I have an unusual name. My parents wanted to name me after someone from the Bible, but thought Joseph and Peter and Paul and even Moses and Elisha and Isaiah were too ordinary. I'm glad they never thought of Maher-shalal-hash-baz. It's not ordinary, but I'd hate to have to go through life with that. Just think of trying to fit it into the little spaces on government forms.
They eventually decided to go back to the original Hebrew of "Jeremiah." I don't know how the ancient Israelites, or modern Israelis either, would pronounce my name, but I grew up with yur-may-ah. It's definitely not something you'll find in your average American town.
I was born in 1983 in Dallas, but grew up east of there in the little town of East Tawakoni. My parents helped found a church there. They were devout people, as my grandparents had been. My granddaddy on my mother's side had been a deacon for 50 years when he died. My daddy's daddy had been a bivocational preacher, working as a mechanic during the week and pastoring on Sunday. My daddy himself had pastored churches here and there before he had a heart attack and had to settle down to less stressful work. I never could see how farming was less stressful. It's hard work, trying to grow the right crops, sell them at the right price, buy seed for not too much, stay ahead of the bank, survive drouth and flood and insects and a government that can't always decide whether to pay you a price support for your crop, or pay you to not grow it at all, or just ignore you.
But I'm not here to talk about my daddy's farming. I grew up on the farm, but after high school I went away to Bible college. Or perhaps I ought to go back a bit further than that.
I grew up in the church my parents helped found. I grew up knowing about Moses and the first Passover. I learned about Jesus feeding the 5,000 about the same time I learned to walk, I suppose. I never knew a day without the Bible, and without my daddy's theology books. He'd kept those even after he had to give up pastoring. He never did altogether stop preaching. In fact, I grew up reading my daddy's books – Charles Hodge, John Calvin, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James P. Boyce, Lorraine Boettner, Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards ... My daddy was a Baptist born and raised, and his daddy before him, and my mother's people too, but he liked to say that good theology never wore a denominational name. He had Puritans and Baptists and Congregationalists and Presbyterians and I don't know what all in his library indiscriminately.
Yes, I grew up reading my daddy's theology. I grew up listening to him expound the Bible around the table. And I grew up hearing sermons and Sunday School lessons. But growing up in a garage doesn't make you a mechanic. I grew up hearing it, but I didn't imbibe it. The words went into my ears, but not into my heart. In Luke 9:44 Jesus said, "Let these words sink into your ears," but they never sank into mine. It wasn't that I rejected them, but that they simply bounced off, like rain off of pavement.
And so I reached 15 years old. I knew that I was a sinner. That part was easy. My daddy says that you never have to teach a child to sin – that's one thing that comes natural. The hard part, he says, is teaching children to do right. I sometimes thought the hard part was being the child, for he believed in applying the board of education to the seat of learning. There were times when my seat was pretty sore.
My daddy loved me. But he never spoiled me. And if he never taught me anything else, and if I never learned anything else from his books, he made sure and they made sure that I learned just how far from godliness I was.
I never killed anyone. I never went with a girl, nor a woman, to commit immorality. I never stole nor lied. Well, I didn't lie much, probably no more than any other kid trying to get away with something. The one thing I naturally had no inclination to do was gossip, so that wasn't one of my sins. But there was one thing that hung over me like a cliff ready to fall. I didn't love God.
I believed in Him. I had no doubt at all that God existed, and that He hated sin, and that He would punish my sin if I didn't get shut of it, in the Texas phrase. I sometimes couldn't sleep nights, knowing that God was there and that I was a sinner in His sight. But I didn't love Him. I wanted to. I wanted to find the way to Him, the path that would lead me into His kingdom. But somehow I never found it.
I was in church every Sunday, and I learned by heart some of the phrases that preachers used over and over in their invitations. I could quote hunks of Scripture verbatim, and I could quote sections of my daddy's theology books. But I couldn't find a way to get free of my sin and come to God.
There came a time when our church had sent us teenagers away to youth camp. It was fun. We fished, and swam, and had a barbecue or two. You can't be a Texan without a barbecue, of course. And there was plenty of Bible teaching. But I still got nowhere. By now I was getting desperate. It was 1998 and I was at the point of thinking that there was no way out for me. I wanted to believe, but I couldn't. There wasn't any faith in me to exercise, or I'd have done it. I was beginning to think that those who said that God sends some people to hell no matter how much they want to serve Him just might be right, even though my daddy and his books said otherwise.
