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Living By Faith

July 25, 2011
O muse, when will you
Pacify my parched pencil?
I’ll wait no longer.

Richard M. Potter, 21 July 2011

The following is an excerpt of the memoir I mentioned in this post. Here is some background to set the stage: From 2000 to 2005 I led the Shoal Creek Community Church music program as a volunteer. Rachel Haffey came on staff as an intern in 2004, and I passed the baton of leadership to her very capable hands when she was hired full-time in 2005. In July of that year, Scott Shaw and I spent a week volunteering our services at a youth camp in Poland. Shoal Creek was exploring a partnership with proEm, the evangelical ministry that facilitates the camp. While Scott and I went to Poland on behalf of Shoal Creek, I was also seeking the answer to “What’s next?” in terms of my role in the Church.

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Rafal, the director of the FishArt youth camp, met me at the Warsaw airport. He was about 30 years old, full of energy and thin as a pencil. A group of volunteers from a Kansas church had arrived the same day, and Rafal had arranged for all of us to see a little of Warsaw. The new mall was a bit of a shock. It could have been transplanted from any American city. Poland was not the backward, Eastern European stereotype I had pictured, based on Hollywood movies like “Stripes.” Next Rafal took us to Old Town Warsaw. That was like stepping back into a pre-war European town square, complete with cobblestone streets and vendor carts. Rafal explained that the Germans had practically leveled this part of Warsaw, but the people of Poland had faithfully reconstructed it after World War II. I was shamed by my prejudice. Not only had Poland embraced the 21st century, it was proud and protective of its heritage.

As we drove to the camp I asked Rafal what he had lined up for me to do that week. “Scott has agreed to lead a workshop for kids who are interested in the dramatic arts,” he said. “We have eight or ten campers who want to learn guitar, so I thought you could lead an acoustic guitar workshop.”

Gitara akustyczna warsztat.

WTF? I had tried teaching guitar in high school. My one and only student was the son of a blue-collar working stiff. He smelled bad and had dirty fingers and a piece-of-crap guitar that was extremely difficult to play. No wonder the kid never practiced. It was a horrible experience for both of us, which I terminated as quickly as possible. From then on I told myself that I was not a teacher.

Part of my problem was that I was primarily self-taught. Through cello lessons I had developed good fingering technique. In high school and college, whenever I hit a guitar plateau I’d find someone to get me over the hump and then go back to figuring it out on my own. By the time I arrived in Poland I had been playing for almost 35 years and hadn’t had a lesson in 25. I couldn’t remember how I learned! What the hell was I going to do with eight students in a guitar workshop? For five days!?!? FOR PETE’S SAKE, THEY DIDN’T EVEN SPEAK ENGLISH! I did not sign up for this, I thought, as I moped and dozed for the rest of the 90 minute drive.

It was evening when we arrived at the camp. Scott helped me get settled in the cabin that we shared with a half-dozen teenaged boys. It was a mock A-frame with one large room for campers and a smaller, adjacent room for camp counselors. I found a phone and called Tracy to let her know we had arrived, safe but exhausted. Then I climbed into the top bunk, read for a while, and turned off the light at around 10pm. In the distance I could hear one of the campers yelling “WHAAZZUUPP!” every five or ten minutes. Instead of sleep, a sense of inadequacy invaded the cabin. Snores from the room next door stoked my fears. Before long anxiety was boiling over.

What the hell am I doing in Poland? I thought. I’m already a mess. If I can’t get to sleep, I’ll be even worse.

Maybe I’ll get sick – then I can skip out of the guitar workshop. I could feign diarrhea.

No, that would be too easily ratted out.

I could take Dramamine. It makes me drowsy. Maybe that could be my excuse to stay in the cabin. I could make this trip to Poland a kind of personal retreat; really spend some quality, one-on-one time with God.

