Life is a series of journeys, some important and others not so. The journey I was about to begin, just 2 weeks short of my 22nd birthday, would change my life forever. I would come to love someone whom had loved me for a long time, yet I didn’t realize it.
I was raised in a devout religious home — we attended church each weekend and kept the holy days faithfully. Like many, my thinking concerning God was typical; “God exists, and you should do what’s good and right and hopefully you will go to heaven when you die.” Although my understanding of God was limited, as I look back upon it now, I am thankful that I was given a foundation to believe in God. I can see the many ways that people invested in my life. I was unaware of their efforts, and God’s working through various situations, that would bring me to the place of my life-changing encounter with the Cross.
There is an experience that I can recall from my grade school years that I would say was my closest brush with the Holy Spirit. It was eighth grade and for religion class, prior to our Confirmation, we were invited on a “Retreat Weekend.” Father Hagman was going to conduct the weekend and I attended. All I really remember about it is that something spiritual happened that I had never experienced before, but I didn’t know what it was. So, it was forgotten. . . until much later in my life.
The next time that I can recall anyone talking seriously to me about God, a personal relationship with Him, or the Bible, was after high school. I met a young woman, my age, named Janice from a small nearby town. We had each enrolled at the local technical college immediately after our graduation. As I got to know Jan more, I really liked her. We became fast friends and ended up going together on a trip to Florida as a graduation gift to ourselves. During one of our outings Jan brought up the subject of the end of the world, Jesus Christ returning, and something called the Tribulation. I didn’t know what she was talking about. The most I knew was that in church each weekend we said in our creed that “Christ shall return to judge the living and the dead.” But what that looked like, I didn’t have a clue. When my new friend started talking about it as though it was really going to happen, I didn’t know what to make of that. But I liked Jan and so I listened.
My life went on after finishing school at MATC, obtaining a certificate as a Ward Clerk, and beginning work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield, Wisconsin, my hometown. My heart was unsettled though, and I wanted to find some adventure or meaning in life beyond what I knew. In the fall of 1980, I moved to Milwaukee to begin working at a brand-new hospital that was going to be on the cutting edge of technology and the future trend for hospitals. This interested me, and my ambition to move and begin life in a big city with new opportunities thrilled me. So I packed up all my belongings into a 15 foot rented trailer, my Dad helped get it hooked on to my 1976 Maroon Buick Regal, and away I went into a new and exciting future!
SMALL TOWN GIRL—Be careful in the Big City!
There really were several reasons I wanted to move to Milwaukee. My cousin, Tina, would always make Milwaukee sound so, well, exciting! She wanted me to move there so we could get an apartment together. But the bigger reason I wanted to move was that I had been dating someone in the radio industry, who worked for several years in my hometown and his job had taken him to Milwaukee, and I wanted to be closer to him. Well, it turned out that within a month of my moving there he got a better job in Rockford, Illinois, and moved there. I was still glad to have moved south, as then I was only one-and-a-half hour drive from him, instead of three. I was excited to embrace life in the big city and all the adventures that it held for me.
I had always been an achiever-type of person so in my work at the hospital I was quickly moved into a supervisory position on the p.m. shift. There was a problem in that I did not have the degree this position required. My supervisor, Jean, who was a great encouragement to me, said the hospital would pay my way through school to get the degree. So I enrolled the next semester at UW-Milwaukee in Business Administration.
It was while attending the university that my life took a dramatic turn. I had moved to Milwaukee in 1980, following my interest in the young man I was dating. Because he was a disc-jockey, he was always on the move climbing the success ladder to somewhere else. We became engaged and planned our wedding for September 1981. Jeff had big plans for our wedding! Because of his job he had access to bands that most people couldn’t afford to hire. The Booze Brothers (a take-off of the Blues Brothers who were popular, especially on Saturday Night Live) were big in Milwaukee at the time, so they said they would “play” at our wedding. We secured the Rozellville dance hall near my hometown. But during the months leading up to this grand event, we both realized something was wrong. I wasn’t sure this was really the right path for me. Questions began to arise. Did I really want to be a tag-along on his career life? How faithful would he be as a husband? I also began seeing things happen “backstage” that troubled me. Jeff would promote through the radio station upcoming concerts and then bring select friends back stage after the concert. I began to seriously consider if this was really the kind of life I wanted.
Thankfully, an event occurred in June, three months before the wedding that sealed it and made me realize this relationship was not a good move. I returned the beautiful diamond ring, shoved my wedding dress into my cedar chest, and with disgrace faced my family and told them the wedding was off. Anyone, especially when you are 21 years old and think you have it all figured out, who breaks off an engagement goes through terrible turmoil. I was wondering, Now what will people think? What should I do? What is the purpose of my life anyway?
