When a young man, a few years after getting my own place and after becoming somewhat established in my career, I decided to visit the area where I grew up. I wouldn't have said it then, but I was looking for something. The meaning of life, maybe. Sadly, I found that the friends of my youth were now druggies, living in their cars, dropping like flies of overdoses; shiftless, hopeless, with vacant stares, lost in every way imaginable. I ended my visit stunned, perplexed, and strangely grateful. I knew a sense of protection, even privelage. It would be another year before I really understood how blessed I was.
My Christian testimony is nothing if not a story of God's grace. I was fatherless at 2, and again at 9, and was thrown out of junior high. My mother resourcefully (and no doubt desparately) arranged for to me to work in the school cafeteria washing dishes part of the school day, and ultimately her solution was the paddle-enforced discipline of a very strict Lutheran school. Two different ones, actually. My mom later had an attempt on her life by a boyfriend, and at age 12 I lost her to cancer and entered the weird, oddly disfunctional world of foster homes. I saw twelve of them in the next 5 years. Could this be why I would as an adult be someone with whom it was difficult to have a relationship with, eventually working for over 20 employers in my my nealy 45 years in my field? I never knew any of my relatives save one distant cousin. But God, Who is a Father to the fatherless, later gave me busloads of relatives on my wife's side. God pursued me, waited for me, protected me.
I knew that protection even before I knew my Protector. The gang I was in when I was 13 broke into businesses on weekends and stole bicycles from schoolyards during the week. The illicit goods were stored in my garage because unlike they, I had only a kind, unsuspecting grandmother at home. During this same period I was chased across town by security guards with dogs after setting fire to a warehouse. Later as an adult an alcoholic employer started to attack me in his car, and I escaped. And then there was the boss who reached for me across his desk, and again I was spared. I've had quite a lot of counseling. I was all but drowned twice, crashed a few motorcycles at high speed, several times endured electrical shocks, and have had both a shotgun and a .45 automatic pointed at me, the pistol an inch from my forehead. I mean, I wasn't really a tough guy. I was far from a hoodlum. What I was, was I was hanging around guys who were jailbait and between their influence and my own sin and stupidity I was destined like them to end up with needle tracks in my arms, living in U-Haul trailers, diving in dumpsters and going to jail and dying young. But I didn't. Praise God I didn't!
I did exceptionaly well in trade school, on the state's dime, but a huge spiritual void haunted me. I went back to the churches that were attached to the parochial schools of my youth, looking for meaning. But could not find it. Mere religion. There was no hope there, none of God's spirit, the people as empty as I was, only they didn't know it. Then late one afternoon, I was sitting in the park in downtown L.A., dissatisfied, unhappy. Life was not worth living. A Campus Crusade staffer was working the park. He prayed, he told me later, should he witness to one more guy before it got dark. I was that guy! The Four Spiritual Laws booklet with its "you're a sinner but God wants to save you and give you a great life" message wasn't what humbled me before God. I had heard it before. Heck, I had learned Luther's catechism - in German! What I saw that afternoon was the love of Jesus reaching out to me through such a transparent, sold-out individual. There was no mistaking it. You can't have that kind of love unless you've been the recipient of the unmistakable, awesome, otherworldly love of God. God's voice, not Ted's, reached me clearly, miraculously, personally. Reaching for the hand God stretched out to me, I prayed the sinner's prayer, and entered the Kingdom of heaven. My sinful estrangement from God was forever expunged, my life suddenly made full of hope, peace and belonging.
A Kingdom has a King, you know, and it's taken me a lot longer than most Christians to get to know by Savior. Maybe it's my difficulty with relationships. Maybe a problem with authority. Whatever, He has never given up on me. And as rough and unsocialable and uncouth as many think me to be now, they have no idea how I once was. The miracle of God's grace has brought me very far, and today extends to a wonderful wife and daughter, a small business, a house purchase no one with my background would ever think possible, and much more to be immeasureably thankful for. I am blessed.
So why did God put me through so much hard stuff? Well, I certainly brought a lot of it on myself. Not all, mind you, but quite a bit. And I think I know why God allows suffering. Though a really deep subject with a lot of angles to it, Scripture tells us something really interesting. Some of us need hard times to break our wills. You know? I mean how can you learn to depend on God if you are good at independence? For many that means cash. For me, it was self-reliance, self-will, self-awareness. You can't hear God through all that self-sufficiency. It needs tearing down. Or as the Bible's David said, "...in faithfulness You have afflicted me..." (Ps 119:75). Among other things, suffering makes us dependent on Him. True in my case, I know that. In fact, even the word, "dependent," has resonated with me for some time now. It means more to me than almost any other single word. The more I remember each day that I need Him, the better my life works. This is tried and true in my life. My story truly is one of God's grace!