Shortly before he passed away a month ago, my Dad wrote down his spiritual journey as the introduction to a book he was writing on being a Christian parent. Today I share what he wrote. I hope it’s a blessing to you. It was to me. Have a wonderful Sunday.
The Testimony of Bill Perry
“It’s not how you start that’s important, but how you finish!” — Jim George
Act 1: Starting out
The above quote is not new and there are many versions of it, so credit could go to several people. I found this exact version under author/speaker Jim George. It minimizes life’s start and maximizes its conclusion. Good thing.
I did a lot of things backwards as a kid and it didn’t improve much as I got older. It took me three separate times before I got baptized correctly. As a young adult I told God I wouldn’t do two things on separate occasions. Each time within 6 months I did both. I dedicated my life to God’s service at a keg party. I was in the men’s room when the gun went off starting my first 10K marathon. These are some samplers.
All of us, to one degree or another, are born with a lot of potential. Me too. But what do we do with it? Because we’re all born with fallen human natures, too much of our potential never emerges or develops. Sometimes we get skewed into becoming what our fathers wanted or demanded we become. Sometimes it never developed because dad simply wasn’t there, wasn’t involved, didn’t care or worse yet, was abusive.
I was blessed by never having to deal with any of that. My father was a good man, stayed married to mom, worked hard, gave us far more than what we needed in material things but didn’t spoil us. He was shrewd in many ways, ascending to bank president in his 30’s without a 4-year college education. I learned to tell stories by listening to him tell his.
What I didn’t learn from him was anything spiritual. I consider myself a first generation Christian. My mother came to trust Christ for salvation when I was 13. And while she succeeded in her witness to us kids, she wasn’t able to corporately steer our family in a spiritual direction with dad sitting on the sidelines.
I trusted Christ for salvation a few months after my mother did…sort of. Mom dragged my brother and I to a certain kind of Baptist church where I first heard the gospel. There are all kinds of Baptists so I’ll leave it fairly anonymous. Many Baptist churches do a good work. Back in the ‘60s this Baptist church had alter calls every Sunday. It was all new to me. All I could figure out is that people “got saved” by walking an aisle “going down front” to meet the preacher. After that they got baptized, sometimes that night or a week or so later. It looked like a ritual, a right of passage to me. Never knew what the preacher said to them. But since I hadn’t done it, I figured I wasn’t saved. I was way to nervous and scared doing that in front of hundreds of adults. Too weird.
Going to church as a teenager usually means you find friends that attend the youth group. One night they planned an outing to a roller skate rink in town on a Wednesday night. I decided to go. After they closed the rink the youth pastor kept us for 30 minutes where he gave a little talk and then an invitation to trust Christ. Here? Now? I thought it had to be done in a church! I figured if I had to “go down front,” this was my moment: less than 25 feet, only about 20 kids here in a dimly lit hollow rink and maybe a couple of parents. Perfect! So I “went down front” and talked to the youth pastor. I didn’t remember a thing he said except that if I got killed that night going home I would go to heaven because he said so. My heart was neither active nor engaged, but I felt better. I was going through and conforming to the ritual to “get saved.” That much made sense to me, so I went for it. I wasn’t prepared for what followed.
The next Sunday the pastor had his standard invitation to receive Christ. No one went forward. Then the youth pastor leaned over to the senior pastor, cupped his mouth with one hand and whispered into his ear. The senior pastor nodded and here came the youth pastor right up to me. “Bill, do you want to come down front?” he asked.
“Why? I did that last Wednesday night.”
“You need to get baptized.”
“Uh, well, maybe not right now. I need to think about it.”
“Well, you got saved, right? There’s really nothing to think about.”
“There is for me. This is all so new to me.”
“Oh, that’s OK. Everything’s new the first time you do something. How about you come down? You believe in Jesus, right?”
The pressure was on. I was panicking. It seemed like the singing got louder. Why hadn’t I sat way in the back so he couldn’t find me? It felt like everyone was watching me. My heart was pounding. Then he brought the nuclear option:
“You’re not ashamed of Jeee-sus, are you?!”
How does an insecure, self-centered, immature 14-year-old handle that? Not well. I relented and he ushered me down front where I now knew everyone was watching me! After the closing prayer about 200 adults came up front to give me “the right hand of Christian fellowship,” shaking my hand. I survived the island.
