By Rev. Alton Garrison
Before my father was known across our community as Pastor C. H. Garrison, he was far better known as an alcoholic. An oil field worker, he dropped out of school in the 10th grade and endured a very dysfunctional life of hard work—when he could keep a job—and equally hard drinking.
C. H. and Alese Garrison were married when he was 30 and she was 18. They did not have children for seven years during which his drinking rarely abated. Had I been born and raised in that environment, I almost certainly would not have found God’s path for my life. But when I was about to be born, under the influence of the Holy Spirit to which my dad was completely oblivious, he began to get serious about quitting drinking.
While Dad tried unsuccessfully to give up alcohol, he was only marginally successful at holding down a job. When he was able to find work, he would hide his paycheck in an attempt to keep from spending it all on drink. Inevitably, he would find the check and spend it all in a night. He averaged a fifth of whiskey a day.
About six months before I was born, my parents had been to a Fourth of July celebration. Dad had been drinking. He and Mom were headed home in Southeast Texas where they lived. As Dad drove, he suddenly felt as if he were having a heart attack. His fear was if he died, he would wreck the car and kill Mom and the baby they were expecting. Without explaining to Mom why, he slowed the car down and began to plead with God.
“I don’t know how to pray,” he said under his breath, “but my mother used to pray. If You heard her prayer, maybe You’ll hear mine. Spare my life to see my child; save me; and if I ever take another drop of liquor for as long as I live, I want You to poison me and let me drop dead.”
At that moment, Jesus Christ looked beyond all of my father’s past failures, and he was healed, saved, and completely delivered in that moment.
In describing the state of the Great Commission today, Dr. John Perkins famously said, “We have over-evangelized the world too lightly” (David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2008, p. 137). So when I quote Dr. Perkins, I am in no way devaluing the initial miracle of salvation. As Jesus so clearly taught in His discourse with Nicodemus, the miracle of the New Birth is the crux on which everything rests when it comes to our eternal destiny (John 3:1-15). Just as clearly, Jesus identifies this miracle as a work of the Holy Spirit (vv. 5-8).
Dad was baptized in the Holy Spirit just weeks later. Here again, the Spirit’s work is fundamental to every growth process in the Christian life. Dad’s life changed, and he gave up smoking and other destructive habits. His two sisters had also been saved and were attending a little independent Pentecostal church in Sour Lake, near Beaumont and just a short drive from the Gulf coast.
The church was still getting on its feet when the pastor left, so Dad and his two sisters went to nearby Beaumont to meet with Rev. Harry H. Hodge, pastor of Sabine Tabernacle and founder of United Gospel Tabernacles. As they appealed to Bro. Hodge to send another pastor to Sour Lake, he looked over at Dad and said, “There’s your pastor.” Dad had only come as the driver. He looked around in surprise. He had only recently come to Christ and had been a hopeless drunk only months before. Bro. Hodge told Dad, “Go home and pray about it; and when God speaks to you what He spoke to me, you come back.”
In a couple of weeks Dad returned to Beaumont and was appointed pastor of the church. He had never finished high school. He had never been to Bible College. He had never preached a sermon. And he was the pastor of a church.
Dad stayed in that church for 22 years. Just a few years ago, my wife, Johanna, and I went back to preach an anniversary there. It is still not a large church—just a little white building that holds about 90 people, but the lives that have been impacted and the testimonies coming from that congregation speak of an astounding and continuing work of the Spirit.
Here’s my point. While my dad’s situation was certainly exceptional—his having no education to speak of—we do know that the Holy Spirit can compensate for our inadequacies.
Alton Garrison serves as the assistant general superintendent of the Assemblies of God and as the executive leader of the Division of Church Ministries and Discipleship. To learn more about the Assemblies of God, visit www.ag.org.