I cannot recall all the many details that led me to the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel of grace, but I do recall some.  My spiritual adventure began at the age of 20. After graduating from Brazosport High School, I launched out on my own in this world and moved back to Mississippi. Once again I moved in with my sister, Billie Johnson. My brother-in-law, a mechanic, was working on a section of Mississippi Interstate-20 near Pelahatchie. He promised me a job so I could save money for school if I would come. My sister said she would house and feed me until I signed up for school at Mississippi State University.

Did I mention that I love music – always have and still do. I had learned to play rhythm guitar early in life…..I mean really early.  I was still living my life with absolutely no goal in mind, just allowing what I thought were aimless circumstances to take me wherever. But as I discovered, I was never off God’s radar screen. Looking back, I realize just how much God loved me and that I was never estranged from His promises or out of His plan for me. God does not make mistakes, not one.

“O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O LORD, You know it altogether. You have hedged me behind and before and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,

But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You. For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well.

My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.

How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.” (Psalm 139:1-18)

My life, like the big picture on a puzzle box, was materializing just as God planned. Eventually I enrolled at Mississippi State University. I rolled into Starkville with a little money in my pocket, a beat up Mercury car, and no particular plan in mind. It was as though I was being whisked along by some unknown force. It was at Starkville that my spiritual life’s adventure began to take off.  I spent my entire first semester as a reluctant member of the Mississippi ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corp). But my involvement in ROTC was the first time I ran into serious organized discipline. I learned to polish shoes, prepare a uniform, wear it correctly, and performed precise marching drill order on a large field. I realized later that God had this in mind for me, and He used it to make up for a lot of lost time. I signed up as a music major and took Music 101 which sounded pretty tame to me. It turned out to be a music theory class which I discovered later was one of the hardest courses in the school. It involved the physics and math of music. I had never learned the value of study and this course stretched me to the limit just to keep up.

Needless to say, college did not start out well for me. But I soon met a young guy about my age named Jess Dickinson from Charleston, Mississippi, who just happened to be starting a rock band, as they were called back in the day.  Being familiar with a guitar, and having a fair singing voice, I signed on to be a part of The Chancellors. We were joined by a couple of others, including a drummer. We practiced somewhere on campus and, in time, started playing small venues like nightclubs and fraternity dances on campus. Playing in this group and going to class pretty much took up my first year in college. Amazingly, I did not do badly in school, but I endured college to play music.

The Dance

How could something as simple as a high school teenage dance be a turning point in someone’s life? Some years later, I was preaching the funeral of a woman who had died unexpectantly at a young age. I heard a popular song playing on the funeral home’s sound system. It was Garth Brooks’ song, “The Dance.” I was startled! I remember thinking how strange it was for a secular song to be played at a funeral. But as I listened to the words, I got it. Her family knew her. Although the time of her life was brief, she was glad for the time because if not, she would have missed “The Dance.” The Dance in my mind was her hearing and believing the gospel of God’s wonderful grace. It proved to be a spiritual epiphany for me.

God used a dance to draw me to Himself. Years before that funeral, The Chancellors played for a dance at the National Guard Armory in Charleston, Mississippi. Through Jess, I met a lot of teenagers at that dance. I stayed with Jess’s grandparents, Gussie and Jess Hayes throughout that summer.  Aunt Gussie, as I came to know her, was a classy “Southern Bell” having much savvy, dignity, and poise. DeDe (Uncle Jess) was a typical southerner, who loved crappie fishing. This couple became close personal friends very quickly. Aunt Gussie helped me get a summer job with “Project Head Start,” an eight week government program for preschool children to get them prepared for the first grade. I worked with the health end of Head Start giving hearing and eye tests to children in the Mississippi Delta.

That summer I met the two Mack’s with whom I have remained close for sixty years – Mac Venable and Mack Peters. We all had one thing in common – music! We would get together in the evenings and play music. Working as a lifeguard, Mac V would open the pool at night and give me diving lessons, skills that came in handy while sharing Christ in youth ministries for years. In return, I would teach him and Mack P chords on the guitar. Mack P was drawn to the guitar and later toured with a gospel group, the Downings, as a bass player. But it was “the dance” at the National Guard Armory that began my spiritual adventure. Aunt Gussie had heard about Jess and I singing together at the dance.  She asked us to sing a special at First Baptist Church. We did two songs and got such good reviews that Gussie asked if we could sing at a youth revival at a little church on the edge of a cotton field just outside of Charleston, Cowart Baptist Church. Their pastor was James Varner Clark, but people called him “Nap.” When asked why he was called “Nap,” he would laugh and say that he slept through high school. I claim Nap as my “father in the Lord.”