That night they dunked me in the tank behind where the choir sits. That was comparatively easy after the morning’s shock therapy session. It was the second time I was baptized after being baptized as an infant in the Episcopal church. Fortunately I was too young to remember that.
Once that ordeal was over, I thought, “Well, now I’m really saved! Went down front… twice! And got baptized! How do you like that?!” And I must have been saved because no one — not the pastor, the youth pastor, any parents or other youth-minded adults — followed up on me with a visit, a phone call, or simply asking me at church how I was doing spiritually. I was good, all set to go, so I thought. Thing is, though, my heart was still not engaged. In fact, I had probably been, as my longtime friend and ministry colleague Jack says, “inoculated” with just enough Jesus/Bible/Christianity to resist further attempts to genuinely reach me. And I was…for a while.
After months of going to this church and watching others go down front, I became quite smug thinking to myself, “I already did that…now it’s their turn.” So I decided to keep my eye on a few of them just to see how they acted after their jaunt down front. After a while I noticed they seemed genuinely happy, kind of changed, and got involved with the life of the church. It seemed like their new best friends were church members. The kids I knew from youth group were just the guys I saw only on Sunday’s, not real friends. I didn’t see them any other time. I wondered what the difference was. So I started really listening to the senior pastor more closely when he preached.
It was then that I started to understand the gospel — how Adam and Eve so thoroughly wrecked life not only on the planet but the entire universe. I learned why hell had to receive people who rejected God’s loving overtures of the gospel and forgiveness in Jesus because only he completely paid our sin penalty on the cross and rose again to prove he was stronger than death. I thought, “What an incredible story.”
But I had already been down front, right? I’m saved, right? I’d be an idiot to go down there again. So I waited. I was torn. What to do? More time went by. I listened more to the senior pastor. One Sunday he used the analogy of a gold Cadillac. He said a guy on the street was being paid to direct people around the corner of a building. There you would find a very wealthy benefactor who was giving away gold Cadillacs, the model of your choice. Giving away? That’s pretty far fetched. But how stupid would I be if I turned it down only because I didn’t believe the messenger. Think of all the places I could go in style in a gold Cadillac…and I blew it only because I didn’t believe. The pastor said life in heaven is so much better than any Cadillac, including gold ones. Then the pastor said this: “You can choose to trust Christ for salvation anytime, anywhere. Do it today.” I hadn’t heard that before. Trust Christ without going down front? Then why did I go down there…two times?! Now I was feeling angry. I went through all that embarrassment for what? It got me nothing. But at least I finally figured out I wasn’t saved. That was a big first step. Realize teens undergo a lot of selective hearing, poor mental processing, stupid choices and mood swings that would make a high end roller coaster look stable.
So while things were beginning to clear up for me, this whole thing was becoming more complicated. When I was younger mom dragged us to the Episcopal church. They had a priest that wore a robe and other priestly type things. I thought it would be pretty cool to be a priest. You could just pick up the phone and call God and get his take on things. Or so I thought. How else could someone hear from God? You can see how wrong most of my ideas were.
I thought I had things figured out in the Baptist church, but slowly it dawned on me I still was not forgiven. I couldn’t get that gold Cadillac out of my mind. But now it wasn’t about me being an idiot going down front a third time. I didn’t need to go down there anymore! I simply needed to call out to God in faith and ask him to save me. “Anytime, anywhere,” the pastor said.
By this time the pastor was doing a series on biblical prophecy and end the times. It was creeping me out big-time! I was having a hard time going to sleep afterwards. I knew I wasn’t right with God. What was holding me back? I didn’t know. So one Sunday night in bed, with my brother Rick sleeping in the bed next to me, I decided to pray. It was the first time my heart was engaged in any prayer, I said, “Lord, if you’re really there and you can hear me, I know I’d be an idiot to pass up your gold Cadillac just because I didn’t believe you. So Lord, I know Jesus died for me and paid for my sins on the cross. I believe what you said he did in the Bible. Please save me. Amen.” I learned prayers end in “amen.” I waited…for what I wasn’t sure. I felt nothing. Heard nothing. Saw nothing. Nothing came to mind. So I rolled over and fell asleep. And slept like a baby for the first time in a long time. And when I woke up, I knew something was different. It was like a light had come on inside. I knew I was different. I was saved!
Act 2: Growth, or the lack of it
I don’t remember telling anyone what had happened. Growing up in a pretty private family, keeping things private was just automatic. (Have you ever noticed how hard it is to break old habits?)
