Jesus, The Missing Years

There has been much speculation as to what Jesus did between the ages of twelve and thirty. Some theorize that he traveled East and studied Buddhism. This brings to mind a line from a Ray Wylie Hubbard song, “Buddha wasn’t a Christian but Jesus would’ve made a good Buddhist.”

Good point brother Ray. After all, Buddha is known as The Compassionate One. Christianity was, in the beginning, an Eastern religion. It has become Western Europeanized and North Americanized to the point that it sometimes it’s hard to recognize. Well, that’s all good for another time and another day. All that being said, it brings me to my point…

Where was I for the twenty-six years of August 1987 until August 2013? Studying and practicing Buddhism, however erratically, was included in a chunk of those years. Those years would be the 90’s. I met some good Buddhists and some of them were monks. I learned the importance of meditation back then. I wish I could discipline myself to practice it more frequently. It is very important to stop, sit and just breathe. STOP. Be quiet. Listen.

Remember August 1 from the ‘Amazing Grace’ blog last week? It was written on August 1 to coincide with my conversion experience which took place on August 1, 1975.

We now go to August 1, 1987. Our family was having a nice afternoon at Point Reyes Beach which is north of San Francisco. I had been getting that “feeling” deep in my heart. THE SPIRIT was rumbling restless in my soul. Ok, what’s going on here, I thought. Every song and every sign seemed to whisper, “Alabama… Home.” I was getting nervous and you can only imagine how Melodye with an E felt. By the time we got back to our apartment in San Rafael, CA I was listening.

Me and Paul had tickets to a Hank Williams, Jr concert that night. I thought it a good opportunity to do some good ole honky tonkin’ on that Saturday evening and, maybe, get away from the serious soul searching I was wrestling with for awhile. WRONG!!! (Remember the McLaughin Report parody on SNL?)

It turns out all the Hank Jr concert did was to add to the case that was being built by THE SPIRIT. Return to Alabama. You have got to be kidding me! Hank Jr ? I will sleep on it. I slept on it. “Well I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that it did not hurt…” And I sent Paul and the kids on to church while I stayed home and did some ferocious grappling. I felt like Jacob… or Kris Kristofferson.

I prayed and I grappled and the more I did the louder it got. GO HOME! When Paul got back from church I broke the news to her. She took it like she did all the other “calls”, pretty much in stride, saint that she is. Thus we began to make plans to return to the “Heart of Dixie.” But where? When? How?

I continue to be amazed at how she rolls with all of these situations we find ourselves in but she was adamant about one thing concerning this move. She flatly stated, “If we are going back to Alabama there is only ONE place that I will move to… Auburn!”

Long story short is, three weeks later we find ourselves living in Starr’s Trailer Park in the Loveliest Village. With the help of her uncle L.C. Brown, who had been a principal at Beulah High School for many years, Paul got a job at Beauregard High School in Lee County. I submitted my credentials to the local Baptist Association there. Also I picked up the Opelika-Auburn News that first Sunday we were there and began to scour the want ads. I came to one job opening that jumped off the page at me. The Auburn Alumni association was hiring someone to speak to Auburn Club meetings and perform other various and sundry duties. I’m their man ! WRONG PART DEUX!!!

I did not even get interviewed for the job. I chalked it up as their loss. Now it is lesson time about how things work as a “civilian.” Sixty sets of World Books sold door to door later, I get a call from the said local Baptist Association. I was informed that Loachapoka Baptist Church needed a preacher. This was in January of 1988.

I met with some of the good people of the church and we set up a Sunday, that month, to preach a trial sermon. Now let me say here that I had been having some doubts in my walk of faith. I was very much disenchanted with the Institutional Church, and disenchanted is putting it mildly.

I had done a project on Will D. Campbell while at Golden Gate Seminary. He had been one of the biggest influences on my life at that point. I had found a friend in my disdain for the Institutional Church. Preacher Will had been out of it for many years. He had been a participant on the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement. He was my hero. And if you haven’t read any of his works then HURRY up and do so. Start with ‘Brother to a Dragonfly’.

We return to a bright and sunny Sunday morning in the same January of 1988. I brought the message and it was very well-received. The small white clapboard building was almost full. They had turned out in force. I stood at the entry door to the church and shook hands with the congregants as they departed. They were all smiles. I could see where this was going. There was one small problem though… “I don’t believe what I just said.” That thought was blindingly overwhelming me. Rut Row! I did not participate in another sermon for almost twenty-six years. So that brings us to… Jesus, The Missing Years.

Amazing Grace

And now back to the summer of 1975.

August 1st 1975. Me and a couple of my fraternity brothers (Ed Starkie and Keith Harvey) were high stepping to the Adams Center on the TSU campus on this bright and glorious Friday morning. We met another of our brothers (Tom Mathews) coming out the door as we were walking in. We paused to discuss what debauchery we might engage in that night.

Tom took us aback with his take on the situation. He said, “If y’all have noticed I haven’t been partying with you guys for the last couple of weeks and it’s because of Jesus Christ.”