Eventually I realized the silliness of my thought patterns. I could not face the Shoal Creek church family if all I had to report were inner revelations from a personal retreat. As I lay there longing for sleep, the picture of resting in the bosom of the Rabbi appeared. It was a struggle to surrender, a battle between the person I was and the person I longed to become. Somehow we wore each other down. Or maybe God wore us down. Either way, we finally settled into His arms and let the lullaby of His heartbeat lead us to slumber.

On Monday morning I walked to the Gazebo where my gitara akustyczna warsztat would shortly begin. The setting reminded me of the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada, where I had spent four successive summer vacations in the early 1970s. Large rocks poked through a thin layer of soil, on which a carpet of pine needles had been laid by the coniferous canopy. The morning sun took the edge off the slight chill. Near the Gazebo a sculpture of a lion’s head protruded from a small mound of earth. It gave the impression of a lion emerging from the grave in a triumphant roar, and brought to mind Aslan, the Christ-figure in CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It was a small comfort. I took what I could get.

As the students gathered I suggested that we start by getting to know each other. Szymon, the camp counselor and translator assigned to my workshop, also wanted to build his skills as a guitarist. We tag-teamed introductions, and later that day I recorded my impressions in a journal:

Luke (Łukasz) – wants to play badly; and he does! But he is working hard. Lord, you and I, we must encourage him.

Paula (she pronounces it with three syllables: “pah-OO-lah”) – is catching on. Born in Australia, moved here at 10, she is now 15. She wants to learn Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” and she already has some of it down. She learns quickly.

With my "gitara akustyczna warsztat" students.

Natalia – poor girl has never played before, her fingers are so sore! She wants to learn “House of The Rising Sun” and “Smoke On The Water.” Hope I can get her there.

Kuba – he is the camper who regularly yells “WHAAZZUUPP!!” at the top of his lungs. Crazy boy/teen, has learned that weirdness gets attention. Trying to play but not very hard.

(Two days later I added “I was mistaken – he’s doing well.”)

Julia – a good folk-guitar player in the making.

Asia (pronounced “AH-shah”) – is 21, I think she may also be a camp counselor. She too has good folk foundations and wants to learn more songs.

Pietrok – has played five years but wants to do more. I think he likes electric better.

Filip – reminds me of John Lennon’s son, Sean. Eager to please me. He also wants to be noticed…turns his amp up too loud.

Szymon – my interpreter and a decent player. He is very shy and insecure. He seems to be warming up. He is also a good teacher – worked better with Kuba and Luke than I did, and I told him so.

“They don’t really need me here,” I wrote, closing the journal entry. “But I think I need to be here. Is this what people mean by ‘living by faith’? We shall see.”

Before my arrival I had pictured Poland as a country stuck in the 1940s, where people lived in cinderblock houses and had little knowledge of 21st century western culture. When the FishArt worship band asked me to sit in with them, I expected I would play the musical guru, offering sage advice on contemporary music. I was totally surprised by what I found. There may be remote corners of Eastern Europe that fit my stereotype, but Poland is not one of them. The FishArt band had high-quality instruments and sound equipment. There were five Polish musicians:  three female vocalists, a drummer, and a keyboard player. The bass player was an American in his early 20s, also serving as a camp counselor for the summer. As I plugged in and we began to practice, it was clear that my musical skills would be stretched to their outer limits. That’s a good place to be – the only place where you can hope to grow your talent. Or your faith for that matter.

We rehearsed for 90 minutes or so, then packed up our instruments and cleared the stage. Rafal told me that Verna Law, a professional singer from Atlanta, had brought her band to FishArt. They gave a concert for the campers that evening. I was humbled once again, this time to share the stage in a kind of “opening act” capacity. With each hour that passed, God was leading me farther away from the familiar.

On Wednesday morning I joined the camp counselors for a pre-breakfast pep talk. Rafal encouraged us – both camp staff and volunteers – to devote time during the day’s workshops to tell our stories. How did you come to believe the Gospel message: that God so loved you that He sacrificed His only Son to make up the shortfall, so that you could one day enter into His presence for eternity? Rafal reminded us that the evening program would include an invitation for the campers to cross the line of faith. Our personal stories could have a powerful impact.

Hmm – that will be interesting, I thought, given that my students speak so little English and the only Polish I know is daj mi buzi (“give me a kiss”). Not to mention the shame that accompanies my story.

I grew up in a nice family. Mom was the church organist, Dad taught Sunday school, and we attended church every week. The Protestant work ethic was instilled at a young age; I started delivering the daily newspaper before I turned 12. Mom was my Cub Scout den leader and Dad volunteered for Boy Scout campouts. I progressed all the way to Second Class Scout before I quit. Mom also taught piano lessons. I took piano for a couple of years, then played cello in the school orchestra.

At 14 I traded the cello for the guitar. Shortly after that I traded church and Scout values for rock and roll. My favorite bands were the Beatles and the Eagles; my heroes were bad boys like Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix. I started smoking cigarettes and drinking at 15, followed quickly by marijuana. Before I graduated high school I was into LSD and cocaine and had completely turned away from God and the church. During my senior year I worked full-time at a music store, where I met and sometimes partied with musicians who toured the Midwest bar and nightclub circuit. Just like Pinocchio, I was living large on Pleasure Island – and turning into a total ass.

About a year after I graduated from high school I dropped acid (i.e. took LSD) with Jeff and Dan, two friends who attended the local university. (I was still working at the music store, having postponed college in favor of my own brand of “higher” education.) Jeff’s parents lived on a farm just south of town; the acid started to kick in while we were playing pool in their basement. When Jeff’s girlfriend arrived, I went with Dan to his apartment. It was the Saturday before Mother’s Day.

My hippy-wannabe daze (guitar adorned with a marijuana plant).

At Dan’s apartment we smoked pot, listened to music, and watched TV with the sound off. Then my acid trip took a wicked turn and the apartment started to shrink. I asked Dan to take me back to Jeff’s farm where I had left my car. I don’t know what I planned to do after I got there – I had no business driving. I just had to get out of the apartment.

Dan was enjoying his trip. He didn’t want to finish it alone, so he stalled. First he couldn’t find his cigarettes. Then he wanted to wear the new poncho his mom had brought back from Mexico. Then he needed to feed the puppy. The acid magnified my frustration; then I realized I could walk to my car. It was probably close to midnight, and a good three or four miles to the farm. I didn’t care, and I didn’t bother to say goodbye.

The fresh air cleared my head. Streetlights illuminated the branches of tall oak trees on each side of the road. Heaven will probably look a lot like this, I imagined. A light brown Camaro approached from behind and slowed to match my pace. The driver extended his right hand in a gesture that asked, Do you want a ride or not? I got in the car. Dan pulled away from the curb, stroking the neck and ears of the Doberman puppy in his lap. We didn’t talk, and the feeling of entrapment resurfaced. When I turned to look, Satan was in the driver’s seat. I was the puppy in his lap.

In a panic I grabbed for the door handle but it was too late. Demons held me down. The road I had walked a few minutes earlier did not lead to heaven. How could I be so stupid? Heaven is not lit by streetlamps. I had been traveling the road to hell for quite some time. Now I had arrived. This was it. I had messed up big time, and there was no turning back. Welcome to eternity, Dick.

Back in the real world I had indeed jumped out of the car. Somehow Dan had transported me to an emergency room where orderlies and nurses struggled to restrain me on a gurney. My parents arrived as the effects of the LSD were wearing off. When they led Mom in to see me, I couldn’t understand what she was doing in hell. My mom would never be in hell. When she held my hand I realized that maybe I wasn’t in hell after all. Maybe I had been given a second chance.

My right leg was fractured, my left shoulder blade was shattered, and my spirit was crushed. After two weeks in the hospital, I visited a Lutheran counselor and told him what had happened. He was reminded of the Prodigal Son who demanded his inheritance only to squander it on fast living and loose women. Yet the father readily welcomed him home and back into the family. It was the first time I could remember seeing myself in a Bible story; the first time I considered that the Bible might have been written with me in mind. It was the first step of a long road to recovery, one I still travel today.

Szymon did his best to translate as I told my story. When he got stuck, Asia and Paula helped out. Between the four of us, we made it to the end. Szymon thanked me for sharing. Asia clapped her hands. “Shall we play some guitar now?” I asked. They would have kept playing through lunch if I had let them.

That afternoon the students were invited to play with Verna Law’s band of professional musicians. Most of the students jumped at the opportunity. Natalia and Karolina said they would prefer to stay behind with me.

“How will I fill up 90 minutes with just these two?” I pondered over lunch. “Natalia is fascinated with classic rock and roll: the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd. How can I teach her songs like that when she can hardly convince her fingers to switch from a G chord to a C?”

Lost in thoughts that bordered on self-pity, I walked back to the cabin. There on the bed was my mp3 player. On the mp3 player was Roadhouse Blues, a Doors composition with a relatively simple intro. Natalia and Karolina were waiting when I returned to the gazebo. They didn’t recognize the song, but they liked it as soon as I played it. I worked up a simple arrangement and showed Natalia where to place her fingers. Karolina copied her. Soon they had the hang of Roadhouse Blues, so I asked if they’d like to try Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water.

From left: Natalia, Karolina, and Asia.

“Oh, YES!”

We spent the next hour going back and forth between the two songs.

“Omigosh!” Natalia squealed, bouncing up and down on the wooden bench. “I play Doors! I play Deep Purple!”

I smiled to myself and nodded. I know the feeling very well.

Scott was at the cabin when I dropped off my guitar before dinner. He showed me a note that Natalia had written, on which she had drawn a lovely picture. I had no idea she was so talented. “She said she has something for you, too,” he promised.

On the last day of the workshop we didn’t play much guitar. I devoted most of the time to hearing my students’ stories. Paula was born in Australia to Polish parents; the family moved back to Poland when she was 10 years old. No wonder she spoke English so well. Łukasz attended the Baptist church. He was assigned to assist one of several campers with physical disabilities. They all lived together in a specially equipped cabin and were affectionately referred to as the “Cappuccinos,” partly because they always had cappuccino in the afternoon and partly as a play on the word “handicapped.” This was Łukasz’s second summer at the camp, and he hoped to return again.

Filip dreamed of being an actor. Julia wanted to be a doctor. Asia was working toward a college degree and wanted to serve physically or mentally impaired children. Szymon was studying theology and hoped to earn a master’s degree. He planned to buy an electric guitar soon.

Natalia didn’t know what she wanted to do. She loved music. I told her that Scott had shared her note with me. “I’m jealous!” I said, and she giggled.

With Maui (center), head of proEm, and Scott (right).

That night there was a special picnic-banquet with kielbasa, potato salad, homemade pumpernickel bread, and brownie-cake. The closing program began at 8pm. Our band accompanied a choir that included several Cappuccino soloists. Then we performed a half-dozen praise songs. Next the drama workshop students performed skits they had written. Scott had asked me to provide background music, “something in a minor key,” so I fiddled around with variations on 16 Tons. The skits ranged from sad to morbid. It seems that teens are absorbed with much the same things, no matter what the country of origin.

Our second set of songs ended with U2’s It’s A Beautiful Day. The campers danced, waved, and sang along. The Cappuccinos had front row seats, hearts dancing in their wheelchairs. It’s not often that I get to play an extended set of songs like that. I had never played with more talented musicians, and never played better. As the joy of the evening saturated my soul, I realized that it was God who had given me the desire of my heart, and that night He fulfilled my desire.

Don’t fly by that sentence. Please read it again. Let it sink in.

