When You’re Unsure: Wait, Pray, Expect, Enjoy

RMlogo When You're Unsure, Wait, Pray, Expect, and Enjoy

Summer 1985 – I couldn’t get enough of serving God in the context of the local church. After God turned my heart toward Grace Baptist Church, I joined, got baptized, began showing up for everything, worked in AWANA ministry, and looked for more to do.

During that first summer, the Lord began to burden me about a teaching ministry. I didn’t know Christian protocol and didn’t think I should ask anyone since I was the new kid on the block. (Read about the Fear of Man) And I was the most immature Christian in the building. Many of those folks had been serving the Lord longer than I had been living. Even the ones my age knew the Lord for twelve, fifteen, or more years. I was the resident novice.

I came for visitation as well as shoveling dirt at the new Fellowship Hall that we were building. I was available, bring it on. And I wanted to teach too. Why not? I had to do more for the Lord. It was like something had possessed me. I didn’t know about qualifications, abilities, gift-mixes, or even if there was an available slot for a rookie like me. No matter; here am I, send me!

If You’re Unsure, Wait and Pray

Since I was uninformed about protocol regarding how they set-up their teachers for the upcoming fall classes, I decided I wouldn’t say anything to anyone. I would pray, and if God wanted me to help in the Sunday school classes, He would make that known to the leadership of the church.

It probably wasn’t two or three weeks after that when Gerald, the pastor, asked if I could meet him for lunch. We were at a Burger King on Highway 74, the main drag in Monroe, North Carolina. We ate, talked about various things, and then out of nowhere, he asked if I wanted to teach during the coming Sunday school year. I could have fallen out of my chair. I was simultaneously terrified and exhilarated.

I wanted to, but I was afraid. I was also fearful because this was the first thing I remember where God seemed to be actively working in my life. I didn’t tell a soul, and now I was being asked. It was surreal and exciting.

I said, “Yes,” and off I went. I served in an assistant role that year, and my first lesson was the first chapter of Luke. I’ll never forget it. It took me the entire week to prepare for that lesson. I didn’t know much of anything about my Bible. And I knew less of Luke and had no training in teaching.

I’ll never forget some of the things I learned from that lesson. I have taught thousands of times since. It’s harder to remember those lessons, but I remember that one. It was the first; it was fun, and God was kind.

That opportunity set a trajectory for my life. God put something in my heart. My life was about to change forever, although I had no idea how tragic it would be.

The Ironic Day When I Brought Revival to Our Little Church

RMlogo The Ironic Day When I Brought Revival to Our Little Church

June 1985 – The Lord’s conviction was as powerful as my love for rock and roll—a real dilemma. I do not remember if I went “down to the altar” to repent of this “sin” or not. (The altar in an Independent Baptist Church is the steps that lead up to the platform where the preacher preaches.)

Many Baptist preachers end their sermons by giving an altar call. It’s “closing the deal,” as you make your way up front and pour out your heart to the Lord while the congregation waits and watches. Being the “good Baptist” that I was, I probably hit the altar. It was vital for me to do business with God.

I suspect there were others in the altar too. Don’s message was one of those that guaranteed a crowd upfront. I mean, who wanted to be the one who shut down a revival?

Back Home: Decision Time

I’ll never forget what I did after I arrived home. It was a Sunday afternoon, in June, in North Carolina, and it was hot. The conviction was so controlling that I couldn’t wait any longer to get rid of those wicked rock albums. I collected them and went to the burn barrel (a 55-gallon drum with the top cut out of it) in the backyard. We lived in the country. The standard way to get rid of your trash was to burn it.

I threw my stack of albums into the barrel, which was a joyless process. (Every act of obedience is not a happy one, at least not for me.) Because it was a Sunday, I could not burn them. There was an unwritten sin about mowing the lawn or burning trash on Sundays. As a new Baptist, I was not up to speed on all the transgressions that aren’t in the Bible, but I did learn them eventually.

Nevertheless, I was as obedient as I could be, and it was a Sunday. I went back to the church meeting that night, knowing that if revival did not come, it would not be my fault. There was no way that I would “stay the hand of God” within nine months of becoming a convert. It never dawned on me how arrogant I was in thinking that I could control the Lord, or bring revival. It was a great church meeting that night.

