Two Stories of Salvation
My family is Catholic—Irish Catholic—as far back as anyone can remember. Both my parents hail from the Emerald Isle, each from devoutly religious families of eight children. Three of my uncles entered the priesthood and two of my aunts the convent. My parents immigrated separately to the United States in 1948, settling in San Francisco. There they met, married, and also raised eight children, all baptized, all confirmed. On Sundays our family filled a pew. On weekdays we were represented in nearly every grade of the local parochial school. I served as an altar boy, learning the responses first for the Latin Mass and later, after the Second Vatican Council, for the Mass in English. I only briefly considered entering the priesthood, but always had great respect for the men who did, giving their lives to the service of the Church.
Those were good years, filled with happy memories. I had a wonderful family and received a great education from teachers who really cared, most notably the Sisters of the Holy Names. They instilled in me an awareness of God and the importance of spiritual priorities. Nevertheless, despite their best efforts, God seemed as distant as my many relatives living in Europe whom I had never met.
In high school, I was a good student, quiet, and compliant, yet increasingly troubled and confused like most teenagers, trying to make sense of life. In my senior year in high school, I started a job after school as a dishwasher in a hospital. The work crew was a mix of young white college students and middle-aged African Americans, mostly from the South. We got along well and often discussed life. I was the good Catholic kid, who argued the side of religion and high morality. At the same time, I was adrift, unsure what I believed or how I wanted to live my life. I bought a car and began to enjoy new freedoms.
It was the late sixties and San Francisco was the center of a cultural revolution sweeping the nation. Opposition to the Vietnam War was strong in San Francisco. I recall sitting on the roof of my parent’s home and watching 700,000 marchers pass in front, chanting and carrying banners that called for an end to the fighting. On weekends from our home in San Francisco’s Richmond District, we could hear bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane playing in Golden Gate Park and beckoning youth to come and enjoy a free concert. From my high school, it was a short walk to the famed Haight-Ashbury District, a low rent neighborhood populated by hippies and head shops selling drug paraphernalia, incense and oils from the East, and psychedelic posters.
In 1970, I began college at San Francisco State University, my hair long and my jeans tattered like everyone else. In the summer of ’72, I traveled to Europe, planning to hitchhike around for twelve weeks. More interested in adventure than museums, I didn’t have any specific plans. In Dover, England, I met Jean, a pretty blonde with beautiful eyes and a slender figure. She was from a beach town in Southern California. We traveled the next day together with a group of new friends across the English Channel. Arriving in Ostend, we said goodbye and went our separate ways, only to meet by chance again three days later again in Amsterdam, 250 miles away. We toured the city together with two Canadian girls with whom Jean was hitchhiking and said goodbye the next morning. We ran into each other a third time in Copenhagen, 550 miles from Amsterdam. Jean and the two Canadians were finding it difficult to get rides—their backpacks too large, the European cars too small—so she and I teamed up. We traveled the next nine weeks together, hitchhiking through Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, and Greece.
At the end of August, Jean returned with me to San Francisco. We rented an apartment in the Haight and continued our college education. We worked part-time jobs to get by and saved what we could so as to be able to travel during school breaks, hitching the next summer to Mexico City.
We loved each other and got along well. The fact that we were so alike helped. Jean’s mother was a registered nurse from England (my mother a registered nurse who had trained in England). Jean’s father was a soldier from Canada. He and Jean’s mother met during the War, married, and settled in Vancouver, British Columbia. They immigrated later to the United States when Jean was a young girl, much like my parents.
Jean had a strong religious upbringing, similar to my own only Lutheran rather than Catholic. As a teen, she attended a Baptist summer camp, but though she thought she was right with God, her Christianity was merely outward, no more real than my own.
At times during this period of our lives our consciences bothered us. Occasionally we would go to church, tell each other we were going to take God more seriously, and try to focus more on helping others. As for the fact that we were living together unmarried, we rationalized it. We love each other, we told ourselves. We’re faithful to each other. It’s the same as being married. Deep down, however, we knew it was wrong. We were unsettled and, as we began our third year together, we were finding it increasingly difficult to get along.
A turning point came for me on January 1, 1975. Jean and I had attended a New Year’s Eve party the night before, which continued into the next day. Though surrounded by people and fun activities, I felt empty and disgusted with myself. I went off alone, found a secluded place among some bushes on a hillside, and prayed. God, I don’t like what I’ve become. Help me to change and get my life right before you.
I was unaware at the time that a few weeks earlier Jean had prayed something similar: There was a time in my life, she told God, when all the answers seemed to be in the Bible. Please God, if you’re real, show yourself to me. We were both ready for a change.
A few weeks later, Patty, a girlfriend of Jean’s from Southern California and now living in San Francisco, told Jean that she had recently become a Christian. She invited Jean and me to a Bible study that she was attending. Sensing that this was the answer to her prayer, Jean accepted for both of us.
