In 1987 I packed up my little blue Volkswagen Rabbit with my meager worldly possessions and moved to Montana. Well, I spent the summer in Washington state first. I’d been granted a small stipend through the Student Conservation Association to work on a U.S. Forest Service trail maintenance crew in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Northwest Washington. I was about as far away from home as I could be and still be in the continental United States.
At the end of the summer, I headed east to Missoula, Montana, where I was to begin school at the University of Montana. I’d earned an Associates Degree in Wildlife Technology at Penn State and was transferring to the UofM, ostensibly to finish a wildlife biology degree. That lasted exactly two weeks into my Cell & Molecular Biology class. I worked my tail off and read every line of the textbook we were assigned, but at the end of two weeks, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what we’d been talking about. I decided to make a course correction. Forestry became my new major.
Well, that . . . and Montana.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in Montana. The hunting, the fishing, the hiking, and several other less wholesome extra-curricular activities ended up taking a larger and larger portion of my time and interest over the next year. By the end of spring semester, I was tired. After another summer spent working for the Forest Service in northwestern Montana, I returned to school less interested than ever. Academically, I fizzled out during that next year. I ended up working for Sears, and living the dream in Montana.
Except it was more like a nightmare. Debt and debauchery became the track upon which my life ran. I was spending money I didn’t have and increasingly feeling lost and directionless. By the spring of 1990, I knew I was making a wreck of my life. I’d written so many bad checks to cover the life I thought I wanted to live, I was legitimately afraid I’d end up in jail.
It’s funny how, when we’re young, we think moving away from home and living on our own will be such a wonderful, liberating thing. And, if you define liberation as being totally able to do what you want without having to answer to anyone, it is. But freedom is a potent force, and if we are not equal to it, it will master us. In Montana, I was not equal to my newfound freedom, and it nearly did me in. And I knew it.
I remember coming home to my seedy apartment at 3:00 in the morning, after a long night of playing music in the bar, sitting on my bed and bawling. Half-hung over, I was overcome by the reality that I’d made a wreck of my young life. And for the first time in a very long time, I prayed. I asked the Lord to deliver me. I admitted that I was no blessed good at running my own life, and I asked him to run it. It was a simple prayer.
I think it’s a common one.
I knew that if I was to change my life I would have to change my circumstances. So I made plans to move back home, back to where at least some things in my life had gone right. Interestingly, I was afraid to tell most of my friends I was leaving. I was afraid they wouldn’t understand, that they’d try to talk me out of it, or that they’d see my departure as an indictment of them. So I hid my real intentions from most of them. Even back then I was a conflict avoider. So early one morning in the summer of 1990, well before daylight, I loaded up my old pickup, pointed the headlights east, and quietly slipped out of town.
Once back home with Mom and Dad, and with my past behind me, I began to attend church again — the same Methodist church I’d grown up in. I was searching for redemption.
I was also searching for a job. I started looking for something with an equivalent income to what I was making in Montana. That sentence makes it sound like I was banking it in Montana, which couldn’t be further from the truth. But I could support myself on what I made, and that’s what I was looking for back home in Pennsylvania. At the end of two months, though, I hadn’t found a thing and I became desperate. And one day when my Mom and I were in our local meat market, I noticed a Help Wanted sign on the door. I went to the back and talked to the owner, who we’d known for some time, and asked him for the job. He said, “I can’t pay you what you need to live.” And I said, “I don’t care; I need a job.” He said, “Can you start tomorrow?”
His name was Jeff Gilliland, and the Lord himself put Jeff in my life. To this day I’m convinced the reason I’d been unable to find any other job was because the Lord wanted me to work for Jeff.
God does that, you know. He’ll steer two people toward one another. And that becomes a holy friendship. Cherish those friendships, because they’re kissed of God, and don’t ever take them for granted.
Jeff taught me how to cut meat and became my friend. As it turned out, Jeff was a Christian. And while we worked, we talked about the Lord. And hunting. And our own failings. And irritating people. And the Bible. And music. And marriage. And church. And redemption. And we laughed . . . a lot.
And this is important: It was just two friends talking and sharing life together. No pressure, no hard-sell, no condemnation. Just work and fun and friendship. And God was in all of it.
