More than two centuries ago our nation, through the grace of God and the bravery and resolve of its citizens, freed itself from the tyranny of England. This week marks four decades of my personal freedom from a different kind of tyranny. Nothing I could have done would have helped free me. God did it all.
I was born into what many would consider a life of privilege. My father was a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. While we were certainly not rich, my father was well paid. More importantly, since he was usually the Commanding Officer or one of the highest-ranking officers on the bases where we lived, we had the best of whatever was available. For instance, base housing is typically not luxurious, but we usually had one of the best houses on each base. And of course, in a culture where rank is important, the fact that my dad had a higher rank than 95% of my playmates’ dads, I had certain social privileges.
There were many good things about living on a military base. I learned about patriotism in a very meaningful way. Everyone on the base was there because their lives were dedicated to protecting our nation and its citizens. Every evening when taps sounded, everything on the base came to a halt. Cars and trucks stopped, and their occupants got out and faced toward the big base flag pole, even if they were too far away to see it. Those in uniform saluted. The rest of us, the wives, children and civilian employees, placed our right hands over our hearts and stood very straight. No one resented this ceremony. We were glad to take the time to honor not the flag itself, but the great and good nation it represented.
Another thing I appreciate about being raised in the military is that it was really the first color-blind social organization on a large scale. Sure, many churches in our nation were integrated long before the schools were. And small pockets of society, notably music and sports, were ahead of the curve. But in my childhood years, military bases were far ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of treating people the same. I think this was because in combat your life always depended on the man next to you. So military people judged one another by character and ability rather than color. So in the early ’50’s my friends were white, black, and Asian, something that was unthinkable in most parts of the country at that time. We lived in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, and used the same restrooms. My favorite Sunday School teacher was a black Staff Sergeant.
So life was good. On the outside, anyway. Our family was organized around the principle that appearances were paramount. My father was an "officer and a gentleman", and it was expected that officers would attend church. So every Sunday morning we were in the first pew at the base chapel. But my father didn’t believe in the Bible. He was an alcoholic who beat his children. And, like many families of alcoholics, we kept his secret because family honor was important. Our mother made sure we were in church every Sunday and were involved in activities that had a positive impact on us. She did her best to protect us from him, sometimes sending us to live with relatives or friends for our safety.
I am always surprised when I hear people recount personal memories of things that happened when they were toddlers. My memories begin after my father retired and we moved to Florida when I was eleven. For years I thought that was normal, that only people with unusual memories remembered their childhood. The knowledge of events that I have described above come from photos, family, and things I wrote as a youngster. I have been told that I have "blocked" the memories of my young years because they are too painful. Whether that’s true, or whether I just have a bad memory, I know that my first memories are of getting in trouble.
Somehow I managed to do well in school, but after school the real Tom (Tommy in those days) came out. I organized a gang that stole from local stores. I would engage the shopkeeper in conversation while my "guys" would rip him off. We broke into houses and vandalized property. The police were called several times, but I was never arrested. In short, I was on my way to reform school. As I got older, I was able to defend myself against my father, especially when he was drunk. We had to hide everything sharp in the house, knives, scissors, even the potato parer, because he would try to stab me whenever he saw me. One day, after he had beaten my older sister, I had had enough. I knocked him down, and started banging his head against a steel bed frame. It took my mother and both my sisters to drag me off of him before I killed him. I was an angry and rebellious young man.
Forty years ago this week my mother sent my younger sister and me to a Christian youth camp. I didn’t want to go, and rebelled every step of the way. At the age of thirteen I had a vocabulary that would make a Marine blush. I used it to try and get kicked out of the camp. It didn’t work. The counselors just loved me and accepted me. I held out to the last day, but the love of God, shown through the volunteers who staffed the camp, got through to me. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, and my life has never been the same. That was my personal freedom day.
Did I become perfect from that day on? My family would be the first to tell you that I did not. Did I forgive my father that day? No, that took several years, and several attempts. Did everything in my life go smoothly following that day? My life has had more ups and downs in my life than a roller coaster.
Then what good did it do me? First, I was set free. I was no longer programmed for destruction. God cleaned the slate, and I was able to start fresh. I was born again. Second, I had a Friend Who understood me. He went everywhere with me. When I would start to make a bad decision, He would counsel me about the right way. I didn’t always listen to Him, but with time I realized that He was always right, and I started to obey.
A good part of my ministry has been spent ministering to people in jails and prisons. I started when I was sixteen, speaking at juvenile detention facilities. While I was in Bible College, I directed a group that sang in prisons. During the time I pastored my first church, I was often in the county jail (on the right side of the bars) visiting the prisoners. Today I serve on the Board of Directors of a prison after care ministry (www.pactcenter.org). I think the reason I have always had a heart for those in jails and prisons is that I realize that if it were not for that day forty years ago, I might be incarcerated today.
