I worked at summer camp again that summer and I used the time to focus. I didn’t have a girlfriend and I was convinced that this was completely in the way of me being able to focus on God. I don’t know whether or not it was healthy for me to see girlfriends as such an obstacle to my relationship with God or perhaps more specifically my ability to pastor but I did.
Anyway, I decided that summer that I was going to be done with girlfriends with a while and focus my attention on my friends and my faith, both of which felt neglected every time I started dating someone.
I dug in with both heels and both hands and started planning for the next year as the religious vice president. Before me, worship services had been kind of sporadic on Saturday night. There was some singing and someone had been asked to read something or give a short talk but it was usually arranged Friday night or even Sabbath afternoon. I thought this kind of shoddy preparation was unworthy of both our school and our God. I started inviting guest speakers like Tom Amado and Rick Lofton, local church guys and asking students some of which were surprised at the invitation to share something about their faith. There were sometimes times we just sang and praised God and prayed afterwards but almost without exception it was all well planned in advance. I couldn’t imagine a date where you cared about someone that you would put little effort into. I was far more in love with God than I had ever been before. It was then or even before then that I had started really talking about my relationship with God in the same terms that one speaks of a romantic once. Passion and faith were intertwined. God was real and amorous and I was starry eyed in his presence. Devout would barely being to describe the surface of what I was like that. It never occurred to me that level of intensity in any relationship is unsustainable without having my level of OCD.
The romance thing though became evident in my sermons. I even used the first kiss and the “you don’t do this very often” stories in my sermon to talk about how when we start our relationship with God, it may be sloppy and not as good as its going to get with experience but still awfully exciting.
The other thing I worked on very hard in my new office was Sabbath afternoon. We were dorm students and Saturday afternoons we weren’t given much to do. Because the Sabbath hours were sacred, there was a long list of things we could not do; like television, sports, board games etc. Yes Sabbath was the day of rest but it was not the day of boredom.
I once said in a sermon “Jesus is coming again soon” to Amens; I continued “And people need to hear the Adventist message” to more amens; “and that’s why we’re all going home to take a nap this afternoon.” No amens followed. We started creating Sabbath afternoon activities, Bible games, religious scavenger hunts, going to local churches for special programs, going to sing at a local nursing home, visiting people in the hospital, trying to witness to strangers. My manic energy levels were all my own but the school was big enough to where those people who didn’t want to do anything skipped it from week to week but there was enough people from week to week to where I thought it was necessary. I’ve never cured that manic-ness; just become aware of it, clearly aware that the average human doesn’t need my level of intensity or detail and that people just put up with much of it from me because the end product pays off.
I got on more people’s radar that year. More and more local churches were inviting this sixteen year old preacher to give sermons at their church. I think I was generally a good speaker because I spoke with sincerity and conviction but part of my draw was my youth and my energy. My black and white thinking and intensity appealed to many of the type of people who are drawn to church. I sometimes made people uncomfortable because almost all my sermons were calls to action. I joked then and do still now that Christians regularly attend spiritual retreats but aren’t nearly as good at planning spiritual attacks. To this day, I have great patience with people who knock on my door and try to share their faith because their conviction is generally real. I chat up the people who tell me that Jesus is ending, the Mormons, the Jehovas Witnesses because passion about faith should not be ignored because maybe just maybe they’re right and you can’t know that without hearing people out.
I had a theory of grace then though it had a long way to go. Grace was more for those who had not found God. Not that it wasn’t for those who were already within the faith, but really they should know better. The pastor of the local Weslaco church, Pastor Elrod ended up having to leave the church because of problems with his marriage because of the politics of religion. Part of those political problems were because he had such a blatant theory of grace. God was just out to forgive people, almost wrecklessly. I don’t believe the Adventist Faith itself is legalistic but I think because it provides guidance on so many details of life it can draw many people who are and create a culture within local churches that rings of nothing but legalism. But Pastor Elrod was ready to swing wide open the door of the church and let sinners in; like a hospital ready for the sick. Too many of the people in the church wanted it be more like Noah’s ark, a place where a limited amount of people got in and come in a more orderly fashion, a two by two line if you will. The lessons I learned from him were to thing about grace more vividly and also to choose your spouse very wisely.
The more sermons I gave the more people had to comment to me on how unique gifts I had been given. I was already a stubborn proud kid by almost genetic endowment and having so many people tell you that you are so gifted should have humbled me. At some level it made me think of how fortunate it was that God has chosen me to be his messenger. But if you can step back for a second, and almost no pastors or very religious people can, to look at yourself and say “God wants me to do this” is a very arrogant position. There’s no arguing with the devout zealot that God has called to do something. God had called me to be this young preacher and to give him glory by standing in front of churches and evoking his scripture to remind them to act on His behalf. In my sermons I used to say, “how many of you know what it would take to be a better husband, or a better father, or what it would take for you to lose weight?” Almost all of us know exactly what it would take to be a better person in some particular way or another. What we need is not information but rather inspiration. I believed that God had chosen me to be part of that inspiration.
About three quarters of the way into my junior year, an opportunity arose to go to Mexico and help build churches and conduct Bible studies with a group from California. God wanted me to do this.