Faith, I was taught, meant trusting in the Holy Roman Catholic Church, never questioning what you were instructed and never challenging its sacred doctrines. Nuns and priests drilled this dictum into me repeatedly during my Catholic grade school education. Church hierarchy was an immovable force never to be questioned or challenged.
Yet, as I grew into young adulthood, the very fabric of our society was being challenged. Change and challenge were everywhere. America in the 1960’s was a place of ferment and change. This change was dramatic and unforgiving. It sowed the seeds of a shift in society that we bemoan today as the degrading of American culture. It was hard to see its significance then, but forty years later, time provides a lens through which events may be discerned more clearly.
The seventh decade of the 20th Century had many iconic images: JFK, the Beatles, Vietnam, hippies, drugs, political assassinations, and moonwalks. It was a time of extremes, of polarization in many areas, high political ideals, e.g., John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” contrasted with three shocking political assassinations: John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and a loss of trust in our elected leadership, which grew out of the war in Vietnam. By decade’s end, the simple, rhythmic rock and roll music of Buddy Holly, Elvis, and the Beatles had deteriorated into drug-induced anti-establishment rantings.
A war raged in Southeast Asia – a war sold as a patriotic struggle against communism, but fought with constraints by politicians who wanted to sanitize its brutality, push their political agenda, and satisfy both the generation that fought WWII and their children—the emerging counter-culture.
With the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, the “environmental movement” was born, and it attracted many anti-establishment youth. In June of that year, a convention in Port Huron, Michigan captured the spirit of the 60’s radicalism with its manifesto (Port Huron Statement) – a bold rejection of America’s sanctioned values. In short, the country was corrupt, confused and disjointed. There was a disharmony among the citizenry. People strongly and, occasionally, violently, disagreed. America was a ship at sea in a storm and she had lost her rudder. Grave and critical factions demanding sweeping change were eroding American foreign policy, corporations, race relations, economic relationships, and government. A clamor for personal freedoms, “making love not war,” and material goods denigrated society’s moral and ethical standards.
This counter-culture faction did not respect the country’s institutions, leaders, moral tone, or tolerate gradual reform. Their revolt was against the entire American culture. Yet, America’s majority clung to traditional ideals of family, work, and material advancement. Two distinct groups emerged within our society. I chose to side with tradition and work for those ideals that were being tested.
I was appalled by the counter-culture and determined not to be part of it. I resolved to use my education, resources, and skills to create a life that showed the tenants of the “other side” invalid. My plan was to use my education in the sciences (chemistry) to prove the ideologies of the New Left flawed. Science was logical, clear, and precise. There were no gray areas here, no philosophies of society, no drug-enhanced self-exploration, just FACTS—provable, measurable facts. The simplicity appealed to me.
My Life’s Foundation
To master science requires work, lots of long, plain, hard WORK; study, study, and more study. I worked at it and excelled. I built a foundation, the foundation of my life: hard work and logic. God was a distant part of the picture, a transcendent Being who had set the Earth in motion and then left humans to run it using the minds He had given them.
My Catholic faith had become nothing but a ritualistic revolving door. Go to church and school and learn the rules. Try, but fail to keep the rules. Realize how you “blew it.” Go to confession and admit your sins to a priest. Receive absolution and do penance. Feel cleansed. Go to Mass and Holy Communion and feel sanctified. Blow it again. Go to confession again…etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera! After a while, I did not even bother going to confession because nothing ever changed. I found myself confessing the same sins over and over—and over again.
I even asked a priest about this once while in the confessional. He only compounded my guilt by intoning, “I’d hate to be in your shoes, come Judgment Day!” While I desired to embrace the Church and its teachings, I felt I could never succeed at what was expected of me. I was forever failing and asking forgiveness. What was the use? The whole system seemed hopelessly impotent and expendable. Besides, my own “system” seemed to be working just fine.
While I was in graduate school, the Vietnam War interrupted my “life plan.” The first peacetime draft since WWII forced me to enlist in the U.S. Navy. I applied for submarine service and I was selected. I also applied for the nuclear power training program and I was selected.
At this juncture, I encountered the individual who, besides my father, had the most notable influence on my life, Admiral H. G. Rickover, the father of the Nuclear Navy. Rickover was legendary for his leadership and engineering acumen in designing, building, and operating mobile nuclear power generation plants. I learned his foundation was exactly like mine – science, logic, and hard work used to create a safe, efficient engineering system that was second to none. I embraced and excelled at his methodology. It affirmed my worldview but added a new dimension: self-reliance.
Ready to Conquer
In 1974, at twenty-seven years of age, I was a very confident, capable young man, schooled in the sciences, proven in the submarine service, and ready to tackle the world. I had excelled, was not part of the counter-culture, and had done everything through my own efforts, or so I thought. Pride and self-assurance were not in short supply. Add to this a beautiful wife, a budding family, and with my life ahead of me, I was ready to conquer the world. My state of mind could be correctly characterized by, “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful….”1
Upon leaving the service to join my father in the family business, I employed my system of logic, science, hard work, and self-assurance with the objective of growing the company and making it the best metal finishing business in the state.
