When I was around 3 or 4 years old, I let Jesus into my heart. My great aunt Mattie Bergman, whom I called Auntie, read to me at her house out of a big purple Bible book with stories from the Creation to Revelation. When I went to Vacation Bible School, I already knew almost all the Bible characters. Auntie taught me to pray at bdtime, and she also took me to church when she was baby sitting me. She let me draw on the bulletin. She said I could have half a stick of Spearmint gum at the start of the service as long as I would be quiet. If I was still quiet by time for the sermon, I would get the other half of the stick. It was okay to lie on the rug under the pews so long as I didn’t kick the seat above my head. We went to the First Methodist Church in Greenville, Mississippi.
One day, I had been particularly good. I asked Auntie if I could go sit in the balcony to hear the sermon. Auntie gave me the second half of the stick of gum and said I could have it, but only if I was good. I took the stick of gum and walked up the stairs all by myself, sitting down on the front row and leaning out over the balcony. The stained glass in the window behind me threw colored light over me and the pew – red, green, yellow, and blue.
Rev. Thad Farrell was preaching on letting Jesus into your heart. He said if you did that Jesus would be with you everywhere you went, and all the time. That sounded great to me. I was chewing gum, kicking my legs in the air, and taking in every word he said. At some point during the sermon, I asked Jesus if He would like to come into my heart. He replied, “That would be very good.” So I said, “Come on in, then.” I felt an immediate change, almost physical. The still, small voice was not coming from outside of me but from within me. I don’t remember very clearly anything past that moment, but that moment is still sharp in my mind.
My mom and dad moved to Glen Allen, Mississippi, where I attended the first through the fourth grades. At the end of the fourth grade, my mother left my father and moved us to 626 Orlando Street, Greenville. I went to Carrie Stern for the fifth grade. Then Mom moved us into the apartment over Auntie’s garage, on 236 South Shelby, and I attended the sixth and seventh grades at E.E. Bass Junior High School. Around the end of the seventh grade, Dad came to say good-bye. He had done all he could for those two years to be with us, but now he was going back into the Air Force and getting his old rank back as Master Sergeant. The court would allow him to have us for three months every summer. He cried as he kissed David and me good-bye, and then he drove off.
“I guess I don’t have a father any more,” I said as I walked through Auntie’s back yard on the way to the stairs on the side of her garage leading to our apartment on top. Immediately God said, so clearly it had the same effect as if I had heard it audibly, “I’ll be your Father.” It calmed me down and I stopped crying. Later that night, at bedtime, I was crying myself to sleep, and God came and sort of emotionally tucked me in. He continued tucking me in night after night until I was in my fifties. Like a dummy, I asked Him to stop since I was a little old to be tucked in. However, after a year or so of not having Him present at bedtime, I asked Him to tuck me in again. As I write this, I am 67 and God is still tucking me in!
Mom got married that summer. She married Ed Frank, a cattle order buyer from Lake Village, Arkansas. We moved there and Pop, as we called Ed, immediately gave David and me horses to ride. I was 14 and David was 12. I had a fast quarterhorse named Tiger, and David had a Clydesdale named Baldie. At Lakeside High School, my new school, one of my classmates, Carol Carlton, invited me to attend her church, Lakeside Presbyterian. I did so the whole time from the eighth grade through the twelfth grade. I stayed close to God all that time. I especially remember asking God to send a cloud on hot summer days when David and I were on horseback riding herd all day. Those cool breezes! When I grew up, I wanted to live where the climate was much less hot.
My pastor at Lakeside Presbyterian was Rev. Irwin Mitchell. He coaxed me into applying to a Presbyterian college in Minnesota. Macalester College gave me a full academic scholarship so I could afford it, and so I went to college in Minnesota. The first time it snowed it felt like I had arrived in heaven! I fell in love with a girl in my English class, and we went together for a year. She broke it off with me at the beginning of our sophomore year, though. I spent my whole sophomore year in romantic misery. Sometime in early spring as my sophomore year was drawing to a close, I found myself sitting on a park bench alone, next to an Episcopal cathedral. I was in despair and thinking of ending my life. “God,” I said, “If You are real, You better show Yourself right now, because I am about to give up on You.”
The wind blew in my face. “God, is that you?” I asked. It blew again. I said, “Okay, if it’s You, let the wind be still.” The wind ceased. I got off the park bench and turned around. Newspapers had been blowing across the ground, and treetops had been twisting and turning in the wind just a second earlier. Now everything was absolutely still as far as I could see in all directions. I sat back down. I said, “If Your answer is yes, blow on my right cheek; if no, blow on my left.” Then I asked, “Are You mean and hateful, just out to test me and make me miserable?” The wind blew on my left cheek. “Do you really love me?” The wind blew on my right cheek. I got up out of the park bench and began walking the mile from the college to the Mississippi River. The whole way, God answered my questions, yes or no. When I arrived at the River, I asked God to go away because I couldn’t stand it any more; it was too miraculous. That was in 1966, and as I write this it is 2014. In between then and now, I have never had such a long personal encounter with God.
I talked with God this way for a week. Every evening after eating at the college cafeteria, I would sit on that park bench and then go for a walk to the River and talk with God. At the end of that week, I told God, “I am very weak now. You have assured me that You love me. When I am stronger, I will love you back. But for now, I just have enough strength to accept Your love for me.” Then it was as if God stretched out his hand from heaven and shook my hand. “It’s a deal,” I heard Him say. And that was that. I went into the Episcopal cathedral next to the park bench. I sat down and memorized “Amazing Grace” and some other hymns. I began to do this every day at dusk, till my sophomore year was at an end. In the Episcopal prayer book I found these verses, which I quote here from memory.
Now from the altar of my heart let incense flames arise;
Assist me, Lord, to offer up mine evening sacrifice.
Minutes and mercies multiplied have made up all this day;
Minutes came quick but mercies were more fleet and free than they.
New time, new favors, and new joys do a new song require;
Till I shall praise Thee as I would, accept my heart’s desire.