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I have discovered my own personal key to faith. It's what people once said I couldn't do.
Plans have never been my specialty. I've basically spent most of my life going from one thing to the next, playing whatever hand I'm dealt. For a long time I felt like that hand was a pretty bad one.
Growing up on a farm, I went to church occasionally, though I can't say the pastor's words really got through to me. We were poor, and I was a little guy, but I made up for it in spunk. By the time I could walk, I was up to no good. My teachers said I just never listened.
At age 18 I joined the Army. More discipline problems. I couldn't stand having people tell me what to do—not exactly a useful attitude in the military.
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I got married while in the Army and we had a child. After discharge, I started working construction. But by that point drugs and alcohol were more important to me than family. My marriage fell apart. One day I found myself alone in an empty apartment. I was burned out, miserable. I longed for someone to give me advice, to tell me what to do. I thought about my parents, about the pastor at church when I was a boy, about my teachers, my drill sergeant, my boss. They had all said the same thing: You don't listen. "Lord," I said out loud, "I realize I haven't done a good job leading my own life so far. I need your help, and I'm ready to listen."
I dug out an old Bible that I hadn't opened in years. The words jolted me. The very next Sunday I went to church—this time with my ears open. I put my problems in God's hands and gave up drugs and booze for good. I met a beautiful woman named Dale. I admired her close, trusting relationship with the Lord, the strength that had helped her to raise two kids, Chris and Lindsay, on her own. We married and moved to Ohio. At 31, I was a changed man.
I still worked construction, and one day, carrying an armful of steel pins across muddy ground, I slipped. The pins came crashing down on top of me. I was laid up for weeks, and our tiny savings dwindled to nothing. Lord, I can't support my family if I can't work. What am I going to do? The answer came through our church. Our pastor gave me a job at the benevolence mission, handing out clothes and household goods. My first client was a single mom. As I helped her pick out some things she needed, we got to talking. She told me about her problems with drugs. "Have you tried asking God for help?" I asked. We ended up on our knees together in the piles of clothes, praying that God would turn her life around.
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"You have a talent for ministry, Marty," my pastor said after she'd left. "Have you ever thought about preaching?" I'd never heard that before. I thought that to preach you need to go to seminary and study. "I'm not the preaching kind," I told him. "I don't have what it takes."
"You never know," Pastor said.
Then came that April Sunday when I was driving the family to service. I distinctly heard something, an urging from deep inside me. Marty, get your house together. I am calling you. The words were clear as day. I knew immediately that it was the Lord speaking. I felt a tingling excitement spread through my whole body. A moment later I heard, Take your family and leave church. "What are you asking me, Lord?" I whispered. Get your house together. I pulled into the church parking lot. Through the door I could see folks talking and settling down for service. Lord, I prayed, I'm trying to listen. If you really want us to go, tell me through Dale. Almost at once, Dale turned to me. "This might sound crazy, Marty," she said, "but I feel like we're not supposed to worship today."
We drove home, filled with a sense of wonder, an almost frightening awareness that something big was happening, that our lives were about to change. We went straight up to our room and knelt by the bed. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened my heart to God. I distinctly heard the word "Georgia." I turned to Dale. "What's God telling you?"
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"I think we're supposed to go to Georgia." Georgia! I'd only been there once, I didn't know a soul, I kept praying. Another distinct thought came to mind. "I think we're supposed to go to a place called Waycross," I said.