of the "natural order" -- the moral order -- for the body to rule over the spirit, or over the upper-story rights of others. Strange to live in a day when the point needs to be made, but lust is by definition a morally defective reality. It willfully sets itself at enmity with "things above." It is sin that needs dealing with.
The only time in my life I ever gave "money for sex" was during this period of drift. One Saturday night, having surrendered to a shadowy prompter, this blood-bought child of God took the indwelling Holy One into an "adult" establishment on Lower Broad in Nashville and gave $15.00 to a skinny girl in underwear to reach her well-veined forearm through a hole in a Plexiglas partition to allow me a brief acquaintance with her hand. But what once would have satisfied now only brought misery to the twice born. To the extent that we yield to the will of our invisible foe, he gains a corresponding legal right to tempt us toward deeper bondage on a deeper level of sin. Romans Chapter 6 puts it bluntly enough: "Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death or of obedience [to God] resulting in righteousness?" Put another way, where there is garbage, the garbage man gains legal right of operation. On that occasion, this new level of surrender to the flesh proved doubly frustrating, making my body the more ravenous for what my spirit simultaneously knew could never satisfy -- only intensifying the sense of banishment from the true God-blessed union of body-soul-spirit in marriage to a fellow saint that alone can satisfy our trifold nature as God intended.
I was forced to confront the text in First Corinthians Chapter 6: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and MAKE THEM MEMBERS OF A HARLOT? …Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? …Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and THAT YOU ARE NOT YOUR OWN? FOR YOU HAVE BEEN BOUGHT WITH A PRICE: therefore glorify God in your body." The well-worn phrase "dying to self" was beginning to make sense to me. Every one of the four gospels records Jesus as saying, in the context of self-denial, "For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it." (Mt. 16:25)
Of course there were agonizingly sincere confessions, appeals, and resolves in prayer -- not to mention cleansing communion services. Jesus always mercifully helped me to my feet again. There were also periods -- weeks, even months on end -- when I was able to resist lustful detours. I learned to beware times of special vulnerability, such as the emotional letdown I always felt on the long drives back from visiting my daughters and their mothers in Florida and Knoxville. Yet through it all the old self clung desperately to maintain a life.
So in spite of my determination to stay on board the gospel frigate, I was still a loose cannon on deck. Around 1981 I joined a nourishing Bible-study group that had seen through the subtle set-traps of Sabbath-keeping legalism. These were serious students with a bulldog clamp on the gospel of grace. However, in that setting I met a red-haired divorcee with two young boys. We began dating. On about the second date, with hardly a second thought, we started "doing it." Sure, we knew "fornication" was a sin, but our obvious excuse was that marriage might be in the offing. (After all, we were praying together regularly!) We dutifully met each other's parents. Her sons were choice. After about six months, however, in spite of carefully observed precautions, she turned up pregnant. Immediately this mid-30's mom became adamant that she was not about to have another child. For my part -- though heartsick -- I was secretly relieved I wouldn't have to do the honorable thing; I didn't protest too forcefully. That's how this stupidly straying sheep became informed of the true business of the industrial giant calling itself "Planned Parenthood," when for the nominal fee of $200 I was able to hire someone to murder my own unborn child.
Ironically, before we even realized the pregnancy was underway, we had agreed to quit having sex. For me, this determination came after being deeply convicted through a message preached by Dr. Cortez Cooper at a new church I had found meeting in Hillsboro High School. After his message I had literally rushed to a pay phone near the church to tell my auburn-haired sister we simply must leave off having intercourse in our unmarried state. Without hesitation she replied that she had been inwardly impressed with the same necessity.
Too late, alas. A few weeks later I accompanied her to the non-threatening "clinic" on 21st Avenue and waited in the spacious room overlooking a sunny Vanderbilt campus. Afterwards, she found herself in tremendously more pain than we had been led to expect. Emotionally drained, we drove around the corner and got an Arby's. That day of the "procedure" was the last time we saw each other -- not because she died; we just both had been spanked toward sobriety.
In Revelation Chapter 3 Jesus says, "Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline." How true this caution proved in my life after such a terrible acquiescence to abortion!
The form my chastening took may surprise you -- you may think it far too merciful.
