Thank-you, Vern Peterson, for a gift you gave me 34 years ago.
It was the summer of 1980, and I was at home in Greensboro after spending a semester in Venice, Italy. I was going into my senior year at Wake Forest and I was floundering.
Vern was the youth minister at First Baptist that summer, and offered to lead a College and Career Bible Study. That was part of the gift, but not the most important part.
I was having a crisis of faith. I had grown up going to church every time the doors were open, and church had always been a warm and comfortable place. I took my Christianity seriously. I went to church camp and youth group and choir and sang “Pass it on”, and believed that if I did all the right things -i.e., made good grades, didn’t drink, stayed “pure”, and went to church all the time – I would have a happy life.
Then my sister died of cancer and my theology was blown out of the water.
I could not wrap my mind around how this could happen to our family. My father was chairman of the deacons and a leader in the church, and Mama was always there to lead our GA group or bring a cake to the family night suppers. They were good people and had done everything right. How could this horrendous thing have happend?
I was angry with God and decided I had had enough of Him. As I started college, I quit going to church except when at home and then I had trouble keeping back the tears. I did the usual college frat parties and nights out, but I never took too well to the wild life. Still I couldn’t understand the point of being a Christian if bad things were going to happen anyway. So by the time that summer rolled around I felt hopeless and depressed and totally adrift.
Baptists have a saying, “Once saved, always saved”, and I believe in it because God never took His hand off of me. During those years of wandering in the wilderness, nothing too bad happened and I still had my family and wonderful friends. By the beginning of that summer, it was as if God looked down and said, “Okay, I’ve let Millicent stumble around long enough, time to bring her back in.” I specifically remember waking up one morning very hungover and saying, “Something has got to change.” I got down on my knees in my bedroom and said, “God, I’m not sure you’re up there, but I’m going to take a chance that you are,” and felt a peace come back into my life.
And then God brought Vern and the College and Career Bible Study into my life. A group of old and new friends began meeting in Vern and Paula’s little house once a week, and we became a tight group. What started out as a bleak and boring summer turned into one of the best of my life.
But here’s the real gift Vern gave me back then: he let me question and didn’t give me a lot of answers. I was no longer just accepting what I was told – I was thinking and testing and searching. I had found out life was not the safe place I had once thought and I had to figure out how to trust God in the middle of all that.
Vern listened to me and was not shocked or upset by my questions. He was not a ‘Rah, Rah’ kind of youth minister, but a strong and steady guy, which was what I needed. I wanted answers immediately, but Vern was thoughtful and patient. At one point when I was badgering him over “God’s Will For My Life”, he said that he had found that when you pray about something and turn it over to God, it works itself out. Wise words that I have held onto for these many years.
Vern has just retired from his job as pastor at First Baptist Church in Denton, NC, but we all know the saying: “Preachers never retire, they just go out to pasture.” I know he and Paula will contine to minister no matter what they are doing. No one but God knows how many lives they have touched over the past 35 years! Thank-you Vern, for being there for me when I needed a guiding hand on the quest that continues still today!