13

 

A New Beginning

 

            During the spring of 1984, while the election primaries were in full swing and I was editor of a national political newsletter, I found myself turning to chemical help nearly every day. Though I never worked high, I found myself champing at the bit for five o’clock to come around so I could scoot out to the mobile home, roll a joint, and turn on. For a few short hours my jangled nerves mellowed under pot smoke, and as soon as the buzz weakened, I’d go smoke another bomber until bedtime came when I could escape in sleep.

 

            That was when the Spirit of Truth spoke to my heart and told me I was addicted.  In the past I’d always felt justified smoking grass, believing I could take it or leave it as I pleased.  Addicts, I knew, were those who couldn’t say no. Weren’t there plenty of days I never even thought of marijuana?  Well, maybe not plenty, but certainly some—and those one or two days off gave me the excuse I wanted to keep the habit going under the illusion I was really in control.  Now, though, I could no longer deny it.  I was indeed hooked, my mind was foggy most of the time, and with the latest research showing how marijuana smoke was fifty times more cancer causing than tobacco, it surely was time to quit.  Easy enough, I thought.  What I’d done with cigarettes, I could do now with pot.  I’d just meditate with a sincere heart, ask the Spirit to free me, and that would be it.

 

            It was the day after Palm Sunday during Easter week.  After a hard day’s work with frustrations piling in one after the other, I sat down, crossed my fingers, and began to pray.

 

            “God, You know what’s in my heart now,” I told Him.  “I realize I’m chained to marijuana, a slavery as real as chain links and locks.  Please, Lord Jehovah, take this affliction from me, just as You delivered me earlier from cigarettes and other miseries before.”

 

            Sitting quietly in the waning hours of the day, I waited for God’s answer to my prayer.  At other times after such entreaties He’d filled my heart with a sweet healing that brought joy, and I knew at those times He was granting my request.  Today, though, I felt no such healing balm.  Instead, a still small audible voice spoke in my mind’s ear…

 

            “Ask Jesus,” He said.

 

            I couldn’t believe it!  Ask Jesus?  Jesus Christ, the God of the Gentiles?  I could never do that.  I felt  humiliated by the inference of that suggestion.  Wasn’t I good enough for my Creator’s personal attention?  Did I need a high priest to carry my requests to Him like a middle-management hack going through channels?  As a hardhearted egotist who’d always taken pride in my own strength and self-sufficiency, I couldn’t deal with the fact that the number one slot in heaven had already been allotted.

 

            But it was more than just an ego hassle. I was a Jew.  I knew what it would mean if Jesus actually healed me.  And it was more than I could handle.  Shaking off His suggestion, I lit up a joint and escaped into grass. The next afternoon, though, when the marijuana demon acted up, I prayed again.  Again, I got the answer I didn’t want.

 

            “Ask Jesus,” He said more clearly and forcefully.

 

            Instead I gritted my teeth, went out, and smoked a double portion of pot in a cigar-like bomber.  But the Spirit was working mightily in my life, and I slept poorly that night, despite going to bed groggy.  The next day I knew ’d have to do as I was being told.  I’d have to take the risk.

 

            When the word came to me a third time, I clasped my hands and prayed: “Jesus, if You are who Scripture says You are, I’m asking you to heal me of this marijuana curse.  I ask this with a sincere heart.  I ask this in truth and I will serve the truth if You do this.”

 

            That was the whole prayer, lasting only a few seconds, more challenge than supplication.  Yet the moment I finished praying, a great weight lifted off my heart and shoulders, and came out my chest.  My head grew clear and calm.  And in my heart of hearts, I knew it was done.  I was healed of my addiction.  Still, I was unwilling to believe it could be that simple.  Telling myself I couldn’t be sure the urge wouldn’t return so demandingly I’d be sure to go back to the grass tomorrow or the next day.  So I held off giving thanks to the One who had rescued me.

 

            Underlying my reluctance was an ancient terror.  Though I was a Jew who didn’t belong to a synagogue, I did belong to a people.  I belonged to a family, a tradition, and a national identity.  I was born a Jew, I would die a Jew, and I would live the rest of my life as a Jew.  A media consultant friend, Eli Bleich, once told me that as a Jew growing up in New York, he learned there were two things he could never do—root for the Yankees or vote Republican.  He could have added a third, a much bigger, prohibition—against Jesus as his Messiah and Savior.  Once a Jew takes that plunge, he is cursed by the rabbis and called names like meshummad (traitor). Even Jewish atheists and agnostics shun him, cutting him off from ordinary Jewish fellowship.

