If You Ever Need a Savior . . .

On an overcast afternoon in 1972, a pair of scraggly “Jesus freaks” accosted me on the downtown mall in Eugene; Oregon, and asked me if I knew “the Lord.” The encounter lasted two minutes, and I walked away laughing at them. But I must admit that ten years later, something one of them said saved my life.

I pegged the couple as escapees from a hippie commune. Back then I viewed them as members of fad movements, as sheep easily led by others, and I reacted with inner amusement when flocks of ex­-flower children began touting Jesus. Still, my mood that day was unusually expansive and I always enjoyed a good argument. So, though pressured by time on my lunch hour, I decided to give them a minute.

Being Jewish, I was adept at tuning out evangelizing Christians. Those who kept quiet about their beliefs didn’t bother me. But at its worst, I saw the Christian religion as threatening the survival of my people. I believed that every convert to Christianity was a Jew lost and that becoming a Christian—God forbid—meant rejecting 4,000 years of Jewish tradition. Since my most cherished memories involved family gatherings for religious observances, the idea of conversion struck me as ludicrous. The fact that I practiced the faith only minimally and was pretty much agnostic was beside the point.

“Jesus saved my life,” the guy told me. “I was a hopeless addict and wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t found the Lord.”

I wasn’t impressed. He appeared gaunt and sloppy, with a long, tangled mane swept into a pony tail and an untrimmed beard. He wore a dirty poncho, patched jeans, and logger’s boots—a marginal human in my value system.

As we talked, his female companion muttered under her breath. She was probably praying. She didn’t impress me much either, with stringy hair and the same gauntness as her mate. Her colorless clothes hung loosely and her oversized boots looked like Clementine’s herring boxes.

“That’s what happens when you mess with drugs,” I said. “You got in over your head and the only way out was to make up a God to substitute for the drug.”

A slight grin touched the corner of his mouth. His wife, or whoever she was, continued praying. I felt a surge of resentment towards her patronization. Also, the conversation was beginning to bore me. I shifted from foot to foot, hoping to wriggle free.

“If it worked for you, that’s fine,” I continued. “Only I’m not an addict. I have a good job and a beautiful wife and child. I like to think I’ve handled life pretty well. Why should I be interested in your God?”

“I guess you shouldn’t.” Though surprised at his candor, I gloated at having scored my point. “But,” he continued, “if you should ever need a savior, remember Jesus. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, he loves you and can set you free.”

I dismissed them by saying, “I’ll keep that in mind.” The pair wandered off in search of another victim. Several passersby walked wide arcs around them as I ambled off chuckling and shaking my head.

I didn’t know it in 1972, but I was in the early stages of several fatal diseases—alcoholism and pill addiction compounded by perfectionism, rationalism and self-deceit.

I thought that if I was clever enough and manipulated well enough, I could use the world to meet my needs. I came by this belief honestly, since rationalism is pervasive in Jewish culture. Most Jews and many non-Jews believe that intellect provides all answers, that knowledge leads to happiness, and that nothing is valid if it isn’t logical. Faith is difficult under such a system. Interestingly, these beliefs trace back to the Greek occupation of Israel in the days of the Maccabees. The Pharisees fought Hellenism for centuries before succumbing.

The truth was, I took sleeping pills several times a week for insomnia. But I refused to admit it was a problem. I also denied that my wife and I argued constantly, usually in the form of my criticizing her. And I denied that my drinking was anything more than social, although I drank to oblivion more often than I wanted.

An inability to admit faults or weaknesses or tolerate them in others accompanied my perfectionism. Being raised in the “worth through works” ethic, I judged people by their accom­plishments. But since I didn’t like myself, I compensated by striving for superiority and lying about it when I fell short.

Things were fine as long as my denial wasn’t seriously challenged and my manipulations succeeded. But only God gets away with playing God. Slowly my world began to crumble. And just as slowly the Lord began to drop hints and open doors.

In 1974, I attended a conference in Bend, Oregon, at a resort in the shadow of the Three Sisters mountains. A co­worker named Randy accompanied me. Randy was a Christian but didn’t talk about it unless asked, which I never did.

After the conference we rode home to Grants Pass together, through the sweet-smelling pine and sage east of the Cascades and up past Diamond and Crater Lakes. Our con­versation drifted to famous Jews. I pointed out that Jews figured prominently in almost every profession, citing the Warner brothers, Bernard Baruch, Hank Green­berg, Felix Frankfurter, Freud, Einstein, Karl Marx, and on and on.

“Who do you think was the greatest Jew?” Randy asked. I knew where he was leading and headed it off.

“You probably think it was Jesus,” I said. “For me, it’s between Jacob and Moses, with honorable mention to Maimonides and Moshe Dayan.” I’d read Jewish history and attended Hebrew School as a child, so I felt conversant on the subject.

“My favorite Jew is the apostle Paul,” he announced.

