What happened to me in South Korea changed my life forever. It’s a story that I have told many times, and will continue to tell it, because the things I experienced are not for me alone. When a dying man finds a spring of water in the desert, will he not go and tell his friends so that they too can find refreshment?
The problem with telling this story is that the world is filled with cynics. I know that because I am one. I have an aversion to salesmen because I know how they work. I don’t like to buy something and find out I’ve been duped. The world is filled with con-artists. They become dictators and politicians, slave-traders and drug lords. And some of them become sellers of religion, drawing huge crowds of glassy-eyed do-gooders. They empty their wallets and bank accounts, hoping that maybe God will reward them in the afterlife. And yet I must tell this story, because I was a cynic who was turned around.
I grew up in a Christian home. My father and adopted mother never claimed to be perfect, but there was something very real about their faith. I saw my parents reading their Bibles on a regular basis, and prayer was not something you just did before a meal. They prayed to God like he was actually listening. But I suppose what was most compelling about my parents’ faith was their honesty. I don’t remember them trying to give good impressions. Life was extremely messy at times, and I saw how my parents lived out their faith in those times. I saw how they dealt with sickness, death, divorce, suicide, and senility; everything was put in the hands of God, and they genuinely trusted him to take care of every worry and circumstance.
And yet, in the midst of this very devout home, I grew up a cynic. Looking back, I suppose much of that can be attributed to my feelings of self-pity. I knew that somewhere I had another mother, sister and brother, and I pitied myself that I did not know them. And if there truly was a God in heaven who was in control of all things, the pain I had always known in my heart; a pain shared with no one but myself, was part of God’s plan and purpose for my life.
This made it very difficult for me to see God as a loving father, like the Bible described him.
At the age of 15, I met my natural mother, my sister, and my brother. I took a flight from Long Beach, California to Spokane, Washington, where I met them at the airport; an awkward, but unforgettable experience. They were living with my mother’s husband in a one-room log garage, a few miles out of Post Falls, Idaho, up a long dirt road in the mountains. Life there was a boy’s dream come true. Endless stretches of wilderness, four-wheel drive pickups, trail motorcycles, and snowmobiles filled me with adrenaline. It’s no wonder that three years later I moved to the mountain to surround myself with that world.
At the age of 18, I was in desperate need of direction. The five or six months that I lived with my mother’s family convinced me that I needed to get a life for myself. During those months, I lived out-of-doors, sleeping in tents with my brother. I worked with my mother’s husband, helping him peel the bark off of tamarack logs and hoisting them into place on the new log house he was building. I picked up a couple of jobs here and there, trying to save money to buy something to drive. I even tried attending the community college nearby, taking some art classes, but after three weeks I decided the life of an artist was not for me, and began talking to the Marine Corp recruiter.
The awe of living in the mountains never lost its excitement for me. I once came upon a mountain lion as I was walking home one late afternoon. We both stopped and stared at each other for a long moment before he ran off into the trees. Other times I would stand outside after everyone had gone to sleep, staring at the thousands of stars across the sky.
It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that life in northern Idaho was not for me. I had reconnected with my family, and the relationships that started there would last me throughout my life.
But it was time for me to start my own life. In December of 1983 I enlisted in the U.S. Army, signing on for four years, which would entitle me to a good sum of money through the Army College Fund upon discharge.
After basic training in record low temperatures of Fort Dix, New Jersey and job training in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, I was stationed for two years with the First Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
As a 19-year-old, my ambitions were pretty simple. I worked every day with my squad of mechanics, either in the motor pool or in the bush, fixing every jeep and tank that pulled in. In the evenings, I was usually at the gym, playing basketball or racquetball, lifting weights, and pushing myself to be in the best possible shape I could be. My weekends were spent riding motocross bikes. Here and there I thought about God. My first year in the army had been full of regrets. I found myself in the wrong places with the wrong people. And then I took a leave to celebrate Christmas with my family in 1984. My dad was celebrating Advent, reading from the Bible and I was hearing the Christmas story again. My little sister was sitting with me on the couch. I sensed God’s unconditional love at that moment, telling me that he came to the earth to die for me, to save me from a life of meaningless pursuits. I went back to Texas with a new resolve to follow God.