From time to time I would hear some kids in the youth group say things like, “I woke up this morning and I heard God say to me…” this or that, whatever it was. That struck me as quite strange, almost surreal. God talked to him? How did that happen? What was it like? How did he know it was God? I was full of questions, and I was afraid to ask anyone because I thought they would think I was stupid. Like I said, no one followed up on me, so I had no idea who to ask. The pastor seemed busy all the time and the youth pastor had moved on. Besides, he tricked me into going down front, so even if he had stayed I couldn’t trust him. My mom didn’t know and my dad was still nowhere spiritually. I was stumped. So I went along to get along with the church people and didn’t grow spiritually at all. No one told me I was supposed to grow. I didn’t pray because I didn’t know what to pray for. Didn’t read my Bible because I didn’t know where to start. Didn’t talk about my faith with anyone because I didn’t think anyone cared or it was important. Didn’t share my testimony because I didn’t like the people who did that with me. All I knew was “I was saved yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). I never heard I was now in a relationship with God through Jesus, so while the light was inside, it wasn’t a factor in my living…at all.
Here’s evidence: after 3 years of high school — we started in 10th grade because back in those days junior high school ran from 7th-9th grades — I was all set for college. I was heading off for Stetson University in small town in central Florida, land of low, gently rolling hills dotted with sandy brush and palmetto bushes, and various oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. Not like anything at home in the subtropics. The night before I left I had the car all packed. I sat down and talked with dad for a few minutes. After that a thought crossed my mind: is Stetson where God wants me to go? After making my own choices for the first 3 and a half years of being a Christian, it never crossed my mind to ask God. But then, how would I know what he would say? While I didn’t read the Bible on my own, I knew that it didn’t have instructions on how to pick the college God wants you to attend. So I shrugged my shoulders, got up and went to bed. And never gave it another thought.
Part of being a kid is like being a fish — the fish never recognizes or appreciates the watery environment he’s in…until he’s out of it. I graduated high school and began college in 1970. That year and the year before were the 2 lowest years on record for high school graduates measuring their interest level in God. I was in that generation and didn’t know it, like a fish. It has a subtle impact on young people that’s hard to state adequately.
My dorm roommate at Stetson was a stranger from the Florida Keys. This new mostly unsupervised environment was a big change. Privacy was virtually gone. Respect had to be earned and for guys like me it came very slowly. Parties were the rule of the day. Students went to class barefoot with ratty torn jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts. And that’s if they went to class. Rebellion in their hearts. Revolution was in the air. The shootings at Kent State happened less than 2 years before.
Our dorm hall was party central on campus: we had parties that literally made the on-campus fraternities jealous. We were the only hall the dean of men threatened with 24-hour security guards at all entrances and exits to check containers and all bags going in. (Sadly for many places that’s routine now; it was unheard of then). Our weekends started on Thursday’s to get in one more day of partying. Most of it was stupid “fun” and a colossal waste of time and money. The prodigal son would have been our poster boy if any of us knew the story in Luke 15. Everyone had a nickname in our secret un-fraternity. This went on nonstop for two straight years. I was the cheerleader of the whole hall partly because I didn’t do everything stupid thing I could have. I was fearful of a lot of things like drugs. So to cover up I encouraged others to be crazier than they might have been without my influence.
Meanwhile back home my mother had been attending a church related to a Bible college. When I came home for the summer she suggested I go down and visit on a Sunday. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in any church., so one Sunday morning I said I would. It couldn’t hurt, right? I was absolutely amazed when the adult Sunday school teacher, also a Bible professor, opened the Bible and began teaching on Daniel’s prophecies. He showed that Jesus’ death could be figured out to the exact day by Daniel’s statements aided by calendar adjustments between Jewish and other calendars. I was stunned. Never before had I ever heard of anything so clear, so precise and so specific from a biblical text. This made me go back to hear more. And I attended through the rest of summer.
