Saturday, October 09, 2004

An entirely different kind of marathon

This weekend is the Chicago Marathon, and a good friend and fellow student, Michelle Sabovik, is running in it. She will be in my prayers as she joins close to 40,000 runners who will make the 26.2-mile trek this Sunday. Between runners, families, friends, admirers, there's a huge influx of people into Chicagoland for this weekend. Last year, Evans Rutto, a Kenyan, won the CM with a time of 2:05:50 - that's 2 hours, 5 minutes and fifty seconds to go 26 miles. (Normally, you can't even drive 26 miles in the Chicago area in that time- except at 4 AM!) It will be quite an event, to be sure, and a boon to every hotel, restaurant, bar, and tourist trap in the area.

But while there is drama to spare in the race downtown, my heart has been drawn over and over to another marathon, going on in my former hometown, Kansas City, this weekend....

...a four-day marathon for lost souls.

The Billy Graham Crusade is in Kansas City this weekend, bringing with them the Charlie Daniels Band and MercyMe, Third Day and Tait, Michael W. Smith and the Gaither Vocal Band, a comedy troupe, and even an extreme sports team. A 1,500-member choir and an army of volunteers, composed from churches around the Kansas City area, have been preparing for months for this crusade - originally scheduled for June of this year, but delayed when Graham suffered a hip fracture which has kept him in bed most of the year. More than 1,200 churches - not people, but churches - in a five-state region have been providing volunteers and support for this crusade.

My friend and brother Eric Amundson is one of those volunteers. He has been preparing for months to be a part of the teams that counsel those who come forward to make a decision for Christ. This last week has been a whirlwind for Eric, as business, church, and family activities have had to be arranged around the final preparations for the crusade. He's been updating us on the progress of the Crusade, and I've also been following the results on the Kansas City Star website.

It rained Thursday night - Arrowhead Stadium is famous for raining on more than Chief's fans hopes - and only 7,750 people showed up. But as the massed choir finished singing "Softly and Tenderly," the rain stopped as Billy Graham stepped up to speak. And more than 700 people came forward that night - 203 of them for the very first time. The Star quoted 23-year-old Andy Wheeler as saying, "It's just rain. It's not about being comfortable. It's about coming to meet Jesus, man."

The soul-athon continued Friday - I talked with Eric just as the choir had finished warming up, about 6:30 last night. In his 2 AM email update to us, he reported that clear skies brought 39,751 people into the stadium, and 860 first-timers were among the 2,111 who came forward last night. Eric said one of the men he was counseling lived not far from his home church in Shawnee...proof that these events reach people in ways that traditional churches can't.

I guess my heart has been with the Crusade this weekend, because of my own experience with the Graham crusade in Cleveland in June, 1994. I was working with Sprint in Mansfield (about 70 miles away), and the assignment was supposed to wrap up a week earlier. But a last minute reprieve allowed me to stay in Ohio for the next week - and so on Thursday night, I walked into what was then a brand-new baseball stadium, and joined tens of thousands of people who wanted - needed - "to hear the old, old story" of Christ's love and redemption.

In his musical ministry that night, Steven Curtis Chapman premiered his song "Remember Your Chains." Over the last 10 years the chorus of that song (and the memory of the grace I received the first time I heard it) has saved me from the depths of many a dark night of the soul:

Remember your chains...
Remember the prison that once held you
Before the love of God broke through
Remember the place you were without grace,
And when you see where you are now,
Remember your chains....
And remember...your chains are gone.
(from the CD, Heaven in the Real World)

And then Billy Graham stepped to the microphone.

And my life changed.

I'd been back attending church for almost 4 years, at that point - and been pretty faithful about it. But no one had ever asked me to step forward and profess my faith - they all assumed that I had it, that it was a given. After all, I'd been baptized, so I'd belonged to God ever since then, right?...

But I had walked some dark roads in the 34 years since I'd been washed in the waters of baptism, and since my Lutheran community didn't practice any kind of remembrance-of-baptism service (now included in the Renewing Worship materials from the ELCA), my soul felt pretty dirty at that stage of the game. So when the call came to commit our lives to Christ, I went down. Not because it would look good - because there was no one I knew there to look good for. Not out of guilt, or pressure - because nobody but me knew that I really didn't think I'd made a decision to follow Christ before that. Instead, the words of AA's Third Step echoed in my head that night:

[We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood him.
So I "made a decision" - and I went.

It took me a while to get "down front," and then it took a while to find an available counselor to speak with me. But I finally got it out (through the tears) that I needed to "make a decision," and that was enough. He prayed powerfully for me, gave me a New Testament and a "decision card" to fill out, and then went on to the next person who needed him.

It was just that simple. There was no water present, but it was in every other way a "believer's baptism" for me. In retrospect, it was the way I always believed "confirmation" should be...not something my parents made me do, but something I chose to do, because I believed it, and I meant it. I'd been a practicing Catholic (including most-valuable-altar-boy) for 17 years, been an agnostic for 17 more, been an active, church-going Lutheran for another four. But I decided to follow Christ that night in Cleveland.

That night - as I did last night, and I will tonight and Sunday night - I prayed for all the people who came to faith, and to trust in Christ, for the first time. And once again today I give thanks to God for the ministry of Billy Graham, and for the army of God's kids who have made his crusades possible over the years. In the words of Ray Boltz:
Thank you, for giving to the Lord, for I am a life who was changed...
Thank you for giving to the Lord - I am so glad you gave!

1 comment:

Lisa P. said...

Thanks for sharing your confirmation moment with us.

Whoa! "Remember Your Chains" is 10 years old! Wow, how the days do pass.