My Story: God’s Hand in All
My New Life
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On the Brink of New Life - 1977
Everything that happened in my whole life up till now was preparation for the Seed to fall into my heart and take root. Breaking up with Elaine continued to be agony to my heart. There wasn’t a moment in the day that I didn’t ache. I was bewildered by my condition, and slowly began to realize that the problem or need I had wasn’t for a girl friend but for something deeper. I realized that I was simply a bundle of needs that God was going to have to save, but I didn’t know what or who or how to proceed. I realized that I had no one in this world at that time that I could look up to for answers. I began crying out to God to send me some that could help me. That prayer wasn’t a conscious or learned prayer. It was something from deep in my being that I needed and wanted. The evening I prayed those things was shortly before meeting Doug in the fall.
I remember during January and February taking walks in the evening and often looking up to heaven, thinking, “God, I know you are up there, but you are not down here” as I pointed at my heart. While at college, like I wrote earlier, I had been taught many things by Christians with good intentions that weren’t always true, or were only half the truth. I don’t fault them, but I began to see that they had only understood and believed half a gospel. In college one of my main struggles had been to believe God really existed. So I thought that once I believed He existed I would be saved. Now I was beginning to realize that it wasn’t just believing with the mind that I was required to do, but believing with the heart, with my will.
I see now that many who are Christians, or who call themselves Christians, only have Jesus with them. He is their dear friend. But that position is no better than that of the Old Testament believers. Jesus said that the Spirit “is with you, but shall be in you.” That word “in” made all the difference in the world, and I hadn’t understood that or entered into the reality of it.
Teaching was still a nightmare for me. There were some bright spots, though. One was a field trip our classes took to the Field Museum in Chicago. We needed several chaperones for the trip, and I asked Doug (in the photo to the left) to go along, to which he gladly agreed. I shall never forget sitting behind him as we traveled. I asked him, “What are you thinking about?” He responded, “Oh, I am singing to the Lord in my heart.” I was floored by his response, and longed for that same simple friendship. Another time I invited him to come to the art rooms at Wheeling one evening while I had to work there. At one point he picked up a pair of shears and said, “Hmm… one of God’s favorite tools…” How true! God sure was using them on me! I truly wanted to die…
While growing up, our house always had religious books around. Many of Grandpa Dibble’s books had been passed on to my mom when he died. One was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. Picking it up one day, I glanced at the first page. “All is vanity…” I had to put it down again. That was too close to home for me, to near to the heart of my dilemma. I couldn’t open it again for several weeks, realizing in the depths of my being that to have God I must leave the vanity of this world. At the same time I was often reading John 15 and other scriptures while on my knees. No one ever taught me how to pray. I learned it by necessity, driven by the cries of my heart. I learned to pray on my knees often with my face to the rug, not because I read it in a book, but because there was nowhere else to go for relief from the perplexing absence of God in my being. Who really learns to pray but he who needs God desperately? It is like Peter when he was sinking in the water and cried out to Jesus without thinking, “Lord, save me!”
In the gospel of John I began to see the link between joy and obedience. Now the issue for me wasn’t whether I would go to hell or not. It was my need for joy. It was my need for real life within. Obedience became an issue. My problems with inward sin became an issue, as did my lack of ability to live without sin and my unwillingness to give myself totally.
The other thing in my life was that I had tried and tried and tried to love others as I knew I should. I knew I often fell short, and saw the contradiction between my life and the life Jesus talked about. One of the things that exposed me most was that I couldn’t love my dad. It was too much for me. I knew something had to change, because I wanted to love like Jesus, and heard His command to me to love like that.
One interesting side note is that I bought my first car in February. But I knew by now that the happiness I experienced would be short-lived like everything else. I was thankful for the car, but was hungering for more lasting things. Sure enough, by the end of February the new car didn’t excite me in the least.
The first weekend in March 1977 Fred Tomlinson, a pastor of a church in Stouffville, Ontario, Canada, came down to speak in our area. Fred had been an elder at the house fellowship in Liverpool, England, while Doug was there. I was coming sporadically to meetings at that time. I remember going to the Sunday morning meeting a group was having, and Fred was the guest speaker. He spoke from Ezekiel 36 about the new heart that God wants to give us. The word went to my heart like an arrow. After the meeting I went up to Fred and said that I agreed with everything he had said, but I didn’t have the new heart. He asked if I could come to the house he was staying at in the afternoon. I said yes, and met him there several hours later.
Fred on Jon Porcher’s motorcycle The house in Palatine, Illinois,
giving Mr. North a lift where I was born again
Fred was a very friendly, gracious man who truly knew the Lord. We sat and talked about many things, including fears that I had as a result of watching the movie The Exorcist. When we began to pray, I confessed my sins and repented again. I asked for a new heart, the nature of Jesus, and for the Holy Spirit to come in to me. I was conscious that faith came to my heart and I knew God heard these requests. They were mine! Nothing outwardly happened. I left for home, wondering if I would be able to love my dad. The day was March 6, 1977.
My New Life - 1977
I was thrilled to find that I did love my dad and that my heart had changed. I can say that for the first time faith came into my heart. I knew the work was done of being born again, though there was so much I did not understand and could not explain. But I knew I was new! I knew that God was no longer only “up there” but was down here in my heart. I loved like I couldn’t love before. Teaching at the high school remained difficult. I would go at lunch breaks to the forest preserve and pray my heart out to God. Because things had changed in my heart, things began to change in the classroom as well, slowly but surely. I gathered up the medals and awards I had won through the years and threw them in the garbage. My dad found them later and got mad at me for throwing them away. I made it clear that they didn’t mean anything to me anymore because God had come into my heart. Seventeen years later I found most of those same medals and awards when I was sorting through my dad’s things after he died. Since having or not having them was no longer an issue like it was in those early days, I have kept them. Also, soon after being born again I made a point of returning anything I had ever stolen that I still had. I also went back to the Sunnyside Market in Wheaton where I had stolen so much candy while a kid. I offered the store manager money for what I had taken. I guess you aren’t surprised that he thought I was a bit strange! He wouldn’t take the money. But my conscience was clear. It is important to make right all we can after coming to the Lord!
So what had happened in me, spiritually speaking, those several years before at college? I had responded to what I heard, that Jesus could forgive me of sins. People had talked about being born again and receiving the Spirit of God, but I saw later on that without dying to self and yielding completely to God, He couldn’t pour out His Spirit in truth. Whether I shall be proved right or wrong when I arrive in heaven, from this point of view I believe I was born again and received new life that March day in 1977. We respond to what we hear. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. If we don’t hear that we can be free from sin, have our heart of stone (that old nature, the Adam nature, the sinful nature) removed and a new heart, the heart and nature of Jesus, put in its place, most of us will never receive it and make it real in our lives. Many are certainly born again despite not having heard of this truth. But there are also so many who are struggling to live the Christian life because they have never received the life of Jesus into their hearts.
Summer vacation finally arrived. I had survived my first year of teaching. I had begun meeting with Doug, Linda, Jon, Bob and Kathy every week at Bob’s house in Rolling Meadows where he lived with his mother. Without putting a label on it, we had formed a church and were clearly joined in heart and soul. After several attempts at names, we gave ourselves the name New Life Christian Fellowship. At the right is a photo of the car I bought in February, 1977, and of Bob’s house where we lived and had our meetings.
I had always dreamed of taking a drive out east, and had the opportunity in June, since teachers enjoy almost three months’ vacation each summer. I first drove to St. Louis to see my sister Irene and her family, then headed through Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. I stopped in Washington D.C. to visit my sister Anne. I saw the first Star Wars movie there with her. Then I went on to Maryland, Connecticut and Vermont, camping along the way until I arrived in Stouffville, Ontario, Canada for a few days before heading home. The time there was great. I spent a weekend with all of them, seeing firsthand a church moving in the Spirit and love and holiness of God. The brethren there made a tremendous impact on my heart and life for years to come.