I had never had such a moment of clarity in my life. In my mind something very loud and powerful hit me like a ton of bricks. “That’s it! That’s it! Jesus Christ!” I didn’t tell anyone until later that evening about the blast of light that had illuminated my thoughts so powerfully and vividly.

Exactly one week earlier, on July 25th, I found myself doing something that I considered odd for me. I got up that morning, after a crazy Thursday night of revelry, thinking about my future. I would, hopefully, graduate from T-roy in March of 1976 and the thought occurred to me… “What on earth is going to happen then ?” When people asked me what I thought I would do upon matriculation I told then I would like to be a DJ or, if dreaming BIG, the voice of the Auburn Tigers.

But I had taken exactly ZERO steps toward doing anything that resembled accomplishing either one of those goals. I hadn’t even bothered to attempt to get a job at the campus radio station. That would have required effort and responsibility and I was not heavy laden with either effort or responsibility. Those of you that knew me back then would agree with me. I cut class and studied so little I don’t know how I got by. But get by, barely, was what I did do in those days.

Well, when classes were over that July Friday I went back to the fraternity house, picked up my Theater Arts textbook and a little zip up bible I had received as a gift many years ago, and headed out of town. I was scared and I was confused. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going in either the physical or spiritual sense. I was LOST.

I got in my 1970 white Ford Maverick and headed up US 231 toward Montgomery. Three on the column and rolling… somewhere. I wound up on the Southern Bypass in the capital of Alabama. I headed south. I noticed the Days Inn sign coming up on my right. I remembered my best friend, Hal Huggins, and I had stayed at Days Inns on more than one occasion in our adventures together. I pulled in to the motel and checked in.

I sat by the pool late that afternoon and pondered my situation. My girlfriend at the time lived in Prattville. I called her and set up a date and we went out that Friday and had a pretty uneventful evening. I asked her about what we might do Saturday and she told me she had to stay at home. I told her that was fine. I would stay at the Days Inn another night and figure something out.

Something turned out to be sitting by the pool again and reading the new Street and Smith’s college football magazine for the upcoming 1975 season and. Auburn received a VERY high ranking, top five?, in that issue and I got pretty excited about the coming fall.

Later that night I went to the movies. As I was standing in line to get a ticket to see ‘Jaws’ I heard someone yell out, “Bird!” I turned around to find Gladys Stephens Elliott, her fiancĂ© Jimmy Elliott and another couple. They graciously invited me to sit with them. Auburn Family, all four of them, and Jimmy had even played basketball for Auburn. “This must be a sign,” I thought. Looking good AU!

When the movie was over we parted ways and assured each other that there would be NO going back into the water for some time. (I could’t even get in the tub for a week!) I hopped in the Mav and went looking for a bar. I came upon such a place in the Cloverdale section of Monkeytown. I ran into a Troy friend of mine there. His name was Fred and I cannot remember his last name but I can see his face. Fred and I had a few cans of Schlitz and called it a night before we got too drunk to drive. That was the way it was done back then. Or if you were with a group of people the LEAST drunk person drove. SMH.

On the way back to the Ritz-Carlton, WAIT ! Another time, another place, I’m sorry… the Days Inn, I stopped for a six pack of “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” I went to the room, put the beer on ice in the sink and turned on the TV. I have no recollection what was on TV late that night or, more accurately, Sunday morning. I’m sure there must have been commercials hawking cars for Capital Chevrolet or the like. Whatever.

I could not concentrate on television or anything else for that matter. THE FEAR was coming over me. I wondered where I was going and what was I going to do with my life. I had not ONE clue. I have never felt so lost and alone in my life. The alcohol had made me emotional. I began to weep.

I did not pick up the little zip up King James version of the bible. But through my tears I cried out, “Please help me God.”

Sunday and the remainder of the following week went without another thought of this cry for help or much of anything else except the same ole, same ole. That is until Me and Bear and Keith ran into Tom at the Adams center the next Friday, August 1. “It’s because of Jesus Christ.” Holy Mercy! “That’s it ! That’s it ! Jesus Christ !”

I went back to the fraternity house almost skipping. I was so happy I couldn’t contain myself. I even went and picked up trash from Thursday night’s activities along with Mark Boghich and Woods Culpepper. I even swept the huge front porch of the old Victorian there on Three Notch Street. That you would have to have seen to believe it. Bird was NOT one given to sweeping or cleaning or anything else of that nature. Symbolic huh?

I told my dear brother Woods what had been going on with me and he was very happy as he had recently “found” Jesus. As he is given to say to this day, “Bird I’m so glad we found Jesus. He was hiding behind the sofa the whole time.” LOL! I love you Woods!

That night I went over to the beautiful little Episcopal church there in Troy. I knew it left it doors open 24/7. We did some of our initiation week from that house of God. I always seemed to feel a presence there. I thought it to be a good quiet place to do what I had to do.

So I walked into the church, feel prostrate on the floor in front of the altar, and I asked God to forgive me and to please come into my heart. She did.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I ONCE was lost but NOW am found,
Was BLIND, but now I SEE.
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How PRECIOUS did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.”

My good people… It’s ALL Grace.
Amen.