I tend to be the dreamer in our family, Margaretta the nose-to-the-grindstone person. My new ideas and good-natured optimism often lead us into some interesting, even painful situations. Now, I knew, Margaretta wasnt about to listen to any unconventional ideas about religion. So as yet, I said nothing to her about my experience in the book of Romans.
I did, on the other hand, want to share my experience with my friend Fred Johnson. My chance came several weeks after I became a Christian, when a miraculous chain of events led me to Wyoming on business. I left on a Friday morning for the weekend. I called Fred and made arrangements to stay with his family and talk with him and his father, Stan.
Arriving in Basin Saturday night, I joined Fred and Stan around Freds kitchen table. They were excited for me as I recounted my conversion experience with enthusiasm. Then we discussed what I should do about my affiliation with the Mormon Church.
"Whether or not you remain a member of the Mormon Church is not really the issue, Jim," said Stan over a cup of coffee. "The point is, you will need strong Christian fellowship."
"I know that already. I cant get enough of the Bible!"
Fred reached over and touched my hand. "Remember, youre going to have to be charitable toward Margaretta and your friends. You need to move slowly."
I took a sip of coffee. "What do you think I ought to do about leaving the Church?"
We talked until nearly dawn, praying for guidance, patience and understanding. I resolved to give up my teaching position in the Church.
The next morning the three of us attended their small Baptist church, where I found myself in my first actual church service since my conversion. As I listened to the hymns and preaching, I began to weep. I didnt know why sobs shook my two hundred-plus pound frame, except that as the preacher spoke I saw for the first time the heart of my loving God. I saw my sin and rebellion contrasted with Gods gracious, forgiving nature. I experienced the cleansing and acceptance that comes with repentance.
After the service I stood outside looking at the ground, trying not to attract attention, but the tears wouldnt stop flowing. Over lunch with Fred, I got myself together emotionally. But afterward my eyes began to fill up, and I found myself unable to speak. When I pointed to my car, Fred squeezed my hand, nodding understandingly, and I got in without saying goodbye.
Driving home that night across the isolation of the Wyoming Rockies, the stars looked like dancing diamonds in the black void above. I listened to at least half-a-dozen radio evangelists and preachers on the clear channel stations of the West. As I listened, an incredible thought struck me: All these speakers were preaching the same message!
I dont mean they spoke on exactly the same subject, but the common thread was salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. I realized there is a simple message of salvation that pervades Christian preaching. That surprised me, since I had been taught that the formation of different denominations proved that people could not agree doctrinally. But the evangelists I heard seemed to represent the same God with the same message, speaking almost with one voice.
Once back home in St. Anthony, I set about to look for a Christian bookstore. I found a small one in Idaho Falls. The entire store was housed in a twenty-by-twenty back room off a Christian coffeehouse.
When I introduced myself to the owner and told her I was a born-again Mormon elder, she nearly dropped the stack of books she was trying to shelve. Dorothy was well acquainted with Mormonism and trying to make a go of the only Christian bookstore in Idaho Falls, a city of 50,000 serving a potential market of 150,000. So she appreciated my unique position, and invited me to a Bible study later that night in a home in Idaho Falls. I promised to be there.
I arrived to find that meeting already underway. The house was packed! Thirty people stood in a circle singing Scripture choruses. They made a space for me and I tried to follow the singing. After a while someone began to pray, while others interjected comments: Amen. Hallelujah. Thank You, Jesus.
Later I was introduced to the group. Dorothy had told them about me before I arrived. They said they had been praying for me and my family. After the meeting I asked the two "elders" in charge, Dewey Wilmont and Ben Lunis, to pray for me. Their prayer made me cry again, of course! I felt so close to God. And for that matter, I noticed that Dewey and Ben had gotten teary-eyed, too. Then I saw that twenty people were watching and they, too, were crying. I went home floating on a cloud of joy.
By Sunday morning I was so confident of the power of God in my life that I got up early and drove twelve miles to Rexburg for an early church service. There, Mike Shaw pastored a second Presbyterian Church, in addition to the Community Church in St. Anthony where I had met him; and I preferred going to church out-of-town where no one knew me. Afterward I hurried back for my gospel doctrine class at Fourth Ward. I knew Margaretta wouldnt suspect anything, since I often went out for a solitary drive to prepare my lesson.
That morning my class got something a little different: I read aloud the first eight chapters of Romans from Good News for Modern Man. That was a radical departure from the way we usually did things! Normally we followed a lesson outline and skipped through the Bible, picking and choosing texts to support our theme. No one was accustomed to hearing such a lengthy portion of Scripture.
Nor did my class seem to feel the same way I did about this particular passage. When I finished reading and looked up, I saw a congregation of crossed arms and icy stares. Surprised but undaunted, I wound up the class by saying, "I know that many of you are hurting in a lot of ways. Some of you think you are not good enough for God to even care about. But I want you to know that Jesus loves you very much. There is nothing too big for Him to handle in your life. You need to quit striving to please Him and just allow yourself to be accepted by Him. You need to turn your heart over to Him."
When I finished speaking, silence reigned. At last one of the women, a little more outspoken than the rest, said in disdain, "What you are saying this morning sounds like something Billy Graham would say Just give your heart to Jesus and everything will be all right!"
I looked at her incredulously and said, "I guess thats what I am saying."
After the meeting I went up to the Sunday school superintendent. "I wont be teaching this class anymore. I want you to get someone else as soon as you can."