The next Friday evening, we joined Patty at a friend’s home. Fortunately for us, she had told us little about the group or where they met. Had we known, I’m not sure we would have gone. The location was the Presidio, the headquarters of the U.S. Sixth Army—not a popular place in post-Vietnam San Francisco. Six months earlier, President Nixon had resigned over the Watergate scandal, confirming everyone’s suspicions that the government couldn’t be trusted.
When we entered the house where the study was held, Patty introduced us to a group of about ten people, all older than us, sitting erect in wooden chairs in a semicircle. Each had a Bible in his or her lap. What have we gotten ourselves into? Fortunately, there were also a few others present who looked much like ourselves and were sitting on the floor.
Jean and I listened as the group’s leader read a passage from Acts 16 and led a discussion about it. He was Phil Lewis, an army officer, medical doctor, and psychiatrist, who looked every bit the part with short crew cut hair and black rimmed glasses. Members of the group shared their insights, parsing each word with such care that you would have thought that God Himself had written the book. I thought they were naïve. Fundamentalists! Let me out of here.
The passage that night was an account of Paul’s second missionary travels. I listened for a while, saying nothing until they came to a section beginning in Acts 16:6—“And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” After the group under Phil Lewis’ direction had bisected, trisected, and dissected the passage, I made what I thought was an intelligent contribution to the discussion. “I wonder if you were to check the holy books of other religions if you would find God directing their prophets not to go into Europe.” Everyone looked at me as if I were an alien from another world, who was trying to communicate with them. Here’s what was in my mind: The world’s religions, all being equally valid, probably operate something like a giant divinely-directed franchise. God made Hinduism for India, Islam for the Middle East, Buddhism for Southeast Asia, Christianity for Europe, and so on. That being the case, it wouldn’t do for Paul to take Christianity into Asia. That was someone else’s territory. Though it made sense to me, apparently it didn’t to anyone else. Phil mumbled something, which I can’t remember, and moved on to the next verse.
After the formal part of the study was over, Jean and I enjoyed refreshments with the others and I asked Phil some questions. He seemed knowledgeable and I noticed that he always looked to the Bible for his answers. I hadn’t experienced that before. The priests and nuns who had taught me the Catholic faith usually drew their information about God from the teachings of the Church, the social sciences, popular opinion, and the like. I remember a religion class at the Jesuit high school I had attended in which we analyzed the lyrics of current hits by rock and roll bands such as the Doors and the Rolling Stones, looking for meaning. Getting answers to life’s questions right out of the Bible made more sense and had a different feel to it.
The next week Jean and I returned to the Bible study. I am not sure why. Part of it was certainly that we liked the people; we wanted to be with them. Part of it was their enthusiasm for learning about God. It was contagious. Their premise that regular people such as ourselves could understand the Bible was also intriguing. Whatever the reason at the time, we were hooked. Friday nights with Patty and her friends became the highlight of our week.
I’m not sure why, but no one from the Bible study group ever tried to explain it to me. Maybe they sensed that I needed to work it through for myself. I began studying the Bible on my own and trying to piece together its message.
One passage in Paul’s writings began to haunt me.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
I was guilty of several sins on the list, but living with Jean unmarried was bothering my conscience most. This passage demolished the arguments that I had erected to rationalize my conduct. I was only fooling myself and I knew it. If I died, God would judge me; I was certain.
Another verse that was significant to me at the time was Mark 10:45. It said that Christ came to give His life as a “ransom for many.” For the first time, Christ’s death on the cross made sense to me. He died as my substitute, taking the penalty for my sins upon Himself on the cross.
Also significant to me was Romans 10:9. It promises: “That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10:9). That seemed too good to be true.
Returning home with Jean one Friday after the Bible study, I told her, “We either have to get married or stop going to this study.”
“Then let’s stop going,” she answered.
I knew why she had said it. We were afraid of marriage. It symbolized for us the end of our youth and the freedom we so cherished. It symbolized the start of a meaningless existence in which you worked for forty years to pay off a mortgage, retired, and died. We also didn’t like the commitment side of it. How could we promise to remain together “until death do us part”? We didn’t know who we would be in five or ten years, let alone twenty or more. That’s why we liked living together. If it didn’t work out, we could just move on. No commitments. Okay, so it wasn’t just like being married; it was better—or at least so we thought—all of the benefits without any of the responsibility. Finally, the whole idea of getting married was foreign to us. Except for those at the Bible study, none of our friends were married. I had never been to a wedding. Jean had been to one—her brother’s.
