Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. — Proverbs 19:21
I am an Episcopalian. I was baptized, confirmed and married in the Episcopal Church, steeped in its beautiful liturgy, hymns and traditions. Our family attended All Saints Episcopal, a small church in Homewood, Ala., co-founded by my grandparents.
I was confirmed there by the well-known Episcopal bishop, Charles Carpenter, one of the recipients of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, Dr. King chastised leaders of Birmingham’s mainline Christian and Jewish denominations for not being more active in their support of civil rights. I attended my first two years of elementary school at All Saints. I had every reason to have a firm foundation in my family’s faith tradition.
By the time I got to high school, I’d become an Eagle Scout and our basketball team won a state championship. I was reasonably popular and had lots of friends. But as I grew older, I started to develop the feeling that something was missing spiritually.
I started to ask myself the eternal questions about the existence of God, the meaning of life, and how to give my life meaning. About the time I was grappling with these issues, I was introduced to a youth ministry called Young Life and a young leader named Jerry Leachman.
Jerry was just a few years older than I was and we really hit it off. He had played football for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama before his playing career was cut short with injuries. I had worked at Camp Bear Bryant and was being recruited to play basketball in Tuscaloosa. The sports connection resonated. He was a person of great faith and I was immediately drawn to his testimony and his special way of relating to young men, especially athletes.
I spent countless hours with Jerry discussing and debating the big questions in life and what the Bible had to say on all subjects. I already believed I was a Christian, but my time in Young Life led me much deeper into the Bible in a way that spoke directly to the issues I had been dealing with. With Jerry’s guidance, I made the decision to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior.
High school came to an end, I went off to college and Jerry moved on in his ministry. We lost touch for the next 30 years. But in God’s time and according to his purpose, we reconnected in Washington, D.C., through our mutual friend Fred Barnes and picked up our friendship right where we left off. Jerry was chaplain of Washington’s pro football team and had a thriving ministry in the nation’s capital. The city is full of rich and powerful people who appear on the outside to have it all but are suffering spiritually on the inside. Jerry’s ministry was to those in D.C., including those on Capitol Hill, who needed to hear the Gospel the most.
I remember my first televised debate against Jim Folsom Jr. in my first run for political office, in 2006. About 20 minutes before we were to go on the air and before an auditorium full of people, I walked outside alone to gather my thoughts. I was nervous and called Jerry, not knowing if he’d even be available to answer. I was relieved to hear his voice when he did! I asked him, as my spiritual coach, for some help and reassurance. Through the Biblical story of Daniel and a prayer I was reassured of God’s presence in that moment. Not that God was on my side in the debate but that His will would be done.
Our church, St. Mary’s on-the-Highlands in Birmingham, had been our spiritual home since my wife and I were married there in 1981. We’ve both served on the vestry and Melissa has been especially involved in the many outreach ministries of the church. In 2003, she and I attended Cursillo, a three-day spiritual retreat at Camp McDowell, located in Winston County. Our weekend gave me a chance to quietly reflect on God’s purpose for my life. As wonderful and successful as my life was at the time, I could not shake this feeling that I might be called to serve a purpose larger than just myself.
I left Cursillo spiritually recharged and committed to finding God’s purpose for my life. The following Lent, I decided to read Rick Warren’s hugely popular bestseller, “The Purpose Driven Life.” Every day for the next 40 days I’d read and reflect on a chapter of the book. Several things Pastor Warren wrote seemed to speak directly to me.
“God wants to use you to make a difference in the world.”
“In what way could I see myself passionately serving others and loving it?”
“Figure out what you love to do; what God gave you a heart to do and do it for the glory of God!”
And from J.R.R. Tolkien, this from The Fellowship of the Ring, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
About the same time, I came across a great quote from an article about a beloved high school coach in New Orleans that really got my attention and reinforced the message of a purpose driven life: “The two greatest enemies of a well lived life are fear and failure.” I also recalled the message of all the angels in the Bible, “Be not afraid!”
At the end of Lent in 2004, a seed had been planted. I loved the political process and I wanted to make a difference in my state. Was the political arena the place where I could best serve? Was I called to serve in that vineyard? Of course, I could think of a million reasons why throwing my hat into the political arena was a bad idea. The sacrifices are many and the effect on your family and your career can be tough. You certainly should not run for office seeking fame or fortune. As Thomas Jefferson noted presciently, “No man will ever bring out of public office the reputation which carried him into it.”
In 2006, I narrowly lost the race for lieutenant governor of Alabama to former Gov. Jim Folsom. My faith sustained me in that race as I learned the difference between being a spectator and a candidate. I was fortunate that Melissa kept me grounded in my faith as we went through the ups and downs of the campaign.
In 2007, Melissa and I joined a group from our church for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land led by our great friend and rector at St. Mary’s, Huey Gardner. We spent two weeks in Israel studying the Bible and visiting holy sites: a week in Jerusalem and then a week traveling through Galilee with a trip to Bethlehem. The highlight was renewing our baptismal covenant standing in the headwaters of the Jordan River.
My experience working in the North Sea after college was great preparation for politics. It was also a time to see the power and majesty of God. As the 107th Psalm explains, “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” So, even when I felt like a cork tossed in the sea, I knew I was not alone.
There’s a wonderful prayer of thanksgiving in the Episcopal prayer book that we often say in our church. In that prayer we give thanks for all the blessings of life. But we also give thanks for those disappointments and failures in life that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God alone. I learned the true meaning of that dependence during my ultimately unsuccessful 2018 Senate campaign. Despite all of my attempts to control events, it soon became clear to me that I had no control over how things would turn out. Although I was an incumbent U.S. senator – appointed in 2017 — I was still like a battered ship being tossed about in a perfect storm. My only hope was to take my hands off of the tiller and to turn everything over entirely to God. His hands were on the tiller, not mine. And His will be done. In the midst of one of the most difficult experiences of my life, that gave me great comfort and peace.
Each week when the Senate was in session, I’d regularly gather with a small bipartisan group of senators for a Bible study. In my first week back after losing the Republican primary to Roy Moore, I returned to the group for our weekly meeting. It was great to be welcomed back and consoled by my colleagues and spiritual friends.
On this particular morning, we were studying Matthew 7:9 in which Jesus says, “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?” The verse caught my attention and I found myself saying to my friend, Sen. James Langford of Oklahoma, that my defeat felt a lot like a stone! James is an ordained minister and wise in many ways. He reassured me that while the election defeat might seem like a stone at the moment, God had bread in mind.
It would be fair to say that my experience in the Senate campaign tested my faith. Not a loss of faith but a true test of my belief and trust in God that His will be done, not mine. Of course, James was right! I was blessed to serve my state and country in two jobs that I loved. I made a difference.
As I reflect back on my life and my time in the political arena, I thank God for giving me bread in abundance! And to this day, I pray for God to give me the wisdom, the strength and the courage to know and to do His will.