Amazing Grace

by Mike Bellah, Ph.D.

The following piece was written for the annual Hidden Falls Ranch Dessert Banquet, held at the Garden Center in Amarillo on November 9, 2009

On a stormy, summer night in 1966, a troubled, rebellious 17-year-old, who had come to camp looking for fast horses and pretty girls, gave his heart to Jesus at Hidden Falls Ranch. This is his story.

I have pleasant memories of childhood. My parents, who had survived both the great depression and the great war, tried to give us everything denied them as children, which, each Christmas, meant enough packages spread around the four Bellah kids that our living room filled waist high with discarded wrapping paper. Specifically, I remember 1959, when my brother Craig and I found 410-gauge, bolt-action shotguns under the tree. 

Wasting no time, we set out on our first hunting expedition through the field behind our house toward Tierra Blanca Creek. We were looking for jackrabbits, but when we found none, we decided to try our luck with ducks on the creek. If you've done any duck hunting, you know you hunt them from a blind using decoys. You don't sneak up on wild ducks, something we soon found out. 

But we continued walking west, upstream, hoping to surprise a flock of stupid ducks, and we did. They weren't stupid exactly; they were Tommy Hunter's tame ducks. I know what you're thinking. Surely you wouldn't; you couldn't; you didn't. 

Yep, we would, we could and we did. We lured a particularly friendly bird away from his friends and executed him. I can still picture him flopping on the ground, a sight that for most of my life has made me an infrequent hunter. 

Our crime did not go undetected, and Dad and Mr. Hunter did some figuring and decided the cost of one tame duck was 30 days rounding up the Hunter dairy cows for their evening milking, something Craig and I did on horseback every afternoon in January of 1960. I share this story to give you an idea of the kind of child I was: adventuresome, prone to mischief, but secure in the knowledge I had parents who loved and cared for me.

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy fell to an assassin's bullet as he rode in a mid-day motorcade through downtown Dallas. Four days later, along with the rest of the nation, I watched six gray horses draw a caisson carrying the President's coffin through Washington. In military tradition the right side horses were riderless. 

The picture is permanently etched in the memory of us older baby boomers, even more so for me, because I watched it on a hospital's TV where my dad was recuperating from gall bladder surgery. It's the first scene in a story of his demise, his fall from invisibility, from hero-worship by his youngest son. 

Dad was my hero. After WWII, he had returned from Europe, where he served with Patton's 3rd Army, to take over the family grocery business in Canyon, expanding it in the 1950s to include a chain of convenience stores in Amarillo. Dad's success gave his four children—three boys and a girl—an ideal childhood. We had horses, new cars as teenagers, a cabin at the country club, another in Red River, a big house in Canyon's newest neighborhood, a motorboat to ski behind on Buffalo Lake. Everything we wanted. 

Everything except time with Dad, but he was going to change that, just as soon as, well, as soon as things got better.

But things didn't get better. Dad's physical illness was not his greatest problem. A few months earlier, he had sold the convenience stores (now 12 of them). It was the height of his financial success, but the result was anything but success in his personal life. I don't know if it was unresolved grief from his own father's death, or the emptiness men sometimes feel when they reach the top and it doesn't produce the happiness they expect, but Dad suddenly had a huge hole in his soul, a hole he tried to fill with alcohol. He wasn't yet 40 years old. 

Memories of Dad's alcoholism, like short movie trailers, still play in my head. I'll share a few of them, but, as anyone who has grown up with an alcoholic knows, there are dozens.

In one, I'm in the den listening to Mom and Doc Nester whispering in the hallway. It's the middle of a Sunday afternoon, and Dad is sequestered in his bedroom. I don't know why, but I do know he has spent a lot of time there lately. I try to hear what the adults are saying. They are scary words for a preadolescent, words like "depression" and "suicide,"  and "pistol."

In another memory, Dad has taken me to a grocers' convention in Austin. I am along so I can get a look at the University of Texas, where I hope to attend one day. It's the first night in the motel—actually, it is about 3:00 the next morning—I'm in bed by myself where I had fallen asleep watching TV, waiting for Dad to get back from a meeting, worrying. Did he have an accident? Get lost? Should I call someone? 

