Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Friday, December 1, 2017

THE PROMISE - Chapter 4

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be offering a taste of my memoir, The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God, published by TouchPoint Press, here on my blog. It is my true story of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined. Keep checking back for additional chapters.

4 - Saved 

It was cold. Too cold.

If I already felt isolated, the chilly winter weather only made it worse.

Generally I stayed around the house on weeknights, doing my homework and watching the small television in my room. I hung out with my neighborhood friends during the weekends. That winter none of my friends seemed willing to walk the mile or so to each other’s houses. Neither did I. None of us drove yet. That summer Bob Burgess would be the first of my friends to achieve that goal, and his parents’ burgundy Caprice would be our ticket to mobility. I was old enough to get my driver’s license, but I frankly just wasn’t interested in it. Cars were Dougie’s thing. Movies were mine. That’s the way we still roll today.

Winter was always the lonely time. I hardly spent any time downstairs with my family either. I pretty much had everything I needed in my large attic bedroom. Well-stocked bookcases filled one wall. My parents were avid readers and I had no shortage of books. I had science fiction ranging from Robert Heinlein to Isaac Asimov. I found myself exposed to literary writers like John Updike, as well as police procedurals by Ed McBain and Lawrence Saunders. And, yes, there were some steamy Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann potboilers. Most of the books I bought myself were about the movie business. The seeds of my future career were already being laid.

The bookcases were built around a gray metal desk where my faithful typewriter sat. Aside from homework, I wrote a number of childish short stories, and began at least a half a dozen unfinished theatrical plays on it. I didn’t have a stereo, but I had a nice little television set, which got exceptional reception atop Mount Murphy. I got all of the Baltimore stations and all of the Washington, D.C. stations. I even picked up a UHF station from Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, and, when the weather was right, a station from York, Pennsylvania. 

The other side of the room served as my personal movie theater, stocked with my rather sizeable film collection. My Super 8mm projectors sat on a cabinet at the head of my creaky single bed. I had a large screen on the opposite wall. 

What more could a teenage boy want? Quite a bit, actually. 

I remember walking home from a play at Curley on the night of January 23rd, hoping to get there in time for the first night of ABC’s highly anticipated mini-series Roots. I think the play was Inherit The Wind, a rather odd choice for a religious high school. I skipped out immediately afterward and, for some strange reason, decided not to wait for the first bus and walked directly through the now dangerous Belair Edison neighborhood to catch the second bus at Clifton Park.

It wasn’t a long walk, but I was cold and underdressed. And miserable. I kept asking myself what I was doing. Not just that night, but in life in general. 

I hate to get all Shakespearean on you, but this was literally the winter of my discontent. I knew something had to change.

Freshman year I got a thick trade paperback copy of the New American Bible for the mandatory religion classes. My religion classes during the first two years at Curley were of the Bible-as- history and the Bible-as-literature variety; nothing very Protestant. None of the This Is The Word Of God and You Better Pay Attention stuff. I found the classes somewhat engaging, but they certainly weren’t of the life-changing variety. The life-changing stuff happened at home.

I don’t know why I began reading the Bible in earnest. Maybe it was out of boredom, although it was more likely through the call of God, but I started reading it all that winter alone in my bedroom. I avoided the historical introductions to the books in that edition of the Bible, which tended to parrot the prevailing and dismissive attitude of German Higher Criticism, and concentrated on the actual texts themselves. I was mesmerized. Enchanted. Inspired, even.

I had always believed in God. I believed in Jesus too, and I understood what his sacrifice meant. But there is a gigantic difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. I had the head knowledge, and I knew I needed more. 

Father Ryan, one of the handsome, young parish priests over at St. Dominic who set all the mothers’ hearts a-fluttering, visited our eighth grade class and told us outright that God didn’t need us. He created us. He loved us. But he didn’t need us. He was doing fine before we were created, and would do fine without us.

That attitude shook my childish perception of God. I guess I always pictured God as a kindly, if tottering, old uncle who listened to our prayers with bemused delight and sent some good things our way now and then as a result. Until Father Ryan spoke, I really never conceived that we had any responsibility toward Him, other than simply “being good”, whatever that meant. The fact that God didn’t really need me worried me. 

I wanted to be needed by God. And I certainly needed him. 