"Whats the matter, Jim?" he asked.
"Nothing," I replied. "I just want to let someone else have the privilege for a while."
Margaretta must have gotten wind of the goings-on at church. Outside in the car she said sharply, "I want to talk to you!"
"What about?" I replied weakly.
"Youve left the Church, havent you?" I detected fierceness in her tone.
"Havent you?" she demanded.
"Well, not exactly."
"I told you if you ever left the Church, we were through! I married a Mormon elder. If you are not a Mormon elder, you are not my husband or Erins father!"
We rode home in silence. I was sure she would get over being angry and I could reason with her.
But when we got home, she started packing my clothes. I followed her around protesting, but it dawned on me that she was serious. Then she threw my clothes out the front door, shoved me out the door, and slammed and locked it.
I felt like a fool standing on the step. I was feeling something else, too a cold wave of fear. She was dead serious!
Margaretta and I had been married seven years. We had had our problems, but I saw something different in her that day. One thing I knew about Margaretta: she never bluffed. I had the option of fitting in or saying goodbye to our marriage.
I wasnt sure what to do. Reasoning with her was out of the question. At least, it was right then. Maybe by morning. I needed to let her get things straightened out in her mind.
I drove aimlessly around for awhile, then stopped by the Community Church to talk to Mike. I hoped he would have a solution for me, but his face was ashen as he listened to my story.
Mike was not as naïve as I. He had pastored in that Mormon town for some time. He had tried to fit in with the Mormons, to regard them as brothers. For a number of years he had even held joint community Thanksgiving services with them. But he had slowly, reluctantly concluded that there was no basis for fellowship with them. "Jim," he had said to me (before I was able to understand), "I simply do not worship the same God the Mormons do."
Mike was not very encouraging. He was realistic.
I decided to stay the night with a friend and call Margaretta in the morning.
The next day was worse. Margaretta was immovable. "You need to be very certain your new religion is worth what its going to cost you." she told me.
She agreed to meet that evening to talk things over. I promised not to make any trouble. She said I was not coming home until I changed my position. I could come over and talk, but I was not moving back in.
We talked in the bathroom with the door closed so we would not confuse our six-year-old Erin, who was being taught good Mormon doctrine. Margaretta sat on the edge of the tub and cried as she told me how impossible the situation was.
"All my life," she said, "the only thing I wanted was to be married in the temple and have a husband who was true to the Church. I havent made tremendous demands on you, but I cant give in to this."
"Its so embarrassing for me," she continued bitterly. "Everyone is looking at me. My parents are crushed. And you you walk around not caring how I feel!"
"It isnt that I dont care," I said. "Its that I dont have any choice. Something has happened to me. Ive been born again. Im saved. I have to follow Jesus. I cant turn back."
"It means that Im right with God. Im forgiven. Im going to heaven."
"You cant possibly know that!"
"But I do know it. My sins have been forgiven."
"Oh, I know," she said sarcastically. "Your sins are forgiven. That means that no matter what you do, youre still going to heaven."
"Thats sort of the idea," I said. "But theres more to it than that."
"I suppose if you committed murder you would still go to heaven."
"If I repented. If I was really sorry."
"Oh, this is so pointless," she said. "The real problem is that you dont care how all this looks. What about me? What about Erin? How is she going to have any respect in this town when her father is some kind of kooky Christian?"
"Margaretta," I said, "I dont have any choice. I have decided to follow Jesus and I cant go back. There must be some way we can work this out."
"There isnt, unless you change."
"Well, neither can I," she said, standing up.
As she walked out of the bathroom she said soberly, "Jim, Im telling you to give up this foolishness or you are going to lose everything thats dear to you."
As I pondered her words, I was engulfed in a hopelessness like nothing I had ever known. There seemed no way out.
When I called her a few days later, she told me she had seen a lawyer. He was a Mormon and he told her there probably was no solution. Divorce was imminent.
The next few weeks in early 1974 were the worst I had ever experienced. I had stopped going to church at Fourth Ward. I was living alone, my heart tearing from the roots. Seeing pictures of myself visiting Erin, my little blonde angel, on weekends in the park. I had to pray just for enough energy to walk across the room.
No one understood how I felt. My Mormon friends thought I was crazy. My non-Mormon, non-Christian friends thought I was crazy, too. "Listen, Jim," said one of them. "You can believe anything you want, but go back home and be a good Mormon. Who will know the difference?"
My new Christian friends understood why I could not go back, but Im not sure anyone could understand what I was feeling.
"Surely, God," I pleaded, "this is not what You want. You dont want me to lose my family. What do You want me to do?"
Follow me, was His reply.
"But what about my family?"
Your family is My concern. You must follow me.
"But at least promise me that someday Ill get my family back."
I dont make deals. You must simply follow Me. There are no group plans, no fleet rates. This is an individual matter. Margaretta and Erin are not your concern. They are MY concern. Can you leave them in My hands?
"Does that mean that Margaretta may divorce me?
She may. She is free to do what she will. I compel no one to come. I only draw. She will have to decide for herself.
On the telephone, Margaretta was growing harder, more distant. All her friends and family were convinced that the best thing for everyone was to let me go my own crazy way, and to simply divorce me.
As for me, the die was cast. There was no turning back. The words of one of the songs we sang in Bible study kept echoing in my ears:
I have decided to follow Jesus.
I have decided to follow Jesus.
I have decided to follow Jesus.
No turning back,
No turning back.chapter eleven||chapter thirteen