So, Charlie picks me up on the UConn campus and we make the 85 mile trip to my girlfriend’s house in New Milford, CT. (By the way, part one of this story is here, and part two is here.) He drops me off and heads to his girlfriend’s house in Watertown, and I sit and visit until we head to the Gospel Meeting in the Brookfield Gospel Hall on Pocono Road (see pic below). The folks there had a Gospel Meeting every Sunday night from 7:00 until 8:00. I had never been to any of these meetings, so my girlfriend filled me in on what to expect. The meeting started with a couple of Gospel hymns and a prayer, and then two of the brethren got up (one at a time) and preached the Gospel. That night the first man preaching was my Facebook friend Jim Rosania who was visiting from the Terryville Gospel Hall and the other was Jack McGrath from Brookfield, who is now with the Lord. Jim, if you’re reading this, I confess that I don’t remember what you preached about. But I remember Jack’s message. He read the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16. Here’s the passage:
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that [would come] from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
I remember the story from when I was a kid. In fact, I used to listen to (and sing) a Peter, Paul, and Mary song called “Tramp on the Street” that was about this story (see below). But I’m not really paying much attention. I’m lost in my thoughts about what is going on in my life. I am not doing well in school, but for many reasons I am more concerned about what I call “cosmic” things, what I would refer to today as “eternal” things. What if what these people are telling me is true? Am I really going to Hell? Since I started to read the Bible and talk to other Christians around campus in the previous few months, it seemed that circumstances were leading me to really consider the question: “What will happen to me when I die?” There had been many “coincidences” that culminated in today’s sequence of events that now finds me listening to a preacher teach about Heaven and Hell. “But,” I think, “I’m a rational guy, a math major, a scientific kind of guy. I want some PROOF that this is true.” As I stare out the window, I see a big pine tree and think,”If a branch falls off that tree right now, I’ll believe it’s true.” But then I realized that I would just claim it to be another in the long line of coincidences that I have been experiencing. As I complete that thought, Jack reads the last line of the passage: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” Then he says, “If you won’t accept God’s word, you won’t accept any proof of the truth, not even if someone came back from the dead!” My immediate thought is, “What a coincidence!”
But now I can’t deny it. God is, in fact, speaking to me, in a very direct way. Oh, I’m not hearing voices or seeing visions, but it is not reasonable to ignore the “messages” I am getting. After Jack closes the meeting with a prayer, we sing hymn #77 from the Gospel Hymn Book (see pic below of the page from the hymn book). The tag line of the hymn is, “Thou wouldst be saved, Why not tonight?” and the “Why not tonight” tag line is set separately over to the right, so it appears five times. The thought is now my own. If I want to be saved, why NOT tonight?
The meeting ends and my girlfriend and I get in her old 60’s Volvo (see sample pic below) to make the hour and a half trip back to UConn. I’m driving and I’m talking about my reaction to the day, especially the gospel meeting, while she sits quietly and lets me ramble on. I really want to tell her I’m saved now, but I know I’m not. And here’s the dilemma: I know I have three spiritual enemies: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. This is old information from my childhood which has been recently reinforced by the Christians I have met. I had already come to the conclusion that the world didn’t want me to be saved, as represented by my friends who were just like I had been, more interested in scoring some hash, LSD, and the occasional lump of opium. They were not going to help me with my eternal destiny, in fact, quite the opposite. So the world was out. As I’m talking, I realize that it’s Satan that is trying to get me to say I am saved even though I know I’m not. He’s definitely not on my side, so I reject the idea of lying about my condition. So Satan is out.
Now I am faced by the final enemy: me. The arguments start in my mind against the truth that I have just learned about my soul’s need for salvation. That truth is that I am a sinner, and my own sins condemn me to Hell forever. But Jesus died on the cross in my place, so I don’t have to go to Hell. But it is up to me to accept him or reject him, and if I accept him, I’m saved and I get to go to Heaven. As I face this ultimate truth, my own thoughts begin to tell me, “Don’t worry. You’re OK. You’re better than most people so you’ll probably go to Heaven.” This has been my guiding principle through all of my life, that I’m not so bad, that I’m better than most, but now I see it for the lie that it is. My next thought is, “I’m a math major who can’t even pass my math course, How will I ever get into God’s Heaven?” I have no place else to go. I’m LOST! I have no ability to do anything about it, I’m going to Hell. And the worst part of it is that the only one who can do anything about it is God. This is the same God that I have railed against silently in my private thoughts and loudly in public. One time I shouted that if Jesus came into the room I would spit on him! Why would he ever save me? I am truly lost, there is nothing I can do! But in my desperation I turn to God anyway, and in my mind I say, “God, SAVE ME!”
And he does. Right there. In the drivers seat of that Volvo, somewhere on route 84 near Plainville CT at around 11:00 at night. God shows me that Jesus loves me, and when he died on the cross it wasn’t just for “everybody” or for “all the sinners,” it was for ME! He saved me! I’m saved! I turn to my girlfriend and say, “I’m saved! God saved me just now!” I expect shouts and tears of happiness and joy (that’s what I am feeling) but all she says is, “Are you sure?” But I am not offended, because I AM sure. I have never been more sure of anything in my life. I am no longer “lost,” no longer on my way to Hell, but I have eternal life and am on my way to Heaven. I’m FOUND!
By the way, the next day I ran into Connie Wynn, the first born-again Christian I ever met, who had been praying for me every day for five months, and when I told her I got saved, she did shout and cry and hug me, and we thanked God together that he saved me.
Here I am, 41 years later. Jesus has been at my side all that time. Most days I feel like I haven’t accomplished much on his behalf, but I am grateful for all that he has done for me, and that I have the ability and opportunity to tell others about the God who loves everyone, each person, even though each one is a sinner who doesn’t deserve his love. And I can tell them that when Jesus died on the cross, it wasn’t just for me, it was for you, too.
Here’s a link to the Google Maps Street View of the Brookfield Gospel Hall. I actually got married there.
Here’s a link to YouTube of the song “Tramp on the Street” by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Here’s a pic of hymn #77 that we sang that night:
Here’s what the Volvo looked like, though it was gray and much more beat-up: