Friday, February 4, 2011

Testimony, Part 5 - "Balaam's Donkey"

(Note: this posting is another “chapter” in my personal relationship with God, continuing the story I shared in previous postings from 8/17/10 through 10/13/10.)

Then the LORD opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. The angel of the LORD asked him, "Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.
[Numbers 22:31-32]
The Bible story of God speaking to the prophet Balaam through the mouth of his own donkey is often used to illustrate God’s ability to communicate by any means necessary – to speak, in unlikely or unusual ways, a significant spiritual revelation through a source that is normally considered “unspiritual” or mundane.

Balaam, God’s prophet, is on his way to see the king of Moab, who persistently tries to hire him to curse the Israelites, God’s people. Balaam has some things right – he knows he should obey God and only speak what God gives him to say – but he is surrounded by influences that oppose God’s plan and His people, whom he is being tempted to betray. So God sends an angel to block his path, and then speaks through the mouth of his own donkey to get his attention. Balaam, like most of us who don’t “get it” immediately, resists the message of his circumstances by beating the donkey, until God opens his eyes to spiritual reality, and he repents of his wayward folly.

Below are three "ordinary" or unlikely situations in which, I believe, God “spoke” to me and confronted the “recklessness” of my ways and my ignorance of Him – for which I am extremely grateful!

At the Movies
I moved to Denver to start a 4-month paralegal training program in September 1981, because I felt that my relationship with Mario deteriorated through not having a strong enough sense of identity or life of my own. In Colorado Springs, I’d been working for minimum wage at a local bookshop – I loved to read, but the work itself wasn’t very challenging, and trying to find my self-worth in relationship to another human being wasn’t working either. I wasn’t committed enough to law or academia to undertake the expense of graduate school, so I thought earning a paralegal certificate might be a good intermediate step toward finding a more fulfilling career path.

One weekend in September, I went to the movies to assuage the loneliness of the break-up. In the opening scene of “Only When I Laugh” – a comedy/drama based on a play by Neil Simon – Marcia Mason portrays a recovering alcoholic who has just been released from rehab. After a particularly difficult day of fruitless job-hunting, she stumbles along a New York City avenue, barely sober, and all the neon signs in the bar windows seem to be taunting her. She tries to call her therapist on a pay phone, and when she can’t reach him, she slams the receiver down – hard – again, and again. It was an unforgettable moment of self-recognition: somehow I knew very clearly that whatever was wrong with her (that character on the movie screen) was also wrong with me.

As soon as the movie was over, I found a pay phone and called the 24-hour phone number for Alcoholics Anonymous. I’d been sober for almost 2 years on one piece of information I’d heard in an AA meeting years before: “It’s the first drink that gets you drunk,” i.e., if I never took the first drink, I’d never have the 6th or the 8th or whichever one it was that eventually got me into all that trouble. But I’d never really understood what the rest of the program was all about. The lady on the other end of the phone that night understood immediately: “Oh, honey,” she said kindly, “You’re a dry drunk!” She went on to explain that although I’d stopped drinking, I needed recovery. All of those things I’d never learned because I’d used alcohol and drugs to cover up my fears in social situations, or to boost my confidence, or just to feel better instead of dealing with real life situations – I needed a process of recovery to (re-)learn a whole lot of things about life.

AA Meetings
So I started attending AA meetings, and found out that God can even speak through scruffy people who smoke cigarettes and live, well, sometimes a lot like they did when they were drinking except without the alcohol. I met quite a diverse group at the York Street AA Club – a wealthy politician’s wife, a former Hell’s Angel, businessmen, street bums and college graduates (like me) – who taught me about AA’s “12 Steps” by sharing their personal stories and advice, along with plenty of coffee.

I could relate to the concept of personal powerlessness and unmanageability described in “Step One:” We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable. In spite of my upper middle class education - and even though I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in almost two years - my life still felt like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces mixed up: if there was a way to put everything together sensibly, I was pretty sure I didn’t know what it was.

