I began, on August 30, an account of my life’s journey that I promised to continue. I will try to write these particular blogs as I have opportunity. I cannot produce a new entry each day but I will attempt to faithfully tell my story over time. I would like to slowly develop this story because I need to ponder the mercies of God deeply at this stage of my life. I hope that through such intentional pondering, and writing, several things will happen:
- I will personally see the mercies of God afresh and marvel at God’s tender mercies and love day-by-day. I live by his grace and thus by this story of faith, hope and love.
- I desire to share my story with readers who are interested, especially my friends who love me and pray for me faithfully. Many who read these words have shared in parts of my story and many who are reading them now will share more in my story if God grants me longer life. Our lives are interconnected in a remarkable way and with age you generally see these connections more clearly.
- I believe that the best way to know yourself, and to be known, is to tell your story as honestly as possible. Honesty does not mean that one reveals all their secrets, especially those that were done in the darkness of sin. Paul says that “It is disgusting even to talk about what is done in the dark” (CEV, Ephesians 5:12). I am a sinner. Anyone who lives with me knows this all too well. I have as much need of divine grace to cleanse me (again and again) as any one I know. Though redeemed as a child I have never strayed far from this realization of my sinfulness. There is one thing I am convinced about regarding popular evangelical culture, and the way we explain our lives–we talk far too openly about the things that we’ve “done in the dark.” Younger Christians please take note of this plea from your older brother.
During ensuing weeks I will write other blogs; i.e. posts that are not connected to telling my journey. For this reason I will number these particular posts in case the reader wants to read them in sequence or find them more easily. This blog is thus number 2 in my “journey” series, as the title above indicates.
I was born on March 1, 1949, at Martha Gaston Hospital in Lebanon, Tennessee, the second of two sons to Thomas and Marie Armstrong. (The hospital is no more!) I lived my first years in a very small house on West Spring Street. I have fond memories of our best neighbors, the Hosier family. Colonel Hosier, who taught at Castle Heights Military Academy where I would later study, comes to mind because I remember the day he was trimming his shrubs and cut off the tail of our cat, quite by accident. What a ruckus. Richard Hosier was my first friend, a year ahead of me in school but a great childhood buddy in my pre-school years.
I profoundly recall lying in bed at night on Spring Street and asking, “Why did you make me God? And, why did you put me here in this home in Lebanon, Tennessee, with these parents at this time in the 1950s?” I was not to become a professional philosopher but I was a genuinely curious and earnest kid. I questioned everything. I was not a rebel, at least against authority, but I questioned authority and this often got me in trouble for asking too many questions. I often sat in the front row in class on purpose. I was the first to raise my hand. I questioned the leaders of my church about racism and segregation. I questioned friends whose church was not like mine and tried to understand our differences. (Was this the first stage in my becoming a missional-ecumenist?) I even questioned my parents about why I should take a course of action that they prescribed for me. But again, I did not rebel. I was generally compliant and thus never had a teenage “off the rails” period that put my parents through a great deal of pain. I am not sure why this is true. I simply never believed that it was my calling to oppose everything I did not like. (For this reason I questioned the Vietnam War but never joined the massive protests during my college years.) I did believe that I was to oppose injustice and to stand up for those who were mistreated. I have believed this from as far back as I can remember. I also had an unusual tenderness toward the poor and those who did not have the great material, intellectual and spiritual blessings that I knew in my home.
I have remained interested in philosophy my entire life. I now understand philosophy to be an important discipline for all thinking Christians. I also believe that we should all exercise some kind of philosophical reasoning because we are creatures who think and (should) ponder the nature of everything. We should do this, not because of sin, but because the image of God has been stamped into each of us. Lower life forms, so far as we can tell, do not do philosophical thinking.
Philosophy is commonly understood to be the love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline. It includes the investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based upon logical reasoning rather than empirical methods. A good philosopher will exercise a critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs. Christian thought is a category of what we call metaphysics thus the Christian can and should be a philosopher, albeit one who adopts a set of beliefs that they live by as consistently as possible. At the core these beliefs are rooted in the love of the triune God. We are loved by God thus he calls us to love him and our neighbor.
