My conversion in 1964 was the climactic event of my life. I will first depict the setting in which it took place, in my early years in Boston. The story begins around 1959 and 1960. I had just moved to Boston to live on my own for the first time. At first I lived in a furnished basement studio apartment on Marlborough Street. It had a primitive shower stall with a wooden plank floor just outside my room that bordered the back side of the building, facing the alley. The furniture was basic and barely functional. The single large room was roomy, but dark and depressing. I didn’t stay there more than a few months because there was a gas smell. My mother, who helped me move in, was alarmed by this, and insisted that I find a new place. So I moved just around the corner, a few hundred yards away, to a smaller but better third floor furnished room on Beacon Street, a few steps from the corner of Beacon and Dartmouth Streets. I lived in the Beacon Street address for six or seven years. When I first moved to Boston I had the sense of liberation and freedom common to young people living on their own for the first time. However, it didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off and for a feeling to set in of my room being a kind of prison cell from which I would often need to escape to libraries, museums, and restaurants. These frequent escapes made my confinement almost pleasant most of the time. My little room was a comfortable old shoe, so to speak, a place to read, sleep, and munch on cheese and crackers, my usual evening meal. Sometimes I felt trapped, but there were always diversions a short walk away.
My dwelling was a very modest one in a rooming house, an old brownstone townhouse on Beacon Street, in the Back Bay, near the corner of Dartmouth Street, a short walk from Copley Square. The room I lived in was long and narrow, with a single window facing the alleyway between Beacon and Marlborough Streets. It was confining but adequate for my budget and needs. I worked as a clerk in a large Boston Bank. My job was what would now be called an entry-level job, and didn’t pay much. I lived a very solitary life, being somewhat of a shy loner by nature. On weekends I would often visit my mother and stepfather, who lived twenty miles to the northwest in Billerica, just south of Lowell.
There is a lot to tell about my experiences at this time, about how I groped out of the gray fog of agnosticism, how I cautiously began attending local churches, how I read various books about spiritual things. Some of the books were good, some were occult and bad, and one of them was a Bible I had been given when a child. I had experimented with a mail order course from the Rosicrucians, but rejected Rosicrucianism because I found it hard to swallow: it demanded too much of a suspension of my intelligence.
I liked to read a lot, and spent hours reading nearly every evening. I didn’t own a television set. I read classics like Dickens novels, Moby Dick, H.G.Wells’ Outline of History, Thoreau’s Walden, Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. I read a book on mysticism, or most of it. It was tough and dense reading, but I found it intriguing. The Bible I enjoyed, but there was much of it that was puzzling or that seemed quite irrelevant.
I must condense very much about my life in this period. I felt very alone and isolated. No one understood me and at times I didn’t feel I understood myself. There was this desire to find something bigger and more powerful than myself, a meaning to my seemingly futile existence. I had few friends, and they were people who were older than I, people I would see on weekends, or pen pals.
My spiritual search propelled me not only to read, but to pray. My prayers were very hesitant and experimental. I told God that I would like to try Him as a working hypothesis, to see if He was real, and to discover what He was like and how He could be found. I distrusted organized religion, but my desire to find spiritual reality drove me to try attending church services.
I found one that seemed a little to my liking. The people were pleasant and welcoming. I joined the church, a Baptist church in the Back Bay. There I was baptized. I had doubts as to whether I believed enough to qualify as a Christian, but the pastor of the church seemed to be more certain of me than I was of myself, so I took him at his word. Eventually—and I am condensing my story very much—I became very regular in attendance and active in the church. They made me a deacon, the youngest deacon in the church. I also became the president of the student and young adult group.
