First grade was the watershed year of my life, and a rainy afternoon in April, 1952, was the divide. All the seven years and three months I had lived before that turning point, I had been a horrible sinner. But then, I was born again. It happened when my brother Paul and I found ourselves locked up all alone in the Cleveland, Tennessee, National Guard Armory.
It was a twelve block walk from our house to Arnold Elementary School, and the route offered almost limitless opportunities for adventure and mischief. That year, the Korean Conflict was dominating the news. From my classmates, I had heard tantalizing tales about the soldiers who drilled regularly at the Armory across the street from the school. One fateful afternoon I suggested to my brother, Paul, that we go over to the Armory and check things out for ourselves.
Paul was just 11 months younger than me and was also in the first grade. That was always a source of embarrassment to me, having a younger brother in the same grade. People thought I must have flunked, when actually we had been born in the same year. I was born in January and he in December of 1945, and thus we started school together.
Paul liked my idea of exploring the Armory so after school that afternoon, we boldly found our way over to the massive gray stone building and pushed hard against the big double doors. They grudgingly creaked open and we slipped inside. The doors clicked behind us as we excitedly began to inspect the premises. The place was cold and empty, just a big hollow gymnasium -- with no soldiers. We must have picked a bad day; we promised ourselves we would return tomorrow.
Then, when we went to pull the big doors open again, they wouldn't budge. We were locked up in this strange, spooky building. The windows in the front door were high over our heads, so the only way we could see out was to stand on a table in the lobby and jump with all our might. There, for a fleeting moment in mid-air, was our only glimpse of freedom, before we came crashing back down to the table with a thud.
In quiet panic, we searched the rest of the building. Every strange creak of the floorboards or the sound of the wind on a high overhead window sent a shiver up our spines. Every door we found leading to the outside was firmly locked, as well as the interior doors behind which we hoped we might find a telephone from which we could call for help.
Finding our way back to the front lobby, we sat down on the bare tile floor to ponder our dilemma. From Sunday School, we remembered the story of Paul and Silas in the Phillipian jail. We identified with them; their example seemed to be our best hope. We would do as Paul and Silas had done, sing and pray, and wait for God to send an earthquake to bust us out.
After a few rounds of Victory in Jesus, and I'll Fly Away, we began to sing "Give me that old-time religion ... It was good for Paul and Silas and it's good enough for me." Soon we were improvising: "And it's good enough for Paul and Stephen."
Before long we were standing on the table, clapping our hands, stomping our feet, and singing as if we were having camp-meeting. The noise and vibrations from the table sounded like the thunder of God, heightening our expectations for an earthquake. Between verses, we would jump for a glimpse out the window. Then we would hop down onto the floor, prostrate ourselves, and pray for a miracle. We prayed the way folks at our church prayed -- loudly and in unison.
After several rounds of seemingly futile prayer, Paul had an idea which we both agreed might make our prayers more effective. We needed an altar, the old fashioned mourner's bench kind of altar we were accustomed to at church. But, except for the table, which was way too high, the lobby was bare.
"I've got it," Paul announced, "let's take turns. You be the altar and I'll pray on you. Then I'll be the altar and you can pray on me." It was definitely worth trying. I dutifully got down on my hands and knees and Paul hunkered over me, wailing aloud to Jesus.
While I was being the altar, essentially pretending that I was a plank of wood, I had time to think of how scared I really was. First, I was afraid of the spanking I would surely receive from Dad if we didn't get out of there before he found out. Then, I was afraid we might not be delivered at all. Maybe there would never be an earthquake or no one would ever come and find us. Maybe we would stay locked up until we either starved or froze to death in this cold spooky prison.
It was what might happen after we died that gave me the greatest dread of all. Hell! There was no doubt in my mind that if I should die at that moment, I would go straight to the everlasting "lake of fire" because I was a sinner. In fact, I had committed the most terrible sin of my life that very afternoon.
"Hell-fire and brimstone" were not the constant theme in the preaching I heard as a child, but the subject did come up often enough that the prospects of eternity in Hell often occupied my thoughts. The God I knew about was a lot like my daddy. He could be very loving and caring most of the time. Then without my understanding why, He could become stern, harsh -- even cruel.
Most of the time, when I thought of God, I pictured Him as a kind, loving, Heavenly Father. But sometimes He appeared in my imagination with a sinister gleam in His eye. From His perch high above, He was watching my every move and reading every thought. I imagined Him leaning over the banister of Heaven, pointing a long menacing finger, and with the twitch of His hand consigning lost souls to the damnation I was sure they justly deserved.
In church, I was told that God had created Heaven for His children and Hell for Satan and his demons. But if we made the slightest transgression against God's law, as spelled out in the church teachings, we were making our own decision to spend eternity in Hell with the devil.
Hell was an indescribably horrible place. The fire was hotter than anything known on earth, the pain excruciating, the stench unbearable, and the screams of the tormented unending. I never heard my father preach a sermon specifically about Hell. The descriptions came mostly from traveling evangelists, Sunday school teachers, and others who cared for my eternal soul.
Dad did have one sermon which caused my imagination to soar, and at the same time scared me senseless. I heard the sermon more than once, because as editor of a Christian magazine, The Lighted Pathway, Dad traveled extensively as a guest preacher at different churches, often taking us children with him. The message was called simply "Eternity," and to describe it Dad would talk about Stone Mountain, Georgia. I had been to Stone Mountain with my granddaddy who lived in Atlanta, and I knew that this huge monolith was the largest exposed chunk of granite in the world.