 

            Two full days went by, and the thought of smoking grass was as attractive as smoking a piece of rope. The Holy Spirit, whose other name is the Spirit of Truth, convicted my heart. I could no longer deny Him who had saved me.  So I got down on my spiritual knees, thanked Him for whom He was and what He’d done for me, then gave my life over to Him—gratefully—forever.  And in that instant, I passed from death into life.  As John says, “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life? (1 John 5:11-12).

 

            Now I had the Son and was born again as an acceptable member of God’s family.  My heart rejoiced in a new way and sang a new song to His glory and honor and praise.  All guilt had vanished.  My conscience was as clear as a baby’s.  At last I’d come home to my Maker.  But I still had a big problem—my wife Juneau.

 

            Little did I know the miracles the Holy Spirit was performing in her heart, at exactly the same time, though her experience was totally unlike my conversion…

 

                        Though we read the Bible regularly and believed much of it,

            there were parts I dismissed as mere myths, well-meaning tales

            written by fervent writers.  Talk about the blood of Christ seemed pure

            fantasy.  I could not understand how someone could pay for another’s

            sins.  It made absolutely no sense.  And for God to be a man did not

            jibe with my understanding of an all-powerful, omnipresent, all-knowing

            Being.

 

                        One evening I was sitting in bed, reading a short description by

            Hal Lindsey of the death of Jesus.  Suddenly, I felt as if I were there, and

            for the first time in my life I understood that Jesus is God and He

            suffered horribly on the cross for the sins of all the world—including

            mine.

 

                        I realized that  this perfect, innocent Man had suffered the wrath of

God’s judgment for every sin that had ever been committed and would yet

be done in the future. Worst of all, the Father could not be present with sin,

and so He was gone during the time of His Son’s ordeal.  I sobbed and

            cried for His pain. Love for Jesus overflowed my heart.  The Holy Spirit

            had softened and healed my soul.

 

                        The day after I accepted Christ as my Savior, I was amazed

            to find I now knew every word in the Bible was absolutely true.  But

            I did not tell David.  Not knowing that David was already a true

            Christian, I was afraid he might throw doubt on my discovery.

            Wouldn’t he think it was just an emotional reaction if I couldn’t think

            or speak about Jesus on the cross without weeping?  But if I didn’t

            speak of it, the furniture would have cried out.  That very week, we

            confessed to each other that we were true Christians, born of the

            Spirit, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Oh, the miracle

            of the Holy Spirit, who worked on us in different ways to the same

            blessed end!

 

                        Easter Friday was the darkest day for us now, as we relived the day He had done it all for love of us.  That weekend we felt it would be good to fellowship with other Christians.  Since Sunday was the traditional day for Christian worship, we would celebrate our Sabbath as always and then go to a church service on Sunday.

 

            On Easter Sunday 1984, we visited a little church just down the road from our house.  The pastor did not preach the Easter message we needed to hear that day.  Even worse, as he recounted how Jesus traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover from the Gospel of Mark, he ridiculed the Jews as bagel eaters with long noses.  Apart from the distaste it kindled in our hearts, what we really had come to hear was never mentioned even once.

 

 We yearned to hear a retelling of the greatest miracle of all time, when Jesus Christ, King of the Jews and the Messiah of the whole world, rose from the grave to bring hope to all people forever.  Happily, that morning we had programmed our video recorder to tape another service being telecast from Ventura.  Held at a local Seventh-day Adventist church, the service honored veterans of the Vietnam War, reconciling those who fought for America against the Communist Vietcong. As wounded veterans in army uniforms embraced Vietnamese members of the church, tears of joy flowed on the screen as well as in our watching eyes.

 

            “I think they have services on the Sabbath,” I said. “Maybe that would be the church for us.”

 

            We located an Adventist church in a nearby town, and the following Saturday we attended services. Following a violin duet, a small choir sang sweetly, then a lady played a hymn with bells, and the pastor preached a mellifluous sermon that went on just long enough not be tiresome.  As a worship experience it was pleasant enough, if not fiery, and on our way out we completed visitors’ cards.  That next Saturday, several older members of the congregation introduced themselves and invited us to lunch after services.

 

            So began a ritual of Saturday morning churchgoing and afternoon lunches, with the same group of three elders and their wives.  As new Christians, we hungered for spiritual information but though they were sweet and gentle-spirited, our new church friends never seemed willing to talk about God or His Word.  That was when George Vandemann—then host of television’s “It Is Written” show who attended our Thousand Oaks church—confided over a potluck lunch that they were praying the Holy Spirit to bring us in as members.

