October 27 is an important date for me.
I grew up in Woolmarket Baptist Church, a rural, blue-collar congregation in a small community just north of Biloxi, Mississippi. My grandfather had served as pastor of that congregation and died when I was six years old.
I was active in all things related to Woolmarket Baptist Church: Sunday school, training union, Vacation Bible School, Royal Ambassadors, youth choir, youth council. At about the age of twelve, I was walking home from a revival meeting at the church, a revival at which our pastor preached (I assume because the visiting evangelist could not). I was staring into the stars overhead, contemplating my own guilt before God.
All my life I had heard about who Jesus was, and is. I knew the claims he had made about his lordship, that he was the son of the living God. I knew that all had sinned, including me. I knew that the gospel told us that Jesus had been crucified, bearing the guilt of sin and that God had raised him from the dead, defeating the hold of sin and the devil. I never questioned any of that, but it seemed like just another part of my communal identity, like being a New Orleans Saints fan or saying “yes ma’am” and “yes sir.”
But that night, something was different. It felt real to me. The gospel seemed not just to be talking about me, but talking to me. I looked up into the stars and threw myself on the the hope of good news that had traveled, somehow, from the first-century Roman Empire to the Reagan-era Mississippi Gulf Coast. I cried out my own scream of “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” and “Have mercy on me, the sinner” and “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
I can still remember exactly where I was standing, and often go there when I return to my hometown. I knew I was heard.
What happened? I didn’t receive any new information. There wasn’t some new discovery archaeologically proving the truth of the Bible or demonstrating intelligent design from quantum physics. I just heard a voice. In those old Scriptures, I heard someone talking to me: just as you are, without one plea, except that My blood was shed for you.”
My situation was different from a lot of the Christians I’ve seen come to Christ in the years since. I’ve seen prostitutes and heroin addicts and atheists and prisoners and every background you can imagine come to Christ. But we’re all really the same.
We’re all, left to ourselves, hiding in the bushes, cringing before the voice of God. Our consciences accuse us, and we find all sorts of things to cover our nakedness. For some it’s atheism, for some hedonism, for some violence, for some sexual anarchy. And for some of us it’s Bible Belt Christianity that’s just short of the new birth.
But it doesn’t matter if we’re hiding behind an anti-gospel or an almost gospel—it’s still hell. Lots of people sat in the same revival meetings and the same Sunday school classes and walked away. Why didn’t I? There’s nothing that makes me different, and there’s nothing I have that I didn’t receive. I just heard that voice. And even when I get lost wandering out here, I still do.
October 27 always makes me feel vulnerable and weak. I remember what it’s like to be that kid who wonders if God would really have me, with all my hypocrisy. It reminds me what it feels like to be a dying thief, gasping for mercy, even if my crimes were all covered over with Southern Baptist Bible School perfect attendance awards.
But October 27 also makes me remember what it feels like for a half-executed robber to see the Man on that middle cross turn, and look, and hear, and save. All I have for that is gratitude. And I pray for the broken heart to listen for the cries of the perishing.
Just as I am. Without one plea. Except. Except. Except.