But I was having a tough time of it. People around me were aware that I was doing the “God thing,” and let me know how they felt about that. One of my greatest critics was my squad leader, Sergeant Clough. I was convinced his one source of joy in life was making my life miserable. In fact, he noticed me in a different squad, working for a different sergeant, and personally requested that I be moved to his. I then worked in his squad for the majority of the two years that I spent at Fort Hood, and looking back I am grateful for what it did to me. I can’t say that I was a very good example of a Christian in those days.
Every time he spit in my face I spit right back, which I think made him all the more excited to harass me. I was having a hard time with the idea of “turning the other cheek.” At one point, Sergeant Clough told me in front of all the other guys that I was to now refer to him as “Jesus Christ.” If I was a more confident person I would’ve known how to handle it, but instead I once again mouthed off to him, which earned me another disciplinary action. I had now accumulated a drawer full of yellow disciplinary documents that he had happily written up to go into my file, so one day when he was out of his office, I opened his file, pulled out all of my records, and threw them in the trash.
The cocky 19-year-old slowly turned into a more patient 21-year-old, and I was happy for the day a worldly-wise specialist drove me to the airport to fly to Los Angeles, where I would spend a couple weeks with my family before heading to my fourth and last year of service in South Korea.
“Oh, you’re going to love Korea,” he told me, and began sharing with me all of the experiences a young G.I. can hope to have in the villages, most of them immoral or just foolish. The more he talked, the sicker my stomach felt, and I knew it was not going to be easy taking my weak faith to that country. For the past several months I had been praying to God for help to live in a way that pleased him and for direction. But God was silent for some reason. My prayers seemed to be falling on deaf ears. I had a suspicion that it had to do with sin in my life that I wasn’t dealing with, and I may have been right. Whatever the reason, I remember talking to my dad about it a few days before I boarded the plane. “Why is it that I pray to God, but he doesn’t answer my prayers?” I asked him. He told me that he didn’t have an answer for me, but he knew the Bible taught that we need to be persistent with our prayers. “Just keep praying,” he told me. I decided to do just that.
All the way on that long flight across the Pacific I was mulling over my life; all of the foolish, shameful things I had done, all of my mistakes and regrets. And yet, there was this other thought that kept coming back. “I’m only 21 years old. I have the majority of my life before me if all goes right. I can go one of two ways when I get to Korea. I can either put myself on a course of disaster for the rest of my life, or I can get serious about my faith. And along with these thoughts came my old doubts. “What if God is just the invention of the old sages, invented to keep people in line with their ideals?” But I knew better than that. I had done my own philosophical homework and had come to the conclusion that there definitely was a God. The universe was created by an intelligent and personal being, and the evidence was all around us and was most clearly visible amongst the souls of men. The question, rather, that most bothered me had to do with how God viewed me.
Like I said earlier, I’m not going to share here about my growing up years. But I will say that I felt sorry for myself all too often, and I had developed this idea in my head that God was favorable to certain people; people who had a winsome smile or a good standing in society, and this meant that I was out. I had become a melancholy, had poor grades, and found myself the distant observer in society, watching everyone else climbing ladders of success, but never feeling the motivation or confidence to do anything of importance.
Upon landing in Korea, I found myself unpacking my bags at the processing station, where I, along with about 50 or 60 other soldiers would spend the week awaiting orders from locations throughout the country as we were needed. As we lined up with our trays in the chow hall, I met a guy about my age named Matt. We chatted in line, then awkwardly agreed to share a table. By the end of our meal, the awkwardness had vanished, and we were laughing about who knows what, and planning to meet up for breakfast the next day. At some point in those first days I closed my eyes and ventured a risky prayer.
“Dear God, I pray for Matt. He’s a great guy, and already a good friend and easy to talk to. I pray that you would give me more time with Matt. Would you put us on the same base?”
One morning I arrived for breakfast and noticed Matt was gone. Somehow he had gotten his orders and had already caught his bus out. Our large group of incoming soldiers was rapidly shrinking, and I knew my orders would be coming in soon. Troops were being sent out in groups of 3 or 5 to the many military installations throughout the peninsula, and for all I knew, I would never see or hear from Matt again. When my orders finally came, I was all alone, being sent to a small military base called Camp Carroll, where I would be working in a depot level maintenance shop, rebuilding all sorts of engines- the most desired job of all mechanics in the army. If only my squad back in Texas could see me now. If only Sergeant Clough could see me now, how he would burn with envy! It was an odd feeling. Was God somehow showing me favor?
