CHAPTER ELEVEN
THE SUGAR CITY CURVE

The Presbyterian minister leaned on his snow shovel on the steps of his church and grinned at me as I drove slowly by. On impulse, I parked my pickup in the middle of the street and walked over to talk to him. He was average height, slender, with dark brown hair. He must have been forty, but he looked no more than 25. Except for the black shirt and clerical collar, he bore a striking resemblance to Roy Rogers. I was surprised there was no one in his congregation to shovel the walks.

"Hi!" I said. "Looks like you’re overqualified for this job."

He smiled. "I don’t know about that, but I enjoy the exercise." He stuck out his hand. "I’m Pastor Shaw."

"Jim Spencer. Nice to meet you. Got a minute?"

"Sure. What’s on your mind?"

"I’ll come right to the point. I’m a Mormon elder, but I’m looking for information about Jesus Christ. Do you know anything about Him?"

Pastor Shaw eyed me intently, sizing me up. Was I putting him on? Apparently deciding I was serious, he smiled broadly and said, "Call me Mike. Come into my office."

His office was in the basement of the church, located just blocks from my house. The walls were lined with books and an old wooden desk was stacked high with papers. The pastor flopped into a wooden swivel chair and motioned me into a padded folding chair. "Now, start from the beginning. How can I serve you?"

"Well. Pastor, as I said, I’m a Mormon elder, and I don’t expect to change. But I have a problem. In fact, I have several problems – with the Church. I guess I need to say that I believe the Book of Mormon is true and that I believe Joseph Smith was the prophet of the Restoration. But I’m afraid I’m beginning to doubt that the Church today is in touch with God."

Mike looked understanding, so I continued, "I don’t know why I’m talking to you about this. After all, if I really believe that God’s Church fell away in the first century, that means your Presbyterian Church has nothing to say to me."

"That’s true," Mike said gently.

"Look," I said. "I’m confused. I don’t really want to talk to you about churches. I think I need to talk about God. Somehow I think – I hope – you can tell me something about Him."

"Jim, I don’t want to talk about churches, either. But I want to ask you a question. May I?"

"You might as well. I can’t think of a good question myself!"

"You’re looking for God, right?"

"I sure am."

"And you have already identified your source of information about God as Jesus?"

"Yes. I think Jesus is the only One who could speak really authoritatively about God."

"Then it’s simple," Mike said.

"It is?"

"Sure. You want information about God? You think Jesus has the answer? Then ask Him."

"You mean prayer?"

"More or less."

"But I do pray."

"Jim, I’m not talking about some kind of formal prayer I’m talking about having a conversation with God – with Jesus."

I sat in silence. I had read everything – the Bible and the Book of Mormon. I had talked to people. And I had prayed for guidance, asking God to lead me to the truth. But I suspected Mike was talking about something radically different. If my life till now had been an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, this might be the first of the missing pieces.

He continued, "What you are looking for is not religion. You’re looking for a relationship."

I left Mike’s office in deep thought. I had made a commitment to talk to him further. And now, as I walked back to the truck, I wondered if I could figure out how to talk to Jesus.

A few days later, a second puzzle piece fell into place.

My family and I were visiting my hometown in Wyoming. While there, I learned my old childhood friend, Fred Johnson, had recently moved back to Basin. Fred was the third member of the gang that included my friend Lee and myself. I had not talked to Fred for several years, ever since Lee and I had heard he had gotten religion at a Billy Graham crusade in Kansas City.

Fred had attended the Conservative Baptist church in Basin when we were kids. His father was an active layman in that church. I had even attended with Fred sometimes. Later, in high school, we had gotten drunk together and I knew he wasn’t too religious. But maybe since his experience in Kansas City, he would have something to say to me.

As I pulled into his driveway, Fred walked out the back door of his house. Seeing me was apparently a shock. "Is that Jimmie Spencer in that car?"

I jumped out. "Freddy Johnson, you haven’t changed a bit!" Throwing my arm over his shoulder, I walked with him into the house.

"Cynthia, look at this!"