The Morning After

The next day I was “mostly” onboard with God about those albums, though there was a gnawing feeling of regret while at work. Upon arriving home, I entered the front door and kept walking right out the back door. I just couldn’t let them go. I made my way to the burn barrel, silently glad that I obeyed God by not burning them on Sunday.

Yesterday’s church meetings were over, and so was my conviction. What in the world was I thinking? It is so funny—now—when I peered into that trash barrel. I saw all those albums in a contorted, twisted, and melted mess. They had been sitting in the blazing sun all day.

I felt a twinge of conviction and embarrassment in my soul for attempting to retrieve them. The Lord was making sure that I would not get them back, so He made arrangements to remove this “sin” out of my life permanently.

It is a humorous story from a young man trying to make his way in his new faith. The good news is that we had a revival that week because of God (and me). The bad news is that I burned all those classics.

The Rest of the Story – The Lord gave me iTunes twenty years later.

You Won’t Have Revival If You Listen to Rock Music

RMlogo You Won't Have Revival If You Listen to Rock Music

May 1985 – After hearing from God that we should be at Grace Baptist Church, we started visiting immediately. Baptists call this finding your “home church.” We were about to get us one. Yay!

Grace Baptist was not my first “home church.” I attended First Baptist Church when I was a kid. It was “the church” if you were somebody. Our family did not fit the social category, but we wanted to be what those good Christian folks were. From my perspective, the Deacon’s kids had good weed, so I loved that church.

By the time I was ten or eleven, I stopped the church scene. My mother was the impetus behind us going since my dad was a drunk. But she could no longer manage us. We were on our own, living in the illusionary world of self-reliance before the pre-teen years.

I did attend Tabernacle Baptist Church a few times, the flagship fundamentalist church in the area. I’m not sure why that happened, though I think my brother was dating a girl who was an attendee.

Then I went to another fundamentalist church because Archie and Ann—the couple that worked at Judd’s Restaurant where I bused tables—attended that church. I started my “Judd’s career” at twelve, and wanted to fit in with the others, and they were good churchgoing folks too when they weren’t stealing food from Judd (the owner) during the week.

It’s Revival Week

When we began attending Grace Baptist Church, now that God had regenerated me, they were preparing for revival week. It sounded cool. Don Fitch and the “Singing Fitch Family” was there all week. In the Independent Baptist circles, they have what they call revival meetings. They aren’t revivals in the purest sense of the word.

They snatched the word from a bygone era when there were revivals in America and Europe. The so-called “revivals” of today are a quiet echo of a long-gone reality. It’s more symbolism than substance though the stalwarts feel good about them.

I’ve never been part of a legitimate revival. Nevertheless, it was revival week, praise God! And the Singing Fitch Family was doing the honors. Don and his family toured mostly the south in a large bus, serving small local churches.

Don was preaching on Sunday morning. His prop statement was that if any of us had any known sin in our lives, there would be no revival that week. (Which may explain why there has not been a revival in nearly one-hundred years.)

He said that any sin in our lives would “hold back the hand of God” and revival would not come. Oh, my! It was clear that if revival didn’t happen, it would have been my fault. I had known sin in my life. I took his message to heart and knew that God was speaking directly to me, through this man.

I had only been a Christian for a few months, and I had been listening to rock music all my life. As Paul said in Ephesians 4:22,

Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.

Shazam! I had a “former manner of life,” and I brought it into my Christian experience. And now I’m at one of the first crossroads in my young Christian experience. Was I going to obey God or continue living my pagan lifestyle? Oh, how powerful the conviction from the Lord for listening to rock and roll.

My mind immediately went to my extensive collection of classic rock albums. What would I do? The Lord put His finger on my sin, and it was on me as to whether Grace Baptist Church would experience a revival that week.

To be continued.

