Sermon Illustrations

I came of age in the early 1960s, when America was entering a period of political, social, and cultural upheaval. Mobile, Alabama, where I was raised, had been segregated since its founding in 1702. In 1963, reacting to the federally mandated desegregation of Alabama’s public schools, Gov. George Wallace uttered his infamous pledge of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Many white Alabamians, including me, were fearful and angry. White society was in turmoil from top to bottom, and the sense of grievance was strong, adding fuel to a racist, populist wave across the South.

Late one sweltering summer night, as my accomplice and I attempted to plant a bomb at the home of a Jewish businessman in Meridian, Mississippi, we were ambushed in a police stakeout. My partner, a young female school teacher, was killed at the scene. Four blasts of shotgun fire at close range left me critically wounded. Doctors told me it would be a miracle if I lived another 45 minutes.

At the end of a two-day trial, I was convicted of attempted bombing and sentenced to 30 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, one of the worst prisons in America at the time.

I was confined to a six-by-nine-foot cell in the maximum security unit. Five more years were slapped onto my sentence. Apart from twice-weekly showers, I was utterly alone in that cell. To keep from going crazy, I read continuously. Initially, I read more racist and anti-Semitic material that reinforced my beliefs, but eventually I felt drawn to a disinterested pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead.

This began with classical philosophy and eventually led to the New Testament, specifically the Gospels. I didn’t turn to the Bible because I wanted a better relationship with God. I had attended church and Sunday school more or less regularly until my early teens, at which time I made a profession of faith and was baptized. I believed I was saved and would go to heaven when I died. Of course, the truth was just the opposite. I had only given intellectual assent to the gospel and lacked true repentance.

But as I read the Gospels in my prison cell, my eyes were opened in a way that went beyond simply understanding the words on the page. As the true meaning of God’s Word became clearer, so did its relevance to my life. I had been blind to spiritual reality all my life and was now beginning to see.

As this process unfolded, my sins came to mind, one after another. Conviction grew, and with it tears of repentance. I needed God’s forgiveness. And I knew it came only through trusting Jesus, who had given his life to pay for my sins. One night I knelt on the concrete floor of my cell and prayed a simple prayer, confessing my sins and asking Jesus to forgive me, take over my life, and do whatever he wanted to with it.

After serving eight years in prison, an extraordinary—some would say miraculous—turn of events resulted in a parole grant to attend university. That set in motion a series of developments which, over the next 40 years, led me first into campus ministry, then pastoral ministry in a racially mixed church (including speaking and writing on racial reconciliation), and finally to a long ministry of teaching, discipling, spiritual mentoring, and writing at the C.S. Lewis Institute.

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