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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.
"Is there really such a place in Georgia?" Dale asked. We got out our atlas and opened it to the map of Georgia. Sure enough, there was Waycross, a small town perched on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. Dale and I exchanged worried glances.
"Are we really going to do this?" I asked.
"If we're sure it's His will," she said, "then I think we should."
"It just seems so unlikely," I said.
Dale called in Chris and Lindsay from the backyard. We explained that we were feeling led to move. "We're not sure where the Lord wants us," Dale finished. She gave them each a blank piece of paper and a pen. "I want you to go up to your rooms and pray about this and write whatever you think of."
Chris came down first. "This is all I could get, Mom," he said, handing her the paper. On it was written the word "way." Lindsay followed, looking disappointed. "I couldn't think of anything," she declared, "just this." She held up her paper. It had a large cross. I felt a tingle of excitement run through my body again, and when I met Dale's eyes, I knew she felt it too.
Every reasonable instinct told me it was crazy for us to leave our church, to move to a faraway town we'd never even seen. Every night I offered up my doubts to God. And every night I was filled with that same sense of certainty: You are doing the right thing.
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We rented a moving van and headed south, Chris and Lindsay in the backseat with the cat and the boxes, Dale up front with me, a roadmap spread across her knees. We only had a vague idea how far it was to Waycross, and as we left Ohio behind and the terrain became unfamiliar, the doubts returned. We pulled into Waycross after 18 straight hours of driving. There wasn't much to see—row upon row of pine trees, run-down houses, empty storefronts, a Piggly Wiggly. My heart sank. I'd uprooted my family, and for what? What have I done? There's nothing here for us.
That first night, we slept in a campground on the edge of the Okefenokee. "You'll want to keep your cat locked up," a park ranger advised us, "the 'gators eat small critters like that." There had still been snow on the ground in Ohio when we left, but here the heat was stifling even after dark. I tossed and turned, listening to the strange hoots and howls coming from the swamp.
The next day we drove into town and found a cheap house to rent, then Dale and I scoured the town for work. We went everywhere from the convenience store to the lumber mill, but times were tough in Waycross, and we had no luck.
One evening a few weeks later, I lay in bed offering up my usual prayers for guidance. Our money's running out. This seems like a dead end, Lord. Did I hear you wrong? It was another hot night—we couldn't afford air conditioning—and the humid air seemed to lie on me like a damp blanket. Then I heard it: Workers I have many, ministers I have few. "But all I know how to do is work with my hands," I said out loud. "I'm not qualified to be a minister."
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I woke up again around three in the morning. Dale lay sound asleep beside me. I went into the kitchen, grabbed a pen and some paper, and sat down at the table. I wasn't really sure what I intended to write, but in a moment my pen began moving across the page. I wrote until my eyes drooped, then went back to bed, falling asleep immediately.
In the morning I reread what I'd written. I couldn't believe my eyes! It was the outline of a benevolence mission that would provide food and clothes to the needy. Beneath it I had made a list of congregations and pastors. I showed Dale the list. "How do you know all these names?" I shook my head. I didn't recognize a single one. We consulted a local phonebook—every pastor and congregation was there.
The next few weeks I went from church to church explaining what I planned to do. At first I felt shy about telling our strange story, but folks were supportive. Soon, we had a tiny storefront downtown. The first day we opened shop, we had nothing but a telephone, not even a sign on the door. "Have you ever heard of a benevolence mission with nothing to give away?" I asked. "The Lord brought us this far," Dale said. "I have a feeling he'll provide."
Sure enough, it wasn't long before a woman appeared at the door carrying a sack of clothes. "My kids have outgrown these," she said. "Y'all are welcome to 'em." We thanked her, and hadn't even had time to unpack them when another woman came in, two kids trailing her. The clothes fit them perfectly.
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That was the beginning of Brighter Days Ministry, and we've grown quite a bit over the years. Sure, there are still tough moments, and sure, I still worry sometimes. But I have discovered my own personal key to faith. It's what people once said I couldn't do. I listen.