As a teen-ager, learning to play my first chords, I thought the desire of my heart was to be a rock star. But that was MY desire. It had little to do with my heart, and much to do with another part of my anatomy. That final night in Poland I realized that God had placed a much holier desire in my heart. It was my life’s purpose: to worship Him and draw others into the mystery of His irrational love. He gave me that desire, and then He gave me the tools and ability to FULFILL the desire. For years I had twisted and tortured it, trying to make the desire fit my standards and expectations. Even now, I had come to Poland thinking I would lead backward misfits into the promised land of Wretchard Almighty. But God had other plans. He used the people of Poland to help me understand that I depend completely and totally on Him – for everything. For sustenance, for shelter, for health, for the very air that I breathe. Even for the desire of my heart. When I surrendered to that truth, He showed me my desire, and then He fulfilled it.

Once in a while, when you are in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing for the right reason, God lifts the curtain and gives you a sneak peak of eternity. Words cannot describe it, but there is one overused word that comes close.

Awesome.

With Rafal (left) after the closing program.

As the evening program ended, the celebration continued outside. A bonfire lit the scene as I made the rounds and said good-bye to new friends, took pictures, collected email addresses, and made false promises to stay in touch. Then there was a tap on my shoulder.

“Someone would like to say something to you,” said Rafal. Natalia peaked out from behind him.

“Thank you so much for teaching me songs I love, and for sharing your story,” she began as Rafal translated. “I have a friend in Warsaw…” She paused and turned to Rafal. “This is so hard!”

As if it the joy I had felt on stage was not enough, God continued to pile blessing upon blessing. Tears welled in Natalia’s eyes as she cleared her throat to continue.

“My friend smokes marijuana. Every time I visit she asks me if I want to try. She gives me pressure. I decided before coming to FishArt that next time I am with her, I will try it. Then you told your story. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Now I have decided not to try the marijuana. I promise you I will not do drugs.”

“Be strong,” I said. “Keep God in your heart.” We hugged each other tight; then she was off to join her cohort, long brown hair bouncing in tandem with her flowered peasant skirt.

Rafal put his arm around me. “You see Richard, even in your fifties you can make a difference in a young person’s life.”

“Thanks, Rafal. I’m 46.” His face drew tight, then broke into a smile as I started to laugh. I would miss this young man.

The next morning, as I settled into the trans-Atlantic flight, I picked up my journal to record in detail the events of the week. Several hours later I closed with these words:

Lord, I don’t know what you have in store for us, but I am filled with gratitude for how you have blessed me in this adventure. Have I experienced ‘living by faith’ as never before? Yes, I think so, but that isn’t really saying much.

My greatest amazement comes from the talent I had the privilege to make music with these last five days, and the value I was able to add to the mix. Thank You first for giving me this talent and passion; second for the fulfillment of using it to give glory to You in such a phenomenal environment.

Help me now to tell this story in such a way that glorifies You and You alone, and motivates others to come and see what You are all about.

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Although I’ve shared this story verbally a number of times, it took six years to finally write it down. Does it glorify God alone? You tell me. I see a healthy dose of “Lookit me!” on every page; some readers will relate and others will not.  It is written for those of you who can see yourself in the story, who feel called to be part of something bigger than yourself, and who are afraid – like I am more often than not – to live by faith. If the story moves you in that direction, then it will have served its purpose. 

 The book of Hebrews paints the picture clearly: “Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see. It was their faith that made our ancestors pleasing to God” (Hebrews 11:1-2, CEV). The author then lists the members of the Hall of Fame of Faith, people like Noah and Abraham and Moses, people who took those first steps in darkness, without any promise of how things would turn out in the light of day. 

 All too often I am guilty of being a risk-free Christian. I have read stories of how God used ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things, but I never thought it could happen to me. What made me change my mind? I don’t know. Maybe I read one too many stories. Now it’s your turn. If this story motivates you to move toward God and see what He is all about, I would love to hear your story. Please leave a comment, or contact me through this form. Thanks for reading.