That summer of 1981 is the time God caused me to stop and think about life, it’s real meaning, relationships, God Himself, and how it all works together. It was a confusing time for me. I kept busy working at the hospital and going to school. I decided to pour myself into a career and really climb the ladder myself. To escape the feelings I was going through, I would go to movies — they allowed me to forget about my life for two hours while living out someone else’s problems: a thwarted love story, love regained, whatever. But this too left me as empty as I was before. I wanted a relationship, a deeply fulfilling one, but now I really wondered if that was even possible. I had invested three years into my relationship with Jeff and how wasted that time seemed to me now.
It was Labor Day weekend, 1981, the month of my planned wedding, that friends from work noticed my indifferent attitude toward life and asked me to join them for a gathering on Monday, the holiday. I was hesitant, thinking they might be trying to line me up with someone. I wasn’t interested in having a knife put into my heart again, but I reluctantly agreed to go along.
Monday arrived and I met them at the Milwaukee Lakefront for our gathering. It was there that I met Dale. Determined not to enter another relationship, I did not appear very interested in him; however, he was nice, funny, and seemed quite interested in me. And there was something about him that attracted me besides his fun and outgoing personality, nice physical build (he was there training for the fall speed-skating season), and overall friendly way. Within a short period of time, he told me that church was an important part of his life — but not the kind of church I was accustomed to. This interested me. He said he had recently moved from Texas to Milwaukee and mentioned a church he was attending. He started telling me things that came directly from the Bible, which seemed unusual to me, for I had not met anyone (other than my friend Jan from technical school) who could speak with real knowledge about the Bible. I was interested in finding out more of what Dale had to say about God, especially after my summer of searching. Discovering this about Dale, piqued my interest in him more than the thought of beginning another relationship did.
I learned that Dale was originally from Plattsburgh, New York and that he was a speed-skater desiring to earn a spot on the US National Speed Skating Team. The year before we met, the Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, New York, near his home. He had gone to Texas to work for his brother-in-law, George, for the summer and had come now to West Allis, Wisconsin, to begin fall training for the winter season.
In 1980, Eric Heiden had won five gold medals in speed skating in Lake Placid and Dale would say, “I may never make the Olympic team, but I am one of the guys who makes Eric look so fast.” Dale enjoyed skating and his mother supported him through his later high school years taking him to competitions around the state. Now he was in Wisconsin, training, and working to survive. The making of an Olympic athlete takes much commitment and dedication. Having the funds, and having wealthy parents, certainly helps. Dale had a lot of drive and dedication, but wealthy parents to fund his dream was not his lot. However, he actually did very well in spite of all the obstacles he faced.
After seeing Dale on a few occasions, he invited me to come to his church so I could hear first-hand about God, the Bible, and get further explanation of the things he had been telling me. This was a bit scary for someone raised in the Catholic Church. I had been instructed by my parents, from childhood, that we were not to become involved with Protestants and their religion — it was not an option. Based upon my perceptions, I was hesitant to go, yet Dale seemed to possess some kind of relationship with God that I did not have and I wanted to know more about it. “Questioning minds want to know,” and I simply could not accept that being born into a Catholic home should keep me from finding out what he possessed, that I did not when it came to knowing God. I had been on a search all summer for real meaning in my life after breaking up with my fiancée; now I had met someone who seemed to be able to tell me how he had found what I was looking for, and I decided I needed to check into it.
I agreed to go with Dale to his church. I told him, “I’ll go to Mass first, so it counts, and then with you to your church.” So it was sometime in mid-September that I entered the doors of Bethel Tabernacle Assembly of God in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. I was warmly welcomed by the folks in the foyer and sat attentively listening to what the pastor said. After the service, many people came to greet me and introduce themselves. Being 21 years old, I noticed quite a few young people my age there and Dale introduced me to some of them. I remember telling him I wanted to leave, likely sooner than he or his friends wanted me to. I was feeling uncomfortable; they all seemed to be so connected! And I began to wonder, “Why are these people being so friendly to me?” I remembered hearing things in the past about cults and how people need to be careful when meeting someone they don’t know well and going to some kind of meeting with them. “They will lure you in by being friendly… so be careful!” Next, I thought, “Well, I really don’t know Dale very well, only have talked with him a few weeks, how do I know what I could be getting into here?”
I did talk to Dale about my thoughts and he said, “Well, I can understand what you’re feeling, so you should read the Bible for yourself, then you will know what is right.” I told him I wasn’t sure about this, and whether I could go back again or not. By the end of the next work week, all I kept thinking about was this church and what was being said about God. I was torn — I didn’t want to go back, I was afraid, yet I wanted to! Dale suggested we go on Sunday night; it would be more laid back and we could just leave right away if I wanted to. I agreed. Again I sat, giving attention to every word Pastor Johnson said. I was nervous though. I had thought I was a very good person, but he was saying some things that made it seem like I really didn’t know God in a real and personal way. That bothered me.