I was put on a train with a scrawled note with Korean symbols, telling me where I was to get off, and when we arrived a couple hours later, I nearly missed my stop. Panicking, I managed to hurl all of my belongings and myself off of the train just in time before it built up speed. I found myself in the middle of nowhere. There was a tiny deserted station at the edge of an undeveloped village. A quiet, somber soldier by the name of Specialist Mudd, my new roommate, picked me up and drove me back to the barracks, where I met my new supervisor, a fidgety, nervous guy who offered to take me into the village that night to see the sights and get my first taste of makali, a Korean rice wine.
After signing off for my bedding and getting my keys, they left me alone to get settled into my half of the room at the top of the stairs on the right. There was my bed, my locker, my desk and my chair. It was quiet. I knelt down at the chair and prayed, “Lord, I give up. I am giving you this life. I can’t be in charge of it. I want you to take control. Give me courage, because I am afraid. But I know I can trust you more than I can trust more than I can trust myself.” When I stood up, I knew something was different. My life was about to change.
Just about then I got a strange idea. I found out where the military police barracks were, got there as fast as I could, went to the front desk, and asked if any new soldiers had arrived in the last two days. The guy at the desk directed me to a door down the hall, where I knocked. I don’t even remember being surprised when Matt opened the door. Somehow I just knew God had answered my prayer. Of the 50 or 60 new soldiers in South Korea that week, only two of them were sent to Camp Carroll; me and Matt. You could call that a coincidence if you want, but I didn’t see it that way. When I went back to my room later, I got back on my knees and thanked God for his kindness to me. My next prayer was for direction. “What do you want me to do now?” I prayed.
I remember sitting out on the training field one evening. I sensed that God was telling me that he wanted to use me to reach out to other soldiers with the story of his Son. But everything in me was resisting. “I am not the winsome type, God. I’m a nobody. People don’t even notice me when I walk by.” And then the craziest idea of all came into my head. I felt like God was asking me to start a Bible study on the base. I couldn’t shake it. I actually felt like I didn’t have a choice. He was telling me to do it. “But I have hardly read my Bible in years. And I have been a nominal Christian for a long time. I have nothing to give, and I’m not a leader.” So I started looking for Christians around me, who could maybe take the reigns. I remember meeting 2 or 3 Christian men, and they all had something in common. They had all received orders back to the States and were leaving right away. In just a few days I found myself completely alone in my faith, but the directive hadn’t changed. “Start a Bible study.”
And then I remembered what God had just taught me. “I am not asking you to do something that you cannot do. And, I am not asking you to do something by yourself. I am with you. I will provide all that you need to do all that I ask.” So I knelt down again. This time I prayed, “Lord, I know that you want this Bible study to happen. But give me a partner. Give me a fellow believer who can do this with me.”
It was a few days later that I met Eric Rosenquist. It was strange that I hadn’t met him before, because his room was across the hall, one or two doors down from mine. Someone had posted a notice on his door that his wife, back in Oklahoma, had just given birth to his third son, Matthew. Somehow, Eric and I ended up grabbing lunch together, and it became clear that he was a believer. My mind started working. “Eric, tell me about your relationship with God,” I asked. He then explained to me that he had heard Korea was a difficult assignment for married men without their wives. Many men have ruined their marriages and run off with mistresses. So he built into his life a routine to safeguard his marriage. Every morning he got up early and spent about an hour in prayer, followed by two hours of Bible study and worship. He then went to the gym and lifted weights until lunch time. He worked swing shift, so would head to work in the afternoon. In his room were Bible commentaries and Christian books. I remember I just stared at him. This guy was the real deal. I could see it in his face. “Eric,” I said, “God wants us to start a Bible study here on base, and you are going to lead it.”
