Today’s a special day for me. It was 35 years ago today—September 28, 1973—in an apartment on Granville Street near Stoner Park in West Los Angeles that, sitting at the table with my younger brother Mark, I bowed my head, said a simple prayer, laid down my arms, surrendered the fight, and decided to follow Jesus of Nazareth. I was thinking about this as I was driving back from an event last night. I used to view my spiritual mentors who were ten years in the Lord and I would think, Gosh, they’ve known the Lord for ten years. They must be perfect. They must be never sin. They must have all their problems solved.
Here I am, 35 years into this journey, and I’ve got to tell you it’s like having a tiger by the tail for me. Some of you have heard me tell my story of how I thought I was too smart to be a Christian. Then in a sense, ironically, I gave my life ultimately for a defense of the intellectual credibility of the kind of worldview that Jesus of Nazareth promoted and demonstrating in the best way I can that Christianity is worth thinking about. But it isn’t as if it always makes sense to me, that I don’t have questions. If anyone looks at me and thinks, Wow, 35 years in the Lord. I bet he never sins anymore, you’ve got another thing coming because that’s just not the way it is. But it has been an adventure.
Just like any adventure it has had its high points and its low points. Just like any relationship it has had its seasons. This is one of the reasons I think that Paul in 2 Timothy told Timothy in chapter 4, “In season and out of season, do your job, Timothy...Preach the Gospel.” In season and out of season, understanding that with every Christian there are seasons in which you’re “in” and on top of things, and there are seasons in which you’re “out” and not on top of things and it doesn’t matter. Your job is still the same if you’re a follower of Christ.
I don’t know that I’ve always been so good at always being so consistent in being ready to give a defense. I try to be. But I’m like anybody else who gets caught sidewise in life and then has to deal with those things that are less than satisfying or areas of my character that the Lord is having me deal with. That’s a struggle. So I’m probably just like you in that regard even after 35 years.
I will tell you one thing that has made a significant difference to me. When I became a follower of Christ in 1973 I was a student at UCLA. I was a loud, opinionated, obnoxious, long-haired hippy. Now, 35 years later, I am no longer a long-haired hippy. I’m actually no longer as obnoxious, I think, and maybe not quite as loud. Probably a little bit more opinionated. But I think there has been transformation in my life in good measure because of people in my life that have facilitated that.
I have to say that there are two people that have been central. One is my brother, Mark, who labored with me before and after I came to the Lord. It’s still true to this day that he’s a friend, confidante, and counselor. He’s my younger brother, but he’s older than me in the Lord because he became a Christian a couple of years before I did. He prayed for me and shared with me when it didn’t seem like anything was getting through. Yet it was.
After a couple of years of effort, talking, and praying I came to my senses. God was working in my life before there were any signs of it. I hope that’s an encouragement to some of you who are laboring with some hard-headed cases that you think aren’t listening and will never come to their senses. You never know what God is doing. So my brother, Mark, was central in my conversion and the changes in my life since. I’m thankful, and I thank him.
The other person, especially initially, who was central in my transformation from loud, opinionated, obnoxious to not-as-loud, not-as-obnoxious was Craig Englert. Craig is now a pastor in Kehei, Maui, but for two years at great personal risk to life and limb for him and his dear wife Kathy, Craig took me under his wing and led me by the hand through the most difficult times for a new follower of Christ those first couple of years. He helped me through some tough times and gave me a boot in the pants when I needed it. It was at no small expense to him in time and effort and anguish, but I’d like to think that his efforts were well spent.
I have had other mentors since then, near and far. There are different motifs for passing the faith on, passing the baton on, as Paul did to Timothy. I’ve mentioned J.P. Moreland, for example. It was a different kind of relationship than I had with Craig, though no less impactful.
I know with a certainly that without those people I would not be here with you today, and I wouldn’t have been effectively involved in ministry for the last 18 years because it was those relationships that made all the difference in the world to establish me firmly in the Lord and change my character so God could use me.
Craig and the others who followed him were not content merely to defend the truth, they wanted to mentor me. I see 2 Timothy as a motif for mentoring. It’s my favorite book. It’s not the most theologically profound book in the Bible. I think Paul’s book of Romans is more theologically substantive. But in a sense, for practical Christian living, for my money as a defender of the faith, trying to carry the torch in the difficult times in the 21st century, I think 2 Timothy speaks volumes. It’s very clear. It’s very straightforward.
Its basic message is to guard the Gospel, guard the truth that has been passed on to you. In one sense, that was part of Craig’s and the others’ influence in my life, guarding and protecting the Gospel, and passing it on to me. They were not just guarding it in the abstract; they were passing it on to a person. When Paul wrote his last letter to Timothy, which was the last letter of his life, knowing he was about to die, he penned these important words and he sent the letter, not to a church, but to a person. He was passing the baton to an individual because Paul understood the need to entrust others with this message who would then carry it to others still.
In 2 Timothy 2:2 there was a verse that was one of the first I memorized, which was really the heart of my relationship with Craig. Paul tells Timothy “the things you have heard from me and learned from me in the presence of many witnesses...” In other words, its public teaching, the standard stuff. He continues, “these entrust to faithful men,” who would be able to teach others also. In that, you have those four generations passing the torch: Paul to Timothy to faithful men to others also. The baton is passed.
