How God Is Making Me Into Who I’m Meant to Be

By Graham Howell

My story begins in the summer of 1975 when I was 22 years old. I had graduated from high school in southeastern Virginia four years earlier and since that time had been floundering, trying to figure out life. I wished I had gone to college. For three summers, I had seen high school classmates come home for the summer and then go back to school in the fall. If I had gone to college right after graduation, I would almost be done, I reasoned.

Instead, I had married, hoping that somehow marriage would provide security and a way forward in life. It turned out to be a disaster. The marriage fell apart after seven months, and so on top of all my insecurities and fears, I was feeling searing emotional pain and hurt from a relationship gone bad. I absolutely knew I needed help.

One summer day, after having worked a midnight shift and drinking a few beers, I was at a really low point. Just then, a clear distinct thought came into my head — help was to be found in the church. No one had offered that, or any other advice, as to what I should do. To this day, I think it was a clear, unmistakable prompting of the Holy Spirit. I immediately called the church that I had attended through my mid teens, but had been out of touch with for many years. I made an appointment with the pastor, hoping for divine intervention in my marriage.

Richmond, VA

What I expected when I went to that first appointment and what I got were very different. I expected the pastor to sit quietly listening to my story and then offer to pray for me. I would respond by saying thank you, put something in the offering plate, and show up for a sermon or two to show my appreciation. That didn’t happen. First, the pastor was a young man fresh out of seminary who listened well, asked questions, offered humble suggestions, pointed to relevant portions of Scripture and was willing to set up a series of appointments with me. He even gave me homework to do. He made it clear to me, however, that he was likely only a temporary fill-in at the church for the next six or so weeks. That disclosure made no difference to me. I didn’t know where he had come from or where he was going and I didn’t care. At that time my primary purpose was to somehow recruit God to fix my marriage. If he could fix the marriage and stop the pain, then I might just respond by paying a little more attention to him. I left my first appointment with hope. Looking back, I realize that God was about something much deeper, much bigger, much more loving.

It turned out to be a rough summer. It became obvious that the marriage wasn’t going to be repaired despite all the praying and repenting I could muster. However, I was beginning to change. I continued counseling with the pastor, but the emphasis was less on how to save the marriage and more on what needed fixing in me. “Work on the things that are in your control,” he would say.

At that time my primary purpose was to somehow recruit God to fix my marriage. If he could fix the marriage and stop the pain, then I might just respond by paying a little more attention to him.

At first, I thought it was me pursuing God, but actually it was quite the opposite – God was pursuing me. Sometime during the course of that summer–I can’t pinpoint a time or date–I confessed the mess I had made of my life and put my faith in Jesus. Those were raw, emotional days. Every part of my being screamed for relief, but through it all I felt Jesus holding me tight.

The first verse in the Bible that spoke personally to me was 1st Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape.” I absolutely clung to that verse and many times called my new friends at church to ask if that verse was really for me.

The pastor ended up staying at this little church for nine years, honing his preaching skills and walking with people through the ups and downs of their lives. I leaned heavily on him for counsel and asked all sorts of questions about life and faith. I was a baby Christian growing in my faith through prayer and Scripture, but what really authenticated the faith was the way he and his wife pursued and loved me. One expects to have family support in hard times, but this level of care from people who had only recently been strangers was incomprehensible to me. Why would someone do that, I thought? I recall one night coming out of a bar after a particularly hard day, feeling accused and alone, to find a handwritten note from them on my car telling me to come over when I could. They prayed for me, taught me, shared meals with me, even took me on vacation with them when the inevitable divorce became final. I will never forget how they poured into my life. It is a debt I will never repay.

I wasn’t sure I wanted any new challenges, but again, God was about something deeper, bigger, more loving.

It has been 45 years since that summer. Looking back, I realize that the answers to my babbled prayers in those early weeks were set in motion almost immediately, but they ended up looking very different than what I expected. Over time, God provided a community of friends that loved and supported me and that are still very important to me. We still share laughs over my uncanny ability to show up at their homes right about meal time. I eventually did go to college, graduating magna cum laude. Then came business school and a successful career in the transportation industry. Best of all, I am married to a woman that I pursued for years! I’m the guy who got the girl he always wanted. We have three children and five grandchildren. God is good.

As I was looking forward to retirement, I realized that my strong tendency in life has always been to just find a place of security and safety out of the line of fire, to travel in the middle of the pack–to have impact, but to risk little. I often feel the desire to just “circle the wagons,” be satisfied with where I am and what I have, shut out the world, and stay comfortable. I wasn’t sure I wanted any new challenges, but again, God was about something deeper, bigger, more loving.

Nearly six years ago my wife and I sensed the need to move away from the place I had lived for most of my life–the place I had gone to church, raised my family and lived comfortably among familiar people for many years. Most people would not understand why this was such a big deal because people move all the time. But not me. I was an army brat who had been displaced enough as a child to know that I wanted deep and lasting roots in one place. I wasn’t convinced that God could “re-root” me elsewhere. So leaving was hard. We told people we wanted to be nearer to work and my adult children, but the real reason was that we both felt spiritually stagnant. We both sensed a need to get out of our comfort zone. We were in danger of rusting out.

After the move, we started attending a PCA church plant in the northside of Richmond (NCR), a church committed to reflecting the racial, socioeconomic and age diversity of the neighborhood. At 62 years, we were at least 25 years older than most of the people in the church, so I felt like I could at least represent age diversity in the church!

It seemed crazy at the time and, yes, it sometimes still seems crazy, but I felt a pull to be part of this church experiment. We joined the church in March 2015, and it still represents one of the more unlikely and unanticipated changes of my life.

Unlikely, because I was brought up in a military family in a small blue collar town in southside Virginia–marked by a certain kind of traditional values and conservative politics. I was a Civil War enthusiast, steeped in the myth of the “Lost Cause,” convinced that lack of individual responsibility lies at the root of most social problems.

Unanticipated, because I never dreamed how many attitudes and assumptions that I had long held needed to be challenged. I had a high opinion of my spiritual maturity and biblical literacy, but I still had so much to learn. It hasn’t been easy. I am continually humbled, but I am also becoming a better listener and a better friend. Today, I am an elder at NCR and enjoy spending many hours with the young men in my church — supporting, listening, helping, and praying.

I had a high opinion of my spiritual maturity and biblical literacy, but I still had so much to learn.

As has often been the case in my life, I had one thing in mind, but God had another. I was quite content to be the average pew-warming parishioner, but just as I was nudged to make that appointment with the pastor back in 1975 and nudged to move to a new place, I was nudged once again to consider how my retirement years could be used productively.

I’ve been thinking lately about how hard it is to finish life well. Besides the physical and mental challenges of growing older, there is the continual temptation to listen to the voice of our culture telling us to “take it easy,” “relax,” “just enjoy life.” But God calls us to repent, grow, and serve until the day we die. Lord, let it be so in my life.

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