A Sobering Mercy

The second time I surrendered to Christ, I was on a dirt road with no memory of how I had arrived there.
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.

During the first six years of our marriage, I taught full-time and pursued research. Promotions came quickly, as did publications and grants. But despite the blessings of a lovely wife, two children, and professional success, no rest came to my soul. To fill the void I began to drink heavily. Although most people didn’t know it, I became an alcoholic. I never missed classes and seldom drank during the week, but I often binged on weekends.

Despite the blessings of a lovely wife, two children, and professional success, no rest came to my soul. I began to drink heavily.

Mary continued to pray. And one of my favorite students spent money he couldn’t afford to buy me a copy of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, then challenged to me read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Simul­taneously, my car radio malfunctioned and stuck on a gospel station. I kept the radio on because I needed noise. Gradually the programs began to warm my soul.

Still doubting, I received a year’s leave to write a book. When I finished it early, I rewarded myself with a binge. One evening when Mary implored me not to drink around the children, I stomped out, found a bar, and drank until closing time. I left armed with a six-pack, drove up a winding mountain road, stopped at an overlook, and blacked out. The next morning I found myself on a dirt road next to the old Pioneer Cemetery in Boulder with no memory of the drive down.

Despite the hangover, I realized I had experienced a miracle. In utter desperation I cried out, “Lord, if you are there, please help me.” That same Presence I had met years earlier in Birmingham blessed me again. I knew he was in the car and that he loved me despite my wretchedness. This liberating encounter with Jesus Christ eventually brought healing.

When I sobered up and proclaimed my new birth to our Lutheran pastor, he said, “I think you have finally realized what you were given in your infant baptism and confirmation.” I did not believe him at the time, but sometimes I have flashbacks to the church of my childhood. I can see the choir processioning in; a mural shows Jesus ascending to heaven; I hear the pastor’s call to worship: “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him.” The boy who had been marked with the covenant stayed there long enough to sense that our God is awesome.

Way Out in Front of Me

I moved many times, made countless mistakes, and experienced two encounters with the Lord who never gave up on me. He gradually brought healing and restored the years the locusts had eaten. He opened doors for me to witness in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and preach in rescue missions, jails, and convalescent centers. He then called me to full-time ministry, ordination in the Anglican Church, and eventually to the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, where I had first heard his call to preach.

Over the years God has proved to be a gentle Comforter—like when Mary underwent massive surgery for cancer, and when our 10-year-old daughter died unexpectedly. Occasionally his Spirit illumines Scripture in an amazingly clear way. There are moments during devotions when he brings to mind a person—and the person needed my call and the assurance that it was the Lord’s initiative. Sometimes Mary and I are nudged to give money to a person, and we both “hear” the same amount. The Lord also manifests his Father’s heart by sternly rebuking me for a willful act of disobedience or prideful disregard for his holiness.

Certainly the most humbling and reassuring lesson coming from a three-quarter-century backward glance is his persistence in drawing me to himself. Now I know that God was always way out in front of me, initiating life-giving knowledge of himself. And it was he who pursued me and sustained the relationship when I strayed in ignorant sheeplike fashion, doubted his existence, and then like the Prodigal Son deliberately moved to the far country.

And it is all grace—unearned, un­deserved, unrepayable grace.

Lyle Dorsett is Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School and serves as pastor of Christ the King Anglican Church in Birmingham.

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A Sobering Mercy