While I was there I heard about the college’s summer camp for high school kids where they challenged them with the gospel (to believe) and the Bible (to grow spiritually). By this time I had become aware of the latter but never got too close, thinking back to the surreal claims of the kids in the Baptist youth group. Slowly God was getting my attention. I couldn’t shake knowing God was all knowing and over all creation and cultures. Biblical input began amping up that flicker of spiritual light in me that I first experienced the day after I prayed to God in bed at night. By the end of camp, my whole heart was telling me to transfer from the university to the Bible college. They had an alter call for salvations and many kids walked down. I had tears in my eyes praying fervently that their hearts were really engaging, unlike mine the previous 2 times I went down. But then they had a call for commitment, to lay your life down to do only the Lord’s will, whatever it was, to be totally sold out to Jesus. This time I knew God was calling me. Everything in me said to go down, make the commitment, turn my life around and serve him. My heart was pounding, my body shaking, my mind swirling.
I walked out, leaving my shredded heart behind me. I figured if God let me start at Stetson, I should finish at Stetson. Convoluted thinking for sure.
I returned to the university having made all kinds of promises to God about how I would be different. It would be major resolutions without New Year’s Day. Trouble was, our partying had become so outrageous that those of us living in our hall had terrible reputations. This despite us winning the intramural football league championship the year before. I was the classic dual-threat quarterback who could throw pin-point passes while rolling out or standing in the pocket. I had great receivers and excellent blockers. This only made all of us the most contradictory group on campus.
Our hall didn’t have a football team my third year. So in an effort to try to rehabilitate my individual reputation I decided to try out for the ministerial team. This was a bunch of guys heading for fulltime ministry. My roommate was a Christian and on their team. He was so excited when I told him I was trying out.
When these “future ministers” saw me come to their practice, they all ignored me. The few running it only said what had to be said to me. Dirt got better treatment than I did. I knew I’d have to earn my place. I was the only one that attended every single practice, rain or shine. When it came time to have the final scrimmage before the season started, there were 14 of us, 7 for each side. I knew one captain would have to pick me. When I was the last one left, a former player from last year suddenly came out of nowhere. He had attended no practices at all. He said, “Hey guys, got any room for me?” The second captain said, “We’ll take him!” which left me off both teams. I ripped off my flag belt, threw it to the ground and started calling them hypocrites and all kinds of foul names walking off the field never to return. I had no idea this last guy’s arrival was God working. I went on to break all my promises I made to God earlier. I rapidly became miserable and depressed.
My semester was turning into a disaster. Saying my behavior and attitude stunk is putting it mildly. Grades went out the window. My close buddies, Tim from Atlanta and Pat from Michigan, were gone, both transferring to Georgia Tech last summer. So they weren’t around anymore. I began wondering if an onion skin in a frame (college degree) could guarantee me a job. What kind of job did I want anyway? I didn’t know. I began questioning everything. Having walked out on God I never felt so alone in my life. Then I got pretty sick. I was in the infirmary for 2 week with an unknown illness. It didn’t help that none of my “friends” from the hall came to visit me. Even worse, when I finally got better and returned, no one said they knew I was gone. God was orchestrating all of this too.
Early in 1973 we decided that we should have a reunion party with all of the former and current students in our hall. I called Tim and Pat and others. We planned it for a February weekend when we could all make it. So at an orange grove called “Gerard’s” (I never knew who he was) we all rendezvoused with kegs of beer, food, blankets and whatever else we needed. We started around sundown and went well into the night. It was just like the good ol’ days. It felt great.
While I was sitting alone watching everyone having a good time I started thinking we should do this again sometime. But when? In five years we’d be out of school working (hopefully). We probably couldn’t get off the same time having new jobs. Maybe 10 years? Most of us would probably be married, and maybe have a kid or two. Wow, what would that be like? 20 years? Those kids would be adults and we might be…grandparents! Whoa. 50 years? How many of us would be alive? 100 years? Where would we all be in one hundred years? D-e-a-d for sure. Suddenly I looked at everyone again with eyes that had the blinders falling off. How many of them were Christians? I searched in vain to find anyone I knew that went to church. No one other than my brother. They were all hopelessly lost as I had been before praying in bed that night years ago.
Then Pat came over and sat down next to me. I thought, this is a chance to see if I can help change his situation. Realize that most of us were pretty tanked up with beer. So he sat down and asked me how I was doing. I said,
“Oh I feel pretty good. I’m watching everyone have a good time and that makes me feel happy.”
“Hey, Pat, I was wondering, this is going so well, we should do it again sometime down the road.”
“OK, when do you think?
“I was thinking maybe in 5 years. But I don’t think we could all get off work at the same time.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know if I’m going to last the night.”
“And then I thought maybe 10 years. But we’ll all be married and maybe have kids. Our wives might not let us go.”