 

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2011 1:24 pm

    Thanks, Richard, for challenging me again! I love this story and I think anyone who has feared to take a risk will probably relate, just as I did. It’s so cool to see you following God’s prompting and keeping at it every morning bright and early!

  2. Janny permalink
    July 25, 2011 10:22 pm

    I finished it, finally. Then I went back and read over a few things I had highlighted. Your question: Does it glorify God, did you want it to? I believe you did otherwise why would you write it. Possibly because we are cousins I feel much like you do. Your LSD story was that of a terrible dream. I love how your Mom’s touch gave you hope and most of all love. I believe that the Lord allowed you to hit bottom and the only way out was up. Our lives have been like ships in the night. Your Mom and Dad kept things to themselves, I think that’s how it was done then. Here I thought you were a really ‘sweet’ little kid, part of that is true.
    If I were to write my story it would never have a ending until it reaches the end which will only be a glorious beginning. Bob has loved me for 22 years. I wouldn’t be where I am today it weren’t for his unconditional love and our relationship based on Jesus Christ. That’s about all my story would be, but it still isn’t the end. “There is nothing better than being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing for the right reason.” I love that. Thanks for your story, and sharing your life. I am in awe at times at how proud you and Tracy must be to have great kids. Sometimes life is crazy, but you are doing the right thing for the right reason! Dang, no spell check!

    • July 26, 2011 5:06 am

      Thank you, Janny. Yes, I did and do want the story to glorify God. Maybe I’m writing it in part as a reaction to how Mom and Dad — their generation — kept things to themselves. That was how it was done back then, as you say. I believe part of the reason my kids are who they are is because I haven’t kept my stuff to myself. They know me for the broken man that I am, in need of a Savior, and the new creation that I am because my Savior lives in me.

      When are you and Bob going to come visit us in Kansas City? We need to get together again soon!

  3. Linda Hagedorn Finley permalink
    August 16, 2011 12:31 pm

    Richard,
    First let me say you write beautifully. This brought me to tears. I remember visiting you in the hospital after your accident. It broke my heart then and reading about it today brings back that sense of helplessness I felt when you explained what happened. I knew whatever path you took from that point on was up to you. You had to be the one to decide. I’m so happy you chose the right one.

    Here is my story…
    I was married to my first husband for 17 years, He became addicted to pain medication. When he was no longer able to obtain his meds through a doctor he began buying it on the street. Not only was he verbally abusive he became physically abusive as the drugs took over. I prayed for strength and direction for our family. One evening he came home in a rage because he was unable to score drugs. He beat and nearly killed me. It was that night my life changed forever. I had to take my children and leave. During the next couple of years he was arrested on several charges of possession and finally was sent to prison for 18 months. He continues to struggle with his addiction to this day.

    In 2003 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I never asked God why me. I never feared dying. The only fear I had was who would love and take care of my children if something happened to me? I prayed constantly for an answer to that question.

    Throughout my six months of chemotherapy I had good days and bad. Fortunately working in a hospital environment afforded me support from wonderful co-workers and patients that never let me feel sorry for myself or give up. I’m a firm believer in all things happen for a reason and being in the right place at the right time. I had the best doctors and made lifelong connections with women I now refer to fondly as my “Chemo Sisters.” Because of my cancer I became stronger not weaker. Not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. They say when a person experiences something life threatening it puts everything into perspective. In my case it did. Before I was just going through the motions of life. Now I’m actually living life through Christ. As you said “I depend completely and totally on Him – for everything. For sustenance, for shelter, for health, for the very air that I breathe. Even for the desire of my heart. When I surrendered to that truth, He showed me my desire, and then He fulfilled it.”

    In 2009 I remarried a wonderful man who has been beside me in good times and bad. A man I trust and love with all my heart. He was the angel God sent to watch over me, be by my side, be my friend and partner, be a role model, and Father for my children, and a loving Grandfather to our Granddaughter.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Wishing you and your family many blessings.
    Linda Hagedorn Finley

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