Right away, I knew Eric’s job would be teaching, so my job was marketing. I made up a very simple sign with the words “Bible Study” in large letters and the location and time below. I made a stack of copies and posted them around the entire base, putting them where people would have to see them. Our first meeting was held in Eric’s room. We had about 5 or 6 people. Another one of my early prayers was to meet a Christian girl, which God did answer right away, as she showed up for that first meeting. Her name was Mary. She had bright red hair, which she spiked on the top, a thick Alabama accent, and a love for dancing and parties. I think Eric saw some of the sparks that were flying between us, because around that time he started quoting a verse that he knew I needed to hear quite often: “Watch and pray, for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
After my first week spending time with Mary, it became clear to me that I needed to put some space between us. Her room was just on the other side of the stairway, and she would walk down the hall past my room in her bathrobe, returning from the showers, smelling like fresh-cut flowers. She was anything but shy, and she would yell “Now you hush up!” to any guy who dared a cat call. She was breaking hearts left and right, but she was attracted by my innocence and newfound faith in the God she had been raised to honor. But Mary was not for me, I was discovering, and this was painful for me to accept. I knew that I was not ready for a relationship yet. God had more to teach me before that chapter of my life. Around this time, my mother sent me a copy of the book “Passion and Purity,” by Elizabeth Elliot, wife of the famous missionary Jim Elliot, who had been killed by Auca Indians in his endeavor to share the gospel with them. I remember it was just what I needed at the time, and that God was telling me to be patient. “Trust me. I will provide all that you need, including a wife if that is to be part of your story.”
I remember this was a tough thing for me to accept. Somewhere deep in my heart I was worried that there was something terribly wrong with me. Maybe I would never have a family of my own. I was just too wicked a person for God to change. Some people really see themselves as inherently good. My mother tells me that I thought so myself back when I was in junior high. But in high school I became convinced that the only reason some people were better behaved than others was because of their environment and particular circumstances and experiences. The kid who was adopted was always getting into trouble, I figured, because he was reacting to the fact that his real parents were gone. I connected my own broken family experience to many of the painful emotions I carried, which then played out in my actions. Those who grew up without fathers, in the inner city, surrounded by hopelessness and crime had a much greater chance of solving problems with a weapon than kids who grew up in middle class America with a loving mother and father.
I can’t remember all of the details, but during this time I was going through some serious doubts about God’s plan for my life. Every morning I would wake up and begin the day by telling God, “I trust you,” even though I didn’t feel it.I did this every day. It became clear that Mary was giving up on me and she started dating a guy who I knew was not good for her. One night I was so discouraged I remember standing in some sort of park.
I was crying out to God for healing from years of darkness that I had allowed into my life. People were walking around me, staring at me, and I remember it didn’t matter to me. It’s difficult now to even put myself back into those memories because of the healing work that God did in my life since those days. I had so much discouragement that had plagued me for so many years, and I was crying out to God for his Spirit to change me. Anyway, I continued waking up with the words, “I trust you, Lord,” until one day I woke up, let the words fall from my mouth, and suddenly it was different. I knew that I trusted him, not just in my words, but in my heart. I knew without a doubt that God actually cared about every detail of my life and was going to change me from the inside out. It was a strange feeling, but I can remember running down the hall at full speed and jumping over the railing of the stairs outside.
One interesting occurrence that year was my visit to the base chaplain. I don’t remember his name, but we were sitting in his office and I was telling him about my life and my desire to enter heaven knowing that I had allowed God to use me in this life. He then began to tell me that my understanding of heaven as a literal place after death was just one interpretation; that he saw it more as a figurative idea. At that point I stood up and told him thanks, but our conversation was finished. I couldn’t believe that our base chaplain was not even a believer. When I got back to the barracks, Eric and I sat down and prayed for him. We prayed that he would either see the truth and find salvation or that he would lose his position as chaplain and be replaced by a very God-fearing chaplain with a heart to reach soldiers with the gospel.
The Bible study group that Eric and I had started began growing larger and more complicated. We were praying for the soldiers all around us all the time to come to know Christ. One day I was walking into the chow hall and a guy named George Prout came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. “I understand you are a Christian,” he said. “Something happened to me and I want to ask you about it.” I went with him up to his room and he showed me a Bible, one of those free Bibles they give soldiers. He began telling me a story, how he was always going into town and getting drunk and crazy with the guys, but someone gave
him this Bible, and he was keeping it in his room. One day he said out loud, “I don’t believe in you, God! You don’t exist,” and he threw the Bible across the room, where it landed open. When he went over to pick it up, his eyes fell onto the open page. It was open to Psalm 14, where he read “The fool says in his heart, There is no God.” George looked at me to see if I thought he was crazy and asked what he should do. I kind of laughed and said, “I think you’d better listen to what God is telling you. It’s time you got right with God.” Right then and there George got on his knees and prayed to accept Christ.