I wake to the light of a snow-filled TV screen and the sounds of its irksome static mixed with the muffled voices of men outside our door. They seem to be fumbling with the lock. The next minute they're carrying the unconscious secretary of the Texas Grocers Association, in his crumpled business suit, and laying him on the unmade bed next to mine. 

"Found 'im in the parking lot. Guess he didn't make it home," one of them says sheepishly, avoiding eye contact with me. The next morning I was on a plane back home, alone. Dad and I never talked about that night. I'm not sure he even remembered it. 

In still another memory all six of us are packed in the family car, a new, 1963 Oldsmobile sedan, in front of our cabin in Red River. On the drive up, my father's depression has been palpable. Dad has attempted to make it up the cabin's steep, snow covered driveway when the engine stalls. Staring straight ahead with that same, hollow look he has maintained for the entire six-hour trip, he seems unaware of what has happened. 

"Honey, you're dead," says Mom. 

Dad forces a laugh, but he isn't smiling. "Yeah, I know," he says. 

We all knew. 

Concurrent with Dad's struggle, I developed my own mental disorder . It began when, along with my friend Steve Hilton, I was to star in a sixth grade play. In one of the beginning practices, I muffed the lines, and I don't know why—I was a confident and loquacious kid—but I was traumatized. Not just embarrassed. Traumatized—so much so that the next time we tried the scene, I opened my mouth to speak and nothing came out. Nothing. I just stood there, mouth open. And, then, my embarrassment turned to fear. 

For the next eight years, I was controlled by this phobia. First, I withdrew from the play. Actually, as I remember it, I became such a behavior problem that our music teacher, Mr. Murray, cancelled the event. Then, I began to experience the problem in regular classes. I especially had trouble any time I had to utter a specific word on cue from a teacher. So I could talk to someone in a normal conversation, but if I had to read aloud, or answer a particular question, including answering roll, I froze. 

And, since this was even more embarrassing, I found ways to avoid the situations. I skipped classes; I came late; I lost contact lenses when a teacher called on me for something. At home I didn't answer the phone. 

I finally told my parents about the problem, and they sent me to a psychiatrist and then a psychologist, but neither helped much. The psychiatrist was a Freudian and had me look at ink blots and tell what I saw there. Was he kidding? I was a teenage male. And the behaviorist had me record and then listen to myself talking. But I already knew I could talk when no one was listening. 

For one who has not struggled with mental illness, it must be hard to relate to my feelings. Imagine being unable to walk, and then imagine that others still expect you to. After all, there is nothing physically wrong with your legs. In fact, others have seen you walk when you thought no one was watching. Thus, if you do not walk on cue, you must be pretending or simply obstinate. So some get angry; others make fun of you; still others just leave you alone. And the emotional result can be seen when I look at photos from these years; It's in my eyes. I was a sullen, fearful, angry teenager.

So for much of the '60s, my dad and I both struggled with our demons. He spent some time in a hospital receiving treatment for clinical depression (back then they called it having a nervous breakdown), but the relief was at best temporary. I, on the other hand, stayed in trouble of one sort or the other. I began drinking and getting drunk. And I did some illegal things, some of which I thought of as pranks. 

For instance, in the Spring of 1965 the Canyon Police Department got a new radar, and one officer decided to try it out on a Saturday afternoon . As I was making the drag in my 1963 Chevy Nova, I noticed him on 23rd street, stopped, facing south, in front of the elementary school. Half a dozen vehicles were parked behind his patrol car. He couldn't give tickets fast enough, so he had each wait while he caught up on his paper work. It just didn't seem fair to this sophomore in high school.

So I did something about it. I went home, got some poster board and a fire-engine red magic marker and wrote my sign: "RADAR TRAP AHEAD." I placed it on the rear bumper of the Nova and parked heading south in front of the A & W Root Beer, a couple of blocks north of the object of my warning. I'm not sure what I expected to happen. Surely, the officer would get suspicious when people started going by slowly, maybe waving as they did. Or maybe a good, decent law-abiding citizen (who I was not) would stop and tell him about me. So I just slouched against the back of my seat, and listened to KPUR 1440 in Amarillo, where in 1965 I might have heard such new hits as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by the Righteous Brothers" or the not-so-righteous "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones.

