In yesterday’s blog I spoke about meeting God behind a (non-burning) bush at the side of my house in Sylmar, California, when I was 8. Now, one might reasonably think that an actual meeting with God, hearing Him speak to you so clearly about being willing to partner with you to change the direction of your life, would have an immediate and dramatic impact on a person, even an 8-year-old.
But, I have to confess that wasn’t the case with me. I’ve always been a slow learner. And the best way I seem to learn (unfortunately) is by making mistakes! I have a reputation for being very accident-prone, particularly (recently) when it comes to cycling (mountain or road bikes). I get teased a lot about this reputation. “Done any face-plants lately, Larry?” But my response is usually, Yes, I had a good face-plant once. But that experience taught me (painfully) what I did wrong that resulted in those 5 broken teeth, a broken cheekbone, a lacerated cheek and facial contusions, and a mangled knee. And while I haven’t stopped mountainbiking, I have studiously avoided the specific situation that led to that unfortunate moment.
I have had other bad accidents on a bike since that first one. But none of them have been faceplants!
Back to my 8-year-old self … I don’t really recall my experience with God behind that non-burning bush as making any huge, dramatic differences in my life. (Of course, I was only 8 years old!) Yes, I did stop fretting about going to hell. I enjoyed church, and Christian friends. But, I still whacked my sister occasionally, and lied occasionally, and did other things I wasn’t proud of. I knew God forgave me, but as far as having a dynamic, daily relationship with him, I kind of stuck my experience with God in a back pocket, only to pull out in case of emergency.
My Most Important Relationship
I knew God is alive. I knew He had spoken to me, forgiven me, assured me that I would spend eternity with Him. What I didn’t realize was that eternity starts right now, and what God wanted (and what I needed) was a real, vital, daily relationship between the two of us.
This didn’t become crystal clear until my senior year of high school, exactly 10 years after I first met Christ beneath that non-burning bush. My family had moved twice since then, first from Sylmar to the town of Norco, California in 1968, then from Norco to Upland, California in 1972. Shortly after we arrived in Upland (where I began 10th grade) we began attending a Baptist church. (I remember first laying eyes on my future wife-to-be as we pulled into the parking lot, and telling my mom when I saw her: “Mom! I think I’m getting a message from the Lord. This is the church He wants us to attend!” My mom looked back at me, followed my gaze, and just rolled her eyes.
But I was right, that was the church for us. And while meeting my wife was the beginning of an extremely important relationship, it wasn’t THE most important relationship that I’m talking about. Shortly after I arrived, a new youth pastor named John Carroll also arrived. Since we were both new, he took me under his wing. “Hey Larry,” he said one day, have you ever sat down and just read the Bible to discover God’s special message for you.”
“Well,” I stammered, “I’ve been in Sunday School all my life. I’ve seen plenty of flannelgraph Bible stories.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” he laughed. “Hey, let’s meet after school at the park, an hour once or twice a week, and just read it together. You’ll see what I mean.”
I had nothing better to do at the time, so I said “Okay.” So, meet we did, and we went through the Bible, starting with the book of John. I began to feel immediately like the blinders were falling off. When we got to John 15, and read Christ’s words: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing,” the conclusion was utterly inescapable. For my life to matter, I had to somehow stay connected to Jesus every day. He didn’t want merely to save me, he wanted to be in relationship with me, for me to depend on Him for everything!
That may sound basic and obvious to you, but for me it was completely life-changing. I began to read on my own, and meditate, and pray, and seek to practice each day what it meant to “abide in the Vine” and to bear fruit.
And it didn’t take long for my first test to appear.
Larry in the Lion’s Den
I had always done well in English studies and enjoyed reading and writing, so I enrolled in an Advanced Placement English class my senior year at Upland High School. To say I was like Daniel in the Lion’s Den would only be accurate if there were at least 20 lions in that den. I was the only Christ-believer in that class. Most of the students, and especially the professor, professed atheism. (Most didn’t even have the humility to say they were agnostic!) They were all VERY smart, and determined to chew up and spit out any Christians they might happen to stumble upon. And boy did they stumble upon me!
Every day, coming to class, I found myself walking into a battle zone. It was terrifying, and I soon discovered I had to bring armor and weapons in order to survive. Well, not those kind of weapons — of course I mean the kind of armor and weapons referenced in Ephesians 6! I had to be prayed up, I had to have my character in line with Jesus’, and I also had to have my brain sharp so I could hold my own intellectually in that class. It was an incredible challenge, but in the midst of that fascinating year I began to feel God empowering and inspiring me. Sometimes even speaking through me, as He promises to do in Matthew 10:19. The battle experience, as frightening as it was, was more than a little exhilarating as well.
I had been a favorite of my English teachers at Upland High School (one of them secretly read my poetry to her other classes, which is actually how I first really caught Darlene’s eye), and my AP teacher, while he tried constantly to skewer my notions of faith, also seemed to like me. I actually visited him one weekend at his home up at Mt. Baldy. I remember him telling me with a great deal of swagger. “Okay, I can see I can’t dissuade you now from being a Christian. But just wait. You’re going to college. I give you a year, maybe two at the most, and you’ll realize what kind of nonsense this stuff you say you believe in really is.”
The culmination of that class was the AP test in English administered by the school, and because I knew the eyes of everyone I was trying to represent Christ to were upon me, the goal of my life at that moment soon because to excel in that test! So I worked at it all year long. But on the day of the test, naturally I felt completely inadequate. However, I was learning slowly that it wasn’t MY strength or power to achieve anything that mattered, but only the strength of God working in me! So I prayed and prayed that God would help me pass that test.
And pass it I did. Actually, I scored the highest score you could get on that test — a 5 out of 5 — and at the time, was told I had scored more highly on that test than anyone in the history of our school.
Hot Stuff, You Say?
Mind you, I’m certainly not telling you this to brag about my English skills. I think my score had far more to do with God’s will than with my skill. But with my shiny AP certificate in hand, the first thing I did when I enrolled the following year at Biola University was to schedule a 400-level English literature class. After all, due to the AP test I didn’t have to take dum-dum English, and with my wonderful AP score of “5” I thought I was pretty hot stuff.
My professor in that Lit class was gracious to give me a “D” for trying! “What were you thinking, registering for this class as a freshman?” she asked me, incredulously. When I first arrived at Biola, I had considered declaring an English major. But in that class they spoke a different language than the one I knew! That experience with that one class changed my mind (which in hindsight I’m exceedingly grateful for), and I later declared instead a Print Media Communications major and studied things like journalism, magazine editing, and creative writing. Much more my speed than English lit!
But, I’ll never forget how that final year of high school, my first year really walking in a close relationship with Jesus, helped me realize how the Christian life was far, far more than simply “getting saved.”
However, as I said earlier — I can be a slow learner! Despite heading off to a Bible college (which should be kind of like heaven on earth, right?), and being deeply in love with one of the most beautiful and amazing women I could have imagined, being surrounded by wonderful friends, and oh so much else going my way, I had some huge challenges in store. More about that, tomorrow!