The Compelling Desire to Be a Fundamentalist

We were sitting in the main auditorium of a Southern Baptist church in the spring of 1985. It was there where it became evident that we should be at Grace Baptist Church on Weddington Road. It was such clarity, as though it came from nowhere. I was sitting there thinking about “whatever,” and then my mind was filled with this need to attend Grace Baptist, the fundamentalist church across town. My wife agreed.

Shortly after God saved me, there was this urge to find a local church and become a member. This “prompting” was one of many things that began to happen to me. I had never had the urge to find a local church or become part of one before salvation. My life had changed, and I was led mysteriously by another power. It was a new day, an objectively different day. After redemption, we went in search of a local church. We visited a Pentecostal church, Southern Baptist churches, Independent churches, and Presbyterian churches. I had no clue about doctrine, the Bible’s teaching on the local church, or the value of the local church, but knew we had to be part of one.

Sometime in the winter or spring of 84-85, we visited Grace Baptist, a fundamentalist church. I do not remember our first visit. But I do remember some of the experiences with that church. The most notable one was walking through the foyer and observing the mem standing there, with their Bibles tucked under their arms while talking about God. This scene was so odd to me. To hear people talking about God outside the “sanctuary” was unheard of—to me. And it got “worse.”

We visited with members of Grace Baptist in their homes, and their conversation would inevitably lead toward God, Christ, and what He did for them. It was surreal; I didn’t know you could do that, but it was compelling. Some of the men of the church were Gerald Medlin (pastor), Rick Baker, Doug Webb, and a few others. Later Jim Greenburg came to our church, and it formed some of the fondest memories that I ever had in any local church then or now.

While sitting in that Southern Baptist church—a friend of mine from Delaval invited me—I knew I was supposed to be part of Grace Baptist. The next Sunday, we went and never left until we moved to Greenville, South Carolina.

These were my formative years as a new convert. I remember walking in Grace Baptist in those early days with my Living Bible, a paraphrase, not knowing that I had the wrong Bible, which was one of the hottest issues in the Independent Baptist movement. I noticed the “guys” all had Scofield Reference Bibles. So, I got one—a red-leather-covered one and carried it proudly. I soon found my place in the vestibule, making up the gauntlet that greeted folks. I was one of the boys.

A Twisted and Surprising Search for Significance

A Twisted and Surprising Search for Significance

Circa 1984 – As noted with the Disappointment with God article, there was no perceptible change in my life after the Lord regenerated me. Prior to salvation, I had tried many things in my short twenty-four years of living. I smoked pot, drank beer, hung out with fun and not so fun people. I planned to make a million dollars by the time I was thirty. I landed in jail at fifteen-years-old.

I went to work when I was twelve—hauling hay and busing tables— and was “self-sufficient” before I became a teen. I moved out and began living with my grandmother at fifteen and was determined to set a different course that would make me happy. I was in search of something better than what I had, but clueless as to what I needed to do.

If someone were to ask me what I was searching for, I could not tell them. Other than I wanted a break, something better, a kinder life. I was determined, disciplined, but had no plan to get out of personal and familial prison. By the time God saved me, I had a wife, two kids, 3.42 acres of land, a double-wide mobile home, a 24 x 24 concrete-floored workshop, a John Deere riding mower and seemingly most anything I wanted.

But I didn’t have a vision; I was living one day at a time. These new things did not bring the peace that I hoped would happen. Maybe I needed to take a risk to be successful, but, again, clueless. Ignorance is not bliss. I tried Amway. That didn’t work. I began selling Aloe Vera, Forever Living Products. That didn’t pan out as well.

Inwardly, I was unhappy. Even though no one was perceptive to my plight. I was secretly frustrated.

Then Came Success

As I remember it, the time was March 1985 when I noticed something coming over me. I was changing inwardly but it was so gradual that I didn’t perceive what was happening. The Lord saved me six months earlier. I was initially disappointed because I couldn’t feel it.

The changes were similar to the growth of a child; you don’t see it happening. And then six months pass, and you see it. I began to experience the “thing” that I had been hoping would happen for so long. It was surprising on two fronts: (1) I didn’t know what I was looking for, and (2) the thing I didn’t realize I was looking for was gradually happening.