“Wives? I would just tell her I was going!”
“And 20 years seems to be too far out.” Man, we might have grandkids by then.”
“Grandkids? Are you feeling OK?”
“And who knows where we’ll be in 50 years…or 100 years. Pat, do you know where we’ll be in 100 years?”
Conversations under the influence are easily and quickly misunderstood. Pat looked at me and said, “What are you on, man?” Then he got up and made an announcement to everyone. Pointing to me he shouted, “Stay away from this guy! He’s really talking stupid *#^@/*!” and walked away.
I sat there feeling like a complete fool. I was embarrassed and angry. For the first time in my life I actually had a heartfelt concern for someone’s spiritual destiny, and when I tried to talk about it, it was a disaster, just like my whole semester. And at our reunion of all places I sat alone. Everyone avoided me, acting like I wasn’t even there. Now God had me where he wanted me.
So there I was sitting with my thoughts. Somehow I started praying. “OK, God. Do you see what just happened? For the first time in my life I tried to talk to someone about you. And you see what happened? It totally backfired. Now I can’t talk to anyone about you. This just doesn’t work!”
To this day I readily tell people I have never heard God’s audible voice speak to me. (Yes, I’ve been listening and paying attention.) And I’m totally OK with that. I know he speaks to people differently. I know people who say they have heard God speak to them. One of them is my boss, “Uncle Bob.” So this doesn’t bother me. How he does communicate with me is that he pops ideas into my head that I know are not mine. This night by the bonfire was my first instance of his communication. After telling him that I couldn’t serve him because I’m a failure, this idea came:
“Look at the condition you’re in.”
“So, what does that have to do with anything?” I asked.
“It makes all the difference in the world. I can’t use you because I don’t have all of you.”
I knew that to be true and I had nothing to say in response.
“What could I do with you if I had all of you?”
That was the last thought that crossed my mind. I sat there wondering how I could answer that question. I didn’t know the answer; it was impossible to know. Then I realized the only way to answer was to give all of myself to him and he would lead me and show me the answer as I went. That’s when I knew he pinned me. He hadn’t left my side even though I tried to leave him. I thought I left him at that summer camp meeting 6 months before. Now he was here with me…at a keg party! This time my heart wasn’t pounding and my mind was not racing. I was defeated. My own ways lead me to complete failure. I was on my proverbial back with only one way to look: up! So by the bonfire at a keg party with all my rowdy drunk friends I gave my life to the Lord. I poured out my beer on the ground. I was done. Over. And I never looked back.
Act 3: Real growth
I went home in a week and visited the Bible school on a Friday. Less than 6 months before I told the Lord I’d never go to that school! Things were much different now. That night I told my parents about my decision: I wanted to change schools and go to the Bible college. I had no idea how they would react. They were pretty matter-of-fact about it. My dad never told me what he thought. I found out later that his goal for me was to go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and be an honor student an a whiz at business. I had never heard of Wharton and had absolutely zero interest in business. So I’m sure he wasn’t exactly happy by any means. My parents said I could move back home and my dad would pay for my schooling wherever I went. It was a total gift. I figured if he didn’t pay, I would work a semester then attend school for a semester to pay for it until I finished. I didn’t have to; God was working.
I withdrew from the university 2 weeks later and said goodbye to my “friends.” They thought I was totally insane. I didn’t care what they thought anymore. I had my eyes on only the One who would show me what he would do with me. I was on assignment, on mission. I had no idea what would happen. Life was suddenly an adventure. I was not in charge anymore, and it felt good.
Remember I said old habits die hard? I went to the Bible school for 2 years before the Lord broke through my thick head. I was sitting in silent judgment of everything I heard. I looked at other students wondering if they were learning what they were supposed to. I was a classic hypocrite. This went on while I was memorizing 2 Bible verses for every class every day as per school policy. So if I took 4 classes per week in a semester, we had to memorize 8 verses a day! Every day! For the whole semester. And these were not verses students chose; the profs chose them. Over 3 years this added up to thousands of verses memorized. But I was still hard on the inside, wondering what was going on back at the university where I would have been a senior. I was secretly pining for Egypt like the Jews did in the wilderness.
