In 1962, my father, then roughly the age my son is now, served as pastor of an asbestos-shingle Baptist church on an unpaved side street in Berea.
He was young, energetic and a firebrand preacher. I can still see the church's small sanctuary filled to capacity, no empty spaces left in the pews. Ushers lined the center aisle and rear wall with folding chairs to accommodate the crowds.
Particularly in that early stage of his career, Dad was an evangelistic preacher in a traditional, emotional Southern Baptist style. Nearly all his sermons focused on the need of every man, woman and child to repent and be saved by Jesus.
Over the years since, I've heard lots of horror stories from others who grew up in similar congregations, how as children they were petrified and even traumatized by graphic warnings of a literal, fiery hell.
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I don't question their accounts or reactions, but, while I heard hundreds of identically dire warnings, I can't recall being scared. I'm not sure why I wasn't.
My family lived next door to the church building in a modest parsonage, a square box with few amenities. If we weren't poor, we weren't far from it.
I liked to watch Combat! on television and play army in the dusty drainage ditch that ran along the street in front of the parsonage with Mickey, a kid who lived in the house on the other side of the church. I was 6.
I tried to think about getting saved, but couldn't understand exactly what that meant, or how you went about doing it if you decided you wanted to.
I loved my dad. Maybe my budding curiosity was more a desire to please him than to please God. I can't say. The Lord was only a stout idea in my head; my father, however, was truth and reality.
Often, at the end of church services, during the invitational hymn, one or two or five sinners would walk down the aisle to grasp Dad's hand and tearfully ask him to help them receive Jesus as their personal savior.
That's what conversion looked like, I knew. But I sensed there was more to it than taking a short, embarrassing walk and saying a few words.
One Saturday evening, at home, my dad sat in his easy chair, watching TV.
I waited until a commercial, then said abruptly, "Daddy, how do you get saved?"
His eyes popped open. He rose and turned off the television and walked me over to our frayed couch.
"Do you want to be saved?" he said. His face was young and unlined with age or cares, his dark hair still full. He wasn't much more than a boy himself, I realize now.
"Yes, I do."
He smiled a smile tender, joyful and proud all at the same time.
"Well," he said, "it's not hard. You have to believe you're a sinner and that you need to be forgiven. Do you believe that?"
I nodded. I'm not sure what sins I thought I'd committed.
"You have to believe Jesus is the Son of God. And that he'll forgive everything you've done wrong, and come into your heart to live forever, and that when you die he'll take you to heaven. Do you believe that?"
"Yes. I do."
I did. I believed every word my father said, and he'd said these things from the pulpit countless times.
"Then let's pray, and you ask him." He wrapped an arm around me.
"Lord Jesus," I said, "I ask you to forgive my sins and come into my heart."
Now, this is the rub. This is why that moment stands out with such clarity.
The instant I prayed, something spectacular happened in my little trusting heart.
I hadn't anticipated any particular effect. I didn't know I was supposed to.
But powerfully, a cool, clear breath of untainted light washed into my heart. It was a physical sensation. My chest expanded. Air and light flooded in, as real as my dad sitting next to me on the couch.
The divine presence. Suddenly within me.
I don't recall much of what came afterward.
I know that the next morning I walked down the aisle as the pianist played Just As I Am, hugged my dad, and listened while he told the congregation I'd made a profession of faith. I was baptized later, but remember nothing of that.
Yesterday was my 58th birthday. More than a half-century has passed.
My dad's gone. My mom's gone. Most of the folks who worshiped at that small church on the gravel street are gone.
I've lived through all kinds of spiritual experiences and doubts and wanderings, from vibrant faith to apostasy to despair and back, around the horn.
But I'm here to tell you, something real, something beyond my 6-year-old mind's ability to anticipate, happened to me that evening in 1962. However far I've drifted, that crystalline memory invariably has helped bring me home.