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At first glance, it seemed that there was nothing on the page to interest me. It carried a pen drawing of a trial taking place in New York City, 350 miles away. I'd never been to New York, and I never wanted to go, except perhaps to see the Statue of Liberty.
I started to flip the page over. But as I did, my attention was caught by the eyes of one of the figures in the drawing. A boy. One of seven boys on trial for murder. The artist had caught such a look of bewilderment and hatred and despair in his features that I opened the magazine wide again to get a closer look. And as I did, I began to cry.
'What's the matter with me!' I said aloud, impatiently brushing away a tear. I looked at the picture more carefully. The boys were all teen-agers. They were members of a gang called the Dragons. Beneath their picture was the story of how they had gone into Highbridge Park in New York and brutally attacked and killed a fifteen-year-old polio victim named Michael Farmer. The seven boys stabbed Michael in the back seven times with their knives, then beat him over the head with garrison belts.They went away wiping blood through their hair, saying, 'We messed him good.'
The story revolted me. It turned my stomach. In our little mountain town such things seemed mercifully unbelievable.
That's why I was dumbfounded by a thought that sprang suddenly into my head - full-blown, as though it had come into me from somewhere else.
Go to New York City and help those boys.
I laughed out loud. 'Me? Go to New York? A country preacher barge into a situation he knows less than nothing about?'
Go to New York City and help those boys. The thought was still there, vivid as ever, apparently completely independent of my own feelings and ideas.
'I'd be a fool. I know nothing about kids like that. I don't want to know anything.'
It was no use. The idea would not go away: I was to go to New York, and furthermore I was to go at once, while the trial was still in progress.
* * *
In order to understand what a complete departure such an idea was for me, it is necessary first to know that until I turned that page, mine had been a very predictable life. Predictable, but satisfying. The little mountain church which I served in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, had grown slowly but steadily. We had a new church building, a new parsonage, a swelling missionary budget. There was satisfaction for me in our growth, because four years earlier when Gwen and I first drove into Philipsburg as candidates for the empty pulpit, the church didn't even have a building of its own. The congregation of fifty members was meeting in a private house, using the upstairs as the parsonage and the downstairs for the sanctuary.
When the Pulpit Committee was showing us around, I remember, Gwen's heel went right through the 'parsonage' floor.
'Things do need fixing up a bit,' admitted one of the church women, a large lady in a cotton print dress. I remember noticing that her hands had little cracks around the knuckles and that the cracks were filled with dirt from farm work. 'We'll just leave you to look around.'
And so Gwen continued her tour of the second floor alone. I could tell by the way she was closing doors that she was unhappy. But the real blow came when she opened a kitchen drawer. I heard her scream and rushed upstairs. They were still there, scurrying about: seven or eight big fat black cockroaches.
Gwen slammed the drawer shut.
'Oh, Dave, I just couldn't!' she cried.
And without waiting for me to answer, she raced to the hall and ran down the stairs, her high heels clacking loudly. I made hurried apologies to the Committee and followed Gwen over to the hotel - the only hotel in Philipsburg - where I found her waiting for me with the baby.
'I'm sorry, honey,' Gwen said. 'They're such nice people, but I'm scared to death of cockroaches.'
She was already packed. It was obvious that as far as Gwen was concerned, Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, would have to find another candidate.
But things didn't work out that way. We couldn't go before evening because I was scheduled to preach the Sunday night service. I don't remember that it was a good sermon. Yet something about it seemed to strike the fifty people in this little house-church. Several of the rough-handed farmers, sitting there before me, were blowing into their handkerchiefs. I wound up the sermon and was mentally getting into my car and driving out through the hills away from Philipsburg when suddenly one old gentleman stood right up in the service and said,
'Reverend Wilkerson, will you come and be our pastor?'
It was a rather unorthodox thing to do, and it caught everyone by surprise, including my wife and me. The people in this small Assembly of God church had been trying to choose between several candidates. They had been dead-locked for weeks, and now old Mr Meyer was taking matters into his own hands and inviting me from the floor. But instead of drawing fire, he found himself surrounded by nodding heads and voices of approval.