I started consuming the Bible, old and new testaments alike. And it was all making sense to me. The personality of the Creator God shone through the words like a beacon in the night. Before you dismiss me as a mere impressionable youth, I want you to know I was also reading all of the popular skeptical literature that I could get my hands on at the time. I read books like The Passover Plot that desperately tried to debunk the resurrection. I expected God to disappear in a puff of smoke when I read Bertrand Russell. Only slightly more damaging, were the arguments of the so-called Christian scholars of the Higher Criticism movement, but their attempts to defang scripture of all its supernatural elements through literary analysis did little to obscure the entity slowly emerging from the pages of my Bible. 

There was a God. I was sure of it. And I wanted to know Him. But how? 

Catholics are different from Protestants. 

Most of the Protestant born again believers I know can proudly tell you the time, date and place of their conversion. How they walked down the aisle and recited the sinner’s prayer by rote. Whenever I write a faith-based film, the producers or investors always demand a scene precisely like that. Quiet, heartfelt conversions are simply not permitted. They want to hear the protagonist walk through the whole sinner’s prayer, word-by-word, point-by-point, as if it were some sort of magical incantation, to make sure the character is truly saved. I always resist it, because it wasn’t that way with me, or lots of other people.

Remember, I was a Rosenberger. I wasn’t going to undergo something as private as a spiritual transformation in front of a crowd. No, thanks. Fortunately, the Lord didn’t ask me to do it. 

Not that I would have known what to do anyway. In a sense, I was born again before I was even familiar with the term outside of the context of the story of Nicodemus in the gospel of John. I didn’t seek to become “born again”. I just hungered to become closer to God the more I learned about Him in the Bible. I knew God had more to offer than I was receiving. I knew He was out there, just beyond my reach.

It all came to a head on a miserably gray afternoon in late January or early February of 1977. It was probably a Saturday, but don’t hold me to that. I was in my bedroom on the third floor of the house. The chimney poked up through the middle of the room. After spending most of the day lying in bed reading the Bible, I got to my feet and started pacing around the chimney deep in prayer. I don’t know how long I prayed, or even what I prayed, but something changed in me forever. I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of peace.

What I previously understood with my head became real within my heart. I felt the fellowship of God himself. He knew me. He was watching me. He was listening. And I could trust him. Granted, I was still a Rosenberger. I still possessed the same strange fear I had since childhood that I would never be able to open myself up enough emotionally to really experience love, but the old sense of aloneness that I felt was gone. After that day, I knew I would never be alone again. I would always have Jesus. I could always talk to him, even if He didn’t talk back.

But He did.

I know this is where I am going to get into trouble. I really don’t mind having my spiritual experiences dismissed by atheists or by people holding a strictly materialist worldview. That is to be expected. Call me crazy. I don’t mind. I know what I know. I know what I experienced, and, as a wise man once said, “A man with an experience is never the slave of a man with a theory.” However, an unusually high percentage of Christians believe that God no longer communicates with his people except through the pages of the Bible.

They use 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 as a justification. It reads: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” This passage, in theory, illustrates that the early Apostles needed miraculous manifestations of God’s power to evangelize the world. Such signs and wonders are unnecessary now that perfection has arrived: The Bible.

To me, that is a stretch. Don’t get me wrong. I treasure the Bible as much as the next guy, but it seems absurd to me that God would happily tie His hands behind His back, and deny Himself the use of His divine powers upon its completion. Man’s wisdom is indeed foolishness to God, and vice versa, but it seems somewhat obvious to me the perfection referred to in that passage in Corinthians would be Jesus Christ at the Second Coming. That makes much more sense on every level. In fact, to call anyone and anything but God Himself perfect seems nothing short of blasphemy to me. 

I can see why people would want to believe that the Lord doesn’t communicate with people anymore. There is no denying the church would be a much more orderly place if God only spoke to those in charge and let them convey His will to the others. Chaos can easily erupt when you have fifteen people delivering messages from God, especially if they are contradictory. I know I have had a hard time accepting some things that fellow believers say that God told them. For example, I recently attended a service at a small Pentecostal church. A man stood up to share a vision the Lord had given him of The Animal Rapture.

Yes, that’s right: The Animal Rapture. 