 

            It was hinted that I might join their media ministry as a writer.  Vandemann urged us to attend an evening “Seminar for the End Times” that looked into Bible prophecy and what Adventists believe, so we signed up. Held each Monday evening at the church, a typical session began with a video tape of Vandemann discussing Satan, rebellion, the Great Tribulation, the antichrist, the mark of the Beast, and other subjects.

 

            The presentation was slick, professional, and full of poetic generalities.  Vandemann used the jump-around method of Bible texting.  He had us code the special Bibles distributed the first night, and we’d go from a verse in Proverbs, coding it SR for Satan’s rebellion, to another in Mark or Revelation where we’d dutifully ink in similar SR’s, without heaving the faintest idea of the background or reason behind the analysis.  The tape was followed by a forty-minute teaching session run by pastor Howard Welklin, and an architect named Ralph Arnold, who liked calling the twenty group members “my beloved” after the manner of Paul and the Apostles.

 

            Every time Juneau or I posed questions or challenged an interpretation, Welklin put us off.  “You’re jumping the gun a bit. We’re going to cover that in a future session,” he would say.  Or “We’ve got too much to cover tonight and not enough time.  Let’s go into that some other time.”  Needless to say, the “right time” never arrived, and we had lots of unanswered questions rattling around in our heads and hearts.

 

            Soon we got into the “gift of prophecy” and learned that Adventists believe the life and writings of Ellen G. White totally fulfill Revelation 12:17 and 19:10 concerning the remnant church of the last days.  Since that didn’t jibe with what we understood about Christian doctrine, we bought a set of White’s books to find out what she—and therefore this church—teaches.

 

            We found many of White’s ideas troublesome—that America was the “image of the Beast” who would soon outlaw Saturday worship, that Christians who observed on Sunday had the mark of the Beast to condemn them in the last days, that God’s covenant with Israel had been revoked and given to the new “spiritual Israelites” who accepted Christ and kept all God’s commandments, especially the Sabbath day—which pretty much limited salvation to Adventists and a few Seventh-day Baptists.  There were lots more rules about health, jewelry, wine and food in White’s books, prohibitions that make a total mockery of salvation through God’s grace alone.

 

            Early in the new year we joined a small study group held early Saturday mornings before services, run by an associate pastor, Ole Oleson.  Like Welklin, Ole found lots of reasons to duck our questions.  Though we were getting more serious Bible study at home alone, we found little to upset us at the church.

 

            Until the day the Holy Spirit urged us to get baptized, just as Jesus had instructed.  It was late spring, and right after our morning study, I told Ole we wanted to be baptized.

 

            “Wonderful, wonderful,” he beamed. “But I need to know what you understand of baptism?”

 

            “It’s a public acknowledgment that we’ve accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior,” I answered.  “It means we’re putting our lives completely in His hands and want our brothers and sisters in Christ to witness our declaration of faith.  Jesus told His disciples to go baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So that’s exactly what we want to do.”

 

            “All right,” Ole said. “But that’s not all of it. I’ll tell Howard about your request, and we’ll get back to you.”

 

            The following Monday at the seminar, Pastor Welklin explained that baptism by Adventists means joining the Adventist church and accepting all the church’s tenets.  He gave us a card listing twenty points of Adventist faith.  Some described traditional Christian doctrine; others were more offbeat—for example their foot-washing ritual, or their teaching that the dead were “unconscious” and that wicked people were punished by obliteration, not eternal torment.  Most troublesome, though, was their stress on obeying rules—especially the Seventh-day Sabbath—along with their emphasis on Ellen White as a bona fide prophet, in the same class as Elijah and Isaiah.

 

            One night as we were lying in bed, I raised the question of our baptism.

 

            “I really want to get baptized,” I said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

 

            “But we have to join their church!” Juneau protested.

 

            “So we join,” I said. “We don’t have to go along with all their rules.”

 

            “Yes we do. Yes we do!” she cried. “I don’t want to spend my life feeling guilty. You don’t understand, David, they’re just another cult.  They have all these rules and regulations that cancel out the whole blessing of God’s grace!”

 

            Suddenly, Juneau began sobbing uncontrollably. Her reaction was so intense I was frightened by it and tried to console her.

 

            “Look, I don’t understand it all exactly, but if getting baptized over there makes you that miserable, we’ll just forget it.”