The breakthrough came when a Christian girl invited me out to a church campout. One of the things I had to do when leaving the university was break off a relationship with a girl. She was anything but a Christian. Her dad had a weird little altar in their apartment with candles, pictures and strange trinkets. She didn’t know much about it. When I told her I was going home she cried and cried. I didn’t know what to do or tell her, so I just apologized. It hurt me more than I thought. I was kind of walled up and became emotionless. So when this Christian girl invited me out and showed some interest in me, the walls began to fall slowly at first, then faster. She was a gift God sent my way for this purpose. He showed me he would provide what I needed. That light inside was becoming brighter as I followed the Lord.
The last year of the Bible college was the best year of my life up to that point. I was growing spiritually like a weed. I graduated in 3 years with honors, something I knew nothing about. (We dissed honors students in high school.) But I knew ecclesiology, the study of the church, was weak at the college so I spent the next couple of years studying it more thoroughly and getting deeply involved in our small church. Within a couple of years they voted to make me one of their pastor-elders. I had already been a Sunday school teacher and superintendent, an adult Bible study teacher and a deacon. 4 years later I became senior pastor, which only means I had been there the longest of any other pastor-elder. Every position of responsibility in our church was unpaid. I was working fulltime while teaching/preaching a majority of Sundays during the year and counseling as needs came up. God had prepared me for his next step.
Act 4: Marriage and family
While I was in Bible college all of my local friends either were or had gotten married. I alone remained single. I went out with some really fine Christian women at the school but didn’t establish any successful relationship. Living off campus like I was didn’t help. So I used my time as a single person to study more deeply and serve in the church. I read widely in areas of philosophy, psychology, some anthropology, history, textual criticism and other fields related to theology. The one notable feature of my apartment was my bookshelf. I became active in prolife work too.
6 years after deciding to serve the Lord our then senior pastor and longtime friend (since the second grade) Carter invited a recently widowed former missionary to share her testimony at our Wednesday night prayer meeting. Her name was Jenni. Her grandmother Ruth was a member of our church. She had been secretly praying that God would put us together. Her first husband Dave had been gunned down on their doorstep in Turkey 5 months earlier when she was nearly 8 months pregnant with their first child. Time magazine reported the killing . She buried him in the non-Muslim part of a cemetery there, flew home and gave birth to David 6 weeks later. So she shared her story of Muslim outreach in Turkey, losing her husband, being a single parent (something she never thought she’d be) and trusting God through it all. Carter asked her what she’d like to do if there were no obstacles. She said, “If I could, I would like to go back to Turkey.” What?? Is she crazy? Didn’t she learn anything while she was over there? I was shocked by her response. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Carter asked her what would she do if she went back. She said, “The person or people who killed my husband will probably continue to do things like that, and if I could find them I would like to lead them to the Lord, because outside of Jesus they won’t stop.” I don’t know how that hits your ears, but when it hit mine, I thought, “OK, Lord, this girl is really not living in the real world. There’s no way I could ever be with her.” Less than 6 months later we were not only together, we were married!
Sometimes things happen that are so out of the ordinary that you just sense God is in the middle of it. For me I tend to see things like that well after the fact. Jenni and I met the Wednesday night prayer meeting before Thanksgiving. 2 days later (Friday) I got a call from a DJ of a local secular music station WSHE, whose tag line was “SHE’S only rock and roll.” The DJ was known as “the late” Buzz Kellman, not because he was dead (and obviouisly couldn’t be) but because his program ran from 10PM – 1AM on weekends. Carter and I had been on his program before when Bob Dylan made his alleged conversion to Christianity and put out his first Christian album, “Slow Train Coming.” We had the connection to him because one of our church members Maryann sold its radio advertising. To prep for that interview Carter and I had to transcribe the album’s lyrics because the album sleeve didn’t have the lyrics printed on it. After that interview Buzz confidentially said to me,
“I like the way you answer questions. Can I call on you in the future if I need anything?”
I told him he could call me anytime. Buzz was not a Christian at all. He was livid when he heard of Dylan’s “conversion.” He thought it might be a publicity stunt.
So on the phone that Friday Buzz asked me, “Do you know what’s going on with this hostage situation?” He was referring to the Iranian takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. It was the current news event. I said I didn’t know much more than what everyone else was seeing on TV. Then he asked, “Doesn’t the Bible talk about last days or the end times? Could this be connected to that?” My head exploded!
“Wow, Buzz! You may be on to something there. Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 talk about the end days. One of the countries he mentions is Persia. Today the old Persia is divided between Iran and Iraq, but most of it is Iran!”
