As I celebrate my birthday, I am reminded of the many experiences I have had over the years that have shaped who I am. Without becoming too psychological or philosophical it seems obvious to me that all of us are the result of our genetic makeup and our experiences. I know that is true with me.
When I look in the mirror or make an honest examination of my thoughts and attitudes it is easy to determine where I came from. Each time I look at my hands I see my father’s hands. That is not to say I am a carbon copy of my ancestors but the effect of chromosomes is definitely passed from one generation to the next.
Of more interest to me than genetics are experiences. Having just completed 62 years of living, the number of experiences I have had is overwhelming. Yet, there are some that are definitely more significant than others. So, on my birthday I paused to enumerate these experiences and think about the impact they have had on my life. I rank them here according to how they have affected my life.
Of the 62 birthdays I have celebrated, 61 of them have occurred after having polio. The only thing the majority of people know about this disease is that they were given a vaccination for it when young. When it came into my life in October of 1951, our nation was in the midst of an epidemic and everyone was aware of its existence.
The reason I say this is the most significant experience in my life is because it has impacted every movement I have made every day of my life. In fact, I learned just a couple of years ago that it has taken a toll on the muscles that even control my breathing, so literally, every breath I take has felt the influence of this experience.
It would be easy to moan and complain about this situation but if you know me, you know that is not my style. In fact, I think having polio is the most significant experience in my life, not because of the negatives but because of the positives. It has taught me many good things I probably would not have learned any other way.
I have been forced to learn trust. There has not been a day in my life when I did not need God to do something for me. That is true for everyone, by the way, but in my case it is so obvious that I cannot forget it. You might realize your need for God to pass a test or accomplish a big goal. I am aware that I need God to get out of bed, put on my clothes, brush my teeth, as well as pass the test and accomplish a goal.
Consequently, I have learned to be very conversant with God. It is impossible to number the times I have said, “Ok God, here we go, I need your help here,” or something very similar.
Not only has polio taught me to trust God, it has also taught me to trust people. It has been amazing how people have responded to my needs. Family, friends, and even strangers have been eager to help. I can only recall one instance when I asked someone to help and they refused. It was in the parking lot of a hotel in Dallas. I had parked on an incline and needed some help loading my wheelchair in the van. I asked a man who was walking by if he would help and he said, “No,” and kept walking.
Many people have a hard time trusting God and others. I have not had the luxury of being able to choose to do so. Being unable to do very few things on my own has been a good thing in many ways.
As a nine-year-old I remember sitting in a church pew at the conclusion of a Sunday morning worship service. The pastor, my father, was extending what Baptists call the “invitation” for folks who were ready to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. I wanted to go forward and make that commitment that morning so I tugged on my mother’s dress. She had lifted me out of my wheelchair onto the pew and I needed her help to get back in the chair. She was unaware of my spiritual desire at the moment, probably thinking I wanted a drink or needed to go to the bathroom, and told me to wait until after the service. An hour or so later at lunch, I shared what had happened with my parents and at that moment prayed and asked Jesus to be my Savior.
Obviously this was a very significant experience in my life. Not only has it impacted every day of my life but it will have effect into eternity. Since I was only nine-years-old, living in a preacher’s home, and learning the Bible from the very beginning, my lifestyle did not experience a radical change on that Sunday. But my commitment to Christ on that day has colored every decision I have made since. I don’t always do it well, but I have strived to live my life as His servant.
When you have been married for 38 years it is obvious who the most influential person in your life is. Sharon and I had a rather unique courtship, being aware that we were going to be married even before we ever dated. (That’s a long, interesting story for another day.) We both began our marriage with confidence we were doing what God wanted and that confidence has never wavered for either one of us.
Most of what I do and certainly every major decision I have ever made is with this relationship in mind. I am who I am because of Sharon. She is by far the most influential person in my life.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this truth is to describe how I feel after preaching a sermon. Preachers always hear from people after a sermon and most of them are compliments. I have learned to say, “Thank you,” and move on, or when there is criticism to be willing to listen and learn from the critic. However, the person whose opinion matters the most to me is Sharon. I want to know what she thinks.
It’s interesting because she never says it was lousy, even if it was (and there have been more than a few over the years). Instead, she will say with a hint of hesitation, “It was ok,” which I have learned means it really was not very good. When I am willing to hear more she will explain the problem. I have learned she is one of the few who is honest and I need to hear the truth.
Sharon is more responsible for who I am than any other person. When we gave our lives to one another on a warm Saturday afternoon in August of 1974, my life changed directions for the good.
Call to Ministry
When I sensed God’s call to the ministry it was difficult for me primarily because of my physical condition. I grew up in a preacher’s home so I was aware there were physical requirements I could not fulfill. I was concerned I could not baptize new believers and that it would be very difficult for me to make home visits (most houses in Colorado where I lived had stairs). Today, many preachers go out of their way to avoid making home visits, but that was not the model I knew growing up.
Reading through the Bible one Sunday afternoon, I came across Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and all of my apprehension about doing what God was calling me to do was addressed. At that moment, I did what we used to say, I “surrendered” to God’s call on my life.
Since that time, every education and career decision was altered. This experience of being called to ministry has formed my life and made me who I am. Whenever I am asked, “What do you do?” I typically say, “I’m a preacher,” and then fill in the details.
Certainly there have been numerous other experiences that have contributed to my life. However, these four seem to be the most significant. Nearly everything in my life is attributable to one or more of these experiences. Together, they have taught me that God is good and certainly worthy to be praised.