Relationship Not Religion

This is my story.

The clerk at the Christian bookstore said to my wife, Barb: “I’m giving you this for free because someone at your home needs it” as she slipped a booklet titled King of Kings into the shopping bag with her other purchases. It’s interesting to us that though my wife shopped regularly at that little book store before and after that day, we have never seen that particular clerk again.

At the time, I was working out of town and had a one-hour, sixty-mile daily commute to work. For weeks my mail and personal reading were stacking ever higher on the ottoman next to my favorite chair.  Always, the King of Kings booklet was on top of the pile. Finally, Halloween arrived and I stayed up alone to maintain vigilance over the house. To be profitably alert, I started to clear mail beginning with the booklet, which was revealed as an illustrated Bible story on the life of Jesus, Within its context, my attention rested on Jesus’ statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life; no man comes unto the Father except through Me.” I had always respected Jesus as a great teacher and an excellent moral example. But I mixed Him in with a lot of other unsorted religious and ethical principles and personalities. What arrested my attention was that He was the “only way” to Heaven, to salvation, to Truth. This was very exclusive; gone was the gray, this was black and white. Previously, I thought that compromise and moral relativism was likely to be the answer. I was faced with a decision. Unable and unwilling to reject Jesus, I mentally accented to what and who He said He was. I did not know, or expect, that this is what is often called a decision to be “born again” or to “receive Jesus”. Nor did I realize that my wife and children had preceded me in making this decision.

The following evening, I turned on the television to watch the news. All the usual controversial issues were under debate. But my perspective was profoundly different and it was immediately apparent to me. Without any deliberate effort, I had clarity and could easily sort out what was right and what was wrong. I’d always thought that the truth was a mix of many sides and that no one had the whole answer. I was raised in a religious environment which I rejected during college and which, without an anchor, resulted in my becoming a “mushy-minded 1960s style liberal”. But with the critical decision to accept an invitation for a living relationship with Jesus in place of relativism and dead religious practices, I experienced a full turnabout in perception. The compromise and confusion I had long harbored were gone. Even though the world calls good evil and evil good, I’ve known which is which since that evening. I was a different person. It was my first experience with the transformational power of the gospel story to renew the mind, to give new life, to reveal Truth; a story I shared regularly thereafter. It’s all so simple that we refuse to accept that it could be correct: It’s not about religious practices and beliefs, it’s about an intimate relationship, a personal one with Jesus as Savior and Lord.

I understand that when sharing this, the use of  Christianese phasing like “born again” can appear over-used or trite and lose some of its powerful meaning but it is helpful in that it does summarize a great deal about creation and God’s plan for us in just a few words. Truth is not relative and it never changes or contradicts itself. Jesus said He is the Truth and that there is not and never has been another Way. We can foolishly reject and deny it, add to it, or try to take away from it with complications like religion, laws, activities, preferences, and traditions; but we can’t change it – it’s unchangeable. Death not Life is found in those false practices and mindsets. At some time in our lives, we must pro-actively seek to know and accept the Truth. Once we have heard it, we are responsible for it. When accepted, the Truth does set us free, and free in Jesus, is free indeed (these are words taken from the Bible, not ones I construed). We don’t earn it and we don’t have to get “good” first, we accept it as we are and He does the rest as we yield to Him as our Savior (from sin and hell) and our Lord (meaning He rules our lives). It is never too late to do this so long as we have the breath of life. I started over at the age of thirty-three with a new integrated worldview, one where spiritual Truth drives both my intellect and my beliefs; they are not separated into science and religion or weekdays and Sundays.

The next two decades were committed to completing a secular career in technology. The majority was involved with planning and managing emerging products, services, and businesses such as cellular and Internet. When I began to contemplate potential retirement at mid-fifty, the related events were suddenly and unexpectedly placed on a fast-track. It happened this way: I dropped my wife at our church in a neighboring community to attend a department meeting. To redeem the time, I attended a church that I had never been to before because I’d heard they were sponsoring a special speaker from out of town. As a visitor, I took a seat in the last row. Just prior to the service’s conclusion, I had to exit to pick-up Barb. As I left the speaker called out for me to stop; he had the following words for me: “Your latter days will be better than your former days, and the best is yet to come. And, by the way, you will be teaching.” Within three months of that experience, we were retired and living in a new community in a different state.