Merciful it was, no doubt, but to me it hardly seemed so. David the psalmist, when confronted about his sin with Bathsheba, prayed, "Do not cast me away from Thy presence and do no take Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of my salvation." If you do not know the Lord in a personal way -- if His Spirit has not come to "abide" on the deepest level of your being -- the following will have no meaning. The Lord's immediate "punishment" for my sin -- proof when it was finished that I was, after all, "a son and not a bastard" -- was that He removed all consciousness of His presence in my life for the span of three weeks, meanwhile "giving me over" for a retaste of every lustful enslavement from which He had delivered me when I came to faith in His Son. My taken-for-granted freedom in Christ had been snatched totally away.
Big deal, you say? For me, it constituted an indescribably big deal. I would have preferred being struck down with bodily sickness -- fever, vomiting, diarrhea -- for three months than having to be reminded so graphically of what a helpless subject of spiritual manipulation I had been before the blood of Christ was applied to my life. Moreover, for all I knew at the time, the condition might be permanent -- that the magnitude of my sin might have forfeited all hope of salvation, an utter casting away from the Father forever. (So much for the immediate consequences; I also know I will reap untold diminishment in eternity for this one incalculable deed done in the flesh.)
The scripture also enjoins Christians to "confess your sins one to another." Some months later I followed this injunction to the letter with my new pastor, Dr. Cooper, making an appointment in his office for exactly that purpose. I knew that if I was to be free to serve within his pastorate, he had to know the worst, though it were murder, up front -- especially given that Christ Presbyterian had mounted a picketing campaign around this same abortion mill. After telling him the whole ugly sequence of events, including his role in perhaps mitigating the severity of the chastisement, he joined me in divinely anointed appeals to our King, after which he confided that he had found my openness "most refreshing." We became friends from that hour.
I stayed with this fast-growing fellowship for the next five years, during which time it built a college-sized facility on Old Hickory Boulevard (not two miles from the church that had provided the information that "sin is bad.") This new Brentwood fellowship, affectionately known to all as simply "Christ Pres," was part of the recently formed Presbyterian Church in America, having broken away from the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA over the issue of biblical inerrancy. (The PCA of course takes the more conservative position that God's Word has been sovereignly preserved, having been totally God-breathed "in the original autographs.") Under Dr. Cooper's uncompromising Peter-Marshall-style preaching, which heaped abuse on merely cultural religion, Christ Presbyterian exploded to become a flagship of the denomination. The parking lot had to be doubled even though they had already gone to two morning services sandwiched around an offering of a dozen elective adult-Sunday-school classes. These latter ranged from in-depth surveys of church history to specific offerings on marriage, doctrinal distinctives -- even spiritual warfare. Blossoming meanwhile in this bracing environment of intelligent faith, I was rapidly gaining steadiness in my "walk." (I had indeed been promised this respite in a dream back while I was suffering in the houseboat factory, the gist of the imagery being that I would be moving into a much higher social stratum where .357 magnums were not the preferred tokens of status.) I became involved with a weekly men's Bible study and prayer breakfast. There I was encouraged to teach several quarters of a Sunday morning course I titled "High Surf in Babylon," aimed at arming believers to discern New Age encroachments into popular culture and religion. In 1984 most of these prophecy-deficient Christians had not even heard there was a "new age movement"; they fantasized that holding the fort against "secular humanism" held promise of getting a political leg up on a legislated future of social harmony. (If not quite a theocracy. " Rots of ruck," Nehemiah!)
I was appointed to the Home Missions Committee responsible for the disbursement of supporting funds to ministries within U.S. borders. In this capacity I was somewhat put off when one of our regular meetings was taken up by a tall distinguished gentleman toting an expensive briefcase, having come down from denominational headquarters to lay out projected growth demographics for our region in order to pinpoint "the best" (apparently, "most affluent") locations for daughter churches. To say the least, I wasn't convinced demographics were God's primary criterion in directing church expansion.
Nevertheless, seeing an opportunity to expand my own "impact on culture," I applied for and received in 1987 a weekly $25 grant to cover 15 minutes of Saturday morning airtime on local Christian radio WNQM. So began my short-lived broadcasting career, the first of several endeavors utilizing the title Stormwatch. This show merely ran for nineteen weeks, until the Missions Committee tuned in to discover that my pre-millennial perspective on the Lord's return in no way reflected their own "amillennial" eschatology. Another reason for withdrawal of funding was proffered, but I soon came to appreciate the actual sore spot. I was beginning to figure out that I had landed in one historical stream of biblical interpretation that had branched and re-branched centuries earlier.
