Tuned To The Truth
I felt like I was soaring about fifty feet off the floor, experiencing the highest of highs, and I never wanted to come back to earth. It was March of 1975.
A middle-aged woman named Mary walked up to me and said, "Did you know that there are angels in heaven singing for you, right now?" The thought that angels were singing just for me was certainly a beautiful one, but I was so overwhelmed by the rushes of purity I was already experiencing I didn't really concentrate on it.
Only ten minutes earlier I'd decided to become a Christian, during a revival meeting's "altar call:" Here I was in the depths of the Bible-belt, having come to the large meeting to take pictures. I'd never been anywhere near a revival, so I'd come out of curiosity. In fact, the only time I'd ever heard the word revival used was in college when we studied Greek Revival architecture.
Strangers walked up to me, grabbed my hand, and said things like, "Thank God, young man, you've decided to follow the Lord; Doesn't it feel great to be born again? You've just made the wisest decision of your life:" One man, dressed in polyester-blend pants and a windbreaker that said Auto Mart on it, heard my Yankee accent and said, "Well, good. Another Yankee's gotten himself right with God."
At first, walking through the South on my way across America had been like being in a different country. I had culture shock. But now I was used to the way southerners "tawked;' ate different foods like "boiled okry;' and remembered the Civil War as though it had ended last year. I had become used to their more gentle pace of life and now preferred it to the more "hyper" speed of Northern living. "Northern" meant any place in America that might have sent soldiers to fight against the South.
But here at the revival I didn't understand all that these people were saying about what had just happened between God and me. "Born again"... "Saved"... "The Lord led you here tonight"... "Praise the Lord"... "Well God finally's got you away from the Devil"... "Ain't God good" - these words seemed as normal in their vocabulary as "taxes;' "commute;' and "weekend" were to my family and friends in New York and Connecticut.
Then Mary came back to tell me something. She was slim, over forty, and dressed more fashionably than most of the other ten thousand people present. She stared at me with probing eyes, trying to figure out what I was feeling and thinking. I remembered what she'd said about the angels singing because I'd become a Christian. I wondered what kind of songs they sang. Wouldn't that be a great "live" concert to have on cassette, I thought.
"Peter, this great elation that you're feeling now..." she paused. "You are feeling great elation, aren't you?"
"Yes," I said.
She continued. Her voice was soft and I strained to hear. "At this moment it may seem like these great feelings are going to last forever, but they won't. Being a Christian is not based on feelings. You're on a mountain top now, but someday, sooner or later, you'll be far away from these great feelings. You may even wonder if all this ever happened”
A few of the people standing around me made faces like they disapproved of what she was saying.
"Your Christian walk is based on faith, not feelings.”
I was so thrilled that there could be good feelings mixed in with faith that I really didn't care about her opinions. It was like I'd just graduated from high school and someone had said, "Did you know that someday you'll be a mature adult and won't feel as excited about life anymore?"
Well, more than ten years have passed since my conversion in Mobile, Alabama. Mary was right-I was on a mountain top that night, my spiritual Mt. Everest. The feelings lasted a long time, but that mountain top hasn't lasted all these years. Maybe I've been on more mountain tops than some, but I've also climbed, sometimes crawled, out of some awfully steep valleys, too.
Ten years ago I became one of God's children. God has millions and millions of children, but I feel like He knows my needs and my heart as if I were His only child. It makes me realize how vastly incredible the LORD is. He's so much more than wonderful. He's more mighty than one million of man's most powerful computers, and yet He has the capacity to feel our joy and pain as deeply as a billion hearts. He has changed everything for me.
Please come with me, back in time ten years, as I take you to the night I met God.
My expectations of what to expect at a revival were vague and fuzzy. I knew little about this sort of thing, but picked up my pace to get there before it started. The closer I came, the more I looked around for the striped tent of my preconceptions, but saw only an auditorium, like a small Superdome. The parking lots were filled with hundreds and hundreds of cars. Most seemed new or at least well polished. Surely all these cars weren't here for the revival; there must be a rock concert inside the auditorium. No tent was anywhere in sight, so I went around back; it wasn't there either. Maybe I had misunderstood the dates on the billboard, but I thought that I would check the auditorium to see what was happening, anyway. Inside, I heard singing. To my amazement, the whole place was full, and a huge choir was singing a hymn. At least ten thousand people filled the place, and I stood there wondering where I could sit.