After getting back home, it wasn’t long before I moved in with Doug and Jon into Bob’s house. We were set to go on as a new church, excited about what God was doing, and thrilled with what He was showing us. Because of stories that Doug and Linda were telling us about the work of God in England, and of the ministry of Mr. North, Norman Meeten and others, we started talk of going together to the summer conference there at a place called Cliff College. We all ended up going in August. It was a wonderful time in which God worked profound things in all of our hearts. Mr. North was a dear elderly man who loved us as Jesus would, and preached with fire, courage and firmness of so many wonderful things about Jesus. He headed the fellowships we were linked with. And no wonder, because he was the most spiritual, and God had obviously set him in that position. Norman Meeten had led the Devonshire Road Fellowship in England where Doug had spent time. Norman was completely different than Mr. North, but preached the same glorious message with incredible urgency, power and clearness of thought. The photo at the right shows Norman at the microphone with Mr. North at the conference. It was there at the Cliff Conference that I believed for the first time that I could really love as Jesus loved. We met so many wonderful brethren during those days, too many to name.
Before my second year of teaching art, I set my heart to begin the year in a completely different way. I decided to be prepared, to be serious from the very beginning, to discipline quickly whenever necessary. So you can imagine that I wondered how the first day would go. To my relief the day went well. I was kind but in a way very matter of fact and serious. Amazingly the kids were attentive, and I had very little problem all year. As I expected, relationships with the kids were better, not worse. I made some friendships with kids that year that lasted for years after that. To the left is a photo of me working on a silkscreen print at Wheeling High School.
As far as my life in the Lord, I continued to grow. I spent much time in reading and prayer during the early years of my walk with the Lord. I and the church longed for God to move, to spread this knowledge that we had come into, and to add more people to us. We read how God had moved in the days of Charles Finney and John Wesley, and thought He would do the same through us. It became very discouraging and difficult through those early years because God didn’t move as we had hoped. But we also learned that God is God and can work how He wants and when He wants.
During high school and college I had saved a lot of artwork I had done, whether drawings, paintings, prints of different media and sculpture. I also continued to do art. One day as I was looking through my artwork I realized that I had some stuff that wasn’t compatible with my Christian life. God began to speak to me about all my art, until I knew that He wanted me to get rid of it all. So one day I packed it up and brought it to Wheeling High School and threw it in a dumpster there. I knew that for me it was the right thing to do, to sacrifice it on the altar of my love for Jesus. As I did it, and for some days after, I felt like I had lost a good friend. But I have never regretted it, and it freed me up from wrong attachment to it. There are only a couple of pieces of artwork left that I did back in my early days. The photos of my early artwork shown on my website were taken sometime before I tossed it all.
At another time I quit working on any art for a month as a kind of fast to the Lord. That, too, was hard, but it also freed me up from anxiety that I tend to experience from working on art. I am a strange bird in many ways. One thing about me is that I am a goal oriented person. I am particularly focused on completing a job to have a good finished product. I find it difficult to settle down and enjoy the actual creation of the job or product. I marvel at the person who can simply take his time doing a job without being concerned about how long it takes. That is one of the negative things about my mindset. A positive is that I tend to get a lot done, and am not put off by the difficulty of the project because, whatever it takes, rain or shine, happiness or sadness, comfort or pain, I generally finish the job. So when I paint a picture, it is generally the completion of the painting that I look forward to and will enjoy, not the enjoyment of doing it. Strange, huh?! So you can imagine the release I felt during a month of resting from artwork.
In my relationships with girls, unbeknownst to me my search was coming to an end. God works in every person through the difficulty of relationships with the opposite sex, and I was no exception. During this year I had come to the conclusion that if I was going to find a wife, she would have to love the things that I love, which included the church I was in. I offered up the whole thing to God, and was becoming convinced I would never marry. One night I woke up and the Lord seemed to tell me to get up and open my Bible. So I did, and turned to Mark 8. I read of the feeding of the four thousand. Jesus told His disciples that He didn’t want to send the people away hungry. The disciples replied, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?” That was the answer for me. My hopes of finding a girl to marry were for me impossible, like finding bread in the wilderness in the Bible story. But of course in the story Jesus does a miracle and feeds the multitude. God told me He would provide for my need, either by being all I needed, or by providing a wife, even if it seemed impossible to me. So I went back to bed trusting Him.