If you saw the Olympics, many of you were captivated understandably by the swimming and gymnastics. But there was quite a bit of drama in track, especially in the 4 x 100 relays because in both the men’s and women’s American teams they dropped the baton. So our teams suffered defeat in the relays because they didn’t pass that baton. That was the very language Paul used with Timothy. He said, If you’re going to be an athlete, you’ve got to compete according to the rules. You can’t drop the baton. Them’s the rules.
I’m so thankful now when I look back over 35 years for all those people who initially passed the baton to me, who guarded the baton, who kept it safe. They passed to me the truth of the Gospel. They didn’t distort it or malign it. They didn’t mischaracterize it. I appreciated that my brother Mark took the time to tell me the truth. He didn’t candy-coat it. He didn’t promise me the world. He didn’t say Jesus was going to solve all my problems. In fact, when I became a Christian, my problems just started in a certain sense. He didn’t say everything was going to be wonderful.
I became a Christian in September of 1973 and I entered the next New Year, 1974, in tears. I recall it well. I was that distressed about the direction my life was taking me now that God was in charge moving me in the direction I needed to go, the direction I didn’t want to go under my own tutelage, as it were. I had spent 23 years either messing up my own life or having my life messed up in some sense by other people. In any event, I was this package and there was a lot of work to be done.
And 35 years later, I’m still working on it. But thank God for Mark and Craig. Thank God for the many people who stepped up to the plate with me, and I wasn’t easy. I’m still not in many ways. But they hugged me when I needed it, and they kicked me in the pants when I needed it. They told me the truth. Here I am, 35 years later, still putting one foot in front of the other.
I had a principle that guided me a lot. Some of you who have known me for a long time knew that for many years one of the biggest frustrations of my life was that I wanted to be in full-time Christian work and I wasn’t. I did little things here and there, and I was teaching at my church, and I’d been in the mission field twice. I had training, degrees, capabilities and gifts, but couldn’t get into full-time ministry.
I did a talk at Hope Chapel called “I Hate to Wait.” One of the things that I was waiting on for that long was just wanting to do full-time what my heart desired from the very first couple of months that I began walking with Christ, and that was be immersed in this stuff and to work with other people. It took me a long time before I got my shingle, if you will. It took me 15 years or more before I finally got hired at Hope Chapel as a full-time associate pastor. From Hope, it was then on to Stand to Reason 15 years ago. Many of you know the rest. The point is that it was frustrating.
People ask me how they can do what I do. There’s no career track for this, but there is a principle that I applied that if you apply, I can’t guarantee you’ll go the direction that I went or your life will have the trajectory mine has—every person is different with God—but I can pretty much guarantee you that it will put you in the place where God can most effectively use you.
That principle is on a plaque that my wife put up in the kitchen years ago, but I knew the concept before that. The plaque simply says, “Bloom where you’re planted.” You’ve heard it before and it’s not even very profound. Very often we’re looking for the horizon. We want what’s out there. All I was able to do when I looked out there and didn’t have what I wanted out there was wish and hope. But then I began to focus on what I had right now.
What is it that God has given you now? Who is the person that He’s placed in front of you that you can serve? What is the circumstance that you can serve in right now with your particular gifts? And even though I wasn’t always doing what I ultimately wanted to be doing, even so my circumstances were the circumstances that God had given me and that was the place I had to prosper for Christ, not some other place in the future.
You know this concept in the teachings of Jesus about first being faithful in little things and then you’re given bigger things. At each stage, you have to be faithful because if you’re not faithful in the little things that you’re given, you don’t deserve the bigger things. You can’t be trusted with the bigger things. Frankly, I couldn’t be in those early years of being a Christian. I have said in my own testimony that we have at STR in a talk called No Pixie Dust that in talking about the hard realities of Christian growth, one of the things I mention is that anyone who walks long with Christ goes through some very difficult, very painful periods of their life. I have gone through periods in my life that are dark and painful and times of deep, emotional anguish. Growing older in the Lord has not spared me from that. In fact, sometimes growing older in the Lord, and receiving more responsibility, it’s just part of the training. And you move into the next stage.
I realize I am shouldering responsibilities now in the various things that I'm responsible for that I would never have been able to shoulder had I not been disciplined in the way that I was through the hard times, had I not been given small things and dealt with those under the circumstances, and then moved on to something larger. So I guess the message here is that after 35 years I still haven’t attained it yet like Paul says in Philippians 3, but I’m pressing on. Pressing on is not always easy because we all live in a fallen world and with our fallen selves. But we can still put one foot in front of the other, take each day as it comes, and bloom where we’re planted. And when we do, we get re-planted. Maybe in a bigger garden? I don’t know. And then we bloom there.
We pass the baton on, the truth of the Gospel, that has been passed to us. I wouldn’t be here had it not been for those fine people along the journey, especially in the beginning. Their mentoring has allowed me to arrive at 35 years in Christ and to look forward to the next, whatever He allows me.