Once upon a Time

“Thou art one forever; and I
No dreamer, but Thy dream.”
- C.S.Lewis

It was the summer of 1960. I was fifteen and very much a fifteen year old when it came to school and girls, but with a marked disability. I had asthma. Consequently I spent most of my time in quiet activity, watching TV, sitting at the kitchen table in conversation with family, or just daydreaming about girls. But this summer was different, since the church paid my way to the Assembly of God religious camp at Troutsburg, NY on Lake Ontario, called Lakeview. I mention this, because there I had an interesting experience that I have been unable to forget.

It was Friday evening, the end of a week of mostly fun and games, some camping and nightly camp meetings, where all us teens gathered to sing and hear someone preach. I didn’t find it boring. Quite the opposite, since I observed teens (kind-of) getting their lives all together as much as one week can begin to provide. It seemed real to me and somewhat exciting. After the main service that Friday, we gathered around a large bonfire and were given opportunity to tell everyone there what that week meant to us, since we were heading home Saturday morning.

I thought through, carefully, what I wanted to say. That’s a good habit to get into. I approached the microphone when it was my turn and opened my mouth to give my prepared speech, when to my surprise—and I mean I was more surprised than anyone that I said it—I blurted out into the microphone, and I quote, ”God is calling me into the ministry.” Then I sat down on the grass in shock.

That was not at all what I intended to say! The thought of being a minister never had crossed my mind! You might wonder, where did it come from? Your guess is as good as mine. All I knew is that I couldn’t get it out of my head. In some way, I can relate to C.S. Lewis:

They tell me, Lord, that when I seem
To be in speech with You,
Since You make no replies, it’s all a dream
—One talker aping two.

And so it is, but not as they
Falsely believe, For I
Seek in myself the things I meant to say,
And lo! the wells are dry.

Then, seeing me empty, You forsake
The listener’s part, and through
My dumb limps [lips?] breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.

Therefore You neither need reply
Nor can; for while we seem
Two walking. Thou art one forever; and I
No dreamer, but Thy dream — April 1934

The following year, I missed camp, because I had a girlfriend I didn’t want to leave, not even for one week. Missing her was too much to ask a 16-year-old, I guess.

There still was a lingering interest in ministry, even though it was eclipsed for the most part by other day-to-day interests. The sun was behind the clouds, so to speak, except for a ray or two from time to time, which pierced through all the mental meandering that a teenager is prone to. I mostly thought about girls, granted, but I did enjoy some church related things. I became a Sunday School teacher after turning 18. There was nothing in all of this that directly suggested ministry or pastoring. But there was one occasion which should have been a clear indicator that I was destined for Bible College.

My ex-girlfriend’s brother, Gary Johnson, gave me a New Testament in Modern Greek. I spent a day at the Buffalo Public Library trying to translate just one word. This was in 1963, and with all that has happened in the last 45 years, I have not lost my interest in the Greek New Testament. If I could live my life over, I think the only thing I would change would be to get into a career that focused on it and the Classical Hebrew of the Old Testament. I continue to be warmly drawn to both.

I then attended the State University of New York for two years (1963-65) giving no thought to Bible school or ministry, until one day returning from school with me on the city bus a classmate reminded me that I had publicly announced my intention to go into the ministry. I must have said it in high school, probably after the 1960 camp experience. I don’t remember, but I do remember what they said of me in the high school year book, and again I quote, “No man was ever great except by divine inspiration.”

I flunked out of SUNY. That’s a story, full of complaints, which has no relevance here, so I‘ll skip it.

It was August, 1965, and I had no future plans when my Sunday school teacher, Brother Wilson, who was locally employed as a chemist, not aware of what had happened between the State University and me, felt a need to warn me that he, too, once sensed a calling or passion for ministry, but stayed with the chemistry instead, and he had since regretted the choice. He exhorted me not to make the same mistake. So, with my own pastor’s advice, I filled out an application for admission to Northeast Bible Institute (NBI), of the Assemblies of God, and with just weeks before the fall semester would begin, I was accepted. The pastor’s wife consented to ”get me there,” and so, after a final meal—that sounds somewhat inappropriate, but that is what it was called—at Trotter’s restaurant in Quakertown, PA, I was dropped off at the end of a long lane that wound its way from the main road, Route 18, up to the main campus.

I was alone and felt so, big time. They call it nostalgia. My dreams of the previous 20 years began recurring. These were day and night dreams which collected fond memories of my childhood, growing up in the city. They suggested to me that Providence was up to something. At least I wanted to believe that. Some of the day dreams added some sort of support to my contention that somehow there was a God that wanted me to do something or be someone that was somehow important to Him.

My mind went back. I remember at a very young age—perhaps, around 5 or 6—sitting on the porch with my cousin Dot, writing from the Bible some portion of, maybe, Ezekiel. I seem to recall an ‘E’ and ‘z,’ but that’s all. The point is and was that it was the Bible, and my fascination with that book has not diminished.

Then there was asthma. Perhaps it’s unimportant or, yes, easily explained other ways, but after very serious asthma attacks—my mom said I would be days in recovery—I would awaken in the middle of the day with a deep sense of peace. Was it medication or God? You judge. I think it was God. I would fall to sleep with full concentration only on breathing. I needed to focus on my next breath and the next, watching my chest rise with great labor and then fall until I would awake recovered. Back then, there was no medication given me for asthma except a chest caked with Vicks VapoRub and covered with heated cloth diapers. When I awoke from the nightmare of an asthma attack, I felt rested, and I could breathe again. I felt God.

Anyway, I would only return to Buffalo on visits.