“All I know about ‘Saint’ Paul is that he wrote much of the New Testament, he didn’t believe in sex, and he brought Christianity to the Gentiles.” I didn’t admit it, but I’d never read—or cared to read—so much as one word of the New Testament.

Randy spent the next two hours describing Paul’s involvement in the stoning of Stephen, his persecution of Christians, his conversion on the road to Damascus, his decision to preach about the Jewish Messiah Jesus to the Gen­tiles, his travels and ministry, his journey to Rome, and his death at the hands of the Romans. I listened with surprised fascination.

At one point Randy quoted Paul as saying, “All have sin­ned and fall short of the glory of God.”

“That’s pretty defeatist,” I said. “Besides, I haven’t sinned.” I honestly believed that as I spoke the words.

Randy laughed. “It isn’t easy to admit you aren’t perfect or that you need God. But I find it liberating. Once you put Jesus in charge, the slate is wiped clean, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. You never need to feel bad about yourself again.”

“You sound like a hippie I once met in Eugene,” I said, not ready to admit dirty slates or bad feelings.

1978 to 1980 was my “back to Judaism” period. I joined one of America’s smallest, most isolated synagogues and was elected trustee a year later. My original motivation, fascination with the “chosen people” concept, meshed well with my view of myself. However, though unarticulated, I also sought iden­tity and spiritual centering.

By then I was ending each of my evenings in a drunken stupor, I was on the verge of divorce, and the growing reality that my life was floundering terrified me. I frequently arrived at work hung over on sedatives. Fortunately, my employer tolerated more than he should have.

My “back to Judaism” period raised more questions than it answered. After reading the Law of Moses, for example, I observed that even the most pious Jew kept only a minute por­tion of it. To me, it wasn’t logical to obey only the convenient laws of God. Yet I wasn’t willing to commit to the law myself.

I also observed that while prayer is important in Jewish ritual, we Jews never seem to ask for anything personal or expect an answer. And the rabbi almost never mentions the Messiah. In any case, it made no sense to pray for the peace of Jerusalem with my own peace so unattainable.

I quit the synagogue because that particular group seemed more concerned with ethnic elitism than spirituality.  Also, I was less and less able to drag myself out of the house.

In 1981 I finally lost my job. My drinking and pill-taking worsened. I grew paranoid, depressed and reclusive, not going outside for days at a time. I wouldn’t answer the phone or door. I was too sick to work and wracked with shame at my failure.

That fall a house larger and nicer than the one my wife and I shared with our three daughters became available at the same rent. We couldn’t justify the inconvenience of moving, yet we did move—kicking each other for our impulsiveness.

Our new residence happened to be across from the county mental health clinic. Because of my severe depression, I availed myself of their services and began seeing a psychologist there. She said I hated my parents, was immature, and needed to reconcile “doing my own thing” with being a responsible husband and father. I continued with her for a year as my decline progressed.

Meanwhile, I spent weeks on the living room couch in a half-drunken stupor, watching TV and feeling sorry for myself.

I envied the television characters. They picked up girls at par­ties, held jobs, worked in the garden, or simply chatted with neighbors in the grocery checkout line. My stomach would tighten at such thoughts, and I’d curl into a self-pitying fetal position. Or pour another glass of wine.

Night after night I stared at myself in the mirror as I gulped sleeping pills. I wondered if I’d be taking them at 60. Or if I’d live to 60. But I clung to the belief that I took the pills for insomnia and drank to relax. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t sleep because I was addicted, or that my depression was a physical reaction to excessive alcohol consumption.

I became obsessed with the idea that my non-productivity made me a bad father and husband, a parasite, useless to society, and therefore worthless in the eyes of God. I wanted to die but lacked the courage or energy to act.

Despite my Jewish education, as a rationalist I could never really justify belief in God. So I tried to dismiss my worry about what God thought of me. If there was a God, I reasoned, he hadn’t done much for me. But if there wasn’t I was in big trouble, because my best efforts at life had reduced me to my present state.

I tried to fall back on my religion. But Judaism taught atonement for sins. Since I viewed myself as worthless, I figured that even if I spent the rest of my life atoning, I’d barely scratch the surface. And that still wouldn’t resolve my current situation.

Late one August night in 1982 I clutched a bottle of sleeping pills and wandered into the kitchen for some wine to wash them down. Before taking them, I padded barefoot into the bedroom where my wife slept. I loved her but didn’t think she’d miss me after all I’d put her through. Then I visited the bedrooms of my three daughters. I knew they loved me, even though I often ignored them except to yell. Leaving them, if cruel, seemed preferable to the example I was setting.

I plopped heavily onto the couch and gulped three or four swallows of wine, trying to sort my thoughts—or muster courage.

At that moment I heard a voice behind me. Startled, I looked around but saw no one in the darkened room. I couldn’t be sure if I’d really heard it or just imagined it. But it didn’t matter. It was the message I needed, and at the moment I needed it most.

“If you ever need a Savior,” the voice said, “remember Jesus.”

