“If I profess with loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God’s Word except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking…I am not confessing Christ…however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved…and to be steady on all battlefields beside is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at the one point.” Martin Luther
As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I chose this quote by Martin Luther to focus our attention our attention on why the Reformation was necessary. There were many reasons for Luther’s decision, but for our purposes let’s focus on what I see to be the main issue—how we must be saved. In Luther’s day the Catholic Church had broad sweeping power both politically and spiritually. The power to excommunicate both individuals and whole regions was used to effectively threaten dissidents, and consign offenders to Hell.
The sale of indulgences had reached the point where people were actually made to believe that they could purchase ‘time off’ from purgatory with financial contributions. Salvation by faith in the finished work of Jesus on the cross alone was subverted to faith in the intermediaries’ dogma and traditions of men.
This is a deeply personal issue for me. I was raised Catholic, and did my best to adhere to the teachings and the authority of the church. In the midst of a tumultuous time in my life…my second year of University. I experienced something that changed me forever.
Some background and context is in order…
In 1969 a number of things took place
- The Beatles release of Abbey Road…their final album
- The Draft was initiated
- Charles Manson initiated Helter Skelter
- The first Walmart opened
- My father died unexpectedly at age 54
- I left home for the first time to attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
The week I was to leave for the Academy in July of 1969, My dad broke his hip. While in the hospital he developed a pulmonary embolism and died within a few days. I left after his burial and my oldest brother dropped me off at Kings Point New York to begin Plebe Summer.
I hadn’t slept through the night for days. I hadn’t even begun to process what just happened at home when the initial, intentional pressure of a plebe summer began in earnest. Within a few days of sleeplessness and pressure, the worst possible thing happened (from my perspective)…Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon!
Because the Academy staff were federal employees, they were treated to a day off to honor the historic achievement of Apollo 11. Our training was suspended for the day and we were ‘allowed’ to stay by ourselves in our rooms. That night on the tip of Long Island above the shimmering ocean I looked up at the moon and couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone was walking on it. Having a day to sit by myself and ponder the death of my dad, my own radically different and stressful circumstance, and now an event of cosmic proportions…coupled with my lack of sleep… took its toll.
An upper classman began yelling and told to me to brace up against the bulkhead. That’s all I remember. When I came to, I didn’t know where I was. I looked to my right and there was a young man with what appeared to be a stump with a bloody dressing. To my left was another young man with half his face badly injured. I didn’t know where I was and began to shake uncontrollably.
I pulled the covers over my head and began what turned out to be one of the most important prayers I ever prayed. “Oh God, help me. I feel like I’m losing my grip and I’m afraid. Please help me….I want to know you…”
A nurse gave me a shot and I slept for what felt like forever. When I woke I learned that I was taken to a Public Service Hospital on Staten Island, and those injured men were Viet Nam War casualties. An officer from the Academy, accompanied by a chaplain, came and told me I had an Acute Anxiety Attack and has passed out. They told me that I could attempt to rejoin the class, but that I was already behind. They gave me that option and also the option to resign my commission and return home. I was so confused and exhausted, I decided to go home.
Once I was back home feeling a mixture of relief and shame for having somehow failed everyone, I launched into University studies and got a full time job at of all places, a mental hospital. I also began to drink heavily and withdraw from people.
After over a year of this routine I was told by one of my friends. “You ought to quit that job, you’re really getting weird, That hospital is all you talk about.” For the only time in my life I quit a job before having secured another one.
For months I didn’t see any of my orderly buddies from the hospital. I was feeling a little dejected. We had worked closely together and now no one was calling me. I also ran low on money and couldn’t make my car payment. If I didn’t come up with $104.00, they were going to repossess my car. And to top it off I couldn’t find another job. The last place I called was a Rehabilitation Hospital named Hillside Hospital that took care of people with spinal injuries. The HR lady told me “I’ll keep your resume’, but let me be frank. We have next to no turnover here and there are at least three applications ahead of yours.”
About this time, out of nowhere I received an invitation by a high school acquaintance to hear a protestant minister speak . I said yes fully expecting that I would find an excuse to not go. I ended up going and was surprised, to say the least, at what I saw and heard. What struck me was the fact that there was so much bible throughout the whole service. I didn’t own a bible and I had never darkened the door of a protestant church…I kept going for a number of weeks.
One Sunday night, there were over five hundred people there, but it may as well just been me that the Lord was reaching. The pastor said “Are you tired of trying to be good enough? Are you tired of always falling short? Have you ever personally prayed a prayer like this? “Dear Lord, I believe what you say in your Word. I acknowledge that I am a sinner, and that when Jesus died on that cross He did it for me. I repent. Forgive me based on Jesus’ sacrifice for me. Come in to my heart Lord Jesus.”
I walked down the aisle and dropped to my knees and prayed that prayer. All I can say is that when I stumbled back to my seat I knew that I had been born again.
The next day, I woke up with a calm and a peace that I had never known. It was going to be a stressful day, for I received a notice that this morning someone was coming to repossess the car. While I was at the university that morning I heard someone call out my name…
”Hey Jenkins slow down…” (It was an orderly friend from the mental hospital) “Hey man, where have you been…we couldn’t find your phone number and have been trying to get a hold of you. All the guys are asking about you.” I was greatly encouraged.
Later that morning at home, while I was waiting for them to come and get the car, I heard the mailbox on our porch close. I leafed through the letters and there was one from the University Bursar’s office. Now I have to admit that I had no idea what a bursar was. I just knew it had to do with money. In fact I assumed that it was going to be some sort of letter of dismissal from the school
The letter said, “Dear Mr. Jenkins, Our office has determined that two semesters ago there was an error to do with one of your grants. Please accept this remittance to you in the amount of $104.00.” (not $103 not $105….104.00!)
While still trembling… with that letter in my hand… the phone rang
“Hello Mr. Jenkins This is Hillside Hospital calling. A very strange thing happened today. All three men ahead of you called the personnel office and withdrew their applications. We have an opening. Can you start this Monday?”
I dropped to my knees. Now I can’t say that my walk with God has always been this dramatic, but I have never doubted the importance of what happened that day. I have lived a life I could never have imagined. I have worn out three or four Bibles.
So on this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation I can say two things confidently.
I am thankful for my upbringing in a church that acknowledges the God of the Bible, and for parents that cared enough to see to it that I went to church. I am aware that there are some Catholics who are born again and look to the Word of God.
I am also eternally grateful for Martin Luther and the other reformers who cared enough to risk their lives to point out that the Bible is for everyone and that each of us can call out to God, trust and rely upon the shed blood of Jesus and experience new birth.
“Heaven and earth shall pass away”, said Jesus, “but My Word shall never pass away”
To God be the glory, great things He hath done.