I used the phrase "personal testimony" in the opening of this article. In courts of law, people are not normally allowed to testify to things they have heard about. Their testimony must relate to events they have personally witnessed. I have not related a lot of theology to you in this article. I have given you my testimony of things that I know to be true because I have personal experience of them. I know that God can change lives because He changed mine. I know that Jesus can forgive sins because He forgave mine. I also know that he doesn’t pick certain people to save. He says that whoever is willing can come to Him.
A FATHER TO THE FATHERLESS. I don’t cover local news in these newsletters, because our subscribers are in all fifty states, as well as countries as far away as Sri Lanka and Russia. I am including the following article which will run next week in a local paper not because most of you live close enough to attend the concert mentioned, but because all of you live close enough to give to the ministry described. My regular readers know that I never ask for donations to anything. I am asking you to consider giving to this ministry, because, as you will see, the ones who need the help can’t help themselves.
The minister mentioned below, Carlton Gant, recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he was part of an advisory group to the President on faith-based initiatives. He was there because the ministry he founded in West Palm Beach, Florida, is considered a model for those who minister to inner city children. Some people feel this is not their problem. My answer is that these precious children will either grow up to be productive, tax-paying members of our society, or they will break into your house or business and be supported in prison by your ever-increasing taxes. The article follows. If you know anyone that lives in South Florida, forward this email to them so they can come to the concert. It will be great!
There’s not that much that’s free these days, but there will be a free Christian concert in West Palm Beach on July 13th at 7PM. The purpose of the concert is to raise support to send under-privileged children from the inner city to Jamaica to do missionary work. These kids are the youth group of Pathway of Life Fellowship, which meets at the auditorium of Palm Beach Lakes High School in West Palm Beach. In addition to helping U.S. missionaries in Jamaica conduct a crusade, they will be helping to build a children’s education building for a local church. Pathway also hopes to send 30 children to Christian youth camp this summer.
You might be asking, "Why can’t the church or the children’s families pay for these activities?" Let me answer that question with a question. Have you ever been in a church that is 80% kids? That’s what you would find if you attended a Sunday morning service at Pathway of Life. The pastor, Rev. Carlton Gant, describes his church as a "Father to the Fatherless." Most of the children they minister to have no father in the home, and some have no mother. The free meal the church provides them with after each service is often the best meal some of them will eat all week. Children don’t put much in the offering plate.
As a former pastor, I know what it costs to support a church. On my first visit to Pathway, I quickly realized that this was a missionary outreach. I assumed, and confirmed with Pastor Gant, that there was no way such a church could be self-supporting. Since then, in addition to tithing at my home church, I have helped support the great work Pathway is doing, and have encouraged others to do so.
Last summer we raised $8,000 at a similar concert to send children to camp. This year, with the addition of the Jamaica trip, we need to raise $10,000. An offering will be taken at the concert. If you can’t attend, but would like to help, please mail a check to Pathway of Life, P.O. Box 16523, West Palm Beach 33416. Call 561-844-7933 to volunteer to help with the concert or other work of the ministry, or to financially support the ministry on a monthly basis.
Many of us can afford to send our children to summer camp so they can experience new things. They leave their comfortable air-conditioned homes to stay in comfortable air-conditioned cabins. If we help them go, these children will spend a week away from hot, tiny apartments, and experience a place where there are no drive-by shootings, where they can learn about the love of Jesus. The older ones who go to Jamaica will experience the joy of helping others in even worse circumstances than their own.
Mark your calendar and come out for a fun-filled night of music, worship and fellowship. The concert will he held in the auditorium of the Palm Beach Lakes High School on Military Trail South of 45th Street at 7PM on Friday, July 13. Many excellent Christian artists are donating their time to help these kids. You’ll also get to hear the youth choir sing. Make sure to bring your children!
TRUTH MAKES US ALL BETTER CITIZENS. I received the following email this week. I wish more Americans born in this country appreciated what they have as much as this naturalized citizen does. "In 1999 I proudly became a U.S. Citizen. Prior to that event I diligently studied most of this great nation’s history, especially its Christian heritage. I did that because I wanted to understand and to feel the privilege of being a U.S. citizen. I will never forget when I first pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. With tears in my eyes, I just thanked God for America and for the great privilege of being an American citizen. I also felt a great responsibility to do my part to restore the family values that our founding fathers gave us. I don’t want to be just a spectator. I want to know what is happening to my America and how I can help to protect our values. That’s why I appreciate the Conservative Truth newsletter, because it has made me a better citizen. It INFORMS me of the current issues and FORMS a godly and balanced attitude to take action. Thanks, brother Tom. You are a true American patriot. Yours, Daniel Arbolaez."