When I was a little boy I’d sit with my Grandma Smith and watch Billy Graham Crusades on TV. I remember crying for joy when I saw the response to the altar calls. I may have loved Jesus at the time, but I certainly had not dedicated my life to Him, yet Christ was working in my heart.
The first time I remember making any kind of decision to accept Jesus as my Savior was at a church camp at Forest Home. I was a very “cool” guy, but after a few days my facade began to fall away. One night at a campfire service, I felt prompted to respond to the altar call. I may have met Jesus as Savior that night, but not as Lord. I remember the counselor asking me if there were any sins I needed to confess. “No, I’m OK”, I coolly replied. I had no understanding of His lordship or my need to repent of sin. More worrisome, in hindsight, is that I had no hunger for the Word. Nor did I pray in a relational way. I remember “witnessing” to my friends when I got home, but how can someone witness of One whom they do not know? My life had not really changed. I was religious, but had no relationship with the Lord. It was 1959. I was twelve.
When I was about fifteen I went steady with a nice Baptist girl. She went to a church that I knew from childhood. Every time Grandma Smith was in town, we had gone to that church. I got involved with the youth group, but still had no time for the Word or prayer.
When I was sixteen David Wilkerson of Teen Challenge came to our town (Las Vegas, Nevada) with Loren Cunningham and a new group of college aged kids called Youth with a Mission. I went to the crusades and was so impressed to see gang members going forward to answer Dave’s challenge. I found out that Mr. Cunningham and his group were headed next to Westminster, CA for a two week door-to-door campaign. I asked if I could go. Before heading to California, they came to our little Baptist church one night. Loren spoke about sharing The Message. At one point he pointed right at me and said, “The gospel is so easy to share; why even a kid in a red T-shirt can do it.” I was paired with a serious young man who was a little older (or he seemed so) than the other students on the team. Ron and I spent most of our time with a man named Manuel. We went back to his house several times, but even though he seemed genuinely interested, we couldn’t get through. Manuel was frustrated. He had said, “When I try to pray, it’s just black. Nothing is going through.” Finally, Ron shared an analogy and hit pay dirt. “Manuel, when your little girl is outside roller skating on the sidewalk she’s not thinking about you or her mom. She’s just having fun. But, if she falls and skins her knee, what’s the first word out of her mouth? ‘Mommy’ or ‘Daddy’! That’s how we are with God. We just go along through life without really thinking about Him, but when we fall down ….” Manuel’s eyes lit up. Ron continued, “What would you do if you heard your daughter crying out? You’d drop everything and run right to her. You’d hold her, comfort and care for her. God feels the same way about you.”
“Now I see”, Manuel cried. His countenance had changed. His color went from gray to pinkish red. A big smile matched his sparkling eyes. He prayed to receive Jesus right then and there. I had been personally involved in a witness to this man and seen the miracle of salvation take place right before my eyes! Manuel then told us that when we knocked on his door the first day he didn’t know why he had bothered to answer. At that very moment he was in his bathroom with a gun to his head. Instead of taking his own life, he answered the door. The night he was saved Manuel came to the church which was across the street from a park where many gang members were hanging out. When Manuel shared his testimony, a bunch of them responded to the gospel. There were other miraculous testimonies during those two weeks. God had blessed our efforts. I went home totally jazzed! But still, I had no real relationship with Jesus!
You may know of the success of Teen Challenge and Youth with a Mission, but a success story would not yet come for me. I went home with zeal, but no depth, and when my church did not answer my call to get out and witness, I became critical and began a downward spiral. My Baptist girl friend and I broke up. My senior year of high school was filled with craziness and carousing. I started college and sunk deeper into a licentious lifestyle. I remember being on a break in the stock room of the grocery store where I worked and deciding that something had to go. I couldn’t quit work, and college was my future. I decided to stop all church activity. My descent quickened and would last another seven years. It was 1966. I was nineteen.
After two years of limited educational success, I went into active duty in the Navy. I knew a few guys who were living for God, but I had no interest. I was writing to two girls-one old girl friend and one new. The old was pretty unresponsive, but the new faithfully wrote often. I wanted a relationship with the old, but one day I said to myself, “Am I nuts? This girl (the new) is beautiful and she loves me.” I let the old go, and threw myself into a long range letter writing relationship. After my first tour of duty in the Viet Nam War, we were married. I was faithful to my new wife on the next tour, and when I got out in the spring of 1969 we began our life together. In 1971 we had a son, Jeff.
