“Just a Little Wine:” a Church Leader’s Story, Part TwoAlcohol
Read the introduction and part one of this story here.
With the sentencing past, a pinpoint of light finally penetrated his gloom. Hope struggled to the surface of an ocean of despair … and took a breath. It was like those icy-cold winter waters in Malibu, with blackness creeping over the ocean. Like being dragged through the salty sea that threatened to swallow him. And like the calm that finally came to his panicked mind. God entered. And Norvel Young was alive again.
Reflecting back, he said, “I learned how vast and how central grace is in the Gospel. I now actually think in terms of grace. It is wonderful that God allows us to forgive ourselves. And I have observed Him helping many other people in situations similar to mine since that time.”
Indeed, Norvel’s life after the accident became a parable of grace: every day was characterized by love, by fresh beginnings, by positive energy, by deep and abiding gratitude for each blessing, from the tiniest to the grandest. And his life reflected a deep, settled faith.
But there was another very tangible result of the tragedy: a scholarly, in-depth study on stress was conducted by Norvel Young under the auspices of the University of Southern California Safety Center. Research guidelines were approved by a six-person academic committee: Dr. Seymour Farber, Dr. Hans Selye, Dr. Robert Maurer, Dr. Charles Barron, Dr. Robert Canady and Dr. Meyer Friedman. Dr. John Dreher supervised the research and served as technical advisor. The resulting monograph was published in 1978 by Pepperdine University Press and titled Poison Stress Is a Killer.
In the preface, Dr. Norvel Young wrote, “When all these inputs are evaluated, a very clear message emerges in regard to any activity in which man must compete – the lethal effects of ‘poison stress.’ This is not the stress that leaves one physically tired, but satisfied – it is that self-generated reaction to external pressures which damages the biochemistry, upsets the emotions, drains the strength, and leaves its victim dangerously open to accident and physical illness.”
He concludes his preface with these chilling words: “The physical and social toll of these factors is increasingly identified as a cause of extensive job-connected disability in the work force. The divorce court, the prison, the psychiatrist’s couch, and the morgue bear similar testimony.”
The words were not simply academic.
In the winter of Norvel’s soul, in the frozen aftermath, a thought was trying to form in the minds of people who loved him. That thought would be expressed eloquently nearly a dozen years later in a tribute to Norvel at the 1987 Pepperdine Bible Lectures. Bill Banowsky quoted the “bully” President Teddy Roosevelt, who said in 1910:
It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of Deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who was actually in the arena, whose Faith is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumphs of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
The “strong man stumbled” and no one could believe it. Then finally, they realized that he was not a machine. He was just a man. And some were angry because he was just a man – like themselves.
But Norvel Young’s time was not yet over. He would have more than 20 additional years to “spend himself in a worthy cause.”
There may have been winter in his soul, but he was not a “cold and timid soul,” in TR’s words. The fire would return to his bones.
THE LONG WAY HOME
Norvel Young had allowed himself to gradually drift far from the home of his heart. He could not have imagined that he would ever be in such a distant place. But he knew the way home.
One of the attendant traits of greatness is the ability to make a comeback against heavy odds. There were people who thought M. Norvel Young was finished as an effective leader in the educational community and at Pepperdine University. And among Churches of Christ.
While most people reacted with compassion, a few chided him with suggestions that “the best thing for Pepperdine University was for Norvel Young to simply fade away into oblivion.” But they didn’t understand grace. And they didn’t understand “The Heart of the Fighter,” in the words of Landon Saunders. Character is not about never making mistakes; it involves the strength to confess one’s sins and shortcomings, to ask for forgiveness. And to rise again to new levels of understanding and virtue.
Slowly but surely, Norvel made the return to his work. He swallowed enough internal humiliation to sink an ocean liner, but he struggled back to the surface. A lesser person would not have survived, could not have shown his face in public again. Somehow Norvel Young summoned his childlike faith. He
grasped the truth of God’s inexhaustible forgiveness. And he even found the grace to forgive himself – at least enough to go on.
Many people were affected by the tragedy of the accident. Certainly, family and friends were shaken, discouraged, embarrassed, as were Norvel’s colleagues at the university—and the whole Pepperdine family. But one person lived every painful moment with him: Helen Mattox Young. And she never wavered. She too learned more about God’s grace. And she also learned more about the vast goodness of Norvel’s heart. Her strength was truly astonishing – for there were times when she had to stand tall for the two of them. When the storm finally passed, it was her victory, every bit as much as it was his.
