Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Little Engine That Couldn't: My Journey

One of my earliest memories is of being in my dad's lap while he read to me, "The Little Engine that Could." I think I can, I think I can.

A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill "I can't; that is too much a pull for me," said the the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. At last in desperation the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the
grade and down on the other side. "I think I can," puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As is went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." Then as it near the top of the grade, that had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly, but still kept saying, "I--think--I--can, I--think--I--can." It reached the top by dint of brave effort and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself, "I thought I could, I thought I could."

By the middle of my high school years I was dogmatic about two things: There is no God, and America is the greatest nation on the face of the earth (and I could have killed anybody who disagreed with either). My least favorite people were neo-hippies and Christians, because they stood against the two things I treasured most in my life.

I don't know how I arrived at my atheistic beliefs initially, but I know that as a teenager, I was taking full enjoyment of the moral liberty that atheism provided me. I was a rabid evolutionist and I hated anyone who was religious in any fashion. I can remember several Christians trying to befriend me, and when they would start in with their "sales pitch" I would become irate and start issuing my standard arguments about evolution, the problem of evil, the hiddenness of God, religious hypocrisy and whatever else I thought was convenient at the time. I was proud of driving many Christians to tears (though I think now that they were weeping for other reasons). The ones I couldn't defeat by fine sounding arguments, I would corrupt by drawing them over to the "dark side" of loose living. I remember several Christians, drunk at the Saturday night parties, inviting me to join them in Sunday School in just a few hours. I never accepted. Would you? People would say to me, "You can't make it in life without God." I think I can, I think I can.

My fervent patriotism began in the seventh grade. In a classroom one day, my closest friend and I decided that we both wanted to fly jets in the U.S. Navy. I began looking into how to actualize that career ambition and found that the most direct route ran through Annapolis: the U. S. Naval Academy. I made up my mind that I would do whatever it took to gain appointment to the academy and take flight off the deck of a Navy carrier. In high school, I enrolled in Air Force JROTC, and poured my life into it. By the end of my sophomore year, I realized that the chances of me taking flight were better in the Air Force than the Navy, so I switched directions and decided to "Aim High." Colorado Springs would be my goal. People would say to me, "It's really hard to get in, and it's really tough out there." I think I can, I think I can.

In March, 1992, I received the only thing I had wanted for six years of my life: the appointment letter. I was in. I had also received an ROTC scholarship that would pay all of my education expenses at any school where the Air Force had a program. When it was all totalled up, I had nearly a half-million dollars on promise from the US Government, leading my entire graduating class in scholarship monies awarded. I graduated June 4, and on June 28, I boarded a Delta flight bound in Greensboro bound for Colorado Springs. The two things I believed in most were still alive and kicking in my heart: There is no God, and all I want to do is fly Air Force jets and blow up Communists and Terrorists. Could I maintain those treasured ideas over the next 20 years of my life? I think I can, I think I can.

Dateline, Colorado Springs, US Air Force Academy, June 29, 1992. I strutted onto the beautiful campus of the Academy ready to sign my life over to Uncle Sam. First stop: Haircut. I didn't even give them the pleasure; I had it all shaved off the day before I left. Second stop: Medical. Walk down the hall and get poked by about 12 different needles. Third stop: Uniforms. There it was. My name across the right chest, number 96 right over top. The rest of the day: Push-ups. More push-ups. Dinner. More push-ups. That little train was chugging away. I think I can, I think I can.