On the last night of the camp, the scheduled Bible teacher came up sick. It was something he ate, perhaps, or it might have been some sort of intestinal bug. I don't know. I just know that he was spending half his time on his bed looking like death would be an improvement, and the other half of his time in the toilet sounding like death would be an improvement. It seemed he was losing his lunch – and breakfast, and supper from the night before – at both ends.
The substitute teacher they rounded up hadn't had much time to prepare, and it showed. He hadn't expected to do any teaching at all those two weeks, and had been enjoying the chance to learn for a while. Because he had just a couple of hours to get ready, he had to stick pretty close to his text.
That text was Isaiah 45:22, which he read from the King James Version: "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else." I'd heard Bible verses by the thousands in my 15 years, but never had one seemed as hopeful as this one. I didn't understand just why, but in this verse I seemed to hear something of God's voice.
I was using the New American Standard Bible by then, and read the verse there: "Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth;/For I am God, and there is no other." It wasn't identical to the KJV, but aside from the difference in the verb it was essentially the same. And the sound of hope seemed to grow stronger.
Then the teacher began to expound. "What God tells us here is to look. That is not a difficult thing. It's so simple a little child can do it. It's so easy someone who's completely paralyzed can do it. Yet we try to make salvation so complicated. We want to turn it into prayers, and feelings, and leadings, and walking down an aisle, and we want to bring preachers into it. Now praying is good. Feeling the leading of the Spirit is good. There's nothing wrong with responding to a public invitation. Preaching is something that God instituted, and He's the one who calls preachers. But these are not the things God tells us we must do to be saved. Look! That is what He says!"
Hope was growing by leaps and bounds now. I could look. I didn't reject all my daddy's teaching, and I still treasured what I'd learned from his books. But I began to understand that I'd been putting the hypostatic union, and the Trinity, and the relationship between the gospels, and the chronology of Israel's kings, and the commands of God to His people, before simply looking. But where was I to look? I read the text again, and then the teacher seemed to read my mind, for that was where he also turned.
"Now when God says 'look, ' He tells us exactly where to look. It's not to your church, nor to your pastor, nor to your youth leader, nor to your parents. It's not even to the Bible, as vital as the Bible is. 'Look unto me, ' He tells you." He half turned, and extended his arm as though he could see the sight he described. "There, on that hill that looks like a skull, is a cross. On that cross is a man – naked, bleeding from scores of horrible wounds, nails in His hands and His feet. That man has done nothing worthy of the punishment He bears. He is the most innocent man who ever lived, for He has never sinned, not once in all His life. But He's there, on that cross, dying.
"He is dying because that is the only way to save sinners." Now the teacher turned back to those of us who sat on the crude wooden benches. "Look to Him! He is the one who will save you – if you will look. You don't need to walk down this aisle, though I'll ask you to do so in a few minutes. You don't need to pray words – though I'll ask you to pray with me in just a few minutes. All you need to do is look to Him, to Jesus Christ, who died for every single person who will simply look."
And I did. I looked to Christ. And though at that moment I seemed to know less than I had when I woke up in the morning, I knew something I had never known before. I knew the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension. I was free for the first time in my life, free of the guilt that my own sin had brought upon me.
Almost as soon as I got back home, I started getting invitations to teach. I to this day don't know just why they started coming in. First it was a Sunday School class in my own church. Then it was a Wednesday night prayer meeting. Then it was a Sunday evening service, and then Sunday morning. Then other churches started asking me to speak.
At first I just described how I'd come to be a Christian. I didn't know anything else to say. I'd read all those books, but I was still learning how to be a Christian. I had to learn how to practice what I'd only known in my head. But by the time I'd spoken to half a dozen churches, I found myself expanding, taking verses and trying to explain what they meant to me. Before I knew it, I was preaching.
I was just a high school student, with more or less average grades. But here I was, preaching what I had once not understood at all. It was a thrilling feeling – and a terror too. I was as honest and sincere as I could be, not putting anything forth that I didn't truly believe. But I knew that simple sincerity wasn't enough. If I was going to teach God's people, I had to be right.
So when I graduated from high school I enrolled in Bible college in Dallas. But God had other ideas. Before I'd finished my second semester, a church I'd preached at east of Abilene called me as their pastor. I hadn't expected it – I hadn't gone there in view of a call, as the phrase is, but simply to supply the pulpit one Sunday. But they issued the invitation, and after my teachers and my parents and my home church and I had all prayed about it, we were unanimous. I accepted the call.
I withdrew from Bible college, packed my bags, and moved to Cisco, where I took up my duties as pastor of Eastern Baptist Church. I was just 19 years old.