The church didn’t seem to satisfy my spiritual hunger. I didn’t leave it, but felt that my spiritual hunger could be satisfied through a deeper prayer life. I even tried starting a prayer group at church. Only a few older women came, and it was a dismal flop. Then I began to cast my eyes away from my church, to prayer meetings outside the church, to yet more spiritual books. Some things were good, some not good, some questionable and much was boring and insipid. I went to a lecture by the son of the famous psychic, Edgar Cayce. I attended this lecture at the suggestion of two spinster sisters in my church were very much interested in that sort of thing and did their best to foster my own interest. I had read a biography of Edgar Cayce. These days, I would warn people to stay far away from anything with the slightest smell of the occult, but then I was up for most anything that would answer the kinds of spiritual questions my church could not or would not answer to my satisfaction. The world of the spirit is a dangerous place for explorers and at that time I had not really found the only safe haven for the thirsting soul, which is Jesus Christ. I thought I understood much about Him, but I still had much to learn.
One thing that intrigued and mystified me was the Cross. Why did Christians make so much of it and what was its true significance? My church seemed to teach that Christ’s sacrificial death was some sort of an example to us all, a goal of total self-sacrifice. I wasn’t so sure. Somehow, I felt that there had to be more, based on much of what I had read and heard, but I was very vague about the matter. It seemed to be at the center of what Christianity was all about.
The senior pastor of my church, a very genial man, preached warm and genial sermons. They were full of warm sentiments, poetry, birds and flowers, but it was always difficult if not impossible to uncover what he was really trying to say, and I got the impression that he wasn’t so sure himself. It wasn’t that his messages were intellectually challenging, more, it was that they were vague and unfocussed. After every one of his sermons, the older women would gush over his lovely message on their way out the front door: “Oh, that was wonderful, Pastor!” But I wondered if even they weren’t merely being polite. I liked my pastor. He was very approachable and friendly to me, but something was lacking in him. There was no fire or passion.
He was, by his own admission to me, neo-orthodox in his theology. His mind seemed to be mired in a perpetual wishy-washy mist that robbed his sermons of force and authority. It almost seemed to change his brain to mush. But his younger assistant, the associate pastor was an unashamed liberal, more of a crusader than the senior pastor. He was made of sterner stuff. There was some fire there, but I think now it was the wrong kind of fire. His Gospel was very much of the Social Gospel variety. Everything was social responsibility and self sacrifice. He always cared whether a particular truth or idea was relevant more than he cared if it was scriptural. I got tired of hearing the word relevant. He liked long discussions about moral relevance. Almost nothing was black or white with him. In our frequent discussions, he would politely accuse me of being a pietist. I had a sense of the need to go to the source of the power. I tried to explain to him that in order to be effective for God that you had to get close to that source through prayer and whatever else it took, but he could never agree with my point of view. His view was along these lines: that God was to be found through self-emptying service. The Cross of Christ was the supreme example of self-denying service to humanity. Apart from a strong connection to God, that seemed to me an unattainable possibility. Perhaps it would have meant an admission of the coldness of his own heart and of his profound spiritual poverty for him to admit his need—the need I was beginning to feel-- to be attached to Jesus the Vine, the source of all true power from God.
There is much I could tell of the swift-moving pace of events during the summer of 1964 and the climactic events of the following autumn. I must condense and pass over much. So I will speed up the story.
I prayed that God would send some strong Christians into my life. I was stuck in a no-man’s land, a kind of state between sleeping and waking. I had read of great people of God and wished to meet people who were even a little like them. The Bible and many of the books I read provided me with glimpses of an elevated spiritual life I could not seem to encounter in my own experience. The comfort of the church music and worship was a balm, but my life, when I was at work or alone in my room, seemed empty and filled with impure thoughts, fears, and the sense of a lack of purpose and direction.
I had romantic visions of being a great artist and a visionary in my teens, but poor grades and a lack of drive doomed me to years of mail rooms and stock rooms. I had no good plan for my life and I know now that I should have studied harder and gotten better grades in high school. God gave me artistic talents and a good mind, but I squandered my time in libraries studying astronomy and mathematics and whatever else took my fancy, while I ignored my studies at school. Later my mother would tell me that I had the highest score in the school in an IQ test. In my private fantasies I imagined myself the smartest person that ever lived, but now I see my lack of application to school work was sheer foolishness. I should have gone to college, but foolishly went to the Navy and got kicked out a month later on a general discharge because I couldn’t stomach my loss of freedom and being plunged into a place that seemed like hell, a cold brutal place of hardness and insensitivity. I have nothing against the military now. I have met many decent people who have served in the armed services. But at that time I was physically and mentally unready for that life. So I had to be content with the lesser hell of boring and menial jobs.