The patrolman saw me at the same moment I spotted him, both of us looking in our rear view mirrors, he to read my sign, and I to see him turning on his flashers and making a U-turn. If it had been a fair chase down Highway 87 and out of town, I would have been no match for him (his patrol car was much faster than the Nova). However, it was not a fair chase, for the race took place on the side streets and back alleys of my hometown, pathways I had taken hundreds of times on my bicycle. Yes, I was Brer Rabbit, and Brer Fox had "done flung me in the briar patch." 

Ten minutes later, I drove into my driveway on Holman Lane, parked and went in the den to watch TV. A little later Mother walked by and said something about borrowing my car to get groceries. Yep—when Mom passed 23rd street, traveling west on 5th, a black and white with siren blaring and lights flashing appeared behind her. I'm sure the officer was a bit flustered when he saw who was driving, but Mother knew—as mothers do—who it was he sought.

Most of my other lawless deeds, often done in concert with other troubled teens, were neither cute nor harmless—if, in fact, this one was. I am embarrassed by them. I hurt others with those deeds. Ironically, I hurt me, too. I became more isolated, more depressed, more fearful, more angry, more guilty, more ashamed.

Then, in the spring of 1965, my Uncle Barney told Dad about a new youth camp, a Christian camp on the rim of the Palo Duro. They needed wranglers, and Barney knew how much I loved horses. He also knew how much I needed Jesus. And I'm pretty sure he said something about pretty girls and fast horses.

So I attended Hidden Falls the very first year of its existence, but only stayed long enough to get my name on that celebrated plaque in the conference room. And no, I don’t know Michael Martin Murphy; he was there the last two weeks of camp, not the first two. Although fear and stubbornness kept me from a decision that summer, I did leave with two important things. One, I saw real Christianity and real Christians for the first time. I had gone to church all my life. To me God was the creator of the universe, a powerful and kindly gentleman to be sure, but not a personal Savior, not a friend of sinners, not one with whom you could have a relationship.

The staff at HFR changed that perception. They modeled his love, his joy, his peace. They put a face on God. And it blew me away. I wanted what they had. But as I said, I was too fearful—afraid that what worked for them wouldn't work for me (I was just too bad, too lost), and I was stubborn. I wasn't ready to give up a lifestyle I knew was wrong.

There was a second result of that summer at camp. I gave up drinking. That is, when I went back to complete my junior year at CHS, I would hold a can of beer at parties, but wouldn't drink more than a few sips. Not because I had reformed. It's just that when I did get high, I'd start to cry. And I couldn't stop. When the Bible talks about the Holy Spirit's role, convicting the world of sin, I know what that feels like.

So when the summer of '66 came around I was ready to surrender. I had tried everything else, all the things my peers said made you happy, and I was miserable. I was ready to give Jesus a chance.

So on a stormy June night, during the second week of camp, I listened through the wall to a counselor on the other side of my cabin give a devotional to his campers. He was sharing a piece by Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ called The Four Spiritual Laws. When he came to Law Four—You must receive Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior by faith—he asked if anyone wanted to ask Jesus into his life.

They didn't, but I did, and so began my new life of freedom, not perfect freedom, but freedom just the same: guilt-relieving, habit-breaking, fear-stopping, resentment-ending, acceptance-producing, peace-and-joy-giving freedom. With my speech problem, it took me several minutes to stutter through a simple prayer, one in which I admitted my sin, thanked Jesus for dying to pay the penalty for that sin, and asked Him to come into my heart, but I got through it. And I got through the week without the self-loathing and fear that had haunted me for so long. And then I got through the month, and then the summer. And then . . . . John Newton got it right: It is "Amazing Grace." 

I wish I had more time to tell you how I've experienced that amazing grace, of how His grace molded me, of how that summer changes in me led to the conversions of my brother Craig and sister D'Lynne. Of how Dad came to faith two years later. How he came in one night, poured out all the alcohol he had stashed around the house and told us he was giving his life to Jesus. I'd like to tell you how our gracious God led me to Charlotte, the cute archery instructor I met at Hidden Falls. Yes, there were fast horses and pretty girls there. And I'd like to tell you how God's grace sustained me during the '70s when I became the director of Hidden Falls, and later in the '90s when I became a board member.