The thousands of seats stopped about a hundred feet before the elevated stage, so I took a deep breath, worked up my courage and headed for the empty space below the stage, on the floor. I could take some good pictures this close, and be in the middle of the action, too. After the choir was seated, a man dressed in a classy tan suit approached the microphone and started to sing a solo. His voice was as clear as the air at fifteen thousand feet and as soothing as a father's arm. I felt more comfortable behind my black Nikon camera with its long lens as I sat in front of all these people. A row of clergymen sat behind the singer, some of them staring at me as I crouched on the floor. I was too excited about getting emotion-packed pictures to wonder why I was there. I calmly clicked the shutter again and again, feeling hip and smug.
The singer, John McKay, finished his solo, then a woman in a long flowing gown came to sing. Her hair was as shiny and radiant as her face. I sat on the floor with my legs crossed and kept pushing my long hair back out of my face to take more pictures. A tall man in his thirties charged from his seat at the back of the platform and rushed to a microphone like a Dallas Cowboy linebacker. I kept the telephoto lens to my face, and watched, and snapped. The lens made me feel protected and covered from this preacher's view.
The over six-foot-tall Texan looked as if he were ready to jolt some folks. With a battered Bible in his big hand, he went right to his message. His first words of the night were hushed.
"I'm not going to keep you long, but I want to talk to you tonight about God. I'm here to give you some good news. How well you listen could determine the rest of your life and your eternity:' Before the ten thousand people, James Robison was quiet just long enough for that thought to take hold.
I didn't really believe all this nonsense about eternity, but I was more interested than I wanted to admit. The audience became attentive as the sermon heated up and James shouted, "I want you people to know that repentance is required to know God. Repentance is a forgotten message in America today, but I'm not going to forget it because it's a Bible message! You have to repent to get right with God. You can be a Baptist and go to hell. A survey was taken at the Huntsville Penitentiary in Texas and 72 percent of the inmates were Baptist.”
Laughter broke the tension. He yelled, "I don't care if you're a Methodist, I don't care if you're a Catholic, I don't care if you're a Presbyterian or Pentecostal, I don't care if you're a pastor or a seminary professor. I don't care what you are, friend. Salvation is not guaranteed just because you belong to a church.”
Most of what he said about knowing God, repenting and salvation, I didn't clearly understand. But I knew I was at a place where something real and truth tuned was happening. Mixed up, feeling self-conscious, I stayed on the floor, locked between the ten thousand people and the preacher. My camera was now dangling, ignored, and no longer hiding me from the preacher's eyes.
"I want you to know that most decisions for church membership are no different than joining a civic club, or the country club, and that kind of membership is keeping people from knowing God. Just being a member of a church will not save you or change your life. You can quit drinking, quit drugs, quit running around on your wife, quit stealing, quit everything and join a church and still not repent. You can become a good person and still not get to God. If you enjoy life without God, you have never repented and you have never been born of God!"
James Robison paused and then walked from behind the white oak podium. He pointed toward the audience, but it seemed that he was pointing right at me. The sweat beaded on his reddened face and seemed to evaporate before my eyes from the heat of his preaching. He bent down, inches from the front of the stage.
"When I ask you tonight if you are a Christian, many of you will answer and say you joined a church:' He practically screamed: "Joining a church won't make you a Christian any more than joining the Lion's Club will make you a lion!"
His words began to penetrate. "From the day you were born, you wanted to 'do your own thing' and you were rebellious against God. If you want to really know God, you've got to repent of this rebellion, which the Bible calls sin."
Like a diamond-tipped drill, the message pierced the hard and hidden layers of my personality. For no logical reason, I felt worse and more pulled apart than when my dog Coops died. I was dying right here on this empty floor. My life flashed before me as I felt a shining light expose my past twenty-two years.
James turned up his volume and the impact was increased. "Religion is not the answer! Salvation is! Salvation is committing your life to Jesus Christ and believing in Him. But don't think you are going to use Jesus for a passport to heaven. If you confess Him, you must believe He is God's only son Who was sent to die for your sins.”
James wiped his forehead and paced across the platform. He cleared his throat, as if to tell us he was going to blast us with more. "I remember an evangelist who walked up to a man in the congregation one night, and the man had a big of frown on his face. He looked as if someone had stuck a prune in his mouth. The evangelist put his hand on the man's shoulder and asked him if he wanted to become a Christian. The man growled back at the evangelist, 'I'm a deacon in this church!' And the evangelist said, 'Don't let that stand in your way."
Most of the men in the auditorium laughed. James never stopped for the crowd's laughter but bore down harder. "It's possible to be a deacon, an elder, a steward, a Sunday school teacher, or go to church all your life and not know the Lord.”