Years passed and the company grew as hoped, both financially and in professional stature. My goals appeared to have been reached. Gross sales were twenty times greater than when I joined the business. The company was known for its expertise in gold, silver, nickel, and tin finishes. I was recognized nationally as an articulate and competent spokesman for the metal finishing industry in its never-ending regulatory struggles with all levels of government. Environmental science in the 1990’s had become a political platform for much of the counter-culture of the 1960’s. It was gratifying to use my system of science, logic, and hard work to derive science-based solutions to impending regulations.
As my professional skills grew, I disregarded God and increasingly relied on myself. Why not? I was capable of conquering anything set before me. God was “known” to me, but seemed distant; there was no relationship. He was an intellectual curiosity, not a personal Being who could help me, direct me, or desire my trust. Although I regularly attended church, it was merely a dutiful obligation. I could best be characterized as a deist – someone who believes God exists and created the world, but thereafter assumed no control over it or the lives of people.
When Billy Graham came to our town, my wife Cindy coaxed me to attend his Crusade. I listened to his presentation and responded to his invitation to come forward, more out of curiosity than anything. A man prayed with me, but nothing seemed to change. I did not believe I needed more of God in my life. I was absorbed in my own pursuits and did not have time for “religion.”
When my wife, who had been studying the Bible, informed me several years later that she could no longer attend the Catholic Church because of its errant teachings, I felt mystified, angry, and abandoned. Although she offered to share information explaining her faith, I was not interested. We began to attend separate churches, and what used to be “family Sundays” now became days of tension and division. During the week and on Saturdays, I was buried in work and my own pursuits, so it was easy to disregard whatever differences we had.
By 1995, at forty-eight years of age, I was a confident and self-assured entrepreneur at the height of his professional skills. Other than brief passages cited during Mass, I had never read the Bible, so I did not know it says that everything, including wealth and honor, comes from God;2 that He is the One who provides success and satisfaction in work.3 I thought I had done it all. However, I was about to be taken to the woodshed by the God of the Universe and taught some eternal truths.
That year, a sequence of events began to unfurl, would test my avowed foundation, and proved it flawed. These trials would demolish my pride and self-assurance. These events occurred over five years as God kept providing a series of trials that would truly test me and finally teach me the central truth of God’s Word: “Trust in the Lord.” I would be drawn into a relationship with God and learn eternal truths that would establish me on the only firm foundation. “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.”4
I have often wondered since then why God wanted me. But He truly did, as the Apostle John states: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day,”5 and again, “…that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.”6 God used a series of circumstances that would test my self-assurance and pride. I would be broken and shown the bankruptcy of my belief system, causing me to cry out to Him for help.
Lesson One: Loss of a Friend
The first of these was the loss of my business partner of thirteen years. Eric was more than an associate, he was a friend, one of the few people I trusted and confided in, someone who made me laugh and helped me enjoy life. We had grown somewhat distant recently, but never seriously – I thought. A back injury resulting from an auto accident in 1995 made life painfully difficult for him, especially in the stressful world of job shop manufacturing. One day over lunch, he announced his decision to resign. I was stunned. By our mutual agreement, I was obligated to purchase his shares of company stock. No time is ever convenient to incur a large debt, but it was not the debt that was most difficult for me, it was the perceived betrayal of trust by one who had been like a brother. I was upset and hurt.
The answer to this problem was simple: I would pick up the slack, do his job and mine, work harder, work longer, and solve the problem. The “system” had worked before and it would work again. I would not be weak and defeated by the loss of one individual, no matter how valuable. Therefore, I plunged into the additional duties of sales and customer relations, as well as my customary responsibilities. However, this time, the load was greater than anticipated. I grew tired and frustrated. This fostered irritability and depression, and those closest to me suffered. My resolve hardened—I would not lose!
Lesson Two: A Bolt from Above
Almost one year later, on October 6, 1996, God sent trial number two. A late season thunderstorm struck our city, and a bolt of lightening from above ignited a fire that burned my business to the ground. Lost was eighty percent of my manufacturing capacity! Chemical residues of former finishing lines were puddled among the wreckage left by a three-alarm fire. Heat and 750,000 gallons of water left the work of three generations in a smoldering mess.
That is how I felt inside—a smoldering mess. I questioned, “Why?” Why had this happened to me? I rationalized by using the post-modern mantra: I had never hurt anyone; basically, I was a good person; I did not deserve this. Mixed with my perplexity were anger, confusion, and uncertainty. Due to the catastrophic amount of damage (loss of nearly all manufacturing capacity, and lack of adequate insurance coverage: a $1.6 million shortfall), for the first time I was unsure of what course to take.
Finally, after several late night meetings with my father, we laid a plan in place to restore the company. The building would be reconstructed. Dad and I would finance the capital shortfall. I would start rebuilding the plating building, design the finishing lines, and handle the regulatory requirements of water permits. Dad and our operations manager would handle our customers, insurance, and personnel concerns.
