Thoughts on being a Christian for half a century:
Exactly a half century ago – August 15, 1971 – a messed up, burned out and suicidal hippy encountered the risen Christ. I was converted while just 18 and a half years of age, after living a rather wild and reckless life for a number of years.
I eventually wrote up my conversion story in a four-part article, so for all the juicy details, please have a look here: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-1/
Let me share just one snippet from it. This discusses that pivotal day, 50 years ago:
I was due to go to Milwaukee in a day or two for another rock concert – I believe it was Alvin Lee and Ten Years After plus another group. Earlier in the day I had a friend drive me to Madison to score a few more albums. Drugs and albums were about the only things I spent money on (although I did steal a number of records, and got caught at least once).
I got three albums that day. I can recall at least two of them: The Moody Blues’ Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and an album by Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. I forget the third, but I never did get to listen to them. When I got back to Sheboygan I was bicycling to a friend’s house with my new albums and a just-scored bag of psilocybin, when I got interrupted.
Cheryl, a hippy girl that I had known well, was with a few others, driving down the street in the opposite direction. I pulled over and had a chat – and that was the beginning of the end for me. It was the rather unexpected and unplanned – on my part – end of my old life. And it was the start of a new life in Christ – albeit a rather circuitous one with many detours and false paths. She had just got back from a Christian commune in the mountains of New Mexico. She was telling everyone about Jesus and her new life in Christ.
You will have to go to that article if you want to learn what happened next. Of course I was simply one of many who had become a Christian during this period. While the hippy scene and the counterculture was in full swing during this time, a counter-counterculture move also took place back then: the Jesus Revolution.
And that is usually how God works: when Satan is trying his best to do his worst, God will have his own move of the Spirit to offset things. So while millions got caught up in the drug-taking, hedonistic, rebellious and often immoral hippy lifestyle, there were also likely millions who left that scene to become disciples of Christ.
If you do read my testimony, you will see that it actually stretched out over the course of a year, and it was a pretty wild and different sort of journey indeed. But God was gracious – and patient – and after a lot of detours and wrong turns, I eventually got pretty much sorted out, coming back home and seeing God work in my family and in the lives of my old hippy friends.
As to the original group of Jesus people I had gotten involved with 50 years ago in the mountains of New Mexico, I have heard from, and kind of kept in touch with, only a handful of them over the years. So how most of them are now doing I have no idea. How many are still walking with the Lord?
I do know that many folks I have known over the past half century who once were walking with Christ have since turned their back on him. That is always such a shocking and tragic thing to encounter. I have to ask why I am still walking with Christ while so many seem to have stopped.
It is the same that I ask as to my conversion. I keep asking, ‘Why me Lord? Why was I saved when so many of my hippy friends never made it?’ A number of them either suicided or died of drug overdoses. But I was suicidal and a heavy drug-taker. Why did I survive?
The answer to all these questions is this: the grace of God. I did not deserve to live, and to get right with God through Christ so long ago. It is only his mercy and grace that accounts for my initial conversion, and for hanging in there for 50 years.
Not that I think I have been such a great Christian for all these decades. Quite the opposite. I am saddened that I have so little to show for being a Christian for so much time – I should be much further down the spiritual road. I look back and cringe at how often I was just spinning my wheels, spiritually speaking.
I cringe at how often I have put myself first, and not Christ and others. I cringe when I consider all the wasted years of my fifty-year Christian journey. As I say so often, if I were God, I would have given up on that Bill character long ago. I would have considered him to be a lost cause!
But once again, the overwhelming patience, mercy and grace of God is the only answer as to why I am still going today. It is not because of my great commitment or dogged faithfulness, but because of his. He gets all the credit and all the glory for anything good and praiseworthy in my life.
Of interest, several months ago I had a dream that I was speaking somewhere. I began my talk by saying that I had been a Christian for 50 years now, and that the reality of my conversion may be more important than what I had planned to share.
And the old worship song “Something Beautiful” by Bill and Gloria Gaither also featured in my dream. Amazingly, I looked it up later, and sure enough, that song came out in 1971! Interesting. The chorus of the song goes like this:
Something beautiful, something good
All my confusion He understood
All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife
But he made something beautiful of my life
While I may not consider my life to be all that beautiful – as I said, I think so much of it has been fleshly, carnal, self-centred and worldly – still, God HAS turned me around in so many ways. Indeed, I can always say this: ‘I may not be great shakes now as a believer, but you should have seen me 50 years ago!’
There is no question that God has been at work in my life. Yes, I think I have been a very slow learner and far from the ideal disciple, but real growth, change and maturity has taken place over the years. Sure, a whole lot more is needed, but some real spiritual progress has occurred. And for that, once again, I must give all the credit to God.
And the truth is, we are all on different journeys. There is no cookie-cutter Christianity with God. We all become Christians in differing ways, and we all grow and develop as Christians in differing ways. I look at some Christians who have only been saved for a short period of time, but they seem much more spiritually mature than I am.
But on the other hand, I see some believers who have been Christians even longer than I have been, yet they seem to have little to show for it. In one sense we should only compare ourselves with Christ, and not with others. But at the same time, we are called to encourage each other and spur one another on in love and good works – to be as Christlike as we can be.
So at the end of the day, I am fully responsible for my own life. Yes, I do so often relate to the title of a book by Malcolm Muggeridge. His 1972-1973 two-volume autobiography is entitled Chronicles of Wasted Time. After years as an agnostic, he too converted to Christianity.
While he laments so many years wasted as a non-Christian, I tend to lament so many years wasted as a Christian! But again, God is so very gracious and long-suffering, that instead of dwelling on all my shortcomings and failures, I must focus on this wonderful God who has been so very faithful.
Indeed, as I recently read in the psalms, “I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me” (Psalm 57:2). Despite all my lack of faithfulness and despite all my wanderings and carelessness, it is God who is at work in me – and in all of his children – to accomplish his purposes.
After all, “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). Yes, we all have a role to play, and obedience and faithfulness are crucial. But at the end of the day all we can say is “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10).
Glory to God for fifty years of being “accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). How amazing it will be to soon stand before my Lord and hear these words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23).
I began my four-part testimony with the words of the former slave ship captain who went on to write the beloved hymn, Amazing Grace. The words of John Newton (1725-1807) will nicely suffice to end this article: “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great saviour.”