Each year the church held a revival. There were services each night of the week, a special preacher preaching. An altar call every night. Souls were saved. Me, too -- several times.
Fifth Avenue Baptist Church is gone now, a victim of white flight. The building itself, however, has a claim to fame. It was used in the movie, Driving Miss Daisy, as the church to which Hoke drove the elderly widow.
The “going forward” at the revival invitations may not have meant much. I began to get that idea when later, during the week when the church building was empty, me and Howard McClung and G.C. Bradshaw, decided to consume a pack of Lucky Strikes in the baptismal tub. They discovered the cigarette butts crushed out on the bottom, but they never knew who it was that did it. Later, as a teenager, I dismissed God entirely and decided he didn’t exist.
After all, I proved he didn’t exist when as a young soldier I stood on the launcher doors that housed Nike guided missiles underground; rain falling, lightning bolts being hurled from the clouds, thunder crashing in deafening roars, I screamed into the heavy raindrops driving into my face, “I know you don’t exist! If you are really there, strike me dead! Go ahead! Do it! I dare you!”
A huge streak of white fire began somewhere in the darkness above, coiling through the boiling clouds and snaked its way to a tree, a power pole, a flag standard or some high ground, maybe a mile or so away, instantly followed by a stupendous crash of thunder.
MISSED!!! I screamed. In the silence that followed, I could have sworn I heard a chuckle. The storm continued, however, despite my taunts.
I think deep down I wondered whether a lightning bolt just might vaporize me. Well God didn’t strike me dead. What a disappointment. My melodrama did prove one thing: I walked back to the barracks thoroughly confirmed in the belief that God did not exist. How could he have resisted such an opportunity?
I spent my entire military career of two incredibly long years in South Carolina, Arkansas and New Jersey. When I returned to Atlanta, I stayed a couple of months, then moved to Long Beach, California and stayed with my sister and her family. I got a job with the Long Beach Independent-Press Telegram as a copyboy, making $39/week. I had four bosses: Wylie, Stan, Burt and John. All of these veteran newspaper men would impact my life, but none like John. Or, perhaps I should say, John and his wife, Eva, as well as their fifteen-year-old daughter, Leemay, and their black cocker spaniel.
It happened like this: I was depressed. Not sure why. All I can say now after 23 years as a psychotherapist, I was definitely clinically depressed. Suicidal thoughts persisted. One night about midnight, I couldn’t sleep. I got up and walked out to the front porch of my sister’s house and lit up a Chesterfield. I looked up into a clear night sky with a full moon. As I gazed at that bright, silver disk in the sky, I said, “God, if you are up there, I need your help.” Quite a different experience from the missile launcher doors in a thunderstorm.
Next day. I swear. Next day John, searching for some misplaced copy, ventured out to my desk where I maintained a constant haze of Chesterfield smoke. I was going through three packs a day at this point. The man mentioned something about God. I don’t remember what else he said about the misplaced copy, all I heard was the name, “God.”
“God?” I replied.
He looked at me funny. “Yes, God,” he said. “God loves you, son.”
“God loves me?” dripping incredulity.
The exchange ended with my accepting an invitation to have dinner at his house. After dinner, Leemay went to do her homework, and John retrieved his Bible. “Uh-oh,” I thought. I prepared myself for a Bible-thumping. Didn’t happen.
Instead, these two wonderful people enveloped me in love. They made me see that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was an expression of God’s love for me. I cannot explain what happened next. All I can say is that I left that home that night feeling cleansed, a new person, a new creation. That was 56 years ago.
Twenty-two years later I stood in front of a hundred or so inmates at Lompoc Federal Correction facility in California. I was doing a seminar for Prison Fellowship, Chuck Colson’s newly formed ministry. It was crammed with two lectures in the morning and two in the afternoon, starting Monday and going through Friday. In between the lectures, we sandwiched small-group sessions.
At the end of one of the lectures, I noticed a disheveled young man, long hair, pimples, dirty T-shirt sitting about two-thirds the way back on the left side of the chapel. He was weeping. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Making my way through the crowd at the front, I sat down beside him. His weeping increased in intensity.
In my shirt pocket was a Campus Crusade tract entitled, Four Things God Wants You to Know. I contemplated taking it out and walking him through its pages. I resisted the impulse, and in doing so learned one of the most important lessons of my Christian experience.
St. Francis said it best, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” I learned that day that the Love of Jesus does not need words. I learned that the Holy One is alive and well. He needs nothing beside himself to form Christ in the deepest reaches of the human heart.
Good doctrine is important. It instructs us in spiritual policy. It shows us how be guided in our lives. Didactic reasoning and propositional faith has its place. But it has never, nor will it ever substitute for a person to person, heart to heart, encounter with God. As I heard a southern preacher proclaim one day, “A Holy Gawd cain’t meet up with a sinful crittur’ without sumbody feelin’ sumthin!’”
“The letter kills,” said Paul, “but the Spirit gives life.”
The reality I learned somewhere along way of my own spiritual journey is that the deepest of all human needs is to feel loved. The deepest need of the human heart is to feel loved unconditionally, and the only Person truly capable of and credentialed for that is the One who gave life -- through His death.