Inside, I greeted Fred’s wife, who had lived just a few doors from me when I was in high school. After a half-hour of reminiscing, Fred asked how things were going in my life. He knew I was a Mormon. In fact, I had spoken about it at length with his father in Basin while Margaretta and I were on our honeymoon. Stan expressed genuine concern and disappointment in my Mormonism.

"Well buddy," I said, "I’m having some problems. I am beginning to doubt that the Mormon Church is where I belong."

"Well, Jim, if you take your time, you’ll find what is right."

Glad for his tact and patience, I asked, "What is right, Fred?"

He smiled, leaned back on the couch and put his hands behind his head. I was surprised to see how athletic he still was. "Well, Jim" – he chose his words carefully – "I guess the important thing is not where you go to church, but what your relationship is with Jesus Christ."

Bingo! My pulse quickened. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," Fred said, "I’m not talking about religion at all. Let me ask you this. What is a Christian?"

"That’s what I’m trying to find out."

"Well, I think a Christian is someone who is a disciple of Jesus Christ."

"I’ve never thought of it exactly like that."

"Well, the idea is that if Jesus is God, then we need to worship and serve Him. If you do that, you’re a Christian."

"Well, I know He’s the Savior."

"Is He your Savior?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, I don’t think He can be your Savior theoretically. I think that’s a personal thing. Once again, if He’s God, and you worship Him and Him alone, I guess then He would be your personal Savior."
"You know, Fred, you sure are eloquent for an old country boy."

He smiled, got up from the couch and looked out the window. "Jimbo, the question is simply this: ‘What think ye of Christ? Whose son is He?’" He turned quickly. "Hey! I think you’re going to do just fine. Can I tell you what God requires of you?"

"Please."

"That you seek Him with your whole heart."

"I think I’ve begun that process."

"Then let me promise you one thing. ‘Everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.’"

"More and more eloquent. No kidding Fred. I need to find something!"

"Relax. Take your time. It’s going to be fine."

As I left Fred’s that afternoon, somehow I felt that the emptiness in my life was beginning to take a definite shape.

A few weeks later, a third puzzle piece dropped into place – a strange experience that solved no problems, but showed me the bankruptcy of most sources in spiritual truth.

I had traveled to Butte, Montana, on business. While away from home, I saw more clearly than ever that, despite all my religious pretensions, I was a spiritual failure. My marriage was less than successful; Margaretta and I were continuing to experience futility and even a growing awareness of drifting apart. My work at the newspaper was beginning to be a real trial. I was looking for answers and failing to find them. I even considered giving up my search altogether. I was hitting bottom, incapable of getting my life together.

One morning in Butte I was having breakfast in a cafe, weak with weariness at having to face a new day. If only I could talk with someone who might be able to tell me something more about God.

Then a man walked into the cafe wearing black pants, a black shirt and a large crucifix.

Maybe God has directed this Catholic priest to this café, I thought, so I could talk to him.

I approached him, introduced myself and said, "Father, can I talk to you a minute?"

He looked at me blankly, then smiled. "Hey, man, I’m no priest. I just wear black clothes."

"But the crucifix," I stammered, embarrassed.

"Oh, yeah, I’m into religion. But I’m no Catholic."
"Are you any kind of Christian?"

"Christian? No, I don’t think so. Not formally."

"What are you?"

"I’m a free spirit, man. I worship the great god Manitoba. I smoke a little dope. I really like sex. I travel a lot. I have a wife and a couple of kids somewhere in Minnesota. Want a joint?"

The whole scene was ludicrous. If I hadn’t been so drained emotionally I would have been so angry. There I was, discouraged, hopeless. And when I attempted to turn to God, I met someone crazier than myself!

I drove home alternately chuckling and shaking my head in disbelief. Obviously there were no answers. God was not alive. Everything was a great cosmic joke.

It was January 1974, when I felt I had exhausted every avenue of approach to God, that He acted, quickly and simply.