For the first time in my life, I was experiencing peace. I was becoming “soul-settled.” It was an incredible experience. I thought “success” meant money or fame. I was wrong. Being successful took an unsuspected turn. Real success is knowing God.

Mercifully, I realized at a relatively young age that what I needed more than anything else was “soul shalom.” I had found it, or it might be more accurate to say that it found me.

He found me.

My First Two Disappointments with God

Our Life My First Two Disappointments with God

1984 – I got up from my bed and looked out the blinds of my bedroom shortly after asking God to save me. I do not know all the reasons I did that. I do remember there was an expectation in my mind that things would be immediately, noticeably different.

I cracked the blinds apart and stared out the window into our front yard. I will never forget what I saw. It was the same thing that I had seen every other time I looked out that window. The trees were the same; the grass was the same; the sky was the same. It was all the same.

This moment after salvation was my first disappointment with God. I honestly expected things to be different—to look differently and to feel differently. Things were not any different than 30 minutes prior. The thought that went through my mind was fireworks in the sky or a marching band parading down Helms Pond Road. I was disappointed.

Though I didn’t know it, I was thinking like a Gnostic. The physical was evil, and the spiritual was superior, and I expected to discern the differences. I did not know that I was going to learn to live out my “spiritual life” in the context of the physical world, and the significant changes and differences would be in my heart and then in my actions. The transformation did not happen in the world but in my heart.

The changes were taking place at that moment, though I did not perceive it. I was slowly, albeit imperceptibly transforming. The Lord was opening, spiritually speaking. No one knew it or could discern it, but the transformation of Rick Thomas was taking place.

Disappointment Number Two

My second disappointment with God came the next day. I was at work, and there was this girl that worked up the line from us. I don’t remember her name. She was in her 20’s, I suppose, and was quite trim and tall. She was not ugly, but on the production line, your perceptions are not the clearest.

Nevertheless, the days she would come back to our area allowed us to gawk at her, make lewd comments, and commit multiple adulteries in our minds. On this particular day, I had the same thoughts and stole the same looks like any other day. But something happened in my heart that I don’t remember ever happening before. I felt a tinge of conviction about the gawk, the lust, the temptation. I was paying attention to my soul like never before. I felt bad. Weird.

There was something dynamic going on in my heart. I was lusting, something I had done for as long as I could remember. There had never been a tinge of guilt or a desire not to do this. The Spirit of God was cluing me in on how things were going to be from that point forward. I was born again. It became clear that I was now in the world, but not of the world.

Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Is the Bible True or False?

RMlogo Is the Bible True or False_

After I read the “plan of salvation” in the back of one of those eschatology books, my soul experienced mounting tension. Honestly, it boiled down to only one question that I had to answer. And I intuitively knew that my response to that query would set the course for the rest of my life. So, what would it be? How would I answer? Here is the question.

Is the Bible true or false?

That was it. Pretty simple, aye? The question is a watershed question for anyone: how you answer it will send you in a clearly defined direction. And I knew that my response could be a global paradigm shift for my future.

The reason this question came into view was after I had read that troubling verse in Revelation 20:15. That one sentence tucked in the back of the Bible took things to a whole, new level, and I could not dismiss it.

And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

What’s It Going to Be?

The Bible stated that I would go to Hell if I could not find my name in the book of life. Umm…so what is this book of life, I asked. Answer: “I don’t know.” But Hell? Oh, yeah, I know all about that. My daddy and brothers often requested that I go there.

But this time, it was not about my family’s hyperbolic anger. God was asking me the ultimate question, which I had pared down to, “Is the Bible true or false?” I intuitively knew that it was less about Hell and more about the integrity of the Bible.

To say, the Bible is false meant that I could go on my merry way and enjoy life. Who cares?

And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19).

But if I say that the Bible is true, everything in my life would have to change. So, I went into my muse chamber and began to reason things out. I had to know the truth.

You’re Not Okay, Neither Am I

My culture tells me how great I am. The PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) spinners implore me to have healthy self-esteem because I am somebody. Their positive affirmations about my goodness bombard me every day. All I need to do is think happy thoughts. Even the Christians clichéd me with, “God don’t make no junk.”