I’d been attending the Methodist church since I returned, but I had reservations about the Methodist Church, Inc., that I couldn’t shake. So I was looking for something else. Let me just say that searching for a new church is daunting. When I raised my head out of the trough of Methodism and took my first real look at the rest of the religious landscape, I was a bit overwhelmed. How doth one choose a new church? I knew that many of them believed things that were contradictory to one another, and logic said they couldn’t all be right. For me at the time, with no theological resources to draw from, I worked out on my own that if I just read the Bible and tried to follow it, I couldn’t go far wrong. Thus I became a Daily Bible Reader.
Well, after I’d been working for Jeff for a few months, he called me at home on my day off. He told me he’d been meeting with the minister from his church for some personal study and wondered if I’d like to join him. I’d raised a number of questions in our talks that Jeff couldn’t answer. I asked him what church he went to (it’s funny that in all our talks, that had never come up). He said he was a member of the Church of Christ. I’d never heard of that church, but I trusted Jeff and said I’d go.
Those of you who grew up in the South, where there is a Baptist church on one street corner and a Church of Christ opposite it, will laugh at that last sentence. In the South, Churches of Christ are everywhere. In the North, not so much. We had Methodists and Presbyterians and Catholics and Lutherans, with a smattering of others thrown in for seasoning. But I’d never seen nor heard of a Church of Christ.
I remember praying the night before we were scheduled to meet with the minister, and I asked the Lord, that if this Church of Christ was some kind of cult, to give me the eyes to recognize it as such.
It was a Tuesday evening when Jeff and I walked into the office of Sperry Hogue, minister of the Church of Christ in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. I immediately liked him. He was gentle and patient and kind. His warm personality and sense of humor were contagious and I was instantly at ease.
I had two Big Questions that first night. The first was this: Why do we have an Old Testament and a New Testament in our Bibles, and why don’t we do a lot of the things commanded in the Old Testament, like the sacrifices for instance?
And the second question was like unto it: All my life I’d been hearing people say, “Jesus died to save us from our sins,” but no one had ever explained to me what on earth that really meant.
That’s what you call jumping into the deep end.
Well, over the next three hours, we had the most enlightening conversation of my young life. Sperry was knowledgeable and yet exceedingly patient with my ignorance. And he didn’t just give me answers; he showed me in the Bible how it was thus so. And that was important to me; I wanted to know that what I believed was what I should believe.
At the end of the night, he asked if I found it helpful and invited me to come back next week if I wanted to continue talking about these things. I was hooked. I wanted to know more about God and what he wanted of me. And explained properly, the Bible didn’t seem as confusing as it seemed. So we kept meeting, week after week. Eventually I ran out of questions, and we began just reading through the Gospel of John together. And it was changing me. I quit cussing and even burned my stack of . . . adult periodicals.
But it was more than that — I was falling in love with Jesus. I wanted more of him in my life, no matter what it took.
Weeks became months, and I became convicted that I needed to give my life to Jesus. It was a commitment I’d never made, but I began to see that it was the only way forward. So on Thursday, June 20, 1991, I gave my life to Jesus and was baptized into him. I remember coming up out of that water feeling free for the first time in my life.
Sometime during this time, I began attending church there. I found a friendly, loving, caring group of Christians, such as I’d never seen. And on the Sunday after I was baptized, when it was announced to the church, the whole of God’s people in that place came over and hugged me and loved on me and welcomed me into the family. For me, it was intoxicating. I had never seen or experienced that kind of communal love in my life.
The Bible studies had changed me. But the love of that church changed me as well. It wasn’t a forced love, but an easy, warm, enveloping love. In my heart I’d always dreamed of being part of a group of people in which love permeated everything. Sperry and I had become close friends, and his sweet family became a model to me of everything a family should be. That church nurtured me and loved me, and at the time, it was exactly what my broken heart needed.
When you’re spiritually small and unknowing, disoriented and unsteady on your feet, you need a church like that. A church that’ll envelope you in its warm embrace, be patient with you, and nurture you along as you begin to gain a foothold in this mysterious realm of faith. A church that’ll let you develop at your own pace, provide information as you need it, and guidance as you learn to walk.
The Hermitage Church of Christ was precisely that kind of place for me. Blessed be the seeker who finds such a church at that time in their life.
It was in that place that the God of heaven reached into the depths of my shriveled and wounded heart, and began to heal what he found there. In the process, he redeemed me and drew me closer to his great heart. And he used the people of that church to do it.
My life would never be the same.