Feeling loyal to my parents and our faith, I felt it needful to go and talk with the parish priest at St. Rita’s where I had been attending for some time. I’d ask him about some of the things I was hearing and wanted to see what he would have to say. In the end, he had little to say. I felt detached, let down. My perception was that I should continue to conform and obey the Holy Roman Catholic Church and its teachings and not worry about all these questions.
I continued to go with Dale to church and some young women my age befriended me, along with the music pastor, Darryl, and his wife, Linda. They were very nice and fun! They invited us over to their house for a meal. Linda was a great cook. It was nice getting to know them and I started to feel like they were genuine and I could trust them. This caused me to want to come back to the church, and so for two months I listened and questioned. I did get a Bible and started to try and read it on my own. There were a few popular verses that Dale or someone wrote down for me, John 3:16 being one of them. I also remember that John 10:10 was important — telling me about Jesus’ plan for my life versus Satan’s. Satan wanted to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus wanted to give me life and that abundantly! That’s what I was looking for! I knew it now.
On a Sunday evening in mid-November 1981, I came to the place where I knew I needed to make a decision. I had to reckon with what Christ did on the cross, not for others, but for me personally. I knew intellectually He was the Savior of the “world” who I had heard about all my life, but He was not yet my Lord and Savior. I was a sinner in need of His forgiveness for my sin. Once I began to grasp my position before God as utterly lost apart from Christ’s sacrifice, I knew the only way to gain right standing with God was by humbling myself and accepting salvation His way. Jesus was to become my King! He was to be given control of my life and I was to surrender all of myself to Him. I was ready.
It was difficult for me to step out of the pew and walk down to the front where someone was going to pray with me to accept Christ and begin this new journey. I was fighting so many things inside — my past, my pride, my religion, my sin — but oh how I wanted to be free. They told me that who the Son sets free is free indeed and I wanted that! My apprehension was soon replaced with a new found freedom from sin, confirmed by acceptance and love from God.
This was a complete turning point in my life! I truly was made into a new person that night. I became born again! Even though some of my old ways took time to change, in my heart I knew that I belonged to Jesus. This was thrilling to me — I had finally found the relationship I had been searching for.
SPIRITUAL REALITY – Light vs. Dark
The Saturday night following this change in me, I had a riveting experience that has remained clear in my mind even now, over three decades later. I mentioned earlier that my ex-fiancée, whom I still was keeping in contact with, would get special concert tickets because of his work. Weeks before my meeting at the Cross, my friends at the hospital had asked if I could get all of us tickets to the Jethro Tull concert coming to Milwaukee the weekend before Thanksgiving — so I did. Since I had gotten the tickets, I was the one who had coordinated the evening. We all rode together downtown for the concert. After what had happened in my life on the previous Sunday night, I really did not want to go; besides, I didn’t like Jethro Tull! It was too hard rock, and I preferred “ top 40” songs — romantic stuff about lovers breaking up and then getting together again, James Taylor, Carley Simon, those types of songs. But, I figured I had promised them, so we went.
My friends were all excited as we entered the auditorium, but I was feeling very out of place — almost sick inside. Soon the pre-concert music started and I felt even sicker. Then the main act, the rock group “Jethro Tull,” performed. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But I did learn something very valuable that night that has been a help and guide to me ever since.
Music is spiritual; songs are born in the soul. Singers who move their listeners toward God in worship are able to do so because their soul is given to Christ. Conversely, those who sing simply from the human level demonstrate their soul as well — it may feel good, but it is empty in the end. Today I understand that more than ever.
At one point during the concert, a drum solo occurred and as I looked around me at the chanting crowd, arms lifted in “praise,” I saw into the spirit realm. I now knew for certain, in my heart, that there truly is a spirit realm and what happened to me on that Sunday night was a very real event. There was a spiritual transaction that had taken place when I was in Dale’s church, inside my heart! While the concert all seemed like a slow motion movie playing out before me, I knew deep inside that I had been changed forever — that I could never go back or be comfortable in this kind of environment again. And I was glad!
I endured the remainder of the concert, and oh how I wished I had driven alone so I could have left, but I couldn’t. At the end, everyone but me was excited and pumped up. Now it was time to “go out” somewhere, have a few drinks and enjoy the rest of the evening. I was again feeling like a “party-pooper” in my heart. Yeah! I thought — this is real! What happened to me last Sunday is not a figment of my imagination… I have been changed!” I told my friends I wasn’t feeling well and really wanted to just go home. So they complied and we drove back to the suburbs and headed our separate ways.
Continue to the next chapter…
Photo credit: Pixabay