I Didn’t Know Where Exactly
But I Knew God Wanted Me
Somewhere In Africa
The day I became a Christian will forever be etched in my brain. It happened over 40 years ago but I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday.
The family I came from was intermittently religious. At the time we were not attending church but from a young age I can remember going to church most every Sunday. We didn’t do a lot of Bible reading or studying at home, or praying for that matter, but dad was an elder so to church we went regularly. I honestly don’t remember learning much about God from all those trips to church. I even went through confirmation but remember nothing other than the fact that we attended classes each week for three for four weeks. I guess I was pretty dull headed because nothing seeped in or stuck.
At the age of thirteen, however, not too long after confirmation, I was playing in the back garden with my best friend, Lynn. It was a weekday and usually on weekdays Lynn and I roamed the neighborhood after school looking for new adventures. It was the normal thing for kids our age. But, this particular day Lynn was distracted. He didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I couldn’t get him to budge. He almost seemed depressed. I didn’t realize it until later but he was concerned about his own spiritual state.
Richard, Lynn’s older brother, had recently returned from a tour of duty in the armed forces and on his return home had made a profession of faith in Christ. It’s a long story but suffice it to say Richard was telling everyone in the house they too needed to be saved. Richard’s persistent message coupled with God’s moving created a burden on Lynn’s heart he couldn’t ignore.
While sitting in deep thought atop our picnic table, completely out of the blue and completely unexpected by me, Lynn said, “Nancy got saved…”
Nancy was Lynn’s sister. I knew her well but I had no idea what he meant by “saved.” That wasn’t familiar terminology to me. The first thing that came to mind was she had fallen in the creek near her home and someone had fished her out. Don’t know why I had that thought. She could swim well.
But, being the curious sort that I am I asked, “what do you mean saved?” To which he responded very matter-of-factly, “if you’re not saved, when you die, you go to hell.” That remark hit me right between the eyes. The moment he said it, God reached down and gripped my heart with conviction. I couldn’t let go of it.
My immediate response was, “Am I saved?” and Lynn said, “I don’t know.” I asked him how to be saved and his answer again was a blank, “I don’t know how to explain it.”
Not giving up, I asked who could tell me how to be saved and he said his brother, Richard, could.
Naturally, I wanted to know if Richard was home and again the answer was “I don’t know” but Lynn was quite willing to head home and see if Richard was there, so down the street we headed. All the way, I kept thinking to myself:
“I hope it’s not too late for me, I don’t want to go to hell when I die.”
Obviously, I had very little information and was concerned about the answers. I wasn’t aware how much God loved me.
When we got to Lynn’s house he went inside to find Richard while I stayed outside. That was unusual for me. I was like a part of the family in Lynn’s household. I went in and out of the house, eating out the fridge, using the facilities and watching the TV like one of the kids. But, this day was different. I was concerned about eternity. I was unsure of myself even in this very familiar setting.
Richard finally came out and was very curious. “You want to get saved Ennis” he asked? He was naturally surprised. People don’t often show up on your door-step asking how to become a Christian. I meekly said I did, not absolutely certain of what I was doing but desperately wanting to resolve the question. His response?
“Let me go get my sword!”
I learned later that “sword” was a metaphor for “Bible” but at the time it really shook me. I remember thinking, “I don’t know what he is going to do with that sword but whatever it is, I’ll do it because I don’t want to go to hell when I die.” I wasn’t known for having a great attention span but on this day I picked up every detail and nuance.
Much to my relief, Richard came out with a Bible in hand and we proceeded to find a quiet spot where he could explain salvation to me. He asked a few short questions, made some interesting statements and backed everything up with readings from the Bible but I can’t say that I recall every detail.
What I do remember is that after Richard asked the questions, read the Scriptures and led me in a prayer of salvation we got up to leave and Richard had an “oh and don’t forget moment!” As we walked away he suddenly turned around and said “and remember, Ennis, you can’t sin any more.”
The theology of that statement isn’t quite accurate. It is more the desire than the reality but at 13 I didn’t understand that so when Richard said “you can never sin again,” I nearly fell over. I knew I was a sinner and in my home was surrounded by people who constantly reminded me of that fact and I just didn’t see how I could hold out.
Fortunately, Richard read the paralyzing effect of his remark on my face and quickly added, “But don’t worry. Jesus will always be with.” That was the moment! It was right then that the peace that passes all understanding flooded my soul. The worry was gone. The burden was lifted.
But, it wasn’t over.
Fortunately, Richard didn’t stop there. He gave me a little booklet of Bible readings with questions to answer for each day. He told me that now I could talk directly to God so after completing each day’s work in my booklet I should pray and I believed him.
In fact, I was so excited I ran home and said to my Mom, “Mom, guess what happened to me today?” And when she said “what” I said “I got saved!” To which she responded with, “Oh no, wait till your dad hears this.”
Well, Mom didn’t wait till Dad got home to tell him. She called him that afternoon and warned him so he was stewing by the time he got home. When he arrived at the door, in my innocence, I exclaimed again, “Dad, guess what happened to me today?”
It played out the same way. He didn’t understand and because of that was angry. He called Richard and had a few choice words as I recall. When my Dad was angry the house was a scary place to be. I wouldn’t say he Dad abused us but he wasn’t bashful about raising welts on my backside when he thought it necessary. Everyone sensed that this particular day was a time to stay keep quiet and stay clear.
Well, in spite of that I wasn’t afraid. I was calm. It was like God had given me a new life and with it a new strength. A new focus even.
I went to bed, worked through the material in my devotional book and then prayed. What I remember very clearly is that was the first time in my life that I prayed by myself and I knew God heard my prayer.
But, it wasn’t over yet.
Richard led several kids in the neighborhood to Christ and everyday he got us together, sang some choruses with us and then taught a Bible lesson. The only lesson I remember clearly is the one he taught about missions. He concluded the lesson by saying God was looking for men, women, boys and girls who would give their lives to sharing the Gospel in whatever country God would lead them.
Well, in my heart I stood up. I knew at that moment God wanted me in Africa. I didn’t know where in Africa. It was a bit early for that to be an issue. I didn’t know much about the place anyway. But I knew God wanted me in Africa.
I didn’t say anything to anyone in our little group but I excitedly ran home, ran in the door, ran up to my Mom and said, “Mom, guess what happened to me today?”
It was another scary evening in the Pepper household but in spite of that, some 23 years later my wife and I landed in Durban, South Africa and began our ministry.