DFW Airport was still a dream when we drove the ninety miles from Durant, Oklahoma to Love Field in Dallas where I boarded a non-stop flight to Los Angeles. From there, the plan was to take a series of buses that would eventually drop me off with Dale and Linda Ebel in San Clemente, California.
Dale was the youth director at First Presbyterian Church. I was going to live with them for the summer of my sixteenth year and serve as an intern with the youth program.
After an uneventful flight, i.e. landings equaled take-offs, I caught a shuttle downtown to the main bus station. That was a different place. I got propositioned by homosexuals in the Men’s Room and had at least two opportunities to buy drugs. I whispered to myself, “You’re not in Oklahoma anymore, buddy.”
I located my station and boarded a southbound Greyhound for San Clemente. It was famous for being the Western White House, home to then President Nixon.
Buses were not new to me. As a kid, my folks put me on the bus to Poteau each summer to visit my grandparents. I liked the front seat (still do). I could watch the Oklahoma hills pass outside the big window, wondering how the driver had what appeared to be two accelerator pedals. “Muskogee, Stigler. Keota.” The driver called out the towns as we pulled into the depot. Most stops were roadside cafes—until the bus arrived. Then they were the bus station. “Shady Point,” and I knew Poteau was next. My granddad Hoyle would be waiting for me. He would throw my bag onto the wooden bed of his pickup and drive up the hill toward a house filled with the smells of Grandmother’s cooking.
The bus was similar, but the California bus stops were unlike anything in eastern Oklahoma. This observation and a crowd of others filled my mind as the bus moved through the shoulder-to-shoulder suburbs of L.A.: Anaheim, Santa Ana, Mission Viejo.
I stepped onto a dark platform in the beach town that would be my summer home. There was no one around but a male desk clerk sporting a ponytail. I’d heard the men were wearing those things out there, but I’d never seen one. A few of the hard-core Indians back home had long braids, but they were supposed to. This guy was my Dad’s age. With bags to hold enough clothes for the summer at my feet, I called from the pay phone to announce my arrival to a stranger named Dale in a town full of strangers.
The initial days of my stay were as you might imagine: I busied myself getting my bearings. I labored to learn names and marveled at the different flowers and trees. The web of freeways was remarkable. At that time, Oklahoma had exactly two freeways: I-35 going North and South, I-40 going East and West. It took a while to decide if it was okay for everyone to laugh at my drawl and Okieisms, but I took it in stride when they asked me to read so they could laugh.
I overhauled a defunct three-speed bike so I could get to the beach and back. It was board-fence ugly, but it beat walking. I decided Presbyterianism wasn’t bad and palm trees were only good to look at.
Finding my place in the Ebel household was a bit more disorienting. These people ate yogurt and granola for breakfast. At least I’d heard about men wearing ponytails. As near as I could tell, yogurt was simply bad ice cream and granola a box of swept-up leftovers.
With white-blond hair down to my shoulders, my friendship with Dale, my green three-speed, and a deepening saltwater tan I settled into a summer routine appearing very much Californian. At least, until I opened my mouth.
I slept on a hide-a-bed in the living room, pleased that my bedroom was the only one in the house that had a kitchen attached. Late at night, after the Ebel’s had gone to bed, solitude would ease into the room to share my space. It was as though this friend waited at the screen door to enter on the sea breeze as soon as the opportunity was right. And there, lying on my belly propped up on my elbows, I would read Scripture and ask the Holy Spirit to teach me.
I carried a Living Paraphrase Bible covered with suede leather in those days. It was well worn because I could understand what I was reading. Not knowing any better, I started reading the Bible through from page one. Leviticus and Numbers were tough sledding, but it was now July and I was in the midst of Romans.
Settling down in front of the screen door, I began to read: “Well then, shall we keep on sinning so that God can keep on showing us more and more kindness and forgiveness? Of course not! Should we keep on sinning when we don’t have to? For sin’s power over us was broken when we became Christians. Your old evil desires were nailed to the cross with Him; that part of you that loves to sin was crushed and fatally wounded, so that your sin-loving body is no longer under sin’s control, no longer needs to be a slave to sin; for when you are deadened to sin you are freed from all its allure and its power over you. So look upon your old sin nature as dead and unresponsive to sin, and instead be alive to God, alert to Him, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rm. 6:1 ff).
It was as though the Spirit sat down beside me and leaned up against the door jamb to instruct me. I realized that I no longer had to sin. Not only was I free to say no to Satan’s temptations, I was responsible to say no. Not only did I want to say to no to temptation, I could say no. The power that had held me in bondage to sin was a toothless tiger, lying to me about myself and the extent of his authority.