As I worked in mail rooms and stock rooms at low-paying jobs, it was small comfort to me that I could play at being a great artistic visionary, a nature mystic, and an independent spirit in the hours when I didn’t have to be earning my subsistence. Then I could pretend to myself that I was a great man, a philosopher, an artistic visionary. I believed this sort of thing at times, while at other times I sank into despair, wondering if my life would ever amount to anything. This great gulf between fantasy and reality fueled the fire of my seeking. One of my favorite fantasies was finding a wise old man who could guide me, give me the answers to life in general, and the answers for my own drifting life that seemed to have no real destination. I loved art and beauty, fine literature, classical music, exploring the beauties of nature—but the real world where I worked seemed to have no place for visionaries and dreamers such as I. Even in the middle of Boston, the hub of the universe, the great Athens of the Western World I found no solace. I was socially awkward, unmarried, with no really close friends. It seemed that no one really understood me, and, as I said before, I wondered if I understood myself. Thus I wished for the wise old counselor who could guide me and help me to understand the best and highest destiny, that mysterious something for which I yearned.
In the summer of 1964 wonderful changes came into my life. God didn’t solve all my problems, but He began to put me on a new course when I saw myself and the world in a fresh new light, a light that has changed my life ever since.
One of the first things that happened to me in the summer of 1964, was that I attended a meeting of the Full Gospel Business Mens’ Fellowship International. I will only touch briefly on the circumstances that led me there. In brief, it was through a lady I met at a flower shop who was referred to me by a man I had written to after finding a story about him in a Christian magazine. When I told her about how I had learned about her, she suggested that I might be interested in attending a meeting at a restaurant in Newton that was being held that very evening. A ride was arranged for me, and I attended my first Full Gospel Business Mens Fellowship International meeting. Many years later, in the late seventies, I would even serve briefly in this organization. At that time, it was all very new and exciting to me. The speaker that evening was David Duplessis, one of the pillars of modern Pentecostalism, a man who had established contacts between Catholics and Pentecostals. He had been to the Vatican and met the pope, and was able to drop many famous names. More than that, he spoke with power, authority and enthusiasm. Here was something I was not getting at my church! It had power, life and conviction.
I made several repeat visits to the lady at the flower shop. Caution prompts me to not reveal her real name. I will call her Iris. When I asked about other things I might do, Iris suggested that I might wish to attend a meeting at a Cambridge apartment where a friend of hers lived. I now suspect that she prayed that I would not come unless I was really meant to be there. I went to that meeting and things happened that left a great imprint on my life for years to come. I met young people about my own age who would be my close friends for years after. Most have passed from my life for various reasons, but one continues as a close and dear friend. Two seminarians were there that night. My heart seemed set on fire by their stories about how they met Jesus, how they had experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. Everyone in that room was touched very deeply by God.
They performed a makeshift communion service. During it, one girl who was there even invited Jesus into her heart after much weeping and patient counseling by the two seminarians. That meeting was another great milestone, I think for the other attendees as well as for me. God was doing a work in my heart and I barely understood it. The two seminarians kindly offered to drive me home to Boston. Along the way there was much exciting conversation about the Lord and what he was doing in them and in others. I wish I could remember all the exciting things I heard that night! But I am still basking in the afterglow. After they dropped me off at my dreary rooming house and I walked up alone to my third floor lodging, something strange and beautiful happened. I began to laugh. It was spontaneous laughter, laughter for no apparent reason, uncontrollable laughter that was an expression of deep and unutterable joy. God had opened up a deep spring in my being and something beautiful and unexplainable was happening to me. Something was loosed. I felt free. Even now, I can’t explain it, but why should I have to? God sometimes has to bypass our logical brains to get our attention. Even then I caught a glimpse of the glory that would follow.