“Step Two” spoke of coming to believe in a Power greater than ourselves that could bring recovery and put those confusing pieces into some kind of healthy order. I’d already sensed there was something “bigger than me” the day I stopped drinking, but – as I wrote in my 8/24/10 posting (“Magnificent Mercy”) – I’d turned my back thoroughly on (what I thought were) archaic religious forms when I started using drugs and alcohol as a teenager. I couldn’t even say the word “God” without wondering if my family and all my old college friends would think I’d really gone crazy.

People in AA said I didn’t have to believe in any particular God – they knew that people coming out of alcoholism have often parted with religion on less than friendly terms. They simply told me that, if I didn’t want to go back to the hell of addiction, I needed to be “willing to be willing” to believe. They told me I had an empty place inside that would either be filled with God or alcohol. Further, they said, if I went back to drinking, I could count on eventually being imprisoned, mentally ill, or dead. (And I thought waking up with a hangover after embarrassing myself in a blackout was bad enough!) I knew I didn’t want to “go back” but, I thought, these are the 1980’s – do we really believe in God? So one night I looked up at the stars and prayed: “God, if you’re real, show me.”

That’s a prayer I believe God is willing to answer, if you really want to know the truth. And He did answer me: suddenly all kinds fortunate “coincidences” – favor, provision, open doors at the right time - began to occur in my life. Not least among them was the uncanny way those rooms full of ragged strangers seemed to know in advance what kind of day I’d had, as if they’d planned the evening meeting topics specifically with me in mind. My face literally hurt from smiling – I hadn’t used those muscles much before! Something was happening. It seemed too amazing not to be Divine.

Boxcar George
After a few months in AA, God used the words of an unlikely person to lead me into a powerful, scriptural experience of salvation in January of 1982. I started dating a backslidden Pentecostal bum who talked me into letting him move into my apartment by promising to marry me. I was 24, desperate for love, and incredibly naïve. He was 45 (although he looked both older and younger than that), with silver hair, smiling blue eyes, and a charmingly boyish grin. “Boxcar George” (as he was known in AA) was alternately funny, wise, spiritual, and crafty; he’d lived as a con artist much of his life, and most people would describe him as “a character.”

George didn’t have a steady job – he was working on a mathematical system to beat the odds at blackjack and strike it rich someday in Nevada. He went up to a little third floor room at York Street and prayed in tongues every evening (which is not to say “tongues are of the devil,” as some believe – only that false spirits exist, and even people with the genuine Holy Spirit can backslide into sin due to weaknesses of character). George was not a good choice for a boyfriend or a husband even by worldly standards, much less according to God’s Word – but I was a spiritual ignoramus at the time. It still astonishes me that God used this incredibly wayward man to tell me about salvation.

George showed me Acts chapter 2, verses 37-38, in the Bible. After the apostle Peter had fully explained the gospel of Jesus Christ, in light of what was happening on the day of Pentecost, he told the listening crowd exactly how to be saved:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
[Acts 2:37-38 NIV]

George showed me a Pentecostal church in my neighborhood, although he didn’t accompany me to services. Ironically, the first sermon I heard the pastor preach there was that, according to the New Testament, sex outside of marriage was a sin; so, when I got home and George asked what the sermon was about, I told him he needed to move out. (I was a novice, but sincere in my desire to find and follow God.) The next and last thing I heard from George was a drunken phone call from a casino bar in Reno, Nevada – he’d lost all he had at blackjack. I was no longer naïve enough to send him money, and by then I'd experienced a powerful Acts 2:38 encounter with God at that church. (To be continued)

What’s my point? (The smart aleck side of me wants to joke, “Don’t be an ass!” LOL – hey, it’s a Bible word… King James Version!) Although God doesn’t author or approve of sinful behavior, He is fully capable of working in and speaking through any situation on earth. In His great Love for us, He will use whatever means is necessary to draw us to Himself. So… pay attention! :)
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
[Romans 8:28 NAS]
Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen.
[Isaiah 32:3 NIV]
Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
[Mark 4:9 NIV]

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