My dad almost died on the rooftop of my childhood church in Chateaugay, New York, a small Adirondack village about an hour from Lake Placid. It was a small country church with skinny strips of white siding and a steep roof that must have inspired the Olympic ski jump event. I’m not kidding. It was scary steep.
The roof needed new shingles. Guess who volunteered for the job? That’s right, my dad. There was no work bee. No potluck meal. No ice cream social afterward. There was nothing to entice, encourage, or cajole my father—or anything offered to make the job more pleasant, as far as I can remember. He was there because that’s where his heart told him he needed to be just then.
I remember the morning it happened. Dad strapped a wide leather belt securely around his waist, tied a safety line to its thick metal loop, and then attached it to the shiny chrome bumper of our Chevy Nova. There was absolutely no way he was tumbling off that roof. Brilliant!
Everything proceeded beautifully, according to Dad’s plan. The sun was warm, the air was crisp, and the birds were singing. I can still hear the hammer blows echoing throughout the Adirondacks as I reminisce. But shattering this Norman Rockwell moment are the frantic shouts of my father yelling for my mom—his wife—to stop the car!
She was running an errand to the corner market but she had forgotten the small detail of the safety rope tied to the bumper. Because of the loud motor, Mom couldn’t hear Dad shouting for her to “Stop the car! Stop the car!” Nor did she notice the taut rope straining against the bumper because she was looking through the rear window as she backed out the car.
Unfortunately for Dad, we were both on the opposite side of the church from Mom, who was backing up faster than my 4-year-old legs could carry my body around to flag her down.
Dad fumbled to free himself from the chunky safety belt of death (I can imagine sparks flinging from his fingernails as he clawed at the metal buckle in desperate panic). It was one of those moments when everything seemed to slow down. Except for Mom, who kept driving the car and probably merrily humming, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
As I rounded the corner of the church to the other side where the car was, I saw the empty safety belt scuttling down the shingles. Dad was out of breath and on his knees at the top, gripping the roof’s ridgeline like a cat in full-claw clinging to the curtains.
To this day, that’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me at church.
I liked that little church, and not just because exciting things happened from time to time. Yes, I liked it, even though it didn’t have many amenities. The hymnals were frayed. The pews seemed intentionally engineered to prevent one from becoming too comfortable and dozing off. And there was an outhouse in the back under the shade trees, if I remember correctly.
But the one amenity it did have was a sandbox in the musty basement. That’s where Mom taught me Sabbath school each week. She didn’t have any planning videos or puzzles or crafts, only a few felts to teach the lesson. She was there because that’s where her heart told her she needed to be just then.
I loved that green sandbox in the church basement. It was about three feet square, maybe six inches deep, and it squatted on four legs. The powder-white sand felt cool and tingly as I raked my fingers through it.
Now that I’m all grown up (a claim my wife might quickly challenge), I’ve noticed how much emphasis is placed on church buildings and facilities. I suppose that’s OK. But church for me was never about a building; it was about the people inside. While I loved that sandbox, I loved more the people—and from them I learned to love the Rock. For my parents, I can safely say it was about the Foundation upon which the structure was built—and that sentiment transferred to me.
A Supernatural Experience
It wasn’t long after my sandbox years that I was with my family in Ottawa, Canada, for an evangelistic campaign. This would be my first introduction to the world of the supernatural.
My job at the meeting each night was to put the potted plants and flowers on the stage and make sure the speaker had a glass of water on the pulpit. But what I enjoyed most was hearing the stories about the people Dad, a pastor, visited.
One of them was a man involved in the occult. The people in his secret order were upset with him for attending the meetings. Apparently, Satan wasn’t too thrilled either because the man was attacked in his apartment one night by a knife that was gripped by unseen hands.
Late one night during the series Dad left and returned several hours later. I learned afterward that he and some others had gone to protect this demon-terrorized man who, apparently, had received a death threat from the satanists. But the grace of God prevailed, as it always does, and the man was baptized soon after into a forever relationship with Jesus Christ.
I also remember the story about the baptism of a woman at another evangelistic series in a different location (she, too, was involved with the occult). Unseen forces possessed her as she descended into the tank. Her body stiffened and she couldn’t move. The pastors, deacons, and elders gathered round and prayed for her. Then, suddenly, something shoved her into the water.
All seemed well for the moment. But when the pastor tried baptizing her he couldn’t immerse her under the water. Something pushed against him. Finally, once she was submerged, the same unseen power held her under—the pastor couldn’t raise her up. But within moments, and after ceaseless praying, the supernatural battle for this woman’s life was over. She was raised effortlessly from the baptismal water. Jesus had liberated her from the dark forces that had once controlled her. She was free. And a new life in Him was hers to enjoy.