“OK, OK, slow down, man! This is what’s going on: I want to do a 3-hour program with you, live call-ins, the works. And we’ll talk about Iran and hostages and Islam and what the Bible says about end times, OK?”
I had never done anything like this before. I was almost drooling. “Great! When do you want to do this?” I asked.
“Which Sunday?” I asked.
“Fool! This Sunday!”
“Uh, Buzz, I’m not sure I can be ready in 2 days.”
“Well, I need to know now. I’m ready to hit the air with promo spots.”
“What promo spots?”
“Coming this Sunday night: resident Christian critic at large, Bill Perry, and I will discuss the Iranian hostage situation, why it’s happening, Islam and Christianity. Don’t miss it. Tune in 10PM Sunday night on SHE’S only rock-and-roll.”
I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but “resident Christian critic at large” was never one of them. Buzz needed an answer pronto so I said to Buzz, “Wait one second, OK?” He said, “Make it quick.” I literally covered the phone mouthpiece, looked up and said, “Lord, help!” Then I said by faith, “OK, Buzz, I’ll be there.”
Realize this was back in the dark, pre-Internet Stone Age with no websites, social networking, digital or satellite anything. It was Thanksgiving weekend: not even the public library was open! I had no available resources. “It’s Friday…Sunday’s Coming!”
As soon as my words were out of my mouth, my head exploded a second time. “Buzz, I just met a girl who lived in the Middle East for the last 2 years! I’ve got a resource!” He didn’t care about that as much as he wanted to start running his promos. So we hung up with all cylinders go. Did God just use a secular DJ on a rock-and-roll music station to jump over my premature decision to forget her to get me to call her?
I called Jenni as soon as I hung up with Buzz. I was frantic to speak to her. I said I had this wonderful opportunity to be on a secular radio to talk about current events from a biblical viewpoint and needed to pick her brain about the Middle East and Islam. “Pick my brain? That doesn’t sound very pleasant,” she said. She couldn’t meet with me Friday because of friends coming over. Saturday was out because she was speaking at a women’s conference all day and would be tired that night. She was nursing little David and had obvious responsibilities with him. The only time she had was Sunday afternoon after church. I made my reservation for 2PM.
She was back living with her parents and grandmother only a mile away. So my roommate Pete and I rode our 10-speed bikes to get there. I took Pete to make sure I got in and out without anything strange or misleading happened. I was very cautious. I was still thinking she was not quite right after the trauma she experienced. I just needed her take on Islam, Muslims and the Middle East.
Pete fell asleep so he was no help at all. I interviewed her for 2 hours and took notes. Riding home I realized there was a lot more there than met the eye. I was far too hasty in my decision to forget her. After all that trauma she was very level headed and realistic. Her family was very supportive, and her grandmother smiled a lot.
But I stayed focused. Back at home we ate dinner and then hosted our Sunday night Bible study in our large back room. At 9:15 I left a house full of friends and drove off to the radio studio and went on air at 10. Buzz and I had a great time. We discussed the issues, the differences between Islam and Christianity, and possible end time scenarios. We had Vietnam war vets, self-professed witches and other interesting people who thrive at night call in and ask questions. After we finished I never saw Buzz again. I heard he took a job somewhere around or in Chicago.
The next day I called and thanked Jenni for the help. I never would have been able to do it without her. I think that is what God wanted me to see as a picture for the long term, but I wasn’t seeing it past the immediate opportunity that was now over. She stayed up and listened to the whole program. She said I did very well and that I was a fast learner. God had created an out-of-left-field opportunity that brought us together to work in partnership for the greater good.
I wanted to thank her in some way and didn’t exactly know how. She’s a widow and a nursing mother with a 4-month old. She’s still grieving the loss of her husband. I didn’t want to do anything to convey anything except my thanks. But I was intrigued by what other experiences she might have gone through that I never had. I could learn from her. All of her local friends had married and moved away. She had been out of the country for almost 4 years. Now she’s a single mom trying to pick up the pieces of what was left of life.
I decided that I would try to approach her as a brother in Christ seeking only her well-being. It helped that she lived nearby. So over the next 6 weeks I dropped in occasionally, shared Christian music with her, took her to a couple of Christian concerts, and a vegan restaurant or two (they were becoming trendy) to give her some out-and-about time from the house and little David. We got dinner invitations from a few of my friends. We talked late into the night several times about God’s will, our future goals, missions, etc. I never touched her. Everything was platonic. She’d been married already. I knew nothing about that and felt that I should treat her with kid gloves.