After my return to Idaho, I was commuting to work one morning from St. Anthony to Rexburg. I drove through the little village of Sugar City, where I had picked up the old man hitchhiker several years before. I was negotiating a turn out of Sugar City that I called the Sugar City Curve – an S-shaped curve made up of two ninety-degree turns, a hard right followed by a hard left. It takes about sixty seconds to make the transit. On the Sugar City Curve, the miracle took place.

I entered the curve a self-centered intellectual failure who, after ten years on a treadmill of religious performance, was about as far from knowing God as I had been when I joined the Mormon Church. I was sick of myself. Sick of religion. Sick of life.

Since several people had told me that there was such a thing as personal contact with God, or Jesus, or whoever, I longed to make that contact. I thought it must, as Mike Shaw had suggested, come through prayer. So as I drove, I prayed.

"God," I said, "where are you? Where am I going? What am I supposed to do?"

These were simple, direct, heartfelt questions, to which I did not actually expect an answer. To my amazement, I received one, not in an audible voice, but one that was nonetheless real. As a rational person, I knew it was a rational experience. I sensed I was actually communicating with God.

Well Jim, came the response, let’s start at the beginning. The problem is, you are doing things your own way. You say you want to find Me. O.K., here’s how to do it. Turn your life over to Me.

I must be crazy! I thought. I’m having a two-way conversation in my head.

But Mike had said I needed to talk to God. Fred said I needed a personal experience with Christ. Maybe this was it. Just in case it was, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance.

"O.K. God," I said. "You say I’m supposed to what?"

Give me your life.

"Yeah, right. But what do you mean?"

You don’t seem to be listening.

"I am listening. I’m just not understanding. Do you mean do what those radio evangelists tell you – ‘give your heart to Jesus’?"

That’s it.

"But I don’t even know what that means."

It means that you give Me permission to do anything with you that I want.

"What do you mean by anything?"

Anything means anything.

"You mean like going to Africa and spending the rest of my life converting the natives?"

Exactly.

"You’re kidding."

Try Me.

"What do I get out of it?"

Now you’re kidding.

"What do you mean?"

Son, you have made a complete wreck of your life. You don’t know your right hand from your left. I am offering to take over your life and run it for you. That may or may not include Africa. But let Me tell you this: I love you more than you can possibly understand, and I am very trustworthy.

Suddenly something snapped within me. Without understanding it, somehow I gave in. I gave up. I believed God was asking me to give Him my life, as if it had some value. I believed God was accepting me. I believed in His power to heal my life. I believed in Him.

"That’s it," I said aloud. "I believe. O.K. Lord, I give You my life, for what it’s worth. If You can use it, go ahead. I trust You and I’m sick of myself. Please do whatever You will. Only don’t leave me!"

I won’t.

I had no idea of the full implications of the talk I had with God that day. It would take weeks for me to recognize the deep significance of those sixty seconds when I said yes to Him on the Sugar City Curve.

That afternoon I felt an irresistible desire to read the Bible. So after supper I found a copy of the New Testament called Good News for Modern Man (I had no idea where I got it) and went down to the basement by myself. What I read put the finishing touches on the contact begun earlier that day.

The Testament fell open to the first chapter of the book of Romans. I don’t know how many times previously I had read Romans, but tonight something seemed to be different. Something was new. My eyes fell upon verses 16 and 17"

I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe…. For the gospel reveals how God puts people right with himself: it is through faith from beginning to end.

What I read puzzled me because, on the surface, it seemed to contradict clearly stated Mormon doctrine. I grabbed my King James Version missionary Bible to make sure the translations agreed. They did.

The passage in Romans talked about getting right with God; that was exactly what I was interested in. I had tried for ten years to get right with God. Tried to please Him through obedience to the law of tithing, the Word of Wisdom, perfect attendance at meetings, faithfulness in my duties. But the problem was, down deep in my heart, I was no more right with God than when I started.

