On October 24, 1983 I was baptized into Jesus. This time of year is a sweet reminder of a decision I made years ago that changed the direction of my life. I was 21, at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and facing some difficult things in my life.
I had done 3 years at Central Missouri and done all the prep work to apply to the school of Veterinary Medicine. I applied after 3 because people said you don’t get in the first time, so I figured I wouldn’t make it and then could finish my degree and get in the next year. I had another year of cross country and track and we wanted to compete at nationals again one more time. I was wrong. I got in and began the most difficult education of my life. It was so bad I was getting Ds in all of my classes. I went to church in the past and believed in God but this semester was destroying everything in my life. My hopes, dreams, and my faith. I was dating a young lady and the relationship was, to say the least, not pleasing to God. I had to make new friends, moved to a new dorm with roommates I couldn’t get along with, and really didn’t feel close to the lady I dated. Even more, I could see my career slipping away. I had spent my whole life wanting to be a Vet and now it looked as if I would fail at that. I hadn’t ever failed at anything in the past.
Marc Sullivan, an engineering major, knocked on my door one night. He invited me to a Bible study led by the campus church of Christ. I didn’t like the church of Christ. Mostly I felt that babies were candidates for baptism and that the church was too conservative for me. Marc had knocked 100 doors, I was the last, and I was the only one to show up that next Monday night. I guess I had impressed the group. I had read the Bible through 3 times, been a student deacon at the church on campus at Central Missouri, and knew a lot about God and the Bible. Oddly enough my life was far from God, but I had the right words enough to impress everyone. I liked everyone but didn’t tell them I was bombing my classes.
Marc would come by and pray with me. Within a week I confronted him on the baptism issue. I told him how I felt and he said, “Why don’t we see what the Bible says?” We looked it over and he admitted I knew more than him. The next week the campus minister came and we talked. That night in early October I made the decision. They were right, God was right, and I was wrong in so many ways. Marc and Kevin were great and I respected them.
It took them one hour to convince me what I needed to do. It took me 3 weeks to do it. One scripture held me back for these weeks.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:25-33)
Imagine what it is like to know what you need to do, be confronted with the words of Jesus, know that your life is a wreck, and yet put off a decision to follow the one who died for you? It is a wonder why we hold on so tight knowing that our world is crashing around us. I fought this verse for three weeks.
However, God fought back. Marc would pray with me, then I would see my girlfriend. She would ask about church and I would take her, but it wasn’t for her, and I was glad. It was my own thing and I ended up breaking it off. I was immature, not a good man, but I was struggling with what God was asking me to do.
I finally did it on October 24, 1983. It was a Monday night and about 10 other guys from church showed up to support me. I wish I could say the heavens opened, the skies split apart, I tingled with joy, or I felt this awesome power/presence. That would be untrue. I was happy and excited to do it, but it was a group of guys singing off key, hugging me, and then Marc told me “Congratulations Brother!”
I will always remember that moment but I knew that was the easy part. The Luke 14 text was my nemesis for many months. The words of Jesus pierced my mind, soul, and heart. I knew if this was going to last I had to deal with it. I had to love Jesus more than anything in the world, including myself. If I wanted to break the cycle from my atheist dad who was married 3 times, I had to take that text seriously. The guy who built the tower or picked a fight with a bad-ass king became my lessons for many years—and they are guys who I know well. I knew I didn’t want to be like them and I many times talk with them. They ask how things are going and I tell them the tower is taller, I don’t join battles that destroy me, and I appreciate that they remind me how not to live the Christian life. They visit often, but that’s OK.
Over time things got better. I did flunk out of Vet school that December. I was devastated. I returned to Central MO and baptized my 3 best friends and a few others. My running sucked. I went from being good to being the last guy to finish. However, it didn’t matter. Things were different. I wasn’t a quitter and I knew God would help me finish what needed to be done, no matter how hard it was.
This time of year I think about those days—but most importantly I remember the text. Today I looked it over again. It’s been 31 years but the text means something different. On the one hand I grieve all the people I know who didn’t finish their towers, who weren’t able to say goodbye to sin, or who can’t (maybe I should write wont) be disciples. I grieve that they, like me, wouldn’t face the text. They were/are holding on to something hollow, because they are afraid to say, “I will” to Jesus. They wrestle with a text, a Messiah, a life that calls for commitment. There were many in our college group who fell away before I left the school. I came back to visit in January and one of the guys who helped me get through some times of sin was gone. He just left his tower.
Then I think about Marc and his wife Karen who are still studying with people. I think about the many people baptized who are building towers, watching them grow, and helping others build new ones. I am thankful to be married to someone who is building her tower as well. I often see people who made the difficult decision to follow Jesus and continue to do so. As I get older there are fewer and fewer of us building towers but it is still done.
Then I remember what the text promises. If I want to love my family and others as they can be loved, it begins with my relationship with Jesus. I can break the cycle and be the man my family needs, the minister the church needs, the teacher the students need, the advocate victims and batterers need, and the man my wife loves. To love Jesus above everything means I love the one who blesses and gives to those in my life. Then I can become like him and bless and love them as well. It makes more sense now than it did 31 years ago. However the basics are still there…“To be a disciple means…” Or even more, “Those who love me more than anything else get the right to be my disciples…” To be a disciple, follower, Christian, or friend of Jesus means we become people of courage, commitment, faith, and integrity. To make a decision to love only and follow only means we become people who can not only build towers but establish kingdoms where people feel safe, respected, and valued.
31 years ago my life changed, and the text still continues to change me today, and forever more.