Then I secured Orange Bowl tickets from my sister Kathryn. At this point I didn’t even know if Jenni liked sports. It never came up. Our conversations were all about more serious things. She said she had been thinking she’d like to go to that game. Oklahoma was playing Florida State. Feeling more secure in our knowledge of each other, this was essentially our first “date.” After the game we talked about our friendship. She said she felt I was being like a big brother to her and couldn’t reciprocate. I said I was just trying not to be inappropriate because of all the sudden and dramatic changes in her life. She said she had come to the fact that she was free to begin dating again and said I could treat her as such. But if I didn’t, she’d be OK and I didn’t need to come back.
What I didn’t know was that she and her husband were part of an organization that had ~2,000 missionaries worldwide. After her husband was killed, every single missionary somehow heard the news within 24 hours. The word went out to pray that God would send along a young, stable, mature, never-been-married Christian man to rebuild this broken family. That was exactly what God was doing. I was working on one level while he worked on another. So after that night I told her I would see her as a date. God had been in our conversations so clearly over the previous 6 weeks that 8 days later I told her I think God was leading us into marriage. Ours did not follow all the romantic hype of going to a special place, popping the big question with great fanfare, etc., what we see these days. She was still grieving her husband and David’s future hung in the balance.
We both knew just how serious this was if this was not God’s will. She was still 100% committed to world missions and didn’t want to make a mistake. I knew next to nothing about missions. I also knew that if we had major troubles in our marriage I would have to step away from or possibly resign being a pastor. I knew full well what 1 Timothy 3:2-5 said. I was going to have to learn to do family on the fly and fast if she said yes.
She spent 2 weeks seeking the Lord for wisdom and the answer. Was I God’s provision for her and the answer to all those prayers? During that time little David got pneumonia. Talk about distraction! Everything was moving so fast for both of us. David got better and she finally said she would marry me.
We were married three and a half months later.
We figured since I was stepping into a father’s role, the sooner I began, the better. During that time I was reading parenting books. When I was in Bible college I had already read about 6 books on the Christian home, marriage and related topics. I had always been a pretty good student. So in less than 12 months, Jenni lost her husband, her adopted country, her future and her ministry, gave birth to a baby, moved back in with her parents in Florida, then met and married me.
God’s grace has always been with us. We ended up having 6 children together, making 7 total. We were a ‘blended family’ before that term became current. We decided to homeschool David, at first, to see how it went. We were one of the first homeschool families in our county. As a stay-at-home mom Jenni ended up homeschooling them all for 27 years despite going into nursing earlier because she didn’t like teaching! And she did a great job. I supported her and taught Bible and math and some writing skills. We were then and remain today a team.
I have waited a long time before deciding to write a book like this. And here is the reason: the results are in. All 7 kids came to genuine, solid faith in Christ for salvation. They developed their own walks with the Lord. As of this writing 5 are married. All 5 chose Christian spouses. As I write we have 22 grandchildren who are all being raised in the faith. God has allowed me to be deeply and successfully involved in a number of ministries in various leadership positions. I will mention them later. And with all that I’ve been privileged to do, the best and most important thing I ever did was make sure I did everything within my ability to pass the baton of faith on to all 7 of them. If no other ministry had worked out — and family is our number one ministry — I would count my life an overwhelming success where it matters most. And I believe God would too.
In the coming pages you will see what we did, how we did it and why. I say “we” because Jenni was (and remains) with me every step of the way. She is a fantastic wife, mother and now grandmother. I’ll share the learning curve it was for me to grow into becoming a godly man, husband, father and grandfather.
We are not special people. We are simply people who found the grace of God in Jesus early enough in life and took him seriously. We have not lived perfect lives. Perfection happily is neither a biblical goal nor God’s demand. Godliness is, and if you are a brother or sister in Christ, you have everything you need to become godly (2 Peter 1:3-4) and to continue growing (3:16). This is not rocket science. What follows are life lessons shared to encourage you in your walk with God. So as I recount our journey in the context of family, I trust you’ll find at least a few things that will bless you. If we never meet other than through the pages of this book, I look forward to getting to know you more where all tears are wiped away (Isaiah 25:8, Revelation 21:4) and our fellowship will be perfect!
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Dad had no idea he’d be going home so soon when he wrote those words. He knew where he was headed, however.