Nevertheless, we both knew that despite the freedom to do whatever we wanted, we weren’t happy. Life was already pointless. We didn’t know what we were doing or where we were going. In an attempt to find purpose, a year earlier we had applied to the Peace Corps. One night as we awaited assignment to some far away under-developed country waiting for our help, Mike, a roommate with whom we rented a house, wanted to know what exactly we thought we had to offer people in other countries. We tried to explain but he mocked everything we said. You’re just going to turn them into selfish Americans, like everyone else in this country, living their lives to buy a color television or a new car. Leave them alone. They’re happier the way they are.
We tried not to let what he had said bother us. Mike had been in Vietnam and had returned bitter about life. He had grown his hair long—even longer than Jean’s—and tired to find peace smoking dope and playing music. Nevertheless, we couldn’t dismiss what he had said either. How can we help others when we don’t even know what we’re doing ourselves? The only people we knew who really seemed to understand God’s purpose for our lives were our new friends at the Bible study. We knew we needed to get right with God and trust Him for the future. Jean moved in with Patty and her roommate Gail. I moved back in with my family. We set a date to get married.
Three months later, Jean and I stood at the altar of Saint Monica’s Catholic Church on Geary Boulevard, the parish in which I had grown up. In front of us stood four priests: my three uncles and our parish priest. Behind us, seated in pews, were our families, friends, and just about everyone from the Bible study. Jean and I exchanged vows, feeling awkward but knowing that it was the right thing to do before God.
Four weeks later we attended a week-long Bible conference. The speaker reviewed the gospel and encouraged all present that if they had any doubts as to whether not they were right with God to deal with it right then and there. He spoke about the benefits of trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior in a formal manner and told of a farmer who for years had struggled with doubts as to whether or not he was truly saved. This farmer knew what the Bible said about salvation and the promises God made to anyone who believed in Jesus for salvation. Nevertheless, over and over he would profess faith in Christ, worried that God hadn’t heard him or that he hadn’t done it correctly. Recognizing that his struggle was a spiritual one, he carved the date into a wooden stake and drove it into the ground behind his house. He knelt beside it and placed his trust in Christ one last time. Thereafter, whenever troubled about his salvation, he would walk outside, point at the stake, and tell Satan, “Right there on that date I trusted Christ.” His doubts soon subsided. When the speaker finished telling the story, Jean and I knew that we needed to do the same. We bowed our heads and drove our stakes into the ground, telling God that we believed that Jesus had died for us.
The next years were a difficult time of transition for us. Jean and I moved an hour to the south to Cupertino to start new jobs. Excited about the new life we were experiencing in Christ, we began attending Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and attending a Wednesday evening class for adults. Fridays we drove to San Francisco for the Bible study. Still wanting more, we began attending Hillview Bible Chapel in Cupertino each Sunday after Mass.
I also began to study Catholic theology. My goal was to understand why, despite twelve years of religious education, I had never heard the biblical message of salvation until I had gone to a non-Catholic Bible study. The more I learned about Catholicism, however, the more questions I had. The doctrine of Transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ during the Mass, didn’t seem to line up with Scripture. In Isaiah, God says through the prophet, “I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8). How then could God transform bread into Himself and ask us to adore it as divine? I began to feel uneasy about kneeling to worship the host at Mass.
Even more troublesome was the Catholic belief that the Mass was a real sacrifice, the actual offering of Christ to the Father that occurred on the cross. Each offering of the Mass, says the Church, appeases God’s wrath and furthers our redemption. Again, this seemed to contradict Scripture. The Bible says that since Christ has died for us on the cross “there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18). If I believe that why am I participating in the ongoing sacrifice of the Mass?
Two years later, we were still following the same pattern: Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s of Cupertino and the preaching service at Hillview Bible Chapel a short drive away; Wednesday evenings the parish adult class; Friday evenings the San Francisco Bible study. The parish priest was now drawing his material for his weekly homily at Mass (a short sermon) from the “Peanuts” comic strip. I had to agree that Charlie Brown had some profound things to say. But shouldn’t we hearing more from Jesus Christ?
Jean and I were encouraged when the parish priest announced that he had hired a new director of adult education. He was a recent graduate from the University of Norte Dame with a master’s degree in Catholic education. The parish was going to hold a Bible study for adults. Finally.
A few weeks later, a hundred people seated on folding chairs in the parish hall, including the parish priest, listened with anticipation as the new director of adult education introduced the Bible study. “We’re going to start with the book of Job,” he said, “but I have to admit that, though I’ve been studying it for weeks, I haven’t gotten much out of it. Frankly, I’m not sure why it’s in the Bible, but we’re going to give it try and see what happens.”
Jean and I were stunned. How could he get nothing out of an inspired book? Dale Lanum, a pipe fitter with the local utility company and the current teacher of our Bible study in San Francisco, could find enough spiritual insights in two verses from the Bible to fill an evening with instruction and discussion. Now our learned Catholic teacher was telling us that an entire book of the Bible was virtually devoid of meaning.
That’s it, I told Jean. I give up. We left the Catholic Church a few weeks later.