One of the people who attended the Cambridge apartment meeting was Charles Hansen. Not long before, that same year, he had been converted. He was the only one of all the people in attendance who has stayed in frequent contact with me. We have been good friends over the years since I first met him there. One day, not long after, I had a chance meeting with him in downtown Boston, just outside the Christian Information Center. He told me of a retreat that he planned to attend with some friends. It was to be held in Grantham, New Hampshire, at a retreat center called Gray Ledges, on the Labor Day weekend. I asked if I could come, and arrangements were made for me.
The speaker at the retreat was Norman Grubb, a man well known in Christian circles. He was British, and had served in missionary organizations in Britain and America, travelled widely, written numerous Christian books, and spoken in many places. In his talks that weekend, his winsome description of the beauty and naturalness of the Christian life did much to fan the flames of my enthusiasm and ardor for a close walk with Jesus. His frequent allusions to the beauties of the natural world seemed tailored to me, with my love of trees, flowers and nature. It was a glorious weekend. The weather, the natural beauty of the setting, the pleasant weather, was a heady tonic for all who were there. There were cool autumn nights and golden days, warm in the sun of sweeping lawns, cool in the shade of great swelling sugar maples. There was a little pond near the barn atop the hill that swelled up above the house, with swallows darting to and fro above its quiet surface. In every direction was New England scenery of the picture postcard variety. Mists curled up from the valleys in the morning. There were wide sweeping vistas in several directions of forested hills and craggy mountain peaks. The peace was soothing; the silence, palpable. Boston, with its bustle and clatter, seemed very distant, much farther away than a mere one hundred miles.
There were also many conversations in between the retreat sessions. One of them stands out in my mind. It was with a man who was a member of a very conservative Baptist church. We got into the subject of judgment and hell. I had much trouble believing that God would send so many people to hell. He tried to present the matter from a biblical perspective, pointing out that it was both true and necessary. But I couldn’t accept it. The whole matter of divine judgment made me very uneasy, and I secretly wondered if I should believe it.
Around this time—I’m not certain if it was before or after the retreat—I had another, similar encounter that left me with uneasy questions about my relationship with God. I had decided to visit the flower shop at the Copley Plaza again to talk to Iris, to see if there was anything else happening that I could attend: a meeting, a speaker, anything to assuage my burning hunger for spiritual reality. Iris was not there. A friend of hers was taking her place that day. Evidently the friend had been told of me, the spiritually hungry young man with his frequent, perhaps annoying, enquiries. Well, she was a bit blunt with me and asked me, “Have you been born again?” Perhaps she knew that I attended a liberal church where “born again” was not part of the acceptable lingo. I was completely taken aback by the question and felt as if my faith and sincerity were being challenged. I hemmed and hawed. I didn’t know what to say, and, blurted out something that was probably like this: “Well, I belong to a church. I’m active in it. I’ve been baptized.” I was just a little angry with her, but not so angry that I could avoid the feeling that a barb had been lodged deep in my psyche. As I left this brief and uncomfortable encounter, I began to ask myself, if I had missed something, if, indeed, I needed to be born again, whatever that meant.
In 1964, Billy Graham came to Boston to conduct a crusade at Boston Garden. I was a little lukewarm on Billy Graham. One of the things, that I haven’t mentioned, that helped nudge me to Christian faith was a radio show I would often listen to. I think it was called The Bible Study Hour. The man who was the speaker on that program made a deep impression on me. I cannot remember his name. He spoke in a mellow, pleasing voice. You would almost want to listen to the program just to hear that voice! He was not at all a fiery preacher. His manner was pleasing; his arguments in favor of Christ and the truth of the Bible were vivid, clear, deeply felt, rational, and very compelling. He made Christianity seem the most reasonable thing in the world to me at a time when I wasn’t even certain that I wanted to be a Christian. One of the reasons I liked Norman Grubb at the Labor Day retreat, was because he seemed a lot like this man in his style and general demeanor. It was one of God’s hooks, I guess, one that He got into me without my even knowing it, along with the “born again” barb and the uneasy questions about hell and judgment. Billy Graham, on the other hand, seemed a little too loud, too emphatic, too strident, too hell-fire and brimstone for my taste. I would frequently tune in the The Hour of Decision. I won’t say that I disliked Graham, or even that I disagreed with most of what he said, but I had a problem with his style. I have since grown to like and respect Billy Graham and even to like his preaching style, but at that time I preferred a calm, wise and reasoned dissertation to thunder in the pulpit.