However, this time something was different. My self-assurance was gone. Each week was an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows, punctuated by the day’s successes, challenges, problems, and concerns. Worry was my constant companion. I became exhausted—bone weary. Clear, rational thought did not come as easily as before. For the first time in my life, my foundation seemed deficient. I truly wanted help. I needed someone, something. My Catholic religion offered no answers or solace.
The Light Shines Through
A few weeks following the fire, during our critical, potentially lethal, chemical cleanup, I telephoned my wife. In all seriousness I implored, “If ever I needed people praying, it is now!” I was worried about the very real possibility of a fatal chemical mishap during a critical stage of the chemical cleanup, which involved handling cyanide. I dragged myself home that night after a grueling but accident-free day. Cindy handed me an index card on which she had written some incredible words from the Bible; which she said God had comforted her with during her prayer time that day: “O bless our God, ye people, and make the voice of his praise to be heard: Which holdeth our soul in life, and suffereth not our feet to be moved. For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the net; thou laidst affliction upon our loins. Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.”7
I read it over and over. The words seemed to penetrate the fog of my helplessness. I read and reread especially the ninth verse, “Which holdeth our soul in life, and suffereth not our feet to be moved.”8 Was God telling me something? Had I been so self-absorbed, so self-reliant, that I had taunted God? Had he sent this trial to get my attention, to turn me to Him—to get my focus off John and onto Him? Could that be the reason why the fire, why the loss of my partner? I carried the card in my briefcase for months.
I began reading the Bible, desiring to understand and get to know this God—the God who created the world with all the order and symmetry that I loved. I wanted to be acquainted with the God who had the awesome power to “lay burdens on our backs” in order to turn our attention to Him. The phrase, “fear of the Lord,” suddenly had startling significance. I read the Bible each night for comfort and direction, visiting the Psalms frequently.
Then one evening I read, “The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.”9 That was it! I had to trust God and accept His direction for my life. I turned my life over to Him. I had to believe and trust Him as “my rock.” The word of God did not return void.10 My fledgling faith was new, and I did not understand all the fullness of God’s gift, that everything is from God, for Him and His glory. However, I did understand that if the company were to be rebuilt, and succeed, He would do it. If the company failed, that was okay …it was God’s plan. I recognized that God was in control of my life and future and experienced a refreshing new peace.
I also began attending Cindy’s evangelical church with her. The Bible was preached and taught there, and although I was a neophyte, I began to learn about God’s Word and His gift to us, His Son. For the first time in my life, I began to experience God on a personal level. Besides, I thought that Cindy and I had gone our separate spiritual ways long enough. However, I felt guilty about no longer attending the “one true” Catholic Church and knew my [Catholic] family would disapprove. Occasionally, I would attend Sunday Mass, just to touch base with my roots and ease my conscience.
Lesson Three: Refiner’s Fire
The company was gradually rebuilt. Many times during the process, I repeated the words, “The LORD is my rock.”11 Life and the business slowly returned to normal and three and a half years later, I felt “safe.” I had weathered the storm. Some of the “old John” had crept back, not as extreme as before but still there: pride, a muted self-assurance. Then, in March 1999, God turned up the refiner’s fire with trial number three. Just days before my 52nd birthday, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer! I was devastated.
This time, no amount of logic, hard work, effort, or training could fix the problem. I had only this recourse: to trust God completely. I knew I had slipped, and I asked His forgiveness. Unbeknownst to me, my wife, a few Christian friends, and some folks at our new church had been praying for me. They prayed for a full and genuine conversion to God’s way, according to Paul’s prayer: “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.”12
Through studying God’s Word, I finally realized that man is – that I am a rebellious and self-centered sinner, and that I cannot live God’s plan my way. Partial obedience to God is just as damming as total rebellion, “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.”13
With dismay, I recognized myself as “the man” in First Corinthians, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”14 I did not want to be him anymore. I wanted to be born spiritually, God’s way.15 By God’s grace, I decided to trust God completely—to trust and believe on Jesus totally as my Lord and Savior. Thus it was that I was spiritually born again. I decided to be baptized as a sign of obedience to God and for the powerful symbolism of dying to self and rising in Christ pictured by going down into and coming up out of the water.
In this life God has given me many blessings (including post-operative freedom from cancer) that I want to be used for His purposes as He chooses. I now realize that all that I have comes from Him and not by my efforts. It is a new beginning and a new life…and I am excited about what lies ahead, knowing my future, like my past, is in His hands. “I trusted in thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my God. My times are in thy hand….”16
1 Romans 1:21
2 1 Chronicles 29:12, 14
3 Ecclesiastes 2:24, 5:18, 19
4 Matthew 7:24
5 John 6:44
6 John 6:65
7 Psalm 66:8-12
8 Psalm 66:9
9 Psalms 18:2
10 Isaiah 5:11
11 Psalms 18:2
12 Ephesians 1:17, 18
13 1 Samuel 15:23
14 1 Corinthians 2:14
15 John 3:3
16 Psalms 31:14, 15