'You go outside for a minute and talk it over with your wife,' Mr Meyer said. 'We'll join you.'
Outside in the dark car, Gwen was silent. Debbie was asleep in her wicker basket in the back seat, our suitcase was propped up next to her, packed and ready to go. And in Gwen's silence was a quiet protest against cockroaches.
'We need help, Gwen,' I said hurriedly. 'I think we should pray.'
'Ask Him about those roaches,' Gwen said darkly.
'All right, I'll do just that.'
I bowed my head. There in the dark outside that little church I made an experiment in a special kind of prayer which seeks to find God's will through a sign. 'Putting a fleece before the Lord,' it is called, because Gideon, when he was trying to find God's will for his life, asked that a sign be made with a fleece. He placed a lamb's fleece on the ground and asked Him to send down dew everywhere but there. In the morning, the ground was soaked with dew, but Gideon's fleece was dry: God had granted him a sign.
'Lord,' I said aloud, 'I would like to put a fleece before You now. Here we are ready to do Your will if we can just find out what it is. Lord, if You want us to stay here in Philipsburg, we ask that You let us know by having the Committee vote for us unanimously. And let them decide of their own accord to fix up the parsonage with a decent refrigerator and stove ...'
'And Lord,' said Gwen, interrupting because just then the front door of the church opened and the Committee started toward us, 'let them volunteer to get rid of those cockroaches.'
The whole congregation followed the Committee outside and gathered around the car where Gwen and I now stood. Mr Meyer cleared his throat. As he spoke, Gwen squeezed my hand in the dark.
'Reverend and Mrs Wilkerson,' he said. He paused and commenced again. 'Brother David. Sister Gwen. We've taken a vote and everyone agrees that we want you to be our new pastor. Hundred per cent. If you decide to come, we'll fix up the parsonage with a new stove and things, and Sister Williams says we'll have to fumigate the place.'
'To get rid of those cockroaches,' added Mrs Williams, addressing herself to Gwen.
In the light that streamed over the lawn from the open front door of the church, I could see that Gwen was crying. Later, back in the hotel, after we'd finished with handshaking all around, Gwen said that she was very happy.
* * *
And we were happy in Philipsburg. The life of a country preacher suited me perfectly. Most of our parishioners were either farmers or coal workers, honest, God-fearing and generous. They brought in tithes of canned goods, butter, eggs, milk and meat. They were creative, happy people, people you could admire and learn from.
After I'd been there a little more than a year, we purchased an old baseball lot on the edge of town, where Lou Gehrig had once played ball. I remember the day I stood on home plate, looked out toward the infield, and asked the Lord to build us a church right there with the cornerstone on home plate and the pulpit at shortstop. And that's what happened, too.
We built a parsonage next door to the church, and as long as Gwen was mistress of that house, no vermin had a chance. It was a pretty little five-room pink bungalow with a view of the hills out one side and the white cross of the church out the other.
Gwen and I worked hard in Philipsburg, and we had a certain kind of success. By New Year's Day, 1958, there were 250 people in the parish - including Bonnie, a new little daughter of our own.
And I was restless. I was beginning to feel a kind of spiritual discontent that wasn't satisfied by looking at the new church building on its five acres of hilltop land, or the swelling missionary budget, or the crowding in the pews. I remember the precise night on which I recognized it, as people do remember important dates in their lives. It was February 9, 1958. On that night I decided to sell my television set.
It was late, Gwen and the children were asleep, and I was sitting in front of the set watching the 'Late Show'. The story somehow involved a dance routine in which a lot of chorus girls marched across the set in just-visible costumes. I remember thinking suddenly how dull it all was.
'You're getting old, David,' I warned myself.
But try as I would, I could not get my mind back on the threadbare little story and the girl - which one was it? - whose destiny on the stage was supposed to be a matter of palpitating interest to every viewer.
I got up and turned the knob and watched the young girls disappear into a little dot in the center of the screen. I left the living room and went into my office and sat down in the brown leather swivel chair.