I was still full of doubt and cynicism. Something about this whole scene made me nervous and uncomfortable. As unexpected as death, embarrassing tears began to roll down my face. A gentle hand was wiping away something inside of me, something I wanted to hold on to. This Texan with his Bible message spoke respectfully of all those as deeply moved as me. His voice was soft and pleading.
"From every walk of life I've seen people give - their lives to Jesus Christ, and tonight I'm going to ask many of you to come forward and say you will commit your life to Him. The reason I must ask you to come before all these people is because the Bible says that you must confess Jesus before men, if you want Him to confess you before the Father.
"All over the auditorium, I want everyone to bow their heads, every head bowed, every eye closed. I want you to listen prayerfully."
With all these thousands of men, women and children, the place became as quiet as the deep woods. An awesome hush fell over everyone. I bowed my head, trying to pull myself together. "I want to ask you a question and I want you to tell me the truth. You be honest with God. You be honest with yourself. My question is not, Are you religious? It is not, Are you a church member? It is not, Are you a spiritual person?"
There was a long, silent break. This was my first revival and now the preacher was about to ask "the" question. I was deeply defensive and besides, I was just an observer, so why should I care what question he was about to ask. A sense of panic hit me. I was afraid for James Robison to ask his final question of the night. I was trying desperately to be rational yet I felt out of control and helpless. I had never been so moved. This was the last place on earth I expected such a thing to happen.
The powerful question finally came. "Have you ever repented of your sin and turned your life over to Jesus Christ? Are you saved?"
I was going to die. The deepest corners of my being were lit with thousand-watt bulbs. It was as if God Himself were looking into my soul, through all my excuses, my dark secrets. All of me was exposed in God's searchlight.
When the question ended its roaring echo, I decided for the first time to admit I needed God. This must be the God I had been searching for, and the same One they worshiped back in Murphy at Mt. Zion. The evangelist remained reverent and quiet for long seconds. Then, "All of you who want to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, please raise your hands.”
My back faced the thousands but I didn't care what anyone else did or thought. I knew I was ready. I lifted my hand toward heaven. The preacher then asked all of us with raised arms to come up front and pray publicly. Although I had raised my hand to God, a public prayer was something else. My overamped brains and self-will still fought against this decision that seemed so irrational. However, all I had to do was stand up since I was already by the platform. So, reluctantly, I stood. I was humbled before God, before man and before myself.
I was the first one at the front but people flowed in like a lost flock in a desert that had finally found water. They came by the hundreds. To my right was a beautiful Southern belle, crying. In front of me, kneeling, was a white-haired couple expensively dressed. To the left was a roughened oil-rig worker with grime under his fingernails. Next to him loomed a teenage basketball star who wore his school jacket covered with varsity letters and awards. Everyone at the front of this stage, now an altar, seemed to be near God.
I was realistic and sober when James Robison asked us to repeat a prayer with him. I heard myself saying, "Lord Jesus, I want the gift of eternal life. I am a sinner and have been trusting myself. Right now I renounce my confidence in myself and put my trust in Thee. I accept you as my personal Savior. I believe you died for my sins and I want you to come into my life and save me. I want you to be the Lord and Master of my life. Help me to turn from my way and follow you. I am not worthy, but I thank you, Lord, for saving me. Amen.”
We all finished our request to God and my next sensation was beyond the words of the world. A vibration shot from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet, like a current of pure truth pushing out the old Peter and putting in a new me. It still seemed too simple. But I felt clearer, cleaner and different from ever before in my life. Something transforming had happened to me here.
I felt a smile on my face and the glow of heaven around me. My soul had been like a wavering compass needle, but now it finally pointed to true north. I had found my lifetime direction. The salty breezes stroked me and I realized God was like the wind. I could feel Him everywhere.
Now I knew what people meant when they sang “Amazing Grace.”*
Even though deciding to be a Christian was a big step toward God, it was still only that first step. I remember thinking at the time, Peter, how could you have waited so long to get HERE! Today, I'm just thrilled that I made it. There's so much keeping people away from Him.
That step was only the beginning of a road to heaven I will be traveling as long as I'm on earth. I'm thrilled about getting there, but I plan to enjoy the journey as much as I can.
The night I "got saved,” Mary said that the angels in heaven sang, just for me. Well, when I get to heaven, I plan to sing those angels a song of celebration they'll never forget!
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. (3 John 4)
*From A Walk Across America (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1979). Used by permission.
". . .The Spirit And The Bride say, Come"