But, then, I started reading my Bible, and it had another story. It said that I’m a dirt-bag, a sick sinner, going to Hell, have no hope and the end of my life could not be bleaker. Shoot, even the good stuff that I do is filthy (Isaiah 64:6).

The happy people in our world, a lot of whom are on medication, were selling a message that could not be more contrary to the words of the Bible. (Cf. Romans 3:10-12, 23, 6:23) What was I going to do?

The End of the Matter

I concluded that humans didn’t write the Bible. Someone else had to write it. Up to that point, I had spent my teenage years and early twenties reading PMA books, and all of them told me that I’m a fantastic person. Truthfully, I stunk, and I knew it. They were trying to put lipstick on this pig.

There is no question that a person’s view of themselves is elevated. We are in love with ourselves. We are self-exalting. There is no way a human would write a book that says we’re not like what every intelligent, self-esteem groping human in the world believes.

Someone else had to write the Bible. Its view of humanity is deplorable. And it went on to say that we can’t save ourselves no matter how highly we think of ourselves (Romans 10:9, 13). My conclusion led to more questions. One specifically: Who, then, did write the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17)?

It was at that point when I made my decision. God wrote the Bible, and I was going to Hell because my name was not in the book of life.

My path was now set.

The year was 1984.

Threatening Hell to Get Me to Heaven

RMlogo Threatening Hell to Get Me to Heaven

After my lunch break, where I told my friends that I did not believe Bible, I went to my machine to finish my day. I was standing at the end of my lathe when my boss, Ricky Price, approached and asked if I believed what I said at the lunch table. I told him that I did, to which he said, “You’re going to hell.”

He was not over the top about it, or angry or pushy. He had a matter of fact communication style, which I appreciated because he was clear and there was nothing to read “between the lines.” Interestingly, I did not audibly respond to him about his “evangelistic approach,” but I do remember thinking to myself,

No, I’m not going to hell, and I’m going to prove you wrong.

Disagreeing with Ricky did not imply that I had any authoritative information to defend my position. I was defenseless because I was ignorant about God’s Word. But what he said did motivate me to prove him wrong. Of course, there was a problem; I did not enjoy the Bible because it made no sense to me. I had a Sunday school Bible from my previous First Baptist Church experience, and I tried reading it. It was a futile attempt.

Can you say, “boring?”

Remembering that there was a Christian bookstore in my town, I went there to get some books about the Bible. I purchased, Satan Is Alive and Well On Planet Earth, The Rapture, Approaching Hoofbeats, and The Late Great Planet Earth. I did not buy these books because of their theological integrity. They all had cool covers, i.e., fire, satan, hell.

Sometimes being cool is better than being theological. – Rick Thomas

All these books dealt with Eschatology, though I would not recommend or agree with their theology today. I did not know about “end time theology” back then because I’d never heard of Eschatology. Later, I appreciated the Lord’s irony, as He led me to read books on heaven, hell, and end times, the very thing I was going to disprove.

In the back of all those books was a plan for salvation. They stated in their own way that I needed to believe in God, trust Christ, and follow Him…something like that. They were saying what Ricky said in his blunt style:

If you are not a Christian, you are going to hell.

There was more detail than that, but the bottomline about my eternal destiny was all that mattered to me at the time. I remember laying on my double-bed in my double-wide mobile home on Helms Pond Road asking God in imprecise language to save me.

I acknowledged my sinfulness. I wanted Christ to make me new. I believed what those authors were saying about God, life, death, and eternity. I believed that Ricky was right. That was the day–sometime in October of 1984–that God regenerated me.

Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” – Jesus (John 3:7)

Ricky and the Radio Station

Early on at the Blackberry Valley Road trailer, circa 1992, I called the phone company and asked them for a new phone number. I wanted an easy number to remember and asked them if they could give me one. I don’t remember the cost, but there was one. I think they said it would cost $25 to pick a number. I couldn’t afford that so I asked them to give me what they could. They gave me 246-0100. That was cool; I was stoked!

