My first experience of Jesus was one that should warm the heart of every evangelical mother, for I was saved from a life of sin, born again, at the tender age of five. Our small Sunday School class sat on a bench on the banks of a mud-brown Amazon river, a merciless morning sun above, when I prayed the sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus to come into my heart and become my Lord and Saviour, and I felt happy. To be honest I don’t know that I understood any of what I was doing beyond believing that I was sometimes a bad boy, God in heaven could see me when I was, and was offering not to be angry about it. Tommy and I used to play a game with Sandra called “Nasty Doctor” where we would reveal and compare our private parts, and we once killed a baby chick by playing with it a bit too enthusiastically, and there were other things too that my parents didn’t know which weighed heavily on my mind. So it was good to discover that somebody big was aware of these things, knew I wasn’t always the good boy my mother believed I was, and still accepted me anyway.
Jesus joined an exclusive pantheon in my life, sharing space with an imaginary friend who, my family tells me, I frequently talked openly to and about, as some children do. Together the three of us had many adventures exploring the exotic world of a missionary compound bounded on one side by the ever-changing river and the other by the still, green jungle. I’m sure it was here in the dark, leafy canopy that I learned to pray, in the sense of quiet awe, for even today those spaces touch my soul more deeply than any other.
My parents were theologically conservative, but without strongly held denominational loyalties. They were open to the fact that Christian communities worshipped in a variety of different ways. We moved often and every time we moved we ended up in a different denominational setting; growing up I attended at least a dozen congregations, from pentecostal to baptist to presbyterian and others. At the age of 17 I had another sort of spiritual experience, a greater awakening to God’s presence in my life, and I felt an urgency to be baptized. This was done in a diplomat’s swimming pool by an American Southern Baptist minister who pastored one of the English-speaking congregations in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia.
My final year of high school was a social disaster – we moved from Brazil to Portland, Oregon and I had an awkward time trying to fit in – but the circumstances of my new setting, coming in the year before I left home, had a number of effects that have lasted to this day. To begin with, I started reading the Bible. I mean, really reading it, for myself. My parents had found a place for me in a Christian high school in Portland and one of the material requirements for study was a New American Standard Version of the Bible. I was presented with a new Bible that smelled of leather and fresh ink and I started reading it in bed each night. It grabbed me in a way the scriptures never had before; Jesus’ words in the Gospels seemed so alive, so compelling, so challenging. And by the end of that year I was beginning to sense a calling (vocation, if you will) to learn more about Jesus and, perhaps, become a leader in his community.
And so, as my fellow students headed off to universities to become doctors, lawyers and the like, I climbed into my ’66 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 and drove South, down I-5, to a small Christian Bible school. Jesus and I were about to become really good friends.