When the time came for lights out, I hit my bunk feeling exhilarated and exhausted from the most incredible day of my life. I couldn't wait to get at it the next day. As the lights went out and my two roommates started snoring, I started thinking about many things. I could not direct the flow of thoughts as they raced through my mind, but I recognized suddenly that there was a great big piece missing in my life and I wasn't sure what it was. One thing I knew: I could not sign away the rest of my life until I found it. I walked out of my room to the XO's quarters and told him what was going on. He said, "Let me get the Chaplain." I said, "No, no, no. I am an atheist. You got a shrink or something?" They said, "Go to bed and we'll talk tomorrow." Honestly, the words came out of my mouth before I ever knew they were in it: "I can't wait that long, I have to go home now and find this missing piece in my life." You think it is hard to get into a service academy? It is harder to get out. After much debating, I finally said, "Look, we don't swear in until tomorrow. You don't own me yet. You have to let me go. If I change my mind, I will go through the swearing in and then I am yours." So I walked back to my room (somehow the hallway seemed longer now) and I went to bed. I arrived with two rigid beliefs. I lost my grip on both of them that day. Could I recapture either one of them? I hope I can.

The next day, I walked out of the campus quad through the "Quitters' Gate" beneath the sign which read "Bring Me Men" (they have since changed that sign to be politically correct). I came back home. People who patted me on the back now wouldn't look me in the face. I was a quitter, a loser, a failure in the eyes of most. I had no one to turn to, with one exception. Just a few weeks before I left for Colorado, a new friend had entered my life. Nate Veach and I had almost everything in common, except one thing: He was a Christian, I was an atheist. I called him and told him what I had done, expecting him to say what everyone else had said. Instead, he said, "Hey man, that's great. I am glad to have my friend back home." Over the next few weeks I practically lived at Nate's house. I even started attending church with him and his family. I didn't like it, but it gave me something to do on Sundays, so I tagged along. He didn't mind me being an atheist, and I was starting to grow more comfortable with him being a Christian. I was accepted by most of his Christian friends and family as well. Could I hold on to my atheism and my newfound Christian friends at the same time? I might be able to.

It wasn't many days after my return that my maternal grandmother died of cancer. Along with all my cousins, I was a pallbearer at her funeral. I can remember walking away from the cemetery that day wondering, "What really happens now?" Prior to that day, I was convinced that death was just a fade to black, and then nothingness. Could I still believe that? I'm not sure I can.

A few weeks later, Nate asked me to join him at a church youth camp. I just laughed. What in the world am I going to do there. Let's just say that he managed to convince me by appealing to one of our common interests: girls. "I'm in!" They gave me a Bible, and every morning, they actually made me read it. C. S. Lewis says that an atheist has to be very picky about his reading material. I agree. As I read this book that I had so ridiculed over the years, something began to click. Could it be that this was the missing piece? I was reading First Samuel 3 one morning and I couldn't help noticing a striking parallel. Every time God tried to get Samuel's attention, he ran off to Eli. "Samuel did not yet know the Lord; the Word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him." Eli told him, "The next time, say, Speak Lord, for your servant hears." I prayed, but I didn't know to whom, "God, if you are there, and you have been trying to get my attention, I am listening today." The delight of that decision was soon overshadowed by terror. What if He really is there? Can I stand before Him after the life I have lived and my rejection of Him? I know for a fact that I can't.

That day it was as if all creation was testifying to me that God was there and that He had been pursuing me like the Hound of Heaven for many years. That night, it was explained to me that Jesus Christ had died for my sins so that I could receive God's forgiveness by turning from sin to trust Him as my Lord and Savior. Though I resisted for several hours, before we retired for the night, I burst forth in confession of my newfound faith in Christ. Could I deny Him any longer? I know that I cannot. I know that I cannot. Can I swallow my pride, renounce my atheism, and allow Christ to reign over me? I know I must, I know I must.

OK, long story made less-long, The last fourteen years have flown by so fast, it is dizzying to imagine. God has blessed my life in so many undeserved ways. And though I have failed Him often, the Lord has never left me, forsaken me, or failed to be faithful to me. I found the piece of the puzzle that was missing. And in light of all that He has done for me, can I rise each day with prayer and praise to Him, and dedication to His service and His glory? You know the answer. Choo-Choo!

1 comment:

FreeTibet05 said...

When is the next article coming, man?! Stop what you are doing and put something together. Plagerize something if needed.