By Bill Harley
In our first book, Jean and I tell a brief version of the following story of my search for meaning in the U. S. Army as a young man during the Vietnam War. It’s an example of how we can unintentionally rebuff the guiding forces God is sending our way.
On my first day of basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, the drill sergeants poked through all of the new recruits’ belongings and took away all contraband—weapons, drugs, etc. For some reason, they also took away all of my paperback books—classics of English and American literature that I was hoping to read to keep my brain and spirit alive during the dreary rigors of training.
I was left with only a Bible that was handed to me as I arrived earlier in the day by a Gideon at the Fort Polk airport. On the spot, I determined to use the following six months of military and medical training to study the Bible and better understand the meaning and purpose of life. In retrospect, I wish that the first verse I had studied had been Hebrews 13:2 which reads: “Be not forgetful to love strangers for thereby some have loved angels unaware.”
As training commenced, I began a process of reading segments of the Bible each day starting from the first page. I continued this practice through the whole six month training cycle and read through the entire Bible more than once. While my body was going through the training, my mind and heart were mostly ruminating on the Biblical themes.
The drill sergeant for our company of soldiers was a hard-nosed, battle-hardened, southern man who could be funny at times, but was also tough as nails. The first recruit he referred to by name was a soldier from Florida named Michael, but who the drill sergeant called Flower Child. Michael had arrived at training with long hair, dressed as a hippie and hence the nickname. After we got our Army haircuts, we all looked the same; but the drill sergeant persisted in calling him Flower Child and the name stuck.
Flower Child was low key and unassuming. Nevertheless, I noticed he would regularly get approval for leaves from duty and attending off-base activities. I resented his ability to get short “vacations” from the relentless regimentation of training and quickly concluded that he had figured out how to “game” the system. I felt disgust with the special treatment Flower Child received and avoided his company whenever possible; and when not possible, even when he reached out to me several times, I treated him with impatience.
As the months passed, my study of the Old and New Testaments intensified. I was increasingly filled with excitement—both Testaments expressed a strong expectation of the return and a fulfillment effecting both the individual and society as a whole. I was convinced that there was something new in the world that I needed to discover.
As the 6-month period of training was drawing to a close, the intensity of my search for meaning grew exponentially. I felt that I needed to complete my search before the end of training or I would never get time to complete it again. With only two weeks left of training, I was nearing panic in my search for a breakthrough. I was praying several times a day to God saying, “Please give me a sign—any sign at all—to guide me to the truth and fulfillment I seek.”
Then one evening after completing medical training, I was alone in the barracks when Flower Child walked through the door, made a b-line toward me and suggested we go to dinner together. I was about to decline when the words of my “Please give me a sign—any sign” prayer echoed in my head. So I said, “Sure, give me a minute and I’ll be ready to go.”
It was during that dinner that Flower Child guided me to all of the answers I had been seeking. Also during that dinner, I began calling him Michael and realized I had completely misread him. What I had thought was his gaming of the system was really his practice of devotion to a great and noble spiritual cause. The person I had treated as a stranger and enemy was really a friend. The person I had tried to avoid and keep at arm’s length was actually a guide who persisted in approaching me until I had struggled and grown enough to allow him to usher me to my heart’s desire. Now, the Biblical admonition throbbed with life: “Be not forgetful to love strangers for thereby some have loved angels unaware.”
These guiding dynamics are not unique to me. All of us experience them, but we often miss them because the perceptions and assumptions to which we are attached blind our eyes and plug our ears. That person you hurried past today who tried to get your attention may have been the guide sent to usher you to your heart’s desire. To better understand and manage these dynamics, read our first book, Now That I’m Here, What Should I Be Doing? To get better at making decisions that take these dynamics into account, read our second book, TRANSFORMED: How to Make the Decisions That Change Your Life.