Future years for Norvel and Helen Young would be years of triumph. For as someone has observed, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Norvel Young had allowed himself to gradually drift far from the home of his heart. He could not have imagined that he would ever be in such a distant place. But he knew the way home.
Just four days after the fiery accident on Pacific Coast Highway near the Getty, thousands of people were passing that way toward the Pepperdine Malibu campus. It was September 20, 1975, and the whole vicinity was abuzz with activity. Eventually, a crowd of 18,000 filled the bleachers that had been erected on the parking lot of Firestone Fieldhouse. President Gerald Ford’s helicopter landed and he was whisked to the staging area. At the appropriate time, the dignitaries descended the stairs from the Fieldhouse to a platform that had been built above the parking lot – and to a sea of faces, thunderous applause and the music of the U.S. Marine Corps Band. In addition to President and Mrs. Ford, there was Pepperdine President William S. Banowsky, entertainer Pat Boone (who would lead the audience in the national anthem), actor John Wayne (who would lead the Pledge
of Allegiance), editor Reuel Lemmons (to offer a prayer), Mr. Richard Seaver (who would accept the Fieldhouse on behalf of the University), benefactor Leonard Firestone, plus Richard Scaife, Fritz Huntsinger and other friends of the University. They were announced in twos over the public address system.
But at a certain point in the introductions, only one name was called … Helen M. Young. She smiled and walked regally, with head held high, as she descended the staircase. Some thought the volume of applause increased as she was introduced. Nearly everyone knew of the terrible invisible burden she carried, and their admiration for her soared.
But Chancellor Norvel Young was missing from the most spectacular day of the University’s history.
He was in No Man’s Land, a wilderness of broken dreams. And he remained in that far country for many months. He resigned his role as the editor of 20th Century Christian magazine. He resigned as an elder of the Malibu Church of Christ. In annual reports and college catalogs, he was listed as “M. Norvel Young, Chancellor (on leave), Pepperdine University.” He was removed or put on leave-of-absence from several boards. He was sidelined from the Pepperdine Board of Regents. This man who had lived in the middle of the busy channels of life had drifted into the backwaters. It looked as though the world would go on without him.
But he was not forgotten.
A CONTRITE HEART
Norvel knew of only one way to do it. He traveled all over the country, speaking to people individually and in groups, asking for forgiveness. Roger Coffman, a minister in Georgia, later said, “Norvel, I cannot ever recall one human being standing any taller than you did one evening during the 20th Century Christian dinner at the Abilene Lectureship just after the automobile accident in Los Angeles. To address your peers as you did, candidly and honestly, without making any excuses, but simply asking for forgiveness and help, made a deep and lasting impression on me that I will never forget.”
Seaver College Professor of Communication Morris Womack visited Norvel shortly after he returned home from his hospital and recuperation period. Norvel was still staying in bed most of the time, and Womack sat with him in the bedroom of the Adamson Beach House. Norvel said to him, “Morris, I don’t even remember getting in my car that day.” But he never denied his guilt, never excused the drinking that led to the accident. He only asked for forgiveness. Womack assured him that he was indeed forgiven by people of good will.
On Sunday, December 14,1975, a little less than three months after the accident (which seemed to be a long silence to some people), the following statement written by Norvel was read before the Malibu Church of Christ:
I come before you in a spirit of contrite confession of sin. I have sinned against God, against the two whose lives were lost in the accident, against the one who was injured and against their families, against the church, against Pepperdine University and my associates here. I would give my very life to undo this tragedy, but this is impossible. I must live with the awful realization that my grief cannot bring back a human life or erase the injury to so many. I confess to you that my use of alcohol was involved in this accident. To say that I am profoundly sorry is such a feeble and inadequate expression of my stricken conscience. I have confessed my sin to God and know that he has forgiven me for Christ’s sake. I now confess my sin to you and ask your forgiveness and your prayers.
