Almost inevitably, when I share my conversion experience, there are some Christians who complain to me that their testimonies are “boring” by comparison. Some say that they have loved Jesus for as long as they can remember. Ironically, when I encounter such Christians I am the one who is jealous, because even though God forgives us of everything, sin leaves scars.
To give some background, I grew up as an anti-intellectual “redneck” in northern Kentucky. I fought, drank and played football. After my sophomore year at the University of Kentucky I had a fight with my father, left home, joined the Army, and through Officer Candidate School became a 2nd lieutenant.
As a member of the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division I shipped to Vietnam during the first Tet offensive. On Sept. 22, 1968, I unsuccessfully tried to stop a war crime. I vowed to press murder charges against my captain when my prisoner’s eyes were locked on mine as he was riddled from the bullets of an M16. My captain was court-martialed but acquitted because most of the men lied to protect him.
As a bitter man, I returned to the University of Kentucky in September of 1969. I became one of the leading spokespersons for a radical leftist group, “Students for a Democratic Society.” We promoted the overthrow of the U.S. government “by any means necessary.” Shortly after the Kent State killings in May of 1970, I was in favor of burning one of our ROTC buildings, because provoking the National Guard could result in the killing of more students, which would help advance the revolution.
In June of 1970 I was alone in the living room of my parents’ house in a typically angry mood. Suddenly I became aware of the presence of God — even though I was all but an atheist. Don’t ask me how I knew it was God. Certainly it wasn’t because God revealed his love for me. I seemed to hear the words, “Judge not that ye be not judged!” For a time I was paralyzed with fear. I don’t know for how long; it could have been for a long time, or short. Eventually I was able to stand, and then walk upstairs to what used to be the room I shared with my brother. On the way, I encountered my brother. “It’s too late for me,” I said. “I’m going to hell!” (My brother said later that my eyes told him I wasn’t on drugs.) Although he was alarmed, he left me alone. I had a number of visions. Most heartbreaking was a vision in which I saw my mother, brother and other Christians on the opposite side of a great void. They were justified because as helpless sinners their hope was in Christ. In contrast, as a self-righteous person, I was without hope. I entertained the idea of writing off my experience as a nervous breakdown. I could return to campus and act as if nothing had happened. But I knew I could no longer live with myself. I thought of suicide. Yet in my despair I thought of Saul on the road to Damascus. I was no longer having visions. Perhaps the Holy Spirit brought to mind an old Sunday school lesson. Regardless, I could empathize with Saul. For the first time I understood what it meant to be saved by grace through faith. Saul was a self-righteous Pharisee who was diametrically opposed to God when Christ encountered him. I dropped to my knees and asked Jesus to forgive me for who I had become. I experienced a sense of innocence. But it seemed too good to be true. When I returned downstairs I encountered my mother — the most naïve person I had ever known. “Will Jesus really save me?” I asked. “Yes, Ralph, he will,” She replied. Her words strengthened my faith.
I parted ways with my comrades (who were my best friends). After graduating from U.K. and a Bible college in Pensacola, Fla., I received a master of theology degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a doctor of theology degree with a major in ethics from Harvard University (where I met Donna). While working on my graduate degrees I pastored a nondenominational charismatic church in the inner city of Boston. Although I did not receive my doctoral degree until I was over 50, I taught at the University of Massachusetts, in Boston, and the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.