I recognize that we are whom we are because of a composite of experiences that build one upon the other. Most of those experiences are so subtle that we are unable to identify them or their impact upon our life. However, there are other more pivotal experiences that carry the possibility of initiating a 180-degree shift in what we will do and who we will become. Such shifts occur infrequently, but they are undeniable and usually identifiable.
I can identify small influences that changed my world view, helped me identify what was important and not, taught me right from wrong, led to my understanding of talents and spiritual gifts, and so on and so forth.
We understand why we are the way we are when we retrace our life to identify such transformational moments and how we responded to them. It is like walking backwards with a personal characteristic in hand trying to find the place or moment where we picked it up. Transitional moments can be negative experiences such as the premature loss of a parent driving us into a responsibility for our family that we certainly didn’t want or expect. Or, on the positive side, they can be the special attention given by a teacher that birthed our positive self-concept. Every moment carries the potential for a positive or negative impact upon life, but only a few really make dramatic and immediate changes.
The history of Saul in the book of Acts, chapter 9, illustrates a pivotal moment that radically changed not only his life, but affected the future of the world. You may recall that Paul had been a major figure in the arresting and persecution of Christian in the months immediately after the death of Jesus. One day his attitude and purpose changed radically during a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus where he intended to identify and arrest a group of Christians. While walking with friends, he was blinded by a bright light, reprimanded by Jesus, and instructed to go to Damascus and await further instructions. He remained blind for three days. The experience climaxed with God sending a believer named Ananias to visit Saul. Ananias healed him from blindness and Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a matter of hours, Saul became a promoter and not an opponent of the birth of a new faith. He began to preach immediately his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. These were the first steps toward his becoming the greatest theologian of the New Testament. This personal encounter with God was just one of the millions and millions that would take place over the next two thousand years. I have had several such encounters with the ever-present Holy Spirit. One of which occurred after three years in my first full-time pastorate.
I attended the compulsory annual meeting of West Tennessee Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Savannah in the early months of 1974. These meetings are generally scripted to affirm specific recommendation that have made by the various committees of the Synod and presented to the larger body for a vote. Since most decisions are cut and dried, the meetings appear a waste of time. This was an event I might have considered skipping if I could have found an acceptable excuse.
The highlight of such a business meeting usually took place in the form of “koinonia” (fellowship) over lunch. And, on a good day, participants heard a good sermon or inspiring music.
I settled into my pew for worship hoping we could finish worship and business during the morning, thus allowing me time to rush home for the Vanderbilt basketball game. I had no idea that God had another incredible and unbelievable plan in mind. Rev. Buddy Stott, a missionary to Japan, was the guest speaker for the morning worship service. I had heard of this fellow since he was one of the few missionaries in our denomination and his service was highlighted in denominational publications.
He appeared a very humble man with little pretense. His small stature, his simple black suit and narrow black tie sent the advance expectation that something conservative was about to occur. His steps to the pulpit were short and measured, marked with an expected missionary piety. I felt that some of the reserve of the Japanese culture had rubbed off on him. But, from the beginning, his quiet gentle demeanor mesmerized me. His sermon was interesting, but not spellbinding, until he began to speak of the commitment of Japanese Christians in the face of persecution. He spoke of incidents when believers were buried up to their necks under the sand of the beach. They were given the opportunity to repent of their faith or await certain death when the tide rose later in the day. He was noticeably touched as he said, “All of those buried were martyred.”
I do not recall him challenging the congregation to give consideration to a career in missions or encouraging the people to make a financial contribution. Truth be known, I had never been interested in missions, nor had I tried to motivate my congregation to strengthen their missions program. So I was surprised he was able to keep my attention. But, in one of the most significant pivotal moments in my brief life, I felt a silent voice calling me to do whatever necessary to become a missionary. It was just that simple. I had no idea what the new revelation implied; it was just there. I was certain. God touched the depth of something within me with this new challenge (problem).
My first response was a period of confusion and reflection. What could this mean? As I tried to sort it out, I became more and more uncomfortable with idea. I was as happy in my work as I could have hoped. Our church membership was growing quantitatively and qualitatively. Mostly, I was happy with the young couples that were not only joining our church, but growing in their commitment to Christ as well. My job was usually fun and exciting. I learned something new everyday. This missionary concern was so unbelievable and unwanted that I couldn’t bring myself to share the experience with my wife. So, I didn’t. On the exterior I moved ahead with life as usual, trying to forget the “feeling” I had in Savannah. Unfortunately, God chose not to be ignored.
In June of 1974, just a few months after my Savannah moment, Virginia and I traveled to the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Virginia followed Rev. John Lovelace into a buffet line for lunch. They chatted as they moved through the line and John said, “You know you and Bob should give some thought and prayer to becoming missionaries. Virginia had thought as a girl about such a possibility, but John’s words penetrated to that deep point where spiritual decisions are considered and made. And, she took notice! But like myself, she remained silent about the unwelcome thought. We didn’t know it, but the lasso thrown around us would only be pulled tighter and tighter over the next few months.
In November we traveled to Iowa to visit my parents and during the return I became overwhelmed with the power of God’s calling upon my life. I said, “Virginia, I need to share a spiritual dilemma I am facing.” She said, “Before you talk about that, let me tell you about a struggle I am facing.” Our sharing of very similar callings united us in a way we had not experienced before. There was no doubt that God had a plan that required the full commitment of both of us. But, we confessed to each other that we really didn’t want to make such a shift in our short-term plan for our life. Our first child had been born in August and it seemed so unreal to consider uprooting our family to go into mission work. Nor, did we have any idea of how to pursue such a calling. The when, where and how to respond to God’s initiative remained unanswered.
So, we put the idea on simmer and didn’t mention the possibility during December or the early days of January. Then, the January edition of our denominational magazine arrived in the mail. I opened to the first page and saw the headline—“The Effort to Recruit a Missionary for Colombia Goes Unanswered.” I was at the church office at the time, so I locked the church and drove home to show the article to Virginia. We immediately decided that this was another sign of God’s call upon our life. We decided that enough was enough. There was no reason to continue to fight against the obvious.
The article indicated that anyone interested in this opportunity should call the Board of Missions. We made the call and the Director of World Missions made an appointment to meet with us the following Wednesday. That meeting resulted in a job offer and three months later we were in San Jose, Costa Rica for a year of Spanish language training.