Tuesday, April 22, 2014
The Long Road Back - James Webster
Have you ever taken a wrong turn that left you many miles (the wrong way) from your intended
destination? Looking back on the wasted time and energy, you probably thought something
like “how could I have been so stupid?” Looking back you may remember how long it took
you to get turned around and find your way (maybe even getting lost a few more times in the
process) to your desired location. When you are totally lost, you don’t know which way to go
and sometimes wander aimlessly searching for any clue as to what path to take. If you had to
back track, you might have even thought “it didn’t seem this far when I was going, but it sure is
a long road back.”
Many who have sustained serious bodily injuries find themselves in lengthy rehab and spend
painful hours, days and sometimes years on the long road back. The sports world (although
often there’s little good sportsmanship involved) is littered with examples of injured athletes
who’ve experienced “the long road back.”
Sometimes we either take or pick up a lot of baggage (weight) along the way. Those who
struggle with losing weight find that it’s a whole lot harder to take off the pounds than it was to
put them on. They too find it’s “a long road back” to their original weight.
There are many examples of our human endeavors which take us down the wrong road, and
the road nearly always seems longer on the way back. Addicts of all types learn the hard way
that recovery is a long road back.
So it is with religion as well. I am one of those “cult survivors” who was sold (and I do mean
sold) on a brand of religion that I was absolutely convinced was the “true church” and the “only
church.” As a youth I attended a number of different denominations and saw many of those
who attended each church through a child’s eyes. I could easily see their hypocrisy (it is, of
course, so very easy to see the speck of sawdust in another’s eye while failing to notice the
plank in our own). These experiences may have set me up to fail for the very different and
exclusive brand of religion that eventually “knocked on my door.” Actually it wasn’t a knock
on the door – as I had experienced those inconvenient religious interruptions too – but it was a
radio voice that asked a most penetrating question that had been on my mind for several years.
You’ll probably be shocked to hear that question – “Does God Exist?”
You see, I was in my high school years when the theory of evolution was introduced to me. Yes,
it was still regarded as a “theory” back then but many don’t view it as such today. That theory
didn’t “square” with my “religious” upbringing and was unsettling to me. At the same time
we were deep in the throes of the “cold war” and fallout shelters were either being built or
“designated” in sturdy buildings such as our school. At the time I lived in western Colorado at
about 6,400 feet elevation and had mountains rising another 3 or 4000 feet to the east of me.
One of my teachers explained what it would be like when a bomb hit Colorado Springs on the
opposite of the “Great Divide.”
The teacher explained that Colorado Springs would probably be one of the first targets – if
not the first – targets to be hit due to NORAD being there. The teacher said that we, living in
the same state but on the other side of the Colorado Rockies, would see this reddish glow and
mushroom cloud rising above the mountain and we should head for the shelter immediately.
With the threat of extinction and having the rug of my faith pulled out from under me I was
in a very vulnerable position. So, one night I just looked north over a different mountain and
prayed, “God if you exist please help me to know for sure.”
About five years after a brief stint in the United States Air Force I experienced a couple of
undeniable miracles and a host of other experiences – and in turn I read the Bible cover to
cover and then I heard “that voice” on the radio. It was on a Sunday in Hollywood, CA and I
was far from home and relatives feeling really blue and alone – “lower than a snake’s belly in
a post hole” as we used to say out on the farm. I had taken a walk up in the Hollywood Hills
to try and clear my head and get above the dark clouds engulfing my mind. Upon returning
to my little “apartment” (actually a renovated old motel room) I tried to listen to some music
but that made me feel worse. So, it was after listening to a brief news update and right on the
hour that I “accidentally” tuned into a radio program that was just beginning where I heard
that remarkable question I had prayed about years earlier – “Does God Exist?” Of course I was
“hooked” and listened daily from that day forward.
Thus my 40 years of wandering in the wilderness of legalized religion began. What a trip it was!
I was at least as zealous as Saul was before he became the Apostle Paul. I can’t say it was all
bad because in fact I found it fantastic and quite fulfilling. The problem was of course that I was
in my own dimension – “little world”. As time went by I noticed a few “chinks in the armor” or
“flies in the ointment” to use a couple clichés. I fasted and prayed as did the whole Worldwide
Church of God when the leader (who was also “the voice”) – Herbert W. Armstrong’s wife
Loma – was dying from blood poisoning as the result of a rose thorn in her finger. Of course
“we” in the only true church didn’t believe in medical involvement trusting that God was our
healer and would do so according to His will.
Years later when Armstrong himself lay virtually dead on the tarmac at an airport in Tucson, AZ
several nurses rushed to his aide and helped revive him. Given the hypocrisy I’d witnessed in a
lot of other churches in my youth this medical attention which Armstrong personally accepted
while not “allowing” it for members did not set well with me. Herbert’s son, Garner Ted
Armstrong (GTA as he was known to insiders) was a well known televangelist of considerable
clout and persuasion (another voice on the radio teaching the same stuff) was put out of the
church a time or two by his father and was always “repentant” and reinstated until the last
Herbert ultimately died and chose as his replacement Joseph Tkach Sr. The very first message
I ever heard in the “Worldwide Church of God” was preached by Mr. Tkach – once I was finally
deemed worthy to occupy a seat upon my baptism. Slowly Joseph Tkach began introducing
some “changes” which were a radical departure from Armstrongism and the “iron hand” of
Herbert Armstrong lost its grip. Not so slowly those “chinks in the armor” grew bigger and
people began “flocking” to other flocks. Then Mr. Tkach died too and his son Joe Tkach Jr. took
over what was left of the original church.
For reasons I’ll not put in writing at this juncture, I was adrift once again and drowning without
a guiding beacon. Finally an “epiphany” occurred and I realized the Beacon had been there ALL
along and I just had not perceived it. That Beacon of course was Jesus Himself – the Light of the
world – and where I should have been focused all along.
The epiphany was spawned by “Christianity Without the Religion” and my old friend “Plain
Truth Magazine” but totally revamped, renewed and finally pointing in the right direction –
toward Jesus and his grace. I found that it helps to get things in the right order Grace FIRST
and then knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). Legalistic religion brain washing had done its job on me and
taken my eyes off the Good Shepherd. I had been wandering in that wilderness 40 (literally)
years much as did the Israelites after their release from slavery in Egypt. Experiencing the
freedom of Jesus was indeed “Good News” but it was only the beginning of another journey –
the long way back.
I think it may actually be more difficult to “un-learn” than it is to learn in the first place. I
remember one of my coaches in high school shocking me by saying “Practice does NOT make
perfect!” He explained, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Practicing something wrong just
puts you in a rut of imperfection and it’s very difficult to train yourself to do it right after
developing a wrong habit. It truly is a long way back to Jesus when you have to change your
paradigm or “faith application” (in computerese). Switching from a legal perspective to a
grace perspective is quite a challenge for the human mind – realizing one has been completely
indoctrinated in the former. Thankfully Jesus is the Master of all things and can thoroughly
wash and cleanse both the mind and soul. Yet, it’s still a process and requires time and
experience to reach the ultimate goal/destination. It often seems to be a long way back even
with the burdens are lifted.
I’ve always enjoyed, appreciated and identified with Kris Kristopherson’s song “Why Me Lord.”
In this context his line: “Maybe Lord I can show someone else what I’ve been through myself
on my way back to you” comes to mind. I hope my story might give you something to ponder
as you continue your journey back to Jesus. Praise God – Holy, Mighty, Majesty – Freedom and
Peace at last!