He didn’t give us a specific timeframe for this impending event, or whether it was pre-tribulation or post-tribulation. He did, however, make it clear that Jesus was going to miraculously come back not only for his church but also their pets. Not only that, the man also had a vision of heaven itself after said event. In heaven, your pets can talk. Dogs. Cats. Even goldfish.

The whole time the man was talking, I expected the pastor to wander over to him, put a gentle arm around his shoulder, thank him, and ask him to please sit down before he scared everyone. It didn’t happen. Nope. Everyone just listened intently, nodding occasionally. I couldn’t believe it. The man was obviously crazy. 

Yeah. I know what you’re thinking. How can I call him crazy when I claim to have experienced the same phenomenon myself? Isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle black? No. Not all claims of communication with God can be considered equal. We are instructed to test the spirits. I totally believe the Bible has complete supremacy over any private revelation. In fact, the Bible is the only instrument we have to weigh any private communication against. Nothing I heard detracted from the gospel or perverted my very orthodox view of Jesus Christ. When I emerged from this period of self-study and direct guidance from the Lord, my beliefs were completely in line with mainstream evangelical thought. That is really somewhat amazing, since I initially approached scripture from a decidedly Catholic perspective. 

Nothing I heard reflected on theological issues at all. I wasn’t given any hints about the end times or special insight or interpretations on issues like the Trinity, the Incarnation, Transubstantiation or even Papal Infallibility. Nor did He speak on national or global events. He didn’t slip me the Preakness winners or tell me who shot J.R on Dallas. All of the communication between the Almighty and me dealt with my various teenage concerns and the occasional heads-up on some upcoming issue or event in my life. Let me give you a few examples of my interactions with the Lord from those first days. 

One gloomy, overcast Sunday afternoon right after my conversion, I found myself sharing a prayer along with, I’m sure, thousands of my fellow students throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area. No, not for a girlfriend, but rather for snow. While Baltimore is, temperamentally, a Northern city, it remains surrounded by a decidedly Southern state and therefore it tends to tremendously overreact at the mere thought of snow. Persistent flurries were enough to cause the cancellation of the public schools. Archbishop Curley wasn’t part of the public school system. They made their own decisions regarding closings, and, as I happily learned over the years, the Franciscan Friars seemed to enjoy school as much as we did. They would cancel school at the drop of a hat, and they were willing to drop that hat themselves. And I wanted them to have the opportunity again.

That Sunday I offered up a prayer for snow although, of course, it wasn’t snow I sought, but rather a vacation day. Then, at the end of the prayer, something unusual happened. God answered back. He said, “Okay, it will snow before you leave school tomorrow.” 

When I said, “He said," what do I mean? 

I mean I heard words. They were inside my head, not outside of it. The voice did not sound like Charlton Heston. It sounded like me, but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t the voice I would hear when I was having some sort of internal debate – or what I hear now practicing dialogue for a script. No. This voice was firmer and more self-assured than my voice. It was alien. Not of me. It was also warmer, and, perhaps more than a little amused by my request. 

It was, in retrospect, an odd place to start a conversation. 

Still, I went to bed that night confident that the next day would be white. The morning betrayed my hopes. The cloudy gloom of the previous day had been replaced by blue skies and bright, warming sunshine. The morning news gave no reassuring hint of snow lurking just beyond the horizon. Like it or not, it was going to be a beautiful day. 

I didn’t like it. When I prayed, I wasn’t asking for a miracle. It looked like it was ready to snow. I could smell it in the air. It would have been very easy for the Lord to grant me snow the day before, but now He was going to have to work overtime. It was going to take a miracle, and I strangely expected Him to deliver.

I spent the whole day at school with my eyes on the windows, waiting. I was confident the snow would come. I didn’t begin to lose faith until the end of the last period. I must confess I experienced a degree of doubt and confusion as I went to my locker to put away my books and grab my coat. The powers-that-be at Curley frowned upon students using the main doors near the auditorium to enter or leave the building. They preferred us to exit through the doors near the library. I wanted to be alone, so I headed for the front doors. As I neared them, I heard excitement outside. I rushed out to see snow falling from the sky. Not just normal snow. These were huge, individual flakes. I turned up to the sky. It was blue and cloudless, aside from cirrus clouds very high in the sky near the horizon in the southwest. The snow only seemed to be falling very narrowly in front of school. It kept falling until I reached the sidewalk at the edge of the school grounds. Then it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Like it never happened.

