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A Sobering Mercy
Image: CARY NORTON

One of the advantages of growing older is the perspective it provides. From a vantage point of more than seven decades, I increasingly marvel at the sovereignty and love of God. Only the passage of time enabled me to see that my salvation has been God-initiated.

Two events separated by more than two decades bring into focus an unbroken chain of God’s grace. At the time, they seemed to be singular and unrelated situations coming from a God with whom I had no relationship.

For many years, I believed my initial encounter with God came a few months after my 15th birthday. My parents and I were living in Birmingham, having recently moved there from Kansas City, Missouri. Despite having been baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church, I never understood why it was important to have a relationship with Jesus. My parents must have had similar thoughts, since we attended church sporadically.

Our family’s relationship with the Lord changed greatly one hot Alabama night. Walking home from a summer job, I took a shortcut through the campus of Howard College (now Samford University) and came upon a sight totally foreign to me. A large tent adorned the football field. Inside, a dynamic preacher paced across an elevated platform.

Later I learned that I had come upon a Baptist revival meeting. The magnetic preacher, Eddie Martin, spoke on the Prodigal Son, applying the parable to the congregation gathered. He declared there were some prodigals inside the tent and that they needed to “come home.”

I was not a particularly errant lad, but I knew I was one of those prodigals. I was not inside the tent, however, and when the invitation came, I was not sure I would be welcome. You see, in the 1950s my family and I were outsiders—Yankees. I feared going forward. But before the preacher closed the meeting, he said there were more prodigals there. And if God gave him one more night to live, he would be back with an invitation to “come home to the Lord.”

The next evening he returned, and so did I. Despite my outsider status, I boldly entered the tent. Ushers seated me near the front. I have no memory of the sermon. I sat waiting for the invitation.

The call came and the evangelist led me through a sinner’s prayer. I confessed my need for forgiveness. While being led in prayer, I strongly felt the presence of Jesus Christ. I sensed his love and forgiveness as well as his call to preach the gospel.

My parents were supportive of my experience at the revival. Within a few weeks, we were baptized and became members of Ruhama Baptist Church. We seldom missed a service, and my parents’ faith grew enormously there.

Never before had I experienced such peace and joy. I even met two young men from Howard who took me along when they preached in small mining towns. The students involved me in their ministry at every level, including preaching.

Veering

Eighteen months later, everything changed. My father’s work took us back to Kansas City. I never felt comfortable in the church we joined, and I drifted. Although never deliberately turning from God, when I became a college student I sought intellectual respectability and embraced the prevalent materialist worldview. The call to preach sometimes haunted me, but I pursued graduate studies in history and embarked upon an academic career. Soon it became my identity.

Five years after my first academic appointment, Mary and I married. She believed attending church would be good for us. Because her background was Catholic and mine Baptist, we decided that the Lutheran Church might be a good compromise. In Boulder, Colorado, we found a church home where Mary encountered grace, surrendered her life to Christ, and began praying for me.

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A Sobering Mercy