Entering the Air Force in September, 1982 was the biggest transition in my life thus far. My unruly and unfocused life was suddenly conformed to strict discipline. I certainly did not come from a military culture. I was the first person in my family since WWII to enter the military. I enlisted as a matter of desperation. I had no skills beyond those that could get me a job flipping burgers. Due to a variety of factors, both self-induced and not, my high school education was worthless. I had no incentive for further education. School and education, according to my immature and rotten attitude, was inaccessible to me. My parents were themselves uneducated, and did not give me any incentive, desire or ambition to continue my education. They could not communicate the merits of continued education since that was not on their horizon. They knew no better than I did. Since college was unattainable to me, I viewed concepts like a better future and personal ambition as character flaws of vapid yuppies. In my rebellion, I relished imagining myself as the downtrodden outsider. You can keep your stinking college education. Take your nice paycheck and shove it. I am the outsider. I am the oppressed. I am better than those of you who care about things like continuing education, starting a career or anything involving personal maturity, growth or responsibility.
I was angry, confused, emotionally immature and incredibly ignorant. I left high school completely unprepared for the challenges of adulthood. I was headed straight for a life of failure.
During Basic Training, we recruits were allowed to worship in chapel every Sunday morning, although it was not mandatory. Lakeland AFB, if I remember correctly, had two chapels, one for Protestants and one for Catholics. I went to the Protestant chapel. Twice. The service was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. There was no sign of the Holy Ghost anywhere! Nobody spoke in tongues. Nobody showed any sign of possessing spiritual gifts. Some kind of liturgy was recited, but I don’t remember the particulars. I do remember feeling very uncomfortable practicing my religion in such unfamiliar surroundings.
So this must be what a dead church looks like. Pastor Jack used to warn us about dead churches that lack the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. They were ‘lukewarm’ Christians, if they were true Christians at all. Jesus would just as soon spew these churches out of his mouth.
So I rebelled. In the last article, I mentioned how the spiritual life of all my acquaintances had eventually changed for the worse, and I began to see the Christian morality that I had witnessed was a glossy veneer over horse dung, with all show and no substance. Mom divorced Michael Wagner while I was in the Air Force, soon after my younger brother had graduated from Cape Baptist Christian School. When I quietly realized that mom had married Michael solely to take care of us, and divorced him as soon as that need was fulfilled, I viewed even my mother as a Christian hypocrite. Her first divorce from my dad, even as abusive as he was, hurt deeply. The second divorce hurt in a different way. It made me understand that even Holy Christian Sacraments took backseat to selfish exploitation. I was burned out, fed up and frustrated.
Many years later, I view all these events of my young life with more maturity and understanding, but as a selfish and naïve youth in my late teens and early 20s, I was deeply hurt by the hypocrisy that seemed to come from all corners. I rebelled in the only way I knew how. I stopped going to church. I was sick of my life, and I was sick of God.
I became a Christian backslider. I became the stereotype that every preacher speaks about. I did not leave the Faith. I just needed to rebel against everything that I knew, and that included God.
So I forgot about God, Jesus, Church, Religion, and my brand new Thompson Chain Reference Bible for about six years. Since this is not an autobiography, but a recollection of my spiritual journey, I will quickly skim this period of time in which, not only religion, but curiosity, learning, science, ambition, or any other kind of growth, had no part of.
I only lasted in the Air Force for 3 years. I spent most of that time stationed in Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. I was too ignorant and immature to appreciate the opportunities that I was given. Instead of taking advantage of the benefits that the military gave me, I mostly spent my off-duty time drinking. I had rarely had liquor before, and even when I did, I did not care for it. But raucous partying seemed to be the thing to do in the Land of the Midnight Sun, so I rebelled by doing what all the other enlisted airmen I knew were doing – I partied. Suddenly, after years of being a misfit, I was the life of the airmen’s dorm. I got into my fair share of trouble, and it is a miracle that I did not get an Article 15 or at least a Letter of Reprimand. I was discharged after 3 years of a 4-year enlistment. Instead of investing in the GI Bill to pay for further education, I spent nearly every penny of my earnings on alcohol, cigarettes and music LPs.
I left the Air Force and moved back to Missouri, simply because I had nowhere else to go. Brother Bert, one of the volunteers at Cape Baptist Christian School gave me a job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. By this time, he was also smoking and drinking. Christians. They all backslide eventually. What a joke.
I never sold a single vacuum cleaner. Desperate for money I asked Brother Bert for an advance of 50 dollars on my income until I could sell one. He reluctantly agreed, and that night I left town. I used the money to drive back to New Mexico, where my mom, brother and sister had moved back to while I was in the Air Force. I never paid back my advance to Brother Bert, and never again returned to Cape Girardeau. I had lost my moral bearing. God? What God? Sinning was ok, and I felt unaccountable to any parent, employer, drill sergeant or teacher.
I drifted in and out of one dead-end job after the other for the next six years. I smoked and drank heavily. I had toyed with marijuana, but never developed a taste for it. I occasionally got in some small trouble with the law, mostly for harassing tourists who visited the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. Since it was a National Forest these tourists were visiting, it was Federal Law I was tempting by harassing tourists. I somehow got away with it. I got very, very lucky.
I eventually moved to Albuquerque and moved from one crappy, roach infested apartment to the next. My jobs were mostly in food industry as a dishwasher, line cook, prep cook, or waiter. It paid my meager bills, but the wages were low and no future was to be had in it.
By the late 1980s, I was again miserable. I was starting to mature emotionally, and I was not making an intentional nuisance of myself. I still drank, but I had stopped drinking myself into a stupor every evening. Yet, I felt like I had no direction, no hope, and no purpose. I felt like life was a joke. I was angry, bitter, depressed and lonely. My self-esteem had not really improved, and I had still not worked up the confidence to ask an attractive girl out on a date. Worse yet, I had mostly lost my curiosity and love of reading that had carried me through my high school years. And yet, during all this time of rebellion and misery, deep down in the core of my mind, I still believed. Why shouldn’t I? If I would have been asked, Was there a God? Was Jesus God’s only Son? Is there a Heaven and a Hell? or similar questions, of course, I would have answered YES to all those things. I had not rejected my religious beliefs. I had not critically studied them and knew enough about them to be able to reject them. No. I had simply ignored them. But I knew they were still there, as miserable and depressed as I was.
In other words, my emotional and mental state was such that I was a perfect candidate for a life-shattering, world-shaking religious conversion. And that is exactly what happened.
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