Jess and I relented and went to the youth revival at Cowart. We wanted to just sing and leave. We tried hard to avoid talking to any preacher. I think Jess made it out the door, but Nap nailed me before I could escape. I seem to recall his big hand hitting my shoulder as I descended the front steps. He asked if he could explain something to me. Explain something? Well sure! He then gave me the gospel, using what has come to be called “the hand gesture.” It was a way of explaining the gospel of the grace of God with words mixed with hand symbols.

I caught the phrases like “God said that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” I knew I was a sinner. Nap continued! “But God in love determined to pay man’s sin debt Himself by dying in the sinner’s place. But God, as God, could not die because God is eternal life and eternal life cannot die. So, God took on Himself a body and came into the world that first Christmas morning as a tiny babe born to a virgin named Mary. This tiny child was the God-Man. He became a perfect human without losing His deity. His mother was instructed to call Him Jesus, meaning Savior. This man lived to the age of thirty-three, and He never sinned. He never lied, stole anything, gossiped about anyone. And as a perfect man, He freely gave His life on the cross to pay the sinner’s sin debt in full. But He did not stay dead. On the third day following His death, He rose bodily from the grave, guaranteeing that everything He had taught about Himself was true and also giving assurance of our future resurrection. All one has to do to receive the benefits of Christ’s cross work is to trust in Jesus Christ by faith.”

The decision involved no human works at all. Nap asked me if I would like to trust in Christ. In that moment, I was more than a little confused, so I declined. But I joined in the fun of the rest of the youth revival – softball, swimming, and hayrides.

The pianist for the revival was a very gifted musician, Dixie Mullins. She could play Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin with the best, and then with ease transition into the old country gospel songs such as “I’ll Fly Away” or “I Saw the Light.” Dixie taught me several gospel songs.

The revival preacher, Dr. Ken Humphrey, secretly paid my way to an upcoming youth camp at Boca Raton, Florida. Nap took a youth group to the camp every summer. He borrowed a school bus from the county and drove it to Boca Raton that summer. I made the trip with them. Nap had told me about all the cute girls at camp, but he forgot to say that each one of them carried a Bible. I had absolutely no social graces…..because I had never been taught. Everything I did in dress and speech was because I would see it or hear it in others. But singing and playing guitar got me the attention that I needed and provided social fuel to sustain me.

“Boca,” as the camp was called, was led by a man named Austin Ray Stanford. He was a former WW2 bomber pilot that had been shot down in the war. His story of survival was a perfect testimony for leading a youth camp. There were over 300 teenagers from every walk of life there. I roomed with a young guy named Mike Shaffer. Mike had played football for Miami High School and was offered a full ride to attend Georgia Tech University to play football. He refused the scholarship in order to attend a new Bible college starting in Miami – Florida Bible College. Who could not be impressed with that! The camp at Boca seemed to offer everything that a teen could ask for: swimming (beach and pool), skiing, snorkeling, sports of every kind, and music, a whole lot of music, all just to my liking.

The camp was divided into four teams that competed the entire time. Their Bible rallies were legendary, having the best in youth musicians and youth speakers available. Though I did not recognize at all the spiritual impact that I had received from Nap when he explained the hand gesture gospel to me, I found out later that Nap had placed in my mind a spiritual seed. And once I heard it, I could not unhear it. It was God’s seed (1 Peter 1:22-25).

I do not remember the exact day, but it was the end of the week, and we were on our way to the huge auditorium where the camp was to end. I had left the final youth meeting on campus and was winding my way across campus to the auditorium. I do remember the exact place because it was near the fountain at the front of our meeting hall. I stopped! Stood still for some time. And in the quietness and privacy of my mind, I began to talk to God. I told Him that I did not understand much of it at all, but I truly did understand His gospel truth, and I placed my trust in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I said, “Lord Jesus, I am right now trusting solely in you to save me. I believe that You died for me and rose again.”

At that exact moment that I lifted my head, I knew that I had changed. I knew that I looked through different eyes. And the world around me had changed. The Florida grass was always green, but it was greener than I had ever imagined. The sky always seemed blue, but it was bluer than ever before. God had regenerated that gospel seed in me. Many of the pieces of my life came together. It was as though all my life I had waited on this time, this place, and this moment. And I dimly saw the beautiful picture on the front of the puzzle box taking shape. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to spend the rest of my life living for the God who had saved me, teaching His word, proclaiming the truths of God’s marvelous grace, and singing His praises. It was as though the Holy Spirit at that moment set me apart for God’s glory.

I was a new creation riding back to Mississippi on that ole school bus. Nap and Dixie both saw the difference that Christ had made in me. I was looking through different eyes and people knew it. I came back to Mississippi only long enough to withdraw from Mississippi State and announce to Jess that I was headed to Florida to enter school at Florida Bible College. Jess was understandably incredibly shocked. A youth leader in Tampa had asked me to help him the rest of the summer, which I did for the most part. I waited for FBC to open, and I was there when it did. I had no money and very few clothes. Talk about faith! Since then many things changed for me, but I never forgot “The Dance.”