Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.
Calling for you and for me,
See, on the portals he’s waiting and watching;
Watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary come home;
Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling. O sinner, come home!
—“Softly and Tenderly,” words and tune by Will L. Thompson,
1880, Baptist Hymnal, 1975 edition
When I was a child in Southeast Arkansas, my maternal grandfather, Rev. Willis Barrett, was pastor of the Selma Baptist Church. He and my mother were charter members of that church, being among the small group that founded it in the early 1940s.
Before that time the Baptists, including my immediate family, attended, on alternate Sundays, the historic Selma Methodist Church that sat right across the “branch,” a small stream that separated the church from the homestead on which I was born. Since I came into this world on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving in 1938, I am sure that I was taken to church the next Sunday. I just don’t know whether the Baptists or the Methodists were in charge of the service that particular morning.
Later, in the forties, after the Baptists had erected their own church building, my family attended it regularly. At one period in my young life my godly mother was my Sunday school teacher, my small class occupying a single pew pushed against the wall at the back of the building. Needless to say, that church was not very large or very largely attended.
At some time after that single-room building was erected, when I was probably about nine years old, as the stirring altar call after each service was being made, I began to, as the Baptists say, “come under conviction.” During the invitation to come to the front of the church and accept Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior, I would be overwhelmed by an intense yearning that I can only liken to the emotional experience of true love, or the heart-wrenching sensation of homesickness. I felt called, drawn, and impelled to respond, to surrender myself and my entire life to the Lord.
Obviously, this sensation was heightened by the repeated verses of heart-tugging old traditional hymns like “Just as I Am” (“O Lamb of God, I come, I come”). These soul-stirring anthems were played or sung during the invitation and were often accompanied by the pastor’s impassioned pleas (in Jesus’ stead) to yield to the invitation and to surrender to the call.
I experienced the same inward sense of overwhelming yearning and calling each time an invitation to discipleship was made, regardless of the subject of the sermon that preceded it. I have often said that the pastor might have preached on tithing or the dangers of drinking, and I would still have the same intense internal reaction.
The main reason that I resisted this continuing call (often with hands clenched on the back of the pew in front of me for support) was that, being terribly shy, I was afraid. Besides my natural fear of people, I was frightened because I didn’t know what to say once I went forward and presented myself before the pastor. I saw others going forward and being warmly received, but they always seemed to bow their heads and engage in a brief private conversation with the pastor, and I didn’t know what they were saying. I thought that, before I finally worked up enough courage to step out and walk to the front of that assembly, I had to know what I was supposed to say once I got there—and I didn’t know what that was, and was too embarrassed to ask.
Thus, I was so overwrought at that terrifying prospect that I fought even harder against the increasingly insistent call I felt in my young heart.
While I was going through this tormenting phase for several months, my family devastated me even further by informing me that we were moving from the tiny village where I was born, to the neighboring town of some five thousand inhabitants. There my parents subsequently joined the First Baptist Church, easily the largest in town. Needless to say, the trauma I was already experiencing at the prospect of going forward in front of fifty people, all of whom I knew, was increased dramatically when I was suddenly faced with the even more daunting and horrifying prospect of going forward in front of a congregation of hundreds of strangers!
So for an extended period of months, I continued to resist the repeated invitations, so much so that I actually dreaded going to church because of the agony I knew I was going to have to endure after the sermon. The invitations seemed interminable and unbearable.
Finally, one evening as I sat with my mother (who obviously sensed what was going on inside me), during one of those two-week summer revivals that added even more (then nightly!) emotional misery to my existence, I began to piece together my “confession” to the pastor. Over and over I silently practiced my “acceptance speech” to be delivered to an audience of One, the Lord Jesus Christ, through His duly authorized agent, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of McGehee, Arkansas.
I don’t remember the speech I had prepared, but I do recall leaning over and saying to my mother quietly and timidly, “Let’s go.” She didn’t say a word but simply nodded her head and stood up with me (itself a gargantuan “feat of faith” on my part); nor did either of us speak as we stepped out and walked down that long, long aisle in front of all those watching eyes. All that fearful way I was shaking and trembling, trying desperately to remember the precious few words that I had cobbled together to deliver to the pastor.
When we finally got to the front, I bravely faced the pastor and started to speak. But like the returning prodigal son in Jesus’ Parable of the Father’s Love, before I could even open my mouth the kindly, bald-headed pastor with the thick old-fashioned Coca-Cola-bottle spectacles, took my hands in his, leaned down, and began to quietly question me. “Jimmy, do you want to give your heart to Jesus? Do you want to accept Him as your personal Lord and Savior? Do you want to follow Him all your life as His disciple?”
Whether it was relief that I didn’t have to deliver my carefully prepared speech, or relief that I had finally made my commitment to the Lord, or simply relief that the long grueling ordeal was finally over, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, I began to weep as I meekly answered each question with a sobbed, “Yessir . . . yessir . . . yessir.” Afterward, as was Baptist custom, my mother and I were asked to stand across the front of the church with the others who had “made a decision for Christ” so church members could come down and extend to us “the right hand of Christian fellowship,” welcoming us into the fold.
There, once again, I stood in my shyness and discomfort, while involuntary tears continued to stream down my cheeks unchecked, as I sniffed and snubbed and did my best to respond to the unending line of smiling faces and outstretched hands.
One reaction to this story that I did not anticipate in writing it just now, is that as I came to the “question and answer” portion of it, I once again, more than sixty years after this event occurred, began to experience that same emotion and to get “misty-eyed.” Even more surprising is that I have experienced that same reaction each time I have reread that section to edit it.
So as difficult and traumatic as that long-ago experience was, because of the two-year internal conflict that preceded it and the marvelous though tearful relief that accompanied its conclusion, I have never doubted my conversion. Like the Apostle Paul, I can say with total honesty and absolute assurance, “I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12). And, I can also testify of the Lord, as the old hymn states, “You ask me how I know he lives: he lives within my heart.”
The only resulting uncertainly is why other experiences in my life in which I responded to that same type of consistent and insistent yearning and sense of longing have not produced the same satisfying and successful conclusion. Some of these continuing and overwhelming urges to which I have responded by “stepping out in faith” have, on the contrary, resulted in failure and disappointment, if not disillusionment.
Based on my conversion experience and these subsequent ones, can I ever have faith and confidence when responding to interior yearnings and longings, like homesickness? And in keeping with the theme of these “memoirs,” can I ever again have the oft-sung “blessed assurance” that I will indeed one day “go home again”—this side of heaven?