Church attendance seemed very important in our home, but even at four years old in 1976, I could tell that some subtle inconsistencies seemed to govern it. My father never went regularly. He had his reasons, sure, and they made sense, a broken back in 1969 made those pews terribly painful to sit in for long. Judging from his angry cursing tirades that let loose at all times day and night, perhaps physical comfort merely served as an excuse. John, my second oldest brother, moved out at nineteen. It seemed like he usually didn’t ‘wake up’ in time to attend, even though Mom would call and let the phone ring and ring each Sunday morning. I was too young to understand her fears of his drinking and partying, or even to know about the knock-down, drag-out fights on-going between him and our father.
The little country Southern Baptist Church near our farm generally ran over one hundred and fifty and sometimes upwards of two-hundred in those days. My oldest brother, Lane, led the music there in between his College classes and farming. God had given him an incredible baritone voice. My remaining three brothers all attended church (Mom would have nothing else) and sat with their friends from public school. I sat with Mom. If I had been asked at the time, I would surely have proclaimed my life to be as normal and natural as any.
Another little boy attended our church named Steve. His grandfather owned the piece of property catty-cornered from our land. I’d known him my entire life from nursery at church and, by that time, elementary school. We always had the same Sunday school teachers and Vacation Bible School teachers year after year, and I remember wondering why. Other classes always had a wide range for fun teachers. We could see them making fun projects and doing interesting things. I found out many years later that most of the other ladies would refuse to help if their class would include him. He and I didn’t get along, but were so often together, that we knew each other well.
To the best of my knowledge, it happened in VBS between my first and second grade years. The pastor had decided to teach VBS himself in the afternoons that year and brought us all into the Sanctuary for flannel graph sessions. I don’t know which day of the week it might have been, but in the invitation after one of the messages, Steve went forward with a smile on his face. I cannot explain why that goaded me so, but in an instant, I decided to follow him to the front. I felt no conviction from the Holy Spirit, neither do I remember what precisely occurred. I acted my part, and subsequently pronounced to be Saved, wasn’t it great? The experience moved me so deeply that I forgot to tell my own mother for several days.
In other words, nothing happened.
As Mom started talking to me afterward about Baptism, in my heart began to dawn the realization that some things in my life didn’t add up. I remember the exact spot where I stood on the sidewalk in front of the church house when I came to a startling conclusion. Shouldn’t there be something different about my life now? If I were Saved, shouldn’t things change? Oddly enough, I don’t know that the preaching told me that so much as the Convicting power of the Holy Spirit. He began to draw me, but I had already locked the door of my heart. After all, I would be baptized in a few days, for whatever good that would do me.
To be clear, the people around me did not cause my problems. I’m certain that many of them truly loved the Lord. No, my pride alone caused my problems. I was at fault. My sin separated me from a Holy God but I wouldn’t admit it. I was not a victim of someone else’s bad intentions or doctrinal subversion; instead, I think I really believed that the problem would go away on its own. The night of John’s wedding rehearsal I impaled my foot on a nail outdoors but never told anyone. Please think about it–that meant I would rather risk tetanus rather than face the pain of an injection. I limped around all night and ‘made it through’ without revealing my injury, lending further credit to my budding personal philosophy of avoidance. I remember with great clarity one Sunday evening seated under preaching and deep conviction. I no longer believed I possessed Salvation by this point, but everyone else did. I knew I should respond. I knew I should go forward, but I didn’t. It may sound tragically comical, but as an eight-year-old, I rationalized an age-old sinner’s excuse from whole cloth. I should clean up some things in my life before I approached God, and if I held out through the invitation, maybe this dreadful agony in spirit would go away for a little while.
If only I had obeyed Him right then.
Our little church screened the film “A Distant Thunder” roughly a year later. Mom at first refused to let me see it, but I begged and begged, and she relented. Not for spiritual reasons, but purely out of peer pressure, as other young people would attend. I am eternally thankful for that night. Not because the film contained great doctrinal truths or eschatological clarity, but because it scared the living daylights out of me. For the next eleven years, I would awaken several times nightly to check on my mother. I needed to see if she were still asleep in bed, for I knew if the Lord Jesus Christ had already returned to catch up His saints, I would remain unawares and left behind. I lived in fear that I might fall into the hands of an angry God. Almost nightly I would ask the ceiling for Salvation, even asking a formulaic please-forgive-me, but never would I stop and face my sin. I understood completely my separation from God, but refused to consider the reason why.