George had a friend named Rick Drees, who liked to go into the village and party with him. One weekend I looked out my upstairs window and saw Rick drinking a beer. I fell to my knees and prayed that God would show mercy to Rick and save him from where his life was heading. That night Eric and I took a bus to a nearby military post named Camp Walker, where professional athletes were going to be sharing their life stories. One guy, a baseball player named Glen Davis of the Houston Astros was sharing how he had gotten mixed up in drinking and drug use and had been introduced to Jesus Christ and how God had radically changed his life. Glen asked if there was anyone who felt God was calling them to come forward and pray to receive Christ, and I was surprised to see Rick walking down the aisle. Before I knew it, Rick and Glen were up on stage praying together. When the program was over, I went over to them and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but God asked me to pray for you today, Rick, to find him.” Rick didn’t even know who I was at the time, and I remember someone took a photo of the three of us together that night.
A few days later, while working the swing shift with another soldier named David, I began telling him about Jesus and how God had been working in my life lately. David said he needed to get right with God himself and I told him, “Why not tonight?” At that, David knelt down right there in the shop and prayed to ask Christ into his life.
Our Bible study group was rapidly getting beyond our ability to manage. We began meeting at the recreation center because we couldn’t all fit into Eric’s room. Some guys were joining our group who had different ideas about what the Bible taught and it looked like we needed a trained leader to help us find direction. We thought about our new chaplain, but Eric told me about a couple he had met who lived near Camp Walker, Ben and Doris Hyde. They were missionaries who ran what was called a “hospitality house,” which was a home away from home for soldiers who wanted a place to go to be with other Christians or learn about God for the first time. It wasn’t long before Eric introduced me to Ben. Ben agreed to drive to Camp Carroll and lead our Bible study there, but eventually we all decided to just take the bus to Camp Walker and hang out at the hospitality house. Doris was an amazing cook, and weekends were spent eating delicious meals, singing, having incredible Bible studies together, and laughing. Ben and Doris had a young daughter, Bethany, who became a little sister to all the guys. Ben organized camping trips to the beach, movie nights, and often the guys would divide up into the little rooms of their downstairs and sleep Korean style on the floor. God was definitely answering my prayers and life was good. I was learning things every day and the pages of my Bible were getting worn, as I could not get enough of the truth I was reading.
During this time I worked with Korean mechanics in the shop. One of the men was a believer, and he would grab me by the arm when I walked by and tell me, “You - me, Mista Carey, conversation time!” I would laugh and he would force me to sing “Amazing Grace” in a deep baritone voice. He would imitate my accent and we would laugh as the other mechanics gawked at us. One day he said to me, “Mista Carey! You come to my house this weekend. I take you to my church.” I naturally agreed, because I was always ready for an adventure, especially a cultural adventure. I remember how awkward it was sleeping on the floor of his tiny house, alongside the rest of his family, in a room no larger than a walk-in closet. We walked to the church at night and sat in the back row. I understood nothing the pastor was saying. It was a small village church.
Suddenly, my friend elbowed me and said, “It’s time Mista Carey. You sing now.” At that point I understood that I had been introduced as tonight’s special music. I slowly walked up to the front of the church where I was given a microphone and the pianist began playing Amazing Grace. Fortunately I knew two or three verses, which I very nervously sang as best I could manage, since I had never sung a solo in my entire life. Everyone clapped, but I’m sure they were all wondering who this less than talented white musician was who had come to sing at their church. This became one of my favorite stories to tell people, and I told it to the guys at the hospitality house one night who all laughed with great emotion. But one guy, I think it was Judd Maxwell, decided it would be a great idea to go back to that church and do special music again. It was so crazy we decided to do it. We began practicing “This World is not my Home,” but singing it in a deep southern accent with Judd playing the guitar. One night, we traveled by bus to the little village church, and I have to say that congregation was so happy to hear us sing with all of our enthusiasm and joy. They clapped much louder than they had for my solo performance.