Grace. As my Bible college profs used to say, it means more than God's unmerited or unearned favor. It's his favor directed towards those of us who deserve the opposite. We (certainly I) deserve his judgment. And not just for what I did back them. I wish I had time to tell you how I've experienced God's grace in more recent days. I'd like to share some of my failures, too, because as bad as they were, as embarrassed about them as I am, that's when I got to know Him best. That's when Jesus seemed to change me most. My novelette tells some of those stories. I hope you'll read it.

I want to end with a single story, the story of how God addressed my fear of speaking. 

It was April 1969, and Charlotte and I were serving as volunteer youth sponsors at the Methodist church in Canyon. The kids had decided to have a youth rally and invite their un-churched friends. Of course, they would form a folk rock group, because that's what one did for entertainment at youth rallies back then, and, of course, several youth group members would share their testimonies of what Christ had done for them—that's what Billy Graham did at his crusades (only he used celebrities and we didn't have any celebrities living in Canyon at the time)—and, of course, the kids would hold this rally at the Bull Barn (a county owned barn of sorts, so named because livestock shows were held there), and, of course, they would need a speaker for this rally, someone to tell the audience how each of them could come to know Jesus, and, of course, that speaker would be me. 

"Whoa!" I said. Then I explained it to them. Sure, God had changed me a lot in the last three years, but Billy Graham I was not. I still had trouble getting words to come out when addressing a small group. I could stumble through a Bible study with a few patient kids, but that was it. And I told these young people so. However, they persisted. 

"God will give you the words," they said. "You know, like you're always telling us." 

As a youth leader, you know you're in trouble when your kids start quoting you to you. So I consented, not having a clue of what I would do. Or maybe I thought God would do something miraculous, like sending Billy Graham through Canyon on his way to a crusade in a big city, like, say, Lubbock, and his tour bus would break down on U.S. 87 north of town, and Rev. Graham would call for a tow truck, and the phone would ring at Dorris Garage, and it would be answered by Glenn Dorris who was a Methodist, and Glenn would bring the famous preacher by the Bull Barn, and . . . .  Yeah, right. 

Anyway, there I was 30 minutes before the rally sitting in my car outside the Barn listening to the musical group take a last turn through their numbers, and searching frantically in my Bible for some verse that would tell me what in blazes I was supposed to do. And I found it. Really. I was reading Paul in II Corinthians 12. The apostle is telling how he prayed for God to take away a weakness, but, instead of removing Paul's problem, his "thorn in the flesh," Jesus said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." A few lines later Paul concludes, "For when I am weak, I am strong."

I took this to mean that what God wanted from me that night was simply willingness—availability, not power. My job was to get up in front of the kids prepared to tell them about Jesus. God's job was to give me the power to do so effectively. He knew my weakness. He knew I couldn't do it by myself. So I prayed a prayer that went something like this:

"God, I don't know why You do what You do. I don't know why You chose to let me in Your family. And I certainly don't know why You chose me to give this talk. You and I both know I can't. But I'm going to get up there, and I'm going to open my mouth, and if the words come, I'll thank You for it. And if they don't, well, then I guess I'll just stand there speechless. I don't know why You'd want that to happen, but I'm willing to do it, even to be embarrassed if that's where this leads.

That was it. I felt—well, I wouldn't call it peace —I was still afraid. Now, I guess, I call it faith—not because I was sure God would do a miracle, but because I was sure I was doing what He wanted, and, whatever happened, He would make it turn out for good. So, when the time came to speak, I spoke—unbroken, unhesitating, sincere and passionate words about the God who loves us and wants to have a relationship with lost, unworthy people. I glanced once at Charlotte. Her eyes were wide, her mouth open. And kids came to Jesus that night.

That was 40 years ago, and ever since I've had a job that involves public speaking, a lot of public speaking. People who know me would say it's my strength. But I know better. It's God's strength, and He does His best work when He does it in weak vessels like me. 

It's what His grace is all about. And sharing that grace is what Hidden Falls Ranch is all about.

If you want to comment on this column, visit the Fortis Press Blog and find November 10, 2009. You will be asked to sign in before commenting. 

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