During this time, I slipped into rebellion at home. My father’s unpredictable anger drove me to give up any pretense of attempting to please him. When I could, I refused to attend church. The only child left at home by then, and ten years younger than my five brothers, I would rather sit home to watch Star Trek reruns. Mom changed churches and things deteriorated even more. What kind of church allows the youth, boys and girls alike, to sleep over together and, generally unsupervised, watch horror movies all night? God continued to pursue me. Even one revival meeting at the new church made me certain that we’d crash on the country roads going home and in Hell, I’d lift up my eyes, being in torment.
Nonetheless, I continued to reject God’s still and small voice. Pride is a wicked thing. I never thought I wouldn’t get Saved, but some other day, some future time. Such conceit!
Driving home while extremely drunk at seventeen, I stuck a parked car on the dark and icy roads. People were standing nearby, working to pull their vehicle from the ditch that held it, and I thank the Lord that He prevented me from killing one of them that night. One might imagine my heart would soften after this. After the financial hardships it caused my parents, the embarrassment of vomiting on the Highway Patrolman, the machinations of the legal system; I should have been ready to run into God’s waiting embrace. If anything, however, it hardened me. The world, the flesh, and the Devil continually whispered my failures into my ear and I began to see myself as essentially valueless. My problems had not gone away, and to my horror, I began to suspect they never would.
We all began college and many of my friends went on to great academic distinction. After one semester achieved nothing but academic probation. Kicked out of school, minimum wage part-time job, and no prospects. When I did make money, I wouldn’t use it pay my bills, so soon I became an even greater burden on my parents. No future existed. None of my plans would ever find realization.
I was going through the motions.
Silly as it sounds, a final cancelation notice for my high-risk auto insurance broke the camel’s back. It waited on my bed that night when I came home from my pathetic job. I don’t know why, but it seemed like everything gave way. I no longer could hide from the truth any longer. I could no more lie to myself that ‘one day’ things will be better. I knew better. They wouldn’t.
I had come to the end of myself.
It happened there in my bedroom, alone in the wee hours of the morning, one night during the second week of June, in the year 1991. I could no longer run from God. He had not cornered me, but rather I stood on the ledge, casting about for a safe way to escape Him and finding nothing. I would take Him as Savior or step off into final rejection. I would allow Him to pay for my sins or pay for them myself throughout all eternity. The choice stood starkly before me. I tried to read a Bible, but didn’t know where to look. I mouthed the words of my silly save-me-now incantations, but to no avail.
Finally, I quit trying to meet God on my own terms.
I threw away all that I thought I knew and cried out to God. I no longer held anything back and with no idea what to do, I simply admitted my utter failure and said, “Lord, if you’ll still have me, I want to be Saved! I’ll give it all up. You can have everything!” And then, perhaps naively, I began to list anything I could think up, whether good or bad, loved or hated, He could have it all. I meant it! For the first time, I really meant business with God.
He met me right there. The Bible says the Kingdom of God is “at hand.” That doesn’t mean imminent in the sense of time, but ever close in the sense of location. I didn’t have to travel back from my far country. He didn’t tell me to come back when I had fixed up my life. I turned from my way and myself, and suddenly, I was in Christ’s hand. I know I cried, probably out of relief. However, I did not yet fully understand the magnitude of what He had done.
After so many years of demanding to be Saved on my terms, it took a few weeks for the reality to settle in, so that I began to comprehend it. I saw Him change a few things in my life almost immediately and felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit to begin changing even more. Before, I would have fought tooth and nail, but now I wanted to change things to please God. Where I had only known the conviction of my sin as the singular word, now He convicted me of my sins in the plural form, every time. I learned to keep a short account with him through confession. I even now truly only grasp little more of the enormity of His Glory and Grace than I did that night. There remains much I don’t yet know.
However, this much I do know: I know I didn’t wake up that night and check on Mom.
Nor the next one.