What did these stories do for me? I learned growing up Adventist that I am a soldier in a war. Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers on high. I covet these experiences from my early childhood because they defined religion for me. Religion has always been about delivering grace and freedom to people who were being oppressed and held captive by Satan, and reconnecting them to a loving heavenly Father who cares more about them than anything in the universe. And there are people He uses who have an incredible ability to bring those in need to Jesus’ feet.
There’s a Bible beside my computer that I’ve treasured since 1977 when I got it at a Bible-marking class in Platte, South Dakota, where Dad pastored a three-church district. I’ve kept this Bible with me since I was 11 years old. It was with me at Maplewood Academy in the eighties, when I graduated from Southern College (now Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee)—and it was with me still when I graduated from seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, in 1992. Why? Inside the flyleaf are some important autographs that remind me of some who have diligently served God. They also remind me of my life’s purpose.
To be sure, one of the most fun things for me growing up as an Adventist was meeting all the different speakers. I wanted to be just like them. I took my Bible to camp meetings and to evangelistic series where I asked speakers to autograph it.
In addition to my father’s name, here are a few of the autographs in my very special Bible, along with their favorite scripture, if given: Fordyce Detamore (Rom. 8:28); H.M.S. Richards, Sr.; H.M.S. Richards, Jr.; L. E. Tucker (1 John 5:11-13); John Thurber; Bob Thrower (Eph. 4:11, 12); William Fagal; George Vandeman (John 3:16); Dan Matthews (Phil. 4:13, 19); and, among others, Desmond Doss, the hero’s hero.
These men were my heroes because they were making a difference for Christ by advancing His grace throughout the world. They helped define for me what it meant to be a Christian—that being a Seventh-day Adventist meant having a clearly defined purpose, which is to encourage people with the glad news of Christ’s redeeming grace, that our citizenship is in heaven, and that we eagerly await a Savior from there!
They were my heroes then and they’re my heroes now. Even though most of them are no longer with us, I can still feel their fire because I carry their names in my Bible and empowering memories of them in my heart.
The Freedom Movement
Bumpers, sandboxes, and the supernatural aside, the most essential thing I learned growing up Adventist was that I’m part of a freedom movement—I’m part of a liberation force that’s carrying the good news to people.
This all-encompassing, all-consuming purpose has been the driving force of my life, although I admit I’ve not always lived up to it or always carried it out with the clarity, intention, or fervor I should have. It’s easy to let the insignificant realities often associated with mundane church work curb our enthusiasm. In tending fires it’s easy to neglect our own. We have to remember the reason why we were called by God, and if for some reason we’ve forgotten it, we should get on our knees and stay there until we remember it.
And for the pastors who might be reading this: God didn’t call you to be a referee. He called you to be the leader of a heavenward movement. Fulfill your calling with boldness. Go and make disciples for Christ. Reconnect people into an eternal relationship with their loving heavenly Father. Put your whole heart into it. Redemption is our calling. Eternity is our heritage. People are our mission.
One of my treasured memories, which has helped put this into perspective for me, is an interview I had with William Fagal at the South Dakota camp meeting when I was 10 years old. The junior department leader assigned me the interview with a worker of my choice. I chose Pastor Fagal.
With the chunky tape recorder in my sweaty hand, I marched into the meeting hall with all the intensity of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Edward R. Murrow, all wrapped into one. This was serious business.
Although Fagal was scheduled to speak in a few minutes, he was relaxed. He even pulled up a couple chairs for our chat. He had all the time in the world for this freckle-faced kid. He was happy, and smiled the whole time. I can still hear the congregation, on the other side of the wall, singing. I could barely hear Fagal’s voice as they sang, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.”
Fagal talked with me about Jesus and His love for us, and Christ’s soon return. I remember the hope and the joy—the exuberant expectation of a better day soon coming. Fagal and I talked for about 10 minutes before I returned to the junior department to play the interview for my group.
How to Live Forever
I learned many things growing up Adventist but keeping my eyes on Jesus is chief (besides remembering not to tie my safety line to the car bumper)—and the number of people at my resurrection is far more important than the number of people at my funeral.
The other night I was enjoying dinner with a colleague, his wife, and their two boys, Nicholas, 6, and Christian, 9. We were joking about our ages and our graying hair. But in the spirit of the moment I looked over at 6-year-old Nicholas and said, “I plan on living forever.”
He squeezed his eyebrows together and got really serious. “How do you live forever?” he asked.
No one has ever asked me how I plan on living forever, but the answer came to me quick as lightning. I looked at him and said, “You live forever by keeping your eyes on Jesus.”
I wondered how those words came to me so quickly. Then I remembered something. Most of the time after getting one of my heroes’ signatures, their parting words to me were these: “Keep your eyes on Jesus.”
Perhaps that advice is too simplistic for some, but it isn’t for me. The older I get the more profound those words become, and the more I understand them to be the truest essence of our experience and our message and how I became who I am today—just a kid who grew up Adventist, one who has every intention of living forever.
Lynell LaMountain writes from Orlando, Florida. This article was published August 26, 2010.