In his sermon, Dad would ask the congregation to imagine there was a great bird that lived in a far distant galaxy of God's big universe, and that bird made a round-trip to planet Earth which took one thousand years to complete. From the peak of Stone Mountain, the bird would peck a single grain of sand, then fly back to deposit it in that distant galaxy from whence it had come. Suppose the great bird made another thousand year journey to collect a second grain of sand, and repeated the feat endlessly. When Stone Mountain was finally, completely erased from the face of the earth and where it stood there was now only an empty level plain, eternity will have just begun.
I thought often of eternity and the concept of forever-and-ever was hard for my imagination to grasp. Also, I sometimes thought of the fires of Hell, and on occasion I had held my forefinger over a candle's flame just to see how long I could bear it, which was only a split second. How then did I expect to endure the torment of eternal damnation in the infinitely hotter fires of Hell over by entire body, while I waited the excruciating intervals of time until the great bird came back for another grain of sand?
On one particular occasion, the truth of Dad’s sermon, in conjunction with the eternal fires of Hell, was etched indelibly on my young mind. Dad was preaching a revival meeting at the East Cleveland Church of God, just about a mile from our house. I was with him on that particular evening, along with Mom and several other siblings. The youngest children had stayed home with a babysitter.
During Dad’s sermon, I noticed a red glow began to illuminate the windows on the right side of the church. A man in the congregation got up and went out to investigate. In a moment he came back into the church with an anxious look on his face, gathered up his family, and left in a hurry. Dad just kept on preaching.
Soon a second family left -- then a third. The pastor, Brother Yates, was sitting on the platform behind Dad. I watched the concerned, nervous expression on his face. He glanced out the window of the church, then over his dwindling congregation, and back again to Dad. Unfazed, Daddy was droning on and on about the great bird laboriously making its way back from outer space for another grain of sand.
There must be an ethic practiced by anointed preachers that says neither Hell, high water, nor the town burning down can stop the word of God from going forth. By the time Dad finished preaching, hardly anyone was left in the pews, so an altar call seemed futile. Brother Yates dismissed the service, and the few of us who were still there went outside to see what was causing all the commotion.
Looking in the direction of our house, the entire night sky seemed to be ablaze. Dad loaded us children into the car and he and Mom commented on how big the fire was. The closer we got to home, the more anxious they became -- and for good reason. Stivers Lumber Company was on fire.
Stivers Lumber covered an entire block which was bounded on the west side by the Church of God International Offices and Publishing House and on the east by the railroad tracks. The north side of the lumber company, however, was the main concern of the hundreds of people who were watching from a vacant field a block away. There, right next to the stacks of burning lumber, was an oil company with huge storage tanks. Firemen in trucks with lights flashing were focusing their efforts on that side of the blaze. It was impossible to get too close to the fire because of the heat. The firefighters had already given up trying to extinguish the mountains of dry lumber which were an uncontrollable inferno. Instead, they were spraying water on the fuel tanks in an effort to keep them cool enough that they wouldn’t explode. Immediately on the other side of those fuel tanks was a wooden office building, and then our house.
By the time we arrived home, Mama and Daddy were frantic. The baby sitter was standing on the front porch with all the babies bundled up and ready to leave. We didn’t even go inside the house. Dad whisked them off the porch and drove us all to safety.
We joined what seemed like the whole town of Cleveland, gathering along Montgomery Avenue, a safe distance from the fire. From there, we watched Stivers Lumber Company burn until the wee hours of the next morning, when Mom and Dad were assured by the firemen that it was safe to return home.
It was a week before no more wisps of smoke could be seen coming from what was now a square block of nothing but ashes. Until this very day, the vivid memories of the Stivers Lumber Company fire define my mental image of Hell.
All this was rushing through my mind that fateful afternoon as I was playing like an altar and waiting for an earthquake. That's when I made the decision that if I should die in this cold stone building, at least I would go to Heaven and not to Hell. Silently I prayed now that even if God didn't deliver us from the Armory, would He please come into my heart and forgive me of my sin.
That very afternoon I had succumbed to temptation and committed the first deliberate sin I could remember. Miss Dugan, my first grade teacher, had asked me if I had finished an assignment. I looked her right in the eyes and told her a lie. "Yes ma'am," I had said aloud. Then, as a pang of guilt hit me, I muttered under my breath with lips barely moving, "I finished all of it I wanted to do." I hadn't wanted to do much.
Many times at church I had heard it preached that, "All liars shall have their part in the lake of fire...." That was me; I was a blatant bald faced liar. "Oh God," I now implored softly, "Please forgive me and save me and I will never tell another lie again -- never."
At that moment, I was born again. I didn't feel anything special. I just believed it; I knew it. I was born again as surely as all those radiant people at the North Cleveland Church of God. For years I had heard them give testimony of what awful sinners they used to be until God in His mercy reached way down into the horrible pit they were in, lifted them out of the miry clay of sin, and planted their feet on the solid rock of salvation. As I tried to comprehend the wonder of my new birth, I sensed such a relief that I really wasn't concerned, at that moment, whether God burst the doors open or not. I was on my way to Heaven, and for as long as eternity rolled, I would be praising Jesus. Forever!
Paul was still praying loudly above me when we heard the knock at the door. Glancing up through the window, our eyes met those of three eighth graders, looking down on us. We thought they looked like angels. These older boys were on their way home from basketball practice after school when they heard our commotion. Somewhere they found someone with a key and soon we were walking (skipping, jumping, running, laughing) home.
The buds of the maple trees were swelling in anticipation of warmer weather and everything was dripping from a just ended rain. It seemed that winter had suddenly turned to spring. I had never noticed the world being so beautiful before. Even the mud puddles looked lovely. I felt so light and free and good all over that I burst into song, and Paul joined in:
If you’re saved and you know it, say “Amen.”
If you’re saved and you know it, say “Amen”
If you’re saved and you know it then your life will surely show it,
If you’re saved and you know it say “Amen.”