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God’s Way Through the Words and the Weeds

DFW Airport wasn’t yet operational when we drove the ninety miles to Love Field in Dallas where I boarded a non-stop flight to Los Angeles’ LAX. From there I would take a series of buses that would eventually drop me off with Dale and Linda Ebel in San Clemente, California.

Dale was the youth director at a Presbyterian church there, and I was going to live with them for the summer of my sixteenth year and help with the youth program. You should understand at this point that my folks’ real goal was for me to be exposed to a unique spiritual environment, live with people other than family who really loved Jesus, and grow in my faith through the process. It would be icing on the cake if I actually helped the youth program.

After an uneventful flight, I caught a shuttle downtown to the main bus station and boarded a southbound Greyhound for San Clemente, famous for being the Western White House for then President Nixon. Buses were not new to me. As a kid, my folks had put me on the bus to Poteau several times to visit my grandparents. I’d sit in the front seat and watch the Oklahoma hills pass outside the big window, wondering how the driver had what appeared to be two accelerator pedals. ("Why?" has always been one of my favorite questions.) "Muskogee, Stigler. Keota." The driver would call out the town names as well pulled into the depot, most of which were primarily roadside cafe until the bus arrived; then they were the bus station. "Shady Point," and then I knew Poteau was next. My granddad Hoyle would be waiting for me. We’d throw my bag onto the wooden bed of his old green Chevy, then drive up the hill toward a house filled with the smells of Grandmother’s cooking.

The depot in downtown L.A. shared few similarities with any I’d seen in eastern Oklahoma. This thought, and a crowd of others, filled my mind as the bus drove through the shoulder-to-shoulder suburbs of L.A. along I-5: Anaheim, Santa Ana, Mission Viejo.

I stepped onto a dark platform in the beach town that would be my summer home; there was no one around but a male desk clerk sporting a ten-inch ponytail. I’d heard the men were wearing those things out there, but I’d never seen one. A few of the hard-core Indians back home had long braids, but they were supposed to. This guy was my Dad’s age. With bags to hold enough clothes for the summer at my feet, I called from the pay phone to announce my arrival to a total stranger named Dale in a town full of total strangers.

The initial days of my stay were as you might imagine: I busied myself getting my bearings, learning people’s names, trying to decide if it was OK for everyone to laugh at my drawl and Okieisms, overhauling an old three-speed bike so I could get to the beach and back, adjusting to Presbyterianism, and finding my spot in the Ebel household. (These people were eating yogurt and granola for breakfast. At least I’d heard about men wearing ponytails. As near as I could tell, yogurt was simply bad ice cream.) But I was welcomed with open arms by the family and youth group. I was regularly asked to read the scripture aloud at the beginning of a Bible study, partly to acquaint everyone with the passage, but mostly so they could listen to me drawl along. With white-blond, shoulder length hair, my friendship with Dale, and a few other key folks, I settled into a summer routine appearing very much Californian—at least until I opened my mouth.

I slept on the hide-a-bed in the living room, pleased that my bedroom was the only one in the house that had a kitchen attached. Late at night, after the Ebel’s had gone to bed, the house would grow quiet and solitude would move into the room to share my space. It was as though this friend waited at the screen door to enter on the sea breeze as soon as the opportunity was right. And there, lying on my belly, propped up on my elbows, I would read and ask the Lord to teach me. For the first time in my life, my parents weren’t around to interpret the Spirit for me or introduce God’s thoughts from His Word. The God of my parents was becoming my God.

I carried a Living Paraphrase Bible covered with suede leather in those days. It was well worn because I could understand what I was reading. I’d started the year reading the Bible through and was now in the midst of Romans. It hadn’t ever occurred to me to skip around in my reading and in so doing get smaller doses of books like Leviticus and Numbers. Let’s face it, Moses was not Tom Clancy! But I was excited to be in Romans and not the Minor Prophets.

