Most people who know me would agree that I have a high regard for human intellect and the potential of the human mind. Many of those same people, then, might be surprised to learn that most of the really important decisions I have made in my life were based more on intuitive sensing than on cognitive reasoning.
For example, I met Shirley Clairmont on February 12, 1973. She played the piano for a series of meetings at which I was the guest preacher. We were married exactly three months later, on May 12, 1973. There were numerous reasons why it would have been prudent for us to postpone our marriage while we got to know one another better and worked out a variety of practical and logistical issues. More important than all of that, however—at least as far as I was concerned—was the sense, deep inside of me, that it was the right thing to do. She apparently agreed, and next spring we will celebrate our forty-third wedding anniversary.
Similar, if less dramatic, stories could be told concerning decisions we made about educational goals and vocational pursuits. Sometimes, maybe more often than not, you just feel it in your gut before you know it in your mind.
That’s the way it was when, as a student at Wheaton Graduate School, I concluded that, as a Christian believer, I was committed to an ethical system that I would describe as consistently pro-life. That meant that I could not sanction killing or violence in any form, including capital punishment and involvement in war.
I maintain a consistently pro-life ethic to this day. But every step along that journey from where I was as a fundamentalist to where I am today was taken because I knew in my heart and sensed in my gut that it was the right thing to do. Most Christians don’t share my convictions in some of those areas, and I have never felt called to work aggressively at converting them to my point of view. I make my convictions known, and I leave it there. Of course I am pleased when, every once in a while, somebody writes me to say that reading my testimony or something else I have written was instrumental in their making changes in their thinking similar to those I have made.
Last night, my gut started cranking around again. After a conversation with my daughter, a nurse, concerning the legalization of marijuana—which voters here in Ohio will face as ballot issues next month—I started thinking about how many people, mostly men, are incarcerated for the possession of relatively small amounts of pot. Whatever your position on that legal question, it can hardly be denied that many of those lives will be irreparably harmed by the time they spend behind bars.
That prompted more thinking on my part. I thought about terms like penitentiary (which I suppose reflected the hope that incarceration would result in genuine penitence and contrition) and reformatory (which apparently suggested a goal of reformation, not merely punishment or retribution) and Department of Corrections (which rarely succeeds in bringing about wholesome and positive correction of a life in need of guidance and positive role models).
That led me to consider the conditions faced by the thousands of refugees displaced by war and economic deprivation. I remembered hearing one prominent political figure, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, talk about building some kind of impregnable wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Then, with regard to any Syrian refugees who might make it all the way the U.S. during the current crisis, he said, “If I am elected president, they’re all going back.”
And in my gut I knew that is not right. I haven’t worked out all the rational arguments yet, but I know in my heart that our prison system and our immigration policy both need major reform in order for justice to prevail. And then, for some unknown reason, around ten o’clock last night, I posted this status update on Facebook.
If I had it to do over, I think I might go to law school instead of seminary and devote my life to prison and immigration reform.
I expected no response, especially since I posted it so late at night. I was just thinking out loud. But several people clicked “like,” and several made helpful and encouraging comments. Since the entire interaction came from virtually out of nowhere, I felt energized by it. I slept hardly at all last night. My mind simply would not shut down.
A couple of my friends suggested that I could still go to law school. Perhaps, but I’ll be sixty-six years old next month. Still, if my gut tells me to pursue it, I will. Truth be told, however, I think that my role will likely be that of the old guy who came to the party too late to do anything substantive himself but who can offer encouragement and the benefit of his lifetime of experience to those who really can make a difference.
I have spent the morning doing web research on opportunities for voluntary and compensated service in non-profit ministries and agencies working in the areas where my convictions have developed in the past few years. I have no idea where all of this is headed, but I am revived by the breeze blowing through a window that I had not previously opened because I was too caught up in my own circumstances to realize it was there.
My brother, who faced many health challenges during the past twenty years, suffered a heart attack three months ago. He died a few days later without regaining consciousness. He was a good man, and I was comforted by the obvious love and care and respect which the members of his church showed toward him and his family at the time of his funeral and burial. In the intervening weeks, as a result of that experience, I’ve been giving some thought to what, if any, epitaph I might like inscribed on my tombstone, were I to have one.
Here is one possibility, a couple of verses from Jeremiah 22, the prophet’s rendition of God’s opinion of Josiah, former king of Judah.
“‘He did what was right and just… he defended the cause of the poor and needy… Is that not what it means to know me?’ says the Lord.”
I think I would like to be remembered that way.