For example, at Christ Pres I was well instructed to be able to appreciate Martin Luther for his monumental contribution in bringing Christianity back to a scriptural understanding of "justification by faith alone in Christ alone;" in other words, salvation is by "grace" through faith, not by self-effort. However, it was to be a full decade before I was made equally aware of that reformer's virulent anti-Semitism, with its concomitant fallout in a theology that affirmed that the church had permanently replaced Israel in God's economy [a major theme of my play Hard Rain]. Our Presbyterian church-history classes failed to mention that Hitler himself was enamored of certain Jew-scathing passages in Luther's writing. Thus in the realm of Bible prophecy, the Reformation had, sadly, left Roman Catholic interpretations from early church fathers like Augustine quite intact. If God was "done" with Israel and therefore thousands of Old Testament verses could be spiritualized into a new (exclusively Christian) symbology, then the kingdom of God on earth became the church's long-term reconstruction project. Sure, Jesus would still, according to this view, bring the curtain down -- possibly after churchianity had triumphed over the world -- because we were already in the "millennium," at least symbolically, and Satan was necessarily, therefore, already bound! In light of such notions my Stormwatch show became, understandably, a minor embarrassment.
I had also by this time become an independent carpentry and remodeling contractor, getting all the work I could handle from fellow believers, who were grateful to have someone they could trust invading their homes. All this activity, especially my many new friends and deep sense of responsibility in preparing adult classes, was so filling my time that I was mostly winning the battle to keep myself chaste. Still, I was ill made for singleness. Since reconciliation with Cherry was a somewhat distant hope, you may be assured I wasn't neglecting to check out marriageable women of the Calvinist persuasion -- though I confess body type still held a solid trump over theology. I did take one fine looking jogger-lady with two college-age sons, whose physician husband had deserted her, to lunch a few times. She had a lovely home in the verdant hills of Williamson County; but with me rocketing near and far on my Honda 1100cc V4 Sabre, I couldn't help feeling a bit from the wrong side of the tracks for the "Christ Pres set."
Besides, I need to back up a couple of years and fill in what was happening with Noreen. Our cassette tape correspondence had continued during my first years back in Tennessee. During these years I occasionally sent evangelistic materials her way because it was clear to me she simply needed Jesus. So I had not at that time dismissed the idea of someday marrying the dark-haired desert Amazon. After all, when we were living together I had gone so far as to ask my Dad for a $10,000 loan to purchase a nice parcel in New Mexico where we could build a permanent home together. Now, in 1980, having been laid off from the cabinet shop near the fairgrounds, I used the workman's compensation money (again with help from my patient Dad for concrete block) to construct a Southwestern style semi-underground house on the rim of the 75-foot limestone bluff behind my parents' home, with visions of bringing Noreen east to share it with me. (This fantasy was, I believe, divinely interdicted in the later '80's when I had a vividly pointed dream of teaching a large class at Christ Pres, in the midst of which Noreen simply walked into the room and literally jerked a rug out from under me so that I crashed flat on my back.)
Jesus said explicitly that Satan's wrath -- which of course takes many forms -- becomes magnified the more he knows his time is short. Distortions of human sexuality have ever been a standard weapon in the enemy's manifold arsenal. Today, however, he has been permitted to flood print and electronic media -- now bolstered by the Internet -- with increasingly hard-core porn. Just a few decades ago, before Playboy, the only widely available incitements to lust were tight Hollywood skirts and sweaters, simple newspaper line-drawings peddling lingerie, or the "housewives in underwear" of the Sears Catalog. It is difficult for me to comprehend the sort of pressure toward absolute madness today's atmosphere must create for younger generations. I suspect a global harvest of desperate souls needing deliverance is ripening at exponential speed. Therefore, concerning the internal sexual battle of a new believer, I am compelled to be faithful to the truth of my own path, because I believe it may offer encouragement to others jouncing along the rocky road of 21st Century sanctification. Don't misunderstand: I don't mean encouragement to sin. For the born-again, HOLINESS IS THE GOAL -- WHICH IS OUR REASONABLE EXPRESSION OF GRATITUDE FOR SO GREAT A PARDON. But meanwhile God knows we are clay wrought from dust in radical need of ongoing forgiveness along the way. Infants always stumble while learning to walk! And don't forget that crazy course of the sailing vessel as it tacks against the wind. Get up, struggle up, keep getting up, and PRESS ON! Grab for humble confession and dogged perseverance as though they were spring-loaded oxygen masks as our Jumbo Planet enters its most terrifying dive.