Not long after that, a pretty girl named Susan Tortarello substituted a few days for the other art teacher at Wheeling High School. I was attracted to her, and she said she was a Christian. I invited her to our church, and she came a few times. I spent a little bit of time with her, but began to realize that she was more interested in other things than God. One evening, perhaps in the spring of 1978, our church went roller skating for fun at a roller rink in town. Susan came as well. I will never forget the moment I skated up to Susan at the snack area to buy her something to eat. Kathy Thiessen came zooming up to us in a way that seemed a bit possessive to me! I had never noticed before that she was interested in me, but it became clear that evening. As I thought about things more, I began to see Kathy in a new light.
So I must back up a bit and explain some things. Before I moved in with Doug and the others, I went to the weekly meetings with Kathy. She lived just five blocks away from me, but I never knew it until I met her at the Saturday Night Fellowship. We were definitely not interested in each other at first. She didn’t like the old cool, artsy clothes that I wore. And I didn’t like the hoop earrings and pantsuits that she wore! Well, there just wasn’t that chemistry between us! But as time went on, and we both got hungrier for God, it turns out that Kathy became more and more attracted to me, and I was too preoccupied to see it.
Perhaps God wanted me to wait until the roller skating evening to begin seriously considering her. Only He knows. But begin to consider her I did. I loved the seriousness for God that she had. And I knew that she loved the principal of the cross and was prepared to allow it to work in her life. And she was cute. So we began to spend time with each other. The first time was when she and I took a brother from India to Chicago to see the sites. It was a beautiful day, and the brother enjoyed it as much as we did.
To this day I am still not perfected in my strength of character and control of my emotions, but I had made great strides in it since the time I broke up with Elaine. Kathy and I had our troubles, but our love for each other grew. At times it was miserably hard to keep my mind on prayer in the prayer meetings when she was there!
In the fall some of us from our church took a weekend trip up to the Stouffville Christian Fellowship in Canada. We often did that in those early years because we loved to be with the brethren there and to receive the ministry that Fred and others gave. The Fellowship meeting place was out in the country. There were several houses there that brethren lived in, and an old barn had been fixed up that was used for the meetings. Many a time different ones took long walks along those country roads to talk with God, get right with Him, or work out some problem they were having. On the Saturday we were up there, I asked Kathy to take a walk with me, and out on the country road I asked her to marry me. And she said yes. And the rest is history…!
A New Job and Changes in the Church - 1978
In August 1978 everyone in our church went to the Cliff Conference again in England. It was another great time for all of us. But come September I didn’t go back to teaching at Wheeling because the number of students was decreasing in the school district and two of the eight schools had to be closed. Since I didn’t have seniority there was no place for me. I didn’t want to relocate to another town due to God’s work in our church and individual lives so I had to look for another type of work.
I took a job with a survey company called Marchese and Sons Surveying in September for only $4 an hour, but somehow knew God was in it. The Marchese family was a typical Italian family: close-knit, kind, hot tempered, stubborn. Mr. Marchese reminded me of a Caesar. Paul, one of the sons, looked like the man who posed for Michelangelo’s David. Very quickly I got pay raises. They liked me but had trouble understanding my Christianity, which sometimes caused friction between us. It was a totally new kind of work for me. I worked outside in the summer and winter: rain and shine, mosquitoes or no mosquitoes, snow or no snow. I also worked in the office. I studied for the Surveyor-in-Training test and passed. While at Marchese my brother Jim worked there for a while, along with Doug and Tim Higgins. That was great.
We continued meeting at Bob Berglund’s house while we lived there. Bob’s mom, a widow, decided to get married again and sell the house. The four of us guys finally settled on moving to another house in Rolling Meadows on Grouse Street we affectionately called the House on Grouse. The church meetings moved there as well.
About that time a dear couple from the church in Canada named Ted and Charity Wilcox and their two twin boys moved down to stand with us in the church. One weekend while Fred was visiting us he said there was a need in our church to have clear leadership. After asking the church for input, it was clear that Ted and I should be ordained as elders, which took place on that Sunday. It seemed right to all of us, and, looking back, I am sure it was the Lord’s will. I had mixed feelings about being an elder. I was very encouraged in my heart but was also so aware of my inadequacies. We all continued pressing on together as a church through ups and downs, knowing it was God who was with us and in the work.
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