I was baptized 55 years ago this evening. April 16, 1961, at First Baptist Church, Richardson, Texas.
55 years ago! To put that in perspective, here are a few things going on in the world around that time:
- John F. Kennedy had been inaugurated less than 3 months earlier; an inauguration, by the way, that I watched on TV along with my classmates in Mrs. McClearin's 4th-grade class at Spring Valley Elementary School. (We all crowded around a TV wheeled into the room, probably a 13-inch screen. Black-and-white, of course!)
- Only four days earlier, on April 12, Yuri Gagarin of the USSR had become the first human in space. It would be almost three weeks before Alan Shepard's suborbital flight on May 5 would make him the first American in space. Later in May, President Kennedy would announce a goal of reaching the moon before the end of the decade.
- The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba would begin the very next day, April 17 (and end in disaster two days later).
- Legendary actor Gary Cooper would die almost a month later, on May 13.
Anyway, I had a nightmare the Friday night before that. Suffice it to say that the dream involved my family and me gathering with others to be taken up to heaven; at the last moment, I realized I had forgotten to bring my dog with me. (I had had her only a few months; her predecessor had been killed by a car out on the road next to our house, an incident that was obviously still fresh in my mind.) Yes, it made about as much sense as most dreams, which is NOT MUCH, but I woke up in a cold sweat and realized that I - not my dog - was the one who was going to be "left behind."
Mother heard me screaming and came in to see what was wrong. As best I can recall, Mother helped me come to a decision that night that it was time for me to go public with my profession of faith. It was my decision, but she helped me think it through.
So I walked the aisle on Sunday evening, April 9th. LLOYD CLOUD, our pastor, was away that Sunday, so a retired preacher in our church, BROUGHTON MORGAN, greeted me as I reached the front that evening. He did something I had never seen before that; since I was the only one responding to the invitation that night, he spent several minutes asking me about my profession of faith, and in essence letting me testify to the congregation. I thought that was kind of neat, and it made the experience more meaningful than it would have been otherwise.
The following Sunday evening, April 16, Lloyd Cloud baptized me. And my fear of water betrayed me; my feet were supposed to be hooked under the stool at the bottom of the baptismal pool, but I must have panicked and flailed as he lowered my head into the water, because my feet wound up coming out of the water, causing not a few snickers from the congregation.
In school the next morning, one my classmates who also went to our church announced to the rest of the class, "Bill got dunked last night!"
Well, it's been quite a journey ever since:
- Growing up in Kansas City, MO, with my world revolving largely around Youth Choir and other youth activities at church
- Deciding, when I was around 14 or 15, that God was calling me into the music ministry; I was blessed with a music minister, JOE RUST, who encouraged me, gave me opportunities, and mentored me
- Entering Oklahoma Baptist University in the fall of 1969 with a faith that was certain but shallow, knowing I had all the answers
- Getting all that certainty - and faith - knocked out of me in one fell swoop one morning in Western Civilization class, in November of my sophomore year; one statement by a professor exposed all those doubts I had been suppressing
- Abandoning the Church Music program, switching my degree away from ministry, and beginning a long, difficult search for truth I could believe in, a faith that was my own instead of my parents' or my pastor's
My parents never gave up on me, either. I know they were praying for me and they must have agonized over me, but they never pressured me. Daddy even admitted to me that he had gone through something similar when he was young, so he understood that this was something I had to figure out on my own.
Friends in the dorm - especially RON RUSSEY and CARY WOOD - challenged me in late-night bull sessions and helped me to learn how to think through the very knotty issues of faith. Ron pointed me to the pastor at University Baptist Church across the street, JERRY BARNES. I went to see Jerry, was totally truthful with him - that at that point, I didn't believe in God, much less Jesus as His Son - and what do you think Jerry said? "Come join our church." Because Jerry knew I needed to be in church regularly, and his preaching challenged me to dig deep, like no preaching had ever done before. Once a semester, I would meet with him in his study, and he would help me with the next steps of my journey.
It took over 5 years before I could again accept Christianity intellectually, but it was still a very gradual process from there - taking several more years - for me to be able to again make a true faith commitment.
It's interesting for me to look back on it. I don't fully understand it all. But less than 10 years after my baptism, God saw that my faith wasn't worth much, and that such a shallow faith would lead to an unproductive, even counterproductive, ministry. If there's one thing I have no doubt about, it's that it was God who used that Western Civ professor, Dr. BILL MITCHELL, to knock the props out from under my shallow faith. Thanks be to God He didn't leave me where I was in November 1970.
And the journey continues. Fifty-five years since my baptism - and over 45 years since that fateful day in Western Civ - God continues to reveal Himself to me in new and surprising ways. Though I never completed a degree in ministry (my degree is in music education, which I haven't used professionally, because teaching was never really what I wanted to do), and never went to seminary, God has seen fit to lead me along the way, deepen my faith, give me certain passions (such as commitments to Baptist principles and to Christian ethics), and then provide me with ministry opportunities along the lines of my passions. Remarkable ministry and leadership opportunities for which I could have never imagined myself suited, for which I never even knew to ask.
Early on in that journey, God blessed me with JOANNA, with whom I'll celebrate 40 years of marriage in September. We've grown in faith together during those years, and I'm blessed that we are still making that journey together.
Thanks be to God for His faithfulness, perseverance, and steadfast love.