My faith hasn’t always meant as much to me as it does now. In fact, when I was 14, I basically threw it away like it was useless rubbish. When I was quite young, my parents went to church every week, and most of their friends were from the Presbyterian Church of the Good Shepherd, which they helped found sometime around 1957.
After my dad’s restaurant burned to the ground when I was three, my parents started having problems in their marriage, and somewhere along the way quit going to church by the time I was nine years old. Without a solid foundation in Christianity, I dabbled in the occult, fascinated by anecdotes from psychics Edgar Cayce and Ruth Montgomery about reincarnation and the mysteries of the universe. An author in the seventies who claimed to be a “good witch” mesmerized me with her tales of black and white magical powers.
Sci-fi thrillers from author Isaac Asimov and his intriguing fantasies of ESP and aliens were as beguiling to me as bees to honey. The chilling novel The Stand, by Stephen King, kept me up nights as I discovered a titillating new supernatural world of good and evil. James Michener’s book about Hawaii and it’s many gods were entrancing, and his descriptions of the miraculous intervention of the mythical gods Pe’le, Tane and Ta’aora were much more alluring than the belief in a God who was hung on a cross to die.
When I was 14 my brother Elbert, came back from Viet Nam a broken and crushed man, traumatized by the horror of his war-zone experiences. He was a helicopter machine gunner, and the disturbing visions he brought back simply unhinged him, leading to a violent mental breakdown. Watching his mental deterioration terrified me, and somehow God’s grace broke though my cloud of darkness, and I fell to my knees asking for God’s help. I immediately felt the most loving, warm presence surround me; a fountain of love and peace washed over me.
Now you would think I would have turned toward God and never looked back. Oh no, not this bright, self-reliant creature. With a family member’s words ringing in my ears that “religion is a crutch for weak people”, I simply could not perceive that my experience was real. Instead, I thought I must have imagined the whole thing, and turned my back on God, diving full tilt into the occult!
It was 24 years later before I experienced God’s amazing grace again. This time I knew it was real, and as Matthew describes the kingdom of heaven as a pearl of great price, I knew my faith was the most valuable treasure I would ever have in my lifetime, and I wasn’t about to relinquish it for anything!
Sadly, my brother never found the priceless pearl; the emotional wounds haunted him the rest of his life, until he finally silenced his demons by committing suicide when he was 42. Thankfully my other brother, Chris, discovered the pearl several months before his death. Chris too was driven by the demon of drug addiction most of his life, but several days before his death he called me to make amends for the past. He knew the end was near and he knew where he wanted to go – he chose the kingdom of heaven.
When my brother Elbert committed suicide, I was devastated. A kind lady in my Renew Group worked in the office at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, and offered to make an appointment with Fr. James Fennessy, the pastor. Fr. Fennessy was so kind and comforting and reassured me that even though Elbert couldn’t seem to find God, often God will reach down and find us. I knew deep in my heart that God looked into my brother’s heart, past the trauma and pain, and saw the kind teenager who would win all the marbles in the neighborhood, and then roll them down the street for the little kids. I knew he saw the brother who would lay down with me at night until I fell asleep, and the compassionate man who simply couldn’t endure the cruelty he witnessed in Viet Nam. Even when we can’t find our way through the darkness, God reaches down and finds the pearl within each of us.
Another veteran of Viet Nam, Guy Gruters, was an officer and when captured by the Viet Cong, was especially targeted for torture. He was beaten daily, doused with cold water and left outside in freezing weather, given small amounts of bread and water loaded with maggots, and tied up like a pretzel so tightly his shoulders dislocated. Life was so grim, as Gruters described it “When you woke up in the morning, it was like waking up into a nightmare…Every day was a month. Every month was a year. Every year was a lifetime.”
The only way to endure such brutality was through prayer; the vet prayed constantly throughout his ordeal, drawing him into God’s warm embrace.“I had no idea that he really does control every detail until prison camp. I saw his power. Prison camp was the best thing that ever happened to me.” His final three years of imprisonment were filled with God’s peace and grace, and a deeper surrender as he realized “I wasn’t worried because I knew he was in charge. If he wanted us out of there, we were going home. If we didn’t go home, that’s fine. He knows best.”
Have you ever heard of the poem “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson? In the poem the author compares our distance from God with a hound following a hare. “As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.” The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988
If you have family members whose hearts are encased in ice and have rejected faith in God, keep in mind God’s persistent grace, and don’t give up hope that they will find the pearl more valuable than anything else in the world.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to treasure hid in a field; the which when a man has found, he hides, and for joy thereof goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” (Matthew 13:46)
- “Hound of Heaven” http://www.houndsofheaven.com/thepoem.htm
Story of Guy Gruters http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20130526/ARTICLE/130529770?p=3&tc=pg