So yes, Saint Jim made three trips back to visit Noreen and Mandy, one in my camper and two by motorcycle. My second daughter Gabriel, who was living with her older sister Ingrid, mother, and step-dad in Knoxville, traveled with me on my first post-conversion visit in my camper. Having not so much as touched a woman for well over a year, I nevertheless set out with the idea that I would portray a lofty example of celibacy for my fourteen-year-old daughter, but, as I recall, that intention got demolished within an hour of our arrival at Noreen's. Chalk up another "hypocrisy" to live down.
The saving grace, however, was that I recognized I wasn't strong enough to put myself in such morally dangerous situations. I sincerely confessed my sin and didn't allow Satan to beat me up with guilt over it. I would do better next time. "Better next time" is a gauge of true repentance.
And I did do better. I made two trips by motorcycle to California in the years that followed ('85 and '87), stopping both times for short visits with Noreen and her daughter Mandy, who by '87 had herself given birth to a lovely daughter. Noreen, now a doting grandmother, was moving toward marriage to a simpatico New Mexico contractor who in years past had taught me what little I know about tree pruning. (Noreen's and my relationship stayed platonic on these occasions; unfortunately my daughters weren't there to congratulate me.) When Noreen did marry a year later, my present to her was a good study Bible, but not long afterwards she and her new husband wrote requesting I cease from sending Christian-oriented materials. Their open-ended nature religion could not abide the exclusive implications of the claims of Christ. Sad to say, we have had no communication since. I continue praying for the great miracle.
Meanwhile in 1988 circumstances had conspired in Tennessee to bring me to a Bible study of relatively new believers who, with the help of a Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, were struggling through the Book of Revelation. This was in the self-built country home of a couple who had been deep into new age occultism. They were being discipled by another remarkably talented young couple for whom music was a major passion. Prior to our first study I vividly recall the 20-year old soon-to-be husband leaning against a parked car in the gathering twilight, playing his saxophone. The following weekend this multi-talented young gentleman's mother Peggy was also at the study, having inwardly known that she "simply had to be there, no matter what." (She had been divorced for about ten years.) We only spoke a few friendly words, but on the basis of this "sighting" I telephoned Cherry that same night and told her I had met someone I could "be serious about" -- in other words, this may be your last opportunity if you think we might get back together. Her instant response came back with a friendly chuckle, "Go for it!"
Events moved rapidly after that. The following night the musical son David's pizza-delivery car was hit by a drunk driver. With David's head having gone through the windshield and one of his legs broken, Peggy's youngest was rushed into critical care at Southern Hills Hospital. For the next week I had a ready-made excuse to join this large family of five grown children and four grandchildren, plus Peggy's ex-husband (who by then was also a believer) as they prayed for "Davy-Joe's" life. I was most impressed with the bold quality of faith being displayed under intense pressure, especially on Peggy's part. She kept God's will paramount even in the face of death -- in spite of the fact that she would have traded her life for her son's, had that been possible.
David pulled through and was married on schedule a month later, using crutches during part of the ceremony. He and his wife lived some years in Los Angeles where God allowed him to lead youth worship at John MacArthur's Grace Community Church. He does voice-over work to support a family of eight talented children -- all devotedly home-schooled by their mother. He is now chief worship leader at Calvary Bible Church in Joelton, Tennessee.
The night of David's wedding I asked Peggy to marry me. That happy event took place four months later with pastors Billy Roy Moore and Scotty Smith officiating. At this (updated) writing we have been peacefully united for 29 years. Now, between us, we have accumulated forty grandchildren and twenty-four great grandchildren. For a time we cast our church lot with the Calvary Chapel movement but now receive spiritual nutrition where son Dave ministers under Pastor David Harrell www.cbctn.org.
Our peace comes from being in Christ and, nearly as significant, simply knowing we can trust each other!
While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
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