'How much time do I spend in front of that screen each night?' I wondered. 'A couple of hours, at least. What would happen, Lord, if I sold that TV set and spent that time - praying?' I was the only one in the family who ever watched TV anyway.
What would happen if I spent two hours every single night in prayer? It was an exhilarating idea. Substitute prayer for television, and see what happened.
Right away I thought of objections to the idea. I was tired at night. I needed the relaxation and change of pace. Television was part of our culture; it wasn't good for a minister to be out of touch with what people were seeing and talking about.
I got up from my chair and turned out the lights and stood at my window looking out over the moonlit hills. Then I put another fleece before the Lord, one which was destined to change my life. I made it pretty hard on God, it seemed to me, because I really didn't want to give up television.
'Jesus,' I said, 'I need some help deciding this thing, so here's what I'm asking of You. I'm going to put an ad for that set in the paper. If You're behind this idea, let a buyer appear right away. Let him appear within an hour ... within half an hour ... after the paper gets on the streets.'
When I told Gwen about my decision next morning, she was unimpressed. 'Half an hour!' she said. 'Sounds to me, Dave Wilkerson, like you don't want to do all that praying.'
Gwen had a point, but I put the ad in the paper anyhow. It was a comical scene in our living room after the paper appeared. I sat on the sofa with the television set looking at me from one side, the children and Gwen looking at me from another, and my eyes on a great big alarm clock beside the telephone.
Twenty-nine minutes passed by the clock.
'Well, Gwen,' I said, 'it looks like you're right. I guess I won't have to ...'
The telephone rang.
I picked it up slowly, looking at Gwen.
'You have a TV set for sale?' a man's voice asked.
'That's right. An RCA in good condition. Nineteen-inch screen, two years old.'
'How much to you want for it?'
'One hundred dollars,' I said quickly. I hadn't thought about what to ask for it until that moment.
'I'll take it,' the man said, just like that.
'You don't even want to look at it?'
'No. Have it ready in fifteen minutes. I'll bring the money.'
* * *
My life has not been the same since. Every night at midnight, instead of flipping some dials, I stepped into my office, closed the door, and began to pray. At first the time seemed to drag and I grew restless. Then I learned how to make systematic Bible-reading a part of my prayer life: I'd never before read the Bible through, including all the begats. And I learned how important it is to strike a balance between prayer of petition and prayer of praise. What a wonderful thing it is to spend a solid hour just being thankful. It throws all of life into a new perspective.
It was during one of these late evenings of prayer that I picked up Life magazine.
I'd been strangely fidgety all night. I was alone in the house; Gwen and the children were in Pittsburgh visiting grandparents. I had been at prayer for a long time. I felt particularly close to God, and yet for reasons I could not understand I also felt a great, heavy sadness. It came over me all at once and I wondered what it could possibly mean. I got up and turned on the lights in the study. I felt uneasy, as though I had received orders but could not make out what they were.
'What are you saying to me, Lord?'
I walked around the study, seeking to understand what was happening to me. On my desk lay a copy of Life. I reached over and started to pick it up, then caught myself. No, I wasn't going to fall into that trap: reading a magazine when I was supposed to be praying.
I started prowling around the office again and each time I came to the desk my attention was drawn to that magazine.
'Lord, is there something in there You want me to see?' I said aloud, my voice suddenly booming out in the silent house.
I sat down in my brown leather swivel chair and with a pounding heart, as if I were on the verge of something bigger than I could understand, I opened the magazine. A moment later I was looking at a pen drawing of seven boys, and tears were streaming down my face.
The next night was Wednesday prayer meeting at church. I decided to tell the congregation about my new twelve-to-two prayer experiment, and about the strange suggestion that had come out of it.
Wednesday night turned out to be a cold, snowy midwinter evening. Not many people showed up; the farmers, I think, were afraid of being caught in town by a blizzard.
Excerpted from The Cross and the Switchable by David Wilkerson
Copyright © 2002 by Zondervan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.