But it did. 

The Lord came through for me. He had given me what I had asked for — snow, although not what I really wanted: a day off from school. The most amazing thing was the way He chose to do it. Had the day been cloudy and cold, there would have been nothing remarkable or miraculous about a snow flurry. No. He didn’t want to give me something that could be confused or dismissed as coincidence. He gave me a miracle, and I accepted it as such.

In a sense, snow became the sign of a private covenant between the Lord and me. Abraham had circumcision. The Apostles had the last supper. I had snow. Ever since that day, for the next thirty years, I have always offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving at the beginning of every snowstorm. It will always be a sign that God exists, that He hears my prayers, and that He has the power to respond.

But it would not be the last time I would hear from Him. 

Barely a week or two later I found myself sick in bed; some cold or flu. I don’t remember what it was. All I know was that I was lying under a heavy load of blankets and cuddling up to the big, old iron radiator for warmth. I felt absolutely miserable. Kleenex fell to the floor like an indoor blizzard. I was praying, no, actually complaining, to God, when I heard the voice again. He said, “Why don’t you ask me to heal you?”

That was a reasonable question. Why hadn’t I asked him to heal me? I immediately rectified the situation and asked Him to heal me. And He did. I was instantly cured. 

That’s pretty much how it went for the next couple of years during what I now call my honeymoon period with the Lord. There was lots of communication. Lots of answered prayer. Lots of guidance. Most importantly, lots of love. It would not be an exaggeration to say that something miraculous happened every week. When I look back, I am reminded of the lyrics of the Paul Simon song The Boy in the Bubble: “These are the days of miracle and wonder. This is the long distance call.”

I was loving it. And I trusted Him too, once in a really stupid manner.

School has always been pretty easy for me. I’m not bragging. I don’t view myself as particularly intelligent. I simply possess the capability to absorb information and regurgitate it back onto a test page when needed. No big deal. My grades tended to reflect my interest level in the various classes. Obviously, I had no interest in Plane and Solid Geometry, and it showed. As the school year slowly ground to an end, I found myself facing the prospect of actually failing the class. I had never failed a class before. I wasn’t sure what that would entail, but I knew it meant summer school at the minimum or, perhaps, repeating it next year. It could actually affect my graduation.

I was worried. I took it to God in prayer. “Don’t worry,” He answered. “You will pass the class.”

Yay! That was a relief! 

You’d think that’d be all the encouragement a responsible young man would need to hunker down, study and pass that looming final exam. In fact, I’m positive that’s exactly what a responsible young man would do. Unfortunately, God didn’t give that message to a responsible young man. He gave it to me. I responded somewhat differently. Assured I would pass, I simply didn’t bother studying at all. God couldn’t lie. He said I’d pass. So why study? I was certain the Almighty would supply me with the answers when Father Isidore, the geometry teacher, plopped the test down in front of me. 

He didn’t. I struggled with the test. If I hadn’t been assured by the Lord God Almighty that I would pass the class, I would have assumed that I failed the test. 

Guess what? I did fail the test. And with it, the class. Bah-humbug!

I refused to accept the results. Who was I supposed to believe? 

God, who said I would pass the class? Or the Franciscan Friars of Archbishop Curley High School, who said I had failed? The answer is obvious.

The school year ended. About a week later, I was leaving the house and looking forward to another day of summer freedom. I checked the mailbox and noticed a letter from Curley addressed to my parents. I opened it up. The letter said I was to report for summer school for geometry. Having complete and total faith in God, I crumbled up the letter and threw it away. I didn’t give it, or geometry, another thought that summer.

Father Isidore
School reconvened in September. On the first day, I found myself in study hall. Father Isidore was the proctor. Oh joy. He walked up to me and said, “Murphy, you passed geometry.” 

“No, father,” I replied. “You failed me.”

“No,” he explained. “There were some mistakes when we sent out the summer school notices. A lot of parents said they didn’t receive them so we had to pass everybody.” 

I had passed geometry. Just like the Lord had promised. 