In 1972 I got my bachelor’s degree in business administration. I was a top salesman in the company with which I’d had a part-time job, and I went into management. We had a new car, a beautiful apartment, and everything from the outside looked great. But our marriage was a mess. The core problem was that I was so in love with ME, that I could not fully give myself to anyone else. We tried smoking marijuana to mellow us out. Of course, things only got worse. We had just bought a new house. One day driving home, we talked (without arguing) and decided to split up. It was late 1973. My wife moved into an apartment, and I stayed in the house until I was forced out because of nonpayment of the mortgage. I was too busy staying loaded on weed (alcohol and other stuff too) to be responsible about anything. My sister and brother-in-law lived with me and helped me watch Jeff. My wife was on her own.
When I had to leave the house, I came up with a plan. I helped my wife get into a place with my son, and I was leaving town. I lived off friends or in my car for three weeks. I sold stuff off at the swap meet and got a little money. I loaded the remainder of my possessions in the car with my sales kit, and I was headed to South America to become a marijuana plantation owner! I would sell on my way to the Gulf, save money and just disappear. Yep, that was my grand plan!
The night before I was to head south I was in my car on the outskirts of town at the top of the bowl in which Vegas lays. I was looking down through all the lights, and I could see the spot where my wife and son were living. All of a sudden, my cold, small, hard, stoney heart broke! I realized I was doing to my son the same thing that my natural father had done to me. When I was almost two, he left my mom who was pregnant with my sister. He’d never been a part of our lives. I had dreamed of a fairytale marriage as a child, and this was what the dream had come too. I was bankrupt in every way. Financially, I was about $10,000 in debt and had bounced checks all over town. Morally and spiritually, I was a mess and lost. I was physically and/or emotionally addicted to tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and pornography. I remember crying out loud, as I thought of leaving my son, “Oh, God!” and fell asleep. That was my first real prayer! It was late February of 1974. I was twenty-six. Later, I found out that my sister and a few of her friends had been praying and fasting for me that very weekend! When I woke up in the morning, I felt completely different. I had prayed my first real prayer without even knowing it, but God knew and began working in my life.
Instead of leaving town, I drove to a co-worker’s house. I hoped he would let me sell for him at a reduced commission, because I couldn’t sell directly for my company. I owed them $1,000. He gave me a shower, a shave, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a job. The manager over us let me sleep in a camper on his property. My sales skyrocketed! I was no longer controlled by my urge for drugs or alcohol. I hadn’t quit, but I was able to say “no”. In a few weeks, I had enough money saved to rent a house with two other guys. I began reading the Bible. My mom had given me a New Testament when I went into the Navy that was still in mint condition. I read Revelation first. I still had no knowledge of the fact that God was working in my life. My cousin and I got together for a weekend and talked about the Lord the whole time. I threw away all my drug smoking paraphernalia. My life had begun to change, but I still had no relationship with Jesus.
One day, I was walking up my driveway thinking about my Bible. I couldn’t wait to get inside and pick it up. Suddenly, I realized that the conversation I was having in my heart was not with myself. I stopped and rested my sales kit against my leg. I looked up and said out loud“That’s You, isn’t it Lord?”
“Are you through doing it your own way by yourself?” I heard His voice in my heart. I was so relieved!
“Oh, yes Lord!” And I felt the weight fall off my shoulders. I didn’t know the terminology, but I had finally been born again! I had prayed my second real prayer, but the Holy Spirit had begun the conversation! The next day, God sent a Christian mailman by my house who hooked me up with a “Jesus People” church, and I was on my way. After sharing this testimony a few times, someone told me what had happened to me. I’d gotten saved! It was April, 1974. Two months had passed. God had worked mightily in my life, and He continues to be faithful to help me to grow in Jesus! The passion for souls that He planted in my heart as a child has continued to grow also. Some say it has turned into the gift of evangelism. All I know is that I have a strong desire to see people become disciples of Jesus who are making other disciples. With “Win and Grow” I hope to spark this passion in others so their giftedness can be more focused on doing their part in fulfilling the Great Commission.
(Yes, I can shorten it to two or three minutes when sharing my faith with an unbeliever. :>)