Easter arrives early this year. It has to do with the moon and the arrival of Spring. In 1978 Easter Sunday fell on March 26th, today’s date. That’s cause for me to remember and celebrate because on Easter Sunday of 1978, a couple of weeks after my 16th birthday, I publicly committed my life to Jesus Christ. It happened at the North Phoenix Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona. I’d visited there a few times over the previous year, and each time I felt a strong compulsion to respond to the invitation at the end of the worship service. For those of you who may not have been to a church that holds an invitation, it is the time when the choir sings a special hymn and the pastor encourages people to walk to the front of the church to give their lives to Christ. Perhaps some people “walk the aisle” as the result of how they feel at that moment, and some don’t ever really do anything beyond that. It wasn’t that way for me. I felt strongly that I needed to “go forward,” but never reacted to that feeling because there was a stronger one holding me back: fear. I think I was afraid of what people would think of me.
That same fear thrust me into temptation about a year and a half earlier. It was the beginning of my freshman year at Thunderbird High School. I’d had a problems fighting and being bullied in junior high, so I really wanted to start high school off right. I wanted to make new friends, get involed, and be more accepted. I looked at extra-curricular activities and figured I’d join Key Club. That seemed to be the place for good kids, maybe some of the more popular people. I wanted to be both and didn’t believe I was either. I wasn’t popular. Sure, I had a couple of friends, but mainly I just kept my head down when I walked the outdoor hallways of our campus. And good? Well, I didn’t really have any behavior problems in school (yet), but I didn’t feel like I was a good person on the inside.
It was early Fall in Phoenix, and it was a Friday. I was wearing dark brown corduroy pants and a long-sleeved, tan shirt with a prominent western design (wasn’t trying to be a cowboy, but I liked that shirt). Final bell rang and ended the school day; I headed toward the room where people interested in Key Club had been invited to meet. I can still see that classroom door in my mind’s eye. As I approached. I imagined the stares I’d get as I walked through the door, and the popular kids would be thinking, “What’s he doing here?” I didn’t go through that door, never even got close. Fear seized me and I kept right on walking . I’d missed the school bus, so I would have to walk a couple of miles home. I decided to hang around for the football game on campus that evening. Since I didn’t really have any friends to hang out with, I meandered off campus.
I sauntered into the Thrifty Drug Store across the street. No plan, no money, just looking to kill some time. Now, I don’t know if I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid, or if I was just plain bored, but I what happpened changed the trajectory of my youth. Once inside Thrifty Drugs I was drawn to the liquor section. I didn’t drink, didn’t even like the taste of beer, or any other kind of alcohol. I’d tried it all in 7th grade when my cousin and I raided my aunt’s liquor cabinet. I couldn’t believe people drank such terrible tasing stuff. Now, I knew that as a minor I wasn’t supposed to be in the liquor section of the store, but I didn’t care. Maybe I didn’t feel worthy to be a good kid, so I’d just continue to be a bad one. There were mirrors angled down from the ceiling all the way around the store. I scoped them all out. I even sat down, then laid down on the floor to see if I could be observed. Finally, I stood up, slinked over to the refrigerated reach-in display, and cooly pocketed a small Michelob beer (I chose it for its diminutive size). Then I started to walk out. As I passed the check-out I felt a hand grip my skinny bicep. A man looked down on me and asked me something like, “What do you have in your pocket?” He was the manager of Thrifty Drugs, and he took me upstairs to his office. He called the police, and I got taken home in the back of a squad car.
Both my Mom and my Step-dad were home when the police brought me to the door. They proceeded to ball me out, and I proceeded to ball my eyes out for the next hour or so. I decided then that I would never steal another thing. I didn’t want to be a bad person. It took over a year for me to figure out that I’d never be a good person on my own.
My Mom was always good to us at Christmas, and so I had a television set in my room. Back then we only had five channels to watch: the three networks, PBS, and the local station, KPHO channel 5. When I was younger I always watched channel five when I got home from school because they had Gilligan’s Island and a kids show called Wallace and Ladmo. On Sunda our family didn’t ever go to church, and there was nothing much to do, so I’d watch TV. Sunday mornings had two viewing options: political shows and religious shows. Boring. For some reason though–maybe I was searching I don’t know–I started to watch this church that broadcast its morning worship service on channel 5. This was the North Phoenix Baptist Church, and Richard Jackson was the preacher. I was impressed that they never asked for money. Other religious programs spent half the broadcast or more begging for dontations. NPBC just showed their worship service. I hadn’t been to church very often, but I liked this. I liked what the preacher had to say. He talked about Jesus, and preached from the Bible. They always ended the service with an invitation to pray to receive Jesus into your heart. I prayed that sinner’s prayer more than once. In fact the first time I remember praying it was while watching a Billy Graham Crusade when I was around 12 or 13. Both NPBC and Billy Graham had a choir that would sing the hynm Just As I am, and people would go forward. The words of that song struck me because they told me what I needed to know about God’s love. It is unconditional. He loves me just as I am.
“Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O lamb of God, I come, I come.”
At some point I shocked my Mom by asking her to take me to this church. She was kind enough to bring be there several times over about a one year period. Each time I was there I felt compelled to go forward at the invitation, and each time I resisted. I was afraid. This was compounded by the fact that TV cameras were rolling. What would all of those people think? Well, I don’t believe I ever formulated it that way in my mind; I was just too scared to step out into the aisle. So, for me, going forward in church required advance planning. Beyond going forward once in a worship service I planned on committing my life to Jesus Christ. Initially, I didn’t fully realize the message behind Just As I Am. I wanted to commit my life to God, so I tried to clean up my act. I stopped stealing, improved my grades in school, and tried to stop other bad habits I had. The problem with all of this is, I was doing it in order to be good enough for God. I wanted Him to accept me. The Gospel message I was hearing clearly from Pastor Jackson was: God loves you and accepts you. If you could be good enough for God on your own, Jesus wouldn’t have had to die on the cross for your sins. This is revolutionary. Just about everyone tries to gain God’s favor by doing good. The Gospel says God’s favor cannot be earned. We already have it in the Beloved, who is Jesus Christ.
I had a plan. On March 11th I turned 16 and got my driver’s license. That would enable me to drive myself to church consistently. Easter Sunday came on March 26th in 1978. I asked to borrow our green 1973 Ford F150 pickup to drive myself and my sister to North Phoenix Baptist Church. When we got there I sat on the outside of the pew near the aisle; that way I wouldn’t be able to make the excuse that I didn’t want to bother people by squeezing by them when the inviation time arrived. I don’t even remember what the sermon was over (although, Pastor Jackson kindly sent me a copy of the tape for that service some years ago), but as soon as the choir started singing Just As I Am I bolted down the aisle. I was wearing my fashionable disco clothes, including a blue faux silk shirt and two and a half inch platform shoes! I shook the hand of Don Mapes, who happened to be the youth minister at NPBC, and sat on the front pew with a deacon. We prayed the sinner’s prayer and filled out a card. The point for me was commitment. I had finally gone beyond feelings or even faith in my head to faith acted out with my feet.
The Bible states clearly, “By grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, that faith has to be real. That means faith must result in more than mental acceptance of facts or private feelings about God. Faith means believing something enough that I’m willing to do something about it. On Easter Sunday of 1978 I did just that, and I’ve never stopped beleiving and following Jesus since that day. It’s been 38 years today!
I was baptized the following Sunday. One year later, around my 17th birthday I surrendered my life to preach the Gospel. I am now the pastor of a church that God led me and other wonderful people to start. I wouldn’t want to live another life.