I set down the wine. Still clutching the pills, I prayed. Not the foreign utterings I had learned as a child. Not the “Amidah” or “Kaddish.” But a short plea from the heart to an unknown God. It was the first prayer I ever truly meant.

“Help me, Jesus,” I said. “Please help me.”

The next day, unexpectedly, my psychologist announced she was referring me to a psychiatrist for consultation. His first questions were, “How much do you drink?” and “How many pills do you take a day?” I’d been to a half-dozen therapists over the years, and none had ever asked if I drank. Nor had the ten or twelve doctors who prescribed my pills.

“I drink a glass of wine with dinner now and then,” I lied. “And I take a sleeping pill once or twice a week.”

It took two sessions to admit the extent of my consump­tion and realize I was an alcoholic and addict. “With that much depressant in your system,” the doctor explained, “it’s a miracle you’re still alive.” I haven’t had a pill or drink since.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of the new house in my recovery. It was not only across from the mental health clinic, but the county alcohol treatment center as well. In my with­drawn, reclusive state, across the street was as far as I dared venture for help.

For three weeks I walked to the treatment center every morning as my body rid itself of a lifetime of poison. I learned how alcoholism and addiction worked and the extent to which alcoholics lie to themselves to protect their chemical usage.

I didn’t dive headlong into Christianity. My faith grew slowly over the next two years. But if I wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge God as the Master of the Universe, I at least admitted that I wasn’t master of the universe.

I also had two miracles to ponder—the mysterious new house and the answered prayer for help. I at least owed Jesus a shot at me. So not long after I quit drinking, I asked my friend Randy to teach me about Jesus. Randy came over every Wed­nesday for a year as we studied the letters to the Hebrews and the Romans in the New Testament Scriptures.

Soon after, a friend invited me to a Passover seder at the First Baptist Church in town, conducted by Stuart Dauermann of Jews for Jesus. Over a long breakfast the next day, Stuart explained that accepting Jesus didn’t mean renouncing my heritage.

My association with Jewish believers in Jesus was invaluable. Such contact provides a much-needed support system for Jewish believers who often at first feel out of place among Christians.

Nevertheless, I dragged my spiritual feet for over a year. I continued my weekly studies, joined a Sunday school class at First Baptist, and hoped I’d never be challenged to make a real commitment.

Several events shook me loose, making clear to me that the Lord was urging me on. Finally, in August of 1983, my wife and I prayed under a weeping willow in our yard, with a Christian friend, to receive Jesus. A few weeks later, we made a tearful public acknowledgement of Jesus as our Lord at the Baptist Church before 400 believers.

I’m thankful that my wife, Patricia, has been supportive from the beginning; the Lord awakened her spiritual desires concurrent to mine, My relatives, however, live in Michigan and few of them know of my decision. I hope that reading this story will help them understand. Our children seem happy about our changed attitudes, but making a commitment to the Messiah did not shield us from the normal family crises of life. But instead of causing dissension and depression, each crisis has drawn Pat and me closer, strengthened our resolve, taught us something and increased our faith. Our financial survival is truly miraculous, considering our income. We’re happy, we’re able to give to others, and our children are thriving.

Having witnessed Jesus’ power to answer prayer and change lives, I have concluded that he is who he claims—the Jewish Messiah who provided the atoning sacrifice for sin—and that his promises to those believing him are real.

This conclusion required profound changes in my way of thinking. My misguided beliefs that we are the sole shapers of our destiny and that happiness could be attained through clever manipulation were first challenged, not by study of the Bible, but by Alcoholics Anonymous. While still in the treat­ment center, the following passage from an A.A. publication grabbed me:

Instead of regarding ourselves as intelligent agents, spearheads of God’s ever-advancing creation, we agnostics and atheists chose to believe that our human intelligence was the last word, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all.  Rather vain of us, wasn’t it? [1]

Not to mention grandiose and self-centered.

My belief in the power of reason was staggered. And I was able to understand what God was trying to tell me. Could the words recorded by the prophet Isaiah have been meant for me?

Truly, I shall further baffle that people
With bafflement upon bafflement;
And the wisdom of its wise shall fail,
And the prudence of its prudent shall vanish. (Isaiah 29:14 JPS)[2]

And Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthian believers described me exactly.

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (I Corinthians 1:21 NIV)[3]

God must deliberately leave room for “rational” explanations as he performs His miracles, to allow free choice in accepting Him. Ironically, He used my reasoning ability to finally bring me to faith.

My problems haven’t disappeared, of course. I still yell and worry too much. And I continue to wrestle with old ideas, habits and thought patterns. But I have a solution now—a dynamic relationship with a forgiving God, whom a Hebrew School teacher once told me doesn’t perform miracles anymore. I thank God daily for intervening in my life. I thank him for gifts I don’t deserve and never dreamed were possible. And I thank him for coming through when I needed a Savior.

[1] Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition, published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, New York, NY, 1976, p. 49.

[2] The Prophets-Nevi’im, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, PA, 1978, p. 416.

[3] The Holy Bible–New International Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI, 1978, p. 1223.