Settling down in front of the screen door, I read what the Lord had to say in Romans 6. "Well then, shall we keep on sinning so that God can keep on showing us more and more kindness and forgiveness? Of course not! Should we keep on sinning when we don’t have to? For sin’s power over us was broken when we became Christians. Your old evil desires were nailed to the cross with Him; that part of you that loves to sin was crushed and fatally wounded, so that your sin-loving body is no longer under sin’s control, no longer needs to be a slave to sin; for when you are deadened to sin you are freed from all its allure and its power over you. So look upon your old sin nature as dead and unresponsive to sin, and instead be alive to God, alert to Him, through Jesus Christ our Lord." It was as though the Spirit Himself had sat down beside me and leaned up against the door jam to instruct me in the meaning of this passage. In my heart I now realized that I no longer had to sin. Not only was I free to say no to Satan’s temptations, I was responsible to say no. Not only did I want to say to no to temptation, I could say no. The power that had held me in bondage to sin was a toothless tiger, lying to me about myself and the extent of his authority.

The notes in the margin of my old Living Paraphrase indicate that I had difficulty verbalizing just what it was the Lord had shown me on July 26, 1972. But you know as well as I do that Christ can speak to our hearts very clearly as to what’s on His mind; we can comprehend perfectly, but to tell someone else leaves us stammering and flailing. In retrospect, I realize better now what occurred then and understand more clearly God’s rationale in Romans 6. We were separated from Him by our heritage in Adam, lost due to our roots, consumed by an old self bent on living independently. Our performance stunk, but not nearly so much as we stunk, being descendants of Adam and sinful by nature. Fixing the problem wasn’t as simple as forgiving our sins. That’s what the Old Testament system of sacrifices was about. A new covenant was necessary; a fundamental change was needed. Our inherent propensity to rebel and live independently of God had to be dealt a fatal blow. As Jesus told Nicodemus, we needed to be born again, taken out of Adam’s lineages and placed in to Christ’s. So Christ sacrificed Himself once and for all; in so doing, the stronghold of the enemy, which said we had no choice but to sin and rebel, was broken; the old heritage was crucified in Christ and killed, and we were reborn in His family, children who long to please their Father. We became new people; created in His likeness, free to say no to the enemy’s temptations and desiring to live lives exemplary of who we really are. This is in no way to be construed as a potential to achieve sinless perfection. Paul was trying to impress us with the magnitude of Christ’s work at the cross and hammer home the profundity of being born again into His family.

Well, Dale and his family drove a VW bus in those days, and it was in that bus on the way to the office one day that I made my first effort to explain what I’d seen in God’s Word. My words were awkward and my sentences were anything but eloquent. Yet Dale understood and reinforced the magnitude of the Spirit’s revelation.

As was my custom, no long after work that day I made my way to the beach astride my gnarly looking, overhauled, trash-bag-green, three-speed bicycle. Going to the beach was great fun because it was all downhill. Coming home…well, it was a good time to leave the beach when some guy with a pickup was departing as well.

Anyway, Riviera Beach was accessed through a residential area via a drainage ditch that ran under the railroad tracks. Once past the tracks, there was a narrow, sandy trail lined by waist-high weeds that deposited you onto the main beach about fifty yards from the breakers. I parked my bike and began walking the trail, all the while studying a fellow sitting in a beach chair smack dab in the middle of the trail. Sitting in the trail wasn’t the curious thing to me; that’s the only place a person who decided to sit in the trail could sit. But fifty yards from the water, in the weeds, and in the middle of the trail? Now that’s different. As I approached I surmised he was reading a girlie magazine, and right on cue the enemy attacked with his temptation, verbalized as my thought; "I ought to be able to get a good look at those pictures on my way by. I wonder what page he’s on?" But guess what? Just as quickly as the enemy finished his offer, the Spirit spoke to my heart and said, "I don’t have to look. God said so in Romans 6!" I recognized the voice of the Spirit and the truth of God’s Word from the night before, then waded into the weeds and around Satan’s snare in the middle of the trail. That was victory!

I learned a lot that summer in San Clemente, like how to body surf, fix a three-speed bike, run a vacation Bible school, and look out for folks sitting in the middle of the trail; I learned that yogurt wasn’t half bad, and that the guy with the ponytail at the bus station went to our church. Most of all, though, I learned that I don’t have to go along with Satan’s temptations to sin. I’m a new man with a new heart. God said so! Oh yeah, I also discovered that God speaks with an Okie drawl.

Preston Gillham

About the Author

As a co-founder, Preston Gillham led Lifetime for 30 years. Preston is a writer, speaker, and leadership guide. He has authored numerous articles and several books including No Mercy and Battle for the Round Tower. He blogs on “Life and Leadership”. More about Preston, his writings, speaking, and his consulting practice can be located at PrestonGillham.com.