It was also during this time that I began attending an African-American assembly at Camp Walker. I was just getting all kinds of crazy ideas back then, and there was something about attending that church that used to bring tears to my eyes faster than any sermon. I was the only white person in attendance, so at times men would come up to me afterward and want to know why I was there. One Sunday I was so convicted about sin in my life that I went forward and knelt on my knees in the front. Tears were pouring from my eyes as I was recalling all of the good things that God was doing in my life. Afterward, one of the pastors in the church invited me to his house to be baptized. I had been baptized once before as a small boy, but I wanted to do it again to show God I was serious about my new life. I remember he baptized me in a pair of swimming trunks in his bathtub, with the elders standing there in the bathroom. They were laying their hands on me to speak in tongues, and adding holy oil to the water, but I was just quietly thanking God in prayer. I don’t know if they were disappointed or not, but I didn’t feel too bad about it.
Another time at Camp Carroll, a large group of men from our Bible study decided to lay hands on me to speak in tongues. I wasn’t so sure about it, but had been studying my Bible to understand the gifts of the Spirit. After a while, when they realized I was just kneeling there quietly, things kind of tapered off, and it seemed like some people were a little disappointed again. Then Judd spoke up. “Hey guys,” he said, “while we were praying, I had this idea come into my mind. It seemed like God was telling me that he was giving Rob a different gift. It seems that he is giving Rob the gift of teaching.” Now this was a very interesting thing for Judd to say. At that time I had no intention of ever becoming a teacher. I was a mechanic. It wasn’t until years later that I remembered Judd’s prophetic words and found myself making a living as an elementary school teacher.
It was also during the time I began earnestly praying for my natural mother’s family. I had gotten to know her later in my life, and had actually lived with them for half a year before joining the army. I frequently prayed for them to find Christ.
One of the greatest miracles was coming home after Korea and hearing that she had begun reading her Bible and going to church again. A few years later, her husband Lee prayed to receive Christ and turned his life to following God. She and Lee began sharing their faith with all of their friends. Years later, when Lee was killed in a motorcycle accident, I attended his funeral and was amazed to hear all of the stories of guys who admired him so much for his faith.
My year spent in Korea changed my life forever. I learned that God does answer prayer, and sometimes in miraculous ways. But I also learned that God did not force his hand. My friend Matt, who I had met my first week in Korea never did decide to follow God. He was living a double life from afar, keeping two girls at once. He didn’t see anything wrong with deceiving them, and as much as I told him how wrong this was, he felt no guilt because was convinced there were no moral absolutes in life and no God to some day judge him. Matt eventually stopped hanging out with me because I was no fun any more.
And there were many other guys I prayed for who never turned to God. My roommate pathetically sat at his desk every night looking at his calendar, dreaming of the day he would leave Korea and go back to work at the gas station in his home town. The poor guy never once left the military post, unless it was twenty steps out the gate to eat mandu at a Korean restaurant. My first weekend in the country I had ventured to the train station and caught a train on my own to Pusan, having no idea how to read or speak Korean or how to spend the won in my pocket. I tried so often to get him out off of the base, but he was determined to stay in the barracks the entire year he was there.
For some reason, I was moved to a different room with a different roommate named Curtis. Curtis had come from the 82nd Airborne Division in bad shape. On one of his jumps, a strong wind had blown him sideways just before he landed awkwardly, and as a result he had broken something in his back.
I tried talking to him about my faith, but as a young guy he was set in his ways, a John Wayne type with no need for such things. Across the hall was a little guy with a big nose who I found one day trying to cut himself with a knife. I managed to wrestle the knife away from him. Another time he was found in his room trying to hang himself before someone walked in and saved him.
And there were guys I saw who came to Korea with the best intentions, but ruined themselves. One man was a Christian who shipwrecked his faith and marriage, as the temptations in the village were too strong for him. I remember talking to him about coming to our study, but he was so filled with guilt and remorse he refused. I suppose one of the hardest things about my encounter with Jesus that year was seeing so many guys who simply would have nothing to do with him. As I read the New Testament, I realized that my experience was nothing new. Even those who met him in the flesh turned away from him, and many screamed for his execution. But those who were true followers of Jesus learned to resist cowardice. For me, everyone knew where I stood as a Christian. When I was laughed out of a roomful of soldiers because someone declared me a Christian and a virgin, I felt a little sorry for myself. But it wasn’t long before I bought a Sandy Patty cassette tape and opened my door to blast the Christian music down the halls for everyone to hear. I suppose the guys left me alone after that. Anyone crazy enough to blast the halls in an army barracks with Sany Patti music is beyond hope!