The notes in the margin of my Bible indicate that I had difficulty verbalizing just what it was the Lord had shown me on July 26, 1972. But you know as well as I do that Christ can speak to our hearts very clearly and we can comprehend perfectly, but to tell someone else leaves us stammering.
I realize better now what occurred then and understand more clearly God’s rationale in Romans 6. I was separated from God by my heritage in Adam, lost due to my human roots, consumed by an old self bent on living independently. My performance stunk, but not nearly so much as I stunk as a descendant of Adam and sinful by nature. Fixing this identity problem wasn’t as simple as forgiving my sins. A new covenant was necessary. A fundamental change was needed.
My inherent propensity to rebel and live independently of God had to be dealt a fatal blow. As Jesus told Nicodemus, I needed to be born from above, taken out of Adam’s lineage, and placed in Christ’s lineage. This necessary redemption is what we know as salvation. When it occurs, Christ comes to live in me while I find my life in Him.
Salvation is like a two-sided coin: On one side is the forgiven me filled with Jesus. On the other is the new me living in Him. When I need a resource for life, I consider the indwelling Christ. When I need perspective about my identity, I consider what it means to be in Christ.
Romans indicates that Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself once and for all. In so doing, the stronghold of the enemy in my life declaring I had no choice but to sin and rebel, was broken. The old heritage that was mine in Adam was crucified in Christ and dealt a fatal blow. Who I used to be was killed and buried never to rise again.
When Jesus Christ resurrected, because I was/am in Him, I too was raised, but not as I used to be. I was raised a brand new, reborn, child of God devoted to pleasing my heavenly Father. I became a new person, created in Christ’s likeness, free to say no to the enemy’s temptations, and desiring in my heart to live a life exemplary of my true identity.
I saw this. I knew Romans 6 was true. I comprehended what was on the page and knew God’s Spirit had answered my prayer for guidance and taken me to a new place.
Dale drove a VW bus, and it was in that bus on the way to the office the next day that I made my first effort to verbalize what I’d seen in God’s Word. My words were awkward and my sentences anything but eloquent. I stumbled like a drunk on Friday night, but Dale comprehended the magnitude of the Spirit’s revelation and reinforced my enthusiasm.
He turned the bus around and drove instead to Bob’s house. Bob lived on the beach and was the most theologically minded man in First Presbyterian Church. Dale sat me down and instructed me to tell Bob what I had seen in Romans 6. I tried again, but I stumbled over my words worse the second time than the first. I made one more effort before declaring inside that I was done talking. Too much embarrassment is bad for a man’s soul.
A couple of days passed. As was my custom, not long after work I made my way to the beach astride my gnarly, trash-bag green bicycle.
Riviera Beach was accessed through a residential area via a drainage ditch that ran under the railroad tracks. Once past the tracks, there was a narrow, sandy trail lined by waist-high weeds that deposited you onto the main beach about fifty yards from the breakers.
I got off my bike and began walking the trail, all the while studying a fellow sitting in a beach chair smack dab in the middle of the trail exit. Sitting in the trail wasn’t the curious thing to me. That’s the only place a person who decided to sit in the trail could sit. But fifty yards from the water? In the weeds? And in the middle of the trail? Now that’s different.
As I approached I surmised he was reading a porn magazine, and right on cue the enemy attacked. His temptation was verbalized as my thought: I ought to be able to get a good look at the pictures on my way by. I wonder what page he’s on? (Porn magazines are famous for their centerfold image.)
But guess what? Just as quickly as the enemy finished his suggestion, the Holy Spirit spoke sounding like my thoughts as well: I don’t have to look. God said so in Romans 6!
I recognized the voice of the Spirit. I associated His thought with the passage from Scripture. I knew the victory of Romans 6 when I read it, but on this day I had the opportunity to practice the victory of Romans 6.
As people eyed me curiously, I turned and began dragging my bicycle through the waist-high weeds to avoid the temptation in the trail. As promised, God’s Word was sharper than a double-edged sword honed to a fine blade. It cut through Satan’s deception and led me to victory.
I learned a lot that summer in San Clemente, like how to surf, fix a three-speed bike, run a vacation Bible school, and look out for folks sitting in the middle of the trail. I learned that yogurt wasn’t half bad and that the guy with the ponytail at the bus station went to our church. Most of all, though, I learned that I don’t have to go along with Satan’s temptations to sin. I’m a new man with a new heart. God said so! Oh, and I also discovered that God speaks with an Okie drawl.