They told me that I had be there when they hooked the phone up. I told them I couldn’t do that because I had to be at work and couldn’t get off. I was disappointed. I had no friends, no visitors, no cards, no calls and this was the day before email and Facebook. I was a lonely man who had no one to talk to and for all I knew the world didn’t know I existed. (Read: self-pity)

Fortunately they came up with an alternative plan when they found out I had an answering machine and phone that was unused. They said I could set the answering machine up and turn it on and all they had to do was hook the service up and call the phone I hooked up. This worked and I was glad. They told me the day they would come. Done, cool.

A few days later they came out and hooked me up and when I got home I checked the answering machine and was stunned. I had 18 calls on it. No way! “This was impossible” was my first thought. Bu then I thought, “The world knows I exist!” I began playing the messages back and came to find out the number they gave me was the old number for WSSL Radio Station. I got their old number! What a hoot.

People were calling me from all over the Upstate asking me all kinds of things. They would call early in the morning, during the day, at night and well into the morning. I was having a blast! Okay, I was bored out of my head. This was my new fun. I started answering the phone saying WSL and not WSSL because that was the radio station’s call letters and I didn’t want to get in trouble. There was a little bit of integrity, just a little.

The people would ask me for requests of songs I never heard of, e.g. “Another Tear in Your Beer.” They would call and ask for the weather report or sometimes just to talk. One time a lady called and asked if the Bristol race was going to be a go for the weekend because it looked like rain. I said it was on. She went. Come to find out it rained the race out that weekend. Oops. I also began a contest line for folks to compete for prizes. I’d ask dumb questions like “what color is your refrigerator.” That was hilarious I thought.

Eventually WSSL called me and asked to stop doing this because they were getting complaints. I told them I wasn’t affiliated with them and I could do what I wanted. Okay, I had a bad attitude. They threatened me, but I continued for awhile until it got real old. One “tipsy” lady called around 2AM and I talked to her for two hours and “led her to Christ” whatever that means. It was a bit surreal.

This was an unusual time for me. After awhile it got quite annoying, but for a season it filled in some very large sadness in my life.

First Year in Greenville

The first year went rather smoothly considering all the changes. We moved across state lines. We lived in an apartment initially and then moved into a larger home. We enrolled the kids into school and/or day care. We both got new jobs. I began going to college at night full-time. We begin working with a guy named Richard Blanchett in a nursing home ministry. It was his last year. We took it over the next year. We met a lot of folks our age. These were our classmates.

Al Helms from Monroe, NC; Randy Smith from Farmville, NC; Eddie Robertson from Hattiesburg, MS; Ken Smith from Thomasville, GA (I think); Bill South; Shannon Harrell; Darrell Wilkins; Rex Wright; Terry Williams; Glenn Jones; Christopher Emory; Bobby VanGiller and many, many more. It was a good group. We had fun. We had a blast. We were young, dumb, zealous and full of love for the Savior. We were fulfilling the call that God had placed on our lives. (I would say it another way today, but that is the way we looked at things back then.) We were living the good times.

At Tabernacle Baptist Bible College there were about 65 of us who enrolled that first semester. There may have been 25 or so who graduated four years later. Some left with a three year degree. Others fell out and went back home or just hung around Greenville. We could never have imagined how our lives were going to change. Rex committed suicide some years later. Jess Rivas died around 40 of some disease. Eddie left the ministry bitter and has floundered in his own way ever since. He, too, was divorced. Terry never gained traction in much any way and is still single and living somewhere in G’ville today. We divorced after my fourth year, separated at the end of our second year. It was hard times. That first year, however, was the best for all of us. We had a blast.

Work went well. The “mom and pop” that hired me sold the business to Alcoa Corporation the first summer and I became an employee with Alcoa Recycling Company after about two months. I heard a rumor of this from the guy I replaced, a fourth year student. They came in and I got a raise and benefits, both of which he did not have. The workload was about the same, though it did increase over the years.

Penny got a job with Liberty Life Insurance Company and has stayed there for 20 years now. She is probably doing okay. She is on her third marriage and may have settled in from her young and restless days. The smoke has cleared and I’m really amazed at what God has done these 20 years. There is no way I could have predicted this. It is way too odd for my simple imagination.