I wouldn’t claim that our group of believers ever dominated Camp Carroll. Every weekend men were giving their souls to prostitutes in the village and returning to the barracks, vomiting in the hallways. The majority of the soldiers wanted nothing to do with God. When I looked around, I saw guys just like myself, but without Christ. Their year of duty in Korea came and went, with all of their experiences behind them. I left Korea a changed man at 22 years of age. When I returned home, the pastor of my parents’ church asked me to speak in front of the entire church and share what God had done in my life. But the fear I thought I would have to do something like that just wasn’t there.
God had completely changed me. In fact, my little brother Seth was having a hard time accepting the fact that I was the same person. It was like a different person who looked just like me took his place. I think it was that way with a lot of people. I knew in my heart that I was the same person, and had the same hang-ups, but my entire view of life and myself was changed forever, and people could see it, clear as day.
After the army, I returned to California and landed a job as an airframe mechanic at McDonnel Douglas, working on the final assembly team on the last few DC-10s and the first few MD-11 airplaines. It didn't take long to develop a reputation as a Christian in that shop, and although I only worked there about 18 months, a lot of things happened in that short time. Three guys stand out to me. One, a gentle guy named Chris Schotel, ended up becoming a great friend to me, and we often headed to the mountains together to ski.
Another, Mike Heinz, worked side by side with me quite a bit of the time. He looked like the Incredible Hulk, had spiked blonde hair, and wore shirts that were many sizes too small in order to show off his bulging muscles. He strutted around the shop, flirting with all of the women and picking fights with anyone who looked at him sideways. He liked me because I made him laugh and wasn't afraid to ask him where he stood with God. He would always say, "Me and God have this agreement," and he seemed to imply that some day he would clean his life up. I tried my best with Mike, and prayed for him often, but his story has a sad ending.
It was around this time that another miracle occurred in my life. I was 23 years old at this point, had barely started dating, and I knelt down on the floor of my room and prayed, "Dear Lord, I have a desire to find a wife. You know all things, and you know me better than I know myself. I pray that if it is your will that I get married, that you would spare me the frustrations of dating several women, and direct me to my wife."
I believe it was about a week later that I met her. My friend Chris and I had been riding our bikes down the Los Angeles River to the beach, then returned a different route to say hello to a girl named Katie who lived in Los Alamitos with several roommates. Katie wasn't home, but a girl named Carrie was, and she was filling out an application to work as an admissions counselor at BIOLA University.
It wasn't but a few weeks later that we had a double date to see Bryan Duncan in concert. Chris agreed to take Katie, and I took Carrie. It was a double match made in heaven. Within a couple years, Chris and Katie were married and Carrie and I were married.
Like I said before, Mike's story had a sad ending. Mike was happy for me when I first met Carrie. He often said he wanted to meet her and get together with his girlfriend for a picnic all together. Unfortunately, that opportunity never came. Mike and a friend were driving home one night from a party and hit a man who was pushing his car along an offramp in the dark. The man pushing the car was killed, as well as Mike. I don't think Mike ever did get things right with God.
The third guy who stands out to me from that year was named Jamie. Here was an interesting character, and we also worked side-by-side for quite a while. Jamie had no problem teasing me about my faith. We worked together high on the gantry, six floors above the ground, with our rivet guns at the top of the vertical stabilizer. This was no job for someone afraid of heights. He would yell things down to the women walking below about me, to see my reaction. Although Jamie did everything he could to torment me, I somehow kept my cool with him. It was like he was testing me, to see if there was something fake about me. Although I was honest about my faults, he wanted to see more.
I eventually quit my job there at McDonnel Douglas. I sensed that God was directing me to the next chapter of my life, which included cashing in on the Army College Fund. I remember it was a few months later that I got a desperate phone call from Jamie.
He sounded like he was near the point of tears. "You've got to help me," he said. "I've screwed up my whole life now. My wife has left me with my little boy, I'm all alone, and I've made a mess of things. You always told me about God, but I never listened. I'm ready to listen. I want to change. What do I do?" I remember some people were in a car outside waiting for me to join them. We were on our way somewhere, and were going to be late. But it didn't matter at that moment. Right now, a guy on the other end of the line was about to make the most important decision of his life. "Jamie, are you serious about getting right with God?" I asked, and together we prayed something like this:
"Dear God, I admit to you that I am a sinner. You are holy, and I am not worthy to stand in your presence. I ask that you forgive me. The Bible says that you sent your only Son to take the punishment for the sins of the world. I believe that he died for me, and that he rose from the dead in power, and that some day he will raise me up to be with him forever. I give you my life, and I choose to follow you the rest of my life."