No. Let me take that back. It wasn’t just like the Lord had promised. Had I studied hard and passed the test the previous semester, the word of the Lord would have been just as accurate. It would have been equally true if I had gone to summer school and passed it, or if I had been forced to retake the class that semester and passed. At no time did the Lord instruct me to stop studying, fail the test and then wait for Him to miraculously deliver me.

In retrospect, the whole incident reminded me of the story of the old man who lived near the river. A hurricane was coming. The National Guard rode up to his house and told him he had to evacuate. He refused, saying, “The Lord will rescue me.” The National Guard left and the hurricane arrived. The river started rising, completely flooding the first floor of the house. The old man was at a second story window when a Coast Guard boat arrived. They ordered him to get onboard, but he refused, saying, “The Lord will rescue me.” The boat left and the water continued to rise. Hours later, a helicopter hovered overhead as the old man was trapped on the roof. They threw down a harness on a rope and ordered the old man to put it on, but he refused, saying, “The Lord will rescue me.”

The helicopter flew away and the water continued to rise. Eventually the old man was washed away and drowned. When he arrived in heaven, he walked right up to the Lord and expressed his disappointment. “I thought you would rescue me,” he said. The Lord just looked at him and said, “I sent a car, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you expect?” 

I was that old man, with the exception that the Lord showed me an extraordinary amount of grace. More than I deserved.

The pros of talking with God are obvious to believers, but this case illustrates some of the cons. The Lord had given me a word of knowledge. I placed a very narrow interpretation upon it and took no further action than what I myself deemed necessary. I was definitely placing my will above His will. In fact, I never sought His will on how to pass the class. While I hadn’t specifically disobeyed Him, it would be very easy to interpret my response as sinful. Through my inaction, I had tried to compel God to act in the way I intended.

I fell into this same trap nearly every time the Lord gave me a glimpse of the future. I would immediately spring into action and attempt to further God’s plan my way, without consulting Him. Usually my efforts would prove completely pointless, and God would fulfill His plans in a way I hadn’t foreseen. Sometimes, my actions were actually counter-productive. 

My experiences reminded me of what Father Ryan had said years earlier, “God doesn’t need you.”

That’s so true. He doesn’t need me, or you, to accomplish His plans.

I am reminded of the story of Esther. The Jews were about to be massacred, but Esther, now queen of Persia, has an opportunity to save them. However, it meant risking her life in the process. When she expresses her fears to her uncle Mordecai, he wisely replies, “Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows – perhaps it was for a time like this that you became queen.” 

The Lord did indeed raise Esther up for that hour, but she still had free will. She could refuse the calling. If she did, she would suffer, but God’s plan would be fulfilled in another manner. 

God doesn’t need us, specifically. He always has another plan ready. 

That attitude stands in stark contrast to something I once heard the disgraced television evangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, say. During a fund raising speech, Swaggart told the audience that there were people who never hear the gospel unless he preached it to them. 

Really? Maybe we should change John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he sent Jimmy Swaggart... 

Please. Give me a break. To say that God would put the eternal salvation of any one of His children entirely into the hands of a single, fallible human being is to make a mockery of His love. 

When my film The Encounter premiered at the Christian Film Festival of Boston, more than two hundred people came forward afterward to accept the Lord. I know I can take no pride in that. Or credit. I was just an interchangeable cog in the machine. If my partner, Tim Ratajczak, and I hadn’t written the script, someone else would have done so. In addition, God had been calling those people in Boston. They were going to come forward no matter what film they saw. I am simply honored the Lord allowed us to play a very small part in His plan.

I am also grateful He overlooked my willful foolishness concerning my geometry class. 

Or am I? The Lord showed me so much grace during our honeymoon period and overlooked so many mistakes, that I would later be truly stunned when He would finally hold me accountable for my disobedience. 

Once saved, my soul itself would never be in danger again. However, I would discover soon enough that some mistakes would result in permanent, earthly repercussions. Faith is essential for salvation, but obedience is also necessary if you want to stay within the will of God.

What? Me worry?

Other Chapters:
Chapter 1 - A Photograph
Chapter 2 - My Death
Chapter 3 - Childhood
Chapter 4 - Saved!
Chapter 5 - The Promise
Chapter 6 - The Mission
Chapter 7 - Mission Accomplished

You can get a copy of the whole book here:

Follow me on Twitter:  SeanPaulMurphy

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