Now I began doing what I’d been yearning to do for a long time. For the first half of my life, I always said that I’d like to do something socially redeeming; in the second half, I changed that to spiritually redeeming. My wife and I immediately spent the next three years engaged in volunteer work related to Israel and the Jewish people, often with our residence in Jerusalem. At the conclusion of our assignment, we returned to our new house full-time for the first since retiring. As is true of missionaries returning from the field – perhaps especially those having experienced the incessant excitement of Jerusalem – the ordinary hum of life stateside was too tame by comparison.

I returned to the classroom for a follow-up challenge; not as a student this time, but as an instructor – one without formal training who was simply operating by gifting and invitation. The opportunities arrived without delay in a variety of venues: recovery centers, K-12 public and parochial schools, churches, a camp, a state prison, and a county jail. Along with the opportunities came challenges; many of them undisclosed and unanticipated, such as gaining credibility, maintaining order, administering discipline, holding attentions, adjusting to systemic behavior permissiveness, understanding imposed limitations, garnering supplemental materials, and curriculum degradation (the compromises for accommodating political correctness and the reading materials permeated with vampirism, sorcery, comics, and rebellion). Collectively, these were nearly overwhelming.

Accepting my personal deficiencies as a teacher was easy; now it was time to lean more fully on God for resolution. After several weeks filled with a sense of failure bordering on serious depression, I was inspired to try sharing a couple of nonfiction stories in the classroom. These had been so meaningful to me that I’d never forgotten them and had occasionally rekindled the stories in professional and personal circumstances.

During this experimental phase, I uncovered two negative and two positive ubiquitous revelations about human nature and modern education respectively. The negative ones were that most people were settling on unwholesome role models as their personal heroes while simultaneously lacking discriminating mentors; and that positive character is on the decline and rarely formally practiced, taught, or upheld as a behavioral model. The positive ones were that people of all ages love true stories — even more so if they’re also entertaining — and that well-constructed stories have the power to guide and motivate where other approaches fail and are only modestly successful or enduring.

Following the introduction of the stories, immediate improvements were noted in all challenge areas. This was readily attributable to the new strategy. Thus encouraged, I sought, researched, outlined, and shared more true stories. But not just any stories would do. The expectations imposed on their selection were sufficiently weighty that only the very best qualified. Literally, hundreds of concepts were pursued, with only a few dozen emerging as acceptable for further development and regular oral presentation.

The stories were designed to blend into a variety of standard subjects, but all had celebrating heroic character as a common theme. They focused on the value to be gained from understanding the circumstances of ordinary men and women whose lives exhibited extraordinary altruistic attributes. As a bonus, the stories often opened opportunities to talk about God, the Bible, and Christian principles for life. Every subject, location, and age level now received stories woven into the core instruction whenever certain favorable classroom conditions were met, and they nearly always were because a story lesson reward of ten-to fifty-minute duration created the necessary motivation. It wasn’t long before I became known as the Storyteller. These assignements certainly fulfilled the “you will be teaching” foretelling.

I underscore that I did not invent this method of instruction; its universal effectiveness was simply confirmed when applied in these instructional engagements. Wise men over the millennia have utilized stories to assist their goals, and their related successes are well recognized. My goals progressed as I shared nonfiction stories in various teaching venues. Later when the stories were collected in a printed anthology, I gained a refined tool to help build virtuous character in students and readers regardless of their circumstances, so they too were now better equipped to finish well.

As a decade of teaching came to closure, I accentuated the part-time writing and editing of non-fiction. The purpose is to glorify God by paying-forward the blessings I’ve received by providing inspiring true stories for others. I now teach indirectly when the written stories are read and enjoyed. When working on a book, we travel around the country on month-long “escapes”.  I’ll write half the day and either engage in an adventure or volunteer at some outreach the other half day. Our favorite travel retreat locales are Pacific Grove, CA; Petoskey, MI; Sedona, AZ; Door County, WI; Williamsburg and Staunton, VI; Sanibel Island, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, FL. Our favorite volunteer assignments are with lighthouses, State and National Parks, and Christian camps. I am partnering with the publisher of my books, Aneko Press / Life Sentence Publishing, for their free distribution to the military, recovery centers, prisons, missionaries, youth centers, and many more.

This combination of activities and blessings fulfills “the latter days will be better than the former days” portion of the promise. Fifteen years after my experience, Barb and I were called out as a couple to hear the “the best is yet to come” excerpt reconfirmed.

God is good!