I often encourage Christians to tell their stories of spiritual conversion and growth. Here is mine.
I was blessed to have a very real experience of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior at an early age—near my 8th birthday, to be precise. This happened to me while in children’s worship at Skyline Heights Baptist Church in Johnson City, Tenn.
I remember a big, bald man named Tex who led the worship. (Remember, this is all from a child’s perspective. When I talked to him a few years ago, I discovered I am now much bigger than Tex.) I do not remember what he preached. Seeing as how he led a worship service for small children, I’m sure it was something simple, along the lines of Jesus loving me.
I do remember very clearly the experience I had that day. It is difficult to put into words; it was a sense of being deeply loved in a new way, a way that even my parents could not love me. This experience had an accompanying physical sensation. Imagine being a glass of water, and someone drops in a couple of Alka-Seltzer tablets. That’s the closest I can come to describing what I felt.
When the opportunity came, I walked to the front of our little worship space. I think I was crying. Tex bent down, put his arm around me and asked, “What is it?”
I said, “I don’t know. It’s right here,” tapping my chest. He hugged me and said, “It’s okay. I know what that is.”
From there, I remember praying, and I’m sure we talked through the details of Jesus as Lord and Savior with all the right people, although I really don’t remember much about that part, either. I was baptized shortly thereafter, on April 28, 1974, by the Rev. Grady Byrd.
I would like to say my life was neat and clean from then on, but as most of us know, life doesn’t work that way. Memory of my children’s church experience faded with the years, and my discipleship wasn’t consistent enough to keep my life aligned with God’s will and generate new understandings of God’s presence.
God was still with me. I can see that now, looking back. I just started ignoring him. By college, I had drifted off on my own, and stayed that way until my late 20s, after I was married.
The turning point was when Connie and I started having children. Right after they were born, it seemed as if I could see God for just a moment when first looking at their faces. With me under the subtle influence of a good wife who had remained quietly faithful all along, we began church shopping. I figured I was doing it for the kids. We finally settled into a small United Methodist church in Forest Park, Ga., near where we lived.
As far as any changes in me were concerned, the first year was proof that being in church is not necessarily being aligned with God. I was bored, at best partially engaged. A group of older men pestered me to go with them to a big United Methodist Men gathering at Rock Eagle, Ga., however, and I finally relented. It was three days of discipleship renewal punctuated by two nights in an uncomfortable dormitory setting. But I listened, and actually enjoyed what I heard. For one thing, I began to understand that I had only a child’s understanding of Christianity.
It happened at the closing. As we stood in a packed auditorium singing “The Lord’s Prayer,” I had that same experience, that same sensation, that had overwhelmed me at age 8. As I consider that day now, it strikes me that God was bridging time for me, reminding me of who I was at 8, who I continued to be as a young father, and who I am always, a child of God.
This experience did not result in an immediate call to professional ministry. That’s another story, one that resulted from my determination to rely not just on a moment in time, but to be a true disciple of Christ as much as possible.
Such discipleship is a lifelong process. One of the reasons I love being a Methodist is that we emphasize that lifelong process. Lord knows, I’m still trying, and I’m thankful for his grace that saves us and then continues to grow us into what we were intended to be.