All this is a preface to what I will relate next. My reasoning about Billy Graham went like this: Billy Graham is coming to Boston to advance the cause of Christianity. Hadn’t Cardinal Cushing, the leader of Boston’s Catholic community met with Graham and openly and enthusiastically supported the Crusade? If the Cardinal supported Graham, why shouldn’t my church? That being so, even if I might not always like his fiery style, I still felt that I should aid his cause and so enable more people to hear and accept the Christian message. My church was rather lukewarm about Graham. They made a few announcements from the pulpit about the Crusade, they posted notices and announcements about it on the bulletin board, but apart from that no one actually did anything, no one, that is, but me, a committee of one determined to do his part. I went to the Crusade volunteer headquarters on Boylston Street and asked how I could help. Then I was asked to work on preparations for Operation Andrew.
Operation Andrew is a standard strategy used by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in every city that it visits. The idea is to get churches to send their people out to various neighborhoods, going door to door, to invite people to attend the Crusade. My job had to do with the step before this. I was to go to pastors in one section of Boston and ask them if they could get their people to do this work. The section of Boston I was to canvas was parts of the Back Bay and the South End. Some of the areas were a little rough, and nowadays I would be reluctant to set foot in them even in daylight. But then I was young and naïve, and I tended to believe that churches would be very welcoming and supportive. The lack of strong interest surprised me. I got to meet one or two pastors. I didn’t feel I had accomplished much at all. The man who was supervising me in the Operation Andrew work was a pastor of a Baptist church in the Dorchester section of Boston. Later he commended me for my efforts and said I had done a job as good as anyone working under him. The great irony of it was that Billy Graham’s message was something I needed, because the experience he would speak about was something I did not yet have.
The first meeting of the Crusade was on September 18, 1964. I was in attendance. The preaching was very powerful. When the invitation to “go forward” was given, I resisted, reasoning that I didn’t need to. Wasn’t I a true Christian? But the question about whether I was born again still lingered uncomfortably.
The next day, September 19, I also planned to attend the meeting which was to be held that evening. It was a Saturday and I had committed myself, since I was a deacon, to attend a meeting of various leaders of the church that would be held somewhere in the suburbs. They had a barbecue. That was good, but the meeting that followed was boring and I was glad when it was over. When I arrived back at my room on Beacon Street I had a roaring headache. I took some aspirin and lay down for a while. If those aspirin hadn’t worked I probably wouldn’t have attended the Crusade meeting that evening. As you will see, it was good that I did.
The seating on the floor section of Boston Garden where I sat was atop wooden planks that covered the ice beneath that was used by the Boston Bruins hockey team in their home games. I sat next to the aisle and next to me on my left was a kindly older gentleman, a Pentecostal, who chatted with me. I think he was also quietly praying for me. The sermon was about a particularly wicked king of ancient Judah, Manasseh, whose history is told in the 33rd chapter of 2 Chronicles. God judged him for his many sins, things that included sacrificing his sons in fire, sorcery, divination, witchcraft, and consulting mediums. He was captured and carried into captivity by the king of Assyria. There, in great distress, he humbled himself and prayed to the Lord, repenting of his sin. God heard his prayer and restored him to his kingship. Then he cleansed the temple and the land of Judah of all the idols and forbidden practices, undoing most of the evil that he had previously promoted and encouraged.
When Billy Graham preached, somehow I was able to put myself in the position of King Manasseh. I saw very clearly the answer to my question about the Cross. It was for me. I had never encountered Jesus as my sin-bearer. I honored Him as a great teacher and prophet, even the Son of God, but it hadn’t yet been made personal. The message hit home. It got to me. Then the invitation was given.