Interestingly, I never had a deep interest in the hard sciences. I loathed chemistry and biology and had to fight with them through high school and college. I loved political theory, philosophy, history, theology and literature. (Oddly, those tests they give you about vocation all said that I should do something in science and math. Even my ACT and SAT test scores were higher in these areas! So much for the value of such tests!)
I was a deeply sensitive child, too much so at times for my own good. (My older brother, whom I love with all my heart, saw my sensitive nature and at times pushed me to tears. I was called a “cry baby” and would then confirm the truth of this by calling on my mother to spare me of this merciless emotional trial. In time I thankfully grew out of this stage but to this day I am very easily moved to tears. At times I weep in the most unusual contexts; a great piece of music, reading fiction, seeing art, being restored to a person I have lost connection with for some reason, baseball and football championship games that are hugely important to me, private prayer, public worship, reading the Bible, meditating on God and his mercies, etc.) I will say more later but I believe I was quite mystical in my orientation long before I knew anything about the term. I do recall being made to dislike the term as a young pastor and then discovering later, to my great delight, that I had badly misunderstood what Christian mysticism was all about.
When I was only five or six years old, as best I recall, I began to ponder great questions. I believed in God, understood that he was great and good, but really wondered why he did what he did, especially with regard to my life. At age twelve I read through the entire Bible. (My mom offered me an incentive: $100 if I really did it!) Some of these early questions jumped out at me in texts like this one:
Even before I was born,
the Lord God chose me
to serve him and to lead back
the people of Israel.
So the Lord has honored me
and made me strong (Isaiah 49:5, CEV).
Now I realize that the prophet was speaking here about himself but I had to wonder, “Does God choose some to serve him before they are even born?” This question did not trouble me on one level but it frightened me on another (more profound) level. Why? I felt I had been chosen by God to obey him and to preach his Word. This encouraged me, over time, because I felt the Lord would “make me strong” in due time. Another text, which again is about the call of a prophet of the Lord, impressed itself on me.
“Jeremiah, I am your Creator,
and before you were born,
I chose you to speak for me
to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5, CEV).
Was God calling me to speak before the nations before I was born? I wondered. I still wonder but my life has clearly allowed me to speak in so many far flung places that I have lost track of it all. I have given the Good News to countless numbers of people. From 2 or 3 in a home meeting, to 20,000 plus in large crowds, I have proclaimed Christ as Lord and Savior of the world. I believe God made me for this particular work and even formed me in my mother’s womb to be a servant of the living God.
Perhaps no text has more fully gripped my mind over the years than these words in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, found in chapter 2:
In the past you were dead because you sinned and fought against God. 2 You followed the ways of this world and obeyed the devil. He rules the world, and his spirit has power over everyone who doesn’t obey God. 3 Once we were also ruled by the selfish desires of our bodies and minds. We had made God angry, and we were going to be punished like everyone else.
4-5 But God was merciful! We were dead because of our sins, but God loved us so much that he made us alive with Christ, and God’s wonderful kindness is what saves you. 6 God raised us from death to life with Christ Jesus, and he has given us a place beside Christ in heaven. 7 God did this so that in the future world he could show how truly good and kind he is to us because of what Christ Jesus has done. 8 You were saved by faith in God, who treats us much better than we deserve.[a] This is God’s gift to you, and not anything you have done on your own. 9 It isn’t something you have earned, so there is nothing you can brag about. 10 God planned for us to do good things and to live as he has always wanted us to live. That’s why he sent Christ to make us what we are (CEV).
I have never gotten over these words: “But God was merciful.” This is the obvious reason for why “there is nothing you (I) can brag about.” I do not understand the pride I see in so many servants of God. I know I am prone to a sense of self-importance at times but I say again, “I do not understand this in me or anyone else.”
God planned for all of us (the entire church) to “do good things and to live as he has always wanted us to live.” What a magnificent calling! Your calling is not precisely like mine, because you are loved and cherished in a way that is unique to you and your life journey, but in Christ we are all called to “live as he has always wanted us to live.” We have a diversity of gifts but one calling. We have genuine differences in personality and experience but we serve the one Lord who is in us all and over us all.