I spent my high school years in Atascadero, Calif., (that's uh-task-a-DARE-oh) a secluded slice of heaven 15 miles inland and halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In the early '70s, the town was shaded by hundreds of towering oak trees and had 10,000 residents hidden in the folds and crevices of its rolling coastal hills. We were so far from the nearest known sin that our high school needed a dormitory to house students living farther than 50 miles.
Across the street from the dormitory and downhill from the high school, my father pastored the First Southern Baptist Church, which I attended three times a week. While people in big-city churches wore bell-bottomed trousers or maxi dresses, our men wore jeans and boots and the women wore, uh, jeans and boots.
One Sunday night, in the midst of a lethargic hymn, I heard the vestibule door rattle. I turned to see three latecomers taking seats on our back pew.
Two of them were shoeless and unwashed bearded men who walked on the cuffs of their tattered jeans and had stringy long hair. The third was a woman who wasn't dressed much better in her fringed skirt and brown vest.
I wondered if these were drug-addicted hippies I'd only read about. Had they finally come to repent for their numerous sins? Were they planning a sit-in?
I immediately started praying something like this:
"God, thank you for bringing these lost ones among us. Please help them ask Jesus into their hearts."
As quickly as I'd said "Amen," the three of them walked the side aisle and took seats in the front row.
I sat in the glowing belief that my prayer had been stunningly effective. What would I pray next? Perhaps I'd pray that my science teacher would repent from teaching evolution. Or maybe my English teacher would seek atonement for living with his girlfriend.
As my father walked to the pulpit, I said a quick prayer that sounded more like I was ordering a lightning strike.
"Now, God! Now! Let them hear your word and repent."
But the only voice I heard was my father saying, "We have a guest speaker from San Luis Obispo. He's the president of the Baptist Student Union at California Polytechnic University."
"Wow," I thought. "That's the kind of God-fearing speaker these vagabonds need."
As I peered over the pews searching for our mystery guest, the "unwashed hippie" stood and thanked my dad for hosting him.
I was breathless with incredulity, but mostly overwhelmed with shame as the man shared his heart for reaching people through God's love.
My prayers had ricocheted off my target and struck my hypocritical heart. I was the one in need of repentance. It was I who was unwashed.
My thoughts went back to a sermon I'd heard my father preach from the Book of Acts. In the story, Peter has a vision in which he is offered nonkosher food. Of course, he refuses, but God's voice in the vision is clear.
"Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
At the end of the day, Peter's vision wasn't about food, it was about God's universal acceptance of all people. As Peter would later explain, "God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean."
I can't tell you what the "hippie" from Cal Poly preached about that night, but these many years later I have clearly recounted the sermon God intended me to hear.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of "No Small Miracles." He is an Air National Guard chaplain. You may leave recorded comments at 843-608-9715, or email them to email@example.com, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit thechaplain.net.
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