Laying the Book aside for a moment, I remembered a conversation I had had a few weeks earlier with an old patriarch in the Church. President Allen had been a member for more than seventy years. He was a small man, just over five feet, but carried himself proudly and seemed to have things under control in his life. He had been a stake president for twenty years, serving with tireless energy. I had stopped him in the hallway before sacrament meeting.

"President, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, son, of course."

"Are you certain you are going to the Celestial Kingdom when you die?"

The question hit him hard. "Why do you ask?"

"I’m not sure. I just feel like I’m on a spiritual treadmill. I don’t seem to be getting anywhere in my spiritual life."

"Well, we all have dry seasons…."

"Please, President. I thought a long time before I asked you this question."

"Well, son, I don’t know how to answer you. Of course, I’m trying to live a godly life. But I don’t think anyone knows if he will be acceptable until he actually gets to that point."

"Oh."

"No, to answer you straight out, I don’t know. I’m just doing the best I can."
"Yeah. Well thanks, President. I’m sorry I bothered you." I was disappointed by his response and knew it was obvious.

"No problem, son. Listen –" He paused. Then, looking into my eyes, he lifted his shoulders in a gesture of resignation. After a moment of silence, I turned slowly and walked away, wondering if I would continue in full activity in the Church for seventy years without ever having any greater sense of worthiness. (1)

Picking up Good News for Modern Man again, I continued to read. Something about this moment was special. I wanted more than anything to get right with God. As a Mormon, I knew that meant I had to become righteous. If I could become good enough by living the laws and ordinances of Mormonism, then I would someday be acceptable to God. But what I was reading in Romans 1 indicated there was a way by which man could be made right with God apart from works.

In chapter three I read that no one was righteous in himself. No one was good. No one ever completely obeyed God. And Romans 3:20 said no one could ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what the Law commanded. But if no one could be declared righteous that way, I thought, then how did one get right?

Verses 21-22 answered my question. They made clear that God’s way of putting people right with Himself had nothing to do with obedience to the Law. The Bible seemed to say that God made people right through faith in Jesus Christ. And verse 28 added:

We conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands.

I shook my head in disbelief. Paul’s words were destroying ten years of Mormon indoctrination. Salvation by grace through faith!

I had heard of that concept, but I believed it was a doctrine made up by people who wanted to avoid trying to live righteously. These chapters in Romans were telling me now that we in the Church had put the cart before the horse – that when I turned my life over to Christ He accepted me, just as I was! And He dwelt in me by the Holy Spirit, who would cleanse me from the inside out.

Mormonism was trying to get men clean first, by their own efforts, in order to be acceptable to God. But the Bible said that could never happen. Man is a hopeless sinner whom God makes righteous immediately by faith. Then He makes that inner cleanliness outward, in His own time.

I was reeling under what I was reading. An excitement was also gripping me. I felt that, in some way I didn’t fully understand, I was being released from spiritual bondage.

I read eight chapters of Romans that night. The book hammered relentlessly at the idea of salvation by good works. When I had finished, I was absolutely different from when I began. I was changed, renewed. I knew I was a real Christian. And I knew that I was fully acceptable to God because of my faith in Jesus Christ. I knew my life would never be the same again.

As the light dawned on me, I was overwhelmed. The condescension of it – God taking my sin! God receiving me just as I was! I believed what I read. I received it with joy. I was clean before God.

That did not answer for me all my questions about Mormonism. And aside from these, I still believed Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon was true. But I knew I had found my peace with God.

In my elation, I did not realize that peace was soon to be shattered. Jesus said he had come not to bring peace, but a sword – a sword that separates families.

That sword for me, was now unsheathed.

  1. The Celestial Kingdom is the highest of the three Mormon heavens. The other two Kingdoms are the Terrestrial and Telestial. The Terrestrial Kingdom is for people who die without Mormonism, but who embrace the truth of Mormonism in a spirit world after death. The Telestial Kingdom is the lowest "heaven." It is for people who never accept the gospel. There is "Outer Darkness," which is reserved for Satan, his angels and people who are apostate Mormons. (Taken from Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76: verses 51-54; 71-75; 81-82; 35.)
chapter ten||chapter twelve