 

            It took us a long time to get to sleep after the emotional upheaval, but the next morning our spirits were at peace.  Soon afterward I wrote a lengthy letter to the pastor explaining how our studies had led us to withdraw our request for baptism in their church.  Pointing out the doctrines we saw as heretical, we felt their church was trying to earn salvation through rules.  Concluding “So we hope you will understand why we shall not be attending services nor future classes, though we are grateful for the thirteen months of fellowship you shared with us,” we sent copies to all those Adventists we’d come to know and love.

 

            Not going to church left a gap in our lives, but we gained new purity of heart that inspired our home studies.  Fed up with churches, we vowed not to affiliate with any denomination.  Instead we watched and supported those electronic television and radio ministers who spoke to our hearts, worshiped privately, and held our own home Bible studies.

 

One Sunday Juneau suggested we sit in on a Bible class at the little Bible church down the street.  We were directed to an over-forties group, led by television producer Michael Warren of “Happy Days” fame.  We found the class—as well as our classmates—absolutely charming, full of love and good humor.  Most gratifying, though, was the teaching.  Warren worked strictly from the Biblical text, and welcomed questions, challenges, and opinions from his students.  This was a living fulfillment of Peter’s admonition to “Be ready always to give to every man an answer” (1 Peter 3:15).

 

            After three Sundays of classes, just as we were leaving for home, Gary Butler—a friendly fellow we’d come to know and love—suggested we try a service “just to see what’s happening.”  So just to humor him, we did.  And it wasn’t long before Agoura Bible Fellowship became our own extended family, a body of believers most of whom take God and His Word seriously.   Before long, we asked the pastor to baptize us, and though we were not yet members, he agreed.   So on Good Friday 1986, Juneau and I declared before man and God that Jesus Christ was our Lord, our Savior and our God who died so we might live, and who rose from the grave to prove His dominion over life, death and eternity.

 

            Two months later, we became members, and joined the choir.   Later I was appointed a deacon and Juneau served on the church’s design committee. 

 

Almost from the day I received Jesus as my Messiah, I had been filled with an irresistible hunger for Bible prophecy.   I read all the books and magazines I could get my hands on that related to future things (eschatology: Greek for “study of Last Things”).   I studied all the prophetic books, from Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms and all the Prophets major and minor in the Hebrew Scriptures, and all the Greek Scriptures from the prophetic Gospel chapters—Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13 and Luke 21—Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, both letters to the Thessalonians, the letters of Peter and John, and the most challenging book of all, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, the last book of the Bible. 

 

After about four years of this prophetic immersion, I was led by the Spirit to start a Thursday night ongoing Bible study which I called “The Last Hour.”   I took the title from the book of 1 John 2:18—“Little children, it is the last hour; and you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know it is the last hour.” 

 

Juneau and I could see how much false teachings were being put out, particularly through TV evangelists who were increasingly preaching prosperity messages and “name it and claim it” doctrines.   It was clear to us that we were indeed in “the last hour” and the end of the age was soon at hand.   So we got the word out that our teaching series was being launched, and the first Thursday meeting brought out about fifteen hardy souls who took notes on our Biblical exegesis of the prophecies. 

 

Week by week, I studied and prepared for each new Thursday evening class, even as I earned bread for our table from being “contributing editor” for TV Guide and Los Angeles Magazine, writing investigative exposes on politics, and media.  The weeks of the prophecy classes stretched out to half a year before they concluded.  Some nights we had as many as twenty students, other nights as little as five, including me and Juneau.  At the end of the twenty-six weeks, I had accumulated several file folders filled with notes that I had absolutely no notion of how they might be further used. 

 

Meanwhile at our church, I was appointed to the elder’s board and Juneau became a deaconess, where we both learned about some of the ugly realities of church life behind the scenes.   It took all the patience God’s grace endowed me with to hang in there and fight the good fight for doctrinal purity and Biblically ordained behavior.  I watched as my good friend Mic Thorpe resigned as elder board chairman and left the church over a discouraging struggle with the pastor, his monumental ego and his tendency to lie and deceive.  I stayed on the board, and thereafter became board chairman, where I too had to contend with the same pastoral failings Mic had fought against. 

 

When after three years as elder board chairman, I finally left the board with a great sigh of relief rather than with feelings of satisfaction or accomplishment.   I had taken over teaching the only viable adult Sunday school class, and there I poured out my energies and doctrinal understandings into that special hour.   On the plus side, both Juneau and I still had our faith intact, knowing Christ, loving Him, living for Him, and trusting Him and Him alone for our lives and our happiness. 

 

Little did we know then that our real life’s purpose, the works that God had ordained for us both to do before either one of us was ever born, was about to begin.

 

 

            (Excerpted from The Sunshine Road, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville 1988)