I want to go further in explanation, but not to make any excuse. There can be no excuse. For 50 years I abstained from alcohol and taught against its use. As President of Pepperdine, I attended thousands of functions where it was served, but did not partake. In a mistaken attempt to relieve stress, I began to use alcohol occasionally. In 1969 I developed a heart condition which has reached the point where my heart never beats normally. Later, I had a heart attack and two small strokes. I was put on heavy medication to slow my heart and thin my blood. This medication saps me of physical energy which sometimes results in depression. One of my doctors suggested using moderate amounts of alcohol to relax the heart. I began to do so on occasion, especially in times of stress. I did not keep it at home or serve it. I did not become addicted to the regular use of alcohol, nor am I addicted now. With God’s help, I will never use alcohol again in any form. I pray that my tragic experience will serve as a warning to others.
I am humbled and grieved, yet even in the midst of suffering, I know God’s mercy and comfort in Christ. I want to make as frank and complete a statement of my sin as I can, taking all the responsibility and asking forgiveness, especially of my brethren.
I leave the future in God’s hands. My relationship with Pepperdine University will depend upon the judgment of the court, the attitude and response of the brotherhood, and ultimately the decision of the Board of Trustees.
I sincerely thank you for all your prayers. I ask your prayers for the families of the deceased, the judge, the University, and for me.
– M. Norvel Young
The January 6, 1976, issue of the journal, firm Foundation, carried an editorial by Norvel’s longtime friend, Reuel Lemmons, editor of the publication. It said in part, “Here is an excellent opportunity for those of us who claim to go by the Bible to prove that we do it. We who have been forgiven so much can with grace extend it…. The forgiven can go free; it is the unforgiving who wear chains. We have all been the recipients of unlimited grace. Now is the time to extend it.” Lemmons went on to reprint the above statement by Dr. Young in its entirely.
Less than six months after the accident, Norvel wrote a long message to his beloved readers of 20th Century Christian magazine. It is worth recording here, in part, because it says so much about the mission of the magazine, as he saw it, and about the essence of his faith. He also gives insight to his struggle and the progressing drama of his ordeal. The message appeared in the March 1976 issue of the magazine, as follows:
To Our 20th Century Christian Family:
For 38 years I have had the privilege of sharing my faith with you through the pages of this magazine. I was one of the small group of young men who founded the 20th Century Christian in 1938, and for the past 30 years I have been its editor.
The 20th Century Christian through these years has sought to exalt Jesus Christ as God’s Son and our Lord, to foster faith in the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God, to promote New Testament Christianity in the present age, to affirm the everlasting promises of God, the providence of God and the power of prayer. We have emphasized the Good News of God’s amazing grace. We have tried to promote the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We have encouraged the sharing of the gospel with those who have never heard it. We have stressed faith in Christ, hope in God’s promises and love above all.
It has been our purpose to state the message of Christ so as to interest both those who are already Christians and those who are not yet Christians. Our articles have been aimed to help the person in the pew as well as the man in the pulpit. We have opposed sectarianism and eschewed both the extremes of Pharisaical legalism and modernistic liberalism. We have discouraged a judgmental spirit and encouraged a humble dependence on the righteousness of Christ, rather than self-righteousness. In an age of sin and darkness, 20th Century Christian’s dedicated writers have tried to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.
Through the years I have urged our readers to rely on God in times of joy and in times of distress. Now I bear witness again to God’s grace as I speak to you out of the crucible of suffering. On September 16,1975, I was involved in a tragic traffic accident in which two women lost their lives and the other driver and I were injured. I was responsible. I have admitted my guilt to the church and to the court. I would give my very life to undo this tragedy, but my remorse cannot bring back a single life or erase the harm done.
In the midst of my despair in the hospital, I prayed for forgiveness. I praise God for the cleansing power of the blood of Christ. For 44 years I have preached the forgiveness of God to others. Now I have experienced in a deeper way the healing power of his grace. I thank God also for his love to me which has been shown through the outpouring of compassion from my brethren. Thank God for your overwhelming remembrances of me in my trouble. Your prayers have sustained me and given me courage to carry on. The judge stayed for six months a one year custody sentence. He required me to take a six months’ leave of absence from Pepperdine University to give full time to a research and lecture program in traffic safety which can result in saving many lives. This project will be under the auspices of the University of Southern California Safety Center.
From Cory: Many thanks to Norvel Young and to the authors of this book. His story has confirmed my resolve to abstain from drinking alcohol. Please share these two posts with others who may benefit from them. Also, check the “Alcohol” category on this website for more posts on this subject.