I fought within myself. Do I have to do this? Can’t I just go home and pray by myself about it? Then Graham said something about the need to acknowledge Jesus publically, that it was not meant to be a quiet personal thing. Was I ashamed of Jesus? Afraid that some of my fellow church members or worse yet, some of my new-found Christian friends might learn of it? I was leaning forward in my seat, sweating, my heart pounding. I think the Pentecostal older gentleman was praying, but he said nothing. When I saw how worked up I was about it, I began to give in, and prayed a silent prayer, something like, “Jesus, I’m doing this for You, not for Billy Graham, or anyone else.” So I got up, walked the short distance to the front of the podium where many others from all over the Garden were silently standing. I prayed after Billy Graham, the prayer he spoke, slowly repeating his words. I invited Jesus to be my Lord; I acknowledged His death and resurrection, that He had paid the price of my sins, that I would serve Him from then on with His help.
As I walked to the edge of the Garden, through the passageway under the tiers of seats, down to the corridor just outside the vast arena, I heard behind me the great swelling sound of the voices of the choir. It swept over me like a great wave of joy, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, and look full in His wonderful face.” It sounded different than when I had heard it before, like an angelic benediction meant for me. Then the joy hit me with that singing. It stayed with me on the trolley, as I rode back to Copley Square, as I walked along Dartmouth Street to Beacon, as I climbed up the dimly lit stairs to my room. Now I knew what it meant to be born again. I felt clean, as if I had just taken a bath, only I was clean on the inside. I knew that God was pleased with me, that He was my friend, that He really did forgive me, and that Jesus was very real.
The glory of that experience lingered for days. I attended more Crusade meetings. My attitude about Billy Graham’s fire and brimstone had changed. Now I enjoyed his preaching. It was so different from the dry stuff that was served up on Sunday mornings at my church! And I loved the singing and worship. After the Crusade ended I bought a recording of Cliff Barrows conducting one of his enormous choirs and I delighted to listen to it every bit as much as I did Handel’s Messiah, which I also listened to very often. For weeks I was awash in glory. The joy might abate a little now and then, but it did not leave me. The Bible came alive to me. It seemed like a different book when I read it now.
As I saw my new friends, I told them about what had happened to me. They were all pleased. Most of them, maybe all of them, had also attended Crusade meetings.
There is much I could tell about all the wonderful experiences God brought into my life at this time. My relationship with my church became increasingly uncomfortable to me. Before a year had passed, I left it. I stayed for a while, thinking I could be used to change them, but that was not God’s plan, and so I abruptly left. It was painful, but I felt better after I did it.
I had been plunged into the first wave of the Charismatic movement as it swept over the Boston area. Once a week my new friends and I were part of prayer meeting in an apartment in Cambridge. These meetings went on for several years after. It became, in effect, my church, even though it was not connected to any particular church. Frequently, during this period, I would attend Sunday services at Park Street Church in Boston. After some years, I joined a church in Cambridge, and, some years after that, the First Congregational Church of Revere, where I am now a member. There is much I could tell about my life since 1964, but I will not go into detail here. What I will tell you is that the reality of Jesus has transformed me and continues to transform me still. I have never desired to stop following and serving Him. I know as well as I know anything that He has made my life far better than it ever was. He has given me a drive, a passion, a sense of purpose that has helped me chart my way.
The lesson to be learned from what I have told you here is this: it is not enough to be a member of a church or to merely profess Christian faith. You must be born again. If you have never done so, this is the time to invite Jesus into your heart. You cannot get into heaven by being good, because nobody is good enough for God. I was a member of a church. I was baptized in that church. I became a leader in that church. But I did not really know Jesus. He was working in my heart to reveal Himself to me, but I was not yet born again. At every Billy Graham Crusade, a large percentage of the people who “go forward” and pray “The Sinner’s Prayer” and are converted are regular church members! Going to church will not get you into right standing with God. It will not get you into heaven. Only Jesus can change you so that you can become a member of God’s kingdom. Think about what I have said here, and about my testimony. Think about it and pray. Here is a good prayer that you might try:
Lord Jesus, I recognize that I am a sinner, and that I need You as my Savior. I cannot save myself. Thank You, that you died in my place on the cross, that you paid the price of my sin. I accept you now as my Savior and Lord for all eternity. I put my life completely in your hands. Amen.