And now I ask you, in the depths of your heart, where do you stand with God, and what do you make of the story of his Son, Jesus Christ? When Jesus died on the cross, it says that two men died with him, one on his left and one on his right. They were criminals. The man on his left hurled insults at him, saying "If you are the Christ, save yourself and us!" But the man on his right said to the other criminal, "Don't you fear God? We are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." And he said to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
The picture of the three crosses has always been an interesting picture to me. As I see it, there are only three options in this life. The man in the middle was perfect, and only Jesus could ever claim perfection. The rest of us are like the two criminals, deserving God's wrath. Although both criminals died that day, because of God's grace, one of them found himself with Jesus.
If you notice, the thief on his right did nothing to earn heaven. The Roman guards didn’t pull him down off the cross so that he could spend the remainder of his life feeding the poor and taking care of widows. His life was over. There was no time to go back and apologize to all the people he had wronged. The only thing he had time to do was put his faith in Jesus, and apparently that was enough.
So which person are you? If you think your good outweighs your bad, and God is obliged to reward you, think again. Only one person was good enough for that middle cross. The Bible is very clear that humanity is never going to build that perfect society and overcome its wickedness. The farther we progress scientifically, the more creative we become at sinning. Are you the guy on Jesus’ left? Do you mock God? Do you have contempt for Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross? Do you laugh at the idea that God loves you and desires reconciliation with all people? If so, the Bible teaches that this represents the majority of mankind, so you are not alone. Most will turn away from God and die without Christ, facing an eternity that Jesus described many times in horrible terms.
I pray instead that you are the like the man on Jesus’ right, who simply recognized his own sinfulness and gave his heart to God, accepting the sacrifice of his Son, who died in our place.
I know people have a strong disdain for the Church. They say it is filled with hypocrites, and people who are living in a fantasy world. Christians are seen as prudes and simpletons; they are judgmental, backward, old-fashioned, and unscientific. These days they are even called bigots, haters, extremists, and intolerant quacks. But it’s nothing new. Christians will be tortured and killed, Bibles will be burned, and churches will be demolished. It’s happening all over the world while I write this, and it’s been happening since Jesus was crucified. The New Testament is very clear that Christians will not have it easy in this world. It even says that they will be hated by all, and that Christ is a stumbling block to many.
You have to make up your mind for yourself. Jesus was crucified because his own people called him blasphemous. He claimed to be the Son of God. Some people say he was delusional, and others say he was a master liar. The best test is to look at his words and look at his actions. Judge for yourself. If you want, compare him to the key figures of other religions. There’s no comparison. A lot of people are saying there are many ways to God, or that truth is relative. This is a great argument for criminals, but it has never stood up to logic.
Some people say the Bible is not a reliable document. But you do the research. Compare it as a historical document with not only any other religious document, but with any other historical document in existence, taking into account archaeology and outside historical records. And don’t just read the bad press, read it yourself. Read through the New Testament with the intention of discovering for yourself what it’s all about.
And a final word on prayer. Have you ever run into a situation in which you had no control? Your child is deathly ill, or you or someone you love is in danger? It’s in these situations that agnostics and even atheists have cried out a desperate prayer to God. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to wait for a tragedy to pray. Believe me, if you live long enough, you’ll face a tragedy sooner or later. We all do. God is not more real in those times than he is right now. Pray now. The Bible is clear on this, that God will hear and provide. If you are skeptical, so was I. This story in my life happened when I was in my early 20s. This year I turn 50, and the power of prayer in my life is still at work. I have seen God do miracles over and over again, and the Bible is no less refreshing in my life than it was 30 years ago.
And my experience is not unique to me. I have spoken with people all over the world who have encountered God in similar ways.
You will recognize true Christianity when you see people living selflessly, serving their communities, caring for the neglected, the sick, the emotionally hurting, the uneducated, and the poor. You will see people who love their enemies, yet defend the helpless. You will see people who work together, arm-in-arm with joyful attitudes in harsh conditions.
As I write this, many passages of Scripture come to mind. I will finish by sharing just a few:
Mark 8:34-37 “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” – Jesus
Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” - Jesus